In Praise of Doubt

Postmodernism has always seemed to me to be an over-reaction to absolutism, which its adherents see as pervading modern society. They deride “scientism”, mistakenly believing that science lays down laws that are not challengeable. As Sir Karl Popper showed us, nothing in science can ever be said to be definitively proved.

Carl Sagan, the American astronomer and science writer said:

“At the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes – an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive they may be, and the most ruthless skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense.”

Nevertheless, in the hazy melange of relativism that postmodernists promote, all manner of beliefs and assumptions not subject to such “ruthless skeptical scrutiny” are seemingly given equal weight when trying to determine the truth. Postmodernists are right to be concerned about absolutism; it is just that their reaction to it is not particularly helpful.

Now, I make this point because I believe the belief in absolutes is one of the great threats to our society. I just did not want to be identified with the post-modernists and their unhelpful resort to deconstruction.

History suggests that the damage done to humanity by absolutism far outweighs any deleterious effects of relativism.

On the surface it would appear that absolutists hold their beliefs with such confidence that it seems a waste of time to challenge them. In fact, as I have proposed elsewhere, it has always seemed to me that the dogmatic absolutists maintain their beliefs in religion, politics and even in such signature issues as catastrophic anthropogenic climate change, not because they have no doubts but because they can’t afford to question such material with which they have identified so strongly. When Sunni Muslims kill Shia Muslims it is not because the Sunni’s believe the Shia’s views are so aberrant that they cannot be tolerated. It is because, at least at a subconscious level, the Sunnis identify so strongly with their religious precepts that they cannot bear to have them questioned. Catholics and Protestants commit heinous crimes for the same reasons. Socialists and capitalists, republicans and monarchists, and even avid supporters of national sporting teams are often driven similarly. It would help the human cause immensely if such absolutist proponents could disassociate their chosen belief systems (which at a fundamental level they often don’t believe in) from their personal identities.

If we hold beliefs that can’t rationally be defended then we can’t afford to have them challenged. In the past when our societies were more religiously focussed such a challenge was dismissed as blasphemy. It seems in today’s more secular world a number of classes of secular blasphemy have arisen to prevent discussion and argument on beliefs that their adherents can’t rationally defend. (We are currently seeing manifestations of this in the debate about proposed changes to section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act.)

Absolutism is largely learnt by rote whereas relativism is informed by experiment and thus alternatives are tried and hypotheses are challenged

The American playwright and wit, Wilson Mizener once said, “I respect faith, but doubt is what gives you an education.”

We could have a deep philosophical debate about what constitutes a “belief”. However for the purposes of the current discussion let me share with you the thoughts of the great American jurist, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. He was particularly insightful when speaking of beliefs. He talked about beliefs being “deep-seated preferences”.

“When I say a thing is true, I mean that I cannot help believing it. But I do not venture to assume that my inabilities in the way of thought are inabilities of the universe. I therefore define truth as the system of my limitations, and leave absolute truth for those who are better equipped.”

He adds:

“Certitude is not the test of certainty. We have been cock-sure of many things that were not so.”

But of course, contrary to Holmes statement above’, no one is better equipped. We all face such limitations.

As previously mentioned, our situation is exacerbated when our sense of self is closely tied to our beliefs. The good Dr Phil has shown me that the intellect is not free. Indeed as he maintains “the Will directs the armies of the Intellect to defend the Self at whatever cost!” Thus an Absolutist with a fixed idea or belief will always find a way, in the end, to convince himself that he is right!

Indeed it takes a deal of psychological maturity and a robust sense of self to maintain an open mind. We need to understand that the opinion we are arguing for is merely the hypothesis we favour, necessarily imperfect, probably transitory, which only very limited minds can declare to be a certainty or a truth.

As our civilisation has progressed we have acquired more knowledge and a better understanding of the Universe. In the absence of supreme wisdom and infinite knowledge we must acknowledge that we can only have a perception of reality. As our knowledge increases, so our perception changes and hopefully improves. In the dim past, it was a reasonable position to assume the world was flat, that magicians could defy the laws of physics, that the plague was caused by a lack of devotion to God, and so on. But such certitudes are easily debunked today.

That our notions of reality are not absolute is not a modern concept at all. Let me refer you to the teachings of Pyrrho of Elis (ca 365-270 BC). Pyrrho was a Skeptic. Skepticism, in Pyrrho’s sense, is not the dogmatic assertion that nothing at all can be known. It is the acknowledgment that whatever we know at present is simply the way things seem. And of course, how things seem, is mediated by what we know. And if we accept that what we know is forever increasing, then how things seem will also be subject to ongoing change.

Accordingly, if we are wise we need to admit of some doubt even to our most cherished beliefs. In the knowledge that we can never be certain about anything, we need to be open to discussion and debate, and not cling to our fixed beliefs.

Einstein said, “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” And as usual he was probably right!


4 Replies to “In Praise of Doubt”

  1. Hello Ted

    You nearly lost me at “I believe the belief in…” – that was almost too much for me to digest! Nevertheless I clung on to enjoy today’s work!

    In my own musings over the last few years I have been slowly uncovering the many relationships between philosophy, psychology and our growing understanding of the physical world. I read only recently of Jacques Derrida on Deconstruction, George Lakoff on Embodied Cognition, and Elizabeth Loftus on False Memories. So your piece today is, as always, very timely for me.

    It’s still less than 100 years since we all thought that The Milky Way was the ONLY galaxy in the universe. Some estimates are putting the number of galaxies at 500 Billion. I think we really have to move on from “Flat Earth” and “Earth is centre” now.

    I won’t touch Deconstruction, but to explain my reference to Embodied Cognition and False Memories, in case it wasn’t clear: If physical sensations like washing hands and being heavy can affect our thoughts, decisions and beliefs, then surely our increasing understanding of our place in the universe (or is it the multiverse?) and our own physiology must deliver to us a compelling need for humility. How can we ever be really sure about anything?

  2. Hi Ted, I have been inspired by many of your essays, particularly along the lines of “In Praise of Doubt”. Thus, I have revised the Ten Commandments to read as follows:
    My Ten Commandments, Plus one
    1. To start, cause no harm to any living thing, except in mercy, or for food, or for the protection of a higher order being.
    2. Do unto others as you would them do unto you
    3. Live Life with a sense of joy and wonder
    4. Always seek to be learning something new
    5. Forgive a wrongdoing where it is freely admitted, and honestly regretted
    6. Do not indoctrinate children, teach them to how to think for themselves, how to disagree with you and how to evaluate evidence
    7. Value the future on a timescale longer than your own
    8. Do not discriminate on the basis of sex, race or creed
    9. Do not shrink from administering justice, and do not overlook evil
    10. Do not maintain a cherished belief, if it is not supported by the facts.

    11. Question everything

  3. Thank you Graham. Your comments always intrigue me and send me off to learn more!

    Brian, to my mind you have done a far better job than Moses ever did! Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us.

  4. I think it was Einstein who said something like, “All the experiments in the World can’t prove my theory correct, one experiment can prove it wrong.” It is strange how the truly great creative thinkers are aware of their own fallibility where as most of the so called experts are absolutely certain of their righteousness.

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