Suppose you have a brain that has a tendency to self doubt more than others. How would an agent, after analyzing a claim, coming up with a belief, and then doubting his belief, know if the doubt should be made for genuine reasons (such as a lack of evidence for that belief) or because of his tendency to self doubt?

Allow me to illustrate this with an example. Suppose you come across the scene of a murder. You have all the evidence that indicates John did it. You consult with other detectives who agree. There are fingerprints of John on the deceased’s neck, John had a clear incentive to kill the deceased based on the fact that he was in an abusive relationship with the deceased, etc etc.

Suppose, for some reason though, that you still feel doubt. How can you now know if this doubt is because you truly don’t have enough evidence to state that John murdered her or whether it’s because you just have a tendency to self doubt. Note that since you can technically doubt anything, the tendency, even if it seems to appear genuine, will always have some reason attached to it. It is not as if you just experienced the feeling: you may have some reason that you can imagine the absence of that would remove the doubt. For example, you might think “well what if it’s John’s twin? If I knew for a fact that John did not have a twin, I would not have this doubt.”

So in essence, because this tendency to self doubt may always appear to come for genuine reasons, even when that doubt may not be warranted, how does one know as a matter of fact if his current state of doubt is truly warranted?

  • See Pragmatism and Peirce. Dec 28, 2022 at 10:46
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    There is the idea in the book "Thinking Fast and Slow" which says that we have reasoning and intuition. It is useful to listen to intuition. But you can have a procedure to do that, so that every nervous thought isn't treated as important.
    – Scott Rowe
    Dec 28, 2022 at 12:10
  • You are ignoring the case where the doubt is neither strongly sourced NOR the result of a tendency to doubt yourself. Aka intuition and subconsciously recognized facts or inconsistencies. Frankly you don’t need a way to determine that the doubt is justified or not, you need a method to determine when to let it go. Right or wrong, at some point it’s over.
    – jmoreno
    Dec 29, 2022 at 0:19
  • Spend 24 hours believing everything you hear and see. Report back ... please.
    – Hudjefa
    Dec 29, 2022 at 10:29

4 Answers 4


You are essentially asking:

How do we determine what is true when we are not in possession of all that is required to do so?

The most reliable means by which we can endeavour to arrive at the truth is by assessing evidence via logic.

Will it always lead to truth? No.

Sometimes the best we can do - after exposing propositions to evidential and logical analysis - is to admit that the truth cannot (for now) be known, and to arrive instead at estimates; likelihoods of various propositions being true.

In your case, when you are trying to assess whether self-doubt is justified and whether it is leading you to the most accurate conclusions, you need to examine each instance of self-doubt in relation to the context in which it arises, and draw your conclusions in relation to each instance individually, for sometimes your self-doubt will lead towards truth, but at other times it will lead you astray.

(EDIT: How would an agent, after analysing a claim, coming up with a belief, and then doubting his belief, know if the doubt should be made for genuine reasons (such as a lack of evidence for that belief) or because of his tendency to self doubt?

By paying attention to the evidence. Self-doubt, on its own, is not evidence, so if doubt exists because evidence exists to warrant self doubt, this should be acknowledged. On the other hand, any self-doubt which exists in the absence of such evidence should be treated with skepticism, for there is nothing to say that such a self-doubt is warranted. END EDIT).

In relation to the case of the murder, the scenario you paint seems to gather a considerable weight of evidence against John, and the doubts you describe seem on the face of it to constitute inadequate reasons to discard this evidence.

Even if the courts find John guilty, you may still be plagued by self-doubt, and it may even be wise for you (depending on the reasons for, and the strength of this doubt) to withhold from a judgement in line with those of the courts.

Conspiracy theories continually present us with supposed reasons to doubt other evidence and play upon fear of being deceived in order to persuade us that what would ordinarily be deemed strong evidence to the contrary should be disregarded. Self-doubt is a powerful psychological force which can inhibit our ability to make sound judgements and pollute our assessment of available evidence.

This is why the application of logic (I use the word here colloquially, to describe a manner of thinking in which logical fallacies are avoided) is so valuable. It enables us (to an extent) to escape the desires and fears and doubts which plague our observations and to arrive at a less subjective appraisal of reality.

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    Very well said!
    – Scott Rowe
    Dec 28, 2022 at 12:12
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    FYI I made a small edit since your upvote. I'm just letting you know on the off-chance it changes your vote. I know it's not ideal to change an answer after votes have been cast. I felt I needed to more directly address an aspect of the OP, for clarity. Dec 28, 2022 at 12:42
  • Great answer. This makes sense to me. So essentially, if I feel any self doubt, and I find no evidence warranting it, it is thus rational to ignore it. This brings a follow up question: what if, after persisting self doubt and the absence of evidence, the agent is still motivated to look for more evidence. After all, doubt is the motivator. He again finds none. The doubt rearises and he is motivated again ad infinitum. Should the agent then stop inquiry and simply treat the doubt as a misfiring?
    – user62907
    Dec 28, 2022 at 12:56
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    That kind of persistent self-doubt may be pathological, such as obsessive-compulsive, or arising from depression. It may however also persist because the subconscious recognises something not yet apprehended by the conscious. In any case, one should not rely solely on one's own interpretation and acquiring of evidence, but should where possible seek external (expert if possible) opinion to make the assessment of evidence as robust as possible. It would be an error to assume that pathological doubt is necessarily incorrect. Dec 28, 2022 at 13:01
  • Doesn’t this then just get us back to square one then? At what point, after consulting with external people, can the person think the doubt is pathological rather than the subconscious realizing something? Clearly, the absence of doubt can’t be seen as a marker of a complete investigation, since if it IS pathological, the doubt would remain regardless
    – user62907
    Dec 28, 2022 at 13:08

You need a litmus test. That would be your Gordian knot out of this mess.

Don't pre-suppose theories. Just look at data, with a clean head. Make a practise of it.

Keep data above. Make data your master. Follow it. Have your theory retro-predict it.

If still in doubt ask someone else to give a straight yes/no answer about observations. "Do you see anything special? Anything thats out of routine?". Ask someone who dont over-analyze or even analyze at all. She is less likely to imagine things


Another useful way to look at this is to ask how you concluded that you "have a tendency to self-doubt" in the first place. Presumably, if this belief it warranted at all, it must have been warranted by past observation of cases where you doubted a thing more than others even though it turned out to be true. If you have made those observations, and therefore actually have some valid basis for the belief that you have a tendency for self-doubt, then the evidence used to form that conclusion already gives you an empirical basis to measure the degree to which you excessively doubt things and correct that tendency.

To take your example of the detective investigating the murderer, suppose that his belief that he has a tendency to self-doubt comes from the fact that in several previous cases he doubted the conclusions that appeared to follow from the evidence at the time, but then later found out unequivocally that what he doubted was in fact correct (e.g., the suspects had in fact committed those murders even though he doubted it). In that case the detective can review his previous reasoning and inferences, compare it to what he now knows to be the truth, and adjust his inferential method accordingly. He can look back and ask himself why he doubted the truth in those previous cases, and what he could do to improve his "success rate" in making correct inferences in the future.


There is no absolute standard for determining whether doubt is justified, so it is impossible to answer your question with a black and white answer. Some degree of doubt in a given set of circumstances might seem warranted to one person, while it might seem excessively cautious to another person or in different circumstances.

Consider, for example, legal cases. Civil cases in the UK are determined on a balance of probabilities, while legal cases have to satisfy a higher test of being beyond reasonable doubt, and individual jury members might take different views about whether the test has been satisfied. At a further extreme, experimental physicists will usually only make significant announcements, such as the discovery of the Higgs boson, if doubt has been ruled out almost completely.

At the other extreme a gambler will make bets in the face of enormous scope for doubt. Indeed, the amount of doubt or risk one might accept when making a decision might depend on what outcome is at stake.

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