Religious experiences are like those induced by drugs, alcohol, mental illness, and sleep deprivation: They tell no uniform or coherent story, and there is no plausible theory to account for discrepancies among them.
Despite being an artist, a creative genius, a madman, and a visionary, William Blake had his limits: He was also a poet. Perhaps for that reason alone, Blake tragically failed to leave us with a decently well-formulated epistemology. Hence, precisely what he meant by, “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees”, has ever since his death been scandalously open to promiscuous interpretation.
Ask a dozen people to detail the meaning of Blake’s proposition and you might get a dozen and one answers. But that is not at all strange. Police officers, for instance, tell us that 20 witnesses to an automobile accident routinely produce 21 accounts of what happened. Psychologists tell us much the same thing as police officers, and offer us the 21 known cognitive causes for such differences of opinion. Hence, the sundry ways in which Blake has been interpreted is unlikely to surprise the Reader. If anything is likely to surprise the Reader — especially long time Readers — it’s that I have discovered all by myself a seemingly plausible interpretation of Blake’s proposition.
Previously in this series of posts, I’ve stated my opinion that our species of super-ape has two distinctive religiosities, and that each religiosity originates in different sets of brain processes and events. Assuming I’m right about that — and especially right to think those brain processes and events are deeply inherent or genetically based — then the processes and events are more or less the same for everyone.
More or less.
We would naturally expect to find both similarities and differences between Stacey’s and Richard’s brains, and so it seems reasonable to suppose there would be both similarities and differences in their respective religiosities. Thus, the two might agree in some ways about the nature of their “religious” experiences, while disagreeing in other ways.
In what ways might Stacey and Richard be likely to agree, and in what ways might they be likely to disagree? As it happens, that can largely depend on which one of the two religiosities is to blame for their experiences. If both Stacey’s and Richard’s experiences reflect what I’ve been calling “domestic” religiosity, then the two might agree the spirits, ancestors, dead saints, and gods (or at least one god) have individual personalities and wills, can alter the course of nature and human lives, and can at least at times be moved by prayers, sacrifices, and rituals to do Stacey’s and Richard’s bidding.
At the same time, Stacey and Richard might disagree about all sorts of things, such as which gods are real, what their names are, what kind of personalities they have, what realms they govern, how best to appease them, what they want of us, whether they love us, and, of course, which one it is best to pray to the morning after prom night in order to avert an unwanted pregnancy.
On the other hand, if both Stacey’s and Richard’s experiences reflect what I’ve been calling “wild” religiosity, then Stacey and Richard might agree the world is a unity; that common notions of time and space are illusions; that reality is ultimately ineffable; and that not even the most heart-pounding events of prom night match the bliss of a mystical experience.
At the same time, Stacey and Richard might disagree about such things as whether the world is One, or is merely suffused with Oneness; whether an experience of that One or Oneness can be brought about by this or that means — or by any means; how that One or Oneness relates (or fails to relate) to consciousness; and which foolish descriptions of the ineffable are the most annoying.
In some basic ways, Stacy and Richard are most likely to agree with each other if they are approaching a subject from the same religiosity, and they are least likely to agree if they are approaching that subject from different religiosities. As Blake might have it, if they are both “fools“, or they are both “wise“, then they will “see the same tree”. But if their religiosities are different, then they will “see not the same tree“. Naturally, when they are looking at the same tree, they will tend towards more agreement than when not.
◄“But What’s the Difference?”►
Differences challenge assumptions.
Most of us, perhaps, see religion and mysticism as deeply entwined, and it may be just as difficult for us at times to distinguish between the two phenomena as it would be for us to distinguish between Blake‘s “two trees“. Nevertheless, the distinction appears to be physiologically based, and is thus in some sense necessary.
At least, it appears so to me. I’m only guessing the distinction is physiologically based, and I might be very wrong. It is entirely possible that mystical and non-mystical religiosity originate in the same brain farts. Yet, even if no one else doubts that, I myself do. For one thing, it seems to me there are not only differences between the two religiosities, but the differences are often enough radical.
If the two religiosities were merely opposed to each other, then we might see them as having a common origin in somewhat the same way that a single switch will turn a light both on and off. But the religiosities are not merely opposed to each other. Instead, their differences are at times radical, as if one religiosity were a book, and the other were a puma.
When I hear an unexpected noise, see a movement out of the corner of my eye, or otherwise sense a sudden disturbance in my immediate environment, I have a tendency to startle a bit, as if the disturbance was caused by something with a malevolent will. That tendency or predilection is sometimes called “Agent Detection”, and it appears to be inherent or genetically based. When combined with my equally inherent or genetically based notion that other people and at least some things have minds more or less like my own mind, it’s easy to see how I might arrive at a sense or feeling the world is inhabited by spirits.
Yet, is there anything in all that which would cause me, on very rare occasions, to suddenly perceive the world suffused with an ineffable Oneness? Some might see a connection. I don’t. Or rather, whatever connection there might be seems to me at best superficial, like saying that a book and a puma are quite similar because both make very little noise.
On the other hand, people often use very similar terms and expressions for their experiences of the two religiosities. For instance, people who have had a spontaneous mystical perception of Oneness suffusing all things sometimes say they have “felt or experienced God’s presence”. But people who, instead of actually perceiving a Oneness, have felt exceptionally strong emotions, say, during a religious service, or when looking up at the stars at night, sometimes use the same or almost the same words to describe their experiences as mystics might use.
In practice, there are many clues that sometimes — but by no means always — allow us to make reasonable guesses about whether a particular experience is derived from the domestic or the wild religiosity. Those clues are far too numerous to list in a blog post. But they include such things as to what extent, if any, a person vividly recalls an experience years or decades later. Religious experiences tend to be forgotten relatively soon after they occur. Mystical experiences tend to remain vivid for much longer times. That, however, is not necessarily beneficial to the person who had the mystical experience. As Jiddu Krishnamurti pointed out, the memory of a mystical experience has a way of interfering with someone’s ability to have a subsequent experience. (Hence, if one wishes to have another experience, it might be best to dismiss the first.) In contrast, the memory of a religious experience does not seem to at all interfere with one’s having another religious experience.
Again, a mystical experience tends to change a person’s attitude or outlook on life even if and when it has been forgotten. In a way, then, it might for many of us be a little bit like sex. Once some of us have had sex, our idea of what is the most pleasurable thing in life changes — even if we can no longer recall precisely what the sex felt like. Whereas we once thought the day our team won a basketball tournament was the best day of our lives, we now have a sense or feeling there are greater things in life. And we might feel that way even when we can’t quite put our finger on why we feel that way.
On the other hand, a religious experience seems often enough to be a little bit like reading a blog post. Once we’ve forgotten the post, we no longer tend to see the world through its lens. The Reader might think that merciful.
Last, people who’ve had religious experiences seem significantly more ready to talk about them than people who’ve had mystical experiences.
According to several of the people who’ve studied these things, it is a reasonable guess that most folks who’ve had a mystical experience keep it to themselves, and that those who talk about them are decisively in the minority. There seem to be at least two reasons for that guess. First, those who talk about mystical experiences often enough appear reluctant to do so, sometimes waiting twenty or more years before talking about their experience. Second, if and when they do talk about their experience, they often enough emphasize how difficult or rare it is for them to talk about it.
There are exceptions, however.
In an important sense, everyone who talks about a mystical experience does so in terms of a culture — usually the culture they were born into. (Of course, many contemporary folks might or might not be aware of concepts derived from other cultures besides their own. Thus an English woman might be found talking about kensho and satori, while a Japanese man might be found talking about amazing grace.) And there seems to be a curious relationship between the sooner one talks about a mystical experience, and (1) the more likely one is to use terms borrowed from one’s locally dominant culture, and (2) the more likely one is to arrive at firm conclusions about the experience or its meaning.
As a rough rule, the sooner a man living in, say, Alabama talks about his experience, the more likely he is to be firmly convince he had an experience of the Southern Baptist version of the Holy Spirit. While the longer he remains mute about it, the more likely he is — if he ever does speak about it — to couch his experience in less local terms, and to emphasize that his notions of it are uncertain, tentative, or provisional.
I think it’s possible the internet is changing some of that. I’m never sure, but I sometimes get the impression that someone on the net is more willing to chat about their experience over the net than they would be in person.
While it can be very difficult at times to make a reasonable guess about the psychological origins of someone else’s experiences, it does not always seem impossible. Ultimately, though, the distinction between the domestic and wild religiosities does not rest on subjective accounts of religious and mystical experiences. If I am anywhere near right, the distinction is ultimately grounded in two separate neurologies.
◄May we have the names, please?►
Names are an important key to what a society values. Anthropologists recognize naming as ‘one of the chief methods for imposing order on perception.’
Confucius, whose name really wasn’t “Confucius“, thought names quite important, for he said, “If names are not correct, language will not be in accordance with the truth of things.” There seems to be a qualified manner in which he was right.
Some years ago, I spent a few pleasant hours jotting down on a set of blue-lined index cards as many new ways as I could to map the terrain between Denver and San Francisco. As long time readers of this blog might expect, I had been invited to a party that evening and so I wanted to prepare a fun conversational topic, because much like fun people the world over, I take partying seriously. I might admittedly be a fool at times, but at least I know fun. On that I may pride myself.
It turned out, however, that at the party I never got even a bit beyond properly fleshing out my description of map number twelve, a hypothetical map of the distribution of plant species whose Linnaean names begin E through H, before I discovered that by sheer bad luck everyone else, including the hostess herself, had suddenly remembered prior commitments: I was alone. Again.
I say, “Again”, because it seems to me the phenomenon I’m talking about here is both extraordinarily widespread and on the rise. Indeed, it is almost universal these days, although I myself am old enough to recall a time some decades ago before when it was not as prevalent. I dare say I was a shy wallflower back then, so maybe it was around and I just didn’t notice it. Yet — and here comes the exciting party (pun intended!) — so far as I can discover, I am one of the few to talk about the phenomenon. In fact, I cannot at the moment think of anyone else who quite does. And I believe the phenomenon goes largely unnoticed precisely [emphasis mine] because it has not been named!
You see, as Slawson, and perhaps K’ung Tzu before him, suggested, we so often fail to notice things for which we have no names. [Time for a shameless plug: For ways in which Slawson’s assertion may be reasonably qualified, please refer to footnote 137 in my life’s finest work, Firebrands on the Frontiers of Thought: The Men and Women Revolutionizing the Epistemology of Plausible Being, by Paul Sunstone, (Bust, Colorado: Charging Boar Books, 2009) pp. 296-298.] To be sure, names can obscure as much or even more than they reveal; but names in a way are tools, and like any tool when properly used, they may be a boon.
Near the start of this series, I named the two religiosities: “the domestic god” and “the wild god”. It turns out, that was reckless of me. I should have more safely named the two religiosities, “the domestic religiosity” and “the wild religiosity”, for it now strikes me that calling the religiosities, “gods”, is in a hundred ways confusing. At least to me. Among other things, when we talk of the domestic religiosity, we are sometimes talking, not of gods, but of, say, dead ancestors or ghosts. And when we talk of the wild religiosity, we are sometimes talking not of a god, but of, say, the Tao.
Last, it would be handy if I had names for the causes of the domestic and the wild religiosities. So, I will, if only for this series of posts, name the neurological processes and events that cause the domestic religiosity, “Nikita”, and the neurological processes and events that cause the wild religiosity, “Makita”. The “N” in Nikita is the clue I am talking about the causes of the non-mystical religiosity, just as the “M” in Makita is the clue I am talking about the causes of the mystical religiosity.
To be painfully precise, when you think of Nikita and Makita, please think of neurons firing in a bath of neurochemicals, rather than think even one level up from that. Thus, think physiological processes and events, rather than, say, Agent Detection.
I’ll thank you for doing that, even if no one else gets excited enough to thank you for doing that.
◄The Relationship of Nikita and Makita to Subject/Object Perception►
Our understanding is correlative to our perception.
It strikes me that the domestic religiosity is often enough about objects. For instance, one thing that spirits, ghosts, demons, devils, dead ancestors, dead saints, and even the domestic gods themselves have in common is that they are all distinct from us. They are “out there”, beyond us: They are not us, and we are not them. That makes them objects.
Again, the agent in Agent Detection, as well as the mind in Theory of Mind, are also separate from us. When I think someone has a mind, I don’t think they have my mind, but merely a mind like mine. Consequently, I think it’s safe to say that domestic religiosity is rooted not only in the neurological processes and events that bring about such things as Agent Detection and Causal Reasoning, but also in the neurological processes and events that brink about subject/object perception. In other words, the mother of domestic religiosity, Nikita, seems to include both the former and the latter neurological processes and events.
It equally strikes me that the wild religiosity transcends subject/object perception. A mystical experience is simply pure awareness — an awareness without an “I” that is aware of an “it” that is being observed. Consequently, the mother of wild religiosity, Makita, seems to include the neurological processes and events that result in the abrupt cessation of subject/object perception while some kind of awareness or experiencing yet continues.
◄A Teaser for the Next Post►
I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast; for I intend to go in harm’s way.
Readers who have happily sailed with me through this exciting series of posts might be surprised to learn my next post is even more of a rip-roaring adventure than all the previous posts combined. In that post, I will take a look at love. The topic itself is all but necessarily fascinating, and I am confident that I have enhanced my treatment of love with adventuresome plot twists and intellectual surprises for you. Hence, you can easily expect fun galore.
At the very least, I triumphantly promise that you will discover the precise extent to which my critics are fools to allege I am routinely observed to fire shattering broadsides of boredom into the most festive occasions with nothing more menacing for cannon than a stack of blue-lined index cards. But my critics have underestimated me: I’ll wager even they will be astounded by what I can do when set lose upon the high seas of love.