The mystical sense

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Reading the Bhagavad Gita I am struck (as usual) by commonalities between mystical philosophies rooted in a method of psychological introspection and meditation. For example, the tendency toward monism is marked across many traditions which emerge out of specific religious or philosophical movements. This even includes the monotheistic religions of the West, whose creeds and beliefs tend to notionally reject monism and imply the separation of a personal God from his Creation. The Perennial Philosphy emergred from this empirical observation of the relatively uniform experience of mystics, and the field of Religious Studies has been influenced this idea, in particular through the work of Mircea Eliade. Eliade and his fellow travelers conceive of religious experience as a window into a sacred reality, distinct from the profane world. Obviously, I don’t believe this. Rather, I am struck by the fact that very few mystics ever report that they have looked upon the 6
3 essences of the universe
. Or any specific deviation from the One. Rather, mystical trance seems to blur distinctions across categories as all perception melts into a unitary underlying essence, whether you call it God or the One. In contrast to mysticism theology tends to explore a huge sample space of possibilities and configurations. Why is this? I suspect it is because theology tends to rely on explicit chains of inferences based on verbal logic, and quite often individuals may differ in their sense of what is implied by a particular proposition. In contrast, the heightened consciousness of mysticism and the sense of the One is probably reflecting underlying neurological realities. The One isn’t the real nature of the universe, it is simply the common output the brain pops out when put under the ascetic stresses or mental techniques which mystics utilize to change their consciousness. I am generally skeptical of neurotheology when it claims to explain religion, but I do believe it is on its way to accurately sketching out the shape of mysticism (obviously it doesn’t explain religion because I think that mysticism is simply a subset of religion, not the totality of it).



  1. I’d warn you away from Eliade and the people who talk about “perennial philosophy”. “Mysticism” is a generic western category meant to catch Sufism, Vedanta, Taoism, Buddhism, shamanism, and certain strains of Judaism and Christianity. The unity comes partly from common and shared experience of reality, partly from communication between the various tendencies, but also partly from attempts at scientific or historical generalization (which in turn were processed to provide a world view for moderns, Aldous Huxley of the scientific Huxleys being involved in this.) 
    Study of myth and religion is methodologically very peculiar because it often consists of the accumulation of vast amounts of varied material from many sources and then unification under an overarching theory which is pretty simpleminded. This covers Frazer, Jung, Campbell, and Eliade in my experience, though I confess that I haven’t gotten very far with any of them, just because I find their positivist-mystical method unconvincing. (Several of these, maybe all, seemed to think that a scientific explanation of myth might combine the power of myth with the power of science.) 
    Structuralist and anthropological studies of myth strike me as more illuminating, though they tend to overgeneralize too. Levi-Strauss is the big name, Mauss, Dumezil is another, maybe Benveniste? 
    In several mystical discourses “Nothing” lies behind the One as a field of infinite possibility. Oneness is a tendentious unification of the Nothing, Duality is Oneness plus the residue of the attempt at unification, Manyness is a pluralist to at least enumerate all the elements of the nothing, but Nothing is undefined reality behind the others.

  2. In my experience as a Zen Buddhist, the point isn’t wham-bang mystical experiences, it’s balance and clarity. When you experience a moment of clarity, you can feel a thrill of “that’s it!”, just as you do when you improve your golf swing, or your swim stroke, and FEEL your body telling you that you’ve finally got it right. The feeling is pointless if you can’t keep swinging or swimming correctly, or if you don’t keep living with balance and clarity.  
    From that standpoint, I can read writers of many religions and say, “They got it”. Others can profess mystical rhapsodies and I’m unimpressed. Throwing all such experiences and claimed experiences together and looking for commonality is GIGO (Garbage In Garbage Out).

  3. What Zora said. 
    John Emerson said: 
    In several mystical discourses “Nothing” lies behind the One as a field of infinite possibility. Oneness is a tendentious unification of the Nothing, Duality is Oneness plus the residue of the attempt at unification, Manyness is a pluralist to at least enumerate all the elements of the nothing, but Nothing is undefined reality behind the others. 
    To me John this while accurate enough is essentially besides the point. This is approaching mystical traditions from a theological point of view, whereas the essence of those traditions, I think, is to guide adherents towards transcendent mystical experiences. That is if they?re really at root mystical traditions, rather than another flavor of theology.  
    I do have some direct experience with mystical immersion. For one six month period (with several less intense ?shoulder? months before that) in the 70?s I attended a 24/7 Trancendental Meditation ashram on a European island. There was a certain amount of quasi theology involved in lectures particular in the beginning and then while ?coming down? towards the end, but the culmination of the experience was a week or perhaps it was ten days of literally 24/7 meditation / trance sleep in total isolation in one?s (hotel) room, with simple meals slipped into the door. (Not everyone participated in this on a 24/7 basis, or among those who did, lasted through the whole experience.) No, I did not remain an adherent (though I do still meditate from time to time), and in fact never really was one. I went into it with more of a (non ideological) cultural anthropological point of view, though I also immersed myself, if not really in the theological side of it all, most definitely in the mystical or transcendent experience side of it.

  4. I have one very simple, and I?m sure some or perhaps many would say simplistic comment to make about the differences between mysticism and theology: their purposes are utterly different. Though simplistic, I?m not at all sure that much more detailed theories of the commonalities of different traditions of mysticism versus different traditions of theology have much utility or real resonance. 
    The general and unifying (across different traditions) purpose of mysticism I think is at the beginning to lessen or escape from psychological (and much physical) stress or disharmony, and then to have ecstatic personal experiences. It?s not so entirely different from the purposes of taking certain drugs, or even of becoming addicted to some (if only addiction didn?t also lead to habituation, where ever greater and more physically destructive doses are required for the same psychological effects). The ?faith healing? sides of traditional medicine (and even some modern medicine, esp. psychiatry) incorporate some mild and widely accessible sorts of ?mystic? religious power I think. The patients ?know? from observed experience that belief often ?works?, sometimes to (aid in the) cure or at least to diminish psychological suffering. 
    The ?purposes? of theology on the other hand have much more to do with power, and attracting a wide ?voluntary? following or renewed adherence to an existing group. Theology seeks to persuade by anecdote, awe and logic; it?s leading practitioners seek to demonstrate how much more knowledgeable and intelligent and in communication with the otherworldly powerful they are, and accordingly how necessary it is for one and all to follow them and their creed rather than some other.  
    It probably is the case that most mystics have some theological trappings, especially when dealing with novices, and that most or anyway many theologians draw upon mystic experiences or at least those of others to bolster the persuasiveness of their creed.  
    Nonetheless I think there?s some utility in bearing in mind this basic distinction in what the two different poles of religion are intended to accomplish. Though it?s in the nature of things that those wishing to use theology (or ideology more generally) as a means towards power and group cohesion to want to greatly obfuscate that connection, including often enough to themselves.  
    At the very most general level one can posit that these two sides of religion have in some ways a single purpose ? that is to manage the dilemma and psychological stress of man at once being an intensely social animal, who at the same time also has individual and competitive drives and abilities, which are plastically mediated by culture, including centrally, both poles of religion. So at this highest level of abstraction, the purposes of the two poles of religion are not utterly different, but instead ?the same?.

  5. I like the point about positivism. This is a key feature of most western theology (and pantheological) scholarship. I don?t think that needs a footnote. I would agree that institutionalized monotheism in the West seems to ?reject? monistic concepts. But behind the scenes, there has never been a failure to discuss essence in Western philosophical traditions, maybe even especially so because of the repeated, observable instrumentality (and indispensability) of Greek deductivism in western science. I suspect the same for the rest of the world?s traditions, that the perceived discontinuity of mystic belief systems from orthodoxy is really only a matter of political utility, geography. If not simply that, it?s a matter of syntactical translation. Theoretically, it shouldn?t be a problem to compile an ?ur-myth? structure from the pluralism of world religions that illuminates the clear continuity with western thought. But this has always been the challenge for a civilization trained on the utility of ?categorical? thought, i.e. tracking identities, whether directly observable or abstract, through the dynamics of language. 
    Just as an example, the logic of genes and gene-naming, makes even the vast sample space of expression somewhat tractable. In a window of time that is still such a tiny fraction of all prior human experience, we have all been invigorated by the flood of new understanding afforded us by the convergence of our scientific traditions and this neatly-arranged expression of human history, gene expression. Inferences are, by the grace of god, and on the large, easily made. For religion, the problem with making use of our rich histories will be in approaching philological relationships with the same efficacy. 
    Some years ago, I believe somebody named Chomsky proposed a crude yet sensible theory of common linguistic templates, and there have been countless iterations of that proposal, none of which, to date, seem to go beyond positivist support themselves (emergentism/connectionism). The problem with categorizing religious experience is compounded by the positivist nature of philology itself, to this date. The frustration from a scientist?s point of view has been evident here on this thread over the past few weeks, i.e., ?why the endless surplus of (logico-) mathematical theorizing and dearth of actual experimentation?? Whether this is a rhetorical question, I?m not sure, but it rather begs the lingering inadequacy complex of the entire modern history of (academic, western) philosophical thought. Maybe we are all, on some level, open to monistic understanding of the universe. Unfortunately in the meantime, we compartmentalize the notion while waiting on an adequate model for human syntax, against which religious expressions can be measured. Most of us find it hard to believe no one has come up with one yet. But, it?s dynamic. And the system does not appear to be closed. So it?s hard. 
    As for mysticism, even if it is right to assume mysticism is a natural phylum distinct from religion or theology, the problem will remain in the testing of incorrigible beliefs (qualia). At this point it may be even less certain that the assumption, i.e. that mysticism and religion are distinct categories, much less subsets of one or the other, is reasonable. The very act of such categorization is a positivist endeavor until the sample space ? human language ?can be closed to the same level of certainty that rigorous tollens testing has done for other natural systems. If that automatically seems futile, or just ridiculous, then the challenge may be in questioning oneself, personally, what makes it seem so problematic. For this reason, I think neurotheology may be useful for more than just explaining monistic or mystical expressions. Indirectly, we may be able to calibrate our investigations for more appropriate methods, avoiding that annoying conventional wisdom that these discussions are futile or somehow irreconcilable with scientific thought. Further along, western science may be able to redeem some of the eastern traditions that, true or not, fail to be integral (instrumental) within a contemporary (practical) western point of view. None of the kids on this blog are strangers to the fear of lay (e.g. postmodernist, new age, denialist) misappropriation of scientific language, but that does not stop discourse, no? It may be a surprise to some, for example, that Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, of all people, are openly sympathetic to allowing positivism some role in science, even if limited.  
    These are huge matters; one always feels at some risk for embarrassment. I wish I had more declarative knowledge about eastern religions but I am certain there is more of a connection than one might glean from the relative failures of mainstream western philosophical traditions in acknowledging them. Historically, it is clear that platonic realism is not a sufficient condition for monism, neither for monotheism. However, its expressions are isomorphic with that ?oneness? found in all kinds of mysticism. The categorization of empirical expressions in reference to platonic forms is a clear feature of subsequent western traditions, but it is questionable whether the tradition of separating sacred from profane, real from material, one from many, etc., was ever prescribed by the Greek source material. The subsequent western theological treatment of the Greek ?ousia,? has to be taken as its own prerogative?the continuation an older prerogative. If I had to guess what necessitated this treatment, banal as it may be, the orthodoxing and syncretization of Hellenic idealism throughout developing Christendom to date are simply superficial imprints of the older pantheistic ur-myth at work, through the philological medium of history. There is a reasonable view to be had that the foundations of western science are not discontinuous with the foundations of a mystical sense. Further, the distinctions between monistic expression, monotheistic expression, and pantheistic expression may be just as superficial. 
    Nonetheless, until such notions are testable scientifically, the best scholarship we are ever going to get on these subjects may be from celebrated wankers like Jung, or unaffiliated outsiders like Viktor Rydberg, and their contemporary iterations. I can?t imagine better prospects exist for non-western traditions; they are couched in the same medium after all: language, qualia. The question ?where are the experiments?? is a poignant one. All of this, I would assume, would first require commensurate standards being set such that interdisciplinary recognition is achievable. I believe there has been unabashed sympathy for inductivist values bubbling up on the internet for several years now. Religion and spirituality is certainly a ?population? affair, not just a dogmatic one. Why not? The potential impact this represents in how science is carried on to posterity, is giant. But not guaranteed. 
    ??irreducible posits comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of Homer?? 
    ?The evolution of man provided the model.? 
    Unfortunately I think a lot of what would renovate the ghettoes left by V.W. Quine and his tributaries may already exist, but is proprietary in the form of commercial software and thus unavailable to answer questions of human God sense, as though there would be a public market for such answers?  
    Here?s a sample of several youngsters from the West explaining to a data-famished academy that scientific pluralism, at least, is nothing to be ashamed of morally, even if applying for grants, soliciting peer review, or simply avoiding lay misappropriation, remain practical problems: 

  6. I dont understand how anyone who knows a thing about science could question the concept of Oneness of Being. What 20th century physics has revealed is that at the deepest, most fundamental level there is no multiplicity: no DNA, no molecules, no atoms, no sub-atomic particles, no thing whatsoever. The Mahayana buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna proved, using only logic, this fundamental truth of no-thingness some 2000 years before physicists reached the same conclusion.

  7. Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell, Alan Watts… any of the fine writers on this subject, while doing their best to convey some of the majesty & awe of the transcendent mystical experience, can not hope to give their readers even the merest taste of it. It is beyond words. Poetry comes closer, and so one can catch a glimmer of the intensity when reading Rumi or the Gita even. Rumi, in particular, manages to convey the feeling of spiritual drunkenness, but that is merely the afterglow hangover. Lao Tzu chose wisely to start the Tao Te Ching with the admonition that “The Tao that can be spoken, is not the eternal Tao.” 
    We waste time discussing this here like it was something you could reason your way into. Something that you might be able to classify with vocabulary and thus feel it as understood. You can not. Unless, or until, you have experienced any of the states which approach the unitive… you can not even conceive of it. Better you put your time into yogic practice, lucid dreaming, or even certain drug experiences which might give you an actual experience to contemplate. 
    Razib said “The One isn’t the real nature of the universe, it is simply the common output the brain pops out when put under the ascetic stresses or mental techniques which mystics utilize to change their consciousness.” This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Consciousness and mind are the foundation of the Universe. But I won’t bother trying to convince… as I have said, there is no point. You will either know (at some point past, present, or future) or you won’t.

  8. i see neurologically induced delusion, and you see Truth.

  9. Razib, 
    You reason for neurologically induced delusion. I experience truth… big difference. 

  10. Another illusion the brain creates is the ego or the sense of self, the “I”. Science sheds ever more light on the subject (the “switching” of consciousness, maybe you could call it the “consciousness shuffle”). Also interesting is to read reports of salvia divinorum drug use which seems to interfere with the brain’s construction of this. Some people have reported the mystical experience of complete loss of the sense of self, but even more interesting are the reports of people “becoming” and “being” objects (such as a chair) and of “being” multiple things at the same time. I don’t think it makes any sense to ask the question of what happens to the “real” self when all this occurs. If identity is eventually shown to be an illusion, what becomes of the Abrahamic faiths?

  11. On second thought choosing science over intense personal subjective experience is probably a leap of faith very few are likely ever to make. 
    And of course many people deny scientific findings that don’t suit them regardless.

  12. Henri, 
    > If idendtity is eventually shown to be an illsuion, what becomes of the Abrahamic faiths? 
    They graduate from kindergarten. 
    The mystical sects within these faiths already know what salvia and the other entheogens show people… Sufis, Qabbalists, and mystic Christians have well developed and time-honored yogic traditions. They just keep the hoi polloi out of the inner sanctum.

  13. Henri: 
    As someone who experienced that sort of thing in his more wild days, I can assure you that salvia induced “ego-loss” is about as unpleasant a trip as one can have. 
    On another note, I can agree with both J and Razib. Just because an experience can be explained mechanistically doesn’t mean that the subjective experience is meaningless, however it doesn’t mean that it purports itself as some sort of objective truth. Frex, the arts can convey the most sublime feelings, but without humans around to see them, they’re nothing but sequences of sound waves or daubs of colored chemicals on canvas.

  14. What are the mystic Christian yogic practices? I’ve never heard of any special practice – although really dedicated believers are supposed to get something similar out of the basic rituals.

  15. dougjnn’s notion of converging poles seems sensible to me. “…those wishing to use theology (or ideology more generally) as a means towards power and group cohesion to want to greatly obfuscate that connection…” Religion, a practical strategy aimed at respite. Mystic oneness, the respite. Sorry for the oversimplification, but that’s the gist I took, without copying it verbatim.  
    I wonder what, if it could even be answered in any other way, is the cause of indignation that a person’s “oneness” sense might be defined with equivalent scientific (especially biological) language? (and when I say indignation I’m not even necessarily referring to just this thread, which is clearly under control.) If religion is a group strategy toward mystic experience, then is religious indignation against scientific language, dare I say, just a form of projection? That would be bad for both science and religion, I think. 
    Or, is it just naive to think that “reducing” these mystical senses to measurable physical phenomena was never intended in a pejorative, or subordinative way? Defining sleep biologically, for example, doesn’t seem to generate quite the fire of defining meditation or yogic practices in similar terms. 
    Historically, I can see how the “meaningful, or meaningless” dichotomy of early positivism could be viewed as invidious language. But with Popper’s modification to simply “science, or not science,” I always felt this to be a fair gesture. What this should have done, effectively, was to place the verificationism, coherentism, and empricism of early positivist thought back into accord with traditional metaphysical inquiry, which is what, I assumed, allowed comparative and interdisciplinary religious studies to bloom over the past two centuries or so. If there is crankiness among mystical or religious convictions, they ought to stay internal. Is there a reason scientific descriptions are such an annoyance? Maybe I have underestimated some lingering resentment? 
    I feel Jung was a wanker because he felt subjective empirical propositions could have meaning in and of themselves, whereas other positivists interested in science at least required multiple data points and reference to some kind of operatively coherent model. Maybe this is just a semantic idiosyncrasy, not practically significant to his overall body of work. It is notable that J above appeals to “time honored traditions” to defend his subjective knowledge claims. There is coherence here, based on cumulatively verified empirical experience. That beats Jung’s standard. Where would the sense of exclusivity occur between this traditional knowledge and the purported scientific equivalent explanation? 
    As I once remarked, Western theology has never failed to discuss essence, oneness. It just tends to have a Judeo-Greek flavor, and, like J’s descriptions of eastern practitioners “keeping the hoi polloi out of the inner sanctum,” tends to occur in back rooms. Often, that obscurity simply means “academia.” Nonetheless the idea that there is some point of discontinuity, I swear, is really only political, or syntactical. There is something very artificial, provisional, about these divisions. In the public space, “science” seems to bear a disproportionate magnetism for avoidance reactions, or defensive reactions. I’m not asserting whether or not it’s justified. But rather what justifies it? What makes it necessary? 
    Logically, I don’t think scientific and spiritual experience are so far apart. The complexity and political “load” of language – and our fallible use of it – seems to make nuance into chasms. There is no other explanation I can come to, why these issues always seem to jump so quickly to oppositionalism in practice.  
    And even if one were to remove the economic cost of individual access to scientific language, method, and thought, as is done with public schooling or self-study outlets like libraries or Teh Intarnet, wherefore the persistent resentment of “science,” and how much responsibility will the science community bear for this? Or, does contemporary science even believe these reactions can be minimized, say, with (better) language?  
    Has anyone seen “no country for old men” or “beowulf”?

  16. marsveblint, 
    You speak on this as if it were something that could be empirically shared, quantified, or measured in some way. Spiritual language is no better at describing the experience than scientific language. Mystics might allude to it, or even give instructions on how you might obtain such an experience… but anyone who has any experience with the unitive mystical state would never, for even a moment, consider that any string of words or numbers could even begin to capture it. 
    As a metaphor: You might find it difficult to explain an orgasm to someone who has never even masturbated or been aroused. Such a person might imagine that quantify the experience in terms of arbitrary measurements of hormones, blood preasure, synaptic activity, endorphins or whatnot might give them some understanding… but anyone who had actually experienced an orgasm would laugh at you. 
    Poets like to play at evoking it. The virgins might read such a poetic discourse, and believe that the writers are raving, delusional madmen. The well sexed poet could only smile. He knows that no poetic descriptions, or scientific mumbojumbo is a substitute for experience… You’ve either had one or you haven’t. And if you haven’t the only thing that need be said is get out of your armchair, and go through the steps it takes to get laid. It’s worth it.  
    This is the mystical position. There is no opposition to your geekiness. A friendly pity perhaps that you would waste what time you have on this earth as a person who has never been aroused, but deigns to talk about orgasm. We could care less what you say. Razib can read the Gita and muse about it being a delusion, but he has no experience. Some women think that an orgasm during intercourse is delusional as well… until you give them one. 
    Mystics are rarely interested in convincing anyone that their experiences are real. The experience is realer than anything and everything else you have ever done put together… there is no doubt, or even room to question. If you’re not interested in having the experience, what joy can there be in talking about it? It is rather pathetic, really. And believe me, a transcendent experience is infinitely more indescribable than an orgasm. That is not hyperbole. It is in fact an experience of the infinite. You are all asleep in a cave, and mumbling about a sun you have no conception of. We simply say, get up off your asses, and come outside.

  17. “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” 
    In various trance states, it’s possible to stop “believing in” certain cognitive categories that we normally apply all of the time, even in sleep and in dreams. Trances are educational in that they can show us that even those ubiquitous structures aren’t real, because they do not survive our lack of belief in them. 
    You might say that we don’t learn about the nature of reality so much as we learn about ourselves. But that’s just quibbling.

  18. We can expect humans, or indeed any animal for that matter, to have developed an approximate, good-enough, reality-detection engine. 
    The expense of developing a perfect reality-engine is usually not worth the trouble.

  19. “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” 
    Nice Philip K. Dick quote BTW. I guess it wouldn’t only be razib who would find him delusional… but many of the greatest artists were madmen.

    I agree with you that the experience isn’t transferable. But the point is that one can say this about just about any experience. Others off the top of my head: War. Amputation. Humor. Youth. Old Age. All the way down to simpler sensations. I don’t believe any reasonable person would say you haven’t had the experience that you say. The annoyance may be that, all too similar to the political motivations of religion, you assume that this highlights exclusive boundaries between yourself and others. That doesn’t make your experience seem very unique, it makes it seem rather ubiquitous. There are likely countless experiences the next person has had that you, for reasons good or bad, cannot know or may refuse to investigate. Experiences like yours are not excluded from reality by science or from science, yet you seem to believe this is what science, and the philosophy underlying it, wants to do. I proposed that this is not what science, in fact, does. As I noted, if you are insinuating that there is some special status to your own non-transferable experience, it only appears like projection. 
    Interestingly enougn, I have never declined acid when it was offered. And although it has been a few years, I can say I am no novice in that department. Similarly for MDMA, psilocybins, and one evening with vitamin K. None of these experiences were taken lightly going in, or coming out. Material preparations were taken, ambiences were controlled, supervisions were arranged, solitudes were secured. The Oneness is known here, if you please. And I will tell you that after these experiences, which you will agree cannot be diminished by your or anyone else’s personal judgments, I did not see fit to jettison western science or philosophy. Why? Because I “know” there is no natural barrier between the two. You yourself just invoked Plato’s cave analogy to describe the issue. 
    As I said, what defenders of mystical beliefs should do is the same as what scientist or any other seeker ought to do, and that is look for language that doesn’t inflame suspicion that your belief is just like all the other politically-loaded metaphysical assertions found in religion or theology. If you say language is intrinsically insufficient to describe the absolute mystical reality, then you have echoed a key component of Karl Popper’s definition of science. Either you don’t know that, or you have yet to know that. Namely, that people are rarely as ignorant as you suspected. 
    Yet, like the actors who developed protocols in your time-honored mystic traditions, Popper and the positivists, acting on 2500+ years of tradition, were still interested in a deliberate development of a “protocol language.” They are now responsible for it as a community, let it be known. It is imperfect by its own definition. But, as a tiny example of its essential purpose, take a look at a photograph of Earth from space, ask what kind of coordinated effort produced it. Can you admit the provisional value of scientific language the same way you value your mystic traditions. You need not, like self-proclaimed scientists who say science intrinsically “proves” things, insist on the absolute discontinuity of language from your mysticism, emanating indignation or simply reticence with comments like “If you experienced it through words, you didn’t experience it,” as though this makes some kind of special distinction from scientific knowledge. Sure the experience of viewing the picture is not the same as the astronaut’s who viewed it personally. Just as reading Christian gospels is not the same as the experience of being “born again.” But then, neither is anything taught about anything real, in schools, universities, homes, spiritual venues, or street corners. If you or any other person with mystical knowledge claims to know science, I say explain the invidiousness, then, from either vantage.  
    The reason I asked about “No Country for Old Men” is because of its amazing, to me, mixture of archetypal themes with a poignant statement about the essence of subjective certainty: VANITY.  
    St Francis once said, “Preach the gospel to others. If necessary, use words.” Your reading of our words seems to have led you to believe our language is futile against your personal knowledge. But from my own perspective that is just as naive. If you insist unequivocally that your personal subjective experience is unique to yourself or your own traditional community, then what about this entire conversation can be called pathetic? If you want your belief to have comparative value against others, you will need to reach your hand into the cave! Language, sir. Words, even. Indignation against science for this isn’t just superfluous, it’s altogether misdirected. 
    I am sure I could be wrong, but you seem to want to deride the conventions of western thought as nugatory against your personal understanding of the Oneness. If this is not an ironic underestimation of the philosophy underlying science, then it is indeed projection. Superfluity and misdirection aren’t the worst that weak language can produce. If the world were only straw men, I’ll bet-eye-for-an-eye would still likely make the whole world blind.  
    If scientific language descriptions of your experience truly come from a degrading or subordinative agenda, then I would place the commensurate responsibility on scientists. But altogether, if you understand the essence underlying scientific method, you would not conflate it with its language any more than the scientist should conflate Oneness with your yogic somatics. I might even propose that it is actually ingratitude that the restraint of scientific language be taken as some kind of teleological entity, in and of itself, out to diminish the importance of your inner sense. The irony of this attitude against the philosophy of western science, while concomitantly purporting a mission to disintegrate one’s ego, can’t seriously be lost on this thread. 
    And, just to be clear, my understanding of orgasms in terms of endorphins and involuntary muscle contractions has never once diminished my holistic appreciation of the event. Moreover, my biology training never once diminished my ability to induce massive, toe-curling equivalents for any of my many, many, satisfied ladypartners. (At least, no one can convince me otherwise and I would get very sensitive if anyone would consider this fact open to question.)

  21. ROTFL  
    mars> You have a very roundabout sense of humor, my friend. That was fairly funny. As to those of your assertions made without your tongue firmly in cheek… 
    I think it is patently obvious that I am not opposed to words. Nor do I harbor any ill will towards science, philosophy, or the attempts of poets, ontologists, or theologians to try and use words to understand the mystical experience. I’m just saying that it is un-understandable. Lao Tzu said the same thing. Jesus as well. Of course after Lao said that it can’t be spoken of, he proceeded to speak of it for 81 verses. 
    I am much the same way. I’m making it clear that this is a task that can not be achieved. Doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the effort. I wouldn’t have bothered to post at all if I didn’t think some discourse on the matter would be useful. Besides, someone had to counter the Razib conjecture that such experiences are merely delusions. If the experience shows anything at all, it shows that this reality here, is the delusion. 
    All that said, you are correct in saying that many experiences can be considered non-transferable. This is why I invoked the orgasm metaphor. However, unlike old age, war, orgasms, or amputation… the mystical experience is an actual experience of infinity. It doesn’t take a familiarity with nonlinear equations to recognize that an infinite object can not be contained in a finite structure. No amount of finagling will change that. Abstract notions are all well and fine, but the experience I’m talking about is simply of another order. You can draw a 3d object in 2d… but a 9th dimensional object will never translate. 
    I understand that in this medium, my stance might appear somewhat exclusivist and elitist. This is only true in the sense that this experience is only had by a small number of people. It is not that it is so difficult or requires some fabulous gift… it is simply that most people don’t ever try. The experience itself is the opposite of exclusive. It is completely holistic. In those moments of oneness, we are unified. You are as equally one with me as I am with you… the only difference is that I am aware of it, and perhaps you are not. 
    I don’t want to belittle your experiences with psychedelics. They have the potential to expose you to higher realms of consciousness… of this there is no doubt. If utilizing such sacraments is a path that works or has worked well for you in the past, by all means proceed. I would humbly suggest you may want to upgrade to more entheogenic substances in your next rounds of ceremony, as you will find the best of these to be a sure route into hyperspace. You may even experience some timelessness and be able to interact with beings from the higher dimensions. Perhaps on your return from those rarefied spaces, your respect for science as practiced on this plane will be somewhat diminished. 
    I would never say that knowledge of hormones, endorphins, and clitoral response could diminish your experience of sex. I was referring to those people who had never even been aroused, but were preoccupied with studying the precise degree of eye-rolling toward the back of the head that occurs at the .9256 millisecond mark. 
    You seem to be someone who is in fact interested in having this experience. Therefore, you are well placed to attempt to describe the experience in whatever mediums suit you best. You will not succeed, but your attempts will be interesting and worthy nonetheless. Perhaps you may even produce a book to inspire others, the way “The Song Celestial” from the Mahabharata has inspired Razib to blog on his agnosticism… 
    What you, and even moreso, the other less experienced (in this) posters here (not a negative judgement on their value) don’t seem to understand is that those of us who have had the experience don’t care if you validate us, if you believe us, or if you find our anecdotal missives to be ironic. We could care less what you think. You are simply not qualified to judge us. Perhaps pity was a bit strong, but we do look with an amused compassion on your rationalizations for something that is to reason what the big bang is to a ladyfinger.  
    This experience doesn’t make us special. We are all you and I equally and eternally special. The experience merely reveals what already is. Please don’t believe me. I authentically hope you don’t just label my assertions and file them into your belief system… go out and find out for yourself. Validate these claims in the crucible of your own mind. I beseech you.

  22. FWIW, I’m 99% with J on this one. My main diff with him would be on the idea that most people don’t have mystical experiences. I’d venture that nearly everyone does have mystical experiences, if usually small ones, they just don’t recognize them as such. Laughter, orgasm, being moved by a work of art, staring at the stars and having Larger Thoughts About Life, wanting eagerly to ascertain some bit of Truth (even scientific truth), merging romantically with someone else … They all seem to me, at the least, doorways into (and small tastes of) the experience of Oneness. A few questions that open such questions up very quickly: What drives you? What moves you? What gives you pleasure? What centers you? What gives your life meaning? It’s very hard not to move from such discussions into open acknowledgement of some mysterious Source-like experience. Hey, science nerds: Why’d you go into science? What are you hoping to achieve? Why? And where did those values and tastes and desires come from? Eh? Eh?  
    The funny thing about the hyper-rational wannabes is their conviction that they’ve got it all rationally thought-out. Talk about delusional! 
    There do seem to me (just speaking from experience, nothing else) a very small number of people who truly-truly don’t have such moments, but they’re very strange creatures — extreme Aspies, etc.

    Your care with words here exemplifies the “intelligent and sincere” rule…so sayeth I, anyway. Very nice, thank you. 
    Y’know, I do have to submit to the fact that there are those who, even in the name of science, truly will conflate science with its bare instrumentality, or its rationalist properties, and imply verbally that this is the entailment of truth. Yet I still can’t say, in my experience with people, that our intellectual investment in these properties of science correlates negatively with mystical sense. I have heard too many comments from chemists and physicists defending the sanity of assertions like yours, as I certainly would as well. I have come to accept the personal spiritual value of the philosophy of science as just this kind of gesture. A convention of language stressing restraint against its own inapplicability to any “ultimate” or absolute truth, even subjective truth. Optimization, not absolution, which is of course impossible to describe. 
    So when you say “pity,” I could tell by your ongoing syntax that you do not intend it to be poisonous, just as I hope my sardonics are/were not taken for malice. But as we are surely all of the same essence, I might suggest that many of Razib’s comments would still not be so crass, if we were to remove the words “simply” from “your experience is simply…,” or universal qualifiers like “…and nothing more,” and the word “delusion” altogether, when stating a science-phrased description of subjective experience. The refusal to tread into unverifiable (and unfalsifiable) claims is the paradigm of scientific language, and that is where its redemptive value lay, indeed its spiritual value. There is certainly a human righteousness to any kind of mental discipline, and there is no doubt that it is the responsibility of the science “practitioner,” like any other human seeker, to nurture one’s own humility. But, as is the observable case with so many religious claimants from so many traditions, these failures of language serve to highlight the “delusion” of essential differences among us. Highlight, that is, the delusion of plurality of essence itself, even as material differences do, in fact, exist. 
    It is likely for this very weakness that the more sensitive(?) of us have suspicions of such talk being merely political, or somehow morally spurious. Earlier, J seemed to glean from my surmisals on syntax an attempt to measure or ascribe measurement the undescribeable itself, when really I was referring to a method for recognizing other humans who have had some concept of the essence, whether alive or dead. I responded with similarly suspicious language, and ultimately neither of us were quite on the mark about each other. But notice how much more careful the language became. Clearly we have never physically met, yet these words help us recognize each other’s sameness. Maybe all users of science language need to step back and be reminded of their utter insignificance, and so does everyone. But this is only what has to be worked through to get to the essence of science, just as J’s sacred experience requires an itinerary of material effort. The talk of language may seem a bit non sequitur or even obsessive, but truly, the issue is indispensable. Essential, even. Experiences like war, old age, mental illness, are obviously not essence itself, but examples of other indescribable human experiences that seriously challenge the idea that material human existence is discontinuous from the essence. And, not insignificantly for us, that language is a real and natural differentiator among the continuum of our experiences. The idea that all this here around us is delusion is still untrue, I insist as a matter of personal knowledge. For that, scientific language is not just indispensible, it is indeed, to use an evangelical term, salvific. 
    J’s continued allusion to “we” mystics, or those of “us” who have touched infinity, implies that shared humanity does indeed matter to mystics, and the assertions of such shared humanity are important, even when it is perfectly true that all of our movements and conventions are perfectly puny against the great infinity. Positivism is a philosophy that does the same. Yet from this, an admission that with language, our personal experiences as humans matter at all, that is if our sexual, painful, sensory-laden cave lives matter at all in the face of the grand unifying essence. It is not futile or pitiful, because there is no competition. It is a continuum. J, you said it. It’s impossible not to know it. It’s vain to believe others don’t know it, no matter what they type or say today. We agree, we exist. I have, trust me. 
    (Even as you shake your head…) 
    Not to annoy, but check 2.022 – 2.031 from the following: 
    I will agree that most scientists aren’t initiated on this when they decide to take up science. My bacteriologist friend, or my genetic counselor, didn’t rely on this to get through school any more than Einstein relied upon it for his conceptualization of Time. But as the most famous philosophical treatise of the 20th Century, the essence persists in the practice of science nonetheless. Wittgenstein was, at various times in his life, clinically mad. At its foundations, modern science, and the language it uses, are continuous. With the traditions of inductivism and empiricism, this is much more than the empty rationalism ringing our eyes and ears. It is a formal recognition of the One, of God, infinitely beyond any singular notion of You, or Me. (Or Razib.) Science, by and through its language, comes from the source, recognizes us and agrees with us, whether we like it or not. 
    What drives? 
    What I wanted to propose, at the start of the thread, regarding whether the West rejects the mystical sense, is No, it does not. There is no inherent dismissal of anyone’s personal experience in proposing reasons, especially those reasons that might include the considerations and expressions of shared human experience. 
    J or anyone else, is Razib not mistaken when he states that western religion ‘tends to reject mysticism and monism…’ Is it not relevant that the language and/or method of western science is founded in both senses, (and persists independently of only You or only Me?) 
    Is it not counterintuitive to categorize essences? Would a mystic with “real” knowledge ever claim to categorize essences? I propose No, citing this would be as uncharacteristic as a positivist denying real experiences. Is numeracy itself not empirical, inductivist, and a product of widespread human verification? I propose categories are not applicable to the One. What mystical 63 essences is Razib talking about? 
    Mystics: Somebody explain to me why Central Tendency, Central Limit. Geeks: What does normality imply about language? Why/How is N>30 significant for sexually reproducing populations? 
    Among many other expressions of, say, God, infinitely out and about.

  24. Thank you mars for the voidspace link. I can appreciate Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell. Most philosophers I’ve read have said some spot on things actually. That site, as a whole, is rather interesting as well… if a bit on the neurotic side. ;-) 
    I have appreciated this exchange as well, and I am inclined to agree with much of what you have said to some degree. It seems that, regardless of how careful one may be with one’s words, one can never be completely successful at communicating true intent (let alone essence) through them. It seems that communication is a process whereby each extra unit of effort brings one perhaps X/3 units closer to the maximum transmission… and even this unreachable goal is only something like 1/3rd of one’s original thoughtform. Thus, there are diminishing returns with investing in communication on this level. I prefer to use words more artistically, and be content to know that people will make of them whatever they will in the moment… often changing their view of some collection of words as their perspective in life changes, and the associations that particular words evoke evolve. 
    The wonderful thing about direct yogic communion in forms such as tantra is that one can potentially achieve complete transmission. This is an almost endless journey, as the final 1% is more vast and important than the previous 99. As is the final .1% to the .9% that came before that. Transcendence of time and space is even possible with another or even groups of people in this way. 
    I know full well that there are many great and noble men of science who understand these things to various degrees, and even have relatively clear conceptions of mystical realities to boot. The inflationary concept of the Universe in modern cosmology dovetails with Qabbalah’s notion of tzimtzum rather well. As does it’s conception of the Aur Ain Soph fill the “first cause” hole in all scientific cosmology. 
    I won’t go on and on about this. I think I have said as much as need be said on this in this forum. I will leave you with this thought though. If people would invest as much energy into actually seeking the unitive divine and in empirically exploring the mystical states of awareness… they would find that much of what they had been so intensely doing before… amounts to little more than dogs chasing their tails. I don’t say this to be insulting or merely provocative. There are fundamental misconceptions in the current basic scientific worldview of existence that preclude those who hold such views from participating directly in the cosmic mind. This is not a mechanistic world of little balls you inhabit… ruled by blind laws. As surely as string theory replaced Newtonian physics without denying any of its observations, the fundamental unity of energy throughout existence and the consciousness that pervades and supports it… will become the new paradigm. A grand unified field theory will only be useful if one recognizes that it already includes you… you are not an observer.

  25. J and Marsveblint 
    Thank you both for the enlightened dialogue, others undoubtedly have had much to learn from this. 
    A question to you J, I have never have had the mystical sense experience, though reading works of ppl like Rumi, I can sense it. I wanted to ask you why is there so much of apparent contempt to ppl who havent had this experience so far. Maybe you are right and the scientific pursuit are indeed childish infront of what you say. But then do the adults mock or laugh at a child’s attempt to walk. Instead they guide her, I guess you might be doing the same and maybe its just the child’s nature to feel that he is being mocked.  
    Just that there is hope that the child might one day walk.

  26. I?ll add that the other comments on this thread were splendid, even if not so longwinded. I would mention “Some Random Weirdo”?s economistic comment about the comparative ?expense? of reaching a proposed understanding; in our case, of infinity. Also, the comment from the Zen Buddhist about the ?Eureka!? sense of clarity with regard to the same. I believe much of the purpose of a scientific ?protocol? language is to reduce such costs, as ultimately (and for those who have spent enough time in academia and in postmodern circles in particular, this would not need footnoting;)) these costs are equivalent to the political configurations of private enterprise, the social exclusionism of academia, and the orthopraxy of religion and theology. The ?hope? is indeed that through this, in aspect of our experiences with these things, we are convergent to that infinite unity independently of whether we have had the moment of clarity, just yet. A person like J, at risk of speaking for him, may even agree (even with the certainty that science cannot produce the pure connection at all,) that his path is the way to lessen these costs, in a way far more efficient than the science protocol can do. My experience is simply otherwise. Even as no one here would equivocate science with actually experiencing God empirically, with the oneness of all things withstanding any description (e.g. Aur Ain Soph), I do not believe there has been any other language with nearly the effect of unifying the pluralism of cultures, languages, and inter-human (and inter-species) understanding than science language has. I think this ?efficiency? is quite demonstrable over only a few recent centuries of human discourse, a period of time that is but a flash in the ?costly? narrative of our alleged 15+ billion year natural history, much less the comparative drudgeries of arriving here on this website from the time of Nagarjuna, or Yajnavalkya, to the Lokavibhaaga and al-Khwarismi, to the age of Western industry and the current information age, and now. 
    When Razib and others on this blog outwardly (and all too often) make vehement remarks about how ?annoying? or ?tedious? or even ?stupid? the constant surplus of ?but what about consciousness?? questions and arguments from the world?s blogging community, I think what they are doing is falling back on standard religious or political group strategy in order to preserve the operation of a language that, in their experience is the most efficient means toward the same. Implicit in each of these remarks is the same ?Get out of your armchair and go through the steps it takes.? And the expressions that ?your experience does not exist? or ?your experience is a delusion? is only a way of saying ?your description is not transferable to this language; Stop imposing yourself on it,? not to mention the reality of ?I am actually fatigued.? And yet, it is still the science community?s responsibility to continue explaining itself efficiently, lest the expense of doing so accumulate to the point of political or religious discourse. It actually is tedious, and resources actually are limited, so an ?inner sanctum? effect is created. Sure, this is a feature of all the world?s religions; this kind of social compartmentalization and brutal reactionism has occurred for most of them at some level, but to restate what was said above, the ugly material machinations of outward orthopraxy, or the maneuverings of political language, are as essentially discontinuous with the central clarity underlying them as the insensitive and sometimes seemingly inhumane expressions of scientists in the public space. 
    In fact I think just a few days ago, I saw another derisive comment against some kind of perceived trolling, ?Can you seriously not understand even the basic concepts of statistics, or is it just not taught?? 
    On this I believe, the truth is closer to the latter. In my experience, good teaching, effective writing, integral demonstration, even when not under the direct immediate attack of political forces, truly is rare. The mystic?s incredulity that others cannot seem to understand a concept so simple, is one that scientists have about their own basic sense of clarity, once found. Science pedagogy does do a poor job at policing its own use of foundational language. The science community cripples many of its own potential disciples with obscurantist tendencies, its political dependencies, its complacency with competitive ?drafting? in public institutions. Much of this is due to the same reasons any institution reaches a point of inefficiency, or internal fear. The cost of sustainably dealing with the tides of history, inextricable from its own existence. The problem is largely self-generating, and the effect is compound. No, generally, statistics is not taught. Then again, neither is tantra, and neither is public relations. 
    The internet is a mixed blessing in this sense, but the will of persons to work toward each other leaves me with no question of the value of it. The history of science is full of these examples, and so many of them point to redemption. Wittgenstein and Popper, as the best example for this thread, were very emotionally opposed to each other, but without their eventual convergence through a community effort, the philosophy (language) of science as we know it today would not exist. Diophantus, the (for all intents and purposes) Greek ?inventor? of western arithmetic, was supposed to have reacted with extreme discomfort to the eastern concept of Zero, but his efforts, along with the whole entailment of western science, was redeemed by later adventions of persons raised in eastern traditions. Later, a respected contingent of the mathematical establishment of Europe reacted with disdain to the implications of ?limit? notation, and the concept of a square root of -1, some going to their graves with the insistence of the inherent meaninglessness of calculus language or ?imaginary? expressions. But the allegory of a child learning to walk is certainly the key here: Applied to human unity across cultures and generations and political contrivances, we sense it because of the language. 
    I felt a bit like going against chivalry for posting this now, as J has expressed all he can say, in the interest of taking this discussion to the point of tedium. But it is interesting to sense that at least one other have been watching the dialogue. I would like to acknowledge that I do appreciate the sincerity of people like J and the world would be a better place with more of the kind of care displayed in his language even in perceived disagreement, particularly within the relative anonymity of internet blogs. I am sure this is a direct result of his knowledge that we are not simply observers, even as he does not need scientific language to express that. 
    I myself may find some of my more local relationships and concerns disappear if I were to spend this kind of energy on every such discussion. ;) So I will leave my own final thought, agreeing there is just too much to say in this forum. One of the loveliest stories I have ever heard from science came from Eli Maor?s ?e: The Story of a Number.? The number ?e,? of course, combines with the modern mathematical language of logarithms to describe all kinds of phenomena in nature that we would otherwise call ?growth.? :)  
    Speaking of the first-ever meeting of the credited ?inventor? of the logarithm, John Napier, and a professor from London, geometrician Henry Briggs, the author cites an account written by astrologer William Lilly in mid-17th century Britain: 
    ?One John Marr, an excellent mathematician and geometrician, had gone into Scotland before Mr. Briggs, purposely to be there when these two so learned persons should meet. Mr. Briggs appoints a certain day when to meet in Edinburgh; but failing thereof, the lord Napier was doubtful he would come. ?Ah, John,? said Napier, ?Mr. Briggs will not now come.? At that very moment one knocks at the gate; John Marr hastens down, and it proved Mr. Briggs to his great contentment. He brings Mr. Briggs up into the Lord (Napier)?s chamber, where almost one quarter of an hour was spent, each beholding each other with admiration, before one word was spoke.? 
    After the wordless interface, Briggs is reported to have said ??but, my lord, being by you found out, I wonder nobody found it out before, when now known it is so easy.?