Are mystical experiences metaphysical evidence?

Here is an extraordinary spiritual teaching:

  • Mystics, across many different cultures and religions, all describe their insight experiences similarly.
  • This couldn’t happen unless their accounts were accurate.
  • So we must believe what they say.

What is extraordinary about this teaching is that it so widely accepted, and yet so obviously false. As I’ll explain:

  • If mystics all gave similar descriptions of their experiences, it could just mean that they are all mistaken in the same way.
  • But, in fact, mystics from different cultures give wildly different descriptions, which generally reflect their cultural background.

So what?

My motivation is not to dismiss non-ordinary experiences. I think they are important.

Instead, my next few posts will reject a particular metaphysical interpretation of such experiences. It is the theory that Buddhist enlightenment is the unification of the True Self with the Absolute Infinite, and that meditation is the way to do that.

I think this idea is wrong, harmful, and (incidentally) opposite to most traditional Buddhist teachings. Unfortunately, it is now common in modern Buddhism.

Advocates claim that mystics in all cultures teach the “unification” idea, so we should believe it. This post refutes that particular argument. Later posts will give other reasons to reject the unification theory.

Do consistent reports make good evidence?

Schizophrenics, in many different cultures, report that malevolent external beings—witches, demons, space aliens, or the CIA—beam unpleasant thoughts into their minds.

Presumably, they are mistaken. So, if mystics all reported that they experienced unification of their True Self with the Absolute Infinite, that would not (by itself) be good evidence for unification.

But the way schizophrenics get their metaphysics wrong is interesting. It seems to be the same way mystics do.

For schizophrenics, there seems to be a two step process:

  • Unpleasant thoughts are experienced as “not mine.”
  • If they aren’t mine, they must belong to someone else, who forces them into my head.

These two are rather different. The first is a perception of mental experience. The second is a metaphysical theory which explains the perception.

The schizophrenic’s metaphysical explanation is clearly wrong.

Interestingly, though, I think the first perception is approximately right! More about that at the end of this post.

Is mystical experience the same in all religions?

Reports of mystical revelations usually have the same two parts: a perception, and a metaphysical explanation.

The experience itself is often said to be ineffable, in which case there would be nothing that could be said about it. Usually, though, accounts do include descriptions of non-ordinary perceptions; what we’d call “hallucinations” in other contexts.

  • Visual: blinding light; total darkness; exceptionally clear vision; vision ceasing altogether
  • Auditory: profound silence; overwhelming noise such trumpets or as choirs of angels
  • Kinesthetic: a sensation of lightness or weight; the body shattering, or falling away in one piece; out-of-body experience; total immersion of the self in bodily integrity
  • Reality: the world seems hyperreal, more solid than ever before; the world seems totally unreal, illusory

It is not obvious that these all describe the same experience. It is also not obvious that any of these perceptual abnormalities have any metaphysical significance.

However, mystics might reply that the essence of the experience is, indeed, ineffable. So the perceptual experience is beside the point, and the seeming differences are due only to the difficulty of expressing something that is beyond words.

What mystics really care about is the metaphysical aspect. That, many claim, is essentially the same in all cultures. Mystics report:

  • The discovery that they have no real self; the discovery of their True Self.
  • Direct perception of the transcendent reality behind appearances; direct perception of fact that there is no transcendent reality behind appearances.
  • Total separation from the world; total unity with the world.
  • Finding that they are utterly insignificant in the presence of the glory of God; finding that they are God; finding that God has removed himself from the universe; finding that there never was a God.
  • A perfect conceptual understanding of religious doctrine; a perfectly non-conceptual understanding of the reality beyond doctrine.

Uh, wait. It is not obvious that these are all the same…

Differing metaphysics

Here the mystic has three possible responses:

Denying the contradictions

First, the mystic can argue that these metaphysical revelations actually are all the same. For example, to discover that you have no true self is to discover your True Self. (Many modern Zen teachers claim that.)

This makes no sense whatsoever. It is indefensible, so the mystic is likely to fall back on “it’s ineffable” and “you aren’t holy enough to understand.” This is a weak position.

Cultural interpretations

Second, the mystic can suggest that there is a single kind of mystical experience, but people explain it according to their cultural background. For example, the Christian and the Theravadin have the same experience, but the Christian describes it in terms of the glory of God and the Theravadin in terms of total purification of citta.

Mystical experience, like schizophrenia, brings unshakable confidence in a metaphysical interpretation of a subjective experience. But in both cases, the link between the experience and the interpretation is doubtful.

It seems clearly true that mystics explain their experience according to their background. But then, mystical experience can provide no useful guidance for metaphysics.

If different mystics come to opposite metaphysical conclusions on the basis of the same experience, the experience itself gives no evidence one way or the other. And then why should we care about it at all?

Diversity of experience

The third possibility is that there are different kinds of non-ordinary experience, only some of which provide valid metaphysical insight.

If, for instance, you are a Theravadin, you might dismiss the Christian’s experience of God as mere hallucination. There is no God, so any experience of him is illusory. Authentic sotapatti, however, is a revelation of anatta, a genuine metaphysical truth, and guarantees that you will not be reborn more than seven more times.

This approach seems potentially workable to me. (I’ll follow it up in my next post.) However:

  • The popular argument that “all mystics say X, so you should believe X” is no longer available.
  • You have to have a some way of choosing which mystical experiences you consider valid.
  • Probably your criteria will depend on your metaphysical beliefs.
  • That means that metaphysics validates mystical experiences, rather than mystical experiences validating metaphysics!

Also: to say that some mystical experiences give valid evidence, and some don’t, is not nice. Part of the appeal of the “unification” theory is that it is extremely nice. Supposedly all religions are essentially the same, because the experience of unification is the true core of each of them. So we are all brothers and can join hands singing Kumbaya.

Admitting that religions are essentially different, and the differences matter, opens the door to jihad.

Unfortunately, reality is not nice. (Isn’t that a Noble Truth or something?)

Are mystical experiences metaphysical evidence?

The point of this post was to eliminate the “all mystics say so” argument for the “unification” theory of meditation and enlightenment.

But I have left open the interesting question of whether non-ordinary experiences can be evidence for any metaphysical theory.

I think they may be partial evidence. By themselves, they don’t prove anything, but taken together with other evidence, they may provide some support.

Particularly, I think meditation may provide evidence for my own metaphysical beliefs. (These beliefs, as it happens, are closer to traditional Buddhism than the “unification” story is.)

I said that I thought schizophrenics’ perception that thoughts were not their own was approximately right. Buddhist psychology, similarly, holds that there is no “me” for thoughts to belong to. Buddhist meditation seems to reveal thoughts’ impersonal nature.

Recent Western psychological research similarly suggests that there isn’t a self who “has” thoughts. Also, thoughts are mostly “memes” taken over from our culture, not personal productions.

Taken together, meditation and these Western ideas may support each other. But I am unsure about this. I’ll write more about it later.

[Update, October 2014: I’m less inclined toward no-self ideas now than when I wrote the paragraphs just above this. That’s one reason I haven’t written more about this, as I had intended three years ago.]

Further reading

John Horgan’s Rational Mysticism has a easily readable account of the diversity of mystical experience. Robert Sharf makes this point in “The Rhetoric of Experience and the Study of Religion,” and with particular reference to Buddhism in “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience.”

Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine explores the impersonal nature of thoughts.

She also explains how different cultures give different metaphysical explanations for sleep paralysis and near-death experiences. This seems closely parallel to the different metaphysical explanations they give to mystical experiences.