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Thursday January 12, 2006: Skepticism Defined

        One of my sons is developing into a hard-nosed skeptic. I had brought up my kids wanting them to recognize the glitter and illusion of Hollywood, the hype and manipulation of Wall Street, the everyday bias of individuals hawking their favored viewpoint. I had not wanted them to automatically accept what experts or acquaintances presented without (at least occasionally) taking a second look at the data and the logic. I had not counted on that skepticism being taken to the hard-nosed stage.

           As I look through examples of other people who define themselves as skeptics, I sometimes regret calling my blog The Skeptical Mystic. I wonder if it would not have been better to label it The Pragmatic Mystic, for the word skeptic now seems loaded with connotations that make me uncomfortable. Today's hard-nosed skeptics tend to believe only what lies within the solid borders of their current thinking, disregarding whatever does not match the opinions and definitions with which they've grown accustomed.

         I watch scientists and academics who call themselves skeptics, unwilling to believe there ever could be a reasonable basis to psychic or mystical experiences. Accounts of inner experiences must be manufactured delusions, malfunctions of normal brain activity, perceptions distorted by simplistic imaginings, wishful thinking of people unable to face physical reality.

         I watch those steeped in religious tradition, unwilling to consider the possibility or evidence of evolution. How could the wonder--the discovery of how the world works--possibly match the authority of religious text, whose divinely inspired writers remain unknown, their credibility and their experience left forever unavailable to scrutinization?

        Traditional mystics devote their lives in a search to uncover the truth of their faith through their own experience. Yet, how readily I have seen most mystics accept as true any encounter in a higher dimension; how quickly they fall back on spiritual insights as being proof that backs the validity of their faith and their understanding. If the experience feels real and one is convinced of one's own sanity, then the interpretation of divine intervention must coincide with--and only with--definitions handed down through the ages.

         By my own standards, I still think of myself as a skeptical mystic. When I am standing before a godform I do not doubt that my perception is aware of something far beyond what I have ever encountered or ever would encounter in this physical world. But I also am aware that my brain must process that perception with the same mechanism it uses to evaluate the everyday world. It must call up every memory, attitude, conclusion, and association stored in its memory banks to help it define whatever stands before it. That I am aware of something is not the issue. The issue is that I  can never be sure I am seeing the true reality of what exists before me.

        I feel the same way about everyday reality. Ah, you think, but I can be sure this world is real: I can agree with my neighbor about the landscape before us, I can solidly grasp an object in my hand, when I catch my bare toe on the corner of the table leg, I can feel the excruciating pain. That is reality, we say, because it is based on real perceptual evidence.

         Yet, where is our evidence to prove anything is solid? We can say an object has mass, but on an atomic level, there is more space than mass in the reality of even the densest mineral. Bring in quantum physics and mass disappears altogether; reality is reduced to bundles of energy.

         We touch an object and the hardness is not experienced in our brain. Receptors in our hand register the degree of resistence to the forward movement of our hand. The degree and pattern of stimulation is transferred from the touch receptors back to the brain by way of nerve impulses. Neurochemical patterns are triggered off in the brain and we use the patterns of those synaptic firings to evaluate and define our experience of the outside world as 'feeling something hard.'

        Where does hardness exist in the brain? Can we not be just as convinced in a dreamstate that we are picking up and holding solid objects? Can we be so sure we are not brains in the vat, imagining that a world exists independent of our perceptions?

        I'm not such a skeptic that I don't accept physical reality. I may not understand much about gravity but I don't ignore its basic laws. I've known psychics who could levitate small objects. I've heard of yogis who could levitate themselves. I'll probably never have that experience.  I'm engaged in the everyday world; when I walk over a bridge I figure it's prudent to accept the socially defined laws of gravity and act accordingly.

       So what is my definition of skepticism? I think true skeptics are those who do not believe it's possible to understand the final answer. We accept a working theory of how life (or the afterlife) functions and keep our minds open to the idea that there is much more still waiting to be discovered. We understand that the current system of searching may itself be seriously flawed.

         Have we gained a new understanding or reached a new insight? Great. We've pulled ourselves up the ladder of awareness. Skeptics may take a moment to firmly plant their feet in that new understanding, but then they go back to the search--believing that from that higher level of awareness they might discover new ways of looking for truth, or perhaps ways of understanding current truths from a different perspective.

         In my ideal world, scientists, psychics and/or mystics, and people in general, would realize that the search for truth and reality can never be contained by any single approach, technique, or observation style
.  The search does not insist on remaining within the parameters of a single belief system, but questions how one might expand beyond the confines of what is known, reaching ever further into the unknown. The search for truth begins and continues with an open, critical mind.

Maybe part of me being a skeptical mystic is being a romantic. I am steeped in the belief that miracles happen and someday we may understand why. Ah, what a dream--to be alive long enough to discover the natural laws behind miracles.  Perhaps I should have called my blog, The Romantic Mystic or The Romantic Skeptic. As usual, my life falls somewhere in between.
Posted on Thursday, January 12, 2006 at 05:57PM by Registered CommenterThe Skeptical Mystic | CommentsPost a Comment

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