When it comes to describing what causes people to have mystical experiences, it seems most of us fall into one of two camps. Some of us (perhaps a majority) believe mystical experiences have a supernatural cause, such as a god or demon. Most other people believe mystical experiences do not really happen, but are instead mere hallucinations, errors in reasoning, and so forth. It seems very few people fall outside of those two camps, and most of those who do fall outside the camps, simply have no opinion at all in the matter.
Earlier today, I was watching a discussion in which the two main camps were (politely) going back and forth at each other. A typical exchange in the discussion began this way, with one person (I will call her, “She said”) stating:
I have had some experiences that were pretty tricky to explain without some form of divinity, though.
For instance, I’ve spoken of the small still voice. Let me point out that it’s not a literal voice, that’s just a handy metaphor. Anyway, one day I was going about my business when, out of nowhere, it “told” me to go see my friend Shane. I didn’t particularly want to, I was busy, but the urge just wouldn’t go away. So, I went to Shane’s house and ended up interrupting a suicide attempt.
Now, does that prove God? I don’t think it does. But it does show that there’s something really interesting going on.
I think when She says, “…it does show that there’s something really interesting going on”, she means her experience might be, “…pretty tricky to explain without some form of divinity…”.
But regardless of her precise meaning there, the suggestion that her mystical experience provided evidence of some form of divinity was immediately rejected by three other commentators (I will collectively call them, “They said”). They said:
This sort of experience doesn’t move me at all. The problem, which is well-researched, is that you have forgotten all the times a little voice told you to turn right instead of left, and absolutely nothing happened. Not to mention all the times you happened to be in the right place at the right time without the little voice. So every once in a while, the voice and the right place/right time happen to coincide. Confirmation bias at its best.
And they also said:
I agree with you there is probably something very interesting going on. But, that very interesting thing could be our remarkable ability to pick up on subtle clues without realizing it…. Or, that very interesting thing could be a very interesting coincidence. Every day, someone wins the lottery. Every day, someone gets an inexplicable urge or feeling that turns out to be justified.
So there you have the three reasons They said might be reasons one would have the appearance of a mystical experience.
And, I suspect we have now more or less summed up the two major ways in which folks raised in the West (at least) think about the causes of mystical experiences. For the most part, we Westerners (and possibly Easterners too) belong to one camp or the other. We either think mystical experiences are sent by gods or some other supernatural agents, or we think mystical experiences are brain farts of one sort or another.
I myself am of the very tiny camp of people who, albeit seldom heard from, think mystical experiences are both natural and genuine. Natural, as opposed to the supernatural camp; and genuine, as opposed to the brain fart camp. Like many tiny movements, we seem to be most often ignored in the grand debates.
At least that was my experience today. At some point in the discussion between the dominant camps, I briefly but resolutely injected my opinion, and was — ignored. For lack of any better phrase, I instantly became invisible. They vacantly glanced my way, blinked, and I was gone.
O The wonder of it!
I don’t think anyone was trying to be rude. Instead, I suspect mine is a position so rarely heard in the debate that few people have a ready response to it.
At any rate, for whatever it might be worth, there are many different kinds of mystical experiences, and despite that I usually talk only about one specific kind of mystical experience, I am today talking about all of them. Over the past 35 years, since I first became interested in these things, I have gradually come to think their cause, albeit most likely natural, is just as mysterious to us today as the cause of St. Elmo’s fire was to people living, say, 300 years ago.
For centuries, St. Elmo’s fire was observed mostly by sailors, and mostly on ships at sea during thunder storms. There, it typically appeared as a bright blue or violet glow around the tips of the masts and yardarms. Of course, many of the people who knew about it during those centuries thought it was sent by the gods.
There were very few, if any, skeptics (in the modern sense) alive back then to question the prevailing theory that St. Elmo’s fire was god sent. But had there been, one can easily imagine them busy creating all sorts of alternative explanations. Perhaps one can even imagine the concept, “hallucination”, employed as one of the explanations.
The correct explanation, that St. Elmo’s fire is a plasma generated by ionization of the air within an electrical field, would not have occurred to folks back then. It would not have occurred to the god intoxicated folks in one camp. Nor would it have occurred to the hard nosed folks in the other camp. And it would not have occurred to them simply because it could not have occurred to them.
For folks back then — believer and non-believer alike — knew absolutely nothing of plasmas, ionization, and electrical fields. So far as they were concerned, those things simply didn’t exist and there was no evidence that they knew of, or that they could see for themselves, that indicated to them that plasmas, ionization, or electrical fields existed.
Allow me to suggest then, that we are in the same position today regarding mystical experiences that our ancestors were once in regarding St. Elmo’s fire. That is, we simply do not today possess the necessary information — the necessary context — for understanding what causes mystical experiences.
Moreover, I think someday we will have the necessary information to know the causes of mystical experiences. And when we do, we will — I believe — find that mystical experiences are both genuine and have natural causes.
That’s my hunch.