“See for Yourself” vs. “Trust Me” in Modern Spirituality
The Problem of Spiritually “Working Out the Math”
There’s a central problem in the modern spiritual scene that needs clarifying.
We can call it “The Problem of Working Out the Math.”
The basic predicament looks something like this.
When you’re faced with certain problems, you can either use somebody else’s answer, or work out your own.
Let’s look at an example.
Let’s imagine the problem is “722 x 41.”
At this point, you have two basic options.
One route is to believe me when I say that the answer is 29,602. You trust me and my skills as a mathematician, we can imagine, and therefore, you’re totally fine with just taking my word for it.
Or there’s the other route: you could work out the answer yourself.
The first route – “believing someone else” – we can call “The Way of Faith.” It consists of taking someone else’s word for it.
The second route – “seeing for yourself” – we could call “The Way of Doubt.” It’s not necessarily disbelieving anyone else’s answers. But it’s not necessarily believing them, either. It’s, well, seeing for yourself.
Easy enough. Especially when it’s a simple math problem.
But now let’s thicken the plot.
The above problem is easily solved either way. All it takes is a few seconds with a calculator. Almost anyone can check my math fairly easily, and verify or disprove the answer without too much hassle.
But now let’s imagine that we’re working on a different problem.
Let’s say you’re a physicist, and you’ve been trying to understand the exact relationship between “energy” and “matter.” Then one day, some ragged, wild eyed, disheveled old codger staggers up to you on the street, looks you straight in the eye, and screams, in a desperate, raspy, voice, “E=MC2!”
Is he “right” in what he’s saying, or not?
Is that the wild ranting of a lunatic? Or is he on to something?
Here again, we’re faced with the same problem.
If we’re trying to answer or understand the “problem” of E=MC2, we can either go The Way of Faith or The Way of Doubt.
On this one, it’s pretty easy to go The Way of Faith.
After all, most of the smartest people who know this stuff seem to agree on this. They all seem to say that “E=MC2” is correct. It’s been verified. It works.
Yet few of us have worked out the math on this ourselves. We usually accept E=MC2 not because we’ve done the math ourselves, but because we trust the word of some authority figures on the matter.
It’s easy to cheat here, on this particular example.
After all, when it comes to E=MC2, we have the benefit of over a century since Einstein introduced it. Lots of really smart people have been hammering on it in the meantime. There’s now a near-universal consensus on the matter.
But this is hindsight. It was pretty controversial when it was first introduced. (See here. The paper “A Hundred Authors Against Einstein” is especially worth noting.)
What used to seem radical and bizarre is now conventional dogma. It used to be a given that energy and mass were distinct and unrelated. But this formula helped us understand that they’re actually two different forms of the same thing.
(Or so I’m told, by authority figures I cautiously trust. I still haven’t done the math on this myself.)
But imagine here that you want to go “The Way of Doubt.”
Let’s imagine you’re truly a hard-nosed, see-for-yourself, “believe no one but yourself” skeptic.
Let’s imagine here that you don’t want to just blindly accept the wild and woolly claims of some crazy-haired nobody – a mere patent clerk who didn’t even go to Harvard. Let’s imagine that you want to do the math yourself. You want to go The Way of Doubt on E=MC2.
In this case, fine. No problem.
But to do this, you’ll need to know some advanced math and physics.
You might, with a lot of work, prove to your own, first-hand satisfaction that this wild-haired patent clerk was actually on to something.
Or – which is somewhat likely – you might get a number wrong somewhere along the way.
Let’s say you mistake a “1” for a “7” somewhere deep in the bowels of your math because of some sloppy handwriting on the chalkboard.
You might go years without realizing it. Finding that mistake might take a lot of work, and time, and energy. You’d either need to check the work yourself (which is notoriously hard to do), or else you’d need to find somebody who is at least as good at math as you, and as interested in finding the answer, and who is willing to check your work.
At this point, we’ve arrived at one of the potential hazards of working things out for yourself.
Now let’s apply this to an even tougher problem.
Let’s imagine that instead of or understanding E=MC2, the problem is something like this:
And so on. It could be any of “The Big Questions” or “Existential Riddles” of life. What is What is real "happiness"? How do we find it? What can we do about suffering? What, if anything, is the point of all this? What the heck is going on?
And here we face the same basic choice.
We can either go The Way of Faith or The Way of Doubt.
There are plenty of pre-packaged answers to these problems.
These “pre-packaged answers” usually come from various religious traditions.
So our choice in confronting these questions is roughly this: we can either go The Way of Faith and pretty much accept the answers from a particular religious tradition, or we can make the opposite choice and go The Way of Doubt and “do the math” for ourselves.
Many more folks these days are doing the math for themselves.
This is a key feature of The Modern Spiritual Landscape.
Lots of people nowadays are abandoning pre-packaged answers and going at it themselves.
Going “Spiritual-But-Not-Religious” seems to be one of the fastest-growing segments in the modern world.
Going “Spiritual-But-Not-Religious” means, essentially, going The Way of Doubt. It means the ultimate judge of truth is yourself, and not some other authority (with the possible exception of Oprah.)
But there’s a major twist here.
There are also risks.
Let’s talk about the “twist” first.
The “twist” is that it’s possible for some crazy-haired, wild-eyed hobo to come up to you on the street and shout “E=MC2.”
And it’s also possible (more likely, in fact) that some wild-haired, wild-eyed hobo comes up to you on the street and shouts “E=MC3!”
(Note the “3” there.)
Now instead of “physics problem,” swap in “Existential Riddle.” And instead of “E=MC2," swap in your favorite answer to “the meaning of life” question.
And this is where the pot starts to really sweeten.
The tricky part here is this: everybody has “answers” to The Big Questions. Everyone is a philosopher.
So here, instead of E=MC2, let’s substitute an answer to one of The Big Questions of life.
One challenge we can spot immediately. With E=MC2, that can be verified by math. Our wild-haired friend might have arrived at his answer intuitively, without knowing the math (as some say Einstein actually did in the beginning.)
It’s one thing to arrive at the answer, but it’s another to be able to prove it to someone else.
This is especially true when we’re dealing not with math, but with ideas about ourselves and the universe.
But let’s sweeten the pot even more.
Let’s imagine our friend shouts at us “Life is meaningless!” or “The purpose of life is to be happy!” or “Asking about the purpose of life is a dumb question!”
Now, let’s imagine that our friend on the street is actually a smooth-talking, very persuasive, ultra-charismatic charmer. He can argue anyone into the ground about anything, and make everyone giggle while doing it, and he’s also dashingly handsome, and he can sing a high C.
At this point, we might find ourselves in danger of joining a cult.
The “twist” is this: it can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between E=MC2 and E=MC3 unless you know some advanced physics and math.
And here we arrive at the potential risk.
Again, lots of people these days are abandoning The Way of Faith and traditional religious routes.
This can happen for good reasons.
After all, a lot of nonsense often goes on in the guise of religion. At the risk of stating the obvious, a claim to be operating under the banner of traditional religion doesn’t guarantee that everything is going to go swimmingly. Sometimes you can go The Way of Faith and realize, sooner or later, that whoever or whatever you put your trust into wasn’t actually trustworthy.
This is the risk of The Way of Trust. Who, or what, should you trust?
But then there’s the risk of The Way of Doubt, where someone is doing all their own calculations. Again, they might very easily, at some point, mistake a 1 for a 7.
Or even worse: someone might try to verify E=MC2 without knowing advanced math or physics at all.
If someone is trying to verify E=MC2 without knowing advanced math or physics at all, there’s a chance that they might be in trouble, right from the start.
Of course, they might not realize they're in trouble.
They could be trying to jump the Grand Canyon on a tricycle.
They might imagine that it’s really possible. After all, the tricycle salesman really talked up a good game. It has the extra spinny wheels and all. What could go wrong?
This is silly, but the point applies when it comes to math, and to spiritual seeking.
Trying to verify E=MC2 without knowing advanced math or physics is not going to happen.
Somebody who understands advanced physics or math fairly well could likely size up their situation, pretty quickly, and know whether they're in trouble or not.
Convincing that person of that diagnosis, however, might be an entirely different matter. (People aren’t often receptive to that kind of conversation, especially these days. We seem to be criminalizing unflattering ideas. This isn’t unheard of. They didn’t kill Socrates because he was a bank robber.)
And the situation gets even more touchy at times.
It becomes incredibly sensitive when we aren’t talking about physics, but about our most intimate answers to The Big Questions of Life.
Because that’s what we’re really talking about here. It’s the stuff existential crisis are made of.
Yet many of us, it seems, are trying to verify E=MC2 without knowing advanced math or physics. And many of us these days are trying to answer The Big Questions of life without the philosophical, psychological, theological, and spiritual tools and training to answer them well.
And when we do this, it’s easy to wind up in trouble. Or at least, with answers that aren’t as good as they otherwise could be.
This isn’t to say that everyone needs a degree in philosophy degree from Harvard. We don’t.
But this raises a key question.
And here, the plot gets even thicker.
After all, who are the folks who know” advanced math and physics,” so to speak, these days?
It’s fairly easy to tell when it comes to literal math and physics.
But of course, we aren’t actually talking about literal math and physics. We’re talking about folks who are truly experts (if they exist) on “The Big Questions” of life.
So, who are the “experts” or “trusted authorities” in these matters?
It can be hard to tell.
We could look at folks who have read a hundred philosophy books. Some of them are whip-smart insightful.
But then you can look at other folks who have read a hundred philosophy books, and they seem deeply incoherent and confused. Some of them seem to overflow with bad ideas. (This seems to be especially true if they’ve focused primarily on the “latest-and-greatest,” eg, Derrida, Sartre, etc.)
But once we’ve arrived at this point, we have to decide. How do we know the difference?
Sometimes, the answer comes down to this: it’s whoever is most persuasive.
In other words, sometimes we wind up trusting whoever tells the best story.
And this is a serious hazard.
If we trust whoever can tell the best story, or can argue somebody else into the ground, or is dashingly handsome and can sing a high-C, this exposes us to the risk of potentially becoming a Class-A sucker, cult member, cannon fodder, or human shield for some persuasive charmer with a slick rap.
Now, let’s assume at this point we don’t want to go that route.
What’s the best defense against it?
Well, learning advanced math and physics is your best defense when it comes to The Way of Doubt for E=MC2.
If you’re armed with that, and someone tries to convince you that E=MC3, you’ll probably see right through them, no matter how dashingly handsome they are.
But what about when it comes to “The Big Questions” of life?
What is the equivalent of learning “advanced math and physics” for these?
Well, that’s a good question. And it’s a tough one, and it’s not a trail we can go down here.
Because the important thing is this:
Today, lots of people seem to be navigating the terrain of the modern spiritual scene without knowing “advanced math and physics.”
In other words, more and more people seem to be going The Way of Doubt.
They’re taking on The Big Questions of life without being fully prepared for what they’re getting into.
They’re battling existential monsters armed only with a head full of jingles and a plastic spork.
They might not know if their math is wrong.
They sometimes have nobody who is willing or able to check their math.
Or they might be genuine math geniuses, but they’re surrounded by people who wouldn’t be able to tell a differential equation from a wild hog in a dress. So they have to walk around, unrecognized and invisible, because they might not know anyone nearby who is half as interested in this stuff as they are.
All of this can wreak no small amount of havoc.
This all points to a unique situation we’re living in today.
This is all part of us living through what we call “The Death of God.”
It means more people, en masse, are abandoning religious traditions and are going The Way of Doubt. They’ve decided to “see for themselves” and basically go it alone.
This presents both opportunities and dangers.
“If you wish to strive for peace of soul and happiness,
if you wish to be a disciple of truth,
- Friedrich Nietzsche
The opportunities here are clear.
"Seeing for yourself" is experiential. It's direct instead of indirect. It's firsthand knowledge instead of secondhand.
It might entail abandoning what are often genuinely bad conditions (eg, being guilted just for being alive) or ideas (“masturbation will make hair grow on palms!”) Or it might entail peak experiences (explored here) or experiences that are even more profound.
Which is nice.
But the dangers?
Someone might not find good answers, for example. And since they haven’t found any, they might decide that nobody else has found them either. Or someone might read a single self-help book, and decide that this single book has all the answers (and they never consider any that disagree, or go deeper.)
It can be surprisingly to see hard-nosed skeptics of traditional ideas suddenly transform into blind-faithed believers of alternative ideas that are trendy or fashionable. Skepticism, as it often turns out, is often highly selective. We can easily become skeptics of stuff we don’t like. Consistent skeptics can be surprisingly rare. (Especially when it comes to being skeptical of skepticism itself.)
Or someone might decide, one day, that they’ve reached total enlightenment. Maybe they actually did. Or maybe they’re deluded. Either way, once someone’s decided that, it can be hard to convince them otherwise.
We could keep going here.
There’s plenty of room here for the Dunning-Kuger effect.
The real fun kicks in with folks who don’t know, and don’t know that they don’t know. The Dunning-Kuger effect describes how those who know the least often think they know the most. And the ones who know the most often are often aware that they know very little.
This applies in math, and science, and it also applies in self-knowledge.
This can easily result in the ones who know the least running the show.
After all, it’s easy to be persuasive when you’re totally confident. And it’s easy to be fully confident when you’ve never considered that you might be wrong. The eventual result is those who are loudest, most insistent, and least introspective winning the argument and driving the bus.
But one hazard is even more pervasive.
When scores of people go “The Way of Doubt” without knowing the equivalent of advanced math and physics, it can be easy for them to wind up in the “Existential No-Man’s Land.”
The “Existential No-Man’s Land” means they’ve abandoned The Way of Faith and traditional routes. (That’s one side of the battlefield.)
But they also haven’t put the work in of learning advanced math and science. (That’s the other side of the battlefield.)
This leaves them whistling though a war zone, perhaps blissfully unaware of what’s actually going on around them.
Sometimes, this works out just fine – especially if life is good, the cupboards are full, and there’s money in the bank. It can take the form of a little of this, a little of that, reading a book here, a cool quote there, a catchy platitude that becomes a motto that eventually congeals into a kind of patchwork life philosophy. This kind of thing can hold together just fine while the seas are smooth.
But this can leave a person vulnerable.
Living in the Existential No-Man’s Land can, in some cases, lead to the worst of both worlds.
It can lead to rejecting certain ideas whenever they’re unflattering, for example, and adopting half-baked fancies that are are flattering. (We can cue confirmation bias here as well.)
All to say, unless we’re deliberately guarding against it, it can be incredibly easy to adopt ideas solely on the basis of whether they’re flattering or not.
And that puts us at the risk of anyone who knows how to flatter us.
And it’s not just flattery. It isn’t hard for anyone to paint pictures of some wonderful, imaginary future that’s within reach if only we’ll do X or Y. Or they might claim that they know how to remove all our flaws, or that they’ve found “the secret of life” that they’ll reveal really soon!
Plenty of people seem willing to exploit this for their own benefit.
They might even do it with the best of intentions. Sometimes they eat their own cooking.
Yet the actual result of it all can eventually leave us toward unnecessary, otherwise preventable suffering.
It can leave us toward a state of Soft Nihilism.
This state of affairs seems to be growing increasingly popular nowadays.
Soft Nihilism, it should be noted, doesn’t appear as “Soft Nihilism!” – wearing a name tag, blowing trumpets, and announcing itself as such.
It’s usually disguised as something else. It often appears as a Highly Unique Life Philosophy, or a Truly Bold Perspective, or a Very Evolved Way of Seeing Things, and so on.
That’s how it appears. But under the surface, it’s sometimes just a mess of sloppy thinking based on half-baked bad ideas that have been cobbled together and dressed up as something that Looks Cool.
And it might Look Cool for a while.
But sooner or later, it can wear thin. Eventually, the flashy-and-flattering bubbles pop, and then we’re left with the non-glitzy, non-trendy, non-flattering truth.
And we’re better off for it.
Life has a way of body-slamming us, existentially speaking. It often has a way of eventually exposing toothless and hyped-up life philosophies that have been cobbled together out of slogans, sales pitches, and bumper-sticker platitudes.
Many spend years or decades studying martial arts. The basic idea is often to defend our bodies from being hurt in the unlikely case that we’re mugged or attacked. But we rarely undertake a kind of training of the soul, to prepare for the challenges life is definitely going to throw at us.
After all, we know challenges of that sort are coming. There’s certainty there.
Yet it’s easy to postpone this kind of thing. It’s easily to sit around and pontificate in summer, when food is abundant, and hold forth on all kinds of Very Lofty Opinions.
But when winter comes, and we’re cold and hungry, and the cupboards are bare, those Very Lofty Opinions can magically vanish, or suddenly transform into gibberish. We can discover, too late, that we made a poor choice in deciding where to invest our hope.
The trick is to avoid this.
Ideally, we figure this out before winter comes, or before life begins its next phase of existentially body-slamming us.
The trick, it seems, is to build something solid, now, if it’s not built already.
Winter actually is coming, after all, no matter how many cans we recycle. Life just seems to give everybody a good thrashing every so often. It’s no secret. They say the only certainties in life are death and taxes, yet we still seem to pay our taxes and get surprised by the rest. But if we get ambushed by it, it sometimes means we weren’t paying attention, or were intimidated by it, or just decided we’d rather distract ourselves than face it. And it’s understandable. Life can seem much easier, and simpler, and more pleasant with a head in the sand. For a while.
But ideally, we can get ahead of the ball. We arm ourselves properly. You want to learn to swim before you’re in deep water. The time to start eating better is before the stroke. The time to learn martial arts is before you’re attacked.
This isn’t the norm. The more natural course is to sing in summer, and to act surprised when winter suddenly and unexpectedly appears.
But luckily, we can decide for ourselves what course we want to take, now.
There are often good reasons to work out your own math.
“There’s gold in them thar hills.”
There are good reasons to trust the math of other folks. It can save us a lot of trouble. There have been plenty of genius mathematicians throughout the course of human history. Learning from them, instead of reinventing the wheel, can save a lot of work, and avoidable suffering.
There are also good reasons to do your own math. Not everyone who teaches math really knows what they’re doing. Sometimes you might be better off working it out on your own.
Either way, we’re probably better off knowing what we’re up against.
Once you know that, you can tackle, with greater confidence, the next question.
“How do I prepare?”
Before long, we might still face those same existential predicaments.
But this time, we’ll be ready.