I consider myself a skeptic—that is, someone who examines and questions his beliefs and perceptions. And yet I’ve never felt quite comfortable in the community of Skeptics (big S).
Upon reading an article by (and about) Skeptics, I think I’ve figured out why. I’ll spoil this whole blog post by giving the answer now:
Skeptics are only skeptical of the sources they’re inclined not to trust anyway.
This is not true skepticism. In fact, it’s almost the exact opposite.
The thing Skeptics ignore is that there has to be more than one way for humans to ascertain truth about the world. The Skeptic relies exclusively on Intellect/Reason. What can be seen, measured, proved, and repeated.
This is a comfortable place to be, admittedly, because we live in a culture that reveres (perhaps even idolizes) science.
“I don’t care how many decimal places you average the check down to. Did you see how many drinks Hitchens had?”
But there must be at least two other avenues by which humans perceive the world. For the sake of simplification, let’s call them Heart/Emotion and Spirit/Revelation.
(And with that, all my Skeptic friends have already checked out. For the rest of you, hang in there.)
These three methods of understanding the world are like three techniques of getting directions to a place: satellite navigation, a paper map, and asking a bystander.
Intellect/Reason is like using satnav to get somewhere. It’s precise, bloodless, and (ostensibly) utterly objective. I myself prefer satnav. I’m happy to let my phone tell me when and where to turn. I trust the science behind it. I respect and understand, if vaguely, the reliability of satellite triangulation married to the most perfectly scanned and catalogued maps of planet earth that have ever existed in human history.
But then there’s Heart/Emotion, which is more like the paper map in the glove compartment: trustworthy in and of itself, but always subject to the interpretation of the reader. My wife prefers a paper map, something she can unfold in her hands and translate with her own brain, wedding what’s on the page to her own skills and experiences.
And finally there is Spirit/Revelation, which is most akin to stopping alongside the road and asking a stranger for directions. With this method, one is no longer relying on their own personal skill, experience, or rationality but is trusting instead on an outside source of knowledge.
“Turn right at youthful idealism, hang a louie at unresolved guilt, and just follow the signs for middle-age resentment. Easy peasy!”
Now I’ll be honest: it’s very easy to see why Skeptics ignore (and even belittle) the second two methods of understanding the world, placing all of their emphasis firmly on Intellect/Reason.
Heart/Emotion, just like a paper map, is entirely subject to the skills of the individual parsing the data. The person reading the map/feeling the emotion may be accurately responding to the input while simultaneously completely misinterpreting it. Some of the worst fights my wife and I have ever experienced have revolved around misread directions, both of the cartographic and emotional variety.
Spirit/Revelation is even easier to dismiss. This is why most men are stereotypically loath to ask directions. It’s perceived as surrender, a sign of weakness, even a defeat. Trusting an external source of revelation is not only seen as unreliable, but as an offensive abdication of one’s own competence.
Thus, I can’t exactly blame the Skeptic for ignoring everything except for Intellect/Reason. In the same way that I would be happy to never open another paper map or ask directions ever again. I love my satnav. I trust it.
And yet, embarrassingly enough, satellite navigation has failed me on more than a few occasions. It’s directed me to the center of an industrial park loading dock instead of the pizza place I was looking for. It’s missed destinations by many blocks, all while insisting I was exactly where I was supposed to be. It has sometimes tried to take me to entirely different cities. It will insist a destination doesn’t exist at all if I input the name in a way even slightly different than it understands.
In short, satnav is imperfect. Cell reception can be sketchy, the data can be input incorrectly, satellite map information can be confusing, even to a computer. (Consider, for a moment, the invisible island that Google maps insists is there.)
“Go home, Google. You’re drunk.”
Similarly, let’s be honest: Intellect/Reason can lead us astray as well, or bypass some truths altogether.
For example, back in Copernicus’ day when the debate was about the center of the universe, some scientists argued that everything revolved around the earth using very reasonable, scientific logic: parallax. They knew that if the earth was moving around the sun, the spaces between the stars would shift throughout the year as the earth changed position relative to them. Since this was not observable, science dictated that the earth was stationary.
Of course, just like with my satnav, it wasn’t the science itself that was wrong, but the tools of implementing it. The scientists of Copernicus’ day didn’t have sensitive enough equipment to measure the parallax of the stars.
The tools of Intellect/Reason are necessarily limited. There are some things they simply cannot measure or understand. Science may be able to show why hunger chemically affects the chemical balance of a human brain, but it’s no good at helping me discern if my wife is truly mad about the lawn needing mowed or if she’s just hangry.
That’s where Heart/Emotion come in.
Heart/Emotion, like reading a map, can be unreliable. But that’s only if my interpretation is clumsy. The emotion, just like the map itself, is accurate in and of itself. It’s my duty to learn how to interpret the data in a reliable and meaningful way.
And there are essential things I can learn via that study that no amount of “in a quarter mile, turn right” satnav will ever teach me. Emotional data, like a map, can illustrate the subtle topography of human interaction and the psychological distances between ideologies (and how they might loop back on one another). Emotional truth helps me understand and relate to my wife and kids and friends. It provides the mechanism of empathy, compassion, romance, and persuasion.
But what of Spirit/Revelation?
This method of learning about the world and existence is much maligned (and understandably so) because it isn’t as simple as asking a bystander how to find an address. We all know how to choose a reliable source for directions. We ask the wizened gas station jockey, not the wino on the corner or the toddler in the playground.
Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple when it comes to revelation about life and existence. Sources for revelatory knowledge can seem nebulous, numerous, and even mythical. But this may be because we are no longer trained in the art of divining (pun intended) the spiritual equivalent of the gas station expert from the homeless meth addict.
Like learning to reliably interpret emotions, learning how to test and translate knowledge obtained via Spirit/Revelation is largely a lost art, either because we think it’s silly (the Skeptic) or because we trust anything and everything (the Mystic).
But the fact that this method is the least understood and/or the most clumsily engaged is not a legitimate reason to ignore it.
Imagine if we applied the same logic to an electron microscope or a DSM manual.
The thing Skeptics love about Intellect/Reason is that knowledge gained via this manner is shareable. It can be documented and repeated.
Knowledge gained via Heart/Emotion and Spirit/Revelation is much harder to share. But this cannot mean it is less valuable or useful.
That would be like saying love is a myth because I can’t make you love what I do.
(What I love.)
So, circling back to my first paragraph: the problem with Skeptics is that they are people inclined toward one method of knowledge happily applying skepticism to the *other* methods of knowledge.
And to be fair, this is the same problem with Mystics. And Romantics.
We are all inclined to prefer one way of learning about the world over another. And we are all wired to wholly exercise that method and let the others languish.
But what if truth can only be really approached when we find a way to balance all three methods? When we find that sweet spot between Intellect, Heart, and Spirit?
What if real skepticism means using all three methods of knowledge to hone and test the others?
Let’s take it a step further: what if Intellect, Heart, and Spirit are a little like Rock, Paper, and Scissors? Each with their own individual strength and weakness, but undefeatable as a trio? What if our ability to approach truth is only really honed when we are capable of engaging any of those three options, each tempered and bolstered by the other?
This is possibly where modern society falls down the hardest—the thing that future cultures will most laugh at and lament about us. From Neil Degrasse Tyson to Bill Nye, to “I Fucking Love Science”, we’re so in love with the smug superiority of Intellect that we’ve become abject puny weaklings when it comes to Heart and Spirit.
We’ve removed all but one tool from our toolbox of knowledge.
We throw the same hand every time we play Rock, Paper, Scissors.
And no matter how superior we may feel about it, we’re the worse for it.
So to end this on an upshot, let’s practice with another tool. Next time you want to throw Rock, try Paper. Next time you want to dismiss a belief because it hearkens to a source of knowledge you dismiss, consider it anyway. Next time you agree with something because it corresponds to your preferred tool for understanding the world, be skeptical. Test it against another way of divining truth.
I dare you.
Challenge yourself. Practice the far more difficult skills of interpreting your Heart and Spirit. Get uncomfortable with some new ideas. Instead of poking at other people’s stupid beliefs, try to find the stupidity in your own.
Because no matter what, it’s there.
Oh man, is it ever.
Just like with mine.
At the intersection of heart, mind, and spirit, maybe just once…
try ignoring your satnav.