Caravaggio’s 1601 painting The Incredulity of St Thomas, based on the biblical story that gave rise to the expression “Doubting Thomas”. Image from wikipedia, in the public domain.
You’re probably tired of hearing me say how all our behaviour and all our beliefs are simply the result of our biological and cultural conditioning, given the ever-changing circumstances of each moment. ‘We’ — what we think of as our autonomous ‘selves’ controlling these bodies we presume to inhabit — simply have no say in any of it. What we think of as ‘our’ decisions are just the brain’s after-the-fact rationalizations of what has already been done.
I thought it might be interesting to explore how this ‘no free will’ idea explains our propensity to doubt, or not doubt, what we are told and what we (think we) see. I have said ad nauseam that “we believe what we want to believe”, whether or not that belief bears any resemblance to the truth and is or is not supported by any evidence.
I think there are two kinds of doubt, which I would define as a propensity to challenge or think twice about what we are inclined to believe to be true.
One kind of doubt stems from deep, conditioned distrust. This is the doubt that gives rise to conspiracy theories, much mis- and disinformation, paranoia, and a lot of commensurate hate-mongering. I have been guilty of this kind of doubt in past, but as I’ve come to accept that we live in a world where we’re all doing our best (though often dysfunctionally) and where no one is to “blame” for their conditioned actions, such doubts seem to arise in me less often. Rather than entertaining doubts of this type, I’m more inclined to try to understand how the perpetrators of propaganda, dis- and misinformation, and censorship (which is disinformation by omission), got conditioned to believe, say and do what they do.
This is, I think, a form of mental illness, and it’s deeply tragic. Rather than trying to disavow people of their paranoid theories, I want to learn where that profound distrust comes from. I’ve often found trauma lurking under its surface.
The second kind of doubt, with which I’m mostly interested now, is doubt that arises out of curiosity. Our selves are always desperate to know and understand everything, to formulate solid and defensible beliefs about everything that might affect them.
While some of us are conditioned to pathologically distrust everyone and everything, all of us are conditioned to try to make sense of the world, to toss out preconceptions that don’t ‘fit’ with our mental models, and integrate new ones that are a better fit. “Inquiring minds want to know.” We are obsessive sense-makers.
My guess is that this passion to know stems from a self-reinforcing loop in our brains. The first part of this loop draws on our natural childhood curiosity to learn and discover what’s real and true (an evolutionary advantage in most animals, to help us adapt to our surroundings). The second part of this mental loop tries to create a mental model of reality, with ourselves in the centre, that explains as much of the world as possible, to keep ‘us’ out of danger.
I would argue that the second part of this loop is uniquely human and, as I’ve tried to explain elsewhere, a largely useless evolution of humans’ extraordinarily large brains.
I also suspect that our natural curiosity to explore and learn about our physical surroundings is always and inherently open to doubt, because without it we simply stop learning and become maladaptive.
And at the same time I suspect that we are strongly resistant to entertaining doubts about the veracity of our mental models — what we believe and what we want to believe.
Why are we ‘naturally’ open to doubts about our physical reality (“what is”), while our brains are largely closed to doubts about its self-constructed models of reality (“what it means”)? As Paul Simon and George Lakoff have said, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest”.
I think it’s because our ‘natural’ doubts arising from curiosity are based on what is observable and obvious — we love optical illusions and virtual reality because they tap into our endless curiosity to discover what’s real and what is not.
But when it comes to our uniquely human self-constructed models of reality, nothing is obvious anymore — it’s all a matter of moral judgement, conjecture, causality, motives, implications, and a thousand other factors that we can never be sure of.
In this domain, doubt is not an advantage that lets us explore and learn more about the truth, it is rather a huge disadvantage that, from the perspective of the self, threatens us and paralyzes us. Into the morass of uncertainty, doubt of this type causes us to hesitate, to question the reliability of the mental model of reality and reliability and good-and-bad we have so painstakingly built up since early childhood. It makes us feel even more vulnerable than we already felt. We are conditioned to feel that doubt of this kind is a kind of weakness, a failure of ‘the courage of our principles’.
This is why I say “we believe what we want to believe”. The things we want to believe leave us feeling strong, decisive, competent to deal with the human issues of the moment. We feel we have to know with ‘relative certainty’ in order to be safe and functional.
But we don’t have to know.
Not only do we not have to know anything, we actually don’t know anything. Everything we think we know is just conjecture, a made-up explanation, an opinion. All to support the constantly-crumbling foundations of our mental model that we think we absolutely need and depend on in order to keep ourselves and those we love safe.
But in reality, everything these bodies do, and believe, is conditioned. We rely utterly on the body to ‘know’ what to do — when we breathe, when we eat, when we sleep, when our heart beats, when we step out of the way of a speeding car. What we conceive of as our self has nothing to do with anything our bodies do. Our brains just rationalize what our bodies — organisms whose survival instincts have been honed over a million years — have already ‘decided’ to do.
So why, then, are we so attached to our beliefs, and so terrified to doubt them?
I think it’s because the illusion of self-control and of the self’s decision-making is so compelling that we dare not question it. This again, is how we’ve been conditioned. Those whose sense of a separate self has vanished usually report that their initial reaction was one of absolute terror — the ‘self’ that had always protected and looked after them was collapsing, disappearing. But over time, that terror was replaced by astonishment at realizing that the complex mental model of the self was completely unnecessary to the effective functioning of the body, and then later by a sense of enormous relief at the freedom from having to do the exhausting, endless and perilous work of the self.
This is akin to the player of a new video game in an arcade desperately and successfully staying ‘alive’ against terrible odds for a long time, only to discover that the game controller was not connected, the game was playing itself, and that the outcome had been pre-programmed. Really? All that work for nothing?
‘I’ ‘still’ have a sense of a self, but while it continues to do what it’s been conditioned to do, my intellectual appreciation that its work is all for nothing has at least allowed me the freedom to be far less attached to my beliefs and other aspects of my mental model of reality than I used to be.
My conditioning still triggers me when I read news items (especially about wars, and about ecological and economic collapse) that, in my mental model of reality, conjure up fear, anger and sadness. But my newer conditioning, from reading and listening to science and radical non-duality speakers, is jumping in in those situations and saying “Wait: perhaps it would be healthy to not be so fast in your reactions to this.” The cognitive dissonance is annoying, of course. But I am at least starting to entertain doubts about everything I believe. Not to jump to the exact opposite belief (no fear of me becoming a climate change denier)! But rather to realize that I know nothing and there is nothing ‘I’ can do anyway. This conditioned creature is going to do what it does, irrespective of what this self ‘knows’.
I would love to say that this realization has liberated me from all my anxieties about war and collapse. Of course it has not. But is has started to undermine my fiercely-held beliefs that those anxieties are warranted and useful. I am very slowly becoming more equanimous about the apparent state of the world, and less attached to the importance of my impotent beliefs about it.
Might that be enough to allow this weary self to finally vanish, and leave this aging body in peace?
I doubt it.