Who Wins: Neuroscience vs. Mysticism

Who Wins: Neuroscience vs. Mysticism December 20, 2018

Can neuroscience debunk mystical experiences? Should we dismiss them as a matter of misfiring neurons, or are they something more something more?

In the first two posts of this series (here and hereI reviewed novels that explore these questions with nuance and complexity. Here, I argue that neuroscientific explanations do not threaten mystical experiences, once we reject a false materialist framework.

What is mysticism?

First, we have to define our terms. Mysticism is the tendency of the human soul toward the divine, most often through contemplation in love. Importantly, it’s not the capacity of an individual to grasp the mysteries of God by her reason. Rather, it’s a particular gift of divine grace. It’s God’s action to allow the person to intimately contemplate His being.

As is written in the Catechism, “When he [or she] listens to the message of creation and to the voice of conscience, [the human person] can arrive at certainty about the existence of God, the cause and the end of everything.” (46)

Defined in this way, mysticism is essential for a full and flourishing Christianity. In the words of Pope Francis, “A religion without mystics is a philosophy.”

Mystical experiences are rich, varied and complex. As such, it’s difficult to identify a common denominator, even in terms of the psychological aspects of the experience. However, most mysticism involves the experience of transcendence, as well as feelings of wonder and awe. These are usually brief, and may change one’s sense of time and space, but feel overwhelmingly real.

In the Christian tradition, mystics pursue a three-part path: purgation, illumination, and unification with God. The purification often takes place through ascetic discipline. Illumination, then, is the Holy Spirit’s action to enlighten the mind. Finally, the unitive phase is the experience of being joined to the Divine being, especially God as love.

Can neuroscience tell us something about mysticism?

Mystical experiences were brought into mainstream psychological discussion by William James’ foundational work, Varieties of Religious Experience. In his view, they are an altered and irrational state of consciousness, one that is purely subjective and private.

Let me start by stating this: there is a serious gap in the scientific literature when it comes to the neural correlates of mystical experiences. The ones that exist, such as this fMRI study on the brains of 15 Carmelite nuns, are plagued by ambiguously defined terms and categorical errors in their reasoning.

Furthermore, the function of the brain as a whole remains enigmatic. We still don’t understand the way in which complex neural circuits interact and are integrated. We don’t know what underlies altered states of consciousness. Perhaps most importantly, we have no idea how consciousness and all its qualitative subjectivity arises.

Though we have a long way to go, there is great promise here. Identifying possible neural correlates for mystical experiences certainly seems possible, and it could help us understand ordinary brain function as well.

A reductive account of Christian mysticism

However, materialist theories and claims about mysticism abound. More often than not, they hypothesize mystical experiences to be mere byproducts of neuropathological conditions.

For instance, some point to temporal lobe epilepsy as the mechanism of mystical visions and trace-like states. This is the condition on which Salzman modeled his character Sister John of the Cross.

Another idea is that acute and chronic hypoxia — lack of oxygen —  generates abnormal patterns of activation at the temporo-parietal junction in the brain. These patterns then cause altered perception and feelings of transcendence and awe. This would account for the concentration of mystical experiences on mountains.

In and of itself, neuropathology does not categorically empty religious experiences of truth or validity.

However, most theorists claim that the neurobiological mechanisms of mysticism are full explanations of such experiences. From this materialist position, the physical processes are not just biological correlates of the experience. Rather, they constitute the whole of the phenomenon. As such, neuropathological origins would reduce mystical experiences to mere delusions generated by the brain. And under these terms, mysticism is necessarily private and devoid of truth beyond mere subjective experience.

But is this an adequate account of mysticism?

Toward a non-reductive account of mysticism

In my opinion, reductionism is a woefully inadequate account of the human person – including human experiences of mysticism. The physical correlates in the brain are just part of the picture, and by themselves, they do not account for the existence or experience of the human subject.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that neuroscience will not answer the questions of theology. Neuroscience can only play a part in our self-understanding as religious people. Thus, when interpreting and evaluating religious experiences, we must operate under three conditions.

  1. Tradition. Mystical experiences do not take place in a vacuum of subjectivity but within the larger picture of a tradition. Therefore, they should be evaluated and purified according to the light of established revelation.
  2. Community. Mystics must be embedded in communities of faith, because their experiences are not for themselves alone. If they are truly grasping truth about God, the experience is not merely subjective but objective. As such, they are a gift for the mystic’s whole community, and must be received and interpreted by that community.
  3. Gratitude. Mystical experience, and any experience of God, is a mysterious gift. In the end, union with Him is a gift not grasped by will or reason alone. Therefore, mystical experiences should be welcomed with deep reverence and gratitude.

Under these three conditions, mysticism can flourish, and can contribute essentially to a vibrant and authentic Christianity.

Further reading recommendations

Check out my two previous posts in this series here and here.

Here’s a collection of essential writings of Christian mystics, compiled by Bernard McGinn. Lately, I’ve been reading Simone Weil, Julian of Norwich, Evagrius Ponticus, and St. John of the Cross.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Illithid

    If “mystical” experiences actually did reveal something about reality, shouldn’t it be possible to demonstrate that? In what way would one differentiate between a hallucination brought on by psilocybin or hypoxia and a genuine transcendent experience?

  • Michael Lonergan

    Science bitch.

  • Sofia Carozza

    The strict division between psychopathology/brain mechanisms and “genuine transcendent experiences” is a false dichotomy. And on the truth revealed, see above about tradition and community.

  • Illithid

    Thank you for replying. I’m not sure I understand your first sentence. Do you mean to say that every hallucination is somehow an experience of a reality not accessible to our usual senses? If I take LSD and see a flying strawberry with an “S” on its chest, does that have meaning somehow, or can’t it be just random stuff my brain made up while on drugs?

    The problem with tradition and community seems to be that they would shape the experiences one has while in an altered brain state. In near-death experiences, for example, people tend to see things that fit their religious expectations. Even if one could sift through them for similarities, like going through a tunnel, approaching a light, and a sense of peace, does that mean those things represent a reality that we encounter at death, or is it just that those are sensations that dying human brains tend to have?

    I don’t see any reason to think that these experiences ever represent reality. People see odd things when they’re hyperthermic, or hypoxic, or really tired or hungry. I think that they got together and made up stories about what they saw, like kids telling ghost stories about the creepy old house at the edge of town. Believe it enough, and when they go there they’ll convince themselves the ghosts are real. But they’re not.

  • Sofia Carozza

    No, of course I’m not saying “every hallucination is somehow an experience of a reality not accessible to our usual senses.” Much of psychopathology is mere disorder and has no correspondence with reality. For more on this, see my post about CBT from a few weeks ago. The same is true with experiences induced by hallucinogens and other drugs.

    Strict division means that one cannot exist without the other. False dichotomy is an informal fallacy where one assumes that the situation is “either/or” when in reality the dichotomy may not jointly exhaustive and/or not mutually exclusive.

    My point is this: if God chooses to bring a soul to unity with Himself, He may do so by way of differential patterns of brain activity. In and of themselves, the existence of such patterns of neural firing (which may sometimes fall under the umbrella of a neurological disorder) do not tell you anything about the origin or end of the mystical experience. It is for this reason that tradition and community are so vital.

  • Sofia Carozza

    Put differently: the idea that “authentic mystical experiences” can’t somehow take place through brain mechanisms demands a false dualism.

  • Illithid

    Okay, I’m glad you’re not claiming that. One encounters some very odd opinions sometimes.

    To simplify, I agree that logically I can’t say that… oh, let’s say “visions”… cannot be a genuine contact with another reality (if such exists), or with a deity (ditto). I just don’t see how you’d tell if it were or not. Referring to an existing tradition or community just tells you whether your vision matches theirs, which if you’re a member of said community or tradition, it’s very likely to do.

    So an American native in a sweat lodge has a vision of his spirit animal or some such, as his tradition and community teach him to expect. Does that mean it’s real?