Anyone who has a passing familiarity with modern philosophy, will recognize the name Rene Descartes. Indeed, it is not too much to say that he is one of the founding fathers of modernity. This is evident from two of his most important ideas: (a) the endorsement of radical doubt and (b) the conception of the “inner self.” These ideas deeply impacted the early modern Enlightenment and continue to shape our world today. In fact, the stance of radical doubt is one of those modern errors that consistently undermines intellectual growth. As such, radical doubt needs to be carefully reexamined.

In Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes claims that he will suspend or reject any belief that is doubtful to his own mind. This may seem prosaic to modern men, but that is because we are modern men. In fact, this attitude is wildly idiosyncratic in the history of humanity. In truth, it is a strange, unusual belief of the modern West. For modern man, the stance of radical doubt seems obviously noble — even an ethical imperative. However this attitude contrasts sharply with ancient wisdom and revealed truth. Most traditional societies — even today — reject radical doubt. Throughout history most decent men have insisted on an attitude of deference to received judgments and established authorities. In the classical perspective, common sense and custom are indispensable resources of insight and wisdom. Indeed, we are told by both revelation and right reason that wisdom is fostered through submission and discipline rather than reckless independence. In taking this approach, man does not become servile, but rather finds a well-trodden path of purpose and joy. This venerable practice is set aside in the modern world. To those who are heirs of Cartesian doubt, the stance of deference is considered sub-par. This critical attitude may be expressed in a variety of ways. Immanuel Kant said that Enlightenment meant thinking for yourself and throwing off the protective tutelage of traditional authorities. Ralph Waldo Emerson espoused “self-reliance.” But is this really wise? Is it really possible?

To reject everything that is not certain to my own mind presupposes that my own mind is a sufficient standard of truth. Stated in this way can anyone really affirm radical doubt? Learning to think for yourself sounds  good as a motto, but do we not know our own fragility and limitations. Right here — at the idea of myself as arbiter of truth — do I not have grounds for pause? For my own part I pause more and more as the years go by. If Socrates professed a wise ignorance, should I do any different? Every man, howsoever intelligent or smart is fallible. And the longer a man lives, the more often he discovers his fallibility. For Christians this should be an evident sign of original sin, but even the non-Christian philosopher should recognize that the catalog of human error is deep and broad.

Ironically, the stance of radical doubt is the opposite of what it seems. It appears to be an expression of intellectual modesty, but actually it hides a kind of triumphalism that places individual reason above tradition, custom, common sense, community, and even revelation. What escapes our notice in the statement “I reject any beliefs that are not certain” is the all-important “I” at the beginning. There is something grandiose, pompous, and even arrogant about such a stance. Scripture teaches us over and over to listen to the wise and experienced and right reason says the same. For example Aristotle insists that those who have not been raised with good customs cannot really benefit from the study of morals and politics, but it should be obvious that such an upbringing presupposes a healthy respect for custom and parental guidance. To put my point more directly, a little trust (dare I say faith) is required to learn anything worthwhile. Just think about how much a man benefits from his parents, teachers, and wider community. There is some risk in trust, but the alternative to trust is ignorance.

Of course one need not be credulous. It is well and good to think critically, especially with respect to novelties and radical theories. Nevertheless, growth in wisdom requires the humility to be taught and the trust to listen. Sadly these attitudes are often missing or misplaced in our contemporary setting. Too much trust is put into science, celebrities, and social media fads and too little in ancient wisdom and the Bible.

In the final analysis, radical doubt is neither honest nor logical. It lacks honesty because skepticism towards the old solid things, secretly involves trust in something else — at the very least an excessive self-reliance. But ultimately, radical doubt collapses because of its demand for subjective certitude. To put it simply, there is no good reason to trust the self as the ultimate arbiter of truth. The mind of the individual subject is changing, limited in breadth, and fallible. It cannot achieve certitude because it cannot be sure of its own veracity. Again, it cannot achieve certitude because it cannot achieve absolute truth (unconditioned truth), for the thoughts of the mind are ever changing, contingent, and particular. For these reasons and others, the radical doubt of the self-reliant subject consumes itself. At some level, it is necessary for the individual subject to trust in something outside of the certitude of his own mind. The mind of man must submit to a standard beyond his own subjectivity.

The most salient outcome of Cartesian rationalism and methodical doubt is the insufficiency and incoherence of radical doubt. In order to know, one must first trust. Trust, humility, and deference are the keys to wisdom, not radical doubt. And if we accept this conclusion how much must we depart from the modern paradigm — how much must we cease to be modern men? This is a beginning, a first step out of modernity. In the following post, a second step will be brought to light — overcoming the ghost in the machine.