How do you decide what is real and what is not? How do you decide what is plausible and what is not? Everyone has personal criteria for what is possible, probable, and impossible, but most people make flash decisions on such things using their own cognitive shortcuts. People who follow paths less traveled have to be more aware of their personal criteria, lest they stumble off the sometimes difficult-to-see path and into delusion and nonfunctioning.
Why do you believe what you believe? When you have an unusual experience, how do you figure out whether or not it’s valid or true, or where it comes from? When someone tells you about their own identity or odd experiences, what controls your “bullshit meter”? How do you check your perceptions?
I encourage you to develop your own criteria if you haven’t already. It may differ from mine, and that’s fine; my outlook on the world is my own, not yours, and my approach to gnosis is my own as well. The following is my personal criteria for determining whether something is true or not, valid or invalid, distorted or relatively sound. Please keep in mind that this is a very general list; it’s modified for different experiences, but listing individual procedures for evaluating everything from dreams to memories to encounters with deity is beyond the scope of this article.
Step 1: External Consistency
- …with science: Is the phenomenon consistent with established science, or does it outright contradict known science? For instance, mental shapeshifting does not contradict well-supported scientific findings (and could possibly be explained or re-interpreted through some mechanisms of psychology), but full physical shapeshifting from a human into a wolf contradicts known biological possibility.Now, just because something isn’t consistent with known science does not mean I discard it outright – what is scientifically “known” has been known to change, after all (we once “knew” the sun revolved around the Earth), and could be inaccurate or misleading – but it does mean I am more skeptical and will subject the phenomenon to a harsher scrutiny.
- …with lore: Is the phenomenon or experience consistent with established lore or wide cultural experience, or does it outright contradict such? If someone experiences Hethert/Hathor as being partial to beer, that’s not hard to believe; it’s well-supported by extant lore and texts. If someone experiences Yinepu/Anubis as enjoying chocolate – well, there’s no textual or cultural evidence to support it, since chocolate wasn’t exactly a highly available commodity in ancient Egypt, but there’s also nothing to contradict it. My response might be something along the lines of, “That could be possible; I’ll have to try offering Him chocolate and see if my experience is that He likes it or doesn’t like it”. If someone experiences Sekhmet as being an evil servant of Apep/Apophis, however, I’d look at the claimant in a rather askance manner and wonder what they’re smoking, because that outright contradicts established lore and cultural experience in a very big way. This does not mean that every time an experience contradicts lore that it is wrong, however; simply that, like with scientific contradictions, I will be more skeptical and subject the claim to a more intense scrutiny.
- …with my experience: Is the phenomenon or experience consistent with my own experiences and perceptions? This is the least weighty of all the consistencies, because my own perceptions could be skewed or inaccurate, but they’re still true for me to at least a moderate degree. If I normally experience Bast-Mut as a bright warmth, and then suddenly one day some entity pokes at me saying xe’s Bast-Mut but feels like prickling saltwater, I’m going to be suspicious, because it doesn’t fit my past experiences of Bast-Mut. That doesn’t mean there isn’t an alternate explanation (i.e, a different spirit, or one of Her messengers), or that it’s not Bast-Mut, but I’m nonetheless going to be very careful in my interaction with said entity.
Step 2: Internal Consistency
- …with itself: Does the explanation of the phenomenon contradict itself in any way? For instance, if someone tells me in detail about an experience they have, and partway through the story new information crops up that conflicts with information earlier in their storytelling, then they’re contradicting themselves. Alternatively, if the spirit masquerading as Bast-Mut in the External Consistency example gets aggravated and changes demeanor suddenly before schooling its behavior back to the masquerade, that’s also an inconsistency and makes it less believable.
- …and synchronicity: Is there any synchronistic evidence, either in corroborating stories that the person relaying the experience can tell about, or in my own experience, or in another person’s experience?
Step 3: Alternatives
- Mundane explanations: What are possible mundane explanations for the phenomenon? Depending on what the experience is, this is often the first thing I check. If, for instance, I’m experiencing a strange feeling in my stomach that I suspect might be mostly or wholly energetic, I don’t automatically assume that it isn’t mundane. I run down a checklist of mundane possibilities first: When did I last eat? What did I last eat? Could I have picked up a stomach bug from somewhere? Where in my abdomen area is it – could it be related to menstrual cramps, and if so, when is my period due? Have I been stressed out lately? Of course, stress can tie in easily to energetic complications, but I don’t believe there is much that doesn’t have at least some sort of mundane counterpart. I just believe that the mundane part can be added to, complicated by, caused by, or itself cause energetic/subtle reality/Unseen world effects or phenomena.
- Lore/science-consistent explanations: What are possible alternative explanations for the phenomenon that are consistent with lore and/or science? In the example used with External Consistency, let’s say someone is experiencing Sekhmet as an evil servant of Apep. I’d first get more details: What exactly is She doing, how is She behaving, what are the details of the experience? Could it simply be explained as Sekhmet being particularly harsh or intolerant ofisfet on the part of the person having the experience? That would fit with the lore. Alternatively, could it be that they are not experiencing Sekhmet at all, but rather a different entity or energy? Or, in the other example of someone claiming to physically shapeshift… If we do not outright assume that they’re bullshitting and lying, and accept that they actually believe they physically shifted, then there are more questions to ask. “Were they under any mind-altering influences at the time (drugs, alcohol, blood sugar crashes, beta state…)?” is probably the biggest one, and the likeliest possibility as far as science-consistent explanations go.
Step 4: Consider the Source
- History of reliability? Is the source (my own mind; another person; an instrument like an EMF detector or other paranormal investigation tools) reliable, and has it shown itself to be reliable multiple times in the past? If my fiancé described an experience, I’d be reasonably likely to accept it as strong possibility, even if it didn’t meet everything in the checklist (though I’d bring up the possible contradictions to him, certainly), because I know him to be fairly solid in his perceptions. If a very paranoid friend described an experience, I’d be highly skeptical and more prone to outright disbelieve him or come up with a very scaled-down alternative version of his story, as he’s shown himself to be the sort who blows things way out of proportion and sees danger where there is none. If I was detecting something with some sort of mechanical instrument and it gave me unusual findings, I’d check all the settings on it to make sure something wasn’t out of whack or distorting the findings, especially if the instrument had a history of being touchy and easily going out of balance.
- Possible perceptual bias/contamination/distortion? What are the possible perceptual distortions? Every person has an intricate set of perceptual filters, a set of preconceived beliefs and ideas about the world, themselves, and the interactions thereof that color their perceptions and interpretations of phenomena (both physical and otherwise). This includes (but isn’t limited to): personal symbology, the person’s favorite heuristics (cognitive shortcuts), mood and temperament, and learning style.These filters color everything. It’s the reason five different witnesses of an event (such as a crime or accident) will give five somewhat different (and sometimes wildly different) depictions of what happened. By comparing and contrasting the different stories, you can come to a closer idea of the truth – but even then, your ownperceptual filters will color your conclusions.If I perceive that there’s some sort of malevolent entity in a room, for instance, what could be interfering with these perceptions? I’d ask myself the following questions:
Is the room dimly lit or cluttered with stuff that could be unsettling my mind? Did I have a heightened state of arousal before entering the room – for instance, was I already stressed, or have I just seen a horror film or been told a scary story? How is the room typically used, or who typically uses it – could there just be unpleasant energetic residue built up over time that I’m misperceiving as an entity? Is anyone else sensing anything similar, and could they be suffering from the same sort of perceptual distortion? Did someone suggest to me that there was a malevolent entity here, and I’m only sensing what I expect to sense as a result?
Step 5: Intuition
- Does it feel right/wrong? Sometimes, after running all of the above checks with inconclusive results, it comes down to gut instinct. Does the phenomenon or the story of the phenomenon “feel” right? Does it ring true? Or does it just feel as if there’s something off with the whole idea, interpretation, or situation? Obviously this is not something to base my belief on completely, but it is a factor. If something doesn’t quite feel right, or a conclusion seems a bit off, then I will give the subject a closer scrutiny, even if it checks out all right with the other criteria I demand of any paranormal or nonphysical phenomenon.
- Does it feel as if there is a grain of truth? Maybe the phenomenon fails some of the big checks on my list, and doesn’t feel right, but still there’s that niggling little sense in the back of my mind that there’s something to what I’ve experienced or what another person is relating as hir experience. It feels like there’s a grain of truth to the matter, buried somewhere deep under fluff and misperception and paranoid extrapolation. If I feel there is worthwhile truth buried deep within layers of distortion and dross, I may dig until I find it.
Conclusion & Assimilation
- Believe it? Partial belief? Disbelief? Finally we come to the conclusion. Does the phenomenon pass all or enough of my checks? If so, I’ll probably accept it as true, or valid, or at least as a good possibility. Does it just pass some of the checks but fail others, or is it inconclusive? Perhaps I accept it as a possibility, but am still a bit skeptical; or accept it as possibility with a few revisions in the explanation of its cause, source, or nature. Or, if the phenomenon fails too many of the checks, I’ll reject its validity or veracity outright. Alternatively, I may choose a differing explanation for the phenomenon from the one originally suggested (by my own mind, or by a book, or by someone telling me about their strange experience and what he believes it to be, etc).
- How to incorporate into personal paradigm? If I think the phenomenon, theory, experience, or story is true, then it gets incorporated into my personal outlook on the world; how I think the world works, my personal schema or paradigm. I have to figure out how to incorporate it into said paradigm, of course. Most things fit fairly easily, without any need for adjustment to phenomenon or paradigm, but sometimes something requires me to stretch or alter my paradigm. A truly life-changing, perception-shattering experience will require an entire rewriting of said paradigm – but those are rare, and I believe such experiences require the utmost scrutiny before being accepted as true.
- Personal explanation/interpretation? Validity and usefulness? How do I, personally, explain or interpret the phenomenon? can say “I believe this phenomenon occurred” or “this experience happened”, but not agree on the nature of, cause of, or reason behind the phenomenon with another person who experienced the same thing. I have my own interpretations.Secondly, is the experience valid or useful? Just because something has a distinctly mundane cause or counterpart doesn’t mean it’s not valid as a mystic experience; and just because a belief or perception may be entirely psychological and entirely within one’s head doesn’t mean it’s not useful for one’s identity or personal growth. For example, I believe that on some level, I am hawk. This could be all in my head and have no spiritual or energetic reality whatsoever, and I freely admit such possibilities. However, it’s a useful identity construct for me, and it’s something I experience and is thus valid as experiential reality and personal mythology.Essentially, I ask myself: If this experience is entirely mundane, or if this thing I might believe turned out not to be true, would it harm me to believe it or use it in my identity/paradigm? If not, would it be helpful, useful, or add to my life experience in some positive way? If it’s useful and valid, then I just may incorporate it into my paradigm anyway, regardless of how I interpret it and regardless of whether or not it’s factually true (as opposed to archetypally, mythically, or emotionally true). I just won’t incorporate it blindly, not considering the alternatives.