Skepticism

Gary Lenaire

Skepticism comes in many shapes and sizes. Its history is long and its proponents diverse. It is widely thought that skepticism is the opposite of faith. Modern skepticism often looks very different from its ancient ancestry. People today are prone to assume both negative and positive things regarding skepticism without really thinking it through within a process of consistent philosophical method. There are logical and illogical forms of skepticism.

 

I have been labeled a skeptic on many occasions, though I do not necessarily refer to myself as such. The common believer typically assumes that because I question the idea of divine beings I must be a skeptic. This assumption is partially true, but often for misinformed reasons. The positive mode of skepticism I utilize is consistent and practical within the confines of knowable nature; that is, bearing reference to a very real universe that I find myself in.

 

Many people utilize universal skepticism as a tool to discredit scientists and others who demand rational and empirical proof in response to the fantastic claims of religious people. They do this by claiming that the human senses are incapable of “knowing” anything in the physical external world. A number of believers thus confuse people into a strange form of irrational skepticism.

 

All concepts conceived in the mind are produced in reference to something in the universe. In order to think of a unicorn, you must reference the idea in relation to an actual physical nature, namely, a horse with an artificial horn on its forehead. Why do we do that exercise when imagining the unreal? Because physical nature is where we (our brains, etc.) find ourselves; physical nature is all that we know, even when we drift to an imaginary neverland. Therefore, all of our thoughts are in reference to the universe. The unicorn is an imaginary object; the brain is the imagination’s facility, and the brain resides in and is comprised of nature. Humans are not born into the world; we are born of the world. No part of the human body, including our imagination, is outside of the scope of the universe.

A practical exercise: Close your eyes and try to think of nothing. Go ahead. Try as you will, you fail. You cannot think of nothing without thinking about something in reference. Even if you think of utterly quiet blackness, you are still pondering the physical color black and the absence of physical audio. We as humans are something; we ontologically and necessarily exist. Even when we try to think of nothing, we still think of something.

Everything we claim to know is also in reference to the physical universe. If you know someone’s name, the name (word) is in reference to a physical language of a physical culture. Words, shapes, and forms are conceptualized within the mind of thinkers living in physical nature. When we say we know something, it is always in reference to the actual universe we find ourselves living and dying in. Contemplating this is essential to developing consistent and rational thinking.

 

Now, let’s say I make the faith claim that I know something that exists outside nature. That is a fantastic claim because we do not possess the ability to know something outside of the reference of nature. As I already demonstrated, humans cannot even imagine something outside of or other than the physical universe. Whatever you think knowledge is, it is in reference to physical nature. Again, even fantastic and imaginary things like unicorns are happily dreamed of in reference to physical nature.

 

Fantastic claims require fantastic proof. In a no-nonsense, sane world the burden of proof is on the person claiming knowledge of the miraculous. In a U.S. murder trial, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff who is claiming knowledge of the murder. The plaintiff’s must prove with evidence that the knowledge of murder is actually true. That which can be proved is true. Knowledge, whatever the specific topic, is in reference to the physical universe as the primary axiom.

 

God, many Christians claim, is outside nature (though he possesses and utilizes the ability to transcend nature). He lives without the bounds of the physical universe that he created. He is eternally transcendent, without beginning or end. He is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. This is a fantastic claim. Why? Because Christians (and other theists) are claiming that a being is other than nature; that he is super-nature. What reference do we have for that? What knowledge and evidence do we possess to so much as ponder such a claim? All that we observe lives here in the natural. Supernatural ideas are ideas that live in the mind and the mind lives in nature! This does not mean that gods are an impossibility. It simply means that such a being is most probably a product of human imagination as influenced by nature.

 

What does outside nature really mean? The word outside presupposes that there is an inside that has a boundary. This fixed border has never been proven to be real. As far as we know no human has ever been to the edge of the solar system! There may not be an end to the universe. A non natural reality is totally speculative. Until someone can quantify the contrary, other dimensions are human imagination and those imaginations are based on this actual dimension. Imaginative speculations of super (non) nature are based on a real nature.

 

If you say that you know God is real, how can I argue that claim? Your knowledge is based on faith. This presumes that faith is a way to knowledge. If God is real, he lives in your faith, which lives in your imagination, which also lives in nature. You can’t prove that God is any more real than a unicorn. Again, this doesn’t mean the existence of a personal god is an impossibility, it simply means that, like unicorns, your god is most likely not real outside of your imagination. If he was real, you would most likely jump to show the world some (physical) proof. Nature, the universe, you and I, are real.

Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and breadth of all human knowledge. Think of the questions being asked and debated regarding knowledge. Here’s a few: Is knowledge contextual? Can anything be known? Is knowledge closed under known entailment? Does perceptual experience have conceptual content? Is justification internal? Is truth the primary epistemic goal? Is justified belief responsible belief? Is there immediate justification? Can beliefs be justified through coherence alone? Can skepticism be refuted? Is there a priori knowledge? Is infinitism the solution to the regress problem? Though I will get into finer epistemological details in this essay I do want to convey some basics in order to avoid confusion.

 

I know that terrorists are very often religious extremists. How do I know that? I know because of my sensory perception of a very real physical world. Those who subscribe to universal skepticism claim that humans cannot really know anything. This, they say, is due to the fact that all perceived data first passes through our senses and is then interpreted by the brain. Therefore, say these skeptics, we cannot know anything with any real certainty. Not only is this a silly idea, it can cause people to be irrationally skeptical—especially when they are losing an argument. Let me explain.

Our five senses consist of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. These are the human faculties that interface with the universe. Are people like Deepak Chopra and many spiritual teachers actually promoting irrational skepticism and confusion? Yes, they are.

I want to say something to Deepak Chopra readers: You are probably the most kind, thoughtful, progressive, loving, and cool people. You are most likely a searching soul of peace and solitude. So to the Deepak brethren I say the following in all sincerity:

 

It is fairly easy to confuse people who are prone to religious or spiritual thinking when utilizing universal skepticism. All you need is a little mythology, misinformation, and twisted logic to cause many people to doubt realty itself. Doubting self is an ancient maneuver of the shaman, priest, spiritual teacher: They knock you down personally (they make you question your ability to really know anything) so they can pick you up, that is, give you the "answers" to your "fallen" state. In doing so they get your 100% faithful dedication. They have power over you. In short, Christianity, and many other religions claim that people are sinful and depraved as a result. That way they can save you. 

 

Humans are prone to error not because they are spiritually fallen and sinful. Homo sapiens are prone to error because we are human, imperfect, limited. I am not deceived in this assertion. Satan didn't double-agent trick me. Theists, however, may very well be deceived if they self deprecate in the notion that they can't know real truth until they cast their "fallen" senses aside and accept the priest's message of salvation.

 

Deepak Chopra made the statement,

 

"One of the interesting things that science has found, this should have been obvious all along, is that what we call perception, what we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell, is really the least reliable test of what reality really is. We cannot trust our senses at all! After all, the senses tell us that the earth is flat and we don't believe that anymore. The senses tell us that the ground that we stand on is stationary and we know it's spinning at dizzying speeds and hurtling through outer space at thousands of miles an hour. The senses tell us things have a certain taste, smell, size, texture. Maybe that's not the way they really are." http://www.ascension-research.org/reality.html

 

Let’s look at that quote closer. Deepak said, “One of the interesting things that science has found, this should have been obvious all along, is that what we call perception, what we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell, is really the least reliable test of what reality really is.”

 

What “science” is Deepak referring to? I don’t know which scientists Deepak is citing but none of them write in the science journals I read. Perhaps he could produce a few rogue and obscure science quotes, however. There are always a few people, even scientists, who are tricked by irrational skepticism. There are, after all, a minority of scientists who are also theists. Our senses are not only one way to test what reality really is, they are the only way to test what reality really is! Outside of sensory perception, we are aware of nothing in the physical world.

 

Deepak continues, “We cannot trust our senses at all! After all, the senses tell us that the earth is flat and we don't believe that anymore.”

 

This is an attempt to discredit human senses and in doing so, discredit science and its ability to actually know anything. It wasn’t human senses that led people to believe the earth was flat; it was a lack of scientific knowledge of the earth! Once we gained the technology (with our senses) to navigate the ocean, we discovered and perceived through our senses that the earth is round. There was nothing wrong with human senses before the time of Christopher Columbus. It was a lack of scientific discovery! Deepak’s skepticism is very subtle. It promotes the idea that our senses cannot be trusted. My question to Deepak is how do you know that? Aren’t you perceiving all this through your senses? After all, if you can’t trust your sight and hearing then how do know what you can or cannot trust? Outside of your senses, you can’t. Universal skepticism is at best silly, and at worst damaging to critical thought.

 

The statement that our senses can’t be trusted as a way to gain knowledge of reality contradicts itself in many ways. First, because the person making the comment has made that determination from the knowledge gained through his/her five senses! Why should I trust what you are saying if you are claiming that your knowledge is unreliable? Secondly, when hearing the message, what makes people like Deepak think that our sense of hearing can be trusted? That is, for a lack of better vernacular, bullshit. And finally, let’s consider what “our” senses actually mean. Our senses is not just one person independently but humanity as a whole; not just my five senses but all the scientific, philosophic, religious and other senses combined. Independent study and accountability flows from this pool of knowledge.     

 

Deepak continues:

 

"So what's the real nature of the world? What’s it really like? We can’t trust the senses. They give us a very distorted view. They break up that wholeness into a small fragment and we call it reality. We happen to agree about it. We even call it “objective reality” and we have a whole methodology that we call “science” to explore that. If you really understand what science is, then science at least until now has not been a method for exploring the truth. Science has been a method for exploring our current map of what we think the truth is." http://www.ascension-research.org/reality.html

 

Deepak, in my opinion, is making a very irrational and presumptuous claim here. “If you really understand what science is, then science at least until now has not been a method for exploring the truth.” This is a further insult to the scientific community and its very true discoveries, including cures for diseases. Deepak Chopra is a medical doctor and is free to any opinion he chooses. My doctor is great guy, I really like him. He is also a Seventh-day Adventist. There is religious literature in the lobby of his office on a kiosk near the receptionist desk. None of that bothers me in the least for one primary reason: my doctor practices medicine when I am in his office. When giving me medical advice he doesn’t digress into the benefits of the Seventh-day Adventist dietary laws. Rather, his diagnosis is founded upon medical science as established through the five senses. In short, he practices medicine and not faith while he is at work. Likewise, when I am at the bank, I do not want the bank teller to communicate a faith-based money balance in my accounts. No, I want an actual balance that is clearly perceived through my five senses.

 

In my opinion, therefore, Deepak’s description of science reflects a twisted and inconsistent worldview. His beliefs seem to have dissuaded him toward science partly because science calls him on his fantastic and incredible claims. Some very credible scientists have debated Chopra. Science appeals to empirical reality and Deepak appeals to a belief in spiritual (non-nature) teachings. Science understands that sensory perception, at least up until now, is our only tested way of knowing anything with high confidence.

 

"Many people of faith love to criticize science and sometimes the criticism is valid. Let me say for the record that I am painfully aware of the greed, lobbying, bias, and failure to share information that some unscrupulous scientists have been guilty of." -Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions 

Even Einstein’s closest scientific comrades turned against him when he deserted Nazi Germany.

The scientific community is far from separating itself with the influence of politics and money. However, mega churches in America are far more susceptible to succumb to political persuasion than the university or scientific community. That, coupled with the fact that most scientists have the benefit of a much higher education than most religious people, persuades many thinkers like me that the scientific community is far and away a better source of information. Science put people on the moon, cures diseases, and increases the biological longevity of humans. Religion has not proven to do any of those things.

Let me acknowledge all of the readers out there who subscribe to the above referenced irrational form of universal skepticism. Hello! Are you there? In your belief you don’t (can’t) know if you are there. However, you want all of us to listen to your opinions regarding knowledge when it suits your convenience. That brand of absurdity can be fun to ponder. However, it is overwhelmingly convenient for the irrational skeptic when arguing something that flat contradicts itself--much like Deepak Chopra’s argument against the scientific method of gaining knowledge.  

 

But, someone may object saying, “What about those things we might be missing? Deepak and others might be right about a spiritual world that the human senses can’t detect.” Let me offer a much better way of discussing those things that we might be missing with our senses. As we explore the universe, we utilize all available tools at our disposal. For example, we utilize microscopes, telescopes, space rovers, and anything else we can use to focus in on reality. Just because we can’t see it with the naked eye or experience it with our other senses doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not there. But until we discover that something is actually there (atoms or distant planets) we don’t discredit sensory perception and science or claim something miraculous or fantastic without providing miraculous and fantastic proof.

I would love to personally see a Bigfoot and ride in a UFO from Mars (provided I was not in the direct presence of Bigfoot and that the little green people are friendly). More importantly, I am open to the extremely remote possibilities of these things existing. However, it is highly improbable (not impossible) that we are going to discover the knowledge of these things outside of our sensory perception. I am very open to discovering the truth and that journey is perceived through my senses. To posit anything outside of the universe is to posit total illogicality and dishonesty.

 

I love to meditate, mostly when playing music. For me, music garners the same benefits as traditional meditation. Steve Vai once shared with me the technique of "non-judgmental" guitar playing, that is, playing 30 minutes a night without goals, agenda, rules or self-critique. What I discovered is that I truly do meditate in those (and other) musical sessions. I lose track of time in that space and achieve peace in an elevated way. 

 

Does that mean I am “spiritual” and therefore gaining knowledge of a spiritual world? Not that I know of. It simply means that I love and am open to losing myself / time in exploring that experience. If we discover a new way of gaining knowledge through meditation, prayer or otherwise then sensory perception and science will at some level need to confirm its validity. If that empirical validity cannot be confirmed, the relevance of this new knowledge does not supersede or even equal our common perception. Put another way, the knowledge we have through our senses is not only more valid, it is the only frame of reference at all.

Ad Hominem is the appealing or attacking of a person who is making the argument rather than addressing the substance of the argument. All people are naturally prone to error. That is no secret. That doesn’t restrict me from making a statement that articulates a known truth or reality of the universe. In other words, though I am prone to error as a human, I can still assert something that is by all probability, true. For instance, I can say “1+1=2.” That is a true statement made by someone who makes occasional errors. My statement can be tested for accuracy. However, to claim that the Bible (or any other allegedly miraculous book) is a perfect, inspired, divine (supernatural) revelation of a superhuman being is to also claim that natural, limited beings such as humans could make that distinction or even understand it. Such a claim is fantastic and therefore unverified. The very idea of a “super-nature” is a suggestion that one can even fathom something other than the universe. That, in this present time, is insoluble. Don't confuse yourself with an ad hominem argument. Yes, people who are prone to error can make true statements about the universe. But to make a supernatural claim not only presupposes that a super-nature exists but that humans could even make the distinction. My contention with theists or spiritualists is not founded in their fallibility but rather their fantastic claims.

To truly experience a deeper view of your mind or psyche, perhaps you will need to abandon the dualism that has so permeated the Western mind for centuries. Because “spirit” cannot be quantified, there is no need to think of yourself as body separated from a so-called spirit. Approach the universe in unified relation to itself; and not separate from some ethereal spirit realm behind its mechanics. It is all one, if you will. We need not pursue a self-deprecating, dull-minded, or irrational path as we explore those things that are spiritual. Personality cults are not necessary. Many Buddhists out there know exactly what I am talking about: “if you meet Buddha on the trail, kill him,” as they say.

Please notice that many theists insist that our mental and physical abilities are “sinfully fallen” in the flesh and therefore untrustworthy for gaining truthful knowledge. People like Deepak Chopra and other pseudo-spiritualist gurus utilize a very similar tactic: Insisting that humans can’t trust their five senses to obtain any real truth about the universe. Both approaches are very similar and cause the same outcome: Faith. Why do they do this to other humans? Why do they persuade others to doubt everything observed through their sensory perception? In my opinion it’s because that is where they want you; they can “save” you from the lost path you are on! This is the oldest religion trick in the book; set ‘em up and knock ‘em down. Notice the universal skeptics like Chopra as well as Christian teachers want you to question everything as false except their message from their own mouths. Their tongues are conveniently exempt from the sensory skepticism, of course. In other words, “you are lost but I can help you find the way.” There seems to be a never ending supply of new suckers who fall for this nonsense. The suckers, however, have been lining the priest’s pockets for centuries.

Western believers often pursue spiritual things within a dualistic philosophy. Westerners are taught from childhood that humans are comprised of a physical body and spiritual soul. Television shows targeting children demographics often display ghosts as bodiless spirits. Westerners are conditioned to simply assume that this dualistic dynamic is real. The spirit or soul that Westerners are thinking about may very well be completely mistaken. Albert Einstein said this:

"Since our inner experiences consist of reproductions and combinations of sensory impressions, the concept of a soul without a body seems to me to be empty and devoid of meaning.” “I do not believe in immortality of the individual, and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it." -Albert Einstein, The Human Side

 

Albert Einstein authored the Theory of Relativity, an accomplishment that opened up vast scientific understanding for generations forward. Deepak Chopra authored some pseudo-science self help books listed on Amazon.com. Who will you listen to?