“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”
― Siddhārtha Gautama
Every man and woman who goes through college in these United States gets to hear about a French philosopher called René Descartes, and his famous formula, “I think; therefore, I am.” Few have read Descartes’ works, and even fewer ever stopped to think what he meant by that. I did. Not because I’m smarter than anybody else…..but because I was studying General Philosophy in my freshman year of University and I thought I ought to read France’s greatest philosopher myself, and not just take someone else’s word for what he meant. I didn’t know it then, but that was the beginning of a new life for me and a pattern of thinking that has governed my conduct every since. Perhaps it would have happened anyway since I’m the sort of person who always wanted to find out for myself.
But Descartes, who lived and wrote almost four hundred years before I was born, gave me a rational basis for my own temperament and opened up a whole new life of the mind and of the spirit. Descartes’ formula was not complete and it was only half understood. What he really meant, and what I learned from his later work, The Metaphysical Meditations, could be expressed this way: I doubt; therefore, I think; therefore, I am. For doubting is the very essence of thinking. Doubting is the very essence of democracy. It’s the mainspring of what we like to call “Western Civilization.” Buddhism teaches us that in doubt is freedom; without doubt, slavery and totalitarian tyranny.
If you swallow whole everything you’re told, you’re a dead man. That’s what Descartes meant by saying, “I think; therefore, I am.” If you don’t think and doubt then you’re a machine, not a man. Does that mean that you must doubt everything? Wouldn’t that lead to confusion, to paralysis? Certainly not. Every day, every minute, I take decisions and act on the basis of evidence before me. We all do, we must. But I go right on doubting the validity of that decision. I think about it the next day, and the next, again; re-examine it constantly to see if it’s still true. That’s the essence of free will. That is freedom itself.
In industry, doubt means constant striving to find a way to build a better automobile. In medicine, constant search and research for new cures; rejecting, doubting the prejudices of the past. In the profession of journalism, doubt is the very essence of a reporter. The reporter who stops doubting becomes a propagandist, not a reporter.
But what of the soul, what of the spirit? Doesn’t Descartes’ doubt mean a denial of God? Again, certainly not. Descartes, himself, professed his faith in God. He said that doubt was an awareness of imperfection. Therefore, there must also be perfection. But since he never found perfection on Earth, he must assume that there is a divinity. That is perfection. And Descartes’ reasoning is the very denial of atheism, for if you doubt the existence of God, you must also doubt the non-existence of God. This is not just a matter of belief. It is, rather, an act of faith. And faith springs from the soul, not the mind.