Word games and mythtical truth – part two

In the previous entry – which should be read prior to this one – we saw how one of the most fundamental mistakes that the occultist makes is to believe himself to have discovered some truth, where in fact he has only discovered an amusing word game. Having dispensed with the word games, we will now turn to the second error that the original correspondent referred to in that entry made: believing in “mythtical truth” (no, it’s not a typo).

The second error is only visible indirectly in the original correspondence, and to reveal it we must repeat one of our conclusions from previous entry, that “there is one thing” is not a factual statement. This conclusion appears innocuous enough, until we reflect that it pulls the rug out from under the feet of mysticism, and denies flat out the truth of the single factual statement that anybody is even able to claim results from mystical practice: the realisation that “all is one”.

Magical practice, mysticism, and essentially all religions (in their esoteric interpretations, at least) all claim that “union with God” is the ultimate objective and the only “reality”, whether by that term or by “union with the all”, just “union”, or any one of a number of similar sounding statements. Visit just about any occult forum anywhere on the internet and you will see posts infested with this idea.

Let us be very clear exactly what is at issue, here. It should be beyond doubt that it is perfectly possible to get into “mystical states” where everything feels like “it is one”, and anybody with even the smallest amount of mystical experience will be able to attest to this. What is at issue here is the assertion that everything actually is one, that the “dualism” of conscious existence is actually an illusion, and, correspondingly, that mysticism and other occult practices are capable of bringing one to an understanding of the “real reality” of which conscious day-to-day existence is merely a poor reflection. In other words, the question at issue is whether or not there is even such a thing as “mystical truth”.

To begin with, we need to remember our discussion on word games in the previous post, and give some thought to what we actually do mean by “mystical truth”, since if its meaning is not clear, then we cannot sensibly question it. We will define “truth” in this way as being “the true or actual state of a matter; conformity with fact or reality; a verified or indisputable fact, proposition, principle, or the like”. Note very clearly that in order for something to qualify as “truth”, it must be verifiable. In the previous entry we referred to a post (looking increasingly ill-informed) by Ian Rons, in which he made a second glaring error:

Looking at it from an objective perspective, there would seem to be – contrary to your assumed belief – every reason to suppose that, in fact, human experience can see the Truth.

The previous entry contains the context for this comment, which was Ian Rons ill-advisedly trying to rebut the idea that truth must be verified in order to qualify as truth, and claiming that it may be possible for it to be “directly perceived” in some way. Even the beginning student will be able to see that this idea is utter gibberish, because even if truth could be “directly perceived” (whatever might be meant by that) without a way of verifying it it would be impossible to ever know whether or not it was the “truth”. Such a concept of “truth” is entirely worthless, since it is simply meaningless to suggest that one can know the truth without knowing whether or not that truth is true (once again, a failure to give proper consideration to the meanings of the words being employed is responsible for this second error of Ian’s.)

So, we will define truth as a statement which can verifiably be determined to be factual, to be in accordance with reality (without belabouring the point, we must once again stress that “absolute” knowledge is not required in order for a statement to be considered factual, and once again direct the reader to Go-go-Godel! for more on this subject.) Accordingly, we will define “mystical truth” as such a statement whose truth can only be verified via some form of “mystical experience”. In other words, a “mystical truth” is a factual statement “justified by” mystical experience.

Now, given our previous comments, it is clear that the one statement almost universally considered to be a “mystical truth” under this definition is the statement that “all is one”, the statement that “there is only one thing”, the statement that “‘duality’ is an illusion”, all of which reduce to the same statement. It is uniformly stressed by occultists and religious believers everywhere, and it is claimed to be a truth which can be discovered, which can only be discovered through mystical experience, and to which “reason” can add nothing of any value.

Instantly, the reader will detect an assertion of “experiential knowledge” in this claim which has been thoroughly discredited in many places on this site on the grounds that bare experience does not and can not contain any explanatory (and therefore demonstrative) power, most notably in Go-go-Godel! itself, as well as in The fallacy of “experiential knowledge” and – topically – in They do Ron, Ron, Ron. It would, however, be unfair as well as uninteresting to dismiss the concept of “mystical truth” on this basis alone, especially when there are so many other ways in which we can easily dismiss it, so we mention this here only in passing.

It is worth considering exactly why “mystical experience” is believed – and, make no mistake, it is a belief – to convey such “knowledge”. A good start is to reflect on Aleister Crowley’s comments in Book Four, Part One:

The ordinary man sees the falsity and disconnectedness and purposelessness of dreams; he ascribes them (rightly) to a disordered mind. The philosopher looks upon waking life with similar contempt; and the person who has experienced Dhyana takes the same view, but not by mere pale intellectual conviction. Reasons, however cogent, never convince utterly; but this man in Dhyana has the same commonplace certainty that a man has on waking from a nightmare. “I wasn’t falling down a thousand flights of stairs, it was only a bad dream.”

Similarly comes the reflection of the man who has experience of Dhyana: “I am not that wretched insect, that imperceptible parasite of earth; it was only a bad dream.” And as you could not convince the normal man that his nightmare was more real than his awakening, so you cannot convince the other that his Dhyana was hallucination, even though he is only too well aware that he has fallen from that state into “normal” life.

It is probably rare for a single experience to upset thus radically the whole conception of the Universe, just as sometimes, in the first moments of waking, there remains a half-doubt as to whether dream or waking is real. But as one gains further experience, when Dhyana is no longer a shock, when the student has had plenty of time to make himself at home in the new world, this conviction will become absolute…

We may, however, provisionally accept the view that Dhyana is real; more real and thus of more importance to ourselves than all other experience.

It is the highlighted part in the final paragraph (Crowley’s – or d’Este Sturges’ – emphasis, not mine) which is of main interest to us, because it is in this part that the “verification of reality” comes into play. To cut a long story short, mystical experience “feels more real” than waking experience, and this justifies considering it to be a “truth”.

This line of reasoning cannot be casually dismissed. It is, after all, the “feeling of reality” which is the primary basis for our regular conceptions of it, in exactly the stated way that we can distinguish dream from waking life. It is true that repeated observations and the development of predictive theories can overcome this “feeling of reality”, in exactly the same way that we know that a table isn’t really “solid” no matter how solid it might feel, and in exactly the same way as we know that the lines in the Hering Illusion are straight even though they appear to be curved. It would even be possible to convince the hallucinating man that he really is hallucinating, although it is debatable how much practical use this information would be to him when those killer monkey-insects are hot on his tail. Yet, for all this, most of what we consider to be “reality” is not tested in this way, and we consider things to be real because they feel real, because they seem real. Thus, if mystical experience feels real – and anybody who has much experience with it will immediately attest to the fact that it does – it is not immediately apparent why we should not accept that it is real.

We’ve deliberately framed the above argument in the way that we have, because that is the way it is usually framed, but the time has come to reveal that it’s been a red herring. If you’ve known that it’s been a red herring from the beginning, then congratulations, you’ve been paying a lot more attention than most people, because it should have been clear from our definition. The question is not whether mystical experience is “real” – on a basic level, we can easily assert that “of course it’s real! I just experienced it!” – but whether it conveys any truth about reality. The experience of tasting strawberries is a real experience, but it doesn’t tell us anything about reality, other than what strawberries taste like (which even then can be affected by something else we ate moments ago). Similarly, it really isn’t very important information to reflect that mystical experience tells us that we’ve had a mystical experience, and that it was a real experience – this is approaching a mere tautology. We cannot sensibly conclude from the taste of strawberries that “all is one”, and in the absence of some reason better than the one Crowley gave, we cannot yet conclude this from mystical experience, either.

The traditional argument would go like this:

  1. Mystical experience feels more real than waking experience.
  2. Therefore, we conclude that mystical experience is more real than waking experience.
  3. During mystical experience, everything appears to be “one”.
  4. During waking experience, everything does not appear to be “one”.
  5. Since during mystical experience, everything appears to be “one”, and given that mystical experience is more real than waking experience, we conclude that the appearance of reality in mystical experience more closely approximates reality and the appearance of reality in waking experience.
  6. We are not aware of anything more real than mystical experience, and we are therefore justified in assuming that mystical experience closely approximates reality, at least until we discover something more real.
  7. Therefore, since everything appears to be “one” during mystical experience, everything actually is one.

Now, there is a critical flaw in this seemingly reasonable argument, and it appears in points 5 to 6. In order to accept these claims of mystical truth, one must be prepared to accept that what seems real in waking life actually is not real, precisely as Crowley himself explains in the above quotation. But, one must also prepared to accept that what seems real in mystical experience is real. In other words, one must assume that mystical experience is of a sufficiently different qualitative kind to waking experience that it is simply immune to this kind of representation, with no other justification whatsoever other than the fact that it “seems more real”. Well, waking life “seemed more real” than a dream, but in order to accept this claim one must already have accepted that that appearance of reality was only an appearance, so we already know that the “reality perceiving faculty” must be faulty in some way. To accept the claims to mystical truth it is necessary to accept that when one is in a mystical state then either that “reality perceiving faculty” gets fixed in some unspecified manner, or that an entirely new “reality perceiving faculty” arises. But, if an entirely new “reality perceiving faculty” arises then it is simply a mistake to suppose that the “real feeling” of the mystical state implies that it is more real by drawing an analogy with the other “reality perceiving faculty”.

So, we immediately have problems with this idea that what seems to be true in a state that “feels more real” actually should be considered to be true when it contradicts with what seems to be true in a state that “feels less real”. For one thing, the entire concept of “more real” as yet remains unexamined. What can we sensibly mean by “more real”? Something is either real, or it isn’t. It is not enough to accept that mystical experience feels “more real” therefore it is “more real”; if we are to accept any claim of this kind then we are forced to accept that waking life is not only “less real”; it is not real at all. And, if it is not real, where then does the mystical experience come from? It is perfectly easy to understand a dream – which is not real – can be imagined by a body which is real, but it makes little sense to suppose the converse, that the “real body” is in fact only imagined by some non-corporeal individual otherwise permanently in a mystical state. For one thing, if this were true we would expect mystical experiences – like wakening – to happen spontaneously and for no apparent reason, rather than being deliberately induced as is more often claimed (especially by Crowley).

We really have no good reason at all to suppose that waking life is not “real”, so the only option available for us is to assert that if the mystical experience is real – which we accept – then so is the waking life, and that there can be no “degrees of reality”; if both are real, then they are both equally real. (For those readers fretting and/or frothing at this point, don’t worry; we’ll return to this question of “more real” later where we will give it a sensible coverage.) And, for anyone with actual real-life experience of mystical experiences – as opposed to the multitude of occultists who can merely talk a good mystical experience – will know that a real mystical experience is not this imaginary total separation from waking existence at all, despite all the fanciful descriptions of it which pollute the occult bookshelves. When a person enters a mystical experience he is perfectly conscious of a continuity between his “waking life” and the mystical state, and when he exits that mystical experience he is perfectly conscious of a continuity going in the other direction. It is downright false to try to pretend that mystical experiences belong to an entirely different order to reality than “waking life” does; both the mystical state and the normal state belong to the same order of reality. It will be less misleading for us to regard the mystical state and the normal state as being two distinct states within the realms of waking life.

At this point, then, we have to discard the “feels more real, therefore is more real” theory in the simple “order of reality” terms that we have been describing it, since even a brief analysis shows that there really is no reason to attribute the two states to different orders of reality where different “rules” would apply (e.g. as in dreams, where one frequently finds oneself immune to the law of gravity). In other words, we cannot rely on the mystical experience to validate any proposed mystical truth simply because it appears to be more real than the normal state. This is not to say that any insights gained during the mystical experience must necessarily be false, of course, merely that the mystical state itself is insufficient grounds for accepting them as being “true”, which is how we have defined “mystical truth” for the purposes of this discussion and how the “justified by experience” crowd usually couch such ideas.

Incidentally, this part of the discussion should really have been unnecessary, if it weren’t for the fact that we are partially addressing an audience consisting of occultists and other religious believers. Anyone with even a vague understanding of the workings of the brain – and, for that matter, anyone with even the slightest insight into their own experiences – will be well aware of the existence of mental states which “feel” more real, but which in fact are not. Anybody who has successfully dealt with a highly stressful emergency situation will be familiar with a state of “hypersensitivity” to phenomena which more often go unnoticed, but when the situation is over little trouble is encountered with attributing such sensitivity to the conditions of the situation itself, and there is rarely a tendency to attempt to derive deep and meaningful truths from them simply as a result of their appearance. We may reasonably assume that the difference between this kind of state and a mystical state is that in the former, the individual does not begin with the assumption that truths can and ought to be derived from such states, and hence does not have his own pre-existing prophecy to fulfill. In the emergency situation, the experience is assessed once the “normal” state is reattained, and it is generally accepted that the normal state is the proper one from which to conduct this assessment. The occultist, on the other hand, takes the opposite approach to the mystical state, by simply declaring that the normal state is fundamentally incapable of carrying out such an assessment. The reasons behind this are worth investigating.

The traditional argument for this position begins with the assumption that “truth” (sometimes qualified in a way similar to “mystical truth”, sometimes not) is supra-rational. Since the “normal” state is essentially a rational one, it is considered to be incapable of drawing any useful conclusions about such a “truth”. In other words, “truth” is considered to be wholly outside the domain of reason, and reason is therefore fatally ill-equipped to say anything sensible about it.

The inevitable question is whether any such “supra-rational truth” exists, or whether it is a delusion. The (dictionary) definition of “truth” that we have been here employing rests squarely on the concept of verifiability; in order to determine whether or not something is “true” in this sense, it must be – at least in principle – capable of being tested. This forces the occultist – if he wants to be taken seriously – to address the following question: even if we accept for the purposes of argument that the mystical state is capable of providing true insights, how do you know they are true? Any insights gained from any source whatsoever are unworthy of the name “truth” if their veracity cannot be established, if they are simply impervious to investigation.

It will be necessary at this point to consider a common response that the occultist often gives to such a point. “You are stuck in a rationalist world-view!” he will cry. “If truth is ‘supra-rational’, then it simply can’t be investigated in such a way; it can only be experienced! By attempting to test the veracity of ‘supra-rational truth’ by investigating it, you are a priori declaring that truth must inevitably be rational, so no wonder you end up doubting the existence of ‘supra-rational truth’! Your very approach itself determines your outcome! And you want to tell us about ‘self-fulfilling prophecies’?” (In truth, this isn’t a “common response” at all, since it is extremely rare to find an occultist capable of so eloquently putting his argument, but this is essentially the argument they are making, whether they are aware of it or not).

The first response of any right-thinking student would, naturally, be “well, isn’t that ever so convenient for you?” If the occultist wishes to declare that his concept of “supra-rational truth” is not testable, then his position is one of faith. In other words, whatever it is he has in mind when he talks of “supra-rational truth”, it just isn’t “truth” at all. And this takes us right back to the idea of “word games” that we introduced in the previous entry, because what it happening here when the occultist denies the testability of his “truth” is that he is accepting that it is not “truth” in the sense that we have been describing at all, but then he acts as if it is.

This brand of doublethink has, naturally, been inherited from the group of religious believers to which the occultist belongs. From a more obviously ridiculous perspective, the honest but devout Christian will accept that his beliefs arise entirely from faith, that they are not verifiable, and that faith is indeed the only basis upon which they can be accepted. But he calls it “truth”, and when he does so, it enables him to make what he considers to be factual statements along the lines of “I must ‘do good’, otherwise I’ll go to Hell.” The religious believer accepts that his beliefs cannot be called “truth” in the verifiable sense, but by ascribing the name “truth” to them nonetheless, he becomes able to apply them as if they were. His entire approach is nothing but a word game.

The occultist is in an identical position. He will claim that his “supra-rational truth” cannot be verified in the same way that real truth can, but then he will say “do the work and discover the truth for yourself”, which implies that it can. If his “truth” is capable of being discovered in this way, then it is capable of being distinguished from falsity, and by definition this means it is verifiable. And, crucially, if it’s verifiable, then it’s not “supra-rational”. By labeling his insights as “truth” in one sense, and then attempting to employ them as “truth” in a completely separate sense, he is merely playing an amusing word game. And, moreover, it is the very fact that he disdains the use of reason – and the fact that he is not skilled in its application – which causes him to fall into this trap.

His other line of defense would be “you are misrepresenting our position. We never say that our ‘supra-rational truth’ is not verifiable, just that it is not verifiable by reason, but by experience!” Well, unfortunately for him this is another word game conclusion. If something is “verifiable by experience” then there has to be some reason to believe that one type of experience is a better indicator of truth than another type of experience. See that there? “Some reason to believe”. Truth cannot be “verifiable by experience” if we must simply declare one type of experience to be such a better indicator; to be verifiable there must be some rational basis of selecting one basis over another.

There is a third obvious line of attack against this patently risible idea. As we saw previously, the most common “truth” that is derived from mystical experience is usually along the lines of “all is one”, “all is unity”, or “duality is false”. Well, if there is no duality, then there is no truth, since truth requires the existence of falsity in order to have any meaning (the cognitive dissonance required to assert that “duality is false” is striking). “Supra-rational truth” is therefore an oxymoron, or, as we have seen, merely an amusing word game.

It appears then that we are compelled to deny even the possibility of the existence of “mystical truth” in the way that we have defined it. “Truth” is a rational concept, and as we know bare experience has no explanatory power, so all “truths” are ultimately rational ones (although reason cannot by itself arrive at truth any more than experience can; reason must have experience to work with, or it will have nothing to classify or analyse) and there is no such thing as “supra-rational truth”. In the previous entry we saw how statements such as “all is one” and “there is only one thing” simply do not qualify as truth statements at all.

The reality is this type of case is that the whole “supra-rational truth”, the whole “mystical truth” idea, is merely a defence against the destruction of pet ideas. As Martin Luther said:

Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God…Whoever wants to be a Christian should tear the eyes out of his reason.

Reason is the “greatest enemy that faith has” because the supposed “truths” of faith simply cannot withstand its scrutiny; they crumble underneath its gaze. “Spiritual things”, in the sense used by Luther, occultists and other religious believers, can only be accepted in spite of reason. There are two potential sources of the antagonism between faith and reason:

  1. Reason is simply incapable of arriving at the “truths” that faith can – they apply to two different domains; or
  2. Reason arrives at one set of “truths” and faith arrives at a different set, the two sets are incompatible and only one of them is right.

The first is the one most often quoted, especially by new-agers and the “modern religious” who are compelled by the march of progress to conclude that reason and “science” must really be onto something. Only a real ignoramus can, these days, advance the argument (see what kind of knots a faith-based position leaves one in? One must argue – using reason – that reason is false) that “reason is false”, so they are compelled to admit that there is some truth in it. If they are to maintain their faith, and claim that there is some truth in that also despite the fact that it is admittedly not a rational position, then their only avenue is to claim that reason leads to some truths, faith leads to others, and “ne’er the twain shall meet”. Stephen Jay Gould has termed this the “non-overlapping magisteria” or faith and reason, the idea that they are two equally valid lines of inquiry dealing with wholly different domains, and that they can peacefully co-exist since there is no arena in which they can compete. In other words, reason cannot prove faith wrong, and faith cannot prove reason wrong.

The problem with this type of approach is that it is obviously wrong. If the avenues of faith and reason really did not overlap, then we wouldn’t be here having this discussion. It is precisely because reason casts significant doubt upon faith-based claims that this argument of “non-overlapping magisteria” was advanced in the first place, precisely as an attempt to resolve the conflict that was clearly there to begin with. Claims arising from reason and claims arising from faith clearly do overlap; as Richard Dawkins has so eloquently argued, it is perfectly reasonable to treat the question of the existence of God as a scientific hypothesis, because a universe that includes an interventionary divine force is quite clearly a very different type of universe to one that does not, and it is different in a way that should be visible and hence susceptible to observation and testing. Moreover, the concept of “faith” is so poorly-defined as to make this idea utterly meaningless; why should someone not develop a “faith”, for instance, in the idea that gravity makes objects fly away from the centre of the Earth, and that it is God, and not gravity, that keeps them down? People can have “faith” in any silly old idea that they choose. It might be a nice idea to assume that people only have faith in ideas that are not amenable to verification, but the actual fact of the matter is that they do not; they have faith in ideas that are amenable to verification, and if such verification suggests those ideas to be false then it is not good propping up one’s beliefs by blindly asserting that the two belong to different domains.

In the world of occultism which will be more familiar to most of our readers, Michael Staley – “O.H.O. in waiting” of Kenneth Grant’s “Typhonian O.T.O” which will shortly be required to change its name – recently claimed that:

Rationalism is indispensible in daily living; however, magical and mystical experience reaches beyond the rational. That doesn’t mean that one has to accept things indiscriminately; it does mean, though, that one doesn’t discard experience on the grounds that it is not rational. It’s not an either/or situation; both logic and intuition are necessary to me. [emphasis mine]

This implicitly affirms Staley’s belief in the “non-overlapping magisteria” view as it applies to occultism through his statement that “it’s not an either/or situation”, and the idea is as silly here as it was in the realms of the Christian religion. “Intuition” is “a direct perception of truth, independent of any reasoning process.” We’ve already dealt at length with the fact that there is no “direct perception of truth independent of any reasoning process” because “truth” is de facto a rational concept, so we can dismiss this idea straight away. Again we can see the word games, because Staley begins by warning against “discarding experience” but then leaps to talking about “logic and intuition”, both of which deal with the determination of “truth”. His implication is that experience, if it does not convey “truth”, is meaningless, which – since experience has no explanatory power – means that he’s just inadvertently “discarded” every possible experience under the sun.

In the absence of the “non-overlapping magisteria” theory which we have thoroughly discredited, we are left only with the second of our alternatives described above: that rational “truths” and faith-based “truths” are incompatible, and one of them is wrong in each case where they conflict. Thus, what Staley really means when he says “both logic and intuition are necessary to me” is that he will use logic whenever it supports the conclusions that he wants to accept, but as soon as logic starts to cast doubt upon his conclusions, he’ll leap over and simply declare them to be true – despite the fact that those conclusions are “irrational” by virtue of this leap being necessary – by appealing to “intuition”, which, because it is “not rational”, is beyond question. It’s an astonishingly disingenuous and intellectually dishonest approach, revealed in the term “necessary to me”. We may reveal the true meaning behind this statement by rewording and expanding it slightly: “it is necessary to me, if I wish to maintain my set of beliefs in such a way that they are immune to challenge, to use logic when logic supports my beliefs, and to default to ‘intuition’ when logic does not. That way, I have a cast-iron method of ‘defending’ any arbitrary belief I choose that is beyond reproach.”

And this really is the source of all claims to “mystical truth”, to “supra-rational truth”, and of most of the “word games” we have been describing. When reason – the sole reliable arbiter of “truth” – fails to support a belief and it is desired for the belief to be maintained, then we may play word games in order to give the appearance that it is still sensible to maintain that belief. What’s more, in cases like Staley’s, reason itself is invoked to give the appearance that such an approach is sensible, and it often does look sensible, provided always that – as we said in the previous entry – one deliberately refrains from considering the meanings of the words one is employing.

To follow the real spirit of these two entries, we should really end here. But, human nature being what it is, it will be found necessary to continue in order to not just criticise these juvenile and risible ideas, but to explain them. In other words, it is usually claimed that mystical experience is “supra-rational”, but to reject this claim is not to deny mystical experience itself. When the occultist claims that “mystical truth is supra-rational” he almost universally does so because (1) that’s what he’s been told to believe; and (2) he is unable and/or unwilling to rationally analyse it. But what if he’s wrong? What if mystical experience is understandable from a rational point of view, and that such an understanding is just not currently widely known? It is to this last possibility that we now turn, because it would be by no means the first time that something which is not initially rationally understood yields to rational understanding at a later date. It sure is a lot easier and more comfortable for the occultist to claim that if he is not able to rationally understand a phenomenon, then that phenomenon is fundamentally immune to rational understanding, especially if a bunch of other occultists have been telling him the same thing. The proper approach – as with all others – is to find out whether or not we can rationally understand it before making such wild factual claims, and only then to make them tentatively.

So, let us assume that the mystics and occultists throughout the ages are not totally clueless, and that there is some merit to what they are doing, even if they don’t know what it is yet. What could this merit be?

Surprisingly, we can go right back to Crowley’s passage from Book Four, Part Two that we quoted earlier – “Dhyana is real; more real and thus of more importance to ourselves than all other experience”. We have already discounted the idea that the state itself is more real, because there are no “degrees of reality”. A “mystical state” is what we might term an “alternate state of consciousness”. There is no need to get into metaphysical speculation, here; a man who is mortally afraid because he is being chased by wolves will experience the world in a markedly different way than when he is chatting with friends after a couple of glasses of wine. Indeed, inebriation is well known to cause man to experience the world in a markedly different way; that is, after all, the whole point of it. There is nothing supernatural or mysterious about “alternate states of consciousness”, because all of us experience varying states of consciousness throughout our lives.

For simplicity, let us assume that there is a “normal” state of consciousness, ignoring all the smaller variations that may occur therein, and make a distinction only between markedly different states of consciousness. When a man enters a markedly different state of consciousness – and we will assume the “mystical state” to be just such a thing – he naturally perceives the world in a markedly different way to how he normally perceives it. This has some important ramifications, because when he perceives the world in a markedly different way he will, literally, perceive things that he did not perceive before. Until the latter half of the twentieth century mankind had no idea what the “dark side” of the Moon looked like, but simply by looking at it from a different perspective – i.e. from the other side – he was able to get an entirely different idea about the Moon than was previously possible.

The real value of a mystical experience is that it enables the individual to look at the world differently, often very differently. This difference is often so striking that with the addition of this new perspective he rapidly gains new insights into his world. Again, there is nothing mysterious about this. In a geocentric model of the solar system, the planets appear to exhibit strange orbits, sometimes going “retrograde” and appearing to back up. With a solarcentric model, however, the orbits suddenly appear to be much simpler, and this was highly significant to the ultimate acceptance of the solarcentric model. Importantly, the observations themselves were unaffected; the insight came merely from looking at them from a different perspective.

In the same way, the man who experiences a mystical state looks at his world from a very different perspective, and gains insights into it that he may not have otherwise had, and many things that were previously confusing to him may suddenly become clear. For this reason, it will be highly tempting for him to consider that he has discovered some form of “truth”, but he hasn’t; he has merely discovered a new perspective. Now, such an experience may lead to the discovery of truth, but it does so because his new perspective gives him more data on which his existing “truth determining faculty” can operate, and not because he has somehow come into direct contact with the “truth”. What he has really come into contact with is more information.

In particular, in the “normal state” we are used to analysing things, to considering ourselves as individuals separate from the rest of the universe, because we have to do this in order to analyse, we have to declare things to be “this but not that”. In the mystical state, on the other hand, he is far less inclined to perceive things in this analytical matter, and in the way he does perceive things it makes far more sense to think that “all is one” as opposed to “all is separate”. But, crucially, just because it makes more sense in the mystical state to perceive things in that way, this doesn’t mean it’s true. There is no reason at all to suppose that the way of perceiving in the mystical state is any more “correct” than the way of perceiving in the normal state; they are just different. But, because the normal state is normal, and the mystical state is unusual, the additional insights he gains in the mystical state encourages him to think that there is something inherent to the mystical state which gives him more knowledge. There isn’t. What is inherent to the mystical state is the same thing that is inherent to any other alternate state of consciousness; a different perspective.

Thus, the man in the normal state tends to suffer because of his perception of separateness. He considers himself to be that “that wretched insect, that imperceptible parasite of earth” as Crowley put it. He is constantly worried about his job, his family, his self-esteem, money, his health, and all kinds of other phantasms that he manufactures for himself in his mind. What he really gains from his mystical experience is the knowledge – not just an intellectual comprehension, but first-hand experience – that it doesn’t have to be this way. There is another way of perceiving the world in which these concerns cease to trouble.

Naturally, first-hand experience of this way of perceiving the world will be a significant shock to the system. All his worries “appear to disappear”. Such a state is, in short, far more pleasant than the normal state often is, and this naturally inclines him to place more importance on the mystical state. He is able to perceive – as he was never able to perceive before – that all those things that worried him were simply creations of his mind, with no reality of their own. This is why the mystical state seems to be “more real”; not because it is more real, but because in the mystical state he is simply paying attention to reality to a much higher degree than he does in the normal state. The mystical state is not in itself “more real”; he is simply less distracted from reality in that state than he is in the normal state, so it does indeed “feel more real”. And, since he is less distracted, substantially his entire attention is taken up with reality instead of with his imagination.

So, things might appear to be “one” because he is less inclined to use his imagination to draw the boundaries between objects that he normally draws, but things only appear to be “one” because he is still perceiving as a separate individual. What he perceives is not “me and lots of other things”, but “me and everything else”, and because he is not even paying attention to his own being those two appear to merge, leaving him to conclude that there is only one thing in the universe, and that “all are just parts”. But ultimately, perception is still required in order to perceive that “all is one”, and there must be “duality” in order for this to occur. It might feel like “all is one” but it only feels like this because that is the natural conclusion for the state of consciousness that he is in; it does not reflect some universal “truth” apart from his own perception, and his perception is obviously required for its apprehension.

To conclude, then, there is no “mystical truth”, and there is no “supra-rational truth”. What appear to be “mystical truths” are merely differences in perspective. The fact that these differences are not amenable to rational analysis does not mean that they are “supra-rational truths”; it means that they are not truths at all. The taste of strawberries is not amenable to rational analysis, but the taste of strawberries is not a truth, “supra-rational” or otherwise. The mystic tends – unless he has sufficiently mastered his own being so that he may avoid that tendency – to play word games, to label these differences as “truths” so that he may use them as if they were, because he deeply wants to attach some absolute significance to them, but to do so is the path of delusion. As soon as the mystic attempts to use these differences as “truths”, then he is right back in the same “dualistic” and “rationalistic” approach that he claims to be avoiding, that he claims to have “transcended”.

“Experience”, by itself, is of a different order to reason. When one discovers a mystical experience, one should not think that one has discovered some kind of “truth” – any more than one should think that one has discovered such a “truth” when one discovers the taste of strawberries – because all one has really acquired is a new experience. That new experience may be used as an input to the rational faculty, and the increase in the quantity and diversity of data may well lead one to rationally arrive at new “truths”, but these “truths” certainly do come from the reason, and not from the experience itself. Alternatively, the experience itself may simply be enjoyed and repeated without a need to develop “truths” from it, which can be a perfectly sensible course of action. But to believe that any experience can – via “intuition”, “gnosis” or any other such imagined process – directly produce “knowledge” which does not and cannot be validated by reason is simply to fall into error, and to persist in such a belief is to lock oneself away from the only mechanism one has for escaping that error.

2 Comments on “Word games and mythtical truth – part two”

By M.H.Benders. August 30th, 2008 at 7:12 am

This ‘union with god’ thing isn’t the ultimate objective in all systems, however it is in most western systems since they are all based on the old testament (liber al is too) – for example in the castaneda system there is no such objective. One could say there that the ultimate objective is to escape the eagle, but there is no idea of ‘god’ present there which makes it a system better workable for atheists.

By Erwin. August 30th, 2008 at 10:09 am

This ‘union with god’ thing isn’t the ultimate objective in all systems, however it is in most western systems since they are all based on the old testament (liber al is too) – for example in the castaneda system there is no such objective.

Yes, “all” was for dramatic effect – obviously anybody can create any system they like, so there could be an infinite number of objectives.

We don’t need to restrict ourselves to the Old Testament, however. We can say that the objective of buddhism is “union with the all” since the objective is eliminating the self, for instance. We don’t have to – and I certainly don’t – place much weight on the word “god”.

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