The Importance of Doubt, Asking Questions and Not Knowing

Most of us are uncomfortable not knowing.

Just think about it: Wouldn’t it be nice (and easy) if we knew the answers to all the important questions?

Who am I? Is there a God? What is his name? What is the purpose of life? How do I live the good life? What is justice?…

Knowing is much more comfortable (and easier) than not knowing. That is why most people convince themselves to be absolutely certain they know the answers.

Yet, as Voltaire presciently noted “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”

It is absurd to take things on faith, without doubting or testing them in any way, and go on preaching that you really do have the answers.

It is absurd to be able to accomplish such an enormous feat simply by following orders and without any substantial struggle, discomfort or risk.

It is absurd that we can find out everything there is to know by listening to our parents and elders or by mindlessly reciting someone’s holly book.

Religion is a convenient and easy way out of our discomfort. It is the fast food equvalent in our hunger for grand answers and spiritual fulfillment – it may provide short-term relief but is damaging in the long-term for our ability to think. It is this, more than anything else, that explains my atheism.

Said Nietzsche:

“I do not by any means know atheism as a result; even less as an event: it is a matter of course with me, from instinct. I am too inquisitive, too questionable, too exuberant to stand for any gross answer. God is a gross answer, an indelicacy against us thinkers — at bottom merely a gross prohibition for us: you shall not think!”

***

Not knowing, just like other cases of being uncomfortable, is a great incentive for personal growth. Progress always comes at the point of resistance. Getting uncomfortable and willing to be uncertain, to not know, to ask questions, to err and to fail, is the best and only way to learn, grow, progress and move forward.

Why? Because as Richard Branson has demonstrated over and over again: “There is always a better way! The fact that something has been done the same way for years is a sign of lazyness or neglect.”

So not knowing is always the very first step on the way to knowing.

“I know that I don’t know. But you don’t know that you don’t know, and that is why you think you know.” is what Socrates used to say.

Take this contemporary Socrates and Singularity Weblog for example:

I know that I don’t know if the singularity will happen for sure or not.

I don’t even know how to turn this blog into an honest and profitable business to allow me to not only enjoy what I do but also do what I enjoy, without having to struggle.

Yet, what I do know, however, is the importance of doubt, asking questions and not knowing because those are the first steps on the way to finding the answers.

This was the path on which the ancient Greek sage walked and eventually triggered a revolution in culture, science, religion and philosophy that is still on-going.

It is also the path that I have decided to take. No matter the risks, the unknowns and the doubts – I am an optimist – for as long as I am uncomfortable I know that I will be learning and growing. And where there was ignorance there can and, eventually, will be knowledge. (Even it is simply a better question.)

So, join me and venture into the unknown – we are in good company. As Carl Sagan used to say:

“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

So, what are you waiting for?!

Get on the path and take the first step! Be uncomfortable! Have doubt! Ask questions! Not know!…

…and you just might be on the way to discovering something absolutely incredible!

 ***

Richard Feynman, 1965 Nobel Prize Winner in Physics (Excerpt from 1981 BBC Horizon)

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  • Gabo

    “The monks and disciples must not accept my words out of respect, but must analyze them as a goldsmith analyzes gold - cutting, filing, polishing, blending” Buddha

  • http://cmstewartwrite.wordpress.com/ CMStewart

    Wise words indeed- “investigate without knowing” or believing, to avoid confirmation bias. Knowledge is like art. The joy is in the creation.

  • Brenda

    This know also, that in the last days
    perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves…   Ever learning, and never able to come to the
    knowledge of the truth. 2Ti 3:1,2,7

  • John Williams

    This is a very beautiful and interesting fact
    The most educating one i have read today!

    High School Diploma

  • http://www.singularityweblog.com/ Socrates

     Thank you John, I am very happy you enjoyed it!

  • Yousutul

    Hmm.. This post raises interesting topics indeed, but.. There seems to be something wrong…
    namely, we can’t doubt absolutely everything – we need to know some things with certainty and with 0% place for doubt. Certainty makes us happy and constituted, both physically and mentally, and it’s something we MUST have at some level. Whereas too much doubting may very well depress and demoralize – certainly a negative and undesired effect. Chinese philosophy pointed out that there should be a balance between Yin and Yang. I think that similarly, there should be a balance between certainty and uncertainty. Here are a few examples: I think that a sufficient level of certainty for me would be, “I know with 100% certainty beyond any doubt that everything I perceive daily is absolutely real: My family, my friends, the surrounding world etc., and is NOT, say, a Matrix.”. Or similarly the following: I am an engineering student. I don’t know with certainty that I’ll successfully obtain the B.Sc. degree (nor do I wish to know, this is an uncertainty I’m absolutely fine with), but I AM certain in all of the above and know that obtaining this degree would be the ultimately right thing to do, for this way I can help myself and my family, and gain knowledge that will enable me to create and maybe invent interesting and fascinating stuff. And hence I’m going to be very motivated and do my best to finish it.”
    So, it’s not ALL about doubt, you need some blissful and comforting certainty too, imho.
    What do you think guys? Would be glad to hear some constructive answers.

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  • http://twitter.com/theFermiParadox Carson McKnight

    Great piece. I think you would really like the work done by Prof. Peter Boghossian. I nominate him to be the fill in for the four horsemen since the Hitch died. I agree with what you have to say. Also, I think it’s confirmation bias and the anxiety of not knowing that keep people from embracing doubt and skepticism. Being an honest seeker of truth is not an easy road. Science Friction is great book too by Michael Shermer. As they say, Keep an open mind to ideas, but not to open where your brains fall out.

  • http://www.singularityweblog.com/ Socrates

    Not sure what or whom are you referring to friend?

  • Anthony

    Richard Feynman in the provided video-clip.

  • Anthony

    Personally, my problem isn’t with not knowing — I’m fine with not knowing something — but rather with not understanding something; this is what really gets to me, sometimes in a good way and sometimes in a bad way.

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  • http://www.singularityweblog.com/ Socrates

    I don’t think you can really know anything with “100% certainty” friend. This is what Descartes concluded after pondering this topic centuries ago. The only exception, of course, is that you are a “thinking thing”. The rest of it is just varying degrees of probability but none other gets to 100%.