Section 1. The Enquiry Is Worthwhile
Bertrand Russell, a philosopher who cannot be suspected of sentimentality, or of softheadedness, or of a bias in favor of mysticism, wrote in a famous essay as folIows: "The greatest men who have been philosophers have felt the need both of science and of mysticism." He adds that the union of the mystic and the man of science constitutes "the highest eminence, as I think, that it is possible to achieve in the world of thought." Further, "this emotion [mysticism] is the inspirer of whatever is best in man." (1) This, it will be seen, is a remarkably high estimate of the value of mysticisrn.
As examples of this union of mysticism and science in the greatest philosophers, Russell mentions Heraclitus, Parmenides, Plato, and Spinoza, but this list is obviously intended to be only exemplificatory and not exhaustive.
Two problems are thus indicated by Russell as tasks which philosophy ought to perform. First, since mysticism is so valuable as a component in philosophy, we ought to investigate what influence it is logically entitled to have on the thoughrs of philosophers. Secondly, what influence has it actually exerted in their thoughts? The first is a problern of logic and systematic philosophy. The second is a problem
for the historian of philosophy. It is with the first of these two problems that we shall be concerned in this book.
No doubt a majority of contemporary Anglo-American philosophers think that philosophical doctrines which past philosophers derived, consciously or unconsciously, from mysticism — such as that time is unreal, that space is an appearance only, that there is an Absolute which is perfect, that the gcod and the real are identical — are to be rejected. But even if this is so, does it follow that no beliefs at all can be derived from mysticisrn, and that the whole subject should be dismissed as hocus-pocus or hallucination? Not at all. To think this would be as illogical as if, finding that all sorts of false beliefs have in primitive science been based on sense experience, we should reject sense experience as a source of any knowledge at all. If the beliefs which past philosophers have based on mysticism are unacceptable, we ought now to ask whether some better interpretations of mystical experience should replace them. This comparison of mystical experience with sense experience may be entirely misleading. But this must be a conclusion of enquiry, not an assumptian used to prevent enquiry. Hence the first problem to be faced in this book is whether mystical experience, like sense experience, points to any objective reality or is a merely subjective psychological phenomenon.
We may put the problem of the book in another way. What truths, if any, about the universe does mysticism yield which the mind could not obtain from science and the logical intellect? If, however, we phrase the question in this way, Russell's reply is that mysticism yields no truths at all. Only science and logical thinking give us truths. What mysticism contributes is fine and noble emotional attitudes towards the truths which have been discovered by the logical and scientific intellect. Russell's argument for this position is a delightfully simple syllogism, The essence of mysticism, he says, is emotion. Emotions are subjective in the sense that they supply no objective truths about the extramental world. Therefore mysticism is subjective and supplies no objective truths about the extramental world. "Mysticism," he writes, "is in essence little more than a certain intensity and depth of feeling in regard to what is believed about
the universe." (2) We may let the assertion that emotions are subjective pass. But no one who has the slightest knowledge of the world-wide literature of mysticism could possibly accept Russell's description of it as only an emotion.
Mystics may be mistaken in their interpretations of their experiences. But they ought to know what the experiences themselves are like better than Russell does. And they invariably say that they are more like perceptions than emotions; though it is not denied that, like all perceptions, they have their own emotional tinge. Whoever wishes to prove mystical experience subjective will do better to attribute to it the subjectivity of an hallucination rather than the subjectivity af an emotion.
Russell might be right in his conclusion that rnysticism is subjective and reveals no truth about the world — that is one of the main questions we have to discuss. But let no one be run away with by Russell's facile syllogism, based as it is on the false and careless premiss that mystical states af mind are emotions. First of all we must try to get a little genuine knowledge of what mysticisrn actually is before we decide thus summarily to dismiss its claims to possess truth-value. I shall try to give some account of the actual facts about it in the next chapter. Even then we shall find that the difficulties in the way of deciding whether it has any cognitive value, and if so what, are extremely complex, elusive, and subtle. To discuss them thoroughly will be the object of our third chapter.
Meanwhile we may remark that the very word "mysticism" is an unfortunate one. It suggests mist, and therefore foggy, confused, or vague thinking. It also suggests mystery and miraclemongering, and therefore hocus-pocus. It is also associated with religion, against which many academic philosophers are prejudiced. And some of these latter persons might be surprised to learn that, although many mystics have been theists, and others pantheists, there have also been mystics who were atheists, It would be better if we could use the words "enlightenment" or "illumination," which are comrnonly used in lndia for the same phenomenon. But it seems that for historical
reasons we in the West must settle for "mysticism." All that we can do is to try gradually to overcome the prejudices which it tends to arouse.
In referring to Russell's views I used the words "subjective" and "objective," which he did not use himself. Careful contemporary philosophers perhaps tend to avoid these words because of their ambiguity. They have been used in several different senses, which are apt to become confused. But they will be very convenient to us in later stages of this discussion, provided we indicate in what sense we use them. In Chapter 3 I shall endeavour to define the criteria of objectivity, in the sense meant here, as precisely as I can. But at this stage I can perhaps sufficiently elucidate the matter by giving examples in lieu of abstract definitions. We shall be using the words in this book in that sense in which veridical sense perception may be called objective while hallucinations and dreams may be called subjective. When in veridical sense perception I find presented to rny consciousness something which I call a house, this presentation is objective in the sense that it reveals the existence of a real house having a place in the extrarnental world independently of my consciousness of it. (What exactly this means and what grounds we have for believing it are not questions which it is necessary to examine at this point.) But the presentation of a house which I have in a dream is subjective because there is no such real house in the extramental world. It is in this sense that the question is raised whether mystical experience is objective or subjective. Does it reveal the existence of anything outside the mystic's own mind and independent of his consciousness? If so, what sort of existence does it reveal?
Whatever conclusions we draw in this book about the above, or related, questions will not necessarily have the status of inductive or deductive inferences. It is better to use the word "interpretation" rather than "inference:' I propose to enquire whether the types of experience called mystical give rise to any interpretations regarding the nature of the universe which, whether they are logical inferences or not, can be shown to be such that they ought to be aocepted by reasonable men. The basic concepts of physics are
interpretations of sense experience which cannot be logically inferred from the existence of the sense experience but are nevertheless interpretations which reasonable men should accept.(3) Indeed the very existence of a world independent of consciousness is an interpretation of sense experience which is not capable of being logically demonstrated. And seeing that our first problem is to be whether mystical experience is objective in a way which is analogous to the objectivity of sense experience, we need not be surprised if such a conclusion would have to be assigned an analogous interpretational status. But no conclusion can be accepted unless it is capable of rational justification of some kind. (4)
Our enquiry, as I have rernarked, is philosophical and systematic, not historical. It is not a prime question for us what beliefs such philosophers as those mentioned by Russell have derived from mysticism; but rather what beliefs, if any, we ought to derive as reasonable men. But we shall naturally take account of historically held beliefs, if only to consider whether they are rationally justifiable or not. For instance, the proposition that "time is unreal" has frequently been put forward on the basis of mystical experience. We shall certainly have to ask what this statement means, and whether there is any sense of the word "unreal,'' usual or unusual, in terms of which this proposition can be understood to have meaning; and also whether such a proposition — if we can understand it — is a reasonable interpretation of mystical experience. But we shall not be concerned with history for the sake of history. I hope to discuss the actual influence of mysticisrn on the great philosophers of the past, the mystical tradition in philosophy, in a later book.
These remarks about the views derived from mysticism by philosophers are also for the most part applicable to the views derived by mystics themselves from their own experiences. An enquiry of
this kind ought to be as independent af the opinions of mystics as it is of the opinions of philosophers. Naturally their views are to be considered as worthy of the highest respect and attention. But we cannot be tied down to any blind acceptance of the interpretations which mystics have made of their own experience. For one thing there is reason to suppose that what are basically the same experiences have been differently interpreted by different mystics. The point is that just as sense experiences may be rnisinterpreted by the persons who have the sense experiences, so mystical experiences may be misinterpreted by mystics. Hence an independent critical examination and analysis of their beliefs is just as necessary as is a similar examination of the beliefs of anyone else.
Section 2. Mohammed's Donkey
There is a story, which I have read somewhere, to the effect that Mohammed once compared a scholar or philosopher who writes about mysticism without having had any mystical experience to a donkey carrying a load of books. It is a presupposition of our enquiry that this admirably witty epigram, if taken literally and at its face value, exaggerates the foolishness of scholars, and that it is possible for the philosopher or scholar to make a worthwhile contribution to the study of mysticism.
It is perhaps natural that the mystic should distrust the prying eye of the scholar and the probing intellect of the philosopher. This attitude is well expressed by the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing. This book was written in the fourteenth century and is believed to have been composed by its author to help one of his disciples to attain the highest levels of mystical contemplation. He begins with a strong adjuratian that no one should read the book who has not himself a full intention of following the mystic path to the end. It is not intended, he says, for "the idly curious, whether they be learned men or not," and he hopes that they will not "meddle with it." He objects to "the curiosity of much learning and literary cunning as in scholars . . . coveting woorldly fame . . . and the flattery
of others." (5) Yet not all the mystics have felt like this. Many have themselves been scholars and philosophers, for instance, Plotinus, Erigena, Eckhart, and many others.
It is plain that mysticism, like other subjects, may arouse either a practical or a theoretical interest. The practical interest is that of the man who aspires to tread the mystic path. The theoretical interest, whether in mysticism or anything else, is that of the man who simply desires to know, and who values knowledge for its own sake. The author just quoted calls the impelling motive of such a man "curiosity." Aristotle would have called it "wonder." But whether one uses a word with derogatory overtones or one which has pleasanter associations, the rights of the theoretical intellect to investigate any subject matter whatever can hardly at this date be disputed by educated men.
But the point of the story of Mohamrned's donkey is perhaps not so much that the scholar has no right to investigate mysticism, but rather that it is a complete impossibility for him to do so if he has no mystical experience himself. It is sometimes said that just as a man born blind cannot imagine what colour is like even though the seeing man tries to tell him about it, so a nonmystic cannot imagine what a mystical experience is like even though the mystic tries to describe it to him. It is then argued that a nonmystic, however clever, cannot contribute anything of value to the discussion of mysticism for the same reason as a man born blind, however clever, could not contribute anything of value to the understanding of light or colours.
It cannot be denied that there is much force in this contention to the extent at least that the man born blind is under a psychological disadvantage in discussing the theory of light because he cannot imagine it. And the nonmystic discussing mysticism labors under the same sort of disadvantage. But it is far from clear that it would be impossible for a blind man to contribute anything of value to the physics of light and colour, for instance, to the controversy
between the corpuscular and the wave theories of light which at one time was a crucial problem. For what the physicist needs is an understanding of the structure, not an acquaintance with the experiential content, of light. This comparison cannot be pressed too far because the typical mystical experience, unlike light, is said to have no structure, being "formless." But the comparison does show that the argument from the alleged impossibility of a blind man discussing the theory of light cannot even get started because it is not clear that there is any such impossibility.
As against the view that the philosopher who does not profess to be a mystic cannot say anything of value about mysticism, it must also be pointed out that many such philosophers have in fact done so. The names of William Jarnes, J. B. Pratt, Dean Inge, and Rudolf Otto immediate:y spring to mind, and one could no doubt make out a long list of such cases if it were worth doing so. It may be said that what they wrote may have been thought valuable by other scholars, but would not be of any value to a mystic. Perhaps it might not be of value in the practical living of the mystic's spiritual life. But if the mystic were himself interested in the theory and philosophy of mysticism, as Plotinus and many others have been, there is no reason why his philosophical reflections on mysticism should not be helped by the analytical or speculative powers of a nonmystic.
It is worthwhile to look a little more closely at the case of William James. He wrote of himself that his own constitution shut him off almost entirely from the enjoyment of mystical states so that he could speak of them only at second hand. In consequence, he modestly expressed doubt as to his own capacity to offer anything of much value. (6) Yet I do not see how it can be denied that his contribution to the understandirg of the subject was in fact of very great value. An important part of the reason for this was obviously that, although James may have enjoyed no mystical states of consciousness, his temperamental sympathy with mysticism was very strong. This suggests that sympathy with mysticism, even on the part of a
nonmystical philosopher, may give him some measure of insight into the mystic's state of mind and therefore some capacity for discussing it. It has often been suggested that all men, or nearly all men, are in some sense or other rudimentary or unevolved mystics, although in most of us the mystical consciousness is so far buried in the unconscious that it appears in the surface levels of our minds merely in the guise of vague feelings of sympathetic response to the clearer call of the mystic. To use the common cliche, when the mystic speaks, something in his utterance "rings a bell" in the psyche of the more sympathetic and sensitive of his hearers.
It might be contended, however, that an attitude of sympathy is not appropriate in a philosophical investigation since it would interfere with impartiality and objectivity. A feeling of sympathy might produce a predisposition to admit too easily the claims of the mystic that he obtains through his experience a knowledge of the nature of reality which is not available to other rnen. The philosopher, the argument will proceed, should be guided by his intellect only and not by his feelings. No doubt there is something in this contention. But not much. For a human being without feelings is an impossibility. Hence no human being can have quite the impartiality of a calculating machine. If the critic says that a sympathetic attitude ought to be avoided by the philosopher, we would surely not recommend an unsympathetic or hostile attitude which would be equally prejudiced on the other side. Should one then have a completely neutral attitude? But a neutral attitude would amount simply to a lack of interest in the subject. It seems to me that Russell has said the last word on this subject. "In studying a philosopher," says he, "the right attitude is neither reverence nor contempt, but first a kind of hypothetical sympathy, urtil it is possible to know what it feels like to believe in his theories, and only then a revival of the critical attitude." (7)
There is another point which the nonmystical philosopher may urge on his own behalf, which is that mystics themselves philosophize.
In doing so they descend to the intellectual plane and therefore cannot expect to escape from intellectual criticism and analysis. They cannot invade the philosopher's field and at the same time refuse to the philosopher any right to discuss their philosophical assertions. If they confined themselves to descriptions of their special kind of expericnce, the philosopher who has no such experience could not criticize their statements, except that he would be entitled to ask how these statements are compatible with the further statement
usually made by the mystic, namely, that his experience is ineffable and indescribable. But mystics usually go beyond mere descriptions. They make general philosophical inferences abaut the world, about the nature of reality, about the status and source of value judgments — all of which matters fall within the legitimate province of the philosopher. For instance, they may make the statement that "time is unreal," or is a "rnere appearance" or an "illusion." It cannot be contended that the philosopher has no competence to examine, to analyse, and, if he sees fit, to disagree with propositions of this kind. Mystics also do not even stop short at asserting general but isolated philosophical propositions of this kind. At least in the Orient they have gone further and constructed colmplete philosophical systems based on their mystical experiences. It is clear that in doing so they give a right to all other philosophers to examine and evaluate their systems.
As we have already adrnitted, the philosopher who is without mystical experience has the psychological disadvantage that he must take at second hand the mystic's descriptions of his experiences. There are plenty of such descriptions in spite of the talk about ineffabiliity. The philosopher must try as far as possible to overcome his disadvantage by the insights given by a sympathetic imagination.
Section 3. The Naturalistic Principle
We assume, at least as a methodological postulate, the universality of the reign of law in nature. This means that all macroscopic existences and events occurring in the space-time world are explicable
without exception by natural causes.
We must naw examine some of the things which this naturalistic principle implies, and also take note of a few things which it does not imply. It is applicable, according to our statement of it, to all macroscopic events. These are the only events with which we shall be concerned in this book.
Hence we need take no account of the principle of indeterminacy in nuclear physics. Also the fact that the laws of nature in the macroscopic world are said to be statistical and not absolute need make no difference to us. The possibility that water may run up hill once in a billion years can be ignored.
The naturalistic principle has no bearing on the probiem of free will. Determinism, if that is implied by the principle, is not inconsistent with free will, and indeterminism is no help to it. I have discussed this matter at length elsewhere and will not repeat the discussion here. (8)
The naturalistic principle forbids us to believe that there ever occur interruptions in the natural working of events or capricious interventions by a supernatural being. David Hume defined a miracle as a breach of the laws of nature. Our principle denies that miracles, as thus strictly defined, ever occur. But there may be other looser or more liberal conceptions of miracles which are not inconsistent with naturalism. For instance, Professor Broad has, for certain specific purposes connected with psychical research, defined miracles as events which are exceptions, not to natural laws, but to certain specified common-sense presurnptions.(9)
The alleged miracles at Lourdes may very well be explicable by natural laws of which we are at present ignorant. That deep emotional disturbances — such as may be involved in many religious crises — are often accompanied by irnportant physical changes in the organism is well known, though we cannot yet formulate the laws of such events. Similar considerations apply to the healing powers sometimes attributed to religious geniuses. But we can use
against miracles, if defined as actual breaches of law, an argument much stronger than the one Hume employed. No matter how astonishing, or supernormal, an event may be, we could never, till we are omniscient, have sufficient grounds for asserting that it is a breach of natural law. We could not assert this unless we were certain that we fully knew and understood every natural law in the universe, since any law of which we were ignorant might afford the needed explanation.
If prayer is understood — as perhaps no instructed theologian does now understand it — as a request to the Deity to alter the natural course of events, then we cannot beiieve in the efficacy of prayer so interpreted. For example, prayers to send rain in time of drought are absurd, because the weather is solely determined by meteorological conditions. Of course prayers, even if made as requests, rnay themselves in certain cases go a long way to bring about the changes asked for. This is likely to occur when what is sought is a change in the heart, mind, or even body of the person praying and not a change in the external world. Prayers for improvements of health, or for greater moral or spiritual strength, will tend to set in motion trains of psychological events, such as expectations and improvements of morale, which seem to come as answers to the prayer. This is what any psychologist would expect, and is of course in no way miraculous or even surprising.
But the history of mysticism provides a much deeper justification for the practice of prayer than the rather superficial considerations just mentioned. Prayers, or "orisons,'' as they are called, as understood by the Christian mystics, aim primarily at communion, or union, with what they take to be a Divine Being, and are not requests for favors — except, of course, in so far as such union is itself regarded by the mystic as the supreme favor which a human being can seek. Such orisons constitute steps in the ladder of spiritual exercises which lead to the desired goal of mystical consciousness. St. Teresa of Avila, among others, is well known for the detailed accounts she gave of these steps, in their order and one by one. Everyone knows that there are breathing exercises which tend to
produce mystical states. In the same way there are many mental exercises, certain kinds of disciplined meditation and concentration, which are undertaken with the same end in view. Prayer, properly understood, is another name for these spiritual efforts to reach up to mystical experiences. Prayer considered as a petition for a favor is merely a popular corruption of genuine prayer.
It is a misunderstanding of the naturalistic principle to confuse it with materialism or to suppose that it implies materialism. Naturalism is not inconsistent with the Cartesian view that thoughts, and psychological events generally, are nonmaterial. For even if psychological events are nonphysical, they may be just as rigorously governed by psychological laws or psychophysical laws as physical events are by physical laws.
The naturalistic principle is not inconsistent with belief in an "ultimate reality," or Absolute, or God, outside of or beyond the space-time world — whatever the metaphors "outside of" and "beyond" may mean. All that the principle requires is that such a being or reality shall not interrupt the causal sequences of the natural order. For instance, it is not inconsistent with the philosophical systems of Hegel or Bradley. Such systems are very much out of favor in the present-day climate of philosophical opinion. But those who reject them do so usually on empiricist or positivistic grounds, not on the ground that they are inconsistent with naturalism. That they are not contrary to the naturalistic principle will be obvious from the definition of that principle, namely, the proposition that all things and events in the space-time world are explicable yvithout exception by natural causes.
The most important question for us at this time is to understand what bearing the naturalistic principle has upon rnysticism and the philosophical problems which it raises. Naturalism implies, first, that the genesis of rnystical state in a human mind is itself the result of natural causes, and in no way constitutes an exception to the reign of law. It may be worthwhile to note that this view is held, not merely by the present writer, but by many mystics. For instance, R. M. Bucke wrote his book Cosmic Consciousness as a direct result
of a sudden mystical illumination which came to him unexpected and unsought. "Cosmic consciousness" was his name for mystical experience. He wrote: "Cosmic consciousness . . . must not be looked upon as being in any sense supernatural or supernormal — as anything more than a natural growth." (10) In line with this view he maintained that such consciousness is now in process of evolution — according to normal evolutionary principles — in the hurnan species, and that it is destined someday to become the psychological condition of a majority of the human race. One may perhaps regard this latter prophecy as being unsupported by evidence, but at least it attests to Bucke's firm adherence to naturalism. In the same spirit he also suggested a natural explanation of "photisms" — the perception of a subjective but quasi-physical light which sometirnes, but not always, accompanies the onset of mystical consciousness — as due to molecular rearrangements in the brain (11) Edward Carpenter, who was another natural mystic and subject to periodic states of illumination, also everywhere disclaims that mystical states are supernatural, or miraculous. They are, in his view, subject to the usual laws of psychological evolution. (12)
No doubt these views conflict with ideas often expressed by medieval Christian mystics such as St. Teresa, St. John of the Cross, Heinrich Suso, and many others, who regarded their own experiences as supernatural gifts from God. But while admitting their outstanding greatness as mystics, and the general importance of their testimony (on which we shall often have to rely in succeeding chapters) as to the phenomenological characteristics of mystical experiences we cannot accept without careful sifting and analysis their theological or philosophical interpretations of those experiences. In view of the prescientific ages in which they lived, and — at least in the case af St. Teresa — a lack of critical ability, it is not surprising that they did not understand or accept the principle of the universal reign of law.
We may take it then that the genesis of mystical consciousness is
explicable in terms of the psychological and physiological make-up of those who have it. It is, however, of paramount importance to understand that this has no bearing upon the problem of its alleged cognitive character, its subjectivity or objectivity, its claim to reveal truths about the nature of the universe. For determination by physiological and psychological preconditions is also characteristic of sense experience and of all human consciousness. The seeing of an object with the eyes is determined by the structure of the eye and the condition of the nervous system, as well as by psychological background, habits, and expectations. So also the reasoning processes of the geometer are presumably conditioned by prior bodily and mental processes. Yet no one doubts that sense perception and reasoning yield truths about the external universe. There is no more reason for supposing that mystical perceptions are illusory because they cannot be had without brains and nervous systems than for supposing that visual perceptions must be illusory because they cannot be had without eyes and optic nerves.
It may be said that sense perceptions are only part-caused by the structure or condition of the organism, the other essential part cause being the stimulus from the outside world; whereas in the case of mystical states of mind there is no reason to suppose that they are not wholly the results of intraorganic and intrapsychic causes; and that this difference is what may justify us in considering mystical states to be purely subjective while of course admitting that sense perceptions have objective reference because of the external stimuli which are their part causes.
But this argument will not hold. For the existence of the external stimuli in the case of sense perception is not known independently of the sense experience. Their existence is itself an interpretation of that experience. Hence in this respect sense experience and mystical experience are on the same footing. In both cases the existence of anything objective to which they refer is an interpretation of the experience, and nothing more. If the fact that we cannot perceive material objects without eyes, ears, and brains does not prevent us from interpreting sense experiences as having objective reference
neither need the fact that we cannot have mystical experience without its appropriate physiological machinery cause us to conclude that it can be nothing but subjective illusion.
It might be argued against us that if our enquiry should uphold the belief that mystical experience is objective in the sense that it discloses the reality of some Absolute such as the One of Plotinus, or the Universal Self of the Vedanta, or the God of the theists, this would be inconsistent with the naturalistic principle. For we should then have to say that mystical experience is part-caused by intraorganic events and part-caused by the Absolute, and that this would be to admit the operation of a cause from outside nature. But the same could be said of the alleged causatian of physical perceptions by electrons, waves, and the like. For natural laws are relations which hold between observable phenomena, for instance between an observable state of coldness and an observable freezing of water. But the physicist's particles and waves lie outside and behind the phenomenal surfaces of the world in the same way as the Absolute does — although no doubt the ontological status of nuclear events would be quite different from that of the Absolute. We have in both cases a sort of duplication of causal lines — if cause is the right word to use in either case. One line of causes — in both cases — runs along the dimension of the phenomenal surface of the world, and the other line comes in from behind the surface and at right angles to it (so to speak).
But even so, our critic may urge, to admit the existence of an Absolute outside the natural order is inconsistent with the naturalistic principle. But that principle as we defined it in the first paragraph af this section postulates only the universal reign of law within nature. It does not deny the possibility of any reality outside nature, although dogmatic naturalists may do so. Admittedly the One of Plotinus, or a Universal Self, or a Divine Being will be transcendent of nature. But it must be noted that it would not be "supernatural" in the popular sense of that word which implies the meddlesorne interference of a capricious personal God, or gods, or spirits. This is what is forbidden by the naturalistic principle as we have conceived
it. That there might be a reality or realities outside nature not supernatural in the superstitious sense will be evident if we consider Plato's so-called "world of forms." These forms — as distinct from those of Aristotle — were outside the space-time world, but it would be a misuse of language to call them "supernatural" existences.
We are not, of course, here arguing that mystical experience actually does have objective reference. That is one of the main problems which we have to examine in the following chapters. The present point is only that the naturalistic principle leaves the question open and to be decided by subsequent investigation. It in no way prejudges the case against the claims of the mystic that his experience discloses to him truths about reality.
Section 4: The Principle of Causal Indifference
The principle of causal indifference is this: If X has an alleged mystical experience P1 and Y has an alleged mystical experience P2, and if the phenomenological characteristics of P1 entirely resemble the phenomenological characteristics of P2 so far as can be ascertained from the descriptions given by X and Y, then the two experiences cannot be regarded as being of two different kinds — for example, it cannot be said that one is a "genuine" mystical experience while the other is not — merely because they arise from dissimilar causal conditions.
The principle seems logically self-evident. At present it is perhaps not very important and may have no wide application to established facts. But it might become important in the future. It is introduced here because it is sornetimes asserted that mystical experiences can be induced by drugs, such as mescalin, lysergic acid, etc. On the other hand those who have achieved mystical states as a result of long and arduous spiritual exercises, fasting and prayer, or great moral efforts, possibly spread over many years, are inclined to deny that a drug can induce a "genuine" mystical experience or at least to look askance at such practices and such a claim. Our principle says that if the phenomenological descriptions of the two
experiences are indistinguishable, so far as can be ascertained, then it cannot be denied that if one is a genuine mystical experience the other is also. This will follow notwithstanding the lowly antecedents of one of them, and in spite of the understandable annoyance of an ascetic, a saint, or a spiritual hero, who is told that his careless and worldly neighbour, who never did anything to deserve it, has attained to mystical consciousness by swallowing a pill.
But it is still a question whether in fact any mescalin experience ever is intrinsically similar to, or descriptively indistinguishable from, the experience of the saint, in which case only would our principle find an empirical application. As to this question, my opinion is that we do not yet know enough about the effects of these drugs to answer it with any confidence. Important experirnents are now in progress on such drugs, as well frcm the spiritual as from the medical standpoint, and we have to await results.
One guess may be hazarded. The drug-induced experience may perhaps in some cases indistinguishably resemble the extrovertive type of mystical experience, but it is most unlikely that it resembles the far more importart introvertive type. This distinction will be explained later.
Meanwhile the problem has little importance in this book because in all the very numerous phenomenological descriptions which are to be quoted in support of our various conclusions there is only a single case in which the experience described followed on the taking of mescalin. The resulting experience in that one case undoubtedly resembled, and in fact seemed indistinguishable from, the extrovertive type of experience reported by the more traditional nondrug-taking mystics. I shall indicate that one case when I come to it. It could perfectly well have been omitted without serious loss to the cumulative mass of evidence on which our conclusions will be based and its omission would nat affect those conclusions.
Another application of our principle which might be quoted arises in connection with the second of the three well-known periods of mystical illumination in the life of Jakob Boehme. This second illumination is stated to have been induced by gazing at a polished
disc. (13) Looking at a polished surface seems just as lowly and unspiritual a causal condition of mystical experience as the taking of a drug. Yet no one, I believe, will deny that Jakob Boehme was a "genuine" mystic.
Section 5: Experience and Interpretation
It is a presupposition of our enquiry that it is important as well as possible to rnake a distinction between a mystical experience itself and the conceptual interpretations which may be put upon it. This is analogous to the distinction which can be made between sense experience and its interpretation. And this analogy is valid and useful notwithstanding the often misleading character of a comparison between mystical and sense experience to which I have previously drawn attention.
It is probably impossible in both cases to isolate "pure" experience. Yet, although we may never be able to find sense experience completely free of any interpretation, it can hardly be doubted that a sensation is one thing and its conceptual interpretation is another thing.
[This sounds like the experience Evelyn Underhill describes in the opening chapters of Practical Mysticism, in which objects, people, creatures, etc are seen free of their relationship with the observer's expectations and needs, and seen simply "as they are". It also recalls the circumstances of my first "mystical" experience.DCW]
That is to say, they are distinguishable though not completely separable. There is a doubtless apocryphal but well-known anecdote about the American visitor in London who tried ta shake hands with a waxwork policeman in the entrance of Madame Tussaud's. If such an incident ever occurred, it must have been because the visitor had a sense experience which he first wrongly interpreted as a live policeman and later interpreted correctly as a wax figure. If the sentence which I have just written is intelligible, it proves that an interpretation is distinguishable from an experience; for there could not otherwise be two interpretations of one experience. There were two successive interpretations, although it may be true that at no time was the experience free of interpretation and even that such a pure experience is psychologically impossible. No doubt the original something seen at the entrance was immediately recognized
as a material object, as having some sort of colour, and as having the general shape of a human being. And since this involved the application of classificatory concepts to the sensations, there was from the first some degree of interpretation. It seems a safe position to say that there is an intelligible distinction between experience and interpretation, even if it be true that we can never come upon a quite uninterpreted experience. Moreover, the distinction, however rough, is used every day in our practical living, and we could hardly get on without it. A witness in a law court is instructed to give evidence only of what he actually observes, avoiding inferences and interpretations. This instruction is essential and works well enough, notwithstanding that if the witness says he observed the defendant at the scene of the crime, some philosopher might try to insist, like Mill, that all the witness actually saw was a coloured surface, and that to call this "the defendant'' would be to indulge in an inference.
We have to make a parallel distinction between mystical experience and its interpretation. But here too we cannot expect to rnake a clear separation. The difficulty of deciding what part af a mystic's descriptive account of his experience ought to be regarded as actually experienced and what part should be taken as his interpretation is indeed far greater than the corresponding difficulty in the case of sense experience. And yet it is of vital importance to our enquiry that the distinction should be admitted, should be grasped and held continually 'before our minds, and that we should make every possible attempt to apply it to our material as best we can, however difftcult it may be to do so. There are two reasons why it is important.
First, as with sense experience, although the pure experience, if it could be isolated, would be indubitable, yet any interpretation, whether made by the experiencer or another, is liable to be rnistaken. It is often said that the nonmystic cannot deny that the mystic has the experience which he says he has. But this is only true of the experiential component of his description. It does not imply that a philosopher who is not himself a mystic is not entitled to probe, examine, analyse, and call in question those parts of the mystic's description which seem to him clearly to involve elements of
interpretation. The philosopher must claim his proper rights.
The second reason for insisting on the distinction is of even greater moment. Writers on mysticism have frequently argued that mystical experiences are basically the same, or similar, all over the world, in all different ages, cultures, and in all different religious associations. Numerous writers have based upon this an argument for the objectivity of such experience. For instance, R. M. Bucke wrote as follows: "You know that the tree is real and not an hallucination because all other persons having the sense of sight . . . also see it, while if it were an hallucination it would be visible only to yourself. By the same method of reasoning do we establish the reality of the objective universe tallying cosmic consciousness. Each person who has the faculty is made aware of essentially the same facts. . . . There is no instance of a person who has been illurnined denying or disputing the teachings of another who has passed through the same experience." (14)
The examples of persons who possessed cosmic, i.e., mystical, consciousness given by Bucke include persons as widely separated in time, space, and culture as St. Teresa and the Buddha. There is no doubt that Bucke enormously overstates his case. In the next chapter I shall quote Professor C. D. Broad's version of the argument, which is the most careful, conservative, and guarded statement of it with which I am acquainted. But in the meanwhile, the essential logic of it is evident even in the exaggerations of Bucke. The argument depends on an analogy with sense perception. It alleges that we distinguish between veridical perception and hallucination by the universal agreement of human beings in veridical perception as opposed to the private and unshared character of hallucinatory perceptions. It contends that there is an analogous agreement among mystics everywhere in the world about what they experience, and that this supports belief in the objectivity of the experience.
Two questions are here raised. First, is it a fact that mystical experiences are basically the sarne, or similar, all over the world, or at any rate that they all have important common characteristics?
Secondly, if this is true, does it constitute a good argument for believing in their objectivity? I maintain that the whole argument has never been properly probed, analysed, and impartially evaluated by any previous writer. And this is a task which I propose to undertake. Now the first question — how far the mystical experiences reported by Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists, and also by mystics who have not heen adherents of any specific religious creed are similar or different — is one of extreme difficulty. We shall have to struggle with it, but we cannot hope to get anywhere near a true answer unless we make the distinction between experience and interpretation and endeavour to apply it to our material. The reason for this may be made clear by the following example.
The Christian mystic usually says that what he experiences is "union with God." The Hindu rnystic says that his experience is one in which his individual self is identical with Brahman or the Universal Self. The Christian says that his experience supports theism and is not an experience of actual identity with God, and he understands "union" as not involving identity but some other relation such as resemblance. The Hindu insists an identity, and says that his experience establishes what writers on rnysticism usually call "pantheism" — though Hindus usually do not use that Western word. The Buddhist mystic — at least according to some versions of Buddhism — does not speak of God or Brahman or a Universal Self, but interprets his experience in terms which do not include the concept of a Supreme Being at all.
There are thus great differences of belief here, although the beliefs are all equally said to be founded on mystical experiences. How do we explain these facts? There are two different hypotheses by which they can be explained, and we have to make a choice between them. One hypothesis is that the experiences of the Christian, the Hindu, and the Buddhist are basically different, although there may be some similarities, perhaps only superficial ones, which justify us in calling them all "mystical." The other hypothesis is that the experiences of them all are basically the same — though perhaps there may be some differences — but that each puts upon his experiences the
intellectual interpretations which he has derived from the peculiarities of his own culture. The Christian interprets the experiences in terms of a pre-existent Christian orthodoxy in which he has been reared, the Hindu in terms of more characteristically Indian ideas, and the Buddhist in terms of conceptions which may have come from pre-Aryan sources or were possibly at least in part freshly minted by the Buddha himself. There are three mutually inconsistent interpretations of the same experience. Plainly we cannot even state these alternative hypotheses, much less come to a rational decision between them, without making use of the distinction between experience and interpretation.
The importance of the distinction has not commonly been grasped even by the most eminent writers on rnysticism. Professor J. H. Leuba does indeed explicitly make use of it. He uses it to support his view that mystical experience is subjective. He criticizes William James for having been sympathetic to the belief in its objectivity as a result of having confused the indubitable pure experience with the highly doubtful elaborations or interpretatians put upon it by the mystics.(15) But Leuba talks glibly about the "pure experience" — a phrase which he perhaps picked up from James himself — without apparently having any clear understanding of the extreme difficulties involved in any attempt to isolate it or to apply the idea in practice. He himself makes no use of the distinction except as a stick with which to beat Jarnes.
A much more recent writer, Professor R. C. Zaehner, in his book Mysticism, Sacred and Profane shows that he is in some sense conscious of there being a difference between the experience and the interpretation, but he is in my opinion gravely misled by his failure to hold the distinction clearly in mind, to grasp its implications, and to make effective use of it. For instance, in the records of introvertive mysticism one finds frequent descriptions of the experience of an absolute undifferentiated and distinctionless unity in which all multiplicity has been obliterated.. This, as we shall see later, is described by Christian mystics such as Eckhart and
Ruysbroeck on the one hand, and by the ancient Hindu mystics who composed the Upanishads on the other. The language of the Hindus on the one hand and the Christians on the other is so astonishingly similar that they give every appearance of describing identically the same experience. They were of course wholly unknown to, and independent of, one another. Yet Professor Zaehner, who is a Roman Catholic, insists that their experiences must have been different because Eckhart and Ruysbroeck built their accounts of the experience into the orthodox Trinitarian theology which they accepted from the Church, whereas the Hindus understood it pantheistically — pantheism being, according to Catholic theologians, a serious "heresy." We may leave the question open (for the present) whether Professor Zaehner is right in thinking that the Christian and the Indian experiences are quite different from one another in spite of the almost identical words in which they are often expressed. He may be right. We have admitted, or rather asserted, that there are two alternative hypotheses for explaining the facts. Professor Zaehner chooses one of them. We have not yet ourselves investigated the question of which is right. But the point is that Professor Zaehner's conclusion simply does not follow from the mere fact that the beliefs which Christian mystics based upon their experiences are different from the beliefs which the Indians based on theirs. And the difference of beliefs is really the only evidence which he offers for his view. A genuine grasp of the distinction between experience and interpretation, and especially of the difficulties involved in applying it, might have resulted in a fuller, fairer, and more impartial examination and treatment of the two possible hypotheses.
I shall close this section with some remarks on terminology. I use the word "mysticism" to mean the whole subject which we are discussing in this book. It therefore includes both mystical experience and its interpretations. I use the word "mystic" to mean a persan who has himself been subject to rnystical experience — once at least, shall we say, if it is necessary to be so specific. It does not, therefore, cover a thinker who studies the subject or writes about it sympathetically or has been influenced by mystical ideas and believes them.
For instance, Hegel was influenced by mystical ideas, but was not himself a mystic in my sense of the word. Nor was William James a mystic. Plato was deeply influenced by mystical ideas, and there are several passages in his writings which suggest that he was himself a mystic, but no one knows this for certain.
I use the word "interpretation" to mean anything which the conceptual intellect adds to the experience for the purpose of understanding it, whether what is added is only classificatory concepts, or a logical inference, or an explanatory hypothesis. Also the interpretation may be the work of a mystic or a nonmystic. Thus if I should conclude in this book that mystical experience is objective, or if I should conclude that it is only subjective, these would be my interpretations.
It should be noted that there are different levels of interpretation of mystical experience, just as there are of sense experience. If a man says, "I see a red colour," this is a low-level interpretation, since it involves nothing except simple classificatory concepts. But a physicist's wave theory of colours is a very high-level interpretation. Analogously, if a mystic speaks of the experience of "an undifferentiated distinctionless unity," this mere report or description using only classificatory words may be regarded as a low-level interpretation. But this is being more fussily precise than is usually necessary, since for all intents and purposes it is just a description. If a mystic says that he experiences a "mystical union with the Creator of the universe," this is a high-level interpretation since it includes far more intellectual addition than a mere descriptiye report. It includes an assumption about the origin of the world and a belief in the existence of a personal God. Note that the phrase "undifferentiated unity" contains no reference to God or the Absolute. If a man says on the alleged basis of mystical experience that time is unreal, this is plainly a general philosophical theorem which is a high-level interpretation.
I occasionally use the plarase "mystical idea." This is roughly the same as an interpretation, but it generally implies that the proposition or concept which is here called an "idea" was originally an interpretation of some actual mystical experience by the person who
experienced it, but has since passed into the general history of ideas and may be accepted by people who are unaware of its mystical origin. For instance, Hegel's concept of the "identity of opposites" may be considered a mystical idea in this sense. It is a transcription of certain characteristics of mystical experience which we shall have to study. But it is spoken of and criticized by many who have no knowledge of its mystical origin. Pantheism is also a mystical idea, even if it is adopted on purely logical grounds by a thinker who considers himself a rationalist.
Section 6: Catholicity of Evidence
It is a presupposition of our enquiry that whatever conclusions we draw ought to be based on a survey of evidence as wide as possible. This means that we should consider not only the mysticism af a single culture, for instance Christian mysticism, but rather the mysticisms of all the higher cultures — at least as many and as much as this enquirer is in a position to study, having regard to his own limitations of knowledge and scholarship. I shall therefore try to take account, so far as these lirnitations allow, of Christian, Islamic, Judaic, Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist mysticisrns. Zen Buddhism, which is of course highly mystical, first appeared as a special brand of Buddihism in China from whence it passed over into Japan. It is included, of course, under the head of Buddhist mysticism, The only expressions of mysticism indigenous to China with which I am acquainted are some well-known passages of Taoist writers to which we may have occasion to refer in later pages.
In addition to the sources just mentioned, we ought also to consider the mystical experiences recorded by men who have not been adherents of any particular religion — let us call them unattached mystics. It is a common popular assumption that all mysticism is as such religious. There is a sense in which this is true, since all mysticism is concerned with the highest spiritual aspirations of the self — we need not consider certain alleged demonic and evil aberrations of mysticism. But it is not true in the sense that every mystic
is a believer in some one or other of the organized religions af the world. He need not be a believer in any religious creed as that phrase is ordinarily understood. Plotinus is an obvious example among the ancients. He accepted the philosophy of Plato, but not any specifically religious creed. But apart from classical and famous examples there are many cases of recent and contemporary unattached mystics whose reports of their experiences should be of great importance to the philosophical enquirer. We shall very often find that the experiences of such men as Tennyson,(16) J. A. Symonds, R. M. Bucke, Edward Carpenter, and even quite unheard-of and unknown contemporary unattached mystics are of great value to us.
Thus the evidence on which we ought to rely should come from at least three kinds of sources: first, the mysticisms which have been historically associated with the great world religions; second, historically famous nonattached mystics such as Plotinus; third, contemporary mystics whether well-known or obscure, whether unattached or associated with a particular religion.
The reasons for this emphasis on catholicity of evidence should be obvious. There is, of course, no reason why a writer should not for limited purposes confine his studies exclusively to the mysticism af a single culture. But he cannot do this if his purpose is to examine the philosophical implications of mysticism as such. This requires a survey of all the main areas of mysticism. And there is also in our case a special reason. In the previous section it was mentioned that rnany writers have urged the similarity of mystical experiences in different cultures, religions, and ages all over the world as an argument in favor of their objectivity. Our very first duty then, must be to examine the evidence for this view. And we plainly cannot do this unless we take into account, to the best of our ability, at least all the main areas of mysticism in time and place.
To undertake this task does not involve making any value judgment as to the relative intrinsic values of different cultures or different
branches of mysticism as such. Christian writers no doubt naturally believe that Christian mysticism is more valuable, true, and important than any other. Hindu writers may be pardoned if they consider that theirs is the best.Our practice of taking into account the evidence of the mystics of all cultures should not be construed as implying the opinion that all are of equal intrinsic value, any more than the practice of a law court of hearing the evidence of all relevant witnesses on any matter implies that the court regards the evidence of them all as equally truthful or valuable. And it does not appear that there is any necessity for us — at any rate at the present stage of our enquiry — to express an opinion as to whether the mysticism of one culture is in itself inferior or superior to that of any other.
1. Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays, London, Longmans Green & Co., Inc, 1929, pp. 1, 4, and 12.
2. Ibid., p. 3.
3. On this point see, for example, Einstein's remarks quoted in Philipp Frank, Einstein: His Life and Times, New York, Alfred A Knopf, Inc, 1953, pp. 217-218
4. The problem of the rational justifications of those basic principles or commitments of science, philosophy, ethics, politics, etc, which cannot be proved either deductively or inductively, has recently been investigated by Professor James Ward Smith in his book Theme for Reason, Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1957.
5. The Cloud of Unknowing, trans by Ira Progoff, New York, The Julian Press, Inc, 1957, pp. 54 and 79.
6. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, New York, Modern Library, Inc., p. 370.
7. Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, New York, Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1945, p. 39.
8. See my Religion and the Modern Mind, Philadephia, J.B. Lippincott Company, 1952, pp. 248-258.
9. C.D. Broad, Religion, Philosophy and Psychical Research, New York, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1953, Chap. 1.
10. R.M. Bucke, Cosmic Consciousness, New York, E.P. Dutton and Co., Inc., p. 12.
11. Ibid., p. 345
12. Edward Carpenter, From Adam's Peak to Elephanta, pp. 242-246, as quoted by R.M. Bucke.
13. See Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism, paperback ed., Neew York, Meridian Books, Inc., 1955, p. 255.
14. Bucke, op. cit., p. 71.
15. J.H. Leuba, The Psychology of Religious Mysticism, Chap. 12.
16. Tennyson was a Christian, but I call him unattached because his description of his experience — which will be quoted in its proper place — was not expressed in terms of any specifically Christian terms or other religious concepts. For instance, he did not call it "union with God."