Monday, May 3, 2010

The purpose of doubt

I watched a film from 2008 called DoubtThe trailer explains the premise: At a Catholic school, Sister Meryl Streep (I missed her character's name) somehow becomes convinced that Father Flynn was engaged in sexual misconduct with a student.  She has little or no proof, but she has her certainty.

I can't say I was all that impressed.  The movie was too slowly paced.  I don't mean that in the sense of not having enough action, but in the sense that the start and end are hardly any distance from each other.  The story simply doesn't go much beyond its premise.  Pretty much all the best moments are in the trailer.

On the plus side, that means I can discuss the theme without any spoilers.  The main theme of the story is set by a sermon by Father Flynn at the very beginning.  He says (as shown in the trailer), "Doubt can be a bond as powerful as certainty."  In other words, certainty may help to unite a community, but doubt is just as effective, if not more so.

It's hard for me to say how certainty can unite a community, mainly because I am not part of any such community.  I suppose that if everyone has unwavering faith in a particular belief, then that belief provides a point of commonality for everyone, no matter how unlike we may be in other respects.  The unfortunate result of such a community, is that anyone who doubts becomes isolated.  People with doubts often try to put up a pretense of certainty in order to stay with the community.  But this is a deeply dissatisfying resolution, because it requires hiding one's true feelings.

And that's why doubt can be a better unifier for communities.  If everyone confessed their doubts, they would realize that everyone has doubts.  Thus, doubts provide a point of commonality for everyone, and no one needs to hide their feelings just to fit in.

But I feel there is something huge missing from this discussion.  It's missing from most religious discussion of doubt.  Belief is seen as something that can unite or divide communities.  Doubt is also seen as something that can unite or divide communities.  But that's not the primary purpose of doubt.  I think of belief and doubt as tools in our quest to know what is true and what is false.  They may also function as tools to build communities, but that should be secondary.

Going back to the movie, if Sister Meryl Streep had shown the slightest doubt in her crusade, that would have made her a more sympathetic character, and bridged some of the divide between her and Father Flynn.  But more importantly, it could have been a tool to actually decide whether Flynn had commit the crime or not.  If she had shown doubt, perhaps she would have put more effort into seriously investigating the possibility.  Instead, because she already knew herself to be right, she spent more effort trying to convince everyone else.  She was unable to convince a single person, for lack of evidence.

Of course, this would only work if Sister Streep publicly showed doubt.  And that's just not going to happen as long as doubt is only something you reveal to your closest friends in order to bond with them.  We must act on doubts, or we might as well not doubt at all.


Mark Erickson said...

Great stuff. I agree the movie was definitely over-hyped and not that good. Have you noticed a bias in popular acclaim for good acting is for one-dimensional characters? Those should be the easiest to portray, but they get all the Oscar kudos.

As for public doubt uniting communities, Unitarian-Universalist churches are good examples. (that's hard core proselytizing for UU's)

As for true / false, that is not a dimensional scale that can be put on religion, groups, or anything to do with human nature. It is a great evaluating / searching dimension for science, but it completely breaks down when you get to the individual scientist level. (groups being composed of individuals).

Norwegian Shooter said...

What Sean Carrol said. That's what I'm attempting to get at, especially #1. Have you seen the 13.7 blog before, besides Stuart Kaufmann's endless blather, it's quite good.

miller said...

I'm totally on Sean Carroll's side there, and was planning to write something about it.

But it's not clear to me what doubt has to do with deriving "ought" from "is". Could you clarify?

Mark Erickson said...

Not the ought from is part, but this seemed apropos:

"In the real world, right-thinking people have a lot of overlap in how they think of well-being. But the overlap isn't exact, nor is the lack of agreement wholly a matter of misunderstanding. When two people have different views about what constitutes real well-being, there is no experiment we can imagine doing that would prove one of them to be wrong. It doesn't mean that moral conversation is impossible, just that it's not science."

The last sentence matched the dichotomy I see: Moral conversation being the question of doubt and faith - science being the true / false paradigm.

Really, it's mostly the coincidence of reading the two posts back to back. And my average quick writing.