Saturday, April 16, 2005

John Widtsoe discusses doubt

I usually include only my own commentary in blog postings. Widtsoe is so much more eloquent than me, however, and his discussion of intellectual inquiry has become an essential component of my own (still imperfect) quest for spiritual and secular truth. I ran in to this essay in the book Evidences and Reconcilliations when I was a missionary, and these principles helped me to more effectively teach religious investigators. I hope other people, both religious and non-, can discern the truth in this essay.

Doubt usually means uncertainty. You doubt the presence of gold in the ore, though there are yellow flakes in it; or that the man is a thief, though stolen goods are found in his possession; or that a principle of the gospel is correctly interpreted by the speaker. What you really mean is that the evidence in your possession is insufficient to convince you that there is gold in the ore, or that the man is a thief, or that the gospel principle has been explained correctly. Doubt arises from lack of evidence.

Intelligent people cannot long endure such doubt. It must be resolved. Proof must be secured of the presence of gold in the ore, or of the dishonesty of the man, or of the correctness of the doctrinal exposition. Consequently, we set about to remove doubt by gathering information and making tests concerning the subject in question. Doubt, then, becomes converted into inquiry or investigation.

After proper inquiries, using all the powers at our command, the truth concerning the subject becomes known, or it remains unknown to be unravelled perhaps at some future time. The weight of evidence is on one side or the other. Doubt is removed. Doubt, therefore, can be and should be only a temporary condition. Certainly, a question cannot forever be suspended between heaven and earth; it is either answered or unanswered. As the results of an inquiry appear, doubt must flee.

In other words, doubt, which ever is or should be a passing condition, must never itself be an end. Doubt as an objective of life is an intellectual and a spiritual offense. A lasting doubt implies an unwillingness on the part of the individual to seek the solution of his problem, or a fear to face the truth. Doubt should vanish as it appears, or as soon as proper inquiry can place it either with the known or the unknown facts of life; with the solvable or the unsolvable; with the knowable or the unknowable.

The strong man is not afraid to say, "I do not know"; the weak man simpers and answers, "I doubt." Doubt, unless transmuted into inquiry, has no value or worth in the world. Of itself it has never lifted a brick, driven a nail, or turned a furrow. To take pride in being a doubter, without earnestly seeking to remove the doubt, is to reveal shallowness of thought and purpose.

Perhaps you are questioning the correctness of a gospel principle. Call it doubt if you prefer. Proceed to take it out of the region of doubt by examination and practice. Soon it will be understood, or left with the many things not yet within the reach of man. But remember: failure to understand one principle does not vitiate other principles. When proved false, one doctrine may cast distrust upon other doctrines, but the others must be tested for their own correctness.
Doubt of the right kind—that is, honest questioning—leads to faith. Such doubt impels men to inquiry which always opens the door to truth. The scientist in his laboratory, the explorer in distant parts, the prayerful man upon his knees—these and all inquirers like them find truth. They learn that some things are known, others are not. They cease to doubt. They settle down with the knowledge they possess to make the forces of nature do their bidding, knowing well that they will be victorious; and that more knowledge will come to them, if sought, to yield new power.

On the other hand, the stagnant doubter, one content with himself, unwilling to make the effort, to pay the price of discovery, inevitably reaches unbelief and miry darkness. His doubts grow like poisonous mushrooms in the dim shadows of his mental and spiritual chambers. At last, blind like the mole in his burrow, he usually substitutes ridicule for reason, and indolence for labor. The simplest truth is worth the sum of all such doubts. He joins the unhappy army of doubters who, weakened by their doubts, have at all periods of human history allowed others, men of faith, to move the world into increasing light.

Faith is practically the opposite of doubt. Faith rests securely upon "evidences" and "assurances." Note the definition by the Apostle Paul: "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." Faith knows, and goes forth courageously to use knowledge in the affairs of men. It declares itself the master of things; it lays mountains low; it lifts valleys; it promotes the welfare of man.

Joseph Smith is an excellent example of proper doubt. The ministers of his day were contending for the membership of the boy. He went to God for help; received it; and doubt disappeared. From that day on, doubt did not reappear. His doubt was lost in the desired knowledge he gained from proper inquiry. So may every man do.

The unknown universe, material, mental, spiritual, is greater than the known. If we seek, we shall forever add knowledge to knowledge. That which seems dark today, will be crystal clear tomorrow. Eternal progress means the unending elucidation of things not known or understood today.

No! Doubt is not wrong unless it becomes an end of life. It rises to high dignity when it becomes an active search for, and practice of, truth.

Doubt which immediately leads to honest inquiry, and thereby removes itself, is wholesome. But that doubt which feeds and grows upon itself, and, with stubborn indolence, breeds more doubt, is evil.


Aaron Patty said...

No doubt about it... Bro. Widstoe is a smart man!

Nice article, Jeremy. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Have a great day.

Ulf Ingman said...

Hi Jeremy,

I really enjoyed the article. I have had some serious discussions with our two youngest sons, who have some doubts. I have been pondering how I should approach the matter other than asking for help from above. This article I feel was an answer from above to my questions, and hopefully will be an answer to my boys doubts and questions.
Wishing all the best to you and hoping we meet soon again.
Your friend Ulf