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Doubt: Threat or Opportunity?

Giovanni Cucci, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Thu, Sep 14th 2023

Doubt: Threat or Opportunity?
An emblematic term for our era

Doubt can be considered a watchword for people today. It is the premise for the construction of any solid, critical and complete thought based on reason alone without any recourse to authority or tradition that would penalize liberty or autonomy. The key philosopher of doubt is of course Descartes. According to him it is most useful because “doubt frees us from any sort of prejudice; it prepares for us an easy pathway to habituate our spirit to be detached from the senses, and lastly thanks to it we can no longer have any doubt about what we will later discover to be true.”[1]

But this enticing promise was not fulfilled. Without prior certainty, to which trust should somehow be given – for example, concerning the value of reason and its ability to recognise the truth – doubt in no way prepares an easy pathway; and instead of disappearing, it increases until it becomes a nightmare that renders all that is touched confused and uncertain as in the legend of King Midas. Descartes himself had to recognize this, noting that indiscriminate doubt risked upsetting everything: not only does it not help uncover truth, but it also makes knowledge itself impossible, becoming a sort of “skeptic devil”[2] that can never be exorcised.

Doubt, therefore, has become the unsurpassed master of the modern era, to the extent of becoming a nightmare from which we cannot free ourselves: the more a complete response is sought, the more doubt seems to emerge victorious. As Enrico Castelli acutely noted: “The history of modern philosophy has mostly been the history of an obsession with objectivity.”[3] Things have gone differently than expected: the only thing remaining of objectivity is an obsession with it.

In the Discourse on Method, Descartes proposes what is called in the subtitle, “the right use of one’s reason and the quest for truth in the sciences.” With it he wishes to lay down – by means of mathematics, geometry and the mechanical arts – solid foundations for the building of knowledge, substituting them for the “sand and the mud” of the ancients. Yet reading on, we encounter more of an autobiographical account and a series of images that are closer to poetry and narrative than to epistemology. “The Discourse on Method if we look carefully is not a discourse ‘on the method.’ Rather, if we are honest we do not even find in it a precise definition of what Descartes means by method.”[4]



Before Descartes, Bacon hailed the new knowledge, contrasting it with what had preceded it which he described as uncritical and separated from reality. This is why he wanted to start “a total reconstruction (instauratio), raising it up on the due foundations of the sciences, the arts and every human knowledge.”[5] The project was not realized but this fascinating goal would remain down the ages.

The third great philosopher of the new era, Spinoza, would seek to impose his more geometrico discourse, turning away from the subjectivity of the passions. But, also in this case, he expresses himself in ways that are certainly not those of pure reason: “I decided … to seek if there were something that is a true and shareable good and from which the soul alone was affected, all other things being rejected; indeed, if something existed thanks to which, once discovered and acquired, one should enjoy for eternity a continual and supreme joy.”[6] These words in truth are not far removed from preceding philosophical reflections;[7] in fact, they seem to echo the gospel parable of the discovery of a treasure in the field (see Mt 13:44).

The new knowledge, emerging at the beginning of an era that would be alien to the supposed superstitions of metaphysics and religion, was unable to find an adequate foundation. As another philosopher, David Hume, noted disappointedly, life itself becomes impossible this way. He applied doubt to every possible proposal up to the point of experiencing the desperation of never knowing how things were: “We have no other choice than between a false reason and a lack of all reason … I find myself in such a labyrinth that I confess I do not know how to correct my earlier opinions, nor how to make them coherent.”[8]

Doubt under the consideration of science

Not even experimental science, the great novelty of the modern era, was able to escape the oppressive cage of doubt. It re-proposed similar questions to those raised in philosophical circles: even if not specified, these questions accompanied scientific research at every step. Galileo portrayed nature as a book written in mathematical characters;[9] but this suggestive and convincing way of expression uses a rhetorical figure, a metaphor, not a demonstration. From this metaphor, confirmation can certainly be forthcoming, but it is not enough to conclude that things were really so. The philosopher of science, Karl Popper, noted that even theories that are wrong can be confirmed; their persuasive affect is more of a psychological characteristic: going beyond the confines of theory and entering different fields of knowledge such as psychology, rhetoric and the affective imagination, and suggestions that stimulate the observer.[10]

There are other basic and unresolved presuppositions at the basis of Galileo’s metaphor; for example, how do we know that nature is written in mathematical characters? Nobody sees numbers beyond themselves; they are human formulations. But above all, why does nature lend itself to being described in mathematical terms? Such an image raises the question of the intelligibility of things: there is a parallelism, a harmony between things and the human mind that allows for the formulation of laws and rules, a harmony that enchants the scientist by its beauty.

On this, Bertrand Russell, an author not inclined to sentimentalism, wrote: “Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty: a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our coarse nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show.” This is the marvel that arises before harmony; in the realm of the sciences it is an indispensable condition that is not taken for granted. But the person contemplating this harmony is not its measure. It cannot be enclosed in the sphere of the verifiable, enchanting the mind that pauses to contemplate the “marvelous complexity” found within every small being.

The conditions of possibility at the basis of scientific knowledge raise questions that extend beyond its own sphere. In 1931 Kurt Gödel formulated a famous principle with which he recognizes that a formal system can be either rigorous or complete, but it cannot possess both characteristics: the ultimate foundation refers back to greater questions that the system itself cannot face rigorously. Its conclusion is that no mathematical area exists where there is both rigor and completeness so as to place it beyond contradictions and aporias.

If nature is written in mathematical characters, this is not the only language able to express it. To show the allure of its efficacy, mathematics in particular must trust itself not to a demonstration (this would be impossible as Gödel notes) but to a metaphorical knowledge, such as the analogy of a book made of geometric numbers and figures. The field of knowing is wider than that of demonstrations and requires a more profound approach marked by trust in an ability to reach the truth. Such trust is tied to an affective stance: the ability to “marvel” at the complexity of things and the very possibility of knowledge, which for Aristotle is the authentic beginning of philosophy[11]. When humans abandon that stance in their search for total certainty, they are prisoners of scepticism and nihilism.

Ultimately, doubt cannot be defeated. Every effort at eliminating it definitively, on the basis of certain and irrefutable knowledge, has not obtained the results desired by Descartes.

Prisoners of doubt?

Taking doubt to its extreme consequences, we no longer have criteria for distinguishing illusion from reality, and descend into chaos, into madness, which blocks any initiative and decision concerning something considered important. Try and apply radical doubt to daily life. Who guarantees, for example, that the buildings we are living in will not collapse at any moment? How can we be certain of the quality of our daily food and drink? When boarding an aeroplane how can we know that it is mechanically sound, or that the pilot has no psychological condition, or is properly trained so as to avoid a crash? The end point of all these questions is not critical reason, but madness, and life itself would become impossible. If, however, we commence with trust in a sure foundation, then doubt can help us to see more clearly, and know the truth.[12] Descartes emerged from the prison of doubt by recognizing the existence of an infinitely good God who cannot deceive: He is the unique guarantor of the goodness and stability of being that are indispensable for living.[13]

Doubt tells us that the human condition is intermediate, and not the sphere of light alone nor of total darkness. If we insist on full light to know the truth we would be under a dangerous illusion that risks blinding us, leaving us in the same condition as those who fumble in the darkness, as the ancients wisely saw.[14] The “intermediate” condition of semi-shadow opens up ways of research and places us on the path. This is especially true for those seeking God, as Blaise Pascal noted: “He so regulates the knowledge of Himself that He has given signs of Himself, visible to those who seek Him, and not to those who seek Him not. There is enough light for those who only desire to see, and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition.”[15] These are important observations able to clarify the kind of help that doubt can offer to knowledge.

Faith and doubt

There can be a destructive doubt in the experience of faith. There is the case, for example, of the Nazarenes. On hearing about Jesus’ miracles, they would not accept that someone so lowly and simple, “the carpenter, son of Mary”, could carry out such wonders. The text adds: “they took offense at him” (Mk 6:3) and the verb used is that of one who stumbles and falls in the pathway of faith. Jesus uses a simile about children who refuse to commit to indicate the risk for his own generation (see Mt 11:16-19): they prefer to stay and watch passively, without getting involved. As for Descartes and Hume, indecision is the consequence of an invasive doubt that paralyzes. It is stigmatized in the letter of James: “the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; being double-minded and unstable in every way, such a doubter must not expect to receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:6-8).

Then, there is the doubt of those whose quest is not motivated by a desire for clarity but only to put others into difficulty. This is the case of the often vivid discussions and debates between Jesus and the Pharisees who only seek a pretext to make accusations against him (see Mt 16:1; 19:3; 22:35; Mk 3:2). To see Jesus, to listen to his words, to witness his marvelous deeds excuses nobody from the risk of choice, or from the exercise of free will.

The Bible often warns people against thinking they possess the truth. Doubt must be overcome in another way: by asking God for the gift of wisdom.[16]

The lesson of doubt

Considered this way, doubt invites us not to be presumptuous but to cultivate humility; at the same time – as Augustine noted (see note 16) – you can doubt because you find yourself in truth (humility and truth have the same root), and so we can recognize our own errors or consider a presumed certainty as being illusory. This basic trust and prudence are then fundamental for they are the discriminating point in the search for the good, for they protect us from dogmatism and fundamentalism, the “profound” consequences of both religious and secular thought that lead to violence and intolerance. Doubt and scruples are good because they draw us into complexity. They permit us to appreciate the contributions of others and push us to ask uncomfortable, inevitable questions without presuming to know the answers.

Pope Francis shows how the presence of doubt can stimulate a more truthful and sincere life, and so help others: “If someone has a response to all these questions, that is the very proof God is not with that person. It means he is being a false prophet, using religion for his own purposes. The great guides of the people of God, such as Moses, have always left room for doubt. Space must be left for the Lord not for our certainties.”[17] This is the opposite of what happened to the Pharisees and the Nazarenes with Jesus.

So doubt is positive when it is founded on the desire to see things clearly, trusting that we will achieve this aim and commit ourselves to it. This reveals a question that is not silenced by offhand reassurances, but that needs to be embraced intelligently and sincerely. In this sense it invites us to ponder and open up the possibility of asking for help in difficult times: “The Christian faith is not totalitarian, but meek: it cannot be imposed with irrefutable certainty, which would be a violation of human liberty. It is offered as a choice. Faith includes a dimension of risk. Ancient Christianity knew this when it spoke of Christian faith as a kalos kindynos (“virtuous danger”). Faith is a mortal risk (it finds fulfilment in the one we cannot see and who stays silent) and at the same time is an unforeseen possibility of life that springs up at the very crossing of this death. It is not that faith does not know the dimension of certainty, but certainty of faith is of another order with respect to a relational certainty … The knowledge of faith is the knowledge of truth, of trust and has nothing to do with an assurance policy or a system of prevention to avoid the ways of the future.”[18]

In Christian life this foundation is found in the figure of Jesus; and following him through the practice of a spiritual life is the indispensable condition to understand doubt and discover a possible truth in it. It is a matter of verifying whether a person is available to take such a path in docility. In the Gospel, faith and disbelief do not exclude each other, for belief is not a synonym of certainty and does not exclude the risks associated with liberty.

Intellectual clarity is only one of the aspects that permit us to approach doubt adequately. Fr. Lallemant, when writing about the peculiar characteristics of Jesus preaching in parables, noted: “In the parables the gift of intellect had great influence; in the speech Jesus Christ made to the disciples after the Last Supper the gift of wisdom was well used. A soul, enlightened by the light of the Lord, would easily recognize in the words of the Scriptures, in the Gospel, in the Acts of the Apostles, a perfect wisdom in the narrations.”[19]

Wisdom can be seen in the “narrations” that speak to life. These are the moments when important decisions can be made. So there is doubt and there is doubt. Those who seek absolute certainty will never decide; in other words, they will never live truly for to live means to commence from an originating trust in something recognised as a foundation, at the base of every other act, evaluation and decision.

[1].R. Descartes, “Summary of the Following Six Methods”, in Id., Metaphysical Meditations.

[2].I would hold, then, that there is not a true God, who is sovereign source of truth, but an evil genius [genium aliquem malignum] who is no less astute and deceitful than powerful and who has engaged all his skills to trick me. I will think that the sky, the air, the land, the colours, the figures, the sounds and all the external things we see are only illusions and tricks used to surprise my credulity. (R. Descartes, “First Meditation”, ibid)

[3].E. Castelli, I presupposti di una teologia della storia, Milan, Bocca, 1952, 7; italics in the text.

[4].S. D’Agostino, “I sentieri interrotti del metodo: Bacon, Descartes, Spinoza e la questione del fondamento”, in P. Gilbert (ed.), L’uomo moderno e la Chiesa, Rome, Gregorian & Biblical Press, 2012, 270; see J.-L. Marion, “La situation métaphysique du ‘Discours de la méthode’”, in N. Grimaldi – J.-L. Marion (eds), Le Discours et sa méthode, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1987, 366.

[5].F. Bacon, Instauratio magna.

[6].B. Spinoza, Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect.

[7].One editorial observer notes that this passage recovers the figure of the stoic philosopher who leaves ordinary life to be completely dedicated to the love of wisdom (philo–sophia) (see B. Spinoza, Opere, Milan, Mondadori, 2007, 1526, n.8)

[8].D. Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature.

[9].“The universe is a book written in mathematical language, and its characters are triangles, circles and other geometric figures without which no human word can be understood; without them it is futile wanderings in a dark labyrinth” (G. Galilei, The Assayer). Richard Hamming, Mathematician and member of the “Manhatten project”, the origin of digital and IT calculations, who was rather skeptical about the effectiveness of this image: “It has been an act of faith on the part of scientists that the world can be explained in the simple terms that mathematics handles” (“The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics”, in The American Mathematical Monthly 87 [1980];

[10].See K. R. Popper, Conjectures and Refutations.

[11].“Indeed, now as in the beginning, people have started to philosophize out of marvel” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1.I,2, 982 b; see Plato, Theaetetus, 155d).

[12].This was also the response of St. Augustine to the skeptics of his time: “Whoever knows they are doubting understands the truth and is certain of what they understand: thus they are certain of the truth. This means that whoever doubts the existence of truth has truth in themselves so cannot doubt it. But the true is such only for the truth; so those who have been able to doubt for any reason need not doubt the truth” (De vera religione, 39, 73).

[13].See R. Descartes, Third Meditation.

[14].“The quest for truth under one aspect is difficult while under another it is easy. Proof of this is in the fact that it is impossible to grasp truth adequately and it is equally impossible to not grasp it at all: in fact, if each person can say something about reality, and if taken each one individually, this contribution adds little or nothing to knowledge of the truth; however, from the union of all the individual contributions comes a considerable result… The cause of the difficulty of the quest for the truth is not in the things, but in us. In fact, as a bat’s eyes behave in the light of day, so too the intelligence in our souls behaves before the things that by their nature are the clearest of all” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1. II, 1, 993 a 30 – 933 b 12).

[15].Pascal, Thoughts, n. 430.

[16].“For who can learn the counsel of God? Or who can discern what the Lord wills? For the reasoning of mortals is worthless, and our designs are likely to fail; for a perishable body weighs down the soul, and this earthy tent burdens the thoughtful mind. We can hardly guess at what is on earth, and what is at hand we find with labor; but who has traced out what is in the heavens? Who has learned your counsel, unless you have given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high?” (Wisdom 9:13-17; see Job 28; Psalm 139; Sirach 1:1-8; Romans 11: 33-36).

[17].Francis, La mia porta è sempre aperta. Una conversazione con Antonio Spadaro, Milan, Rizzoli, 2013, 97.

[18].L. Manicardi, “Consigliare i dubbiosi”, in Id., La fatica della carità, Magnano (Bi), Qiqajon, 2010, 140.

[19].L. Lallemant, La dottrina spirituale, Milan, Piemme – Ancora, 1984, 164f.

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