Doubt yourself

From discovering answers by asking questions to choosing to be one’s true self by running against the beliefs of one’s family; from not bearing the perversion of the ideals of science to choosing to be not just another drummer, doubt is a powerful driving force in human life

by Paolo Frosina

Culture 21 October 2021

Socrates (c. 470–399 BC)

“Why do you say that?” “Is this always the case?” “Is there reason to doubt this evidence?” “What’s the counter-argument?”. All these rather annoying questions are examples of Socratic maieutics, a method still used in pedagogy to help students distinguish what they know from what they don’t. Indeed, Socrates — a Greek thinker from Athens, regarded as the father of moral philosophy — believed in doubt as the primary path to achieve knowledge. His most significant contribution to Western thought is the dialectical method of inquiry, which he largely applied to examining key moral concepts that seem to lack any concrete definition, such as Good and Justice. To be solved, each problem would be broken down into a series of questions, the answers to which gradually distil the answer a person would seek. Socratic maieutics is a negative method of hypothesis elimination, in that better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and eliminating those that lead to contradictions: it was designed to force one to examine one’s own beliefs and the validity of such beliefs. Socrates’ most known statement, “I know that I know nothing”, shows how he reduced his wisdom to an awareness of his own ignorance. The one thing he claimed to have knowledge of, in his Symposium, was “the art of love” (ta erôtikê); but his assertion is no more than a play on words with the verb erôtan, to ask questions. By pretending to say he knew the art of love, Socrates just meant he knew how to raise doubts.


Abby Chava Stain (1991–)

Thirty-year-old Abby is the first openly transgender woman raised in a Hasidic community, a subgroup of Judaism noted for its religious and social conservatism. She’s also the first woman to have been ordained by an Orthodox institution, having received her rabbinical degree in 2011, before coming out as transgender. Born in Brooklyn to a family of notable Hasidic leaders — a direct descendant of the doctrine’s founder, Yisroel ben Eliezer aka the Ba’al Shem Tov — she grew up in a community where gender segregation impacted almost all aspects of daily life. She left her fellow Hasids at 21, starting Columbia University two years later. On 11 November 2015, at 23 years old, Abby came out as transgender on her blog, and was featured in major media outlets: “I tried to convince myself that the problem is something else,” she wrote. “I moved around in life trying to tell myself that getting out of the box, getting a job, getting an education, etc. will solve my problems. They were all great things, but I couldn’t convince even myself to let go of the dream of living MY life. And let me tell you, lying to yourself is not pretty.” Since then, her parents have rejected her and stopped talking to her altogether. In December 2015, Abby founded a support group for trans people from Orthodox backgrounds, most of them Hasids struggling with their gender identity. In the subsequent years, she gained a big following in the Jewish community, becoming a role model for former ultra-Orthodox Jews, both LGBTQ and not.


Dave Grohl (1969–)

A talented musician and songwriter, Dave Grohl became Nirvana’s drummer in 1990, joining the two founders, frontman Kurt Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic. After Cobain’s suicide in April 1994, the group disbanded. Grohl retreated from the scenes, unsure of where to go and what to do with himself. “I wasn’t sure I’d ever play music again. I turned the amplifiers off. I was lost” he later said. Declining offers to join major rock bands — such as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers — he locked himself up for months in his house’s garage, writing 40 songs in which he alone played every instrument and sang every vocal. Then, he recorded 15 of them, handing out cassette copies to his friends for feedback. “I was supposed to just join another band and be a drummer the rest of my life,” he recalled. “I thought that I would rather do what no one expected me to do. I enjoy writing music, and I enjoy trying to sing, and there’s nothing anyone can really do to discourage me.” Hoping to stay anonymous, Grohl released the recordings in a limited run under the name Foo Fighters, taken from a World War II term for unidentified flying objects: “Had I actually considered this to be a career, I probably would have called it something else, because it’s the stupidest fucking band name in the world.” After the demo tape circulated and created interest, an actual band was formed in Seattle to support it, with Grohl as its frontman. In February 2021, Foo Fighters released their tenth album and were nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.


Clara Immerwahr (1870–1915)

Moral doubts in Immerwahr’s life descended from her multiple selves: a brilliant scientist, an independent woman, a devoted wife, and an outspoken pacifist. Raised in a Jewish family, at 30, Clara became the first woman in Germany to obtain a doctorate in physical chemistry. After that, she worked as a laboratory assistant and then as a researcher and lecturer. Nevertheless, she soon began to feel like an outsider in the male-dominated university circles. In 1901, she married Fritz Haber, a highly respected chemist, an ambitious and incorrigible workaholic, known for synthesizing some particularly destructive explosives used in mining and warfare. Although Clara thought she would be able to combine marriage and research, she soon found Fritz’s demands of housekeeping overwhelming while on the other hand, her man’s career was free to flourish. After the outbreak of World War I, Fritz volunteered to work for the Supreme War Staff, suggesting a diabolically simple idea: to release highly toxic chlorine gas so that it would drift across to the enemy trenches, where it would kill, maim, and disable without an artillery bombardment. Clara came out in open opposition to his work, calling it a “perversion of the ideals of science” and pleading him to cease working on gas warfare: as a response, he accused her in public of making statements treasonous to the Fatherland. After the first gas attack, Fritz came back home to attend a party held in his honour. A few hours before it, Clara shot herself with her husband’s gun.