Skeptical Gnosticism

No, you do not pronounce the “g” in gnosticism – mainly because, well try it, you know that can’t be right. Gnosticism is a fancy word for a style of religion – a style with which you might be familiar from The Matrix. In The Matrix, people inhabit a material world created by imperfect and selfish beings that prevents them from living full lives. A few people have discovered the true reality behind “reality”. That knowledge (the gnosis of gnosticism or the red pill of The Matrix) brings great power (e.g., kung fu) and salvation.

Religious gnostics thought the imperfect, material world was created by an antagonistic, supernatural demiurge. In The Matrix, the imperfect, virtual world was created by computers/robots. In our modern world, we now know that our perceived reality is created by our brains, and it often does not accurately represent what is going on around us.

Our brain is the Matrix.

We are learning that our brains are actually built to believe in the paranormal and the unreal. The job of our brain is not to represent truth. It’s job is to create a reality that gets us by. Tricks like optical illusions exploit the disconnect between reality and perception. Natural selection would suggest that the built-in irrationality and inaccuracy of the human mind is a feature, not a bug. Most people in the Matrix felt the same way about their mundane computer generated existence.

On the other hand, it seem self-evident that the supposed advantages of this flawed mind are an illusion, especially in our modern society. Like the Cathars of medieval Europe preaching the truth about Creation, there is a modern group trying to get us to see through the illusory perception of our minds to see the truth – and the truth will set us free. They are the “Skeptics”.

But is rationalism the gateway to a better life? At first blush, this seems easily proven. Skeptics can readily point to quantifiable negatives such as the spread of preventable diseases due to failures to vaccinate, deaths due to faith healing, monetary loss due to predatory psychics, and delays in cancer treatments due to baseless faith in quack “cures”.

On the other hand, recent research shows that some irrational beliefs (particularly overconfidence) can grant an evolutionary benefit to individuals with those beliefs over those with a more realistic, accurate, and rational approach.

Skeptics are left in the position of the gnostics. They argue that the world we perceive is a harmful illusion. They tell us they have the knowledge to set us free. But should we listen?

Author: Josh Witten

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