To Maintain the State of Doubt

Reflective thinking is always more or less troublesome because it involves overcoming the inertia that inclines one to accept suggestions at their face value; it involves willingness to endure a condition of mental unrest and disturbance. Reflective thinking, in short, means judgement suspended during further inquiry; and suspense is likely to be somewhat painful…To maintain the state of doubt and to carry on systematic and protracted inquiry — these are the essentials of thinking.

– John Dewey, How We Think

I spent a lot of time reading various blogs on umwblogs during my time at school. I had my finger on the pulse of conversations in various classes. Most often I lurked but sometimes I would comment. It was during my last year at Mary Washington I noticed a marked difference between how I formulated thoughts and how many freshmen on the  first-year seminar blogs formulated opinions. It is not that the incoming freshman class was stupid (although everyone always like to say kids are dumber than they used to be) I just had reached a level of thinking that most freshman had not. I was finally seeing those intangible skills that I had been told college would give me begin to surface.

It was during my last two semesters that I finally began to fall in love with doubt and skepticism. I had discovered the freedom in doubt. I found conversations that excited me and inspired me to go and do the research and learn to identify a poorly constructed argument. One of my favorite blogs to comment and challenge students on was a freshman seminar called Food Chemistry. I’m a historian by training but, that doesn’t stop me from getting in over my head in other disciplines. Most of the time my comments were simply challenging them to look at their sources, second guess their opinions, or even just provide evidence for their claim. This type of skill doesn’t require any special training in chemistry, mostly it is just critical thinking.

I had a professor who likened the ability to hold multiple ideas at once to a golden retriever’s ability to hold multiple tennis balls in its mouth. At first it can only hold one but, it can figure out how to hold two or three or more. Besides giving us all a good laugh the analogy made the point that learning how to hold multiple views and hold them equally without judging is a skill that is learned. We give a lot of lip service to critical thinking. I can’t think of many people who think it is a bad thing but, surprisingly most of us are terrible at it. Now most of us aren’t terrible at in ever aspect of our lives but, from what I’ve seen of this world so far (and its not much) most people go with convenient and shallow over difficult and deep. It is true we don’t have enough time to weigh heavily on all matters in our lives, we’d never get anything done. But I hope I don’t forget that many of the opinions I hold now that I assume true are not necessarily true. And I continually hope I have the humility to admit that just because I believe something doesn’t mean its true. This is why I’ve come to love doubt and skepticism. It puts me in a position where I don’t have to cling to ideologies or defend ideas just because it is the idea I’ve always believed. I go with what evidence and logic points to and hope that it leads me to being a better, more rational person.

Richard Feynman when talking about scientific integrity said this:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.

I could go on in detail about all the ways work against our critical thinking abilities. Go ahead and take a look at the wikipedia page on the list of cognitive biases. We have a lot to overcome. I spend a fair amount of my free time working on my critical thinking skills and challenging my thinking (where was this when I needed it in college?) because I enjoy it. I almost get a geeky kind of excited when I catch myself making assumptions I shouldn’t and correcting myself. The freedom to doubt is a beautiful thing.

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5 Responses to “To Maintain the State of Doubt”


  1. 1 Bill August 27, 2011 at 5:47 pm

    But thinking is HARD, Shannon! I like Heinlein’s comment about the character whose process of ‘thinking about it’ meant ‘coming up with a justification for what he already thought’.. And then there’s the quote about “what most people call ‘thinking’ is really just rearranging their biases’. Which actually doesn’t mean anything, but sounds appropriately snide.

  2. 2 bill August 27, 2011 at 9:38 pm

    Hmmm…that sounded a bit rude, upon reflection. Let’s try that again.

    Most people (including me) don’t think, they react. It’s a survival trait. You learn to parameterize, to classify, to do a quick analysis, and then you react. It’s how you handle the multiple vicissitudes of life. To actually stop and think takes a lot of effort, and for most of us, that’s effort without reward, because they don’t get any benefit from it. No enhanced view of the world, no useful information. Heinlein disagreed. He was big on personal introspection and analysis. He felt that people who don’t totally operate in the cerebral plane are proles, people without worth, but that’s not the case. Most people are doing well to get through life, handling problems and making plans, at the micro level. They have neither the time nor the desire to think of the great concepts, the overarching goals. When someone who does like to operate at that level — or likes to pretend that they do — comes along, like Heinlein, they sometimes mock the others. They say that they’re ‘justifying their prejudices’, or ‘rearranging their biases’. They speak snidely of them (which is what I meant by ‘appropriately snide’). Is it fair? No. But it makes them happy. It’s the inverse of the old joke about wrestling with the pig.

    I don’t like that approach.

    I’m not against the idea of understanding your biases and correcting them. (Which, since you know me, I hope you already know). I just like the idea of doing so without a sense of humor. By that, I mean wielding that scimitar of logic with a sense of humility, so that you can see where thought goes astray without ascribing that divergence to anything but human nature. Don’t fall into Heinlein’s trap. Don’t criticize yourself in the Maoist sense; do it in the sense of Saint Augustine. “Give me (clarity), Oh Lord…just not yet!”

    Then again, my favorite philosopher always was Robert Fulhgum.

  3. 3 Shannon August 28, 2011 at 7:53 am

    I didn’t think your first comment was rude, no worries.

    I think you make a good point. Like I said at some point there isn’t enough time to think deeply about everything. We’d never get things done. This world has become increasingly complicated and diverse and to think deeply about it all is not feasible.

    That is why I think critical thinking skills are important. The better you get at it the better your immediate first reaction will be.

    I think it is because I have some friends who have some radically different world views that sometimes I just want to understand why they think what they do think and understand why it is I think what I think.

    Most of the silly thing our brains do is human nature. It worked to get us where we are for many a millenia (yay pattern-recognition). The modern world has thrown our brain a curveball and there are many things our brains do that often get us into trouble when thinking in modern times.

    I think ultimately this comes to not want to judge. Not in the sense that everyone has a right answer and happy warm feelings (definitely not that) but that to take time to try and understand why someone might think a certain way might not only change my views but if I understand what they are thinking I might be able to help them too. Hope that wasn’t too rambling.

  4. 4 Katie December 4, 2011 at 5:04 pm

    Ah, I see. This is excellent.


  1. 1 Science, Cell Phones and Community « Loaded Learning Trackback on May 14, 2012 at 3:18 pm

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