In a recent commentary for the Guardian, skeptic Susan Blackmore shared her thoughts on the death of LSD researcher Albert Hofmann. Readers may be surprised by some of what she wrote:
I am grateful, too, that it was Albert Hoffman who discovered LSD. And this is one of the most curious facts about this most curious drug. Hoffman had already had mystical experiences long before he took LSD, and was therefore well placed to appreciate the deeper significance of its mind-altering effects. There are very few chemists of whom that could be said.
I wonder what she means by ‘deeper significance’. It’s always interested me that Blackmore combines an interest in Buddhism – she meditates and follows the practice of mindfulness – with an aggressively materialist view of consciousness that owes more to Richard Dawkins than Stanislaf Grof. As I understand it she belongs naturally to the school of thought that sees in the neurological correlate, that is the fact of altered brain chemistry engendering transcendent experiences, the ‘final nail in the coffin of religion’ – in fact I seem to remember coming across that dread cliché somewhere in her writings recently.
I think what Blackmore is referring to is not so much the ontological status of mystical experiences though, but more the fact that such experiences do have practical value as well – even if you want to define it as psychological rather than spiritual. So, while Blackmore appears to follow the reductionist line, she also practices Zen – but for her the ‘illusion of self’ refers to the personality arising out of physical neurons, not to some transcendent quality of the material universe. Other identities from the skeptical/materialist school of thought have been similarly open, such as Sam Harris, who professes an interest in ‘rational mysticism’. Coincidentally, I’m currently reading John Horgan’s excellent book Rational Mysticism (Amazon US and UK), and he devotes plenty of ink to the thoughts of Susan Blackmore:
Blackmore has had flashes of the mystical self-transcendence referred to in Zen as kensho. In fact, she includes her out-of-body experience back at Oxford among them. She views that experience as a hallucination, but a profoundly meaningful one. She has taken to heart the lesson imparted to her toward the end of her journey, that no matter how much we learn and grow, there is “always something more”. As a result of that lesson, she views mystical experiences not as ends in themselves but as way stations on a never-ending journey.
Horgan’s book is a great place to start in learning more about the apparent oxymoron that is ‘rational mysticism’. I’ll try and reference a bit more over the coming weeks.