Doubt Is Healthier for the Mind than Faith

This post’s title may sound like a call to skepticism, but it’s not. In my experience, skepticism gets exercised when I critique someone else’s beliefs, but seldom when I consider my own. Doubt, on the other hand, is indiscriminate; I’m as likely to doubt myself as anyone else. Although this can become excessive, to the right degree it’s helpful to mental life.

I don’t say doubt is healthier for the mind than faith because it’s more rational, though it is. Nor do I say so because it’s less dangerous, though it may be. I say doubt is healthier because it comes to us more organically. To resist doubt is to resist reality.

For instance, belief that the universe feels invested in our experience, while based on plausible considerations (as I argued in another essay), sometimes proves difficult to sustain:

Eight months ago I awoke from major abdominal surgery while tended by recovery staff who believed spinal anesthesia was in place to minimize my pain. But I emerged into consciousness ablaze with agony, because the epidural catheter wasn’t working (as they figured out over an hour later). As the doctors and nurses pinned me down so I wouldn’t rip open the wound with my thrashing, I tried to detect the embrace of universal love, but reason rejected the very thought of it.

We’ve all felt abandoned at times, alone in our misery. During such moments, faith in the ordinary sense seems impossible. But there also come times when faith in absolute randomness seems equally so:

After a lifetime of complaining about childhood adversity and adult misfortune, a week ago I found myself announcing–in an AA meeting–that I’d hesitate to change even a particle of my history for fear of undoing my current equanimity. To say this, and mean it, was a milestone for me. Afterward I drove to the YMCA to stretch in the sauna and then work out. The moment I’d settled myself atop a cedar bench in the hot room, an Indian man whom I’d never seen before said this to the gentleman by his side: “I wouldn’t want to change anything about my past, because it brought me to where I am today.” The perfect timing struck rationality dumb; I simply could not write it off as mere coincidence.

Given the complex waters of experience, doubt is the only reliable craft, and thus the only healthy one. Yes, there are times when wordless faith feels important, when one surrenders to cosmic compassion and softens the heart in the midst of hardship. On the other hand, sometimes believing the remark you overheard merely random unhooks the lure of divine favoritism, and so prevents spiritual pride. The point is, as the sails of contemplation fill, they fill with uncertainties blowing from all directions.

Is there truly cosmic mercy? There’s no way to be sure. Was the remark utterly without import? How could I ever know?

Always, things might be other than they seem. As I grappled with pain after surgery, there might have been the equivalent of an angel nearby, my seeming aloneness notwithstanding. The Indian man’s comment, spoken on another day, could have gone unnoticed, so perhaps the feeling of serendipity was nothing more than over-active imagining.

The only certain truth is that truth is uncertain. Everything is open to interpretation, and multiple interpretations at that. Among possibilities, doubt plays no favorites; yet it is ever playful in its refusal to let any valid possibility remain pinned down for long.

But scientific truths aren’t so malleable, are they? Yes, in fact they are. Empirical findings can always be explained by multiple theories, and the scientific project is one of using evidence to narrow the field of competing hypotheses. So while experiments may eliminate some ideas, they never eliminate them all.

What’s more, there will always remain important questions about reality that observational science cannot address. A classic one is: why is there something rather than nothing? And while theology, philosophy, and other fields of inquiry offer us answers, none finds refuge outside the ambit of dispute.

We’ve been taught to view doubt negatively, perhaps because it stands in opposition to Christianity’s version of faith. Doubting by Thomas is not considered the rational response of a careful man, but the ungrateful act of a faithless one. Yet doubt is not inherently bad, any more than faith is inherently good.

There are many things we take for granted that would be better doubted. Cultural measures of success have seemed to me like suitable targets of late. But expert opinion, accepted wisdom, and common sense are all less securely founded than we tend to think. All can, and should, be questioned.

But what’s more important to doubt, indeed vital and healthy to doubt, is certainty itself. The moment I’m sure of anything, I’m at risk.

If I’m sure humanity has gone off track, that nothing good can come of our situation, I make myself miserable. But how reliable is that surety? Not very.

The moment I know my position is right and yours wrong, I cut off conversation. Yet, when considered from your perspective, how secure is my opinion? In most cases, not very.

The instant I become convinced the universe is unaware–and so incapable of caring–I feel disconnected. But how certain can I be that sentience isn’t all around me? Not very.

As soon as I have faith, beyond all doubt, in the watchful eye of a beneficent God, I’m reminded of innocent suffering, grievous injury, and dangerous disease. How solid does this make my conviction feel? The trend continues…

Certainty–the mind’s idea of faith–is dangerous to happiness because it is an unreliable basis for it. Doubt is ever creeping in. But doubt isn’t a demon opposed to contentment; it is an honest understanding of the limits of understanding. Doubt is a call to humility.

Doubt is healthier for the mind than faith. But notice that for the heart, it is faith that sustains and doubt that corrodes. One can–indeed must–feel life’s throb of value in the midst of all its trials. To lose such heartfelt faith is to lose what makes this world endurable.

A sustaining faith in life’s worth isn’t conceptual and held by the mind; it is wordless and embraced by the heart. It is shy, not outspoken. It invites sharing but demands no agreement. For me, the heart’s graceful faith is the very anchor of wellbeing.

Yet for the mind doubt is healthier, because genuine faith is foreign to it. Instead, the intellect defends concepts as articles of faith. It views the heart’s silent affection for life’s currents as dumb, not in the sense of mute, but in the sense of stupid. Rationality dismisses the famous words of Lao Tse:

“The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.”

Fortunately, mind and heart can find common ground. Even in the midst of postoperative agony, I remained curious, convinced of the value of the ordeal, of vitality however painful. I felt alone but fascinated by my circumstance. I had faith that the torment was something unique and powerful. Indeed, as time went on, I began to find the experience of blinding pain nearly transcendent as all ordinary concerns melted away in the heat its intensity. Thankfully, my heart has gained the capacity to honor all facets of life, and it convinced my mind to look toward the experience rather than away from it.

Did the man in the sauna happen to say the right words at the right time because of cosmic resonance or simple accident? There is no way to be sure, but his voice echoed, and still echoes, because my heart feels warmed by such coincidence.

It’s so interesting to be alive, isn’t it? And to be interested, after all, is to be open to time’s unfolding. Which means not assuming we comprehend life so thoroughly we need hardly live through it. Which means, I suspect, holding doubt to be of highest good, central to finding the universe startling rather than predictable, mysterious rather than plain.


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