What is Mystical Experience?

by Anthony Freeman

The Experiments

Richard Dawkins is well known as a militant atheist, but he is also an experimental scientist, and in 2003 he took part in an experiment intended to induce in him a mystical experience. He donned a Transcranial Magnetic Stimulator (the so-called ‘God helmet’), devised by Canadian neuroscientist Michael Persinger, which is designed to cause activity in the brain’s temporal lobes. Such activity has long been associated with religious visions, and Persinger claims that 80% of his volunteers report a sense of the divine or other non-physical presence when wearing the helmet.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, Professor Dawkins was among the other 20%, although he claimed at the time that this was a great disappointment to him. ‘I of course never expected to end up believing in anything supernatural,’ he said. ‘But I did hope to share some of the feelings experienced by religious mystics when contemplating the mysteries of life and the cosmos.’

Had he indeed received such a revelation, he would doubtless have claimed this as proof that there was nothing supernatural in mystical experience. Perhaps his disappointment arose from this lost opportunity. Susan Blackmore, another scientific celebrity, had a more positive reaction when she went to Persinger’s laboratory and underwent his procedures: ‘I had the most extraordinary experiences I’ve ever had,’ she is reported as saying.

Persinger explained the failure of Dawkins to respond to the helmet by the fact that he had scored low on a psychological scale measuring proneness to temporal lobe sensitivity. Sue Blackmore, by contrast, was subject to paranormal experiences in her younger days, and although now sceptical of the claims made for such phenomena, she does practise Buddhist meditation on a daily basis. One assumes her temporal lobe sensitivity is much higher than Dawkins’.

Andrew Newberg, at the University of Pennsylvania, is another of the ‘neurotheologians’, i.e. scientists exploring the physical states of the brain associated with religion, but he starts at the opposite end of things from Persinger. Instead of trying to induce mystical experience where there is none, he runs brain scans on religious practitioners while they are engaged in prayer and meditation. Tibetan Buddhists and Franciscan nuns have been among his subjects, and although they describe their meditations in different words – no Buddhist will describe herself as ‘dissolving into Christ consciousness’, like one Franciscan did – Newberg does note common themes.

One of these (as in the example just given) is a sense of the normal boundaries between oneself and the other melting away, and these reports are associated in the scans with an absence of activity in an area at the top of the brain called the parietal lobe. This region is known to help orient our bodies in relation to the external world, because when it is damaged the patients concerned often suffer a loss of orientation and also have difficulty telling where their bodies end and the external world begins. Newberg is keen to point out that his research does not disprove accounts of mystical experience; on the contrary, it shows up physical states that objectively endorse the subjective accounts. A further source of mystical or at least heightened experience is the taking of psychedelic substances, known as ‘entheogens’ when used in a religious context with the intention of ‘bringing forth the divine within’. A famous example of this was an experiment held on Good Friday, 1962, among a group of divinity students at Boston University, to determine the effect of psilocybin in facilitating mystical experience. Half the students were given the drug and the other half a dummy pill as a control. Both groups took part in the usual prayers and services of this specially holy day, and Walter Pahnke, the experimenter, claimed that ‘the persons who received psilocybin experienced to a greater extent than did the controls the phenomena described by our typology of mysticism’. In other words, those who took the drug reported a heightened interior awareness in the course of the formal liturgy.

All of the experimental work so far described serves to affirm the reality of mystical experience, insofar as it shows correlations between externally measured physical events and subjective reports of internal feelings and thoughts. But it does nothing to answer the question, What is mystical experience? Is it, as the mystics themselves tend to believe, an opening up of the individual to a source of profound knowledge outside of oneself? Or is it rather, as Richard Dawkins and his friends would claim, that any visions or voices or suchlike are just phenomena internally generated by the brain itself?

The Theories

There is a branch of psychology that specially studies the states and processes in which people experience a deeper or wider sense of who they are, or a greater than usual sense of connectedness with others, or with nature, or with the ‘spiritual’ dimension. This is called transpersonal psychology, a field of study pioneered with some trepidation in the middle of the twentieth century, when religion had been banished to the privacy of one’s inner world – ‘what the individual does with his own solitariness’, as Whitehead put it – and only external visible experimental science was respectable. The early transpersonalists – no mean group, with names such as Aldous Huxley, Carl Jung, and Abraham Maslow among them – were faced by the daunting challenge of restoring spiritual knowledge to the public domain of objective truth. Their plan was to develop a ‘science of human experience’, which would redeem inner experience in the eyes of science by presenting replicable and verifiable data.

The pioneers’ confidence that this was possible lay in their belief that all transpersonal experience accessed a single underlying spiritual reality. Described in the ‘perennial philosophy’ (a term coined by Huxley), its most notable feature was a hierarchy of all reality, stretching from matter at the bottom all the way up to pure spirit, known as the Great Chain of Being. It followed that if all knowledge gained by inner experience in altered states of consciousness reflected the same reality, then all subjects would report similar findings, and their agreement would confirm their accuracy. Thus the sceptics would be confounded on their own empirical ground.

Since the early 1970s, transpersonalists such as Charles Tart, of the University of California at Davis, and like-minded colleagues have been arguing that knowledge gained in altered states of consciousness can be tested and verified by trained researchers in just the same way as knowledge gained in the science laboratory. They have grown used to being sniped at by sceptical outsiders like Dawkins who mock this goal of an inner empiricism, based on disciplined introspection. But recently they have come under attack from an insider, a young professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies called Jorge Ferrer, in his book Revisioning Transpersonal Theory.

Ferrer is not without sympathy for the pioneers of transpersonal psychology, and he accepts that the road they took was, at the time, probably inevitable. With the Enlightenment breakdown of the unified medieval world-view, and the consequent backlash against religious dogma, empirical science had taken over the public domain of objective truth while religion became a private matter of inner experience. So the best – indeed the only – way to emancipate spiritual knowledge back into the public domain of objective truth had been the one they took. But accepting its inevitability should not, he says, blind us to its consequences, namely, an in-built contradiction that must eventually prove fatal to the whole enterprise.

To appreciate the subtlety of Ferrer’s revolution we need to consider a little more of the background to the study of transpersonal phenomena. While it is important to avoid simply equating ‘transpersonal’ with ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’, there is undoubtedly much experiential overlap between all three. Consequently, there spill over into the broader transpersonal area some fiercely contested issues relating to the interpretation of overtly religious reports. As William James discussed a century ago, there is a wide variety of religious and mystical experiences, and this fact itself is uncontroversial. It is how to account for this variety that raises major disagreements between scholars, with psychologists of religion falling into two broad schools of thought.

In one group are essentialists, among them advocates of the perennial philosophy, claiming that in mystical states a single underlying reality is experienced in all cases, and then differently interpreted according to the particular religious and cultural and linguistic tradition to which the individual belongs. On the other side are constructivists (or contextualists, to use their own preferred designation), who deny any such universal commonality and insist that each experience is genuinely different ‘all the way down’. They argue that the experiences themselves (rather than simply their post-hoc interpretations) are profoundly and irrevocably determined by predisposing personal, social, and cultural factors, including religious doctrines and particular forms of spiritual practice.

At the heart of the problem is the status of claims made by mystics to privileged information or knowledge not available to people in ordinary states of consciousness. Put in the jargon of philosophers and psychologists, what is the epistemic or cognitive value of mystical experiences? If the contextualists are right, then there are no pure or unmediated experiences, in which case there can be no experiential or cognitive access to the fundamental mystical reality alleged by the essentialists. Such a reality might indeed exist, but equally it might not, and since we have no possibility of contact with it or knowledge of it, it might just as well not exist.

To readers of Sofia who are familiar with past debates in the Sea of Faith about Don Cupitt’s ‘non-realism’, and whether we can go along with his general idea yet still accept that there is ‘a sliver of reality’ out there, this will all have a familiar ring to it! What Ferrer is trying to do is to transcend the perennialist/constructivist divide by changing the terms of the discussion. To his mind, neither of these approaches can break free from an erroneous dualism, in which human knowledge and a supposedly uninterpreted reality are treated as two quite separate things. If we think if them in this way, they are bound to look as if they are simultaneously linked and held apart, because we are tied to one or other of two equally unsatisfactory conceptual frameworks which allow only partial communication between the two.

To paraphrase his argument somewhat, this basic and erroneous dualism naturally engenders two interdependent myths about how human beings know things. One is the Myth of the Given, which tells us there is a single pre-given reality out there independent of any cognitive activity (i.e. the truth is out there whether we know anything about it or not). The other is the Myth of the Framework, which tells us that we are epistemic prisoners trapped in our conceptual frameworks. According to Ferrer, while everyone tends to subscribe to both myths to some degree, perennialists seem particularly bewitched by the Myth of the Given, while contextualists tend to be especially constrained by the Myth of the Framework.

The upshot, in Ferrer’s opinion, is that these epistemological myths not only create all sorts of pseudo-problems about the nature of spiritual knowing, but also create a genuine and fundamental difficulty by severing our direct connection with the true source of our being. His solution is to transcend this dualism by invoking the ‘participatory epistemology’ put forward by Richard Tarnas in his book The Passion of the Western Mind, in which human beings are themselves regarded as an essential vehicle for the creative self-unfolding of reality. According to Tarnas, ‘Nature’s reality is not merely phenomenal, nor is it independent and objective; rather it is something that comes into being through the very act of human cognition.’

On this approach, spiritual paths are seen neither as purely human constructions (as supposed by contextualists), nor as a variety of alternative routes to a single, predetermined ultimate reality (as essentialists believe). Instead, the various spiritual traditions can be better seen as vehicles for the ‘participatory enaction of different spiritual ultimates’. What this means, if I understand Ferrer aright, is that constructivists like Cupitt and myself are right in denying a pre-existing reality ‘out there’ and independent of us, but wrong if we deny that human beings by their openness (see my earlier Sofia article ‘Open up to God’) participate in the creation of spiritual realities that do ultimately have significance beyond ourselves.

So what IS Mystical Experience?

Having read a lot of views about these matters I see at least three levels (often confused in discussion) relating to what we call mystical experience:

  1. spiritual realities themselves
  2. conscious experiences of spiritual realities
  3. beliefs about those experiences

The transpersonalist establishment would say the primary raw data for transpersonal science are to be found at level (1), which is faithfully transmitted at levels (2) and (3), and provides spiritual knowledge that finds expression in the perennial philosophy. To the extent that there are differences of detail between the various mystical traditions – Buddhism, Vedanta, Western esotericism, etc. – these are to be explained by a degree of interpretation intruding at level (3). But this does not, on the official view, invalidate the truth claims of the perennial philosophy.

The alternative to this perennialist view, as put forward by contextualists, such as Steven Katz in his book Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, sees things differently. On this account, spiritual experiences – level (2) – are already inescapably shaped by the concepts the mystic brings to them. Consequently, it is impossible to gain any direct knowledge of spiritual realities in themselves – level (1) – from such experiences. Indeed, level (1) might not even exist.

If we follow Ferrer in abandoning both the Myth of the Given, i.e. the perennialist idea that there is an objective observer-independent spiritual reality at what we are now calling level (1), and also the contextualist’s Myth of the Framework, i.e. the idea that all experience at level (2) is predetermined by the conceptual scheme we bring to it, then it seems to me to follow that no usable data will be found at either of these levels. Which leaves us with level (3), our beliefs about our experiences, as the only place where we can learn anything from or about mystical experience.

When I published this conclusion last year it was unsurprisingly attacked by Ferrer’s followers, and I do not deny that I may not have fully understood his position. However I do maintain that in a most important sense, mystical experience IS what it is believed to be. All that flows from such experience depends on what the individual concerned believes it to be, because that is the level – our level (3) – on which the mystic and those who accept his or her testimony will actually be basing their claims.

Put otherwise, the fruits of mystical experience will depend on what is believed about it rather than what might, hypothetically, be ‘true’ about it. And as William James urged over a century ago, should not claims of oneness with God be judged by their fruits, rather than their roots?

Books Mentioned

Ferrer, J.N. (2002), Revisioning Transpersonal Theory (New York: SUNY Press).

Tarnas, R. (1991), The Passion of the Western Mind (New York: Ballentine Books).

Katz, S. (1978), Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis (New York: Oxford University Press).

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