← Essays. Thoughts. Letters.

To Doubt or Not to Doubt?

For June, 020220103

I am inviting you to take a point of view at the world that I find both useful and amusing. It goes like this:

  1. The two most powerful forces in human history are (A) Belief and (B) Doubt.

  2. Belief is a force that allows us to create something out of nothing. It allows us to disregard the plastic messiness of reality and act intentionally to make it what we want it to be. Cathedrals and empires have been built based on powerful Beliefs. Doubt is the opposite and equally powerful force that allows us to deconstruct something back into nothing, so that it can be put back together again, into something that works better. Airplanes fly on Doubt. Diseases are cured by Doubt. Belief helps us create maps, so that we know where to go. Doubt helps us find out that we are lost when reality doesn't match our expectations. Belief is the force for making things up. Doubt is the force for finding things out.

  3. As long as an intelligent organism (be it a human or a company) is alive, it has to be utilizing the power of both Belief and Doubt. In other words, as long as you keep thinking, you have to keep questioning some things and taking other things for granted.

  4. Both forces grow in power exponentially when they are shared. When a Belief is shared between people, it is multiplied both in its strength within a person, and in its capacity for translation into action. When Doubt is shared between people, it is also multiplied both in its strength within a person and in its capacity for productive deconstruction of beliefs (by "productive" here I mean ultimately helpful in moving your thinking process further in its intended direction).

  5. One can look at the whole history of human civilizations through the lens of the complex metabolism between various shared Beliefs and Doubts. One can also look at a personal history through the same lens. Give it a try, it's a lot of fun to think about what you took for granted versus what you doubted intensely when you were, let's say, 14 years old.

  6. Beliefs and Doubts are so central to how we operate that we are (normally) not very intentional about when and how we use them. In fact we are not aware of this at all most of the time. This is true of all vital functions - we are not normally very intentional about our own breathing patterns, for example. However when we do put some effort into trying to be more aware and intentional about our autonomic vital functions (such as breathing, or thinking) - wonderful things happen. For one, we discover the boundaries of how far our awareness and intentionality can actually go.

  7. This letter is an invitation for you to try being more aware and intentional about when, what and how you Doubt. I find a lot of value (and joy) in the practice of trying to doubt productively (i.e. doubting in a way that in the end facilitates the creation of more powerful shared beliefs than the ones that it helped deconstruct). I call this practice Doubtery. It is most definitely an art, possibly a martial one.

  8. The basic move of Doubtery is a question. Effective questions, questions worth asking, applied skillfully at the right moments, hold immense power. By the same token, ineffective questions or the ones applied wrongly can be really destructive not only to the beliefs they are aimed at, but also to the very fabric of thinking, which is usually not helpful (unless it is your intention to interrogate the very fabric of thinking). Thinking together can be especially fragile and even more of a dancing act than thinking alone. Which is another reason for you to practice Doubtery even if you are primarily in the business of creating shared beliefs, not interrogating them.

  9. I'm inviting you to create (and maintain) a list of your favorite Doubtery moves. Both the moves that you've mastered and the moves that you are yet to learn. The moves that you apply without thinking and the moves that you don't yet know how to apply well. I am hoping that through practicing Doubtery in ever more aware and intentional ways, you will discover your own moves, techniques and practices that work best for you, because (similar to any other martial art) effective application of Doubtery requires first and foremost self-awareness.

  10. Last but not least, I am also hoping that the negative space around this practice will also invite you to try being more aware and choiceful about when, what and how you Believe. To doubt or not to doubt - that is always the first and most critical question. Just like one can't breath out without breathing in first, one can't doubt productively without believing something first. The will and skill to believe are as critical to a healthy thinking process as are the will and skill to doubt. I hope that practicing the art of Doubtery will also help you choose to believe more intentionally and more often (as and when it makes more sense for the direction of your mind's travel).

Now, it's time for you to practice some Doubtery and tear this whole argument apart.

On the off chance you'd like to subscribe to my writing, please feel free to use this RSS feed. Thank you.