Consciousness & Mystical Experience
Papers on Parapsychological & Consciousness Research
My early work, started when I was a teenage undergraduate at Aberdeen University, was concerned with the question of whether or not there was any evidence for spiritual reality. Linked to this page are (or will be) papers taking an empirical approach to this question. The paper further down this page, however, is theoretical. It reflects upon empirical evidence in a context of the philosophy of religion.
Some of these early papers show signs of undergraduate limitations including deficiency of gender awareness, a pompous formality, overconfidence and unstated assumptions. That said, they contain material which is arguably the more valuable because it was gathered before the modern wave of interest in these phenomena received wide publicity. For me, they form part of, but only a part of, my reference frame in later work with spirituality.
Being texts from the late seventies and early eighties, these are pre-computer and therefore may contain scanning errors.
Mystical experience, hallucination, and belief in God
by Alastair I. McIntosh
by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of Southwark,
Fr Joseph Crehan SJ, Renée Haynes, Max Payne, Rosalyn
Kendrick, Professor Reginald Ward, Professor H. D. Lewis,
Dean Wild, Archdeacon Perry, Dr I. F. M. McHarg, Ralph
Lovelock and B. M. Percival
Recent books and papers
Venerable Michael Perry, 7 The College, Durham
by Churches’ Fellowship for Psychical and Spiritual Studies,
Mary Abchurch, Abchurch Lane, London EC4N 7BA.
Opinions expressed in this journal are those of the authors alone and do
not commit the CFPSS. For permission to reproduce or translate material, please
apply to the Editor.
Mystical experience, hallucination, and belief in God
(Mr McIntosh was the founder
of the Aberdeen University Parapsychology Society, and is now deputy headmaster
of St Peter’s Extension School, Kerema, in Papua New Guinea.)
The Argument from Mystical
Argument from Mystical Experience expresses the view that as, in mystical ASCs
(altered states of consciousness), a person finds himself to be at one with
Ultimate or Supreme Being—the universal “I”—which according to his
cultural upbringing might be interpreted in terms of God, Brahman, Allah,
Christ, the Tao, etc. (or all or some of these perspectives combined together as
one), then that person is justified henceforth in believing in the existence of
the same. This is the “seeing is believing” argument which has been used
since ancient times, as in the Mandukya Upanishad which states that, “In the
union with Him is the supreme proof of His reality. He is peace and love.” It
is noteworthy that we also use an identical form of argument to justify our
belief in the mundane world’s existence: we perceive and experience the
mundane world and for most this serves as proof of its reality.
well as asserting that mystical experiences have the right to be authoritative
with respect to their revelations for the ASC percipient, some proponents of the
Argument from Mystical Experience will go further and claim that the occurrence
of such ASCs should at the very least make non-mystics more favourably disposed
towards accepting that God exists, if indeed it does not absolutely convince
them. This extension of the argument is based upon consensual validation: the
point being made that mystics all seem to be relating to one universal
metaphysical reality, hence just as those of us who have never been to San
Fransisco mostly believe in the city’s existence on account of travellers’
tales and related documentation, so those who have never been to God in a
mystical experience still have good reason to believe in his existence on
account of other people’s stories which mutually corroborate.
proceeding further to discuss criticisms of the Argument, I should perhaps say a
little about the study and nature of mystical experiences, since the argument
ensuing from them enjoys the strength of having an empirical basis. Having a
mystical experience is a bit like waking up out of a dream. in a dream my
“greater mind” as it might be called projects a dream “me” into a dream
world where I may interact with other dream people, feeling that all is
perfectly real until that horrible moment when the alarm clock goes off bringing
me back into the NSC (normal state of consciousness) and showing inc that the
dream’s only reality had been as a mental fantasy entertained by my now alert
“greater mind”. Likewise, as a person goes deeper into a mystical ASC she
sees that her ordinary self and the mundane world are no more “real” than
the dream world and dream self are seen to be by the dreamer who has just woken
up. It becomes evident that at heart she is not a separate entity struggling
against all the others in the world, but that she is bound up in the whole of
creation which comprises a mighty cosmic dream being entertained in the mind of
her greatest Self, which at this level is synonymous and at one with universal
Self or God. It is this which gives rise to the incredible feeling of unity and
oneness with all things which has been spoken of as the hallmark of mystical
just as it would be very difficult if not impossible to try and explain to an
indignant dream man what his relationship to the dreamer’s mind really is, so
mystics claim that it is impossible adequately to use language to explain our
relationship to God’s mind, and thus to tell what a mystical experience is
like to have. It is in fact ineffable—beyond description using mere words.
However, fortunately for the sake of empirical study, mystical ASCs do show
certain common characteristics which can be classified and used to justify the
claim that the experience relates to one universal metaphysical reality. A fine
assembly of such characteristics have been brought together by Pahnke and
Richards (in Tart 1969), the former having analysed both contemporary and
historical cases of mystical experience to establish a set of criteria which
could be used to establish whether or not subjects to whom a psychedelic drug
had been administered had had what could be called a full mystical experience.
Although I do not intend discussing this in depth here, it is worth noting, for
when we come to consider consensual validation with respect to the Argument from
Mystical Experience, we note that the nine categories of characteristics which
Pahnke identified include such tangible features as having feelings of
undifferentiated unity with all things, a dissolution of the space-time context
of awareness, a sense of having found ultimate truth or reality, a sense of
sacredness, the presence of deeply, felt positive moods such as joy, love,
peace, etc., alleged ineffability and paradoxicality in that the normal laws
of logic and reason seem to be transcended and violated during the experience.
of the Argument
have seen that there are two aspects of the Argument from Mystical Experience:
in the first place it is asserted that having such an ASC justifies the
mystic’s belief in God, and secondly it is claimed that by using consensual
validation with respect to the nature of the experience, a non-mystic may use
the occurrence of such experiences in others as at least a partial foundation
for his belief in God’s existence.
minor criticisms have been made of the argument, but the most forceful and
important one asserts that perception in mystical ASCs is “abnormal”, and
therefore cannot be considered to reveal truth so authoritatively as normal
perception presumably does. Very commonly philosophers and psychologists who
invoke this criticism compare the epistemological status of mystical perception
to the perception of an alcoholic who is having hallucinations as a result of delirium
tremens (the “DTs”) and they follow through by adding that we should no
more think of using consensual validation to support the validity of mystical
perceptions than we should think of using it to proclaim alcoholics’
hallucinations objectively real. It is this criticism and its ramifications
which I wish to counter herein, since it has become particularly pressing over
the last fifteen years or so in view of the sudden surge of people who have
experienced mystical states as a result of such things as psychedelic drug use,
meditation and other ASC induction procedures like the “Christos” procedure
with which I myself have carried out a considerable amount of work (McIntosh
1978 a and b). As a succinct expression of most of the criticism and its
premises I shall use Bertrand Russell’s statement in which he trenchantly
a scientific point of view, we can make no distinction between the man who eats
little and sees heaven and the man who drinks much and sees snakes. Each is in
an abnormal physical condition, and therefore has abnormal perceptions. Normal
perceptions, since they have to be useful in the struggle for life, must
have some correspondence with fact; but in abnormal perceptions there is no
reason to expect such corrrspondence, and their testimony, therefore, cannot
outweigh that of normal perception.
(“Religion and Science”, in Alston 1963)
do not wish to argue that the testimony of mystical perception goes as far as to
outweigh that of ordinary perception: it will be sufficient to show that there
are grounds for considering each to be of equal epistemological status.
Russell’s statement although superficially persuasive is actually based on two
implicit but naive premises. These premises commonly arise and go unchallenged
when criticising mystical experience, and they
cause the arguments to
appear far more formidable than they actually are. The first is an opinion that
mystical perception is “abnormal” in the same derogatory way in which the
perception of someone suffering from delirium tremens is considered to be
abnormal, and the second premise is the view that there is no difference from an
analytical perspective between the set of elements common to mystical
experience, and those found in the perception of an alcoholic with the
the question of abnormality, Russell considers that “normal perceptions must
have some correspondence with fact”. This sounds reasonable, but there is a
snare bidden within the statement; namely the implicit premise that fact
relates to reality as we know it from the
NSC perspective. Obviously this is by no means necessarily true, for while
it is correct to think of ASC perceptions as being “abnormal” in the sense
that they differ from our NSC modes of perception, it is quite unjustified to
suggest that they might not have the same degree of correspondence with fact. We
have no way of knowing how closely even our ordinary perceptions relate to
ultimate reality or truth whatsoever that might be, and just because
“normal” perceptions, in Russell’s sense of the word, must, as he says,
“be useful in the struggle for (physical) life”, it does not follow that
other modes of perception may not be equally valid or even superior to ordinary
perception. Indeed, ASCs which incorporate a strong ESP component provide cases
in point where the scope of normal perceptual means is clearly exceeded.
now established that ASC perceptions cannot be dismissed out of hand as being
inferior to ordinary ones, let us see how “DT” and mystical experiences
differ in the corroborative value of the elements specific to each. As Broad
points out (“The Argument from Religious Experience”, in Alston 1963), the
alcoholic’s visions are mostly of everyday things like rats and snakes, even
if they are often of unusual colours and sizes. He generally feels he is
perceiving at an ordinary level of reality, so to him the rats are as real as
the bed over which they run, and so far as he can understand, other people too,
using their normal sensory modalities, should be able to see the horrors
surrounding him. Such is not the case, of course. A discrepancy exists between
the alcoholic’s view of what he thinks to be NSC reality, and the majority or
consensus view of NSC reality as beheld by others.
so far as he cannot get others to confirm the existence of things which he feels
are there to be observed by all in a normal way, the alcoholic has good reason
to conclude not only that he is suffering from a perceptual abnormality, but
also that this particular type of abnormality is in fact inferior to his
ordinary way of perceiving—a way, which, no doubt, he wishes he could resume.
Furthermore, even if the alcoholic were accompanied by a few of his boozy
friends who were also suffering from the “DTs”, and having similar
hallucinations of rats and snakes crawling over them, it would still be unwise
for them to conclude as a result of consensual validation amongst themselves
that they were right, and others wrong. There are two reasons for this. In the
first place, it is highly unlikely that they would all see the same objects of
fear—the same species of snake etc., in the same part of the room, acting in
the same way— unless mutual suggestion was being invoked. Secondly, we can
easily account for the kind of hallucinations under discussion in terms of
intrusions from the lower unconscious, consisting of the kind of things which
most people deeply fear. In this condition the alcoholic is effectively in a
world where nightmare fantasy co-exists with ordinary reality so that the two
are intermingled. Even we, as presumably healthy individuals, can envisage
such a state simply by using our imagination: the poor alcoholic however, having
hit “rock bottom” and suffering from the “DTs”, has brain damage,
drunkenness, and social and moral dilapidation to help make real any ghastly
visions which his unconscious should be able to thrust above his less resiliant
threshold of consciousness.
wonder then that “DT” perceptions contain common elements or features. They
mostly comprise familiar objects which arouse fear when in close physical
proximity, or ghoulish freaks such as horror-comic artists create. The mystic,
however, is in a very different position. As a necessary prerequisite according
with our criteria for mystical experience, his perception and cognition relate
to things which in essence are ineffable, pertaining to the nature of existence,
and not merely to the familiar objects which have their place within that
existence. Here lies the chief distinction between ASC revelations and alcoholic
or other forms of hallucination. There is no contradiction between the
mystic’s experience and the sensory knowledge which others can claim about
things in the world. Of course, the mystic might think that the NSC picture of
reality is a very blinkered one, but unlike the hallucinator, he would not
consider this view to be incomplete from within the limits to which ordinary
perceptual and cognitive systems constrain it. This is because he knows himself
to be functioning at a different and more complete (i.e. “higher”) level of
reality from which he can gain understanding of things which could be neither
known nor understood in the NSC. He would not expect those in the NSC to be able
to understand what he is experiencing in the higher state of consciousness, in
just the same way as a mineralogist would not expect the untrained layman to
recognise and understand the appearance of a sliver of granite seen through the
lens of a polarising petrological microscope which can reveal more about the
specimen’s composition and nature than can the naked eye.
The difference between the hallucinating alcoholic and the mystic is
very distinct: the former is operating at a lower level of consciousness, in
which his perceptual and cognitive functioning is impaired; while the latter is
at a higher level of consciousness, in that he not only feels he is employing
“supernormal” modes of perception and cognition, but he also knows that his
normal modalities are all accessible if he wishes to direct attention back on to
them and resume the NSC. Seen in this light, Russell’s statement that, “From
a scientific point of view, we can make no
distinction between the man who eats little
and sees heaven and the man who drinks much and sees snakes”, is evidently
based on an incomplete knowledge of the phenomenon in question, as are similar
pronouncements made by others. To be fair to Russell though, this was written
back in 1935 when very few empirical studies had been made of ASC
characteristics, and so it might have seemed misleadingly self-evident then. It
is not so now, however, as is apparent with our increasing knowledge of the
subject, and in consequence I think it would be wrong for philosophers and
psychologists to continue using the type of argument which has just been
examined as a chief one to counter the contention that mystical experience
indicates the presence of a Supreme Being and corresponding level of reality.
What now, may we conclude, are the implications of the occurrence of
mystical states of consciousness? In the first place, we should not consider
the mystic to be deluded simply because his ASC percepts are different to NSC
ones. His mode of perception might well be “supernormal”, and if the
percepts convince him of the existence of a higher level of reality, who are we
to contradict that without first having experienced the ASC for ourselves? And,
secondly, it must be admitted that although mystical experiences corroborate to
suggest objectively that there is in fact a Supreme Being and a related level of
being within our own psyches, we lack the indisputable premises which would
provide the basis for a logical proof of this using the data available, or any
other potentially available data for that matter. This is because although
“logical proofs” are much sought after by rigorous thinkers, logic has
limited application since it can only tell whether a given argument is valid,
granted certain premises which might or might not be true. In most metaphysical
arguments such as the one we are presently considering, acceptance of one or
more of the premises is an act of faith, and so it boils down to saying that
nothing to do with the nature of truth and reality—not even the existence of
the mundane world—can be indisputably proven by means of formal logic.
The question of the existence of Supreme Being must be left purely for
the individual to decide for his or her self. If a person has had a mystical
experience his grounds for belief are very much stronger than those of a person
who is basing his belief on the corroborated experiences of others. But it
cannot justifiably be held that the latter person is in a weak position, for he
is trusting to the testimony of others in much the same way as he might trust to
the testimony of a large number of travellers to a foreign country who claim
that that country exists. True, where foreign countries arc concerned, doubters
can put a lot of effort into earning sufficient money for an airline ticket to
fly there and see for themselves, yet in an age where meditative techniques, ASC
induction procedures, and as a last resort, psychedelic drugs, are available,
there is no reason why, where God too is concerned, determined seekers should
not make a journey to find out.
Alston, W. (ed.), Religious Belief
and Philosophical Thought (Harcourt, Brace, and World, Inc., 1963).
Crookall, R., The Interpretation of Cosmic and Mystical Experiences
(James Clarke, 1969).
James, W., The Varieties of
Religious Experience (Fontana, 1960).
I. C., The Centre of the Cyclone (Paladin,
Masters, R. E. L. and Houston, J., The
Varieties of Psychedelic Experience (Turnstone, 1973).
A. I., “The Christos Procedure : A Novel ASC Induction Technique”, in Journal of Psychoenergetic Systems (in the press, due 1979).
A. I., “A Commentary on the Christos Technique”, Appendix to G. M. Glaskin, Worlds
Within (Arrow paperback, 1978).
C. T. (ed.), Altered States of
Consciousness (Wiley, 1969).
C. T. (ed.), Transpersonal Psychologles (Routledge
and Kegan Paul, 1975).
edition, trans. Juan Mascaro).
A., The Supreme Identity (Noonday
A reference to the
practice of fasting prior to meditation or prayer in some traditions to
increase the likelihood of having a rewarding experience.
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