Wordplay: Trying to Reason With 'Reasonable Doubt'

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was acquitted last week thanks to 'reasonable doubt,' prompting some reasonable questions about these words

Each and every week, news stories highlight words and phrases in our public discourse. This week we had the divorce (or possible annulment ) of the 70-night-long marriage of inconvenience of Netanyahu-Mofaz, over the issue of a "draft." Indeed, as often happens with couples, one of the parties wanted the window to stay open and the other was cold.

But I am still stuck in the events of last week, when former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was acquitted by the Jerusalem District Court of two indictments (and convicted in one ) due to "reasonable doubt." This unholy matrimony of words and concepts, forged in the court of law, couples a noun (doubt ) and an adjective (reasonable ) - each of them a concept that merits attention on its own right, and both of them together forming a verbal and legal hybrid whole that is more than a sum of its parts.

The OED defines "doubt" as "a feeling of uncertainty or lack of conviction" (conviction here not in its legal sense ), the etymology being from the Latin dubitare, to hesitate. Wikipedia - and I quote this immensely popular, albeit notoriously unreliable source for a reason - defines this type of hesitation, i.e. "doubt", as "a status between belief and disbelief, involves uncertainty or distrust or lack of sureness of an alleged fact, an action, a motive, or a decision."

In my rather limited mind "belief" implies that there is an entity in which to believe - i.e., a deity - so I immediately started to look for the first inklings of "doubt" in the Bible. And indeed, it seems that the first "doubter" after the Creation was the snake, who questioned the validity of God's warning that taking a bite from the fruit of the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden is bound to be lethal.

The snake was right in the short run: Unlike Snow White, Eve and Adam did not choke while taking a bite (or byte ) from the apple, and did not "surely die" there and then. However, they did become mortal and died a couple of hundred years later. Maybe this is what inspired John Maynard Keynes to quip in our times (roughly ) that, "In the long run, we are all dead."

The God of the Bible senses the threat that doubt constitutes to his omnipotence and spares no effort to alleviate any inkling of it. When Moses doubts whether Pharaoh will believe that he is indeed God's emissary, capable of delivering on divine threats, God furnishes him with a rod that turns into a snake when thrown on the ground. Thus Moses speaks stutteringly, but carries a big stick. But when Moses as much as hints that he doubts God's words, by striking a rock with his rod twice - instead of pleading with it to pour water - as instructed, God punishes him severely by barring him from entering to the Promised Land.

All three monotheistic faiths take doubt seriously. Christianity gave Western culture the character of Doubting Thomas, one of Jesus' apostles who did not believe at first in the resurrection, and insisted: "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it" (John 20:25, New International Version ). Eight days and two verses later he gets his wish, and is told by Jesus: "Stop doubting and believe."

The Quran states very clearly at the beginning of the second chapter, Surat Al-Baqarah (The Cow ): "This is the Book about which there is no doubt, a guidance for those conscious of Allah."

It just occurred to me that while it seems as if you have to believe in order to doubt, it could equally be that a nagging existential doubt made homo sapiens (many years before he/she came up with the words for it ) conjure up the concept of an omnipotent deity to set his/her unquiet mind at rest.

Be that as it may, the sense of guilt invoked in humans by demanding (and vengeful, as they have tended to be ) deities may have been more than enough of an incentive to devise some self-defense in the form of doubt, and to exploit all of its benefits. Many theologians and clerics of various denominations have tried over the ages to keep their faiths alive in spite of all the doubts, but with the Age of Reason it looked as if doubt was going to prevail as a basic approach to life - for the enlightened, at least. Instead of trusting God, one was expected to doubt all and to trust one's own capacity to reason and one's experiences so as to make up one's mind.

Indeed, doubt seems to be an excellent safety-valve which keeps one alert and aware, and out of the jaws of danger. From my (brief and long-ago ) army days I remember the adage "If there is a doubt (as to the feasibility of any action ), there is no doubt (that one should not undertake it )." Many lives and souls have been spared by adhering to this idea. I have been told that a famous chef coined the saw, "When in doubt, strain." Professionally, I myself follow one golden rule when stumbling upon some mangled and tangled paragraph in the copy I edit: "When in doubt, cut it out." (Dear copy editor: Please disregard the last sentence. )

So, if doubt in itself is such a good thing to have to keep one out of trouble, why does the Olmert verdict resort to the qualifying adjective "reasonable"? Why isn't doubt as to the possible guilt of the defendant enough to acquit him? Possibly because of the human tendency to doubt almost everything, and especially any accepted authority, which has led over time to an inflation in the value of the notion of doubt itself. As it seems now, there is bound to be doubt as to the validity (impartiality, gravity, seriousness ) of the doubt - the benefit of which the defendant seeks - and legal theory and practice demand an accusation be proved "beyond a reasonable doubt."

What does "reasonable" mean in this particular context? OED defines "reasonable" as "having sound judgment; fair and sensible," the derivation being from the Latin rationabilis ("rational" ). This raises a further query: "Sound, fair and sensible" according to whom? Is there a "reason" which is impregnable to "doubt"?

Here the Online Etymology Dictionary supplies the missing link, as it were, quoting from Erich Fromm's "The Heart of Man": "What the majority of people consider to be 'reasonable' is that about which there is agreement, if not among all, at least among a substantial number of people; 'reasonable' for most people, has nothing to do with reason, but with consensus."

So, is there, or can there be, a consensus concerning the reasonability of doubt, beyond which Olmert's guilt was proven or not in Jerusalem District Court? I'm sorely tempted to say I rather doubt it. Reason had apparently fled, not necessarily to brutish beasts, but to all kind of websites that are used as sources (for instance, Wikipedia, Facebook and the like ), and they keep sowing doubt, rich in rhyme, even if short on reason.

All Doubting Thomases notwithstanding - and they are fighting it out in the press - the Olmert case will most probably go on to the Supreme Court. And though it stands to reason that its decision is supposed to be final, I'm afraid I tend to doubt even that. Or, rather, I tend to be afraid that there is a doubt about that.