Lifetip 7: Embrace doubt

This post is about doubt, about truth, about facts and our reliance on them.

Life of Pi – Yann Martel

One of my favorite books of all times is Life of Pi, which is basically 400 pages of inner musings of a very contemplative kid.

It is a story about a boy surviving a shipwreck and dealing with his trauma by befriending it. Pi’s inquisitive nature and innocent mind investigate religion in a such an open-minded way, that it opened my mind towards the spiritual realm more than any cleric ever could.

During a conversation Pi had with a fervent atheist, he came to the conclusion that this conviction was not for him, but he did respect the thought process behind it. He understood that atheists were thinkers as well, which was something he could appreciate. He concluded that agnostics were the ones furthest away from the truth, as they accepted the idea that anything could be possible, while at the same time doubting everything. He said:

It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane. If Christ played with doubt, so must we. If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.

Even though this is one of my favorite quotes from the book, I will be making a case for doubt as a philosophy.

Uncertainty is the only truth

These are insecure times. Somehow though, this is not reflected by what we see and hear in the media. People with strong opinions debate each other, the one more certain about their point of view than the other.

In the current state of the world, experts are mocked for changing their views on matters such as climate change or the way viruses spread. Yet, it is the ones that claim to know precisely what is going on and what we should do that we should be watching with suspicion.

If you really want to be right, be prepared to admit some things are simply not known or clear. Doubt and nuance are key, yet these properties are not welcome guests at talk show tables.

Mark Rutte

Our own prime minister admitted that during the peak of the COVID-19-crisis he was making decisions for our country based on whiffs of evidence and in some cases deciding what the course would be only minutes before the press conference. There were no clear facts, only ideas. I definitely don’t envy him for having to govern under such circumstances.

I praise him for admitting that he had no certainty to build on.

Subsequently though, as Dutch citizens, we must accept the idea that the prime minister may have flipped a coin to draw the lock down road map, but we need to follow it nonetheless. His doubts may not be reflected in our actions.

The appeal of misinformation

Sadly, US citizens do not have a leader that gives them a clear path to follow. This is not just tragic for the American people themselves, but also for the rest of the world. Just like it gives a kid confidence to compare notes with the classmate with the best grades before a test, we have become accustomed to look at what the “land of the free” does, to see how our own course compares.

In fact, POTUS #45 does pretty much the exact opposite of what our prime minister does. Whereas the Dutch prime minister says much is uncertain he still tells us what our course of action is going to be. The US president says he reads everything and knows all, yet he gives the American people nothing to go on as far as a consistent plan is concerned. More even he contradicts himself on a daily (hourly basis) and spreads (and invents) misinformation on the go.

Fake news and disinformation create fearful people that crave for a simple answer on which they can build a simple truth. People prefer a solution in a happy meal package; not nutritious per se but cheap and easy to swallow. We must not give in to that.

Actual facts take a while to take form. Ideas that don’t rely on research can be up and ready pretty much immediately. When faced with a new situation, people need a frame of reference. Conspiracies and fabricated information find fertile ground in these moments, as scientific information will not yet be available in such an early stage.

Practice doubt

In order to become a doubter, you must:

  • ask questions
  • empathize with people that think differently
  • be brave enough to change your mind
  • accept that absolute facts are rare (if they exist at all)

Because the more we admit we don’t really know anything for certain the closer we will be getting to the truth. The humility we gain in the process could even turn out to have a positive side effect in other areas as well.


6 thoughts on “Lifetip 7: Embrace doubt

  1. I loved Life Of Pie great book that one!!!
    I love how you blended this into the theme of this post.
    I wish our leaders would be embrace theirs doubts instead of pretending that everything is fine when it’s not, and it ends up seeming like everyone is out to get you 😓

  2. Thank you for this, Epi! Such an important piece at a time of such great uncertainty when, as you point out, so many people are trying to shore themselves up with absolutes. I’m glad, though, that you also affirmed the importance of having to take action based upon what one knows at the time, even though that knowledge may only be provisional, subject to revision. If not, one would never act at all, and action would be left to those who have embraced absolute certainty.

    I gave _Life of Pi_ to our son when he graduated from high school, but I must confess that though I started it, I never finished reading it myself. I got annoyed with Yann Martel when I heard that he had basically plagarized the idea for the novel from a Brazilian novelist. I’m glad that you led with an appreciation of the novel but then departed from it to argue for the importance of doubt.

    1. Hi Josna, I’ve missed you. Hope all is well!
      I had no idea about the plagiarism. I gave the book to several of my friends and family members and I have not found any enthusiasts so far. My mother felt it was too cruel, others thought it was too complicated or too weird. I read it during a very pleasant holiday, perhaps that context has helped cement it positively in my memories.

      1. I didn’t mean to condemn it on that basis, Epi. It’s still on my To Read list and I’m hoping for a pleasant interlude when I too can relax with it and just immerse myself in it entirely without prejudice.
        Thanks for your good wishes–I’m okay, though it is a very troubling time in the U.S.. I’ve missed a couple of your posts, which I always enjoy very much. I also want to listen to all the songs and artists you recommend in them, since it’s been a while since I was introduced to any new music.
        Be well, J

  3. Pingback: Faith | Epiphany
  4. I really like this… perhaps just appeals to my own pathological sense of skepticism. I think there’s a natural compulsion for certainty as a counter to the hyenas and tigers in our lives, whether real or imagined. People want stories they can understand, even if they’re not true. And it can become difficult to give them up when they become a part of our own identities, even when we know they’re dysfunctional.

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