The intersection of faith and doubt

On first glance, doubt and faith seem like opposites. To the skeptic, faith is the blind acceptance of that which cannot be proven; irresponsibly naïve. To the devout, doubt is blasphemy. But as we learned this week from Don Gately’s struggle with doubt and faith, the two are inexorably intertwined. Gately has been sober for over a year thanks to the saving grace of AA, but he’s baffled as to how he can be saved by something he doesn’t really understand or believe in. How does showing up to a bingo hall full of fellow recovering addicts, listening to their stories, and shouting trite catechisms like “Keep Coming Back,” and “It Works If You Work It,” and “One Day At A Time,”  keep Gately’s cravings for oral narcotics at bay? The answer lies at the intersection of faith and doubt.

Addiction itself is an act of faith. Performing their rituals, like Hal’s descents to the subterranean pump room with his little brass one-hitter, or Joelle’s elaborate improvised free-base cocaine routine, substance abusers trust that their drug of choice will always provide the comfort and relief they’ve come to rely on it for.

“Substances start out being so magically great, so much the interior jigsaw’s missing piece, that at the start you just know, deep in your gut, that they’ll never let you down; you just know it. But they do.”

Divine illusion shattered, addicts Come In to AA. “This unromantic, unhip, clichéd AA thing,” seems hopelessly limp to Gately, and most other newcomers, at first. But as he racks up more and more sober days, Gately is shocked to find that somehow, it really does work.

“And then this goofy slapdash anarchic system of low-rent gatherings and corny slogans and saccharin grins and hideous coffee is so lame you just know there’s no way it could ever possibly work except for the utterest morons… and then Gately seems to find out AA turns out to be the very loyal friend he thought he’d had and then lost, when you Came In.”

The blind faith addicts put into their Substance, the absence of doubt that drugs or alcohol could ever fail you, is every addict’s downfall. AA is the inverse, the antidote. The clichés that form AA’s dogma seem so shallow, inspire so much doubt. That doubt seems crucial to AA’s success. Early in his sobriety, Gately tries to get kicked out of his Beginners meetings by insulting the program and all its participants with obscenity-strewn vitriol. Much to his chagrin, his invectives are met with smiles, thanks, and more trite encouragements to “Keep Coming Back.” Gately is invited to doubt away, and to share that doubt as hatefully as he needs to. You don’t have to believe in AA for it to work. You just have to do it. The deep faith that eventually creeps in is founded on the freedom to doubt. Faith without doubt is empty, doomed to let you down. Doubt interrogates faith, forces it to evolve to new information, and strengthens the foundation on which faith resides.


As staggering as it is that Wallace seems to have prefigured things like Netflix and Snapchat filters (albeit in his analog low-tech way,) the most striking prediction I’ve noticed in Infinite Jest so far is that of “fake news.” That phrase itself pops up more than once in this week’s reading in reference to the spinning newspaper headlines Mario uses to illustrate the chronology of Johnny Gentle’s presidency. Some of the headlines are real, some are fake, and it can be really hard to distinguish between the two. This, in tandem with Gentle’s undeniable Trump-ness and the section on advertising and entertainment, seem to paint a frighteningly familiar picture of America in 2017. In a clickbait world where entertainment, and more troublingly, news, is heavily influenced by the people responsible for funding it, doubt is absolutely crucial. The only hope we have of surviving this administration and our cultural political moment is to be skeptical of everything we hear, research the truth rigorously, and use our best judgment to scrutinize the motivations of content-producers. As Gately teaches us, faith without doubt is a dead-end road. If faith in America is to be upheld, doubt is one of our most powerful tools.

Fake it til you make it

Whoa. Hmmmm. Gah. This week was hard.


These 100-odd pages of IJ have never really shook me before. Not truly. Of course, the stories that come out of the AA meetings are incredibly dark, as is the tale of Eric Clipperton, but I have always enjoyed Mario’s take on The ONANtiad.


But now…now Johnny Gentle just isn’t funny anymore.  To wit:


The Totalitarian’s Guide to Iron-Fisted Spin.








So let’s talk about doubt.  Doubt can double as Denial. Doubt can be paralyzing, sending missed opportunities whizzing past you. Doubt will make you underestimate the permanence of objects.


Geoffrey Day isn’t the only one who doubts that the seemingly benign and trite tenets of AA can actually work.  We spend 36 pages sitting on a hard plastic chair, listening to speakers as they go on their Commitments, sharing their horror stories with each other.  Throughout, Gately shares his experiences with Tiny Ewell, Ken Erdedy and Joelle, encouraging them to release the doubt they have about the efficacy of AA, to just Come In


Lyle lives as much on doubt as he does on the sweat of young boys. LaMont Chu recognizes an intense double bind as he chases The Show. Lyle attempts to release Chu from this fixation with fame by placing a seed of doubt in Chu’s mind, telling him “You burn with hunger for a food that does not exist” (p. 389).


Both Marathe and Steeply circle each other, doubting their respective motivations. Steeply tries to understand why exactly the AFR, with seemingly with no political motivation, are so set on causing extreme chaos and death to U.S. citizens. Marathe counters with his parable of the can of soup, doubting Americans have the capacity for delayed gratification, which Steeply refutes, stating it is as easy as “simply being a mature and adult American instead of a childish and immature American”(p. 428). SIGH.


We never truly learn the motivations for Eric Clipperton’s decision to “win” at any cost, but surely self-doubt as to his own skills, or a crippling need for gratification must be at the core. That his final, actual suicide occurs because he has been given the exact thing he seemed to want seems to infer that self-doubt and an eventual self-awareness pushed him to the other side.


Noted Things:

  • I would love to see someone tackle Mario’s film in all its finger-puppet glory
  • The sad career of the drug-addled headline writer was brilliant
  • Note 304 is sub-referenced in both Note 45 and Note 173. Did you read it the first time? The second time? Are you waiting until 304?
  • There were children at that AA meeting listening to those stories.

Clipperton, Faith and the Dead Option

Hello halated friends,


I’ve been skimming parts of William James’s essay “The Will to Believe” and Bob Corbett’s outline of this essay to think about the theme of doubt and that very grim and serious Jester of ours, Eric Clipperton.


I’ve always felt that the Clipperton spectacle is much more complicated than it seems. I’m going to try unravel some less obvious aspects about the Clipperton scene as I skim through James’s “The Will to Believe.”


Here’s a Wiki summary of “The Will to Believe.”


Emphasis in italics and insertion in square brackets are mine:

“James’ central argument in “The Will to Believe” hinges on the idea that access to the evidence for whether or not certain beliefs are true depends crucially upon first adopting those beliefs without evidence. [This can be construed as “leap of faith,” for ease for later reference.] As an example, James argues that it can be rational to have unsupported faith in one’s own ability to accomplish tasks that require confidence. Importantly, James points out that this is the case even for pursuing scientific inquiry. James then argues that like belief in one’s own ability to accomplish a difficult task, religious faith can also be rational even if one at the time lacks evidence for the truth of one’s religious belief.”


James talks about genuine choice, and to do so he sets out three choices or options:

-live options

-forced options

-momentous options


Bob Corbett summarizes:


He defines a live choice in opposition to a dead choice.

  1. A live choice has some emotive appeal to the chooser. This is an internal and subjective appeal, not a rational or forced appeal.
  2. A dead option or choice is one which has no appeal to the chooser in question.

A dead option is one in which there is “no possibility of not choosing.” (James)


It’s clear that Clipperton’s given himself the dead option; there’s no possibility of not saying no to Clipperton if everyone wants to continue to progress and compete in the Show.


While keeping in mind the summary of James’s lecture, it struck me that Clipperton is unable to take a leap of faith — to leave the question/game open.

I think that this ability to take risks and leave the question open requires a condition/state of mind of doubt. Because he cannot understand doubt, he cannot understand faith. Without this prerequisite of doubt, one can no longer have the propensity to act and to take what can be called a “leap of faith.”


Reading the Clipperton scene in terms of doubt and faith has made me understand how to articulate “faith,” that big, abstract, misunderstood word. I’ve always wondered how to articulate the unconditional and unfounded “worship” that AA asks of you. I think it is exactly this that David Foster Wallace tries to talk about in his commencement speech, This Is Water, particularly when he gives the example of Eskimos who happen to pass by to help a man stuck in the snow/wilderness.


Clipperton blowing his brains out in front of J.O.I. says to me that the illusion of a game can’t be sustained or feel “real” in any way if there aren’t any “living options” or genuine choices made. This is because there’s no emotional, internal, and subjective appeal for Clipperton (this is the definition of a “living option”). I think he doesn’t have a personal stake in it because of the descriptions of Clipperton’s blunted affects and emotions; it’s as though he doesn’t care (despite the fact that it seems like the opposite at first), which is possibly why he has chosen to act excessively and take on the “dead option” that offers “no possibility of not choosing.”


It’s kind of like when kids are playing an innocent game, but they learn the rules quickly and realize the need for there to be something more at stake, which is when it turns slightly violent.


More gloom and doom next week y’all. Thanks for coming back for the fantods.

The heaviness of doubt

Is Doubt the absence of faith? This is the question I see Don Gatley Struggling with in this section. His inability to connect with the “higher power” for Gatley spells out the fear that what kept and is keeping him sober amidst the everyday struggle and pain is not real. In his shoes I would think “if my sobriety comes from God, and God isn’t real then is my Sobriety not real?” This thought process however misses a large truth about life. Doubt in anything is not the absence of faith but the context in which faith develops. You can’t have faith without doubt. Faith without doubt is no faith at all because it removes the need for choice, the mandate for free will over our lives. I also enjoy all the instances where we get to see Gately discuss his faith—his unbelief. A favorite is Gately complaining about his lack of understanding about God and F.F suggests that “maybe anything minor-league enough for Don Gately to understand wasn’t Major-league enough” to save him. In Hebrews 11:1 it says “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” and it gives me joy to see DFW write about something that has been a major leap in dealing with my own doubt. Reading about how Gately no longer cares if he understands or not. You see him no longer focused on analyzing his disbelief but rather living it out through prayer and actually living not being burdened by the heaviness of doubt. I love that Gately continues to tell the Ennet residents the truth. Though we aren’t given specifically what he tells them from the point he’s at now I imagine it’s something along the lines of

“I don’t understand how it worked, but it worked. People told me that it would work and I didn’t know what to believe but I was desperate and needed to believe and now I see that it did work”

This is a beautiful picture of the Gospel in IJ and such a great reminder to me of the wisdom that can be found in this book.

We carry the people in our lives with us by carrying this revelation: There is nothing wrong with doubt. Doubt is healthy. But belief—whether its in God, yourself or the people in your life—amidst the doubt turns it into faith. And faith is what brings the substance, the wisdom we have to share and give from our experience…our fuel for life.