Friday, April 8, 2011

A primer on reason

(This entry was posted on the old blog on Sunday, January 2nd, 2011 at 9:41 am)

This ought not be a blog post. This ought to be a book outline. Perhaps someday I’ll find the initiative to write such a book, but for the moment, here’s a quick and dirty, almost flow chart like, look at reason as appropriately applied in mysticism.

Step zero in reasoning is humility. One must be brave enough to know what one does not know, and ready to submit oneself to the truth one may find at the end of one’s quest, whether or not the answer one found was expected or desired. If this sounds, well, mystical. it’s because all truth seeking converges at the same point, even rationalism.

Step one is to look at the question and make your best guess at the answer.  What is it that you think might be true?

What if you haven’t a clue what might be going on? Most likely you either lack sufficient good information for a guess, or you are being indecisive (sometimes as a result of an overwhelming amount of information). Try seeking out more information,. Or carefully outline what you do know on paper. Or get the opinion of others. Then just make yourself make a best guess.

Step two: ask yourself how can you test your idea(s) to be sure of their validity?  Can you set up some sort of experiment – say, by making coffee three different ways, then tasting all three to find out which one really tastes better? (scientific method).  Or can you look over published raw data – say, census bureau data, to confirm whether there really are an unusual number of single Polish biochemists living on your block (the scientific method as applied by observational astronomy and many social sciences). Maybe you can go back and read Aunt Millie’s letters to see what she was really saying about your father when your father and mother first met (the historical method). Or perhaps your idea is untestable – say, a thought that God loves people more when they wear Red Sox t-shirts (in which case you may need to evaluate the idea spiritually- see below).

Really important question: Is it worth your while to test your idea? Maybe you’re a tea drinker who doesn’t really care which method makes the best coffee, at least not enough to go out and buy or borrow three coffeepots. It’s okay, then, to simply keep your opinion that coffee is best made in a French press as an unvalidated personal opinion (but remember always that you don’t really know this to be a fact).

Or maybe your idea is testable but you don’t have the means to test it — perhaps, it turns out, census data is not fine-grained enough to determine if your block is chock-full of single Polish biochemists, and while in theory a survey could answer your question, you don’t have the time, skill set, or finances for such a survey. Then you can infer a likely result from census data for your neighborhood or city, decide to keep your opinion as an entirely unvalidated one, or defer to the opinion of experts who have performed the kind of research you  cannot, depending upon the importance of the question and the resources available. Maybe the question about chemists is a little important to you and there are no experts on the question, in which case you choose to infer an answer from the number of singles and of Poles in your neighborhood coupled with that you live across the street from a biochemistry research institute. Your opinion then has some evidence behind it, but remains untested.

Or maybe your question is very serious and while you haven’t the means to test it, there are experts — say, instead of pondering Poles, you’re trying to decide what treatment approach is best for your newly diagnosed cancer. Then absolutely look at what the experts who have studied the question have to say.  If someone says they are an expert, but they have not studied the question, then their opinion is at best inferred from a little data, at worst, sheer quackery. I once saw a surgeon who represented himself as trained to perform a very delicate, highly specialized form of joint surgery, but his curriculum vitae made it clear that he had not, and no, the argument that he had been trained at the Cleveland Clinic (where such surgeries are sometimes performed– but not, apparently, by him) was not sufficient to make him a genuine specialist. People don’t acquire expertise by eating in the same lunchroom as experts, though sometimes they try to acquire it by experimenting on a lot of unwitting patients till they get it right.

Step three: If you should test: test. If you will rely on others results: examine how they got their results. Did they test? How many others have gotten similar results? Is their opinion consistent with what you do know?

If the question appears to be a spiritual one: First, is it actually a testable (i.e., scientific) one? If someone claims to be channeling advanced aliens from Betelgeuse, it is possible to determine that Betelgeuse is a short-lived unstable supergiant that almost certainly never had sufficient time to evolve any life, let alone advanced life (when dinosaurs looked up at the sky, Betelgeuse hadn’t yet formed, and any day now Betelgeuse may go out of existence with a spectacular fireworks display, as it has begun it’s final stellar collapse). If the channeler quickly adjusts his or her story to fit the facts (“Oh, not that Betelgeuse, but the other star The Space Ancients call Betelgeuse”), you are right to suspect fraud or self-deception on the part of the channeler (it’s implausible that The Space Ancients would speak a derivative of medieval Arabic).

Important fact: it isn’t necessary that someone be asking payment for their wisdom for fraud to be a possibility. Maybe they’re quietly collecting “donations”, or secretly sleeping with cute female followers. Maybe they are in it for the ego boost. Or maybe they’re black magicians trolling for potential victims. Certain things, like purporting to sell divine wisdom, are inherently suspect, but evaluate the claims, not appearances. A good con artist knows how to fake appearances.
Of course, if you know someone is acting unethically, get away from them as fast as possible. They are almost certainly not dispensing anything like wisdom, and whatever wisdom they may by happenstance share is not worth your becoming their victim. The same applies when a spiritual group often  acts badly.

If it is a truly untestable spiritual question: What is the broad opinion of spiritual thought throughout the ages concerning the matter? Note there is not anything like universal agreement on the particulars, but certain principles and patterns have a way of appearing over and over again in spiritual thinking.Are your ideas consistent with, or at odds with, those themes?

Though particular attire has been used over the centuries by the world’s spiritual traditions, the attire prescribed has generally been worn for reasons of modesty or simplicity, or to visually set the group apart from others.  Rarely do spiritual traditions say that God favors wearers of particular attire (i.e., simply donning a head scarf or prayer cap will not automatically please Allah. Only the state of my heart towards Him will do that, though if my inmost desires are towards Him and He commands modesty, presumably if at all possible I will cover my head). Do Red Sox t-shirts fit the pattern of religious and spiritual attire?

If what you think is true is also  consistent with spiritual thinking throughout over the ages, it is more likely to be sound. If it is not consistent with the  repeating themes of human spirituality, or don’t seem to appear among them, then honest self-examination is called for.  Is it plausible that God hates New Yorkers who do not renounce their own baseball teams, or at minimum agree to wear the T-shirt of their rivals? Does God really care about baseball, or is God more concerned that His creation come to know him  and be filled by his truth and love? Is your idea an insight, or is it wishful thinking, or is it the result of outside influences you’d rather not be influenced by? Maybe you own a bar not far from Fenway, and you make a lot of money on game days, and that has influenced your thinking.

The final word on a spiritual thought is direct mystical knowledge. But be aware that most “mystical experiences” are nothing of the sort. The more mystically inclined one becomes the more aware one becomes of, for lack of a better description, “spiritual static”.  Some “static” is clutter and distraction, and some is outright hostile and deceptive (many religions call that stuff “demons”; I prefer to give the nasties the more diminutive moniker of “fleas”).

If one has not known true mystical insight it can be hard to discern signal from static. The best description I can muster is that a true mystical experience has the quality of imparting actual understanding and insight, rather than mere ideas and information. A mystical insight, for example, won’t tell you to find a job by blindly going to the corner of Main and Vine at precisely 2:30 on Thursday. Mystical insight instead opens ones eyes to how things really are, so that one sees more clearly. After a true mystical insight, one is a changed person. One may see that the patterns of things would lead one to find employment if at that street corner at that time, but if so then one would truly understand why it would be so.

If one “sees” something, tests it, and it does not turn out to be true, then your “mystical insight” had become testable, and it has failed. You have a genuine emergency on your hands. You’ve got a heaping helping of delusion to free yourself from. If at all possible find someone you trust to help you through the crisis. You need to determine whether it was wishful thinking and you are a poor judge of genuine mystical experiences (and fix that, pronto), or if you are awash in static or fleas (also something that needs to be fixed asap). It may be necessary to drop freelance mysticism for a more formal path at this time. Take this seriously– understand that this is the very  scenario where would-be mystics sometimes go insane.

Note there are psychic experiences that resemble the blind take-it-or-leave-it of the job search example, which, if carried through, do work (i.e., one would find a job in that manner). I don’t like psychic experiences, because not only is it difficult to discern “good” psychic experiences from flea-laden suggestions intended to cause harm, they offer no experience of Truth.  I would advise others to stay away from the merely psychic, though obviously ymmv.

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