Monday, August 31, 2009

Long-term problem: identifying the advocates

Two of my theme questions are:

4. Who are the main advocates of reason in our time (1960 to now)? What are their key ideas and what actions have they taken to disseminate those ideas?

5. Who are the main advocates of mysticism in our time (1960 to now)? What are their key ideas and what actions have they taken to disseminate those ideas?

What the two questions have in common is the problem of identifying contemporary advocates -- both those individuals who originate new ideas (or new arguments for old ideas) and those individuals who disseminate those ideas. By "contemporary" I mean advocates who have lived within the last philosophical generation (fifty years). By "advocates" I mean those few individuals to whom most other intellectuals on their side of the reason/mysticism debate have turned for guidance. These contemporary advocates are the designers, manufacturers, and distributors of the "intellectual ammunition" that lesser intellectuals use in the reason/mysticism war.

Following are very short lists of individuals who are or might be qualified as originators or disseminators. Additional suggestions are welcome. I will update the list as I encounter new possibilities for investigation.

Candidates and nominees for main advocates of reason
- Rand, Ayn (1905-1982)
- Peikoff, Leonard (b. 1933)
- Is there a contemporary advocate of Aristotle's epistemology?
- Are there other advocates of reason (as the sole faculty for acquiring facts and values)?

Candidates and nominees for main advocates of at least one form of mysticism

- Niebuhr, Reinhold (1892-1971) for mysticism in Christianity.
- Lewis, C. S. (1898-1963) for mysticism in Christianity.
- Prager, Dennis (b. 1948) for mysticism in Judaism.[1]
- Who is a main advocate of faith or other form of mysticism in Islam?
- Who is a main advocate of modern pagan mysticism in some form?

- Feyerabend, Paul (1924-1974), for a form of mysticism in "science."
- Derrida, Jacques (1930-2004) for a post-modernist form of mysticism.
- Rorty, Richard (1931-2007) for a post-modernist form of mysticism.
- Who is a main advocate of oracular "common sense"?
- Who is a main advocate of intuition?
- Who is a main advocate of instinct?

If you can suggest candidates for the main advocates -- either originators or disseminators -- of either mysticism or reason in our time, please use the comment form.

Burgess Laughlin

[1] An example of a mystic who was more of a cultural effect than a cause in the mystical movement is Hyman Bloom (1913-2009), a painter. His style reflected his immersion in many forms of mysticism articulated by others. See "Hyman Bloom, a Painter of the Mystical, is Dead at 96," Holland Cotter, The New York Times, August 31, 2009, online (may expire).

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

What is mysticism?

(Last updated, January 29, 2014)

Mysticism is the belief (-ism) that an individual can acquire "knowledge" through some means other than reason (the logical formation of abstractions from sense-perception). Mystic knowledge passes from some mystical source through a mystical way (pathway, channel, route) to the mind of the mystic.  The mystic then, on faith, accepts knowledge passing to him.

SOURCES. Example sources of mystical knowledge are: God, Holy Scripture, the heart, the gut, an inner voice, authority, and the "spirit" of a place (such as a burial ground or ancient forest). "Authority" is ambiguous. It names either (a) the mystical idea of an automatically and unquestionably qualified source, or (b) the objective idea of someone who has demonstrated his ability to speak knowledgeably on a particular subject.

WAYS. Example ways of acquiring mystical knowledge are: revelation, tradition, instinct, intuition, "just knowing," "listening to the heart" (or gut), hearing an "inner voice," feeling, dogma, and "common sense" (in one of its meanings).[1] Some of these terms are ambiguous. For various meanings of "common sense," both mystical and objective, see the April 23, 2012 post here.

NATURE OF FAITH. The term "faith" can be ambiguous. Sometimes "faith" is a broad synonym for mysticism. At other times, the term "faith" names an idea of a process -- acceptance without objective evidence -- that in fact characterizes every type of mysticism. At still other times, "faith" names a set of ideas acquired mystically ("the Christian faith"). Generally, I will be using the term faith to mean the process of acceptance of any idea—regardless of the source or the way of acquiring it—without objective proof or even in contradiction to objective proof.

When a religious mystic speaks of his faith, the mystic usually identifies the source, as with "faith in God." Some mystics dispense with the term "faith" and ignore the step of acceptance. Nevertheless they are acting on faith. In summary, then, faith is the assent to "knowledge" gained through some mystical way.

COMMON CHARACTERISTICS. What characteristics do the various sorts of mysticism share? In most cases, there are two: an initial experience and a subsequent transformation into words.

According to reports from mystics with whom I have talked, mystics experience something in a non-sense-perceptible form. Some mystics use sensory words -- such as "hear" and "see" -- to describe their non-sensory experiences, but those terms are usually metaphors.

Example conversation: Mr. A: "How did you know whether to marry Jane or not?" Mr. B: " I knew I should marry her. I felt it in my gut, and I knew that what my gut was telling me was right."

That "experience" in the mystic's mind somehow changes -- usually in some unspecified manner -- to conceptual (verbal) "knowledge". With their "knowledge" now specified in words, mystics can write and speak to others about the mystical experiences. A mystical experience untranslated into words is incommunicable.

Revelations, inner voices, and possibly tradition are apparent exceptions: The initial experience is the words. An example is a god speaking commandments directly to someone as a revelation.

DISTINGUISHING CHARACTERISTICS. What characteristics distinguish one sort of mysticism from another? I have already identified two distinguishing characteristics: (1) the sources of that knowledge; and (2) the ways (channels, paths, routes) of acquiring the "special" knowledge. Based on general reading and general experience in talking with some mystics, I suggest a third characteristic that distinguishes one sort of mysticism from another: (3) the form of the message which a particular version of mysticism delivers: Is it verbal (as in the voice of a god), visual (as in an apparition), or felt (as in feeling the presence of Satan).

SUMMARY. Mysticism is the belief (-ism) that one can acquire knowledge through some means other than reason, that is, some means other than logical abstraction from sense-perception or introspection. One sort of mysticism is distinguished from another by its alleged source (God, the Dictator, my gut, etc.), by the way in which the message is received (a revelation from heaven, an inner voice, etc.), and by the form of the message.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

[1] Most of these types of mysticism come from Ayn Rand's list: Ayn Rand, "Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World," Philosophy: Who Needs It, pp. 75-76 (hb). She delivered this lecture at Yale University, Columbia University, and Brooklyn College in 1960.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What is reason?

NATURE. Reason is the ability of the mind to (1) integrate ideas--concepts, principles, and theories--from a multitude of discrete sense-perceptions of reality; (2) use various techniques for double-checking those ideas to make sure the mind has formed them logically; and (3) then apply those ideas to understanding and solving problems in life, whether they are narrow technical problems or universal ethical issues. Reason involves induction, deduction, integration, differentiation, questioning, analyzing, and other methods. This ability is reason in full.

Reason is, in summary, an ability (faculty) to engage in a process potentially involving many diverse steps, a process of integrating sense-perceptions and arriving at knowledge of the world and our proper role in it--that is, knowledge of facts and values.

EXAMPLE. A man was plagued by an escalating, thirty-year series of medical problems with his skin, eyes, joints, tendons, muscles, and intestine. His medical condition became worse. He became so crippled he could barely walk.

He stopped relying on the mostly ineffective advice of local physicians. As a layman, he began working on the problems himself. He thought about his symptoms and kept records of their ups and downs. He read books on each problem. He compared the symptoms he read about to what he could see in his own body. He asked himself questions about the possible cause of each problem. One day he discovered--that is, he integrated one piece of information with another--that the technical name of each problem had the same ending: dermatitis, iritis, tendonitis, and so forth. The "-itis" ending means inflammation. He wondered what might cause it.

One physician suggested that he eliminate a certain suspect category of foods. He did so, and he saw his problems diminish. He experimented with other foods. Within two years he was confident that proteins--in some form or level--triggered the problems. He cut back on proteins, and the problems greatly diminished. Then he made another connection: proteins are a kind of acid (amino acids). He wondered: Could acidity be a problem? He finally found a list showing the effect of certain foods on acidity in the body. He experimented again and found that the list worked as a predictor (though not an explainer) of inflammatory reactions. Accordingly, he eliminated all acid-producing foods by eating only fruit, vegetables, and potatoes. His medical problems gradually disappeared.

This layman used observing, integrating, differentiating, thinking, and questioning to solve his problems. He used reason. As a layman, and one with limited time to spare from his other interests in life, he did not reach expertise on his narrow subject, but he did make progress -- which is what reason provides. Reason is our tool for living on earth, which is the natural world, a world of things that each have identity.

FURTHER DISCUSSION. Ayn Rand's philosophy, Objectivism, is a philosophy of reason. All knowledge comes from reason and reason alone. The "Reason" entry in The Ayn Rand Lexicon neatly collects relevant excerpts of her writings about reason, beginning (as is usual with the Lexicon) with a definition and proceeding to elaborations, special problems, and applications. (The Ayn Rand Lexicon and all of Ayn Rand's writings are available through The Ayn Rand Bookstore.)

"For a definition of reason," Ayn Rand says, "see Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology." That work describes her solution to the central problem of epistemology, the origin of concepts (the "problem of universals"). Essentially reason is a conceptual faculty: forming concepts from percepts, and then building principles and theories, using logic as a guide. In the course of demonstrating her solution, she shows reason in action in its many forms -- induction, deduction, integration, differentiation, and so forth.

By contrast, any claims to knowledge coming from any source other than reason are instances of mysticism -- the subject of the next post.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

Monday, August 24, 2009

Theme Questions

Perhaps with the aid of guest posts and comments, I hope to answer these questions:


1. What is reason -- in my definition and in the definitions of other advocates of reason?

2. What is mysticism -- in my definition and in the definitions of advocates of mysticism?

3. What is the social and intellectual "problem of multiple definitions"? Can discussers and debaters overcome the problem?


4. Who are the main advocates of reason in our time (1960 to now)? What are their key ideas and what actions have they taken to disseminate those ideas?

5. Who are the main advocates of mysticism in our time (1960 to now)? What are their key ideas and what actions have they taken to disseminate those ideas?


6. Is a "debate" about reason versus mysticism even possible?

7. Considering the world in general and in the countries of Western Civilization in particular, who is winning the war between reason and mysticism?


What is the state of the reason/mysticism debate today?

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

Etiquette for Comments

I welcome comments that add to, question, or refute anything I write here about the leading advocates in the reason/mysticism debate of our time. Without explanation, I will reject anonymous and rude comments. Always copy your comment before you publish it.

1. Identify yourself. No masked men speak in this forum. If your screen name is not your real name, then use your real name as a signature at the end of your comment. Use a "first" and a last name. Acceptable examples: Alice Smith (for the full name, B. Alicia Smith); and Bill Jones (for William A. Jones, III).

2. Address ideas not other commenters. Do not name or quote other TME commenters, including the TME host (me). Summarize your ideational target in your own words and state your view about it.

Negative example: "Burgess, you blundered when you said, 'Mysticism subsumes all claims to knowledge other than by reason'."

Positive example: "I disagree with the idea that mysticism includes all claims to knowledge other than reason. That definition is too broad."

3. Do not debate reason vs. mysticism. The purpose of this weblog is to identify the key advocates -- both their ideas and their actions -- in the reason/mysticism debate of our time. Take the war itself elsewhere.

4. Communicate objectively. Write accurately, clearly, concisely, and logically. Follow conventional rules of grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Avoid profanity, street talk, and other symptoms of our democratized culture.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith