Having faith in the importance of doubt

By Mark Vernon
March 7, 2011

It has become commonplace to observe that mental health is in decline in the west. What I did not expect to discover is that some of these malaises have to do with an intolerance of doubt, and a lust for certainty, that look strikingly modern. Moreover, it seems that a certain attitude in religious faith – in particular, a resistance to fundamentalism – might be healthy too.

I was researching a radio series, ‘In Doubt We Trust’, and my new book, How To Be An Agnostic Dr Iain McGilchrist, a psychiatrist and author, told me that a number of conditions can be linked to a fear of uncertainty. The obvious case is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, often described as a ‘disease of doubt’. Sufferers experience intrusive and debilitating thoughts about cleanliness or safety because they are unable to distinguish between what has happened, what may happen and what won’t happen.

Or there are the paranoid delusions some people suffer – in a way, the opposite of OCD: rather than doubting everything, they are incapable of doubting anything. Hence, a sufferer may be convinced that everyone on the bus is out to get them; or that a devil lurks around every corner.

Professor Philippa Garety told me that there’s no point in attempting to counter the delusion directly. That only feeds the certainty with which the belief is held. Rather, the aim is gently, patiently, to encourage the individual to recognise that there are other ways of looking at the world. When they can countenance alternatives, individuals may also be able to doubt their own views.

Furthermore, she noted that such an approach might be the best way to tackle fundamentalism. Attack such religious positions head-on and you are only likely to confirm individuals in their suspicion of the world. Engage them in their concerns and things just might be different.

Dr McGilchrist believes you can see something of what is going on by understanding something about the brain. The brain is faced with a challenge, as it were, because while both hemispheres are involved in everything it does, they have very different takes on the world.

The left is good at focus, certainty and specifics: it builds a worldview that is internally consistent, but detached. (He also calls it the “Berlusconi of the brain” because it seeks to control what we think and how we to talk to one another.)

The right hemisphere, though, has a broad, open attention. It is good at making connections and handling the unexpected, though it is also less sure of itself. So, in short, the left can’t understand the right, and vice versa. Sound familiar?

And perhaps this sounds familiar too, though in a different way. Communication in the brain, across the corpus callosum, therefore has to take a negative form. The left can’t say yes to the right because it doesn’t know what it’s saying yes to, and it may well resist what the right offers by saying no. But it can also not say no. This is to risk allowing the unexpected in, though the promise is an expanded take on the world.

The way the brain works is not necessarily the way the mind works, of course: human beings experience things and think, not neurons. However, the negative dialectic of the hemispheres is arresting because it is analogous to an essential feature of human understanding. We only embrace the unknown if and when we refuse to say no to that which is beyond us.

What struck me is that this mirrors, remarkably closely, what the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, a classic Christian text talks about when seeking to pierce the darkness of the divine with darts of love. In theology, it is called the via negativa, or negative way.

This can be frightening. Both mental health and spiritual flourishing appear to require a skilful toleration of darkness and doubt, which explains why people often prefer to cling to what they claim to know. It’s not for nothing that old maps inscribed terra incognita with the words, “Here be dragons.”

Certainty sells in science and religion. But as Thomas Aquinas realised, the best we can do when talking about God is to understand what God is not, and be open to what God might be, beyond our comprehension. It’s also known as faith.


© Mark Vernon is a philosopher. His website is here: http://www.markvernon.com/ ‘In Doubt We Trust’, a two part series written and presented by the author, began on BBC Radio 4, 6 March 2011, at 1.30pm and can be heard again on the iPlayer facility (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00z2sl8). Episode two is due on Sunday 13 March. Mark’s new book, How To Be An Agnostic (Palgrave Macmillan), is published this week.

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