Doubt and Trust

I was thinking with Pavi and Kennedy this morning about doubt. Pavi brought up the question of, what are the real foundations / reasons / motivations for doubt? The question came out of a realization we shared, which was that, as much as we interact with atheistic philosophers and scientists and hear all these reasons that God does not exist or religion is a purely social construction or whatever, we’ve never really felt convinced by these things.

It goes beyond the intellect–sure, I may struggle with some arguments for a period of time and then come to some conclusion on them, but they have never felt convincing.

So we were talking about where these feelings come from, and Pavi brought up a framework centered around authority, to explain our epistemological attitudes. Essentially, we filter all knowledge and beliefs to certain degrees through various authorities. There are internal authorities, such as reason and experience, and external ones, such as books, people, groups, schools, etc… (We could narrow these down to several fundamental authorities if we were interested).

When it comes down to it, of course, there is no authority, internal or external, which is 100% self-sworn. That is, we can always question any authority to some degree, even our own internal authorities of reason or experience, because we can always wonder whether (a) the deliverances of reason are certainly true, and (b) a certain experience we had was even real.

So it’s basically the same Cartesian doubt cashed out in terms of authority. And, depending on who we are, we may trust these authorities more or less than other people. There’s really no objective psychological explanation for this, but the one we came up with is simply analogous to personal trust: if you believe an authority, and it “lets you down” (ruins your life somehow, like an oppressive Catholic school headmaster might), you will begin to distrust that authority.

That, ultimately, is what we decided doubt is. Philosophically speaking, doubt and faith can be very easy to define: set a level of certitude (willingness to assent to a certain proposition), and say that if you hold to that proposition more than that certitude level, you have faith in it, otherwise you doubt it. Quick, clean, easy–only uninteresting. We have simply defined doubt as unbelief and faith as belief. But just as I think faith is much closer to the concept of trust than the concept of belief, so I now think that doubt is much closer to the concept of distrust than the concept of unbelief.

This actually has some pretty large ramifications because, if it is right, most people don’t doubt God’s goodness because they disbelieve he exists, or anything of the sort; rather, because at some point in their lives, something has happened to make them distrust this God or this idea of God, whether it was an unthinking fundamentalist pastor or parents who were oppressive, or maybe an overall death of the trust faculty due to something unrelated to God–a father walking out, or whatever.

I like this theory because it seems to explain well the way people actually interact with issues of faith. And certainly I don’t want to recommend trusting just any authority, for instance ones that tell you pink unicorns are dancing on the roof But it does put atheistic and theistic types on more of a level footing, since in the end it turns out atheists are just trusting different authorities than theists. And certainly some authorities are better than others (I think), but the question becomes how you determine this.

I like it because it nicely steps away from the purely intellectual debate where not much interesting happens anyway, but asks a question which needs to be answered even before the debate, which is “who do you trust?” Who do you trust, and why? Some might trust God and some might trust science (i.e., scientists) and some might trust culture and some might try their best to trust no one (or themselves), and when that is on the table the proper debate can begin, over who/what is actually worthy (or not) of this trust.

Keep in mind that it is a very individual discussion, since trust is a relationship between individuals and other individuals, and so the discussion is less likely to get sidetracked away from the people who are in it.

Well, a lot more thinking needs to be done here, but this idea of doubt being actually a very different kind of thing than mere skepticism, and faith being very different from mere belief, is a fruitful one, I think.

By Jonathan Lipps

Jonathan worked as a programmer in tech startups for several decades, but is also passionate about all kinds of creative pursuits and academic discussion. Jonathan has master’s degrees in philosophy and linguistics, from Stanford and Oxford respectively, and is working on another in theology. An American-Canadian, he lives in Vancouver, BC and has way too many hobbies.

2 replies on “Doubt and Trust”

I am definitely tracking with your thoughts here, Jonathan. In particular, I connect with your reasoning for this theory…"I like this theory because it seems to explain well the way people actually interact with issues of faith." This type of "rubber meets the road" philosophy is helpful. If I look back on my life, even over the past few years, I can see where I have doubted God’s goodness, not because I disbelieve he exists; rather, because as you say, at some point something has happened to make me distrust God.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Jonathan, this continues to dig into the faith/belief question I raised earlier with you. This assessment of what people mean when they use words like faith, belief, etc. is fascinating. For instance, in Mark 9:22-24: "’It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.’ ‘If you can?’ said Jesus. ‘Everything is possible for him who believes.’ Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’" If one were to substitute trust for belief, it may render a more "meaningful" reading given the connotation that the word belief is associated with today. A larger philosphical question on the relative meaningful/meaninglessness of a word would be the spirit/force/power behind a word that is used. In this sense, the word of God is powerful because the spirit behind his words has power -the power is in the personality. He always says exactly what he means. Conversely, words have little power in our world precisely because hardly anyone says what they mean. (read: presidential debates.) In the case of belief, then, the word diminishes in power as it is used apart from a personality that can sustain it.

I will have to continue this in my own blog…too many thoughts

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