"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

Guest Post: A Few Words on Behalf of Doubt...

Dennis Palumbo
Posted: December 16, 2009 04:55 PM

The film prompted me to reflect on our present, divisive times, and the profound role that a similar adherence to certainty plays in the ugliness of our cultural and political debates.

Right-wing idealogues like Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck speak with a certitude that would be hilarious were it not so destructive.

Populists like Sarah Palin and Lou Dobbs, who appear to represent individuality and "common sense," make handsome livings displaying both a certainty about difficult issues and disdain for those who wrestle with their complexity.

Meanwhile, on the left, media darling Michael Moore and intellectual darling Noam Chomsky dilute the impact of their often-valid criticisms by posturing with a certainty that borders on arrogance.

Which begs the question: whatever happened to doubt?

In my view, doubt fuels intelligence. It's doubt that leads to innovation in the sciences, by questioning the theories that have gone before. It's doubt that leads to positive social change, by questioning the cultural assumptions that have gone before. It's doubt that causes us to reflect on both our personal and national choices, and emboldens us to challenege conventional wisdom about "how things are done" or "how things have always been."

In other words, to doubt is to think.

I'm not talking about a crippling vacillation in the face of facts, or a reluctance to defend one's beliefs and values. I'm referring to the ability to consider other points of view as equally valid and relevant.

Moreover, we need to understand that who we are---how we were raised, the experiences we've had, and the meanings we give to those experiences---contributes greatly to our beliefs. And, most especially, to our opinions.

Take those ridiculous "birthers," who flood the Internet with nonsense about President Obama's supposedly foreign place of birth. (Even the above-mentioned Dobbs, to his lasting shame, gives these idiots credence.) This is prejudice masquerading as fact. This is what comes of certainty born out of ignorance, fear and hatred.

Or consider the global warming conference now taking place in Copenhagen. Reasonable people can disagree regarding policy, the economics, even the politics of the issue. But what we have instead is inflammatory rhetoric and political opportunism. The same goes for the difficult issues of immigration, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and health care reform.

Who among us can state with certainty what the best path should be, in terms of dealing with all these dilemmas? Instead of screaming our opinions at each other from behind the barricades of our respective certainty, we should be striving for informed, reasoned debate.

Of course, that would be hard. Harder than pointing fingers, exchanging sound-bites on TV news shows, or ranting on talk radio.

Last week, my wife and I finally got around to seeing the film Doubt, written and directed by John Patrick Shanley. Based on his own play, it concerns the head of a Catholic school, a veteran nun played by Meryl Streep, who becomes convinced that the new priest (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is guilty of sexually abusing one of the students. In spite of his protestations of innocence, Streep's old-school nun has, in her mind, the necessary proof. What is this proof? As she exclaims to a younger subordinate, "I have my certainty!"

Harder than spewing hate on the myriad racist, mob-baiting blogs that populate the web.

Harder than considering and valuing points of view that deviate from our own; or maintaining some humility as to the validity of our long-cherished opinions.

Harder, finally, than tolerating the discomfort of not knowing for sure. About anything.

Which means accepting, valuing---even embracing---doubt. And giving up the comforting illusion of certainty.

Because, like it or not, it is an illusion. In the words of philosopher Charles Renouvier, "Plainly speaking, there is no certainty. There are only people who are certain."

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