The Illusionists
Book Review: Kelly & Kelly et al, Irreducible Mind

Rational Mysticism ?

Greg at the Daily Grail has an interesting piece relating to sceptics and mysticism (The Mystical Skeptic? May 9). I was going to add a comment, but got a bit carried away, so am posting here instead.

Picking up on Susan Blackmore's recent descriptions on her LSD experiences, Greg points out that other sceptics/atheists have also expressed an interest in mystical experience.  Sam Harris, author of the polemic The End of Faith talks positively about 'rational mysticism', for instance (which in a way is not surprising, as he seemed open-minded in that book about parapsychology, although without going into any detail). He also mentions a book on the subject by John Horgan called Rational Mysticism, and cites Horgan's comment about Blackmore:

Blackmore has had flashes of the mystical self-transcendence referred to in Zen as kensho. In fact, she includes her out-of-body experience back at Oxford among them. She views that experience as a hallucination, but a profoundly meaningful one. She has taken to heart the lesson imparted to her toward the end of her journey, that no matter how much we learn and grow, there is "always something more". As a result of that lesson, she views mystical experiences not as ends in themselves but as way stations on a never-ending journey.

I agree with Greg in wondering whether the term 'rational mysticism' is not an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Eastern religion was one of the reasons I got interested in parapsychology: not having ever had any kind of mystical experience myself, I wondered about the idea that humans can temporarily achieve a state of knowing which utterly convinces them of the existence of God and a reality beyond this one, and the sense that they will continue to be a part of that reality when they are 'dead'. How much importance should one attach to it?

This insight seems to arise from meditative practices or, as described in the Rig Veda, from the effects of soma. So it's clearly related to changes in brain chemistry. Does that make it spurious? In the modern world we can approach these altered states from a secular perspective, as Blackmore clearly does. But if the experience can be subverted by a rational perspective after the event, how powerful could it have been in the first place? We would have to suppose that if all these mystics, meditators and initiates throughout history had read Dennett and Dawkins then they would have come out of their trance and decided that these ineffable and transcendental intimations were simply illusory, even if valuable or beneficial on some lower level (but what exactly ?)

I don't really buy any of this. If you read about mystical experiences of ordinary people - in Raynor Johnson's Watcher on the Hills, or Alister Hardy's The Spiritual Nature of Man, for instance - over and over you get this hugely powerful sense of what one can only term 'enlightenment'. People talk constantly about having had a glimpse of the true nature of reality, that we are all one, that love is the only true universal constant, and so on. They almost all say that they now understand what is meant by the term 'the peace that passeth all understanding'. What you tend not to find is people saying, 'yeah, while it was going on I thought I saw God and heaven, and it was really cool, but now I realise it was just stuff going on in my head, no biggie.'

I suppose a sceptic could argue that researchers and writers select, and that in fact there are grades of experience, from which they choose only the most outstanding or the ones that further their own religious agendas. I haven't actually seen that argument, but that's probably just because sceptics aren't normally at all interested in mystical experience. Yet the overwhelming impression, and one that incidentally is supported by the research on NDEs, which is pretty thorough, is that this is a quite distinct class of psychological event. You either have a transcendental, transformative life-changing experience - or you don't. 

So how is it possible to blur this boundary? I suspect that what's going on here is that semantic confusion which lies at the heart of sceptical discourse, the tendency to elevate weak experiences to the level of the real thing. It's an inability - or unwillingness - to distinguish between different types or levels of experience. I always think that Michael Persinger's work is an example of this: he claims that a lot of mystical and paranormal experiences, including elements of the NDE itself, can be induced by his magnetic helmet, but he doesn't really provide any evidence that they are the same things. The suspicion is that he's comparing apples with pears.

Blackmore's 'out-of-body' incident is another small but relevant example. My sense is that this experience, which occurred in her early twenties after smoking a joint, is pretty central to the subsequent development of her thought. The crux of it was her realization that the details of what she saw while roaming around Oxford 'out of her body' were actually inaccurate. For instance a particular roof, which she had observed as having chimneys and red tiles, did exist, but not as she had perceived it: it was actually green and had no chimneys.  She concluded that she had experienced a psychological construct, an illusion generated by the brain. The implication - and again this is absolutely central to sceptical thought - is that there really are two alternatives to choose from, and a critical, probing intelligence will understand the truth that escapes those who are less discerning.

There really is an issue here, and in fact even OBE adepts have recognised the illusory nature of some of their perceptions. (Interestingly, James Randi describes a rather similar incident in his own experience). Blackmore built on it to develop her psychological theory in Beyond the Body (1982). But while it adds a perplexing layer of complexity to the puzzling business of OBE perception it ought not to invite simplistic either-or interpretations. By the time Blackmore gets round to the near-death experience in Dying to Live ten years later it's become a central dogma - her chapter explaining away the accurate veridical perception reported by some hospital patients is as wonderful a piece of bluff and obfuscation as you will find anywhere.

What's really interesting is that Blackmore seems to be conflating her own hash experience with the full NDE. At the end of the book she says that many people who have had NDEs have come back from their experiences convinced that they have seen the spirit world, that they have grasped their 'higher self' and that they will live after they die. But she has experienced it too, she responds, and come to a different conclusion (p. 259). I found this rather shocking. As far as I can discover what she experienced differs quite markedly from the classic NDE described by Moody, Ring et al - she says nothing about tunnels, deceased relatives, life reviews, beings of light and so on - and it is quite misleading to suggest otherwise.

Finally, it strikes me that Horgan's comment about Blackmore's interest in meditation and mysticism hints at the rather incomplete nature of her experiences. The idea that there is 'always something more', and that mystical experiences are not ends in themselves but 'way stations on a never-ending journey' is an important insight in the Buddhist and Hindu traditions. But has she really arrived at it herself? Or is it something that she is repeating, and that accords with the rather limited nature of her own experience, because she hasn't actually felt that overwhelming transcendence that other people sometimes report?

I don't want to push this too far, because in lots of ways I respect Blackmore's work. We have a common interest in vitally important issues that ought to engage the attention of thinking people far more widely than they do. Also, it's hard to know exactly where she's at without quizzing her directly - who knows, she may really be onto something. But without a good deal more clarity from her I shall be pretty sceptical that she really does have anything original to say about mystical experience, or indeed, more generally, that the idea of rational mysticism means anything at all.


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A remarkable post. Clear, well thought out and fresh. It makes me anxious to read your book.

The sentence "I suspect that what's going on here is that semantic confusion which lies at the heart of sceptical discourse, the tendency to elevate weak experiences to the level of the real thing" absolutely sums up the sceptical method. It is transparently obvious that this is what they are doing, too, and infuriating that mainstream journalists dutifully collecting sceptical quotes don't recognize it.

Thanks Tony - it's all about education, we need to keep plugging away! On the plus side the sceptics have had a more or less free run, and in the process have made themselves into a big enough target. My book Randi's Prize may be a while coming, unfortunately - an agent expressed keen interest but then sat on it for four months and has now declined, so I'm back to square one. Will have to keep trying...

Well, clearly Michael Prescott reads your blog (since I discovered it through his blog) and while his published work is all suspense novels, he probably has some insight about a US agent.

Come on, Michael. You reading this? Let's rally our side and get Robert an agent!

Nonveridical OBEs and NDEs are quite different things.

Have researchers ever given NDE experiencers various hallucinogenic compounds and asked for a comparison? I suspect not in our strange climate of scientific resistance to both psychedelic and psychical research, but Karl Jansen was advancing the hypothesis a while back that the psychopharmacology of ketamine provided a possible explanation for the NDE experience. I read somewhere that his position softened just prior to releasing his book on the subject, so I wonder what his position is now.

David Brooks, political columnist for the New York Times had column yesterday titled "The Neural Buddhists", in which he suggests the hard-line materialist view is collapsing. What he's pointing to could easily be defined as Rational Mysticism:

"In unexpected ways, science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other. That’s bound to lead to new movements that emphasize self-transcendence but put little stock in divine law or revelation. Orthodox believers are going to have to defend particular doctrines and particular biblical teachings. They’re going to have to defend the idea of a personal God, and explain why specific theologies are true guides for behavior day to day."

The Times is about as MSM as MSM gets, and this is written by a columnist known for conservative political commentary, no less.

Rational Mysticism may not be as much of an oxymoron as it sounds.

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