Freeman: Doubt Yourself

If people do not doubt their actions, they will not know themselves.

by Jillian Freeman | 2/27/18 12:30am

What causes people’s behavior? Why do people eat what they eat or drink what they drink? One might think, “Simple — because I want to!” But what motivates people to behave, eat or drink in the first place? What causes people to make decisions? If these choices — how to get to work, what to buy at the supermarket, where to spend money — have become subconscious, then it is time to take a trip of self-exploration.

In his treatise “Meditations on First Philosophy,” seventeenth-century philosopher René Descartes wrote, “If you would be a real seeker after truth, you must at least once in your life doubt, as far as possible, all things.” Descartes’ quotation characterizes the philosopher’s “Method of Doubt,” the first technique outlined in “Meditations,” which he wrote to establish a foundation for future scientific research. Yet this Cartesian doubt extends beyond the sciences and can be helpful in figuring out personal foundation and truths.

One must begin by prescribing doubt to everything one knows. This is to challenge all beliefs, even — and especially — those that are most deeply rooted. Then starts the self-critique, questioning every action. Imagine waking up in the morning with no guaranteed beliefs. A college student’s first thought may be to have breakfast, so he questions: “Why should I have breakfast?” He decides that since eating food will nourish his body, eating breakfast is a good decision. He now knows that he values his body and therefore his health. But does he? What will he eat for breakfast? Should he eat sugar-filled cereal or opt for an avocado or a piece of fruit? His selection will reveal what he values. This same thought process will repeat throughout the day, revealing his core beliefs.

Questioning each and every action will force people to examine their priorities. If someone drives to a local supermarket multiple times a week even though she could walk, she might get into the car and, practicing doubt, ask, “Why am I driving to the supermarket right now?” The obvious answer, to get food, makes sense because health is important. But if people truly valued health they should walk to the supermarket, since walking has health benefits that driving does not. On the same note, if they value environmentalism, they would realize that they should walk to the store whenever possible to reduce carbon emissions.

This doubt has changed my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined. During my senior year of high school, my best friend took on the challenge of Cartesian doubt. He realized that he wasn’t prioritizing an important belief he held: the active avoidance of the release of carbon emissions. So he started small, by avoiding meat, a significant contribution of greenhouse gas emissions and later any inorganic food products, since pesticide and chemical use contaminates the water supply, soil and air. He committed fully and pledged to stop using his car. Seeing him make this pledge inspired me to do the same. That summer became an experiment. It was tough at first, but it took less than a month of taking trains to find a new normal. It was empowering. I knew I was making a difference, no matter how small, by actively prioritizing the things that were most important to me.

For the average college student, Cartesian doubt might bring about a better way to manage time. Even as a first-year, I realized my priorities by using Cartesian doubt. I was a student-athlete in the fall, but when I reflected on the hours I spent on athletics versus academics, I realized that I valued my education much more. Similarly, an aspiring fraternity member might realize that the group’s actions do not fit into his core values and decide not to join. A religious student might realize that he places a high value on his commitment to practicing his religion without knowing why he values or practices it in the first place.

Regardless of someone’s beliefs, Cartesian doubt can open eyes to new questions and drive people to acknowledge every action they take. In an age where much action seems biased and thoughtless, people must be certain about choices and ensure that decisions are not simply a product of influence. This practice also allows people to recognize and reinforce the values they have had all along, becoming more confident in their actions, stronger in their beliefs and more decisive in the way they live their lives.

So, why do people do the things they do? They won’t know until they ask.