“A philosophy that begins with radical doubt ends in radical despair.”
~Joshua Abraham Heschel
Last I spoke on doubt and the importance of it, but we must remember that doubt is merely a tool and like any tool it can be misused and abused. When doubt is used in the right way it can liberate us from systems and constructions that bind our lives, that cause a stunting of growth, however, doubt can be utilized in ways that do not provide room for growth and a healthy examination of our mental framework; instead, doubt can become our dominant mode of being, which is truly our enemy and corruption, binding us instead to cynicism and despair, gloom and death. This, I believe, is a far worse state than the person who has undergone no process of doubt and remains ignorant or innocent. If you have been in any rudimentary philosophy class, you would be familiar with René Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, who knew this truth because he lived it out to its existentially depressing conclusion, yet he didn’t end his life in this state of being. Neither should we.
Thus, I write this because just as there are people who need to seriously doubt again, there are also many people who need to cease doubting. Only you know which side you fall off on. But if doubt is your demon rather than an instrument in your hand, then it is time to dispel doubt, and clean out the cobwebs in your soul.
Like a good many things, doubt should be ruled with a proper balance by all individuals. That is why any positive message regarding the merits of doubt must always be followed by a somber reminder of the pessimistic poison that it carries within. Too much doubt in the human psyche is toxic, yet not enough leads to an indulgence of certainty.
Here in the West, we are most readily given to a certain kind of doubt called skepticism, which like its broader parent can be quite healthy if maintained in the right way. Often, however, it becomes a way of life for some of us. This is partly due to the long history of philosophical and scientific inquiry into matters of truth and knowledge that have dispelled much superstition and pushed us past technological indolence. Yet it is also foolish to believe that late moderns, or even the dawning postmoderns, have been the first of humanity to truly be skeptical and existential and sophisticated. Humans all throughout history have been part of a dialectic of doubt. This innate skepticism acts as a restrainer as we travel about the idea marketplace, and it gives us the ability to resist buying into every new (or old) concept that catches our fancy. But skepticism is also psychological and emotional confinement that keeps us from experiencing the truth in ways that are not governed by rational and empirical intelligibility, such as love, community, or stories–all of which are a vital part of being human.
In the lofty bastion of our skepticism we find security and stability, but I wonder at what cost do we purchase this peace? Is there not more to life than finding a fortress or building one’s own castle, only to calcify within? Does a flower flourish under a pot?
If you follow me this far, follow me further.
What exists between the dungeon of doubt and the staircase of certainty?
The broken window? The fearful trapdoor? Or finally, the doorway out…
We all begin our lives in different places, and I don’t know why. We rush and fret, something within us demanding ascent and fearing descent; after all, who wants pain and suffering when there are such sensations as pleasure and safety?
Still, I have come to observe in life that both those in the high places and those in the low places are equally wounded by their deprivation of contentment or discomfort that the other knows far too well to understand why what they have been given is truly valuable. The more one traces the rising and falling experience of their own soul, one inevitably finds beauty in these waves, and finally we all realize that life is far more than our groans and sighs.
Life is out there, infinitely out there.