The Blessings of Doubt

FogCliff-2How it tilts while you are thinking,
and then you know. How it makes no difference
for a long time—then it does. — William Stafford, “Figuring Out How It Is”

The world is made up of two kinds of people: those who think they know and those who know they don’t. I am definitely in the second camp. . . I think. How can we even make definitive statements like the one above when we are “of two minds”? How can we know anything with certainty?

I am fascinated and slightly repelled by people who speak with absolute certainty. I wonder how they can be so sure, why they think they have an inside track on knowledge, and most of all, do they ever admit to being wrong? Confucius said, “Do you know what true knowledge is? To know when you know a thing, and to know when you do not know a thing. That is true knowledge.” Epictetus, that tough old Stoic, used to say, “You can’t teach a man something he thinks he already knows.” And therein lies the beginning of wisdom, without a doubt . . .

It’s not easy being this way. For one thing, living in a state of doubt means constantly seeking evidence, testing, sifting, weighing what appears, until something emerges from this process that offers a glimmer of hope. There are facts, of course, and necessary truths, such as 2 + 2 = 4, and all those a priori truths that Kant lured out of the shadows. For the doubter, even these pose at least a momentary pause (Whaddya mean these are axiomatic? Prove it!) until the mind overrules the emotions in the interest of saving time.

Down at the level of leather-on-the-pavement this kind of epistemological suspicion can become quite inconvenient. For awhile, after the United States Postal Service misdirected a couple of bills and my electricity was cut off, I could not bring myself to drop any letters through a post box slot. Instead, I delivered the check in person, not trusting a service that daily delivers, with uncanny precision, tons of junk mail to each and every citizen with an address. I got over it. Eventually.

For years I have wished that I could hold a viewpoint with confidence, if not with complete assurance, for it would make life so much easier. Inevitably, I admit that an opposing perspective has its points, that in all honesty some of its points are better than mine, and after all, who am I to say that I stand upon the solid rock, while all around is shifting sand? Seeing multiple points of view often leads to double vision—and to vertigo—that existential disease that leaves one panting, hanging over the abyss while mice gnaw at the sleeve caught on a branch that soon will snap. Dubious workarounds present themselves in such desperate circumstances. One begins a sentence without knowing how it will end, but the mind churns on, dredging up in nanoseconds all manner of rusty facts and anecdotes, the tires of memory lying at the bottom of our subconscious, the flotsam and jetsam of headlines and conversation. Occasionally, the will to power asserts itself, all niceties are sheared away, and the mind fastens, terrier-like, upon a position, any position that looks like it could withstand an absent-minded glance, if not a steely scrutiny. In those moments, one feels a giddiness that can be mistaken for certainty until someone breaks the silence that follows with a sigh and a shake of the head.

Time and time again I’ve had the experience of suddenly seeing something familiar shift ever so slightly and take on a new form. In those moments I wonder at the filters I’ve apparently installed that prevent me from seeing the full spectrum of visible light. Once having seen the new thing it cannot be ignored, of course, and one is left to ponder how much else has been overlooked or ignored because it simply did not register on our consciousness.

But selective perception is not the only constraint upon us. In discussions I used to be the one who waited so long with a question or a comment that the general train of thought had hurtled over the horizon by the time I offered something up. I wanted to make sure that my question did not betray any lack of knowledge or foresight. Once I realized that recognizing our ignorance is the first movement toward learning, much of the ego simply melted away.

So I bow to the idea that we are social animals and that we learn together. I’m rarely capable of doing a Descartes—shutting myself up in a little room and doubting my way down through the detritus to the solid foundation of indubitable existence. I learn faster when I’m with a group of people who have maximum curiosity and the willingness to share it. Most of what we know is handed to us, warm to the touch, from people like ourselves or sometimes from people we think we’d like to be. In those cases, having our doubts can be a good thing because they give us a moment to step back and look at the wide shot first.

Humility and grace—the two virtues that free us up to learn. Of that I am certain.

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