Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Doubt is a Core Value

It is our responsibility as scientists, knowing the great progress and great value of a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, the great progress that is the the fruit of freedom of thought, to proclaim the value of this freedom, to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed, and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations.
- - - Richard Feynman

Here is how things go wrong: beliefs hold the believer. The believer acts, thinks and perceives the world through his beliefs and in order to support them, and is cognitively and morally blinded and enslaved; unable to inquire outside a narrow, nonthreatening sphere, and willing to use any means whatever to propagate the One Truth.  Then belief exists for it's own sake, and it can escape all moral restraints, with terrible consequences that are only too well known.The problem is not so much the belief systems themselves, but with the banishment of the one great value: doubt.

Descent into Delusion in King Lear
In one of Shakespeare's greatest plays, King Lear, Cordelia, the loving and loyal daughter who expresses her honest doubts, is banished from the kingdom, and the aging king splits his kingdom between two flatterers, with a resulting disastrous spiral into madness. My interpretation of this play is that Cordelia's banishment stands for the intolerance of skeptical doubt by institutions that rely on unquestioned dogma, and Lear's descent into madness is what happens to any and all of us when doubt is forsaken (I wanted to name my daughter Cordelia, but that idea was vetoed).

The dark rabbit hole in which you find yourself without doubt may be private, tribal, or institutional, but the most hellish aspect is that you won't realize you've fallen in there.  In Lear's case, Cordelia's return restored his lucidity, but it was too late to save him.

Even the most skeptical among us have beliefs, and I use the word belief here in the common sense: if we act and think as if a certain proposition is true, then we say we believe it.  These beliefs interact in complex systems of beliefs, tightly coupled to a system of value judgments; to which values we also give the name of belief.

I believe in doubt, and any other belief that would find a place in my belief system must make peace with doubt and with being doubted, no matter how worthy of acceptance that belief may appear.  This is a value judgment, but a well tested one, and coherent with all available evidence. It is a value I trace back to at least the 18th century Enlightenment, the movement that included the founding of the American  Republic.

Doubt is not the opposite of belief, but is the great civilizer of belief.  With doubt, the belief system itself is no longer an object of worship - and if it is awe and reverence you seek, you will find it beyond doctrine and dogma.  With doubt, we no longer need to hate heretics and infidels.  With doubt, we can grow and learn and strike out in unfamiliar directions without fear. 

Doubt doesn't function in the abstract, but in action, rubbing up roughly against real life and nature. Doubt is a characteristic of how we proceed. We value doubt because of the many benefits of its action, and the horrors of its absence.  Without doubt, even science would degenerate into tribalism, and progress would not only be impossible, but dangerous.

Doubt does not work as a purely private matter, and needs to be shared, mutually valued and encouraged to prosper.  We are all such messy tangles of blind spots, biases, and overcommitments that we need access to other minds to help us identify error.  Fortunately, we have very sophisticated technologies for accessing other minds: spoken and written language.  This blog is one attempt to reach other minds to keep my own deluded thoughts at bay.

That's enough from me, what do you think?

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  1. I couldn't agree more. Hold your beliefs, value them on their own merits, and still still doubt them a little, just to be sure.

  2. It's life outside the comfort zone, which is where the opportunities live.