Friday, January 27, 2012

Answering Brap: Understanding Mystical Eperience


These are comments that were sent to me by Brap a we days ago. Brap is an atheist who makes good comments and pretends to be an alien exploring our world for the first time, which enables him to play the stranger and force me to explain the obvious (at least I think he's pretending...).

He [Sam Harris] is saying there is more to these experiences than simply being in awe of nature, but there is no basis to extrapolate from these personal experiences (universal or not) to anything about the origin of the universe.

Meta: certainly there is. the historical association says it all. It's just a matter of preferring a different metaphor.

Can you expand on “the historical association?” I don’t recall seeing that term in this context before.

Meta: The original term "super nature" was coined in 500 by pseudo Dionysus.what he meant by the term was the transformative sense of the experiences. So Mystical experience is by its every nature a priori supernatural. It's in the enlightenment that the term SN was changed to mean magic or other realms of something beyond what is natural. The real term refers to the process of experince whereby one is elevated in consciousness.

So by that definition the word “supernatural” simply refers to the changes (mental, physical, whatever) one goes through during (and after?) a mystical experience, correct? I’m ok with that definition, so let’s go with that. Now since that doesn’t seem to imply the existence of anything outside of the natural world, how does one get from “mystical experience” to “God exists?”

The historical association goes back way before that. It could go back to stone age or even Nanderthal times. That's harder to prove, but as we look at late neolithic humans we see they seemed to experience a sense of the numinous in they developed thoughts of after life, decoration of implements pertaining to it, mazes and other artifacts that seem to indicate the were experiencing spiritual phenomena. Certainly as long as writing has been around people have written about such things.

Moreover,not only the historical association but also the content of the experience indicates its an experience of the divine. Most of them time people say they are experiencing holiness, or deity or the divine, all pervasive love; it's giving them a sense of the oneness of things but more than that, it's most often wrapped up in a sense of the divine.

Can you provide some examples of outcomes (of mystical experiences) that can’t be explained by natural means?
two of the best early studies demonstrate the experimental group as a whole experienced certain things:

Wuthnow, Robert (1978). "Peak Experiences: Some Empirical Tests." Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 18 (3), 59-75.

*Say their lives are more meaningful,
*think about meaning and purpose
*Know what purpose of life is
Meditate more
*Score higher on self-rated personal talents and capabilities
*Less likely to value material possessions, high pay, job security, fame, and having lots of friends
*Greater value on work for social change, solving social problems, helping needy
*Reflective, inner-directed, self-aware, self-confident life style
21% more likely to experience these things lasting for the first year after the experience. One can also have them again.

Noble, Kathleen D. (1987). ``Psychological Health and the Experience of Transcendence.'' The Counseling Psychologist, 15 (4), 601-614.

*Experience more productive of psychological health than illness
*Less authoritarian and dogmatic
*More assertive, imaginative, self-sufficient
*intelligent, relaxed
*High ego strength,
*relationships, symbolization, values,
*integration, allocentrism,
*psychological maturity,
*self-acceptance, self-worth,
*autonomy, authenticity, need for solitude,
*increased love and compassion
From Council on Spiritual Practices Website

"States of Univtive Consciousness"

When you say “the content of the experience is usually about God or the divine or the meaning of life,” what exactly do you mean? Is that how the people who have a mystical experience describe it?
Yes, they are overwhelmingly religious in content, meaning in most cases they are associated this way.


An example of the sort of experience is found in a study by Robinson.[i]

Finally, Robinson (1977) found that 15% of his adult respondents spoke of childhood mystical experiences. As this from a 40 year old female:

When I was eleven years old I spent part of a summer holiday in the Wye Valley. Waking up very early one bright morning, before any of the household was about, I left my bed and went to kneel on the window seat, to look out over the curve, which the river took just below the house. The trees between the house and river ... The scene was very beautiful, and quite suddenly I felt myself on the verge of a great revelation. It was as if I had stumbled unwittingly on a place where I was not expected, and was about to be initiated into some wonderful mystery, something of indescribable significance. Then, just as suddenly, the feeling faded. But for the brief seconds while it lasted I had known that in some strange way I, the essential "me", was a part of the trees, of the sunshine, and the river, that we all belonged to some great unity. I was left filled with exhilaration and exultation of spirit. This is one of the most memorable experiences of my life, of a quite different quality and greater intensity than the sudden lift of the spirit one may often feel when confronted with beauty in Nature (p. 37).(quoted by Gackenback)[ii]

Another example (this one from William James used by William Alston):

“…all at once I…felt the presence of God—I tell of the thing just as I was conscious of it—as if his goodness and his power were penetrating me altogether…I thanked God that in the course of my life he had taught me to know him, that he sustained my life and took pity both on the insignificant creature and on the sinner that I was. I begged him ardently that my life might be consecrated to the doing of his will. I felt his reply, which was that I should do his will from day to day, in humility and poverty, leaving him the Almighty God, to judge of whether I should some time be called to bear witness more conspicuously. Then, slowly, the ecstasy left my heart; that is, I felt that God had withdrawn the communion, which he had granted.[iii]

Still another example, used by Alston:

There was no sensible vision, but the room was filled by a Presence, which in a strange way was both about me and within me. I was overwhelmingly possessed by Someone who was not myself, and yet I felt I was more myself than I had ever been before.[iv]

Or do people have a hard time describing it, so that’s the closest our language can come to describing it? If people have a hard time describing it in our current language, how do we know it’s really about God or the divine and not simply some mental state not yet fully explained or documented by science?
The concept is that you can't communicate the experience in words. It's like trying to transcribe music you hear in your head to paper, it's never going to be the same. The nature of language is metaphorical and religoius language is analogy. Within an analogical framework people are lucid about what they describe. The examples above seem lucid to me.

The following quote is attributed to Hippocrates: “Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they do not understand it. But if they called everything divine which they do not understand, why, there would be no end to divine things.” Is it possible that mystical experiences are considered divine because we don't really understand what's going on in that state of consciousness?
That's argument from analogy. Epilepsy seems like mystical experience, not because its not understood but becuase both convey a sense of total peace and a sense of understanding all things for a certain time, which then fades away. This is argument from analogy since both seem similar in texture of the experience that doesn't mean they are cased by the same things. It's possible that both effect similar centers of the brain. That doesnt' reduce mystical experince to something that originates only in Brain Chemistry. Epilepsy doesn't have the kind of track record for totally transforming people's lives in ways that make them better across the board. A couple of hindered studies show that mystical experience dos so.

[i]Quoted in Gackenback , Jayne. website: “Trans personal Childhood Experiences of Higher States of Consciousness: Literature Review and Theoretical Integration” (unpublished paper 1992) URL: (last visited summer 2008)

[ii] ibid

[iii] anonymous report in James (Verities of Religious Experience, 67-68) Quoted by William Alston, Perceiving God, the Epistemology of Religious Experience. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press 1991, 1993, 13.

[iv] Timothy Breadsworth, A Sense of Presence (1977) in Ibid, 17.


Brap Gronk said...

I assume you know this post appears with two different dates, January 20 and 27. I'll reply to the later one.

Ahhh! Character limit on comments! Now I have to divide it into parts. Oh well . . .

Meta: "as we look at late neolithic humans we see they seemed to experience a sense of the numinous in they developed thoughts of after life, decoration of implements pertaining to it, mazes and other artifacts that seem to indicate the were experiencing spiritual phenomena. Certainly as long as writing has been around people have written about such things."

Yes, I'd agree that thoughts of the afterlife (fear of death) go back pretty far in human history, and inventing a god or gods that would take care of your soul in a utopia if you behaved during this mortal life was pretty common. But I think it's a stretch to say that stories about an imaginary afterlife are any indication of a sense of the numinous. I think it's more a case of wishful thinking. (Robert Wright's book "The Evolution of God" talks about the early origins of religion, such as why morality became such a driving force for it once isolated populations of people starting interacting with each other.)

Regarding the rest of your post and the links provided (the link was interesting), I think what you're saying can be summarized by the following:

- There is a state of mind (referred to as pure consciousness, transcendence, mystical experience, etc.) that many people have achieved. This is more than simply meditation, although meditation can lead to this state of mind.

- A full and accurate description of this state of mind is difficult to put into words, but at a minimum (and this is just a small part of it) it seems as though most or all sensory input is ignored while in this state of mind. Going deeper than that, terms frequently used to describe it include a sense of oneness with the universe or with nature, an overwhelming peace (no questions, no concerns), and the sense of another all-encompassing presence (often described as a divine presence).

- A significant percentage of people who have experienced this state of mind report many verifiable long-term improvements in their lives, in areas such as personality traits and interpersonal relationships.

- When this state of mind has been induced by other means (drug-induced, for instance), the long-term, life-transforming effects are typically not observed.

So far so good?

Brap Gronk said...

Part 2:

So the big $64K question is this: What is the cause of the long-term improvements in the lives of people who have had true mystical experiences? Your theory is that the cause is something divine, which I'll refer to as "God" just for ease of reading. (We won't try to define "God" here.)

My theory, which I probably haven't spent 1% as much time as you have in thinking about this, is that these life transformations come about for some combination of naturalistic reasons. None of the life improvements you mentioned in this post seem to require divine intervention. For instance, I would assume people often make changes like this with psychological counseling or therapy, which as far as I know does not always require one to enter a state of pure consciousness or have a mystical experience. I would also assume that some people make these changes on their own, simply as a result of their own introspection or as a result of how things are going in their lives.

I can also certainly envision one or two changes initiating a series of events that leads to many other changes in a person's life six to 12 months later, and Boom! Now it looks like a life transformation. In that case, would it be fair, 12 months later, to give credit for all the changes to the one event that caused the first change? Doesn't the person who kept the momentum going and made some changes deserve some of the credit for their transformation? As an analogy, the first rock that moves to initiate an avalanche does not move very many rocks itself, yet it clearly initiates a series of events that result in many rocks moving. Yes, the mountainside was transformed, but that little rock at the top that started the avalanche did very little of the transforming. The credit for the transformation should go to gravity and to all the rocks that moved, not just the first one.

I would be curious to know what percentage of people have life transformations with mystical experiences compared to the percentage of people who have them without mystical experiences. I'm assuming those two numbers are not the same (otherwise the discussion is pointless), but it would be interesting to know what the spread is. Any meta-studies out there?

I will freely admit that my naturalistic presuppositions are likely forcing me to search for a naturalistic answer to the question. I will also freely admit that when it comes right down to it, I simply don't know why mystical experiences tend to lead to life transformations. (According to Penn Jillette's most recent book, saying "I don't know" is all that's necessary to be an atheist.) If I were searching for a sign of the divine, I might be convinced that these mystical experiences are such a sign. "Might." I can't help but think those people who describe the experience as something divine, especially those who use the words God or Jesus, are doing so simply because that's the closest thing they can think of to explain it. It's like people with near death experiences describing seeing pearly gates, or streets paved with gold, or God or St. Peter with flowing white robes. Those are obviously images implanted in the subconscious, which (IMHO) tend to come forward at times when the brain isn't doing much if any of the "normal" processing it does.

But since there is so much we don't know and may never know about the human mind, I'll have to side with the naturalists on this one and assume there is a naturalistic explanation. To do otherwise looks like God of the Gaps to me, although I doubt it does to you.

Metacrock said...

brap I'm going to answer these in the main blog thing, that will be about friday. I put some comment here today though. thanks for your input.

you always give me the basis for a whole essay. I wish you would come to my message boards too.

Brap Gronk said...

I'm always honored when my comments are fodder for a blog post. Thanks.

I wish I had the time to dive into the message boards, but I'm usually two or three days behind on my RSS feeds as it is. I really need to thin those out a little. So many blogs, so little time . . .