Last month I participated in a symposium hosted by the Center for Theory & Research at Esalen, a retreat center in Big Sur, California. Fifteen men and women representing physics, psychology and other fields attempted to make sense of mystical and paranormal experiences, which are generally ignored by conventional, materialist science. The organizers invited me because of my criticism of hard-core materialism and interest in mysticism, but in a recent column I pushed back against ideas advanced at the meeting. Below other attendees push back against me. My fellow speaker Bjorn Ekeberg, whose response is below, took the photos of Esalen, including the one of me beside a stream (I'm the guy on the right). See also followup post, "Do We Possess a Transpersonal Imagination?" -- John Horgan

Jeffrey Kripal, philosopher of religion at Rice University and author, most recently, of The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge (see our online chats here and here):

Thank you, John, for reporting on your week with us all. As one of the moderators of “Physics, Experience and Metaphysics,” let me try to reply, briefly (and too simplistically), to your various points. 

First, let me begin with something that was left out of your generous summary: the key role of the imagination in so many exceptional or anomalous experiences. As you yourself pointed out with respect to your own psychedelic opening, this is no ordinary or banal “imagination.” This is a kind of “super-imagination” that projects fantastic visionary displays that none of us could possibly come up with in ordinary states: this is a flying caped Superman to our bespectacled Clark Kent. None of this, of course, implies that anything seen in these super-imagined states is literally true (like astral travel or ghosts) or non-human, but it does tell us something important about why the near-death or psychedelic experiencers commonly report that these visionary events are “more real” than ordinary reality (which is also, please note, partially imagined, if our contemporary neuroscience of perception is correct). Put in terms of a common metaphor that goes back to Plato, the fictional movies on the screen can ALL be different and, yes, of course, humanly and historically constructed, but the Light projecting them can be quite Real and the Same. Fiction and reality are in no way exclusive of one another in these paradoxical states. 

Neither is difference and sameness. When you write of the mystical diversity problem, I think you overplay difference and submerge or sideline sameness. You are in very good company here, of course. Pretty much every intellectual does that these days, no doubt so that we do not have to think too hard about mystical sameness. My own view is that it’s a both-and, not an either-or. Of course, all mystical experiences are different. Many are also so similar that we can call them “the same.” Again, I see nothing problematic with affirming the radical diversity of the movies and the unity of the Light projecting them, or of saying, “Well, they are all movies.”

On the neo-geocentrism problem. I think this is a non-problem, mostly because you have conflated two radically different forms of subjectivity. Who exactly is the “us” around whom everything moves or orbits within these cosmic forms of Mind? Certainly not the puny social, religious, psychological, ethnic, or political ego. The “I” here is not the little self, not Jeff or John. It is something cosmic behind the ego and every person. As Meister Eckhart had it, just right, centuries ago now, “there is no Henry or Conrad” there. This is why mystical states are so often described as a kind of “nothingness,” “death,” “emptiness,” or “annihilation.” They are anything but narcissistic in your understandable neo-geocentric concern. 

On the exceptional experience problem. I do think exceptional experiences are, well, exceptional. I think they happen in order to be taken seriously, not brushed aside for the ordinariness of daily life. They are different because they want to be noticed. Does that sound teleological? You bet. Such states are all about purpose, intention, communication, about meaning, not just mechanisms. On another note, I think this “principle of extremity” is also how much science works: by forcing some extreme condition to reveal some new structure or dynamic. Again, why not a both-and with respect to the ordinary and the extraordinary? Why must we be an either-or? 

On the oneness problem.  I am probably mostly with you on this, and mostly for ethical or moral reasons. I do not think oneness is a stable foundation for developing a social ethic or moral norm. There are no persons in oneness, after all. There is only oneness. I have written about this problem extensively, if anyone cares to look. The religions are infamous for violently suppressing this or that expression of human diversity (gender, sexuality, race, or religious identity, for example) for the sake of some imagined religious orthodoxy or unity. I want nothing to do with this. Nothing. As I have repeatedly warned and written: there is no necessary relationship between mystical states and moral behavior. Those who insist there is such a connection are ignoring, conscious or not, a lot of mystical and religious literature. I simply do not think we can go to these states for our moral lives and ethical dilemmas. We have to work those out the hard way: with each other. 

On the ineffability problem. Again, I agree that we should not be looking for a single solution. Single solutions are dangerous, and often deadly. On the other hand, intellectual communities tend not to accept phenomena until there is a framework to “make them possible.” Meteorites were “impossible” until we possessed a theory of outer space that made them possible, really quite banal. Before that, they were only “rumors,” “anecdotes,” “superstitions.” Sound familiar? I think the same is true with exceptional mystical states and paranormal events. We lack an ontological or epistemological framework to make them possible, and so we whisk them away with faux or fake explanations, which explain little or nothing at all. 

Do mystical experiences “solve” the mind-body problem, then? No. Can they help us, guide us, provoke us, point us in new directions for our philosophical and scientific work? Yes, but only if we let them, only if we answer their call and give them our attention. That, for me anyway, was the most basic take-away of “Physics, Experience and Metaphysics.” If nothing else, we laughed a lot. I take that to heart. Whatever one can laugh at, one has transcended.

Horgan and another mind-body explorer hiking at Esalen.
Credit: Bjorn Ekeberg

Paul Marshall, independent researcher and author, most recently, of The Shape of the Soul: What Mystical Experience Tells Us about Ourselves and Reality:

Hi John. I’ve been chewing over my Christmas lunch and your recent blog, and found both very tasty. You raise some important points. Here I respond to your invitation for critique!

I agree that “mysticism cannot solve the mind-body problem,” or rather that mystical experience on its own cannot solve the mind-body problem. But I suspect it can provide some big hints that philosophy and the sciences can take up and use to inform rationally argued, well-elaborated positions, including analysis of what we mean by mind and matter, and the various options available.  In other words, mysticism can help us solve the mind-body problem, to use your blog title, but it’s not enough on its own. We also need philosophy and science -- and to pay attention to our everyday experiences. Below I comment on specific points. Thank you for the mystical stimulus over the hols! Paul

Mystical Diversity Problem

Is this overstating the diversity of mystical experiences? There are very many similar accounts in the modern literature, with similar features described again and again, and a few basic “categories” into which many of the experiences fall, such as contentless pure consciousness, theistic union or encounter, and content-rich unitive experiences of multiplicity, including cosmic consciousness. The presence of variations here, rather than precluding metaphysical insight, may actually provide insight if it hints at a complex structuring of reality. For instance, the diversity could be suggestive of a unitary ground consciousness and various derivative levels of increasing degrees of duality and multiplicity, with corresponding kinds of experiences. The diversity of experience reflects the complexity of reality.

As for positive vs. negative tone, it’s well recognized that set and setting contribute to variations, and even in the best of circumstances mystical unity can be a threat to ego. Religious traditions encourage preparation, intellectual and moral – otherwise, the experience can be just too overwhelming. I found my own 1981 experience challenging in several ways, yet overall it was positive. Both negative and positive.

The Neo-Geocentrism Problem

Or is the anthropocentrism here to think that consciousness is restricted to human beings, as Descartes famously asserted, and perhaps to some nonhuman animals too? Surely, to posit consciousness more widely is to break free from this particular kind of anthropocentrism? We're not as special as we think.

Ok, there may not be proof that minds can survive the break-up of their bodies, but then “proof” is rarely achievable, except in mathematics. There is, however, “evidence” that minds do survive, as in investigations of mediumship and past-life memory. Then we have to take the trouble to assess carefully how strong or weak such evidence is.

The Exceptional Experience Problem

While there is certainly a danger that exceptional experiences can distract from the wonder of our everyday experiences (I too hope they will not), the danger has no bearing on whether exceptional experiences are revelatory of reality and can provide insights for metaphysical investigation. Let’s say I develop an interest in orchids and it becomes an obsession that dominates my life to the exclusion of everything else. This would be regrettable, but it doesn’t mean that my investigation of orchids fails to reveal anything significant.

The Oneness Problem

Again, one can ask whether this has a bearing on the revelatory truth of mystical experience. We may not like oneness, but this doesn't mean that there isn't oneness. More importantly, I think you overstate “oneness” here. The unitive quality of many mystical experiences (at least the kind I’ve studied in detail) does not obliterate the world but shows the multiplicity to be part of an integral whole, interconnected, and even in a relationship of love. You can be the sugar and taste it. One and two.

The Ineffability Problem

As I mentioned at the symposium, the “ineffability” of mystical experience can be overstated. There is an extensive literature about this. In practice, mystics can have a lot to say about their experiences and give detailed accounts.

The Improbability Problem

I‘ll respond to this one at a personal level. My own experience was of the “Aha!” kind – how simple and obvious this all is. How dull of me not to have realized it before! But on return to ordinary consciousness, I was back to “Huh?” – what precisely did I realize? But in both, there’s astonishment at the wonder.

The (Evil &) Beauty Problem

A tough one, but not insuperable if one’s willing to revise one’s concept of God, as you yourself have suggested in your writings.

Credit: Bjorn Ekeberg

Bjorn Ekeberg, philosopher and author of Metaphysical Experiments (see also his recent critique of big bang cosmology in Scientific American). Ekeberg posted his response on his blog. Here is an excerpt:

Horgan raises a series of objections from the point of view of a materialist paradigm, which as he rightly points out, was more or less 'under siege' during this event. While I share some of his skeptical attitude, along with his fascination, some of the problems he raises in response are themselves somewhat problematic. In the spirit of dialogue, a few comments:

Mystical diversity. There are too many different kinds of mystical experiences to construct a coherent metaphysics from it, Horgan argues. A related problem in his view is that the 'ineffability' of such experiences make them impossible to explain fully. 

But the extrinsic diversity of so-called exceptional experiences belies the intrinsic feature they all seem to share: a rupture in the ordinary frameworks of understanding. In my view, the attempt to take exceptional experiences seriously - as we tried to do during this symposium - does not imply constructing a metaphysics that accounts for all such phenomena as individual experiences. 

Rather, it means positing a framework within which any claim to such experience could at least begin to make sense. Following a materialist outlook, many commonly reported and widely experienced phenomena for which there is ample documentation are simply ruled out as impossible by default. This is what our gathering set forth to challenge from various points of view... [Read the rest of Ekeberg’s essay here.]

Richard Baker, Zen master, who helped introduce Zen to the west in the 1960s and now leads schools in the U.S. and Germany:

Dear John, just as you write: "I believe in the Big Miracle that confronts us every moment of our lives, and that no theory or theology will ever explain away.” But I would more likely say: "Inseparably, wondrous (√miraculum), unfolding!  No doubt about it!'

And with you, I would agree: "I have misgivings about oneness. Consciousness, it seems to me, requires separation." However, I would more likely put it, "Oneness describes an experience (and a fond memory), but it is not a description of the ‘world’.  And while consciousness functions through boundaries, it is not the entirety of object-beinged (human +) knowing.  It is connectivity (relationality), which requires separation and simultaneity (which is not duality).  And for me, ’supreme’ is as miss-given and 'theo-iffy’ as ‘oneness.’ Although, I might say compassion is probably the wisest attitude and the most fundamentally integrative emotion.”

I used the word ‘world’ above, because it is an almost unavoidable, convenient reference to a ‘foregrounding' that is conceptually in the same ballgame as ‘Oneness’.  The concept ‘world’ is a brainwaving at a ‘backgrounding' that doesn't exist.

Fond memories and 'knowings of a mutualness' and some ‘oneness' with you all and each. Happy New Year!

Sirley Marques Bonham, physicist at the University of Texas and author of Self-Experiments with Consciousness and Hypnagogia: A scientist's personal exploration of consciousness at the threshold of sleep and beyond:

My presentation was about this important point: “Can [mystical experiences] help us, guide us, provoke us, point us in new directions for our philosophical and scientific work? Yes, but only if we let them, only if we answer their call and give them our attention.” We must allow mystical experiences to happen, and rather than fear them or ignore them, we must observe them, study them carefully, then see how we can reproduce them at will, if possible. Thanks John for your insights. 

Christina Grote, Board chair, Integral Transformative Practice International, who did not give a formal talk but attended all the sessions and led us in yoga-ish exercises when our energy was flagging:

It is late in the game (holidays, family, moving locales) and even though I wasn't an official participant in the seminar, I’d like to respond to one part of your piece: The Exceptional Experience Problem.  You express concern that “focusing on exceptional experiences—whether paranormal or mystical—distracts us from the ordinary moments that comprise the bulk of our lives.”  I believe that could happen if one was obsessed with them, but to me it seems that being curious about exceptional experiences, as well as the expression of Metanormal capacities (as [Esalen’s founder] Michael Murphy explores in The Future of the Body), is more likely to enrich our lives than detract from them.  We are capable of much more than we think we are.  It may be that the appearance of the strange and unusual (anomalous experience) is pointing towards a truth that we don’t yet understand but seem to be feeling our way into.  

After extensive research, Murphy identified 12 types of metanormal capacities (he now prefers the term Supernormal to align with Frederick Myers' work) and created a taxonomy for each.  He proposes that these are evolutionary developments of attributes that we already have, inherited from our animal ancestors.  They range from extraordinary movement abilities, vitality, love, to communication abilities such as clairvoyance.   He characterizes them as "the budding organs and limbs of our latent supernature" and posits that their widespread appearance would herald a new type of humanity on the earth.  Murphy has been developing a worldview he calls Evolutionary Panentheism to provide a philosophical framework for these glimmerings.  I have attached a copy of his essay if you have not seen it.  I have also attached an essay that I wrote with Pam Kramer that is an attempt at a short summary of this work, with the addition of the idea of Evolutionary Love.  Not scientific, but for me it fits.  

I believe that having a working philosophical and scientific framework that helps to make sense of these capacities is critical, as extraordinary experiences happen to people all the time but are too often dismissed as “impossible” and at worst misinterpreted as pathological, with the tragic consequence of people being institutionalized who should not be.   Of course we must be able to distinguish the breaking out of these capacities from pathologies.  Wouldn't it be great if mental health practitioners were at least aware of this?  

Back to distraction from our ordinary moments, I share your desire for “a worldview that helps me recognize that all my experiences are exceptional.”  In a way, all of our experiences are exceptional - it is miraculous that we can see, hear, touch, think, feel, and love the way we do, not to mention the more subtle sensing that we are capable of.  We do need a worldview that can embrace all experience, from the normal to the Supernormal, and also allow for the mystery of not knowing, and I think that Evolutionary Panentheism can do that (wish there was an easier name).  In ITP  (Integral Transformative Practice, created by Michael Murphy and George Leonard), we have been very interested in the sense of awe and wonder and how encouraging this within ourselves can take us to a place of appreciation and gratitude that can help us find the extraordinary in the ordinary.  It is extraordinary that we are alive, that we are conscious and that we can continually learn and grow, and through developing our human potentials, we just may be helping some kind of universal unfolding.

The extraordinary can become ordinary over time as well.  For example, reading used to be thought of as a magical act, as Jeff Kripal has said many times.  I think it still is. Best wishes, Christina

Further Reading:

Mind-Body Problems (free online book, also available as Kindle e-book and paperback)

Can Mysticism Help Us Solve the Mind-Body Problem?

Do We Possess a Transpersonal Imagination?

Meta-Post: Posts on the Mind-Body Problem

Meta-Post: Posts on Psychedelics

Meta-Post: Posts on Buddhism and Meditation

The Rise of Neo-Geocentrism

What Should We Do With Our Visions of Heaven—and Hell?

A Buddhism Critic Goes on a Silent Buddhist Retreat

Don’t Make Me One with Everything

The Weirdness of Weirdness