As Julius Caesar described his conquests in De Bello Gallico (Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres), my life too is divided into three parts. These parts are:
- during belief in divine providence;
- after belief in divine providence;
- a state of universal doubt.
In the “during” period, I sought meaning and theological logic in apparent absurdities of human conduct and supposed divine supervision.
In the “after” period, I simply accepted the vagaries and indifference of natural law. The four forces of nature (gravity, electromagnetism, strong nuclear and weak nuclear); cause and effect; randomness; free will, impaired though it be; choosing good, evil, and neutral; evolution and perhaps devolution; a tip of the hat to Murphy’s Law.
The “during” period encompassed roughly three quarters of my terrestrial lifespan. I currently consider myself to be in the “universal doubt” (UD) segment for the moment.
Honestly, there are many times when I’d like to get back to that simpler, all-questions-answered era of belief. I reserve the right to “flip-flop” in this matter; to observe multifaceted reality with a detective’s eye; to remain cautiously open to evidence of some semblance of deism, something more than deism, or something much less than deism.
This mind-set is not really “set” at all. It’s in constant flux, gyrating along a wide spectrum. My personal spectrum might be called “the spectrum of belief and doubt/unbelief.” This mind of mine wanders along countless degrees/hash marks/percentages with flickering convictions and renunciations, like a Geiger counter spinning amid a circle of randomly placed radioactive and nonradioactive objects. Remember playing spin the bottle as we entered puberty?
Admittedly, it would be preferable to enjoy total certitude one way or the other; but really, who among us can be absolutely certain about metaphysics or quantum theorems? Who is totally sure about even the origin of a particular thought? Innovative and creative ideas seem to spark into life out of nothing and from nowhere—destructive thoughts as well.
Our brain resembles a supercomputer in many ways. Ironically, human brains created these sophisticated “calculators,” so often only to be left in the dust by their own creation. How many neurons, synapses, dendrites, etc., make up a human brain? We might as well try counting the physical objects or the particles within the cosmos. Even if we could calculate and quantify their multiplicity, we’d still have to contend with dark matter and dark energy, and who knows what else. So it is—or seems to be—with the human brain.
This human brain instinctively attempts to impose order out of chaos and randomness. Our ancestors, long gone and recently gone, with evolving brains tried valiantly—and most often simplistically—to explain and to organize what their senses brought to the table for mental digestion.
The believers and would-be believers among us still cannot figure out with their alleged absolute certitude origins, purposes, or destinations, neither for our own bodies nor for the vast world surrounding us, upon which we rely for our very survival. A familiar and frequent intellectual dilemma, is it not?
On the other hand, nonbelievers, whether born so or later convinced, stick with what is scientifically and persistently observable. For these people, the largely intuited hypotheticals of ancient propositions simply do not satisfy and therefore remain unacceptable. What’s the evidence? Where’s the beef? Show me!
And now for my current dilemma, shared perhaps by some reading this essay. I must admit here with hesitance and regret that I have one foot in each camp. If there were other camps, I’d need more feet. That wandering needle on my “spectrum of belief and doubt/unbelief” oscillates all the time and races all over the spectrum’s expanse between the opposing endpoints. Should this undecided “stance” be described as bipolar, multipolar, poly-polar, or by another moniker? Meaning, I seem to believe and to disbelieve virtually simultaneously. I might believe this or that now and then promptly doubt its reality or veracity. There is even overlap from time to time.
As a boy, an adolescent, and a young seminarian and well into adulthood, my educators, mentors, and counselors continually impressed upon me the deadly danger of doubt. With a significant dose of life-experience and some maturation of thought, it gradually became clear that genuine life without doubt was/is impossible. Actually, doubt is a good thing. It’s beneficial to human progress serving humanity as a major impetus to the betterment of our species and of our environment. There had been inklings of this insight long before my having been introduced to Rene Descartes.
This is part three of my life, a state of UD. Doubt everything was Descartes’s starting point. Attaining reliable knowledge was for him an incremental process commencing with his Cogito, ergo sum. However, he was very much a believer who utilized his methodology of so-called universal doubt to argue for and to “prove” God’s existence and the existence of the individual immortal soul. Had he begun with pure universal doubt without this bias, he’d be not only a great hero of modern philosophy, ethics, and scientific methodology but among the very greatest!
But we can empathize with Descartes’s living in a world controlled by rigid Christianity, including a cruel and unforgiving Catholicism governed by “king” and “princes.” Nevertheless, he pried open the door of secular thought, guiltless questioning, and investigation, spurring his and our contemporaries to seek answers to the questions that reality scoops up and plops down onto our plates with abundance.
Ready-made dogmatic answers no longer satisfy intellectually, although they often have soothing effects emotionally. Truth and truths “revealed from on high” deluged the earth from the earliest days of humanity’s evolution. The dogmatic answers were prioritized and solidly in place before we got to formulate the proper questions. Similarly, as children, many of us were subjected to a priori presentation of supernatural truths as we diligently memorized our catechisms!
Even if honest and dispassionate research and persistent observation were to result in an occasional vindication of “dogmatized” truth, that unlikely outcome would ultimately be proven to be purely coincidental.
So why this story of self-examination and philosophical struggle? Who should care?
As a partial and imperfect answer to both questions, in my opinion all people of thought and empathy experiencing conflicts in their lives should care. This essay is merely an invitation to undertake a similar exploration; for those who have done so already, this is an exhortation to repeat the process.