Doubt, Darkness, and Descartes

Doubt, Darkness, and Descartes

In college, I remember walking through the student union with my friend Stacy, checking our mailboxes then heading to the campus cafe, where we sat in easy chairs by the picture windows, looking at the gray November rain outside. “But I don’t see evidence… all I see is rain. How can you know that God is?” I asked her, exasperated.

“I don’t need to know. I believe,” she replied.

And she went on to say a very interesting thing: “Even if all the evidence said that God wasn’t real, I would still believe in him. Science doesn’t matter. He is real.”

How do you argue with that? I couldn’t find my words. This is what makes many Christians seem so irrational and pig-headed to scientists. Is this foolishness, or unshakable certainty, or…?

Descartes, also a Christian, talks about the experience of radical doubt, arguing that you should take everything down to the foundations, strip away all your knowledge, and then try to build it from what you can reason, starting with your own thinking processes, indicating your own existence (and yet somehow keeps God in there??).

I’m not sure I quite understand how you can will yourself to doubt, as it seems important to doubt accurately. Some doubts lead to insight (Descartes’ doesn’t really seem this kind, but maybe it was at the time) but other doubts just lead to confusion and to a muddle. While Descartes doubts all experience, he doesn’t seem to doubt his own process of reasoning, from the summaries I’ve heard, and he doesn’t doubt it because he trusts that a good God made his process of reasoning. Which I guess, for him, was still a productive way of doubting.

In some sense, the doubt that has taken hold of anthropology with the reflexive turn does not seem so productive. We’ve actually doubted everything, and it’s gotten rather sticky and grey, as we view ourselves in a million shattered and dirty mirrors. An interesting picture, but…

I think the project of anthropology, of immersing yourself as much as you can in another context, is useful for the knowledge project because it can develop in us a productive sort of doubt: the universals I thought I knew don’t really seem to work in this situation… so what’s going on??

I am not sure if the project of looking at your own eyes looking is quite so useful. More on that another day. I’ll end with a vision I particularly love, as impossible as it seems in the context of critical social science:

But where there are prophecies they will cease, where there are tongues, they will be stilled, and where there is knowledge, it too will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears… For now we see as through a glass darkly*, but then we shall see face to face. Now we know in part, but then we shall know fully, even as we are fully known. — St Paul to the ancient church in Corinth (1Cor 13:8-12)

* as in an obscured or distorted mirror

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