why should we doubt?

1. Introduction

Can something be so obvious that it cannot be doubted?

Think about the beliefs you had as a child, those that you believed were true, but turned out to be false later. Most of us were really confident about the veracity of the beliefs we had. Can’t think of anything like that? How about these?

1. The great wall of China is visible from space, right ?! It is absolutely wrong. NASA debunked this many years ago, but many textbooks haven’t changed it.

2. Bulls get angry when they see the color red; In reality, it’s the movement of the objects that trigger the bull.

3. Goldfish has 3 second memory; Scientists have shown that they can remember up to five months.

In a pursuit to understand the truth about the nature of this world and everything in it, we should constantly ask questions, i.e., be a skeptic. There are plenty of misinformation, disguised as facts spreading around, in social media, newspapers and sometimes across generations by word-of-mouth. We should doubt everything which seems true, even if we believed it deep in our heart. Failing to do so may sometimes, if not always, lead to misguided actions. Actions that may negatively affect you or those around you.

In order to have a picture of this world and the facts with fewer distortions, one must cultivate the ability to think rationally and critically.

2. Rationality

What does it mean to be rational? we use logic/contradictions/fallacies to reason and justify one’s doubt. An example would be this question: can you conceive a square circle. Square, by definition, has 4 sides & 4 corners, and circle, by definition, has only one side and no corners. Is it possible at all to violate the most fundamental principles of logic by trying to conceive a square circle? You see the impossibility here ?! if you made the connection between the premise and the impossibility, then you are rational. It’s the virtue to think in an orderly fashion before you make a conclusion.

2.1. Don’t trust your senses

Rene Descartes advises not to trust your senses anymore even if it has deceived you once. He goes on to suggest being cautious not to place absolute confidence in your senses.

Before The Germ theory, we never knew the existence of germs and the cause of diseases. Most cultures around the world believed that it was a curse from the gods that was causing harm to a person. Our visual observation was limiting or hindering and kept us from the truth. We never knew microbes existed. Here, science was the tool which bridged the gap between belief and truth. To address more profound ideas, ideas where tools like science and religion find it hard to reach a consensus, we should stop believing our senses and exercise doubt and reason to move towards the truth.

2.2. Is truth true?

Descartes proposes the existence of a powerful deceiving devil that influences us in such way, that we are wrong about even the most basic logical and rational principles. A real-world example would be a person under hypnosis, he counts numbers where 7 is followed by 9. For him it is totally obvious, the truth about the continuity of numbers. Maybe we are all under hypnosis and we all believe something to be true when it could be false, and we could never know if there is an underlying flaw in our rationality. Maybe this devil is in the human neuron, and we are programmed to take certain things to be true regardless of exercising utmost reasoning. Doubting the faculty itself will give rise to many philosophical complications which are much harder to deal with. For now, let’s operate in the assumption that we are exercising our abilities to reason fairly.

2.2.1. Does the earth orbit the sun?

In reality, the Earth does not orbit around the Sun. “Technically, what is going on is that the Earth, Sun and all the planets are orbiting around the center of mass of the solar system. The center of mass of our solar system is very close to the Sun itself, but not exactly at the Sun’s center.” –says Cathy Jordan, a Cornell University Astronomer.

2.2.2. Does wet hair causes cold?

Most of us have this notion that staying in wet hair after a shower can make you catch a cold. Or believing that going out in cold weather can have a similar effect. In reality, cold hair just makes you uncomfortable, but it does not make you catch a cold — viruses cause that.

2.2.3. Does stress cause ulcer?

It is commonly believed stress is one of the major causes of ulcer. And you probably heard of it yourself from someone. Dr Bary Marshall, in the year 1984, conducted experiments to investigate serious stomach pains from his patients. He consumed little of the contents of one of his patient’s stomach and experienced the same symptoms of his patient. This led him to suspect that ulcers are caused by bacterial infections and not by stress or food which most of us still believe. He eventually proved it and a simple dose of anti-biotic can cure ulcers and he was also awarded the Nobel prize in medicine in the year 2005.

What are common about these misconceptions? Most of us, including myself, have believed these misconceptions as facts so confidently. Confident enough to teach or communicate it to others as the truth with total conviction.

2.3. What is really happening in our belief system?

Beliefs which are outside our direct experience, that is, those conveyed via language is very specific to humans. It was difficult for evolution to act upon it. Early humans (hunter gatherers as they are called) formed new beliefs only based on direct experience. It made sense for them to accept those beliefs and trust that their senses aren’t lying to them. Vision and hearing were basically good tools to believe something, as it meant the different between life and death. It was safe for them to assume the rustling in the grass is probably a lion which meant a great deal for survival. Investigating the veracity of a claim, shape, sound, or an event took effort. So, it was better to believe it since you get to live one more day if you do.

Since most of the beliefs of our ancestors were formed from direct experience, they didn’t develop a great deal of skepticism, particularly, when it meant our survival. Communicating abstract ideas via language was very specific to humans. We passed on information from one person to another who is even generations apart. The development of language did not affect this ability to believe, and we continued to believe things outside our direct experience just as strongly. To believe something outside our experience was easier than doubting.

Even today, as a child growing up, our elders expect unquestionable obedience from us. We were also naïve enough to not know complex behaviors like deception, lying, etc. We believed everything we heard or saw. This also includes the beliefs passed on to us from our parents. We are not encouraged to question if we find something unacceptable about their beliefs.

3. How to shape our beliefs?

To have a strong foundation in forming beliefs we should first learn how to think critically. Critical thinking is the ability to think in an organized and rational manner to understand connections between ideas and/or facts. It helps you decide what to believe in.

Let’s do a simple experiment

Let’s figure out if drinking coffee is good for you.

Try to search on google “reasons not to drink coffee.” You will find: Decreased anxiety, healthier teeth, weight loss, and a healthier heart! Oh God! I’ll never touch a cup of coffee again!

How about “reasons to drink coffee?” Lower rates of depression, memory boost, longevity, and wait for it, a healthier heart (source). Oh well. I’ll never trust the Internet again. The twist? These are not some random unsupported online claims. There’s legit, peer-reviewed research that backs up EVERY single one of the above findings.

So how do you reconcile these contradictory claims? By thinking critically.

3.1. The 7-step rule

Critical Thinking Skills: Definition, Examples & How to Improve (zety.com)

These simple 7 step rule will guide you through how to think critically.

3.1.1. Identify the problem

Try to be precise and narrow on what you are trying to find answers for.

We were really broad in our search about coffee being good for you. First of all, what does ‘good’ even mean?

3.1.2. Collect information/data

Try to find plenty of sources that present your case which provides different perspectives

We found two different contradicting information. Just 2 is never enough.

3.1.3. Evaluate the information

Ensure that your sources are trustworthy. Question if their conclusion is supported by evidence.

The first one is only based on literature review and the second one is peer-reviewed study conduced in Korea. For obvious reasons this does not provide a generalized view on the subject matter.

3.1.4. Identify assumptions

Ensure that your sources are unbiased. Look for agencies funding the particular research/article. Make sure that, you are not biased.

There was an underlying assumption from our side. That is, coffee is bad for your health or if coffee is worth drinking. This unconsciously skewed our key words in the search.

3.1.5. Determine significance

Which part of the source is meaningful? Is research related to the problem you are trying to find answer for?

Our sources were not significant

3.1.6. Make decision

Figure out different conclusions that are possible and decide which of that are backed by sufficient evidence.

The effects of coffee on health depends on various factors which we did not consider looking into

3.1.7. Present the conclusion

Even is the final verdict is that ‘we cannot come to a conclusion now’, it still a valid response and worth communicating it.

Its really hard to know the truth about anything. The most important aspect is to understand the limitations of our knowledge.

4. Conclusion

To be sure about the veracity of our beliefs, we should exercise true rationality and a great deal of skepticism without doubting the faculty of rationality itself. we should operate with reason as best as we can. Being a skeptic about our own rationality will get us nowhere.

Don’t hesitate to question the dogmas in life!

Don’t hesitate to have a dialogue with authoritarian ideas at school, at home, at work!

Don’t hesitate to have dialogue with people who impose their beliefs on you.

Be a skeptic, be rational, cheers!

5. References

1. Why Your Brain Clings To False Beliefs (Even When It Knows Better) (fastcompany.com)

2. Critical Thinking Skills: Definition, Examples & How to Improve (zety.com)

The content of this article is inspired from many different ideas, but the motivation was from the shear amount of misinformation spreading in today’s world.

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