I just spent a week at a symposium on the mind-body problem, the deepest of all mysteries. The mind-body problemwhich encompasses consciousness, free will, and the meaning of lifeconcerns who we really are. Are we matter, which just happens to give rise to mind? Or could mind be the basis of reality, as many sages have insisted?
The weeklong powwow, called Physics, Experience and Metaphysics, took place atEsalen Institute, a retreat center in Big Sur, California. Fifteen men and women representing physics, psychology, philosophy, religious studies, and other fields sat in a room overlooking the Pacific and swapped mind-body ideas.
What made the conference unusual, at least for me, was the emphasis on what were called exceptional experiences, including mystical visions. During a mystical experience, as defined by psychologist William James, you thinkyouknowthat you are encountering ultimate reality. The meetings abstract asked whether exceptional experiences can move us forward toward answering the deep unresolved questions of mind and matter and their place in nature.
My colleagues sought to account for mystical visions with a variety of frameworks, involving quantum mechanics, information theory, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jungian psychology, or combinations of the above. These perspectives diverge from conventional materialism, which insists that matter is primary. I kept finding myself playing the role of skeptic, pushing back against my colleagues assertions. Here are points I made, or tried to make, at the meeting.
The Mystical Diversity Problem.Many scholars have tried constructing metaphysical systems out of mystical visions. They often focus on insights that share certain features, notably a sense of oneness with all things, plus feelings of love and bliss. Those fortunate enough to have these experiences often come away convinced that a loving God or spirit underlies everything, and there is no death, only transformation.
Thats a consoling thought. But as William James pointed out, many mystical visions are melancholic or diabolical. You feel profound alienation and emptiness, accompanied by feelings of horror and despair. The immense diversity of mystical experiences thwarts efforts to construct a mystical metaphysics.
The Neo-Geocentrism Problem. Mystics often insist that mind, not matter, is the fundamental stuff of reality, or that mind and matter are two aspects of an underlying ur-stuff. This non-materialist outlook, I think its fair to say, was the majority view at Esalen, and it has become increasingly popular among prominent mind-body theorists, such as neuroscientist Christof Kochand philosopherDavid Chalmers.
I call this viewneo-geocentrism because it revives the ancient assumption that the universe revolves around us. Geocentrism reflected our innate narcissism and anthropomorphism, and so do modern theories that make mindas far as we know a uniquely terrestrial phenomenoncentral to the cosmos. The shift away from geocentrism centuries ago was one of humanitys greatest triumphs, and neo-geocentrism, I fear, represents a step back toward darkness.
The Ineffability Problem.An irony lurks within efforts to create a mystical metaphysics. Mystics often warn that their experiences are impossible to describe, or ineffable, as William James put it. So there is something contradictory about trying to construct an explanatory system involving mysticism. My mystical experiences have reinforced my convictionspelled out in my bookMind-Body Problemsthat there can be no final, definitive solution to the question of who we really are.
The Beauty Problem. Esalen, which is breathtakingly beautiful, made me recall a comment by the physicist and atheist Steven Weinberg: I have to admit that sometimes nature seems more beautiful than strictly necessary. Our world is filled with so much pain and injustice that I cannot believe in a loving God. This is the problem of evil. But the flip side of the problem of evil is the problem of beauty. Beauty, love and friendshipand our hard-won, halting moral progressmake it hard for me to believe that life is just an accident.
So to answer the question posed by my headline: No, mysticism cannot solve the mind-body problem, the mystery of our existence. Quite the contrary. Mysticism rubs our face in the mystery. I dont believe in little miracles, like resurrections or angelic visitations, but I believe in the Big Miracle within which we dwell every moment of our lives, and which no theory or theology will ever explain away.
John Horgan directs the Stevens Center for Science Writings, which is part of the College of Arts & Letters. This column is adapted from one published on hisScientific Americanblog, Cross-check.
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