The Necessity of Doubt

Questions

It's an odd thing, having a website that addresses spiritual issues. I get lots of questions in my email, which is a good thing, but there is a sub-set of those emails that don't go very far. I realized today that these focus around the question of doubt.

Everyone walks their own path in the search for the truth about what they are. That is as it should be. Different things work for different people. Variety of approaches, and the spice it brings to the quest, helps to push these approaches farther along. It's a function of evolution, and I am a great supporter of it. I so not, in any way, believe that there is one method that works for all.

All I can ever talk about is what has, and what hasn't, worked for me. To do anything else seems foolish to me.

One of the things that has served me quite well is my fundamental doubt. As far as varieties of philosophy are concerned, the one that I have always kept close to hand is Skepticism. I do my best to not take anything at face value. (That includes Skepticism, but that's another story...) My slogan for this is, "doubt everything, question everything." This is a living practice. Even those things that have worked for me well for decades should also be questioned, to make sure I don't fall into a dull complacency.

I think we suffer from a deficit of doubt here in the West. As a child, I can recall countless times being singled out by a teacher. They would ask a question about something we were working on, and I (with all my social anxiety) would squeak out an answer. Then came the inevitable question, "Are you sure?" This question often came regardless of whether my answer was right, or wrong. I watched as other kids who gave their wrong answers with confidence were not asked the same question, "are you sure?" I learned that, having the right answer was not the point. Rather it was whether you had any doubt, or not.

From top to bottom, this attitude poisons our culture. The end result is that lack of doubt is valued (and rewarded) more highly than actually being right, or accurate. This leads to a society of people who assume that what those in positions of perceived authority are speaking the truth be default. There is a lack of independent fact checking, and self-education on important matters.

This atmosphere of doubt being a bad thing also makes it easy for people to get cemented in their views. When that happens, thinking stops, and dogma is substituted for contemplation.

When people come to my website with curiosity, they ask me questions about the suggestion I am making. That's as it should be. However, when the do so from a place of being convinced then we don't really get very far. As far as I can tell, one of the key ingredients of any kind of growth is a measure of doubt. How much more so is that true when it comes to the matter of the fundamental question least addressed in our various cultures: What are you?

Facing the question, "what are you?", can easily put us on rocky ground. The key is too not cling on to the first thing that feels like the right answer. In my experience it's also not good to cling to the second, third, or even the tenth answer. What worked for me was to drill at this question, relentlessly, doubting any and all answers, until the moment the question itself magically disappeared.

Of course, at that point, you are left with, "Yeah, okay, but what does that mean?" 😉

Photo: Derek Bridges

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Leave A Reply (10 comments so far)


  1. DAVID PARRISH
    2 years ago

    Your post motivated me to look up the word doubt. After reading the definitions it occurred to me that an entire retreat could be done on this subject. As I contemplate it, it seems that doubt as uncertainty could be related to as being certain that uncertainty is reality. Further it seems that doubt as apprehension is a useful motivator to deal with whatever is in the way of being clear and at home.


    • Travis
      2 years ago

      I like your thoughts on the matter, David!

      Such a retreat would be interesting. I kind of doubt anyone would come… 😉


  2. nebulosityyy
    2 years ago

    "The end result is that lack of doubt is valued (and rewarded) more highly than actually being right, or accurate. "

    YES, this is absolute truth. For example, in my graduate program, I was taught that if I didn't know an answer to a question asked by my teachers and peers, it was required that I "pretend I know the answer, give that answer confidently." <— Word for word, that is what I was told.

    I see the result of this kind of (less favorable) training in everyday life. When I go to the doctor, if they don't know the answer, they'll confidently explain the cause of something. Out of trust, I accept the answer, and it's caused me finding solutions to health problems. It's rare that a doctor will actually admit that they don't know. I have more respect for doctors when they say, "You know what I don't know, but I'll do some research and see if I can help you figure this out." Admitting when you don't know does NOT make you a failure. It makes you genuine and honest and interested in finding the solution.

    Another example: when I go to a car mechanic to have work done on my vehicle and they don't know the reason for why something broke or why something is having problems, they'll confidently give me a fabricated answer. This has caused me to seek out non-solutions to car problems, which has wasted a lot of my time (e.g. 10 years ago, a mechanic super confidently told me I needed a new engine when it ended up just needing a new timing chain). Even another example: when I went to the auto parts store last week to buy a product, an employee answered a question I had confidently, and they ended up being dead wrong, and I purchased the wrong product because of it, causing me a huge hassle in having it returned and purchasing the correct product.

    From all this, it's made me realize how important it is for us to honestly preface an answer with what we ACTUALLY do know, and then make it clear when we are starting to speculate. This is really a matter of trust and correct information. Misinformation and lack of trust are very dangerous.


    • Travis
      2 years ago

      Amen, Cherie. Amen!


      • nebulosityyy
        2 years ago

        Thank you for this article. It's reminded me that lately I've really been wanting to spend more time cultivating 'beginner's mind' in daily activities.

        PS Sorry for the typos in my original comment. x_X Looks like I can't edit comments.


        • Travis
          2 years ago

          Beginner's mind is always a good thing.

          Sorry for the lack of editing function. Since this is a WordPress site, you would need an account with the site to edit comments, and this site isn't set up for that. FWIW, I did not note any egregious typos. 🙂


  3. kristi
    2 years ago

    Thanks Travis. I'm so much with you on this. Ultimately, we don't really know, but if we're aware of that, it keeps us awake. And willing to learn.


    • Travis
      2 years ago

      I think you hit the nail on the head there. The thing I try to steer clear of doubting for the sake of doubting. That ties you up in knots. However, doubting for the purpose of not falling into a self-assured stupor is a good thing to do, in my book.


  4. G.G.D.
    2 years ago

    Doubt implies a desire for certainty. I often find myself desiring an ability to articulate awareness in a way that demonstrates a definite and communicable understanding. I remind myself that this is desire, utterly invalid and unnecessary.


    • Travis
      2 years ago

      I think the longing to find a way to successfully express X is a noble, and very human desire. It may be the root of what it is to be human, at this time. However, taking that to a fault is a problem, just like anything else taken to a fault.