What is doubt? Is it a valid position?

Doubt is when you are not sure if something is true or not. So if there is a football match in progress you may doubt if your favourite team will win. 

So doubt (shak in Arabic) is the position between knowing and not knowing. There must be at least some knowledge on the subject otherwise the issue would be ignorance. For example if I ask a man if it is possible to live to 100 years old, he may say no. This is not doubt, this is ignorance. He is not aware of it being a possibility, therefore he can not assess if it is not true, as there is no chance of it in his mind.

On the other side of the spectrum we have those that do not doubt, when they should. For example, if we ask a person, “what will the weather be like next year?” He may reply “on this day next year, it will be sunny”. Now it may will be sunny on that day, but he could not have been sure about it. There are factors which can influence the outcome which he has not considered. 

Immediately we can see a relationship between doubt and certainty. Certainty is the absence of doubt. Click here to read more about Certainty.

From an idealistic perspective, we can see that one starts in ignorance, then moves to doubt, then to certainty. However this perfect scenario rarely becomes a reality. Often people stop along their journey, and remain either in ignorance or doubt. Rarely do people reach certainty, and even then, one may argue that they may be certain , but certainly wrong.

Due to this, some have taken the position of doubt as their conclusion. They surmise that certainty is just like a mirage, an illusion. It’s not something tangible, only aspirational , so why bother?

Such people just doubt everything. Their own senses, thoughts, ideas , everything. Is this a rational position ? 

Much like the early Greek Sophists, they believe there is no truth. The truth is unobtainable and it’s just our perception that lets us think we have a truth. 


The philosophy of the Skeptics 

There have been several groups throughout history who have taken the road of doubt and skepticism. Some can be read about in the Philosophical Study guide here.

The issue I would like to investigate in relation to such groups, is this; Can you doubt doubt?

If you can not, then you are certain of the doubt. This would then be a truth to such a person. If this is the case, then they do not actually doubt everything, but rather they have a construct that they believe in which doubts everything else. This in itself is a paradox. As they would have to be certain of their mind, and their construct if doubt, and then apply it to situations, and assume the application is also doubtless.

For example, let’s imagine a person who claims to doubt everything. A complete skeptic. What ever we ask him, he can only reply, “I think X, but I’m really not sure”. Even if he walks near a well, he does not believe it and walks straight regardless of the peril of falling into the deep well. Such a man doubts everything.

If we examine such a position, the first and most obvious observation is that their life is probably going to be short-lived and full of misery. Would he doubt his own hunger for example?

On a deeper level, he is not truly doubting. He trusts in his mind to doubt and he trusts that doubt is the correct philosophical position, or more correctly, epistemological approach. 

So he has at least two truths. As mentioned earlier, it’s not possible to doubt everything, as then you would end of doubting doubt itself. This would lead to certainty, perhaps in a false idea, but none the less, a feeling of being certain. 

You may ask, why in the absence of doubt do they not become ignorant?

If you are in the status of ignorance, you can’t doubt. For example, if I do not know of the existence of a particular animal in Africa, I can not be skeptic about it. As being skeptical means that you are aware of the notion, but unsure if it’s truth. If one has the idea of the notion and removes the uncertainty, they are left being certain of that notion.

If we return to the man who is an ultra-skeptic, what made him accept these two notions as true? The two notions being that his mind will in fact correctly doubt things and that doubting is a method to reach the truth?

In order to answer this, one must accept that even doubt is secondary to reason. The skeptic has subjectively arrived at the conclusion that doubting everything is the right way to process information. But according to what? What scale or method is this analysis based on? It is the scale of reason and logic.

The skeptic does not doubt by default. They doubt after thought, after applying a rational context to their circumstances.


Criticisms of Skeptical thought 

It’s very important to appreciate that doubt is not negative, or something that should be discarded. It is our way of dealing with concepts that are not proven yet. If we had no doubt, we would go straight from ignorance to certainty. We would just accept everything we heard, saw and thought of as true. I’m sure we may know a few people who we suspect think like this. It’s not good, it leads to problems and is obviously rational unsound. Then the other extreme is those that doubt as a rule, and never reach certainty, again, this is not useful, practice and rationally invalid.

So we are left trying to carve out the Goldilocks zone of doubt. How much doubt is “good”? How much is rational?

The “goodness” is directly proportional to the rationality. As if we had a perfect system of rational thought, such that we doubted what should be doubted, and accepted what is true, we would have the most amount of truth and aware of what maybe true and what is false. This is what I’m defining as good in this context of epistemology.

The answer is that all things should be doubted until the correct rational method is applied and then the notion can either be classified as truth, false or uncertain. This method, is the method of logic and reason, properly applied to the subject.