My friend Jules Evans has recently published an essay arguing that religion has no monopoly on transcendent experience. The essay is in part inspired by his new book, The Art of Losing Control: A Philosopher’s Search for Ecstatic Experience. Despite the title of this post, I have nothing against ecstatic experiences per se, nor do I think that religion has, or ought to have, a monopoly over them. But I do think Jules gets a good number of things wrong, and I’m going to argue why.
Jules’ Aeon piece opens by recounting a mystical experience that occurred to the British author Philip Pullman back in 1969: “[he] was walking down the Charing Cross Road in London, when his consciousness abruptly shifted. It appeared to him that ‘everything was connected by similarities and correspondences and echoes’. [He] wasn’t on drugs, although he had been reading a lot of books on Renaissance magic. But he told me he believes that his insight was valid, and that ‘my consciousness was temporarily altered, so that I was able to see things that are normally beyond the range of routine ordinary perception.’ He had a deep sense that the Universe is ‘alive, conscious and full of purpose.’ He says: ‘Everything I’ve written has been an attempt to bear witness to the truth of that statement.’”
Jules goes on to say that Pullman calls that sort of experience “transcendent,” but that he prefers the term “ecstatic.” I call it hallucination.
Is it possible that a sudden (apparently unprovoked by drugs, but it could have been) shift in conscious perceptions gives a human being temporary access to a deeper reality (whatever that means)? Sure, it’s possible. Is it the most likely explanation of what happened to Pullman? Hardly. And as I wrote in a previous post, confusing mere logical possibility with actual empirical probability is a major portal into woo-thinking, defined as “adj., concerned with emotions, mysticism, or spiritualism; other than rational or scientific; mysterious; new agey. Also n., a person who has mystical or new age beliefs.”
Jules continues: “Over the past five centuries, Western culture has gradually marginalised and pathologised ecstasy. That’s partly a result of our shift from a supernatural or animist worldview to a disenchanted and materialist one. In most cultures, ecstasy is a connection to the spirit world.”
Indeed, although I would call supernatural and animist worldviews rather naive and ungrounded in reality, while disenchanted materialism is about looking at the world as it actually is (insofar as we understand it), and not as we wish it would be. There is, based on what is reasonable to know, no such thing as a spirit world.
Notice, incidentally, Jules’ tendentious use of words here: “disenchanted” and “materialism,” rather than, say, “reason-based” and “naturalism.” To be disenchanted is not usually considered a good thing, as disenchantment is next door to cynicism (with a small-c, not the ancient philosophy). And materialism sounds harsher than naturalism (yes, I’m aware that philosophically the two are not the same thing, but the opposite of supernatural is natural, not material).
Jules mentions an interesting statistic: “The polling company Gallup has, since the 1960s, measured the frequency of mystical experiences in the United States. In 1960, only 20 per cent of the population said they’d had one or more. Now, it’s around 50 per cent.” He takes this as a good sign, telling his readers that if they had some such experience they are not alone. But I find it disturbing that half the population has at times lost contact with reality, and am puzzled by the fact that the percentage has more than doubled in the past half century. Why would that be? Are human beings suddenly developing better abilities to get in touch with the Deep Beyond? More likely (again, possibility vs probability!) we live in times that are alienating and disturbing for a larger and larger chunk of the population, which then seeks relief in fantasies, whether induced by drugs or not. Both the problem (alienation) and the response (fantasizing) are worrisome, because wishful thinking has never been an effective answer to life’s difficulties.
Jules tells us that “the philosopher Bertrand Russell, for example, also had a ‘mystic moment’ when he suddenly felt filled with love for people on a London street. The experience didn’t turn him into a Christian, but it did turn him into a life-long pacifist.” I’m not so sure it did, Russell was a lifelong liberal-progressive. But at any rate I can hardly see one of the founders of modern analytical philosophy entertaining for a moment that his subjective experience was somehow a reliable window into an alternate, and better, perception of reality. The revealing phrase here being “it didn’t turn him into a Christian”…
Jules got interested in ecstasy after he had a bad accident when he was younger, a near-death experience during which he felt “immersed in love and light.” I’m really glad he survived and recovered, but a fleeting sensation one has under extreme circumstances hardly counts as evidence of a deeper reality, as much as I’m sure it was very psychologically useful to him. When he says “I knew that I was OK, I was loved, that there was something in me that could not be damaged, call it ‘the soul’, ‘the self,’ ‘pure consciousness’ or what-have-you,” I would say that no, there is nothing in you that cannot be damaged, and to believe so is a delusion. You just got very, very lucky. But then again, I am a “disenchanted materialist” who thinks that there is no reason to believe in a soul or a pure consciousness. (Though I do believe there is a self, of the Humean type, i.e., a constantly shifting, dynamic bundle of perceptions. That one too, of course, is hardly indestructible.)
Jules departs from the views of the above mentioned Philip Pullman, who thinks that ecstatic experiences just happen, they cannot be sought: “I disagree. It seems to me that humans have always sought ecstasy. The earliest human artefacts — the cave paintings of Lascaux — are records of Homo sapiens’ attempt to get out of our heads. We have always sought ways to ‘unself,’ as the writer Iris Murdoch called it, because the ego is an anxious, claustrophobic, lonely and boring place to be stuck.”
This passage reveals a number of things. First off, Jules is equivocating (in the philosophical sense, and very likely not on purpose, i.e., not in order to deceive his readers) on the meaning of ecstasy. Art surely is an attempt to “get out of our heads,” as he puts it, in a lose sense to “transcend” our selves. But so is, for instance, science. Just watch Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot if you doubt it.
Indeed, anything that we human beings do beyond taking care of our basic need to survive is an attempt to transcend ourselves, from paintings to music, from science to mathematics, from religion to philosophy. But it seems very strange to me to assent to the notion that our ego is a lonely and boring place. It is whatever we make of it. There is a wonderful world out there, full of other, fascinating human beings. There is a vast universe out there, full of wonders beyond our imagination. What sort of a small mind could possibly find that either lonely or boring?
How do we actively seek ecstasy, according to Jules? “In its most common-garden variety, we can seek what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called ‘flow.’ By this he meant moments where we become so absorbed in an activity that we forget ourselves and lose track of time. We could lose ourselves in a good book, for example, or a computer game. The author Geoff Dyer, who’s written extensively on ‘peak experiences,’ says: ‘If you asked me when I’m most in the zone, obviously it would be playing tennis. That absorption in the moment, I just love it.’ … Or we turn to sex, which the feminist Susan Sontag called the ‘oldest resource which human beings have available to them for blowing their mind.’”
Of course. And I lose myself, or experience flow, in all sorts of experiences, including — bizarrely, I know — while writing blog posts or books. But none of this has anything whatsoever to do with Jules’ starting point, which, remember, was the perception of a deeper reality about the world. One can be a perfectly thoroughgoing “disenchanted materialist” and still lose oneself in a game of tennis. Or in sex (I much prefer the latter.)
Jules tells us that “such everyday moments might seem a long way from the mystical ecstasy of St. Teresa of Ávila, but I would suggest that there is a continuum from moments of light absorption and ego-loss to much deeper and more dramatic ego-dissolution. Csikszentmihalyi agrees, saying that moments of flow are ‘the kind of experience which culminates in ecstasy.’”
But there is, in fact, no reason at all to think that either Jules or Csikszentmihalyi are right. Rather than a continuum I see a hopeless mix of apples and oranges, and I seriously doubt St. Teresa would appreciate her mystical views being mentioned in the same sentence as tennis playing and sex.
Yet Jules tells us that “that’s what humans have been doing for hundreds of thousands of years, through various ecstatic techniques such as strenuous dancing, chanting, fasting, self-inflicted pain, sensory deprivation or mind-altering drugs.” Okay, if those are the choices, I’ll take sex and tennis, in that order. Or perhaps a dose of my favorite drug, a dirty martini with three large olives, shaken, not stirred.
Despite his skepticism of disenchanted materialism, Jules does bring in science when it seems to favor his take on things, as many people inclined toward mysticism do: “researchers have discovered that one dose of psychedelics reliably triggers ‘mystical experiences’ — moments where people report a sense of ego-dissolution and connection to all things, including to spirit beings or God. … One dose of psilocybin helped to reduce chronic depression and addiction, and also significantly reduced the fear of death in patients with cancer.”
But, insofar as we can reasonably tell, there are no spirit beings or gods, so what psychedelics are triggering are hallucinations, defined as “a sensory experience of something that does not exist outside the mind, caused by various physical and mental disorders, or by reaction to certain toxic substances, and usually manifested as visual or auditory images” (dictionary.com). And while there is no doubt that drugs can help with medical conditions, that does in no way make them reliable guides to the Deep Beyond, nor does it mean we should take them to buttress our wishful thinking, in turn generated by our “lonely and boring ego.” You feel lonely? Get out and meet people. You feel bored? Read a good book, enter in conversation with the best minds humanity has ever produced. Have sex. Play tennis, even.
And then comes more (pseudo)science from the article: “A 1979 study by the Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield in California found that 40 per cent of participants on a two-week meditation retreat reported unusual experiences such as rapture and visions (including hellish visions). Kornfield writes: ‘From our data it seems clear that the modern psychiatric dismissal of these so-called ‘mystical’ and altered states as psychopathology … is simply due to the limitations of the traditional Western psychiatric mental-illnesses oriented model of the mind.’”
Uhm, no. What the study shows is that meditation can trigger side effects of the hallucinatory type. Which may still be acceptable if meditation provides benefits to its practitioners (it does, I myself practice), but, again, is absolutely no reason to reject “Western” science (i.e., science). If you have hallucinations while taking drugs you are normal. If you have them at frequent random intervals in your regular life you should see a psychiatrist.
Jules gives us another fascinating personal testimony: “I spent a year exploring the world of charismatic Christianity, including the globally renowned Alpha course, and eventually succumbed to the ecstasy myself. It happened in a church in Pembrokeshire filled with Pentecostal pensioners. Suddenly, I felt filled with a force that knocked me back and took my breath away. It felt like proof. The preacher asked if anyone wanted to commit their life to Jesus and, at the back of the church, I raised my hand. The next week, I announced my conversion on my newsletter, and around a third of my subscribers immediately unsubscribed.
A few weeks later, however, the high passed, and the doubts came back. There were still basic tenets of Christianity that I couldn’t accept, particularly the idea that the only way to God is through faith in Jesus. So what had happened? Had I been hypnotised by the preacher, the ritual and the crowd emotion? Yes, probably. But that doesn’t mean it was unhealthy or unspiritual.”
Actually, Jules, that’s precisely what it means: it was both unhealthy and unspiritual. As shown by your own rather quick de-conversion (“the high passed”), once you had time to reflect on what had happened.
“Ultimately, there’s something in us that calls to us, that pulls us out the door. Let’s find out where it leads.” Well, go ahead, but proceed with caution. As for me, I’m heading to sharing a nice dirty martini with some of my close friends.