Skepticism as Curiosity

Little boy looking at the ground through a magnifying glass

Image found here.

Although I see myself as a skeptic, I’ve never liked that term. It always has a taint of disparagement, and I always feel like I need to explain it, or make jokes like “Don’t worry, it doesn’t seem to be very contagious.” It often seems to be used like a synonym for disagreeable, or party-pooperstuffy, stodgy, closed-minded, old coot, etc.

For me, skepticism is quite the opposite of all that. To my view the word skepticism is more like a synonym for curiosity — an urge to push past my current knowledge and understanding of the world. As I see it, to be a skeptic is nothing like being closed minded. On the contrary, it means to open one’s mind to alternatives, to free oneself from excessively rigid or mindless ideological over-commitments, and to stubbornly refuse to clutter up one’s own nervous system with a tangle of complicated, contradictory, and unnecessary opinions — what we might call belief pollution.

But that doesn’t mean I have no beliefs or opinions, of course. In fact, I seem to have so many of these that I’ve even created this blog as a place to document them. But my blog isn’t just a place for me to put my opinions. As I experience it, writing is actually a better way to think, and the process of a writing a blog post is also the process of formulating, scrutinizing, testing, reformulating, re-scrutinizing, revising, and in general indulging my often relentless curiosity regarding the way my own mind works.

In this way I am skeptical of even my own beliefs.

 

 

Why I Am Not A Conspiracy Theorist

Man wearing hat made from a colander and tinfoil

Image found here.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist because I understand that a conspiracy is just a gang of fools who share the control delusion that they’ve actually got things all figured out and under control. And a conspiracy theorist is just another fool who shares that same control delusion, even though he or she is not actually a member of the gang of wannabe conspirators.

The world is just not that simple. Although I do think it’s true that some people really do have more executive influence than others — at least temporarily and in certain situations — I think really anybody or any group of anybodies who seriously thinks that they’re running things, and especially anybody who agrees with them on that point — is disconnected from reality.

But that’s just my opinion, for now, and until I see a good reason to change it. But enough about me already. What do you think? I’d really like to know.

The Abortion Issue, Fetusplained

Embryo

Image found here.

I would like to tell you what I think about the abortion issue, but first I must beg the reader’s pardon for my overweening privilege-bloat. “Mea culpa”, as they say. Yes, and despite my autistic neurology, which has cumbered and reeked since my childhood like a dead walrus chained to my ankle — the oily stink of its rotting, blubbery flesh being a metaphor for whatever it is about me that some people (thankfully not all, or even most, but definitely some, and even quite a few whom I really cared about) seem to find so repellent — I am nonetheless a quite stereotypical example of a generally privileged group — a college-degreed, heterosexual white man of middle-class upbringing.

Without trying to minimize the general significance of my genetic and cultural endowments, and especially the unfavorable moral implications arising from my having selfishly hoarded all of that good luck and exploited it quite shamelessly to my own advantage and for most of my life; I wish to submit here for your consideration the idea that, when it comes to the question of legalized abortion, my own privilege-bloat — for better or worse — is all more or less irrelevant when compared to the fact that in addition to my own tainted privilege profile, I am also a former fetus and gestation survivor. As I see it (for now, at least, and until I encounter a good reason to change my mind), the simple fact of being an unaborted fetus is really the most important and relevant qualification anyone need have in order to be granted a legitimate voice in the public conversation about legalized abortion. I believe (again, for the time being) that my relatively substantial privilege endowment, and especially the fact that I’m a man, is largely beside the point.

In any case, and for whatever it may be worth, here is what I think about the abortion issue: In general, I really don’t know what to think about the abortion issue.

Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right

Am I pro-choice? Pro-life? To be as clear as concrete about it, I feel quite confused about this, actually. I think both sides of that conversation make excellent points, but to be honest, I see a lot of apparent stupidity on both sides as well. For example, I know I would feel utterly ashamed of myself if I somehow lost my mind temporarily and did something to stand in the way of, say, a rape survivor who wanted to purge herself of any and all physical traces of her trauma, especially some zygote that her rapist forced upon her. So, yes, from that perspective I am solidly pro-choice and think that at the very least some sort of right to safe abortions should be protected by law. Furthermore, whenever I hear arguments against that position, and especially when those arguments are clearly based on some kind of religious doctrine, those arguments always look quite half-baked as far as I’m concerned. I really don’t think it too harsh to describe any argument of that general form as just plain stupid.

On the other hand, given the prevalence of rape throughout history, I have to guess that pretty much every human being alive today is the descendant of surely a great many such rape-fertilized zygotes somewhere in the deep past. I think it must be quite certain that somewhere buried in your own family tree are countless great-to-the-nth-power grandmothers of yours who were raped into motherhood by countless great-to-the-nth-power grandfathers of yours. Each of us is nigh certainly the product and beneficiary of what tallies up to now as an epic monstrosity. And to the extent that is true, I find it stupidly hypocritical to simply assume without question that such a zygote has no moral right to the care and feeding it needs to survive, regardless of what its unfortunate mother might need in order to cope with the horror she endured.

All Rights Have Limits

All rights have limits. The right to free-speech is not the right to commit slander or libel, or to threaten violence against another. The right to own property is not the right to own another human being. The right to own a gun, is not the right to go around shooting it off in a crowded public space. And the right to a safe, medically standard abortion must also have its limits. For example, I think few would argue that a mother should be legally permitted to abort a near-term baby, simply because it’s still living in her body. To my view that would clearly be an atrocity. At the other extreme, I can see no rational justification to prevent a woman from aborting a newly fertilized zygote. Anybody who thinks that qualifies as a crime should feel either embarrassed about the inconsistency or utterly scandalized by the pan-cultural, globally practiced ritual of fingernail clipping.

Life does not “begin at conception”. Life on Earth began some 3.5 billion years ago, and an egg and a sperm are very much alive both before and after conception. To kill even a few hundred human cells, even if they are well on their way to growing into a human being, is (as far as I can tell) of no more moral significance than a haircut.

But in between those two clear extremes is a great deal of moral murkiness. Just where exactly should we draw the line? At one point do we blow the whistle and say “No! You’re too late, that’s a person in there, now, and ain’t nobody gonna do so much as scratch it!” And this is where I feel stuck, quite confused, utterly speechless, with nothing left to say on the matter, at least for now.

 

A Free-Thinking Meditation on Free-Thinking and Meditation

Buddha statue meditating

Image found here.

I am really nothing like an expert meditator, nor am I even anything like an expert on the topic of meditation. But I do suspect that both of those facts are also true of most meditation teachers hawking their services in the self-improvement market-place. To the extent that’s correct, then really the most important credential to have as a meditation teacher would appear to be simply the audacity to try to pass oneself off as some sort of meditation expert, despite being nothing of the sort.

Well, heck, I can do that. In fact, perhaps I can put myself well ahead of my competition by going a couple of steps farther in that direction. Which is to say not just by trying to pass myself off as a qualified meditation teacher; and in fact not just by freely admitting that I lack the sort of expertise one might reasonably expect such a teacher to have; but in fact by going way, way out on that limb, by suggesting first that my lack of expertise is precisely what most qualifies me to teach others how to meditate; and finally, by bragging about how, when it comes to meditation, I am an incompetent ignoramus.

As so very many students of acting, writing, music and the arts in general have been heard to say:

“Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”

So…is it working? Are you ready to accept me as your meditation guru? If not (yet), then let’s try approaching it from a different angle:

Although I’m really not anything like a meditation expert, I am, however, something very much like an expert free-thinker, which is to say, for one thing, that I am generally suspicious of all “experts”, but especially those in domains, such as meditation, that are obviously riven with controversy, and where the “experts” appear to be evaluated and selected as such by non-expert fans who have probably confused charisma for competence and who also give these (probably) posers a ton of money for books, DVDs, conferences, retreats and (more often than not) nutritional supplements. And I am especially suspicious if the letters PhD follow the author’s name on any given such “expert”‘s New York Times bestselling book.

In the second place, in my opinion being a free-thinker means that I take my own abilities to learn and to think more or less seriously, to the point where whenever I think I’ve arrived at some notable insight, or maybe figured out how to solve some problem, and especially if I think others might find my discoveries useful, I’m none too shy about sharing these with anybody who may seem to need them, or at least with anybody who may be otherwise open to receiving them. In fact, it appears that I’d even go so far as start a blog in order to document these out in public where they can be enjoyed by the whole world. (You’re welcome!)

Third, and probably because I’m autistic (but not necessarily for that reason), I find that when I do try to share with others the artifacts of my thinking (verbalized thoughts, writings, etc.), it often turns out that these are none too welcome, and in fact frequently outright rejected, and sometimes in a hostile manner. So, for me much of being a free-thinker means being able to cope with that sort of rejection when it happens. And coping with that rejection, in turn, means striking a balance between standing my ground on the one hand, and keeping things friendly on the other — a tightrope from which I often tumble, sometimes to the side of acquiescence, but sometimes to the other side, say by acting like a feisty grouch.

And finally, as I see it, being a free-thinker also means recognizing that genuine expertise is entirely possible, at least in principle, and even quite common in some domains. And just because it can be difficult for non-experts to distinguish between such true experts and their impostors, that is really no good reason not to at least try to do so anyway. But I always try to remember that even if I appear to have found a true expert, that doesn’t mean I can stop thinking for myself. At the very least, I recognize that maybe I’ve made a mistake and that my selected guru is just another impostor who has fooled me. If that turns out to be the case, then I just (more or less) reject said impostor and try again.

As the above relates to meditation, although I have identified a handful of individuals that really seem to be actual experts — either as meditators or as scientists who study meditation (often both) — and although I do study and practice what they teach, I nevertheless also allow myself to try to figure things out on my own too. And as a matter of fact, I think by doing exactly that I have managed to make perhaps a few minor discoveries that may be useful to others, and which I intend to write about in future posts.

But yes, I know, that’s probably a little audacious.