Skepticism and Spirituality: a reconciliation
by Jesse Durst


Skepticism and spirituality—more often in the institutions of science and religion—are pitted against each other in our society. My personal attempts to reconcile the two within myself have led to the development of my own new epistemology that takes insights from both sides. The epistemology recognizes that traditional scientific and mystical philosophies come from similar behavioral-psychological-cultural sources and have significant flaws because of it. An alternative view of language and symbols in general, however, reveals that the problems are resolvable and reconciliation is possible.

Skepticism and Spirituality

Sometimes I feel as if I’m being pulled apart. Due to my upbringing, I have strong skeptical tendencies; I will not accept anything until there is ample evidence and reason to back it up. At the same time, I feel an urge to develop something in me that one might call spiritual or mystical. Rather than deny this calling as irrational or un-skeptical, I take time to watch and examine my personal experience quietly in meditation every day, in hopes of fostering wisdom and compassion. Our society pits these two perspectives, skepticism and spirituality, against one another as irreconcilable opposites. The mystical according to philosopher William James are those experiences characterized by ineffability, noetic quality, transiency, and passivity (380-81). In direct opposition, the scientific are those experiential referents characterized by clear reasoning, skepticism, permanence, and an active pursuit of knowledge. Eugene d’Aquili and Andrew Newburg confirm some of William James’s hunches in their recent article “The Neuropsychological Basis of Religion.” Mystical states, what they call hyperlucid unitary consciousness or Absolute Unitary Being (AUB), starkly contrast everyday mundane and perhaps scientific experiences of “baseline reality” (198-200). Surely, I cannot simultaneously seek rational or scientific explanations for all observable phenomena while also pursuing the spiritual, mystical, or ineffable. I cannot be both doubtful and open at the same time, right? Intuition tells me, however, that the apparent conflict does not run as deep as we might expect. As a matter of fact, attempts to form a new epistemology on my part have revealed the flaws of traditional religious and scientific philosophy and opened the door for discussion between the skeptic and the spiritualist.

When I encounter rhetoric from either side, I feel pulled in two directions. On the one hand, when I hear writers, theologians, or mystics talk about the limits of scientific understanding and the need to consequently trust mystical experience and consult the religious traditions, I am skeptical of their assertions. St. Teresa writes with respect to skeptical inquiries about her mysticism, “All that I know is that I tell the truth; and I shall never believe that any soul who does not possess this certainty has ever been really united to God” (qtd. in James 410). Teresa would probably agree with Marion Woodman, who in the book The Feminine Face of God expected her mother to believe her when Woodman said she talked to angels. “You know, we are beginning to believe children now when they tell us they’ve been abused,” she told the authors, “but we still find it difficult to believe them when they tell us they hear angels” (Anderson and Hopkins 29). By their outright discrediting of any skepticism whatsoever, Teresa and Woodman can effectively eliminate people who do not disagree without ever really considering their criticisms. Using this reasoning, maybe we should similarly believe children—and even some adults—when they tell us about fairies, goblins, aliens, and the boogeyman. Additionally, their beliefs are based upon experiences that are on the whole so personal that they cannot be independently or externally verified by multiple observers—something required by the scientific method. Yet the mystic still seeks external validation by asserting her point to other individuals. As philosophy professor Richard Hardison was quoted in Michael Shermer’s book How We Believe, “There is a fundamental flaw in all mysticisms: the mystic often seeks external support of his position and in the process, denies his mysticism” (97). Subsequently, I cannot help but doubt their assertions.

Similarly, the philosopher William James in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience pits skepticism and spiritualism against one another, reproaching the former for “embarking on a sea of wanton doubt,” and condemning rationalism as “superficial” (72-73, 332). He writes about the mystical experience, “… Something in you absolutely knows that that result must be truer than any logic-chopping rationalist talk, however clever, that may contradict it” (73). James later argues for the reality of the mystic’s world—at least in their minds—writing, “… That which produces real effects within another reality must be termed a reality itself, so I feel as if we had no philosophic excuse for calling the unseen or mystical world unreal. … God is real since he produces real effects” (516-17). In my skepticism, I have several problems with these arguments for mysticism. First, there is no reason to suggest that science or “rationalism” cannot fully account for these mystical experiences—that the underlying “reality” of the mystic’s experience is not simply a scientific “reality.” For example, Canadian researcher Michael Persinger simulated what we might call spiritual or supernatural experiences by exposing subjects’ brains to electromagnetic fields. The field patterns initiated “microseizures” in the temporal lobes of the brain. Subjects subsequently reported out-of-body experiences, a strange presence in the room (aliens, demons, angels, ghosts, God?), or altered consciousness. If the neural events stimulated activity in the amygdala, the experience was all the more vivid and real, often termed religious, spiritual, or perhaps mystical by the subjects (Shermer 66-67). Is this the same experience that mystics claim to have? The evidence would suggest that to be the case. Perhaps all mystical experiences are just “microseizures” in the temporal lobe of the brain, brought on by self-induced trance or hypnosis.

I also have a concern with the way James and other writers seem to turn their backs on the scientific method simply because it cannot explain something. Mysticism, in this way, continues as the modern version of the “God of the Gaps” tradition. Historically, when humans could not understand the science behind earthquakes or the weather, they concluded that it must be due to some supernatural force. Today the argument is similar. Although we now know that plate tectonics, and not God, is responsible for earthquake activity, many people assume that God, something supernatural or mystical, must certainly be responsible for today’s inexplicable phenomena. We now hear, “Science cannot explain mystical, out-of-body, or near-death experiences, therefore they must have ineffable, supernatural, and non-scientific origins.” This argument does not follow. Simply because we cannot explain something at the moment, we do not have reasonable permission to abandon the scientific method of inquiry. As Shermer, editor of Skeptic Magazine, writes in his book How We Believe, “… It is not acceptable in science to offer as an alternative a nontestable, mystical, supernatural force to account for those anomalies.” Expecting the scientific community or even the general public to believe a mystic’s account of his of her experience is just plain naivety.

My criticism falls not just on the mystic-sympathizers, but also rests with the skeptics who seem at times to discredit the whole of religion, mysticism, or spirituality. Religion for the scientific mind is impossible, a skeptic claims, because it means believing what is unverifiable. This belief, sadly, leads to the polarization of religion and science as completely separate realms. For instance, Shermer’s account of the conflict between science and religion causes him to accept the Separate-Worlds Model. He holds that the only viable model of the science-religion relationship is that they are “separate methods” applied in decidedly “separate worlds” (138). But what are these “separate worlds,” these “nonoverlapping magisteria,” as Stephen J. Gould calls them (qtd. in Shermer 133)? Certainly, science and religion do not actually exist in separate worlds. Both are intimately tied into our modern epistemology. Although the methods differ in degree and function, both systems exist in the same socio-cultural context; both are powerful means of organizing and structuring human behavior. Indeed, the two “separate realms” are not that far off from one another. As Einstein said, “Science is nothing more than the refinement of everyday thinking.” We cannot divide our minds in half, with science only on one side, religion on the other.

Another problem stemming from the Separate-Worlds Model is its system of labeling. Anything that has a trace of spirituality or religion in it is systematically categorized as unscientific. This perhaps stems from the overexposure of skeptics to Western religion and not enough exposure to other religions. Gary Zukav writes in his book The Dancing Wu Li Masters, “Acceptance without proof is the fundamental characteristic of western religion. Rejection without proof is the fundamental characteristic of western science” (110-11). Christianity, for example, holds that the basis of faith involves believing in Jesus as the Son of God, something systematically and independently unverifiable. This indeed is unscientific. We find a remarkable difference in religions like Buddhism, where practitioners are invited to test the teachings with utmost scrutiny. The Buddha told his arhants not to rely on hearsay, tradition, respect for some guru, or adherence to some theory, but to experience for themselves the efficacy of his teachings. Gnostic Christians expressed similar teachings. As Elaine Pagels writes in her book The Gnostic Gospels,

The gnostic understands Christ’s message not as offering a set of answers, but as encouragement to engage in a process of searching … Those who merely believe the preaching they hear, without asking questions, and who accept the worship set before them, not only remain ignorant of themselves, but ‘if they find someone else who asks about his salvation,’ they act immediately to censor and silence him (112-13).

Gnostics, Buddhists, and a large number of other traditions point to our ignorance, not our lack of blind faith, as the cause of our suffering. Whereas mainstream Western traditions often suggest and promote ignorant faith, Buddhism seeks to eradicate it so that faith is no longer necessary. Many parts of eastern traditions do not contradict a skeptical worldview and yet they interestingly get placed in the “Religious Realm” that the skeptics have labeled unscientific.

Toward a New Epistemology

My personal endeavor has largely been an attempt to reconcile my sense of spirituality with my sometimes scathing skepticism. In doing so, I have begun to construct a new epistemology that will eventually, I hope, settle the paradox. The epistemological search begins with a highly critical analysis of the basic structure of human thought, the linguistic symbol. We may even go as far as Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Nanananda does in suggesting that all sense perception relies on some form of sign or symbol (14). People generally take it for granted that symbols, whether images, words, sounds, or other phenomena, stand for real objects in the world “out there.” In contrast, I would propose this argument: That these symbols stand for actual metaphysical objects is untestable and unverifiable. We have to blindly believe it to be true. Indeed, our underlying faith that those symbols actually do represent real world objects may be akin to the mystic’s assertion of the verity of her claims. In order to investigate this claim, and simultaneously bridge the chasm between spirituality and skepticism, we must consider epistemologies from several perspectives.

In modern times, science is well accepted as the major determinant of truth. Science itself, however, shows us that we cannot be so certain of this belief. The classical scientific view took the symbolic nature of reality for granted, with rationalist Cartesian philosophy at its center. Rene Descartes thought he had discovered the absolute truth. He argued that because he experienced thought, he must therefore exist. A thing must exist if it can think, right? But what is this thing, “I”? “A thing that thinks,” Descartes answers. “A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, wills, refuses, and that also imagines, and senses” (66). Interestingly enough, all Descartes has is his doubts, understandings, affirmations, denial, wills, refusals, imaginations and sensations. The thing itself is nowhere to be found. As Buddhist Priest Steve Hagen suggested, we may say, “It is raining,” but we never say, “It is raining; therefore, it is.” We do not suppose that something corresponds to the it (45). Similarly, the statement “I think; therefore, I am,” may wrongly suppose a correspondence of some independent “thing” with the pronoun I. Our skeptical criticism of Cartesian philosophy is bolstered in Buddhism, which recognizes anatta—the lack of self inherent in experience—as one of the three marks of reality (Hart 94). In actuality, Descartes thing that thinks does not exist; all that exists are his thoughts—thoughts without a thinker. Descartes must subsequently make a blind leap of faith to assert his own existence. And yet this has been the course of science for hundreds of years after Descartes. Science has assumed that atoms, forces, chemical compounds, biological organisms and a plethora of other “things” actually do exist in an independent world “out there.” This view, called representationalism, is based on the a priori assumption that an objective world exists such that we can understand it. This objective external world is supposedly accessible to the scientist whenever needed and is wholly indifferent to our process of inquiry.

Modern science has opened the door to questioning these basic representationalist assumptions of its classical counterpart. Quantum mechanics—the scientific investigation of the most fundamental subatomic reality—has shown us that there is no such thing as objectivity, that by the very process of observing our environment we participate in its creation (Zukav 53-54). The Copenhagen Interpretation, which is now the most widely accepted interpretation of quantum mechanics, gives us a startling answer to Descartes legacy. This interpretation concludes that it is useless and irrelevant to argue about things “out there,” because we do not have access to them. As Zukav writes, the mind cannot actually think of reality; it can only think of its ideas about reality (62-63). Indeed, modern physics has systematically rejected the assumption that there are things “out there” distinct from us “in here” (55). All that exists is the experience of interaction, of relation. Zukav explains, “Scientific ‘truth’ has nothing to do with ‘the way reality really is.’ … In short, when a scientist says that a theory is true, he means that it correctly correlates experience and, therefore, it is useful” (287). All of our symbolic explanations, all of the labels we put on the world “out there,” although they may be practical and effective, are just metaphysical shots in the dark. They do not tell us anything about reality itself.

Naturally, the quantum mechanical epistemology runs right into psychology. By investigating the basic properties of matter and energy, we end up learning more about the way our minds work than any physical reality. Indeed, a scientific examination of human cognition yields similar results. In their groundbreaking book The Tree of Knowledge, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela effectively challenge prevailing notions about human cognition. Symbolic language, they suggest, is not a tool for taking in the outside world. There exists no biological mechanism in the human body that is capable of retrieving information about an objective world “out there” for cognitive analysis. Instead, language and cognition fall into the realm of adaptive behavior (240-42). According to the two scientists, cognition is based on “the organism as a unity and on the operational closure of its nervous system” (166). Because the nervous system exhibits operational closure—that is, each state of neural activity leads to another state of neural activity within the same unity—its process is circular and not linear or representational (169). The nervous system instead specifies what will cause cognitive activity within its operational limits, thus “bringing forth a world” rather than receiving a world. The mind cannot “pick up information” from the environment; it cannot recognize what is “true” or “real” about the world explicitly, as Descartes may have us believe (169). Our language and intellect, from this point of view, are no more than parts of the structural coupling within the human social domain, in which we specify the activities that bring about the cognitive act. In effect, we cannot describe words as labels for “things” in the world, for we would be ignoring the non-representational and behavioral nature of cognition.

Interestingly enough, and certainly not coincidentally, many of the world’s religions have been teaching these very same things for thousands of years. However, instead of dissecting the atom with particle accelerators or studying neuroscience, these traditions have encouraged introspection and meditation. If we really want to find out how our minds work, why not turn the attention inward? Why not watch the cognitive activity where it actually occurs? Upon watching our own mind, we become aware of the subtle reality of experience that is normally clouded by representationalist thought. Sri Lankan Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Nanananda explains in his book The Magic of the Mind how symbolic language has tricked us into believing our ideas to be true. “What do signs signify?” he asks (14). We immediately think that signs must signify things or essences in the world “out there.” Nanananda argues, however, that an honest analysis fails to reveal any real essence behind our signs. But this cannot possibly be true. “… After all, there could not possibly be an attribute without a substance—a quality without a ‘thing’ that it ‘qualifies’” (15). Nanananda’s answer is startlingly similar to the scientist’s. “The ‘objects’ of sense which we grasp and recognize as existing out-there, derive their object-status from their impact or evocative power. Their ability to produce effects in the form of sense-reaction is generally taken to be the criterion of their reality” (16). That is, the main criterion by which we name an object has nothing to do with its actual reality, but with its ability to create a reaction within the individual. The only thing an individual actually experiences is reactionary behavior organized around a particular sign.

It must be clear, however, that this new epistemology is not advocating solipsism. It does not suggest that an objective world does not exist “out there.” This would be just as naïve and unfounded as a representationalist philosophy. As Maturana and Varela put it,

If we presuppose the existence of an objective world, independent of us as observers and accessible to our knowledge through our nervous system, we cannot understand how our nervous system functions in its structural dynamics and still produce a representation of this independent world. But if we do not presuppose an objective world independent of us as observers, it seems we are accepting that everything is relative and anything is possible in the denial of all lawfulness (240-41).

Instead, we must walk the fine line between these two perspectives, maintaining that description of an objective reality is irrelevant to our task.


With a proper epistemology established, we now have the tools to redefine the spiritual life such that it does not contradict a skeptical analysis. In fact, as we shall see, personal experience is a necessary part of our journey, lest we make the blind leaps of faith inherent in classical science. Bhikkhu Nanananda continues, “It is due to the process of grasping and recognition implicit in sense-perception that the sign has come to play such an important part in it. … Sense objects are therefore signs which have become significant in themselves owing to our ignorance that their significance depends on the psychological mainsprings of lust, hatred and delusion” (14-16). Thus, it is aversion and craving based upon our reactionary experiences that creates the world of “things.” When I desire, I name the object of my desire—be it food, sex, money, etc.—and my ability to name it compounds my problem. If, instead, aversion and craving did not exist, I would not cling to my conceptions of the objects in the world “out there.” Indeed, what actually exists are not real sense-objects, but the experience of lust, hatred and delusion, implied by our own clinging to symbols. The Buddha says that a Tathagata, an enlightened person, “does not conceive of a visible thing as apart from sight … an audible thing as apart from hearing … a thing to be sensed apart from sensation … a cognizable thing apart from cognition” (Nanananda 9-11). My meditation teacher once said, “There is nothing in breathing except breathing, nothing in walking except walking, nothing in thinking except thinking.” We cannot assume simply because we think of an object that the object exists; instead, all that “exists” are our signs and the experiences of lust, hatred and delusion associated with them. To propose and believe otherwise takes a blind leap of faith.

I have personally felt the evocative power of symbols, most notably during a meditation retreat I took this spring at the Insight Meditation Society In Massachusetts. The first few days were the most trying I have experienced in a long time. They say that as the mind begins to settle, the senses become amplified and acute. I say, as the Buddha once commented, that the senses become aflame. They become aflame with the raging of desire and aversion, the acute sensation that things are not the way I want them to be and I must do something about it. My sense of hearing was the first thing to catch fire. And wow, did it burn. I first became aware of people coughing and sneezing intermittently around the room. There was also a developing emotional reaction. I could not place it at first; I was trying to hide it, push it back below the surface of my consciousness. Then, I began to hear even more subtle noises around me: gulping and swallowing, stomachs gurgling and farting, people shifting their weight. Slosh, slide, gulp, cough … Why can’t they just shut up? I finally recognized it. The burning was anger and no matter how I tried to push it away, the anger would not let go. By the end of three days, I was an emotional wreck. All I could hear during every sitting was the cacophony of sounds that distracted me from my breathing. The man seated next to me was breathing extremely heavily. At one point, I began feeling strong urges to get up and punch him and scream at him. That would make him shut-up, I was thinking. I now recognize that it was the evocative power of these sounds, which I had symbolized as discreet coughs, breaths, sneezing, and gulps coming from separate individuals, that was implicated in my anger.

Our new epistemology may leave both the traditional mystic and the classical scientist in a difficult position. Both seem to make truth assertions about the world that cannot be verified. They take a standpoint on “whatever is seen, heard, sensed, cognized, attained, sought after and pondered over by the mind,” completely disregarding our newly discovered “comprehensive psychological principle” (Nanananda 21). Indeed, the perspective that the Buddha calls us to is wholly unique in that it rejects the idea of explicit truth or truth in assertion. He calls dogmatism a “barb” on which “mankind is hooked and impaled” (21). Nanananda writes, “The worldly concepts of truth and falsehood have a questionable background. They are but the outcome of sense-perception and are beaten out on the anvil of logic in the process of moulding this or that theory” (21). In order to accept the idea of explicit truth, we must deny not only quantum physics and psychological theory, but also our own moment-to-moment experience. Mystics often encounter this problem when they arise from blissful trance or meditation. Afterward, as St. Teresa did, the mystic will express his or her interpretation of that event as the utter truth of what had happened, be it unification with the divine or a feeling of immortality, among others. D’Aquili and Newberg write that mystical states have a strong sense of reality associated with it “to the point of its being absolutely compelling under almost all circumstances” (200). The event carries great evocative power. As Nanananda has shown us, however, it is this emotional or evocative element—the ability of the mystical experience to affect—that determines the subsequent dogmatism of the mystic. Attachment, aversion, and delusion produced by the event, and not some metaphysical revelation, is responsible for the mystic’s assertiveness.

It appears that the answers to our troubles do not come easily. If real truth is not to be found in science or mysticism, where can we find it? For a while I was beginning to think it did not exist. In way it does not exist, at least not explicitly in any particular experience, concept, or symbol, be it rational or mystical. Buddhists call the truth nirvana. The word literally means “to blow out” or “to extinguish” (Keown 55). That is, nirvana occurs when one has rid himself of the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion, the very things that maintain our belief in the world “out there.” When aversion and craving are gone, speculation with regards to metaphysical reality is irrelevant. Nirvana then is ineffable because the experience of it requires that one recognize that words are just symbolic reactions or behaviors, not metaphysical descriptions. Interestingly enough, ineffability is one of the qualities of mystical states according to William James (381). Unfortunately, James mistakes nirvana for just another mystical state. Speaking of the last trance-state or dhyana of Buddhist contemplation he writes, “This would seem to be, not yet Nirvana, but as close an approach to it as this life affords” (401-02). James never really quite gets around to Nirvana; he just sort of assumes that it must be like the mystical state of the last dhyana.

As Nanananda tells us, however, “Truth, according to [the Buddha] is in no one’s custody and has no esoterism or mysticism associated with it. It is a question of ‘seeing things as they are’ and once the necessary clarity of vision is developed, one could see it in all its lucidity and limpidity in the very structure of all phenomena” (81-82). Nirvana departs from mystical states—and from James’s qualifications of them—in that it is not transient, but permanent. For one who achieves it, nirvana exists whether in the most mystical or mundane of experiences. Its realization is independent of any one experience, thought, or mind-state because it involves freedom from attachment to any one experience, thought, or mind-state. The Buddha claimed to be no different from anyone else on Earth, except in the fact that he was awake, he had brought the practice of moment-to-moment awareness to its fullest fruition—indeed, “Buddha” means “awakened one” (Keown 16). I remember that he said of himself, “When I sit, I know that I am sitting; when I walk, I know that I am walking; when I eat, I know that I am eating.” It is only through this practice of mindfulness that we can bring ourselves out of our greed, hatred, and delusion. This is one of the primary reasons that I meditate—to bring myself out of delusion and aversion. When we see these as the “objects” of our experience and not sense-objects “out there,” we will then fully understand how we participate in the creation of our reality. We will see that in our desire to explain a particular phenomenon, be it a subatomic particle, a mystical experience, or another human being, we automatically participate in its creation in our minds. We will then be in a position to change.

In the end it may not really matter whether we reconcile the intellectual paradox of skepticism and spirituality. If absolute truth cannot be encapsulated in an argument, what does it mean to produce arguments as I have been? The whole process is very dizzying. It seems that if I say, “We cannot know objection reality,” I would simultaneously be making a claim to explicit truth, while also denying that explicit truth exists. “Nonetheless, we evidently cannot break away from this circle and step out of our cognitive domain,” Maturana and Varela remind us. “It would be like changing—by divine fiat—the nature of the brain, changing the nature of language, and changing the nature of our becoming. We would be changing the nature of our nature” (241). As humans, we constantly think our primarily symbolic, behavioral acts of language constitute “truth.” My argument, however, has been a symbolic behavior and insofar as it is independently and systematically verifiable, it is scientific and therefore may be useful in that sense. It is not, however, a claim to any explicit metaphysical truth. After all, we reveal more about ourselves and our own cravings and aversions when we try to explain the Universe than we do about any metaphysical reality. And obviously, as shown by the length and depth of this paper, I have a lot of cravings and aversion.

Works Cited

Anderson, Sherry and Patricia Hopkins. The Feminine Face of God. New York: Bantam Books, 1991.

D’Aquili, Eugene and Andrew Newburg. “The Neuropsychological Basis of Religions, or Why God Won’t Go Away.”Zygon. 33.2 (1998): 187-201.

Descartes, Rene. Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy. Trans. Donald Cress. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1998.

Hagen, Steve. How the World Can Be the Way It Is. Wheaton: Quest Books, 1995.

Hart, William. The Art of Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1987.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Penguin Books, 1982.

Keown, Damien. Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Maturana, Humberto, and Francisco Varela. The Tree of Knowledge. Boston: Shambhala, 1992.

Nanananda, Bhikkhu. The Magic of the Mind. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1974.

Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House, 1979.

Shermer, Michael. How We Believe. New York: W. H. Freeman and Company, 2000.