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I doubt in order to understand?

by Greg Krehbiel on 18 February 2012

In the debate between Christopher Hitchens and William Lane Craig on the existence of God, Hitchens said doubt is the fuel behind all inquiry.

Is that really true?

St. Anselm of Canterbury would disagree. He said …

For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this I believe [--] that unless I believe, I should not understand.

I think there is some truth to both ideas. There’s a perspective you can’t get unless you doubt. Deb’s comment in a thread below about vestigial organs reminded me of this.

But there’s also a perspective you can’t get unless you believe. For example, when I listen to atheists talk about religion, there’s almost inevitably a point where I realize the atheist just doesn’t get it, and is probably never going to get it. He simply can’t see the issue the way the believer sees the issue.

The same is true in reverse. It can be incredibly frustrating talking to a true believer. They apply a completely different set of standards to things, and they don’t communicate very well with people who doubt.

Is there a way to cultivate both sides? Is it possible to see things the way a believer sees them, and to also see things the way the doubter sees them? Can you really say that you understand an issue until you see both sides?

(I’m reminded of the structure of the Summa, where Aquinas presents opposing views in their best possible light.)

Some people think they have achieved this by changing their minds. E.g., “I used to be a X, now I’m a non-X, so I can see it from both sides.”

This is usually a delusion. Somehow the transfer from X to non-X tends to erase a lot of the stuff you knew as an X.

I call it convert disease. You wouldn’t believe how many former whatevers I’ve met who say completely ridiculous things about their former allegiance.

For example, a Catholic becomes a Protestant, then tells people about Catholicism. He’s so wrong that all the Catholics think “you were never really a Catholic.”

The same thing happens with Protestants who become Catholic. I’m sure it also happens with ex-Mormons, ex-creationists, and so on. It certainly happens with people who change political views.

One possible explanation is that it’s only the people who don’t really understand X who would ever leave it. But I find that a very unlikely explanation — especially since the problem applies in all directions.

There’s something about the change in allegiance itself that affects the way you think about the issue. It even affects the way you remember how you used to think about the issue.

I think it would be interesting to take groups of people — doubters and believers — expose them to the very same material, and get their reactions.

It wouldn’t be enough to show that they would come away with different ideas. That goes without saying. The point would be to find the substantive difference in the way they process the information.

-- 2012-02-18  »  Greg Krehbiel

Talkback x 13

  1. pentamom pentamom
    18 February 2012 @ 12:16 pm

    Yes, the whole “convert disease” thing, and the experiences I’ve seen of it (observing others, never really having made a radical change of that sort myself) makes me believe that it’s simply a fact that people don’t remember what they used to think, on any topic.

  2. pentamom pentamom
    18 February 2012 @ 12:17 pm

    So I try to remember that about myself, when I think back on things where I have changed my mind.

  3. pentamom pentamom
    18 February 2012 @ 12:19 pm

    In fact, I’m seeing that with someone I know right now, who claims all kinds of things about how he used to think and act before he wised up about certain things, and I’m thinking, “Uh, no, you really were a lot better about those things than you think.” (No one anyone here knows.) I think people even tend to do that when there’s a positive but not directional change, such as learning experiences or gaining maturity — they underrate their previous selves.

  4. kdeb
    18 February 2012 @ 1:12 pm

    How shocking that someone who does not believe in God finds doubt the propelling force for scientific advancement.

    I would have said it was “wonder.”

    Observe the differences in the definitions of the two words.

    won·der/?w?nd?r/Noun: A feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable.

    Verb: Desire or be curious to know something.

    Synonyms: noun. marvel – miracle – prodigy – astonishment – amazement
    verb. marvel

    doubt/dout/Noun: A feeling of uncertainty or lack of conviction.

    Verb: Feel uncertain about.

    Synonyms: noun. question – suspicion – uncertainty – scruple – qualm
    verb. suspect – distrust – mistrust – question – query

    I think that it is worth mentioning a cartoon John once posted on his FaceBook page. It showed a geeky character expressing delight at the variety of colors and forms seen in an easily dismissed place. (It could have been some pond scum; I don’t remember.) The point of the cartoon was that science-oriented people are not necessarily so tied up in data that they cannot appreciate beauty. I think this is true.

    So I just wanted to go on record as not being anti-science. Just as thinking that a sense of wonder is not such a bad thing after all.

  5. rr
    18 February 2012 @ 3:37 pm


    Isn’t this because humans aren’t purely rational creatures, we are emotional ones as well? We one converts to a new view, one typically wants to fit in with the new group. And speaking well of the former view isn’t a way to do so.

  6. RootCzar
    18 February 2012 @ 4:43 pm

    Greg – I’d consider myself a ‘Non-Theist’ … with Agnostic and Atheistic leanings … which may set me apart in this forum, and I welcome that notion.

    I was raised and formally schooled as an Episcopalian, and now tend to live in accordance with many Buddhist principles, but absent of an identifiable ‘god.’

    Sometimes i think ‘belief’ and/or perhaps ‘faith’ are words that get wielded in a way intended to make them beyond reproach. I don’t ‘believe’ that they are.

    You might say that I ‘doubt’ they are … In fact, I find them quite reproachable. :-)

    I look forward to indulging in this kind of subject matter in this forum. I’m a devoted Hitchens fan, at least in this particular context.

  7. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    18 February 2012 @ 8:34 pm

    rr — the desire to fit in with the new group is certainly a large part of it, but I think it goes beyond that.

    Root — welcome. There are a few other non-theists on this blog.

  8. RootCzar
    18 February 2012 @ 8:49 pm

    EXCELLENT. I’m looking forward to offering-up my … doubtful inquiries! ;-) (i have A LOT of them)

  9. Herr Doktor Robin Rollinger
    19 February 2012 @ 9:48 am

    Why is it that whenever I present theoretical difficulties to theists, they typically think that I am addressing God and not them? I recently raised the question “why should you obey God” and was getting all kinds of flack about not respecting God’s authority, being the kind of person who would respond with sophistries to a brain surgeon who diagnosed me with cancer, etc. However much I said that I am asking THEM this question, they took my asking to be some kind of rebellious stance against God Himself. The same goes for presenting the problem of evil to theists. Very often they take this as “complaining to God”, whereas it is only raising a theoretical difficulty (indeed an apparent contradiction).

  10. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    19 February 2012 @ 9:56 am

    Perhaps because they’ve watched too much Star Trek, and they remember the scene where Spock accuses Kirk of introducing temptation to a world that was basically paradise. Kirk indignantly replies, “Are you casting me in the role of Satan? Is there anyone on this ship who even remotely resembles Satan?”

    Seriously …

    On the first point, they seem to be thinking “in order for you to wonder why I should obey God, you must wonder if you should obey God, and only a person who ….”

    On the second point, they need to read the Psalms, which are full of complaints.

  11. Herr Doktor Robin Rollinger
    19 February 2012 @ 10:17 am

    Perhaps I’m just weird, but I tend to deal with questions as if they came from nowhere. A question can be intrinsically interesting, difficult, etc. without any regard to the person who is asking it. When I started discussing things online, it was frustrating that people kept reading ME instead of reading what I say. It is still frustrating sometimes, but I am getting used to it. That’s just how it goes.But I think a lot of rubbish could be swept aside (whether one person doubts or another believes) if questions could be answered without seeing them as complaints or some kind of personal confession.

  12. Herr Doktor Robin Rollinger
    19 February 2012 @ 10:23 am

    In other words, I’m suggesting that what is required for sound understanding is niether doubt nor belief, but rather neutrality – or at least quasi-neutrality.

  13. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    19 February 2012 @ 12:19 pm

    I think you’re mixing two issues.

    Yes, people should be able to answer a question without reading into the question (or the questioner). They don’t usually do that, but they should be able to.

    However, that seems separable from your ability to understand an issue. I don’t think the person who remains neutral really understands either the true believer or the vigorous denier.