Rebirth of Reason


The Relative Nature of Doubt
by Francois Tremblay

The mere act of doubting is seen as a good thing for many people with a deconstructivist agenda. But like any other method, doubt can be used in a good or bad way.

You can get in an endless cycle of doubt: one can doubt that one should doubt, and so on. This kind of thing is not very constructive, it's akin to a scientist trying to measure the properties of every single atom involved in an observation of two monkeys eating. It can get interesting but has little to do with the real world. This infinite regression can hardly be an argument against knowledge or doubt, any more than excessive observation is an argument against observation in general.

On the other hand, many Objectivists seem to see doubt as an enemy for the opposite reason. But that's a dangerous attitude. Keeping doubt in everything is a necessity, given that there are millions of ways to be wrong and only one to be right. Given this fact, certainty seems like a ridiculous bet. Indeed, in science as well as in everything else, finding truth is an iterative, approximative process, not a revelation (be it from society, God, or Ayn Rand).

Doubt, to be objective, must be grounded in reality, not in vague distrust or intuition (while intuition can lead one to a fruitful avenue of doubt). For doubt to be grounded in reality, means to acknowledge its relative nature: that doubting one hypothesis must necessarily be grounded on another, competing hypothesis.

Let me be more precise. We start from the premise that reality is objective, and that therefore there is one true proposition on a given set of propositions about something. Our epistemic process consists of finding the proposition that best fits reality, using the objective evidence. It is a fundamentally relative process in that sense. This implies that, when we rationally question a proposition, what we are doing, implicitly or explicitly, is comparing whenever a given fact related to the proposition could not be better explained by another proposition in the set that we are examining.

In some cases, especially in philosophy where we can divide a field in a few dichotomies, this is easy. For example, the proposition "reality is objective" is only opposed by the proposition "reality is subjective". Therefore, any doubt that reality is objective is easily grounded on the idea that reality is subjective.

Take a more concrete and fuzzy example, such as crop circles. If we posit, for example, that crop circles are too complex for a couple people with planks to make (which is not the case, but some people have proposed this), then this might seem as a point against the hypothesis.

But given the low probability of aliens actually coming on Earth when we do not have any clear telescope or camera pictures of their arrival, despite the number of high-powered telescopes looking at the sky, we have to say that the probability that aliens made the crop circles is ridiculously low.

Therefore the complexity argument is not as much a rebuttal of the "human circle-maker" hypothesis than it is a demand to modify our hypothesis to accommodate this complexity.

One may argue that we can disqualify a hypothesis with logical contradictions, for example. True, illogic disqualifies a hypothesis. However, our context of knowledge is not infinite: there may be facts of reality which we do not yet possess. Because of this, it is coherent to uphold an illogical hypothesis, if no other exists. If I may paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, if all other hypothesis are rejected, then the remaining, however absurd it may be, must be true.

The absolutist idea of doubt is most prominently used to deny Reason, and erect some other system of thought in its place. For example, pseudo-scientists often harp on scientific uncertainty and scientific mistakes to "prove" that science is inadequate. Yet the fact that the scientific process is open-ended and self-corrective is positive - it shows that it is, as I mentioned, an iterative process instead of a pretension of "revealed truth". The promotion of such a deconstructivist program is typically post-modernist "clearing out the way for my pet theories" behaviour.

Where is doubt, therefore, in the grand scheme of things ? In my opinion, doubt is a background process. I have tried to make it a mental habit that, whenever I make a proposition or hear a proposition, I ask myself what kind of evidence we have for and against such a proposition, what are other possible propositions and what kind of evidence do they have, and so on. I think this is a healthy mental habit to have, and that it should be taught to our children as a valuable tool.

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