Mindfulness of Doubt

Photo by Erik Mclean

Mainstream US culture has a paradoxical relationship with doubt, which is traditionally cited as one of the obstacles to mindfulness practice. One the one hand, our ardent individualism elevates doubt to the level of a virtue and our trust in one another and our institutions is at an all time low. On the other hand, we can be incredibly unforgiving of mistakes and intolerant of the phrase “I don’t know”. Being a culture prone to extremes, it may come as no surprise that our relationship with doubt reflects this tendency. Mindfulness can help us find middle ground so that we might navigate the paradox of doubt with greater wisdom and less struggle.

Like all living beings, our human blueprints are largely plans for survival of the species. Avoiding risk is correlated with living long enough to reproduce. So, a desire for control and low tolerance for ambiguity instinctively drive us to seek greater knowing for survival’s sake. It makes sense then that we might have a tendency to both fear what is unfamiliar and comfort ourselves with a misguided belief that we and ours are truly in the know.

Perhaps our fraught relationship with doubt is also related to our cultural insistence on absolute confidence among the people we admire and the “experts” we turn to. We also see confidence as a virtue and essential for success in ourselves and for our children. Certain elements of our majority Christian population (about 65% of adults according to a 2020 survey by the Pew Research Center) can treat doubt like a threat to and blemish upon one’s faithfulness and goodness. But, overvaluing confidence actually makes us even more error prone and edges out humility. In her book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, Kathryn Schulz wrote, “…errors do not lead us away from the truth. Instead, they edge us incrementally toward it…. it is ultimately wrongness, not rightness, that can teach us who we are.”

In the US, we often encounter an insistence on guarantees with no margin for error. Though we like to see ourselves as “go getters” we tend to be a fairly risk averse people. In addition to our survival instincts, this may be partly due to our litigiousness. In 2012, we had the most lawyers per resident of any country surveyed – one lawyer for every 250 people. In 2011, The US had the highest cost of legal claims as a percentage of GDP of countries surveyed and in 2019, we were the fifth highest in insurance spending.

Everywhere we turn we see the vilification of error. Every day we see how people are treated in the media when they make mistakes and it creates a powerful deterrent for us all. In some ways we know more than we ever did before. We have more sophisticated instruments to measure data. People are better educated and our well-nourished brains and bodies are even more primed for learning. The internet places a seemingly endless supply of information at our fingertips. But science, seen by some as the crown jewel of Western understanding, is increasingly under fire. A significant minority of Americans distrust medical professionals opinions about the coronavirus and vaccination and doubt climatologists warnings about looming ecological disaster.

Our impatience for not knowing has elevated a reductionist view of ourselves and our world, seeing everyone and everything as simply the sum of parts. We do our very best to make phenomena tangible and quantifiable. For example, mistrust of science has been supported by a so-called “replication crisis”, especially in the social sciences and also in medicine. Replication of studies is one method used to determine the validity, reliability and generalizability of findings. The theories about possible causes of the “replication crisis” include publication bias, small sample sizes, misinterpretation of data, etc. But, perhaps the most interesting cause is the incredible number of complex and interconnected factors that can influence a study, even when confounds are controlled for.

An over-striving to know can bias us to look for simple cause and effect, but we are discovering it may be more useful to look at research through a more dynamic systems lens, rather than through a linear paradigm. According to the Museum of California Museum of Paleontology’s Understanding Science project, “…science aims to reconstruct the unchanging rules by which the universe operates, and those same rules apply, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from Sweden to Saturn, regardless of who is studying them. If a finding can’t be replicated, it suggests that our current understanding of the study system or our methods of testing are insufficient.” But, we can’t be 100% certain quite yet that the universe operates by unchanging or constant rules. For example, there is some evidence that the strength of interactions between light and matter, something we’ve assumed to be constant, may actually vary according to where you are in the universe.

Mainstream views assume phenomena develop through sequential, orderly, cumulative, hierarchical and universal pathways in clear and predictable stages. Emergent paradigms are complicated and messy, allowing for interconnection, a multitude of pathways, the influence of context, and the constant flux of change. The unexamined mind doesn’t tend to like complexity much – it seems scary and unpredictable. But, if this is they way it is, we will be better off if we can open to this ambiguity – and mindfulness can help us to do so.

Through the practice of mindfulness, we can learn to embrace doubt without becoming distracted or overwhelmed by it. We begin to understand, through direct experience, the value in questioning our assumptions and we develop the courage to face the unknown with courage and humility. Finally, mindfulness can help us trust in ourselves and others enough to offer the benefit of the doubt, to allow for mistakes, and to cultivate the compassion to forgive when we make an error.

“Far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition. Far from being a moral flaw, it is inextricable from some of our most humane and honorable qualities: empathy, optimism, imagination, conviction, and courage. And far from being a mark of indifference or intolerance, wrongness is a vital part of how we learn and change. Thanks to error, we can revise our understanding of ourselves and amend our ideas about the world.” ― Kathryn Schulz, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error

Resources

Nosek BA, & Errington TM (2020) What is replication? PLoS Biol 18(3): e3000691.

University of New South Wales (2020). “New findings suggest laws of nature not as constant as previously thought.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 April.

Wallot, S., Kelty-Stephen, D.G. (2018). Interaction-Dominant Causation in Mind and Brain, and Its Implication for Questions of Generalization and ReplicationMinds & Machines 28353–374.

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