Rational Explanations of Ecstatic Experiences Can Still Be Awe-Inspiring

ecstatic experiences

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647–1652) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini

I have previously written on the topic of naturalising mystical states (see here, here, and here), arguing that the phenomenological character of these experiences can fit into a naturalistic worldview, that is, the view that only the natural world exists, or the view which rejects the existence of supernatural realms, forces, laws, principles, and entities. In my post on ‘secular ecstasy’, I introduced the ideas of author Marghanita Laski, who said:

I do not think it sensible to ignore, as most rationalists have done, ecstatic experiences and the emotions and ideas to which they give rise. To ignore or deny the importance of ecstatic experiences is to leave to the irrational the interpretation of what many people believe to be of supreme value… I do not believe that to seek a rational explanation of these experiences is in any way to denigrate them, but rather that a rational explanation may prove at least as awe-inspiring as earlier interpretations.

I wonder whether this last claim – that rational explanations of ecstatic experiences are at least as awe-inspiring as supernatural explanations – is true.

(We can briefly define a ‘rational’ explanation as one that appeals to logic, evidence, causality, physical laws, and objectivity, whereas an ‘irrational’ interpretation is one that appeals to fallacies, emotion, faith, biases, and subjectivity. However, many purported rational explanations involve irrational elements and arguments, and we should be wary about worshipping reason, as this can cause us to ignore and dismiss the value of our ‘non-rational’ – not irrational or illogical – side, which allows us to make decisions based on common sense, intuitive judgement, and wisdom.)

New Atheists have often argued that rational explanations of the natural world and the universe are equally, if not more, awe-inspiring and interesting than supernatural explanations. For example, Richard Dawkins stated in a debate with John Lennox:

I think that when you consider the beauty of the world and you wonder how it came to be what it is, you are naturally overwhelmed with a feeling of awe, a feeling of admiration and you almost feel a desire to worship something. I feel this, I recognise that other scientists such as Carl Sagan feel this, Einstein felt it. We, all of us, share a kind of religious reverence for the beauties of the universe, for the complexity of life. For the sheer magnitude of the cosmos, the sheer magnitude of geological time. And it’s tempting to translate that feeling of awe and worship into a desire to worship some particular thing, a person, an agent. You want to attribute it to a maker, to a creator. What science has now achieved is an emancipation from that impulse to attribute these things to a creator.

In addition, in The Magic of Reality (2011), Dawkins writes, “Next to the true beauty and magic of the real world, supernatural spells and stage tricks seem cheap and tawdry by comparison,” and that the world science reveals to us is “Wonderful because [it is] real.” Of course, this assumes that supernatural perspectives are false and that, if so, their falsity does and/or should drain such a worldview of awe. 

Within the universe that science seeks to comprehensively explain exists our human, phenomenal experiences, including exceptional experiences like ecstatic states. Under an atheistic, naturalistic worldview, can a convincing case really be made that states of profound ecstasy, encounters with an overwhelming divine presence, the dissolving of all boundaries, pure consciousness, merging into ultimate unity, and existing in eternity and infinite space are equally or more awe-inspiring than mystical, religious, and supernatural explanations? Perhaps awe is derived from the notion that, following the trajectory of cosmic and biological evolution, the natural world allows for such experiences to happen. One may be awe-struck by how mysterious this turn of events seems to be (a sense of profound mystery and strangeness can have this effect).

Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy remarked, “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” Indeed, it may be enough; lived experiences of beauty and exceptional experiences of more sublime and ecstatic states, and scientific perspectives on them, can be enough in the sense that they’re valuable and awe-inspiring. But perhaps the propensity to add magic, the supernatural, and mysticism to these states speaks to our human impulse to enhance awe – to magnify this positive emotion as much as possible. While Dawkins and other New Atheists may dismiss this impulse as denigrating our experiences – or desubliming nature (removing the sublime), if we can call it that – this doesn’t mean people’s first-hand experiences match that critique. Subjectively, non-rational interpretations of ecstatic states may increase the power, meaning, richness, and purpose of those experiences. Many of us seek enchantment in a world that feels drearily disenchanted.

I’m not entirely convinced, however, of one position over the other. I believe the awe-inspiring degree of any explanation for an ecstatic experience depends on the nature of the explanation and the person who subjectively considers such an explanation. An explanation that fills one person with awe may seem uninspiring to someone else; and if someone is philosophically disinclined to accept one explanation over another, then it won’t induce strong or convincing feelings of awe. 

I also don’t accept the argument that explaining ecstatic states in evolutionary and neurobiological terms makes the experiences meaningless or less meaningful than explanations that make no reference to neurobiology and only to immaterial dimensions and beings. Within the framework of naturalism, meaning is still subjectively real and personally chosen, and I believe common meanings attached to ecstatic experiences – such as experiencing ultimate unity, discovering the unreality of the self, humility in the face of one’s insignificance, becoming more than one is, shedding the fear of death, feeling reverence for nature, and seeking love and interconnection rather than fear and disconnection – are consistent with rational explanations. Naturalism can accommodate these awe-inspiring insights and experiences, thereby providing space for rationalists to meaningfully lead spiritual lives.

Moreover, I reject the claim that anyone who gives or prefers rational explanations of ecstatic or mystical experiences has not had a true or full ecstatic/mystical experience; nor do I believe that these explanations are necessarily reductive. They often are, but not always. They are reductive if someone says that ecstatic states are nothing more than neurobiological correlates. However, one can hold the view that these states can only be comprehensively explained if both physical correlates and phenomenological perspectives are included together. Each perspective is seen as necessary. This is known as non-reductive physicalism: the idea that the mental and the physical are separate but interconnected; the mind interacts with the brain and affects the physical world, but it is not solely determined by or reducible to physical matter and its interactions.

For the rationalist/naturalist, the phenomenology of ecstatic experiences is incorporated into their physicalist worldview. Whether they are justified in adopting this position, nevertheless, is a point of contention since they may not be able to provide an adequate solution for how physical matter translates into subjective experiences: why they should be related or what laws determine that relation. This is the hard problem of consciousness. As philosopher of mind Jaegwon Kim puts it: “Making a running list of psychoneural correlations does not come anywhere near to gaining an explanatory insight into why there are such correlations.”

So perhaps rational explanations fail to describe reality as it is, as it most clearly presents itself to us – a world in which consciousness exists, which cannot be doubted (except by illusionists, who argue that there is ‘nothing it is like’ to be any creature, and that such phenomenal consciousness only appears to exist, as a kind of biological trick). Illusionism aside, if a rational explanation cannot adequately account for consciousness, then it could be considered less awe-inspiring (precisely for the reason that Dawkins himself argued: unrealistic explanations debeautify or desublime the natural world).

But since levels of awe are, to a large extent, subjective (relative to an individual’s natural reactions, chosen responses, personality traits, beliefs, and attitudes), rational explanations of ecstatic experiences could be equally or more awe-inspiring than – what many would call – irrational interpretations. If neurobiology, for example, correlates certain brain activity (i.e. the dampening of default mode network activity) with ego dissolution and unitive experiences, and if reality is ultimately unified, this can be considered a pretty awe-inspiring meeting of science, altered states of consciousness, and metaphysics. And it is not unthinkable that someone may see this perspective as more awe-inspiring than explanations that resort to concepts like Cosmic Consciousness or Divine Reality. 

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