The Unfinishable Scroll

A Note from the Author: Some false information about me has turned up on the web. Follow this link to get the facts about my background.

Blog home page

Mark Sharlow home page


Frequently Discussed:

Related Reading:

Contents by Year:

Contents by Month:
Sun, 02 May 2010

How Real Spiritual Experience Might Work

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.

  • A nature poet is gazing upon a mountain landscape, and suddenly perceives the woods, land, and rivers as divine. This poet is not seeing any new objects besides the known objects in nature. Instead, the poet is perceiving a new quality of things - a quality of divineness or sacredness, perhaps best described as a supreme goodness and beauty that can be felt.
  • A religious mystic has an overwhelming impression that all things are one. This mystic is not seeing or hearing any new things besides the objects she already knows about. Instead, she is simply seeing old objects in a new way - noticing the unity, inseparability, and sameness among them, instead of focusing on the differences.
  • A poet gazes upon his beloved, and sees in her the pinnacle of inner beauty and the very meaning of existence. This poet is not seeing any new items besides the human being before him. Instead, he is noticing qualities in that person, and a relation between that person and the whole of existence, that are impossible to know without being in a poetically inspired state of mind.
  • An Eastern monk, deep in meditation, suddenly perceives the visible world as empty and void. This meditator is not noticing any additional objects besides the ones in the visible world. Instead, he is noticing a set of qualities in those objects - qualities which, in everyday life, often get ignored. All objects in our familiar world are, in a way, flimsy. They are temporary and are dependent on other things; they are small compared to the whole of existence. Normally we notice the solidity and durability of objects - "positive" qualities. We tend to ignore the other, "negative" qualities. However, an observer in a certain frame of mind may be acutely aware of the negative qualities and unaware of their opposites - making familiar objects seem like insubstantial phantoms. Our normal, "positive" perspective is right - but this other, "negative" perspective also is right. The two perspectives just emphasize different aspects of things.

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 [1]).

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:

  1. Are these qualities and relations themselves real? (For example: is the quality of ultimate beauty, which the nature poet found in a natural landscape, a real quality? Is there really such a quality, or is this quality merely illusory?) [2]
  2. If the qualities and relations themselves are real, do things really have these qualities and relations? (For example: does the natural landscape, in which the nature poet found ultimate beauty, really have the quality of ultimate beauty? Or does it only seem to have that quality?)

Here are the short answers:

  1. Yes, these qualities and relations are real. At least they are as real as all familiar qualities and relations. Even if people experience these qualities and relations only in certain mental states, the qualities and relations themselves still are real.
  2. Yes, things really have these qualities and relations. The fact that you have to be in a certain mental state to perceive the qualities and relations doesn't change this in the least. Qualities like beauty and meaning are observer-dependent qualities. There is nothing fishy about such qualities; scientists often use other qualities of this kind, though not under that name. Observer-dependent qualities and relations can be important features of the world.

For the long answers, and the rational arguments supporting them, see here and here.

(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.



[1] 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.

[2] 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

Mind Is to Brain as Digestion Is to Digestive Tract. Oh, Really?

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


   © 2008–2013 Mark F. Sharlow — privacy and legal notices


    Powered by Blosxom