Mysticism, nature of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K051-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 21, 2019, from

4. Mysticism and God

Although at times the ‘consensus of the mystics’ has been invoked on behalf of monism, idealism and other less well-known metaphysical doctrines, Anglo-American philosophers have tended to approach mysticism primarily in terms of what it might contribute to questions about the nature and existence of God. Authors debate whether mystical states in particular, and religious experiences in general, should be considered cognitive, and whether they provide any support for theistic belief. Most often, therefore, mysticism is discussed in conjunction with the so-called ‘argument from religious experience’, as a possible source of premises upon which one could base an inference (causal, explanatory or otherwise) to the existence of God (see Religious experience §2). Alston and others take a different approach, arguing that putative mystical perceptions of God are part of a justified belief-forming practice, in which ‘people sometimes do perceive God and thereby acquire justified beliefs about God’ (Alston 1991: 3), in much the same way that we acquire justified beliefs about external objects by directly perceiving them, and not just by an inference from internal sensory impressions.

Such an approach presumes, of course, that at least some mystical experiences have an intentional structure, and that it makes sense to talk of ‘theistic mystical experiences’. This assumption may be challenged. Forman’s ‘pure consciousness events’, for example, are characterized as ‘contentless’ and ‘non-intentional’. Stace’s states of ‘pure undifferentiated unity’ are similarly described. If one holds, with Stace, that all introvertive mystical consciousness is of this nature, then it is difficult to see how such experiences could be phenomenally ‘of’ anything. Pike has argued that even an experience of undifferentiated unity might count as ‘phenomenologically theistic’ if this ‘climax moment of the paradigm union experience is preceded by specifically theistic experience having dualistic structure’ (Pike 1992: 164). That is, just as we might correctly describe our experience of ‘stun-stars and fading consciousness’ as ‘the experience of being hit by a baseball’ if in fact we had observed the course of ball before impact, so too an undifferentiated unity might be correctly described as (apparent) union with God if it comes as the culmination of a sequence of states in which the subject–object distinction seems gradually to disappear as God and the soul draw closer.

None the less, some philosophers apparently want to claim something stronger: that the climactic experiences described by mystics such as Ruusbroec and St Teresa are not merely states of undifferentiated unity having a ‘theistic’ phenomenological ancestry, but are themselves ‘perception-like’, involving a nonsensuous (putative) presentation of God to the mystic. The cognitive value of such experiences can then be defended by invoking some variant of what Richard Swinburne calls the ‘principle of credulity’, that ‘in the absence of special considerations what one seems to perceive is probably so’, and ‘how things seem to be is good grounds for a belief about how things are’ (Swinburne 1979: 254).

But are there in fact ‘special considerations’ that might limit the application of this principle? Antony Flew (1966), Ronald Hepburn (1967a), C.B. Martin (1959) (most famously) and others have argued that religious experiences (and thus, by implication, mystical states) do not qualify as a ‘way of knowing’ at least in part because they do not meet certain standards of testability that experiences must satisfy if they are to count as cognitive. If someone reports seeing a skunk in the basement, for example, I know how to confirm or disconfirm this (by looking, smelling, setting a trap, and so on), but ‘when someone claims to have direct awareness of God, to encounter, see, or intuit the divine, we are not able to suggest a test performance of an even remotely analogous kind’ (Hepburn 1967a: 166).

Alston (1991), Wainwright (1981) and others have responded that, in fact, religious communities use many checks and testing procedures for evaluating the authenticity of alleged mystical perceptions of God, such as: the consequences of the experience for the mystic and for others, the orthodoxy of the claims based on the experience, the similarity to paradigmatic mystical states, the judgment of qualified religious authorities, and so on. Critics reply that such tests are inadequate, especially since a sceptic can admit that a mystical state satisfies them all while denying that it constitutes an experience of God. To this, however, the usual counter-response is that standards of testability must be appropriate to the nature of what is allegedly perceived; it is not clear that different or more stringent checking procedures can reasonably be demanded for alleged perceptions of an immaterial, all-good, all-powerful personal God free to decide the occasion and recipient of divine self-manifestations.

Again, one crucial test for evaluating most perceptual claims is whether they agree with those of other qualified observers. Ordinarily, the testimony of virtually all normal observers asked to verify the same putative sensory perception (for example, of a skunk in the basement) would be more or less unanimous. By contrast, critics charge, mystics disagree even among themselves, and theistic mystical experiences seem to occur only to those who already believe in God, monistic experiences to those from monistic traditions, and so on. This suggests that mystical ‘perceptions’ of God are shaped more by the mystic’s prior beliefs and expectations than by anything independent. One possible response is to challenge the extent of the disagreements among mystics of different backgrounds, or the conformity to the recipient’s prior beliefs. Mystics seem to recognize each other across denominational boundaries, and most speak of the novelty and wonder of mystical union; in many cases, recipients have no particular religious affiliation or prior faith. The underlying issue here may be whether the actual distribution and frequency of theistic experiences across cultures is what we might antecedently anticipate if in fact God exists and is perceived in these states, or whether we would otherwise expect such experiences to be more common; philosophers argue somewhat inconclusively over God’s possible reasons for more or less self-disclosure.

Another ‘special consideration’ often mentioned is that the occurrence of mystical states seems capable of other explanations (physiological, psychological, psychoanalytical, and so on). Some authors have claimed that mystical experiences can be experimentally evoked through sensory deprivation, ‘deautomatization’ (a term coined by A.J. Diekman to describe the undoing of habitual patterns of perception by techniques such as staring steadily at an object or image; see Diekman in Woods 1980), taking hallucinogens, and so on; there is, in fact, an extensive literature on the question of drugs and mysticism. One may argue that ‘instant chemical mysticism’ is somehow too cheaply bought, and dispute whether the states thus produced actually correspond with what the mystics describe. But the mere fact that physiological and psychological processes may be involved in a mystical experience hardly discredits it, since such processes are involved in ordinary perception as well, and one can always argue that drugs simply open the doors of mystical perception rather than entirely creating the mystical experience. Of course, in most perceptual theories, putative perceptions must have the right kind of causal connection with what is allegedly perceived, but given the ‘primary causality’ traditionally attributed to God, any experience will be grounded in God’s causal activity, whatever the ‘secondary causes’ involved. To be sure, a putative mystical experience after taking drugs may be discredited, but on other grounds (for example, its bad effects).

In short, one important line of defence of the cognitive value of mysticism, and of the practice of forming beliefs based on theistic mystical experiences, appeals to the analogy between mystical experience and other modes of experience accepted as cognitive (especially sensory experience). How plausible one finds this appeal will depend on how much significance one attaches to the various points of similarity and difference. Critics remain unconvinced, arguing that the dissimilarities outweigh the similarities.

Citing this article:
Payne, Steven. Mysticism and God. Mysticism, nature of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K051-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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