Is doubt the origin of wisdom? Science in Society 1

Science as a ‘doubt factory’

“Doubt is the first step towards knowledge” Aristotle

“Doubt is the key to knowledge” Persian proverb

“By doubting we come to inquiry; by inquiry we perceive the truth” Peter Abelard

“Dubitum sapientiae initium” (“Doubt is the origin of wisdom”) Rene Descartes

“Doubt is not a pleasant sensation, but certainty is absurd” Voltaire

“It is restlessness, anxiety, dissatisfaction, agony of mind that nourishes science” Jacques Monod


1. Colin Blakemore: ‘The best philosophy is doubt’

Colin Blakemore is in favour of a philosophy that always asks if you could be wrong:

Sciencethe method that underpins what we know most reliably about the world and ourselvesrests on uncertainty. The late, great Karl Popper argued that the only thing that can be definitively proved by an experiment is that a hypothesis is wrong.  Scientists always express, or should express, their ideas in terms of uncertainty. Remember the historic announcement last year that CERN had discovered the Higgs Boson? What they said was: “We observe in our data clear signs of a new particle, at the level of 5 sigma”. What’s that 5 sigma business? It’s a statistical measure: it means that there’s a 1 in 3.5m chance that the most important discovery in particle physics in the past 50 years is wrong.

I’m not saying that scientists wake up each morning driven by the passion to prove that their ideas are flawed. We all hope that our theories are 5 sigma. But we have to live with the only certaintythat our opinions could be wrong.

Contrast that with the expectation that most people have of their leaders. The hallmark of charismatic politicians is that they have absolute confidence in their opinions. Politicians who change their minds on the basis of evidence are accused of U-turns, rather than being hailed for their wisdom. But unwillingness to doubt has given the world most of its political disastersfrom Darius’s invasion of Greece to the present adventures in Iraq.

Doubt is the engine of intelligence. We suffer from a surfeit of certainty. The most powerful philosophy is always to ask whether there is a possibility that you are wrong. From Intelligent Life magazine, May/June 2013


2. Richard Feynman on the uncertainty of science:

Knowledge is of no real value if all you can tell me is what happened yesterday. It is necessary to tell what will happen tomorrow if you do something—not only necessary, but fun. Only you must be willing to stick your neck out…

Every scientific law, every scientific principle, every statement of the results of an observation is some kind of a summary which leaves out details, because nothing can be stated precisely. It is necessary and true that all of the things we say in science, all of the conclusions, are uncertain, because they are only conclusions. They are guesses as to what is going to happen, and you cannot know what will happen, because you have not made the most complete experiments.

Scientists…are used to dealing with doubt and uncertainty. All scientific knowledge is uncertain. This experience with doubt and uncertainty is important. I believe that it is of very great value, and one that extends beyond the sciences. I believe that to solve any problem that has never been solved before, you have to leave the door to the unknown ajar. You have to permit the possibility that you do not have it exactly right. Otherwise, if you have made up your mind already, you might not solve it.

…It is of paramount importance, in order to make progress, that we recognize this ignorance and this doubt. Because we have the doubt, we then propose looking in new directions for new ideas. The rate of the development of science is not the rate at which you make observations alone but, much more important, the rate at which you create new things to test.

If we were not able or did not desire to look in any new direction, if we did not have a doubt or recognize ignorance, we would not get any new ideas. There would be nothing worth checking, because we would know what is true. So what we call scientific knowledge today is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty. Some of them are most unsure; some of them are nearly sure; but none is absolutely

certain. Scientists are used to this. We know that it is consistent to be able to live and not know. Some people say, “How can you live without knowing?” I do not know what they mean. I always live without knowing. That is easy. How you get to know is what I want to know.

This freedom to doubt is an important matter in the sciences and, I believe, in other fields. It was born of a struggle. It was a struggle to be permitted to doubt, to be unsure. And I do not want us to forget the importance of the struggle and, by default, to let the thing fall away. I feel a responsibility as a scientist who knows the great value of a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, and the progress made possible by such a philosophy, progress which is the fruit of freedom of thought. I feel a responsibility to proclaim the value of this freedom and to teach that doubt is not to be feared, but that it is to be welcomed as the possibility of a new potential for human beings. If you know that you are not sure, you have a chance to improve the situation. I want to demand this freedom for future generations.

Doubt is clearly a value in the sciences. Whether it is in other fields is an open question and an uncertain matter…It is important to doubt and…doubt is not a fearful thing, but a thing of very great value.

More here. Also worth watching: Richard Feynman on belief


Further questions:

  • Is curiosity always a good thing?
  • Is there too much certainty in the world?
  • Should we doubt everything?
  • Is it possible to doubt too much?
  • Is it possible to believe too much?


Useful words:

Degrees (of certainty)










About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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