Thursday, June 15, 2006

Healthy Skepticism?

Frederick Crews is a Professor of English Emeritus at U.C. Berkeley, has written several books, and is perhaps best known for his controversial essays about Freudian theory and recovered memory. His latest book, Follies of the Wise, is a collection of skeptical essays about everything from psychology to UFO’s to literary theory to religion. In the Introduction to his book, he stresses the importance of “unsparing empirical review, the tools we need to forestall another such outbreak of mass irrationality” in science, religion, and popular culture.

Crews begins his introductory essay by addressing problems with
theodicy—the attempt to rationally reconcile God’s alleged omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence—in order to call attention to a “clash between two intellectual currents.” These conflicting currents are “scientific empiricism” and “traditional authority” of religious and other kinds. Crews comes down strongly in favor of the former and believes that it leads to “metaphysical naturalism,” which Wikipedia explains as the supposition that “the fundamental constituents of reality, from which everything derives and upon which everything depends, is fundamentally mindless. So if any variety of metaphysical naturalism is true, then any mental properties that exist (hence any mental powers or beings) are causally derived from, and ontologically dependent on, systems of nonmental powers, properties, or things.”

I think my own outlook pretty much meets this definition. I know that many people believe in some kind of transcendent Spirit that is the matrix or ground if not also the goal of manifold Reality, but I have not yet been able to understand how any kind of “spiritual” mind, intelligence, agency, or force could arise or exist independently of “systems of nonmental powers, properties, or things” or be the “telos” we are intrinsically motivated to fulfill. When people from traditional religionists to Ken Wilber insist that if there were no universe, there would still be Spirit or God, part of me wants to believe them, but I can’t honestly say that I do, for I just don’t understand how it could be true. What and where would this Spirit be?

Says Crews,
“Metaphysical naturalism may be undiplomatic, then, but it is favored by the totality of evidence at hand. Only a secular Darwinian perspective, I believe, can make general sense of humankind and its works. Our species appears to have constituted an adaptive experiment in the partial and imperfect substitution of culture for instinct, with all the liability to self-deception and fanaticism that such an experiment involves. We chronically strain against our animality by inhabiting self-fashioned webs of significance—myths, theologies, theories—that are more likely than not to generate illusory and often murderous “wisdom.” That is the price we pay for the same faculty of abstraction and pattern drawing that enables us to be not mere occupiers of an ecological niche but planners, explorers, and, yes, scientists who can piece together facts about our world and our own emergence and makeup.”

I suppose that philosophers from Bob Godwin to Ken Wilber would contend that our “myths, theologies, [and] theories” and our “faculty of abstraction and pattern drawing” arise from more than a strictly “natural” substratum and aim at more than merely killing time between the maternity ward and the crematorium. If I’m not mistaken, they would argue that these human products and traits can be understood fully only as immanent instantiations of transcendent Spirit seeking to know and harmonize with Itself.

Crews tangentially addresses this when he writes:
“Here it may be objected that myths, theologies, and theories themselves, as nonmaterial things that can nevertheless set in motion great social movements and collisions of armies, confound a materialist or metaphysically naturalist perspective. Not at all. We materialists don’t deny the force of ideas; we merely say that the minds precipitating them are wholly situated within brains and that the brain, like everything else about which we possess some fairly dependable information, seems to have emerged without any need for miracles. Although this is not a provable point, it is a necessary aid to clear thought, because, now that scientific rationality has conclusively shown its formidable explanatory power, recourse to the miraculous is always a regressive, obfuscating move.”

By “recourse to the miraculous,” Crews seems to be talking about, among other things, the notion of a transcendent Spirit that philosophers such as Godwin and Wilber would say we cannot know by strict empirical observation or “scientific rationality” but must apprehend by a deeper, more direct, and more intuitive means. But, says Crews, “there is no such thing as deep knowledge, in the sense of insight so compelling that it needs no validation. There is only knowledge, period. It is recognizable not by its air of holiness or its emotional appeal but by its capacity to pass the most demanding scrutiny of well-informed people who have no prior investment in confirming it. And a politics of sorts, neither leftist nor rightist, follows from this understanding. If knowledge can be certified only by a social process of peer review, we ought to do what we can to foster communities of uncompromised experts. That means actively resisting guru-ism, intellectual cliquishness, guilt-assuaging double standards, and, needless to say, disdain for the very concept of objectivity.”

This resonates with me. I’m wary of the alleged certitude of the “deep knowledge” of intuition or mystical insight, even if part of me wants to believe in it. It seems to me as though all proposed truths need to be validated by a community of people qualified to validate them. But how do people who have “no prior investment” in confirming alleged spiritual insights become qualified to confirm them? Don’t most, if not all, who undertake rigorous spiritual discipline to the point where they become “qualified” to validate alleged truths do it with great “investment” in doing so? That is, aren’t they strongly biased in favor of confirming those insights from the very beginning? If so, how reliable are their validations?

Finally, Crews outlines what we should be on the lookout for when we weigh the claims of different “schools of thought”:
“The question, of course, is how an outsider can be sure that one school of thought is less entitled to our trust than a rival one. In many instances such confidence would be unwarranted. Certain indicators of bad faith, however, are unmistakable: persistence in claims that have already been exploded; reliance on ill-designed studies, idolized lawgivers, and self-serving anecdotes; evasion of objections and negative instances; indifference to rival theories and to the need for independent replication; and “movement” belligerence. Where several of these traits are found together, even a lay observer can be sure that no sound case could be made for the shielded theory; its uncompetitiveness is precisely what has necessitated these indulgences.”

As I was reading this, I couldn’t help but think of one increasingly controversial “school of thought” that I won’t name. I hope Crews’ cautionary words don’t really apply to it even if, unfortunately, it seems as though they might.


Darius said...

Good post. But you can be an empiricist, toss all religious belief; and remain deeply religions.

We've equated being religious with holding implausible beliefs, but it doesn't have to be that way.

Nagarjuna said...

Darius, how can one be "deeply religious" in a plausibly empirical way? That is, how can deep religiousness rise above implausible or non-empirical belief?


Anonymous said...

Because God can reveal Himself to you in tangible ways that will remove the doubt that you experience ...

Nagarjuna said...

What empirically "tangible" ways can God reveal himself to us such that we feel completely certain of his existence and cannot legitimately doubt the certainty we feel of his existence? What's more, how do we arrive at this state of unimpeachable certainty?


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, it is only by experiencing God that we come to these unimpeachable conclusions; I cannot explain it to you because it truly is something you have to find yourself...