Uncommon Common Sense
By Bill Frayer
Do You Doubt?
It appears to me that we could use a little more humility and doubt in the world these days. I am not sure if this is a new phenomenon or not, but everywhere I look, people seem to be satisfied that they know the “truth.” Whether it’s deeply religious people who totally believe what they read in the Bible, the Koran, or other religious text, or those on the political left or right who believe they have the exactly right answers to our public policy problems, there is a dearth of doubt. This not only leads to rigid, black-and-white thinking, it can also be dangerous.
Poet and Unitarian minister Robert T. Weston has written thoughtfully about this subject. “Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the attendant of truth. Those that would silence doubt are filled with fear; their houses are built on shifting sands.”
These wise words, to me, encapsulate so many of our problems today. When you lack doubt, you are, by definition, not open to opposing views. If you enter every discussion convinced, from the start, that your views are correct, then what is the point of discussion? I guess it’s just to hear the sound of your own voice (which you may enjoy) or to convince others that you are correct after all.
Isn’t the point of debate and discussion to get closer to the truth on a subject? If we bring our different experiences and separate knowledge base to a difficult problem or topic, aren’t we more likely to find a reasonable, defensible position? Too often, as we see in the newspapers and around the dinner table, people are engaging in discussion without any doubt that their views are absolutely correct. The result is, of course, that real dialogue does not occur. Real understanding is not possible.
Weston goes on to say that, “A belief which cannot be questioned binds us to error, for there is incompleteness and imperfection in every belief.” In other words, no belief is without weakness, limitation, and possibly built on some false assumptions. To believe otherwise is arrogant and foolish.
Of course we hold strongly-held beliefs. We all do. But refusing to subject those beliefs to scrutiny, to some degree of doubt, will inevitably lead to rigidity. Well-founded beliefs can withstand serious questions. We should welcome this and subject our ideas to thoughtful examination. And it is possible, that we might have to review and change our beliefs from time to time. After all, even the Dalai Lama has made the assertion that if science produces evidence that conflicts with some tenet of Buddhism, then Buddhism will have to adapt!
So how do we cultivate doubt? How do we subject our beliefs to genuine scrutiny? First, we have to have a willingness to engage in legitimate discussion with those who hold differing views. The most helpful tool at our disposal is to formulate good questions for ourselves and others. Good questions require us to reconsider beliefs and hold them up to the light to see if we can see them more clearly.
Good thinkers enjoy this process. They like to enter a debate with an open mind and look at others’ views and evidence. Recognizing where your views may be unsupported or even wrong presents you with the opportunity to reconsider and refine your beliefs. But coming into any debate without doubt, without an open mind, may feed your ego, but usually leads to a pointless discussion. So how often do you doubt?