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I’d like to say some more about questions of doubt and certainty, which were central to my recent discussion of Wittgenstein. I explored this question at greatest length in the post called “Certain knowledge”, but the conclusions there were tentative – which is to say, not certain.

To recap a little first: This question was Descartes‘s biggest passion. He wanted one and only one Archimedean point, one firm foundation that could not be doubted, on which he could build the rest of his philosophy. And to doubt that he was doubting would be self-contradictory, so the existence of his doubt and therefore of his own existence became certain. “I think, therefore I am.”

But Descartes was wrong: the existence of the thinking self can be, and is, doubted all the time. Almost all Buddhist tradition rests on just such a doubt: the self is not real. If there is an indubitable Cartesian foundation, one must take it back to “There is thinking, therefore there is being.” But is there even this? Descartes argues that to doubt one’s own doubt (or doubt one’s own thinking) is self-contradictory. To establish this point for certain, however, does require that one accept the logic law of non-contradiction – and accept it as an absolute law, brooking no exceptions ever. Graham Priest’s dialetheist epistemology denies this very point: only by allowing that certain contradictions can be true, he says, can we successfully resolve the liar paradox or Zeno’s paradoxes. As I noted to Thill in the Wittgenstein post, the rules of logic are much harder to doubt than the self – but that sure doesn’t mean they can’t be doubted.

Wittgenstein, as I understand him, tries to dismiss much such doubt by claiming that it is meaningless – but such views, again, seem unhelpful to me. I tend to be deeply suspicious of claims to the effect that one’s opponents’ philosophical positions are linguistically meaningless. This is the classic move made by the very worst philosophers in recent memory: the logical positivists led by A.J. Ayer, who tried to claim that the only sentences that bore meaning were either insignificant tautological definitions or empirically verifiable. And of course, since that claim is itself not empirically verifiable, it is at best insignificant and at worst meaningless, on its own terms. Under the influence of Ayer and Wittgenstein, generations of English-language philosophers tried to wave away “metaphysics,” “religion,” even ethics as meaningless drivel – a phrase probably better applied to their own philosophies. Now I don’t want to engage in guilt by association here, and damn Wittgenstein for his being taken up by hacks like Ayer – for after all, far worse use has been made of philosophers I admire (Marx, Nietzsche, Augustine). That cannot on its own be sufficient reason to believe him wrong. But when a sentence has been made by someone who has thought about the matter greatly, and significantly changed the thinking of others who have heard it, it strikes me as strange to dismiss it as “meaningless.” False perhaps, but not meaningless. It had a meaning to its speaker and to its recipient. Certainly I think there are some concepts – “religion” chief among them – which we would be better off without, because their use tends to confuse us and make us think incorrectly. But that’s not to say they are meaningless, merely that their meaning is unclear in a way that muddles our thinking.

Now when I make all these claims about doubt, their point is not to immerse us in a paralyzing skepticism where we cannot act at all. I don’t agree with the pure skepticism of a Candrakīrti or a Sextus Empiricus, according to which it is spiritually beneficial to hold no beliefs at all. (I strongly suspect that this is impossible.) I do think, however, that there is a spiritual benefit to holding a weaker position in which everything can be doubted: it leads us to a virtuous epistemological humility, leads us to listen, to entertain even seemingly absurd claims that might, on reflection, turn out to have something to them. I have turned out in the past to be profoundly wrong about my most rock-solid of convictions – for example, that the good life is about maximizing overall happiness. In my youth I thought it ludicrous to believe that being good might have little to do with political activism – and yet eventually I found that belief not only true, but essential to my well-being.

Granted, while entertaining these doubts we must still live, we must still act, and this requires acting on what we believe to be true even if we doubt it. Doubt can have a spiritually harmful consequence as well as a benefit. In Hamlet, Shakespeare has likely chronicled this problem as well as any philosopher: one can be ruled by doubts, be so consumed by one’s lack of certain knowledge that one refuses any decisive action. And yet this isn’t an argument against doubt per se. It’s often said that courage is not the absence of fear; that would be simple imprudence. Rather, as John Wayne said, “courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway.” One doesn’t eliminate fear, one acts in spite of it. Similarly, decisiveness or leadership – just as much a virtue – is not the absence of doubt, it is doing what one believes is right under the circumstances while knowing full well that one might be wrong. Might be – but, one believes, probably isn’t.