Reflection 12: Doubt

October 24, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

Doubt is a state of mind that brackets or holds in suspension an item of belief. [Is that so?] [Do you expect me to believe that?] [Really?] By decoupling the flow of sensory images from the flow of concepts or ideas that accompany them, doubt disrupts the normal cohesiveness of consciousness. This either baulks consciousness, or perhaps draws attention to the coupling itself, which is usually accomplished out of awareness. Understanding is interrupted, creating a state of either not knowing or curiosity. If the latter, consciousness can then shift into overdrive.


The drive to understand what sensory phenomena mean is one of the most basic motivators of consciousness, learning, memory, and behavior. When I wrote a book* about hiking the trails of Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island (where I live), I always wanted to find out what lay beyond the next bend or over the rise after that. Not merely what was there, but what it meant in relation to what I already knew. I kept transcending the known world—the landscape I was familiar with—in order to incorporate the unknown into the big picture I was sketching out in my mind. For three years in the 1990s, that was my fundamental mode of existence. Pushing ahead. Exploring. Expanding my awareness. Going beyond my current understanding.


Essentially, I lived in a state of eternal curiosity, doubt, and questioning. For me it was a great adventure. In the interest of full disclosure, I have always lived like that. I was born with a question on my lips: What next? I will die the same way: What next? In between, I have always questioned my own experience, doubting that I could take it at face value but had to delve behind the obvious, sensory presentation to discover what it might mean. I studied science, the humanities, the arts, education, trying to stand under and support my sensory experience with what it all meant. Here is a paragraph—one long sentence, really—from my essay on hiking the trails of Beech Mountain in Acadia:


Picture the hulking naturalist on an Acadian mountain ridge, hunkered down, peering back and forth through bifocals between wildflower guide and puzzling bloom on its midget stem, unable to describe what he thinks he sees in terms the guide will accept, guide holding back the sought-after name until the description is more precise, blackflies looking on at first, then mobbing, then going in for the kill, the naturalist hitting back between swings of attention between book and bloom, bloom and book, blackflies persisting, book resisting, bloom bobbing in the wind, naturalist sticking it out for twenty minutes, then, no wiser than before, fleeing for his life.


My effort at making the blossom meaningful was frustrated by my failure to find the proper category to place it in. Now I conceive of that bloom as an example of pale corydalis (C. sempervirens, a member of the poppy family). That is its meaning, its place in the taxonomy of world flowers. But then I knew only its visual aspects of size, shape, color, so could not fit it into my conceptual understanding. Without the name of that concept, it was anonymous as far as I was concerned, and didn’t have a place in my edition of the known world.


We generate concepts in our minds through repeated presentations in our experience such that the unique details of any one presentation fall away, leaving only the common features to persist in memory as an abstract remnant. That summary is then given a label or name and filed away for future reference. When I come across the bloom again as a concrete phenomenon in my sensory experience, the concept is there waiting for it, so I am apt to see the concept and not the richly detailed flower itself. This is a kind of shorthand the brain uses to get the most from memory at minimal cost of effort and storage space. The result is we tend to see conceptually or categorically while glossing over the infinitely varied details of what is in front of us.


Matching current sensory images to categories stored in memory is one of the fundamental features of consciousness. Doubt, curiosity, and questioning indicate we are having trouble fitting a sensory event to the proper bin in memory and need help with our sorting, as I did in the example above of trying to identify a flower.


When scientists think they have fit a class of sensory phenomena to an appropriate category in their understanding, they invite other scientists to duplicate the journey that led them to that conclusion, so to see if both projects produce the same results. If they do, that suggests that they are dealing with a stable representation of a state of affairs in the world and not merely a figment in personal consciousness. Scientists pursue understanding of repeatable phenomena, not one-time events. This leads to concise explanations for, or descriptions of, phenomena in their collective experience, which then are taken as meaningful when viewed from a scientific perspective.


The scientific method is one way of dealing with uncertainty. My footloose explorations in Acadia are another. Finding out what others think, asking questions, inquiring of a reference librarian—these are other ways. Or, we can opt to live with ambiguity, uncertainty, doubt, and a host of unanswered questions. Once, as a Cub Scout, I was getting ready to enter my chickens in a pet show when my big brother banged my head against the floor and knocked me out. When I came to, I asked, “What am I doing in this uniform?” I have since wondered if members of the military have ever had occasion to clear that up for themselves.


* Acadia: The Soul of a National Park, formerly distributed by North Atlantic Books, now out of print.




One Response to “Reflection 12: Doubt”

  1. Duchess said

    Hello, dear Steve,

    I read this, and thought, you couldn’t recognize that flower because it did not present itself exactly as the book intended. You saw something different, because of the way you saw it.

    I was thinking, it is exactly like that mustard jar you taught me to picture almost 40 years ago — and which I have indeed remembered every damn time I can’t find what I am looking for. (which is pretty often)

    And then I read a few posts further and thought, God damn it! There’s the wretched mustard jar! He’ll never believe now that it has been in my head all these years. But yet, it has.

    Thoreau too. It is not possible for me to read a word without thinking of you. Whatever else you have been, then you were a teacher.

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