Larison, Linker, Doubt
May 21, 2009
(Cross posted at Upturned Earth.)
I can tell Daniel is sick of debating this, but Damon Linker has an interesting post up on Larison’s attack on doubt, and I think there’s something to be had by touching on this once more, if only to lift some of the opacity that Larison thinks makes this debate futile. Take a look:
Doubt does not arise because our minds are “clouded by passions,” as if we could conceivably attain a state of such dispassionate clarity that our statements about the world would become absolutely certain. That’s a fantasy — the epistemology of the willfully credulous. I say “willfully” because Larison is smart enough to know better, as he shows when he traces doubt to our “fallen state.” That sounds to me like Larison is saying that doubt can be traced to the human condition as it exists in the here and now. I agree. By all means, believe if you wish that it once was and one day will be otherwise. But that’s then and this is now — and for now can we please agree that doubt is (and should be) the destiny of thoughtful human beings?
Unless, of course, one has had a divine revelation — a direct experience of the absolute, nonrelativizable presence of God in one’s own life, right here, right now. In that case, all bets are off, and doubt becomes superfluous. (Given how many Americans believe they have had divine experiences, from being born again to speaking in tongues to visions of the Blessed Virgin and beyond, I wonder how many will take Obama’s paean to doubt as an expression of secular humanism rather than as a sincere defense of liberal Protestantism.)
As I’ve said before, talking about doubt as if it were a unitary, universal response can be misleading, and Linker here is providing us with a fantastic example why this is so important to remember. What’s going on in this conversation is not just a conflict between two radically different conclusions resting on the same premises. There’s something much deeper at play: Not only are their basic premises about truth radically at odds, but the social universes behind those premises differ pretty dramatically. As much as I love watching people go after each other with rhetorical bully-clubs, I think its worth taking a step back and trying to articulate the worlds from which these positions emerge.
Let’s begin with Larison’s take on truth. Linker’s whole argument assumes that revealed truth is a thing in need of establishment, which is clearly not the case: truth as Larison seems to understand it is revealed by mystical experience, or tradition, or scripture. It is not something that needs proof, because it is already assumed. We are capable of becoming clear about theological questions, because the answers are already before us. This is why doubt makes sense as part of sin: It’s our failing if we don’t grasp truth fully, not a problem for truth. That’s what it means to have a truth revealed: though we may not understand it, though may even dare to doubt it, the truth itself is never in question.
There is a self-reinforcing social logic to this way of thinking that Linker and like-minded MTDists ought to keep in mind. The revelation of the truth entails that doubt must be suspect. This distaste for doubt creatively underlies the institution of revelatory religion, which in turn provides the Truth to its adherents. The fact that this is a basically circular process shouldn’t dissuade us of its importance. It merely shows how radically different it is from the kind of basically skeptical (read: modern) universe Linker lives in.
This difference is glaringly apparent in Linker’s response. His attitude towards doubt is thoroughly post-Cartesian: doubt for him directs us to the seen, to the experiences which ground proper understanding. Because we are blind to the things named by revelatory tradition and lack a direct experiential confirmation, doubt demands we should withhold judgement. This mode of thinking has deep roots stretching back to the beginning of modernity, underlies our science and political process, and is deeply appealing at many levels, but note how different this is from Larison’s doubting: doubt here does not lead us away from truth. To the contrary, it is the only way to truth, and a truth which is obscured from the very beginning of inquiry.
Even in Linker’s seemingly generous caveat about direct revelation, this same logic of methodological doubt works to sabotage orthodoxy. By insisting that we have a direct experience of divine enlightenment, he excludes the possibility that revelation might work through the mechanisms Larison’s faith relies on, namely, tradition and scripture, which are not given in experience but rather promised in anticipation. Linker’s enthusiast is thus a sort of modern spiritual scientist, who proves to themselves (and only themselves) what older generations could merely trust would be true. To the extent that faith must be in things unseen, this outlook is scarcely qualifies. Indeed, it is not faith: it is empiricism, plain and simple.
Now this isn’t to say that Linker doesn’t have a point. We live in a world where some form of spiritual empiricism is unavoidable; the right (even the duty) of the individual to doubt and question authority underpins a wide range of our legal and epistemic structures, and American religious history reflects that fact. Revelatory tradition, like it or not, is not something free-willed, intuitively empirical Americans can ever be entirely comfortable with, regardless of their religious upbringing. And its the faith of this very particular kind of doubters, a faith that leads us to enthusiasm and away from rote adherence, that Obama spoke to and that a large swath of Americans now adhere too. Nonetheless, assuming that modern doubt is the only form doubt is a serious misstep, as the intractability of this debate should demonstrate.