Thursday, July 15, 2010

Logical Mysticism

One of the ideas that has absolutely obsessed me for decades is the idea of how to integrate science and religion. When I was doing my Master's degree I pretty much destroyed my academic career by trying to write an overly-ambitious thesis on what is called "state specific science" and how it could be used to do so.

State specific science is the attempt to study the laws that govern specific mental states. For example, one could analyse dreams by trying to see what rules govern it. One experiment, for example, would involve the state known as "lucid dreams". These are dreams where one is consciously aware of dreaming (or, as the Daoists would say "holding onto the One") and able to actively control the content of the dream.

Dreams are an easily discussed example for state specific science because they are a form of "altered state of consciousness" that almost everyone has experienced. But there are a great many other ways to experience this sort of thing: sensory deprivation, hallucinogenic drugs, and meditation. My belief at the time was that this would lead to a scientific study of meditation, which would lead to a scientific study of religious experiences, which lead to a science of mysticism.

My thesis imploded, primarily through catastrophic bad judgement in my selection of thesis advisor and reader. After a couple years of extreme frustration, I took a few years off to work and think. (This happened at the time of the 1980s recession, so the best work I could find was running a floor polisher. This was, however, the time I got involved with Daoism.) Eventually, I decided to give the degree one last crack before the deadline passed and I officially failed. I changed from a full thesis to an undefended one.

This time I changed the topic to the role of cultural conditioning in religious experiences". As I explained to my new advisor, I would do anything required to graduate. I remember literally saying "if you want me to roll a peanut up and down the University walkway with my nose, I will do it". Things went blindingly well after that. I'd come in with something written and the advisor and reader would tell me what they liked and what they didn't. Whatever wasn't instantly approved was ripped out and thrown away. When we finished, I had a "B", my piece of paper, and I was out of the academy for good. (I still work there, but in a menial role.)

I learned a great deal when I was researching my second topic, primarily that "recognized experts" in the field of philosophy of mysticism didn't know a lot about the subject. I focused my work on the writings of a fellow by the name of Steven T. Katz. What I found was that this fellow had developed his whole understanding of mysticism based on a very selective reading of literature. Primarily, he restricted himself to Jewish mysticism. Since Judaism is probably the strictest of the monotheist religions, it has very strong injunctions against the two most common types of religious experiences: the "unitive experience" (where one feels to be "one" with God or the universe) and "visionary experiences" (usually where one sees a heavenly being---such as a Daoist immortal, Hindu God or Buddhist Bodhisattva.) Jewish mystics would never report that they are "one with God" because that would be considered blasphemous. Similarly, while they do report visionary experiences sometimes, these usually involve non-personal entities---such as "thrones" or symbols.

If, instead, you look at the broad range of writings by mystics of all religions you can see that there are several different types of religious experience, but most of them can be classified as "visions" or "union" types. The visions tend to be of Gods and Saints. The "unions" are with God or something like "the Dao". By restricting the experiences he wished to study to those that fit into orthodox Judaism, Katz pretty much tossed out over 90% of the literature.

I found it hard to see this as anything but intellectually dishonest.

When I looked at the primary literature of other religions I found that a lot of the experiences people described seemed to be heavily mediated by the culture they inhabited. For example, St. Francis of Assisi is the first person to have ever been reported as exhibiting the stigmata. Yet after he was reported as having them, they started to show up in the historical record. Similarly, the literature of mysticism shows no evidence of women Christian mystics experiencing the "marriage of Christ" vision---until a famous Christian mystic (I think, Teresa of Avila, although it was a long time ago) wrote a manual for nuns that suggested that they use the Song of Songs---which is full of erotic imagery.

What this suggested to me is that the human mind uses the furniture of our culture to construct the imagery that comes to us in visionary religious experiences. Underlying it there seems to be some sort of trans-cultural archetypes, but they take form based on the symbolic representations that the individual has been exposed to. The archetype of the divine female, for example, takes the form of the Virgin Mary to a Roman Catholic, Guan Yin to a Chinese Buddhist, the Empress of the West to a Daoist, Tara to a Tibetan Buddhist, and Sophia to a Greek Pagan.

I think that this is a demonstrable fact because of the experiences I myself have had. I have had visions that fit very neatly into the category of visionary experiences and which take a hibred form between Daoism and Western secularism. For example, I had a gnomic dream that fits neatly into the Daoist category of the "Ghost King", but which was composed by elements from my own personal history.

Years later when I think about that experience in graduate school, it becomes clear to me how much my thinking on this subject has changed. I no longer believe that religious experiences---as I once understood them---are all that important. I've had religious visions and experiences where I felt "one with the universe", but ultimately I've come to the conclusion that none of them are terribly important when compared to the plodding "here and now" of day-to-day experience.

I understand that this is a common belief amongst mystics. For example, Zen Buddhists of the Soto school say that "sitting itself is enlightenment". I think, in the same vein, that "holding onto the One" is realization.

The "new atheists" Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins maintain that there is no way that one can be a rational, educated human being anymore and support religion. I disagree. I think that the sort of mysticism that I have found is amenable to science. But the gap needs to be met by both sides. I have worked very hard to come up with a version that I believe makes sense. I think that now it is time for rationalists to get rid of their "straw men" religions and look seriously at something that does make sense.


Anonymous said...

according to the following interview with sam harris, he seems to be quite amenable to mysticism. a few excerpts that show the gist of his rationale in this area, but well worth reading the entire interview. i think you'll find you have a lot more overlap with his views than you think.

"The last problem with atheism I’d like to talk about relates to the some of the experiences that lie at the core of many religious traditions, though perhaps not all, and which are testified to, with greater or lesser clarity in the world’s “spiritual” and “mystical” literature. [....]

Most us think that if a person is walking down the street talking to himself—that is, not able to censor himself in front of other people—he’s probably mentally ill. But if we talk to ourselves all day long silently—thinking, thinking, thinking, rehearsing prior conversations, thinking about what we said, what we didn’t say, what we should have said, jabbering on to ourselves about what we hope is going to happen, what just happened, what almost happened, what should have happened, what may yet happen—but we just know enough to just keep this conversation private, this is perfectly normal. This is perfectly compatible with sanity. Well, this is not what the experience of millions of contemplatives suggests. [....]

But the problem with a contemplative claim of this sort is that you can’t borrow someone else’s contemplative tools to test it. [....]

As someone who has made his own modest efforts in this area, let me assure you, that when a person goes into solitude and trains himself in meditation for 15 or 18 hours a day, for months or years at a time, in silence, doing nothing else—not talking, not reading, not writing—just making a sustained moment to moment effort to merely observe the contents of consciousness and to not get lost in thought, he experiences things that most scientists and artists are not likely to have experienced, unless they have made precisely the same efforts at introspection. And these experiences have a lot to say about the plasticity of the human mind and about the possibilities of human happiness."


The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Yes, Sam Harris seems to part company with the other "New Atheists", I think ultimately because he seems to know a lot more about religion.

One thing that I think needs to be emphasized, however, is that there are different forms of "meditation" and "contemplation", and all are not of equal value. I think, for example, that a great deal of Roman Catholic "internal practice" is quite dangerous.

I think this because much of it seems to be designed to increase the emotions of the practitioner instead of lessen it. This doesn't liberate the person practising it, it enslaves them in Church dogma by removing their ability to think objectively.

This is an enormous topic. I'm glad that Sam Harris is making some tentative steps towards it.