The Burden of Doubt

Jeff is a seeker of truth. As such, he always accepts the burden of proof.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the process of doubt, its forms and its aims. Doubt can be the unyielding weapon of the rational skeptic, but it can also be a symptom of intellectual laziness. Its aim can be constructive, to identify the unshakeable truths of our existence. But it can also be nihilistic, dismissive of meaning or existence.

René Descartes, the 17th century French philosopher widely known as the “Father of Modern Philosophy” was the first philosopher to explicitly outline a method of doubt. In his Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes undertakes a formidable challenge – to establish as truth that, and only that, which can be known beyond the shadow of a doubt. His goal is ultimately constructive; he seeks “to establish a firm and abiding superstructure in the sciences,” to affirm a set of universal truths (ontological and epistemological) on which science can rely and build. But in order to build this structure anew, he must first deconstruct his precarious tower of long-held assumptions.

Descartes’ method of doubt is one of deconstruction, not of demolition. He proceeds cautiously and deliberately, avoiding the temptation to take a wrecking ball to the foundation of his knowledge and start again from ground zero. He starts at the top, with his weakest assumptions, and proceeds downwards to his strongest. His method of doubt is not dismissive and hasty, but rational and charitable. He makes the case for that which he seeks to doubt as best he can, and only then does he poke holes in the fleshy vulnerabilities of the argument.

René Descartes, “Father of Modern Philosophy”

At first glance, Descartes’ method of doubt seems inefficient, an unnecessary chore that he could have bypassed with a simple proclamation of universal, undiscriminating doubt. Wouldn’t it have been easier to work with a blank slate, with a fresh plot of land from the very beginning?

Upon further inspection, however, Descartes’ deliberate, rational approach to doubt makes a lot of sense. For one, it is possible that some of Descartes’ pre-held assumptions withstand the penetrating scrutiny of the skeptic. Why rebuild the first few floors of an edifice when they are structurally sound?

But I’d like to pose another reason for Descartes’ deliberative rationality: The strength of his assumptions requires it. What exactly is Descartes up against in his quest to deconstruct his preconceived notions? Descartes writes, “All that I have, up to this moment, accepted as possessed of the highest truth and certainty, I received either from or through the senses.” Descartes understands that the ubiquity of human feeling, the reality of humankind’s sensual relationship with the universe presents a robust argument in favor of the existence of the object world. The ease with which I can point to a chair and affirm its existence (I can see, hear, feel, even taste it) places a burden of doubt squarely on the shoulders of the skeptic. And what a burden it is. Descartes could not have started his project by simply stating “that chair does not necessarily exist” because such a statement would seem ridiculous. Instead, Descartes elevates the debate from a sensual plane to a rational one, questioning the validity and reliability of sense data to begin with. He accepts the heavy burden of proof and runs with it.

All too often in our intellectual discourse, we utilize the wrecking ball method that Descartes rejects. We rebuff our ideological opponents’ foundational assumptions without giving much thought to the superstructure of thought supporting their ideas. How often do we engage in political or philosophical arguments and proclaim, victory already in hand, “the burden of proof is on you!” Descartes teaches us that, in order to be constructive, pursuit of truth requires charity and humility – respect for the intellect of others and a willingness to accept the burden of proof.


– Winch


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