The Benefit of Doubt

November 29th, 2011

I used to like the bumper sticker that says, “I used to be doubtful but now I’m not so sure”, but now I’m not so sure. Doubt is something I am VERY sure about. It is important and healthy. Unfortunately, doubt is often seen as a weakness. In some religious circles, doubt is even seen as the opposite of faith. I once heard a televangelist say, “Give doubt an inch, and it will become your ruler.” I doubt it. Doubt is one of the ways you inch towards truth. This is part two in a series on celebrating doubt. Part three looks at the process of doubt.

Doubt is powerful. It is the way things change. Doubt is a personal invitation, a welcome sign that says, “Inquire within.” It is a massive question mark on the way things are, an invitation to reconsider the status quo. Doubt is important to question worn out personal beliefs, such as self limiting fear, and doubt is essential to question political and economic systems that are no longer working. Collective doubt sparks social movements such as OWS. Doubt is the initial reason people question those in power, such as in the Penn State scandal.

Doubt isn’t the end of change. It’s the beginning. It’s the dust that is stirred up in your consciousness, but not yet settled. It’s the intuition to reach for the whistle around your neck and cry blue murder about injustice. After doubt, comes inquiry. You verify your assumptions and facts. You don’t want to stop with doubt, or else you just become cynical for the sake of it. Doubt is leading you somewhere other than itself. The end of doubt will be to formulate a positive agenda, which in time will itself be questioned and reformed. Each time it begins with questions about the status quo.

Doubt is an in built lighthouse, warning you when religious beliefs, personal decisions or social perspectives are leading you straight on to the rocks of catastrophe. So give yourself the benefit of doubt. Question EVERYTHING.

Question yourself. Are you pushing yourself to reach your full potential? Are you settling for a life that limits your potential? As racing car driver Mario Andretti said, “If everything is under control you are not going fast enough.”

Question religious beliefs, any of them, all of them and do it without fear of punishment. In fact there can be NO religious belief without doubt. Without doubt there is no leap of faith. Without doubt you can’t uncover new truth and fresh possibility.

Question your government, even your preferred party or leader. There is nothing unpatriotic about questioning political leaders. On the contrary, it is unpatriotic NOT to doubt and question leaders. Trust your beliefs, your God, your leader, your party, enough to question and challenge everything you hear and see. If they can’t stand up to your doubts, then they are weak and may be hiding something.

In any case, there is no suppressing doubt. You can pretend it’s not there, but it is there and it will be heard. When doubt comes knocking and you don’t answer, curiosity will come through the side window. It’s much better to let it through the front door and greet it face to face.

There are two major schools of thought when it comes to doubt; the rationalist and existentialist views. We can learn from both of them. (Read on for more about the power of doubt)

1.       Respect Your Mind (Rationalism)

We are now five hundred years into a revolution of free thought that began with philosophers like Descartes who said that the very basis of being human is the ability to think for yourself. Human reason is the means of coming to the source of any truth, and not your senses. This is also called putting Descartes before da source!

Descartes set out to use rational inquiry to weed out any beliefs that he couldn’t be completely certain about. He likened it to a man who takes all the apples out of a barrel one by one, inspects them, and then puts the healthy ones back in the barrel. If even one apple is rotten, it will ruin the whole bunch. For example a personal belief that you are worthless will negatively impact all of your beliefs. A belief that God is judgmental will affect all of your beliefs, and so on. Question these ideas.

Once you doubt one rotten apple, you quickly see how it affects the other apples around it. Take for example the forbidden fruit, original sin. Once you question original sin, you then question the need to be saved from your sins, and then the need to be rescued from eternal punishment in the afterlife. Quickly, your whole belief system has changed because of one doubt. As for me, I’ve been searching my whole life for an original sin, and have never found one. I prefer to see life as originally blessed, and we don’t need to be rescued from ourselves. We need to wake up to our original, incredible nature.

What Descartes decided was that the only thing you can know for certain is that your mind exists, the ability to think and question. Hence his famous saying, “I think therefore I am.” It’s also sometimes stated as “I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.” Apparently one day Descartes was sitting in a bar, having a drink. The bartender asked him if he would like another. He answered “I think not,” and vanished in a puff of logic. Personally, I doubt the origins of that story, therefore I am.

Descartes was at least on to a partial truth. (by the way is a partial truth the same thing as a partial doubt?) Our minds have an incredible ability to question and we don’t use them enough in our narrow, media driven, sound bite society.

Democracy depends on rational doubt for its success. Personal growth depends on rational doubt to burst the limitations of fear. Doubt and doubt boldly.

Descartes was only offering a partial truth. Just because your mind is capable of asking questions doesn’t mean its right and it doesn’t get you to the heart of doubt. He didn’t ask the more fundamental question. Who is the thinker, the awareness, behind the thoughts? The thinking mind is useful, but it is only when you get beyond your thinking mind to the awareness that lies beneath that you gain lasting insight. Question even your mind, your thoughts and doubts, layer upon layer upon layer of thoughts and doubts until you come to the heart of truth, and then push further still.

2.       Respect Your Experience (Existentialism)

The other view on doubt is the existentialist view. While Descartes said that thought is the only thing you can be sure of, existentialists said existence (experience) is the only thing you can be sure of. Existence comes before essence. “I experience being human, therefore I am.”

My favorite existentialist quote is from Kierkegaard who said, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” Life is a giant leap of faith. You have no certainties, and feedback that you are on the right or wrong path may not come until much later, but you move forward anyway, one step at a time.

Kierkegaard’s idea of a leap of faith is not so much about blind obedience or naïve acceptance. It is more about making a commitment to something that offers no certainty. The leap of faith is about diving with your whole being into the messy experience of life, and committing yourself to something larger than yourself even without knowing that your efforts will make any lasting difference, even without knowing for sure that there is a purpose or plan behind the universe.

The willingness to leap is an awesome gift of doubt. It creates the heart stopping moment of decision, when you do the thing you thought you couldn’t do, approach the person you thought would surely reject you, attempt a career move your limited self beliefs have spent years telling you were beyond you. I see people leaping into movements such as Occupy Wall Street, not sure what the future of the movement is, or where it’s going, but participating anyway. This is the strength of doubt, the willingness to participate, the attempt to create meaning with your life, the beginning of change. Be a small fish, leaping into ever larger oceans of possibility.

By the way, while Descartes was spontaneously combusting in a bar, the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre was sitting in a café revising his draft of Being and Nothingness (well, a few hundred years apart). A waitress approached him: “Can I get you something to drink, Monsieur Sartre?”

Sartre replied, “Yes, I’d like a cup of coffee with sugar, but no cream”. A few minutes later the waitress returned and said, “I’m sorry, Monsieur Sartre, we are all out of cream — how about with no milk?”

Live with no certainty. We are all out of certainty. But it’s ok. Life is fuller and freer without certainty. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. It is the leap of faith, the rabbit hole of human becoming. Jane Evershed summed it up beautifully-

It’s yours, take it,
Leap like a lunatic
Over the chasm below
Erupting as you go
Your true self awaits you
NOW you will know

Doubt is one of intuition’s most powerful tools. Use it wisely, not as the end point or a permanent posture, but as a spark to break the bonds of personal and social restraint. Both your mind and your experience, not to mention your underlying awareness, are powerful tools to test all that you hear and see and take you closer to the truth of your essential nature.

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  1. […] part in a series on the power, purpose and process of doubt. Begin by giving thanks for doubt. Part 2 describes the power of doubt (read on for more about gratitude in ALL […]

  2. I really enjoyed your article Ian.
    It was fresh, engaging, and at times, challenging! There are so many people who allow insidious thoughts become habits. It’s a paralyzing fear, that keeps people stagnant and afraid to do the things they should. Experience and thought should go hand in hand in developing the proper mental attitude towards the life long journey of learning, and self fulfillment.

  3. Estra Roell says:

    Wonderful article!  The purpose of life is to grow and expand.  That can only happen when we question what we have been taught and trust to our inner wisdom to guide us.  You make such a good point about the one rotten apple/belief affecting a system of beliefs that can be shifted once the rotten apple is exposed.   It’s the first step along the road to remembering who we really are.  If  a thought or belief doesn’t feel good, question it!  There is a reason it doesn’t feel right to you.  Thank you for this enlightening article!

  4. ian says:

    well said Estra. Doubts, like symptoms, are friends and messengers. Thanks for your comment.

  5. ian says:

    thanks Elliot, yes hand in hand, faith and doubt, thought and experience. Well said.

  6. Phillip Smith says:

    Very refreshing indeed, Ian,and reminds me of a couple year old book, now,by Melbourne author(you may have heard of her) Val Webb, entitled “In Defense of Doubt”, which I must get around to reading sometime. Doubt is indeed, contrary to funamentalists views to the contrary, is equated to, NOT  the opposite of, faith, and should be both encouraged and celebrated!  Thanks for such a both refreshing and enlightening article!!

  7. Ali says:

    Thanks so much. I really enjoyed reading your article. 🙂

  8. Brian says:

    I enjoyed your article.
    Would you allow us to post this on our “Opinion” section of ?
    We’re always looking for interesting perspectives to consider and discuss?

    The New American Media

    (My only suggestion would be to add “The Tea Party” to “Occupy Wall Street”. I think both groups seem to know in their guts that something is wrong, and there seem to be multiple options of solutions to consider.) 

  9. ian says:

    Sure Brian. I agree that OWS and Tea Party both feel something needs to change.

  10. Wonderful post, Ian! I really enjoyed your perspective about doubt being merely a beginning. Boy, is THAT the truth! I also like your statement that all religions have doubt, or there would be no leap of faith. I experienced that severe doubt about a higher power in sobriety, for many months, and finally took that leap of faith. I started believing by recognizing every time something good happened in my life that I did not plan, orchestrate, or force, and attributed it to that higher power. I became a believer by that exercise, which I never would have done if I hadn’t doubted.  Thank you for the article!

  11. I don’t often take the time to comment on articles but this was amazing and eye-opening. I’m going to share it on my blog!

  12. Joe says:

    Thank you for this insightful article.

  13. Pat Arnold says:

    Thanks for this. So often I hear friends quote spiritual and religious thought leaders, as if what they’re infallible–despite the fact that what they’ve said isn’t being evidenced in my friends’ lives or in the lives of anyone they know.
    Doubting is sacrilegious, even among people who consider themselves enlightened! Speaking of enlightenment, thank you for bringing yours to this topic. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  14. Gomolemo says:

    Thank for a well written and thought provoking article. I enjoyed it!

  15. […] doubt. Is that ever a hard lesson to learn? So far I’ve looked at celebrating doubt, and outlined the benefit of doubt. Now I turn to the process of doubt. Doubt isn’t neat or predictable, or else it wouldn’t be […]

  16. Heulwen Renshaw says:

    As interesting and mind provoking as this is, I feel that I have to say something  here.  It is not the whole truth though.  I’m afraid ‘life’ is a lot more serious than this. Take myself – I had a near death experience on the birth of my first child.  The things I heard and saw then are far more convincing than any article such as this, so be wary of anything you read or hear…yes be doubtful, because when you’ve been to the other side…there is nothing  that will in any way reverse your life to what it was before.  I ‘know’ where I’m going after I die, it was that realistic.  Meanwhile, I know that I have to do something in my life that will be worthwhile before my life here is over, and is my main purpose for being here – like all of us.  Being ‘able’ to ‘doubt’ and ‘think’ is very well, but there is a lot more to it than that, like being kind and truthful to everyone, doubt plays only a small part in life, there are more worthwhile thoughts to think about and see through.
    “The tragedy of  life  is not that it ends so soon, but that we wait so long to begin it.” (Ian Lawton) Thanks for this Ian, I love it!

  17. Marie says:

    Thank you, Ian, for your article.   Personally, I draw on my mind in partnership with my experience which gives me understanding to tackle many situations and problems.    As far as decisions, doubt and/or wisdom, I look to God, and ask Him to lead me to the paths and solutions He has in store for me.    It has never failed me — money doubts, relationship doubts, family doubts and any other conundrum that has muddled me!   And in today’s ever-changing world there are many doubts as we revolve and evolve.

    I am peaceful and assured that He will guide me – and any doubts are quickly neutralized by my faith in Him.    I have turned some rather rough corners, but can honestly say that He has always been there for me and lifted me from any doubts I have or have had about the future.  

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