The Wisdom of Doubt

Sunday, July 14, 2019
Glendale, California

The Wisdom of Doubt

Viewing our era as one of extreme polarization has become cliche.

Nonetheless, it remains an accurate characterization.

For example, and just last week, I discussed the ideas of a Canadian psychologist and philosopher, Jordan Peters, with a brilliant, young, millennial-aged friend of mine. She quipped:

Are you kidding? Jordan Peterson is a white supremacist, a fascist pig who’s supported by the INCEL movement! 

I respectfully disagreed, suggested our era is characterized by a propensity to think in black and white terms, and indicated I’d found many of Peterson’s ideas informative.

(I hope she and I remain on speaking terms).

In fairness, I begin with some of Peterson’s ideas which I personally find abhorrent:

Peterson thinks people should not live together before marriage.

He rallies against identity politics, including Black Lives Matter or the Me Too movement, because of their inherent group identity and the corresponding risk of us versus them thinking.

He categorically denies the idea of white privilege, suggesting many more complex factors go into that particular power dynamic.

But consider some wisdom I’ve learned from him:

I believe, as he does, that power hierarchies are inevitable. As he also notes, people need remain vigilant because these hierarchies, if taken too far, inevitably result in tyranny.

Peterson’s ideas are significantly influenced by Carl Jung, and I’ve picked up at least two Jungian ideas from listening to his podcasts:

  1. The concept that ideas that have people, rather than people having ideas. Think of this in terms of unconscious scripts people live out throughout their lives. The idea, or script, plays itself out through them.
  2. The world is way too complex for us to understand. Therefore, we live in a dream-like bubble. Within that dream-bubble lies a smaller bubble of rationality. Oh, how I loved this one! All depth psychotherapies would last only one session if rationality reigned. You’d simply explain the dynamic, the patient would thank you, and their years of self- or other-directed destruction would immediately cease.

I also agree with Peterson’s thoughts on income inequality. He’s correct, I believe, that it is not simply a question of men versus women. Other, complex dynamics are at play including women’s childbearing capacities and their propensity to be more agreeable than men.

Before I receive the type of hate mail, even death-threats, which regularly greet Peterson, let me elaborate a bit.

During their childbearing years, working women have a serious decision to make.

Will they devote most of their energies to rearing their children?

Or, will they spend their time in an occupation or profession that could take them away from their babies for 40 to 100 or more hours a week?

Either way, a sacrifice must be made.

Of course, this is not fair. But its unfairness doesn’t make it less valid.

Regarding agreeableness, Peterson refers extensively to the so-called Big Five Theory of Personality. The five factors consist of:

  1. Extraversion—the degree of social comfort.
  2. Neuroticism—the degree of struggles with emotional distress.
  3. Agreeableness—the degree of likability, cooperativeness, and propensity to sacrifice.
  4. Openness—the degree of ingenuity, creativeness, and comfort with lack of structure.
  5. Conscientiousness—the degree of superego functioning, need for structure and order, and reliability.

(Another thing I’ve learned from Peterson, btw, is that Conscientiousness and IQ are the best predictors of success in life; seems like common sense, yes, because if you lack drive, structure, and order, your success will likely be limited no matter how smart you may be).

I’m not particularly expert in the Big Five theory, but I understand these traits result from a combination of innate qualities and learned behaviors. If women really are more agreeable, and therefore tend to be less likely to ask for a justified, well-earned salary raise, then efforts should be made to help them learn assertiveness.

Ironically, the point of this post is neither about Peterson nor about gender-income-inequality.

It is about:

DOUBT

The genius philosopher, Bertrand Russell, once wrote:

One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.

Jordan Peterson seems to be a highly opinionated, occasionally mean-spirited, powerful white-male-of-privilege who holds many beliefs which which I disagree.

Nothing in the his many available podcasts comes even near to a call for censorship, restriction of his free-speech rights, or banishment.

Talk about polarization!

C’mon, now.

Let’s not paint Peterson, or anyone save Hitler, Stalin, and similar autocratic-dictators, with such a broadly negative brush.

Instead, I propose, we listen to them, sifting out where wisdom ends and stupidity begins.

Finally, and because I’ve practiced Depth Psychotherapy for four decades now, and I’ve taught it locally, nationally, and internationally, I’m always searching for ways to simplify its extremely complex, dynamic nature.

The concept of doubt is, ironically, central to depth psychotherapy’s effectiveness. 

Part of how psychoanalytic therapy works, much like the foundational empathy which competent therapists bring to all their patients, is by promoting openness.

Most psychotherapists would avoid asking too many direct questions but, nonetheless, common topics typically explored during psychoanalytic processes include:

Are you sure you love your job?

Is your marriage as fulfilling as you think it is?

You describe your mother as hateful, and yet I’ve heard many stories of her treating you in a loving, protective, and empathetic manner. Was she truly as abusive as you remember her?

In other words, effective depth psychotherapy consists of opening people up, promoting them questioning themselves in nearly every way, and exploring their thoughts and feelings with openness and curiosity.

Jacques Lacan, that impossible-to-read French psychoanalyst and philosopher, wrote that certitude is the definition of psychosis.

The idea has stayed with me for years.

Most of my patients, for example, feel doubt in many areas of their lives, from their self-images to their romantic relationships to their occupations to their recreational activities.

What’s wrong with that?

Since life is a verb, an unfolding process, why not question yourself?

In contrast, the actively psychotic patients I occasionally encounter  typically display absolute certitude in their delusional thinking. When they proclaim,

The FBI is out to get me.

Or

My mind has been taken over by worms from Mars.

They display no doubt whatsoever.

Usually, they express such beliefs with absolute certitude.

In summary then, beware of certitude wherever you find it.

Beware of sweeping statements of identity politics whether it be:

Republicans are all evil. (A rabid generalization).

Bernie Sanders is a communist. (No, he endorses democratic socialism, an entirely different political belief system).

White privilege dynamics are the source of all cultural evils. (Partially true, but overstating the incredibly complexity of the “privilege dynamic,” ignoring, for example, the many Caucasians who’ve been enslaved, slaughtered by oppressors, or suffered in other unimaginable ways).

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Alan Karbelnig, PhD, ABPP

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