August 21, 2015

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

Between Incredulity and Superstition

A little essay on pedagogy I wrote is going out in the upcoming Lilly Network Communique. The essay takes off from the Berkeley quote that's been in the header of this blog for some time, so I thought I'd make it available here too.

Between Incredulity and Superstition

A Pedagogy of Uncertainty

"Religion," George Berkeley once remarked, "is the virtuous mean between incredulity and superstition"(Alciphron, §5.6). In the context of Berkeley's Alciphron, this is little more than a throwaway line, but to me it suggests a promising account of an important intellectual virtue. I believe that growth in this virtue has been one of the greatest benefits of my formal education to me as a person, and it is one of the things that I most hope my students take away from my teaching.

In contemporary English, 'religion' is not a fitting name for this virtue. For lack of a better term, I will call it 'virtuous doubt'. In this essay I will first give an account of virtuous doubt, then a brief personal narrative regarding my own development in this area, and, finally, some reflections on how our teaching can help students develop this virtue.

1 Virtuous Doubt

In traditional (broadly Aristotelian) virtue theory, most virtues are understood as means between extremes. Thus courage, for instance, is the mean between cowardice and rashness. A virtue also has a characteristic subject matter or area of competence. Thus courage is the virtue having to do with fear. Courage is not freedom from fear, but the appropriate regulation of fear, including the appropriate regulation of beliefs and actions in conditions of fear. The courageous person fears things only to the extent that they are actually dangerous, and acts on her fear only to the extent that this is appropriate. In ordinary circumstances, the courageous person will not be afraid of mice but will be afraid of going into battle. A courageous soldier storming the beach at Normandy would feel terrified, since this feeling is appropriate to the level of danger he is actually facing, yet he will not allow his terror to control his actions because he sees that storming the beach is the thing to do in the circumstance. The nature of courage is made clear by considering the two opposed vices and the relevant area of competence. The coward either feels too much fear, or feels fear in inappropriate circumstances, or is too prone to act from fear. The rash person either feels too little fear, or does not feel fear in appropriate circumstances, or allows fear to have too little impact on her actions.

The two vices to which virtuous doubt is opposed are incredulity and superstition. Incredulity is an inappropriate refusal to believe. Superstition is the opposite extreme, the inappropriate adoption of inadequately supported beliefs. The characteristic subject matter here is doubt or uncertainty. The virtuous doubter will feel doubtful or uncertain just to the appropriate extent in the appropriate circumstances, and will allow this doubt to influence her actions only in appropriate ways. Virtuous doubt is, in other words, the virtue concerned with the proper regulation of belief and action in conditions of uncertainty.

To make this clearer, let's take a closer look at those two vices. The incredulous person gives excessive weight to the reasons that support doubt. He refuses to believe or to act on the basis of well-supported claims because there is room for doubt about them. To take an extreme example, a juror who refused to convict because he couldn't rule out the possibility that the evidence had been faked by an international conspiracy targeting the defendant would be incredulous. It may be true that the juror is not in a position to rule this out (on a sufficiently demanding account of what 'ruling out' involves), but in the absence of positive evidence in favor of the conspiracy theory this is not a reasonable doubt.

Incredulity, like other vices, is not always manifested uniformly. Just as someone may exhibit cowardice with respect to mice but courage in other kinds of circumstances, so she may be incredulous in some areas but exhibit virtuous doubt or even superstition in others. To take a real life example, some people exhibit an inordinate attachment to reasons for doubt regarding areas of science they see as problematic for their political or religious beliefs. The scientific enterprise being what it is, the expert consensus on things like climate science and evolution hardly amounts to absolute, bulletproof, Cartesian certainty - nor will it ever. The selectively incredulous person latches onto this lack of total certainty and refuses to accept these well-supported theories.

The superstitious person, on the other hand, believes too easily. He latches on to a piece of evidence in favor of a particular claim and accepts it without appropriately weighing the evidence against. This can come in two forms: fickleness and inconsistency. As the proverb says, "He who pleads his cause first seems right; Until another comes and questions him" (Proverbs 18:17, HCSB). The fickle person has not appreciated this point: she is inclined to believe whatever the most recently received piece of evidence or argument supports without waiting to hear the other side. When the other side is presented, she will immediately change her mind.
The inconsistent person, on the other hand, doesn't change his mind. He accepts both sides at once. This kind of intellectual vice is seen in naive forms of relativism according to which everyone gets to be 'right,' even when they are saying opposite things.

Although incredulity and superstition are, in a sense, opposed vices, they are often found together and can be difficult to tell apart. This is because the person who (for instance) is excessively doubtful regarding evolution is likely to go so far as to believe in six-day creationism, rather than simply being neutral. In this case, there is incredulity with respect to one side of the dispute and superstition with respect to the other. This kind of thing is in fact quite common: we give excessive weight to the evidence against the positions of those we think of as being on the other side, and we also give excessive weight to the evidence for the positions of those we think of as being on our own side. (This is closely related to the well-known psychological phenomenon of confirmation bias.)

Both incredulity and superstition frequently stem from a common cause: discomfort with uncertainty. We don't want to have to believe or act under conditions of uncertainty, so we persuade ourselves that we can reject whatever is uncertain, whatever can be doubted. Here we exhibit incredulity. We go on, however, to persuade ourselves that what remains is indeed certain. Here, we exhibit superstition. The truth is, when it comes to directing our lives, there is far too little certainty to go around.

One frequently hears this sort of thing disparaged as 'the Enlightenment quest for certainty,' but this is sloppy historiography. This kind of quest is most explicitly embraced by René Descartes who is, of course, an influential figure in the Enlightenment. But the approach is directly attacked by such quintessential enlightenment figures as Pierre Bayle, John Locke, and David Hume. Locke writes: "If we will disbelieve every thing, because we cannot certainly know all things; we shall do much-what as wisely as he, who would not use his Legs, but sit still and perish, because he had no Wings to fly" (Locke, Essay, §1.1.5). On the other hand, this kind of quest for certainty appears in counter-enlightenment figures such as Irish bishop Peter Browne who wrote, "the Christian Faith may be called Knowledg ...because we are obliged to believe nothing, but what we have infallible proof for" (Browne, Letter, p. 63).

Rejecting everything that can be doubted is not an option for human beings. When it comes to practical matters, even Descartes himself acknowledges this (see Descartes, Philosophical Writings, 2:15). If certainty means the absolute psychological impossibility of doubt, then I would venture to affirm that no proposition is certain. Many people, on reading Descartes's First Meditation (or viewing The Matrix), find that it does not take much to teach them to doubt the existence of tables and chairs and even other human minds. After years of philosophical training, I find myself capable of entertaining doubts about almost anything, up to and including my own existence. Of course, it's not that I doubt these things regularly or spontaneously, it's just that I find that I can doubt them if I try. One proposition I find particularly difficult to entertain doubts about is no contradiction is true. Even this, however, has been doubted and even denied by philosophers and I suspect that if I tried I could learn to doubt it as well. (Why anyone would want to do such a thing is another question.)

If, on the other hand, certainty means the impossibility of reasonable or rational doubt, then we will need to know what standards of reasonableness or rationality are in play and what kind of doubt we are talking about. It is unreasonable to allow doubts about the existence of other minds to influence one's actions with respect to other human bodies, for instance. But is it irrational to acknowledge the fact that genuine reasons for uncertainty about the existence of other minds can be given? I think not. This is precisely where virtuous doubt enters the picture. A judgment has to be made about how seriously to treat these reasons. To ignore them or pretend that they are not real reasons would - even here - be superstition. Nevertheless, it is a mistake to treat solipsism as a live possibility. This room for doubt has to be acknowledged for what it is, but not treated with excessive seriousness.

Other doubts, however, do deserve to be taken seriously and ought to have an impact on our actions. Even in Los Angeles, if your outdoor event is sufficiently important, you schedule a rain location. It is perfectly reasonable to expect sunshine on any particular day, but where the stakes are high enough you ought to have a contingency plan.

We need to acknowledge that we live in conditions of uncertainty and learn to accept this comfortably and manage it appropriately. This is what I am calling 'virtuous doubt.'

2 A Personal Narrative

The first serious piece of philosophy I encountered was an excerpt from Descartes's Discourse on Method. I was about 14 years old. I vividly remember being gripped by the following image:
we never see people pulling down all the houses of a city for the sole purpose of rebuilding them in a different style to make the streets more attractive; but we do see many individuals having their houses pulled down in order to rebuild them, some even being forced to do so when the houses are in danger of falling down and their foundations are insecure. This example convinced me that it would be unreasonable for an individual to plan to reform a state by changing it from the foundations up and overturning it in order to set it up again ...But regarding the opinions to which I had hitherto given credence, I thought that I could not do better than to undertake to get rid of them, all at one go, in order to replace them afterwards with better ones, or with the same ones once I had squared them with the standards of reason (Descartes, Philosophical Writings, 1:117).

In my young mind, this quickly coalesced with a Bible verse often referenced with evident approval in my multi-denominational Evangelical religious context: "the people [in Berea] ...welcomed the message with eagerness and examined the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so" (Acts 17:11, HCSB). One church with which I had some connection actually called the place where their Bible studies happened 'the Berean room'. The thing that was supposed to be so admirable about the Bereans was that they were not so gullible as to believe Paul unquestioningly - they engaged in critical examination of the message in light of the Scripture. It seemed to me then that the Bereans were very much like Descartes, that skepticism and suspicion of the truth-claims of traditions and purported authorities was precisely what was needed to avoid being "blown around by every wind of teaching" (Ephesians 4:14, HCSB).

I began to engage in more serious Bible study and also to develop a broader interest in philosophy. I tried to dig deeper and to become less and less reliant on what others were telling me. Increasingly, I treated with suspicion any Bible study tools that seemed to come from a particular theological perspective. I most favored purely secular treatments of the historical and cultural context of Scripture. I also developed a strong desire to be able to understand the original languages so as to avoid relying on the opinions of translators who might have biases or ulterior motives or be in the grip of one of these mistaken traditions.

By the time I graduated from high school, I had developed a serious case of intellectual hubris. Despite all my reflection, it did not occur to me that I was under the influence of a (rather incoherent) philosophical and religious tradition of distrust in tradition. The development of this hubris was further enabled by a small town environment in which I was labeled 'the smart kid'. My hubris was going unchallenged.

Intellectual hubris like this involves a sort of incredulity: incredulity with regard to expertise. I was unwilling to take the word of experts because of the different biases they might exhibit, but of course I was blind to my own biases.

Two things happened throughout my college (and graduate) education that had a profound effect on me. First, encountering the breadth and depth of learning around me forced me to acknowledge that no matter how hard I work I will never escape reliance on experts. Second, in studying my particular subject matters, I came to appreciate that, even for the experts, many things are uncertain. More importantly, I saw that there are ways of coping with this uncertainty. In each discipline, disciplinary experts have tools for weighing the evidence, balancing reasons, and drawing conclusions with different degrees of confidence. In some disciplines, there are even mathematical tools for quantifying the degree of uncertainty in our conclusions. (I never studied statistics in high school or college. A statistics class at an early stage in my development might have gone a long way.) What this taught me is that the abandonment of the Cartesian quest for certainty, the classical foundationalist paradigm, need not lead us to be 'blown around by every wind of teaching.' There is stable ground between incredulity and superstition.

A lot more could be said about the identification of experts and the weighing of expert opinion, but I'm not an epistemologist and don't have a theory to offer (it's outside my expertise). Instead, I now want to address how college education can and should help students (as it helped me) to take a healthier attitude to uncertainty.

3 A Pedagogical Moral

Although some parts of my story may be rather unusual, my discomfort with doubt and the response I had to it are far from unique. Intellectual vice in the area of belief and action under conditions of uncertainty is endemic to young adults. How can education combat both incredulity and superstition?

There are of course some errors that arise merely from poor evaluation of the evidence for and against a particular claim, and these will be combated primarily by examining that particular dispute. This is something education will do when that dispute is relevant to a particular class. However, I think it is more important to combat the general tendencies or broader intellectual character traits that lead to these kinds of improper evaluations. In order to do this, we must first raise doubts and then show how to live with those doubts.

In initially raising doubts, I find that I get the strongest response from students if I manage to cast doubt on something they had previously taken for certain, such as (to take an example from my modern philosophy course) the claim that if your actions are determined by prior causes you do not act freely. Of course, however, different students take different things to be certain, and some students do not suffer from superstition at all. (Usually, this is because they are extremely incredulous.) Also, not all classes deal in subject matter in which students have entrenched beliefs. Accordingly, it is important to use a wide variety of examples. What is most important is that students see why disciplinary specialists regard the question as uncertain - that they see the reasons on both sides.

Even in philosophy, if this kind of doubt is to be useful, we must keep some points fixed. Ludwig Wittgenstein observed, "If you tried to doubt everything you would not get as far as doubting anything. The game of doubting itself presupposes certainty"(Wittgenstein, On Certainty, §115). This does not mean that there are any particular propositions that are immune from doubt. Rather, the point is that it is not possible to doubt everything all at once. In casting doubt on one claim, we employ various other claims which, in that context, are not called into question. Wittgenstein uses a scientific example: "If I make an experiment I do not doubt the existence of the apparatus before my eyes. I have plenty of doubts, but not that" (Wittgenstein, On Certainty, §337). Students, then, need to know what is being held fixed and what is 'up for grabs' in a particular context. This provides a framework for exploring the manner in which conflicting evidence and arguments can be evaluated in order to see how to manage uncertainty.

Virtuous doubt is a general intellectual trait. It does not consist in expertise in a particular discipline. Yet both in my personal narrative and in my discussion of pedagogy so far I have several times mentioned disciplinary specialization. The main reason for this is that I believe that virtuous doubt is best instilled by seeing how a particular doubtful question is approached by experts on that subject matter. These experts will know the appropriate methods for approaching that question, and these will not be the same for every question. After seeing many examples of this in many disciplines, a student will be prepared to accept that uncertainty is not unmanageable.

I am not trying to rebuild absolute disciplinary boundaries. The rise of interdisciplinarity has its benefits, most notably in two cases. First, some questions 'fall through the cracks,' not fitting neatly into any discipline, and a hybrid multidisciplinary approach is needed to approach them, whether in teaching or in research. Second, other questions fit neatly into more than one discipline, and each of these disciplines approaches it in its own distinctive way. In these cases, each approach will usually have something to offer and dialogue between disciplines will be helpful. What is really important to the kind of pedagogy I have in mind is that a professor be deeply familiar with the question, the evidence surrounding it, and the tools and methods used in approaching it. The professor needs to know which assumptions to hold fixed and which to question and needs to appreciate the details of the evidence brought to bear on those questions. This doesn't require a neat fit with any traditional disciplinary boundaries, but it does require that the professor knows the material very deeply. Since (as I've learned) none of us can be an expert on everything, this is going to require specialization.

To recap, virtuous doubt is a general intellectual trait. The virtuous doubter deals appropriately with uncertainty, avoiding the extremes of being either too quick or too slow to believe and act where the evidence is not decisive (as it rarely is). This useful trait is something that can be instilled by higher education. Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, despite the generality of the trait in question, it is best instilled by a focused, discipline-specific approach. This is because it is only by working carefully and in detail with specific examples that the student will learn to manage doubt appropriately.


Berkeley, George. Alciphron: or, the Minute Philosopher. In: Berkeley's Alciphron: English Text and Essays in Interpretation. Ed. by Laurent Jaffro, Geneviéve Brykman, and Claire Schwartz. Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 2010, pp. 17-274.

Browne, Peter. A Letter in Answer to a Book Entitled Christianity not Mysterious. Dublin: John North, 1697.

Descartes, René. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Trans. by John Cottingham et al. 3 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984-1991.

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Ed. by Peter H. Nidditch. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. On Certainty. Ed. by G. E. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright. Trans. by Denis Paul and G. E. M. Anscombe. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.

Posted by Kenny at August 21, 2015 4:38 PM

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