Welcome to the archived web site of
Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. Psychologist (1950-2013)
California License No. PSY 10092
Specializing in Presence-Centered Therapy
balancing mind and heart, body and spirit

Now in memoriam - This website is no longer being updated
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Strategies/Distinctions For Life: Free the Ego, and You Are Free

Question "What is" and Doubt "What Isn't"—A Critical Distinction

A Pointer to Help Clear Staying Stuck and Promote Functional Living

[This article, originally titled �Questions and Doubts,� is reprinted from The Examined Life: Newsletter of the APPA, American Philosophical Practitioners Association, 4 (1), pages 6-7, December 31, 2002]

© 2011 by Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.

"If we begin with certainties, we shall end in doubts;
but if we begin with doubts, and are patient in them, we shall end in certainties."
—Francis Bacon

"Faith and doubt both are needed, not as antagonists,
but working side by side to take us around the unknown curve."
—Lillian Smith

I suggest to you that both questions and doubts have their place, and they are very different ones, even different universes. To set some groundwork, philosophers take "propositions", that is, what can be asserted or denied, as having truth-value-what can be true or false. Quite differently, arguments can purely be valid or invalid. Karl Popper, a preeminent philosopher of science, contributed the critical test of "falsifiability" as the key criterion demarcating the scientific from the non-scientific. Thus, unless a proposed relationship or theory can permit for things to qualify for falsification, it is not science.

The form questions generally take in everyday discourse is to declare and have the opinion that something does exist, and what exactly this constitutes is open to inquiries of all sorts. Questions have been shown throughout time to be one of the highest forms of intellectual engagement, regularly producing an endowment of astute inquiry into the world's nature that powerfully moves forward our species' progress. Specifically in clinical therapy, one of the hallmarks of outstanding work is the quality of the questions asked and understanding the multiple levels of meaning in the answers given.

Questions can be productive or non-productive. Questions that begin with "why" are usually of the second variety. "Why" questions often evoke reasons seemingly invented at that moment to give a reasonable or probable answer. If "why" is asked to this so-called answer, then this typically calls forth yet another explanation, excuse or reason. Thus, an endless string of unsatisfying answers and frustration lead nowhere.

George Demont Otis     Cabin at Morrow Bay

"What" and "how" questions tend to be more productive ones because they are answerable and lead somewhere interesting. By observing, doing your homework, and paying close attention, most anyone can answer "what", "how" and "how come." This is most useful for not only avoiding what does not work, but even more remarkably, for recreating what does work. In other words, knowing the "what" and "how" empowers one not to repeat past mistakes while duplicating, often with minor variations, what worked before and can work again. That's no small piece of work. Questioning everything, especially assumptions and the status quo, is greatness indeed. At the same time, asking "who" and "what" questions tend to be the most productive. "Who" questions, like "Who is being critical? and "Who is upset?," are almost without exception pointing to the imaginary sense of ego-self or who we think we are, and once revealed quietly recedes into silence leaving only timeless presence. "What" questions, like "What works best?," "What is the truth here?," "What is underneath this anxiety?," and "What has occurred in life that matches this difficult situation or relationship?" can powerfully unveil what actually adaptively works as well as what blocks life from working, both worthy contributions indeed.

Doubts are of another metal and nature altogether. Doubts take the form of assuming or asserting that something is not real or does not exist, and thus are well worth doubting. Philosophers call this asking "questions about truth" regarding propositions and, finding no truth, determine them false. Therefore, doubts can be highly useful in quickly steering us away from chicanery, mischief, harm and outright evil. Of course, although it is most appropriate to doubt what is not real, what exactly counts or makes up this category?

The following ten items qualify as false, fraudulent and clearly not real, yet are all slightly different slices of the same pie. A lie, trick, ruse, con, scam, fraud, delusion, fantasy, mirage and hoax are all worth your doubt. The Webster's New World Dictionary: Third College Edition (1991) defines each term, in part, in the following way:

  1. Lie: To make a statement that one knows is false, especially with intent to deceive; to give a false impression; deceive one.
  2. Trick: An action or device designed to deceive, cheat, outwit, etc.; artifice, dodge, ruse; stratagem; a mischievous or playful act; prank; practical joke, etcetera; deception or illusion.
  3. Ruse: That which is contrived as a blind for one's real intentions or for the truth; a stratagem, trick, or artifice.
  4. Con: To swindle (a victim) by first gaining his confidence; to trick or fool, especially by glib persuasion.
  5. Scam: A swindle or fraud, especially a confidence game; to cheat or swindle.
  6. Fraud: Deceit; trickery; cheating; intentional deception to cause a person to give up property or some lawful right; something said or done to deceive; trick; artifice.
  7. Delusion: A false belief or opinion; a false, persistent belief maintained in spite of evidence to the contrary.
  8. Fantasy: Imagination or fancy; especially wild, visionary fancy; an unnatural or bizarre mental image; illusion; phantasm; an odd notion; whim; caprice; a work of fiction portraying highly imaginative characters or settings that have no counterparts in the real world; a more-or-less connected series of mental images, as in a daydream, usually involving some unfulfilled desire.
  9. Mirage: An optical illusion in which the image of a distant object, as a ship or an oasis, is made to appear nearby, floating in air, inverted, etc.: It is caused by the refraction of light rays from the object through layers of air having different densities as the result of unequal temperature distributions; something that falsely appears to be real.
  10. Hoax: A trick or fraud, especially one meant as a practical joke.

George Demont Otis     From Belvedere

"Qualifiers", such as maybe, perhaps, possibly, I guess, I don't know, and a little bit are usually doubt-driven. It strikes me that a state of skepticism and cynicism as well as an insupportable, unrealistic fear called a phobia, typically have doubt at their core. If one uses any of the ten varieties of what's unreal, and thus doubtable, to accurately label an unbelievable perception, then one is considered intelligent, clever and wise. What is more, such a person will be known as a keen judge of life and human character.

Unfortunately, to inaccurately label a far-fetched perception is to play the proverbial fool. This is akin to trusting what is untrustworthy and injecting credibility into the incredible. To misperceive what is real as unreal, to doubt what is undoubtable, must certainly be one of the most self- and other-defeating mental, emotional and behavioral states in which to exist. The doubter unknowingly contributes to their own sad misfortune, thereafter often adding insult to injury by displacing blame onto others. William Shakespeare, a psychologist nonpareil, astutely observed:

"When we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits of our own behavior, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon and the stars, as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion."

[King Lear Act 1, Scene 2, lines 120-123, Edmund]

On the other hand, misusing any one of these ten bases to doubt can still serve as a lesson if the person learns to recognize their distorted lenses and perceptions. When one sheds their false perceptions and shifts to thinking more realistically of the world as it is found and indeed is, then life just works better. Thus, unless there is clear support for one or more of the above ten forms of doubt (and immediately call what is not real as the fraud it is), then one has no basis to doubt and can purely question everything. Question to determine for yourself what it is, how it is, and the nature of it's functioning under different conditions. Accomplishing this before proceeding generally signals wisdom.

What is to be done when you simply lack sufficient or verifiable information, data and facts to determine what is real and unreal? Under these conditions, how could a determination be made about what is real and what is unreal, and thereafter whether it is appropriate to doubt or question? In any condition of indeterminate information, it would be premature to rush to any conclusion. So the best you can do at the juncture of lacking necessary information to determine whether a set of circumstances is real or unreal is to simply acknowledge not knowing. This singular and courageous act of stating you just do not know keeps all possibilities open in patient here-and-now timelessness until the clouds clear and the terrain can be seen for just what it is. Once further revealing and validating information becomes available to clarify what is real or unreal, then it is transparent whether it is worth doubting or questioning. Without clarity, confusion reigns; with clarity, direction is obvious.

If you know questions and doubts for just what each is and are further willing to see smoke, mirrors and colored lights for just what they are, then you stay on terra firma. A client told me they remembered and found empowering the message, "You gotcha what you gotcha, and you don't gotcha what you don't gotcha." Apparently, it doesn't get much more complicated than that. As actor Spencer Tracy once remarked when asked what advice he had for aspiring actors: "Know your lines and don't bump into the furniture."

The Questions-Doubts Accuracy Matrix

Each quadrant of the following matrix describes when you DOUBT what is unreal or what is real and when you question what is unreal or what is real.

Being absolutely clear whether you are appropriately DOUBTING what is unreal or misusing doubting what is real is essential for safety and effectiveness in life.

Likewise, being crystal clear whether you are appropriately QUESTIONING what is real or misusing questioning by applying it to what is unreal is equally valuable.

Illustrations are offered for each quadrant to get you started in naming the people, places and activities that fit in each quadrant.

You See —>
You Bring
What is UnrealWhat is real

1. You bring doubt
of what is unreal
(fitting and


2. You bring doubt
of what is real
(unfitting, inappropriate
and dangerous!).


4. You question
what is unreal
(unfitting, inappropriate
and dangerous!)


3. You question
what is real
(fitting and helpful)


Adapted from: "Questions and Doubts" Newsletter of the American Philosophical Practitioners Association (APPA), Vol. 4, No. 1, December 31, 2002, pages 6-7.


Name the people, places and activities in each quadrant.

o Challenge what is not true (lies, tricks, ruses, cons, scams, frauds, hoaxes, fantasies and mirages).
o Research and do homework to discern what isn't real from what is.
o Reject what is not real (e.g., "I don't believe you!"; and "I don't buy it!"

o Misplace real as unreal and doubt what is real, your feelings, experience & knowing.
o By exposure, habit & expectation, give credibility to what is unearned and unreal.
o Allow "drama", victim mentality, confusion & low self-worth. Distrust you, others and the world and be untrustworthy.

o Discern using your senses, facts, rationality, intuition and experience that something exists and is real.
o Ask productive questions like "what" and "how" about its functioningunder different conditions.
o Probe further exactly what all the implications are.

o Misjudge the unreal as real, inject belief into the incredible, trust what is untrustworthy and doubt what is undoubtable.
o Want too good a deal through greed, selfishness and attachment; a great price on nothing!

© Copyright 2013 by Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D.

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