The Most Powerful Emotion
The Modern Survival Guide #17
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And while I’m happy to be writing this, I do sometimes feel a thread of doubt regarding my judgement in doing so. Which is interesting in context, because in this article I’ll be discussing emotion, and one emotion in particular.
We are all swirling cyclones of emotion, which we desperately fight to overcome in our ongoing struggles to fulfill ideals of logic and rationality. These are the ideals that have built our modern world. They allow us to transcend our instincts, think about complex and abstract problems, and make decisions based on the greater good when necessary. There’s a big problem here, though — we’re not very good at logic and rationality. Superstition and tribal instincts get in the way.
However, there is one emotion that dovetails very nicely with the logical, rational world that we try to live in. It’s an emotion that almost seems custom-built to overcome our instincts and irrational fears and hopes. It’s also an emotion that is responsible for crushing blows to our egos and senses of self. It’s enormously powerful, and responsible for our most extreme triumphs of science and reason, as well as the depths of darkest depression. It is alternately suppressed and exalted in our society, and we have an enormously complicated relationship with it.
I’m talking, of course, about doubt.
Of all the elements that make up the modern mindset, constructive doubt is the only one that really separates us from prior generations. The output of constructive doubt is critical thought. The ability to ask “why,” to try to make logical connections, and to try to understand the world — these are all closely tied to our ability to question established explanations.
Think about it. Without doubt, all of science goes up in a puff of smoke. Why does the sun come up? Because giant beetles push it, obviously. Is the Earth the center of the universe? Duh. And lightning is caused by the gods. You can’t argue against these concepts without first acknowledging that you should argue them. And that requires a kernel of doubt that maybe, for example, a massive insect pushing the sun around might be a tad impractical.
Getting away from this sort of lazy, superstition-fueled thought is the core advancement of the last four hundred years. Never mind microprocessors and fertilizer and antibiotics — these are all just outcomes of the scientific process. The process itself is the real treasure. And doubt is right at its core.
Beyond that, doubt drives us to question authority, and thus doubt drives the pursuit of democracy and self-governance. These concepts are impossible in a world where the populace sincerely believes a monarch when they say “God gave me the right to rule.”
Doubt also drives us to question religion, another key component of humanity’s rise to new heights of power and social sophistication. You can’t have a society that prizes freedom of speech, thought, and expression more than the directives of (insert god here) without a healthy dose of doubt. Otherwise the inquisition is the order of the day, and theocracy the driving social force.
Because of these points, doubt is one of the emotions that is most frequently demonized by everyone from Hollywood to the Vatican to the halls of Congress.
Hollywood would have us “believe in ourselves,” which is nice but also rather useless when your self proves to be incorrect. I blame the self-help empowerment theory of the 80s and 90s for this drivel, and it gets in the way of critical introspection for a large number of people. Doubt is necessary to keep self confidence from turning into self righteousness and narcissism.
The major religions of the world despise doubt. They see it as weakness, as falling away from the true path of God. Few of them seem to see the irony of the fact that there are so many religions, and so many paths to God, depending on who you ask. Doubt is anathema in church; faith is the currency there. But doubt is still necessary to keep faith from turning into zealotry, and to keep religious observance from turning into an inquisition.
And Congress sees doubt as almost a moral failing, or at the very least a tactical one. A Congressman expressing doubt of their own opinion is akin to painting a giant target on their back and hanging a “kick me” sign down their front. Politics in general is the art of getting a citizen to see things your way; doubt is not a valued currency, unless you can use it against someone else. Nonetheless, doubt is a crucial component of our political engagement as citizens — how do you tell if a politician is lying?¹ And what are the consequences if he is?
Doubt confers power by forcing us to confront, or at least question, our reality. It is this act of questioning that leads us to new ways of thinking, new inventions, and new lifestyles. Without doubt, we stagnate. But doubt is also a powerful disincentivizing force, and if left undirected it is responsible for much of the apathy and depression we experience in our emotional lives.
The suicide doubts their value to the world. The apathetic doubts their ability to contribute. The cynical doubt their ability to make a difference. The nihilist doubts the necessity of a moral code. These are all faces of doubt that have no less an impact than its more positive applications. These are all cases of doubt taking power, rather than a person using doubt to gain power. And they are all experiences we will all have to deal with at some point.
To finish up, I’ll bet when you started reading this little essay you thought I’d say something about love or anger, or one of the more lively emotions. Nope. Not so much. Love, anger, lust, greed — these have always been around in exactly the same proportions we see them today. If you want to know the real engine of the modern world, doubt is where to look. We doubt because we know better, and we know better because we doubt. And thus doubt is the most powerful emotion because it increases our power over the world and decreases others’ power over us. The main trick is to stay on top of it, and not let it get on top of you.
¹His lips are moving. Old joke.