The Process of Doubt, the Goal of the Question

Introduction: The process of doubt, the goal of the question

            The loss of wider purpose in our cosmology is no technical deficit. Though we loathe nostalgia of all kinds, and history does not run backwards, nevertheless we feel a deeper absence, even to the point of encounter with the ‘abyss of meaning’. Gazing into it, however, we find after all that it cuts both ways; there is an absence of ultimate order and meaning, no primer at the outset, no summa upon completion, but there is, almost instead and in its stead, a plethora of meanings, from which each of us can gather the glinting sheaves of meaningfulness. And if it was doubt that first fulminated against goal, against the telos of thought and of life besides, we have retrieved the question as our unique manner of understanding this condition, both meaningful for us and meaningless for the universe.

            We do not stand over against our own cosmic heritage. We are connected to it, once again, at first, by the wider evolutionary process, which is perhaps yet resonant in our own process of doubting and thence questioning. We also return to it, after being not so much radically otherwise but at least, experiential rather than mimicking its essentiality, by creatin for ourselves meaning in the face of its apparent void. Religion is the first principle of such human meaning, a grand projection, certainly, as James referred to it, but as well a just as profound gesture to the cosmic tapestry, the starry firmament that is to me both ‘friendly and mild’, as Herman Hesse has it. The one due to its ever-present loyalty to my experience, invisible by day yet remaining, and the other simply due to the sheer distances involved. I feel the heat of the sun, I can be blinded by its luminous presence, but there is relief, this time by that very night, and thus I welcome it back again the next morning, just as I welcome the ability to question its return, to doubt its loyalty, and to query the very nature of things cosmic and personal alike.

            This volume of essays and inquiries is a nominal contribution to the process of doubting and the resultant goals, not quite known at first, of the question in general. Asking a question means responding to a doubt. For children, much questioning occurs simply along technical or logistical lines. In this phase of every human life, I do not know enough to ask a question proper. I must seek the volumes and limits of the topic at hand, whether it is the ‘how to’ of riding a bicycle or of geometry, the gentility and etiquette of the first date, or the options of career path. Once these become more ‘automatic’, I may find myself plunged into an aspect of that meaningful abyssal plain, wherein the first kiss thrusts me into another world, the lack of conscious care engenders thrill and joy when riding, or the sense of accomplishment, amorphous and even vain, of completing my first day of work. In a myriad of ways, the young person is brought into contact with the diptych of meaning; perhaps then I lose my first lover and life is abruptly meaningless, at least for a time. I might fall off my bike after all, and have to take stock, or perhaps my new job isn’t quite all that it had appeared to be, or perhaps it is much more so. In all such processes, the intimacy of siblinghood, the kindred spirits of doubt and question are alive and ready to serve, as loyal as are the stars which gave them their twin birth.

            As adults, we are most often distracted from this joint process, perhaps even actively decoyed away from setting the kind of goal by which the question is led to fruitful response. This collection examines numerous ways in which the authenticity of doubt and the force of the question are led astray. No messianic presence was without his question, no witness without her doubt. These are not just archetypes, floating above our abyss of signifiers, vainly seeking to give them their third eye, or perhaps, in some sinister setting, deliberately holding themselves aloof to language so that we humans can never grasp their tantalus. Not at all, on either count. However much we may vaunt such figures into unattainable role models, we must also realize that they are also apical ancestors; they have begun the historical and perhaps also evolutionary process of questioning, they have set the goals of doubting. In a healthy inversion of the usual order of things, the innovator trots out the question as if she had herself no doubts at all. This ‘advocacy’, if you will, does indeed partake in the shadow of the deity, His own sibling and kindred spirit. A God states His case, a devil doubts it. Then the rest of us debate the merits of thesis and antithesis. Humanity is the synthesis of good and evil, the ‘marriage of light and dark’, as Nietzsche exhorted. And now it is evolution that is our modern God, history our devil.

            Just as the latter has upended morality, the former has vouchsafed mortality. Our very future-looking, our ‘being-ahead’, is, if not an actual evolutionary trait, modeled upon our understanding of how the cosmos came to be. There is no need for the universe itself to imagine a future per se, since a process has been set in motion by yet mysterious means, and such processes play themselves out and have results, even ends. But to believe in a future is to give the further play of process a patent and potent meaning, and this is our employ, a human task and hence an historical one, and not one evolutionary. And though it seems like doubt is our chief manner of denying a future – I am skeptical of your belief, of your faith, of your trust, in this or that, for instance – coupled with the question itself gears both into the ongoing work of making history both active and actionable. It is our way of gaining a foothold of agency in a world of tradition, our stamp of identity in an anonymous social reality. ‘The’ future may not be ours to see in detail, but such a lensing is actually unnecessary for Dasein’s being-ahead-of-itself. The idea of a future is enough.

            Hence another theme in this collection is the danger of losing that very idea, of doubting the very essence of our ability to be ahead of ourselves and construct a human future together. For me, this is the greater tragedy of our time, not the loss of the past, but rather that of the future. Indeed, we are witness to countless trends that seek to turn backwards, to look in the very opposite direction to what makes us who we are as historical and existential beings. This backward-looking. This ‘tarrying alongside’ what has been the case, is not only contrary to our conscience and our concernful being, but is also a rejection of all messianic force, for which the keystone phrase ‘you have heard it said, but I say unto you’, is forfeited. The doubting of the world as it has been, the question that asks, ‘what if’, which in turn drives a more pointed query like ‘what would the world be like if we did this or that instead of what we have done in the past?’, and yet further, ‘why not give it a try’, even if we do not know the better outcome, allows another essential aspect of our humanity to be brought forward; our impetus to create and to make meaning.

            The questioner is after meaning. The doubter clears the space for the questioner by giving the elbow to received meanings which, in their own day of revolution, were born of and borne on the selfsame human process. This is our human, historical, and linguistic version of cosmic evolution. Abandoning it, it seems to me, is not only ethically scandalous, it may well be a fatal existential error. For by what other process do we attain either meaning or future? Doubt aside, we are prone to obeisance. The inertia of tradition, the overweening presence of the customary, tend to load us down and hamper our creative movements. It is one thing to learn the ropes of the tradition, another to tie oneself up in them. Questioning aside, we are prone to obedience. The least of us – an apt title for a video game about current politics, perhaps – hold sway, rein us in to support their ongoing reign. No, both doubt and question are necessary, and even upon a daily basis, to the very pith of our shared humanity. To pass over the days only as customary measures of a docile life, marking without remark upon a passive mind, is to deny one’s cosmic heritage, is to accept that what a human being is, is divorced from the wider processes by which we have come to be.

            Finally, then, the theme of just who, or what, desires just such an acceptance is examined in this volume. It is seldom a single figure, but it can be a figurehead. It is not often a specific institution, but rather the fabric of institutionality, of rationalization. It turns out to not so much be our faithlessness, but indeed rather our arrogance. It is not that we seek death, but that we have forgotten the verve necessary to live a life, lost our nerve not in the face of the unknown itself, but more simply, and this more pathetically, rather when confronted by the task at hand. As history is both a gift and a task, we have misinterpreted the one and shirked the other. Understanding the counter-processes by which and through which we have done so is thus of utmost import.

            Investigations: what are the contexts, the narratives, the agents and agencies alike, which are at play in denying a human future to its only possible denizens? Insights: what meanings are divulged, what processes uncovered, what means are at hand and yet not in hand for us to overcome our own doubting of doubt, our duplicitous political and moral character, and our half-hearted pacing back and forth, our hard-hearted hither and thither? Indictments: the judgement without judgementalism? The critique without criticism? The charge without the venomous voltage of vacuity on the one hand, the false conscience of voluntarism, on the other? One could employ other terms, but the underlying movement from doubt to question remains in place. It is my hope that in each piece below, the reader will experience that process and thence go and do likewise.