When I was in college forty-six years ago, back in the ancient year of 1970, I was attracted to a Eastern form of mysticism that went by various names, including Science of the Soul.
I really liked the idea of being able to do a spiritual "experiment."
Become a vegetarian. Live a moral life. Meditate for several hours a day as instructed by the guru. Observe what happens in meditation. Explore the hypothesis that there are higher non-physical domains of reality. Attempt to enter these via an altered form of consciousness.
For about thirty-five years I diligently conducted that experiment.
When I considered what I'd learned from all that meditating, all that following the teachings of the guru, all that volunteer service I'd put in on behalf of the spiritual organization, I came to a conclusion:
I no longer believed what I'd been told was true. I'd lost faith in the guru and his teachings. I didn't think that reality extended into supernatural realms, there was life after death, or that God existed.
To me, then as now, I viewed my change of heart and mind as completely consistent with my commitment to investigate a Science of the Soul. After all, scientists alter their views as new and better evidence becomes available. Science isn't a fixed set of facts, but a dynamic process of seeking what appears to be the most likely truths about the cosmos.
Below are some quotes from physicist Sean Carroll's marvelous book, "The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself." In his Accepting Uncertainty chapter, Carroll talks about the scientific method in a fashion that resonates with me.
In between the quotations, I've commented on them. First, Carroll speaks about absolute faith. This was something that many of my fellow disciples had. At least, they claimed they had 100% confidence that the Guru was God in human form and his teachings were true.
Me, I was never that sure.
For a long time I felt that the chances were high that it was indeed possible to leave this physical universe behind and enter higher regions of supernatural reality. But I had my doubts about this, even though I did my best to suppress them behind a covering of belief.
That lingering skepticism probably protected me from being sucked into a black hole of belief, for which I'm grateful. Carroll writes:
The word "faith" is highly charged, and this isn't the place to argue over how it should be defined. Let us merely note that sometimes faith is taken as something that is absolutely certain. Consider these statements from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: [I've just included one of them]
...Faith is certain. It is more certain than all human knowledge because it is founded on the very word of God who cannot lie.
It is this kind of stance -- that there is a kind of knowledge that is certain, which we should receive with docility, to which we should submit -- that I'm arguing against. There are no such kinds of knowledge. We can always be mistaken, and one of the most important features of a successful strategy for understanding the world is that it will constantly be testing its presuppositions, admitting the possibility of error, and trying to do better.
We all want to live on a stable planet of belief, but we want to avoid being sucked into a black hole of belief, where our convictions are so strong that we can never escape, no matter what kind of new insight or information we obtain.
In the next passage, Carroll speaks about a subject that has frequently come up on this blog since I started Church of the Churchless in 2004, disturbed at how the religious right had played a big role in getting George W. Bush re-elected as president. When I disparage blind faith, religious believers often respond with "But Brian, you have your own kind of faith -- faith in the ability of science to uncover the truth about reality."
Here's how Carroll deals with that spurious argument.
You will sometimes hear the claim that even science is based on a kind of "faith," for example, in the reliability of our experimental data or in the existence of unbreakable physical laws. That is wrong. As part of the practice of science, we certainly make assumptions -- our sense data is giving us roughly reliable information about the world, simple explanations are preferable to complex ones, we are not brains in vats, and so forth.
But we don't have "faith" in those assumptions; they are components of our planets of belief, but they are always subject to revision and improvement and even, if necessary, outright rejection. By its nature, science needs to be completely open to the actual operation of the world, and that means that we stand ready to discard any idea that is no longer useful, no matter how cherished and central it may once have seemed.
Then Carroll talks about an important subject, our inability to know anything for certain. It's all a matter of probabilities. That's how my spiritual beliefs (and then the lack thereof) altered over the years: gradually, as I experienced increasing evidence that pointed to naturalism, rather than supernaturalism, being most likely to be true.
Am I completely convinced of this? No.
I'm very much open to the cosmos, or God, proving me wrong. If I come across convincing evidence for life after death, soul travel, and an immaterial divinity, I'd be overjoyed to say, Changed my mind again!
For now, though, I'm going with what seems much more likely to be true. This is my one and only life; there's no spiritual reality beyond the physical world; consciousness is produced by the brain and ends when the brain does. Carroll says:
Because we should have nonzero credences for ideas that might seem completely unlikely or even crazy, it becomes useful to distinguish between "knowing" and "knowing with absolute logical certainty." If our credence for some proposition is 0.0000000001, we're not absolutely certain it's wrong -- but it's okay to proceed as if we know it is.
...Consider going home tonight and cooking some pasta for dinner. But before you open the lid on that jar of marinara sauce, ask yourself: What if a freak mutation inside the jar has created a deadly pathogen that will be released if and only if you open the lid, spreading through the world and killing all forms of life. Clearly that would be bad; just as clearly, it seems very unlikely. But you can't prove that it won't happen. There's a chance, even if it's very small.
I'm not bothered by the loss of my once-cherished beliefs in God, an afterlife, and zipping around heavenly regions in my astral, causal, and soul-selves. I started out my spiritual quest by wanting to know the truth about the cosmos. I'm still committed to that quest.
It just has led me to change my beliefs to be in accord with how reality most likely is. I'll keep searching for More Reality, as we all do. Like Carroll says, certainty never happens.
The resolution is to admit that some credences are so small that they're not worth taking seriously. It makes sense to act as if we know those possibilities to be false.
So we take "I believe x" not to mean "I can prove x is the case," but rather "I feel it would be counterproductive to spend any substantial amount of time and effort doubting x." We can accumulate so much evidence in favor of a theory that maintaining skepticism about it goes from being "prudent caution" to being "crackpottery." We should always be open to changing our beliefs in the face of new evidence, but the evidence required might need to be so overwhelmingly strong that it's not worth the effort to seek it out.
We are left with, not absolute proof of anything, but a high degree of confidence in some things, and greater uncertainty in others. That's both the best we can hope for and what the world does as a matter of fact grant us. Life is short, and certainty never happens.