True Skepticism

Woman Meditating In Lotus Pose On The Beach At Sunset

  I begin each day with early morning meditation followed later by a workout of indoor cycling, weights and Yoga.

 After breakfast I open a Prayer book, read Scriptures and then plunge into philosophy and currrent events. 

 These practices have a centering effect and light up my spirit. Thus collected, I feel empowered to start the day in a tone of triumph.

 Instead of drifting into the day, I take it head on.

 For I never want to settle for less than the highest.  

 I've been thinking about how a nonbeliever might similarly begin his day -also reading and exercising - but likely to leave out the spiritual dimension.

 The unbeliever’s purpose might be a determination to bolster his skepticism by studying with care the 18th century French skeptic Voltaire, or the Scottish one, Mr. David Hume. 

 An example is Hume himself who is known to have kept up a reading of the skeptics right up until the point of his death.

 On his death bed, Hume, in good spirits, was found to be reading Lucretius and Lucian, described by Peter Gay, as "the two most implacable enemies of religion - one the fiercest, the other the wittiest - that antiquity had produced.” (Peter Gay, The Enlightenment)

 So strong was Hume's resolve against belief that during his last days he was heard to say that his only regret was that he had not saved more people from the Christian superstitution.

 Locked-into skepticism, Hume remained steadfast to the end in his refusal to believe.

 Well, that's one way to go out, to persist in a state of unbelief.

 For myself, I regard this as tragic and think that there is a higher skepticism than Hume’s, a true skepticism, as Jacob Needleman calls it, that can lead not to the emptiness of unbelief, but to the fullness of a grand affirmation.

 By a true skepticism I mean a level of skepticism that is determined to clear away all dust and debris in order to reach understanding.

 It’s an effort, as emphasized by the Upanishads, to discriminate between the unreal and the real.

  It’s an effort to rid oneself of all forms of self-deception - of all that is unreal.

   It’s an effort to break past all false lands of make believe to find the truth.

 And thus to join with the British rock band, the Moody Blues, who sing: "Open all the shudders on your windows. Unlock all the locks upon your doors. Brush away the cobwebs from your daydreams.” 

 Why? The goal, according to the Moody Blues, is to break through into love,  as they sing: “Only love will see you through." 

 What we have here is a form of higher skepticism because it has a point to it. 

 For it winds up affirming that life itself has a point.

  That the universe has a point.

    That existence has a point.

     And that your life has a point.

 It is to affirm that a true skepticism - a form of very hard thinking - can get you somewhere. 

 As was said by Bishop Berkeley: "The same principles which at first view lead to skepticism, pursued to a certain point bring men back to common sense.” (Bishop Berkeley, Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous)

 And thus therefore a true skepticism can lead you from the unreal to the real - to a grand affirmation of the meaning of it all.

 It can lead you to affirm, as John’s Gospel states that, in the beginning was the Logos, which can be translated as, in the beginning was the Word, Meaning, or the Point of it all. 

 From the start therefore, there was meaning. There is meaning now. There will always be meaning. 

 However desperate life may become, there is always some meaning to be found.

 And thus by engaging in a true skepticism - by a determined effort to distinguish between the real and the unreal - you can end up in a state of belief.

 It’s what Professor Jordan Peterson of the University of Toronto is talking about all the time. As he exclaims: 'Stop being pathetic! Ground your self in the Logos!'

 That is, ground your life in the meaning of it all - in the Light of it all - instead of choosing instead to descend into the darkness and emptiness of nihilism. 

 Or you can reject this path and choose instead the skepticism of Mr. David Hume, thereby choosing to believe, as Daniel N. Robinson puts it that, "the universe is a place of dead matter, describable in purely statistical terms, and having no point.

 This is what I call a lower skepticism because it never leads you to truth and meaning.

 Instead it tears down for the sake of it, until you are left with nothing but death bed emptiness.

 I am describing here a lower skepticism that tends often to be coupled with have an air of superiority - a sneering, scoffing arrogance.

 Such a spirit - a low skepticism - isn’t an open, searching one, but a spirit of contempt

 It is profane in its nature, as Elizabeth Elliot describes, “treating as meaningless that which is freighted with meaning." 

  “Treating as common that which is hallowed.

    “As mere triviality what is really a Divine design."

 Such a profane spirit is, according to Mrs Elliot, "the failure to see the inner mystery.” 

 Here is a low skepticism that fails to go deep enough and therefore misses the mystery and the meaning of it all.

 Raymond Tallis in Philosophy Now writes that he is tired of the cyncial mockers and scoffers.

 Tallis is sick of their attitude and feels insulted by them.

 Tallis is tired of hearing, for example, that "it is science (and not religion) that has "revealed our true standing in the order of things.

 In a quick survey of modern skepticism, Mr. Tallis calls attention to Voltaire who got things off to a jolly secular start by visualising “men as they really are, insects devouring one another on a little atom of mud.” 

 And in our own present day, John Gray, has argued that "we are beasts, metaphysically on all fours with the other beasts."

 “Man,” Gray asserts, “is only one of many species, and not obviously worth preserving.”

 "Human life has no more meaning,” says Gray, "than that of slime mould.”

 And there is as well, Stephen Hawking’s declaration in 1995 on a TV show, that “the human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate size planet, orbiting round a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a billion galaxies.” 

 Mr. Tallis calls this snarling cynicism "nihilistic grandstanding."

 And finds it repugnant.

 To counter this low skepticism, Mr. Tallis cites Blaise Pascal who beautifully wrote that “man is but a reed, the feeblest thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed.” 

 He is a thinking reed. Which is to say that he can think his way towards the grand affirmation that there really is meaning and truth. 

 That "even if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than that which killed him," because, as Tallis explains, we carry within us the “ineradicable sense” that we are something more.

 In fact, it is our dignity as thinking reeds that we can think our way towards the highest possible meaning.

 And thus are able to challenge the claim that science by itself “gives us the complete truth on what we truly are.”

 It does not. Science is at best incomplete, for it is missing something when it says that we are "but pieces of matter, living matter lost in a boundless universe.”

 Science, in other words, cannot account for "the lived truth of our lives."

 As Richard Feynman, the Nobel prize winning physicist, affirmed in his own life experience. 

 Deeply in love as a young man, he found out when his wife was dying that science was of no help to him.

 As she lay dying, "Feynman began to glimpse the special powerlessness that medical uncertainty can inflict on a scientific person."

 Feynman had been "rational and unsentimental in his reverence for the indomitable laws of physics that tend toward decay."

 His view had been that "everything that appears mystical, is simply an insufficiently explained mystery with a physical answer not yet found.

 Feynman "had believed that the scientific way of thinking brought a measure of calmness and control in difficult situations,” but in this, the greatest trial of his life, science offered him nothing but its hard edges. 

 At that time he wrote a letter to his wife that went beyond science to give expression instead to a heart felt spirituality: "My heart is filled again & I’m choked with emotions."

  "And love is so good & powerful." 

    "It’s worth preserving." 

     "I know nothing can separate us."

      "We’ve stood the tests of time and our love is as glorious now as the day it was born."

        "Dearest riches have never made people great but love does it every day.

           “We’re not little people." 

             "We’re giants…" 

              "I know we both have a future ahead of us — with a world of happiness - now & forever.

 Feynman broke past the hard edges of science into an exploration of his own irrepressible and vulnerable heart as it opened up, filled to the brim with metaphysical affirmations.

 And then two years after his wife’s death - he wrote another remarkable letter - only recently discovered  - to a nonphysical entity.

 That physical nonentity was his wife who had died two years before:

 "D’Arline, I adore you, sweetheart."

 "I know how much you like to hear that - but I don’t only write it because you like it - I write it because it makes me warm all over inside to write it to you."

 "It is such a terribly long time since I last wrote to you - almost two years  -but I know you’ll excuse me because you understand how I am, stubborn and realistic; and I thought there was no sense to writing."

 "But now I know my darling wife that it is right to do what I have delayed in doing, and that I have done so much in the past. I want to tell you I love you. I want to love you. I always will love you."

 "I find it hard to understand in my mind what it means to love you after you are dead but I still want to comfort and take care of you - and I want you to love me and care for me." 

 "I want to have problems to discuss with you - I want to do little projects with you. I never thought until just now that we can do that. What should we do. We started to learn to make clothes together - or learn Chinese - or getting a movie projector. Can’t I do something now? No. I am alone without you and you were the “idea-woman” and general instigator of all our wild adventures."

 "When you were sick, you worried because you could not give me something that you wanted to and thought I needed. You needn’t have worried. Just as I told you then there was no real need because I loved you in so many ways so much. And now it is clearly even more true — you can give me nothing now yet I love you so that you stand in my way of loving anyone else - but I want you to stand there. You, dead, are so much better than anyone else alive."

 "I know you will assure me that I am foolish and that you want me to have full happiness and don’t want to be in my way. I’ll bet you are surprised that I don’t even have a girlfriend (except you, sweetheart) after two years. But you can’t help it, darling, nor can I — I don’t understand it, for I have met many girls and very nice ones and I don’t want to remain alone - but in two or three meetings they all seem ashes."

 "You only are left to me. You are real."

   "My darling wife, I do adore you."

     "I love my wife. My wife is dead."

 "PS Please excuse my not mailing this — but I don’t know your new address.” (Richard Feynman’s Extraordinary Letter to his departed wife - where the hard edge of physics meets the vulnerable metaphysics of the human heart, by Maria Popova.)

 Richard Feynman, the great physicist, the great man of science, went beyond science, went beyond skepticism, to affirm meaning and truth on a higher level.

 And so I think it comes down to a choice, a choice between what William James called “two momentous choices.”

 We can choose with Hume to reinforce a skeptical stance by an appeal to every argument we can find against religion, or we can choose to run with what Daniel N Robinson calls the many other arguments for believing there is ample evidence of design, intention, plan, intelligence."

 For Robinson and for me the choice is for that higher skepticism that leads to truth and meaning.

 In Robinson’s words: "There are good arguments for assuming that the whole thing has a point, and that that point points ultimately to a Divine and providential source. (D.N. Robinson, "God-Really?" Lecture 60, p. 471, in The Great Ideas of Philosophy, 2nd edition, The Great Courses)

 I close with the affirmation of the Psalmist who said: "How blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;

 For in contrast to the scoffers, "his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on His law he meditates day and night.

 Such a one is "like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaves do not wither.

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