Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Primacy of Doubt and the Fallacy of the Answer

Among the proper goods of the mind is the search for and discovery of truth about the existence we all share. Key to discovery is an inquiring mind asking, constantly asking, questions. There is an embrace between the questions and the answers. There are two principles that I think are necessary on the journey of discovery:

The fallacy of the answer is the idea that questions necessarily have answers and that often only a single answer. The questions frame the search for truth. Often the question narrows or dictates rightly or wrongly the direction of the search and can even misdirect. Usually there are many answers and there may be no answers. When there are many answers there may be no best answer. When people demand a single answer they are demanding the cessation of thought not the answer, for there is no answer in general.

If you have an answer it is essential not to stop looking. The answer may be wrong. It may not be the only answer. If you stop looking then you have abandoned the search. There are no answers that can not be further enriched. Many thinkers have expressed this in various ways and I'd like to provide some short quotes:

SOCRATES: "I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance."

PETER ABELARD: "The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by seeking we may come upon the truth."

MORTIMER ADLER: "When judgment is not suspended, and the mind judges correctly or incorrectly about the truth or falsity of propositions under consideration, such judgments may be either highly probable (i.e., beyond a reasonable doubt) or just more probable than contrary judgments, but they are never beyond the shadow of a doubt. They change from time to time, as new empirical evidence is found or new and better reasons are given for altered judgments."

RICHARD FEYNMAN: "The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn't know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty damn sure of what the result is going to be, he is in some doubt."

I think we would all be served by accepting the universal principle of existential doubt. No matter how certain we are of anything, we are fallible human beings and we are likely wrong in some manner or degree even if we are correct in other aspects.

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