Saturday, October 13, 2012

Between Utter Certainty and Pervasive Doubt

I had a rather alarming conversation a few days ago. One in which a child of about five years told me, in no uncertain terms, that people 'go to hell' when they commit dietary transgressions. You know, the kind when your faith forbids you from eating something and you go ahead and stock lots of it in your fridge anyways. Because it's who you are that counts, not what you eat, insert other platitude of choice, etc.
At the time, I was  annoyed enough to want to remind him that 'hell' is theoretically and philosophically speaking, not a construct consistent with our theology. Was he sure, I wanted to ask, that he didn't just mean these reprobates would reincarnate as cockroaches? But sarcasm doesn't always yield results when it comes to five-year-olds. So I retained my high ground and glared.  
One week later, I'm still thinking about that 30 second exchange. More specifically, about moral certainty. Is it dangerous? Does it help? Isn't doubt important? Or is that just what people say when they envy others their absolute, unvarying, confusion-eliminating codes of conduct?
Knowing, or thinking you know what's right (which amounts to the same thing) comes in handy. People are complicated, the world is a big place, paths start somewhere and lead someplace else and I suppose clearly defined "'do's and 'don'ts'" serve well as heuristics for the conscience. They guide and clarify. They make for fewer stumbles and missteps. They are the basis for judgment (which can be a good thing). They help you decide how you feel about things.
And they also contain the seeds of prejudice. In breaking the world into more manageable pieces, they reduce its complexity. In drawing clear lines between action and consequence, they might obscure the truth of things.
So what's the alternative to complete and utter moral conviction? Fundamental doubt? Isn't there something in-between? Like relative certainty or reasonable doubt? Isn't that how we talk about LBW decisions in cricket and High Court verdicts? Can these terms be applied to matters of conduct and the conscience? Does science count as a belief system? If so, what are its operating and guiding principles - and where does one find out more about them?
I'm going to hazard a guess and say that the only real alternative to dangerous degrees of certainty and paralyzing degrees of doubt is faith. I don't know anything whatsoever about the technical definitions of these terms. But the way I see it, faith implies belief, it implies commitment, it implies knowing that there's some principle worth adhering to in a chosen socio-religious-political ordering system. Faith runs deep and strong. It's built over time. And because it has grown organically,  it has more give. It accommodates questions. It allows for some yielding and maneuvering. To have faith is to know that at the heart of the system/structure, lies something of value. And it is also to know that between the heart of it and the surface of it, lies significant space for questions.
Moral certainty can also run deep and grow over time. But more often than not, it is inherited. From parents, preachers, schools, weekly visits to the local branch of ___________. Its roots lie in something unyielding, in a rebuttal of other points of view. It is brittle, prone to breaking and so adherents cling to it all the more strongly when it is threatened. To be morally certain is to know, to be sure, to be so sure that there is no longer any need to distinguish between the spirit of the law and its letter.
Faith is knowing but still being willing to ask questions. Moral certainty is not having any questions at all. Default doubt is never being sure of what to ask.
At least, that's the way I see it.  
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