Doubt

I’m getting philosophical again, pondering the word “doubt”. Is this a good thing? After all, there is something absolutely the same for people who believe nothing, and people who believe everything. They do not think! Thinking requires doubt, or at least doubt kickstarts thinking. Presuming that with enough thinking, doubt will disappear, and certainty will reign. Or, with enough thinking we can be certain that we do not know. The question might be whether doubt will actually motivate thinking. Perhaps doubt is perfectly fine being static.

Rene Descartes had a thought about thinking, and he used the technique of “methodic doubt”. He looked at three different categories of knowing: authoritative, empirical, and mathematical. Each category had serious issues of being fallible, thus dubious.

He found knowledge from tradition to be dubitable because authorities disagree; empirical knowledge dubitable because of illusions, hallucinations, and dreams; and mathematical knowledge dubitable because people make errors in calculating.

He proposed an all-powerful, deceiving demon as a way of invoking universal doubt. Although the demon could deceive men regarding which sensations and ideas are truly of the world, or could give them sensations and ideas none of which are of the true world, or could even make them think that there is an external world when there is none. The one thing the demon could not make men think is that they exist, when they do not. Thus, “I think, therefore I am.”

Doubt appears to be a “way station”, a good thing for a time, but a place to gather facts and feelings. It is not a place to plant roots and stay. How long can we linger in doubt? Ahh, there’s the rub, too short of a time and you are lazy, too long of a time and you are indecisive. It may be similar to buying fruit, too soon and it may be green. Too late, and it’s well on the way to rot. Again there is no hint of what that timing is in hours, days, weeks, or years.

In some circles “doubting Thomas” is a negative stereotype. In other circles he is proof that reality can be tested.

I think “doubt” is fungible, in some cases it is necessary to decide in seconds or parts of a second. This may mean the difference of life or death. In most cases doubt has timing that is appropriate to the importance. The “lifetime” doubt is only a problem if it isn’t resolved by the time of death.

Descartes envisioned a demon to explain his view of knowledge. I’m envisioning an individual walking around full of certainty. This is an individual that I would actively avoid. Give me a portion of doubt, periodically.

About johndiestler

Retired community college professor of graphic design, multimedia and photography, and chair of the fine arts and media department.
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