1-Sentence-Summary: Doubt: A History is a fascinating look at the historical influence of doubt on science, religion, and the way we think today.
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It’s obvious that well-known historical figures like Confucious, Socrates, and Einstein were great thinkers. Their impact on society is evident even today. But there’s a lesser-known tendency these geniuses shared, and that’s doubt.
It may not seem obvious to you, but disbelief has had a critical role throughout history. It’s led to new religions and ideas by challenging firm authorities. Doubt has also given us scientific innovations that we wouldn’t have otherwise.
Unfortunately, we don’t often hear about skepticism because historically it’s been swept under the rug. Society’s leaders often see doubt as a threat to their authority and positions. Jennifer Hect’s Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson unearths the deeper feelings that our most famous leaders of the past had about truth. This is an intriguing dive into a side of history that you never thought of before.
Here are the 3 biggest lessons I’ve learned about the history of doubt:
- Skepticism is a crucial component of the history and growth of religions.
- Science wouldn’t be what it is today if it weren’t for doubters.
- Doubt has benefits, whether you’re religious, scientific, or both.
Are you curious to learn how doubt has played such an important role in the history of mankind? Let’s see what Jennifer Hecht has to teach us about it!
Lesson 1: Religions have grown, changed, and are even born from skeptics.
Faith plays an important role in religion. But doubt, the opposite faith, is also present in churches past and present. That’s because the entire basis of religious belief is that you can’t prove anything.
We see many times throughout history when doubters stood up to religious authorities. They did this by identifying logical fallacies the churches upheld, revealing alternate explanations that made more sense.
Take the Greek thinker Xenophanes, for example. He argued that the gods weren’t as mystical or of divine origin as the Greeks thought. Rather, they were mere mortals, but great heroes nonetheless. Their impact on society was so significant that they were idolized over time by grandiose origin stories and special powers.
Another great doubter was Martin Luther, who nailed 95 theses to the door of a church. He did this in protest to the teachings of the Catholic Church that he saw were incongruent with the Bible. Rather than trying to destroy the church, however, Luther saw this as an opportunity to refine it. His efforts led to Protestantism, and is a large reason the church I attend exists today!
If you’re questioning your own religion, take heart from these examples of the past. You just might make a difference for the better.
Lesson 2: Doubters play an important role in the progression of science.
Doubt is the birthplace of science. In early times, people had few ways to describe natural phenomena like lightning. Only when people decided to question the fables concocted to attempt an explanation for these events, did we start to make scientific discoveries.
We can go as far back as 585 BCE to see this in action. The Greek philosopher Thales, also known as the first Western philosopher, doubted the traditional ways of explaining everyday events. He developed his own scientific ways. Eventually, he accurately predicted a solar eclipse!
Closer to our day we can take a look at the experience of Charles Darwin to see another case of questions turning into science. Darwin’s way of thinking led him to question the theories he didn’t see were convincing. This gave him an open mind, which led to observations that challenged traditional beliefs about inheritance. After a time, his doubts led to the creation of his famous theory of evolution.
Whether you’re a budding new scientist or have been around for a long time, don’t be afraid of skepticism. Not letting go of your doubts could lead to the next great scientific discovery!
Lesson 3: You can benefit from your doubts, no matter what religious or scientific beliefs you currently have.
Rene Descartes begins his Meditation on First Philosophy by identifying his many disbeliefs. He questioned reality, the reliability of his senses, and even whether God existed. It could have all been a trick by an evil spirit, for all Descartes knew. Although he couldn’t release his doubts, he realized they at least confirmed that he existed. If he wasn’t real, then he wouldn’t dispute everything.
Doubt has other benefits, too. When people with questions get together, they can positively influence each other. Relating to one another and working through their skepticism helped them see that they weren’t alone. Happy, productive lives were said to result from reviewing the teachings of other like-minded individuals.
Set aside the confusion that sometimes results from doubt and you also find another benefit. Questioning helps us see that there is just nothing we can do to change some things about life. Sometimes referred to as locus of control, when we see what we can change versus what we can’t, we have more power to improve our lives.
Let’s look at death, for example. Doubt helps us see that, because death is inevitable, and we have no way of knowing what comes after, it’s useless to worry about it. In a famous speech by Socrates, he uses this argument to teach that we should accept the uncertainty of death. Doing so will help us, as it did for Socrates, to meet death calmly.
Doubt: A History was an interesting read for sure. Although I’m not a history buff, this was an interesting dive into a topic that I hadn’t ever considered before. Anyone who reads this book will come to a surprising new appreciation for doubt and it’s benefits.
Who would I recommend the Doubt summary to?
The 65-year-old religious couple who wants to stay loyal to their church but has their doubts, the 34-year-old history buff who is interested to learn about lesser-known ideas, and anyone who is interested in religion.