The wisdom of doubt

The wisdom of doubt

3 min read

Often doubt is something eschewed not worth having or to be avoided, an undeserable trait borne of a lack of insight or ability in some form or another. It’s often considered a form of ignorance because one who is doubtful is seen as not confident, not composed, and not collected – a person who is unsure and hesitant to make heard one’s beliefs about the world, plagued by indecision. It’s viewed, at worst, as a form of mental paralysis and insecurity.

Doubt, seen through this lense, is exemplified by our culture, where there is a sense of desired certainty and perseverance, an incarnate and determined “moving forward” mantra to keep pace with life, to chase down the percieved rewards of our labors in a competitive world, seeking success, without thought of—more than superficially—what is being pursued. The West has long had a very industrious culture. Everyone wants one of the limited and coveted fruits off of the tree of success, without knowing how the fruit will really taste. We fight for the limited supply of status and recognition without a thought of where we’re headed, or why we’re heading. Competition and determination are not inherently bad, but when one hasn't examined their aims closely, inquiring about what they really are after, there is a potential for harm to result, damaging those involved. This is an example of where a healthy form of doubt (in this case, cultural) should enter into the picture.

Doubt has notable and redeeming benefits seldom examined and embraced by mainstream culture. Doubt, however negative it may seem at first blush, is the first step on the staircase to embracing introspection; introspection is only possible while suspending (conclusive) judgement. Indeed, it requires a suspense of conviction, even if temporarily, to allow for meaningful contact with the many things we do not know, and may like to know, if given a moment to entertain.

When certainty enters one’s mind, it may jettison the ability for one to refine the position presently held. In other words, once one has been convinced of a particular point of view or persuasion, mental exploration of the other side (or even of discovering more sides) is shut down. If one is unable to explore an opposing position due to it being immediately dismissed as “wrong,” how does one really know the other side is actually wrong? One hasn’t checked, only wrongly assumed! The only way to arrive at certainty worth having, is to firstly, subject oneself to the necessary ambivalence of doubt.

In an age of curated news and social media, echo chambers have become a serious risk. We are increasingly captive to them. This risk is amplified greatly without this essential mental tool of introspective analysis. We become isolated within the walls of our tailored social media and news feeds all the more greatly—without checking our views properly—through reflexive denial. This form of isolation creates the aforementioned echo chamber of resounding confirmations, without any room for skepticism. We must, however much we are able, become our own fact-checkers. Additionally, the preponderance of “fake news” today is, doubtless to say, clear evidence that we must, collectively, cultivate this valuable mental tool.

Bertrand Russell, a prominent 20th century philosopher and mathematician, argued for the importance of doubt,

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”

Doubt of this form is not spring from a lack of confidence, nor is it a form of self-deprecating resignation to feelings of uncertainty. In other words, it’s not an insecurity borne of uncertainty, resulting in a lack of decisiveness, and drive to pursue life. It’s not a malaise, resulting from indecision, and a lack of determination.

Instead, doubt is the essential starting point from which we can more accurately assess the world, without prematurely jumping to conclusions based on ignorance: ignorance of conclusions opposing one's own. Acceptance of uncertainty gives rise to a healthy form of confidence, not false confidence fueled by a knee-jerk denial of contrary perspectives. It’s the realization that we are all human: the products of experience and upbringing, tradition and culture. We are all perfectly imperfect beings, each one of us; because it couldn’t be any other way. We cannot always be right, especially not at first. And knowing this may help each of us open up to a world of ideas and perspectives we never considered taking seriously as a result of mental rigidity and unfounded assumptions… and not enough doubt.

Note: This essay was updated for clarity post-publication.