“Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.” Voltaire
“We have to allow ourselves to realize that we are complete fools; otherwise, we have nowhere to begin.” ChögyamTrungpa
You know too much, yet understand too little. And it’s the same for me, and everyone you and I happen to know. This is our modern epistemic crisis: we are bogged down with too much data and an excess of certainty about things we really know very little about. We borrow second, third hand opinions and waltz around with them as if they were our own: Flouting postures of certainty that we have no right to. Or we retreat into simplistic ideologies and let others do the meaning making for us. And it’s not just the refuse of human guff we are sorting through on social and mainstream media, from conspiracy theories to anti-vax ignorance, we are exposed to an excess of informational input through the internet today that our mammalian brains were simply not evolved to digest.
Think about that for a moment, our brains are literally not up to the task of managing the constant stimulation that accompanies online life today, and the complexity it constantly points to but never quite grasps. We are in a sense reacting to it all or shielding ourselves from it. We are also incapable of grasping the weight of the new rules that govern the immense waste pile of human ideas, spluttering and folly that is the internet. Collectively we have only partial answers to these rules at best. All the same, as practitioners, such rules are a sort of initial means for grappling with our own struggles and the collective difficulties that we are pulled into by living in this hyper-connected, hyperreal age. One is to practice epistemic humility and question what we superficially accept as given. Another is to reclaim an oft derided human state known as doubt. For the practitioner, doubt can be taken as a practice space to be cultivated, inhabited and, when necessary, invoked. For Buddhists, it can be harnessed as a practical antidote to the solid sense of self that forever lingers in the background of our consciousness when we are far too sure of ourselves and the ideas we sign up to.
To inhabit doubt is to inhabit a space of not knowing that is undefended by beliefs and opinions. In this space the unexpected becomes possible and the precious opportunity to be genuinely surprised by life can be found. This is perhaps no different from the old adage to be an empty cup, or the archetype of the fool, but all the old wise sayings in the world can’t do the work for us. They easily become knowing tropes or mere performance of ideals; something which has always been easier to do than grapple with the real thing. Ideally, you figure this stuff out for yourself and build a path through your own experience and not the borrowings of others. You may even allow yourself to be shaken by life, seduced by wonder, and the lesser known face of the triad, be stunned by just how ignorant each on of us is.
What follows are a series of posts that respond to this living human condition. In alignment with the practical nature of this season on the podcast and here, I will offer up practice ideas too. Some of you may find them useful. Eventually, these posts will also appear as audio-casts over at our new home on the New Books Network.
Feasting on morsels
Our species has a long, rich history of wrestling with its ignorance. Socially we have always struggled with the limits of knowledge and our political, religious and social entities are and have been testament to this with their partial truths, limited ideals, and solutions typically wrapped up in the veneer of universal fix. We swim in all that we do within a world of partial knowing and it can be sobering to realise this is also true of our institutions. These limits are often the unnamed defining characteristic of the live personal, political and ideological battles we see around us, and perhaps many of the fights would be unnecessary if all involved were a little more honest about their own epistemic poverty.
Over at the Great Feast (see podcast episode 57), our philosophical brethren have spent an immense amount of time contemplating doubt and wrestling with skepticism as they grapple with profound questions of knowledge. Whether their explorations have been focussed on the theoretical or the practical, they do great service to us and have carried much of the weight for our species since questioning of knowledge began in earnest. Their own struggles are mirrored in our forever contemporary attempts to make sense of ourselves, life and the world we are inseparable from and in an age in which increasing numbers of citizens have retreated into information bubbles, and slipped into occupying sides in polarised societies, engaging with the history of epistemology could be considered a form of social responsibility and perhaps even a societal duty. Amongst the potential cures for our hyperreal age’s ideologically captured extremes; this seems a pretty cost effective solution.
An early band of these explorers of knowledge were the Greek Skeptics and they go through cycles of popularity across generations and for good reason. The word skeptic relates to investigation. And as ancestors to our own struggles, they remind us of the importance of suspending the sort of judgement that is rooted in the pre-held beliefs, ideas and assumptions we tend to find an excess of comfort in. Exploring what might be outside of those forms of pre-made and expectant forms of understanding is a practice that is built on regular commitment. The Skeptics were not so concerned with doubt, that obsession came around later on. However, they took philosophy as a way of life and thus dedicated themselves to a whole life rooted in discovering the world beyond their pre-conceived notions, and intrinsic to this process is an inevitable intimacy with doubt. That’s a pretty impressive commitment to make. Especially as most of us simply jump from one set of conclusions to another, or fall into the trap of forever grasping at certainty.
An additional curiosity regarding the original Skeptics was that they sought a life lived without the need for beliefs. Some may find this an absurd proposition. But once you begin to investigate your own beliefs, they can be rather difficult to find. It can be tough to decide, in practice, where a belief differs from an opinion, or an assumption, or a mere flirtation with an idea. And a person may state their imagined beliefs with initial confidence, but once prodded at, those beliefs may reveal themselves to be temporary commitment to an idea that has not been thought about very much at all and therefore not really held to be true. Beliefs do exist, but they are dynamic, floating things at best. If unfed by regular affirmation and attention, they tend to fall into disuse, rather like Neil Gaiman’s gods. A phenomenological analysis of the experience of belief usually reveals a lot of abstract content in the body and mind of the holder. It might even be best to define most personally valuable beliefs as axiomatic principles that belong to a hierarchy in a person’s consciousness. In this sense they are less frozen entity and more working principle and therefore more malleable and open to transformation. This is good news for those engaged in the practising life and a reminder we need not be held prisoner by beliefs. Especially those we would prefer to be left alone or are so identified with we don’t even realise they are operating in the first place.
As a final point, there are many who have written about the potential resonance between Buddhist beliefs and the Skeptics, and in particular Pyrrhonism. When it is not a forced project hinting at Perennialism, it can be an interesting avenue for exploration, and you may want to check it out. For our purposes, the next step is to stay in Greece for a moment longer and head slightly further back in time.
When it comes to doubt, Socrates really is the great archetype for those with lingering affection for the western intellectual tradition. His dogged attempts to question the beliefs of his fellow Greeks somewhere around 5BCE is a great example of the doubting mind and the sort of behaviour still hated today by those drunk on ideological certainty and the old game of sophistry. In Socrates’ world, doubt was to be applied to any and all convictions, not just the ones his in-group opposed. It is no small consequence that his story is not only one of western philosophy’s imagined origins, but of social discomfort, an antagonist disturbing unquestioned certainty and poking at the role of shared lies in keeping folks comfortable in their shared ignorance. A lot is made of the man’s talent for a good question, but it takes character and courage to question the status quo and highlight the absurdities of unfounded certainties, especially when they are taken as so self-evidently true by the majority of a given group. The man was willing to sacrifice popularity and social status for the truth. I wonder how many would be willing to make that kind of sacrifice in our current age.
To dig around the philosophical fatigue that has gone into working out answers to what are for most of us straightforward questions is to undermine layers of certainty built on very flimsy foundations. Socrates started the ball rolling for us. It is uncomfortable work until made a habit, after which it is a constant act of waking up to the limits of knowledge and our own grappling with it. We are all convinced of endless half-truths and approximations, and the challenges of large scale epistemology run through our own small lives. To examine how little you know is a project in remaking the world you perceive and are capable of seeing. It starts from your home. Expands out to your street, the town you are part of, your communities of meaning, the areas of expertise you may work in, the people you know, and returns back to you as a different vision of a world that was taken for granted and thus largely ignored. To examine anew with care is a life-long practice. Not a one off act that involves us finally being reborn: that’s a Christian myth, right?
The Buddha is an inevitable figure in any discussion of knowledge when Buddhism and practice are involved. He is at once omniscient and a fallen prince, the revealer of the four great noble truths, and a universal monarch. He was also a crap husband and father. Though what matters in his story all depends on whose story you like best. Personally, I think we all need to release the Buddha of the burden of exceptionalism for the poor fellow is burdened with so much expectation that he is suffocating from it all. I also think we need to be cautious when making the man in our own image.
What makes the Buddha a useful archetype beyond his role as founder of Buddhism is his dogged attempts to break out of his delusional take on reality, his willingness to sacrifice personal comfort to see the truth, his wrestling with pre-existing norms of knowledge and practices in the practice communities he hung around in, and his attempts to avoid merely producing more of the same. He experimented with the knowledge and practices available to him, so he was not suspended from history, despite some of the marvellous claims found throughout Buddhism’s history. He went through what was known and done. He grew from existing practices and beliefs and they provided the basis for him to carry out his own questioning, follow his own desire and build a pathway through his experience. That is what we get from the myths at least, and why shouldn’t we take them as a set of principles we can employ too. We do not need to romanticise them or make the man out to be wholly unique. It is also helpful to remember his debt to history and other humans, mostly because it is played down in almost all of the myths, and mainly because we too are indebted, but hardly ever realise to whom.
We can extract a question or two from these components of a telling and apply them to our world; “How will you make this your path too? How willing are you to sacrifice comfort for the truth? What norms that characterise our age, western Buddhism, the axioms of spirituality, might you need to challenge? Where does delusion lie in your stories about the world? Who do you owe a debt to?”
I will not go further with this archetype. The temptation to make the man a tool in one’s own retelling is strong. All of the schools of Buddhism that have popped up and developed over time have made him such and fashioned an effigy to their own hopes and desires, and this is true of the secular Buddhists too. For us, he is to remain human and that’s as much of a rewrite as I am willing to engage in.
Next up: Back into the Practising Life with Peter Sloterdjik, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Ron Purser, Thich Nhat Hanh, Sogyal Shit-poche, part-time jobs & a bit of blabbering.