Sunday 13 June 2010

The malignancy of radical doubt

Like nearly all modern scientists, indeed nearly all of the modern intellectual elite, I find it difficult to believe in the reality of the immortal soul - isn't that strange?

It is natural and spontaneous for humans to believe in a soul which in some way persists after death. And apparently everyone in the world believed this until a few hundred years ago (including, for what it is worth, the greatest intellectuals in the history of humankind - Socrates, Plato and Aristotle). Indeed, on a planetary scale, nearly everyone alive still does believe in the immortal soul - but hardly any of the ruling elite of the Western nations.

Why don't they believe in the soul now?

It was, obviously, not due to any kind of *discovery* of science or logic. It was instead due to a change in metaphysics - a change in assumptions. Specifically the systemic application of 'radical doubt' - or what I think of as the 'subtractive method'.

(Apparently this metaphysical novelty came from Descartes, ultimately - but why it came to dominate the West is a mystery.)

The subtractive method works on the basis that you try denying the reality of something, and see whether this elimination causes instant and complete collapse – if it does not then it is concluded that the subtracted thing was not real but merely a subjective delusion.

So, intellectuals deny the reality of the soul and since this denial does not lead to the immediate and complete destruction of the denying individual or group, so this is taken to mean that the soul does not really exist, that it is subjective, that it had been a delusion that gripped the world for millennia but from which we are now blissfully free.

In practice (which we see around us on a daily, hourly, basis) the subtractive method of radical doubt involves doubting one piece of knowledge (e.g. the reality of the soul, of beauty, of an objective morality, or the factuality of any empirical claim) while *not* doubting other pieces of knowledge – such as the validity of human reason, or the validity of various pieces of science, economics, or whatever.

At another time, however, radical doubt may be turned against the pieces of knowledge which have previously been used to doubt _other_ pieces of knowledge – so that logic might be used to deny the reality of the common sense soul, than later the validity of logic might be doubted using historical, multicultural anthropological ‘evidence’ (e.g. assertions that some cultures or individuals do not use logic, or that the use of logic has changed).

So all of knowledge can be, *is being*, systematically ‘doubted’ piecemeal, a bit at a time, in rotation – as it were.

Yet all specific doubts are relative to other knowledge which – for the time being – is exempted from doubt.

(Total skepticism of all things simultaneously is never seen – presumably because it would be mute, inert and self-extinguishing. If it did exist we would not know about it.)

It is blazingly obvious that radical doubt is irrational – but somehow the irrationality makes no difference, and the process has cumulated over the past few centuries.

I am not trying to caricature here. The subtractive method of radical doubt really is an extremely crude doctrine, utterly irrational, and (nonetheless, or because of this?) totally dominant in Western intellectual circles.

Since the spread of radical doubt from a few individuals to encompass whole classes, whole societies, we can see huge social changes, which show no signs of stopping but rather seem to be accelerating. Yet no matter what happens to individuals or societies that employ radical doubt, it is never taken as evidence that the soul-denying metaphysic is mistaken.

Because it is a metaphysical assumption, the subtractive method is taken for granted, such that whatever problems result from radical doubt will necessarily be attributed to other causes.

Radical doubt is an intellectual malignancy, that is clear; but the puzzle is why Western elites are so vulnerable to its spread.

NB: The proper question about the soul is not whether it is real - *of course* it is real – but what happens to the soul after death, in broad terms. Here there has been uncertainty and disagreement. But evidence comes from common sense (natural law), metaphysical and logical argument, and from revelation.