The faith of zealous skepticism

Some things are just weird.

There could only be two possibilities. One is that there is something genuinely paranormal happening, and if that is true, that would be amazing. Or, alternatively—which is more the line that I do favor—it tells us something very interesting about human psychology. So either way, it’s worth taking seriously.[1]


Christopher French is referring to past-life memories, in which “[t]he most convincing cases, [Ian Stevenson] realized, all involved young children, generally between the ages of 2 and 5, who spoke in great detail of places they had never visited and people they had never met, or who had birthmarks corresponding to injuries incurred by other people when they faced violent, untimely deaths.” Stevenson’s legacy lives on, remarkably enough, at the University of Virginia’s Division of Perceptual Studies. Some, particularly adherents of Eastern religions or philosophies, call the experience reincarnation,[2] and indeed, I spent some time at Odiyan, a monastery in far northwestern Sonoma County, as a volunteer with Buddhists who followed a Rinpoche who called himself Tarthang Tulku, asserting he was the reincarnation of an earlier Rinpoche by that name.

Allan Combs, who at least was a professor at California Institute of Integral Studies in the Transformative Studies program when I attended it (this was the Ph.D. program that wasn’t right for me) draws on systems theory to argue that consciousness is an emergent property and then—I believe he relies too heavily on Sri Aurobindo and Mitta Alfassa, the latter known as “the Mother”—for something quite elaborate beyond.[3] Which could well enable reincarnation or past-life memories.

We don’t know. The trouble with much of this stuff is that it projects beyond death, a condition from which people have returned to only a very limited degree, who can tell us something about the experience of death, but only in its early stages. So, of course, skeptics abound, set upon “debunking” anything that smacks of the paranormal. And also, of course, it’s tough to gain traction for this sort of inquiry in academia.[4] The field transgresses into a spirituality I do not share, hence my discomfort with Combs’ reliance on Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.

For once we enter the realms of spirituality or religion, we speak of faith, faith in what is unverifiable, at least through positivist methodology.

But positivism has its limits. One is that it makes arbitrary assertions about which forms of knowledge and which methodologies are acceptable and which should be rejected. These assertions depend on epistemological claims drawn from nowhere and are thus statements which, by positivism’s own standards, should be discounted.

So I am prepared to accept the possibility of consciousness beyond death and the possibility that that consciousness might, in combination with other consciousnesses, yield its own emergent properties—the early part of Combs work.[5] I won’t say Combs is right about the rest but I also can’t say he’s wrong. I don’t know. This, for me, travels too far beyond that threshold from which people have returned to only a very limited degree.

Sri Aurobindo’s claims include that he has transcended that threshold. But here, Combs, who begins his analysis with a wealth of sources, increasingly depends on very few, namely Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.[6] It’s a weakness.

But as weaknesses go, it is no more severe than that of those—I think of a medical doctor I encountered in Sebastopol, California—who boldly assert, “We Have Science!” as they rely too heavily on correlations;[7] or that of those atheists who boldly assert, “There Is No God!” as they, too, make untestable assertions about life beyond death and consciousness beyond our own; or that of those zealous skeptics who pursue claims of the paranormal with the relentless and ruthless enthusiasm of baying hounds pursuing a fox far beyond the bounds of dispassionate inquiry.

When skepticism becomes zealous, when it seeks too vigorously to discount inquiry of the paranormal, it becomes its own faith, in a desperate quest for validation. We do better with humility. We do better to say we don’t know.

  1. [1]Christopher French, quoted in Rebecca Nathanson, “The Hard Science of Reincarnation,” Vice, March 31, 2021, https://www.vice.com/en/article/jgqygg/hard-science-of-reincarnation-past-lives
  2. [2]Rebecca Nathanson, “The Hard Science of Reincarnation,” Vice, March 31, 2021, https://www.vice.com/en/article/jgqygg/hard-science-of-reincarnation-past-lives
  3. [3]Allan Combs, The Radiance of Being, 2nd ed. (St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2002).
  4. [4]Rebecca Nathanson, “The Hard Science of Reincarnation,” Vice, March 31, 2021, https://www.vice.com/en/article/jgqygg/hard-science-of-reincarnation-past-lives
  5. [5]Allan Combs, The Radiance of Being, 2nd ed. (St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2002).
  6. [6]Allan Combs, The Radiance of Being, 2nd ed. (St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2002).
  7. [7]Artificial intelligence idiocy is particularly egregious on this point: David Benfell, “Our new Satan: artificial idiocy and big data mining,” Not Housebroken, March 15, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/01/13/our-new-satan-artificial-idiocy-and-big-data-mining/

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