The Case for Doubt

“Leave that which makes you doubt for that which does not make you doubt, for truth leads to reassurance and lies lead to uncertainty.”  -From The Hadith

 Our beliefs are comfortable. They are the space in which we seek an inner refuge and create a sense of certainty in a life that more often than not forces us to make imperfect decisions with incomplete information. It is also true however that the level of comfort that our beliefs give us is rarely correlated with the accuracy of those beliefs, and herein, lies the problem.

To further complicate matters, beliefs do not stand isolated, each one its own pillar in a sea of independent thoughts carried by individuals with no social allegiances. On the contrary many of our beliefs – if not most- are part of larger social contexts we may perhaps more familiarly call ideologies. Often they are formed if not outright inherited from these contexts and tie us to a group to which we exhibit a loyalty that makes questioning our beliefs a form of social treachery to our group. However it is precisely these reasons that should compel us to question what we believe or if I may challenge the age old wisdom I began by quoting, to leave that which does not make us doubt for that which does.  No belief, no matter how strongly held or staunchly adhered to is beyond question.

Question everything. Hold nothing sacred beyond doubt.

Certainly there are things that we could question that would make for an interesting intellectual exercise but that we know at the outset aren’t really controversial. Questions in this category would include: “Is the earth flat?” “Are snake handling preachers prudent?” “Is the DC Universe better than the Marvel Universe?”  However there are some rather interesting questions one could ask which may be uncomfortable, dare I say cringe-worthy even, in the context of modern society that exactly  train us in objectivity, intellectual clarity and honesty. For example why should a 28 year old not be allowed to have a romantic relationship with a 16 year old? Certainly nature has no problem with this and historically I am confident that our ancestors would not have balked at such a union at all. What then makes it so automatically wrong? So much so, such that we no longer even entertain it? The exercise here is to start with the “belief” that it is not wrong, and to defend this position in an attempt to find one’s way back to one’s original belief – which I assume for the purpose of this discussion is that, such a relationship is immoral. If we fail to articulate clear and coherent arguments in favour of this counter-position then we are left to ask of ourselves: Why then do we believe the tested premise be true?

As I already alluded to, challenging beliefs like this leaves us open to becoming social pariahs, but it is a necessary activity for any rational person to conduct on an individual level. And while questioning statutory rape will for most people (I presume) quickly converge on an answer in favor of allowing children to grow up before engaging them in adult relationships, many other widely held ideologies may not in fact survive an honest inquisition. Unfettered capitalism and free market liberalism, communism and god beliefs, all in my opinion, are hard to come back to once we depart from them with rational examination. In the cases where people revert to these positions I am convinced it is largely due to the need to maintain their identity, social cohesion and aforementioned loyalty.

The central question is simply this: Do we care if what we believe is true? And by that I mean: Objectively true. To clarify further I mean to ask: If no one in the whole of humanity believed it would it still be true? There are other ways to describe objective truth but that is a (rather long) subject for another day. If the answer to the question above is: Probably not, then should not the corresponding action be to abandon such a belief?

Ultimately what is most true is that, if beliefs are founded in reality and therefore necessarily supported by evidence, it should be easy to find one’s way back to them after having intentionally and violently questioned them. In fact, more than that, if in fact a genuine reflection and study of the evidence without bias leads one back to the same set of beliefs, then our ability to articulate and defend these questioned beliefs will grow all the more richer for the effort. Leading each of us to converge on a more accurate model of truth.



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