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Wednesday, February 28, 2024
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HomeCulture WarsIn praise of doubt

In praise of doubt

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PHILOSOPHER John Gray says we are in an era of ‘illiberal liberalism’ characterised by a growing tendency to espouse contrived and feeble ideological positions, and to promote them with dogmatic zeal, stifling all opposition and denying others the tolerance that granted the freedom to express such opinions in the first place. 

The speed with which some of these intellectually flabby ideas proliferate is enhanced worryingly by technology and social media to produce a collective hysteria and a momentum that eclipses logic, insight, intelligence and common sense.

The militancy with which these ideas are imposed on our societies and infused into our culture displays an astonishing lack of humility and a failure to welcome discourse and debate – treasured features of a culture that has found a voice within philosophy, religion and science for thousands of years.

Such a damaging position is predicated on a sense of certainty and the arrogant assertion of dogma. This development has become politicised with the unfortunate consequence that it has coerced and manipulated institutions that have been frightened to oppose such views, however intellectually and ethically impoverished they may be.

The digital era and the accelerating evolution of technology and artificial intelligence is as mind-boggling as it is unsettling. This unstoppable drive to imbue everyday life and the functions of our societies (socially, politically and economically) with the method and language of technology is, without doubt, impressive. But the technological wizardry that underpins it all is based on a binary, digital paradigm that is also founded on certainty and predictability; no room for doubt, only passionate faith in the power of the algorithm. 

As this trend develops, invading more and more aspects of our lives, a critical consequence is emerging: the erosion of one of the most precious features of humanity, the exquisite nature of doubt and the humility that it fosters. This doubt, this humility has allowed human beings to question, to speculate and to debate the most pressing issues regarding what it is to be human. Thousands of years of dialogue and respectful argument have seen most ideas that have claimed to answer all the important questions overturned, contradicted, superseded or developed. Critically, the proponents have, in free liberal societies anyway, conducted their arguments in relative freedom against a background of tolerance and freedom of speech. (Lapses have occurred when this freedom has collapsed under the pressure of dictatorship.) But as this climate seems poised to disappear under a cloud of bigotry and intolerance, technology – for all its prowess and undoubted value – seems set to intensify this trend to squeeze out doubt, tolerance and debate, and with it the humility that was once our salvation and our strength.

For all its usefulness, AI may well simulate many human functions but it is likely to fail in the simulation of the human experience of this doubt and humility. The trouble is that the technological brave new world might rob humans of that invaluable feature of their humanity and alienate us from something in which we used to have faith, whether religion, institutions or ourselves. The resulting sense of disorientation and anxiety have led to a ‘religion’ of control, and a virtual seizing of spurious causes coupled with an equally spurious sense of virtue. It is creating a ‘fundamentalist’ mindset as toxic as the fundamentalist wars of religion and nationalism.

True liberalism may, as Gray says, have had its day. But with its demise, the decay penetrates our lives. We urgently and desperately need to question this moral and political degradation, along with its rhetoric, that is being woven into our cultures, with all their prejudices and illusions. 

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Robert Lever
Robert Lever
Robert Lever has been a lecturer, author and practitioner in osteopathic medicine for 50 years.

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