Here's a question: if we had a choice between knowing the absolute 100% truth about existence, or remaining with our current beliefs, what would we do? I posed this question during a talk I gave in Seattle last year, and I remember being met with a lot of quizzical faces (which isn't unusual for me when I speak, but I don't necessarily consider this to be a bad thing; if an audience is looking quizzical, at least they aren't asleep).
It's a good question, though. Most of us believe in God, somehow or other. And most of us believe in life after death, in some form or another. Each of these beliefs is comforting. But what if both are wrong? What if the cosmos lacks any sort of divinity behind it, and humans are just a bunch of material molecules hooked up in an intriguing fashion that gives us life for 70-80 years, or whatever, and then we die, and that's it. One life that is purely physical. There's no God who cares about us, and there's no meaning to all this living except what we each decide to ascribe to it.
Now, I don't really believe this is true--that life is meaningless, Godless, and a one-time deal. However, it could be, and that's a scary thought. So, I'm not sure what I would do if I was given the choice of knowing with complete certainty what the cosmos is all about, or remaining with my comfortable beliefs, which, even though I have doubts about them, still give me something to hang onto when the darkness starts to close in.
The concluding chapter of my book about Plotinus addresses this theme, particularly at the very end. In the course of writing "Return to the One," I had to think a lot about faith, and what it means to make a leap of faith. The chapter is called "Stuck at Lake Partway," and that sure describes my spiritual progress.
Along these lines, I'm looking forward to reading John Horgan's new book, "Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border Between Science and Spirituality." He wrote an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education that addresses some of the themes in this book, including the limits of both faith and skepticism. Horgan says that at first he looked at Zen Buddhism as an efficient garbage-removal system that clears out all those beliefs and assumptions that prevent us from seeing reality as it is. But then, pondering how a box of garbage bags become garbage itself after the last box is used, Horgan realized that "every garbage-removal system generates garbage."
Truth and untruth. Faith and skepticism. Reality and unreality. There has got to be something more than these warring pairs of opposites. That must be what we're looking for. What is neither garbage, nor the garbage of not-garbage. The first one to find it, let everyone else know.