The Unfinishable Scroll
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Sun, 02 May 2010
There is such a thing as real spiritual experience. This has almost nothing to do with so-called "religious" experiences that involve seeing beings with physical forms (like angels or demons) or hearing voices or sounds from alleged heavenly beings. These so-called "religious" experiences are best explained in terms of psychology. We cannot trust these experiences. Real spiritual experience is something entirely different.
A real spiritual experience is not an experience of alleged beings or objects that normally are invisible. Instead, it is an experience of properties and relationships of objects. Here are a few examples.
In each of these examples - those of the nature poet, the religious mystic, the romantic poet, and the meditator - a special experience occurs. In each of these experiences, what is important is the perception of new qualities and relations. All of these experiences can occur without the perception of any new particular objects. One doesn't have to see angels or devils or hear supernatural voices to have these experiences. Some people might not want to call these four examples "religious experiences." Yet there is no doubt that these experiences are "spiritual" in a broad, nonsectarian, and true sense of that word.
Do these real spiritual experiences prove the existence of the supernatural? Perhaps not - but they prove something far better.
We can't infer the existence of the supernatural from these experiences. Why? Because the qualities and relations disclosed in the experiences may, for all we know, fit into the framework of nature. Even if we don't currently know how to understand them as part of nature, we have no compelling reason to assume that this can't be done. (Labeling something "supernatural" is always a questionable move, because we can't know in advance that the "supernatural" thing won't someday be viewed as part of nature.) Therefore, these spiritual experiences don't settle the question of the reality of the supernatural. What these experiences do prove is that there are qualities and relations in the world that aren't part of our normal, everyday experience. To put it bluntly, the natural world has spiritual qualities as well as physical ones - and spiritual experience attests to the existence of these qualities, whether or not we believe in the supernatural or in religion.
In other words, spiritual experiences establish the reality of the spiritual features of the world. They do not tell us whether those features are natural or supernatural - so they don't rule out either naturalism or supernaturalism. (We might still be able to learn something from so-called experiences of the supernatural, even if we don't believe the experiences. I'll discuss that possibility in a footnote ).
The big question about these experiences is whether the qualities and relations they disclose are real. I've already presented my detailed answer to this question elsewhere (here and here), so I'll just summarize it here. The question really is two questions:
Here are the short answers:
(Someone might want to argue that there are real spiritual experiences of other kinds besides the ones I have described here. I haven't ruled this out; I'm not going to comment on this question one way or the other. The class of experiences I have described here seems to encompass the most important kinds of spiritual experience.)
The upshot of all this is that some spiritual experiences are trustworthy. These experiences can be used as a way of knowing spiritual realities. The spiritual realities we find in this way are not supernatural (or at least we have no compelling reason to think that they are). Instead, they are features of the natural world - every bit as real as more familiar features, like the mass of the electron or the liquidity of water.
This means that many of the central insights of the nature mystics, religious mystics, and visionary poets are right. Like all thinkers, these visionaries made mistakes - especially when they went beyond their data and assumed their experiences were supernatural. However, these mistakes do not shed any doubt on these thinkers' greatest contribution: the exploration of the spiritual features that the human mind can discover in the world.
 It's possible that a person having a superficial "religious" vision, like seeing a physical angel with wings, might feel the presence of real spiritual qualities in that imagined being. In this case, the superficial experience is hallucinatory, but a real spiritual experience is occurring at the same time. The idea of an imaginary being - perhaps best understood as an abstraction similar to a character in a story - might serve as the basis for a real spiritual experience. This, I think, is what happens with those religious poets who have poetic insights but also have visions of beings with forms. The hallucinatory nature of the visions doesn't invalidate the spiritual experience - but we should be careful to separate the real experience from the untrustworthy part.
 In this post I am deliberately avoiding the old philosophical debate about the reality of qualities and relations. As I've said before in several places, I think we should consider qualities and relations real, though not in the same way that concrete objects are real. However, this debate doesn't make or break the present post. For now, the important issue is whether spiritual qualities and relations "exist" in the same sense that we have in mind when we say that familiar qualities and relations "exist."
posted at: 23:09 | path: /religion | persistent link to this entry
There is an old philosophical chestnut that says that the mind is to the brain as digestion is to the digestive tract. The underlying thought is clear: why should we regard the mind as something "special," over and above the brain, when we wouldn't regard digestion as something over and above the digestive organs?
The best reply to this chestnut is simple but surprising: digestion is something over and above the digestive tract. Your digestion - what you refer to when you say things like "I have a slow digestion" or "my digestion is good today" - is not merely part of your digestive tract. Instead, it is a feature of your digestive tract. It is what philosophers call an abstract entity. A feature of a thing is not identical to the thing. Thus, your digestion is not identical to your digestive tract - for the same reason that the mass of an electron is not the same as an electron, or that the shape of a window is not the same item as the window.
The reason the digestion-digestive tract difference is unlike the mind-brain difference is that nothing interesting follows from the digestion-digestive tract difference. The fact that the digestion is different from the digestive tract doesn't tell us anything new about the nature of digestion or of ourselves. It tells us no more than we already know when we admit that the shape of a window is not identical to the window. It is a near-trivial logical fact.
However, in the case of the mind (which is a feature or set of features of the brain), the difference between mind and brain does imply something interesting. Unlike digestion, the mind is associated in a distinctive way with a large domain of other abstract entities. These other entities are the contents of consciousness, which make up what we think of as our inner world. The fact that we possess this inner, abstract "world" has a drastic bearing on who we are as individuals and as a species. It makes the difference between a conscious observer and a mere nonconscious thing. Once we face the fact that this inner world exists, we realize that minds and selves are not just lumps of matter, even if they are only features of the brain. What is more, we cannot understand the mind without taking the inner world into account. If we ignore the contents of consciousness, we miss what is most essential to the mind.
With digestion it is different. Once we know the physical mechanisms of digestion, there is essentially nothing left to understand about the nature of digestion. Even if we admit that digestion is something distinct from the digestive tract, this fact doesn't help us understand digestion. We learn no more that way than we already knew when we realized that the mass of an electron is not an electron, or the color of a stone is not the same as the stone. The distinctness of digestion from digestive tract is, as I have said, a near-trivial logical fact. However, if we don't pay attention to the complex abstract features of the brain (specifically mental contents), then we don't really have any idea of what a mind is. We miss the important aspects of the mind.
This, in brief, is why the old analogy between digestion and mind fails.
The same argument works against any analogy that says "Why should I think my mind is distinct from my brain, when my [fill in name of body function] isn't distinct from my [fill in name of organ]?" The analogy fails for the same reasons.
posted at: 23:04 | path: /mind | persistent link to this entry
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