Skepticism, Knowledge and Malingering

Man looking skeptical

Image found here.

Never confuse skepticism for knowledge. If I claim to have a disability and you are skeptical of that claim, that does not somehow magically imply that I am faking or exaggerating something.

Of course your skepticism is entirely rational and legitimate, and kudos for that. But simple skepticism is not evidence of anything other than some brain’s rational hunger for actual evidence. If you think otherwise you are badly confused. And especially if you happen to work as a disability-insurance claims investigator, then you are dangerously confused and shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near such an insurance claim.

Skepticism is just a first step toward actual knowledge, and a refusal to take the next one — to scrutinize the real evidence — is the most reckless kind of foolery.

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.

 

 

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.