The Value of Doubt

If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.

-Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning

One of the most persistent problems related to information is that there’s so much of it. In dealing with the ever-increasing stream of news, video clips, e-mails and other media, one can easily feel forced to react quickly. Deliberation and careful consideration are difficult and take conscious effort – skimming an article or passively watching a video takes almost none. It is then all too easy to start accepting things uncritically, to simply believe in what one is told. Not only should this bother us as thinking creatures, but it is also the quickest path to being fooled. Critical thinking skills are crucial, and yet so easy to throw aside – it is too easy to feel too sure, which is why it’s so important to be able to doubt.

The origins of this problem are many – from the mentioned flurry of information, through education which favours rote memorization over independent thought, all the way to culture which stresses the need to “keep up”. And it doesn’t really matter if a person, when asked, says that they think clearly, or they carefully consider what they are told. The marketers know better – even if the message is not logically sound, it will stick if repeated often enough or at opportune enough times, which is why you will see the same advertisement multiple times, or why a child will see advertisements in video games. But the point here isn’t just about commercial messages – all messages can distort the facts. Without critically assessing information, there is no reason to think that we have actually understood anything. At best, we might have memorized the message.

This is an invitation to anyone reading to evaluate his or her stance on doubt. Doubt is uncomfortable, and actively engaging in doubting even more so. We have a whole host of emotions associated with doubt that can make us uneasy it its presence. Yet beyond the emotions, like the simple feeling of confusion, lies the essence of inquiry, so taking the effort to doubt is necessary to keep a sound mind, just like some physical activity is necessary to keep a sound body. More than this, it is precisely because we doubt that we check things out. Therefore, it is worth taking the time to carefully read an article or carefully listen to a show and ask oneself: does this really make sense? Has that person really provided a convincing argument for what he or she said? Is this a fact or an opinion? This is harder than it seems, and it requires getting used to before one can spot faulty reasoning – but this is not a reason to avoid the practice. If you have never tried it, do so now. Pick any article from your favourite source and take the time to read it carefully.

There’s of course one more thing: as if all this critical thinking wasn’t enough, the decision to just be critical will not suffice – even in the case of an apparent success. As I said, it is easy to think that one has figured something out, to become mechanical in one’s thinking, and thus too certain – fake certainty is a common folly. It doesn’t stop being a problem just because we know of our previous blunders. Therefore, in the interest of not keeping the reader (you) too sure, I would like to remind you to not take anything at face value “just because” – this involves this very blog and this very article. Think of these articles as the starting, not the ending point of your considerations. And then continue the previous exercise: ask yourself why you thought critically when you did. This should get you accommodated with doubt enough that it doesn’t feel so strange anymore.

Can we know when we should doubt, or is it itself doubtful?

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