Why focus on mystical experiences?
Modern secular humanists, freethinkers and rationalists claim to provide a framework for understanding the All, one that is all encompassing and comprehensively explanatory, yet one without supernatural or metaphysical entities. They question the existence of those entities, rejecting pie in the sky, bye and bye, when you die.
To succeed in formulating such a comprehensive Weltanschaung (view of the world) we must be able to accept, acknowledge and incorporate the range of events and experiences that have been reliably and recurrently described down the ages, particularly the more challenging and unusual ones. We must also seek to explain them within the naturalistic and - in the philosophical sense - materialistic framework we rely on.
The range of these more-difficult-to-explain, anomalous quandaries includes out-of-body-experiences, telepathy, precognition, and clairvoyance. None of these, however, make or imply fundamental knowledge claims about the world, whereas mystical experiences do: according to William James, 1958, they make such claims. Hence, this discussion’s focuses squarely on mystic experiences. James alleges these experiences to be ‘noetic’ - involving knowledge of what a subject apprehends. I’m using ‘knowledge’ to mean believing, with appropriate justification, that something is true. Knowledge in this sense is claimed to be probable but cannot be certain. It is these knowledge claims that will be under focus in this discussion and will be rejected by me.
Mystical experience also differs from numinous experience as described, for instance, by Rudolf Otto in 1957 (The word comes from Latin ‘numen’ meaning divine or spirit). According to Otto ‘numinous experiences’ are ‘allegedly of a reality perceived of as “wholly other” than the subject, 'producing a reaction of dread and fascination before an incomprehensible mystery.’ The word ‘numinous’, however, also has wider application.
‘Mystical experience’, furthermore, is to be distinguished from ‘religious experience’. Though ‘religious experience’ includes much ‘mystical experience’ it also comprises religious visions, non-mystical Zen experiences, religious awe and feelings of the sublime. Also included is what Friedrich Schleiermacher, 1963, identified as the feeling of ‘absolute dependence’, which he regarded as fundamental in the realm of religious feelings.
Definitions of mysticism
The first definition that comes up when googling is:
1. Belief that union with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender.
‘St Theresa's writings were part of the tradition of Christian mysticism’
2. Vague or ill-defined religious or spiritual belief, especially as associated with a belief in the occult.
‘There is a hint of New Age mysticism in the show's title’
This introductory definition (among the 659, 000 results of the electronic search taking just 0.44 seconds) leaves much to be desired, because in definition 1 it confounds belief with experience in the form of ‘spiritual apprehension’ or ‘contemplation’, while definition 2 is indefinite and derogatory.
Let us focus instead on the second google search outcome:
Mysticism | Definition of Mysticism by Merriam-Webster
Full Definition of mysticism
1: The experience of mystical union or direct communion with ultimate reality reported by mystics.
2: The belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience (as intuition or insight)
This listing clearly distinguishes the experience described in its definition no. 1 from the belief that the subjective experience gives rise to in definition no. 2 – in this case ‘direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality’. I, therefore, prefer it.
The vastness of the current literature on mysticism and mystic experience, however, prevents a simple summary and review of the many interpretations. One cannot choose any one of these interpretations as definitive of the meaning of these concepts.
The focus of the remainder of this discussion is on:
• Conditions that generate mystical experiences
• The nature of mystical experiences,
• The epistemic value of mystical experiences: whether and to what extent, if any, these experiences furnish evidence for the truth of the beliefs that are based upon them, that is their value relating to knowledge of the beliefs they give rise to, or the degree of validation of this knowledge,
• The problematic use of ‘exist’ when discussing metaphysical concepts.
Conditions that generate mystical experiences
Mystical experiences can arise spontaneously or be deliberately stimulated through asceticism, fasting, meditation, contemplation, strenuous exercise, drugs, dance and other mystical practices that differ significantly between different traditions. The characteristics of the reported experiences are profoundly affected by culture, traditions, expectations, concepts and structures of the mind.
Naturalistic psychological explanations of religious and mystical experience that have been offered include pathological conditions such as: hypersuggestibility, severe deprivation, severe sexual frustration, intense fear of death, infantile regression, pronounced maladjustment, and mental illness, as well as non-pathological conditions, including the inordinate influence of a religious psychological ‘set’ (see Davis, 1989, Chapter 8, and Wulff, 2000). In addition, some have advanced a sociological explanation for some mysticism, in terms of the socio-political power available to an accomplished mystic (Fales, 1996a, 1996b).
Throughout human history, spiritual seekers have used sacred plants and fungi for healing, visionary encounters, and mystical experience. Though this history has been largely obfuscated by prohibitionist attitudes and misinformation, entheogens — substances that “generate the experience of God within” — hold a special place in the development of world religions and countless spiritual traditions. “Psychedelics,” as entheogens are often called, were not something discovered in the counter-cultural ’60s, but can be traced back to the dawn of human cultures. Avahuasca is one such drug. Its effects are discussed below.
The nature of mystical experiences
One may think of mysticism essentially as either episodic experiences per se or as a process extending over time in which mystical experiences form an integral part of a person’s life. But what are these experiences?
Half a century ago, it had been a hot and scorching day driving a large tractor that pulled a phalaris seed harvester on a 5000-acre farm near Meningie in SA. I was on my own and noticed the sun beginning to set over the mallee-covered hill to the West of the homestead. I ran to its top to observe the evening clouds lit by the setting sun. I stood at the top and became one with the sun, the sky, the earth and the all! Time stopped! I gloried in the experience and, in my minds eye, still do. It was uplifting, rejuvenating and unforgettable. It was mystical!
A second example is the use of Avahuasca. It tastes awful — worse if fermented. However, a small glass full is sufficient to experience an extremely powerful effect. Complex visuals and full-fledged visions are often reported. Most users experience bodily vibrations. Feelings described as ‘divine love, absolute bliss, intimate connection to the universe and all of existence and pure, unitary consciousness’ are common.
The epistemic value of mystical experiences
Naturalistic explanations for mystical experiences highlight the scope and influence of the factors cited above. Sometimes the bizarre and eye-catching are chosen at the expense of the more common occurrences - a form of dramatic exaggeration to drive a point home.
Committed theists, however, retort that some of the proposals, at least, are perfectly compatible with the validity of experiences of God. They claim that, for example, a person having a religious psychological set can just as well be in a condition for enjoying and being capable of recognizing an experience of God, as it can be a cause of delusion. This response, however, requires the prior acceptance of the very issue in question: the existence of God.
God as a chimera: existence is not a predicate
St Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God is a priori: one purely based on reason that claims perfection is an integral part of the concept of God defined as ‘that than which no greater can be conceived’. According to this argument perfection entails existence and thus the concept of God entails God’s existence.
However, as David Hume’s character Cleanthes says in The Dialogues: ‘…there is an evident absurdity in pretending to demonstrate a matter of fact, or to prove it by arguments a priori. Nothing is demonstrable, unless the contrary implies a contradiction. Nothing, that is distinctly conceivable, implies a contradiction. Whatever we conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent. There is no Being, whose existence is demonstrable. I propose this argument as entirely decisive, and am willing to rest the whole controversy upon it.’
According to Immanuel Kant to say that a thing exists is not to attribute existence to that thing, but to say that the concept of that thing is exemplified in the world.
A practical example may assist our understanding of this important point: when we comprehensively describe, say, a particular table with many of its attributes, including colour, lustre, smoothness, size, its dimensions and location etc., we have built and elaborated a concept or a logical model – its brown colour and lustrous surface being predicates that describe particular aspects of that table. A predicate is that part of a sentence which is not the subject, but which gives information about the subject. A predicate is a property that a thing can either possess or lack. The word exists is not of this kind. Exists is not a predicate. Exist does not add any properties or details to our concept or semantic model of that table. If we say that the table exists we are claiming that there is an exemplification of that model or concept – the table – in the world – there is something in the real word that corresponds to our description - to the image in our mind’s eye that we have built - something concrete.
Existence is thus seen not as a question of a concept possessing or lacking a property, but as the concept having instantiation - being exemplified in - the world. In Kant’s words: ‘the existence of the object permits me to cogitate it as contained in the sphere of actual experience.’
Now, in the Abrahamic faiths - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - Yahweh, God and Allah are claimed to be not of this world. Thus, for instance, on the website called Judaism 101 we read: ‘Judaism firmly maintains that G-d has no body. Any reference to G-d's body is simply a figure of speech, a means of making G-d's actions more comprehensible to beings living in a material world.’ God, therefore, is not of the material word. Thus to claim that these gods exist leads at the very least to a form of conceptual confusion, in actuality it leads to a contradiction: in everyday language the word ‘exist’ means that there is an object in the world that corresponds to the concept we have named, that concept is instantiated, exemplified. The named gods, however, are described in their relevant Torah, Bible and Koran as not of this world. To claim, then, that the named gods exist leads to a direct contradiction between these metaphysical deity concepts or semantic constructs - including their amazingly astounding alleged properties: omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence and eternality - and the meaning of exist as instantiation, as exemplification, as concrete presence in the All.
If God does not exist any ‘experience of God’- though admittedly possibly very powerful and moving - can have no validity, if we take validity to mean ‘truth value’, correctness or accuracy, since the object allegedly giving rise to the experience – God – is a chimera, a phantasm or idle fancy.
We should make room for those who embrace mystical experiences as a source of inspiration, motivation and empowerment, but we must reject the knowledge claims that are based on, or that derive from, mystical experiences.