Attempting to be more than Man We become less . . .”
–William Blake, The Four Zoas, Night the Ninth
Horgan, John. Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border Between Science and Spirituality. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.
Debunking Enlightenment, book review by Thomas W. Clark, Free Inquiry, Volume 24, Number 2.
I began with a hasty judgment of the author, but as his account of his adventures proceeded, I became more tolerant of Horgan and more hostile to his interlocutors, and my only gripe against Horgan was his tolerance of them. Horgan maintains an interest in hallucinogenic drugs, which becomes a major theme in the book.
Horgan begins with a 1999 conference on “Science and Consciousness”, which follows Fritjof Capra’s line (which Capra has since repudiated, according to Horgan) on the spiritual implications of physics. (15) Horgan has no brief for this, but he proceeds to query Huston Smith about his mystical beliefs. Smith claims to embrace all the world’s religions and even purports to find unity among their contradictory belief systems. Horgan’s not buying this either, and he is critical of Smith’s metaphysics (which came to him in a drug-induced vision) and anti-scientific attitude. (22-23)
Horgan is also concerned that the mystical experience is not necessarily positive; it brings us face to face with the dark side of the universe and the problem of evil, thus his sympathies for gnosticism. (32)
His next encounter is with a group of postmodernist believers, such as Bernard McGinn, a Catholic. Here Horgan introduces another of his major preoccupations–the legitimacy or lack thereof of the notion of a “perennial philosophy”. (40) Horgan introduces Steven Katz, who also looks askance at the perennial philosophy and is skeptical of Western adaptations of Eastern religions. (41ff) Katz is also an Orthodox Jew, and ties the anti-Semitism attributed to Joseph Campbell to the latter’s perennialism. (46) Queried about whether Katz’s relativistic inclinations lead to skepticism, Katz retorts that perennialism leads to skepticism, while his particularist view fosters tolerance. Horgan doesn’t believe it. (47) He reviews Smith’s notion of the ‘scandal of particularly’, or the idea that the Divine would favor any individual or group. (49) Finally, Horgan raises the issue of the notorious misbehavior of gurus, and the phenomenon of “holy madness”. (53)
Ken Wilber is pro-science, pro-perennial philosophy, and favors a rational mysticism as synthesis of East and West, yet opposes the unification of physics and spirituality. (56) He has a classification scheme of levels of being and consciousness, the highest being nondual awareness, and lower levels including materialism, superstition, and New Age thought. (57) Horgan is initially uncomfortable with Wilber’s work, but looks forward to meeting him. (58) Wilber firmly rejects postmodernism and quantum mysticism as well as materialism. (60) He also doesn’t believe in drug use as a spiritual path. Wilber rejects the notion that mysticism yields moral superiority or privileged insight into the workings of the cosmos. (61-62) (In this he reminds me of Swami Agehananda Bharati , whom Horgan unaccountably never mentions.) Wilber is basically optimistic, but his progressive view of the cosmos is “embedded in a cyclical Hindu cosmology.” (63) He believes that mind is primary to matter, but otherwise he is cogent enough to be favorably reviewed by Skeptical Inquirer. (64)
Horgan admires him, but is irritated by Wilber’s big ego. Wilber himself admits this, though he claims ‘ascience’ (not-knowing) rather than omniscience. (65) Wilber then dipped into his book Integral Pyschology to deploy his erudition. (Howard Gardner wouldn’t buy this concept or ‘spiritual intelligence’.) (66) Wilber’s model is more sophisticated than Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness, which exploited social darwinist thinking in a sexist and especially racist manner. (67) Wilber felt that God created the cosmos out of loneliness. (68) But Wilber rejects the dark gnostic view of the cosmos. (70) Horgan retains his doubts about nondual awareness, which is an extemely rare phenomenon. He also doubts Wilber’s claim that mysticism is as empirical as science, since it is not replicable or transparent to all observers. (71) Wilber places high hopes on neuroscience.
Chapter 4 is devoted to neurotheology. Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili are advocates of the perennial philosophy. Newberg links mysticism to quantum mechanics. (77) Both argue that mysticism, meditation, and religious belief are good for us. (78-79) When prodded, Newberg is willing to concede the Dark Side of the Force (my lingo, not Horgan’s). They express hope, with some backtracking, that one day neuroscience will be able to distinguish genuine mystical states. (81) Some have found their experiments ridiculous. (85) They have been funded by the Templeton Foundation. They believe in a transcendent reality, but they also tend to undermine their arguments when they postulate evolutionary causes, such as the notion that mystical states evolved from the experience of orgasm. (86) Horgan is reminded of a 1979 paper by Lewontin and Gould on spandrels, which criticizes the “Panglossian” (teleological?) fallacy that all human behavioral traits are adaptations. (87-88)
Michael Persinger is the inventor of the “God Machine”, based on the notion that electrical impulses can generate religious and mystical states. He professes neutrality toward religious belief, but he’s not terribly sympathetic to religion or mysticism. (95) Horgan tried out Persinger’s machine, but it didn’t do anything for him. Persinger himself never had any extraordinary experiences using this machine, perhaps because of his skeptical temperament. Others are skeptical that his research amounts to anything. (99) Persinger takes ESP seriously, which makes Horgan doubtful of him. (101) Horgan wonders if mysticism is connected to the paranormal and an evolutionary development as an extension of the ability to detect other minds. (105)
Susan Blackmore had a dramatic out-of-body experience and a lively interest in paranormal phenomena, but after putting her hypotheses to rigorous tests, became a skeptic. She also became a Zen Buddhist. She thinks that Buddhism anticipated cognitive science in some ways. She uses the concept of memes and suggests that the self is an illusion, just a bundle of memes. (114) She is skeptical of theorists like Ken Wilber. (117) Her vision of spiritual progress is stripped down: shed yourself of illusory memes. (119) Horgan is skeptical of her claims, particularly about the illusory self. He also has doubts about John Wren-Lewis, who argues for bliss by chance. (121)
Horgan gleaned the concepts of depersonalization and derealization from James Austin’s Zen and the Brain. Austin sees mysticism in terms of personality changes, not metaphysical insight. That is, he believes in “perennial psychophysiology”, not perennial philosophy. He has thoroughly reviewed the existing literature, much of which he finds flawed. He seeks to isolate the healthy from the pathological manifestations of these psychic states. (125) He doubts that the mystical experience can be localized in a specific part of the brain, and he “sees spiritual practice as a process of cognitive subtraction”. (126) He is both skeptical of existing results and confident there is enlightenment at the end of the tunnel. (127) He thinks the states of “absorption” and kensho are rare, and that Newberg fails to do justice to the diversity of mystical experiences. (129) His experience of kensho made a lot of things seem unimportant, including the perennial philosophy. (130) He doesn’t hold to the usual mystical claims, and he sees no reason to favor idealism over materialism as a metaphysical position. (131) He is also indifferent to the problem of evil. Horgan is rather unhappy about this position. Horgan doubts that enlightenment can be readily distinguished from passivity. He doesn’t believe pro-Zen propaganda, as he finds Zen rife with dogmatism, amorality, and sadism. (133) But at least Austin is willing to subject all claims to experimental tests. Horgan notes that there is a philosophical problem, called “explanatory gaps”, in all these scientific endeavors: the gap between physiological theories and subjective experience (qualia). (137) Biofeedback, by the way, proves to be limited. (139)
Horgan next turns to one of his favorite preoccupations, drugs. He begins chapter 8 with the story of LSD. Research is still going on in Basel, Switzerland, and one of the more interesting psychotropic plants is ayahuasca. Christian Ratsch thinks enlightenment is all about chemicals, not those years of traditional discipline. Enlightenment is transitory, like an orgasm, and there is no final enlightenment. (150) Franz Vollenweider’s research, which does not jibe with everyone else’s, is summarized. (151ff) He is skeptical about the sacramental, visionary use of drugs. (154) Albert Hoffman, the discoverer of LSD, thinks that Timothy Leary was irresponsible, but that a ban on LSD research and use is an outrage. He sees science and spirituality as complementary. (155ff) Horgan notes that, paradoxically, research into patterns of altered states induced by drugs and other medical factors fosters an “ultramaterialism”. (157)
Chapter 9, quaintly titled “God’s Psychoanalyst”, is about Stanislav Grof, a key player in transpersonal psychology, a veteran New Ager and teacher at Esalen Institute, early experimenter with LSD, and developer of “holotropic breathwork”. He doesn’t care for “ultramaterialistic” interpretations of drug experiences. (163) He is a believer in birth trauma, reincarnation, and the paranormal generally. (165-167) Inspired by Hinduism and Buddhism, Grof seeks to explain Creation, and tackles the problem of evil, claiming it is necessary to relieve cosmic boredom. (170) Horgan is dubious of many of Grof’s claims, though this dark theodicy does remind him of his own gnostic inclinations.
Rick Strassman proposed hyperspace aliens as a possible explanation for reported close encounters with strange beings. (174-176) Oh, dear.
Timothy Leary dubbed Terence McKenna the “Timothy Leary of the 90′s.” McKenna’s drug of choice is DMT. His specialties are psychotropic plants and shamanism. Basically, he is a New Age trickster enamored with extravagant pseudoscientific and metaphysical notions powered by psychedelic fantasies (180-184), though he also lays claim to skepticism (184) when he’s not showing off. He’s all about novelty, which is part of his metaphysics (even fascism was a necessary lesson) and predicts some earth-shattering event in 2012. (187) God’s purpose is the production of novelty. Though Horgan doesn’t buy any of this, he likes the guy (192), whereas I found him the most obnoxious character in the book. Horgan reiterates his gnostic vision and recounts physicist Steven Weinberg’s nature-does-not-care principle.
Horgan prepares to ingest the psychedelic drug ayahuasca under the sponsorship of psychonauts Ann and Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin. They muse over questions of spirituality, enlightenment, and mortality. The balance of chapter 11 describes Horgan’s DMT trip.
By this time Horgan has contemplated the alternatives, from gnosticism to cosmic indifference to good luck. He sums up what he has learned from the diverse viewpoints described in the book. He settles on negative theology or Rudolf Otto’s mysterium tremendum. (216-217) Contemplating the relation between science and mysticism, Horgan reflects on the improbabilities of the universe (including the postulated anthropic principle in its weak, strong, and dismissive forms; WAP, SAP and CRAP). (217) Horgan wonders whether there will be an end to science’s ability to explain the universe, or an end to mystery, as Peter Atkins insists. (221) Various scientists speculate on our ultimate destiny, with positive or negative scenarios. Still captivated by mystery, Horgan adopts Susan Blackmore’s view of Zen as garbage removal, to which he adds the qualification that garbage removal systems generate garbage as well. (222-224) Hence we should react with irony and skepticism when confronted with claims to solve the ultimate mystery. There are contrary views on the value of drugs. (225ff) One can have life-enhancing or horrific visions. But one can be as haunted by beauty and wonder as much as by the dark side. And don’t forget about fun. (227)
The most valuable part of what Horgan has to say concerns “oneness”, the gold standard of mysticism. Referencing The Guru Papers by Diana Alsted and Joel Kramer, Horgan reminds us that the ideology of oneness conceals duality, hierarchy, patriarchy, and authoritarianism. “Oneness” generates elite beings and submissiveness in their followers, as well as an escapist attitude toward life. It is no accident that such ideology originates in severely class-stratified civilizations like India. Mystical experiences can generate sociopathic behavior, with the illusion of transcending human morality. Oneness becomes indistinguishable from the void, and it gives Horgan the creeps. Even a God might be horrified to be alone. Plurality and individuality make more sense. (228-230)
Horgan and Shulgin speculate on the consequences for civilization if the perfect drug were ever discovered. Even though this is Shulgin’s quest, he thinks it would spell the end of the human species. (231-232) Horgan is unwilling to part with “free will”, illusion or no.
In his epilogue, Horgan recounts his own and other interlocutors’ experiences with mourning and fellowship. His final scenario regarding his family is moving. Ultimately it is human love, even with all its heartbreak, that saves us.
On the whole, this slice of spiritual tourism is very instructive, mostly negatively, and complements Bharati, whom Horgan never mentions but who confirms his findings before the fact. I differ with Horgan mostly in my assessments of the people he encounters. I find almost all of them exceptionally irritating. The LSD researchers in Basel don’t particularly bother me. Of the others, I am most willing to entertain Austin and then Blackmore, but with serious caveats. Horgan in the end comes off as very reasonable, though negative theology doesn’t quite do it for me. While notion of “mystery” has a cognitive dimension, however impoverished, this as well as the mystical experience mostly comes down to an experience. If the universe’s “mysteries” are beyond solution, a distinction is nonetheless warranted, between the intellectually inexplicable and a more intuitive sense of wonder. As our very notions of scientific explanation are altered by the progress of science and increasingly arcane fundamental physical notions, even scientific explanation is not what it used to be, and in some sense defies comprehension. But mystery, however you spin it, is preferable to pseudo-explanation. One can have a much more dynamic life building on the knowable.
As for experience, while some researchers postulate beneficial personality effects, which may be more important than metaphysical claims, we don’t really get beyond scattered anecdotes to find a comprehensive picture of how the mystical quest affects the rest of people’s lives. How we manage to live in this world is curiously absent from the picture.
For all the variegated speculations, claims and counter-claims in the book, it is largely a portrait of philosophical banality. That people trying to be deep prove so intellectually shallow is a telling sign.
Perhaps even more telling is the absence of any serious social or political analysis by any of the interlocutors or reflection on their role in bourgeois society. Claims of cosmic consciousness devoid of social consciousness occasion cause for suspicion. How civilization is organized has made us what we are, and our prospects for it reveal who we are. Silence on this matter is unwitting self-condemnation.