Patterns  of  Confusion New  Ideas  in
Irrationality  and  Madness

Home Basic Ideas List of Articles Section 2 Glossary
< previous Article 4 of  Mind and Body next section >

Doubt,  Behaviour  and  Experience

The links in the table on the left take you to sub-headings on this page.


Beliefs and Experience

Doubt is usually a product of change, whether social or personal. Change means that our beliefs may no longer reflect former certainties and former harmonies. Doubt undermines the certitude that a person attaches to an important belief. We may become confused about some aspects of our life.

Why do we lose the feeling of certitude?

Because the belief has become at variance with our experience.

Beliefs and desires govern our behaviour and help generate our experience, but often cause conflict in our social situations.

Sub - Headings
Non-Aware Experience 
Doubt and Anxiety
Three forms of Doubt

Beliefs and desires are themselves the product of our motivations and values. We usually consider that we know what our motivations are, since we more or less know what our beliefs and desires are. But conscious beliefs, conscious desires, conscious motivations are not the only source of our experience.

We also have subconscious motivations, and these can give rise to subconscious beliefs and subconscious desires. The person is not usually aware of these. These subconscious aspects of mind are seldom in harmony with the conscious aspects, since the subconscious mind usually has the reverse or opposite values that the conscious mind has. (This becomes very noticeable during the process of abreaction). When the conscious and the subconscious aspects of mind are sufficiently at variance so that they cause noticeable conflict, we become confused and prone to doubt. [¹]

Conscious motivation generates conscious behaviour and conscious experience, whereas :

Subconscious motivation generates subconscious behaviour and subconscious experience.

When a person is not aware of his subconscious mind then he is not likely to be aware of his subconscious experience. For example, a person may believe that he follows a particular occupation because he likes meeting people. His beliefs and desires focus on the joy and fun of mixing with interesting people. But at a subconscious level of mind he may be more concerned with attaining a sense of power over people (this is his subconscious motivation). So underlying his relationships will be a desire for power. His subconscious mind will then try and lead him to mix with people that he can dominate, and so his choice of occupation is not as apparent as he thinks it was.

Another example. I might see myself in my social relationships as being a nice guy, but nevertheless sometimes I meet with hostility from others. Why should this be so, when I am just a nice guy ?  At a subconscious level of mind my behaviour might be sending messages of dependency, of needing emotional support, thereby evoking a hostile reaction in others who do not want to provide this support.

Top of Page

Non-Aware Experience

If we are not aware of our behaviour then we also lack awareness of our experience.

Our experience only becomes linked to our behaviour once we have developed awareness.

With that awareness we can monitor our behaviour in order to clarify, or even to know, our experience. Experience without awareness becomes a source of sorrow and perplexity and doubt when it generates confusion and conflict. Without awareness the person cannot get to the source of his confusion. The subconscious experience generates confusion and doubt when social relationships do not match our conscious expectations. But more than likely our social relationships match our subconscious expectations. Hence we are likely to cause conflict in our relationships without deliberately wishing to do so.

The principal means of lessening confusion and conflict is the development of awareness, within an empirical predisposition to identify experience. Awareness is the key for eliminating confusion and conflict in our experience, since it brings the subconscious mind into consciousness. Empiricism identifies the facts of our behaviour, and awareness (as a factor of empiricism) identifies patterns of thought which link to those facts.

When a person is unaware of some aspect of his experience then he cannot analyse it. This lack of awareness has given a marked flavour to some theories of existentialism which have attempted to explain the malaise and confusion of various aspects of twentieth-century experience. The bane of many Continental theorists is their disdain for empiricism. Hence they lack data on much of the experiences that they wish to analyse. Non-aware experience is just a vague fog in the mind, a fog that eludes clear definition. The inability of the intellect to analyse non-aware experience just produces anxiety, despair and doubt. This is the central core of existential pessimism. Non-aware experience is non-analysable. In this situation we can only speculate and phantasise.

One characteristic of modern European society that separates it from pre-Renaissance and classical society is that it has developed skills in reflection. Descartes inaugurated the first serious attempt at reflection, but he based it purely on rationalism. He did not feel the need for empiricism, since he was not interested in analysing relationships. This attitude was right for his times.

Nowadays, relationships cannot be ignored, and they have to be explored empirically. Awareness is an empirical technique, and so this is the missing ingredient that the Cartesian consciousness needs in order to achieve intellectual harmony.

Top of Page

Doubt and Anxiety

I consider the function of doubt, which becomes highlighted during times of change, whether personal or social. These times generate conflict, because our beliefs no longer match our experience. We become confused and uncertain. Anxiety leads to doubt when self-questioning begins : "why is this conflict happening to me?" 

Anxiety acts on our happiness and beliefs, and leads to doubt concerning our use of desire and power. In turn, desire and power bring in questions of morality. [²]

Doubt makes a person question the value of his present standard of morality, which is no longer meaningful to him. Morality ceases to empower our old beliefs. New situations need new beliefs. New social conditions require new ethical values. To discover these new values implies that the old morality has to be examined to see where it has become inadequate. Once some new values have been formulated, they can then be tested to see if they remove the person's conflict. A successful resolution of doubt indicates that the new values are exactly those that are needed. A more harmonious set of beliefs has been discovered.

Some existential writers regarded anxiety as an ontological condition, a condition that is a part of one’s being. It is not, but the reason why the claim was made is plausible. Anxiety is always associated with personal evolution. So anxiety can co-exist with one’s Being (co-existence is not always easy to separate from what is one’s nature). Personal evolution occurs when the combination of anxiety and doubt de-stabilises the person, thereby requiring him to change his beliefs and values.

The evolutionary sequence is :

Anxiety is a potent influence that facilitates the development of self-consciousness ; it is this process of facilitation which is ontological, not anxiety alone. However, this process has its drawbacks. Personal evolution is usually a very unpleasant experience, since we have to face up to our psychological limitations. If the intensity of doubt is too great to handle, then the person may sink into a crisis from which he will find it difficult to recover ; or he may give way to violence in his social behaviour (as his character is de-stabilised, the inherent nihilism [4] in his being comes to the surface). In the past, when values arose principally from religious beliefs, so in times of change the conflict over values created violence between orthodox groups and their heretics. 

In more everyday language use, the combination of anxiety and doubt is called worrying.

Top of Page

Three Forms of Doubt

What triggers doubt ?  One December  I was reading " The Trial ", by Franz Kafka. The unknown accusation of guilt requires one’s whole life to be examined. The unknown accusation of guilt generates Doubt.  At last. The genesis of Doubt !

Guilt is a common problem in everyday life. One strategy for handling it is to obey orders without question ; such obeisance keeps the guilt repressed. So that to question orders, to question authority, is very hard ; such defiance is likely to activate the guilt. And to actually think of disputing and contradicting authority generates fear. Such specific strategies work for a while when guilt has specific origins. But when the guilt seems to be diffuse and without obvious origins, the person does not know why he is troubled. Since the person does not know the reason for the guilt, so it generates doubt.

However, the issue of doubt is a complex one. When I examined the doubts troubling me, I found that there are three forms of it and they function in different ways. Each is driven by a different emotion ; the three emotions are guilt, fear and hate. Of the three forms, guilt-driven doubt is the most common and so I call it emotive doubt. In the other two forms, the fear and the hate are not so readily detected.

In emotive doubt, guilt powers self-examination in order to purify oneself. The doubt produced is only with regard to one’s worthiness. In another form, existential doubt focuses on meaning, and represents one’s experience of the world. The last form is cognitive doubt, where the thinker considers the reality of his solitary individuality (for example, the "Meditations" of  Descartes).

The three forms are :

1). Emotive doubt – (or guilt-driven doubt)
The person reflects on success and failure, reward and punishment. He accepts traditional concepts of justice and of essence (or Being). He questions his purity, his worthiness, his attitudes. His values become problematical. Emotive doubt arises from the action of anxiety on the vanity mode of pride, causing the pride to switch to guilt (self-pity mode). [5]

2). Existential doubt – (or fear-driven doubt)
The person reflects on the meaning of life and of relationships. He accepts the concept of existence (or Becoming). He questions his motivations, and he questions concepts of justice. His ideals become problematical.

3). Cognitive doubt – (or hate-driven doubt)
The person reflects on his own nature and the nature of reality. He questions his essence and his existence. He questions his freedom. His identity becomes problematical.

Each form of doubt has a particular orientation to the pursuit of truth.

Emotive doubt is centred on the examination of values and desires.
Existential doubt on meaning and motivation.
And cognitive doubt on identity. [6]

Although I have separated doubt into three forms, they are likely to be mixed together in an imaginative writer like Kafka. In a lengthy examination of any serious issue, the thinker will probably go through all three forms. Values, meaning, and identity are all likely to be factors of the issue under consideration.

Top of Page

I have been through all three forms, and give some illustrations.

Form (1) - Emotive Doubt
A simple version of this form is the perpetual oscillation between guilt and pride. In emotive doubt, antithetical thoughts may be prominent. These are thoughts that are opposed to, or the antithesis of, other thoughts which the person prefers. Such thoughts may assail the person when in a mood of pride : his thoughts about his moral goodness may be counteracted by thoughts of being morally impure. The result may be to stimulate a ‘guilty conscience’. The person switches mood to guilt, and may experience the agony of self-torment, self-persecution. Eventually the guilt fades away. The person switches his hate away from himself to other people, so becoming centred on pride again. [7]

Otherwise, the general theme of emotive doubt is that the person is denied recognition and acceptance by higher authority, despite his best efforts. For a religious person, lack of spiritual recognition may mean that there is no bestowing of experiences such as inspiration, vitality, joy, or visions, or even may mean no cessation of sorrow.

Form (2) - Existential Doubt
In this form the person becomes aware that his self-image does not match his intentions and abilities in social and /or religious skills. He becomes aware of determinism and confusion in his relationships. In his quandary he slowly changes direction from social /religious involvement to social /religious observation as he learns to accept his limitations. In my case I became aware that I was different from other people. I did not possess the ease in social skills that my friends had. I wanted to be like others but could not be. I experienced intense loneliness, in my student days at university, and in my late 20s, and in my 40s during my psycho-analysis. In the latter time the loneliness reached levels of distress that were the equal to any form of madness.

To illustrate an early experience of form (2), I describe a state of mind of my mid-20s. When I became an existentialist I inherited the dilemma of all freethinkers in a time of social change – doubt.  What should I do with my life ?  Over a period of some months my doubt gradually crippled me. Whenever I had to make a decision I relentlessly analysed both sides of the question, to the extent that I often became incapable of action. I could not turn off my analytical mind. At that time I lacked a conceptual vocabulary that was sufficiently comprehensive for solving my problems. I lacked ideas. So I just stayed sitting on my bed paralysed by doubt. To escape from the doubt  I fled into a physical activity that did not require much intellectual effort : I joined the fledgling squatting movement and anarchistic communality in the London of the late 1960s.

Form (3) - Cognitive Doubt
I illustrate this form by an example from my late 40s. By that time I had developed my conceptual vocabulary sufficiently for my needs. Then I used cognitive doubt as an intermediate stage to attaining a new understanding of the nature of the ego and the manner in which the process of reincarnation functions. I used such doubt and scepticism to cast off the confining influences of tradition ; I cast off the limitations of religious thought (both Eastern and Western) about the ego.

How the person resolves doubt depends upon his stage of development. Resolving the forms of doubt occurred with me at different periods of my life : as my life threw up different problems for me to adjust to, so the requisite form of doubt appeared and had to be met. Overall, I was primarily interested in trying to achieve some degree of freedom, but it was not possible to avoid facing psychological issues. I handled emotive doubt by accepting weakness as an inevitable part of my character.

However, there is a possible danger here. When the person is not interested in resolving his feelings of guilt by accepting personal blame then the questions may arise : Who is persecuting me?  Who is to blame for my guilt ?

Now we are into paranoia.

(See article Pride and Paranoia)


The number in brackets at the end of each reference takes you back to the paragraph that featured it. The addresses of my websites are on the Links page.

[¹]. Subconscious motivation is mentioned in the article Confusion and Identity.
My in-depth analysis of the process of abreaction is given in the five articles on Abreaction. See Basic Ideas page. [1]

[²]. Anxiety is an emotion and is analysed in the three articles on Emotion. See Basic Ideas page. [2]

[³]. I have an article on Personal Evolution on my websites A Modern Thinker and The Strange World of Emotion. [3]

[4]. There is a section on Nihilism in the article Vulnerability of the Ego. For a psychological approach to nihilism, see the article Psychology of Nihilism. For a philosophical view, see the article Nihilism on my website A Modern Thinker, in the section on Free Will. [4]

[5]. A summary of the factors of four important emotions is :
Guilt = self-pity + self-hate.
Pride = vanity + hatred of other people.
Narcissism = love + vanity.
Jealousy = love + self-pity.

My definitions, descriptions, and analysis of emotions are given in the three articles on Emotion. See Basic Ideas page. [5]

[6]. My website on personal identity is The Subconscious Mind. [6]

[7]. Antithetical thoughts are the subject of the previous article, Antithetical Thoughts and Voices. [7]


Kafka, Franz. The Trial.

Home List of  Articles Links Top of Page

The articles in this section are :

Vulnerability of the Ego

Confusion and Identity

Antithetical Thoughts and Voices

Doubt, Behaviour and Experience

Copyright @2003  Ian Heath
All Rights Reserved

The copyright is mine and the articles are free to use. They can be reproduced anywhere, so long as the source is acknowledged.

Ian Heath
London, UK

Website address -

email address

If you want to contact me, use the email address above but replace the  <at>  by @.

Also, since there are numerous articles on this site, please include the title of the article if you want me to clarify or discuss particular issues.

It may be a few days before I can reply to correspondence.