This is part three of a three part article on New Age Cargo Cults and the use of Critical Thinking. Part 3 deals exclusively with critical thinking skills that can help occultists keep their rational balance dealing with an irrational process.
Use of Critical Examination
The first consideration is that all premises and assumptions should be carefully examined in an objective and careful manner. Does the claim make sense, and does it seem rational and readily accessible to the seeker? Are the tenets verifiable by independent experimentation or actual spiritual experiences? Are there requirements that force the adherents to suspend judgment or accept doctrines and practices purely on faith? Does the organization seem more interested in getting their fees and donations up front than allowing their beliefs and practices to be tested in an objective manner, thereby determining their authenticity?
There are also some important tests and considerations that the student can apply to any occult or spiritual belief system. I have found that the best mechanism for determining the truthfulness of spiritual claims is to apply some of the skeptical tests that have been promoted by the philosophic movement of atheism. The author Michael Shermer has written a book “Why People Believe Weird Things,” and also published a website called “How Thinking Goes Wrong - Twenty-five Fallacies That Lead Us to Believe Weird Things.” You can find the website here.
While I am not an advocate of atheism by any stretch of the imagination (as Michael Shermer has abundantly declared himself to be), ironically, some of his written arguments are actually quite important for the measuring of objective truth and authenticating spiritual beliefs. I feel that we can examine some of them here to help us define a methodology for examining spiritual claims in an objective fashion, and so allow us to make judgments about the veracity of any given spiritual system. Therefore, I have included twelve of the most pertinent ones below.
The first thing that we need to keep in mind is that all spiritual experiences are necessarily subjective, but this fact should not in any way discount them as being invalid or merely the products of the imagination. The way in which subjective spiritual experiences are validated is through the process of peer review and experimental corroboration. While it may at times be difficult to corroborate a person or group’s spiritual claims, we can also use some rational tests as well, and this is where Michael Shermer’s writings come in handy. We should also keep in mind that occultists and spiritual teachers often use the “what if” metaphorical approach to creating concepts and building explanations for experiences that are, by definition, inexplicable. When I use the word “inexplicable,” what I mean is that certain concepts can’t be reduced to rational thought.
The second thing that we need to consider is that the spiritual realm of consciousness cannot be apprehended by the senses alone, nor can it be encapsulated by the mind as rational theories or models. Spiritual consciousness and its associated subtle phenomena can only be apprehended and realized when an individual is within the proper altered state of consciousness. Spiritual truths must always be determined by the methods that were used to establish the associated state of consciousness Not to do this is to take a spiritual truth or perspective out of its spiritual context. We can then say with a certain degree of confidence that spiritual claims which are able to be measured by the senses or by rational examination can be determined to be true or false. Other claims or experiences have to corroborated by performing the corresponding technique or practice. If a shaman claims to be able to physically transform himself into a wolf, then he would be subjected to same rigorous requirement of proof that any scientist would undergo making the same claim. Where problems arise in spiritual discourse and the testimony of spiritual experiences is where metaphors become confused for literal things or are taken out of their spiritual context.
We should also be aware that when occult tenets or beliefs bracket both the spiritual and physical worlds, then at least the aspect or part that affects the physical world should be able to be proven in an empirical manner. If a group believes in physical reincarnation, then the physical aspect of being reborn should have physical evidence that can be examined, tested and either verified or refuted. In such a situation, merely examining something as being logical or rational is not sufficient to verify it as truth, since what is being proposed should be able to be proven as a fact using the traditional scientific method.
Shermer’s document begins with an examination of “Hume’s Maxim,” which I am also quoting here for our examination. David Hume was a Scottish philosopher who lived during the middle of the 17th century. He states in his writings:
“That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.”
What Hume means by this statement is that a testimony or subjective experience should be able to be examined in the light of natural phenomena or judged as unsubstantiated fancy, and that the greater miracle should be rejected for the lesser, more rational, explanation. Of course, this logical analysis would be used to examine any spiritual claim that involved some kind of physical phenomenon. Yet it could also be used indirectly to determine truth in regards to spiritual tenets or doctrines as well. The important consideration is that any claim should have within it the means or mechanism through which it can be examined and potentially corroborated or refuted. Unsubstantiated claims must always be treated with a certain degree of skepticism. If the entire set of doctrines or tenets of a spiritual tradition are unsubstantiated, then the seeker should be extremely cautious of that tradition.
The following twelve points should help anyone critically analyze claims made within a spiritual community, group or promoted within some New Age or occult tradition. It is important to understand that metaphors which describe spiritual experiences are not to be confused as claims for objective truth; just as poetry or fictional stories are to be enjoyed for their own sake, and one need not take them literally.
1. Anecdotes are not scientific: The recounting of experiences, although interesting and perhaps even insightful, does not make them a fact. All statements and claims must be supported by corroborative evidence, usually from other independent sources, in order for anecdotal evidence to be accepted as truth. Just because someone says it’s so doesn’t necessarily mean that it must be so.
2. Using scientific language does not make something scientific: The use of jargon or the clothing of claims in scientific language does not make those claims scientific. What makes something scientific is the precise manner that the premise is stated and thoroughly tested by evidence. One example that comes to mind is Creationism, which appears to be scientific because it is written using scientific terminology. However, Creationism has not presented any corroborative evidence that would make it in fact a scientific theory and not a theological premise dressed up in scientific clothing.
3. Using bold statements to make a claim does not make that claim true: Someone can claim to have discovered the greatest new idea since the discovery of fire or the wheel, but that does not make it so. Rather, all claims need to be backed up by supporting evidence instead of emotionally charged exclamations.
4. Heretical claims are not a sign of truth: A claim that is ridiculed or violently opposed does not mean that the claim is necessarily valid. Many scientific theories have been proposed without any ridicule or opposition, but they have been verified or falsified based on the supporting evidence. Often heretical thoughts or claims are a sign of poor science or political grandstanding rather than radical or revolutionary thought.
5. The burden of proof is on the one making the claim: Those who are making the claim must supply the evidence to support that claim, not those to whom the claim represents a contradiction of established fact. For instance, those who claim that the holocaust did not occur must supply the proof for their claim. It is not up to those historians who have already presented the mountain of evidence that the holocaust did indeed occur to disprove the claim that it didn’t. Similarly, the proponents of the theory of evolution do not need to prove that the theory of Creationism is false. It is the task of the proponents of Creationism to validate their counter-theory using corroborative evidence and prove that evolution is false.
6. Rumors do not equate reality: If we hear a claim reported from unsubstantiated sources, then it must be considered an unsubstantiated rumor and not a fact. This is how urban myths are created and spread by gossip and opinion. All claims must be properly substantiated or they remain untrustworthy sources of information, and can even be disguised misinformation. The internet has seen to it that urban myths not only continue to tenaciously exist; but that they spawn other spurious beliefs and seem to have an independent life and volition.
7. The unexplained is not inexplicable: Just because something occurs that can’t be explained due to insufficient data or lacking objective proof does not mean that it is an unresolvable mystery, evidence of paranormal activity or proof of the supernatural. It is important to accept some things as unexplainable phenomena, perhaps requiring further experimentation and more data to ultimately explain it. This is so, despite the fact that human nature dislikes not having a neat and useful explanation for everything. We also need to be careful when labeling something as paranormal or supernatural. Operationally, all things that occur in the higher strata of consciousness have this quality of being paranormal, but they often do not produce physical phenomena that could be measured or recorded except as anecdotal subjective accounts or narratives. Occultists also use the word “mystery” or “inexplicable” to represent the fact that spiritual experiences can’t be communicated in a rational and objective fashion.
8. The failure to prove a claim is rationalized or ignored: Often this represents an excuse for why the claim can't be proven or shown to be true under all circumstances and situations. A psychic or prophet might complain that he or she is unable to envision or profess because the time of day isn’t right, it's the wrong phase of the moon, there are bad vibes, or the setting isn’t auspicious. Also, failures may be altered through data tampering or even entirely omitted, ensuring that the claim is always shown to be true. In science, negative results are considered as important as positive ones, since it indicates that either the claim is wrong or that some other factor is causing the results to be skewed. Spiritual claims that prove to be false are often rationalized by the faithful as being true; but only under certain (indefinable) circumstances.
9. After-the-fact reasoning is used to explain nearly everything: This is a fancy term for superstition. A bowler has a victorious night bowling, and attributes it to his lucky bowling shoes. A gambler can have a lucky key ring, and a baseball player, a lucky mitt. This also produces such beliefs as the wearing of lucky charms, keeping a rabbit's foot in one's pocket, wearing a St. Christopher medal, avoiding the number 13, avoiding black cats, the evil eye, not stepping on a crack on the sidewalk or walking under a ladder, etc. We can look at such beliefs and easily see their foolishness, but it's human nature to ascribe the cause of an event or situation after it has already occurred. Ask someone to determine the cause of an event before it happens, and they will seldom predict such an outcome better than chance.
10. Coincidence is happenstance: Often times what seems like a miraculous coincidence is actually within the realm of probability. We color these relationships as meaningful to us when they are just happenstance. We seek meaningful relationships between events even when none exist. Synchronicity is an often ill used term, invented by C. G. Jung to describe the quality of meaningfulness and connectivity that one feels when two unrelated events occur and are perceived as being related. This does not mean that the sense of connectivity and meaningfulness that one feels is indicative of some kind of causal link between them.
For instance, a man meets a woman friend at a concert in an arena, and amongst several thousand attendees her seat ends up being right next to his, even though the occurrence was accidental and unplanned. They might consider such an occurrence auspicious, perhaps indicating that they should get to know each other or to become lovers, since this “sign” has indicated a connection between them. Actually, the event is within the realm of probability, even though it seems singularly auspicious and meaningful to them.
11. Contrasting representativeness determines the difference between typical or unusual occurrences: We must always understand the context in which an unusual event or claim occurs. We should analyze it for the representativeness of its class of phenomena, and establish a comparative baseline for usual or explainable phenomena. If the unusual occurrence fits with the usual or explainable phenomenon that acts as a baseline, then that unusual event is actually part of the class of explainable phenomena.
A good example is a reputed haunted house, which seems to abound in strange sounds and paranormal events. These seem less remarkable when compared to the base line of usual sounds that an old house might make, such as the groaning of out of square joints, the knocking or rattling of old plumbing, the scratching sounds of mice burrowing in the walls, the settling of old foundations, etc.
12. Miscellaneous Points: Other mistakes that can skew or cause us to make false judgments or claims are listed as the following points below. A lack of evidence does not prove or disprove a claim; it makes it unverifiable or unknown. A case in point is the proof that God exists because there is no evidence to prove that he does not exist, or, that God does not exist because there is no evidence to prove that he does exist.
Hasty generalizations: usually scientists err on the degree of caution before making a generalization about a given claim or phenomena; but the average individual seems to have no problem in making judgments even on the slimmest of evidence. This is also called prejudice. For instance, a few Muslims are found to be terrorists; therefore, all Muslims must be potential terrorists.
An over reliance on authorities: If someone has a PhD next to their name, they have become an unquestioned authority even in areas beyond their specialization. Talk radio and cable news are full of so-called experts who offer their opinions as facts, even if there is no independent supporting evidence or sources. It used to be that a news item could be reasonably verified if there were at least three independent sources to corroborate it. Unfortunately, this is no longer true, since getting the scoop is now more important in the internet age than producing news that has a certain degree of factual integrity.
Circular reasoning or tautology: This is where a conclusion or claim is merely a restatement of one of the premises. For instance: God exists because the Bible proves it, and the Bible is true because it is the inspired word of God.
If we avoid the above mistakes in logic and seek to verify spiritual claims in a rational and objective fashion, then we can avoid falling for spurious teachings and being duped or coerced into believing and accepting things as fact when they are actually false, unsupported or unverifiable suppositions. Any legitimate esoteric or spiritual tradition offers the mechanism for verifying their tenets or doctrines and never requires anyone to merely believe and accept them as unqualified facts. Also, any legitimate esoteric or spiritual tradition allows for an open examination of its beliefs and practices, and uses a form of peer review to ascertain if subjective spiritual experiences are valid or not.
We would be well advised to shun any group or organization that resists an honest examination of their beliefs and doctrines. We should be wary of any organization that forces its members to accept unqualified doctrines and unsubstantiated truths in order to effortlessly acquire godlike abilities or powers for money. We should be dubious of anyone who claims to have achieved godlike powers or abilities with little or no effort, and we should be very cautious of any teacher or spiritual leader who refuses to be accountable for their actions. Through a sober consideration of all claims, creeds and tenets, we can avoid the pitfalls of cults and the interference of false prophets and teachers, and thereby not lend support to the ever burgeoning growth of various New Age or Occult cargo cults.
While we can discuss the spiritual ramifications of spiritual matters to our hearts content, when it comes to the physical world, science is more able to determine the nature and even origin of life than any form of occultism. So for this reason I have dropped any occult theory or system that attempts to explain physical reality.
I have to admit that I am biased in favor of occult beliefs because I am a practicing occultist and ritual magician. My occult studies and magickal practices are therefore confined to the domain of spirit and mind, which seems to be the most fertile area for my work. I talk about magical powers and dealing with angels, daemons, gods, goddesses, etc. However, I am referring entirely to the domain of spirit. Where things happen in the material world through the art of my magick, I would say that it was my magick that caused it; but I wouldn’t attempt to prove such an hypothesis in a scientific manner. I highly recommend that other occultists follow my example.
What I do is to keep those things that are spiritual in the context of the spiritual world, and I don’t attempt to make elaborate models and theories to determine what is happening. I consider these phenomena to be metaphysical occurrences. They involve spiritual revelations, but they are not something that I can empirically prove. I don’t need to. Instead, I leave the ultimate judgment of my work to my peers who are qualified to work the same rituals and see what the results produce. But from a scientific point of view, my results are subjective and anecdotal, which means that they could not be used as any kind of logical or rational proof.
For this reason, I prefer to call my magickal practice an art and not a science. It may have rules and structures, but it can’t stand up to an empirical analysis, so it should not be confused with other things that can be proven in this manner. I have so much respect for science and what it has discovered that I am unwilling to dispute it. I will allow scientists to find out the truth about the physical world, but I will work on what I consider to be spiritual truths that are within the provenance of my understanding.