Mysticism and the Blind

Mystics argue that they are able to have ineffable experiences of a deeper fundamental reality, and that the experience is so vivid, so convincing, that little could convince them that their experience was the by-product of neural circuits misfiring. It’s no by-product. It’s the real deal.

Mystics further argue that it is pointless to try to prove to a non-mystic that mystical experience is real. This would be on a par with trying to describe sight to the blind. The non-mystic is also blind, in a spiritual sense. Thus, just as a person who has been blind since birth simply can’t imagine what it is like to see colours and shapes, so too, the non-mystic just can’t see how utterly real mystical experience is.

This comparison between mystical experience and vision has never struck me as particularly impressive. For one thing, blind people on the whole actually believe that sighted people have a perceptual faculty that blind folk lack. Blind people rely on the sight of others just to get by from day to day. Compare this with mystical experience. The mystic’s description of his/her experience is usually taken with a hefty grain of salt by non-believers, and there is little the mystic can do to convince the non-mystic that the experience was of a real thing. The non-mystic doesn’t rely on the mystic for anything at all.

Furthermore, while sighted people generally agree among themselves about the deliverances of vision, mystics often disagree among themselves about the contents of their experience. Sure, they all agree that the experience was mostly ineffable, blissful, and characterised by a persistent theme of “unity”, but as Bertrand Russell said:

Catholics, but not Protestants, may have visions in which the Virgin appears; Christians and Mohammedans, but not Buddhists, may have great truths revealed to them by the Archangel Gabriel; the Chinese mystics of the Tao tell us, as a direct result of their central doctrine, that all government is bad, whereas most European and Mohammedan mystics, with equal confidence, urge submission to constituted authority.

I think the strongest argument against the reality of mystical experience, however, is that the experience receives no corroboration from our other cognitive faculties. The interesting thing about sight is that it is intersubjectively testable even by blind people, who can’t see anything at all. The sighted person’s claim that they have an extra perceptual faculty can be corroborated by methods that do not rely on that faculty.

Consider the following example, described to me by a redditor who has been blind since birth:

I can print something out from my computer, take a picture of it with my phone, and run OCR [optical character recognition] on the phone. If I give a sighted person the printed page, they will always read back text that exactly matches what I wrote on my computer, and what my phone detected with OCR. I can prove for myself that print cannot be detected by touch or smell. Therefore, it is obvious that there is information on the page that came out of the printer that I am unable to detect.’

There is no similar test that one can carry out for mystical experience. No independent test to be carried out. No predictions waiting to be falsified. No surprising correlation requiring an explanation. Instead, we have the mystic’s word against the non-mystic’s word. If the mystic truly is having an experience of fundamental reality, it must be a reality that none of our other cognitive faculties is able to penetrate. If it is an experience of any reality then, it is not an experience of this one.

In short, someone who can’t see can nevertheless prove that I can. Someone who can’t have a mystical experience is forever in the dark.

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