Mysticism, Nature and Assessment of [addendum]

Kai-man Kwan

“Mysticism, Nature and Assessment of [addendum].” In Donald Borchert, ed., Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol.6, 2nd edition (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2006), pp. 460-62.

Since the 1960s, philosophical controversies concerning the nature of mysticism mainly surround the relationship between mysticism and language, and the typology of mysticism. Moreover, as standard empiricist epistemologies no longer dominate the scene, new types of epistemology which grant mystical experiences much more evidential force have been formulated. 

Mysticism and Language.
Concerning the relationship between mysticism and language, some believe that mysticism transcends language, as reflected in the claim that mysticism is essentially ineffable. Taken literally, this claim generates many paradoxes, and Keith Yandell (chs. 3-5) has made sharp criticisms of various versions of the ineffability thesis (Alston 1992; Matilal).

At the other end of the spectrum, Steven Katz claims that mystical experiences are largely constructed out of the language provided by the mystics’s conceptual framework and practice. His work has been largely responsible for the contextualist turn in the study of mysticism in the 1980s (Katz 1978, 1983). This kind of mystical constructivism has been fiercely contested, especially by Robert Forman (1990, 1998, 1999). He argues for the universality of the Pure Consciousness Event, which is a purely non-conceptual state of consciousness without any intentional object, and that mystical constructivism cannot adequately explain mysticism’s unpredicted and novel nature. Hollenback provides cases of paranormal mystical experiences which “shatter the recipient’s previous expectations” (p. 15). William Wainwright (1981) contends that while mystical experiences are shaped to some extent by the mystics’s traditions, it does not follow that those experiences are entirely determined or created by those traditions.

It seems hazardous to make universal statements about the relationship between mysticism and language. Perhaps it is more advisable to reflect on the meaning of ineffability claims made by mystics within their contexts, and the complex ways of interaction between mystical experiences and mystical traditions (Katz 1992).

The Debate over Theistic Mysticism

How we should classify different types of mysticism continues to be controversial. Some scholars do not regard theistic mysticism as a separate type. They argue that all mystical experiences have basically the same phenomenological content- the pure consciousness. Theistic mysticism is just the imposition of theistic interpretation on this core mystical experience.

However, R. C. Zaehner, Wainwright, Stephen Payne and Nelson Pike vigorously defend the distinctiveness of theistic mysticism. They appeal to the phenomenological data of Christian mysticism:  God and the soul are said to be close, or in mutual embrace. The “language is radically dualistic" (Pike, p. 108). Furthermore, the same mystic sometimes offers a theistic description and sometimes a monistic description. They seem to reflect differences in the content of the experiences. Moreover, the phenomenon of 'spiritual sensations' can hardly be explained as the imposition of the Christian tradition.

Pike also argues that even if the theistic mystic may experience a monistic interval, the meaning of this experience should be determined with respect to the phenomenological context- which is a series of dualistic experiences of God. So it is legitimate to think that during a 'monistic' interval, the spirit is simply "deluded by love into not noticing the difference between itself and God" (p. 156).

Drug-induced Mysticism.
Mysticism can be induced by drugs. This kind of chemical mysticism has been made popular by Aldous Huxley, and confirmed by some empirical studies (Tisdale, ch.15). However, its philosophical significance is unclear. Some regard the drug-induced alternative states of consciousness as gateways to extra-mundane reality. Others think it shows that reductive explanations of mysticism are available. Both interpretations can be resisted. On the one hand, the skeptics argue that we cannot distinguish alternative states of consciousness from hallucinations.

On the other hand, some scholars contend that it has not been really established that drugs are sufficient to produce genuine mystical experiences. The experimental evidence only suggests that it can raise the likelihood and enhance the intensity of the experiences (Davis, p. 220; Heaney, p. 116; Vergote, pp. 197ff). Even if drugs are causally sufficient to produce mystical experiences, it does not follow that they are unveridical. God may have laid down some psychophysical laws to the effect that whenever certain brain states are produced, a certain perception of the divine would be produced. There is no reason why those brain states cannot be caused by taking drugs. It has been argued that as long as the whole process is set up and upheld by God, such perception of God should be counted as veridical.

In any case, even if drug-induced mystical experiences are unveridical, it does not follow that non-drug-induced mystical experiences are also unveridical. What is shown is that on the experiential level, mystical experience can be faked. This is neither surprising nor uniquely true of mystical experience. Sense experiences can also be faked. 

Neural Sciences and Mysticism.
Eugene d’Aquili and Andrew Newberg have proposed a neurophysiological theory of mysticism. They explain mystical states as the effect of ‘deafferentation’- the cutting off of neural input into various structures of the nervous system. As a result, an experience of ‘absolute unitary being’ occurs. In similar ways, the theory proposes explanations of a continuum of mystical experiences, both theistic and non-theistic.

The theory of d’Aquili and Newberg is by no means proven at this stage. Moreover, they point out that “tracing spiritual experience to neurological behavior does not disprove its realness… both spiritual experiences and experiences of a more ordinary material nature are made real to the mind in the very same way- through the processing powers of the brain and the cognitive functions of the mind” (Newberg, d’Aquili, and Rause, p. 37).

They also ask, “Why should the human brain, which evolved for the very pragmatic purpose of helping us survive, possess such an apparently impractical talent?” (Newberg, d’Aquili, and Rause, p. 123). They in fact tend to think their biology of transcendence is congenial to religion. The neurophysiological theory by itself does not disprove the mystical experiences just as psychophysical laws governing sense experiences would not disprove those experiences (Jerome Gellman, p. 99). Of course, there are deep questions about naturalistic explanation of mysticism that deserve further exploration (Wainwright 1973; Yandell, chs. 6-7).

The Assessment of Mysticism and the Demise of Foundationalism
Since the 1980s, there is a revival of the argument from mystical experience. Richard Swinburne defends the Principle of Credulity which says we should trust our experiences unless there are special considerations to the contrary. William Alston has defended the rationality of mystical perception by propounding his doxastic practice approach. By “doxastic practice” Alston means a system of belief-forming mechanisms. His Perceiving God is an impressive work which argues that it is practically rational to regard all socially established doxastic practices as prima facie reliable. It is important to note that Alston requires those doxastic practices to have a significant degree of self-support, and an internal overrider system.

Alston’s sophisticated argument has attracted a lot of criticisms (Fales). Space does not permit detailed discussions of the debate. It is important to appreciate the significance of Alston’s work (together with Swinburne, Yandell, and Gellman) as a new research project in epistemology. They are not only reviving natural theology, but also proposing a new approach which navigates between strong foundationalism and postmodern relativism. They admit our epistemic base is fallible but they advocate an attitude of prima facie trust to replace Cartesian doubt. While “trust without infallible proof” used to be treated as irrational, now they suggest the spirit of rationality should be construed as “trust until shown otherwise by criticisms.”

They maintain the emphasis on experience but try to break loose of the straightjacket of traditional empiricism by broadening the evidential base of experience. The basic rationale is that in the end we need to adopt an attitude of basic trust (i.e., a trust that can’t be non-circularly justified) towards our perceptual experiences. It would be unfair to grant this kind of basic trust to sense experiences alone while adopting skepticism towards other kinds of perceptual experiences. In the end, the epistemic assessment of mysticism will probably depend on the ability of this radically new epistemology to withstand objections. The controversy is still raging.
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Kai-man Kwan, Hong Kong Baptist University