(About an 18 minute read)
One of the greater joys of older gentlemen of an intellectual bent such as myself
is cackling at younger people in the park is discovering obscure philosophical problems that most likely won’t be solved within our own lifetimes. As it happens, that’s not so easy to do these days, since all the really good problems have already been discovered. Problems like, “If deity exists, then how do we know it exists?”, “What does it mean to live a good life?”, and of course, “What is the maximum number of chickens that can cross the same road in the same joke?”
But why indulge oneself in attempting to solve unsolvable problems in the first place?
As it happens, the world population can be divided into two kinds of people: Those who love their journey more than their destination, and those who love their destination more than their journey. If you are someone who most loves his or her destination, then you probably are not attracted to unsolvable problems, for such problems are pretty much all journey and no arrival.
Yet, if you most love — and perhaps even crave — the thrill of traveling in and of itself, then perhaps you are one of those relatively rare individuals who cherishes the way pondering an unsolvable problem can get you thinking creatively beyond the common assumptions we all have about things. And at least sometimes, you will be rewarded — not with a solution to the problem — but with a greater understanding of the issues involved.
As for myself, I fall into the latter category of humans. I savor the journey quite often more than the destination. At least when it comes to philosophical problems. In fact, I have taken to heart Kenko’s maxim, “The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty”, and all but find offensive most efforts to bring philosophical journeys to safe and secure destinations. Give me the climb, but not necessarily the mountain’s summit. I like the changing views on the way up best of all.
Now, despite how hard it is these days to discover new philosophical problems that are virtually insolvable, I myself am proud to say that I believe I may have found one. I’ve actually been mulling it over for a few years, and I believe that anyone who properly understands the issue will agree with me that it has no easy solution, if it has any solution at all.
Yet here’s the rub: The problem takes some explaining. The explanations are simple enough, once you grasp them, but they run to a little length. Let’s begin, however, by stating the problem: “Assuming that god exists, is there any guarantee that a mystical experience of god imparts knowledge of god?”
Put differently: “If you somehow first knew that god existed, and you had a mystical experience that at least appeared to you to be of god, could you say with absolute certainty that anything you learned about god during that experience was true?”
Once again, “Even if we were certain that god existed, are self-proclaimed prophets like Pat Robinson justified to believe that the messages they receive from god provide genuine knowledge of god’s will, character, etc.?”
To be sure, there is an easy answer to the question. Unfortunately, the easy answer seems to rest on a misunderstanding of the question. The easy way out is to say “no” on the grounds that we cannot know for certain that our experience of god is not a delusion, hallucination, brain fart, etc. But that answer ignores that the question asks us to assume we know god exists. Although most people will not make such a silly mistake, my experience of people says some are bound to.
Having said that, let’s now get on with my awesome explanation of the problem. We should first define “mystical experience”.
People commonly mean upwards of a dozen things by “mystical experience”. Things like clairvoyance, mind-reading, near death experiences, out of body experiences, and so forth. In this beautiful essay, however, we will mean one, and only one, thing by “mystical experiences”. Namely,
one’s first cup of hot, fresh coffee on a chilly morning the experience of “oneness with everything”.
The experience of oneness is famously difficult to describe to anyone who has not themselves had it. Yet, the experience seems to lie at the root of the notion there is some such thing as “spiritual enlightenment”. That is, moksha, samadhi, nirvana, satori, kensho, etc. It also seems quite likely to in many cases inform or influence notions of god — especially those notions commonly found in Hinduism (e.g. Brahman), but also in other religious traditions, such as mystical Judaism (e.g. Ein Sof), and even the Christian God. While many people who have had a mystical experience do not claim it was an experience of god, very many others do.
Now, I’m just enough a god-snob to believe that — if there is a god — the mystical experience is in all likelihood the purest, most authentic experience of that god that our noble and esteemed species of spear-chucking super-chimpanzees can have. I cheerfully peer down and sniff my perfectly handsome nose™ at auditory or visual “experiences” of god. How can any sensible person compare merely hearing the voice of god, or simply seeing an image of deity, to the overwhelming, earth-shattering, life-transforming, supreme experience of oneness? The very thought of it! Tsk. Tsk.
Like most snobs — whether god-snobs, social-snobs, or some other kind of snob — I myself have no extensive personal experience of the superiority I claim to be the highest available standard that can be aspired to. What modest experience I do have, I recognize as being anything but definitive of the whole range of mystical experiences that humans seem capable of having
unless you count that purely blissful moment when I first saw Terri’s breasts by the moonlight. So I am quite cautious about defining the mystical experience.
However, after 35 or so years of interest in the topic, I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that all mystical experiences I’ve heard of have at least one thing in common. That is, they involve a specific, defining change in our perception of reality.
Now, grab hold of your seat, strap yourself in, for here comes the core description of what makes an experience “mystical”. A mystical experience can be distinguished from a non-mystical experience by the simple fact that it (1) involves an abrupt cessation of our normal, everyday, “subject/object perception”, and (2) its replacement by an awareness or experiencing of the oneness of all things.
I can only imagine, dear reader, that you are now in awe of the sheer elegance of my description. The experience of god, summed up in 41 words! Only my scurrilous two ex-wives would seek to distract you from the glory of my accomplishment by daring to suggest that I stole the description from someone!
Which, of course, I did.
I confess the basic idea is derived from the writings of Sam Harris, who — whatever else he is — is an author of beautiful, clear, and concise prose, genuine wit, and sharp insights. In fact, I am so struck by Harris the author, that I believe his only major flaw as an author is that he’s not me, poor man. But putting all that aside, what do we mean by “subject/object perception”?
The concept is simple enough once you get it. Merely look at whatever device you’re reading this on, and then observe that you have a sense or feeling of that device being distinct from your self. Or take note of anything else in your perceptual field, whether that something else is a sight, a sound, a taste, a touch, or an odor. Without usually thinking about it, you divide the world into self and non-self. “I see a tree, but do not see the tree as me.” “I hear a plane, but I do not hear the noise as part of myself.” That’s subject/object perception, which is our normal, everyday way of perceiving the world.
Now, it’s relatively rare — but it is still possible — for subject/object perception to come to an abrupt end while yet some form of awareness or experiencing continues. When that happens, the division of the world into me and not-me breaks down, and you are left with a perception that all things within your perceptual field are really, in some profound or fundamental sense, just one thing. Or, as Robert Plant famously sings in Stairway to Heaven, “When one is one and one is all”.
It is quite easy to interpret such an experience as an experience of god. For instance, what could be greater than that oneness? Absolutely nothing you perceive lies outside it, apart from it. Everything is included in it. Everything is embraced by it.
Second, that experience of oneness almost invariably comes with an overwhelming sense or feeling that it is real. Indeed, our normal, everyday sense or feeling that something is real pales in comparison. Were you to lower your head, snort like a raging bull, and then charge at full tilt and head first into a brick wall you would — if you survived the experience — have a nearly unshakable conviction that the wall was real. Perhaps you could later on intellectually convince yourself that it wasn’t real, that you were really a brain in a vat, and that the wall was a delusion, but I think it’s highly unlikely that you could convince yourself of that much beyond an intellectual level.
The experience of oneness is that feeling of realness on steroids. Which, I think, largely explains why so many people who’ve reported having it come away convinced that our normal, everyday reality is an illusion, and that the reality of oneness is the True or Ultimate Reality.
There are a few other generally present attributes to the experience, such as a feeling or sense of infinity, an experience of bliss or ecstasy, an experience of unconditional love, and so forth. Some people come away from such experiences convinced they have assured knowledge of god, such as that “God is infinite”.
But how can they be certain that god is infinite? Please recall that we are assuming god exists: Our question is only whether on not we can trust an experience of god to tell us something about the properties of god.
Now some — but not all — mystics are inclined to say the mystical experience is so convincingly real that it cannot possibly be the case that it is misleading. “My experience of X as real convinces me that X must be real.” But we know we can be convinced something is real without its actually being real. Many people are convinced the sky is blue, but we know the blueness of the sky is not an actual property of the atoms and molecules that comprise the atmosphere, but rather an effect of the diffusion of light through it. No matter how great the sense or feeling is that something is real, we cannot be certain on those grounds alone something is actually real.
Something else that might incline us to believe our experience of god has given us assured knowledge of god’s properties is the simple faith that “seeing is believing”, or put more precisely, “Experience or observation is conclusive evidence of fact”. But this too is quite obviously not the case. The floor lamp beside my desk looks solid, but we know from physics that it is comprised of atoms held in a matrix with more space between the atoms than there is space occupied by the atoms themselves. In other words, far from being that solid matter that I observe, my floor lamp is largely empty space — much like the mostly empty inside of a politician’s cranium.
So neither the conviction that something is real, nor the observation that something is real, can assure us that something is real. Hence, the experience of god as infinite cannot be certain evidence that god is infinite on either one of those grounds. Does that leave any other grounds for such a claim?
As it happens, some mystics make the curious claim that their experience of god is immediate. By “immediate”, they seem to at the very least mean that their experience of god is not mediated by the senses. Instead, they have a direct awareness of god, perhaps in somewhat the same sense of our having a direct awareness of the thoughts in our head.
Now, if it is true that mystics can have an immediate experience of god, then that would provide a different sort of grounds for the claim that an experience of god as infinite is conclusive evidence that god is infinite, for how can an unmediated experience be anything but a true experience?
To say that it could be a false experience would be like saying my experience of thinking could be a false experience, and that I might not be experiencing any thoughts at all even when I think I am thinking — a logical contradiction that, so far as anyone knows, has only been accomplished by the membership of the Ku Klux Klan.
Hence, we cannot say that an immediate experience of god as infinite could be false on anything like the same grounds that we can say the conviction that an experience is real could be false, or the observation that something is the case could be false. But does that still leave us with good grounds to doubt our experience?
When I think I’m thinking, are there ever any grounds to doubt that I’m thinking?
The answer is quite obviously, “no”. And yet, there remain good grounds to doubt that my experience of thinking accurately reflects or represents thinking itself. To illustrate, suppose I think about the most ecstatic experience of my first wedding night: The three fulfilling, blissful hours I spent in bed intimately lecturing my new wife on the epistemology of carnal knowledge. My thoughts of that taste of heaven on earth appear to me as their content. But I know from the sciences that in actuality those thoughts might somehow be the product of biological events in my brain, the mass firings of neurons. In which case, there is a crucial gulf between my experience of thinking, and my thinking itself.
Of course, that gulf is normally hidden from me. I have much less awareness of neurons firing in my brain than normal, healthy teenagers have of their mothers asking them to do their chores. Yet — assuming it is the case that all thought is ultimately the product of those neurons, and there is no such thing as a consciousness that exists independent of them — I have here sufficient grounds to doubt that even a direct, unmediated experience of god as infinite necessarily proves that god is indeed infinite.
After all, if there be a gulf between my experience of thinking and thinking itself, there could be a quite similar gulf between my experience of god as infinite and god’s “infinity”. For all I can know, my experience bears no or almost no resemblance to god’s infinity.
A somewhat imperfect analogy here might be colors. Most of us commonly see the various objects in our perceptual fields as having colors. Green leaves, pink sunsets, purple flowers, and so forth. But colors are not properties of those objects. Instead, they are manufactured in our heads. The objects themselves have no colors at all. Because they are manufactured in our heads
by tiny tiny little elves trust me! we can say we have an immediate experience of colors. But even the immediacy of that experience does not entail that they really exist apart from us. In somewhat the same fashion, it seems possible that god’s infinity might be manufactured in our heads.
So, even if we grant that god exists, and that our mystical experiences are somehow of god, we cannot be certain that any knowledge those experiences impart to us is true knowledge. But if that is indeed the case for what we have been calling here “mystical experiences”, it is also the case for merely auditory or visual experiences of god. To say — as a Pat Robertson might say — “God spoke to me last night and said, ‘I will send an earthquake to devastate Utah for I am angry with the Mormons who live there’.” is subject to the same uncertainties as mystical experiences. We have no way of knowing whether that message is assured knowledge of god’s will, character, or intentions.
But why stop there? If we cannot say with absolute assurance that god is infinite or that god is angry with virtually anyone who fails to contribute lavishly to our TV ministry, can we say that an experience of god imparts any certain knowledge of god at all? I think not. Even if we assumed something exists apart from our own brains that is the ultimate cause of our experiences of god, we could not say with complete assurance that we knew much of anything about that something. For all we could really know, god might be some as yet undiscovered combination of natural causes.
To be sure, quite the opposite of what we’ve been saying could also be true. Maybe an experience of god as infinite quite accurately reflects or resembles god’s infinity. The point here is not that such a thing is impossible, but that it is uncertain.
I do not wish anything I’ve said here to be misunderstood as poo-pooing the notion of god, nor as hostile to the notion that mystical experiences can be immensely life-affirming, to say the least. I have plenty of doubts about the notion of god, and plenty more doubts about certain specific notions of god, but I have far fewer fixed and firm convictions about god than perhaps most of us. And I have personal experience of how life-affirming
seeing Terri’s breasts in the moonlight mystical experiences can be.
Yet, like Jiddu Krishnamurti and some others, when it comes to these things, I believe certainty is largely or even entirely counter-productive. You might find the god you set out to find, but that god will be a projection of your own convictions about what a god should be. Or so it seems to me.
So what do you make of all this? What am I missing here? Your comments, questions, rants, and mouth-watering insights are welcomed!
For a larger and more general discussion of mysticism, see “Mysticism is a Whore: Allow Me to Introduce You“.