Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Suspension of Disbelief

Mystical positivism is an interesting way to frame an important aspect of spiritual practice in general. I want to comment on an attitude that mystical positivists of any religious or spiritual tradition will find useful. Bear with me for a brief excursion first.

The title of this post refers to an attitude necessary for reading a fantasy or science-fiction book, or watching a fantasy or science-fiction movie. If the book or movie has goblins (or, say, vampires or galactic emperors) as characters, we have to suspend our disbelief in the existence of goblins to take the book or film seriously enough to spend a few hours investing attention upon it. If we 've never seen or had experience with goblins, there's no particular reason to believe they actually exist. Yet without a suspension of the natural disbelief in the existence of goblins, we'd never be able to enjoy or learn something from the book or film.

In contrast to the attitude of the fantasy fan, the attitude of the mystical positivist is about the suspension of belief, and the cultivation of disbelief. That's overstating the case somewhat, but let me explain. In the initial two posts on this blog, the Mystical Positivist refers to Sam Harris' book The Moral Landscape. In that book, Harris discusses what he means by the word "belief" which he calls "the disposition to accept a proposition as true (or likely to be)." Any proposition that cannot be confirmed within the context of our own direct personal experience must be accepted in order to believe it.

The suspension of belief by spiritual practitioners means that important propositions about the nature of life and the pursuit of happiness must bear systematic and rigorous examination, so that we don't have to simply accept what someone else believes or has said about such matters. Instead, we can generate evidence in our own direct experience that may either confirm or disconfirm the beliefs of ourselves and others. In that way, we can build views about how the world works upon an ever more sound foundation. Yet that prizing of evidence can be called the cultivation of disbelief, because if credible new evidence emerges that contradicts previous views, with the attitude of disbelief we simply discard the older inaccurate view(s). Thus the cultivation of disbelief is not a blanket dismissal of all views; rather, it is the attitude of "holding lightly" our beliefs or views.

In referring to a sensible attitude toward beliefs, I like the French term "bricoleur" which loosely translates as "handyman" or fix-it guy. The handyman picks up a hammer when a nail needs pounding. Yet the hammer is put aside, and the saw is chosen, when it's time to cut a piece of wood.

In the same way, the mystical positivist is ever practical, and always looking for the best tool for the job that the immediate moment demands. Cultivation of the deep experience of oneness requires that one first establish a perspective upon the nature of reality that is absolutely reliable. One must become intimately familiar with one's mind, body and heart so that one knows the truth of these phenomena from direct experience. It's not just a big toolkit that one needs for that; one must also know how to fashion a new and unique tool from found materials whenever need and opportunity conjoin. That's what the skillful bricoleur excells at.

Perhaps when Socrates said that the wise man knows that he knows nothing, he was suggesting that we suspend belief, in the sense of grasping onto unexamined belief. That, I suggest, is the attitude of the mystical positivist.

No comments:

Post a Comment