More Than 50 Shades of Grey

This way of thinking naturally lends itself to the practice of science, something is only declared a “scientific truth” after it has gone through a rigorous beating of doubt and been attacked by sceptics’ of all relevant denominations. If it survives, it is allowed to grow and even then, if proven otherwise, it must collapse in the face of evidence. In ‘Camden Conversations’, 1 Walt Whitman said “I like the scientific spirit — the holding off, the being sure but not too sure, the willingness to surrender ideas when the evidence is against them: this is ultimately fine — it always keeps the way beyond open — always gives life, thought, affection, the whole man, a chance to try over again after a mistake — after a wrong guess.” This is “healthy scepticism” in the practical realm; the spiritual and emotional realms, I feel, require the exercise to continue ad infinitum as a constant revision and reaffirmation to keep us from spiritual and emotional stagnation.

Certainty needs to be upheld and so all inquiry in its midst must be regulated so as not to topple some invisible, delicate balance of floundering egos insisting upon their “only truth”.
The first person to properly put down Pyrrho’s teachings was Sextus Empiricus, who laid down the five major tropes of doubt in a sort of inverse gospel. The tropes came down to Diogenes Laertius who attributed them to Agrippa until they were distilled into the following over time:

  1. Dissent echoing the uncertainty of all rules in common life and of all opinions whether philosophically sanctioned or juvenile
  2. Progress ad infinitum — The idea that all proof requires further proof and so on to infinity. That theoretically speaking, all proofs are fallible and must fall if and when unproven.
  • Relation That all things are mutable depending on their mutations among people, which is to say that things change by the way we relate to them and by who relates to them.
  1. Assumption that all asserted truths are merely hypotheses, even if some are truer than others. This involves a precarious balance of evidence and intellect over speculation and suspicion.
  2. Circularity That all asserted truths must start at the beginning with dissent, consistently revolving and open to re-examination and reinterpretation.

There have been revisions in the so-called “Gospel of Doubt”, however, and these revisions have made it possible for us to progress beyond the swamp of indecision and consistent suspension. Tropes 1 and 3 were part of the original grounds of earlier scepticism, but the remaining tropes evolved over time to allow sceptics to move beyond a state of stasis. Yes, we can doubt and withhold final judgments, but that does not mean we cannot make simple decisions and lay weight on evidence. Evidence and value now ground scepticism, they allow for doubters to follow a trail of common sense and percentages without needing dogmatic declarations and final words. Scepticism, healthy or otherwise, is a scarce resource in the age of social media where everyone seems to have their own personal “public” soapbox to belt out their answers to everything. Doubt would only have us introduce a few questions into this rabid mix.

In ‘Letters to a Young Poet’, 2 Rainer Maria Rilke says And your doubt can become a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become criticism. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will find it perhaps bewildered and embarrassed, perhaps also protesting. But don’t give in, insist on arguments, and act in this way, attentive and persistent, every single time, and the day will come when, instead of being a destroyer, it will become one of your best workers — perhaps the most intelligent of all the ones that are building your life.” This is a standard to live by, if one has the courage to try it. And even though I recognize the blatant contradiction of stating that “one believes in doubt”, I really do. I believe in it, in the way method can save one from madness, even if they both originate from the same source.

My method has been to admit when I don’t know something, often and flagrantly enough. Somehow I have never really experienced a “loss of ego” for it either; if anything, I have felt empowered to go looking for real answers to questions and ideologies rather than satisfying myself with half-truths and smoked mirrors.

There is an inherent humility involved in acknowledging that one does not know something because it allows the opportunity for discovery. Something certainty inherently curbs and controls. Certainty needs to be upheld and so all inquiry in its midst must be regulated so as not to topple some invisible, delicate balance of floundering egos insisting upon their “only truth”. Doubt begins from a toppling of egos, and there is barren, fertile land as far as the eye can see to build upon. I find it incredibly disheartening how the once-mighty “grey zones” of maybe’s, if’s, what-if’s, perhaps’ and somewhat’s are being steadily struck down in the battle for yeses, noes and “let’s close the case” settlements.

In general, doubt gets a bad rep. “Doubting Thomas”; “Do you have doubts?”; “I doubt it”… the word is always tainted with an inflection, and scepticism as a whole is considered an extension of moral relativism. As if being relative on any position, especially moral ones, is unequivocally a bad thing. I fail to understand this inherent glorification of “blind belief” and “moral monoliths”. As Voltaire said “doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.” How can we be so comfortable settling for simple answers to the most complex of human conditions while demanding intricate, detailed contracts and receipts for everyday grocery purchases and car rentals?

So much of doubt is important when it comes to countering group think and mob mentality. This isn’t to say that scepticism and grey zones are naturally synonymous with individuality but they are certainly close. Mob mentality, is after all, born from our need to choose a fraternity and fraternities are built upon collections of similar ideas and the need for direction.

My own relationship with Doubt has been a steady stream of negotiations since I was fifteen. Now, fifteen years later, I can admit that while initially the sheer exercise of entertaining doubts on any and everything was an exhausting enterprise entailing a lot of guilt, not to mention quite a bit of self-loathing, today I have honed it to an instinct. That does not mean I do not commit to moral and philosophical positions or that I “don’t” have opinions. Only that my positions tend to be very open to negotiation, even encouraging challenges so I can make sure I still keep the same commitments or whether I need to rethink myself. My personal certainties are always in flux and I enjoy that. It allows me to argue with people but not need to get worked up over it. It means I seldom need to raise my voice, and can focus on raising my arguments instead. And if that fails, I let them win. Some people just need that a lot more than I do. They need to win, it affirms something in them and I have never really needed to win in the same way. I am perfectly comfortable relinquishing that victory and resolving to go home and read a book about it to know where I stand on the issue, or still stand on it, as the case may be.

That is why grey zones are so important, as the world becomes more and more divided into pedants and preachers, there need to be some mediums. Grey zones are the only spaces that still allow us to debate, deliberate and argue without needing to win, think without needing to pander, and believe without needing to preach.

 

Endnotes

  1. Whitman, Walt; ‘Walt Whitman’s Camden Conversations’; Rutgers University Press, 1973
  1. Rilke, Rainer Maria; ‘Letters to a Young Poet’; W. W. Norton, 1934