Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A mystic in reason's camp?

A SIGHTING. How widespread is mysticism in our culture? Answering that question is one long-term purpose of this weblog. The following anecdote, by Peter Namtvedt (a fellow member of Northwest Objectivists), shows mystics might be found anywhere in our society, even at a gathering of Objectivists, the foremost advocates of reason today. My comments and questions follow his account.


Earlier in July, my wife, Mary Ann, and I were among the five hundred people attending OCON2010, an Objectivist conference in Las Vegas. We had signed up for a buffet sponsored by Diana Hsieh, a leader of activists in the Objectivist movement. The purpose of the buffet was to bring together Objectivist activists for their shared interest. The large group made it difficult to hear what others were saying, except three more vocal people we sat with at the end of a long table.

A young woman directly across from me talked to two young men about her knowledge of mysticism. She insisted that it was based solely on her personal experience. I asked her if she had found others who had the same experiences and she replied "No."

I also asked her how she was able to retain a grasp on Objectivism as a philosophy of reason while believing there was any substance to the experiences she called "mystical." She insisted she was holding true to Objectivism, and she was also sure that some day scientific research would validate her experiences and permit conciliation with Ayn Rand's philosophy of reason as an absolute and exclusive source of knowledge.

She described her mystical experiences. On one occasion, she said, she was in a room alone and suddenly got the conviction that someone she knew was standing behind her. The experience was very vivid and, although she found no one there when she turned around, it was real, she said. On another occasion, she visited a cemetery and heard her dead relatives speaking to her.

In the buffet conversation, she made no remarks relating to religion or a god, only to unexplainable "secular" incidents that came to her mind without any use of sense perception. I expected her to start on the topic of angels, which I have heard is a branch of mystical thought popular these days, but she said nothing about it.

I finally objected to this talk and asked the three of them to tell us about their activism on behalf of Objectivism. However, they regarded talk about this young woman's mysticism as more interesting.

I recently searched online for key phrases she used. They match terms in a guest post by Rich Engle, on the weblog Objectivist Living.[1]

As I continued reading the discussion thread on that weblog, a comment by the same fellow on December 17 rang a bell. Here he quotes from a "Starbuck's manuscript collection" (which means nothing to me) some thoughts that reminded me of the definition of religion offered by German philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), in his On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers.[2] Schleiermacher wrote about the essence of religion being the exaltation or awe one might feel standing on a beach looking out at the ocean. No single statement in his book sums it up thus; I pieced that thought together from many fragmentary statements. Perhaps Schleiermacher's "feeling" is akin to that of Engle and the woman I talked to at the conference. There is a commonality here.[3]

Peter Namtvedt (July 23, 2010)


I was not present at the incident Peter describes, but I have had similar conversations.

IDENTIFYING THE TYPE. Part of the purpose of The Main Event is to identify the actions and ideas of advocates of reason and advocates of mysticism, not debate about them. In that setting, two questions arise about the young mystic Peter describes.

1. What are the essential, defining characteristics of her particular episodes of mysticism? First, the young woman's mystical episodes are personally experiential ("feelings"). In the conversation related by Peter, she is not claiming to be at one with the universe or having a conversation with God. Second, her experiences somehow become whole thoughts -- e.g., such a mystic might say, "I heard my dead relatives speaking to me."

This combination of personal experience directly and mysteriously producing a claim to knowledge distinguishes this mystic from two other kinds of mystics. The first kind, exemplified by Plotinus (205-270), has "ineffable" experiences (that is, experiences that cannot be expressed in words). The second kind includes mystics, such as Muhammad (570-632), who receive verbal (conceptual) communications directly from a supernatural source. Peter's mystic, at least as far as she described it in Peter's account, somehow automatically forms knowledge -- as statements -- from her mystic experiences.

2. What term would best label this young woman's form of mysticism, to distinguish it from others? I do not know of a single term. However, this form of mysticism is "empirical" in that it is a direct "experience" and it is cognitive in that it does, the mystic claims, give rise to "knowledge" in the form of statements about a "reality" not knowable by sense-perception (the world of the dead; or a dimension of reality in which someone is present behind me, but is not visible; and so forth). In summary, such a form of mysticism is empirical in origin and cognitive in its product.

TENTATIVE CONCLUSION. Advocates of mysticism or reason can appear even in unlikely places. In social situations in which their view is unwanted, their advocacy can be as simple as stating their view and responding to questions.

Comments that correct, expand, or supplement this post's preliminary observations are welcome.

Burgess Laughlin, author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith at www.reasonversusmysticism.com

P.S. Thank you, Peter. I am very grateful that you brought this particular stream of mysticism to my attention. From it, I have learned of (1) the existence of mystics on the periphery of a social network of advocates of reason; and (2) U. S. psychologist and pragmatist philosopher William James (1842-1910) as an originating mystic, that is, a mystic who formulates and systematizes descriptions of mysticism that others will repeat or modify in their efforts to spread and defend their doctrines.

[1] At http://www.objectivistliving.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=79.

[2] For Schleiermacher: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/

[3] For Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788) and his mystical experiences: Ch. 7 ("Kant: A Philosophy Professor Limits Reason to Make Room for Faith") of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith.