The Appeal of Doubt and Uncertainty

Yesterday morning, after the regular church service, I watched and listened to a TED Talk entitled “The Gospel of Doubt,” delivered by Casey Gerald. Hearing Gerald’s words was like listening in on my own thoughts. But I have nothing in common with him. I am not a gay Black man nor did I grow up in a broken home, emerging from extreme poverty to attend Yale and Harvard, nor did I work on Wall Street, nor did I form MBAs Across America. Despite having almost nothing in common with him, his message resonated with me. His admonition to embrace uncertainty could well be the philosophical theme of my life. He is far better at articulating the philosophy.

I almost never speak up during our post-service conversations and yesterday was no exception. I listen intently, though, and I try to understand the perspectives of others who choose to share their thoughts. As I listened to the comments yesterday, it seemed to me that Gerald’s message did not break through to many people around the room. Though in some cases they spoke passionately about the “take-aways” they got from his TED Talk, I sensed that many in the room heard the man’s words as if he were in support of their certainties. I heard a different message, a message that suggests we question everything.

Certainty is lethal. Only by allowing ourselves to be open to new ideas, new philosophies, and new realities are we able to grow intellectually. But we have been so well trained in staking positions that often we don’t realize that we’ve taken them. Yesterday, as I listened to the comments from the audience, it occurred to me that rampant assumptions about the “right” beliefs guided much of the conversation. For example, unquestioned support for capitalism as the “right” economic framework formed an underlying assumption of several statements. Rather than allow themselves to explore possibilities outside our experience, I got the sense that some of us inadvertently staked a position that said, in effect, “I know what I believe is right.”

I understand the mechanisms involved in the process. We don’t know what we don’t know, so we don’t know what to question and what to accept. It’s easier to articulate the problem than to solve it, though. The audience for yesterday’s TED Talk was among the most open-minded I’m likely to encounter outside academia. (Even in academia, where “question everything” is a mantra, academics tend to stake positions and fiercely protect them.)

I don’t know how to enable and encourage people to let go of their certainty in favor of embracing doubt. I wish I did. The world, I think, would be a better place if all of us allowed for cracks in our beliefs. I don’t advocate that we abandon our beliefs or our principles or our fierce sense of right and wrong, only that we give serious consideration to the possibility that our certainties rest on foundations built of eggshells and snow.

We tend to defend that which we know. Politically and socially, we tend to think our ways are the best ways. Even when confronted with evidence that other forms of government or social investments may work exceedingly well in other places, we are rabid in our attempts to find evidence why “it won’t work here” or to seek out flaws to support our certainties. Maybe capitalism isn’t the “best” economic system. Maybe republican democracy isn’t the “best” political system. Maybe there’s room for socialism or communism or social democracy. Or maybe, if we believe capitalism feeds the systemic amorality of American life, we’re wrong. My point is that we ought to be open to new ideas, new beliefs, new perspectives. We ought to admit that we may be wrong about literally everything. That is not to say that we assume we are wrong, only that we could be. And if we are, we ought not fight tooth and nail to defend an indefensible position.

Back to my experience yesterday. I didn’t disagree with many of the comments I heard. But I heard opinions, passionately held, that suggested to me that the holder overlooked the admonition to embrace doubt. The people who expressed the opinions are intelligent and open-minded. Yet they did not recognize (it seemed to me) that many of their statements were made on the basis of what they fervently believed to be truth. Doubt wasn’t in the room. And, though I recognize it at a distance, I do the same thing with some frequency. I embrace doubt, but I exhibit certainty. How can we expect doubt to lead us where we need to go if we insist on being certain about where we want to be?

I have no satisfactory answers. Only questions. Thousands and thousands and thousands of questions.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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