The Blessings of Doubt?

“It’s not what we don’t know that hurts us, it’s what we know that ain’t so” – Will Rogers

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Anecdote a)
In my first year at VIU I was a psychology student taking the required statistics class taught by Kim Iles. Kim was an engaging teacher, that much I knew, but the subject, like most things mathematical in nature, never clicked. Unfortunately for me, Kim was the type to pick people in class whether their hands were raised or not, just to check if they were listening. When they got it right, he might toss them a little chocolate bar. When they were bullshitting or guessing, they suffered an acute public shaming. It was always one or the other. I knew I was not even close to sweet chocolaty understanding, so each time he scanned the room I sunk in my seat and looked away. Bless the guy, he usually spared me. But one day my time came and indeed I couldn’t make an educated enough guess to show an even faint grasp. I gave the only answer I knew: “I don’t know”. He threw me a full-sized Snickers bar and said “Good answer.” I rejoiced.

I wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic until he gave us a brief aside on how IDK is always a good answer to any question you genuinely don’t know, how so many problems in the world are attributed to people pretending they know something they don’t. This is the lesson that stuck with me most in that class, which I ended up technically failing (but given the minimally passing grade anyway on account of being smart in “other ways”). The next year I found philosophy, the only place not knowing seemed to work.

Anecdote b) I later had a boyfriend who was a devout Christian. I was so in love but couldn’t reconcile his faith. “If you don’t believe in anything then you’ll never move forward” he’d say. “I’d rather be suspended in doubt than deluded” I’d say back. Our fundamental issue was not so much whether God exists, but the irreconcilable difference of me believing the assumption of doubt is healthy and that beliefs should be true, and him believing that doubt is paralyzing and beliefs should make you feel good.

Anecdote c) My latest ex, a politically opinionated atheist, accused me of being too dogmatic with my belief in doubt. He wanted me to take a side on issues. I’d rather not pretend I know something about which I only have or can only have partial knowledge. He’d rather fill in the gaps with whatever logical fallacies he can get away with. I’d rather not, and I’d rather he not.

I know that doubt is a virtue. When we doubt our mind is open to other possibilities which are more likely to be correct. I know that when I am feeling insecure or not comfortable about being unsure, I’ll make more assumptions and thus an ass out of myself. I know that being caught in false claims of knowledge makes us less credible to our peers over time and that being around know-it-alls is fucking exhausting. I am pretty sure I’d rather be in doubt than be wrong and find out later, or even be living a blissfully ignorant but less optimal timeline.

But only one out of these three examples led to a happy ending. So, to what extent is doubt a virtue? About what sorts of things?  Am I denying myself happiness or progress by trapping myself in suspended disbelief about things that I can never know anyway? Are there certain situations where faking it until you make it, or believing for the sake of it, is the way to go?

I just don’t know.


Descartes