When you see the word “mystic”, you may think of medieval mystics like Julian of Norwich or Meister Eckhart. Or you may think of modern mysticism, psychics and yogis, self-empowerment or cosmic consciousness.
But there are many “ordinary people” who have mystical experiences, and there are many scientists (psychologists and neuroscientists) who have studied the phenomenon.
I have been doing a lot of reading on the subject, and a detailed outline is at Mystical experiences. Here are some of the main conclusions.
Almost too much for them to bear
Websites and universities have collected reports from many who have had mystical or deep religious experiences. Here is one brief account (there are more reports and references to others on the Mystical experiences page).
“There was no sensible vision, but the room was filled by a Presence, which in a strange way was both about me and within me. I was overwhelmingly possessed by Someone who was not myself, and yet I felt I was more myself than I had ever been before.”
From the Religious Experience Research Unit at Oxford University.
More people than you might think
You might think these experiences are extremely rare, but it seems that maybe one person in twenty has had a deep mystical experience at least once in their life, and more than half of us believe they have had some tangible encounter with the divine. People from all religions, even atheists, can have these experiences.
- A sense of a presence
- Heightened perceptions
- A feeling of unity and oneness
- A sense of new understanding and knowledge
- The experience is ineffable (can’t be easily described in words)
- Positive outcomes – at the time, and later in life
For most people, mystical experiences lead to positive life outcomes:
- Self actualisation – more likely to achieve full potential.
- Mental health – improved psychological health.
- Physical health benefits – improved recovery from cancer and alcoholism.
- Improved ability to overcome life’s difficulties.
Several explanations have been proposed, but have been shown to be unlikely. Modern mystical experiences are mostly not caused by:
- Mental illness
- Emotional stress
- Fatigue or sensory deprivation
Normal psychology and neuroscience
Most scientists who have studied mystical experiences conclude that they generally occur in people with normal psychology and brain functioning. They say we have evolved in a way that predisposes us to believe in a God and to apparently experience him – though this doesn’t tell us whether he is there or not. Andrew Newberg:
whether or not God exists “out there” is something that neuroscience cannot answer
Mystical experiences and God
While the science cannot tell us whether mystical experiences really put people in contact with God, philosophers have developed ideas that can help us assess personal experiences.
The existence of God as a cause is beyond direct empirical testing. But our sense experience gives us reliable information about the external world and other people. So we are prima facie or initially justified in accepting things are the way they appear if (1) it does appear that they are that way, and (2) there is no reason to think that something has gone wrong.
Based on this pragmatic philosophical view, we can develop criteria for testing experience. We can believe our senses if:
- our senses perceive things that way;
- there is no alternative causality that suggests our senses have perceived wrongly;
- there is no good reason to think our senses have perceived wrongly;
- our perceptions are regular and consistent; and
- we have confirmation of our perceptions from others.
Based on these criteria, it can be plausibly argued that they do indeed come from God:
- Mystical experiences occur, have been documented, and appear to reveal God.
- They generally occur because of normal, not abnormal, psychology and neurology, so there is no reason to think our senses have “gone wrong”.
- They have documented life-transforming effects in people’s lives, which is what you’d expect from the divine.
- They meet the criteria to test the reality of our experience of the world: they are regular, consistent, and shared.
- Mystical experiences ‘work’ in the way you’d expect if they are divine in origin, and when something works as we expect, it is reasonable to think that our understanding of it is correct.
- Postulated natural/psychological causes have not been found viable.
- Therefore it is reasonable to infer from the real effect to a real cause = God.
- Which God is being revealed?
- If they are ineffable, how can they be analysed?
- Some people prefer a natural explanation.
In summary, mystical experiences have been shown to be positive, life-affirming, healing, and consistent with the idea of a loving God, and less consistent with other assumptions. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that they provide useful evidence for the possible existence of God. Whether that evidence is enough to convince, either on its own, or cumulatively when considered with other evidence, is for each of us to decide.
This conclusion presents both religious believers and non-believers with some interesting challenges.
Read all these points in greater detail, and check out 24 academic references, plus reports of experiences and some interesting websites, at Mystical experiences.