Friday, July 15, 2011


It's been a long time since I posted.  I've been busy thinking about how we can possibly  know what is true and what is not.  And I'm stumped.  One scholar says this, another seemingly equally valid scholar disagrees.  One scientific study may demonstrate one thing, but if a person does further reading, research can usually be found that contradicts the results of the first study...Which one is true?  And how can I, a mere common person without formal scholarly or scientific training, hope to ascertain what is a reliable source among many which seem valid?

The same holds true in Christianity.  There's been a search for the historical Jesus, and many respected scholars have widely differing viewpoints.  Which is true?  There is even a whole field of study (epistemology) that studies how we know what we know, and they don't even seem to know how we can know what we know...

People who study consciousness and the brain maintain that we don't actually perceive the world around us as it really is.  They say, for example, that there is no actual color green, but that light (which has no color) is filtered by our eyes in a certain way that we perceive (with the limited tools at our disposal) as the color green.

Dr. David Eagleman "is a neuroscientist and a New York Times bestselling author. He directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action and the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law at Baylor College of Medicine. He is best known for his work on time perception, synesthesia, and neurolaw."  I recently listened to a  Brain Science Podcast interview with Dr. Eagleman which focused on his most recent book, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. (As much as I can ascertain, both Dr. Eagleman and Brain Science Podcast are reputable sources :-). Dr. Eagleman shared the following information:

"In the book I spend a lot of time just sort of deconstructing reality piece by piece, and showing that, as we want to go on this journey of exploring what the heck we’re made out of, the first thing to do is to recognize that what you’re seeing out there is not actually reality. You’re not sort of opening your eyes, and voila, there’s the world. Instead, your brain constructs the world. Your brain is trapped in darkness inside of your skull,  and all it ever sees are electrical and chemical signals. So all the colors you see, and so on, that doesn’t really exist; that’s an interpretation by your brain.
"Just take as a quick example the fact that your eyes are always moving around in these rapid darting movements; and if you did that with a handheld video camera, it would look like a drunk person holding it, and the world would look very shaky. But our world doesn’t look very shaky, because all we’re actually doing is seeing an internal model of the world; we’re not seeing what’s out there, we’re seeing just our internal model of it. And that’s why, when you move your eyes around, all you’re doing is updating that model.  And for that matter, when you blink your eyes and there are 80 milliseconds of blackness there, you don’t notice that, either. Because it’s not actually about what’s coming in the eyes; it’s about your internal construction….
 "…[There’s also what’s called the ‘illusion of truth’  - where people think something’s true just because they have heard it before].  You give people statements to rate the truth value of, and then you bring them back a while later and you give them more statements to say whether they’re true or false, and so on. But it turns out that if you repeat some of the statements from the first time to the second time, just because the people have heard them before, whether or not it’s true and whether or not they even marked it as false last time, because they’re hearing it again—unconsciously they know they’ve heard it before—they’re more likely to rate it as true now.
Dr. Eagleman confirms some other authors I have read on our perceptions of reality. I have actually noticed this "illusion of truth" in myself - the tendency to think I know about a subject because I've done some reading about it previously.  (I'm glad to know that's normal - I think!)  But I guess the questions I'm really trying to answer are:  What is the nature of Reality? How can I know what's true?  How can I tell what's real?  And the answer, as near as I can tell, is that we really don't know.  Much of the time, things may not be as they appear to us with the limited tools of perception that we are equipped with.  So how can I, an untrained person, know what's true, or even which source is reliable? Anybody out there have any advice?


Don said...

I have come to the conclusion that when speaking of the spiritual, I really know nothing. My post included quite a few noted scholars & authors; ones that I really Ike, can identify with, and ones who make me (my heart) feel comfortable. I used to think it was possible for us to, with diligent searching, to find TRUTH. I have come now to believe that it may not matter so much what we believe as it matters how we treat (love) others. Whatever God is or may be cannot be displeased when we follow the tried &true "golden rule".

Mae said...

Thanks, Don, for your words of wisdom. Your ability to speak in love shines through in your blog and in your comments. I’m amazed that there doesn’t seem to be any meanness or arrogance in you! And I’d love to be able to embrace the mystery like you do, but I don’t seem to be quite there yet. I seem to be at the skeptic stage right now after going through deconstruction and discovering everything I believed is pretty much a sham. It seems to have left me kinda not knowing what I DO believe….

I can relate to your finding authors and scholars that your heart is comfortable with – that’s how I, too, have always determined truth on this journey (in other terms, it’s the Spirit/HigherSelf/Divine in us guiding us). But seems like lately very little resonates with my heart in that way and I feel stuck in limbo…hope how soon it passes :)

Don said...

If we are truly searching, I feel that we will become skeptics. Honestly, I feel this is good. I have learned to be skeptical after taking others word for things for so long. I am still going through what you speak of (feeling stuck in limbo). Perhaps the difference is that I am finding that this is OK; that this state of being is actually the way I want it to be. I think I may well be a skeptic for some time to come. It may well be a defense after so many years of acquiescing to the determinations of the leadership in my denomination.
I heard Phyllis Tickle says the other day that 9/11 will be marked as the beginning of another great reformation in religious thinking. She says that one seems to occurs about every 500 years (that actually appears to be so, so far). The last, of course, was the Protestant Reformation). I can believe that.
Take heart that you are not alone in your quest. The longer this journey continues, the more people I find who join us.

Mae said...

I agree with you that it’s good to be skeptical about taking other’s word for things. I really admire your ability to embrace the mystery! But I’m finding that it’s hard for me to feel okay with being stuck in limbo – not that I want or even think that we can have all the answers(!) because I’m seeing more and more that Reality is a great mystery that we (humanity) has probably only begun to scratch the surface of. I think different religions (and science, too) have seen glimpses of reality, a part of the mystery, each from a different perspective. And that’s okay. But I doubt everything, fearing it may have as much junk mixed in as organized religion does. I don’t want to be duped again…

I guess I’ve deconstructed all that was handed to me as truth, and now I’m ready for some reconstruction. But with utmost humility – holding what’s reconstructed loosely and without certainty. Is it possible to reconstruct with skepticism?

I’d like to read Phyllis Tickle’s “The Great Emergence.” I do think we’re in the midst of a big shift in thinking; I FEEL that shift happening in me (but sometimes it’s a bumpy ride!). I’m glad for people like you on the journey!

Are you familiar with process theology? I’m just beginning to read about it, but it seems to me to align with the idea of “emptiness” in Buddhism and what Deepak Chopra says – that everything is a “field of possibility.” These ideas are resonating with me. I’m thinking maybe skepticism, instead of being a negative thing, can instead mean infinite possibilities. Maybe I’ll be able to embrace the mystery yet! :)