On the whole, doubt often gets a bad rap. We don’t like it; we prefer certainty. Having doubts about a shop’s trust­wor­thiness will make you less likely to buy from them. If we doubt our lover’s commitment to the relationship, we feel sad and uneasy. Living through experi­ences that cast doubt on our beliefs and convic­tions can be deeply unsettling.

The ways in which we deal with doubt may reveal some insights into what makes us human and how to find your way in a life in which uncer­tainty will always play a part.

Flux Is the Name of the Game

Imagine a universe in which nothing ever changes, or in which all change was perfectly predictable. First of all: what a boring world that would be! And second: in such a universe, there would be no room for uncer­tainty. Change drives doubt.

Doubt is an expression of our awareness that the nature and the conse­quences of changes in our lives will affect us in ways we cannot foresee. But this, in itself, is not a bad thing. A change, after all, may also turn out for the better. In this sense, doubt is akin to risk: it’s a neutral epiphe­nomenon of the fact that there is something we don’t know. More specif­i­cally: a potential for change whose outcome is unknown to us.

And we don’t like not knowing.


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La Fée Ignorante (The Ignorant Fairy) by René Margitte (source)

Antidotes to Doubt

No matter how hard we try, however, there is no escaping doubt. The question then becomes how to deal with life’s under­current of uncertainty.

Two prominent answers to that challenge are: knowledge and hope.

Knowledge for the Ignorance-Averse

Our innate aversion to ignorance must be deeply embedded in the essence of our being. I’m not a fan of the term “hard-wired,” but it makes sense to think that our brains and minds have evolved to appre­ciate knowledge and avoid doubt.

Imagine an early hominid, one of your ancestors, strug­gling to survive on the sub-Saharan plains. For them, it would be much better to know where a food source is, even if they didn’t use it. Much better to know where to find sanctuary from predators, even if there are none in sight.

By contrast, if they lived in doubt about where to find suste­nance or shelter, their chances of surviving in an ever-changing environment would be much slimmer. No wonder that we go to such lengths to pass on what we have learned to the next gener­ation through ritual, legend, myth, art, craft, science, philosophy, culture and civilization.

Hope for the Optimistic

It is difficult to overes­timate the value of hope. Without it, our mental landscape would be one of dejection and despair. From one-on-one relation­ships to worldwide religions, hope is the driving force behind much of what we do.

In Greek mythology, all the evils of the world are unleased on humankind in the story of Pandora’s Jar. It’s no coinci­dence that hope is born in that same myth. In an apt metaphor, after Pandora had unwit­tingly released the ills and troubles contained in her jar, she took one last look inside and found the one thing that was left… hope.


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Pandora by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (source)

Hope is our last resort; it’s the one thing that can still motivate us after all other reasons to go on have fallen away. It is the jump-start for optimism when all other justi­fi­ca­tions fail. Hope takes that quintes­sential engine of our humanity—the ability to see the world as it is not—and uses it to urge us on against seemingly insur­mountable odds.

On the Downside-Upside

Both knowledge and hope, however, have an Achilles’ heel.

The value of knowledge is predi­cated on the condition that it reflect reality. The “knowledge,” applied by Copernicus, that the planets revolve around the sun in perfect circles was super­seded by Kepler’s calcu­la­tions proving that their orbits were in fact ellipses. In this case, lo and behold, doubts about the old Ptolemaic cosmology stepped in to save the day and open the door to new insights. Maybe doubt isn’t so bad after all.

And the value of hope rests on the possi­bility of it being fulfilled. I may “hope” to grow wings and learn to fly, but that won’t do me any good. It’s possible to be buoyed up by hope even where no hope is justified. We call that, of course, “false hope”. In such cases, using the crowbar of doubt to break free of unreal­istic hopeful expec­ta­tions and find new avenues may be the better route to travel. Again: it appears that doubt may have its merits.

The Rules of Play

In essence, this is all about skepticism. It’s a philo­sophical tradition that goes back to ancient Greece and that was reinvig­o­rated in 17th-century Europe and beyond. In essence, it says that we cannot be naively confident that what appears to be true actually is true. For example, a straw in a glass of water is still straight, even though it seems to be bent at the waterline.

Today, the word skepticism refers more often to scien­tific skepticism: the idea that we should subject our ideas to rigorous scrutiny and test their validity in an objective, rational and dispas­sionate way.

Doubt is a key ingre­dient of a skeptical mindset. In a sense, it’s a balancing act. On the one hand, nothing is exempt from doubt. On the other hand, once an idea or theory has been tested thoroughly and is supported by robust evidence, it deserves protection from spurious counter­claims. In other words: you’re allowed and even encouraged to doubt every­thing, but your doubt must be justified.


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Maintenant le roi aimait la science et la géographie… (Now the King loved science and geometry…) by Marc Chagall (source)

Knowledge and Hope, Again

Back to knowledge and hope, our “antidoubts” to uncer­tainty. I like to think that in a very real sense, knowledge is hope.

As a state of mind or mental safety net, hope per se is invaluable. But to distin­guish between justified hope and false hope, you need to know about the world we live in. Knowledge both moderates and invig­o­rates hope.

And knowledge is a guiding light, but it is always at risk of being stifled or petrified by ideology and dogmatism. The hope of improving and expanding our under­stand of the world is what keeps the projects of science, art and philosophy moving along.

Perhaps it makes more sense to see the relationship between knowledge and hope on the one hand and doubt on the other as a symbiotic one. They all spring from our profound under­standing that the world will always be changing and that our capacity to affect that change is very limited. Our capacity to pursue knowledge and invoke hope are a counter­balance for the moments at which our doubts might become overwhelming or existential; and our ability to admit doubt into our world view keeps the door open to new ways of enriching our knowledge and finding new reasons to hope.

• • •

Image credit: Athena by Erté (adapted from source)

Father, son, husband, friend and writer by day; asleep by night. Happily pondering the immortality of the crab wherever words are shared.

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