THE RECURSIVITY OF SELF-DOUBT

 

If I retired now – which not long ago, at sixty-eight, people would have thought was well overdue – how would my life change? I might have to tighten my belt a little, but probably by only one notch. I’d still have my wife, my kid and hers, my bro and hers, our friends, our cats, our dogs, my chess buddies, our theology reading group, our house, our car, a full fridge, our annual week of narrowboating on the canals in England, and our second home for the summers in our village overlooking the Amalfi coast. And I’d still read and think and talk and write.

But what would change is that to what I say and write, no one would pay me any mind, whereas now my students have no choice. It’s that now what I think matters – whereas then it wouldn’t – not because what I say and write is right, though it is, but because even if it weren’t, my students still have to respond to it.

This is a profoundly humbling thought. My self-esteem is entirely parasitic on my power over others. Well now, doesn’t that make me feel special?!

Thoughts that humble don’t bear thinking about. So instead what I have to tell myself – and so I do – is that whoever would replace me will be as stupid as my colleagues, who’ve proven their stupidity by having made no secret of thinking I am.

My only worry – and it’s really only a niggle – is that we once had a colleague, now thankfully retired, who I’m pretty sure thought exactly as I’m thinking now, and yet he really was stupid. So is it possible that …? No. How did Descartes put it? Ah yes, to doubt that I’m capable of thinking straight is just to shut down my thinking altogether.

We had another colleague who knew when he’d lost it, and did the honorable thing. But I don’t entirely trust myself to do likewise. So I’ve assigned one of my better students the unenviable task of telling me when it’s my time to fall on my sword. This requires a whole lot of trust in the judgment of others. And that in turn requires the wisdom to know that some things just do require a whole lot of trust in the judgment of others. Of course whether I’ll exhibit that wisdom when that time actually comes is another …

But hang on. What if that time has already come? What if I’ve fired the obviously malfunctioning canary in the coalmine, and replaced her with a sycophant more to my liking?

Is there a test one can perform to assure himself he’s still got it? In his First Meditation Descartes argued not. But in the Sixth he reversed himself and concluded there’s a coherence within waking and within dreaming – or in my case within having lost it – that’s not there between them. That would be helpful if I were experiencing some kind of disconnect between my thoughts. But when I’m dreaming I don’t, do I? And so if I were dreaming I wouldn’t, would I? So in the same way that there’s no way out of the global dream argument, neither is there a way out of having lost it, unless there are moments in which one hasn’t. But then, in those moments in which he hasn’t lost it, he’ll dismiss those moments in which he has as no big deal because they’re corrigible.

Am I having even these corrigible moments of having lost it? Absolutely not! Not once! Never!

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