I don’t specialise in doubt. I also don’t specialise in certainty.
This is the dilemma of the young. How much should I question? How much should I believe or not believe? Where do I draw the line between acceptance and challenge?
Doubting too much leads to paralysis. It hinders our ability to learn and means that we will never accomplish anything. By doubting nothing, we are at the mercy of, well, anyone and everything.
To doubt is to not believe, to challenge, to consider the limitations of our knowledge.
Nassim Taleb has, in the genealogy of the Incerto, collected together some major proponents of this “skeptical empirical tradition.” Of the many named, Popper and Montaigne are the two I am familiar with. Compared to Nassim, my penetration into skeptic literature is similar to someone who has read the headline and claims to know the story in intimate detail.
Despite my superficial and shallow understanding, I have two rules that I’ve loosely filed under the title of skepticism.
1) Don’t be afraid to change your mind.
You cannot be a prisoner of your past convictions. Or your past ideas. If you are doing life right, your understanding and knowledge should grow every day. This occurs, more often than not, by elimination of falsehood than by addition of fact. To eliminate an untruth, you have to unbelieve, to change your mind.
There’s a useful question here. When was the last time you changed your mind? I ask this rhetorically, as a thought exercise. The peculiar nature of our minds means that we have extreme difficulty remembering what came before what we have now. Just as on my town’s high street, I cannot remember the store that existed before that remarkably unremarkable shoe store.
The opposite of change is stagnation. We should treat our ideas and beliefs, not with reverence, but with disdain. As soon as they cease to align with the reality we observe and the truth we perceive, we should be ready to cut their throats. Our allegiance is to truth, not to self-delusion, mental comfort, or happy ignorance.
Staying where you are is fine if you have found perfection. Unfortunately, you haven’t. Neither have I. Change your mind.
2) Never be surprised when you are wrong.
Surprise at your own stupidity indicates arrogance. “Oh my, how could I, be wrong?”
I like the opposite approach. Surprise and outrage when you are proven wrong delays how quickly you can accept the new state of affairs. This is dumb. The more rapidly we can dispose of wrong, and assimilate the shiny, new truth into our mental machinery, the better.
Suspending surprise has two advantages. We can get a head start on all those too busy pondering how the all-mighty-me could be mistaken. And it also makes for less emotional turmoil. Imagine how stressful it is to mourn and grieve for every cherished idea you have to leave behind.
No thanks. There’s enough to worry about in this world without lamenting the loss of our most loved ideas.
My best protection from future wrong is to continue to grow, learn how wrong I am, and most importantly, reserve the right to change my mind. My knowledge will sometimes (often?) prove ineffective and inaccurate. But if I adhere to the rules above, changing my mind will be a seamless and smooth manoeuvre.