“Doubt is the key to knowledge” (Persian Proverb). To what extent is this true in two areas of knowledge?


58462233 632118637263355 6018645737556934656 nIn the history of mankind, doubt inspired many great discoveries. Christopher Columbus, for example, had doubted contemporary beliefs that the Earth was flat and has therefore proved otherwise. Similarly, Nicolaus Copernicus had doubted geocentrism, and he formulated a heliocentric model, which was later proved to be correct by Galileo Galilei (although the calculations weren’t completely correct). Both Columbus and Galilei were, in their pursuit of truth, led by doubt.

These examples illustrate that doubt truly is a powerful tool and an important factor which heavily influenced the advancement of humanity. It has frequently acted as the first step towards new discoveries, and it can also function as some sort of a trigger which stimulates people to act accordingly, depending on the nature of a thing which they are reconsidering. But what does exactly mean “to doubt?”

One of the definitions is: “To question or hold questionable“1. For instance, Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity began to develop after he had started to doubt, i.e. question Newtonian’s Mechanics. He recognized the flaws in Newtonian’s Mechanics, proposed its own theory, and then confirmed it experimentally. This is actually a typical example of Experimental Method2. If he hadn’t doubt in Newtonian’s Mechanics, it would be harder and less probable for him to analyze it further and find its weaknesses.

Likewise, numerous scientists in different branches of science e.g. Chemistry, Psychics, Biology, had used Experimental Method to test their hypothesis. Those may be different disciplines, but one of the things they have in common is that their theories are being proposed from the previous, already existing ones, usually by expanding them, rather than creating the new ones. In order for this to happen, one had to doubt a certain existing theory and propose a new, better one.  

The natural sciences are, as already mentioned, built of theories which are experimentally proved to be correct, i.e. they fit into our perception of our surroundings and relationships between its elements. However, there are some theories which are more limited than the others and which do not work in all cases. That’s why scientists always try to come up with the most general theory, which would work for the largest number of situations. That is another way, besides doubting, of the advancement of the natural sciences. An example of that would be The String Theory in Physics which tries to bring together two “limited” and mutually incompatible theories - quantum mechanics and the theory of general relativity.

Because of this, the so-called “expansion” of the natural sciences’ theories, doubt is an essential feature in its progression. And in this case, expanding the contemporary scientific theories could be described as knowledge possession and implementation. Furthermore, taking into account that “Doubt is the key to knowledge” is a Persian proverb, it can be concluded that even ancient civilizations were aware of the importance of doubt in the quest for knowledge.

Hence, as for the natural sciences, this proverb is definitely accurate and doubt truly is a key to knowledge, because, without it, scientists would have neither motivation, nor reasons to further expand their area of knowledge, and there wouldn’t be potential for the development of the natural sciences.

However, there is another Area of Knowledge which holds doubt in a complete opposition comparing to the natural sciences. That is religion. In contrast to the natural sciences, where doubt is regarded as a constructive and desirable figure, in religion, it is discarded and unwanted. In fact, Galileo Galilei mentioned at the very beginning, paid a high price for doubting in religious beliefs about geocentrism. It was only in 1992 when the Roman Catholic Church officially rehabilitated him3 and de facto admitted that they were wrong.

Instead of theories, which are present in The Natural sciences, religions have “dogmas”. The definition of dogma is: “A formally stated and authoritatively settled doctrine; a definite, established, and authoritative tenet.”4

Clergy asks for undisputed and undoubted acceptations of those dogmas as they are considered to be core values of religion and therefore they cannot be questioned.

Unlike the previous examples from The Natural sciences, Religion is founded around dogmas. Its system could be compared to the axioms from Euclidean geometry. Axioms, or “an established rule or principle or a self-evident truth”5 serve as a foundation for building large theories, such as Euclidean geometry, or even a religion. Just like Euclidean geometry is derived from the five axioms given by Euclid, religion is constructed around dogmas. In Christianity, for example, those dogmas are called “doctrine” and they are usually Bible quotes, such as “There is only one God” or “God is a Trinity”6. If axioms and dogmas are being considered, and their definitions are being compared, a large number of obvious similarities can be detected. Both are “established”, and accepted as true, for example. 

But there is one large difference. Axioms are logical and intuitively obvious, and we are able to recognize them with our own senses and use them in modeling our reality. Religious dogmas, on the other hand, can only be guessed upon because we are not able to reason them out. They are neither provable nor disprovable and that’s why it could be said that Reason, as a Way of Knowing, is the subject of the biggest difference between the natural sciences and religion.

Therefore, for religion, the proverb “doubt is the key to knowledge” does not really stand because, as it is already mentioned, there is no doubt allowed. Moreover, if everything is constructed around dogmas, can we even talk about some type of knowledge?

Sometimes, when being criticized for an inability to prove some dogmas or other aspects of their religion, the worshippers give a counter-argument that those dogmas also cannot be proven wrong. This only leads to a conclusion - if something is not provable and at the same time it cannot be disprovable, what usage does it have?

Well, Certainly not a minor one. Religion has been responsible for both great and terrible things in history. It created powerful civilizations, connected people in the way in which no country or constitution could, but it also elicited a lot of wars with countless victims. The usage of religion is a tough thing to define since it has been exploited in a lot of ways. Nevertheless, one thing is certain. Doubt is definitely not a key to knowledge in it.

All things considered, Persian proverb “Doubt is the key to knowledge” is truthful in only one of two Areas of Knowledge discussed here. While it is indispensable for the existence and development of the natural sciences, it is also undesirable in religion, which prefers believing without a doubt.

The following quote from Alfred Korzybski suits excellent into this topic as it sums up both presented Areas of Knowledge: “There are two ways to slide easily through life; to believe everything or to doubt everything. Both ways save us from thinking.7

It is important, but also hardest, to find a balance between doubting and believing. In that way, a person should be able to draw the most from the information which he or she encounters. If a person slides extremely onto one side, he or she becomes narrow-minded and ignorant.



2http://www.glossaryofmarketing.com/definition/experimental-method.html. 30.9.2010.