Friday, August 17, 2007

On the Limits of Skepticism

"no matter how weird this all works for me."



Literal-minded readers (i.e., people like me) of my princess post might be concerned that I'm teetering on the verge of going over the edge into the very abyss of full-blown newage (rhymes with "sewage") gullibility...'s OK...I'm just more secure in my faith and less inclined to rack up karmic brownie points obsessive via self-doubt... but anyway--

not that I'm a sage or anything (to say the very least), but I've said before and still believe that skepticism is the one absolute requirement on the spiritual path. Devotion will get you farther than anything, but some people make it with little or no devotion. Constancy is crucial, but we all need a vacation from God now and again. Erudition helps a lot, but if it were mandatory then 99% of all the saints and mystics in history would have to be disqualified. Keeping a journal is mandatory for those of us who are literate, but again, most of the lovers of God down through the ages have not been literate and they did just fine. What else? Even belief is optional; you don't have to believe in anything to be transformed by a spiritual practice. I certainly didn't believe in a guru or in Kali when I started my experiment with bhakti yoga back in the day...but if I hadn't been skeptical, I wouldn't have tried so hard to find practices that genuinely changed me, and wouldn't have stuck with them until they did.

Skepticism can be practiced by anyone, at any time, and every child of God worthy of the name has at one time or another seriously, painfully, and existentially questioned every quantum packet of that lovely Divine light shining into his or her heart...see Matthew 27:46, see Ramakrishna's relief that he was not mentally ill when informed by a panel of experts that he was, indeed, a very spiritual dude... see Martha Beck's via dolorosa in
Expecting Adam... see the terrible yearning that possessed Emerson's hands to tear the lid from his beloved's coffin... we want the truth, but the truth troubles us in its sunset-evanescence, we think it can't really be there but it haunts us nonetheless...if courage, according to the cliché, is fear that has said its prayers, then faith is belief that has relentlessly searched out its limits.

And everything, every "absolute," has limits, even God...for "God" is nothing more than a concept standing in place of a limitless and therefore unimaginable Reality. If you're a knee-jerk smart aleck like me, you've probably even wondered whether self-proclaimed skeptics ever get skeptical about skepticism. Lo and behold--at least two of them have (and a third comes to mind, Michael Shermer, who's often refreshingly aware that he doesn't know everything)...

but get this: even among the skeptigentsia there are troubling signs that the eighteenth century has ended and that Kant--actually could. In "The Myth of Consistent Skepticism" psychologist Todd Riniolo and philosophy scholar Lee Nisbet fashion a fascinating and cogent argument about the inevitability of bias and the limited horizons of knowledge that make an Archimedean skepticism (like that pretended to by Richard Dawkins, Martin Gardner, Christopher Hitchens, et al.) ... impossible. Hmpf. And this article appears in none other than
The Skeptical Inquirer, a magazine that until recently, anyway, was a touchstone of naive empiricism.

I think part of what's happened to awaken some skeptics to the tentative nature of their own position is not that they've suddenly stumbled on some tobacco-stained volumes of Nietzsche in the local used book store, but that they've attempted, as Shermer has done, to go beyond ridiculing or refuting weird beliefs to trying to understand why people hold such beliefs in the first place. It was one thing to laugh at creationism in the 1970s and 1980s, as American aerospace and software engineers changed the world; it was another thing to see it ascendant in the nation's curricula in the first years of the twenty-first century, as the good old USA's dominance in the sciences seemed to be slipping away. If absurd beliefs don't just vaporize in the daylight of reason, a few (post-)enlightened souls are asking, then what is it that sustains them...and what could possibly replace or modify them? The problem with this kind of question is that eventually the asker has to look at why he or she holds his or her allegedly superior beliefs...if not for the sake of intellectual honesty, then at least for the sake of comparison...

and so one becomes skeptical of skepticism, if one is lucky--and one doesn't abandon skepticism, but becomes aware that it, too, is another way of seeing the world, another conceptual tool--another spell one can cast to attain certain results, like the Believing Spell that allows one to enjoy the latest Harry Potter novel, or the Doubting Spell that allows one to improve one's own efforts at writing. Certainty is lovely in love and horrid in hate; faith is a balm in the heart but a caustic in the brain. If God knew Herself completely, the universe would end--to love Her, we must mirror Her process of evolution and self-discovery... "To follow knowledge like a sinking star / Beyond the utmost bound of human thought." Skepticism, like belief, works poorly as a march but brilliantly as a dance--as love--love of the Universe: first believe, then doubt, then believe again--and in, and around, and out, and about--and--embrace...with the mind...then doubt...then love...

1 comment:

  1. I have been "skeptical of skepticism" for some time now -- ever since I switched from a career in the sciences to what I'm doing now - and even before that, I suppose. As trite as it may seem, this 1980 film first prompted me to become seriously skeptical of the whole empirical enterprise. Although it seems like my own skepticism has not driven me to be as disciplined as you in moving beyond that. Nothing conclusive to say on the matter, just thought I'd share.