Doubt and Skepticism: Philosophical and Religious
with Jennifer Michael Hecht, Ph.D. (J.H.)
Interviewed by Jason Merchey (M.)
M: The topic of the day is philosophical and religious doubt and skepticism. With my very able guest, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Ph.D., I explore some history of the subject, and learn about her fascinating book. This is a transcript of an audio interview with Dr. Hecht on a then-program entitled Values and Ethics: from Living Room to Boardroom (available as a podcast). It then became Chapter 3 in a book of the same name in 2017. Let’s look into one of the most critical precursors of wisdom: doubt.
We will find that doubting is an attitude, a skill, and it can be brought to bear on any topic. Even children will react to certain statements and propositions with incredulity. “Whaaat?!” is how it sounds when they question/protest. We think of human beings as quite capable of deceit, subterfuge, and chicanery, so we all have a more-or-less “tuned up” ear for such manipulations. However, religion is based on dogma, supposition, and authority – and thus is a perfect subject for the exercise of doubt.
As well, there is philosophical doubt and skepticism, which refers generally to an attitude of hesitancy, modesty, carefulness, evidence-wanting, and the big one: skepticism. If your doctor prescribes a medicine and you suggest you want to look it up on the Internet first, you’re being skeptical. If a teacher guarantees you will use such-and-such subject after high school and you question whether or not it is true, you’re demonstrating philosophical doubt. At higher levels, this skill/outlook encompasses many questions in the fields of epistemology and metaphysics – and, for sure, ethics.
It’s an interesting topic to me because I took my first philosophy class during my first semester of junior college. It made a huge impact for a few reasons. One I will never forget! I was a bit unprepared for college; I graduated with a 3.2 from high school and not having studied for the SAT, performed in a lackluster manner (not exactly University of California material). I was, however, prior to my family tumult starting at about age 14, known as “bright.” Thus, on the first day of the philosophy class, when I raised my hand with a question, I literally – and no, I am not kidding to be ironic – mispronounced the word philosophical. I don’t know what came over me. I basically started saying phil-AH-suf-ee and halfway through, switched to the adjective, phil-uh-SOPH-i-cal. It came out as phil-ah-suh-FIC-ul. My teacher literally corrected me. It was mortifying. I think maybe Athena was making me look absurd right from the get-go as a way to permanently and unalterably inoculate me against the possibility of developing hubris.
The philosophy (or should I say: phil-o-SOPH-ee!) class in question was impactful and memorable for many reasons. First, it was my first semester of junior college, which was a big deal since, secondary to my parents’ divorce a few years earlier, I was underprepared emotionally and academically for college. Second, the professor was an adroit, Irish-accented individual with a white beard and a Ph.D. after his name – which was fairly exotic to me as a youngster. Denis Hickey was his name (with one “n”) and the college was Cypress College in Cypress, California. Third, he was really into quotations, and I, to this day, remember memorizing quotations by towering intellects such as Petrarch, Bronowski, Gibran, and Durant– to name just a few. I ended up finding quotes to be worth more than saffron, gold, and diamonds – and I still love them. Doubt and skepticism are difficult for any person to maintain, but I think I have more or less kept that point of view.
Finally, he taught that doubt was absolutely indispensable to the philosophical enterprise. It was a great lesson, one that authors and thinkers as remarkable as Clarence Darrow, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Francis Bacon counseled. It seems like the only true path to wisdom. Faith has its place, but not in science, philosophy, or logic.
When viewing quotes from the database at ValuesoftheWise.com, I was struck by the utter “maleness” of the authors of quotes having to do with doubt and skepticism, critical thinking and agnosticism. I’m happy that I can provide some much-needed balance by interviewing the woman who wrote the book on doubt – literally. Her name is Jennifer Michael Hecht, and she put together an assiduously researched and well-received book on doubt. It’s called – not surprisingly, Doubt: A History. The subtitle is: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation – from Socrates to Jesus and Thomas Jefferson to Emily Dickinson. This is going to be a good education for me, and I hope it will for you, too. If she speaks anything like she writes, we’re all in for a treat.
I received the book for Christmas one year from a family member, and impressed with it, I thought it would make a great interview. I looked for Dr. Hecht online, and lo and behold, there she was. I wanted to learn more about her, this interesting topic, and find ways to improve and shape my thinking. I read it, wanting to be able to be enlightened and consoled by all the people from the past who made their mark on history as skeptics, iconoclasts, freethinkers, rebels, leaders, atheists, agnostics, philosophers, and secularists – and maybe put a few new arrows in my quiver along the way. The book did not disappoint; a bona fide scholarly work.
Dr. Hecht holds a Ph.D. in the history of science/European cultural history from Columbia University and has taught in the MFA program at Columbia University as well as the New School. Her books have been translated into many languages. She has also written a number of others, including The Wonder Paradox, a guide to using poetry to find meaning, invoke awe, and rest in some clarity of mind. Another work, The End of the Soul, won Phi Beta Kappa Society’s 2004 Emerson Award. She has appeared on Talk of the Nation, Hardball, the Discovery Channel, and The Morning Show. She lectures widely. Publisher’s Weekly called her poetry book Funny “One of the most original and entertaining books of the year.”
Skipping any further adulation, allow me to introduce Jennifer Michael Hecht, Ph.D. Hello there. May I call you Jennifer?
M: What could you say about yourself that would give us an understanding of where you’re coming from.
JH: Hi Jason. Well, I guess the place to begin would be that I started my research on a very specific topic when I was getting my Ph.D. in history. I was studying a number of anthropologists of the late 19th century who donated their bodies to each other and something called the Society of Mutual Autopsy. Historians have noticed this group before, but it was just so weird, so we really looked into it.
I found some archives and it became clear that these people had gotten together as atheists before they embraced anthropology. They were so interested in proving to the Catholic Church and to Catholic France that there was no God and no soul that they wanted to dissect each other to prove some kind of relationship between brain shape and size and weight, and the personalities and abilities of people. Since they couldn’t get brains just anywhere, they donated their own brains to the project!
This went on for 30 years. It didn’t really produce much because it’s not easy to do. The person they were working with in the beginning did find the first connection that we have [between physiology and behavior]. We still call a lesion on the third left frontal circumvolution of the brain, Broca’s Aphasia because if you have a lesion there you won’t be able to speak normally. That was the first time we were actually able to say, “The meat is the thinking thing,” and if you alter the meat, the thing will be altered – and we really didn’t believe that before. The prevailing wisdom was that there was really “a ghost in the machine.” They created death rituals for themselves so that atheism wouldn’t be a pure negation – you know, all the things they wouldn’t do (e.g., go into the Church, be buried by priests, etc.). I became fascinated with the subject, and that led to the book, The End of The Soul.
The thing is: while I was researching it I couldn’t find a source on atheism or even religious doubt that I felt I could trust. Everything seems to be so polemic. People get involved in these ideas, and because they’re such hot topics, most people who get involved in them are people who are very dedicated to one side or the other. Often, they fudge the data just a little bit. I would find a quote that makes someone sound very much like an atheist, look up the rest of the document or go buy the book, and the context makes it clear that it’s not really what they were saying.
It was with that in mind – to just put together what I knew of the story of doubt – that I started out. I was incredibly surprised to find how much the story of doubt was already there and just needing excavation. Doubters throughout the centuries knew of each other’s work so that there is a “shadow history” that’s just as fully formed as the history of religion, for instance. These people were not necessarily atheists (though many were), but definitely people who rejected the dominant religious ideas of their time.
M: Are we talking about just religious doubt?
JH: It really is mostly about religious doubt, but also, philosophical doubt. Philosophical doubt drew me in because there is not currently a complete story of the subject. That is, from the ancient world, we have philosophers who say that we can’t know anything; our senses lie to us: put a spoon in a glass of water and it looks broken, etc.
But much more: our emotions deceive us. If you are feeling a little lust, you can lie to yourself along any line, and then find your own mind believing something different the moment it’s satisfied! Not to mention what drink and madness and dreams can do. We all find ourselves changing our mind from time to time and it doesn’t cause us to doubt the instrument at hand! We just keep believing our minds. So, that question of: Can we know anything? became so rich and interesting that I followed it as well.
The idea that every step forward requires that we put into some doubt the present, dominant ideology courses through the whole book. For example, I didn’t know if anyone had ever tried to falsify the Ptolemaic vision of the world – had anyone ever done the tests, mathematically, to see if it really makes sense to put the Earth at the center? Copernicus actually kind of skirted that task. I was actually charmed to find that there was an important medieval thinker, a Jewish philosopher, who did in fact falsify that theory.
Also, we find an awful lot of people who are arguing for people’s rights who are angry enough that they risk doubting the dominant idea. It’s very hard to do. It’s really quite a trick to look at what everybody believes around you and say, “Well, maybe that’s not the case; what would the consequences be?” If you don’t really discover anything very useful, you’re mostly thought of as “a crackpot” because that is the very definition: someone who doesn’t believe what the rest of us believe.
M: Were you born into a religious family, or were doubt and skepticism part of your upbringing?
JH: It’s interesting. Both of my parents are Jewish but my father is a physicist. When I was very young, I believed the whole thing— the whole idea of Judaism— but Christians and Muslims that I knew had a kind of “important revelatory experience” that they were working from. I believed all of that, and it was at 18 that I started to feel unsatisfied by the nature of “dual information,” and that will start you off.
M: I see. I have a bit of a similar background. I was raised Jewish in a suburb in which probably 1% or 2% were Jewish, and neither of my parents were particularly practicing. I wanted to go to a summer camp held every year by the First Baptist Church, and they weren’t particularly shy about being evangelical. I really just began to doubt the truth or even the utility of learning the Hebrew language and Jewish ideology. I was very thoughtful about it, such as speaking with the Rabbi. There was a kind of weird time for half a decade there when I was not exactly Jewish, not exactly Christian, and hadn’t found philosophy and skepticism yet to be sufficient substitutes for faith. I know that where you were raised, on Long Island, it was somewhat similar. I imagine there is good research out there, of which I admit I am not aware, that probably indicates that a person’s identity in regard to religiosity (or even, say, patriotism, or culture) is easier to keep intact and prevent being assailed by doubt if there is a relatively homogenous group to which a person belongs. Doubt and skepticism is a bit of a cross to bear — if you will forgive the pun.
Competing beliefs will naturally cause a bit of disequilibrium, as Piaget would say, and I think a person wants to find new information they can assimilate or accommodate that will bring back a sense of equilibrium, belonging, comfort, identity, etc. I would also guess, if the family is intact and functional it also contributes to adoption of the dogma and norms of a religion, etc. Eventually, doubters like you and I are willing to “take the road less traveled,” as Frost put it, and ideally we are treated better than Baruch Spinoza was for being a freethinker (or, in the case of religion, being exiled, punished, or branded with a “scarlet letter”).
Would you say that the folks throughout history who would say, “I’m not sure of ________” or “I don’t have sufficient confidence in such-and-such identity or role” tended to be different from the rest of their community in some way? That they experienced some kind of disruption or crisis in the typical social learning process and role adoption of a community or culture that individuals are typically subjected to?
JH: Well, that’s a good question and I’ve been thinking a lot about it by reading a good deal about people emerging from their communities – and how they get out, or why they stop half-way. I think the sort of “crisis of the soul” that leads to poetry and philosophy, and the kind of insight that also allows one to help other people is necessary for doubt and skepticism. I don’t know if a person has to go through pain themselves or if they just have to have been given the right ingredients (whatever they may be) to feel that the universe is this glorious paradox, and to feel a little crushed by that at some point.
I make a point in the book that the great religious thinkers and the virtuosos of doubt have a lot more in common than the middling masses (if they even exist, because often, if you look hard enough, you’ll find that there’s a philosopher in there!). The people who aren’t spending their lives worrying over the question, “How could my life feel like it’s such a story and yet death ends it?” – whether there’s an afterlife or there isn’t. Catch a very religious person at a funeral, or gaze at your dead pet, and the afterlife is hard to fathom. The knowledge of how many human beings have died and how they don’t seem to come back… There’s a lot of strong reason to worry about whether all of this stuff is true. To see what hurts about being human, and to see how amazingly wonderful it is at the same time; how we can have such pleasure and such pride, and also such misery and cruelty. It’ll make your brain hurt if you sit and think about it!
M: My friend John A. Marshall said, “An inch beyond your mind is where the unattainable exists.” The erudite Bertrand Russell said, “Most of the greatest evils that man has inflicted upon man have come through people feeling quite certain about something which, in fact, was false.”
More than just a curmudgeonly attitude of “humbug!”, doubt is a silver sword which allows the wielder to slay false ideas. Many thinkers, from Buddha to Einstein, spoke highly of the idea of exposing and moving beyond false ideas. And much relies on this; it’s more than just a matter of being correct or incorrect, or confident or foolish – somewhere between 300,000 and 750,000 “witches” were burned at the stake after enduring mortifying and ill-conceived trials in Europe in a 300-year period. America, with its “scarlet letters” and such has not been immune from that kind of group-thinking, wrongheaded inanity. Doubt and skepticism are stances that, not reassuring, can be very useful.
Tell me about a few major representatives of doubt and skepticism thoroughout the ages.
JH: Epicurus was a fascinating character in the history of doubt. He said that not only can human beings manage to be virtuous in this chaotic, unsupervised world, they can actually be happy. In fact, there is no reason for them not to be happy. The three chief obstacles to being happy, he explained, are: fear of death, fear of pain, and fear of the gods.
M: That’s interesting. And I also associate cynicism with that attitude. It’s “capital-C,” Cynic. Diogenes was the main exponent of that philosophy or lifestyle, if I remember. Share a bit about him.
JH: Diogenes did not want anything, so he did not lack anything. Alexander the Great is supposed to have said, “Were I not Alexander, I would be Diogenes,” such was Diogenes’ independence.
M: Sounds liberating. Socrates also, notably, said, “How many things there are which I do not need!” Clearly, one of the criticisms of America and similar countries is the attachment to objects and things and statuses.
JH: Yes. The men and women who followed him gave up everything they had, but it was not in the context of sacrifice or humility. Rather, it was an act of freedom. In walking away from everything that the world both offered and demanded, they made decisions to arrange for their own inner well-being.
Epicurus believed life is full of sweetness. We might as well enjoy it; we might as well really make an art of appreciating pleasure. But delicate food, drink, and the pleasures of the flesh are not quite what he had in mind. What Epicurus really encouraged was a joyous cultivation of knowledge and friendships.
M: Speaking of fulfillment, Socrates said, “…the really important thing is not to live, but to live well.…To live well means the same thing as to live honorably or rightly.”
What do you make of the world’s religions – a way to fulfillment, or a mistake? Should we look to heaven like Plato, or look to the Earth like Aristotle? Beatrix Potter noted: “All outward forms of religion are almost useless, and are the causes of endless strife… Believe there is a great power silently working for good, behave yourself, and never mind the rest.”
JH: The religions have been the energy behind much generosity, compassion, and bravery. The story of doubt, however, has all this too. It also has a relationship to truth that is rigorous, sober, and, when necessary, resigned. It prizes this rigorous approach to truth above the delights of belief.
M: Are there any parts of the Bible you really like? Ecclesiastes contains quite a bit that could be considered wisdom. You won’t find much doubt and skepticism in the Bible, of course.
JH: Ecclesiastes is so out of sync with the rest of the Bible that scholars and theologians have long marveled that it got in at all. The book was too beautiful, too smart, and too pious (in its own odd way) to leave out. It is an amazing story on doubt, both in philosophical viewpoint and in its advice on how to best live in a world without divine justice, without an afterlife, and without any overarching meaning.
M: There are some nuggets amongst all the things that a wise person could easily leave behind in that book! Interesting to note that religiosity has been found by research in the social sciences to be beneficial and correlated with things such as charitability (though, the “nominal Christians” really don’t have an authentically better and more righteous life, I don’t think). Incidentally, John Adams, thinker as he was, probably wasn’t too religious himself, but he did believe that a country would be hard to hold together without either a monarch, or a religion. Pragmatism, I suppose. I am not sure that the cause of betterment due to belief is really a divine being.
Success and fulfillment are found somewhere between believing in God and taking on said ideals, morals, and community and not believing in God and taking on ideals, morals, and examples from the wise, and following your own compass.
JH: Epicurus believed there was no real point in praying, both because the gods are not listening and because human beings are entirely capable of making themselves happy on their own. Yet, he also said that the act of prayer was a natural part of human behavior and ought to be indulged. …Devote yourself to wisdom, self-knowledge, friends, family, and give some attention to community, money, politics, and pleasure. Know that none of it brings happiness all that consistently.
M: Ok, interesting. I tend to disagree, so I am either biased, or you are more familiar with social science findings than I am. I think I do know for a fact that friends are critical to health and well-being, and I do believe that religiosity is almost uniformly found to be positive. Whether it is true wisdom or legitimately true (“capital-t Truth”) I cannot say. I know I would much rather be wise and good than selfish and ignorant.
Well, what do you think about this quotation, again by philosopher, peace activist, and linguistic analyst Bertrand Russell: “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” That is a double-barrel blast of doubt and skepticism. Perhaps too much so!
JH: Yeah, that’s a tough one, and it’s a really big problem that has definitely gotten worse because of the way media works. On this show, we’re able to discuss ideas, but in most media it’s a matter of sound bytes, and people jump on whatever is the most inflammatory part of what anyone says. Thus, the wise tend to stay away from it; they don’t want to fight these things out.
Did you just say “the wise?!”
Nice! I like that.
JH: The wise – people who have some perspective on their lives, people who aren’t just hungry to be media stars, people who have done enough thinking to know that for every argument there is an opposite argument. For example, imagining if one were raised in a fundamentalist home, what would I think about abortion?
I brought up the most incendiary of topics because if you truly believe that half the people in the world are simply idiots or cruel, you’re probably missing what’s going on. So, no matter how strongly you feel (and you don’t have to change your opinion; you can feel strongly and know you’re right), you can also do the work that would make it possible for you to find some areas of agreement.
One can do that with all the questions. Certainly, with the evolution debate, what we see is [a lampooning of the intelligent design side]; The Onion had a thing about Intelligent Falling Theory (instead of gravity!). You know? We settle on these little fights; the one about evolution happened because of William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow and events of the early 20th century. Why aren’t we arguing about the Bible saying that Joshua bid the sun stand still? That’s what Galileo got in trouble for. If Joshua bid the sun stand still, the sun must be moving, and if Galileo says it isn’t he must be contradicting the Bible. Everybody was up in arms about this! It’s just important to notice how things get to be grouped together.
That’s what I found through Doubt: the extraordinary and, to my mind, absolutely hilarious linkage of thoughts that after a century or two come apart. We say to ourselves, “Why were these people breaking their heads over this?!” It’s because the issues are deeper and more subtle and complicated, and people feel embattled. Some people are always going to want something new and others are going to want the world to be like it was in their childhood or in their imagined version of the world as it was right before they were born.
M: Do you think that maybe Bertrand Russell was coming on too strong when he said that the ignorant are sure and the intelligent full of doubt? Or how about Darrow noting, “I am an agnostic; I do not pretend to know what many ignorant men are sure of.”
JH: Well, I don’t think they are wrong, really, because I do think that if I needed a definition of foolish it would be “to have too much certainty.” It’s not that I don’t have certainty myself, but that I work hard to put it in its context. Once it’s in its context, it’s always more complicated and fuzzy and subtle and sublime. So, I think doubt and skepticism is a good stance.
Look, Bertrand Russell was brilliant and was very much a doubter— almost an evangelical atheist— but he sometimes missed some of the exquisite mystery of our human existence. After all, we are thinking, seeing creatures that are essentially made of flesh and blood. The part of us that loves and thinks and wonders seems to disappear at death. I can do no more than state the facts— that this is mysterious. This great, vast, unthinking universe seems to have no moral judgments, no plans, no dreams, no regrets; it seems to be rocks and quarks; yet here we are, these tiny little things, these human hearts pumping in the middle of it all… it’s very strange. It’s very wondrous.
Yes, Russell was so angry at the lies that were told in the name of religion and quasi-religious political organizations of his time (contemporary Communism and Nazism) that he wanted to say, “Let’s just look at the facts and we’ll be better off!” Not that he wasn’t a subtle thinker about human psychology; he really was. But, somehow the fact that our situation is an extraordinarily weird thing… you don’t see that spark in Russell. So, I do think that he had a tendency towards “flattening out” that one thing – which is, to me: the truth of the vast material universe is just as giant and obvious as the truth of the human experience: love and feelings, which are real and right in front of me; I don’t have to prove them in any way.
M: Speaking of religion, let’s dig down and talk about something else. I think the closest that we got was abortion, and a little bit of “intelligent design,” but I’m interested in talking about President Bush for a second. It’s pretty easy to lampoon him, but I think you might be particularly suited to doing so because it seems as though he does not have much ability to doubt.
In fact, Darrow, again, one of history’s great thinkers when it came to skepticism and freethought, said something apropos: “The world is made up, for the most part, of morons and natural tyrants sure of themselves, strong in their own opinions, never doubting anything.”
The president thinks that he has solid values, some of which he intuits from God or feels “in his gut.” This is the opposite of possessing the capacity to doubt. He’s touting strength and dedication and stick-to-itiveness as his strengths. What do you think?
JH: Yeah, that’s exactly the problem. The president and his ilk are specifically proud of “putting on blinders” so they can follow through with plans and goals that are constantly assailed by all sides. Certainty. Oh God, it’s so painful to watch! Not just the certainty, but demanding that the certainty be protected. How can a person have such hubris? How could one possibly have such arrogance? Only if you believe that you are getting a special line from an all-seeing being who actually informs you directly. That’s the plan — the plan is “praying on it.” He says he’s open to new information, but only from a source which many of us believe is merely his own mind. That is terrifying because it’s the worst kind of loop one can get stuck in.
The point you brought up is a great one, which is: if we are to lead (even our own lives, but if we are to lead others), we do have to make decisions. Lots of them; all the time.
To be specific, after 9/11, in wonderfully liberal Manhattan, where I live, up went tons of American flags. It was shocking to see New Yorkers all displaying them; it was a desperate attempt to somehow protect our sad, broken city. The feeling that we wanted to do something makes perfect sense to me.
The problem was, any kind of historical perspective shows you that you can’t always march in and change what you want to change by fiat. The swamp won’t bear being cleaned up without killing all sorts of beautiful animals that live in it. Even when something is decidedly bad, you can’t just come in and take it out and expect nothing to change in the environment.
The experience we have in the natural world and the experience we have in the political world show that these extraordinary tyrants are being fed by a power vacuum. “W’s” father knew that it could be a quagmire, that this was not a place that was settled into the idea of being a united nation. For Bush to march in without apparently even talking to his father.
I understand how frustrating it must have been to be one of these frustrated military men who have so much power and they’re never allowed to “bring it to bear.” But the truth is, you just can’t do it. We’ve seen it over and over and over again. You have to figure out where all the anger and fury is coming from and see what you can do about “siphoning it off and lessening it.” If you simply try to “stomp on it” it will just scatter the fire.
M: I like the metaphor you bring up about “draining the swamp” because I think that was a metaphor that either he or Rumsfeld or Cheney used, talking about the terrorists being, I dunno, mosquitos in that swamp, which was Iraq itself. It was claimed that we needed to drain it so that they can’t survive and bite us. But as you pointed out, then the metaphoric frogs die too and the deer can’t drink and eventually it transforms into a desert. If there were any pests, they would probably just go elsewhere, anyway. Not to mention, it’s not our damned swamp to drain! I think the confidence versus modesty, hesitancy, and rationality of the whole debacle was spectacular to behold. Moreover, the civil liberties encroachments that were part and parcel of Bush and Co.’s plan to remake America into an oligarchy, plutocracy, and nation set on endless war.
Jennifer Michael Hecht, I thank you for your time. It was enlightening. I hope your book Doubt receives the praise and readership it rightfully deserves.
This is but one of twenty chapters in the book Values & Ethics: From Living Room to Boardroom. An e-book is a mere $2.99.
If you enjoyed this look at doubt and skepticism, listen to the podcast of the interview here. As mentioned, this is also a chapter in the book Values & Ethics: From Living Room to Boardroom, available here.
Here are dozens of quotations on philosohical and religious doubt from many of history’s great minds. They were added to the above interview to comprise Chapter Three in the aforementioned book on values and ethics.