Thursday, April 10, 2014

On visions and mystical experience

Barbara Ehrenreich, atheist and scientist writes of a striking vision she experienced at 17, when the world seemed suddenly ablaze.
There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with “the All,” as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, too vast and violent to hold on to, too heartbreakingly beautiful to let go of. It seemed to me that whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze. I felt ecstatic and somehow completed, but also shattered.
And naturally, her most likely explanation was a breakdown of some sort.  Hypoglycemic.  Hallucinating. 
An alternative to the insanity explanation would be that such experiences do represent some sort of encounter. It was my scientific training, oddly enough, that eventually nudged me to consider this possibility. Sometime in middle age, when I had become a writer and amateur historian, I decided that the insanity explanation may have been a cop-out, that I could have seen something that morning in Lone Pine. 
If mystical experiences represent some sort of an encounter, as they have commonly been described, is it possible to find out what they are encounters with? Science could continue to dismiss mystical experiences as mental phenomena, internal to ourselves, but the merest chance that they may represent some sort of contact or encounter justifies investigation. We need more data and more subjective accounts. But we also need a neuroscience bold enough to go beyond the observation that we are “wired” for transcendent experience; the real challenge is to figure out what happens when those wires connect. Is science ready to take on the search for the source of our most uncanny experiences? 
Fortunately, science itself has been changing. It was simply overwhelmed by the empirical evidence, starting with quantum mechanics and the realization that even the most austere vacuum is a happening place, bursting with possibility and giving birth to bits of something, even if they’re only fleeting particles of matter and antimatter. Without invoking anything supernatural, we may be ready to acknowledge that we are not, after all, alone in the universe. There is no evidence for a God or gods, least of all caring ones, but our mystical experiences give us tantalizing glimpses of other forms of consciousness, which may be beings of some kind, ordinarily invisible to us and our instruments. Or it could be that the universe is itself pulsing with a kind of life, and capable of bursting into something that looks to us momentarily like the flame.


JCF said...

I get that Ehrenreich doesn't want to use the G-word: that's cool.

...and I also get, from Eastern traditions, the apophatic "Neti, neti" ("Not that, Not that"): the Via Negativa (easier to say that something isn't Something, than that it IS).

And yet, there's still a desire to domesticate the Unexplained ("mental phenomena, internal to ourselves")

"There is no evidence for a God or gods, least of all caring ones, but our mystical experiences give us tantalizing glimpses of other forms of consciousness, which may be beings of some kind, ordinarily invisible to us and our instruments."

Or maybe it IS just a hang-up over the G-word. O_o

Jake said...

Very interesting.

I've said for some time that the best argument for theists within the Philosophy of Religion is the Argument From Religious Experience. The Ontological Argument, or the Cosmological Argument, etc. eventually get bogged down in faith claims...but..."this is my experience" statements...they are hard to dismiss.

Based on Swineburne's principle of credulity, "it is reasonable to believe that the world is probably as we experience it to be. Unless we have some specific reason to question a religious experience, therefore, then we ought to accept that it is at least prima facie evidence for the existence of God."


Kevin K said...

I had a moment, very different but somewhat similar. I was looking at a creek bed on a spring day and it seemed for a moment that I was seeing through it into a perfect place that was not simply breathtakingly beautiful but transcendent.

Also as a lawyer, I would disagree with the author's assessment of the evidence of God (or gods) in the experience she describes. This is not direct evidence but is, at a minimum, circumstantial evidence.

JCF said...

Happy Easter to everybody @ FoJ: He is Risen Indeed, Alleluia!