Analyzing the Rene Descartes Quote About Doubt and Finding Real Truth
“If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.” – Rene Descartes
How do you seek the truth? Do you try to verify what you already believe, or do you put your own beliefs up to scrutiny and see if they hold up? According to Descartes, one of the greatest philosophers of all time, the former path will only lead to error. If you’re truly interested in finding out what’s true, you must doubt everything that you believe, then go on from there. According to Descartes it’s only by doubting that we are able to seek truth at all.
Descartes went on to write that you must doubt what anyone says or writes and whatever you hear or read. In fact, he says you must doubt even your own senses and your own powers of reasoning. We should especially feel doubt if we’re led to conclusions contrary to the facts of Nature, common sense, or good conscience. He finishes these thoughts by noting that all who’ve achieved great things did so by doubting their beliefs many times before they themselves came to be believed in by others.
Truth exists independently of our opinions about it. Whether we think something is true or not doesn’t matter; what does matter is whether it’s actually true. When we’re stuck within our own belief systems and see things only from our perspective, this leads to biases and misconceptions of reality.
Doubting Your Beliefs is the First Step to Seeking Real Truth
Many of us have strong beliefs we stick to even in the face of evidence that contradicts them. This could include believing in the institution of marriage, or having patriotic feelings for country X, or even as something as specific as no one should be able to own more than one car at a time. The thought of doubting any of our long-held, deeply-rooted beliefs can be terrifying, as if we lose hold of any of these things we hold to be self-evident and “true,” then our entire understanding of reality will be forever altered, and force us to question even more of our beliefs.
As soon as we begin to question our personal beliefs, it’s quite likely we’ll discover how many of them are built on misconceptions and have at best shaky foundations in actual truth. Naturally, as fallible humans, it’s highly unlikely that most ideas we’ve ever had will prove to be accurate. This is why critical thinking skills are so important to practice, something that today’s primary educational institutions seem to gloss over. Any time we see, do, hear, read, or watch anything, we must question the reliability of what’s being presented. We must also be open to altering our own beliefs when we discover new evidence to be more consistent with our understanding of our own reality.
Become Curious About Your Reasons for Believing
Understanding the truth of your existence is to focus your curiosity on your reasons for believing what we do. Think about things that you used to believe in strongly, but have since changed those beliefs; then, consider why you made those changes. What are some of the consequences of changing your beliefs now at this point in your life? Then, ask yourself, what would happen if others changed their beliefs in the same way?
Asking these questions can lead us to finding errors in our thinking we never would have caught otherwise. There’s no limit to what new information you can gain by challenging even your most supported assumptions about the way you believe things to be. Each day, look to challenge at least one belief you hold strongly, then find new information or assumptions to challenge it. It’s fully possible that you may find there was some truth to your belief; but more likely, you’ll need to update your beliefs accordingly on the discovery of new evidence.
Give Yourself Permission to Believe (and Not Believe) Differently
Part of why we don’t budge from our personal beliefs is the natural human tendency towards surrounding ourselves with people who agree with us. This sort of tribalism, ironically, is even more prevalent today in our information age. People gravitate towards those who say the same things, read or watch the same content, and laugh at the same jokes, while shunning those who don’t conform to an agreed-upon standard. Of course, this standard is completely arbitrary when you break it down. This is why once you question the standards of your social group, you may find yourself seeking new companions.
While intellectually this sounds rather backwards, there’s a natural reason for this. As social creatures, human beings need emotional support in our daily lives; so, this type of bonding is very attractive to many of us. The trouble occurs when these emotional ties cause our perspectives on reality to become increasingly limited.
The solution to this problem is obvious: seek out a more balanced understanding of your personal belief system. Of course, it’s likely the company you currently enjoy will become wary of your sudden shift towards intellectualism and lifelong learning. This is a risk you must take. After all, when it comes to becoming a fulfilled, flourishing human being, you must sacrifice comfort for knowledge and the pursuit of truth.
In your journey towards greater understanding, you may even have to seek out those who disagree with you on a particular topic. While this sounds counter-intuitive, having a discourse with someone with a competing perspective can give you new insights about that topic. After all, seeing other perspectives not often included in works of popular culture will lead you to new, and perhaps unique, conclusions about a subject.
Giving yourself permission to doubt all things that you can is one of the first steps towards becoming a true intellectual and lifelong learner. It means being open-minded and consistently searching for new ways of understanding things and constantly challenging our assumptions. The most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life was deeply question my own Christian faith and my very upbringing. While there are certainly aspects of Christianity that I still certainly believe in and hold dear, many aspects of the surrounding organized religion are built on shaky foundations based on dogma and ignorance of the true words within the Holy Bible and their context.
Today, I strive to be an open person who’s always questioning what she believes. To me, always having doubts about our assumptions and beliefs is the sign of a true seeker after objective truth.
When have you last challenged things you’ve been told are true, but leave you with doubts? What truths do you hold most dear? Are they compatible with what you’ve learned throughout your life so far?