Essays in the Tim Maroney Web Collection
|essays · journal · about the author · send me e-mail|
The Book of Dzyan
Definition of the Sacred
Descent: A Meditation
Even If I Did Believe
Facts and Phallacies
The Freedom of Doubt
Healing The Spiritual Community
Hekate and the Satanic School
Introduction to Crowley
The Included Middle
A Letter to Close
The Problems of Syncretism
Theory of Divination
Why Crowley Doesn't Suck
Why I Study Magic
(Originally published in The Scarlet Letter.)
Today we think of skepticism and religion as necessarily opposed. Religion by its nature promotes dogma, and skeptics are above all else dogma's enemies. Is there a way to reconcile these warring siblings, the doubter and the dogmatist? There may be, but we will have to delve deep into the skeptical way to find it. In contrast to modern "debunking" skepticism, classical skepticism has significant points of contact with mystical ideas of post-rational states of mind, and explains a way to be open to religious ideas and trances without believing in them.
Skepticism uses reasoning to deconstruct reasoning, promising a happy state of suspended judgment known as ataraxia. Parallels to ataraxia include mystical enlightenment, the koans of Zen, the undifferentiated awareness of Yogic samadhi, and the English mystic Aleister Crowley's "crossing the Abyss." Crowley is often interesting due to his attempts to reconcile mysticism with philosophy. I will often refer to him here because he describes himself as a skeptical mystic.
Most of our knowledge of classical skepticism comes from the writings of Sextus Empiricus, the second century CE Greek philosopher, whose Outlines of Pyrrhonism1 summarizes an older system founded by Pyrrho. Sextus writes of the difficulty of being certain of the conclusions of philosophy, and explains the "modes of epochê" (eh-pah-KAY), or methods for suspending judgment. Using these modes one discovers equally plausible alternative ways of looking at dogmatic assertions.
Epochê has aged well. Recent philosophical achievements such as Nietzschean post-moral relativism and Gödel's Theorem find ancient counterparts in the modes, and epochê became an important part of phenomenology, a paradigm of importance to twentieth century psychology and anthropology. Its founder, Edmund Husserl, cast epochê as a state "which completely bars me from using any judgment that concerns spatio-temporal existence".2
Sextus gives four lists of modes of epochê . Space permits me to consider only two of the lists (see table 1). The first list gives ten modes. Although the mode of relativity is inconspicuously listed in eighth place, it is the general case of most of the other modes. All things are observed in relation to other things, including relations to their observers, rather than by themselves, and so we can say nothing about how things are in themselves, but only how they appear to be relative to other things.
Associated modes list specific relations between observers and the observed. The first three modes note the role our biological existence has in creating judgments. Animals perceive things differently from species to species, just as the perceptions and interpretations of individual people differ. Sense organs and mental processes produce particular sensations and judgments that conjure only certain relative qualities. We see as red what the dog sees as gray; which is correct? The mode of admixtures notes that our sensations are made up not only of their apparent objects but of the intervening media, the environment, the sense organs, and the intellect.
The Ten Older Modes
The Five More Recent Modes
Other modes note the relativity between observers in different conditions, such as old or young, hungry or sated, moving or still. There are also relativistic effects from distance, position, and rarity. Form or constitution is a relation that creates disagreement in qualities: the same objects have different qualities in different forms, such as sand which appears rough when scattered, but smooth when formed into a dune. Is sand rough or smooth?
The tenth mode, the mode of "ways of life, customs and laws, mythic beliefs and dogmatic opinions," is a principle of moral relativity, undercutting dogmatic ideas of good and evil. Different cultures disagree on the moral value of particular actions, such as eating with the hands or having sex in public. The more we know about other cultures, the less we can be sure that our own moral judgments are inherently correct.
Next comes a list of five more recent modes. The first is disagreement -- when people disagree about a subject, and there seems to be no clear way of resolving the disagreement, we must withhold judgment. The second mode notes the infinite regress created by resting arguments on assumptions. Every argument necessarily has premises, but an argument is needed to justify those premises, but then that argument has premises which themselves require further justification. This creates a logical absurdity, an infinite regress. Therefore, no argument rests on firm ground. The third mode, relativity, is already familiar. The mode of hypothesis notes that escaping from infinite regress by simply accepting premises without question leaves those premises questionable and the conclusion in doubt.
Finally there is the mode of circularity. This refers to the well-known fallacy of the circular form of argument in which premises are validated by the conclusion. For instance, if we were to say that the Book of the Law is true because it says it is true, and since the book is true its claim about its truthfulness could not be false, we would be reasoning in a circle.
If the modes of epochê are the negative face of skepticism, the slogans are the positive (see table 2). "I withhold assent" and "perhaps and perhaps not" are skeptical responses to "dogmatic statements about the non-evident." "Not more (this than that)" means that there seem to be other ways of looking at the situation. And so for the other slogans.
The final slogan is "to every argument an equal argument is opposed." This is given two different interpretations. One is that we ought to try to answer every argument with an opposing argument. Another holds that there is for every argument a sort of anti-argument that destroys it. The latter, if carelessly phrased, would be a dogmatic assertion, since we have not yet heard every possible argument and therefore cannot know whether future arguments may prove stronger than those we have examined so far. Nor do we know whether our belief that we have countered any particular argument will continue to seem accurate, since flaws could lurk within our refutations. For that reason Sextus brackets this interpretation of the slogan with modifiers which, although not among the slogans, are just as often repeated: "it seems to me now" and "of those we have so far examined."
This self-referentiality is one of skepticism's strong points. It is not entirely convinced even of its own method, and instead of creating new dogmas -- for instance, that nothing could ever be proven -- it recognizes that its findings are themselves appearances or seemings, subject to change in the future, and based on a less than complete understanding. Belief is transfigured into a non-dogmatic mode, but we are not faced with the impossible task of accepting nothing.
Epochê is sometimes translated as "abstention." Is skepticism an ascetic state of renunciation? What do we do after we have deconstructed all certainty? Should we ignore the aching in our bellies as illusory? David Hume complains that Pyrrhonism would lead to a world where "all human life must perish... and men remain in a total lethargy, till the necessities of nature, unsatisfied, put an end to their miserable existence."3 Sextus, however, says this:
The honey appears to us to be sweet. This we grant, for we sense the sweetness. But whether it is sweet we question insofar as this has to do with the theory, for that theory is not the appearance, but something said about the appearance.... Holding to the appearances, then, we live without beliefs but in accord with the ordinary regimen of life, since we cannot be wholly inactive. 4
We follow without doctrinal belief the common course of life and we say that there are gods, and we reverence gods and ascribe to them foreknowledge....5
Despite saying that there are gods, Sextus goes on to refute the most important philosophical and theological theories of deity, and expresses a pagan version of the Problem of Evil: the contradiction between the absolutely good and all-powerful nature of deity and the evil in the world. He does not believe in gods but he says that there are gods. I will return to this important point.
We might ask whether Sextus is pulling back from the import of skepticism. Why do we need to eat, drink, and align ourselves with the mores of society, if these things rest on insupportable theories? They don't; ordinary life rests on appearances. Appearances can be called into question, but we might as well accept them in the ordinary course of events. What compelling reason is there to oppose them? The bizarre life of the ascetic is more likely to result from a dogmatic religious theory rather than the skeptic's abstention from statements about the world in itself.
In the essay "The Soldier and the Hunchback," Crowley arrives at a similar conclusion when asking how anything shall stand before the destructiveness of skepticism: "Well, one of the buttresses is just the small matter of common sense." He goes on to explain that although it cannot be proved that his friend Dorothy and her sausage sandwiches even exist, "it's the taste I like."6 "Why not be a clean-living Irish gentleman, even if you do have insane ideas about the universe?"7
Skepticism does not force us to ignore the world around us or to adopt an ascetic way of life. What, then, are these modes and slogans for? They are said to create aporia, a desirable state of bemusement. The intellect is dumbstruck before a wealth of contradictory ideas. By cultivating aporia, holds Sextus, one can attain ataraxia, a state of happiness caused by ceasing to ascribe good or evil values to phenomena.
Is ataraxia a "mystical" goal? That is a matter of definition. It is psychological, not supernatural, but it is targeted at an improvement of the inner life of humanity through mental discipline. The teaching that aporia leads to ataraxia resembles a religious doctrine. Sextus' insistence on the efficacy of the skeptical method in creating happiness may seem to be a weak point in his presentation. Generally he is careful to be skeptical even about skepticism, rarely insisting on the permanence of any assertion or conclusion. Casting skepticism as a way of life with dramatic results in creating personal happiness is uncharacteristically sweeping, perhaps even dogmatic.
One can easily draw parallels between this doctrine and the Buddhist idea of escaping sorrow by detachment from the judgment of conditions as desirable or undesirable. It could also be compared with Crowley's idea of achieving "true wisdom and perfect happiness" by opposing each idea with its contradiction. While each of these doctrines has unique features and it would be a mistake to draw a simplistic equation between them, they have a common thread, an attempt to free the mind of preconceived values by breeding alternative perspectives and loosening rigid value judgments. The result is a type of happy wisdom. This accomplishment, variously called ataraxia, enlightenment, or "exalted degree," cures the disease of dogmatic judgment.
Like any religious doctrine, this one is susceptible to skeptical questions. How do we know that ataraxia exists? Is it permanent or transitory? Does the method of aporia work for everyone? Is ataraxia an achievement or a preexisting personality type? Is the description of the experience accurate? Under what system of values is the state praiseworthy? Since ataraxia seems to be an object of adoration, might its adorer have exaggerated its attributes? If I poke you in the eye with a stick, will you not still cry, enlightened one? Sextus has answers to some of these questions, much as Buddhists do in the Questions of King Milinda, but they are not always convincing in either case.
Crowley's skeptico-mystical text "Liber Os Abysmi vel Da'ath"8, describes a philosophical practice purported to lead to a transcendence of rationality, or as Crowley liked to say, "crossing the Abyss."
Let the Exempt Adept procure the Prolegomena of Kant, and study it, paying special attention to the Antinomies. Also Hume's doctrine of Causality in his "Enquiry."... Also Huxley's Essays on Hume and Berkeley... [Etc.] Now let him consider special problems, such as the Origin of the World, the Origin of Evil, Infinity, the Absolute, the Ego and the non-Ego, Freewill and Destiny, and such others as may attract him. Let him subtly and exactly demonstrate the fallacies of every known solution, and let him seek a true solution by his right Ingenium.
Such a skewering of all known philosophies is just what Sextus accomplished in his day with the modes of epochê. Crowley, unlike Sextus, seems to be saying that the mystic should seek new solutions, but the seeker is being set up for failure:
Let then his reason hurl itself again and again against the blank wall of mystery which will confront him.... Then will all phenomena which present themselves to him appear meaningless and disconnected, and his own Ego will break up into a series of impressions having no relation one with the other, or with any other thing... [His state of insanity] may end in ... his rebirth into his own body and mind with the simplicity of a little child. And then shall he find all his faculties unimpaired, yet cleansed in a manner ineffable.... Hath he not attained to Understanding?
Flowery language aside, having thoroughly experienced the futility of philosophical reasoning, the mystic has been freed from its grip.
The Hindu mantra "neti, neti" ("not this, not this"), which denies the accuracy of perceptions and judgments, is directly negative rather than skeptically detached, but it is similar to withholding assent. Samadhi in Hindu Yoga is the mystical trance of the reconciliation of opposites, or non-duality. Crowley recommends a method of inducing samadhi by conjoining each thought with its contradiction. In The Book of Lies he explains that the meditator "enters into his Samadhi, and he piles contradiction upon contradiction, and thus a higher degree of rapture, with every sentence, until his armoury is exhausted, and... he enters the supreme state."9 His method recalls the final skeptical slogan, "to every argument an equal argument is opposed." This is a persistent theme of The Book of Lies, and its clearest point of contact with skepticism comes in chapter 45, entitled "Chinese Music". I note in [brackets] some parallels with the modes of epochê:
Proof is only possible in mathematics, and mathematics is only a matter of arbitrary conventions. [The mode of hypothesis.]
"White is white" is the lash of the overseer; "white is black" is the watchword of the slave. The Master takes no heed. [The mode of conditions.]
The Chinese cannot help thinking that the octave has 5 notes. [The mode of ways of life, customs and laws.]
The more necessary anything appears to my mind, the more certain it is that I only assert a limitation.
He says in a commentary that in the latter two sentences, "we find a most important statement, a practical aspect of the fact that all truth is relative," the mode of relativity.
The chapter closes with one of Crowley's more recognizable quotes:
I slept with Faith, and found a corpse in my arms on awaking; I drank and danced all night with Doubt, and found her a virgin in the morning.
He comments that "we see how skepticism keeps the mind fresh, whereas faith dies in the very sleep that it induces." Skepticism is presented as a meditative discipline, a vivid spiritual deconstruction of normal modes of belief.
Skepticism in its mystical mode is a quest for a trans-rational state which does not shut out rationality but multiplies thought into a broad and unfettered symphony, without investing any one thought with too much seriousness. While this might not make a poke in the eye any more pleasant, it could provide both aesthetic reward and a buffer against unpleasant thoughts and sensations. The benefits of ataraxia may be exaggerated, but Sextus's report of a happy result from aporia may yet refer to some real and useful mental state.
It is surprising to find common ground between skepticism and religion because religion seems intrinsically dogmatic. Its dubious assertions fall readily before the skeptical scythe. The religious sometimes respond that their beliefs are not dogmatic but experiential. This fails to justify dogmatic interpretations of experiences, though. For instance, it may well be that someone has the experience of conversing with Jesus, but that does not prove the theory that Jesus exists. Similarly, though the trance of samadhi may occur, that does not demonstrate that samadhi redeems us in the next world.
Vivekananda, the well-known Indian mystic (1863-1902), wrote that rationality can serve as a guardian for the mystic.
Stick to your reason until you reach something higher; and you will know it to be higher because it will not jar with reason. The stage beyond consciousness is inspiration (samadhi)... There is no external test for inspiration; we know it ourselves. Our guard against mistake is negative: the voice of reason. All religion means going beyond reason; but reason is the only guide to get there.10
In ancient India there was a philosophical movement called Cârvâka or Lokâyata, a form of materialism resembling Pyrrhonism in important ways, and much disliked by the religious. Unfortunately this movement's own writings have not survived, but we do possess responses to Cârvâka philosophy in the writings of its many opponents. The Cârvâkas deny the reality and transmigration of the self and the possibility of salvation in another world, which are pillars of mainstream Indian philosophy. These skeptics admit only perception as a mode of knowledge, much as Pyrrhonists accept only appearances. But is samadhi a perception? It seems it must be. A trance is a state of mind, and so it is perceived; it has an appearance and so it can be known.
Did the Cârvâkas accept trances while denying that they involved the invisible soul or âtman, or provided otherworldly redemption? So it would appear from the account of Gunaratna 11, who tells us that the hedonistic Cârvâkas "carry human skulls, smear their bodies with ashes and practice yoga." These skeptical yogins disagree with the conventional sâdhus or holy men who seek redemption through meditation, but they do not deny that they attain pleasure through meditation; they say simply that meditation has no purpose, that "dharma is not superior to kâma," that is, that meditation is no better than the pleasure of the body.
To consider another form of skeptical mysticism, Crowley's essay "The Soldier and the Hunchback" says that we should not waver from asking any reasonable question, but once we have done so we will find the questions turning into answers as we climb the spiritual ladder. Employing the (awkward) metaphor of question marks as hunchbacks and exclamation points as soldiers, he says:
It takes a moment for a hunchback to kill his man, and the farther we get from our base the longer he takes. You may crumble to ashes the dream-world of a boy, as it were, between your fingers; but before you can bring the physical universe tumbling about a man's ears he requires to drill his hunchbacks so devilish well that they are terribly like soldiers themselves. And a question capable of shaking the consciousness of Samadhi could, I imagine, give long odds to one of Frederick's grenadiers.12
As Crowley implies, it seems likely that the average skeptic does acquire some belief in the power of the tools of questioning. However, he goes too far in trying to cast the modes of epochê as positives: a question is only a question. Crowley makes two mistakes. First, he believes without question in the theological model often known as the Great Chain of Being (though he does not call it that) by which existence is ordered from the most to the least sacred. Crowley's Qabalistic ladder stretches from the hellish Qliphoth through the fields we know up to the ultimate Kether of Yetzirah and the Veils of Negative Existence. This model is a cosmological dogma and it is easily thrown into doubt by simple application of the modes of epochê. Without the ladder, there is no basis for believing in a transformation of questions as we climb.
Second, Crowley is emotionally driven to find a way out of questioning and into certainty, while the Pyrrhonist sees questioning as a pleasant state sufficient unto itself. Again and again in the essay he expresses his desire that questions marks should turn into exclamation points: "we may now resume our attempt to drill our hunchback into a presentable soldier," "wouldn't it be jolly if our own second ? suddenly straightened its back and threw its chest out and marched off as ! ?", and so on. Elsewhere he says that "doubt is a good servant but a bad master"13. He wants to have absolute conviction in a religious system yet still be a skeptic.
This desire for certainty led him to create a dogmatic religious system. The definition of his magical order A.·. A.·. contains this belief requirement:
All members must of necessity work in accordance with the facts of Nature... So must all Members of the A.·. A.·. work by the Magical Formula of the Æon. They must accept the Book of the Law as the Word and the Letter of Truth, and the sole Rule of Life. They must acknowledge the Authority of the Beast 666 and of the Scarlet Woman as in the book it is defined, and accept Their Will as concentrating the Will of our Whole Order. They must accept the Crowned and Conquering Child as the Lord of the Æon, and exert themselves to establish His reign upon Earth. They must acknowledge that "The Word of the Law is Thelema" and that "Love is the law, love under will."14
A skeptic would respond simply "maybe, and maybe not."
Despite his skeptical meditation practice, Crowley believed that his particular religious doctrine was an absolute truth and that it was merely a mistake to disagree with it. We can also easily find evidence of dogmatism in Buddhism and Hinduism, despite their elements of skepticism. Dogmatism is tempting. There seems to be something in us that draws us toward conviction in the non-evident. Even Sextus seems to have a system of thought that rests on the non-evident proposition that aporia leads to ataraxia. We find a comfort in certainty and an anxiety in doubt, and so we love systems of religion and philosophy. Their self-assured dogmas give us a feeling of place in the universe and of participation in an overarching order.
Should we resist this tendency? Is Sextus wrong in maintaining that suspension of judgment will make us happy? Do we need to be certain of things? Is this need so strong that it can justify holding mistaken beliefs, such as the belief that God lives in the sky, or that diseases are caused by malevolent spirits, or that Buddha remembered all his millions of past lives, or that Vishnu was born as a fish, or that our courses on earth have been foreordained by the True Will? Shall we simply accept that credulity is necessary to our happiness and forget that our pet dogmas are probably false?
The answer is a matter of degrees. We might not believe that Vishnu had ever been born as a fish, but we could find some wisdom in the story of this scaly avatar, as we might in any fiction, and so our reaction to the story could be accepting while not believing. We know from Kuhn that science is an unreliable social process, but still we accept galaxies and molecules. There are many degrees of belief and many types of acceptance. To be a dogmatist is not simply to act as if any statement has value but to insist that some non-evident insistence about the world is definitely and lastingly true.
The ancients knew that affirming the value of a myth does not require affirming its accuracy. Plutarch, for example, insists on a nonliteral but positive interpretation of Egyptian myth: "We must not treat legend as if it were history at all, but we should adopt that which is appropriate in each legend in accordance with its verisimilitude,"15 that is, symbolically, in the way that myth resembles the world. Perhaps this non-literalistic affirmation is what Crowley meant by his apparently dogmatic A.·. A.·. belief requirement? Perhaps we must be willing to act as if these myths were true, even though we do not believe in them? Unfortunately, no. In a footnote to the passage above, he addresses the conflict between freedom of thought and doctrinal mandate:
This is not in contradiction with the absolute right of every person to do his own true Will. But any True Will is of necessity in harmony with the facts of Existence; and to refuse to accept the Book of the Law is to create a conflict within Nature, as if a physicist insisted on using an incorrect formula of mechanics as the basis of an experiment.
This is an exhortation to literal belief, not deliteralized mythic engagement. It is a fact of Nature that the Book of the Law is the scripture appointed for humanity in this Æon. No skeptics need apply.
In Crowley's other magical order, the Ordo Templi Orientis, applicants to the first degree of initiation sign a form affirming that they accept the Book of the Law. This is a modern requirement dating only from the late 1970's and early 1980's.16 Because of the use of the term "accept," the form may derive from the A.·. A.·. passage above, but it has a more liberal interpretation -- it is taken to mean only that the applicant does not wish to publish a changed edition, which is a peculiar reading of "acceptance" of scripture. The fact that the acceptance requirement has been reinterpreted is interesting. It shows that the current membership is less comfortable with dogmatism than Crowley was, and is willing to make space for deliteralized but still positive interpretations of scripture. Today's membership rebels at aspects of Crowley's dogmatism.
This liberal reinterpretation is a work in progress. While a bald dogmatic statement requiring belief in a particular book is unpalatable today, other pillars of Crowley's system are still widely granted the status of fact by his followers. The two most prominent dogmas are True Will and the procession of the Æons.17 Neither of these primary dogmas are viewed simply as myths or fictions; instead they are regularly asserted as fact. Yet neither one is well supported by evidence or argument, nor are they phenomenological truths like the experience of samadhi. They are believed on faith. As myths their value is beyond skepticism's power, but as assertions of truth they are vulnerable to the modes of epochê.
Sextus' observation of the skeptical attitude toward gods -- to accept their traditional attributes and yet withhold belief -- shows one way out of this dilemma. We need not condemn the ideas of the Æons or of True Will; we need only to "bracket" them (in Husserl's phrase), to place them within their context where they can provide spiritual sustenance without degenerating into dogma. Skeptics within a mystical or magical tradition are free to frame its myths as the fictions they are. Doubt is not a constraint -- it does not forbid us from exploring the beauties of the spirit, as some modern-day "skeptics" believe. Instead, skepticism frees us to plunge into the profound depths of myth and trance, without concern that we will be blinded by their wonders.
1. I have relied throughout on the recent critical edition of Benson Mates, The Skeptical Way (Oxford University Press, 1996). I have also consulted the Loeb edition.
2. Joseph J. Kockelmans, ed., Phenomenology: The Philosophy of Edmund Husserl and Its Interpretation (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1967), pp. 77-8; see also Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1991), p. 44.
3. David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1748. Harvard Classics (New York: Collier, 1910), vol. 37, sec. XII, p. 416.
4. Mates, op. cit., p. 92.
5. Ibid., p. 173.
6. Aleister Crowley, "The Soldier and the Hunchback", The Equinox, Vol. I, No. I, March 1909, pp. 122-3.
7. Ibid., p. 126.
8. The Equinox, Vol. I, No. VII, March 1912, pp. 77-81.
9. Aleister Crowley, The Book of Lies (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1978), cap. 11, p.33. Also see caps. 31 and 39. Orig. 1913.
10. Vivekananda, The Yogas and Other Works (New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekanda Center, 1953), p. 546. From the "Inspired Talks," 1895.
11. Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, ed., Cârvâka/Lokâyata : An Anthology of Source Materials and Some Recent Studies (New Delhi: Indian Council of Philosophical Research, 1990), pp. 266-78. I am indebted to Mordecai Shapiro for referring me to Indian skepticism.
12. "The Soldier and the Hunchback", p. 128.
13. The Book of Lies, ch. 45, p. 100.
14. Aleister Crowley, Magick in Theory and Practice, app. II, pp. 240-1.
15. Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, 374E; F. C. Babbitt, tr., Moralia (Harvard University Press, 1936), p.139.
16. Personal e-mail from Bill Heidrick, September 8 and 9, 1998. "It's mainly from Grady [McMurtry]'s time, with some minor variations in language since. Gross and deliberate misquotes from Liber AL had appeared in print (e.g., in a Level Press unauthorized edition of Liber Aleph and other places). The original reason for the requirement was to conserve the text without such alteration."
17. There are also other prominent but less central dogmas, such as the accuracy of the Tree of Life model of the universe as interpreted by Crowley and the Golden Dawn; the reality of reincarnation, chakras, Secret Chiefs, and incorporeal spirit beings; the ancient descent and unique power of a particular sex magick formula; and the efficacy of thaumaturgy, divination, numerology, astrology and initiation. Skeptical questions about these dogmas are not frequently raised in the Thelemic community. I hope to address some of them in detail in future columns.