Doubts about Mysticism as basis for Knowledge, Morality, or Spirituality

By | December 1, 2010

(A philosophical acquaintance, Pablo, and I had a discussion touching on mysticism and morality. He had been complaining that secular humanism is too quick to dismiss mysticism as a likely source of knowledge and value.)

Pablo: (started by relating a few lines by Richard Jefferies in which the atheistic poet describes a mystical experience):
“…there is an existence, a something higher than soul – higher, better, and more perfect than deity. Earnestly I pray to find this something better than a god. There is something superior, higher, more good. . ..”

Moi: It should not surprise us that an atheist expresses such feelings if we keep in mind that, just as there are many different kinds of theists and believers, there are also many different kinds of atheists. Among non-believers there are some who have mystical experiences and desire to make the transcendental leap to the “other world,” while rejecting the prevailing or popular images of the deity. The significant philosophical question is: What are we to make of these experiences and the associated longing for the ‘transcendental’?

Pablo: “….mysticism can be best understood and defined by a simple tabulation of characteristics commonly associated with mystical experiences. Often called an analytic definition….”
(He lists several characteristics that purport to define mysticism. Each is followed by my remarks and questions.)

Pablo: Mysticism is characterized by an Ineffability – The inability to express in human words or concepts.

Moi: Does this refer to the great difficulty people have when they try to describe the mystical experience? Does this mean that ordinary language and intuitive concepts fail completely when a mystic tries to describe the experience? Given the great amount of mystical literature available, apparently many mystics have had much to say about their experiences; they must be capable of describing something. Does this disqualify their experiences as mystical experiences?

Pablo: Next there is a cognitive (noetic) quality which supplies us with some non-scientific information about some part (or all) of reality.

Moi: Of course, this is the mystic’s subjective feeling that the experience discloses something about reality or his feeling that he is immediately aware of some indescribable reality. We cannot simply define the experience as actually supplying the mystic with “non-scientific information about some part of reality.” This would simply beg the philosophical question regarding the nature of these experiences.

Pablo: A third characteristic is the experience of Oneness with the world, which eliminates the thought or feeling that we are distinct from the rest of the world; we are one with the object of our thought.

Moi: Again, as with the previous characteristic, we should note that this is the mystic’s feeling or experience that he is one with the object of the experience. Surely, the definition cannot simply affirm that the mystic actually is one with the object of his thought. Furthermore, some mystics have mystical experiences that do not involve this feeling of oneness with all reality. Are such experiences to be rejected as being mystical experiences?

Pablo: Mystical experiences have some natural or supernatural referent. There is always some object or referent of our mystical state which could be Nature, God (or the Godhead), Being (Existence).

Moi: I am very suspicious of the assertion that these experiences always have some object or referent, natural or supernatural. This implies that there is more here than just an extraordinary experience, that it is an experience of something which is real. Of course, the analogy is with perceptual experience, which generally is experience of something in the objective world. But this analogy is very misleading here.

(I’ll accept Pablo’s characteristics of mystical experiences as a working definition of mysticism. But this is just a way of getting the discussion started; at this point the concept of ‘mysticism’ is still very much at issue, since our “definition” raises as many questions as it answers.

Pablo then proceeded to state that “…these experiences have often become the basis for a strong moral code most commonly absorbed by the religion of the cultural milieu.”

Moi: I am very puzzled by this claim: mystical experiences (of the sort identified by our stated characteristics) are the basis for a moral code(?). This cries out for explanation. Do we have some clear examples from history? Which moral codes? Which mystics? The Jewish Bible tells us that Moses had some sort of experience on the mountain and came down with the stone tablets listing the Ten Commandments. Did he have a mystical experience? What evidence is there for thinking he had a mystical experience? The Jewish Scripture tells of the Hebrew prophets experienced visions, dreams, communications with Yahweh. They were great moral leaders and moral teachers for the Hebrews. Did they have mystical experiences of the sort defined above, and did the experience form the basis for their moral codes? Again, what grounds do we have for such an interpretation? (Walter Kaufmann argues that the prophets had experiences of inspiration, rather than mystical experiences.) Of course, a famous religious experience in Christian history is Paul’s conversion experience on the road to Damascus, which resulted in his becoming the great missionary and organizer for early Christianity. But I doubt that his experience would count as a mystical experience as defined above. Furthermore, there is no reason for thinking that his experience was the basis for a strong moral code. It became the basis for Paul’s concept of faith in the resurrected Christ, the highest imperatives for Christian faith; but not in any clear sense a strong moral code.

Pablo: continues: “….some scholars have thought the mystical elements of life the most important aspect of the spiritual life, a view I share.”

Moi: Much here needs clarification. What are the “mystical elements of life”? Are you talking about a life that includes mystical experiences? Or do you mean simply a mystical way of looking at life, one that involves mystical ideas and values: the oneness of reality, the insignificance of material, corporeal existence, and such? Hopefully, you’re not contending that in order to have a genuine spiritual life one must be a mystic. This simply would eliminate too many people from ‘spiritual life,’ people who are (were) not mystics but were excellent in other “spiritual ways.”

Referring to the object of the mystical experience, Pablo mentioned “the Godhead, the Immanent God, the God within

Moi: Can we non-mystics really make any sense of these notions? As with the notion of the subject’s identification with God, I doubt that anyone really knows what they’re talking about when they mention such notions as the ‘Godhead’ or the ‘God within.’ Here we really are blind men looking for a black cat in a darkened room.

Pablo: (some additional comments): “Moses and some of the early prophets may have been mystically inclined (and maybe even Jesus himself)”

Moi: Again we need some explanation. What is it to be mystically inclined? Is it to have mystical experiences? Certainly these Biblical figures had religious experiences of some kind, but I don’t have any evidence for saying they had mystical experiences of the kind defined above.

Pablo: (After noting that mysticism is more prevalent and more accepted in Asian cultures than in the western cultures) “Unfortunately, we don’t find much support for mysticism today in any aspects of our culture. Many think mysticism the antithesis of the methodology and results of science. Since mysticism is a more intuitive, subjective, personal and intimate human experience, it has been shunned by scientists in general as a way of getting at the truth. And, perhaps, there is some justification for this, since the scientific method …. would be inconsistent with the noetic (cognitive) claims of mysticism.”

Moi: Pablo reluctantly concedes that perhaps there may be some justification for scientists’ rejection of mysticism as a source of knowledge. But our problem is not simply that there is inconsistency between the methods of science and the claims of the mystic. Our problem is that, if you grant epistemic legitimacy to the claims of the mystics, you admit a purely subjective experience as a basis for knowledge of a reality not accessible to ordinary experience, not subject to scientific investigation or to rational inquiry. When the subjective experience of the mystic is the sole criterion for “knowledge,” you open the gates and let in a wild, woolly and crazy world. How many different kinds of “mystical truths” and “mystical realities” would we have to accept?

Pablo then conceded that perhaps mysticism does not give us new knowledge about the external, natural world but gives us knowledge “..about morality; how we ought to be and behave in this world. As the philosopher Theodore Webb has said: “Mysticism is not a rejection of science, but a transcendence of it.” There need be no contradiction here since they appear to deal with different aspects of our existence.” (* My italicizing of the text, not Pablo’s or Webb’s.)

Moi: These comments provoke more questions and critical rejoinders. How do mystical experiences yield knowledge of morality? For example, are there any clear cases in which a mystical experience or the counsel of a mystic (based on his mystical experience) helped anyone to resolve a moral dilemma? Have mystics been models of high moral behavior? The notion of mysticism transcending science is very problematic, at best a suggestive figure of speech. But what does it really mean?

Other questions to be addressed to Pablo:

What about naturalistic explanations of the mystical experience? Would such explanation show that mystical experiences are not anything special or likely sources for extra-ordinary knowledge?

What do we say about religious mystics who claim that their experience is “proof” or “evidence” for specific religious doctrine? For example, proof of the trinity, or the intercession of the Virgin Mary, and so on.

Do we have reasons for thinking that only people of high morality have mystical experiences? Aren’t there mystics who are not good moral models?

The emotional make-up of the person seems significant in bringing about a mystical experience: and historically and currently individuals and organized groups use different kinds of discipline, exercises, even deprivation to induce mystical experiences; furthermore, mystical experiences can be drug-induced. How do these facts affect the claim that mystical experiences are special and spiritually important?

Isn’t it true that each mystic brings to his experience beliefs and cultural/religious conditioning held prior to the experience, and interprets his experience accordingly? (As Walter Kaufmann says: “Suzuki does not have the same experience as Saint Teresa”)

Isn’t it true that non-mystics are totally dependent on what the mystic says about his experience, i.e., the way he interprets or describes his experiences? Hence, non-mystics are limited to hear-say evidence for their ideas of the “mystical experience.”

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