Doubt’s Work is Never Done

Washington Post Book World, August 7, 2005

Denis Dutton

Doubt: a History, by Jennifer Michael Hecht. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003, xxi & 551 pp. $27.95.

Psychologists know there are some self-ascriptions for which human beings are eternal suckers. The vast majority of people think they have a better-than-average sense of humor. Most of us fancy we are better drivers than others. And we almost all flatter ourselves that we are independent thinkers who don’t accept others’ claims without good proof. We see gullibility everywhere around us but never find it in ourselves. We are skeptics.

Doubt: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy, From Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson, Jennifer Michael Hecht’s historical survey of doubt, shows how fallible this self-image is: Skeptical thinking is in fact so rare a trait one wonders how it got started at all. For European culture, we can credit the pre-Socratic philosophers of Greece, that astonishing clutch of thinkers who first had the idea to seek naturalistic explanations of reality.

In their stumbling attempts to do science, the pre-Socratics came up with odd conclusions: Thales thought everything was made of water; Anaximenes chose air. But the spirit of their inquiry — arguing from observation to a general account of the physical world — makes them, at 600BC, intellectually closer to us than to their immediate predecessors. What placed them in the history of doubt was their desire to find explanations that did not depend on the authority of a priestly class, sacred texts or mythological traditions.

We don’t owe our modern skepticism just to the Greeks, however. Job and Ecclesiastes have an important place in the history of doubt, and so, incidentally, Hecht argues, does Jesus, both for the episode in Gethsemane and for his despairing last words on the cross. Her story progresses through Cicero, Lucretius, Marcus Aurelius and Sextus Empiricus in Rome.

A separate chapter treats the Buddha and skepticism as it developed in Asia. Hinduism, she shows, was developing a skeptical tradition at the same time the Greeks were having their first doubts about religion.

Hecht is especially engaging when she describes the great women skeptics of history, starting with Hypatia, torn to pieces by a Christian mob in 415AD. There was Margaret of Navarre, the sensitive but hard-headed Emily Dickinson and the fearless Margaret Sanger. Hecht is charmed by the 19th-century American atheist lecturer and anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre (1866-1912). Voltairine’s father named her after his favorite skeptic but sent her to a Catholic boarding school. This did not dampen her spirit: She became such a rabble-rousing advocate for labour and women’s rights that she was the subject of a biography by the socialist Emma Goldman.

Hecht might have written about how the views of some of the doubters she praises became ossified into belief systems in need of more doubt. Sigmund Freud’s critique of religion gets him onto Hecht’s heroes list, and she also praises communism for the extent to which it provided a focused criticism of religion. Too bad she does not also describe how both Marx and Freud ended up creating dogmas that demanded a religious degree of faith from adherents. Freud may have claimed that a healthy, mature psyche needs to embrace disbelief, but he wasn’t about to apply that principle to his own theories.

Hecht’s failure to recognize this irony reveals a limitation in her approach. The subject of her book is not doubt in general, but doubts about religion, and it emerges that debunking religion, though it makes for a colorful historical narrative, gives us little guidance for the kinds of skepticism that might be useful today. Attacking the prestige and authority of priesthoods is an old and honored game. But tactics used by religious heretics do not easily transfer to other realms of belief.

For instance, Xenophanes, another of the pre-Socratics, argued that the gods of mythology must be human inventions. The Ethiopians posited black gods, while the gods of the red-haired Thracians were, unsurprisingly, red-haired. If horses and oxen had hands and could draw, he dryly remarked, they would draw their gods as great horses and oxen. Xenophanes suggested what Montaigne insisted on 2000 years later: The exclusive authority claimed by competing religions cannot be taken seriously; their myths derive from obviously local sources, and their truth claims cancel each other out.

In our age, the power and prestige once vested in religion now belong to science. But what does the history of religious doubt tell us about sorting through the competing, inconsistent claims of qualified scientists? Montaigne, as it happens, thought that disagreements among scientists showed that science was as much a cultural construction as religion, and ought therefore to be treated with skepticism. These days, except for a few ageing professors who still teach postmodern literary theory, few skeptics reject the overall validity of science. Yet Montaigne’s challenge raises a tough question for the doubters of today: How are we to regard disputes among scientists?

Is human activity responsible for the slight recent rise in world atmospheric temperatures? On one side are climatologists who blame it on our carbon dioxide emissions and an enhanced greenhouse effect. Maybe they are right, but there are competing ideas, such as the hypothesis that the sun is a mildly variable star whose irradiance has increased in the past century.

The scientists who champion this view hold that the earth’s climate has varied naturally over the ages, independent of human activity.

What does Hecht’s history tell us about how to resolve such an issue? Going by the examples she has amassed, we should openly question authority. But which authority?

The well-qualified, pro-Kyoto climatologists who blame warming on CO2, or their well-qualified critics? They all have PhDs and teach at major universities. A vote of scientists is little help, since we know scientific majorities have been wrong in the past. But so have scientific minorities.

William of Ockham recommended that, all other things being equal, we should opt for the simplest explanation of anything. Ockham’s “razor” (which receives but a single sentence in Hecht’s book) was reformulated by David Hume in the 18th century in an argument against the actuality of miracles (which Hecht ignores entirely). Given any report from a reliable source of a miracle or other astounding or paranormal event — turning loaves to fishes in one age, being abducted by space aliens in another — Hume argued that we actually confront two potential miracles: One is that the report is true, the other is that our “reliable” source has miraculously erred.

So if a sober, reliable friend tells you with apparent sincerity that he’s been taken aboard a flying saucer, you have a choice: accept that flying saucers are real or accept that your friend is less reliable than you thought. Rationality, Hume thought, demands that we choose the lesser of the two miracles. In most cases, this would have us questioning our sources, from the Old Testament to the National Enquirer to our friends, rather than throwing out what we know about the laws of nature or the likelihood of extraterrestrial visitations.

In the battles over the greenhouse effect and Kyoto, the Humean miracle is that, whatever happens, one side — which will include highly reputable scientists — is going to turn out to be dead wrong, despite their impressive credentials and fancy computers. But of course, this should not surprise us: Back in the 1970s, reputable scientists were predicting a coming Ice Age.

In this way Hecht’s Doubt may offer a lesson. In the post-Enlightenment West, religions have diminished power, but they are being supplanted by non-theological belief systems that follow patterns of religion. It is clear from Hecht’s history that religions have a knack for drawing vast, cosmic conclusions from scattered and marginal evidence, such as the dreams of seers or reports from ancient, uncorroborated texts. Religious believers form in-groups of people who think alike and validate one another’s beliefs. Many believers are suckers for prophets of doom and are prone to witch-hunting to persecute apostates. Their passionate convictions mix weak facts with strong emotions. And through it all, each believer, no matter how fanatical, is certain of being an independent thinker.

Marxism used elements from this pattern, as have minor belief systems such as homeopathy and Freudianism. You can see aspects of it among political true believers from both left and right. Today, environmentalism is my pick as the best candidate for a belief system needing dollops of the kind of doubt formerly applied to religion. Like most traditional religions, environmentalism can do a power of good. But watch out for the dodgy data and the hysterical insistence that, unless we repent and change our ways, we and our children are doomed.

That Hecht’s history can offer little in the way of a systematic account of skepticism attests to the infinite forms human gullibility can take. The need to believe in cosmic salvation is as persistent as our lower-level interests in sex, power or gossip. Belief-mongers will always find new threats, new promises and new lines of patter. Doubt’s work is never done.


Denis Dutton teaches philosophy at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. He is also a founder of the New Zealand Skeptics.