TCS Daily

Ultimate Reality Check

By Kenneth Silber - January 29, 2003 12:00 AM

John Horgan is a talented science writer with a nasty case of metaphysical anxiety. Near the end of his 1996 book The End of Science, he recounted a harrowing (and drug-induced) vision he once had in which a terror-stricken God created the world to stave off solitude and nonexistence. That episode, which occurred in his college years, left Horgan with a longstanding interest in mystical experiences, which are the subject of his new book Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border Between Science and Spirituality.

Mysticism, although difficult to define precisely, is typically reported to involve experiences of profound connection to, or direct knowledge of, an ultimate or divine order. The quest for mystical enlightenment is central in ancient Eastern religions and modern New Age philosophy, and mystical traditions run through Judaism, Christianity and Islam as well. Mysticism has been a notable feature of American life since the 1960s, with seekers following routes as varied as meditation, prayer, yoga, chanting and psychedelic drugs.

In Rational Mysticism, Horgan seeks to understand mystical experiences and to gauge their compatibility with science and reason. As in his earlier science writings, his approach emphasizes interviewing and profiling experts on the subject, and assessing their views with a combination of open-mindedness and irreverence. His interlocutors include religion scholars, New Age authors, and neuroscientists. Aware of claims that mystical experiences cannot be understood except by those who have had them, Horgan engages in a ceremonial ingestion of ayahuasca, a powerful psychedelic substance.

Horgan delves into the "perennial philosophy," a view (exemplified by religion scholar Huston Smith) that mystical experiences from diverse spiritual traditions all express the same fundamental truth about reality, and that the message is one of joy and consolation. He interviews exponents of an opposing "postmodern" view, which argues that mystical experiences are too diverse to all mean the same thing and must be understood with reference to the particular cultures and personalities of the mystics who have them.

He spends a day with the philosopher and popular author Ken Wilber (with whom I've occasionally been confused because of the similarity in our names). Wilber adeptly criticizes both the postmodernists and spiritual seekers who distort or denigrate science. But Horgan is disconcerted by Wilber's claims to have achieved a supreme form of enlightenment called "non-dual awareness," and by his unveiling of a complicated chart that purports to be something like a Periodic Table of spiritual reality.

What does neuroscience tell us about mysticism? Horgan interviews radiologist Andrew Newberg, whose studies of the brains of Tibetan Buddhists and Franciscan nuns suggest that mystical feelings may arise from decreased activity in the parietal lobe. While this might seem a way of explaining away mysticism, Newberg believes it shows mysticism to be all the more real and important. But "neurotheology," as Horgan calls it, is at a very early stage of development, rife with contradictory data and highly open to interpretation.

Horgan straps on a contraption called the "God machine," invented by Canadian psychologist Michael Persinger. This device delivers controlled electromagnetic pulses to the brain and reportedly has stimulated mystical sensations. But Horgan's experience is unremarkable, and Persinger, meanwhile, conducts an unconvincing experiment in extrasensory perception. Horgan profiles British psychologist Susan Blackmore, who combines Zen Buddhism with a scientific outlook and skepticism of the paranormal. Traveling to Idaho, Horgan meets neurologist James Austin, who also mixes science with Zen. Horgan is impressed by Blackmore and Austin, but ultimately is dubious about their view of spiritual progress as a clearing away of ordinary perceptions and thoughts.

Might psychedelic drugs be a path to spiritual enlightenment - and one that provides an opening for science to explore mystical states? Horgan interviews psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, whose LSD experiments brought him far from mainstream science; Grof believes, for instance, that drug trips can help us access past lives. Horgan encounters psychedelic author Terrence McKenna, whose ideas about "machine elves from hyperspace" may or may not have been meant seriously. Horgan's own experience with ayahuasca produces plenty of vomiting and hallucinations, but offers little metaphysical consolation.

In the final chapter, Horgan suggests that the essence of mysticism is an awed awareness of an infinite, unknowable realm beyond our everyday experience; insofar as one presumes to have knowledge of this realm, one is being anti-mystical. He argues that mysticism and science are compatible in that science, too, falls short of a complete explanation of the universe and why it exists. Yet some of Horgan's argument here is weak, deriving from the idea (sometimes labeled the "anthropic principle") that human existence is so unlikely as to be miraculous. In fact, current science gives no clear picture as to whether the existence of something like us is likely, unlikely or inevitable.

Throughout, Horgan shows a laudable awareness of mysticism's pitfalls, which include mind-control cults, drug abuse, and Shirley MacLaine. He notes that seemingly transcendent experiences, rather than giving an awed appreciation for reality, can lead to pathological feelings of unreality. He expresses doubts about the mystical themes of enlightenment and oneness, which often involve a hierarchical relationship between guru and devotee, and which seem aimed at an end-state without further life and novelty.

In the book's final pages, Horgan finds some consolation in a belief in free will. (It would have been interesting to hear Horgan's views on The Mind and the Brain, a recent book that drew on Buddhist ideas in developing a scientific case for free will.) So, Rational Mysticism raises an intriguing possibility: Perhaps a profound truth about humans is that we have a degree of autonomy - that we are not one with the universe.

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