Sunday, November 7, 2010

Reasonable Doubt

Let me begin by poking a little fun at our judicial system. After all, the system is based on putting the fate of the accused in the hands of a jury of 12 people who weren’t smart enough to get out of jury duty to begin with. But here is a story about a jury that outsmarted a lawyer.

A defendant was on trial for murder. There was strong evidence pointing to his guilt, but there was no corpse. In the defense’s closing statement the lawyer, knowing that his client would probably be convicted, resorted to a stunt.

‘Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I have a surprise for you all, ‘the lawyer said as he looked at his watch. ‘Within one minute, the person presumed dead in this case will walk into this courtroom.’ The jurors all looked at the door. A minute passed. Nothing happened.

Finally the lawyer said, ‘Actually, I made up the previous statement. But you all looked. Therefore, you must have reasonable doubt that he is dead. I insist that you return a verdict of not guilty.’

The jury met to deliberate. A few minutes later, they returned and pronounced the verdict- “guilty”.

‘But how?’ inquired the lawyer. ‘You must have had some doubt; I saw all of you stare at the door.’ The jury foreman replied, ‘Yes, we looked, but your client didn’t.’

He knew something they didn’t about the suspected victim. Reasonable doubt is my theme. I want to see if I can make you look… doubt in some fresh way. Doubt is an uncomfortable topic, and an uncomfortable experience. Voltaire said, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.” Doubt may be uncomfortable, but certainty is an elusive and harsh task master. Are there really many things we can know with certainty in any case? Can you know what the future will bring your health? Can you know for sure if friends are going to hurt you? Can we know if and when the economy will rebound? Can you know with absolute certainty if there is a God or an afterlife? Can you discern the right and moral thing to do in every circumstance?

There are very few certainties in life. The path to peace is not lined with certainty. It is lined with the acceptance of change and uncertainty. The trick is to make doubt your ally so that you neither become dogmatic because you have ALL truth nor do you become inactive because you have NO truth. Chart a course in between these two extremes.

Doubt is Healthy

The first step is to liberate doubt from the bonds of guilt. You may have grown up in a religious system where doubt was frowned on. In the Middle Ages, doubt was a crime punishable by death. In the modern ages, doubt is a sin to be met with prayer and guilt. It is often seen as a sign of spiritual weakness, when it is actually the beginning of wisdom. We have to first overcome some of the baggage of the past when it comes to doubt.

Consider the legal phrase, “beyond reasonable doubt.” The phrase grew out of a superstitious, religious worldview where judges and jury faced the pressure that if they wrongly charged an innocent person they would suffer eternal consequences. It was said that if judges made a mistake, they built themselves “a mansion in hell”. Reasonable doubt was a spiritual escape clause in case they made a mistake. While the phrase is used today as a way to support the rights of the accused, it was originally used to make it easier to convict a criminal without the judge and jury taking undue risk with their own salvation. It’s questionable as to whether the phrase is useful to juries in the way we use it today. We no longer expect juries to carry the burden of the salvation of their souls, and nor do you need to live in fear for your soul.

Banish the idea that guilt is wrong and reactivate your own inner check and balance system. Doubt is healthy and it has nothing to do with guilt and salvation. Doubt functions in your life like punctuation in a sentence. It provides a pause, while you check assumptions at the door of your mind. Doubt gives you time to check the facts as best as you can discern them like a question mark at the end of a sentence. Doubt buys you time to visit your core values, your conscience, to see if this new information or situation resonates with who you are. Doubt allows you to suspend judgment, like a comma mid sentence, long enough to ensure that you are operating out of your highest self.

Doubt enables you to build a worldview, religious or otherwise, that is reasonable and resonant. Doubt is also the cornerstone of American democracy. The constitution protects the right to doubt and dissent. In fact the whole system is built on the need for doubt and dissent. Biannual elections in a multiparty system with an ongoing and ever changing balance of power are all part of our democracy. Without doubt, this system would become a rubber stamp for the ruling ideology and we would be its pawns.

Doubt is part of the push and pull of democracy and power. Take for example this urban legend about conflict. It is a radio conversation between a US aircraft carrier and Canadian authorities.

Canadians: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the South to avoid collision.

Americans: Recommend YOU divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision.

Canadians: Negative. You will have to divert your course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.

Americans: This is the Captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.

Canadians: No, I say again, you divert YOUR course.


Canadians: This is a lighthouse. Your call.

Think of doubt as your own in built lighthouse. You can argue with it, but you might be sorry. Doubt and doubt boldly. Doubt religious beliefs, all of them and do it without fear of punishment. In fact there can be NO religious faith without doubt. Without doubt there is no leap of faith. Without doubt you won’t uncover new truth and fresh possibility. You are liberated from believing things because an ancient books says so, or because tradition tells you that there is some divine revelation of truth. We are now several hundred years into a revolution of free thought that began with philosophers like Descartes who said that the very basis of being human is the ability to think for yourself. Human reason comes before any unchanging divine source of authority. This is called putting Descartes before da source.!@!@

Doubt your government, even your preferred party or leader. Do it without fear of being branded unpatriotic or disloyal. There is nothing unpatriotic about questioning political leaders. On the contrary, it is unpatriotic NOT to doubt and question leaders. Trust your beliefs, your God, your leader, your party, enough to question and challenge everything you hear and see. If they can’t stand up to your doubts, then there is something weak and ineffective about them in the first place.

In any case, there is no suppressing doubt. You can pretend it’s not there, but it is there and it will be heard. When inquiry knocks and you don’t answer, doubt will come through the window. Let it through the front door.

Doubt Your Doubts

Doubt is healthy and good, but it also has its limits, beyond which it becomes destructive. 14th century French Philosopher Jean Buridan posed a hypothetical situation where a donkey was placed exactly midway between a stack of hay and a pail of water. Assuming the donkey will always go to whichever is closer it will die of both hunger and thirst since it will be paralyzed by the impossible choice. Just as too many choices creates overload, too many questions can also lead to paralysis. By all means doubt and doubt boldly. But don’t let your doubt become an excuse for inaction or division.

What are some checks and balance you can place on doubt itself? Decide what is a core issue as opposed to a peripheral issue. This is what has always happened in theology. Many people have doubted the miracles recorded in the Bible but not doubted the resurrection. The resurrection has been a core issue for many people while the historic record of the miracles has been peripheral. Now I would say that a physical resurrection is also a peripheral issue. The core issue to me is the belief that resurrection happens all the time. I doubt that the resurrection of Jesus ever happened. I don’t doubt that fresh starts and new possibility are always lurking at the edge of our futures. The belief in fresh starts is another way of doubting the status quo. Doubt is your ally. It liberates you from believing unbelievable things. It also liberates you from passively accepting your circumstances.

The same thing happens in the relationship of the global community to Islam. We accept headdress and we allow prayer and rituals to break the daily flow of work life, but we don’t accept violence towards women and children based on a particular interpretation of the Koran. The first we see as peripheral and the latter we see as a core issue of human dignity. Consider the same scenario in your own life. Doubt other people’s beliefs and worldviews by all means, but don’t break relationship over your doubts and certainly not over peripheral issues.

Is doubt making you cynical and jaded? It might be time to put doubt to the back of your mind for a time and bring yourself back to gratitude and optimism.

From Doubt to Action

Avoid becoming a fanatic with your convictions (ALL TRUTH). Avoid becoming a cynic with your doubts. (NO TRUTH)

Fanatics take convictions and make them absolute truths for all people and in all times. They fight to the death for their truths. The fear cognitive contamination so they watch the TV networks and read the news sources that confirm their own prejudices. I don’t need to say more about the dangers of fanaticism. The other extreme is probably more relevant. Most of us are comfortable with a pluralistic approach, tolerant of diversity and ready to listen. So how do you avoid being so open that you lose all conviction? Once you see the partial truth in many perspectives, how do you take urgent and decisive action? After all even a pancake has two sides. Every issue has another angle.

There is no easy answer, but it involves some balance of your own conscience and openness to other perspectives. Maybe you could think of your own conscience as being a tent. Keep yourself firmly planted within your own tent, but also keep one toe, maybe one foot outside the tent, maybe even in another camp. There have been some famous minds that have changed. Ted Kennedy was formerly pro life before becoming a champion of the pro choice movement. Elizabeth Hasslebeck, the notorious and outspoken conservative on the TV show The View has recently changed her mind about same sex marriage after having dinner with Melissa Etheridge. Who else could Melissa have dinner with?

If you doubt the need for action, spend some time with people and species who are suffering. Your doubt will become a spring board for action.

Prominent genome scientist Craig Venter used to believe that there was unlimited resources and that the carbon fuel problem would be an issue that future generations would have to solve. Now he has come to realize the urgent danger to the planet and has become an activist for immediate global warming education. How did this happen? Information and diverse opinions.

These, and many more people, have moved from doubt to action. You can too. Use your doubt to gather new information and mix with new people, and your doubts will translate into compassionate and effective action. When the weight of your conscience tells you that an injustice is afoot, act urgently and decisively, all the time knowing that the situation might change, and you will change. All is dynamic and open.

I honor the free thinking, open minded, questioning spirit in you. Doubt boldly and act decisively. Namaste.

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