By Bill Frayer

The Essential Nature of Doubt


Bill-Frayer-2010Lesley Hazleton who spent several years researching the life of Muhammad and writing his biography recently spoke at the TED Conference and suggested something quite counterintuitive. When, in 610 AD, Muhammad experienced his first revelation of the Koran, he did not celebrate and proclaim that he had received the Truth. He was unconvinced that his vision was real; indeed he thought he had had a hallucination. He was afraid that he had received a curse from the devil.  He was filled with doubt. 

Hazleton goes on, in her talk, to make the point that doubt is essential to faith. To have faith in anything, we must have doubt. Certainty is clearly not the same as faith.  Absolute, blind belief, in her words, “is an antidote to thought.”  To have faith, we have to also harbor doubt; otherwise, it’s not faith.  

Those of us who believe in the primacy of science and empirical evidence must also harbor some degree of doubt.  If we believe in the scientific method, we must be ready to accept that what we think we know might not actually be true after all. Scientists have been proving one another wrong for centuries. It goes with the territory of seeking the truth. 

Rene Descartes was one of the first formal doubters when he declared, “Never to accept anything as true that I do not know to be evidently so.”  He ultimately doubted everything but his own awareness of himself as a thinking being with his famous proclamation: Cogito, ergo sum.  I think, therefore I am. 

Many of us have long experience with the concept of doubt.  I remember, upon hearing about Santa Claus and his method of delivering gifts, even at that young age, I had doubts about how he could accomplish such a feat in one evening. I had doubt when I asked my Episcopalian minister whether people who lived in China or India were going to hell, even if they were unfamiliar with Jesus and could not be “saved.”  I have doubt every day when I consider if I am doing the right thing. 

Of course, with doubt, we can have faith.  We can have faith that if we live a healthy life we will live a long time.  We can have faith that we will get democracy right eventually (a stretch?). We can have faith that the world can become more peaceful and prosperous for everyone.  We can have faith even while consumed with doubt. 

Colin Blakemore, a neuroscientist at Oxford, put it well when he stated, “Doubt is the engine of intelligence.  We suffer from a surfeit of certainty.  The most powerful philosophy is to ask whether there is a possibility that you are wrong.”

Too many people today are suffering from insufficient doubt. Many politicians have no doubt about the correctness of their views. Fundamentalist religions proclaim to have all the answers; no thinking is required. It is simpler not to doubt at all, but believe what others proclaim to be true. 

Here’s a question for each of us. How often do we doubt those things we believe? How certain are we of our core beliefs? How seriously do we consider the possibility that we might just be wrong?

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