The Skeptical Philosophy
“The Skeptical Philosophy”, as it is sometimes known, tends to overlap with (if not being identical with) The Mechanical Philosophy. “The Skeptical Philosophy” is, by and large, an alternate name for the Cartesian method of “radical doubt”. This methodological attitude towards life and the world often ran afoul of the “defenders of the faith” and the articles of faith. It was also often itself attacked by William Blake as belonging to “Single Vision & Newtons sleep”: “If the Sun & Moon should Doubt. Theyd immediately Go out.”
Nonetheless this emergent skeptical attitude towards the oral tradition and the authority of faith (Socrates is the precursor here) is not the same skepticism as what is called “skepticism” today, which has degenerated into cynicism. The originators of The Skeptical Philosophy were, despite the methodological attitude of radical doubt, very devout men and women. Typically, the early natural philosophers and scientists adhered to a theological stance called “Deism”, which was often attacked by Blake and others.
This emergent skeptical attitude, most often associated with the name of Rene Descartes, is, in effect, the early confrontation of the new mental-rational consciousness with the mytho-religious consciousness structure. But contrary to the contemporary rationalistic myths about the “martyrs of modern science and reason”, the early advocates of The Skeptical Philosophy were not atheists. Descartes, Galileo, Newton, LaPlace, etc were all very devout men. The fact that they felt there was no need to appeal to divine intervention to explain the appearances (the phenomena) of the world, and that God was an hypothesis they could do without, did not mean they were atheists. Not at all. Their own “faith”, as it were, was that the Great Clockmaker or Architect had created a rational and logical world order that could be interpreted and understood rationally and logically without reference to divine election or intervention (except, in Descartes’ case, to the problem of time which Descartes believed was a daily miracle performed by God). A rational God had created a rational world and then retired to watch it wind down. This faith in a rational order of the phenomena (appearances) as the objective product of divine Reason is still that attitude demonstrated by Einstein, when he insisted that “God does not play dice with the world”. In other words, Einstein felt that all explanations or descriptions of reality that appealed to “chance” or “accident” to be completely irrational and not properly scientific at all.
(Contrary to popular belief also, Buddhism has no role for “chance” or “accident” in a world governed by the karmic law of action and reaction. As one Buddhist monk put it, “chance is just ignorance”. In that sense, the Buddhist worldview is that the world is rational in the sense of “reasonable”).
In the long term, “divine election” lost favour as an explanatory principle in favour of “natural selection”. And also in the longer term, if a Creator existed at all, the Creator simply became irrelevant, and irrevelant eventually became “non-existent”. The new faith of the rationalists was that the appearances of the world could be explained logically without reference to divine intervention. But contrary to contemporary belief also, this wasn’t the position of many of the foremost early scientists and natural philosophers. “Reality” was the product of God’s mind. God was Reason Supreme. Therefore, his creation was entirely reasonable. Reason itself was of divine origin, and in studying Nature, one was also interpreting the Mind of God.
That the world was a machine — a Clockwork — was initially a useful metaphor or convention. It helped very much in clearing the mind of clutter, but over time the metaphoric character of the world machine (the machine as model) became confused with the reality, as often happens with our metaphors (“heaven” and “hell” were initially metaphors). Over time, the very success of the metaphor came to be confused with “the-way-things-actually-are”. Today, the Clockwork Universe metaphor is starting to lose respect in favour of the universe as a computer.
Before the machine metaphor was the “tree” metaphor — the Tree of Life. The World Tree also figures prominently in many cosmological myths. And probably, in the Flammarion woodcut called Urbi et Orbi, the lone tree in the engraving is the Tree of Life, standing there in contrast to the machine world “beyond”.
The skeptical attitude is a very important aspect of the mental-rational (or logico-mathematical) structure of consciousness, but which has nonetheless deteriorated and is now confused with cynicism (which is a form of nihilism). This is one aspect of what Jean Gebser referred to as the mental-rational consciousness structure now entering into “deficient mode”, in the sense that it has become self-devouring. If we speak of a “healthy skepticism” it’s because we also now know what is “unhealthy skepticism”, which is cynicism.
So, when we speak of “integral consciousness”, it’s not to denigrate the skeptical attitude, which is an important element of reason, but to recognise its proper place. In this world of competing propagandas for this way of life or that way of life, the skeptical attitude (“suspicion”, Nietzsche calls it) is a critical part of our mental hygiene. But we must insist on recognising the “faith” that underlies the skeptical attitude and sustains it — the faith that, after all, our reality is logical and reasonable and not so absurd and insane, even if we haven’t yet fully discovered its true logic.