Reappraising Doubt It’s not such a bad thing after all

On the whole, doubt often gets a bad rap. We don’t like it; we prefer certainty. Having doubts about a shop’s trust­wor­thi­ness will make you less likely to buy from them. If we doubt our lover’s commit­ment to the rela­tion­ship, we feel sad and uneasy. Living through expe­ri­ences that cast doubt on our beliefs and convic­tions can be deeply unset­tling.

The ways in which we deal with doubt may reveal some insights into what makes us human and how to find your way in a life in which uncer­tainty will always play a part.

Flux Is the Name of the Game

Imagine a universe in which nothing ever changes, or in which all change was perfectly predictable. First of all: what a boring world that would be! And second: in such a universe, there would be no room for uncer­tainty. Change drives doubt.

Doubt is an expres­sion of our aware­ness that the nature and the conse­quences of changes in our lives will affect us in ways we cannot foresee. But this, in itself, is not a bad thing. A change, after all, may also turn out for the better. In this sense, doubt is akin to risk: it’s a neutral epiphe­nom­enon of the fact that there is some­thing we don’t know. More specif­i­cally: a poten­tial for change whose outcome is unknown to us.

And we don’t like not knowing.

La Fée Ignorante (The Ignorant Fairy) by René Margitte (source)

Antidotes to Doubt

No matter how hard we try, however, there is no escaping doubt. The ques­tion then becomes how to deal with life’s under­cur­rent of uncer­tainty.

Two promi­nent answers to that chal­lenge are: knowl­edge and hope.

Knowledge for the Ignorance-Averse

Our innate aver­sion to igno­rance must be deeply embedded in the essence of our being. I’m not a fan of the term “hard-wired,” but it makes sense to think that our brains and minds have evolved to appre­ciate knowl­edge and avoid doubt.

Imagine an early hominid, one of your ances­tors, strug­gling to survive on the sub-Saharan plains. For them, it would be much better to know where a food source is, even if they didn’t use it. Much better to know where to find sanc­tuary from preda­tors, even if there are none in sight.

By contrast, if they lived in doubt about where to find suste­nance or shelter, their chances of surviving in an ever-changing envi­ron­ment would be much slimmer. No wonder that we go to such lengths to pass on what we have learned to the next gener­a­tion through ritual, legend, myth, art, craft, science, philos­ophy, culture and civi­liza­tion.

Hope for the Optimistic

It is diffi­cult to over­es­ti­mate the value of hope. Without it, our mental land­scape would be one of dejec­tion and despair. From one-on-one rela­tion­ships to world­wide reli­gions, hope is the driving force behind much of what we do.

In Greek mythology, all the evils of the world are unleased on humankind in the story of Pandora’s Jar. It’s no coin­ci­dence that hope is born in that same myth. In an apt metaphor, after Pandora had unwit­tingly released the ills and trou­bles contained in her jar, she took one last look inside and found the one thing that was left… hope.

Pandora by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (source)

Hope is our last resort; it’s the one thing that can still moti­vate us after all other reasons to go on have fallen away. It is the jump-start for opti­mism when all other justi­fi­ca­tions fail. Hope takes that quin­tes­sen­tial engine of our humanity—the ability to see the world as it is not—and uses it to urge us on against seem­ingly insur­mount­able odds.

On the Downside-Upside

Both knowl­edge and hope, however, have an Achilles’ heel.

The value of knowl­edge is pred­i­cated on the condi­tion that it reflect reality. The “knowl­edge,” applied by Copernicus, that the planets revolve around the sun in perfect circles was super­seded by Kepler’s calcu­la­tions proving that their orbits were in fact ellipses. In this case, lo and behold, doubts about the old Ptolemaic cosmology stepped in to save the day and open the door to new insights. Maybe doubt isn’t so bad after all.

And the value of hope rests on the possi­bility of it being fulfilled. I may “hope” to grow wings and learn to fly, but that won’t do me any good. It’s possible to be buoyed up by hope even where no hope is justi­fied. We call that, of course, “false hope”. In such cases, using the crowbar of doubt to break free of unre­al­istic hopeful expec­ta­tions and find new avenues may be the better route to travel. Again: it appears that doubt may have its merits.

The Rules of Play

In essence, this is all about skep­ti­cism. It’s a philo­soph­ical tradi­tion that goes back to ancient Greece and that was rein­vig­o­rated in 17th-century Europe and beyond. In essence, it says that we cannot be naively confi­dent that what appears to be true actu­ally is true. For example, a straw in a glass of water is still straight, even though it seems to be bent at the water­line.

Today, the word skep­ti­cism refers more often to scien­tific skep­ti­cism: the idea that we should subject our ideas to rigorous scrutiny and test their validity in an objec­tive, rational and dispas­sionate way.

Doubt is a key ingre­dient of a skep­tical mindset. In a sense, it’s a balancing act. On the one hand, nothing is exempt from doubt. On the other hand, once an idea or theory has been tested thor­oughly and is supported by robust evidence, it deserves protec­tion from spurious coun­ter­claims. In other words: you’re allowed and even encour­aged to doubt every­thing, but your doubt must be justi­fied.

Maintenant le roi aimait la science et la géogra­phie… (Now the King loved science and geom­etry…) by Marc Chagall (source)

Knowledge and Hope, Again

Back to knowl­edge and hope, our “anti­doubts” to uncer­tainty. I like to think that in a very real sense, knowl­edge is hope.

As a state of mind or mental safety net, hope per se is invalu­able. But to distin­guish between justi­fied hope and false hope, you need to know about the world we live in. Knowledge both moder­ates and invig­o­rates hope.

And knowl­edge is a guiding light, but it is always at risk of being stifled or petri­fied by ideology and dogma­tism. The hope of improving and expanding our under­stand of the world is what keeps the projects of science, art and philos­ophy moving along.

Perhaps it makes more sense to see the rela­tion­ship between knowl­edge and hope on the one hand and doubt on the other as a symbi­otic one. They all spring from our profound under­standing that the world will always be changing and that our capacity to affect that change is very limited. Our capacity to pursue knowl­edge and invoke hope are a coun­ter­bal­ance for the moments at which our doubts might become over­whelming or exis­ten­tial; and our ability to admit doubt into our world view keeps the door open to new ways of enriching our knowl­edge and finding new reasons to hope.

• • •

Image credit: Athena by Erté (adapted from source)

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