We in the West have become accustomed to look for truth on the outside. It’s become a natural assumption for us to think of truth principally as something “out there,” and it seldom occurs to us that if there is any truth (or reality; “reality” and “truth” are synonyms), it must dwell inside as well as outside. But since truth is on the inside too, it is readily accessible to us in an intimate way that “outside truth,” in principle, is not.
Since the rise of modern science, the dominating intellectual tradition in the West has been externalism, or objectification. So pervasive a force has this been that it has influenced even the most qualitative of domains: psychology, as may be seen in the behavioralism in the 19th century, which attempted to confine, by method if not even by theory, the meaning of a person’s mental states to their external behavior. Though behavioralism declined, in present day not a few people will attempt to explain love, meaning, and morality exclusively in terms of biological evolution, equating (or confusing) evolutionary function with existential content.
Obviously this kind of bias has also made its way into our epistemology too. Logical positivism, for instance, holds that only statements which refer to quantified, empirical results are meaningful. But generally we can see the results of this bias latent in our own assumptions about reality. Intellectually we have relegated subjectivity, qualia, and sensation to a status of either secondary reality or even non-reality. The objective world becomes synonymous with what is “really” going on, whereas the subjective world is at best a shadow. Thus we have inherited a lopsided view of reality: an outside with no inside. Objectivity, when taken to an extreme (and it has), seeks to exclude the subject and make an object out of everything, including reality as a whole. But since there is no such “view from nowhere” or “God’s eye view” available to us, this naturally leads only to endless skepticism with no place to begin a spiritual practice.
What helped me move beyond Western skepticism was realizing that there is more to reality than objectivity. Don’t get me wrong, objectivity is an invaluable tool. But its value lies precisely in that it is a tool, and not an ultimate end in itself. The experiential side of reality just as real. And for each of us as subjects (as opposed to objects), it is even more real, since it is direct, immediate, and intimate. Reading a billion volumes on eyesight could never replace the intimate experience of seeing. If forced to make a choice, I’d rather be completely ignorant of how it objectively works, if it would mean I could know firsthand that it works and what it is like, which is a pure and direct “revelation.” After reading a billion volumes, I’d still never know what it is to see. There is, therefore, more to reality and truth than words and objectivity can convey. In other words, the intimacy of experience brings us in contact with an aspect of truth that is fundamentally ineffable.
This creates a distinction between knowledge as abstraction (i.e. knowledge 'about' something; circumscribing and defining an external object) and knowledge as intimacy (unity, experience: “direct” knowledge without which the other type of knowledge is left impotent, having ultimately no referent).
Now logic itself can only get one so far. Reason is indeed a light that we cannot do without, but (to borrow a phrase I read somewhere) as a light it cannot illumine itself. No logical system, no philosophical system of thought, can be truly complete or inclusive of all truth. Reason, especially systematic thought, are exclusive. Knowledge is exclusive by nature. We understand some things to the exclusion of others. More pointedly: we understand some things precisely because we exclude the others. Like a camera we bring one object into focus only to blur out the rest of the picture. Or as Zen Master Dogen said, when one side is lighted, the other becomes dark. Ultimately we can say that we understand some things precisely because we do not understand everything. And if we claim to understand everything, then we've understood nothing at all.
Realizing, then, this fundamental inability of words and logic to capture reality, we are left with an essential mystery as to the nature of existence (the positivists might claim, of course, that “existence” is a meaningless term). Not a mystery in the sense of a logical riddle to be figured out, but an intrinsic, abiding mystery that can only be experienced and lived: a mystery in principle. Once one realizes there are aspects of reality that are, as such, fundamentally beyond the reach of the scientific method, then one may become open to the possibility, if not the necessity, of religious truth.
This is the beginning of my approach to religion. You might call it existentialism, and to a degree that is right; however, I turn to religion for my existential concerns because that is where humankind has been dealing with these issues for thousands of years. That is where I have found wisdom and not mere knowledge.
We all have faith in something. Secularists included. We draw meaning from everywhere to establish our sense of identity. This identity cannot be proved through logic or the scientific method alone. Now, science is something I take very seriously, so seriously that I‘ve devoted much energy into thinking about its purpose and its limitations. Science itself is not the problem; the problem is that our philosophy and worldview can, and do, get in the way of our ability to be spiritual people. In the modern, objective Western world, nothing is sacred. We've turned the world into an object and distanced ourselves from the inner experience of life. Then we despair that the sacred can't be found anywhere since we've looked under every rock and peered billions of light-years into space. Time is just time, space is just space, people are just people, and if it suits us, they are all objects to be used, manipulated, wrung out for profit, and ultimately ignored. Most of us are resisting having to arrive at such a conclusion, but not many of us know why and how not to. There is a reason we Westerners live in the constant fear of falling into nihilism, but the problem is not with science or even with objectivity; is it in how we have come to relate to what we call reality.