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The Power of Doubt

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Galileo is supposed to have said, "Doubt is the father of invention."

Why did he think that doubt is generative? Many people seem to believe the opposite, namely, that doubt is destructive -- or at least paralyzing. Others fear doubt, because it threatens their otherwise comfortable sense of certainty. But if Galileo was right, if doubt is a source of growth and creativity, surely we should all be cultivating it.

Doubting, questioning the certainty of what is taken to be true, is the source of both understanding and innovation. If we did not doubt, how could we have discovered that we can harness the power of sun and wind to meet some of our energy needs, or that our data encryption systems require more robust safeguards, or that enacting certain governmental policies will stabilize unemployment?

To plumb the depths of problems, or even to identify them properly, requires a facility with doubt that must be learned and then cultivated. And working on approaches to, or solutions for, difficult problems requires a set of skills that begin as instincts, but must be developed by practice.

Michel de Montaigne, the prolific French writer of the 16th century, in his essay "On the Education of Children," describes a kind of learning that begins with doubt, but proceeds toward new understanding:

Let [the student] be asked for an account not merely of the words of his lesson, but of its sense and substance, and let him judge the profit he has made by the testimony not of his memory, but of his life. Let him be made to show what he has learned in a hundred aspects, and apply it to as many different subjects, to see if he has yet properly grasped it and made it his own.

And a little further on:

Truth and reason are common to everyone, and no more belong to the man who first spoke them than to the man who says them later... The bees plunder the flowers here and there, but afterward they make of them honey, which is all theirs; it is no longer thyme or marjoram. Even so with the pieces borrowed from others; the student will transform and blend them to make a work that is all his own, to wit, his judgment. His education, work and study aim only at forming this.

The trick is not to take on blindly what is given to us, but to awaken doubt about it, question it, accept what is reasonable and appeals to our sensibility, so that it becomes something new in us, not something that belongs to Plato or Aristotle or Darwin or Einstein. In this sort of learning, the student does the work, not the professor; the student molds himself or herself, instead of being molded by some external authority. In this sort of learning, the freedom of the student is respected even as he or she is developing the arts of freedom. This is what is meant by liberal education.

A truly liberal education recognizes that a teacher's authority can be an obstacle to learning precisely because it belongs to the professor and not the student. So liberal arts educators work hard to provide students with the tools for their own learning and the opportunity to use those tools repeatedly. These are the tools of inquiry and investigation, not the mechanics of memorization and rote learning, or even of bookish competence.

Liberal arts educators seek to help our students learn to ask good questions, questions that open up paths for exploration. Whereas answers often block further inquiry, questions open doors and invite the questioner to explore what is on the other side. If we want our students to learn to ask good questions, to plumb the depths of an argument, to uncover its foundations and discover its elementary components, it matters deeply what material we set before them. Every college that teaches liberal arts is convinced that some things are better, more fundamental, more worthy of study than others and they offer those things as a kind of banquet for their bee-like students to plunder, to feast on and transform into their own distinctive honey. All this cultivates intellect and imagination while at the same time developing self-reliance and independence.

But all this cultivation depends on the freedom to doubt. Freedom to doubt is an acceptance of -- and even a welcoming of -- ignorance. It goes beyond questioning and examines ideas at a more fundamental level. Every scientist knows that the only way to do good scientific work is to maintain an attitude of doubt and uncertainty even about matters that are widely accepted to be true. Only by sustaining a position of skepticism toward our own certainly can we be open enough to suspect that there may be unseen paths to new learning. Only when we assume that there is something more to learn, something unknown, will we be likely to be able to find it. Richard Feynman, one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century, put it this way in an essay called "The Meaning of it All."

I feel a responsibility to proclaim the value of 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.

He calls this welcoming attitude toward doubt and uncertainty "humility of intellect."

As it is for the scientist, so it is for the liberal artist. The greatest exercise of freedom may be the surest sign of humility. We have to acknowledge that there are things we want to know but cannot, because that's what it means to be human: to have an overwhelming desire for what we do not possess while lacking the power to satisfy it. We can never know all there is to know, and knowing that sets us free to explore what we will, to learn what we can and to wonder at everything else that remains for us to learn. And this may well be the height of human wisdom and happiness.

So it seems that Galileo was only looking at one of doubt's virtues. Doubt, it turns out, is not only the father of invention; it is also the source of the greatest human happiness.

Christopher B. Nelson is president of St. John's College in Annapolis, and an outspoken champion of the liberal arts. St. John's College, with campuses in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, is an independent, four-year college that is devoted to liberal education. Its richly varied curriculum focuses on an integrated study of philosophy, literature, history, theology, political science, mathematics, music, and science. Students and faculty engage directly -- not through textbooks and lectures but through study and discussion -- with original texts and ideas that are at the foundations of Western thought.