A defense of skepticism

 

As an anthropologist, I am usually a proponent of respect for “non-Western worldviews” (whatever that means). However, I noticed something problematic in the comments section of this video by the channel Genetically Modified Skeptic. This video is a deconstruction of the Gaia channel/streaming platform, which is purportedly a channel devoted to alternative medicine and paranormal subjects, but Genetically Modified Skeptic claims it is a essentially a scam. I believe he is correct, and I believe that Gaia is promoting pseudoscience.

However, in the comments section of this video, the argument that this channel is simply “counteracting scientism, which is a new religion”, trying to counterbalance Western rationalism, and promoting non-Western worldviews was prevalent. I saw almost verbatim all of these arguments being employed. I argue that there is a significant difference between counterbalancing rationalism and the Western dualistic extreme of irrationalism, and that categories such as this are a product of the Western mind and its long philosophical history of the Enlightenment vs. Romanticism, reason vs. passion, etc. Spirituality as it is understood by the purveyors of New Age spirituality and New Age pseudoscience is fundamentally different from non-Western worldviews. Furthermore, the Marxist argument of religion as false consciousness can be legitimately employed in this regard, if one takes into account the full and original purview of Marxian thought on religion.

Philosopher Slavoj Zizek talks about how leftists and legitimate intellectuals should distance themselves from the fundamentally irrationalist ideas currently in vogue among some of the “politically correct” Left. Among this crowd, the ideas of postmodernism and deconstruction have been hijacked to advocate for a kind of ecological New Age spiritualism. Funnily enough, the essence of this problematic is found in the “Gaia hypothesis”, a theory proposed by chemist James Lovelock, in which the Earth can be considered a self-regulating biological “organism”. This theory has been co-opted by advocates of New Age spirituality who interpret the hypothesis as a neo-Pagan religion. Furthermore, from a theoretical and scientific point of view, the theory has flaws. One example of a flaw in this theory is that as a self-regulating system, the earth should seemingly be able to adapt to climate change. On a purely semantic level, calling this theory the “Gaia hypothesis” opens up a Pandora’s Box of anthropomorphization and attributions of sentience to entities that do not have any. Zizek goes on to argue that the Gaia hypothesis fits within the capitalist ideological framework of environmentalism as an essentially individual problem: we must “get back to nature” rather than looking structurally at the concrete environmental struggles and policies that shape the planet. Rather than looking at the planet as simply an ecosystem, the Gaia hypothesis stretches this hypothesis and essentializes the concept of ecosystem as inherently stable and permanent, instead of fragile and vulnerable. Viewing Earth as the “providing Mother”, while it has deep roots in ancient religions across the world, is no longer tenable in the Anthropocene, in which human-induced climate change can change the very dynamics that have structured the earth on geological time scales.

The Gaia platform obviously embraces this double-edged sword of a concept. But the concept is not without its merits on a purely formal level: seeing things as interconnected is not wrong. However, the manner in which they are interconnected is ignored in favor of a holistic, largely “essentialist” spiritual worldview. Rather than seeing those interconnections as a potential problem (like the cascading effects of climate change), interconnection has become the buzzword of the New Age movement.

Genetically Modified Skeptic does a good job of summarizing what Gaia is all about, so I won’t repeat his assessment. Rather, I’d like to focus in on why Gaia is not promoting “non-Western worldviews”, but rather cultural appropriations of non-Western worldviews jumbled together with scientific claims that are untenable.

One of Gaia’s video categories on their streaming service is “yoga”. What hasn’t been said before about the cultural appropriation of yoga by white, Western liberals? I’ll try my best to summarize. Essentially, yoga became popular during the 1960s during the counterculture movement as more people began to explore Eastern spirituality. Because these Americans were “open-minded people”, they did not want to adhere to the strict traditions of a particular system, but rather saw yoga as a “consciousness-expanding tool”. The downside of this worldview is that what made yoga effective in the first place, as a system of meaning within a larger cultural framework, dissolved in favor of yoga as either a general spiritual “healing technique” or a purely physical exercise. Sure, the buzzwords about “enlightenment” and “opening the soul” remains, but not in its original forms. One could argue that yoga never really “worked” in this regard, but the fact remains that the proper respect to the original traditions that practiced yoga (Hinduism and Buddhism) was not given. Furthermore, the idea of practicing yoga as a person who is not a devotee of these original faiths is as alien as taking the eucharist without being a Catholic, or wearing a yarmulke without being Jewish as a fashion statement. It is basically a statement of personal choice, a hobby rather than a spiritual commitment.

Gaia enthusiasts may vehemently disagree with me when I say that they do not practice as a spiritual commitment, or may argue that they are free to practice yoga as they please, and that yoga is not the explicit property of Hindus or Buddhists. However, I argue that they are not practicing yoga at all, but rather a distorted version of it. Furthermore, I argue, at least within the confines of Tantric Buddhism, that yoga was never meant to be general practice among the general populous, but it was designed as an esoteric practice only for the most advanced adepts and solitary hermits. There is a reason for this: the original practice of yoga involves practices such as doing 100,000 prostrations, not putting your leg over your head. Yoga in its secular form has become an interesting form of exercise, but that is not the original meaning of the word yoga.

Furthermore, while modern yogis and yoga enthusiasts may claim they are combining their spiritual practice into their practice of yoga, and employ some of the same terminology including chakra, without the context of chakra within a larger Tantric worldview, which involves either devotion to a specific god in the Hindu tradition, or the realization of the body as a Buddha body in the Buddhist tradition, the word chakra and the positions of the wheels in the body is virtually meaningless. There is no heart chakra, no real physical heart chakra. It is metaphor for spiritual realization: this is evident enough in Buddhist texts. Some New Age yogic practitioners seem to think that there is some sort of real essential thing called a heart chakra, as the also believe in a real thing called the Self. This is why New Age yoga tends to veer toward the Hindu tradition: but I digress.

From this example, it is evident that New Age spirituality is categorically different from “non-Western worldviews”. There are certain patterns of thought of a Western mind are so deeply embedded that something akin to a “subconscious cultural divide” exists between Western and non-Western cultures. Even when a Western mind seeks to consciously overcome these patterns of thought, the Western cannot help but systematize, analyze, and apply rational systems to what are essentially folkloric and customary habits. I argue that it is hard for the Western mind to understand the philosophical niceties and metaphors that surround the Eastern philosophical mindset. Spirituality among Westerners has always been literal: Gods really exist, spirits are real and tangible if they want to be. From my ethnographic experience, culturally Buddhist people from Asian countries do not experience belief in the same way. Rather, a pragmatic attitude prevails about spirituality: if it works, I believe it. Therefore, there are practices related to spirits, demons, etc. but they are practical endeavors made to appease rather ill-defined malevolent beings to ensure a practical purpose: a good harvest, etc. This is the way it has always been for many traditional societies. The Western rationalist cannot help but make these organic, living breathing traditions into stale, systematized concrete ideas. For instance, the idea of a “guardian spirit” in a tree or forest prevalent among animist societies is intimately connected, as Roy Rappaport and Darrel Posey argue, to concrete traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and specific knowledge about certain environments and cycles. Rather than a vague, holistic idea of “being connected to nature” (a product of real alienation from nature), traditional societies experience being connected to nature as a pragmatic, real, and everyday reality. Knowing the cycles of the seasons is experienced directly, as a part of their practical means of subsistence, as well as their larger epistemological and cosmological framework. However, the Western project and process of abstraction of these experienced cosmologies reifies these belief systems into terms like “animism”. Therefore, the project of “neo-Paganism” “neo-animism” is in vain, because the material substrate in which these belief systems were embedded is gone.

In conclusion, New Age spirituality is a product of the alienated Western consciousness, and in many ways can be interpreted as a product of capitalism and a longing for wholeness that is not essential to the human mind. As hard as it is to swallow, the “search for meaning” that drives Western people living in industrialized countries to seek answers to philosophical questions is not a cultural universal. Where I believe this skeptic channel could adapt their argument is viewing these people not as inherently biologically “insane”, but as the product of complex cultural and historical dynamics that have been given many names: the “Death of God”, the great disenchantment, or more concretely, the rise of feelings of nihilism driven by sociological ills in capitalist society.

 

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5 thoughts on “A defense of skepticism

  1. Yeah. I can go along with your analysis, for sure. You remind me of my undergraduate philosophy elective that was around mysticism; I remember one of the points wise how discourses kind of contain them selves such that when the title of an originary Set of practices or understandings is used outside of its original settings, then it’s not the same thing. For example, I remember us studying that ancient Christian book called “the cloud of unknowing” . And one of the points of the professor at least was that what this person is talking about, the author of that book or essay, should not be properly understood to be able to conflate will say Buddhist Xan type objects. That we should analyze things according to a sort of Hermuneutic of discourse.

    Yeah I can kind of dig that. One of the main tenets of critical theory is that there is the over arcing power structure that can be confronted through do you constructing it’s various components

    but I think critical theory wants to keep it as large ideological constructions . Because if we start taking that approach and start to analyze each individual term, each individual component of discourses we eventually come down to a state where there is no communication that is occurring across individual vocal discursive however you wanna put it realities.

    So if this is true then I would say that there is no original, say, yoga.. but that yogurt at all times was a negotiated discourse that over a period coalesced to me and something ideologicaly pure.

    But that this in itself is a western formulation of things.

    And so we reached a stalemate.

    But I also think that is his ex point is that these ideological purisms, so to speak, tend to function to allow us to not have to deal with what is right in front of us. It allows us to believe that there was some sort of “nature, ticket back to, as though nature it’s self is not right in front of us at this moment as a condition that we have only to understand ourselves within.

    I don’t think it so much splitting hairs as it is splitting what exactly is occurring, in different versions of reality that we cannot convince, but rather comes about through that person critically engaging in there reality. .

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    1. Yogurt lol. Yeah you are right about the critique of authenticity, at the end of the day there is no real “yoga”, but doesn’t Buddhism already teach us that, that there is no inherent thing “as such”? And isn’t this the point already of original “yoga”? The more you study Buddhism, the more you realize how the masters are already doing mental circles around you. At least for me.

      Yes, the more you study Buddhism, the more you realize how negotiated, contextually situated, and historical it really is. There is Mahayana vs. Theravada, all of the various sects and subsects. Same with “yoga”. Me and my friend at the ecopoiesis blog (that I think you’d like a lot) have been discussing those differences lately, specifically in terms of the rift between the Madhyamaka school and the Shentong school in terms of the doctrine of emptiness.

      But where I put a stop to that is to deconstruct to the point of saying, “well, yoga is always evolving and changing to suit the times. Therefore, if you take the religion out of yoga, its still the same thing”. That’s like saying if you took the Christianity out of communion, it would still be communion. Yes, it did coalesce into an ideologically substantial set of practices. But those practice, in my mind, are true to the original intentions of Buddhism, in all their various stages and myriad forms, while the new versions don’t even pretend to do that.

      I agree about the Christian mysticism point. That should be understood in its proper context as well. This is kind of random, but that’s why I don’t like when people say “Vivaldi etc. was like a rock star in his day”. As if rock invented passionate musical intensity. What we *should* be saying is “rock stars are like Vivaldi”

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      1. I’ve been coming to more awareness how there really also is no “Buddhism” except as a popular Teligious/culture.

        Becuase the compendium Of texts-and teachings and ideas, while centered I think around certain basic notions, are really all different “paths” of knowing.

        Like there is Christian, but then there is Pentecostal, Baptist’s, Spinoza philosophy, Locke philosophy, atheism, Freudian psychology, Democracy, Lol.

        And I tend to think that’s why democracy doesn’t really stick well yet in non-western-basis countries: Becuase democracy is based in Christian ‘basic notions’ of the truth of the universe.

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      2. Yeah you are correct, but again, check out the Heart Sutra. “There is no Buddha, there is no Dharma”. The biggest division is between Theravada and Mahayana. At the end of the day, Buddhism accepts the Four Noble truths. Widely divergent paths, but one common antecessor they all hold in common: Shakyamuni Buddha. What he represents differs, but there are more differences between East and West then between different sects of Buddhism, etc.

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