by DT Strain
Epoché (eh-POK-ay) is an ancient Greek term meaning “suspension”, but refers to the practice of withholding judgment or assent. It could be considered an important discipline central to a naturalist’s spiritual progress and wisdom. Epoché consists of building a habit regarding how you think about what you know, when you know it, and most importantly, what you don’t know.
The core of Epoché practice is the virtue of humility; namely humility applied to our approach to knowledge and claims. It begins with the recognition that we are imperfect in our ability to know all things. Consistent with the Stoic’s approach to control, we recognize that how much knowledge we have at any given moment, is not something over which we have ultimate control. It also includes the recognition that our feelings and our intuition are part of our faculties as limited human beings, and therefore subject to bias and error.
With these values and principles in mind, we therefore refrain from drawing conclusions or making claims in disproportion to our ability to back them up with sharable and demonstrable evidence. Epoché is the wholehearted acceptance of our inescapable ignorance, and coming to terms with ‘not knowing’ many things – even many things human beings have longed to know throughout history.
Epoché is partly inspired by the Skeptics, who differed from the cynical position that we can’t know anything. Instead, this kind of healthy skepticism also advocates acceptance of claims and conclusions when evidence is sufficient. As Carl Sagan has said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Pragmatic concerns demand that we draw conclusions so that we may act on them and proceed in life. But even when we do so, we only draw conclusions provisionally, meaning we remain open to the possibility we might be wrong, and ready to reconsider all conclusions in the light of new evidence.
While many naturalists, atheists, and rationalists may also think in this way, the difference in Spiritual Naturalism is that we view Epoché as a spiritual practice of personal and sacred significance, because of the good it can help us do in the world. We use ancient or poetic terms such as this to remind us of that attitude.
Another compatible principle to Epoché is the Buddhist Kalama Sutra, which advises us not to accept anything merely because it is from an authority, or tradition, or from a text, or rumors, or rationalizations, or alleged abilities of others, etc. – but because we have investigated it for ourselves and found it to be true.
Many things may be true that cannot be proved with evidence, either because we do not have access to the evidence, or because the nature of the thing is such that evidence is impossible in principle. In these cases, Epoché practice dictates we indefinitely leave the matter as ‘unknown’.
But beyond merely a set of principles for drawing, or not drawing, conclusions, Epoché practice is much more than something to which we give simple intellectual agreement. It entails a continuous effort to internalize these principles into our natural way of thinking – to build a habit of disciplined reservation in drawing unwarranted conclusions. It is a part of a deeper character development. This requires patience, careful self examination, and practice. Attention practices are likely to be very helpful in building the mindfulness we will need to stay on track, and the self assessment needed to find bias. Talking with others about our conclusions and assumptions can be a good way to get another perspective, and perhaps call attention to cases where we are failing to proceed humbly in our beliefs. If we are having difficulty understanding the principles upon which Epoché practice is based, we can look to the study of formal logic for assistance.
But a final word of caution: we must remember that Epoché is a spiritual discipline we have decided to take on, for our healthy development – and we cannot control the actions of others. Therefore, consistent with leading by example, we should not focus on criticizing or ridiculing the beliefs of others, or telling others how they ought to think. Instead, we simply live out our values and show, by example, the path for those who decide they are interested and ready to explore it. This is tolerance, patience, compassion, and this, too, is humility.