In Praise of Doubt —

At the turn of the 16th into the 17th century, a considerably more leisurely time than ours, Sir Francis Bacon —  philosopher, statesman, essayist, writer, scientist —
said this:

If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.

Take a look at him in his splendid apparel:

He looks like he never had a doubt in his life. It’s true that of scruples he had precious few, but he must nevertheless have experienced enough doubts to have observed so acutely its nature, and the correct sequence of doubt and certainty.

We don’t live in a leisurely era. The 20th century playwright and entrepreneur and highly quotable wit Wilson Mizner had to be faster and punchier than Bacon (even if he dressed pretty drably in comparison) when he said this about doubt:

I respect faith, but doubt is what gets you an education.

So — what do you think about certainty? About doubt?

Are you sure?

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42 Responses to In Praise of Doubt —

  1. fb says:

    Sir Francis does make a good point, and he cuts a fine picture of an admirable figure of an English renaissance man–no doubts about that. But as a 21st century guy, I feel rather more comfortable with Wilson Mizner and would like to add that the human capacity to make mistakes certainly is a part of education and wisdom

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  2. Pauline says:

    It’s for certain sure that if you doubt, you keep looking for answers but if you’re certain, you tend to close your eyes and ears. That applies to the big, seemingly unanswerable questions about the world – I’m sure, for example, that certain people love me, that my breakfast eggs will taste all the better for the fresh herbs I’m about to put in them, that barring natural disasters, you and I will plan and execute more delightful lunches together. But, keeping faith in your doubts (I love that line from Sound of Music) is a healthy way to look at the world.

    Aside: I’m fairly certain (does that count?) that Bacon was a tad uncomfortable in that getup.

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      Three points:
      1. I was on the side of doubts, but found it hard to say why — and you’ve said it, that when you’re certain “you tend to close your eyes and ears.” Bad move.
      2. What’s the line from the Sound of Music????
      3. re F Bacon and his splendid outfit — you think? Not enough to put him off posing!

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      • Pauline says:

        Re #2 – the Mother Superior, responding to a nun’s comment about removing any doubts as to Maria’s remaining in the nunnery says, “I always try to keep faith in my doubts, Sister…”

        Re #3 – but, J, just look at the face the poor fellow is making!

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  3. ceceliafutch says:

    Great post. Would say more but time prohibits–appointments wait. May take some time later this evening to think about this provocative subject and blog about it…. MAYBE…. however, this is a subject certainly worth pondering whether I blog or not.

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      Could not be happier than to feel I gave you something to chew on!
      Indeed it’s a subject well worth pondering —
      I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember Jacob Bronowski and a television series he did called The Ascent of Man. (That’s how long ago it was, using “man” like that.)
      Anyway he had one episode about Certainty — and its effects in history — the concluding scene was one of the most chilling I’ve ever viewed. I’ve never forgotten it.
      Here is the youtube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0jl2w3xYFHQ
      But only watch when you have time, and are up for it.

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  4. Therese Bertsch says:

    You leave me with a great deal to think about. I dislike the certitude of our current batch of politicians. I won’t name them as I am not certain as to whether or not they will change : )
    I abhor the religious fanatics and ideologues who are filled with certitude, attempting to create our reality thinking their God-speak means they are speaking for God, rather than approaching life with respect for mystery and faith. I won’t name them as I am not certain about whether or not their beliefs are in transition : ) Oh the scales of justice tell us about the constant balancing act we embark on in our daily lives. I think reminding me that life has changed and we are challenged by a real lack of time to enjoy one another, our own company, and the quiet of nature is a good thing Judy. It provides me with a different slant on life for today, a different perspective. You have a way of doing that.

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      I think this is a topic with great relevance for today’s public life — as witness lots of interesting comments popping up here like popcorn kernels. What if everyone read each others’ comments and let a conversation begin? We are floundering for lack of conversation (which I know you value immensely) and for superfluity of certainty, which is destructive of any attempts at communion.
      I recommend to you, Therese, and to everyone commenting here or reading this, the Jacob Bronowski youtube video I mentioned in another comment, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0jl2w3xYFHQ.

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    • Mercy says:

      Actually, Therese, sometimes I feel that the politicians and the people (some types) feed upon each other – there are the pols with certitude and the people longing for someone with certitude to show them the way (the latter not realizing that we each have to find the way for ourselves – no one else has been appointed by god and given that kind of omniscience);
      Or there are other pairs – those who talk past each other – the ones with certitude here are actually deathly scared of all the change and uncertainty and hang on to their shred of outdated truths (if they ever were truths at any time), and listen to the doubters telling them that all things change… and there will be a new frontier which we will have to cross… and this scares the hell out of the ‘idealogues’ even more, and so they hang on tighter to their outdated notions – it would be comical if we weren’t getting battered too!
      And yes – you’re always good company on an iceberg! I remember the few we’ve been on:)

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      • Touch2Touch says:

        Don’t mind us eavesdropping, Mercy —
        it’s always a rewarding conversation when you’re in there mixing it up —
        The idea of “pairs” who fit together, hand in glove, ball in socket — YES.

        P.S. Contrast the initiative of the artist El Anatsui in previous post, Life and Art Ever Changing
        He recognizes change as the law of life, is inspired by that, and celebrates it.
        And the result is BEAUTY.

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  5. I am most comfortable with the certainties – the plan, the routine, the predictable. But it is in the doubting that I find the potent inspiration.

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      Ah! Another way of looking at the two, in the creative realm.
      And once you point it out, it absolutely holds true for me, in blogging, and in other creative endeavors.
      Comfort zone — zone of inspiration — not the same zones. Okay, Jen, let the wild adventures begin!

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  6. Mercy says:

    I think juggling doubts and certainties in life is like walking through a wintery lake by stepping on floating ice floes – you never know for sure exactly where you need to set your foot down because the ice floes are floating, but you need to make a guess and set your foot down if you want to stay dry; so you take a stab and say yes that’s where the floe is, I know for sure, and put your foot down and you’re in luck, you’re still dry; you make another guess and oh no! you slip and slide, but you get a feel for the rhythm of the water and the movement of the floe, so you make a third guess and steady yourself again, and so one floe at a time you reach across to the other side of the lake…

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      What an amazing image, Mercy! The danger and the need, the trying and the slipping and the trying again —
      Our progress through life — if we persevere —
      Thank you.

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  7. Rebekah says:

    well … I’m keeping faith in my doubts and I have no idea of where in The Sound of Music that phrase came about. I’ve come to terms with that there’s only so much my mind can fathom but one day we’ll know (?!)

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      Hey, Rebekah, Pauline has commented about the scene where the phrase enters in in The Sound of Music. So maybe that’ll jog a memory for someone.

      As far as “one day we’ll know,” on that, as on so many things, on almost everything, I take refuge in the Zen story’s tag line, Perhaps.
      I guess that’s one way I balance doubt and certainty.

      These comments are all amazing! I hope everyone is reading their own again, AND everyone else’s, and using them as fuel for more thought —-
      I know I am!!!!!!!!!!

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  8. Therese Bertsch says:

    Loved the posts and Jacob B’s u-tube reflection. How true! I’ll join you on an iceberg anytime Mercy. I hope people picked up the humor in my post. I tell you after watching Republican Congressman Joe Walsh from Illinois shout Chris Matthews down I had the uncomfortable feeling that I have seen these tactics in movies about WWII. We are capable of terrorizing one another when we view one another as objects. Yes Jacob B had it right, it’s about touching one another and remembering that first we are people and social beings. Pretty frightening.

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      I like that phrase, we are people and social beings.
      “Social beings.” Made for society, to be part of society, to interact with others and be an integral person ourselves.
      There’s a goal clearly stated!
      Thanks, Therese.

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  9. Bergen George says:

    The touching makes us real. The shouting at one another makes violence possible. The certainties of the fearful and ignorant betray the creative possibilities of doubt.

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      So. There it is in plain view: “the creative possibilities of doubt.”

      (I might only amend, The shouting at one another makes violence imminent. Perhaps even already present.)
      Thanks for adding to the conversation, George.

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  10. fb says:

    Mercy and Therese and T2T—- May I intrude for just a moment. Mixing it up with good conversation is, I have come to believe, one of the joys of life. But good listening is also necessary, and much too often our listener is not really aware of what we are saying, but anxiously awaits for the opportunity to demolish our point. Not a good thing for a profitable conversation.

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      Of course ALL the viewers of this blog, and most certainly all the commenters, are EXCELLENT listeners. So we are all set for a profitable conversation — which, in fact, is already going on. Thank you for participating.
      🙂

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    • mercy says:

      Absolutely, fb, I agree – and often I am gulity of it – we think debating and scoring points and scepticism demonstrate our intellectual superiority – but what Judy noted (of her campus minister?) in one of her earlier posts, really resonated with me: listening as if what the other person said was true is indeed a courtesy, or even fundamental to true conversation.
      I need to remember to practice that more often – may take them by surprise and succeed in demolishing some points just that way 😉 !!

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      • Touch2Touch says:

        The post you remember, Mercy, was indeed about a campus minister at Fordham at Lincoln Center, a black Jesuit — and he would agree that accepting — for listening purposes — that the other’s experience was normative, i.e. true, is absolutely fundamental.

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  11. Pauline says:

    Certainties and beliefs and the difficulties of changing them, especially in someone else’s mind, are discussed brilliantly in Michael Shermer’s The Believing Brain. Have any of you read it?

    I like Bergen’s phrase, “creative possibilities of doubt.” There are creative possibilities in belief too, such as those that come from believing in one’s own abilities. The mind is such an elastic organ. This exchange has me looking into neuroplasticity – another fascinating subject. There’s something there about synaptic pruning: “Synaptic pruning eliminates weaker synaptic contacts while stronger connections are kept and strengthened. Experience determines which connections will be strengthened and which will be pruned; connections that have been activated most frequently are preserved.”

    Perhaps we should look at the age of our politicians as a watermark of their ability to think along new lines…

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      Thanks for adding to the conversation, Pauline, and for the book recommendation. Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain that Changes Itself is terrific on neuroplasticity, in terms that this layperson could understand. But I’d be careful of drawing conclusions about the age of politicians and their capacity for change — some of the youngest are the most “convicted” and resistant to change. It’s the older among us, often, who’ve been knocked around to get rid of some rough edges, and who, spurred by necessity, come up with new ideas.
      At least — that’s the view from here.

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  12. mercy says:

    This is a great topic, Judy (and Pauline, I’m eavesdropping on you too – I feel a sense of that ole serendipity reading your posts, I was thinking of Sound of Music’s “Climb every mountain” just the day before you brought up SOM!; and neuroplasticity is a favorite new concept I’ve learnt about as it gives us so much hope that God ((or biology or cosmos)) is not done with us as yet!!) –
    I always considered myself a sceptic and cynic to boot, while admiring the deep faith of some closest to me – but faith and belief are often not the culprits. Faith that is born of humility and openness and awe at the immense possibilities of people and nature, is a self nourishing process; but blind rigid ‘faith’ that breeds certainties is what kills the human spirit and creativity. So I agree with Pauline on the ‘creative possibilities of belief’..

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  13. Pauline says:

    J – I will read on and let you know if there’s anything in The Believing Brain that addresses age and plasticity in thinking… the quote in my previous comment was from a website about neuroplasticity. I’ll be interested to see what Shermer thinks as there’s a chapter on politics.

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  14. Patti Kuche says:

    The longer I live, the more I treasure my doubts. Of that I am certain!

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  15. Stef says:

    Two words: “Beginner’s Mind”. (Or, some people prefer 3 words: “Don’t Know Mind.”)

    Certainty may be ‘easier’, but doubt reflects more of reality.

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  16. Bergen George says:

    This conversation becomes increasingly germane to our day-to-day lives, vide the tragic events in Norway perpetrated by someone who apparently had too much certitude. Of course this is a grossly pathologic apprehension of certainty. For most of us certainty does not carry so much negativity or violence. Doubt also can be tainted with negativity. The trick is to stick to a code of certainty tinged with doubt. As Patti Kuche so nicely put it, we do well to treasure those doubts that keep us forever creative.

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      Yes, Norway is one example. I think also of the debt crisis, in which those CERTAIN that they are right (and certain that their way is both the only way and the MOST IMPORTANT way)
      are ready to bring down their country in flames for their conviction.
      If only people would be open to creative doubt! Yes, a well-turned phrase by Patti, and an excellent, if sobering comment, by you.Thanks, George.

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  17. Joe Clarke says:

    Here in Philadelphia, we are enjoying a New Catholic Paradigm, i.e. the appointment of a new younger conservative prelate to replace the exiting older conservative prelate. ( I mention this only to note that Francis Bacon’s attire comes close to the new bishop’s.) His appointment was certified by none other than the Pope, hisself, in the Vatican. Our seminary, St. Charles Boromeo, is considered among Catholic conservatives as “The Rock”, a stalwart of traditional Catholic values and conceits. Fortunately, many fine priests have survived their flag ships formation, to be questioners, adrift at sea with the rest of us. What is it that characterizes humility, but doubts that risk breaches in the Maginot Line of certitude and cause us to wander with only one cloak and sandals – like the first apostles? I remember being told in school that the questioners – the smart ones – may be too smart for their own good and end up losing the faith. Sidhartha wanted to know about the real world and so left the compound of certitude, which was the false life of privilege that his parents had erected for him, in order to protect him from real life and suffering. In some ways we are all given compounds of certitude where we dwell with others who think like us and never doubt nor challenge the status quo, where they suffer every privilege in order to stifle the cry of the poor.

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      Doubt spurs you to eloquence, Joe. There’s a lot, a lot to think about in your comment.
      That’s a very strong image, the “compounds of certitude” where most of us begin. One big struggle of becoming an adult is leaving home, either eventually to return, or to find a new home elsewhere, but in either event, having discovered along the way ourselves, our desires, our truths, our pleasures, our sufferings.
      Some people skip all that by remaining “safely” at home. But safety can be illusory.
      “The dangers of life are infinite,” said Goethe, “and safety is among them.” For safety, read certitude?

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  18. Joe Clarke says:

    Thank you, T2T, for the Goethe quote and the supportive words. It is reminiscent of all the visits to LI over the years and the little gems that I would take home with me on the Amtrak train.

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