Belief vs. Skepticism

"Truth is a shining goddess, always veiled, always distant, never wholly approachable, but worthy of all the devotion of which the human spirit is capable."

Bertrand Russell

"Faith and doubt both are needed – not as antagonists, but working side by side to take us around the unknown curve."

Lillian Smith

One way to slice the world is to divide it into the believers and the skeptics. The believers are willing to accept as true "facts" that are unproven. Skeptics require some sort of "proof" before they will believe. Skeptics tend to regard believers as gullible and unscientific. Believers may see skeptics as blind and empty. Religion and spirituality are in the realm of the believer. Science and logic are in the realm of the skeptic.

Humans naturally desire to believe in something greater than themselves and something more wonderful than the mundane evidence of the senses. As children we are more than willing to believe in mythical beings like the Santa Claus  and the Tooth Fairy. The child’s mind creates friends who don’t exist, as well as imaginary demons under the bed. As we grow older, our powers of discrimination evolve, and we no longer believe in fairy tales or create boogie men out of shadows in the night. Still, some of that imagination and desire to believe in the wonderful remains in most of us.

Much of religious culture is based on belief in things that cannot be explained or scientifically proven, and the religious believer is always at risk of moving into the realm of believing because we want it to be. Every so often some believer will make out the face of Jesus, or maybe Elvis, in the bark of a tree or the play or light on a wall. Believers flock to see for themselves, and skeptics shake their heads in disbelief. These incidents warn to us to be wary of our tendency to project imagination onto the world and to believe in something because we want to believe.

Skeptics, in general, won’t see miracles, and if they do, they will explain them away as some as yet poorly understood manifestation of natural phenomena. The skeptic wants to avoid being fooled. They avoid the easier answers of the believer and demand proof before they will accept the mysterious as real. The skeptic’s danger is to miss out on life’s wonders, just because they can’t be explained by logic. Even more seriously, they may positively disbelieve in something that is true and useful, just because it is not yet proven by science. The absence of a double blind study to prove that a medical procedure is effective, does not necessarily mean that it is not effective. Yet some skeptics fall into the trap of thinking that way.

Believing too easily, we can become caught up in delusion. Failing to believe in anything not unquestionably proven, we can miss the truth. Where are we to stand, then, between the gullible believer and the dull skeptic?

We might begin by acknowledging our human tendency towards self delusion. We tend to want to believe in the magical, and are prone to accepting simple answers to the mysterious questions. Science was developed to counteract these tendencies. It tells us that if there is no evidence, we have no reason to believe a thing. Still, science is limited in what it can explain. It hasn’t done well explaining much in the realms of the mind or the mystical. Science is good at naming things, but as the Tao Te Ching says,

"The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth."

So be wary of the scientific truth as the only truth. Some truths are beyond its reach.

When we are caught in our subjective point of view, it is impossible to understand the true nature of things. Better to get outside our limited perspective to see the big picture. When one meditates, one quiets the mind. The quiet mind can open to wider vistas. The quiet mind comes to understand itself. It recognizes its grasping for answers to fit preconceptions as it moves beyond preconceptions.

As one awakens to the nature of mind it becomes clear that we do not have all the answers, and that it is not so important to have all the answers. We become more aware of what is. This life in all its mysteries becomes more precious. The small wonders of life take on more importance than the grand theories that explain them.

The calm mind is drawn to truth, but is not stuck to its own conceptions. When the evidence shifts, understanding changes. Old ideas can be cast off like worn out clothes. In its silence the meditative mind attains wisdom that is beyond believing or disbelieving.

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© 1998-2002 Tom Barrett