10 Jun 2018 17:14 IST

Doubt’s not a bad thing

Elif Shafak writes: Certainty was to curiosity what the sun was to the wings of Icarus. | TerrainScan/iStock.com

The more we think we know, the less we actually seem to know — or so it seems the older we get

Many years ago, I read The Bastard of Istanbul and was blown away by it. Since then, I’ve been on the look out for Elif Shafak, the Turkish writer based in London. Since then, too, I’ve visited Istanbul and have, like thousands of others, fallen in love with this hoary city once known as Constantinople, and once the crucible of East and West; and more recently, touted by that government as the cultural capital of the world.

It’s easy to get all romantic about the city and the region’s history and lose sight of realities. Elif Shafak’s books shake us out of this glaze-eyed stupor and make us ‘see’, as I discovered this weekend upon reading, without a break, her Three Daughters of Eve.

Certainty and downfall

Different readers have different reactions to this book and indeed, it may not even be her best work. However, there are things in it that she draws the reader into, that ordinary folk may not always put their rational, reasonable, reasoning mind to contemplate on. One part of the novel deals with the protagonist, Peri, caught between the extreme orthodoxy of her long-suffering mother and the iconoclastic doggedness of her alcoholic father, both of whom she loves, leaving home to study at Oxford. There, she comes under the influence of a charismatic professor, who offers a seminar on God.

God, as he takes pains to clarify, not religion. It’s a fundamental difference, one that we most often fail to see. In this context, the professor observes that “too many suffer from M.O.C”, the ‘Malady of Certainty’. As Elif Shafak writes, “Certainty was to curiosity what the sun was to the wings of Icarus.”

Icarus is a figure from Greek mythology who, fitted with wings of wax, dared to fly too close to the sun. The heat melted his wings and he fell into the sea, into what we now know as the Icarian Sea. Anyway, she goes on to say, “Where one shone forcefully, the other couldn’t survive. With certainty came arrogance; with arrogance, blindness; with blindness, darkness; and with darkness, more certainty.” In their lectures, the professor tells them, they would not be sure of anything, not even the syllabus, “which was, like everything else, subject to change”.

Superiority and inferiority

Somehow this brought to mind something I had recently spontaneously experienced: a sense of outrage at the expression of an individual’s assuredness. Let me explain. It was at a scholarly discourse on the philosophical work of a certain spiritual leader, a pioneer in his times, venerated for the broadness of his views. But that’s not the point. What shocked me was the certitude with which the commentator, a young man, declared that the religious texts of other faiths contained nothing of value or significance.

Where was the need to disrespect other faiths? Where was the need to express disrespect to others while extolling the virtues of your own? What qualified the individual to share such an opinion? Where was the scholarship to prove the statement? Hypothetically, there can be no quarrel with lauding your own spiritual or other leaders. However, does praise necessarily have to be accompanied by the denigration of another? Can exaltation not stand on its own? With what degree of certainty do we make claims of superiority and inferiority? More and less. Better and worse. Best and worst. Mine and yours.

Luckily, even if age withers our physical attributes, it stands a good chance of improving our wisdom, like wine and pickles, provided all the ingredients are in the right proportion and climatic conditions, suitable. The fuse, once blown and sparked, cools down and can be fixed. So it was in this instance that I realised certainty is the prerogative of youth, just as doubt is a sure sign of advancing years.

Belief and scepticism

Varadaraja Raman in his article, Doubt in philosophy and science, writes about a third century BCE sceptic, Pyrrho: “The most important idea in Pyrrhoism was that what we take to be real about god and religion is a function of the country, culture, and time in which we are raised, and have no intrinsic truth-content. Many Greek sceptics felt that following a religious custom was normal and natural, without it reflecting any objective reality.”

If this is indeed the case, it’s mind-blowing because it presents us with a handle to understand the world today while at the same time, be critical of it. Nothing can be regarded as the given truth because truth itself is an uncertain concept. Doubt leads to questions, questions lead to further questions. It must, that’s the job assigned to Doubt. There’s nothing to suggest that this will lead to clarity, not confusion, but then, there’s nothing to suggest that this will lead to confusion not clarity, either.

Raman quotes Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher, who says: “What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the wish to find out, which is the exact opposite.” He draws attention to the fact that older world views are subsumed by the acquisition of new information. Things that were once regarded as ‘truth’ become defunct as they are proved wrong. For instance, the early belief that the earth was flat was overturned way back by the Greeks, maybe even in the time Pythagorus, around 500 BCE.

Truth and transience

We know that the moon is neither made of green cheese nor is it a rabbit. And that babies can be conceived outside a woman’s womb. Yesterday’s truth can become today’s tall tale. Not every time. Not everything. But the possibility exists and in that possibility breeds doubt.

This is not to suggest the end of believing — far from it. Believing is beauty. Believing is strength. Believing is restorative. Belief deserves to be motivated by doubt and egged on by questioning. Think about it. Arjuna didn’t just let loose all his dogs of war at Kurukshetra, even though he was led by none other than Krishna himself. He was plagued by doubts. If he had not had any doubts, we would never have had the Bhagavad Gita.

But who’s to claim this with any degree of certainty? I would never have the temerity or the confidence to do this. I’ve gone too grey.

Are we here on earth, then, only to ask questions and let the answers take care of themselves?