The Scarlet Letter
Volume V, Number 1 | March 1998
The Included Middle
By Tim Maroney
On a recent web-surfing expedition I discovered a web site dedicated to “progressive Thelema,” and its introduction praised the virtue of skepticism. This interested me because doubt is one of my paradigmatic emotions—a restless inquisitiveness that upon hearing a comforting explanation, immediately asks "what if just the opposite were true?" Reading on, I was disappointed to find that the first essay on the page took astrology for its starting point. It spun out corollary upon corollary from this unquestioned assumption, as if the influence of planetary positions on earthly life were an established fact.
What does it mean to be a skeptic? Classical skeptics such as Pyrrho, Timon and Sextus Empiricus were no kin to the current crop of debunkers. In the pages of the magazine "Skeptical Inquirer" one finds a philosophy of naive materialism and literal truth, but classical skepticism doubted even the existence of matter, and more, doubted that there was any reliable way to draw a distinction between truth and falsehood. A skeptic is one who doubts. The self-described "skeptic" of today is an ideological soldier for scientism, focusing doubt only against rival systems of thought and treating the preferred ideology with deference. A closer modern analogy to the skeptics of old can be found in the philosophies of existentialism and postmodernism, which recognize the individual's role in creating meaning, and treat value judgments as psychological processes.
Doubt is an emotion which all of us possess in greater or lesser degree, and which we apply to various subjects at various times. It is not necessary that everyone be a skeptic, only that people who describe themselves as skeptics earn the title. But to claim one is a skeptic while persistently turning a blind eye to the problems in one's pet theories is to fall short of the mark. This is just as true of those who propound specious refutations of astrology as it is of those who take the horoscope theory as a given.
The transformative power of doubt is such that even when turned to merely ideological ends it may lead to breakthroughs. One-sided debunkers such as Randi have done us a service when they have exposed real charlatans, and they deserve to be proud of that. Of all the strange theories in magic, one might doubt only the Renaissance metaphysical idea that the basis of reality can be found in Hebrew letters; perhaps like Guido von List one might be motivated by an anti-Semitic ideology in this doubt. Even so, such a great wealth of excellent thoughts might arise from this ideologically-motivated re-examination of the foundations of metaphysics that the honorific "skeptical" would seem richly deserved. Even partial skepticism is compelling and useful.
Neo-materialists are more likely than mystics to call themselves skeptics. In the popular mind skepticism is associated with rationality and science, and opposed to visions, dreams, fancies, and the imagination. Classical skeptics were anti-rationalists, though—they doubted the accuracy of intellectual methods and turned reason to an exploration of its own limits, much as Godel's Theorem in the 20th century has shown through the most stringent argument that the most stringent argument always leaves something out. The modern skeptical movement has failed to come to terms with the fact that mathematics, the basis of science, has deconstructed itself, that "reason is a lie; for there is a factor infinite & unknown; & all their words are skew-wise."
It is a mistake to think that skeptics must be opposed to the non-rational psychological phenomena of mysticism. What does it mean to be this peculiar thing, the skeptical mystic—that is, a true skeptic who is also very concerned with experiencing and understanding what we are accustomed to calling the "spiritual"? For me the answer lies in a psychological paradigm called phenomenology. It is a subtle thing, and for years I could not grasp the notion, but now it has become fundamental in my approach. It revolves around acceptance of psychological reality as true on its own plane, without concern for its external truth. Rather than looking at materials of myth and trance from the judgmental perspective that classes them into truths and delusions, one simply observes them and tries to describe them. This is a basic principle guiding the ethnographic field observation methodology of anthropologists, a perspective that is both detached and engaged—the self-referentially aware perspective of the participant-observer.
So for instance let us say one has a vision. I find modern science produces many remarkable visions for me, whether I am soaring above the galaxies or delving beneath the nuclei of atoms. One of these visions has been that all reality lies on a self-similar fractal substrate of Planck-scale quantum foam, in which the progression of time occurs by the replication of intervals through an inductive process that is parallel to the division of living cells. I do not know whether this strange idea born during a psychedelic meditation is true as a physical theory, any more than I know whether the Scorpionic elements of my character are due to the sign the Sun occupied when I was born (or would have occupied on the same date a few thousand years ago). Personally I would like the space-time theory to be true, and I would like the horoscopic theory to be false, but in some ways these judgmental desires are irrelevant. The ideas exist as ideas; they influence me; they often move me deeply. Although they are fiction they are no less important to me.
The conception of space-time as a biological process has provided a poetic framework that often emerges into my perceptions at unexpected moments and helps me to contextualize such phenomena as the apparent transformations of space and time that happen in ritual and meditation. If my skepticism were overdeveloped and lacked phenomenological detachment I would probably never have allowed this unproven and presumably false idea to form fully in my mind. Similarly I find that contemplation of the Scorpionic alchemical formula of redemption through putrefaction leads to what feels like a deep engagement of the work of the decadent poets and the reclamation of Satanic and other demonized symbols. I feel I have a special connection to this formula through my Sun sign. As a student of psychology I realize that the horoscopic theory is almost certainly false, but that is an intellectual knowledge rather than a feeling. My feeling is irrational but I have it.
I do study the science of psychology and in the course of this I come to some more or less definite ideas about what is true or false. Although I recognize that scientific truth exists only within a framework of assumptions which itself is unreliable, I often find it useful to think as if scientific methods were valid. I do not believe, for instance, that phrenology, palmistry or astrology deal with actual determinants of personality. However, I accept that people can come to self-knowledge through these methods, that experiences of insight are real on the level of psychological processes. While from my perspective this is meant as a compliment, mystics that I talk to sometimes misunderstand it as an insult. They think I am saying “it's all in your mind.” Society insults the imagination—if it's in your mind, there must be something wrong with it. My perspective is just the opposite. Since I believe that nothing external is sacred in itself but that a thing only acquires sacredness through the human attachment of sacral attributes to perceptions, then it is a small step to a view of the mind-stuff as the seat of sacredness, and so as sacred in itself. As a phenomenologist I do not require external validation, such as proof that flowers really are beautiful or that sex really does reflect the cosmic process. I simply note the reality of the psychological process by which things seem to be so.
In future columns I hope to discuss such issues as directing skepticism at materialism, at metaphysics, and even back at skepticism; scientific arguments about astrology; the irrational bases of rationality; the origins of the modern "skeptical" movement; the use of science as a modern mythology; theories of the nature of the mind; belief requirements in movements that claim to have no dogmas; and how and why to remain skeptical in the face of overwhelming personal evidence of the paranormal. I hope to see you there—even if perhaps you are only a figment of my imagination!