Do mystics really experience God?

July 18th, 2015 in Belief. Tags: , , , , , ,

Mystical Experience

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.

Scientific findings

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.

Common features
  • 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
Life outcomes

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.
Doubtful explanations

Several explanations have been proposed, but have been shown to be unlikely. Modern mystical experiences are mostly not caused by:

  • Mental illness
  • Epilepsy
  • Drugs
  • Emotional stress
  • Fatigue or sensory deprivation
  • Willpower
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.

Verifying 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.

Crteria

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.
The argument

Based on these criteria, it can be plausibly argued that they do indeed come from God:

  1. Mystical experiences occur, have been documented, and appear to reveal God.
  2. They generally occur because of normal, not abnormal, psychology and neurology, so there is no reason to think our senses have “gone wrong”.
  3. They have documented life-transforming effects in people’s lives, which is what you’d expect from the divine.
  4. They meet the criteria to test the reality of our experience of the world: they are regular, consistent, and shared.
  5. 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.
  6. Postulated natural/psychological causes have not been found viable.
  7. Therefore it is reasonable to infer from the real effect to a real cause = God.
Objections
  • Which God is being revealed?
  • If they are ineffable, how can they be analysed?
  • Some people prefer a natural explanation.

Conclusion

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 more

Read all these points in greater detail, and check out 24 academic references, plus reports of experiences and some interesting websites, at Mystical experiences.

Photo Credit: Bryce Bradford via Compfight cc.

21 Comments

  1. Agree with your view on the above. Science doesn’t have the answer to everything

  2. For those who want to dive into this topic in a fairly serious way, let me recommend, of course, one of the classics in the field, The Variety of Religious Experience by William James. Absolutely wonderful read. In terms of more recent works, I highly recommend the trilogy of Chris Carter, whose extensive research of paranormal experience–from ESP all the way through out-of-the-body experiences, NDEs, mediumship, etc.–is among the best current literature in the field. Those books are Science and Psychic Phenomena, Science and the Near Death Experience, and Science and the Afterlife Experience.

    But for the most pungent criticism of all things mystical, one can’t do better than going back in history to Thomas Paine in his immortal Age of Reason. Writing against the violent form of atheism that had overtaken the French Revolution in which he was personally involved, and speaking as a Deist who believed only in natural revelation, not special revelation (in which category mysticism belongs), he said: “Revelation when applied to religion, means something communicated immediately from God to man. No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication if he pleases. But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only…and hearsay to every other….”

    In other words, mysticism has an inherent weakness, which is that it is validated only for the person who has the experience. And not only is any account of it hearsay, further complicated by credibility issues, but since the experience is ineffable, it can’t even really be talked about coherently.

    The Resurrection, as you might infer, suffers from these problems in spades, since it has been hearsay upon hearsay upon hearsay for two thousand years. And to top it off, the four original accounts of the event (Mtt, Lk, Jn, Paul) tell divergent, incompatible stories.

    And yet……….I believe and thank Him for the gift of faith, which like His peace, passes all understanding.

  3. Agree with Ricky: Science doesn’t have the answer to everything. I also think the “which god?” objection is one of the weakest weapons in the skeptics’ arsenal.

  4. Hi guys, thanks for your encouraging comments.

    Newton, I don’t feel such experiences are validated only for those who receive them, though of course they have the strongest reason to believe. But if we find many people having the experience (which we do), and they pass some reasonable criteria for believing them (which I think many do), then I think those of us who haven’t had such an experience ourselves can reasonably believe also.

    BTW, the resurrection stories may not be as divergent as you might think. John Wenham has made a plausible reconstruction that preserves the narratives pretty much as they are. I don’t say he is right, but it shows the apparent divergence can be explained – see Was Jesus raised from the dead?.

    Doug, I agree re “which God?”. If I was in a tent in the African jungle and I heard a rustle and growl in the bushes, I don’t think I’d be saying “I can’t identify which big cat that is, so I don’t think I need believe it is there at all.” I think I’d be thinking there’s something out there, now do I need to know any more before I take some action? I think it is the same with God. If we decide that some God exists, that is a big first step. then we can decide what we should do next to investigate further.

  5. Newton Finn appreciate your input but with respect if you would have had one of these mystical experiences that others have had (and I have had one of these) chances are your view would of been different to the one you outlined in your post?

  6. That’s my whole point, Ricky. I do believe in the self-authenticating power of mystic experience. You had one, and it changed your worldview. But you telling others about YOUR experience won’t have nearly the same life-changing effect. Mysticism, by definition, is direct experience. There is no second hand mystical experience, only reports about first hand experience which then inherently involve questions of the credibility of the reporter. But please, don’t take this general exercise in logic as impugning in any way the truth and meaning your experience gave you. I actually have had some of these experiences myself, so I get it.

  7. Thanks for the input Newton.I am glad you experienced some aspect of the possible divine that exists. Mine was a very profound lengthy one of experience of something that resembled a pure white light that illuminated my room when young. Without this Iam sure I would most likely be a atheist. But to me something (God) caused the big bang and I don’t believe it came about purely by chance as some scientists tend to think.

  8. What about non believers who have mystical experiences and conclude that this was nothing but their brain since there is no evidence of external influence? Until there are good reasons to believe in a more complex explanation, the simplest one remains more likely. Being consistent with pre-existing supernatural beliefs does not justify anything; it’s wishful thinking and peer reinforcement. And it’s worse than looking at the 2 different possibilities, as the supernatural explanations are not even proven to be possible in the first place. They are asserted as possible and then deemed believable because of personal experiences.

  9. Bottom line is Bobb I believe sometimes some experiences are so profound and deep that sometimes science and human reason alone do not have all the answers .This taps into the idea that a force/energy originated the whole universe prior to the big bang

  10. Ricky, a lack of answer is not a good reason to pretend that some other explanation is even ‘possible’, yet people claim it makes their own explanation ‘more likely’ because ‘what else could it be!?’. It’s such blatant fallacious thinking. It’s shocking how common it is, especially now that we understand the brain a lot more than ever before!

    We all understand that it feels profound, it feels so true, it feels like there is something more, it cannot be just the brain, and look at all these other people, etc… but it’s all, I repeat ALL, completely based in emotional thinking without any shred of evidence supporting that there is actually something more to this world. The spiritual real is a joke, a fairy tale for adults in search of something that is just not there. Understanding that does not diminish the experiences by the way. It actually makes them better. because it’s the truth.

  11. Hi Bob, Ricky may not agree with what I’m going to say, but I think you may be misunderstanding the value of these experiences. I don’t think they absolutely “prove” anything. But I think they do two things:

    1. For those that experience them, they offer validation of a belief in God which they may already have for other reasons.

    2. For those who haven’t experienced them, and who are sceptical, they nevertheless offer an insight into a new possibility, an opportunity to explore whether there might be something more than a materialistic world.

    If you’re not interested, then that’s a pity I think, but that’s your call. But maybe it is worth a second look, just in case?

  12. Wrong, the value of the experience has no bearing on whether it’s natural or mystical, you made an illogical statement. It also contradicts the above reference to naturalists experiencing the same awe and feelings of ‘something more tham just material’ yet concluding differently. Second illogical idea. Third, unwarranted assumption that a second look is needed, presumptuous statement of no value, borderline insulting, implying a lack of knowledge on the reader, but simply empty in the end.

  13. I’m sorry you look at it in such a combative way Bob. No intention of being insulting. Just the thought, which I tend to follow myself, that rather than writing off interesting experiences and ideas, they can sometimes be worth looking at further, because we don’t always know everything. But if you don’t want to, that’s up to you. Thanks for visiting and commenting.

  14. Bob while I respect your viewpoint I still don’t subscribe to the view you have outlined. Science is constantly finding out new things and it’s something I respect and value, but the essence of how it all started, I doubt science will ever find the answers (circular argument I know but for me it’s truth) . First there was nothing and then something. That’s for me where God came to it. Our minds are just a product of evolution eg evolved consciousness and ultimately can’t comprehend everything. I just think it’s a shame like you stated to Finn you never have experienced something amazing beyond this realm as I am convinced you wouldn’t be holding such sceptical views to the divine.

  15. Hi,

    Bob’s comments might be a tad dry but he is perfectly right, logically, and there is 1 obvious example: Sam Harris (again Eric 😉 ) He wrote a book recently, Waking up, on spirituality from a nontheistic point of view, and no one can pretend that his views are different because he didn’t experience the same things, unlike what Ricky said…

    And even without experiencing something ‘special’, the arguments still stand; human experience is just that, huamn, so no matter how intense it is, there is no good reason to pretend it supports any mystical explanation when it’s all happening as ‘thoughts’, there is nothing external to even discuss. It’s the very definition of faith and wishful thinking, and for good reasons! Who wouldn’t want the mystic world to be real instead of just an illusion?

  16. Hi Hugo, I think you have been as definite on the sceptical side as other would be on the believing side. Surely the reality is a little less definite than that? For example, you say: “there is no good reason to pretend it supports any mystical explanation when it’s all happening as ‘thoughts’, there is nothing external to even discuss” But this isn’t exactly the case. There are reasons to think as you do, but also reasons to think something real is going on, and Andrew Newberg can provide something “external” in his quite objective scans.

    Of course I would expect you, and Sam Harris, to favour the naturalist view, but surely it is fair to recognise both sides of the question, as I have tried to do.

  17. The belief is not definite, but the logical statement is: what someone is experiencing in their head has absolutely no bearing on whether their interpretation of, or explanation for, that experience is right or wrong. Analyzing brain scans does not help at all, as it only correlates the strength of the experiences with the signals seen on the scan, which still goes back to the fact that it’s human brains acting in strange and complex ways; nothing shows some external influence at play. It’s not even clear how that would be possible to demonstrate… but the fact that non-believers and believers alike experience the same is evidence for the neutral hypothesis: we don’t know. We don’t know why these mystique experiences feel so different, but we know they depict special brainwave patterns that other experiences don’t.

    Basically, it’s yet another case of believers supporting their own circular arguments with each other. And these sentences from Ricky summed it up quite well: “Mine was a very profound lengthy one of experience of something that resembled a pure white light that illuminated my room when young. Without this Iam sure I would most likely be a atheist.” and “I believe sometimes some experiences are so profound and deep that sometimes science and human reason alone do not have all the answers .”
    These honest assessment explain why it’s not evidence for the mystic, the supernatural, at all. It’s a personal opinion, a feeling that there ‘must’ be something else because ‘what else could it be?’. The typical argument from ignorance fallacy… It’s not crazy, it’s just that it’s a way for people to find peace and comfort, but not objective evidence.

    To use your own conclusion Eric:
    In summary, mystical experiences have been shown to be positive, life-affirming, healing, and consistent with the idea of a loving God, but this consistency does not in any way support the existence of any specific gods. It is therefore not reasonable to conclude that they provide useful evidence for the possible existence of specific gods. Whether that evidence is enough to convince, either on its own, or cumulatively when considered with other evidence, is purely personal and can only serve to reinforce religious faith.

    This conclusion does not present any challenges; it’s the same old story believers have been telling for centuries. We can’t explain ‘x’, therefore God.

  18. Hi Hugo, this time we are in agreement, about this at any rate:

    “what someone is experiencing in their head has absolutely no bearing on whether their interpretation of, or explanation for, that experience is right or wrong. Analyzing brain scans does not help at all, as it only correlates the strength of the experiences with the signals seen on the scan, which still goes back to the fact that it’s human brains acting in strange and complex ways ….. but the fact that non-believers and believers alike experience the same is evidence for the neutral hypothesis: we don’t know.”

    That is my point. We don’t know, which means we can’t say definitely that the person has experienced God, but neither can we say that they haven’t. It’s an open question.

  19. “That is my point. We don’t know, which means we can’t say definitely that the person has experienced God, but neither can we say that they haven’t. It’s an open question”

    Eric that is a strong concluding statement to the thread. For me the views given by some people on this thread are just assumptions coming from human reason alone. I have analysed a lot of explanations for my vision including scientific and the possible religious and the most convincing for me was the latter.

  20. No Eric but Iam just glad I got to experience what I did. For me its a shame that more people don’t have this evidence of the divine as Iam sure their lives would be more fruitful spiritually. I guess its just one of the mystery’s of the universe and have to leave it like that.

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