John Horgan, "Rational Mysticism"

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John Horgan, "Rational Mysticism"

Post  ankh_f_n_khonsu on Mon Jun 29, 2009 1:11 pm


Google Books copy


The cover of a recent Time magazine special issue features a crafty-looking yoga-babe sitting in padmasana alongside the headline: How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body. It’s just another sign of a sea change in the mainstream representations of mind, as new psychoactives, imaging technologies, and pop spirituality recontextualize the neural dance of consciousness and flesh. The boundaries between consensus reality and altered states, it seems, are getting wavy again.

Enter John Horgan’s Rational Mysticism, a journalistic exploration of edgy mind science that may be, because of its mainstream profile, one of the most important books on psychedelics published in years.
(Erowid)
The spiritual quest, as much as it seeks to achieve unity with an ultimate reality that transcends the person, is still a personal endeavor, colored by the psychology of the seeker. The longing to discover the key to existence and to reside in God, or some atheistic version of the Absolute, is driven by the problem of life: our capacity for suffering and the desire for its cessation, our insatiable drive for knowledge and meaning, and our awareness of mortality. To achieve mystical communion – the direct understanding of the Real – is to solve this problem, at least temporarily; it’s to quiet the restless striving of the limited, egotistic self by experiencing its connection to the infinite. Historically, Buddhists have been the most candid in recognizing the practical motivational basis for the spiritual quest, which is simply to end the human suffering rooted in fear and craving.

The difficulty for hard-boiled rational empiricists, such as science writer John Horgan, who are unimpressed by traditional religious solutions to the problem of life, is that mystical experience might simply reflect human wish-fulfillment, not the true outlines of Existence. In Rational Mysticism, Horgan tests the skeptical null-hypothesis, which states that claims to enlightenment are, at bottom, empty of empirical content, even though they speak to fundamental human needs for meaning and consolation. In this wonderfully engaging narrative of encounters with modern mystics and seekers of all stripes, Horgan is the scientific knight errant who stands ready, indeed, eager, to deflate the claims of those who have supposedly seen God or his secular equivalent. He sometimes seems the personification of Daniel Dennett’s “universal acid,” let loose on the often dodgy constructions of those who hope to find salvation in altered states of consciousness.
(Secular Humanism.org)
How do trances, visions, prayer, satori, and other mystical manifestations "work"? What are their neurological mechanisms and psychological implications? John Horgan investigates a wide range of fields — chemistry, physics, psychology, radiology, theology, and more — to narrow the gap between reason and enlightenment. As both a seeker and an award-winning journalist, Horgan is uniquely positioned to profile researchers and their work. To find the ends of enlightenment, he communes with a number of experts, including the theologian Huston Smith, spiritual heir to Joseph Campbell; Andrew Newberg, the scientist whose quest for the brain's "God module" was the focus of a Newsweek cover story; Ken Wilber, the doyen of transpersonal psychology; Alexander Shulgin, the legendary chemist who has synthesized scores of psychedelic drugs and tested them on himself; and Susan Blackmore, a Zen practitioner, psychologist, and parapsychology debunker who teaches at Oxford.

Horgan also explores the strikingly similar effects of "mystical technologies" like sensory deprivation, prayer, fasting, trance, dancing, meditation, and drug trips. He tells of participating in experiments that seek the neurological underpinnings of mystical experiences. And, finally, he recounts his own tortuous search for enlightenment — adventurous, poignant, and sometimes surprisingly comic.
(John Horgan.org)
In his seminal work The Varieties of Religious Experience, written 100 years ago but still influential today, the psychologist and philosopher William James identifed four criteria as characteristic of mystical experience: it is ineffable, meaning it is difficult or impossible to describe in ordinary language; it is noetic, meaning it appears to provide knowledge, often of a profound kind; it is transient, lasting for about an hour or less; and it gives its recipient a feeling of being in the presence of a greater power, which may be identified with God. Others have noted that the experiences may produce feelings of oneness and bliss.

As was pointed out by Marghanita Laski in her remarkable study of the subject, Ecstasy, experiences of this kind are not confined to a religious context but may occur even to atheists. Laski was writing half a century ago, just before the use of mind-altering drugs such as LSD and psilocybin became widespread, and also before Eastern forms of meditation and other spiritual practices became popular in the second half of the twentieth century. In the opinion of many, these developments made mysticism available to scientific investigation and removed it from the deadening grip of conventional (Christian) religion. Hence to speak of "secular mysticism" or even "rational mysticism" no longer seemed oxymoronic.

Horgan has himself had experience of drug-induced states and it was one of these that originally sparked his interest in mysticism. And his book concludes with an account of his sampling of ayahuasca, a currently fashionable drug (or drug cocktail) for the production of altered states of consciousness. Some researchers have enthusiastically hailed it as the supreme gateway to enlightenment, but no real illumination resulted in Horgan's case.

Most of the book, however, is not about Horgan's experiences of altered states but is based on his interviews with acknowledged "experts" in the field: theologians, philosophers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and neuroscientists.
(Anthony Campbell)
Throughout the book, Horgan is plagued by this question: why did creation happen in the first place, and why are it and us so fucked up? The gnostic answer he got during his trip, and which he brings up during many of his interviews, not only offers further proof that we are indeed locked inside a Phil Dick novel, but inures Horgan from the blissfully pat “all is one” visions of many mystics. At the same time, while keeping his skeptical science journalist hat on, he remains unsatisfied with simple reductionist answers to the Big Questions. Like many of us, he is trying to reconcile mystic intuitions with reason, and while his ponderings can often seem breezy and too quick, they also cut to the chase.

Rational Mysticism basically consists of a series of journalistic profiles of various heavy-weights who offer their different perspectives on the mystic experience. The charming and optimistic Huston Smith is balanced with suspicious deconstructionist scholars. Horgan talks to scientists like the “neurotheologists” Andrew Newberg and Michael Persinger, who believe they are honing in on the portions of the brain that give rise to religious experience. (Horgan finds Persinger and his celebrated “god machine” to be rather lame.) Horgan also visits “the weight-lifting bodhisattva” Ken Wilber, a hardcore meditator who claims to have achieved “undivided nondual consciousness” and whose door-stop books represent perhaps the most thorough and sophisticated contemporary attempt to rationally build an integral map of human knowledge that bridges science, psychology, and mysticism.

Horgan’s self-proclaimed journalistic credo is “No ideas but in people.” That is, he keeps a sharp eye on the dress and manner of his subjects, and is not shy about sharing his personal impressions of their apparent shortcomings and murky motivations.
(Erowid)
The question that lies at the heart of all this talk about mysticism is: do these altered states of consciousness tell us anything about ourselves, the universe, or the Meaning of Life? There is no doubt that people often feel themselves to have been vouchsafed knowledge of this kind, and mystical or ecstatic experiences may affect the whole subsequent course of people's lives. But does this guarantee that the knowledge so gained is authentic? If it is, should we, as some Eastern religions advocate, devote our lives to seeking "enlightenment", or would this be simply to mire ourselves ever more deeply in a bog of self-deception?

The answer that Horgan reaches at the end of his exploration is, essentially, a negative one. Mystical experience, no matter how compelling it feels at the time, does not provide us with assurance of immortality or rebirth or of our cosmic significance. It also -- and this seems to me to be important -- does not endow those who attain it with superior moral wisdom: some apparently enlightened individuals have behaved as badly as anyone else. You may find this either liberating or deeply depressing, depending on how you look at it.
(Anthony Campbell)
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Re: John Horgan, "Rational Mysticism"

Post  ankh_f_n_khonsu on Mon Jun 29, 2009 1:12 pm

Horgan discovers that for himself the only reliable consolation to be had in the face of the Infinite is in human companionship. Unity with the One, it turns out, is too impersonal and too lonely, ultimately, to be psychologically sustaining, even if we judge it authentic. The One, Horgan half-seriously surmises, must have split into the Many just to keep Itself company.

Such speculations about the “motives” of ultimate reality reinforce the poignant fact that, in confronting the immensity of extrahuman creation, we necessarily read into that encounter our deepest personal fears and hopes. Mystical experience, Horgan says, presents two existentially opposite possibilities, one in which the self is transcended in blissful unification, the other in which we are threatened with dissolution by the uncaring, impersonal abyss that surrounds our fragile human consciousness. The first possibility promises to solve the problem of life: to end (literally) self-induced suffering by losing the self and putting its problems permanently in abeyance. The second, of course, is the prospect of death as it’s often conceived: the end of the self and its world followed by the onset of nothingness. The first is what we most want, the second what we most fear – the complementary halves of the human condition.

But neither is a real possibility. Current theories in the philosophy of mind suggest that, although the phenomenal sense of self is a construct of a complex, neurally instantiated representational architecture, it’s functionally essential for the organism. Consciousness nearly always gets stuck with a “me,” since, as philosopher Thomas Metzinger among others has pointed out, a robust sense of self is the organism’s way of being successfully egotistic. The self’s temporary deconstruction in mystical experience is possible and perhaps even desirable, but we are always destined to reappear, our projects and problems still to be dealt with. Equally, the end of the organism and its consciousness is not, as Horgan sometimes seems to think, to be faced with nothingness; it is not the ego’s plunge into the black abyss. As Epicurus put it long ago, “when I am, death is not, when death is, I am not.” So as much as we fear death, we need not fear the prospect of inhabiting eternal darkness.

A rational mysticism consistent with science wouldn’t demand, impossibly, that the organism relinquish its self, nor would it suppose that consciousness is pitted against the void. It would seek out mystical experience – the temporary suspension of adaptive selfhood – while acknowledging that such experience isn’t a direct cognitive apprehension of reality. Rather, the mystical state is understood to be a function of an intentionally altered brain, and as such can be welcomed as a reinvigorating, noncognitive experiential affirmation of what scientific theories show to be unquestionably the case: our essential and complete naturalistic connection to the universe. The organism, its self, its consciousness – the works – all arise out of the physical world, so the mystical intuition of unity, albeit noncognitive, reflects this empirical truth about ourselves.

Such an approach to spirituality would also drop the disdainful dismissal of the physical as “mere” matter typical of many of those Horgan interviews, who think the categorically spiritual exists on a higher, more exalted plane. Such dualism, after all, creates the problem of traditional spirituality in the first place: since what’s most real and good is nonmaterial Mind, we must somehow (but how?) transcend the corruptible flesh and join the otherworldly Spirit. Once it is seen that consciousness, selfhood, and our aesthetic, moral, and cognitive capacities are all potentially explicable within a physicalist framework, and thus consistent with being entirely material creatures, then matter becomes not so “mere” after all. Its organization, for instance in the form we take, is the marvelous (although not literally miraculous) source of all that we most value, and indeed of valuing itself. That Horgan doubts that consciousness will ever be understood scientifically (see his The Undiscovered Mind, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1999) might help explain the fact that he never quite reconciles the apparently conflicting demands of science and spirituality.
(Secular Humanism.org)
For a review that examines Rational Mysticism from a martial arts perspective, see Jeff's Budo Blog.

Mysticism derives from the Greek root mu, which means silent or mute. In ancient Greece, the adjective mystikos referred to secrets revealed only to those initiated into esoteric sects; mystical knowledge was that which should not be revealed. Over time, mystical knowledge came to be defined as that which transcends language and so cannot be revealed (p. Cool.
Categories of Altered States: oceanic boundlessness, dread of ego dissolution, visionary reconstructuralization (p. 13).

Hindus call truth that is perceived directly shruti; the Sanskrit term smriti refers to truth known only secondhand (p. 14).
There are NO pure (i.e., unmediated) experiences. - Steven Katz
G.I. Gurdjieff, who early in the last century attracted celebrity followers such as Aldous Huxley, Georgia O'Keefe, and Frank Lloyd Wright, was obsessed with the moon. The moon, he proclaimed, was absorbing energy released by the death of living organisms on earth and would eventually turn into a fertile, earthlike planet in its own right (p.52).


Horgan's refutation of perennialism is thorough and substantive, but throughout the text he uses some questionable tactics, assumptions and inferences. His willingness to rebuke the people he's writing about creates an antagonistic vibe that contradicts the intention of the exercise. For example, while interviewing one of his "heroes", the anti-perennialist Stephen Katz, he: "accused Katz of underestimating just how disturbing his outlook is" (p. 47). Further, his bias shines through with unnecessary asides and prejudices. Michael Persinger, architect of the "God helmet", gets lambasted - since he supports research into psi. Psi, according to Horgan, "has never been convincingly demonstrated in the laboratory" (p. 104). Apparently Horgan hasn't bothered to read the literature before pronouncing judgment on it, because the "100 years of nothing" argument is bankrupt. We can regularly achieve results, so the question is not if the phenomena occurs, but how and why. Terence McKenna, meanwhile, earns Horgan's contempt for endorsing AI, which Horgan contends is "a joke, a failure, with numerous failed prophecies behind it" (p. 183). No matter how many failures litter the history of AI, it seems very foolish to discount it as viable.

Nonetheless, the book does have plenty of juicy bits to keep things flowing. Underlying the entire voyage is Horgan's pursuit of a theodicy - an attempt to answer the 'evidential problem of evil'. His path leads him winding through many divergent - often competing - schemas, but he just can't seem to accept the idea that pain and suffering have complex roles to play. He struggles with accepting the necessity of pain - and the empowerment we all achieve through overcoming it. Existence without pain and evil would be static and very uninteresting. Although he does pay homage to the Jewish concept of emanation (tsimtsum), he doesn't really seem to grok its profundity. That's to be expected, as he's writing about mysticism secondhand. Throughout his analysis, he focuses on gurus, scientists, media darlings and public advocates - yet he acknowledges that most mystics are unlikely to lead public lives. He manages a whole footnote for Dzogchen, and mostly excludes the Western Esoteric Tradition. Although he acknowledges Gnosticism - and it's implications - there's no mention of a Western Esoteric Tradition. The author may have taken this strategy intentionally - seeking to cover the most accessible 'mystical' interpretations. But whether intentional or unintentional, the lack of breadth isn't a substantive critique of his thesis.

Minor reservations aside, if you've an interest in exploring the validity of your spiritual system, there may be some value in giving this a read.
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Re: John Horgan, "Rational Mysticism"

Post  Khephra on Mon Jun 29, 2009 6:13 pm

I think I'll definitely have to give that one a go. Cheers!

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