The host of the lecture series on doubt had introduced me as the writer of books on Spinoza, on nature and on spirituality. When I stood behind the microphone I said I wanted to add that my latest book was on ghosts, to illustrate that I am interested also in doubtful matters. But today, I will not start with ghosts, I went on, but with an egg. “Baking an egg. It is someone which most of you present will master – even if you are unable to prepare any other food in the kitchen.” This was the beginning of a lecture I was invited to give yesterday as the first in a series organized by an oecumenical church and my university’s public service program.

The example of the egg was meant to show that in the exercise of such a practice, when you have once mastered it, there is no room for doubt. Other practices do not work that way, like me giving this lecture. Each time, beforehand, there is doubt. The reason is, I said to the audience, that you are people, each with his/her own experience and expectations. And I want to tell you something, but more so, offer you something to think about. And because I don’t know you, there is always some doubt. Because you are not an egg. My last opening example, after thus explaining our different attitudes towards things and towards people was a dog. A house dog. Towards your dog you cannot show doubt. As it is a herd animal with a strict sense of hierarchy, your only acceptable role will be that of the leader. If you treat your dog like an equal and doubt yourself in your dealing with it, like I do before giving a lecture to fellow human beings, things will get out of hand soon. That’s when you will need a dog whisperer, to help you restore relations. Still, you should have some doubts, sometimes, for yourself, to ask whether the dog is healthy and happy. It is not a thing.

After all these everyday examples, we went on to the one area where doubt is prescribed, and systematic: scientific research. In a system of levels of criticism and reviewing, data gathering, theory building, and report writing should be aiming for development of more, and ever better, knowledge. Such research should have a certain distance with regard to practice, for instance when our concern for a young mother suffering from cancer would make us want to give her an experimental medicine which could save her life. We would then overlook the potential damage the medicine could also cause – which further research would find out.

This kind of science we also call modern science, and it gained dominance in the seventeenth century. Before that time, science was mainly based on learning, on reading, and therefore on the principle of authority. The sharpest minds with the most knowledge should be trusted and followed. Descartes, who worded the views of the new approach, proposed to stop this trust and start to doubt everything learned – to find what would be certain by itself. Over against authority he put the principle that every single human being has the same capacity to think for himself. And here I read from his Discourse on Method, where he announces this principle of a democratized knowledge. So the philosopher who is famous for his systematic doubt, also accepts this principle, that we all can do research and don’t need others to tell us what is true and what is false.

This principle has influenced our education system, even to the extent that in the last century the age for obligatory schooling has gone up several times. In my lifetime in my country I have seen it go from 13 to 15 to 18. And even when 18 you are obliged to get a diploma if you didn’t succeed yet, for otherwise, our government thinks, you are not ready to participate meaningfully in society. So the idea that everyone can think and research the world has developed, on the basis of its inherent belief in equality, to the idea that everyone should do so.

The only problem is that we do not all have a scientific attitude. Some people approach the world more through feeling, which also might be important in care jobs. Others will do so through their hands, knowing how to make or fix things. The doubting attitude of science is difficult for most people. That’s why in the seventeenth century, next to modern historic bible studies, we also saw the appearance of fundamentalism, in certain versions of protestantism, the movement which had started from a need for democratization in matters of religion! Where this ‘research everything’ was too hard, we heard the view that the bible was the litteral revelation of God, which shall not be doubted, and which provides an answer to every question of life. This fundamentalism, which we today associate often with certain groups in islam, arose first in the protestant tradition. With doubt comes the need for certainty. Even in science itself! How often have I heard some colleagues say ‘it is a fact!’, ‘it has been proven!’.

While doubt and the longing for certainty thus implicate each other, the democratization of independent thinking and researching has failed in many respects. The reason being, I want to propose, that the independent thought that Descartes thought to be accessible to all, was the thought of generalization, of reason as generalizable knowledge. When we acknowledge that everyone can think reasonably, and search for general truths, we ignore the idiosyncracies of individual experience. Idiosyncracy means that which is unique and personal. Not lawlike and general. I will give three examples of where individual experience often come into confrontation with the generalizing view characteristic of the scientific attitude.

The first is spirituality. Many people have experiences of a spiritual reality. There are many instances, for instance when a loved one dies, of becoming aware of the person who passed in a dream, or through a sign, like the unexplained stopping of a clock. Here the approach of reason can simply say that the experience is accidental. I could have had such a dream anytime, but when someone just died, you attach special meaning to it. Another example is psychiatry. Much research has been done into all kinds of psychological and psychiatric disorders, and we all will know someone who has been diagnosed with one. In the case of depression, psychosis, or attention deficit disorder, the scientific approach will look for general causes and solutions, but in principle ignores the content of the individual experiences of the one who suffers from such a state. The third example is general medicine. Although a good doctor will hear the patient’s story, to try to find the cause for his ailing, a specialist prefers to have an x-ray, to ‘see through’ the individual and behind his or her experiences.

These examples illustrate in what fields a further democratization of knowledge could still be sought for. Next to scientific criticism we could take personal experiences more serious. These are however not suited for systematic doubt, nor to claim certainty for. They adapt and change on a daily basis as they help us to lead our individual lives. And how could we further acknowledgment of this kind of knowledge? By talking about it, by sharing our experiences and researching them in a personal manner. Thus we can complement the useful doubt of science by a knowing that isn’t interested so much in doubting everything.


Some of my friends asked me to write down the lecture I gave yesterday in Kortenhoef, in the series VU-lectures on doubt.

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