Skepticism and Mysticism

by Sam Buntz

“The universe is wider than our views of it.” –Thoreau

There are two kinds of skepticism: the first is sandbox skepticism, or skepticism-on-training-wheels.  This is the popular variety, to which we are most often exposed, and even though it isn’t anything like the truly terrifying and comprehensive form of skepticism (which I will discuss presently), it is sometimes useful.  It may serve to discredit the efficacy of power crystals for curing cancer (for instance) or expose the fraudulence of certain claims about aliens being involved in the construction of the Mayan pyramids and other topics that seem to form the bread and butter of the History Channel’s usual mental supper, these days.  The two magician-comedians, Penn and Teller, are adept at this more widespread form of skepticism, which usually ends up wearing thin when its practitioners attempt to stretch it over certain issues.  I recall Penn denouncing psychoanalysis on the basis of the Freud’s alleged cocaine use – despite the fact that Freud gave up coke long before he authored any of his famous works.  It’s a cheap and easy way of discrediting things, usually by making even silly things seem sillier than they really are.  But, I’ll leave this digression, since I’m actually concerned with real, philosophical skepticism, which seems to often be out of the reach of even the most brilliant scientists and physicists currently among us (as I will demonstrate), from Einstein to Hawking to Newton.  I will chart the natural consequences of this pure skepticism, before trying to salvage my own hopes and dreams from the wreckage it has created—discussing how mysticism can overcome some of the limitations to which philosophical skepticism says that we are eternally subject.

The greatest apostle of this gospel of Total Doubt and utter empiricism was David Hume.   Hume reached the stunning realization—seemingly obvious, once you understand it—that using our five senses and our reason, we can gain no real, permanent knowledge of the world around us or even of ourselves.  We think we are describing a universal law or rule when we say that “objects at rest tend to stay at rest until acted on by some outside force” or when we observe that water always flows downhill, but what we are really observing, in Hume’s view, is never an unshakeable and definite law, but a “custom.” We only need to see such a custom once violated, definitely, in order for us to see how it is nothing absolute.  This may have occurred recently, when a group of scientists observed neutrinos moving faster than the speed of light, something that is thought to be impossible.

As Hume said, “Custom is the great guide of human life.”  Not only will he allow us no certain knowledge of the real laws of physics, but he will grant us no absolute, and super-confident trust in any of our senses and perceptions—including in the perception of a self (as Buddhists have been observing for a long time, you can observe your thoughts, but it is seemingly impossible to observe the ego that is apparently having those thoughts.)  The universe, as envisioned by Hume, is distinct from both the cosmos of the religious person and that of the ostensibly skeptical atheist (like that of Penn and Teller or Richard Dawkins.)  There is, for Hume, no way of accessing the real world that exists outside of ourselves (if there is one) or of creating an accurate map of that world—something Christians and Muslims attempt to draw just as Einstein and Newton attempted it in their respective eras.  We cannot figure out with what degree of accuracy we perceive the world around us.  We only have access to a bubbling stream of thoughts and impressions—our brains happen to infer connections and associations between the bubbles in this phenomenal froth, we live awhile as best we can, and then “our place knows us no more.”  What is really out there is, for Hume, always unknowable.  We experience this fleeting world of appearances in solitude, through no source but our own sensations and ideas formed from those sensations, with only secondhand access to those of others.

This skepticism expands into monstrous proportions.  Shelley, the poet—a devoted reader of Hume—wrote in his poem “Mont Blanc”: “Has some unknown omnipotence unfurled / The veil of life and death? Or do I lie, / In dream, and does the mighty world of sleep / Spread far and inaccessibly / Its circles?” Shelley’s unanswered questions get at the horrifying uncertainty that the skeptical realization of our own intellect’s insufficiency makes available to us: we may be living in a castle of dream, surrounded by an infinite number of walls, which only enclose another circle of dreaming.   We may not be capable of a proper adjustment to the greater Nature that lies around us—that is the darkest doubt, to wit, that our own senses may be finally insufficient.  It makes me think of the current controversy in astrophysics as to the nature of “dark matter” and “dark energy.”  Our experiments continually dictate that there must be far more mass and matter in the universe than we can observe because of the gravitational pull exerted by galaxies (far greater than the amount of matter we seem to be detecting), and we also sense that some unseen energy must be causing the universe’s expansion to accelerate.  We have no idea what either of these things could be: every theoretical object so far proposed and probed has proved to be a phantasm.  And what reason is there that we should be able to see these hidden features of our world?  Not that we shouldn’t try to—but there is no reason that we won’t eventually hit a brick wall.  Unless God has intentionally designed human beings to perceive the entirety of physical reality, or evolution accidentally designed us to the same end, some problems posed by the existence of the universe may simply remain beyond our ken.  In fact, I would say that—speaking only from a purely rationalistic perspective, and not from my own convictions and experiences—this is a more likely version of events.  When we look at the other creatures who inhabit our world, we realize that these other creatures have a more limited perspective on reality than we do, though perhaps they also perceive things we cannot perceive—think of a dog’s sense of smell.  But just as a dog’s inability to see color strikes us as a severe limitation, so might our own sensory limits seem to a hypothetical higher life-form.  The German aphorist, Lichtenberg, wrote, “Can there not exist beings who would admire us on account of our ideas of God and immortality in just the way we admire the spider and the silkworm [for their threads]?” And, again, Ludwig Feuerbach said, ““For the caterpillar, the leaf on which it sits is an infinite world.” Taking that quote and applying it to our own situation, we can say that this universe, which we perceive as though it were a vast, possibly infinite space, maybe little more than another leaf, dangling on a shrub at the back of some garden.

Yet scientists like Hawking and Einstein assumed that we were designed—somehow, despite their avowed belief in the lack of a non-material component to existence!—to perceive through all of nature’s mysteries and reach final and total awareness of the complete laws of the physical universe, using only our reason and five senses.  That is as spurious of an intellectual assumption as any.  At least the Catholic assumption that human reason is sufficient to comprehend certain things about the universe (ascertain moral law, for instance) is grounded in the idea that the benevolent God who designed us wouldn’t make our minds and senses play tricks on us (which is itself a problematic assumption, because it claims that a benevolent God’s motives would somehow intersect with our own limited awareness of reality).   But without a spiritual purpose or design, what right has Einstein or Hawking to assume that we can comprehend even more than the smallest fraction of what’s really out there?  Sure, we may be able to construct a working theory which explains all of the things we see, but that may be no more of an accomplishment than that of a frog successfully mapping the bottom of the well in which he lives.

Some scientists hunting for a materialistic explanation for why we can observe everything in the universe—and the idea that we can observe everything is a totally faulty assumption in the first place, as I have been arguing—have posited the idea of a multi-verse, in which all-possible-universes exist, and we happen to live in the one were beings evolved who could perceive everything.  One hopefully sees that this theory only evolved to justify an assumption founded on nothing but humanity’s overconfidence in its own mental capacity.   If we were color-blind and had still made all the same observations about the physical working of the universe, we would still celebrate our scientific conquests with the same degree of confidence that we now possess, not realizing how much we are failing to perceive—and if anyone did show up talking about color, he or she would be locked up or forced to recant.   No doubt, if an ant could think discursively, it would probably believe that it comprehended the sum of all things, just as we do.  And yet there is no reason to believe that our theories and models of how the universe works are anything more than ad hoc attempts to carve a semblance of order out of the shambles.

Thus far, we have successfully pursued the most serious and all-encompassing form of skepticism straight to the bottom, suffering its direst conclusions without fear.  Ultimately, it either leads to a Hamlet-like indecision, constantly thinking and re-thinking over our inability to know, or to a kind of nihilism, in which we live carelessly, with only a shrug for explanation.  This is not the nihilism of serial-killers and sociopaths, but that of an intellectual who, because he or she “thinks too well,” can find faith “neither in God nor in himself nor herself.”  Thankfully, I was only trying to break everything down in order to try to build it back up—but I have only the prospect of a leap in the dark to offer any readers.  If they don’t feel any affinity for the means that I try to use to crawl up this tunnel of infinite doubt back into the light, I can only shrug my shoulders, helplessly.  I mean to talk about mysticism.

For the record, David Hume would not at all follow me into mystical territory.  His own smart and shallow view was that we should simply follow the customs—whether physical, social, or moral—regnant in our time and place, and let our passions, within moderation, dictate our conduct.  These are the conclusions of someone who you could call a brilliant Philistine—someone with as much intellect as you could imagine, but no imagination or aspiration of any sort.  This would be the only conclusion if reason and the five senses were—as many think they are—all we have.  But I prefer G.K. Chesterton—a personal favorite—who called mysticism “a transcendent form of common sense,” and went on to say: “Mysticism and common sense alike consist in a sense of the dominance of certain truths and tendencies which cannot be formally demonstrated or even formally named. Mysticism and common sense are alike appeals to realities that we all know to be real, but which have no place in argument except as postulates.”

George Harrison (he, of the Beatles) said that when he travelled to India for the first time, he would get into discussions about spirituality with certain intellectuals he encountered there.  When they asked him the question, “Do you believe in God?” Harrison would say, “Yes,” to which they replied, “How can you believe in God until you see God?”  This was one of the factors that kindled Harrison’s interest in meditation, and his life-long involvement with Hinduism—the realization that belief in God did not need to be a matter of blind-faith, requiring one to check one’s common sense in at threshold of any old creed.  The response offered by Harrison’s interlocutors is the same as the more blunt assessment offered by Swami Vivekananda: “You see Christ, then you’re a Christian.  All else is just talk.”  Mysticism overthrows skepticism by helping us to get beyond the limitations of the faculties which skepticism discerns—it allows that perception of Christ or God or Brahman or Whom or What you will.

The diverse forms of mysticism all aim to allow one into a direct apprehension of Deity.  We escape the limitations of our five senses and our reason simply by moving beyond them and learning to use other modes of perception of which we are normally unconscious.  Our will and desire can expand our reach beyond our current grasp.  Refuse to believe this if you will—it’s not a matter of belief, anyway, but of verification through practice and experiment.  My encounters with several remarkable persons and continued study of the topic have demonstrated to me that there are human beings—maybe even more commonly to be found than we suppose—who have so cultivated their will and desire that they can actually expand their awareness of reality beyond the crude circle pressed down by the cookie-cutter circumference of the five senses.  William Blake spoke of expanding the senses from their currently limited angle of vision into an unlimited awareness—to perception of the infinite—using (in his case) the reading and writing of visionary poetry as a spiritual discipline.

My own determination is that this is no idle fantasy.  Plenty of Hindu yogis and Buddhists monks throughout the ages seem to have attained such a wider perception to some degree, and a chosen number seem to have attained to the infinite perception—union with Brahman or the Godhead—of which Blake spoke.  The great Christian mystics, Sufis, and Kabbalists seem to have also had many powerful experiences and produced many great saints, though I venture to say that the world outside of India and the Far East does not seem to have bothered to cultivate this pursuit to the same degree or give it the room it needs to grow and flourish or to acknowledge that it alone can give us the knowledge that we really need to orient ourselves in the universe.  So far as a religion encourages the aspiration toward such knowledge, it seems to me a good thing—as the Eastern Orthodox Church did when it affirmed the practice of the “hesychasm” (mystical prayer) over critics who attacked it as heretical.  Insofar as a religion stifles or ignores it, it must be a hindrance—as the Catholic Church was when it persecuted the great mystic, Meister Eckhart, or as the Lutheran Church was when it persecuted the cobbler-saint, Jacob Boehme (perhaps the greatest spiritual genius Europe has produced.)

Mysticism, properly understood, should not be considered a subset of occultism and New Age eccentricities, but rather the only practice—whether pursued through Raja Yoga or the Eastern Orthodox “Jesus prayer” or whatever other sincere and authentic forms of mystical practice still exist in the world—that can liberate us from our current prison of skepticism, which highlights the inadequacy of our own sensory apparatus, and demonstrates that our situation is precisely that of the prisoners stuck in Plato’s cave.  Our average religions and scientific models all too often prove to be only theories of shadows—analyzing the patterns of motion they cast along the cavern walls—and the little light they manage to shine seems artificial.  But the writings of the mystics and the poetic visionaries suggest the existence of something else, a world which we may, in the fullness of time, experience—the world of real forms, illuminated by real light, shining down from a real sun.  We will enter this world, as Emerson wrote, “without more wonder than the blind man feels who is gradually restored to perfect sight.”

It is this hope that gives me the strength I need—not only to write, but to live.