A New (old) Skepticism
Pyrrho, often referred to as the first Skeptic philosopher.
Skeptics have often been accused of being cynical, negative, etc. They will (quite appropriately) correct us that skepticism is not the same as cynicism – always about denying or a denial that we can reasonably know anything. While skeptics might reject certain claims on the basis of lacking or contradictory evidence, skepticism also includes the acceptance of claims on that same basis. Skepticism can be a good thing because it is the opposite of gullibility and fuzzy thinking.
So, that’s skepticism as the skeptics know it. But this article is titled ‘A New Skepticism’ because I’m about to discuss how Spiritual Naturalists do skepticism…
In the above there is some overlap with many of the ancient philosophies that might inspire various forms of spiritual naturalism. The Buddhist Kalama Sutra instructs us not to accept claims merely on the basis of authority, faith, tradition, or even our own musings – but rather because we have experimented and observed from that experience that it is true. In the West, the ancient Greek philosophers were creatures of reason. Although the modern scientific method would not be forged for several centuries to come, the elements of it comprised the way these thinkers approached knowledge. Through observation and reason they made their way – not by faith. Therefore, we spiritual naturalists have good cause to embrace a healthy skepticism.
But, unfortunately, some criticism of those who call themselves skeptics, and of skeptic communities, may be more difficult to shake. For those who are merely skeptics, or those who appear so due to their focus on this one value, an impression of being negative, inconsiderate, disrespectful, snobbish, or even brutish may arise. While the skeptic may be a perfectly fine person, this impression arises in the same way it might arise if we were to take any one value and emphasize it at the expense of other values which are meant to exist in balance. Further, much of this depends on the style in which skepticism is often promoted, and the motivation for doing so.
So, what is the spiritual naturalist approach to skepticism, and how does it differ from mere skepticism?
Naturalism is about more than just love of nature. It includes a reverent recognition of all things as a part of nature. And, it includes an approach to knowledge that cultivates the naturalist view. But, rather than talking about empiricism as some kind of key to perfect knowledge or as a superior possession to that of anyone else, the Spiritual Naturalist approach is different. Our aim is to envision and discuss this approach in terms of one of the many virtuous character traits we aim to cultivate in ourselves – namely, to see it through the lens of humility.
This is why I prefer to speak of “a humble approach to knowledge and claims”. I don’t talk about your beliefs – I don’t know your experience. Rather, what I can say is that when I make a claim my personal practice is to limit what I take to be true to that for which I can provide or reference some kind of external evidence. Importantly, this also includes refraining from claiming the opposite – that x is false – without sufficient evidence. This path is one of recognizing and emphasizing my own limitations of experience and my own limitations in ability to know all things (certainly including the greater secrets of existence).
Thus, rather than using this approach as a weapon to scrutinize or dissect the beliefs of others, I say to myself that this is a practice I have chosen to undertake and look more often to the mirror, asking myself if I am living it well. Often, I have found it helpful to refer to this discipline by an ancient term, Epoché (eh-POK-ay), to help maintain an attitude about it as being a sacred practice. In our member’s section, we have an article that discusses Epoché in more detail.
More generally, another big difference is that Spiritual Naturalists are concerned about many values beyond just epistemology. Here we try to show, by living example, that practice. Let us live in ways more centered on increasing compassion, mindfulness, kindness, helping others, forgiveness, mercy, self-discipline, and encouraging it more in the world. Let us proceed with a confidence that, when not being insulted or threatened, free human minds will tend toward reason in their own time and way.
When the impulse arises to criticize others’ beliefs, let us turn that energy toward projecting love and understanding – and that includes refraining even from the passive aggressive kind of comparative phrasing. When a person leaves an encounter with a Spiritual Naturalist, the difference should be obvious and perhaps even striking. This is the noblest goal of a rational being that recognizes that the value of even reason itself rests on the primacy of compassion. And, it is this – not tedious argumentation – that will peak the interest of others to want to know what this rational spirituality is all about.
But this cannot merely be some PR (public relations) tactic. Remember that the focus of Spiritual Naturalist practice is greater happiness and flourishing, and only personal transformation can accomplish this. This is why our true inner motivation and mindset should be one of concern for others. That this approach also spreads both compassion and reason in the world (often more effectively) is a wonderful bonus.
Sometimes, of course, sharing information may be integral to compassion, especially if we think it can help others. But here we must check that this is the true motivation, and not egotism. When it comes to sharing beliefs with others, we remind ourselves that Truth is sacred to the rational being and a powerful thing (that is, importantly, assuming that what we possess is Truth). If so, then we also recognize: that which is sacred and powerful should not be thrown about carelessly or dispensed without consideration. Truth best flows where the landscape naturally cradles its rivers. One does not take the waters of truth and flood crops and villages, so to speak. Here, we combine rationality with the wise practice the Taoists refer to as Wu Wei.
We also realize that Truth, devoid of compassion, can be abusive and vicious. This is why we don’t try to plant seeds in infertile soil. Instead, patience, reservation, love for those with whom we converse, and humility in our assumptions about our own knowledge are the hallmarks of a practicing Spiritual Naturalist.
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