Doubts Even Here: The Potential of Doubt in the Age of Certainty

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, June 26th 2019

The world at the moment is in a state of flux. Yet everywhere there is assertion and statements that imply certainty and do not allow for any doubt.

Doubt is central to being human. Galileo once said, ‘Doubt is the father of invention’. There is the personal doubt many of us experience – the inner voice that measures yourself by impossible standards. And there is the wider collective, societal and social doubt that poses that true faith and blind belief might not be the best way to think about things or organise societies.

I have always had doubt. My inner doubt comes in two forms: the emotional and intellectual – with the former in part originating in my experience of the Scottish state education system that never – in the past – focused on building confidence and social skills. That system for much of its history did not really know how to positively nurture bright working class children. It knew negatively what to do for too long; to prepare them as gently as possible for a life of disappointment, defeat and dashed dreams. And if that didn’t work it could always engage in punishment. As a counterbalance to all this, the element of intellectual doubt and my own sense of curiosity, desire to know about the world and to question things, originated in my parents encouragement of these qualities, and their belief in challenging authority.

I still have this doubt, and my inner, questioning, voices frequently speak to me, although, by now, I have got used to them. I have learned through experience to talk back and engage in a rational conversation that draws from experience, and doesn’t give myself a hard time. I know that it is easy to be your own harshest critic, and that it is self-defeating, and ultimately pointless, to embark on such a course.

The class dimension in inner doubt is a powerful one. Scotland as I was growing up was a society defined by needing permission and by punitive authority, albeit weakening and hollowing out. This was a culture which stigmatised non-conformity and heresy, and where, if you stuck your neck out too far, you were chastised or told off.

Many of us remember watershed moments when this became apparent and one was told to know one’s place and not question authority. I can distinctly remember one such episode in the mid-1970s in Ardler Primary School, Dundee when I dared to correct a teacher who said something inaccurate about the then Labour Government – which she clearly disapproved of and was happy to be known.

After I challenged the teacher, she asked me, clearly in total frustration at this young Smart Alec – ‘Which Communist country do you like then?’ After she had ran through five or six of them (including the Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia) when she got to ‘East Germany’, I replied yes – thinking it sounded tolerable and attractive compared to the others. She then turned to the whole class and said, triumphantly and with such scorn, the words I still remember today – ‘Well, if you like it so much, why don’t you go and live there?’ I was only about eleven at the time and was made to feel about as small as possible. Admittedly, the teacher in question, Mrs. McLaren, had a complex relationship with me, and recognised my talent, awarding me the pupil of the year award the following year, as if to try to make up for the above.

Doubt also has a gendered dimension. Men are by and large more likely to pontificate and argue on any subject under the sun, even when they don’t know anything about the subject or have any facts to hand. Women are more likely to qualify, contextualise, and take a step back in arguments. The difference in personal behaviour of football players between the women’s football World Cup and the men’s is stark – the women’s game being mostly free of play acting, diving and arguing with the referee.

Fear of failure, of being seen as a lesser person, is all wrapped up in how we all navigate an increasingly bitter and divided country and world. It is not an accident that the top of the Tory Party is dominated by not very bright or impressive men who happen to be mostly privately-educated, and have often known one other for years, and that the current battle for the Tory leadership has come down to Eton (Boris Johnson) versus Charterhouse (Jeremy Hunt).

This takes us to the notion of collective and societal doubt. We are living in an age in which much of the developed world is in the midst of a colossal crisis of confidence – of progress, economics, politics, the planet and its environment, authority and expertise.

In many respects, much of the West is transfixed and stuck by these multiple and inter-connected crises. All of them are underpinned by the deceptions and transparent bankruptcy of the economic model of capitalism of the past forty years, which cannot just be answered and transcended by the old conventional palliatives of the left.

Yet, this state of affairs has spiraled into the mess of disinformation, deception and straight out lies – Brexit, Trump, and the onward march of Boris Johnson to the Tory leadership. Pseudo-facts and assertions are just shamelessly made up (‘We send the EU £350 million a week’), with lies peddled in the cases of Brexit and Trump, and even the law broken and bent out of shape.

Across the West a secular based faith politics has emerged which believes that the challenges of the age can be overcome if only people embrace their certainty and simplicity. Elements of this evangelicalism can be identified in the dogmatic fanaticism of No Deal Brexit, but is also evident in the true believers in the Corbynista coalition and pro-independence campaigners in Scotland. At a time of such upheaval and uncertainty, the psychological attractions of having such lack of doubt and instead believing in the righteousness of your cause, is obvious, although it doesn’t get very far when it encounters faint hearts and reality.

What is alarming is where this is all going to end. Not only is the law being broken in the cases of Brexit and Trump, but the normative rules and values which informally bind societies and which make them manageable and work, are being dramatically eroded. There are serious questions being asked in the US of how the country, its democracy and public standards, could survive the wreckage and damage of a second-term Trump Presidency, or whether the harm being caused – if that happened – could become irrevocable.

This unsatisfactory situation makes a case and place for doubt: both personal and societal. But it has to be the form of doubt, not used to undermine individuals and collectively societies, but as doubt – and challenge – for creative and constructive purposes.

The early 21st century does feel like the end of an era, or more accurately, of several eras. These range from modernity to the free market freeloading capitalism of recent decades, social democracy, and the European project as we have know it. The assumptions that have underpinned endless economic growth, rising living standards, individual consumption, and treating the planet and its rich but fragile ecology as something to exploit, have increasingly come at huge costs. If that were not enough, how we think of and imagine what it is to be human will be transformed in the next couple of decades by the march of AI and robots.

Galileo understood that doubt was central to the human imagination and invention, and the physician Richard Feynman wrote in an essay, ‘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.

So here’s to the doubters. If not the negative, diminishing voices that undermine us, but the ones questioning, scrutinising and provoking the way the world works. A world of more doubt and ambiguity would be a better, more human and more considerate place for all of us to live in.