Mystical experiences and anything to do with spirituality seem to clash with our science-obsessed age. At the HowTheLightGetsIn festival this September, psychologist John Vervaeke, philosopher Sophie-Grace Chappell, and sceptic Michael Shermer debated the role of spiritual experience in our lives, whether it really points to something beyond the everyday material world, or if it's mere hallucination. If we are to be true empiricists, as science demands of us, we need to take mystical experiences seriously, argues Ricky Williamson.
We are not transparent to ourselves. And the world is not transparent to us. Beyond our consciousness lies the unconscious – we only perceive parts of ourselves, not our whole self; much lies hidden. You are not conscious of the digestion processes taking place in your gut, or your blood circulating around your arteries, and when you raise your hand, you don’t consciously contract your muscles, the body does these things without the conscious ‘you’ playing much of a role. Imagine trying to think your way through raising your hand – I’ll contract my bicep this much, I’ll create this much increased blood flow here; these are thoughts no one has, as thankfully, the unconscious takes care of them for us.
And the world is not transparent to us either. The idea that I see the tree as the tree is independent of my seeing of it, is an idea that should have died centuries ago, yet still lies at the heart of much scientific and cultural thought. There is no reason an evolved ape would be able to see reality as it really is. We live in a representation of the world which allows us to survive within it, not within the world as it is in itself, as Kant would say. We know that we don’t see in certain light wavelengths or hear certain pitches, there are countless other things we are not made to be aware of. We do not know reality - Kant, Gödel, Donald Hoffman, and several others have made this clear.
This is where spirituality lies. On the border between what we know – or what we think we know – and what we don’t. As well as on the border between the conscious and the unconscious.
So, we don’t know our whole selves because of the existence of the unconscious, and we don’t know reality in itself either. We are both blind and lost. We really need more epistemic humility. (And to be self-reflective, even these claims should be held loosely. It is within the realms of possibility that the world is exactly as it appears to us! The fact of any intelligibility is indeed a mystery. Perhaps naive realism is true! – though if it is, it remains impossible to prove.)
This is where spirituality lies. On the border between what we know – or what we think we know – and what we don’t. As well as on the border between the conscious and the unconscious. If knowledge is a bonfire amidst the darkness of ignorance, then spirituality lies in that place where the light of the flames is weak, and we must strain our eyes; trying to see into that darkness.
At the HowTheLightGetsIn festival this last September, award-winning psychologist John Vervaeke, founder of The Skeptics Society Michael Shermer, and philosophers Sophie-Grace Chappell and Barry C. Smith sat around this bonfire, debating the role of spirituality in our lives. “Was Wittgenstein right when he said, "the facts of the world are not the end of the matter", and Deleuze when he proposed we should "bring something incomprehensible into the world?" Should we see spirituality and mysticism as a dangerous spiral to dystopia, or as a positive outcome that challenges scientific truth?”.
John Vervaeke opened the panel by offering a naturalistic account of spirituality, and argued spiritual practices and the cultivation of wisdom are crucial in our lives. Sophie-Grace Chappell, a Christian, argued “reality is not divided into the natural and the supernatural. Reality is inexhaustible!” While Michael Shermer, the least spiritual of the bunch, asked “Why do we have to add the woo-woo stuff? There’s no reason to believe these things exist at all, and if they do, show us the evidence.”
This final argument from Shermer is a typical anti-spiritual retort. “Show us the evidence.” Well Michael, here it is: The mystical experience. The mystical experience, much like any other type of experience, offers clear evidence of spiritual reality. But what is the mystical experience? Some descriptions go as follows:
“[Mystical experiences are] those peculiar states of consciousness in which the individual discovers himself to be one continuous process with God, with the Universe, with the Ground of Being, or whatever name he may use by cultural conditioning or personal preference for the ultimate and eternal reality.” – Alan Watts, 1970.
“The complete and utter loss of self… The sense of unity was awesome… I now truly do believe in an ultimate reality.” – Johns Hopkins University, Psychedelic study participant.
“[The mystical experience] has been variously denoted by the names ecstasy, rapture, illumination, union with God.” – Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea.
And this longer Richard Bucke account from 1872, of his mystical experience, is a personal favourite:
“I had spent the evening in a great city, with two friends, reading and discussing poetry and philosophy. We parted at midnight. I had a long drive in a hansom to my lodging. My mind, deeply under the influence of the ideas, images, and emotions called up by the reading and talk, was calm and peaceful.
I was in a state of quiet, almost passive enjoyment, not actually thinking, but letting ideas, images, and emotions flow of themselves, as it were, through my mind. All at once, without warning of any kind, I found myself wrapped in a flame-coloured cloud. For an instant I thought of fire, an immense conflagration somewhere close by in that great city. The next, I knew that the fire was within myself.
Directly afterward there came upon me a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination impossible to describe. Among other things, I did not merely come to believe, but I saw that the universe is not composed of dead matter, but is, on the contrary, a living Presence; I became conscious in myself of eternal life. It was not a conviction that I would have eternal life, but a consciousness that I possessed eternal life then.
I saw that all men are immortal; that the cosmic order is such that without any peradventure, all things work together for the good of each and all; that the foundation principle of the world, of all the worlds, is what we call love, and that the happiness of each and all is in the long run absolutely certain.
The vision lasted a few seconds and was gone; but the memory of it and the sense of the reality of what it taught has remained during the quarter of a century which has since elapsed. I knew that what the vision showed was true. I had attained to a point of view from which I saw that it must be true. That view, that conviction, I may say that consciousness, has never, even during periods of the deepest depression, been lost.”
The mystical experience is evidence of spiritual reality. Philosophical arguments for spirituality, or even for God, are of far less value in my estimation when compared to the empirical evidence of the mystical experience. Spiritual reality can be well-hidden when in a ‘normal’ frame of mind, not much about regular reality hints at the presence of this possible, radical other, but when you see it, when you have a mystical experience, the experience is undeniable.
This is not to defend every spiritual belief under the sun. Of course, many beliefs that go under the banner of ‘spiritual’ are nonsense. But, what is undeniable, is the existence of at least some spiritual aspect to reality, made clear by the mystical experience.
No doubt Michael Shermer and some others would argue that these experiences are hallucinations, and therefore not evidence of anything except the temporary insanity of the person having them.
However, to argue this is to argue that you know what reality is, and that you therefore know that ‘hallucinations’ are not part of reality. But as we saw above, reality is not transparent to us.
“Other people can’t see your hallucinations though, so they can’t be real”, you might claim. But nobody can see my personal experience of the colour red either, and yet the colour red is surely no hallucination. I, and others, have argued that what we call hallucinations, might reveal something true about reality elsewhere. See Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes for example, or Philip Goff’s new book ‘Why?’, which also explores the mystical experience.
It could be that the mystical experience is an experience of ‘ultimate reality’, as the phenomenology of the experience itself hints it could be. The mystical experience feels like ultimate truth. As Jussi Jylkkä and others argue, this feeling of course does not provide any certainty that the experience really does show us ultimate truth; nevertheless, that feeling of truth certainly has at least some epistemic worth.
No doubt, some would push back further, arguing we must ‘trust the science’, not just trust people’s experiences. But we can go along with the likes of Rupert Sheldrake that “the plural of experience is data.” Science is done empirically; its central tenet is to rely on experience. Yet science all too often ignores certain experiences, such as the mystical experience, altogether. William James’ notion of ‘radical empiricism’ ought to be embraced. And at the end of the day, the foundation of all knowledge is consciousness, experience – we even do maths or reason about a priori knowledge within consciousness and couldn’t do these things without it; consciousness is a necessary, foundational condition for the knowing of anything.
I have started to think that the difference between the religious age of our ancestors and the more atheistic age in which we live today, is the simple idea that we used to listen to and trust the reality of other people’s retellings of their mystical experiences. When somebody said they saw a ‘great white light’, we believed them. Now we doubt such stories unless we have the experience for ourselves. Ironically, we have the Enlightenment to thank for our modern rejection of the other, more esoteric, meaning of the word ‘enlightenment’.
So, this should be the reply to the denial of spiritual reality by the likes of Shermer and other anti-spiritual people: That the mystical experience is a well-documented experience that many people clearly have (40% of the population, quotes John Vervaeke at the HowTheLightGetsIn festival) and that it is reliably reproducible under specific conditions (as documented in several scientific studies of psychedelics by now). To deny the mystical experience happens is to deny a fact.
But with Wittgenstein, "the facts… are not the end of the matter". We must interpret the facts. We must interpret the mystical experience. Sceptics, like Michael Shermer, would no doubt characterize them as hallucinations. Sophie-Grace Chappell would likely interpret them within a religious, Christian context. As part of HowTheLightGetsIn, John Vervaeke argued for a non-reductive naturalism, in which the mystical experience really is something transcendent, but where the transcendent is something natural – in line with his new series ‘Transcendent Naturalism’.
However we interpret these experiences, they are certainly spiritual. Even if we do interpret them, as Vervaeke and Shermer do, as part of this reality, and not as evidence of some ‘woo-woo’ otherworldly-reality, this is not an argument against the fact of their spirituality. Rather, it is evidence that spirituality is a part of this reality. Vervaeke’s Transcendent Naturalism accepts this. Shermer though appears lost in a dogmatic rejection of anything spiritual.
Interpretations of any experience are always post-rationalisations, post-hoc, after the fact, and thus somewhat miss the point – the experience itself. Nevertheless, I will offer another interpretation: The mystical experience is an experience during which we concurrently discover more of the world and more of our unconscious, during which we are no longer blind or lost, during which the bonfire of knowledge is intensified, for a brief second, making clear in the light more of what it is possible to know.
Consciousness and the world we normally perceive make up one arena. With the unconscious, as well as being the home of things like our digestion and blood flow, making up the arena of the metaphysical, the transcendent, and the spiritual.
As is well documented, during the mystical experience, the subject-object distinction breaks down. The idea that ‘I am in here’ and ‘the world is out here’ disappears. For my consciousness of the world takes up the very same space as that which I call my mind. There is, in perception, no ‘inside’ the mind and ‘outside’ to the world. Look around you. All you can see is the outside! All you see is the room, and the window, and the sky. You do not see the interior of your mind – unless the world itself makes up that interior. Douglas Harding’s book ‘On Having No Head’, explains this idea very simply and allows for the clearest perception of the non-duality of the mystical experience. But Heidegger’s ‘being-in-the-world’ and Sartre’s ‘being and nothingness’ approach the same idea. And yet, while the mystical experience allows us to come to this truth that there really is no subject-object distinction, no ‘me vs the world’, this truth still holds for everyday reality too.
So, when we venture into the unconscious and into a broader view of reality, as I contend we do in the mystical experience, we do not venture in two directions at once, we are at once venturing more deeply into both reality and ourselves. Consciousness and the world we normally perceive make up one arena. With the unconscious, as well as being the home of things like our digestion and blood flow, making up the arena of the metaphysical, the transcendent, and the spiritual. A venturing into the unknown of reality and the unknown of ourselves is a single journey. And that journey is the journey of spirituality.
In the end, we may never know whether the mystical experience is an experience of another world or a more expansive experience of this one. Whether we interpret the mystical experience as transcendent as Sophie-Grace Chappell does, or as naturalistic, as John Vervaeke does, may not be of great importance. But what we cannot do, if we are to live in accordance with what is true, is deny that the mystical experience exists altogether – as the anti-spiritual do when they say such things as, “show us the evidence”. The evidence is there. You are only ignoring it, ignorant of it, or disbelieving of those who claim to have had this experience. How many more witnesses do you need?
The mystical experience is undeniable evidence for the reality of the spiritual. And I predict, with the increasing legalisation of psychedelics, the mystical experience – possibly under the guise of another, more meme-able name – will re-enter the mainstream conversation in the not-too-distant future, and we will have to contend with it, with ultimate reality, and with the true nature of ourselves.