On skepticism, religion, and metaphysics
Skepticism rears its head frequently on the Internet, in ways we may not think about very much in our day to day lives off line, and with good reason. There’s a lot of unreliable or questionable information on the Internet. There are no editorial guidelines, no filtering process. Anyone can post anything they want. This is both good and bad. But there are also a lot of people on the Internet that say they’re skeptical when, I think, they don’t really understand what skepticism is, especially when it comes to metaphysics.
I’ve nurtured a lifelong interest in “occult” subjects like astrology and psychic phenomena, as well as the afterlife. I’ve read about various forms of religion and spirituality. Some might say I’m one of those “New Agers” and dismiss me as gullible. By the way, I put “occult” in quotes because very little of this is secret these days, so I wonder why we still use the term so loosely.
While my interests lean in the same direction as the New Age community’s, I don’t use the label “New Age” for myself. First, because I tend to avoid labels. Second, because my interests were such long before I was aware of any identifiable New Age movement. In fact my parents first sparked my interest in metaphysics when I was a child in the sixties — and no, they weren’t hippies, or even close. My mom’s family had an interest in such things long before then. Her maternal grandparents were Spiritualists. Third, the New Age community is sometimes, in my opinion, too accepting and non judging, and has gained its reputation for being flaky in ratio to the number of such people it appears to take under its wings. I don’t mean by that to bash New Agers, not at all. There are many people in the New Age community that I consider my friends, favorite authors and artists, or simply people I like and admire for their tolerance and loving nature or remarkable insights. But I think more questioning is called for, and I find many New Age marketing strategies highly questionable.
I’m happy to have no religion, and no particular label for my spirituality. I’ve been happy with that for many years. I’m a seeker, but I’m not looking for a religion. I choose to seek everywhere, not just in one grouping of writings or beliefs. And while I am seeking, I’m also always finding, so I don’t feel lost at all.
My metaphysical and spiritual leanings, even if kept entirely to myself and not shared within a religious or spiritual community, have continued to remain strong, introducing me to various religious writings, encouraging my interest in astrology, Tarot, intuition, meditation, and the afterlife. I attended lectures at the local astrological society for months, years ago. I read books on religious, mythological, spiritual, and metaphysical subjects, including several by Alice Bailey, the Bible, and a portion of the Nag Hammadi Library. I’ve studied the Tarot, both as an aid to plumbing my own psychological and spiritual depths and as a personal oracle of sorts, for a little over 20 years. I’ve kept a dream journal almost all my adult life, and that led me to discover that, just as Edgar Cayce said of everyone’s dreams, some of my dreams are precognitive.
I suspect everyone is at least a little psychic.
Other dreams simply give me deeper insight into my own psyche and how I’m responding at every level to changes around me and in my life. Soon after retiring from my former career, as a technical writer-editor, and later a technical manuals distribution manager, I had a dream one night in which I always wore beige pants, and I had to crawl through a narrow transom to get where I needed to go each day. I was tired of doing that, in the dream, and on my last day I felt great relief. As I crawled through for the last time, my beige pants split at the seam to reveal that I wore paisley tights underneath.
I think of that dream as my unconscious letting go of a my old technical, cut and dried line of work and my feeling of needing to fit in there. I think that dream initiated me into my new creative path, with the freedom to pursue my more Bohemian interests without any risk of being seen by coworkers or superiors as a “kooky New Ager”. Not that they would’ve been so judgmental, but I’d always been shy of sharing my interests in metaphysics with people in that technical world. I’ve been shy in general about sharing these interests with many people at all, not just there. Nowadays, when I reveal some of my interests that I’ve kept to myself for so long, I sometimes joke to myself that my paisley tights are showing.
I believe in intuition, not as a distinct, reliable source of data, but as a whisper full of potential and possibility, because I’ve experienced it. Is that dangerous? If I believe, based on my intuition, that something is worth looking into or reading about, what is the harm in doing so? If synchronous events seem to lead me in a particular line of study, why not follow for a while?
I don’t rely solely on intuition to tell me whether it’s safe to cross the street. That would be foolish and dangerous. I rely on my sight, hearing, and on the traffic signal if there is one. But if those things all tell me it’s safe to cross and my intuition still says it isn’t, I pause and make sure. When I’m driving, if my intuition nudges me to pay attention to a particular car, and it’s safe to do so, I fall back and keep an eye on it from a safe distance. My intuition has alerted me to dangers I needed to avoid enough times that it’s a part of my safe driver’s tool bag. I’ve had unexplainable things happen that I think saved my life, things that I can’t explain other than through some combination of intuition and, possibly, cosmic intervention — a guardian angel perhaps? Who knows. Such incidents don’t seem likely to be mere coincidences or accidents. For instance, a fleeting dust devil that my mother spotted at the side of the road once saved me from certain injury in a fire. A little voice, not physical and not mental, sometimes whispers a warning, and if I don’t heed it in my rush to get something done, invariably things go wrong and I wind up kicking myself for not listening. Listening to whom? I’m not sure. A Christian might call it the Holy Spirit. Another might call it an Angel or Spirit Guide, or the Higher Self. Perhaps it’s simply an extended sense that science isn’t yet aware of, something like what is accessed in remote viewing.
I believe there are aspects to life and reality that science can’t yet explain, but which are very likely real nonetheless.
I’m still skeptical.
How, you say? How can I call myself skeptical if I fall for that sort of thing — Tarot, astrology, and psychic phenomena?
That depends on what you understand skepticism to be.
What is skepticism? It’s not disbelief. It’s not belief. It’s not bashing every new idea that presents itself, as unproven, unfounded, or as a hoax, just because some accepted authority says so, such as the school system, the media, a leading business, a church leader, an academic, a government official, or a scientist. It’s not rejecting an idea because it doesn’t fit with one’s entrenched worldview. It’s not telling people they’re fools or gullible because their beliefs differ from one’s own. It’s not making up one’s mind about something before one has bothered to consider at least some of the evidence for and against, or considered that although the notion may not be in one’s own experience, it could very well still be true.
To put it in my own simplistic terms, I see skepticism as reserving judgment until all the facts are in. It’s acknowledging that with some ideas the facts are never all in. Skepticism is saying, “I don’t know,” and not committing oneself until one knows. It’s the ability to accept that one may never know the answers, that not all questions require a definite answer. In fact, some of the most worthwhile questions don’t have answers, at least in this lifetime.
For me skepticism means that I believe what I know to be true, as the Buddha, and by some gnostic accounts the Christ, taught. It means I know something is real, or true, either because there’s solid scientific evidence that’s known to me, or because I’ve experienced it for myself and have good reason to know it wasn’t just my imagination. I also merely believe some things without knowing, because they make sense to me, intellectually or emotionally or both, or which I hope are true, such as experiences relayed to me by people I trust. I allow myself to believe some things for now, with full knowledge and comfort that I may not believe them the same way later in life. I believe that my beliefs should change as I learn and grow, not stay stuck in one configuration for life.
While pondering my own take on skepticism and beliefs recently, I came across a collection of articles on the subject at a site called The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
I haven’t read them in their entirety yet. They’re actually rather plodding and academic for my taste; but if, like me, you’re interested in how skepticism differs from belief or disbelief, from cognitive dissonance or outright rejection of new ideas, these articles may interest you as well: