Mysticism and Evidence

A presentation delivered to the Dunedin Theosophical Society Sept. 13 2017

What is it like to be blind? I do not mean spiritually blind, or morally blind, or blind with rage, but actually unable to see. Of course, when we try to imagine it for ourselves, as sighted people, we say that everything would just look black, but that is not quite right. Everything would not look black. There would be no visual impression of blackness, for there would be no visual impressions at all.

Rather, we should imagine simply that to be blind is to live in a world in which everyone else is running about saying “Gosh, what a pity it must be for everything to just look black all the time.” and to always be thinking to oneself “what on Earth is black?” To assume that a blind person only ever sees blackness is a bit like assuming that your knee only ever hears silence. Your knee never “hears silence” because your knee is not a thing that hears. In the same way, the blind person doesn’t “see blackness” because blind people are not things that see.

The blind person exists in a world in which everyone around them uses strange words—Words like “Bright”, “purple”, “silhouette” or “transparent” would seem particularly strange. Such words would almost seem like nonsense—mere figments of the imagination—words invented by so-called “sighted” people, just to make a fool of the poor blind person. Indeed, if the blind person were of a very, very sceptical nature, he might come to the conclusion that everyone was just playing a joke on him. The people who claim to be able to see are actually as blind as he is, and their claims to have some magical extra sensory faculty called “vision” are entirely fictitious. They are having a laugh.

But if we stop for a moment to think, isn’t this exactly the attitude that the atheist has towards the mystic’s claim to “perceive god”? The atheist says there is no evidence for the mystic’s claims, but this is only because the atheist lacks the ability to experience the reality which is the evidence for the mystic’s claim. The atheist is just like our sceptical blind person, believing that all the self-proclaimed mystics are playing some major practical joke on him. So the two cases are actually analogous. The blind person and the atheist are in the same boat. The blind person is physically blind, while the atheist is spiritually blind. The atheist has never had a mystical experience, and so lacks the evidence necessary to ground a reasonable belief in god. This seems like a very strong argument, but it actually suffers from quite an obvious defect.

That defect is the fact that blind people generally do believe what sighted people tell them about the world of vision. And, in contrast, atheists generally don’t believe what mystics tell them about the world of mystical experience. This is quite a big difference. The question is, though, why the difference?

Sometimes, if you want to know why people believe the things that they do, the best thing to do is, not just take a guess, but actually ask them. So, I did. I went on the online forum reddit, which has a special sub-reddit dedicated to the blind community. I asked any forum users who had been blind since birth why they took sighted people to have an extra sensory faculty that they themselves lacked. In other words, I asked the blind person why he believed that sighted people can actually see, and why he doesn’t believe that people who claim to be able to see are just making up stories. This was the reply that I received, and it’s very interesting.

“Why believe people who say they can see?”

“Because print exists. I can print something out from my computer, take a picture of it with my phone, and run 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 Optical Character Recognition. 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.”

Now notice what the procedure is here. The blind person thinks of a sentence. Perhaps it’s the sentence “I bet you can’t read this.” He tells no-one what the sentence is. He types it into a word processor that he can use by feeling braille. He prints it out onto a piece of paper which he then hands to a person who claims to be sighted, and, as if by magic, the sighted person can “read the blind person’s mind”. The person who claims to be sighted will say that written on the page he can see the words “I bet you can’t read this.”

So, we can directly test the sighted person’s claims. Indeed, vision is put to the test all the time, and predictions made with the use of vision are often very specific and often turn out to be correct. So, sighted people can predict that a friend is waving off in the distance. Sighted people can predict that obstacles are approaching. Sighted people can even predict such things as how many spoons are in a kitchen draw without having to touch them. All of these claims can be corroborated later by the blind person’s using their other senses, such as their hearing and their sense of touch. But at the end of the day, all of these claims support the sighted person’s claim to truly have a faculty that the blind person lacks.

Vision is not 100% reliable, it is true. Yet the conditions under which vision is not reliable are well known to the sighted community and we all agree about what those conditions are. When objects are fast moving, or when they are very far away or when they are seen through a cloudy field, sighted people agree that the objects are harder to identify. We tend to make errors when the room is too dark. We fail to see the coffee table in the middle of the night when nature’s call gets us out of bed, and we realise our failure very quickly the moment our shins receive a sharp knock. So, not only do we sighted folk often agree, in very specific detail, about what we see and where, but more importantly we also often agree about what we can’t see and about the conditions under which we find it impossible to see anything at all. We all know, for example, that it is very hard to see in the dark. We tend to discover when our vision is reliable by noting when we agree about what we see. We can then subject those observations to independent tests. So, if I’m not sure whether the table is really there, I can reach out and touch. And lastly, we tend to discover when the reliability of vision breaks down by noting when that agreement breaks down.

Perhaps, then, we can ask the same questions where mystical experience is concerned. We can firstly ask when mystics tend to agree about the nature of their mystical experience. We can then subject those claims to independent testing. Lastly, we can then note the conditions under which mystics disagree and discover when mystical experience might lead us astray. If we discovered, for example, that mystics consistently disagreed whenever their mystical experience was caused by psilocybin, we would have a clue that this kind of drug-induced mystical experience was unreliable.

So, let’s take these one at a time. What do mystics, the great sages of all the ages, agree about? Actually, there is surprising agreement between mystics down the ages. Surveying some classic mystical texts, Bertrand Russell noted that Mystics tend to agree on the following points:

1. Unity: that all division and separateness is unreal, and that the universe is a single indivisible unity.

2. Moral Nihilism: that evil is illusory; that is to say that good and evil, while seemingly opposite, are identical.

3. Temporal Nihilism: that time is unreal, and that reality is eternal, not in the sense of being everlasting, but in the sense of being wholly outside time. (Russell 1935, 179)

While Russell includes moral nihilism among his common features of mystical experience, few other theorists on mysticism include this feature. We find William James with a more popular typology of mystical experience which included the following 4 typical features of mystical experience:

1. Ineffability: The experience defies expression.

2. Noetic Quality: Mystical states are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect.

3. Transiency: Mystical states cannot be sustained for long.

4. Passivity: Although the oncoming of mystical states may be elicited by a variety of procedures, when the characteristic sort of consciousness once has set in, the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance. (James 1999, 41416)

James also notes that “unity” type beliefs of the sort described by Russell are the essential insight of all mystical experiences.

Walter Stace’s typology of mystical experience is one of the most popular, and his scale includes 9 typical features of mystical experience. I won’t list all 7 features, but it is important to note that Stace also gives priority to unity-type beliefs.

So, we have all three writers stating that a belief in cosmic unity is essential to mystical experience. Recent studies of mysticism have focussed on psilocybin’s ability to induce mystical experiences, and the subjects of such studies certainly agree that their mystical experience tells of an essential cosmic unity. Here are some verbatim reports from subjects who were dosed with psilocybin and experienced what appears to be mystical experiences:

They say:

  • ‘I didn’t know where I ended and my surroundings began.’
  • ‘The sense that all is One, that I experienced the essence of the Universe.’
  • ‘I was able to comprehend what oneness is.’
  • ‘The complete and utter loss of self… The sense of unity was awesome…’
  • All things are connected.’ (Selected from Griffiths 2008, 19)

This surprising agreement is evidence that mystical experience is reliable. But it is only prima facie evidence. It is a clue that the world is ultimately one thing. Some form of monism is true. Everything is united. However you want to state it. Although this is some amount of evidence in favour of monism, it is hardly conclusive. After all, we all agree that we can see nothing at all when the light is switched off, but this hardly entails that the entire world must disappear whenever you flick the switch. Just because mystics all agree that the universe is a oneness, is not on its own enough evidence to justify belief in the claim.

As I noted earlier, we come to discover that the world doesn’t disappear whenever the lights go out by applying other methods. We cross-check. When we bump our shins on the coffee table, this is an example of cross-checking. It is our sense of touch telling us that, despite what our eyes might say, the coffee table is still there, just as it was before.

So, we have to move to the next task, which is cross-checking the mystical experience. The trouble is that it is unclear what kind of test we could apply to corroborate the claim that everything is one. We don’t seem to have any conclusive evidence from our eyes, or our ears, or our noses that would indicate that everything is one thing. Indeed, the very fact that I can talk of eyes, ears, and noses at all seems to defeat the question immediately. Two eyes, two ears and a nose are five things altogether. But the mystics didn’t say there were five things, they said there was just one thing!

Perhaps when we apply our reason to the question, we could corroborate the claim that everything is one thing. Perhaps we could find some knock-down argument for monism. Unfortunately, the arguments for and against monism appear to be equally credible, and there is no clear advantage either way. Perhaps we will find the knock-down argument in the future, and then we will say “aha, the mystics were right all along”, but for now, we ought to be rather less optimistic.

So, it appears very difficult to corroborate the claim that everything is one thing. And the claim that everything is one thing is such a metaphysical sort of claim, I am just not sure we will ever be able to corroborate the claim in this life, with the tools that we presently have available.

Lastly, we turn to the question of when the mystic’s agreement breaks down. Again, I’ll start with Bertran Russell, who commented on this once:

While the witnesses agree up to a point,” He says “they disagree totally when that point is passed, although they are just as certain as when they agree. 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.”

From Russell’s quote, we might infer that mystical agreement breaks down under the influence of dogmatic religion. Indeed, if mystical experience is coloured by background commitments to Jesus, to the Tao, or to Papa Legba, it seems reasonable to imagine that agreement will break down. If there are important mystical truths, accessible to all human beings by a kind of mystical experience which is in principle open to all, it is unlikely that these deep truths need to be taught to us by holy ghosts, or phantom spirits, or winged angels, or powerful gods. Indeed, the idea that everything is one is so mundane in some sense, that it seems unlikely to take a god to think of it. The effects of religion on mystical experience can only be corrosive.

Indeed, it is within non-denominational projects, such as Aldous Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy, or within organisations such as your own Theosophical Society, that an open inquiry into mystical states and their associated knowledge is possible. While I remain sceptical that mystical experience does provide solid answers to any of our thoroughly human questions, I nevertheless hope, very sincerely, that I am wrong about that.

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