The Benefits of Doubt

Tucker Lieberman
6 min readApr 7, 2020

Doubt that leads to knowledge about the world

“I respect faith,” said the playwright Wilson Mizner, “but doubt is what gives you an education.” We have to allow ourselves to question so that we can take in information. “Fundamentalism of any kind,” wrote Leah Hager Cohen in I Don’t Know: In Praise of Admitting Ignorance, “is the refusal to allow doubt. The opposite of fundamentalism is the willingness to say ‘I don’t know.’” When we begin to acknowledge what we don’t know, we become capable of nuance and of growth.

“Science, history, and the news are full of things that we knew, or thought we did, until we discovered we were wrong. An essential component of critical thinking is knowing what we don’t know,” wrote Daniel J. Levitin in A Field Guide to Lies. And, as Goethe said: “With knowledge comes more doubt.”

A digitally altered version of “Doubts,” an 1886 painting by Henrietta Rae.

Doubt that mediates between knowledge of objects and knowledge of self

People often appeal to “gut feelings” to express felt certainty that they cannot rationally defend. They are saying as much about themselves as about their external subject matter. Robert A. Burton wrote in On Being Certain:

What kind of knowledge is “I know myself and what I would do”? Is it a conscious decision based upon deep self-contemplation or is it a “gut feeling”? But what is a gut feeling — an unconscious decision, a mood or emotion, an ill-defined but clearly recognizable mental state, or a combination of all these ingredients?

Burton goes on to say: “We can read a poem or watch a funeral procession and feel that we had a profound insight into the human condition…But this isn’t the same type of reasoning that allows us to determine if coffee ground enemas will cure cancer, or if the Challenger is free of design defects.” If we do not get a grasp on this tendency to grant too much authority to gut feelings, before long, we will allow unqualified people to “make life-and-death recommendations based upon hunches and dreams. With one blink we will be back in the Dark Ages.”

Doubt that enables knowledge (or non-knowledge) of self

The way we express our doubt through questions makes us who we are. Sam Keen put it in…

Tucker Lieberman