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.


  1. Philosopher/Biologist Rupert Sheldrake has written a book called_The Sense of being stared at_. He was an atheist but later became a Christian after doing research in India. He has used Aristotle's concept of Final Causation and has come up with the theory of Morphic Resonance. The theory purports to show how and why acorns grow into oaks, how pigeons home and how,allegedly, many scientists solve scientific problems as soon as one pioneer breaks nature's code.

    He says that there are invisible fields that envelop every entity and the entity only grows within that mold (shades of the Chinese Comprachicos). His theory has been used by Objectivist Psychologist Dr. Roger Callahan to develop _Thought Field Therapy_. Roger Callahan wrote a piece for Ayn Rand's _The Objectivist_ (If i remember correctly). His theory is that information in the form of anxiety, phobias etc., travel through these fields, and in order to rid a person of these psychological problems, the link with the past has to be broken by tapping on meridian points across the body's meridian "highway". Sheldrake's website: sheldrake.org
    Callahan's: tftrx.com

    Ali Imdad

  2. I can believe that the woman experienced what she claimed, but I think it's already explainable.

    The sensing of a person standing behind her and hearing the dead talk were produced by her subconscious so vividly it seemed real, especially if her conscious mind was in a relaxed state. Have you ever had an answer to a question or problem suddenly pop into your head when doing some hum-drum activity? That is because if the conscious mind gives the subconscious a problem to work on, and when it gets an an answer it delivers the answer to the conscious mind at a time when one is free and able to act on it, like when doing something hum-drum. I think experiences like this woman's are of a similar process. Not knowing how the conscious and subconscious interact and the extent of what one's subconscious capabilities are she takes it for supernaturalism.

  3. The simplest explanation --assuming the woman in the example wasn't simply lying -- is that she experienced hallucinations. Hearing voices and "feeling a presence" are both common hallucinations.

    As such, it doesn't seem to comprise mysticism, as there is no claim of "knowledge" from mystical sources.

    Tom Dykhuizen

  4. This is the sort of story which can really bother me. Its one thing when someone untrained in thinking succumbs to mysticism but when you hear this of scientists and Objectivists it just leaves me shaking my head. How will it ever be possible to change the culture with rational ideas when even so called rational people fall to this sort of silliness. Of course these people are not really rationale but by pretending to be either to others or to themselves they make the task much more complicated. If Objectivism fails to change peoples minds this will be the reason why it fails.

    “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.”

    Perhaps the most important point and of great concern. Of what possible interest could this tripe be to rational people unless to some extent they believed her or at least wanted to believe her. This would mean of course that they are not really rational. I suspect that these people are really only Objectivists at the emotional level; they loved Ayn Rand’s novels and one liners (and she had some great ones) but do not really understand the basics and that means the epistemology.

    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.

    I think you are on the right track. In order to combat something you have to understand it and be able to identify the actions and the reason for them. In the end, I think the only chance is to challenge their epistemology - to effectively ask: How do you know?

    “it was real, she said”. How do you know?

    I have a question for you. Given your comment: “In summary, such a form of mysticism is empirical in origin and cognitive in its product.” How does this differ from other forms of mysticism? Wouldn’t all forms of mysticism be empirical in origin if they are truly to be believed? Its hard to imagine that a purely intellectual form of mysticism could have any power if one did not feel it was correct.

    “As such, it doesn't seem to comprise mysticism, as there is no claim of "knowledge" from mystical sources”

    For example you could say: “I feel the presence of a dead relative. The feeling is real but the presence is not.” That’s not mysticism. It depends upon what you believe about the feeling. On the other hand I have a built in bias. I have never in my life experience anything I could remotely construe as mysticism and I expect I never will.

    Steve Duff

  5. Thank you for all the comments. As time passes, and I gain more experience, I hope to be able to offer a clearer classification of the many different forms of mysticism.

    To review, mysticism is any claim to knowledge gained in some manner other than logically drawing conclusions from sense-perception.

    1. EMPIRICAL? It is true that all forms of mysticism are experienced. What I should have done is more clearly distinguish the types of experiences.

    Tentatively, I would say "empirical" mysticism relies in some non-sensory manner on proximity--e.g., hearing the voices of the dead as one walks through a cemetery where they are buried. In other words, the mystic somehow has direct contact with a supernatural dimension of his natural setting.

    Other mystics, such as some religious mystics who "commune" with God, they say, do the opposite. It is, they say, by cutting oneself off from one's natural setting (through fasting and sleep deprivation, for example), that one is transported to or makes contact with another dimension.

    Mystics who rely on "intuition" or "illumination" or "channeling" are not "empirical." Their intuition or illumination simply happens internally; it is not dependent on setting.

    2. COGNITIVE? I stand corrected in another way. In one sense, every form of mysticism is, by definition, cognitive, that is the mystic can say something about his experience, even if it is only something like, "I am convinced I was in the presence of God, but I can't define 'God' and I can't describe the experience further."

    The distinction I was trying to get at, when I said "cognitive," is the distinction between (1) a definite statement about some element of a supernatural dimension ("I saw the face of my long-dead brother") and (2) a mere statement of ineffability ("I had an indescribable experience of being in another world").

    I expect a classification scheme, and the terminology that goes with it, will become clearer later.

    Again, thank you for the comments.

  6. Thanks for the references to Sheldrake and Callahan. What exotic specimens they are!

  7. Thank you for this article, Burgess.

    There is something related that I've been thinking about for a while now, which is the equivocation in the English language over the use of the word "feelings"--between "tactile" feelings and "emotional" feelings. What goes on inside your head are "feelings", which are not sources of knowledge but rather one's method or means of interpreting knowledge. What happens when your skin touches something tangible is that you "feel", which is a form of observation and a legitimate source of knowledge.

    I think that without this equivocation it would be much more difficult for people to pass off the kind of rationalism you describe as reason. The difference is obvious with a little introspection and the fact is, if you are honestly committed to reason, you will confirm your "feelings" by reference to your other senses (i.e. sight) before jumping to a mystical conclusion. It's sad that this would be taken seriously by people who should know better.

  8. I am the young women mystic in question, and I do recall Peter at the buffet dinner hosted by Diana Hsieh. I'm certainly willing to answer questions if anyone cares. I am not here to debate, but only to explain and clarify. One fact I would like to correct is that the reason I was talking about it at the dinner is that I was directly asked by one of the people I was conversing with. Their curiosity was intellectual. I did not get the impression that they "wanted to believe" in mysticism, only that they were curious as to how I came to be married to an Objectivist and a regular OCON attendee.

  9. Thank you to all commenters. As stated in the earliest posts for this weblog, the purpose of the weblog is to gather information about advocates of mysticism and advocates of reason -- both their ideas and their actions. This is not a place for debate. Commenters here have recognized that rule. I am very grateful.

    Adding information, correcting others' claims (without naming the others or quoting them), and clarifying points -- all these are welcome.

  10. This week, in reading Sam Harris, The End of Faith, p. 215 (paperback), I see that he uses the term "nondualistic, empirical mysticism."

    I am not certain, but judging from the preceding pages, Harris seems to intend "nondualistic" to refer to consciousness that embraces the "subject" and the "object" of perception as one.

    By "empirical" he seems to mean concerned with observable objects. Perhaps empirical mysticism is distinct from ratiocinative mysticism, that is, a mysticism that is discursive. I am not sure. His discussion is rationalistic and confusing.


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