Doubt Part 1: I Don’t Know

Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.”  Voltaire

 “We have to allow ourselves to realize that we are complete fools; otherwise, we have nowhere to begin.” ChögyamTrungpa


You know too much, yet understand too little. And it’s the same for me, and everyone you and I happen to know. This is our modern epistemic crisis: we are bogged down with too much data and an excess of certainty about things we really know very little about. We borrow second, third hand opinions and waltz around with them as if they were our own: Flouting postures of certainty that we have no right to. Or we retreat into simplistic ideologies and let others do the meaning making for us. And it’s not just the refuse of human guff we are sorting through on social and mainstream media, from conspiracy theories to anti-vax ignorance, we are exposed to an excess of informational input through the internet today that our mammalian brains were simply not evolved to digest.

Think about that for a moment, our brains are literally not up to the task of managing the constant stimulation that accompanies online life today, and the complexity it constantly points to but never quite grasps. We are in a sense reacting to it all or shielding ourselves from it. We are also incapable of grasping the weight of the new rules that govern the immense waste pile of human ideas, spluttering and folly that is the internet. Collectively we have only partial answers to these rules at best. All the same, as practitioners, such rules are a sort of initial means for grappling with our own struggles and the collective difficulties that we are pulled into by living in this hyper-connected, hyperreal age. One is to practice epistemic humility and question what we superficially accept as given. Another is to reclaim an oft derided human state known as doubt. For the practitioner, doubt can be taken as a practice space to be cultivated, inhabited and, when necessary, invoked. For Buddhists, it can be harnessed as a practical antidote to the solid sense of self that forever lingers in the background of our consciousness when we are far too sure of ourselves and the ideas we sign up to.

To inhabit doubt is to inhabit a space of not knowing that is undefended by beliefs and opinions. In this space the unexpected becomes possible and the precious opportunity to be genuinely surprised by life can be found. This is perhaps no different from the old adage to be an empty cup, or the archetype of the fool, but all the old wise sayings in the world can’t do the work for us. They easily become knowing tropes or mere performance of ideals; something which has always been easier to do than grapple with the real thing. Ideally, you figure this stuff out for yourself and build a path through your own experience and not the borrowings of others. You may even allow yourself to be shaken by life, seduced by wonder, and the lesser known face of the triad, be stunned by just how ignorant each on of us is.

What follows are a series of posts that respond to this living human condition. In alignment with the practical nature of this season on the podcast and here, I will offer up practice ideas too. Some of you may find them useful. Eventually, these posts will also appear as audio-casts over at our new home on the New Books Network.

Feasting on morsels

Our species has a long, rich history of wrestling with its ignorance. Socially we have always struggled with the limits of knowledge and our political, religious and social entities are and have been testament to this with their partial truths, limited ideals, and solutions typically wrapped up in the veneer of universal fix. We swim in all that we do within a world of partial knowing and it can be sobering to realise this is also true of our institutions. These limits are often the unnamed defining characteristic of the live personal, political and ideological battles we see around us, and perhaps many of the fights would be unnecessary if all involved were a little more honest about their own epistemic poverty.

Over at the Great Feast (see podcast episode 57), our philosophical brethren have spent an immense amount of time contemplating doubt and wrestling with skepticism as they grapple with profound questions of knowledge. Whether their explorations have been focussed on the theoretical or the practical, they do great service to us and have carried much of the weight for our species since questioning of knowledge began in earnest. Their own struggles are mirrored in our forever contemporary attempts to make sense of ourselves, life and the world we are inseparable from and in an age in which increasing numbers of citizens have retreated into information bubbles, and slipped into occupying sides in polarised societies, engaging with the history of epistemology could be considered a form of social responsibility and perhaps even a societal duty. Amongst the potential cures for our hyperreal age’s ideologically captured extremes; this seems a pretty cost effective solution. 

An early band of these explorers of knowledge were the Greek Skeptics and they go through cycles of popularity across generations and for good reason. The word skeptic relates to investigation. And as ancestors to our own struggles, they remind us of the importance of suspending the sort of judgement that is rooted in the pre-held beliefs, ideas and assumptions we tend to find an excess of comfort in. Exploring what might be outside of those forms of pre-made and expectant forms of understanding is a practice that is built on regular commitment. The Skeptics were not so concerned with doubt, that obsession came around later on. However, they took philosophy as a way of life and thus dedicated themselves to a whole life rooted in discovering the world beyond their pre-conceived notions, and intrinsic to this process is an inevitable intimacy with doubt. That’s a pretty impressive commitment to make. Especially as most of us simply jump from one set of conclusions to another, or fall into the trap of forever grasping at certainty.

An additional curiosity regarding the original Skeptics was that they sought a life lived without the need for beliefs. Some may find this an absurd proposition. But once you begin to investigate your own beliefs, they can be rather difficult to find. It can be tough to decide, in practice, where a belief differs from an opinion, or an assumption, or a mere flirtation with an idea. And a person may state their imagined beliefs with initial confidence, but once prodded at, those beliefs may reveal themselves to be temporary commitment to an idea that has not been thought about very much at all and therefore not really held to be true. Beliefs do exist, but they are dynamic, floating things at best. If unfed by regular affirmation and attention, they tend to fall into disuse, rather like Neil Gaiman’s gods. A phenomenological analysis of the experience of belief usually reveals a lot of abstract content in the body and mind of the holder. It might even be best to define most personally valuable beliefs as axiomatic principles that belong to a hierarchy in a person’s consciousness. In this sense they are less frozen entity and more working principle and therefore more malleable and open to transformation. This is good news for those engaged in the practising life and a reminder we need not be held prisoner by beliefs. Especially those we would prefer to be left alone or are so identified with we don’t even realise they are operating in the first place.

As a final point, there are many who have written about the potential resonance between Buddhist beliefs and the Skeptics, and in particular Pyrrhonism. When it is not a forced project hinting at Perennialism, it can be an interesting avenue for exploration, and you may want to check it out. For our purposes, the next step is to stay in Greece for a moment longer and head slightly further back in time.

Archetype #1

When it comes to doubt, Socrates really is the great archetype for those with lingering affection for the western intellectual tradition. His dogged attempts to question the beliefs of his fellow Greeks somewhere around 5BCE is a great example of the doubting mind and the sort of behaviour still hated today by those drunk on ideological certainty and the old game of sophistry. In Socrates’ world, doubt was to be applied to any and all convictions, not just the ones his in-group opposed. It is no small consequence that his story is not only one of western philosophy’s imagined origins, but of social discomfort, an antagonist disturbing unquestioned certainty and poking at the role of shared lies in keeping folks comfortable in their shared ignorance. A lot is made of the man’s talent for a good question, but it takes character and courage to question the status quo and highlight the absurdities of unfounded certainties, especially when they are taken as so self-evidently true by the majority of a given group. The man was willing to sacrifice popularity and social status for the truth. I wonder how many would be willing to make that kind of sacrifice in our current age.

To dig around the philosophical fatigue that has gone into working out answers to what are for most of us straightforward questions is to undermine layers of certainty built on very flimsy foundations. Socrates started the ball rolling for us. It is uncomfortable work until made a habit, after which it is a constant act of waking up to the limits of knowledge and our own grappling with it. We are all convinced of endless half-truths and approximations, and the challenges of large scale epistemology run through our own small lives. To examine how little you know is a project in remaking the world you perceive and are capable of seeing. It starts from your home. Expands out to your street, the town you are part of, your communities of meaning, the areas of expertise you may work in, the people you know, and returns back to you as a different vision of a world that was taken for granted and thus largely ignored. To examine anew with care is a life-long practice. Not a one off act that involves us finally being reborn: that’s a Christian myth, right?

Archetype #2

The Buddha is an inevitable figure in any discussion of knowledge when Buddhism and practice are involved. He is at once omniscient and a fallen prince, the revealer of the four great noble truths, and a universal monarch. He was also a crap husband and father. Though what matters in his story all depends on whose story you like best. Personally, I think we all need to release the Buddha of the burden of exceptionalism for the poor fellow is burdened with so much expectation that he is suffocating from it all. I also think we need to be cautious when making the man in our own image.

What makes the Buddha a useful archetype beyond his role as founder of Buddhism is his dogged attempts to break out of his delusional take on reality, his willingness to sacrifice personal comfort to see the truth, his wrestling with pre-existing norms of knowledge and practices in the practice communities he hung around in, and his attempts to avoid merely producing more of the same. He experimented with the knowledge and practices available to him, so he was not suspended from history, despite some of the marvellous claims found throughout Buddhism’s history. He went through what was known and done. He grew from existing practices and beliefs and they provided the basis for him to carry out his own questioning, follow his own desire and build a pathway through his experience. That is what we get from the myths at least, and why shouldn’t we take them as a set of principles we can employ too. We do not need to romanticise them or make the man out to be wholly unique. It is also helpful to remember his debt to history and other humans, mostly because it is played down in almost all of the myths, and mainly because we too are indebted, but hardly ever realise to whom.

We can extract a question or two from these components of a telling and apply them to our world; “How will you make this your path too? How willing are you to sacrifice comfort for the truth? What norms that characterise our age, western Buddhism, the axioms of spirituality, might you need to challenge? Where does delusion lie in your stories about the world? Who do you owe a debt to?”

I will not go further with this archetype. The temptation to make the man a tool in one’s own retelling is strong. All of the schools of Buddhism that have popped up and developed over time have made him such and fashioned an effigy to their own hopes and desires, and this is true of the secular Buddhists too. For us, he is to remain human and that’s as much of a rewrite as I am willing to engage in.

Next up: Back into the Practising Life with Peter Sloterdjik, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Ron Purser, Thich Nhat Hanh, Sogyal Shit-poche, part-time jobs & a bit of blabbering.

Doubt Part 2

Doubt Part 3

Doubt Part 4


  1. I like the idea of anthropotechnic practices that train the formed subject to become a formed agent, which Glen Wallis talks about in the podcast I’ve just listened to (but can’t find now).

    Have you seen the Mindfulness Initiative’s recentish publication on Mindfulness: Developing Agency in Urgent times? Nothing here, I’m sure that may be new to you, but it is a prominent statement in the mainstream that connects ‘mindfulness’ with agency rather than mindfulness as a coping tool, therapy, or even something that’s all about self-improvement.

    The problem with this document though, is that it’s still mostly based on the idea of ‘development’ as something that’s primarily an individual thing – an illusion of separateness which drives need for self-improvement and makes us busy doing things to get stuff that tell us we are ‘someone’ – or makes us busy doing things to get a something that’s even better than the old something, just like ourselves.

    Who we believe we are (the formed subject) is a social/cultural ‘production’. To form the agent, we first need a ‘practice’ that shows us how our selves are created for us – in relationship to others around us and in relationship to group identity. Then we need a ‘practice’ that gives us the power to use this knowledge to become the ‘self-forming agent’ of ourselves.

    If we are social selves, then surely it makes sense to do this ‘practice’ in relationship to each other and in community. This, I believe is at least a part, is the “social mindfulness” that Ron Purser mentions in the last chapter of his book, ‘McMindfulness. And this is what I’ve written about in my essay, Why we need social mindfulness, included in the Mindfulness Initiative’s collection of essays written in response to Mindfulness: Developing Agency in Urgent Times.

    (You can download these Mindfulness Initiative publications from

    I’ve only listened to a couple of your podcasts and read a couple of your articles and have enjoyed them so, thank you!


    • Hi,
      Thanks for commenting and listening to the podcast. I’ll be honest; I tend to avoid most material related to Mindfulness. I am far more motivated by the idea of the practising life, or a pathway. Mindfulness as generic technique for reducing stress or aiding workers to manage their lives is a positive if it works for them. I don’t have a problem with any sort of therapeutic intervention that reduces suffering and ignorance to some degree but that it is not why I engage with Buddhism. As a general pedagogic principle, from passive to active is generally warranted.
      You touch on a topic I do find important, which is the role of agency and the degree to which we are formed culturally on the one hand, and formed historically on the other: Specifically as part of a very long lineage of mammals fighting for survival and attempting to dominate the horrors and challenges of harsh environments.
      I find any argument for social/cultural/political formation that ignores our much older roots as physical, biological, mating creatures to be pretty much a distraction, or form of intellectual indulgence i.e. ideological and politically motivated. Our social formation is actually embedded in our existence as physical, feeling perceiving creatures first. We are firstly physical, embodied creatures that are embedded in an organic world of constant change marks by patterns and cycles. Our social formation is in many ways an attempt to manage that fact but as it’s rarely acknowledged, it operates in the background and is starved for attention.
      I also don’t buy into the idea that we are specifically formed by others: It is not one way. Isn’t that yet another vision of man as passive being to be moulded and shaped by others otherwise? But who shaped the shapers one might ask? Whatever we are, and to whatever degree agency exists, or free-will is a thing, we emerge and develop a sense of ourselves as physical, perceiving beings. We are driven to grow, feed, survive, mate, develop meaningful connections, experience pleasure physically and emotionally: none of which is started by social conditioning, but may be shaped or orientated by it, or not. Plus, social formation is as much a product of our physical bodies as it is of the physical space we are born into (physical home, family dynamics of intimacy/violence/attention, etc, geography, community, architecture, weather patterns, etc), as it is of subsequent social, linguistic practices.
      In terms of forming practices, that’s exactly what this series is all about. Maybe something in it will resonate?
      Merry Christmas,


      • HI Matthew, thanks for responding to my comment. Yes, I think it’s necessary to understand ourselves as biological beings. In The most important ‘resource’ to hominids in their/our evolution is their capacity to build relationships with kin and non-kin, that break rules of the zero-sum game of survival. Of course, we are not the only social animals, but the balance of the shift in hierarchy of needs in our ancestors placed ‘all of our eggs’ in the basket of group survival and our place in the group, and this meant we developed high level abstract ideas about who we are, individually, in relationship to others, and the world around us. Later, the success of modern humans – our ability to displace other hominids is came from our capacity to create a social identity in relationship to a collective identity that enabled us to work together in tribes. Here, the abstract object of collective identity became the next layer of hierarchy of needs – the need to identify with something bigger than individual ourselves and the idea of supernatural beings that we, individually and collectively, could bring us good fortune.

        So what? Why practice anything? In the Buddha’s time the prevailing belief was that the human ‘soul’ reincarnated through endless lives of suffering. Escape from this endless cycle of rebirth was the given objective of Dhamma/Dharma practice. In modern Buddhism and it’s secular relative (mindfulness) this Buddhist notion of extinguishing the thirst for existence that drives the karmic wheel of becoming is largely reduced to a psychological system of cognitive behavioural training attention, mood patterns, attitudes etc that will alleviate the angst of modern living. Here, I’m not so willing to accept the justification that this ‘psychological Buddhism’ is fine if it makes people’s lives happier. And here, I don’t just mean ‘mindfulness’ as a preventative for depressive relapse, I mean the way the Dhamma/Dharma is approached from the perspective of the modern self-construct of the individual, psychological, individual – and that we can be ‘our best selves’ if we do commit ourselves to the discipline of self-improvement.

        In fact, I don’r really care what it’s called: Buddhism, ‘mindfulness’, philosophical inquiry, cultivating some kind of connection with others and the world around us. The distinctions all seem just signifiers of some kind of set of beliefs about identity and ‘practice’ that aligns personal sense of meaning with ‘the way of things’.

        Yes, Truth (with a capital ‘T’) is something that I’m passionate about – not that its particularly relevant, that’s probably to do with a some kind of deep-seated need for safety produced by a personal developmental history that gave me a shattering experience of breach of trust early in my life. Even if, the pursuit of Truth ends up being more than a linguistic game that enables ‘the fly to escape the bottle’ of opinion and belief (individual, cultural, collective), this is really a bit of a privileged game to play and while that’s very nice for me and a small collection of ‘clever(ish) people’ like me, that doesn’t address the kind of problems we, collectively face today. What relevance has to the pressing needs of these times?

        I’m interested in the truth of the nature of things, not just for its own sake, but because this might just help us find a way of surviving the kind of social, economic, and environmental change that’s upon us. Truth for me is not just realising the compounded nature of constructs and the things they enable us to use or exploit, truths themselves always have a context. It concerns finding ways to apply understanding of how ‘the way of things’ works to solving what is probably the greatest challenge human-like creatures have faced since they left the trees.

        Why do you seek ‘Truth’?

        And wishing you a very merry Christmas too,



  2. Hi Mark,
    I don’t have a problem with much of what you write. You are pointing at rich, complex themes which would require quite a bit of unpacking for us to make sense of each other as something beyond fellow humans showing and telling. Some of these themes remain open questions for me, though I find nipping over to the Great Feast makes them landscapes of many things rather than shorelines of opposing views.
    I tend to think of truth and reality in the same way that I think of freedom, free-will and concepts that are important in Buddhism like compassion, love, awakening, and so on. I see them as relational concepts that are limited to our physical reality. So that we might have freedom from something and the freedom to do something, but an abstract total or final freedom is left aside as a sort of fetish or symbol for something else. Although, just to be a bit annoying, I don’t have a problem with the notion of freedom as something ineffable necessarily, but my relation to it (if it is a thing), is always to bring it back to words and concepts that can be made sense of or ejected/rejected within this material reality.
    I cannot speak of ultimate or final truth. I think we all save a lot of time if we return these concepts to our earth-bound species so that we have freedom not as an ultimate state but as something related to the limits and possibilities of being human. This contextualises and captures divergent social and historical contexts and realities, but is rooted in our physical reality as mammals first. It is the same for compassion; we cannot literally contain a concept as large as the end of suffering for all beings without it fragmenting or forming into a sort of imaginary sphere of make-believe. This is not necessarily a problem, but it does disrupt ideals of practice and the reification of universals and destabilise traditions which claim such a possibility exists.
    Some people state this recognition of the contextual and contingent as if it were a given, and then they carry on speaking or behaving as if the truth, reality or freedom they speak of were ultimate, universal and so on, which is of course a thoroughly human tendency. For this reason, I do tend to labour the point and much of the writing at this site is an exploration of what to do once universal claims and the truth nature of Buddhism is rejected.
    I think that John Gray, the Scottish philosopher, has been successful in considering the implications of being far more honest about the human condition as thoroughly animal. He leans into cynicism at times as a consequence, though I think this is also a product of him being a Scottish intellectual! Have you read his Straw Dogs? Buddhism even gets a mention in it. He is also great at dismantling the more utopian fantasies of the liberal, progressive left in his regular writings for a variety of left, right and centre publications in the UK. As a leftie of sorts myself, his views make for sobering reading and provide so much material for thought.
    Finally, I think we have to be cautious about thinking in terms of ‘us’. My ‘us’ always ends up being a projection of me and the ‘we’ or ‘us’ that my past has given me access to. I try to discipline myself to return to looking at what my actual life can and does impact. It is there that I try to think of ‘us’ and ‘we’. This may, however, merely be a reflection of my recent entrance to the realm of middle-age! Of course, part of my ‘we’ and ‘us’ includes intelligent practitioners looking to resolve conflicts between our wealth of current understanding of the human condition and the great potential within Buddhism that so many of us benefit from and continue to be drawn towards.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s