The Benefit of the Doubt

A blog about Dialogue, Doubts, and Christian Faith ~Travis Dickinson~

What is intellectual doubt?


More than one way to doubt

There are a variety of ways to doubt. The two most talk about forms of doubt are emotional doubt and intellectual doubt.

We can sometimes have every intellectual reason in the world to believe something is true, and yet we doubt. This form of doubt, and we’ve all faced it to greater or lesser degree, is emotional doubt (or sometimes called psychological doubt). An extreme example of this form of doubting is one who has a phobia of flying. The person may know everything there is to know about flight safety, and know (intellectually) that flying on an airplane is, by almost every metric, safer than, say, driving in a car, and yet the person will dramatically doubt the reasonableness of getting on the plane.

When it comes to Christian faith, we can sometimes be in a very good position intellectually in believing the truths of Christianity, and yet there is a kind of emotional inability to take the plunge.

This is a real battle. It’s a battle that, as a philosopher, I’m frankly not well equipped to engage (I wouldn’t suggest me for marriage counseling either!). I would however recommend that you read Gary Habermas on this issue. He has two books on emotional doubt and he’s graciously published these on his website here and here.

Making this distinction is not to say that there are no intellectual considerations when it comes to emotional doubt. It is also not to say that there are no emotions involved when we doubt intellectually. Like most things, it gets messy. But I’m primarily focused on (and much better equipped to think about) intellectual doubt.

It is also very common to wrestle with some objection to one of our beliefs. When the objection has to do with whether a new season of Dancing with the Stars begins tonight, this is not too big of a deal (Okay, for some it might be a pretty big deal!). However, when we wrestle intellectually with objections at the worldview level (informing issues religious commitment, politics, morality, etc.), this can be quite difficult. At times, it forces us to call into question our most cherished beliefs.

But what is intellectual doubt?

I characterize intellectual doubt as when we experience the intellectual pull or the force of some objection to a belief we have.

What’s interesting about doubt is that when we doubt, we have not yet conceded the objection. We just feel the force of it. We find it, to some degree, plausible. The objection has a kind of pull on us and yet, if we are still in a place of doubt, we still believe.

Suppose that I believe that a new season of Dancing with the Stars begins tonight and someone tells me it does not begin until next week. I now have an objection to my belief. But I’m not sure who is right. So I may still believe that it begins tonight and yet I’m now doubting it.

The nature of intellectual doubt

With this, we can give something of an analysis of doubt.

A person, S, doubts that p if and only if…

  1. S believes that p is true.
  2. For some objection to p, S does not yet concede the objection, but finds it plausible to some degree.

Let’s illustrate. Suppose Smith believes that God exists. But let’s say someone challenges Smith with the problem of evil. Smith is asked how a good and all powerful God could create a world with so much and so much horrendous pain and suffering. Smith doesn’t have a good answer for this and it is claimed that the belief in God is incompatible with the evil we see in the world. Smith feels the force or the pull of this objection. Smith maintains his belief in God (we can assume he has reasons for this that make him rational) but is feeling the force of this objection. Smith doubts his belief since…

  1. Smith believes that God exists.
  2. Smith does not yet concede that the problem of evil defeats the belief in God, but she is finding the objection plausible.

What to do about doubt

Now I think a more detailed analysis can be given here and I have given that elsewhere.[1] However, this account suffices to make the following point. Our doubts should drive us to look deeper. They should drive us to investigate the evidence both for and against. We should investigate whether the objection indeed defeats our belief. If we are believe that Dancing with the Stars begins tonight and yet we have an objection to this fact, then it seems the only thing we can do to alleviate this tension is to investigate further. Somebody grab the TV Guide!

If we believe that God exists, but we just ran into a thoughtful expression of the problem of evil, then I don’t know what to do other than look further into it. It’s not like the problem of evil recently fell from the sky. This has been debated for millennia. Millennia! In fact, a great statement of the problem of evil can be found in Epicurus from about 24 centuries ago! Christians and other theists have responded. In fact, one could easily spend a decade reading the problem of evil literature and probably not exhaust it. I don’t actually think that the theistic response is a complete slam dunk. The problem of evil is a difficult problem, but there are certainly important and really helpful theistic responses to the problem. Though none of them are slam dunks, I am very satisfied by the Christian answer to the problem of evil. But this is because I’ve looked into it.

Christians very often tend to either shun objections. They just seem to be able to ignore them insulated against potential problem. Or some allow objections to simply have their way with them.

There’s nothing I know to do with an objection other than to push in and investigate the rationality of the objection

One last point. You may need to change your mind. You may find that something you believe is not well supported. On a personal note, I’ve yet to find the smoking gun objection when it comes to my Christian faith. That is, there is no salient objection to Christianity that I don’t find an extensive literature of thoughtful Christians offering thoughtful answers some of which I find very satisfying intellectually.

Given this, we shouldn’t, as Christians, be afraid to encourage folks to explore the answers to deep and difficult questions. Again, what’s the alternative?

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[1] “Doubt as Virtue: How to Doubt and Have Faith without Exploding” in The Christian Research Journal (Issue 39 Volume #4, 2016).

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