The Case for Doubt in a Single Paragraph

If you already believe something, should you attend to the opinions of naysayers, complexifiers, and qualifiers? It depends on whether you’re coming to an issue for therapy or truth. And the quality of the second opinion matters. Every liberal should read the neoconservative journal Commentary, and every conservative should read The New York Times. Otherwise, you’re in danger of falling into epistemic closure and confirmation bias. Even though I’m emotionally invested in many (all?) of the things I believe, I know that I better give a fair hearing on a regular basis to the best arguers and arguments on the other side. Every theist should read Dawkins; every atheist William Lane Craig. Orwell wrote, “To see what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant effort.” It’s an effort because there is always the temptation to come to an issue for therapy, not truth; to, like Oedipus, pluck out your eyes because you can’t face the truth. Every person should actively seek out disconfirming evidence and opinions when truth is the goal, though this is very, very hard because we are human and don’t want to be like Hamlet, unable to make up our minds and act (“To be or not to be; to do or not to do, to think or not to think.”) But shunning Hamlet is a danger, for certainty and an excess of confidence are temptations of hubris (a theme of classical Attic tragedy). So on any question where you want the right answer, it’s wise to ask, “Have I really and fairly weighed alternative explanations about this matter, and come to the best explanation?” Sometimes we cannot do this because we are frightened, and frightened people too frequently outsource their thinking to people they trust or to experts they trust, ignoring the other side. They don’t want to think about it. But it’s good to think. And to doubt. Doubt is a good thing.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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8 Responses to The Case for Doubt in a Single Paragraph

  1. Mikels Skele says:

    Very hard. It’s even easy to give a cursory nod to opposing opinions just to say you have, without really weighing them honestly. And social media are turbo-charged confirmation engines, so that’s a BIG problem. Say the wrong thing, and get defriended by everyone.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      That’s a great point about social media and cyber amplification of confirmation bias. At my own Facebook page, I rarely get likes on anything I post because I make people tense and they start to not like me. : )

  2. It is a daily practice. A conclusion, like chocolate cake, is hard to avoid once tasted. It makes a nice end to a lovely dinner but can hardly be considered a nutritious meal.

    “it [Enlightenment] has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them” from Foucault, Michel. “What is Enlightenment?”

    Or not?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I like the Foucault quote with its emphasis on the movement between caution and historicism and speculation.

  3. Cloud2013 says:

    That’s why I read your blog. Interested reader may want to try this essay:

    • colinhutton says:

      An excellent referral,thank you. Feser’s lecture typifies why religion need be checked out again only very occasionally. Same old same old.

  4. If one takes this to a logical conclusion we would do well to remind students to take chemistry, maths, sciences in school where it is free to study. Studying FSM (finite state machines), basic chemistry, and other subjects on your own to verify a conclusion in a blog or journal is really not fun when you have to start at the very basics and read till you can understand the paper.

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