2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Bertrand Russell says in one his essays that the capacity for
doubt is one of the traits he most admires in human beings. For a person
like me who was taught in Catholic schools that faith is a virtue and doubt is a
sin, that sentence came as a revelation. I read it 35 years ago,
and it has retained its resonance through the years - my favorite
apostle has always been doubting Thomas.
Seeking Truth, Living with Doubt, by Fortney and Onellion, is the first
book I have read that takes doubt as its single central theme. There
are certainly other works that come close, Popper's The Open Society, for
example, and Hoffer's The True Believer. (In fact this book is the obverse of
The True Believer, in a way.) But Seeking Truth, Living with Doubt is the first book I
have seen that makes the argument, as broadly as possible, that doubt
is good, that all authentic efforts to find truth will always involve
doubt, and that doubt is the characteristic that, across religion, science,
and art, is the only clear signature of honest striving for insight
into the world. Following from this is the idea that ethical behavior
is connected with doubt: the humility associated with doubt spills over
into right conduct, while the arrogance associated with faith leads
to an indifference to the sufferings of others.
The role of doubt in science is not that complicated, it seems to me.
Knowledge in science may be thought of as three concentric circles with
doubt increasing as we go out from the center. The innermost circle
contains those truths of which we are quite certain: the sun will come up
tomorrow, natural selection drives evolution. Just beyond that are the
topics of current research. It contains not certain truths but hypotheses:
dark matter consists of weakly interacting massive particles, cloud formation
will significantly slow global warming. Varying degrees of doubt attach
to all such hypotheses. In the outer circle is ignorance: what happened
before the Big Bang?, what is the organism that would result from an arbitrary
base pair sequence of DNA? We just have no idea.
The point that Fortney and Onellion rightly make is that working
scientists (such as Onellion) inhabit the intermediate zone and
thus live constantly with doubt. In this way scientific
discovery is intimately and necessarily associated with doubt, and
all great scientists acknowledge this.
The role of doubt in religion is of course much more contentious. If truth is
revealed by God, not discovered, then what use has doubt once the
revelation has been recognized by the individual? The answer to this
question in Christianity has been an uneasy and often-violated truce
between reason and faith since the 17th century. One of the best parts
of Living with Doubt is the description of the corresponding situations in Judaism, where
doubt and flexibilty in faith are more tolerated than in Christianity,
and in Islam, where doubt is less tolerated. The authors point out
the consequences: Israel is a remarkably productive country in the sciences;
the Islamic countries are remarkably unproductive.
Fortney and Onellion give a way to reconcile faith and reason:
reject doctrinal religion and embrace mystical religion. In their view,
mysticism and doubt are perfectly compatible, and they give strong arguments
in support. They further assert that doctrine and reliance on
'inerrant' texts is not compatible with doubt. I won't comment here,
except to say that this seems to me to be a rather original, persuasive,
and certainly very simple solution to one of the central intellectual
conflicts in Western culture.
The book has the virtue that, in this respect, it goes beyond Western culture.
Buddhism is a religion that relies more heavily on mystical insight than do the
three monotheistic religions above. Fortney is a Buddhist (or atleast is
Buddhist-influenced) and is able to make the comparison. The assertion is that
doubt is regarded as almost natural in Buddhism and the conflict of faith and
reason is not felt as sharply as it is in the West.
Lastly, the role of doubt in art is treated fully. I enjoyed this
part of the book since it contained juxtapositions of ideas that had
never occurred to me at all. The claim is that doubt is an essential
component of artistic insight. I was not 100% convinced by this. The
romantic conception of the artist as outsider suggests that the argument
is right, but that is not the only kind of artist. I can see the works
of Picasso as arising partially from doubt, but what about the cathedral
at Chartres? In any case, the sections on art were one of the most
stimulating parts of the book, and contained many ideas that deserve
The organization of the book is loose - rather than trying to make
a single coherent argument, the authors have put together a collection
of short essays, anecdotes, arguments, observations, and ancillary material
(there are 22 appendices!). This is perhaps a consequence of the book
being a collaboration rather than a single-author book. I found this
format to be rather refreshing, and it is certainly one reasonable way
to treat such a huge topic in a short 300-odd pages. If I have a
criticism of the book, however, it is that there are digressions in which
this reader lost the thread.
All in all, there is much that is original and valuable in Living with Doubt
and most readers would benefit from spending a little time with these two
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Interestingly, I became aware of this book after one of the authors contacted me regarding one of my Amazon book reviews (a long one like this, incidentally). He wasn't trying to hawk his book; but after his mentioning it, I voluntarily chose to read it. I liked the general premise implied by the title, i.e. that we search for truth in response to our emotional longing for meaning in the world, while acknowledging our doubts and uncertainty regarding whatever answers we might pose against our biggest questions (such as, do our lives have any meaning at all?). And what better team to discuss these issues than a scientist and a man of the humanities?
Perhaps I was expecting too much. Seeking Truth, Living With Doubt is still an interesting and challenging book experience. But I was a bit disappointed, because in the end, it turned out to be rather formulaic and familiar, a restatement of a world-view synthesis that thrives mostly in intellectual hot-house villages, i.e. college towns such as Austin TX, State College PA, Ann Arbor, MI, Ithaca NY, Charlottesville VA . . . and notoriously, Madison, WI, where the authors hail. They present an admixture of meditative mysticism, science, and art; not exactly a fresh viewpoint anymore, mostly some warmed-over NPR and Ken Wilber. To their credit, the authors honestly wish to promote a worldview that seeks truth while embracing doubt, one that makes room for personal wisdom-seeking despite overwhelming assertions of institutional doctrine and tradition. Unfortunately, they don't take much time to consider just why doctrine, tradition and institutions have been such a large part of the human experience since the late agrarian era. And why these things won't go away anytime soon.
The authors spend a lot of words and energy criticizing the three Levintine religions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity). They repeatedly ask why these institutions have to be so . . . strictly institutional? Why must they vigorously seek to discourage common people from undertaking a journey of independent truthseeking amidst the mountains of doubt in our world today? Well, guilty as charged; but the authors, in their own search for truth, never get around to asking just why the masses let these institutions get away with it. Could it be, perhaps, that many common people want some help in facing doubt? Is it partly a question of social needs, perhaps quite legitimate needs (such as stability in a chaotic world), and not solely the oppressive and atavistic character of those who guide these faith systems? Do the masses really want to be cut free from their chains?
Perhaps society at large gets the religion or religions that it deserves. This is a two-way street, which the authors do not discuss. The institutions of science, the arts, and the mystical religions in America generally do not officiate marriages, perform birth rituals, tend to divorces and other messy domestic situations; nor do they bury the dead, educate and socialize children, comfort the sick and elderly . . . these critical social functions are mostly the shared realm of the state and the Leventine faith systems. Someone has to provide these regulatory and stabilizing social functions, and perhaps the personal search for truth sometimes has to be compromised for the short, definite answers that are needed in the face of exigent threats to body and soul.
For a book all about truth, very little is said about how to identify truth, how to define truth, how to recognize truth, and what the nature of truth might be. The presentation is largely a collection of observations, so I am going to use the rest of whatever space Amazon allows me to provide my own counter-observations, as I wander through the book. Page 30: strangely, we find a very good definition of God here! I.e., “a question that cannot by its very nature be answered.” But for Fortney and Onellion, God is not at issue; instead it's the “void” of meditators and mystics. This is a bit ironic, given that modern scientific atheists such as Carroll, Dennett, Harris, and Dawkins, all reject God for being “a question whose nature precludes an answer”. But Fortney and Onellion seem OK with such questions, so long as they relate to meditation.
Page 40: The authors assert that waking consciousness is but a sliver of the total consciousness; implying the existence of consciousness variants somehow bigger or different than waking consciousness. Dreams are allied to this reality, “unusually powerful dreams” that seem “of a different order entirely”. Well OK, I don't disagree, but this is delving into trans-science, going well beyond the realm of scientific method. It's OK for Buddhists and artists to do this, but not OK when the Leventine faiths engage in it, I gather.
Page 68: The authors reject scientism, saying that more than half the people reading the book know that there are experiences that science cannot explain. Thus, healthy skepticism would accept unexplainable experiences, as to avoid all ideology. That's fine by me, but then what ARE the standards for finding truth? Oh well, on to page 91 and the Buddhist Heart Sutra, which the authors hail as an expression of 'perfect freedom' (“it is here religion vanishes . . . perfect freedom reigns”). But what about the ending of that Sutra, i.e. the line asserting that the mantra itself somehow “completely clears all pain” ? And the following line, i.e. “This is the truth, not a lie”. Since the authors are seeking truth, how can they feel comfortable with such bootstrapping? How does a healthy skepticism that wrestles against Christian or Islamic assertions of self-authority overlook such a line?
Next stop, page 100, where we get a thorough exposition of the scientific inaccuracies within the biblical Genesis creation stories. This is really beating a dead horse. But on to page 109, where Buddhist ideas about the physical world are said to be more a matter of psychology and not cosmology. Fine once again, but what about OBJECTIVE truth? If limited to the psychological, does Buddhism say anything more than “it's all relative, every truth is subjective?” Is it really feasible then to synthesize art and mysticism together with empirical science, especially in the name of truth? The writers of the Book of Genesis posited what they felt at the time were objective facts regarding the creation. They were later found to be wrong; and yes, it is a problem that in America today, too many people don't accept this. But why then insulate Buddhism from this empiricist process, why not accede to the Buddha's own invitation to test his words? As with the Bible, many of his higher-level teachings will hold up, but some of the details (such as the actions of Mara) might now need to be called WRONG.
I will ease up momentarily on my own questions as we reach page 111. There we read about the hero's quest, the individual journey, the ways of the wandering sage. This is the most valuable part of Seeking Truth, Living With Doubt. But please note, the personal journey to truth is NOT summarily rejected by the Leventine faiths, although most Leventine presentations admittedly end with the searcher reaching and reaffirming doctrine. One good example is from the Roman Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton, i.e. his classic Seven Storey Mountain spiritual autobiography. If you stop at that moment in Merton's life, then the point is made! But in Merton's later books, the monk-priest pushed himself beyond basic Catholic doctrine, and began to ask questions of them. And yes, he was in the process of embracing the eastern traditions, including Zen and Buddhism, before his ironic accidental death in Thailand. And yet, he was buried with full Church honors at his Trappist monastery in Kentucky. The Church itself is not always such an effective intellectual gulag, thank God!
At page 113, we read one of the few things said about the nature and process of truth: i.e. that it is best reached by personal journey. Allegedly, the institutions of science, arts and the mystical religions assume the INDIVIDUAL to be the source of understanding and thus truth. However, murders and tyrants similarly see themselves as the ultimate source of truth. Instead of admitting to a necessary tension between collective and individual understanding, the authors conclude that “the two views, one viewing people as part of a people, a brotherhood, and the other valuing each of us an individual, are not reconcilable”. If so, then what is left to check exploitative individual interpretations?
We then reach the mind-body discussion at page 146. “The mystical religions argue that consciousness arises from and is part of nature, not a gift at all, but rather part of natural processes. We connect the as-yet primitive science of mind and body with what we argue is a continuous process of consciousness from phototropic plants to human genius”. I taste a bit of pantheism or pan-sentience here.
But the authors have bigger fish to fry. So, at page 159, we learn “how to distinguish between talent and genius – unless an artist or scientist has intensified one's awareness and widened and clarified one's consciousness, one encountered talent, not genius.” This seems to me a rather non-scientific, slippery, ill-defined situation: what exactly is this “clarification of consciousness” that identifies genius? I realize it to be a traditional Buddhist notion, but how does an empirical scientist respond to such hazy words? At best it is a working-backward proposition, i.e. people who are geniuses must promote a consciousness that is clarified. But how far can you get with your car always in reverse?
Are you ready for more bad things about doctrinal religions? At page 165, we learn that “unlike the mystical faiths, doctrinal religions promote an attitude of tribalism; advocate a faith-based rather than a rational view of the world”. Is this dichotomy, i.e. faith-based versus rational, really fair? The Church co-opted Greek philosophy early on to provide a strong rational leg to its system of faith. This may not have been scientific, it was certainly tendentious, but the Church ancestors hardly denied the power of reason. And as to tribalism . . . it's a big world out there, and there are such things as Buddhist armies and terror organizations (as in Myanmar today). Recall that Zen was used to support Japanese nationalism and war training in WW2, including the famous Kamikaze pilots (read the book “Zen At War”).
On page 180, we learn that Buddhism makes no reference to any supernatural agency. But what about karma and re-incarnation? In college towns such as Madison, these concepts have been re-interpreted through modern psychology, and thus cleansed of the supernatural implications that reign in the eastern lands where Buddhism is a way of life. The next page tells us to value “the Other” with compassion. But this book certainly does not show much compassion for “Others” embracing the Leventine faiths. The authors complain about the sharp lines drawn by the Levantine monotheisms; but they too seem to be drawing with a sharp instrument when they summarily herd all aspects of Judaism, Christianity and Islam within one circle.
At page 186, Fortney and Onellion discuss the apparent dangers of modern Islamic extremist fundamentalism. But to be politically correct, they include the Christian theocracy doctrine of the Christian Reconstructionist movement and its leader, Rousas John Rushdoony. They had to stretch for that one. Sorry, but al Qaeda and the Taliban get a lot more Google hits than Rousas John Rushdoony. Nonetheless, at page 191 the authors offer a left-handed olive branch, as they endorse truth-seeking even if originating from within the three Levantine monotheisms. (But, one wonders how anyone can judge another's activities as truth-seeking or not? One person's legitimate truth-seeking might look to another like unreasonable adherence to doctrine.)
We then read a quote from Agehananda Bharati at page 203, saying that the mystic must “make efforts of an ethical order” to make real changes in the world. But guess what – the Levantine religions have always put a lot of emphasis on “ethical order”. Unfortunately, wrapping such order in notions of moral responsibility and sin does not play well in a college town. Then on page 208, the authors recommend cultivation of a healthy skepticism towards all creedal certainties / ideologies. Lets hope their recommendation includes the emerging ideology of the college town, as evoked in this book.
We finally reach the book's own creedal statement at page 208, about the wonders that rationality offers and what makes rationality worth fighting for. (One does wonder, though, just how rational is art? And how far does critical thinking go when engaged in meditation?) At page 211 we receive an example of rational wonders; a tornado strikes in Wisconsin, where a warning system worked in time. This allegedly shows that “the universe can be terrifying, but rationality can cope”. Sure, rationality can cope with a Wisconsin tornado; but what about a hurricane, a tsunami, a wildfire, or an old-fashioned Oklahoma twister? Despite our rationality, a lot of lives are lost or broken when nature shows her dark side. And sometimes the darker side of rationality itself is seen, e.g. when a cost-benefit analysis concludes that a better flood prevention system was not worth the economic and political costs relative to the expected financial loss from the flood itself.
Just before the book ends, at page 214, the authors need to take a parting shot at God. I.e, “if what is meant by God is the Western usage . . . [i.e.] the personality of the creator as described in the Old and New Testament and Koran . . . that God most assuredly is a fiction”. Well, thanks for the assurances; but where are the arguments and proofs? As with the Heart Sutra, are you asking me to unquestioningly accept that “this is the truth, not a lie”? Can these authors file a paper with a scientific or literature studies journal and assert their ideas, based on such assurances?
Interestingly, the authors say in various places that the truth seekers in our world need more “gumption”. Ironically, this is the same prescription found in Robert Pirsig's one-hit wonder from 35 years ago, Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Finally, the most interesting Amazon review of this book is not this one! Dr. Onellion's brother Willard previously filed some very interesting reflections. Marshall and Willard Onellion form something of a Christopher Hitchens / Peter Hitchens family dyad; i.e. the atheist / rationalist and the Christian believer. Marshall Onellion and his co-author said many powerful and interesting things in his book, but I must agree with his brother that “faith in God [does not] automatically make one an opponent of science”, and “embracing the mystical faiths is [not] the only way to express one's religious impulses.”
Seeking Truth discusses the personal quest for truth, along with three institutions that the authors personally favor in their own quests. We learn some truths about Madison, Wisconsin (and about the Onellion family), and partake of a wealth of challenging observations. However, by page 169, it occurred to me that Seeking Truth is more about what the authors find NOT to be truth, versus what truth might actually be, or at least what it might “taste like”. In the end, this book seems more taken with doubt than with truth.