Sunday, January 22, 2006

Hecht of an opus

About a year ago I chanced upon Jennifer Michael Hecht's Doubt: A History in a local bookstore. Was tempted to buy it. Certainly was after checking it out on Amazon and reading the following quoted aphorism which I've sung as a mantra ever since.
Cited midway through this magisterial book by Hecht, the Zen maxim "Great Doubt: great awakening. Little Doubt: little awakening. No Doubt: no awakening" reveals that skepticism is the sine qua non of reflection, and discloses the centrality that doubt and disbelief have played in fueling intellectual discovery.

Being a most rational religion (as Huston Smith describes it in The World's Religions) I keep wondering why I'm not a Buddhist. Or maybe I already am--just as some theologians speak of Implicit Christianity, it could be that I am, unawares, an Implicit Buddhist. On the other hand, prove to me that this burger is somebody's reincarnation. (Notwithstanding, it is almost certain that what I'm about to sink my teeth into contains molecules that once belonged to someone.)

Still, I had doubts whether I would actually read Doubt since after taking in more than a pageful of history I always experience adverse somniferous side-effects. It was only after listening to Skepticality's interview with Hecht that I rushed to get a copy.

Buddha was right. The first law of nature is Life is Suffering. The bookstore had run out of stock. Fortunately, what they dub as their "Superbranch" still had the title. So, will they be so kind enough as to have a copy delivered to their non-superbranch for me to pick up? No! They insisted I had to learn the First Law through and through. (I also asked whether they had Sam Harris' The End of Faith. Nope, not according to their database. But it's a bestseller! Why don't they carry it? On further thought, I shouldn't be complaining. Half their store is devoted to Christian mythology, astrology, horoscope, the paranormal, Feng Shui, and other fairy tales for children. We don't want to scandalize our little ones with something that shouted the End of Faith, do we?)

Finally got my copy yesterday. Superbranch turns out to be a nirvana. They literally have tons of books in there. And, mirabile dictu, they have a "Natural Science" section! Snapped up two titles from that shelf.

In the first few pages Hecht has this fun appetizer she calls Scale of Doubt Quiz. Scribble your answers before scrolling down to the interpretation.

Answer "Yes," "No," or "Not Sure" to the following:

1. Do you believe that a particular religious tradition holds accurate knowledge of the ultimate nature of reality and the purpose of human life?

2. Do you believe that some thinking being consciously made the universe?

3. Is there an identifiable force coursing through the universe, holding it together, or uniting all life-forms?

4. Could prayer be in any way effective, that is, do you believe that such a being or force (as posited above) could ever be responsive to your thoughts or words?

5. Do you believe this being or force can think or speak?

6. Do you believe this being has a memory or can make plans?

7. Does this force sometimes take a human form?

8. Do you believe that the thinking part or animating force of a human being continues to exist after the body has died?

9. Do you believe that any part of a human being survives death, elsewhere or here on earth?

10. Do you believe that feelings about things should be admitted as evidence in establishing reality?

11. Do you believe that love and inner feelings of morality suggest that there is a world beyond that of biology, social patterns, and accident -- i.e., a realm of higher meaning?

12. Do you believe that the world is not completely knowable by science?

13. If someone were to say "The universe is nothing but an accidental pile of stuff, jostling around with no rhyme nor reason, and all life on earth is but a tiny, utterly inconsequential speck of nothing, in a corner of space, existing in the blink of an eye never to be judged, noticed, or remembered," would you say, "Now that's going a bit far, that's a bit wrongheaded?"

If you answered No to all these questions, you're a hard-core atheist and of a certain variety: a rational materialist. If you said No to the first seven, but then had a few Yes answers, you're still an atheist, but you may have what I will call a pious relationship to the universe. If your answers to the first seven questions contained at least two Not Sure answers, you're an agnostic. If you answered Yes to some of the questions you may still be an atheist or agnostic, though not of the materialist variety. If you answered Yes to nine or more, you are a believer.

Turns out I'm half a point away from being a rationalist materialist. Number 12 was one solid brick wall. It just broke my momentum. It's an epistemological question, and while science is certainly the most reliable means of knowing the empirical world, I'm just too ignorant at the moment--and cautious--to go beyond uncertainty about its ability to know everything. May Buddha enlighten me.

Feel free to share your own colors. (Believers are not mandated to betray themselves.)

Well, I still have 500 pages ahead of me and 3 other titles vying for my eyes. Hecht's take on the Book of Job promises to be engrossing. The man who shook his fist at God and blasted his 3 toady comforters is my hero.


Heathen Dan said...

If by bookstore you mean National Bookstore, you might still get a chance to buy Sam Harris' book. I saw three copies (and bought one) in the SM Megamall branch a month ago.

As for Hecht's tome, sadly I have never seen it in any local shop.

euclidschild said...

I got stuck in the same spot as you. I think science is a process of investigation. Theories are constantly being tweeked to model observations. By answering no to #12 would kind of close the book on science saying we're done.

Edwardson said...

Hey, thanks for the tip. I saw End of Faith in a bookshop over at Eastwood City I believe, but I know their prices are much higher. National Cubao may still have copies of Doubt. I really don't know since I didn't see where the salesperson got the reserved copy she handed over to me. I was busy browsing. Saw around half a dozen titles on critical thinking. But at >3000 bucks, no thanks.

Heathen Dan said...

I haven't been to Eastwood City for years now. Last time I was there, it had about 4 restaurants and the Citibank building hasn't been finished yet. Now they have a bookshop? The times sure have changed. What bookshop would it be? National, Power Books?

Edwardson said...

None of the big chains. Its name eludes me at the moment.