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The Mystical Skeptic?

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.

Robert McLuhan has already posted his own thoughts at Paranormalia in his entry “Trip Down Memory Lane“:

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.

  1. Sue Blackmore
    I was happy to participate in Sue’s thread, which drew a few old acidheads as well as the predictable head cases who seem to be mentally deranged despite never having seen the drug.

    I have a lot of respect for Sue, even though I don’t exactly agree with her take on mysticism.

    I consider myself a rational mystic and have just put Horgan’s book in my basket.

  2. The Neural Buddhists
    David Brooks, political columnist for the New York Times wrote a column this week implying that this may be where neuroscience is heading. From his column:

    Over the past several years, the momentum has shifted away from hard-core materialism. The brain seems less like a cold machine. It does not operate like a computer. Instead, meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings. Those squishy things called emotions play a gigantic role in all forms of thinking. Love is vital to brain development.

    This new wave of research will not seep into the public realm in the form of militant atheism. Instead it will lead to what you might call neural Buddhism.

    If you survey the literature (and I’d recommend books by Newberg, Daniel J. Siegel, Michael S. Gazzaniga, Jonathan Haidt, Antonio Damasio and Marc D. Hauser if you want to get up to speed), you can see that certain beliefs will spread into the wider discussion.

    First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships. Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions. Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love. Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.
    In their arguments with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the faithful have been defending the existence of God. That was the easy debate. The real challenge is going to come from people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits. It’s going to come from scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism.

    In unexpected ways, science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other. That’s bound to lead to new movements that emphasize self-transcendence but put little stock in divine law or revelation. Orthodox believers are going to have to defend particular doctrines and particular biblical teachings. They’re going to have to defend the idea of a personal God, and explain why specific theologies are true guides for behavior day to day. I’m not qualified to take sides, believe me. I’m just trying to anticipate which way the debate is headed. We’re in the middle of a scientific revolution. It’s going to have big cultural effects.

    To see a column of this nature (written by someone best known for his political commentary) appear in the NYT leads me to believe that the concept of Rational Mysticism may gain traction quicker than we know.

    (I’ve been having trouble with the link above – if it doesn’t work you should be able to get their through the main page – the Times requirs free registration).

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