The importance of doubting
The active cultivation of doubt, a Socratic legacy, is the path to wisdom
“There is freedom of thought, and each one can sustain what he wants, as for me, I will stick to my principle, and I will always seek in every question the maximum probability, without being bound by the law of any particular school to which shall forcibly follow my speculation.” (Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, IV.4.7)
Sometimes one of my students, perhaps a bit frustrated at the inability to defend their position on a subject under discussion, will say: “Well, everyone is entitled to their opinion.” Yes and no, I reply. In the world at large this may be true. Unfortunately, everyone feels entitled to their opinions, and even more unfortunately they don’t hesitate to broadcast it as far as their social media account will carry. But in a philosophy class, or in reasoned discourse in general, people are entitled to their opinions only to the extent they can defend such opinions on the basis of evidence and argument.
This is something that our media could benefit from learning. The notion that, whenever there are two positions on a given issue we need to listen to both, to allow “equal time” no matter how nonsensical or harmful an opinion may be is nonsense on stilts.
But how do we balance the values of freedom of thought and respect for truth? By actively cultivating an attitude of doubt, like the Roman advocate, statesman, and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero did throughout his life.
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