Interrogative Imperative Institute

Is mysticism really mysterious?

The states and stations of the mystical path may have their qualities and dimensions of mystery, but the methods are fairly straghtforward ... namely, to purify the self from anything which would distort or undermine one's capacity to engage the truth in as objective and unbiased manner as one's capacity permits.

The Mystical Path

The mystical path is dedicated to principles of: truth, love, friendship, justice, community, morality, happiness, peace, service to others, and inner transformations involving one's character as a human being, as well as one's understanding of what it means to be human. Such principles are not just ideals but are considered to be duties of care that are to be realized, as much as possible, in daily life. Through putting the aforementioned principles into lived practice, mystics aspire to contribute to, and enhance, the common good of all human beings irrespective of their ethnicity, gender, race, religion, social status, material resources, philosophical orientation, or political affiliation. Mysterious states and stations -- if they do come -- are not the purpose of the mystical path even though such states and stations may bring important insights and understandings concerning the nature of life and one's relationship with reality and truth.

Mysticism: A Rational Assessment

The phrase 'scientific framework' does not necessarily carry with it the idea of a unitary or uniform conception of scientific theory, practice and methodology. This is because demonstrating there are many different perspectives and approaches to doing and thinking about the numerous processes and activities that are encompassed by the term "science", is relatively easy to do.

Nonetheless, there does seem to be one theme or attitude which tends to link these different scientific perspectives and activities together, and this concerns the belief that what is being studied or analyzed is "physical" in some sense of the term. Whether this word 'physical' is translated in terms of some basic material or 'stuff(s)', together with the possible arrangements and interactions of such fundamental units (e.g.,atoms, electrons, quarks), or whether the term is translated in terms of energy transformations, or whether the word "physical" is construed in the form of some sort of field theory, makes little difference to the underlying belief that 'something' of a concrete or substantial nature can be referred to as constituting the fundamental nature and structure of the observable universe, in general, or an observable phenomenon, in particular.

In some theories or conceptions the referral process may be more subtle and complex than in others (e.g., compare particle physics and geology). However, in each perspective there is a kind of referring to some physical'thing' or process that is capable of being detected through the senses of seeing, hearing, touching and smelling - in conjunction with the intellect's manner of penetrating, arranging, and analyzing the data conveyed through the senses - which is said to represent a fundamental aspect of explaining why phenomena are as they are.

As is the case with science, there are many different perspectives, practices, methodologies, and so on from which one can approach the themes of spirituality. At the same time, however, throughout many, if not most, of all these approaches there is an emphasis on a transcendent dimension which is said to be outside of, though not necessarily unrelated to, the physical realm.

This transcendent dimension is referred to in many different ways, but, generally, it is agreed that, ultimately, all references and descriptions are, on the one hand, incomplete, limiting, and incapable of conveying the true nature of the Transcendent and, on the other hand, tend to coverge in depicting the Transcendent as fundamentally 'non-physical' in any of the possible senses of the term, while simultaneously subsuming physical phenomena under the 'jurisdiction', so to speak, of the Transcendent. In short, a great deal (but not all) of the traditional literature on this subject matter make reference to the Transcendent not as a thing or process or material or stuff or activity and, yet, according to much of such literature, somehow, everything physical is functionally dependent on, and a manifestation of, the Transcendent.

If one were to adopt some sort of a scientific perspective in attempting to pursue the issue of innatism, the various forms of investigation would very likely deal with, say, the kind of work done by Chomsky, Levi-Strauss, or some of the gestalt psychologists, all of whom, in their own manner, are interested in discovering or uncovering the different processes and characteristics that structure and direct the way human beings, learn, speak, interact, perceive, think, and so on. Such a perspective is built around the theme that cognitive processes, for example, are not merely a matter of certain, very general capacities that are primarily shaped according to environmental influences but, instead, cognitive process are considered to be a set of both specialized and interrelated capacities that are the primary factors to consider in gaining insight into how and why human beings understand, function and interact as they do.

Such perspectives do not exclude or neglect the impact which environmental forces can have on such specific cognitive capacities, but they do identify the direction of primary emphasis and focus in such a perspective. Consequently, within these sorts of framework, intelligence is not treated as a general, somewhat amorphous capacity to understand or think nor is intelligence considered merely as a generalized capacity to learn such that the manner or organizing, interpreting, and evaluating reality is structured according to the conceptual framework one picks-up from the environment.

Rather, intelligence is construed as representing, to a large extent - though not necessarily entirely - the specific innate neural biochemical properties of the brain that heavily influence and structure the ways human beings interact with reality. The range of degrees of flexibility which such properties may manifest varies from theory to theory and from school to school, but, as indicated above, they all share a common emphasis with respect to the built-in, or semi-hardwired structuring, organizing, and interpreting properties of cognitive processes.

While this sort of scientific perspective is fine as far as it goes and, within limits, may be a legitimate and fruitful path to pursue with respect to the exploration of one sense of the innatist position, it is unable to penetrate into or make sense of a dimension of innatism that has been prominent in a sub-stantial amount of the pre-nineteenth century literature on this subject, and, consequently, such a perspective has, for the most part, summarily dismissed the whole notion of innate ideas. More specifically, because the scientific framework, as presently conceived, does not really provide a workable means of investigating the notion of an innate idea or truth as an entity that is not functionally dependent on a given physical process or state, nor does it allow one to construct, within such a framework, any plausible account of how non-physical phenomena could exist, science has tended to classify the notion of innate ideas as mere philosophical speculation without any real empirical basis for doing so.

This is a bit like criticizing someone with respect to whom one has designed special rules that prevent the individual from being a member of a social club, for not being a member of the social club, In order for the excluded person to be allowed in the club, the rules of admission are going to have to change, and this is as true for science's general attitude toward, and rules concerning, the possibility of non-physical phenomena, as it is for the social club analogy.

As indicated before, there is a very definite bias or assumption within many scientific frameworks in favor of fundamentally and absolutely construing reality in terms of physical properties and qualities. That reality, or at least a portion of it, does seem to manifest such properties, is not at issue here. What is at issue is the belief that these properties represent the end of the line, so to speak, for what constitutes the fundamental nature of reality underlying all phenomena.

Because of this kind of belief or assumption, the scientific framework - at least as conceived by those who adhere to such an assumption - is prevented from considering other possibilities. For example, that innate ideas may be non-physical entities - a possibility which, when explored, might lead to a far more accurate, penetrating and heuristic portrait of human beings than is possible given the existing biases of certain approaches of science.

This does not mean that there are no problems with respect to investigating innate ideas from a non-physical perspective. Nonetheless, these problems are quite different from what seem to be the potentially unresolvable nature of the problems which arise within the sort of scientific framework that attempts to force a phenomenon that may be, essentially, nonphysical, into a physical framework. Naturally, those who are committed to the basic assumption concerning the - 'bottom line'- physical nature of reality will not seriously consider what is being suggested here, but their failure to do so does not so much necessarily reflect on the actual nature of reality as it does on their ontological and epistemological preferences and how such preferences exclude some possibilities while embracing others.

It seems fairly evident, as Collingwood (e.g., Essay on Metaphysics) and others have pointed out, that the choice of, say, methodology to be used in examining any given issue (scientific, historical, philosophical, religious, etc.) is dependent on certain values or absolute presuppositions which underlie, and are hidden within, a given methodology. These values are ultimately the result of a complex sort of reflection upon the relation of things or events or ideas or concepts, one to another, and which are prior to formal methodology.

Furthermore, although one may refer to certain evidence achieved through the application of various formal methods during the process of reflection, the basis upon which the reflection rests and out of which it emerges is, generally, outside of the influence of formal methodology. Only very rarely (e.g., in what Kuhn refers to as a paradigm change) is the former significantly altered by the latter, or, in other words, only rarely do we allow evidence to enable us to change fundamental assumptions which are the result of the complex, multi-faceted, informal interaction with the environment from which fundamental assumptions and existential stances have precipitated.

To provide some idea of what is meant here, consider the following. There is an obvious difference between evidence and proof. More specifically, agreeing on rules of evidence, as opposed to principles of verification, is much easier to do in the former case rather than the latter.

Thus, while one might concede that some body of information is acceptable as authenticated data and, thereby, can serve as evidence in support of a particular interpretation of a given event, one might argue that the same body of 'evidence' also supports other interpretations. Consequently, the existing evidence does not necessarily constitute a proof for any given interpretation.

Of course, in one sense, even though the existing evidence is capable of supporting several interpretations, that body of data might, in fact, constitute a proof of sorts for one particular interpretation if one's interpretation were actually correct. However, since this is precisely what we do not know, the existing evidence does not constitute a proof in the desired sense of demonstrating to everyone concerned that a given interpretation of a given event is the correct one.

Moreover, there are a number of difficulties associated with trying to demonstrate to everyone concerned that one interpretation, rather than another, is warranted on the basis of the existing evidence. Many of these difficulties arise out of the differences in fundamental presuppositions which, ultimately, shape both rules of evidence and principles of verification. One of the major reasons why such differences in fundamental presuppositions can continue to persist as a source of difficulties is the absence of any unanimously agreed upon means of rationally determining an 'absolute' basis for methodology, capable of winning everyone's, or nearly everyone's, allegiance. In fact, rationality may not even be our ultimate means of determining truth.

The mystics of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and native spirituality all make remarkably similar claims in this regard. They claim there is a Reality extending beyond, as well as encompassing, the plane of existence into which our intellect, emotions and senses are tied - a Reality which is realizable only through the agency of our essential, spiritual nature that is metaphysically prior to, and more penetrating than, the powers of reason.

"Metaphysics", as used here, is not just a matter of philosophical speculation about universal principles but, rather, involves direct reference to the principles themselves as grasped through mystical modalities of knowing. As Rene Guenon says:

"Unfortunately one comes across people who claim to 'judge' that which they do not know and who, because they name 'metaphysics' to a purely human and rational knowledge (which for us is only science or philosophy), imagine that oriental metaphysics is no more and no other than that; ... What they envisage has really nothing to do with metaphysics, since it is only knowledge of scholarship; it is not of this that we wish to speak. Can one then make 'metaphysical' synonymous with 'supernatural'? We are prepared to accept such an analogy, since if one does not go beyond nature - that is to say, the manifest world in its entirety (and not only the world of the senses, which is only an infinitesimal part of it) - one is still in the realm of the physical. Metaphysics is, as we have already said, that which lies beyond and above nature; hence it can properly be described as 'supernatural'."1

Moreover, although reference, in the above quotation, is made explicitly just to "oriental metaphysics", Guenon's position can be extended to the essential aspects of many expressions of spirituality. The "essential aspects" of these traditions is emphsized because metaphysics in the above sense of the term is most clearly delineated in the esoteric or essential dimensions of spirituality (i.e., mysticism) and often becomes most confused and diluted in the exoteric representations of the Greater Truths.

If the foregoing indications are accurate, then, one cannot give rational proofs for mysticism. This is because mysticism involves what is suprarational and, therefore, outside the range of rational capabilities.

There is, of course, evidence which can be offered in support of the existence of mystical states. But, like all evidence (including arguments that are opposed to, or deny, the mystical position), such data are dependent on the underlying dogmas which lace the pieces of information together. The problem, then, becomes one of choosing one set of dogmas over another, or affirming one set over another.

Nevertheless, determining what is "right" and what is "wrong" depends very much on whether there are any absolutes through which, or against which, to measure choice. If there is not any realm of the Absolute, if all things are relative, random, 'Absolute-independent' happenings, then "right" and "wrong" might be said, by some, to be, merely, arbitrary values which have no logically binding authority to link people inter-subjectively. According to such an argument, "right" and "wrong" become so by a process that cannot be extricated or separated off from one's beliefs, values and interests - either individually or collectively. Moreover, objectivity becomes a function of either subjective preferences or inter-subjective fiat.

On the other hand, if there is an Absolute realm - beyond the physical - through which physical reality, and other dimensions, are structured, then, "right" and "wrong" become definable in terms of this Absolute, and all that remains is one's acknowledgment of what is the case or one's rebellion against it.

If there is an Absolute beyond the horizons of reason's capacity to understand (something supra-rational), then, by definition, as previously indicated, this Absolute realm lies beyond reason and cannot be reduced to rational understanding. In fact, even if there were no set of principles beyond reason's grasp, how could reason possibly determine, with any certitude, that there was nothing beyond rational capabilities?

In line with one of the arguments of Kurt Godel, one requires something outside of the system of rationality to verify that system as complete. In other words, on rational grounds, the issue becomes an undecidable one.

In either of the foregoing cases (i.e., there is a realm beyond the grasp of reason and there is no such realm), reason depends on a proof that lies beyond its capacity to provide. In the one case, it is because the proof lies on a supra-rational level and, in the other case, it is because there is no way of rationally ascertaining that there is nothing which lies outside the scope of reason. Consequently, reason can never be self-justifying and always involves an element of faith with respect to the conclusions which emanate from it.

To argue that some statement is untrue because one cannot conceive of how it could possibly be the case does not always prove the impossibility of the statement's assertion. It may, instead, point out the limits of one's capacity to conceive or understand a given possibility.

While one may argue which ever way one pleases, ultimately, one's conclusions rest on faith in certain fundamental ideas about the nature of reason, truth, evidence, proof, verifiability and so on. This is to say, all rationality, of whatever description, is based on dogma of one kind or another.

To contend that all rationality rests on dogma, however, is not to assert that certain of these dogmas may not be true or correct with respect to some facet or level of reality. Reality, whatever it may be, does not seem amorphous, and, therefore, without any characteristics or describable features which can be inter-subjectively agreed upon across cultures.

Indeed, the most fundamental arguments of philosophy, science and spirituality have not been over the lack of characteristic features manifested by Reality. The arguments have concerned the nature of the overall structure of things into which the acknowledged features fit.

Thus, there is nothing necessarily pejorative in saying that rationality is inseparable from dogma. The problem has always been one of trying to determine, or discern, which dogmas are reflective of the underlying structure of reality. Ultimately, we are faced with the problem of trying to determine when we are dealing with reality itself (whatever this might mean) and when we are dealing with something which, individually or collectively, is being imposed on the basic structure of reality such that the conceptual framework screens us from a more (or most) fundamental understanding of reality.

On the one hand, all mental frameworks have, or are rooted in, a degree of the fundamental structure of reality for they would not be possible if this were not the case. Even fantasy and hallucinations are possible because the underlying structure of reality allows for their possibility. On the other hand, one need not let the issue go at this, for one is still faced with trying to ascertain the purest or most fundamental stream(s) of reality, and it is this concern that lies behind the pursuits of philosophy, science and religion.

In the section which follows, an attempt will be made to outline certain aspects of a mystical perspective. This perspective is concerned with a way of approaching, as it were, the basic nature of reality. As such, it is an interpretive framework. And, although its orientation is different in many respects from a scientific framework, it is not without its strengths.


1.) Jacob Needleman, ed., Sword of Gnosis (Baltimore, Maryland, Penguin Books, 1974), "Oriental Metaphysics" by Rene Guenon, pp.42-43.[Return to Text]

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