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Doubt is often experienced as a deeply felt issue when it threatens religious faith. In the Christian tradition, however, it is also praised as an attitude of mind that helps us to counter dogmatism and remain open to life’s fundamental mystery. In Buddhism, although doubt is classed as a hindrance to spiritual progress, the ability to work things out for oneself and come to one’s own conclusions is highly valued.
This two-headed nature of doubt – help and hindrance – is also a challenge in decision-making. It can take the form of constantly doubting ourselves, wondering if we’re up to the task. But getting stuck in questions about whether you should do this or trust that person can mean you end up not giving things a chance – not committing – and so become unable to move forward.
The other extreme is not great either. If you never doubt, or squash your doubts too hastily, you’re likely to be prone to gullibility, uncritically accepting what you’re told, or acting on poorly considered motives. Instead of not committing, you will commit too soon and too wholeheartedly to a person, a job or a cause that doesn’t deserve your allegiance.
The positive avatar of doubt is healthy scepticism. Before embarking on a serious commitment, it’s appropriate to question what you’re doing. And it’s a good idea to review things periodically to avoid getting stuck in situations you’d be well advised to get out of. Recognising whether a particular instance of doubt is constructive, however, can be difficult. It may be more helpful to pay attention to your general patterns and the role doubt plays in your life: how pervasive it is and whether it routinely undermines your commitments. Constant low-level nagging doubt can be more destructive than bursts of useful self-interrogation.
Dealing skilfully with doubt means avoiding corrosive, undermining reservations without falling into naivety or dogmatism. The knack is knowing when to put doubt aside and get on with the task at hand.
Many people doubt the value of philosophy – none more so than philosophers themselves. Doubting is a professional obligation and anything you can doubt, they can doubt more deeply. Everyday self-doubt, for instance, is nothing compared with the philosophical doubt that the self even exists.
It is a caricature of philosophy to assume that the inevitable result of such questioning is the nihilistic suspension of all belief. Doubting whether you really exist, for example, is not refusing to believe that you are real but simply recognising the grounds for being unsure. Some have advocated a more radical agnosticism, most notably the Ancient Greek sceptic Pyrrho. But the vast majority of philosophers only sit on the fence of uncertainty long enough to decide on which side to jump. Descartes came off more sure of the reality of God, reason and himself than when he climbed on, while David Hume ended up with his common sense beliefs intact but held more lightly.
Whatever the conclusion, the real benefit of the doubt is that it enables you to see all sides of an issue. Hence the origin of the word in the Latin duo, two. The doubter is in at least two minds. Whether or not she ends up following only one, she should be able to appreciate better the strengths and weaknesses of the others.
Used properly, doubt is neither a dead end, nor an obstacle to be overcome, but a guide. That is not to say, however, that it is merely a means to an end, something that can be left behind once it has done its task. In order to maintain an awareness of other perspectives, and to keep testing the robustness of your own, doubt always needs to be a close companion, asking the difficult questions. The point to remember is that these often have answers. Accepting that these answers aren’t conclusive is not the same as believing some aren’t better than others. Doubt reminds us of the limits of knowledge but, for it to be most useful, we also need to know the limits of doubt.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email shrink&sage@shrink&sage.com