Doubt is Incomprehension

Once we understand a doctrine properly, it becomes much easier to relate to the rest of the intellectual economy, ergo credible. Indeed, only with elimination of incomprehension is belief really possible. We can’t decide whether we think a notion is either true or false – cannot come to a belief about it – until we know what exactly it is, what it means and portends, how it links up (if it does) to the rest of our experience and knowledge.

Not that we ever attain complete exactitude in our understanding of anything, for we don’t.

Nevertheless there is such a thing as understanding that is good enough for our purposes. Such understanding of a concept generally takes the form of seeing how it fits with other more familiar concepts. What we are really trying to do when we try to understand something new is relate it intelligibly to familiar concepts that have proven reliable in practice – tried and true, as the saying goes.

Once we have arrived at clear comprehension of a proposition, a judgement of its truth often follows with little further ado; or else, the research needed to confirm or deny it makes itself fairly obvious, even straightforward.

Thus the lion’s share of most intellectual work is just getting clear on what is being considered. Once we’ve done that – and provided that a proposal has not in it revealed its utter absurdity – it becomes much easier to see how belief in it could actually work. And once we see how it *could* work, it becomes ipso facto credible. It *could* be true. We then take it more seriously, and then lo! Not infrequently, finding it credible, we find that we credit it. Seeing how it fits into reality as we have understood it, we can find it compelling to accept that in fact it *does* fit into reality.

And this is not an epistemologically irresponsible move. For how, after all, could a proposition possibly comport with others we know to be true and also be simply and completely false? It might to be sure need still a bit of nipping and tucking, a bit of trimming and tidying. But an idea that fits well enough to call for such finishing adjustments as it slots neatly into place like a key into a keyhole or a protein into a receptor site must be pretty darn close to true to begin with.

So can we begin to believe in notions that we cannot test except by their fit to our intellectual world. The apotheosis of this ideal fitness is to be found in logic and math. A proof is a rigorous demonstration of fitness. To understand that a syllogism demonstrates a conclusion is to see that the conclusion fits its premises immaculately. Entailment is perfect fit.

When we apprehend that degree of fitness in a doctrine, we cannot but believe it true except by a dire effort of the will.

I’ve seen this over and over again in discussions with atheists about the existence of God. They lack belief in his existence. They muster stout arguments against what they think of as God. I find almost always that they are hopelessly confused on the meaning of “God.” They have not got clear on the concept; so naturally they find it incredible. And while their arguments might hit their intended target, they miss God.

The better I understand the concept of “God,” the more his existence seems to me logically inescapable. The design arguments seem less and less pertinent, and the ontological arguments more and more airtight. God seems now to me almost self-evident, like infinity (indeed, *very* like infinity). So I believe in him more and more.

Faith is not belief, NB. Belief is acceptance that a proposition is certainly true, or rather cannot possibly be false. E.g., it cannot be false that ∞ – x = ∞ (where x is any finite quantity). Thus confidence in the verisimilitude of our empirical data, of our phenomenal experiences, is not yet quite belief in them. I am confident that I see a mountain beyond and stupendously higher than Mount Diablo – surely that immense mountain is actually there, even though I do not recall ever having seen it – but I cannot aver that what I see cannot possibly be anything else – is that mountain a cloud, perhaps?

[That a mountain is a cloud does not make it other than a mountain. It is rather a cloud mountain. Likewise, e.g., that our minds are materially implemented does not mean they are not minds; it means that our matter is mindful.]

Faith is trust that things do indeed all make sense and hang together coherently, whether or not we yet understand quite how. It is founded – is well-founded – upon our certitude in such beliefs as we have scrabbled together (all of which, we can feel, somehow link up together integrally in a system of mutual implications), and upon the very great and general reliability of our confidence both in the predominant verisimilitude of phenomena and in the intelligibility, rationality and coherence of the world they impart to us.

To trust in this rational, intelligible coherence of all things is implicitly to believe in God, for no other sort of agent could be adequate to the integration of all disparate things as a coherent universe.

Thus in respect to God it is not quite perfectly and simply correct that faith is not belief. Faith that things hang together intelligibly is a forecondition of any intellectual effort. Even the repudiation of that faith expresses it; for, we can’t say that a notion is untrue except under the supposition that it is possible for some notion or other to be true. To think, we must have faith. Whether or not we realize it, faith presupposes belief in God.

Faith then is belief that has not yet quite discerned truth. That discernment is in the light of the intellect, as it understands. Belief is what it is like to understand the truth. And as the end and final cause and whole purpose of the intellect is the discernment of truth, so the intellect yearns for that discernment. Faith is what it is like to yearn for the understanding of truth.

Thus the motto of that eagle of philosophical theology, St. Anselm of Canterbury: fides quaerens intellectum.

8 thoughts on “Doubt is Incomprehension

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  4. Dear Kristor: I would want to qualify your thesis. I would want to say that doubt is querying incomprehension. Insofar as doubt is, indeed, querying comprehension, we can see how doubt is intimately related — and necessary — to faith. When God interrupted Abraham, and substituted the animal for the son Isaac, Abraham did not understand, but he obeyed with the attitude that God would not senselessly demand such a substitution, and that there must eventually be an explanation. The query is not a demand, but a species of openness, of trust and waiting.

    Tentatively, Tom.

    • That is a happy distinction. I suppose it comes down to whether or not the incomprehension is felt. Some atheists, e.g., feel sure that they comprehend what theists mean by “God,” even though we can see that they don’t. Their incomprehension is unwitting. So, they are in no doubt. They are quite confident that there is no evidence for the existence of what they take “God” to mean. Their minds are curiously impervious.

      Doubt occurs when your confidence that you understand is shaken, or weak to begin with. If you are not in doubt, then, there are only two possibilities: either you have a good grasp of the real truth, or you are wrong and don’t know it yet.

  5. “Doubt occurs when your confidence that you understand is shaken”: Your doubt would be the occasion of what Plato calls metanoia. (See The Parable of the Cave.)

    • Yes. Doubt – cognitive dissonance – begins the process of deliberation, which then does not end in respect to the matter under consideration until the doubt is resolved by arrival at a conclusion of understanding, which is a new state of affairs for the intellect: a new mind.

      I owe a great deal to John Dewey’s brilliant exploration of this procedure in his Human Nature and Conduct.

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