[ACC] How Much Significance Should We Ascribe To Spiritual Experiences?

[This is an entry to the 2019 Adversarial Collaboration Contest by Jeremiah Gruenberg and Seth Schoen]

1. Introduction

This project seeks to explore the viability of spiritual or religious experiences as empirical evidence for a component of reality that transcends or is radically different from our ordinary experience. The question at hand is not the existence of God or higher powers, nor the failures, successes, or benefits of religion, but rather the role of spiritual experience in the human understanding of the nature of reality. We formulated the topic in controversy this way:

The empirical study of the content and nature of people’s personal spiritual experiences justifies taking them seriously as evidence of an important component of human life deserving of individual and collective exploration.

Our fellow human beings have always had unusual experiences that they found special and meaningful, but often struggled to interpret or place in the context of their ordinary lives. These experiences and their interpretation have aroused intense controversy, both because people have deployed them as support for their views on contested issues about the nature of reality, and because they may arise in settings where one could easily question whether the brain’s altered perceptions and understandings are enhanced or impaired. Another source of debate is how radically different individuals’ experiences—and their personal interpretations of the origins and meanings of those experiences—can be. Finally, spiritual experiences are often reported through a cultural lens that leads to questions about how accurately and objectively people could perceive and describe the unusual things that they perceived.

We emphasize that there is no question, even from the most skeptical perspective, of insisting that individuals alter their own views or memories of what they have witnessed (although we encourage people to question their interpretations and to become aware of factors that could raise doubts about those interpretations). What is rational or plausible for each person to believe at a particular moment can be different, and in any case the way that people interpret their own experience and history will be different. If you have had a spiritual experience whose nature and meaning you find evident and certain, others may offer you alternative interpretations and evidence against your view, but can’t demand that you change it. However, we find it interesting to consider what lessons others can draw from accounts of unusual experiences and perceptions: not so much what sort of evidence your own spiritual experiences may constitute for you, but rather what sort of evidence your accounts of them may constitute for others. Can we collectively learn anything from these experiences?

One objective of this project is to explore empiricism as a key to a “common language” which allows all perspectives to discuss the significance of spiritual experience—not just those who are predisposed to a traditional theistic model of reality. Empiricism seems to a major contender in the competition to find common ground surrounding spirituality. It is both experience-based and rational. Properly employed, the use of empiricism may allow for a rational discussion of personal experience.

We’ve structured this article in nine sections:

  1. Introduction.

  2. Definitions of Empiricism, Experience, Knowledge, and Spirituality: a discussion of some important terms, as well as the coherence and conflict between empiricism and rationality.

  3. Psychological Research on Spiritual Experience.

  4. Epistemology and Religious Experience: this section focuses on William P. Alston’s treatment of how mystical perception may justify the generation of personal belief.

  5. Near Death Experiences: a review and discussion of a major work on the significance of NDEs from the perspective of a scholar who suggests that their meaning is largely symbolic.

  6. The Use of Entheogens: a look at a recent meta-study which reviews the data of five different studies on spiritual experiences resulting from the use of entheogenic substances, and some other sources on entheogens in religion.

  7. The Problem of Dreaming: an objection to the interpretation of spiritual experiences as having anything other than personal, momentary significance.

  8. Some Possible Perspectives: the collaborators share their various ideas on how the empirical and philosophical content of the paper thus far might be viewed or understood.

  9. Concluding Thoughts.

2. Definitions of Empiricism, Experience, and Spirituality

The first step in exploring this statement is interact with philosophical perspectives on the interrelated concepts of empiricism, experience, and spirituality in the attempt to define our terms.

Empiricism can be various defined. Essentially it deals with sensory experience as a generator of knowledge.

Empiricism was an integral—perhaps the singular fundamental—of the emergence of scientific inquiry as we know it. Wolfe and Gal write:

It was in 1660s England, according to the received view, in the meetings of the Royal Society of London, that science acquired the form of empirical enquiry that we recognize as our own: an open, collaborative experimental practice, mediated by specially-designed instruments, supported by civil, critical discourse, stressing accuracy and replicability. Guided by the philosophy of Francis Bacon, by Protestant ideas of this-worldly benevolence, by gentlemanly codes of decorum and integrity and by a dominant interest in mechanics and a conviction in the mechanical structure of the universe, the members of the Royal Society created a novel experimental practice that superseded all former modes of empirical inquiry – from Aristotelian observations to alchemical experimentation.1

However, it is important to note that empiricism was popularized as a philosophical concept in the first half of the 20th Century (by such figures as A.J. Ayer, Rudolf Carnap, Kurt Gödel, Karl Popper, Hans Reichenbach, and Ludwig Wittgenstein), and began to take various shapes. Since then, there have been major disagreements on exactly what empiricism entails and how it functions.2 However, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states: “Since antiquity the idea that natural science rests importantly on experience has been non-controversial.”3

Perhaps most germane to the topic of this investigation is the fact that empiricism conflicts with pure rationality. It is easy to recognize the limitations and failings of human experience as a reliable source of truth.4 However, since all inputs to human cognition are fundamentally experiential in nature (e.g. the senses of sight, hearing, etc.), the issue of experience must be addressed in any epistemological mode.

In reviewing this conflict between rationalism and empiricism, Markie summarizes the empiricist position with this thesis: “We have no source of knowledge in S or for the concepts we use in S other than sense experience.”5

On the other hand, Markie provides three theses which summarize the rationalist position:

The Intuition/Deduction Thesis: Some propositions in a particular subject area, S, are knowable by us by intuition alone; still others are knowable by being deduced from intuited propositions.

The Innate Knowledge Thesis: We have knowledge of some truths in a particular subject area, S, as part of our rational nature.

The Innate Concept Thesis: We have some of the concepts we employ in a particular subject area, S, as part of our rational nature.

Taking these views into consideration, it seems that the human being is still left in an empiricist position in that our existential state precludes non-experiential data gathering. Intuition itself is formed by lifelong experiences. Nor is “our rationalist nature” is as purely rational as we might hope. Certainly, we should temper the negative subjective qualities of experience, but it seems impossible to circumvent experience altogether regarding embodied human epistemology.

It is true that our experiences must be tempered with objective rationality. However, most humans naturally function primarily in an empirical manner in the formation of worldview, beliefs, and knowledge. The relevant question is therefore not whether some form of empiricism is at play in epistemology in general, but what its role should be. It seems the pure rationalist would exclude all subjective experiential sources of knowledge, even if humans naturally engage in—and rely on—such subjective experiential sense-making.

When it comes to issues of spirituality, a materialistic presupposition would immediately dismiss all appeals to experience. Such a presupposition precludes any engagement with the metaphysical due to its (supposed) nonexistence. A committed materialist would not even investigate the possibility that spiritual experiences have anything but a neurological/biochemical cause. However, if such a presupposition may be suspended, empiricism may hold the key in explaining and/or understanding a spiritual worldview.

What then constitutes “spirituality” in this conversation? The authors of this collaboration would include such experiences as meditative suspensions of self, encounters with the divine in any religious context, near-death experiences, and transcendental uses of entheogens6. Spirituality may be theistic, or it may not. Examples of theistic spirituality are easy to come by. An example of a non-theistic approach to spirituality is found in Sam Harris’ Waking Up, which advocates the use of meditation derived from Buddhist practices to attain altered states of consciousness. While we (the collaborators) might individually define spirituality somewhat differently on an individual level, we find this more general approach helpful to foster conversation on the empirical nature of spiritual experience.

Zinnbauer argues that the terms religion and spirituality are very similar in meaning, but that religion is a narrower term as it is limited to a traditional or institutional context. Zinnbauer writes:

Thus, according to these definitions, spirituality is a broader term than religiousness. Spirituality includes a range of phenomena that extends from the well-worn paths associated with traditional religions to the experiences of individuals or groups who seek the sacred outside of socially or culturally defined systems. For example, an individual’s spirituality may include feelings of devotion, memories of a mystical experience, gatherings with other seekers, rebellion against a culture antagonistic to such a search, and a sense of unity with all sentient life. Significant changes in any of these levels or developmental strands may change the search itself. Development of a serious illness, for example, may change feelings of devotion to confusion or anger, make gatherings more difficult to attend, and cause psychological isolation from a sacred connection to others.7

Pargament provides a slightly different contrast between the two:

In short, spirituality is highlighted as a distinctive dimension of human functioning in the…. Spirituality alone addresses the discovery, conservation, and transformation of the most ultimate of all concerns, the sacred. Yet religiousness is not viewed as inconsistent with or an impediment to spirituality. In fact, spirituality is the core function of religion. Indeed, considerable religious energy is dedicated to helping people integrate the sacred more fully into their pathways and destinations of living. But to succeed at this task, religion accepts and attempts to address the full range of human strivings. Thus, as defined here, religiousness represents a broader phenomenon than spirituality, one that is concerned with all aspects of human functioning, sacred and profane.8

However, Zinnbauer and Pargament note that culturally, spirituality seems to be supplanting religion in a few ways. Spirituality is now seen as the encompassing “sacred or existential goals in life, such as finding meaning, wholeness, inner potential, and interconnections with others….”9 They continue: “In contrast, religiousness is substantively associated with formal belief, group practice, and institutions.”10

3. Psychological Research on Spiritual Experience

We were impressed by the existence of numerous empirical psychological studies of spiritual experience. Two recent major works which reveal this breadth of research are The Psychology of Religion: an Empirical Approach by Hood, Hill, and Spilka11, and Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, edited by Paloutzian and Park12. The significant earlier studies of spiritual experience include those of Harvard psychologist William James (Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature) and Alister Hardy (The Spiritual Nature of Man: Study of Contemporary Religious Experience). “Both James and Hardy affirmed the evidential value of religious/spiritual experiences as at least hypotheses suggesting the existence of a transcendent reality variously experienced.”13 (James famously suggests that spiritual experiences are difficult to understand or evaluate, but that they are compelling and widespread enough to “forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.“)

Paloutzian and Park recognize the limitations of psychological research on the nature of spiritual experience in this way:

our job as scientific psychologists of religion is to create good theory to explain religiousness in a way that allows the theory to be assessed against evidence. This means ideas about possible causal factors that are not, in principle, capable of being tested against evidence may be interesting, but they do not meet the criteria necessary to bear upon our theory construction process.14

Current Research

Surveys indicate that somewhere between one third to one half of the population has had some sort of significant religious experience.15 Such experiences are correlated with gender, education, and social class—being more common for females, for those with a higher education, and for those in higher classes.16 Hood et al. write: “Women report more such experiences than men; the experiences tend to be age-related, increasing with age; they are characteristic of educated and affluent people; and they are more likely to be associated with indices of psychological health and well-being than with those of pathology or social dysfunction.”17 Investigations into the heritability of religiosity, particularly through twin studies, place it between 0% to 50%.18

It was also discovered that people in the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Scandinavia do not tend to share their spiritual experiences with others. Hood et al. wonder if this is why such spiritual experiences are thought to be uncommon (as fewer people in these societies might have heard reports of others’ spiritual experiences).

Due to the internal and personal nature of spiritual experiences, the data gathering on the topic is most often accomplished through surveys, questionnaires, and interviews. The accuracy of such self-reporting can be measured—with some testing suggesting that some percentage are likely false positives (tendencies both for the pro-religious to affirm spiritual experience and for the anti-religious to deny spiritual experience).19 Identifying activity which triggers spiritual experience and studying individuals undertaking these actions in a laboratory setting is another research mode. Such activities studied include prayer and meditation.20 As we will discuss in another section, they also increasingly include the use of psychoactive substances.

Hood et al. admit that the over-reliance on self-reporting is a difficult hurdle in the study of spiritual experience, particularly because of the potential pitfalls of bias, including “intentional deception, impression management, personal bias, and many more.”21 They discuss the alternative uses of other kinds of measurement, such as physiological and behavioral measures, and the increasing use of the Implicit Association Test.

One study indicated that spiritual experience (reading Psalm 23) functioned neurologically in the frontal and parietal lobes, while nonreligious experience of reading Psalm 23 involved the amygdala (which was not active in the religious experience).22 “On the basis of these findings, Azari and her coworkers have proposed that religious experience is likely to be a cognitive process utilizing established neural connections between the frontal and parietal lobes.”23

Addressing whether spiritual experiences are the result of a psychiatric disorder, Hood et al. note that “both normal and psychotic individuals can have mystical experiences” and that this is backed up by empirical research.24 Such research noted that the differences between normal mystics and psychotics is that “The psychotic mystics exhibited resistance and rigidity, as opposed to the normal mystics, who exhibited openness and fluidity. Thus it is not simply mystical experience, but the reactions to the experience, that distinguish psychotic from normal mystics.”25

The Nature of Spiritual Experience

Some evolutionary psychologists argue that religious experience arose because it is an adaptive advantage. Kirkpatrick writes, “Hypotheses about the adaptive function of such religious instincts have ranged from defense against fear of death or other forms of comfort and anxiety reduction to group-level benefits such as promoting cohesion and solidarity or reducing conflict.”26 However, Kirkpatrick argues that the evidence does not point to adaptive advantage. He writes, “My own view…is that the diverse collection of phenomena we refer to as ‘religion’ represent a collection of by-products of numerous adaptations with other specific, mundane functions.”27 Kirkpatrick continues,

With respect to religion, beliefs about the existence of supernatural forces and beings appear to emerge as a spandrel-like by-product of evolved systems dedicated to understanding the physical, biological, and interpersonal worlds (Boyer, 1994, 2001). For example, an evolved agency-detector mechanism, designed to distinguish animate from inanimate objects in the world, can be fooled fairly readily to produce psychological animism and anthropomorphism (Atran, 2002; Atran & Norenzayan, in press; Guthrie, 1993), as when we find ourselves cursing at our aforementioned computer when it crashes. Once these spandrel-like effects enable ideas about gods and other supernatural beings, I have suggested, specific forms of religious belief emerge as by-products of psychological mechanisms dedicated to processing information about functionally distinct kinds of interpersonal relationships—attachments, kinships, dominance and status competitions, social exchange relationships, friendships, coalitions, and so forth—that whir into action to shape specific beliefs and expectations about these beings and guide behavior toward them. Thus, for example, gods might be perceived as attachment figures, dominant or high-status individuals, or social exchange partners, with each possibility leading to a different set of expectations and inferences about those gods’ behavior and decisions about how to best interact with them—processes emerging from functionally distinct psychological systems designed to solve such adaptive problems in human relations (Kirkpatrick, 1999, 2005).28

Theories related to agency detection are popular with religious skeptics; some have noted that in a dangerous world of predation or intergroup violence, wrongly failing to perceive agency and intelligence where they are present has greater adverse survival consequences than wrongly perceiving them where they are not present.

Neuropsychologists, however, point to a combination of “cognitive operators” in the brain which together give rise to human religiosity. “The term ‘cognitive operator’ simply refers to the neurophysiological mechanisms that underlie certain broad categories of cognitive function. Thus, these operators do not exist in the literal sense, but can be useful when considering overall brain function.”29 The “causal operator” works with any series of perceived events and attempts to organize them back to an original cause. Such perception and organization is subjective and may not arrive at an accurate conclusion. Newberg and Newberg write: “We have proposed that when no observational or “scientific” causal explanation is forthcoming for a strip of reality, gods, powers, spirits, or some other causative construct is automatically generated by the causal operator (d’Aquili & Newberg, 1997).”30 A second operator proposed as functioning in the development of spiritual experience is the “holistic operator”: “The proposed holistic operator permits reality to be viewed as a whole or as a gestalt, as well as the abstraction from particulars or individuals into a larger contextual framework.”31

How to View Religious/Spiritual Experience

The following quotes are summaries of current positions of psychologists studying religious and spiritual experience. They represent foundational views in the field and we have chosen therefore to quote them at length.

Hood et al. warn against the danger of reductionism in the psychological study of spiritual experience, stating that it is dangerous “to reduce the richness and complexity of religious experience to a favorite psychological construct.”32 Elsewhere, they write:

The empirical study of religiousness has many great challenges. The first of these challenges considered here is how to maintain the scientific standards of good empirical work, always the goal of science, without sacrificing the richness and depth of the object of study. We have gone to considerable lengths to make the case that religious experience should not be reduced to specific psychological processes. It is tempting to do so when one adopts the naturalistic perspective that underlies scientific investigation, and to ignore the meaning system of the people being studied. What is needed is some nonreductionistic accounting of the phenomena of interest, but without abandoning scientific methodology and thus not reaping the benefits that it provides.33 (Hood and Hill Psychology of Religion, 25)

Zinnbauer and Pargament write:

A controversy that often is raised in discussions of measurement and definition is that of reductionism, the process of understanding a phenomenon at one level of analysis by reducing it to presumably more fundamental processes (see discussions in Idinopulos & Yonan, 1994, and Wilber, 1995). In some sense this process is unavoidable in scientific study (Moberg, 2002; Segal, 1994). However, reductionism is often accompanied by a loss of information. For example, the reduction of mystical experiences of oneness with the universe to a change in neurotransmitter levels eliminates information at all other levels (e.g., the cultural, social, familial, affective, cognitive, and behavioral). There may indeed be important physical correlates of such an experience, but to deny the relevance or value of other modes of interpretation and understanding is to commit the error of reductionism.34

Regarding the problem of the compatibility of empiricism with the notion of a genuine spiritual reality, Hood et al. write:

Although social scientists cannot confirm any ontological claims based upon mystical experience, they can construct theories compatible with claims to the existence of such realities. Hodges (1974) and Porpora (2006) have argued that the scientific taboo against the supernatural can be broken, as long as hypotheses about the supernatural can be shown to have empirical consequences. In Garrett’s (1974) phrase, “troublesome transcendence” must be confronted by social scientists as much as by theologians and philosophers.35

Newberg and Newberg write:

Western society has historically emphasized the importance of causality, technological advances, and empiricism. It is from these values that Western medicine, psychiatry, and psychology have developed. We propose that regardless of the connotation of the concept of spirituality in Western society, mystical and meditative experiences are natural and probably measurable processes that are and can be experienced by a diversity of people of different races, religions, and cultures. Those having spiritual experiences can have a variety of neuropsychological constitutions. In addition, it is important for clinicians to be sensitive and knowledgeable regarding spiritual and philosophical beliefs (Worthington, McCullough, & Sandage, 1996). Professionals need to be capable of distinguishing normal, healthy spiritual growth from psychopathology. We hope that some of the neurophysiological analysis described above might allow for a distinction between “normal” spiritual experiences and pathological states. In fact, such a nomenclature may be valuable for future psychological analysis of religious experiences. However, the fact that spiritual experiences have an effect on autonomic function as well as other cortically mediated cognitive and emotional processes suggests that such experiences not only affect the human psyche, but also can be carefully crafted to assist in the therapy of various disorders. It has already been shown that prayer and meditation can improve both physical and psychological parameters (Carson, 1993; Kabat-Zinn, Lipworth, & Burney, 1985; Kaplan, Goldenberg, & Galvin-Nadeu, 1993; Worthington et al., 1996). The more the underlying neurophysiological correlates of spiritual experiences are understood, the more such experiences can be analyzed and utilized in clinical practice. Therefore, spiritual experience can be very useful in clinical psychological and psychiatric practice. Furthermore, clinicians themselves can be instrumental in helping their patients toward personal and spiritual growth by discussing various meditative and/or spiritual practices and encouraging patients to approach these practices in an unambiguous manner. According to Rowan (1983), a humanistic psychologist, it is the self that is the missing link between the psychological and the spiritual. Therefore, it seems natural that spiritual experiences, such as those encountered in meditation and prayer, could become an adjunct to Western therapeutic practices and that developing oneself spiritually can become an important part of psychosocial as well as neuropsychological development.36

Hood et al. continue:

There is no reason why scientists cannot include specific hypotheses derived from views about the nature of transcendent reality in empirical studies of religious experience, as long as specific empirical predictions can be made. The source of the predictions may reference even the unobservable and the intangible. All that is required is that there be identifiable empirical consequences. As Jones (1986) has stated the case, Invoking Occam’s Razor [i.e., the philosophical principle that the best explanation of an event is the simplest one] to disallow reference to factors other than sensory observable ones is question begging in favor of one metaphysics building up an ontology with material objects as basic. (p. 225) Jones echoes the classic claim of William James that mystics base their experience upon the same sort of processes that all empiricists do—direct experience. James would restrict the authoritative value of mystical experience to the person who had the experience, but would view it as a hypothesis for the social scientist to investigate (Hood, 1992a, 1995c). However, mystics are united in the belief that such experiences are real, and many nonmystics are convinced of the reality of the experience even if they personally have not had it. Thus, as Swinburne (1981) argues, mystical experience is also authoritative for others:

. . . if it seems to me I have a glimpse of Nirvana, or a vision of God, that is good grounds for me to suppose that I do. And, more generally, the occurrence of religious experience is prima facie reason for all to believe in that of which the experience was purportedly an experience. (p. 190)

Social scientists are often too quick to boast that their own limited empirical data undermine ontological claims. Religious traditions cannot be adequately understood without the assumption that transcendent objects of experience are believed to be real and foundational to those who experience them (Hood, 1995a). It is also possible that not only are they believed to be real, but that they are in fact real as well. Furthermore, their reality may be revealed in experience. Carmody and Carmody (1996, p. 10) define “mysticism” as “a direct experience of ultimate reality.” This definition remains a hypothesis capable of empirical investigation. To presuppose otherwise is less persuasive than once thought. Bowker (1973), after critically reviewing social-scientific theories of the sense of God, has noted that it is an empirical option to conclude that at least part of the sense of God might come from God. In our terms, religious views of the nature of the Real suggest ways in which it can be expressed in human experience. This can work in two directions, both deductively and inductively. Deductively, one can note that if the Real is conceived in a particular way, then certain experiences of the real can be expected to follow. Thus we can anticipate that expectations play a significant role in religious experience, often confirming the foundational realities of one’s faith tradition. Inductively, we can infer that if particular experiences occur, than the possibility that the Real exists is a reasonable inference—a position forcefully argued by Berger (1979). Thus we can anticipate that experiences, some unanticipated, may lead some to seek religions for their illumination. O’Brien (1965) has gone so far as to include in his criteria for a mystical experience that it be unexpected. Religious traditions adopt both options in confronting mystical and numinous experiences. In this sense, a rigorous methodological atheism is unwarranted in the study of religious and mystical experiences (Porpora, 2006). Not surprisingly, then, mystical experiences have long been the focus of empirical research and provocative theorizing among both sociologists and psychologists. We first explore classic efforts to confront these experiences. These classic views are of more than historical interest, as they set the range of conceptual issues that continue to plague the contemporary empirical study of mysticism. Our focus upon classic views is not exhaustive. We focus upon representatives of three major social-scientific views regarding mystical experience: as erroneous attribution, as a heightened state of awareness, and as evolved consciousness.37

4. Epistemology and Religious Experience

Debates about the existence of God have often included the “argument from religious experience”; its advocates may cite their own experiences, or may claim that perceptions of some sort of divinity are a psychological or cultural universal, or nearly so. These arguments may involve evidence such as

  • The way that many people feel that they have met God or that God has spoken to them.

  • The way that many people have had some sort of experience or perceptual of a divine or spiritual realm or order.

  • The way that the human tendency to perceive or be interested in these topics (and to believe in, venerate, or attempt communications with deities or spiritual powers) is widespread across cultures, even though their interpretation varies so dramatically. (The notion of “natural religion” has sometimes been justified on the basis of supposedly universal notions among human societies, or supposedly universal experiences shared among human beings who contemplate the idea of the divine. In the view of proponents of this concept, we might have good evidence to believe in God or divinity as a result of widespread human experience of these things, but perhaps not good evidence to believe in specifics about the divine nature, which are much less widely agreed upon.)

While realizing that not everyone who has had a spiritual experience assigns any particular significance or interpretation to that experience, never mind formulating a specific theistic argument on the basis of the experience, we were interested in looking at how this argument is viewed by some of its proponents and opponents. In addition to reading online summary articles about arguments from religious experience, we chose to focus on William P. Alston’s groundbreaking philosophical work on empiricism regarding religious/spiritual epistemology. Alston introduces his book Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience in this way:

The central thesis of this book is that experiential awareness of God, or as I shall be saying, the perception of God, makes an important contribution to the grounds of religious belief. More specifically, a person can become justified in holding certain kinds of beliefs about God by virtue of perceiving God as being or doing so-and-so. The kinds of beliefs that can be so justified I shall call "M-beliefs" (‘M’ for manifestation). M-beliefs are beliefs to the effect that God is doing something currently vis-a-vis the subject—comforting, strengthening, guiding, communicating a message, sustaining the subject in being—or to the effect that God has some (allegedly) perceivable property— goodness, power, lovingness. The intuitive idea is that by virtue of my being aware of God as sustaining me in being I can justifiably believe that God is sustaining me in being. This initial formulation will undergo much refinement in the course of the book.38

In order to avoid presupposing the existence of God, Alston specifies “the experiences in question as those that are taken by the subject to be an awareness of God (or would be so taken if the question arose).”39 In this way, it seems Alston is exploring the justification of taking spiritual experience as the basis of forming “M-beliefs” (basically, beliefs formed by mystical experiences) irrespective of whether such beliefs correspond with reality. As Alston states: “I want to make explicit at the outset that my project here is to be distinguished from anything properly called an ‘argument from religious experience’ for the existence of God…. It is rather that people sometimes do perceive God and thereby acquire justified beliefs about God.”40 In this sense, Alston focuses mainly on the philosophical legitimacy of people treating their own religious and spiritual experience as evidence for belief in the object of those experiences—not on the legitimacy of arguing that others, too, ought to do so.

This distinction is interesting. After all, having religious experiences and adopting specific attitudes with respect to their meaning or implications could theoretically be completely independent, so we could imagine encountering

  • Someone who has subjectively perceived God41 but is unsure of whether this experience was veridical or significant, and does not adopt or argue for a view that the perception was necessarily real.

  • Someone who has subjectively perceived God and is convinced of the reality of that perception (whether or not he or she supposes that others, who haven’t shared this perception, ought to agree).

  • Someone who has not had such an experience, but finds others’ accounts of their experience persuasive and is inclined to agree with their interpretations.

  • Someone who has not had such an experience and remains skeptical of others’ accounts or interpretations.

Of course, still other nuances are possible.

Alston appears particularly interested in countering those who maintain that individuals ought to rationally discount their own personal experience (especially because they feel that personal experience isn’t the kind of thing that could be rationally convincing in this realm). In some ways, Alston’s approach could be seen as focused on the analysis of individual rationality and not about collective reasoning or persuasion.

In fact, Alston’s views on evidence and belief seem remarkably compatible with other accounts of rationality; it seems that his main point is that experience of the divine is evidence that should lead the experiencer to update his or her beliefs in favor of a greater likelihood that the divine exists—which one would only not do given other priors that the divine is absurd, that perceptions of it are of a different kind of evidential value than other perceptions, or something. So Alston then dedicates long passages to claiming that there’s no philosophical reason that we have to think that these perceptions don’t have a similar evidential value from other kinds of perceptions, and to trying to defeat arguments that they don’t.

We could probably successfully rephrase most of his line of argumentation with a Bayesian-rationalist flavor: “conceptually, there is nothing about the sense of the divine that makes it less rational to use it to update one’s beliefs about the objects of its perception than it would be to use other senses to update one’s beliefs about the objects of their perception.” Of course, how much to update will be largely informed by one’s priors, particularly here about naturalism or materialism, etc. The nut to be cracked here is this: how does rationality work when trying to learn about subject matter that is not perceived through the bodily senses but that presents itself as an analogously coherent or compelling perception? Alston’s position seems to include the notion that, even though we may have very high priors for naturalism, we shouldn’t confuse that with the choice to rule other kinds of perception out-of-bounds for belief updating.

Alston further clarifies his aim in this way:

Even if our age were firmly realist in its predilections, my central thesis would still be in stark contradiction to assumptions that are well nigh universally shared in intellectual circles. It is often taken for granted by the wise of this world, believers and unbelievers alike, that "religious experience" is a purely subjective phenomenon. Although it may have various psychosocial functions to play, any claims to its cognitive value can be safely dismissed without a hearing. It is the purpose of this book to challenge that assumption and to marshal the resources that are needed to support its rejection.42

While his argument is very detailed, we present here an overview.

He begins with a discussion on the phenomenology of spiritual experience. After reviewing a few self-reported descriptions of spiritual experience, Alston emphasizes that they all share a common dimension of the experience as being presented to the subject. In this way, Alston likens spiritual perception to natural perception, and distinguishes presentation from abstract thought. He suggests that this aspect of presentation demonstrates that such experiences do not arise internally and are not subjective in their inception. He furthers this point by reviewing several descriptions of spiritual experiences which include sensory perception. Alston’s phenomenology here is one in which “mystical perception” (his preferred term over “spiritual experience”) is a “putative direct experiential awareness of God.”43

Alston argues that a “direct awareness” of something—whether physical or mystical—is independent from beliefs, judgment, or concepts of the object of awareness.44 This is in general accord with Russell’s idea of “acquaintance” and Moore’s idea of “direct apprehension.” However, this view is in contrast with the view initiated by Kant that all perception is mediated by beliefs, judgment, or concepts. Alston argues against this view by stating that there is a difference between a direct awareness of something and the subsequent judgment that the object has some sort of property. In this way, Alston maintains that a person may be aware of an object without interpretational judgment on that object.45

The contrary view would easily be employed toward not taking any reports of mystical experiences seriously. If all perception is mediated by belief, then those who believe in God could easily be interpreting a non-spiritual event through their spiritual presuppositions. The argument could be made that the subjects of mystical experiences quoted by Alston are not reliable sources regarding the nature of their experiences. Alston responds to this charge:

It is conceivable that one should suppose that a purely affective experience or a strongly held conviction should involve the experiential presentation of God when it doesn’t, especially if there is a strong need or longing for such a direct awareness. But even if an individual’s account of the phenomenology of his or her own experience is not infallible, it must certainly be taken seriously. Who is in a better position to determine whether S is having an experience as if of something’s presenting itself to S as φ than S? We would need strong reasons to override the subject’s confident report of the character of her experience. And where could we find such reasons? I suspect that most people who put forward these alternative diagnoses do so because they have general philosophical reasons for supposing either that God does not exist or that no human being could perceive Him, and they fail to recognize the difference between a phenomenological account of object presentation and the fact that a certain object, as the subject conceives it to be, presents itself to the subject’s awareness. In any event, once we get straight about all this, I cannot see any reason for doubting the subjects’ account of the character of their experience, whatever reasons there may be for doubting that God Himself does appear to them.46

Alston also notes that such experiences should be taken seriously because the subjects themselves consider alternative sources or interpretations for their experiences. In other words, it seems likely that such people remain rational regardless of the sometimes outlandish nature of their experiences, and are aware that their own perception may be at fault. The subjects rejected such alternatives, however, often due to the “presentation” aspect of the experiences—in other words, stating that they did not, themselves, produce the experience.47

Alston’s argument proper begins with the notion that spiritual experiences are perceptual in nature. That is, God presents himself to the subject in some manner. He takes that conclusion as the basis for his argument for the reasonability for taking such perceptions to be indicative of true reality. Alston introduces this argument in this way:

If what seems to me to be a direct experiential awareness of X puts me in a position to form justified beliefs about X’s perceptible features, that warrants me in supposing that X itself is indeed presenting itself to my awareness; otherwise how could the experience justify my beliefs about X? We have to stop short of the claim that the perceptual justification of perceptual beliefs entails that the experience is genuine perception. I may be perceptually justified in believing that there is a lake in front of me even if I am a victim of a mirage and no lake is being perceived. But this is just an isolated incident that occurs against the background of innumerable cases in which perceptual justification involves authentic perception of the object. It strains credulity to suppose that an entire sphere of putatively perceptual experience could be a source of justification for perceptual beliefs, while there is no, or virtually no, genuine perception of the objects involved. Therefore, if putative experience of God provides justification for beliefs about God, that provides very strong support for supposing that such experiences are, at least frequently, genuine perceptions of God.48

Alston’s concept of justification for belief is that the subject is justified in maintaining his or her belief, rather than the subject’s activity of justification. The difference is that someone may be justified in his or her own beliefs irrespective of attempting to argue for them.49

He clarifies his view of justification as indicating favorability of true belief, taking into account that it is a matter of degree. One may be justified in a belief, even if the evidence does not lead one to be completely certain.50

Alston’s argument for the justification of M-beliefs is as follows: 1) A perceptual belief concerns a perceived object, no more and no less. In other words, a perceptual belief is that one is sensing a presented object. 2) This belief is formed primarily by an experience of perception (according to the human senses). 3) A perceptual belief is not based on prior beliefs or concepts. Alston writes, “The theory of justification I am using takes justification to be a function of the adequacy of what the belief is based on. If it is based purely on experience, and that basis is adequate, it will be purely immediately justified. If it is based partly on experience and partly on other beliefs, its justification will be partly immediate and partly mediate.”51

His recognizes the mediative role of previously held beliefs in the interpretation of perceptual experience, but does not assert that such background beliefs are required in the formation of perceptual belief. Alston writes:

Background beliefs not infrequently figure in the total basis of perceptual beliefs, and in these cases the justification of the latter depends in part on the justification of the former. Nevertheless this is less common than it seems on first sight, and we can often explain the justificatory relevance of background beliefs without supposing them to be part of the basis, and so part of the prima facie justification. Thus there is considerable scope for purely immediately justified perceptual beliefs, even though partly mediately justified beliefs must also be taken into account.52

In applying this formulation to M-beliefs, Alston writes:

If God appears to me as φ (or at least so it seems to me), then that will contribute to justifying a belief that God is φ; if the belief is purely immediately justified, that will be the whole story. If one is aware of what one takes to be God as loving or almighty, then, if no partly doxastic basis is involved or required for justification, a belief that God is loving or almighty formed on that basis is thereby prima facie justified. If one is aware of what one takes to be God as comforting one or saying that P to one, then, with similar restrictions, a belief that God is comforting one or saying that P to one is thereby prima facie justified.53

Regarding whether God can be perceived, Alston lays out the summary of his argument as such:

To come to grips with the serious, unconfused problem here, we will have to cut through some unwarranted assumptions that may be behind these questions. We should not suppose that in order to succeed in perceptually recognizing an object of perception as X (i.e., become perceptually justified in believing, or perceptually know, that the object is X), it is necessary that the object appears to one as φ, where φ is a property uniquely possessed by X. To perceptually recognize your house, it is not necessary that the object even display features that are in fact only possessed by your house, much less features that only your house could possess. It is enough that the object present to my experience features that, in this situation or in situations in which I generally find myself, are sufficiently indicative of (are a reliable guide to) the object’s being your house. And so it is here. For me to recognize what I am aware of (X) as God, all that is necessary is that X present to me features that are in fact a reliable indication of their possessor’s being God, at least in situations of the sort in which I typically find myself. It is, again, not required that these features attach only to God, still less that they be such that they can attach only to God. And it is a matter for detailed investigation what sorts of appearances satisfy that condition, just as in the case of sensorily perceived objects.54

He then reviews the accounts of spiritual experiences he provided earlier in the book in order to identify the ways in which God presented his qualities as God.

In chapter 3, Alston surprisingly maintains that it is not possible to give adequate reasons for supposing that the beliefs formed by sense perception are reliable, even though it is common practice to do so.55 In this way, Alston casts doubt upon the entire enterprise of a sense perception basis for accurate epistemology—on both a natural and mystical level. Alston writes,

It is widely believed that we are in a much better position to judge that sense perception is a source of justification than we are in the case of theistic perception. Many even believe that we can show that sense perception is reliable, but not that mystical perception is. These convictions are used as a basis for downgrading the epistemic status of the latter and for denying that beliefs formed on the basis of theistic perception are justified. Looking carefully at attempts to show sense perception to be reliable will put us in a position to assess these views.56

Alston demonstrates that arguments attempting to prove the reliability of sense perception fail due to their epistemic circularity. Alston writes, “If we have to assume the reliability of SP [sense perception] in order to suppose ourselves entitled to the premises, how can an argument from those premises, however impeccable its logical credentials, provide support for that proposition?”57 The simplest version of the argument for the reliability of SP is that it is proven by its fruit. In other words, if our understanding of reality based on SP are most often confirmed through prediction and control of events, then SP is reliable. However, this argument suffers from epistemic circularity in that the only way to confirm the accuracy of the fruit of SP is through the use of SP. Alston reviews a number of arguments for the reliability of SP put forth by (or emerging from) Descartes, Wittgenstein, Oldenquist, Kant, and Locke. However, he finds them all lacking, primarily due to the pitfall of epistemic circularity.

We don’t think Alston’s views and other philosophers’ responses to them will be very exciting or edifying except to readers who are deeply interested in technical debates about epistemology. But we found that they sparked interesting conversations for us about skepticism and how people personally respond to skeptical arguments. They also led us to discuss the conditions under which people can learn from other people’s experiences, and the assumptions that we may need to use in order to assess the evidentiary value for us of other people’s beliefs.

5. Near Death Experiences

For some people, near death experiences (NDEs) are a compelling form of spiritual experience that can be life-altering in its consequences. Those who have them may believe that they have met God, angels, or other spiritual beings, that they have in fact died and then deliberately been sent back to life, or that they have received some kind of teaching or message from spiritual entities. In some cases, they may claim to have received information that would be objectively confirmable by others. Some of those who have such experiences have written popular books recounting them and arguing for specific religious or metaphysical views on the strength of their and others’ experiences.

One major scholarly work on near death experiences is Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times by Carol Zaleski.58 Zaleski reviews historical accounts of NDEs, as well as modern ones.

Although their contents and interpretations vary, NDEs are remarkably common in the modern world. Among those who come close to dying, the percentage of those who experience NDEs appears to range from 34 percent to 43 percent.59

One reason why NDEs are ripe for research is their commonalities. Zaleski writes, “The [sympathetic] researchers agree that the similarities of near-death reports are more striking than their differences and see this unanimity as a key to the validity of near-death experience.”60 It has also been observed that NDEs do not always conform to the individual’s pre-existing desires or expectations, thereby contradicting the idea that they are merely comforting fantasies of some sort.61 Another argument for their validity is their lasting, transformative effects on the individual.62 Zaleski writes of the striking independent consistency of NDEs:

Age, sex, race, geographic location, education, occupation, religious upbringing, church attendance, prior knowledge of near-death studies, all have negligible effect on the likelihood of near-death visions. Suicide victims seeking annihilation, fundamentalists who expect to see God on the operating table, atheists, agnostics, and carpe diem advocates find equal representation in the ranks of near-death experiencers. And their answers to survey questions show that, for all the religious implications of near-death experience, a person’s beliefs about God, life after death, and heaven and hell do not determine the content of his vision.63

One study produced the following statistics: 60 percent described a sense of peace. 37 percent reported feeling a separation from the body. 23 percent entered a darkness. 16 percent saw light. 10 percent entered the light.64

There are a number of strong objections to viewing NDEs as experiences of a spiritual reality. Notably, NDEs by definition occur at moments of great damage and stress to the body, commonly in the course of partial or even complete failures of its systems. Thus, one could view NDEs as perceptions that are symptomatic of this damage in some way. One objection characterizes NDEs as hallucinations due to dysfunction in the nervous system.65 Another objection suggests that sensory deprivation leads to the experience of NDEs. If the brain is continually cut off from the ability to perceive or process external perceptions, it composes its own reality.66 (Immersion in a sensory deprivation tank, for example, often produces vivid sensory hallucinations.) If the neurological structure and functions of the brain alone are responsible for constructing these NDEs, then this would account for the commonalities of these experiences. Another criticism of the spiritual view of NDEs is the concept that human psychology will always attempt to deny death. “Although contemporary psychological treatments of this subject differ, all rest on the axiom that the mind will resort to any stratagem to push from view the prospect of its own annihilation….”67

However, Zaleski states that each individual objection cannot account for every reported NDE: “for every pathological condition presumed to cause near-death visions, one can find subjects who were demonstrably free of its influence….”68 Zaleski continues: “researchers cite statistics that show an inverse relationship between near-death experience and various pathological mind-altering conditions….”69 For example, the experience (or recollection) or NDEs seems to be inhibited by the effects of drugs and anesthetics. For this reason, it seems unlikely that drugs are responsible for the generation of NDEs. Zaleski writes, “Backed by the collective testimony of hundreds of subjects, researchers contrast the alert, blissful, lucid quality of near-death experience to the confusion, anxiety, and perceptual distortions that accompany such disorders as hypoxia, limbic lobe syndrome, autoscopy, depression, and schizophrenic hallucination.”70

While it seems the critics’ of individual suggestions for biochemical or psychological explanations of the origins of NDEs are dispatched by the variety of cases which do not conform to such explanations, if these criticisms are seen as a whole, then perhaps all NDE cases can be explained only by materialistic means. Zaleski writes: “any feature of near-death experience that is not finished off by endorphins can be dispatched by temporal lobe seizure, depersonalization, state-dependent birth recall, and so forth.”71

However, there are still arguments against this unified front. Firstly, if there were a number of underlying causes for NDEs, why is their nature so consistent? In other words, wouldn’t different biochemical processes produce different kinds of experiences? If consistency is a striking component of NDEs, it seems unlikely that there would be a lack of consistency in their origins. Secondly, Zaleski warns against a reductionistic view of NDEs when such heavy reductionism is not (usually) applied to general human experience. She writes,

After all, not only extraordinary visions but also normal states of consciousness are linked with electrical and chemical events in the brain, hormonal tides in the body, inherited drives, and cultural coercion. Yet we do not apply reductionist vetoes to our ordinary experience. Love can be explained in terms of neurochemical and social mechanisms, ranging from the influence of advertising to the lure of pheromones; but scarcely anyone suggests that knowledge of these mechanisms should prohibit people from believing that they are in love and rearranging their lives accordingly.72

Why should an NDE be dismissed as invalid or hallucinatory because we are able to point to associated neurological or biochemical processes? It may be important to interrogate the reasons why we may be inclined to discount the subjective experiences of NDEs even if naturalistic processes are at play. (The same sort of question will arise again when we ponder experiences with psychoactive substances.)

Zaleski herself advocates for a balance in understanding and appreciating the symbolic and narrative value of NDEs while being skeptical of their theological value. She writes,

Clearly, a new approach is needed; to make near-death testimony an arena for restaging old philosophical or theological battles will not suffice. It appears to be impossible, in any case, to determine objectively whether near-death reports are accurate or inaccurate depictions of the future life. It might therefore be more fruitful for theologians to consider near-death visions as works of the religious imagination, whose function is to communicate meaning through symbolic forms rather than to copy external facts. This is the aspect of near-death literature that I have attempted to highlight.73

In other words, Zaleski does not personally believe that NDEs point to an objective spiritual reality, but that they should nevertheless be afforded personal and cultural significance. She writes,

I suggest, therefore, that a pragmatic method and a sensitivity to symbol must go hand in hand if we wish to give a fair hearing to the claims of near-death literature. If we fully recognize the symbolic nature of near-death testimony (and accept the limits that imposes on us), then in the end we will be able to accord it a value and a validity that would not otherwise be possible; this in turn will yield further insight into the visionary, imaginative, and therapeutic aspects of religious thought in general.74

Zaleski seems to take a position which stands in weak support of the controversial statement at the core of this paper. Although she does not see NDEs as pointing to any sort of genuine mystical reality, she nevertheless sees value in such experiences. If Zaleski is right, and NDEs merely carry symbolic power, they would still be representative of an important component of human life as a kind of spiritual experience with powerful, lasting effects upon the individual.

6. The Use of Entheogens

Perhaps the relevant topic which is most suited toward empirical study is the use of entheogens in the generation of spiritual experience. This seems true for a few reasons: firstly, they are drugs whose chemical make-up can be scientifically studied and described, and secondly, their effect on the human on the biochemical and neurochemical levels can also be scientifically studied and described. We also have the benefit of several decades of scientific research on these substances, in addition to extensive reports from people’s self-experimentation, and anthropological and insider accounts of their use within traditional religions. A number of psychedelic substances have also recently benefited from a new round of legally-sanctioned medical investigations aimed in part at evaluating their potential use in psychiatry.

Entheogens are psychedelic drugs or other preparations of comparable substances that tend to produce a subjective experience of a divine or spiritual nature. They are controversial on many levels; most are legally controlled substances, they are often seen by governments and health authorities as having the potential to be abused, and different religious traditions have radically opposed views about their harms and benefits75. It is also striking that they seem to offer such a reliable way to create experiences that most subjects view as meaningful and spiritual, although the content of these experiences and the way participants account for them varies tremendously76.

Writing for The Outline about her personal experience with psilocybin in a controlled setting at Johns Hopkins, Rachael Peterson states:

Like all trip stories, mine sound crazy at worst and clichéd at best. But I can tell you this much: at the peak of my experience, my sense of self dissolved and I unified with an abiding force that permeated all existence — something that felt conscious, vast, benevolent, eternal, peaceful, and furiously important. After sitting up on the couch six hours later, covered in snot and tears, I struggled to put words to an encounter that felt more real than everyday reality — a mind-bendy paradox characteristic of many mystical experiences.77

Similar accounts (often involving interaction with entities that seem conscious and intelligent) are described repeatedly in case reports by DMT researchers such as Rick Strassman78.

A recent paper analyzes the data of five groups who had experiences with various entheogens, including psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, or DMT, as well as one who had spiritual experiences without the use of drugs.79 The authors of the paper note that there are some differences between the experiences of the entheogen cohort and the non-drug cohort, they are more similar than different. The most striking finding was that two-thirds of participants who identified as atheist prior to their experience no longer considered themselves atheist afterward. The abstract of this article summarizes the nature of these experiences:

Most participants reported vivid memories of the encounter experience, which frequently involved communication with something having the attributes of being conscious, benevolent, intelligent, sacred, eternal, and all-knowing. The encounter experience fulfilled a priori criteria for being a complete mystical experience in approximately half of the participants. More than two thirds of those who identified as atheist before the experience no longer identified as atheist afterwards. These experiences were rated as among the most personally meaningful and spiritually significant lifetime experiences, with moderate to strong persisting positive changes in life satisfaction, purpose, and meaning attributed to these experiences. Among the four groups of psychedelic users, the psilocybin and LSD groups were most similar and the ayahuasca group tended to have the highest rates of endorsing positive features and enduring consequences of the experience. Future exploration of predisposing factors and phenomenological and neural correlates of such experiences may provide new insights into religious and spiritual beliefs that have been integral to shaping human culture since time immemorial.

Certainly the subjective power of these experiences cannot be denied, as their transformative effects upon the subjects’ personal lives can attest. In the conclusion, the authors reiterate that that the reported effects of these experiences led to “persisting moderate to strong positive changes in attitudes about self, life satisfaction, life purpose, and life meaning that participants attributed to these experiences.” Legal obstacles have meant that formal therapeutic exploration of many entheogens is just beginning, but it seems apparent that they have promise in treating mental illnesses through catalyzing deep experiences of profound meaning.

Good Friday Experiment

On Good Friday in 1962, a researcher (Walter Pahnke) administered psilocybin to divinity student volunteers just before they attended a Christian worship service80. The results were dramatic; almost all of the research subjects reported profound experiences which they continued to regard as meaningful and important for the rest of their lives (as confirmed by a follow-up survey decades later). Some have described the experience as the most powerful spiritual experience of their lives—which is noteworthy because they were generally already religious believers who were preparing for careers related to their Christian faith. The volunteers clearly understood that they were being given a drug, which did not seem to reduce their assessment of the spiritual importance of their experience at the time or upon subsequent reflection.

Huston Smith, a scholar of comparative religion, was one of the participants in the experiment and describes his experiences in Cleansing the Doors of Perception, his survey work on entheogens81. He says that his attention was fixed on particular melodic and lyrical features of a hymn sung during the service, and his musical training and Christian upbringing

converged on the Good Friday story under psilocybin, [and] the gestalt transformed a routine musical progression into the most powerful cosmic homecoming I have ever experienced.

In an interview he reprints in the same book, Smith remarks that the experiment

[…] enlarged my understanding of God by affording me the only powerful experience I have had of his personal nature. I had known and firmly believed that God is love and that none of love’s nuances could be absent from his infinite nature; but that God loves me, and I him, in the concrete way that human beings love individuals, each most wanting from the other what the other most wants to give and with everything that might distract from that holy relationship excluded from view—that relation with God I had never before had. It’s the theistic mode that doesn’t come naturally to me, but I have to say for it that its carryover topped those of my other entheogenic epiphanies. […]

Sam Harris cautions in Waking Up that if powerful and important spiritual experiences can be produced by a particular context, we should be wary of taking them as evidence for specific doctrinal metaphysical claims, since presumably these experiences can be, and are, encountered within many different religious traditions. If Christian divinity students had an experience that they took to be an encounter with God under the influence of psilocybin at a Good Friday service, other subjects might experience equally compelling encounters that they interpreted when using the same subject in another setting, or merely with different prior metaphysical beliefs. Harris supposes that a spiritual experience he personally had at the Sea of Galilee would have confirmed for him his particular religious faith, if he had had one. Later Harris asks:

What does a spiritual experience mean? If you are a Christian sitting in church, it might mean that Jesus Christ survived his death and has taken a personal interest in the fate of your soul. If you are Hindu praying to Shiva, you will have a very different story to tell. Altered states of consciousness are empirical facts, and human beings experience them under a wide range of conditions.

Smith is also sensitive to this reasoning and notes that participants in other religions’ rituals, and those raised in different traditions, have had equally powerful experiences of their own. But Smith and Harris take this observation in radically different directions; for Harris this diversity undermines any specific metaphysical claim that any religious tradition might advance, while for Smith, it provides an encouragement to try to find commonalities in different religious experiences and reason to suspect that they are pointing toward the same reality.

The Eleusinian Mysteries

[…] χαλεποὶ δὲ θεοὶ θνητοῖσιν ὁρᾶσθαι.

[…] gods are hard for mortals to recognize.

Homeric Hymn to Demeter, 111 (translated by Helene P. Foley)

The Eleusinian Mysteries were an ancient Greek tradition practiced for thousands of years relating to the worship of the goddess Demeter and the story of her daughter Persephone’s descent into and return from the underworld. (The story, itself widely known in Greek culture, said that Persephone was kidnapped as a bride by Hades, the god of the underworld, and yet Demeter was able to bring her back—at least for part of each year, corresponding to the growing season.)

The associated ceremonies could at least originally be practiced only at a specific site near the city of Eleusis. Participants signed up to be initiated over the course of several days, during which they participated in allegorical rites. The initiates swore a vow of secrecy and were never allowed to talk about the details of what the rites consisted of. Although participants went home afterward and returned to their normal lives, virtually all of them took the vow extremely seriously, taking their memories to their graves, so we know very little today about exactly what went on at Eleusis.

The Mysteries attracted participation from the rich and famous of the classical world, and remained extremely popular throughout classical antiquity. (They were open to the public, but could only be experienced, or discussed, in the proper place, at the proper time, with the proper preparation.) Although those who had taken part almost never gave any concrete details, they generally considered the experience extraordinarily valuable and worthwhile, and often recommended it in the strongest terms to their friends and family members. Many indicated that they had had some kind of contact with the divinity during the initiation, and some said that they were no longer frightened of death. Many sources suggest that the Mysteries taught, or showed, their initiates some very specific reason why death was nothing to be afraid of—and participants apparently took this lesson to heart. Cicero, who was probably a participant himself, says in his De Legibus that the Mysteries’ initiations allowed “neque solum cum laetitia vivendi rationem accepimus, sed etiam cum spe meliore moriendi” (“[that] we not only took from them a way of living happily, but also a way of dying with a better hope”).

The Mysteries stopped being celebrated with the rise of Christianity and no one has experienced them at all for more than a millennium and a half. Since then, people have remained intensely curious about what was done and taught in these ceremonies, and why participants found them so valuable and transformative, over and over again, and why so many of them claimed to lose all concern about death. How could this have happened? Were all of them really encountering Demeter, or witnessing Persephone returning from the realm of the dead?

One interesting fact is that all the initiates were given a drink called a kykeon (κυκεών, meaning something like ‘mixture’) during the course of the initiation. The recipe for the kykeon is one of the details lost to history due to the Mystery initiates’ dedication to keeping their vows, but people have often wondered about how it might have affected those who drank it. In the 1960s, two prominent psychedelic researchers (R. Gordon Wasson, who introduced psilocybin to the American public, and Albert Hofmann, who discovered LSD) and a classicist (Carl Ruck) published The Road to Eleusis, a book arguing that the kykeon contained substances derived from the ergot fungus. Wasson and Ruck subsequently published numerous other books arguing that religions all around the world have traditionally used psychoactive substances (termed entheogens) to facilitate the experience of the divine, and that religious doctrines, narratives, and rituals are often at least initially based on drug-mediated experiences. Other scholars have tended to accept the view that the kykeon probably contained psychoactive substances, even if they disagree about exactly what substances these were.

Interestingly, scholars who endorse a substance-related explanation for the experiences of Eleusinian initiates (and for the origins of other religious traditions and narratives) don’t necessarily believe that they are debunking or explaining away these experiences. This is an oddity for skeptics who might imagine that initiates were being tricked into interpreting their experiences as divine contacts or visions.

7. The Problem of Dreaming

Dreaming is a universal human experience that poses a difficulty for confidently viewing spiritual experience as veridical, because dreams usually feel so real and feel so important. They represent a familiar, ubiquitous form of experience that is

  • Vividly perceived

  • Often deeply personally meaningful

  • Often considered, at least metaphorically, to reflect the experiencer’s deepest desires, aspirations, or values

  • Sometimes transformative in their consequences

  • Usually accepted as completely real during the experience itself

  • Often involve extended interactions with other beings who are perceived as separate from the experiencer

  • Difficult to convey to others

Yet modern western culture mostly accepts that dreams are not veridical—that they tell us little or nothing about how the world is—and that at most they might reveal or reinforce something about the dreamer’s own memories, desires, or unconscious psychology. (It’s worth noting that many cultures have assumed, or believed on evidence, that dreams do come from somewhere outside us, or that they represent a visit of some kind to another world. Many people have routinely believed, or routinely believe, that dreams represent genuine visions of the future, visits from one’s ancestors, temptations from evil forces, or glimpses of the real structure underlying the mundane world. Our neuropsychological depiction of dreaming as the brain’s efforts to make sense of random noise is quite unusual among cultures’ ways of accounting for dreams. But all cultures have had to deal with the ephemerality of dreams and the way that their content is at best unreliable and difficult to make practical use of in one’s day-to-day life.)

The relevance of dreams for a skeptical account of spiritual experience could include a strong version and a weaker version. In the strong version, many spiritual experiences could be suspected of originating in dreams that had been somehow misperceived or misremembered by their dreamers as waking experiences, or correctly perceived as dreams but somehow nevertheless accepted as genuine. In the weaker version, dreams simply provide an analogy that shows that our minds are sometimes capable of producing experiences that feel genuine and important, whose genuineness we reflectively accept, but whose connection to mind-independent reality is questionable.

A counterargument is that we should not have to doubt all of our interpretations of our experiences merely because we are sometimes temporarily mistaken about whether we are dreaming. Otherwise, we would fall into radical skepticism about all of our knowledge and experience. (People throughout history have flirted with embracing this conclusion seriously in various ways. For example, Descartes uses the experience of waking from a dream that he had believed in while it lasted as a touchstone of his motivation for undertaking to doubt everything82, the Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zhou claims not to know “whether he was a man who dreamt he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was a man”, while the movie Inception depicts people who, accustomed to the experience of “awakening” within a dream, become unsure of how many times they still have to wake up in order to return to the waking reality83.

What kinds of things could affect our judgment about whether particular dreams, or some dreams, are veridical? Perhaps dreams could be shown to foretell future events. Or perhaps the content of many people’s dreams could coincide, like Italo Calvino imagines in Invisible Cities:

They tell this tale of its foundation: men of various nations had an identical dream. They saw a woman running at night through an unknown city; she was seen from behind, with long hair, and she was naked. They dreamed of pursuing her. As they twisted and turned, each of them lost her. After the dream, they set out in search of that city; they never found it, but they found one another; they decided to build a city like the one in the dream.

But sometimes the content of different people’s dreams does coincide. For example, many people have a recurring dream that they’re in school and have somehow skipped class or forgotten to prepare for an important test. Why do so many people share this dream content? Does this suggest that there’s something veridical about this particular dream? Or at least that there’s something psychologically important about this situation?

Certainly the communication of dreams and their subjective significance mirrors the difficulties encountered by someone who wishes to communicate a spiritual experience. Dreams are usually deemed significant only to the one who has the dream. Most of us find that to be completely appropriate. However, spiritual experiences are generally thought (at least by those who have them) to be important enough to share with others, potentially as experiences of something real and relevant for others. The question then is how we might differentiate between a dream and a spiritual experience for the skeptic. Research into spiritual experience tells us that the two are different, at least in how they are perceived by the individual. It is often the case that dreams are easily forgotten and cease to seem real when the dream is over. However, spiritual experiences—particularly those of the NDE and entheogenic varieties—have lasting effects, and, at times, permanently changing behavior. As Zaleski writes about near death experiences: “In addition, against Siegel’s sweeping comparison of near-death visions to the psychoneurology of hallucination, the researchers cite nearly unanimous testimony that near-death experience is subjectively different from dreaming or intoxication; that it is, as one of Sabom’s subjects puts it, ‘realer than here.’”84 This may be true for the one who experienced the NDE, but, for those who did not have that experience, hearing about it may elicit a similar reaction to hearing about a dream.

8. Some Possible Perspectives

We join in recommending epistemic humility across the board for all perspectives. To have any sort of meaningful discussion about any topic, we must allow for the possibility that we are possibly wrong in our opinions and beliefs. Dialogue about experiences that bear on people’s religious (or anti-religious) beliefs is often challenging.

We should be careful in how we interpret spiritual experience, especially if it prompts us to take action or change behavior. If a metaphysical or spiritual reality does not exist, then this suggestion is self-explanatory. However, epistemic humility is still important if a metaphysical or spiritual reality does exist. Suppose that God can and does speak to humans. The present evidence supports the idea that such communication may not always be clearly understood or interpreted by the human listener, and that human beings may not find it easy to be confident about when God is speaking to them. If this were not true, we would obviously not see such a broad range of (often) conflicting divine messages. Being careful with the knowledge and action generated by spiritual experience is therefore wise.

In a related context, we had fruitful discussions of the parable of the blind men and the elephant. The blind men and the elephant is an ancient story, and we highly recommend the Wikipedia entry for it.85 The basic story is that a number of blind men came upon an elephant, and they all touched the elephant while attempting to describe it. They all disagreed upon the nature of the elephant because one man felt the side of the elephant and said it was like a wall, while another felt the trunk and said it was like a snake, etc. Interestingly, the moral that this story is meant to convey is subject to dispute by its listeners! One might take the lesson of the story as a metaphor, for each blind man erroneously believes in the truth of his own religious doctrines based his limited perception. Because each person’s perception is limited, conclusions on the nature of the elephant cannot be trusted. However, another way to interpret the story begins with the idea that the radical differences of perception should not be taken as proof that there is no elephant. People in different cultures and time periods may be seeing something real, but their description of it may not be complete. The lesson may be that even though we are tempted to discount spiritual accounts because of their inconsistency, we should not discount them completely because they may still be of evidential value, albeit in a more limited or complicated way than the authors of the accounts appreciate.

Like Plato’s allegory of the cave and other thought experiments in philosophy, the tale of the blind men and the elephant reminds us that epistemology is hard. It’s also challenging to integrate reported perceptions and experiences that differ greatly from person to person. Much of our reason for confidence in our understanding of the physical world is our ready and far-reaching intersubjective agreement about our sense perceptions of it. “Everyone” more or less agrees that we see the Moon in the sky, hear the sounds of rain, are injured by fire, like the taste of sugar, or find it challenging to lift horses. Accepting these widely-shared perceptions as veridical even without discussion or reflection is the most natural thing in the world. But when Blake says

I assert for My self that I do not behold the Outward Creation & that to me it is hindrance & not Action; it is as the Dirt upon my feet, No part of Me. “What,” it will be Questioned, “When the Sun rises, do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?” O no no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying “Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty.” I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would Question a Window concerning a Sight: I look thro it & not with it.

it may be a greater challenge to achieve a consensus about the status of his vision, even if we suppose that he reported it faithfully and earnestly86.

As we mentioned, Alston’s work prompted us to discuss some epistemological issues. We recognized the likelihood that people’s intuitions will vary as to what evidence is compelling enough to consider a spiritual experience to be (some combination of) true, authentic, and/or indicative of some spiritual dimension of existence. (Even some of the authors we read are still struggling with this question for themselves.)

Apart from this, we might ponder the notion that entheogenic or meditation experiences are valuable because they bring people in contact with facets of their own consciousness that are not normally accessible, whether or not we believe that these facets are metaphysically different from ordinary experience of the world and the mind. Some advocates of meditation and/or entheogens who incline toward naturalism maintain that we are “merely” learning more about ourselves (or, perhaps, our non-selves) through these experiences, yet that this learning is of immense value. Clearly, entheogens generate experiences which have lasting, powerful effects upon those who take them, and which are often described as improvements in their users’ lives. Even if it is not a revealing of a separate spiritual reality, should such striking and consequential entheogenic experiences be considered “real” at least in terms of the individual’s own psychology? Considering the literature on the psychological study of religious experience, on near death experiences, and on entheogens, it is undeniable that people subjectively experience genuine states of being which transcend normal states of consciousness. Is there a satisfactory way to consider these experiences’ meaning without insisting that they prove something specific about how the world is? And, considering Alston, is it even plausible to expect more than this from any particular kind of human perception?

Alston might maintain that two people may be justified to believe different things based on differing experiences. Their perspectives may be in conflict, but this need not imply that either is behaving irrationally. It may be rational for one person to believe that spiritual experiences are indicative of a spiritual plane of existence that is usually inaccessible, while another person may also be rational in the belief that such an idea is silly nonsense and that spiritual experiences are the result of purely natural causes. Alston’s concept of epistemology is that it is empirically formed through perceptual experience. Therefore, rational knowledge may not ever be universally uniform. In fact, this prospect is widely accepted in rationalist and empiricist circles, since rationality has to do with making good use of evidence and different people are in possession of different evidence. Those with spiritual experiences simply have a particular sort of evidence which they may try to interpret alongside other forms of evidence87.

Regarding veridicality and consensus, one possible tool in the difficult arena of parsing spiritual experience is inquiry for confirmation. People generally agree upon the common physical and psychological experiences of natural life (e.g. “we both agree this coffee is too hot to drink right now,” or “everyone is laughing so this movie must be funny”) while also finding dissimilarities (e.g. “although this coffee is too hot for you to drink, and I agree that it is hot, it is not too hot for me to drink,” or “everyone else is laughing, but I don’t think this movie is funny”). This kind of discussion of experience toward confirmation is actually rather common in everyday life. Spiritual experience might be discussed and confirmed in a similar manner, leading to increased confidence in confirmed commonalities compared to experiences that do not seem to be shared. These discussions could, of course, be extremely culturally or institutionally difficult. In light of Alston’s claims about the general unreliability of all human perception, finding where subjective experiences agree (whether spiritual or otherwise) is a wise course of action. Of course it is still possible to find agreement and still be wrong, but at least we’ll be wrong together.

One reason why empiricism seems to be of value in discussing and interpreting spiritual experience is that people’s experiences tend to steer both our beliefs and our skepticism. Skepticism is a powerful tool that can be leveled at anything. As a negative example, conspiracy theorists can find reasons to be skeptical of any claim which rebuts their conspiracy theories. More relevant to this project, one could criticise both religion and materialistic rationalism as being culturally conditioned and psychologically motivated phenomena. Skepticism can cut both ways on this topic. However, understanding that our experience informs our future views, then even amidst our own skepticism of spiritual experience, we can appreciate the potential rationality of various worldviews informed by such experiences.

Concluding Thoughts

The question that we’ve aspired to consider in this project is:

The empirical study of the content and nature of people’s personal spiritual experiences justifies taking them seriously as evidence of an important component of human life deserving of individual and collective exploration.

What are the present authors’ views of this statement, and what did they learn that surprised them?

Gruenberg originally proposed the project from the point of view of a supporter of this statement; at the end of the project, he finds that he strongly agrees with it.

Gruenberg found a number of surprises in the course of this research. The first is the vast amount of empirical research that has already been accomplished, particularly in the field of psychology. The researchers in the field are serious about the objective study of spiritual and religious experience, regardless of their stance on their veridicality. Their commitment to objectivity and sensitivity to the subject is admirable. The second is the compatibility of the (often) secular use of entheogens with non-drug-assisted spiritual experience, particularly in the emotional benefits of entheogenic experiences, as well as the surprising conversion rate of atheists to non-atheists through the use of entheogens. The third is Schoen’s objection to the veridicality of spiritual experience on the grounds of the non-veridical nature of dreams. Mystical experiences of waking life—including meditative transcendent states of the loss of self and numinal encounters with God—seem to be of a different nature than dreams, but their precise differences are difficult to articulate to those who have not had them. The fourth is the all-encompassing nature of skepticism that we could have regarding any sense perception (advocated by Alston) that ends up “leveling the playing field” between spiritual and non-spiritual experiences mediated by our perception. In other words, if all sense perception is suspect, then spiritual experiences are no less suspect than material experiences. The fifth is Schoen’s use of the parable of the blind men and the elephant in order to demonstrate the possibility that limited perception may not always be erroneous. Perhaps we are all blind men and women, probing the elephant of reality. If we live in a version of that parable, then it is even more imperative that we actively seek a discourse which explores our disagreements with a willingness to try on some different versions of the elephant.

Schoen joined the project as a skeptic of this statement, but concludes that he ends in weak agreement with it, noting that a broad spectrum of authors whose work we considered maintain that the human mind is capable of a much broader range of experiences than we’re used to thinking of, and that these experiences can potentially be sought out deliberately and often have profound consequences for the experiencers’ lives and worldviews. In some sense, this much is agreed by people with otherwise opposing views on questions such as naturalism or theism. These authors maintain that there is more inside us than we know, or that we are capable of more than we know, or that personal experiences can give rise to important philosophical challenges. While it’s not clear that these facts imply any particular view of reality or the universe, they seem to have import, at least, for our own lives and self-concepts.

Schoen was also surprised by a number of things he learned in the course of this research. The first is the way that large numbers of people do not dismiss the meaning or relevance of their own or others’ drug-mediated experiences even when they are explicitly aware that they were “on drugs” and that their normal brain function was altered by the influence of substances like LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, or DMT88. Reminding them of the drugs’ role does not seem to change this. What’s more, vast numbers of people durably rate these experiences as extraordinarily significant, valuable, and influential, even on sober89 retrospective reflection, and tend to feel that their understanding of their minds was expanded. Schoen would have expected the role and impact of substances in religious ritual from antiquity to the present as a sort of dirty secret that would draw the meaning or authenticity of religious experience into question. Instead, many participants in religious practices have demonstrated that they knew that drugs were centrally involved and did not reject the experiences or associated insights on that account.

A second surprise is the analogy drawn by Alston and others between the unreliability of spiritual perception and the unreliability of other sorts of perception, including some that clearly are part of our social consensus about reality. One can note that sense perceptions like vision and hearing are well-confirmed by the understanding they yield of the physical world and the predictions this understanding allows us to make, but other kinds of perceptions are socially normalized and believed even without the same degree of objective confirmation. While Alston might have an extremely low prior for the plausibility of metaphysical naturalism, and even shockingly low from the point of view of the median SSC reader, it’s interesting to consider the idea that perceptions other than the use of our bodily senses can rationally count as evidence much like other evidence. (This debate really starts there rather than ending there, and includes rather involved issues about how our beliefs and experiences reinforce one another.) It’s interesting to note how cultural and societal consensus hold so much more power over belief (in all different eras and all different sorts of societies) than any kind of formally-reasoned epistemology according to a detailed philosophical theory!

A third surprise is the extent to which mystical traditions are consciously aware of the risk of spurious spiritual insights due to, for example, mental illness. Skeptics often suggest that neurological disorders such as epilepsy might cause experiences that religious believers interpret as religious ecstasy or revelation. Organized religious and contemplative traditions are at least grappling with these risks and actively trying to find ways to distinguish experiences that they see as valuable from experiences that might be attributed to disorders. Mark Salzman’s novel Lying Awake movingly described this issue as it presents itself in the life of a nun who receives a sense of purpose and fulfillment (and more practical benefits for herself and her religious community) from ecstatic religious visions that are later attributed to the influence of a treatable brain tumor. All traditions and communities that rely on visions and revelations worry about how one can tell whether a particular experience constitutes a good or legitimate source of insight or teaching, although their answers are not necessarily satisfactory or reassuring to outsiders.

A fourth surprise is the frequency with which spiritual experiences are more often sought out or provoked rather than spontaneous or unexpected90, and the popularity of the view that one can be taught to have such an experience by a particular method (particularly in contemplative and mystical traditions, as well as among advocates of insight meditation and entheogens91). Near-death experiences are a major exception here because people have rarely actively hoped to receive one or sought one out. Quite a few traditions suggest that there is a specific thing we ought to do, or a specific practice we ought to follow, in order to receive spiritual experiences and spiritual insights. While that creates its own set of risks (for example, of being manipulated or exploited by an unscrupulous teacher or dysfunctional community), it also provides an interesting opportunity for people to try things out for themselves if they’re so inclined. This picture of practical steps is especially associated with secular Western interpretations of Buddhism, which emphasize the claim that Buddhist teachings can be taken as a phenomenological how-to guide92.

This collaboration expressly excluded the truth or falsity of naturalism, or of any specific religious doctrine, from its scope. Although we and many of the authors we consulted have views about this, we didn’t try to find a consensus about these questions. The evidence for and against a naturalistic worldview, or for and against some specific kind of supernatural phenomenon, might make an interesting adversarial collaboration topic for others in the future.

It’s worth acknowledging the pervasiveness of the belief that spiritual experiences can’t usefully be described or analyzed in words, and that trying to theorize about them is an absurd and useless activity. On this account, this whole project is an exercise in futility, doomed from the start, and perhaps a mockery of itself. While the present authors don’t share this attitude, and even see it as counterproductive, they realize that others would strongly recommend experiencing spirituality, not talking about it.

We realize that there is a huge literature about the phenomenology and interpretation of spiritual experiences, and that we’ve only managed to scratch the surface here. Nor have we engaged with every issue raised within the sources that we did review. Interested readers looking for more material on these topics might want to start with Prof. Wesley Wildman’s bibliography on religious experience at <http://people.bu.edu/wwildman/relexp/bibliographies/bib_general.htm> or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on religious experience at <https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/religious-experience/>.

About the Authors

Jeremiah Gruenberg has a Ph.D. in theology. He writes and hosts a podcast on Christian spirituality, called The God Experiment.

Seth David Schoen is a computer and language enthusiast living in San Francisco.

1Charles Wolfe, Ofer Gal. The Body as Object and Instrument of Knowledge: Embodied Empiricism in Early Modern Science. France. Springer, 2010, STUDIES IN HISTORY AND PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE, 978-90-481-3686-5. hal-01238121 https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-01238121/document

2Creath, Richard, "Logical Empiricism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/logical-empiricism/#EmpVerAntMet. Creath writes, “Because logical empiricism is here construed as a movement rather than as doctrine, there is probably no important position that all logical empiricists shared—including, surprisingly enough, empiricism. And while most participants in the movement were empiricists of one form or another, they disagreed on what the best form of empiricism was and on the cognitive status of empiricism.”

3Creath, Richard, "Logical Empiricism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/logical-empiricism/#EmpVerAntMet

4Markie, Peter, "Rationalism vs. Empiricism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2017/entries/rationalism-empiricism. Markie writes, “The dispute between rationalism and empiricism concerns the extent to which we are dependent upon sense experience in our effort to gain knowledge. Rationalists claim that there are significant ways in which our concepts and knowledge are gained independently of sense experience. Empiricists claim that sense experience is the ultimate source of all our concepts and knowledge.”

5Markie, Peter, "Rationalism vs. Empiricism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2017/entries/rationalism-empiricism.

6The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy also notes that Keith Yandell distinguishes five sorts of religious experiences, one monotheistic, three associated with South Asian religious traditions, and one related to “nature”. This kind of classification is daunting (perhaps further investigation would reveal dozens more!) but also useful when people want to talk about their experiences and attempt to compare and contrast them.

7Zinnbauer and Pargament. “Religiousness and Spirituality,” 36.

8Zinnbauer and Pargament. “Religiousness and Spirituality,” 37.

9Zinnbauer and Pargament. “Religiousness and Spirituality,” 24-25.

10Zinnbauer and Pargament. “Religiousness and Spirituality,” 25.

11Ralph W. Hood, Jr, Peter C. Hill, and Bernard Spilka. The Psychology of Religion: an Empirical Approach, Fourth Edition. New York and London: The Guilford Press (2009).

12Raymond F. Paloutzian and Crystal L. Park, eds. Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. New York and London: The Guilford Press (2005).

13Ralph W. Hood, Jr, Peter C. Hill, and Bernard Spilka. The Psychology of Religion: an Empirical Approach, Fourth Edition. 294.

14Raymond F. Paloutzian and Crystal L. Park. “Integrative Themes in the Current Science of the Psychology of Religion,” from Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. Raymond F. Paloutzian and Crystal L. Park, eds. New York and London: The Guilford Press (2005), 8.

15Ralph W. Hood, Jr., and Jacob A. Belzen. “Research Methods in the Psychology of Religion,” from Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. Raymond F. Paloutzian and Crystal L. Park, eds. New York and London: The Guilford Press (2005), 67.

16Ralph W. Hood, Jr., and Jacob A. Belzen. “Research Methods in the Psychology of Religion,” 67.

17Ralph W. Hood, Jr, Peter C. Hill, and Bernard Spilka. The Psychology of Religion: an Empirical Approach, Fourth Edition. 347.

18Ralph W. Hood, Jr, Peter C. Hill, and Bernard Spilka. The Psychology of Religion: an Empirical Approach, Fourth Edition. 60.

19Ralph W. Hood, Jr., and Jacob A. Belzen. “Research Methods in the Psychology of Religion,” 69.

20Ralph W. Hood, Jr., and Jacob A. Belzen. “Research Methods in the Psychology of Religion,” 70.

21Ralph W. Hood, Jr, Peter C. Hill, and Bernard Spilka. The Psychology of Religion: an Empirical Approach, Fourth Edition. 42.

22Ralph W. Hood, Jr, Peter C. Hill, and Bernard Spilka. The Psychology of Religion: an Empirical Approach, Fourth Edition. 65.

23Ralph W. Hood, Jr, Peter C. Hill, and Bernard Spilka. The Psychology of Religion: an Empirical Approach, Fourth Edition. 65.

24Ralph W. Hood, Jr, Peter C. Hill, and Bernard Spilka. The Psychology of Religion: an Empirical Approach, Fourth Edition. 371.

25Ralph W. Hood, Jr, Peter C. Hill, and Bernard Spilka. The Psychology of Religion: an Empirical Approach, Fourth Edition. 371.

26Lee A. Kirkpatrick. “Evolutionary Psychology: An Emerging New Foundation for the Psychology of Religion,” from Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. Raymond F. Paloutzian and Crystal L. Park, eds. New York and London: The Guilford Press (2005), 106.

27Lee A. Kirkpatrick. “Evolutionary Psychology: An Emerging New Foundation for the Psychology of Religion,” 107.

28Lee A. Kirkpatrick. “Evolutionary Psychology: An Emerging New Foundation for the Psychology of Religion,” 108.

29Andrew B. Newberg and Stephanie K. Newberg. “The Neuropsychology of Religious and Spiritual Experience,” from Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. Raymond F. Paloutzian and Crystal L. Park, eds. New York and London: The Guilford Press (2005), 200.

30Andrew B. Newberg and Stephanie K. Newberg. “The Neuropsychology of Religious and Spiritual Experience,” 201.

31Andrew B. Newberg and Stephanie K. Newberg. “The Neuropsychology of Religious and Spiritual Experience,” 201.

32Ralph W. Hood, Jr, Peter C. Hill, and Bernard Spilka. The Psychology of Religion: an Empirical Approach, Fourth Edition. 22.

33Ralph W. Hood, Jr, Peter C. Hill, and Bernard Spilka. The Psychology of Religion: an Empirical Approach, Fourth Edition. 25.

34Zinnbauer and Pargament. “Religiousness and Spirituality,” 31.

35Ralph W. Hood, Jr, Peter C. Hill, and Bernard Spilka. The Psychology of Religion: an Empirical Approach, Fourth Edition. 332-333.

36Andrew B. Newberg and Stephanie K. Newberg. “The Neuropsychology of Religious and Spiritual Experience,” 210.

37Ralph W. Hood, Jr, Peter C. Hill, and Bernard Spilka. The Psychology of Religion: an Empirical Approach, Fourth Edition. 333-334.

38William P. Alston, Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience, Cornell University Press (1991), 1.

39Alston, Perceiving God, 1.

40Alston, Perceiving God, 3.

41Following Alston in referring to the object of a spiritual experience as “God”, and putting aside for the moment the possibility that many people might choose to use other words or concepts, or maintain that their own experiences point to other kinds of spiritual reality.

42Alston, Perceiving God, 4.

43Alston, Perceiving God, 35.

44Alston, Perceiving God, 37.

45Alston, Perceiving God, 37-38.

46Alston, Perceiving God, 40.

47Alston, Perceiving God, 42.

48Alston, Perceiving God, 68-69.

49Alston, Perceiving God, 71.

50Alston, Perceiving God, 72.

51Alston, Perceiving God, 78.

52Alston, Perceiving God, 93.

53Alston, Perceiving God, 94.

54Alston, Perceiving God, 96-97.

55Alston, Perceiving God, 102.

56Alston, Perceiving God, 102-103.

57Alston, Perceiving God, 108.

58Carol Zaleski. Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press (1987).

59Carol Zaleski. Otherworld Journeys, 159.

60Carol Zaleski. Otherworld Journeys, 156.

61Carol Zaleski. Otherworld Journeys, 156-157.

62Carol Zaleski. Otherworld Journeys, 158.

63Carol Zaleski. Otherworld Journeys, 177.

64Carol Zaleski. Otherworld Journeys, 159.

65Carol Zaleski. Otherworld Journeys, 164-165.

66Carol Zaleski. Otherworld Journeys, 167.

67Carol Zaleski. Otherworld Journeys, 170.

68Carol Zaleski. Otherworld Journeys, 175.

69Carol Zaleski. Otherworld Journeys, 175.

70Carol Zaleski. Otherworld Journeys, 176.

71Carol Zaleski. Otherworld Journeys, 180.

72Carol Zaleski. Otherworld Journeys, 182.

73Carol Zaleski. Otherworld Journeys, 187.

74Carol Zaleski. Otherworld Journeys, 192.

75Another occasional source of controversy is that members of religious traditions that use specific entheogenic substances often have specific rules or norms about who ought to use these substances, how, where, why, etc. For example, some traditions maintain that substances should only be used and experienced within the context of a particular ritual, led by a qualified religious leader. Using them in other contexts—as is now common—can be seen as disrespectful to the sanctity of the substances or of the experiences they produce, or as dangerous, or as likely to miss out on the spiritual benefit that ought to be obtained from them.

76There is also a magnetic brain stimulation device called the “God helmet” which reportedly produces similar effects, but which has proven difficult to replicate; see <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God_helmet>.

77Rachael Peterson. “Taking mushrooms for depression cured me of my atheism.” The Outline, April 29, 2019.

78E.g., Rick Strassman, DMT: The Spirit Molecule (Rochester, Vermont: Park Street Press, 2001). Note that Strassman’s hypotheses about the pineal gland’s role in producing DMT have been severely questioned by other biomedical researchers.

79Griffiths RR, Hurwitz ES, Davis AK, Johnson MW, Jesse R (2019) “Survey of subjective ‘God encounter experiences’: Comparisons among naturally occurring experiences and those occasioned by the classic psychedelics psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, or DMT.” PLOS ONE 14(4): e0214377. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0214377

80See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marsh_Chapel_Experiment. There was also a control group which received a non-psychoactive substance and attended the same service.

81This is an homage to a more famous but less wide-ranging book on the same subject by Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception. Both take their title from a line of William Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: Infinite.”

82“Though this be true, I must nevertheless here consider that I am a man, and that, consequently, I am in the habit of sleeping, and representing to myself in dreams those same things, or even sometimes others less probable, which the insane think are presented to them in their waking moments. How often have I dreamt that I was in these familiar circumstances, that I was dressed, and occupied this place by the fire, when I was lying undressed in bed? At the present moment, however, I certainly look upon this paper with eyes wide awake; the head which I now move is not asleep; I extend this hand consciously and with express purpose, and I perceive it; the occurrences in sleep are not so distinct as all this. But I cannot forget that, at other times I have been deceived in sleep by similar illusions; and, attentively considering those cases, I perceive so clearly that there exist no certain marks by which the state of waking can ever be distinguished from sleep, that I feel greatly astonished; and in amazement I almost persuade myself that I am now dreaming.” (Meditations on First Philosophy, I.5)

83Most dramatically, Cobb and Mal have an ongoing disagreement about whether or not they have finished waking up, which Cobb believes has led Mal to commit suicide. On another occasion, Saito forgets over the course of many subjective years (!) that he is dreaming, and Cobb has to convince him. See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dream_argument and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_awakening.)

84Carol Zaleski. Otherworld Journeys, 176.

85“Blind men and an elephant.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_men_and_an_elephant. You may also enjoy Natalie Merchant’s musical rendition of John Godfrey Saxe’s famous poem on this theme: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3lyJLFMSVbY.

86In Unsong, the world has reverted to its basic spiritual nature in which Blake’s vision of the Sun is simple everyday common sense. Compare Ted Chiang’s “Hell is the Absence of God” and Ken Liu’s “Single-Bit Error”.

87We also briefly discussed Aumann’s Agreement Theorem but concluded that we didn’t understand how well it could apply to most disagreement in the real world—probably not so straightforwardly.

88However, some do—for example, one of Rick Strassman’s DMT subjects had a very unusual and intense experience, and afterward said that this experience had no real significance because it was entirely provoked by the drug. It remains worth acknowledging that powerful experiences are not always given a great significance by their experiencers. Some people remain radically skeptical and hold that the experiences merely seemed real or important in the moment, but should not ultimately be regarded this way.


90Several sources also maintain that spontaneous spiritual experience is extremely common, and that most people who experience some form of it simply don’t talk about it, perhaps because they find that it would be difficult to communicate, or because they don’t suppose that communicating it would have beneficial results. Many people keep their spiritual experiences private for fear of social consequences.

91Harris mentions the aphorism that taking entheogens is like launching one’s self on a rocket, while meditation is like raising a sail to the wind.

92This account of what Buddhism is “really” about is widespread in the West today. David Chapman has suggested that it would not be familiar to most Buddhists in history. That’s another interesting inquiry. Conversely, other religions have their own mystical and contemplative traditions that can offer elaborate and quite specific advice about how to pursue spiritual experiences, but that may not be widely known even to adherents of those religions—an interesting theme, for example, in Rodger Kamenetz’s The Jew in the Lotus.

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82 Responses to [ACC] How Much Significance Should We Ascribe To Spiritual Experiences?

  1. romeostevens says:

    FWIW I am prone to these and remain a Quinean naturalist modulo knightian uncertainty about various metaphysical states the world might be in. There are important things about the world that untrained humans don’t know but they, IMO, have little to do with the overwhelmingly meaningful-seeming nature of the big, ecstatic etc. experiences. Otoh it can be a matter of framing. Experiences that seem mundane if you have regular access to them + non mysterian understanding might be very different for someone who encounters them out of the blue with only a religious cultural context to put them in.

  2. bsrk says:

    I am going to push back on the “elephant and the blind men” metaphor. It is **not** the case that we (those who dedicate themselves to meditation) have significant differences, or lack clarity about the elephant.

    The non-doing of any evil,
    the performance of what’s skillful,
    the cleansing of one’s own mind:
    this is the teaching of the Awakened.

    Not disparaging, not injuring,
    restraint in line with the Patimokkha,
    moderation in food
    dwelling in seclusion,
    commitment to the heightened mind:
    this is the teaching of the Awakened.

    • Said Achmiz says:

      Yes, well… that’s, just, like, your opinion, man.

      In other words, sure, you can say something, or quote some source, about what meditation is really about. And someone else can say or quote some other thing, which is different. Thus: significant differences, and lack of clarity.

      (Recall, for example, one Vinay Gupta, who, in a series of friendly discussions with folks in the comments of this very blog, held forth on the question of what an “enlightened” person should, and should not, be expected to be like. His point of view conflicted quite a bit with “not injuring”, “restraint”, “dwelling in seclusion”, and so on. Now, what do you call that? I’d say that’s a “significant difference”.)

      • bsrk says:

        It is not the case that this viewpoint “everyone has their opinion, and there is no way to adjudicate” is conducive to samadhi. The person who dedicates themselves to samadhi will observe this fact, and thereby drop this viewpoint.

        There is the personality that obtains samadhi. And not injuring, restraint, dwelling in seclusion are all key components of that personality. Someone who is infected with perceptions of violence, perceptions of sensuality, entangled with others: That person has to abandon all of these before he can attain samadhi.

    • Dacyn says:

      Maybe, but the collaborators appear to be talking here about all spiritual experiences, not just those coming from meditation. And those experiences lead people to adopt wildly different religions, so it is hard to see how they are consistent unless all religions are consistent with each other. Which again, maybe, but the point of the elephant parable is that it is not obvious that this is true.

      • schoen says:

        Part of what we learned from our collaboration is that people don’t find it easy to agree on the moral of the elephant parable!

        • Telomerase says:

          The solution is obvious: clone some mammoths, test their IQs, identify their IQ-linked genes, use lentiviral vectors and embryo selection to produce a super-genius chimeric pachyderm and let HIM sort out the elephant parable.

          Of course we’ll need a MIRI-type Pachyderm Intelligence safety movement to delay progress by civilian researchers so that the NSA can create a paranoid military surveillance elephant that designs improved paranoid military surveillance elephants first.

        • Dacyn says:

          I think it is more that there are many points of the parable and different people may want to emphasize different parts of it. Which I guess makes the parable a metaphor for itself 😉

      • bsrk says:

        There is the samadhi obtaining personality. And samadhi obtaining personality is an avenue to power. The concentration reports in this blogpost are tinted towards divine eye (clairvoyance). Specifically, it is the clarivoyance which can see the great bramha.

        The powers to which samadhi-obtaining-personality is the avenue are diverse, but the important thing is samadhi obtaining personality. And there is only one power that destroys obscurants preventing samadhi.

  3. chaosmage says:

    I have read all of this, skipping only the quotes that I remembered from back when I studied the psychology of religion at university. I can confirm it is a competent survey of the better part of the literature.

    Unfortunately it also imports the problems of that literature. Methodological agnosticism has been slowing down research in that field for decades. I feel there is something disingenuous about that. It serves believers who are trying to dress up their beliefs as philosophy. It serves unbelievers who worry that their field of study will evaporate if they look at it too hard and find that it is mere pathology. So methodological agnosticism persists for these lowly reasons although it does not serve to constrain expected experience and thereby create knowledge. It cannot even predict that entities encountered in visions will be just as unable to factorize large numbers as entities encountered in dreams.

    The hypothesis discussed here seems to me trivially true and borderline boring. I prefer the much stronger claim that these experiences show something true and important when understood in a purely materialist and atheist view. So at least I appreciate the subject area.

    I suppose there’s a failure mode to the ACC where two people pick a weak, uncontroversial hypothesis that does not create much of the hassle of actual adversarial work, and get the SSC megaphone anyway. I would prefer edgier hypotheses in the future.

    • RC-cola-and-a-moon-pie says:

      Isn’t methodological agnosticism a prerequisite for investigating the truth of any subject? You can choose to use a methodology that presupposes certain commitments at the outset but then your conclusions can’t be interpreted as demonstrating either side of the controversy (because your answer was baked into your methodology at the outset). Or am I misunderstanding your terminology?

      • chaosmage says:

        You need to be agnostic about the actual question. But whether there is a God or something is not the question of the study of religion. The study of religion, including the psychology of religion, looks at what religions do, how they affect people and how people affect them.

        Methodological agnosticism is kind of constitutional to the field because that’s how it differentiated itself from the older field of Missiology which, being part of theology, does assume God.

        But almost all of science is methodologically materialist or naturalist. The study of religion’s hesitation about taking the same stance is controversial and nowhere near as universal as the authors of this article seem to believe. Serious researchers have called for methodological naturalism in the study of religion. But old habits die hard, especially when they have the aforementioned convenient side effects.

        • schoen says:

          I admit to ambivalence about academic religious studies taking on religions’ truth claims; I can see advantages and disadvantages in this.

          Serious researchers have called for methodological naturalism in the study of religion.

          I’d be happy to hear more about this, as I don’t have much background in this field. The main things I’m aware of in this direction are Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, Boyer’s Religion Explained, and Guthrie’s Faces in the Clouds, the latter two focused on agency detection and anthropomorphism. I’ve only read tiny parts of each of these works.

          • chaosmage says:

            Robert A. Segal’s Religion and the Social Sciences and J. Samuel Preus Explaining Religion are two of many arguments where the question of whether anything supernatural exists is not left open, not even implicitly.

            The three books you name are great choices. But if you’re not so familiar with the broader research, maybe your collaborator picked more of the sources you both worked on? Because some of those choices do seem like a theologian’s.

            Alston was a very committed Christian. Hood isn’t, but I met him a few times (and proudly sat on a panel with him once) and I’d bet 50 to 1 he has taken enough psychedelics in his life to have had lots of these experiences. That’s not to say they’re not excellent scholars, I leaned heavily on Hood myself in the piece linked above, but they’re not exactly representative of the field when it comes to how much respect should be accorded to supernaturalism.

    • schoen says:

      I agree that we defined our topic pretty broadly and that we might have seen more adversarial fireworks if we had defined it more narrowly. I feel like I learned quite a bit from the process, but I can see where more narrowly-defined topics lend themselves to greater specificity about disagreements. And they might be more interesting to readers, too.

      I can imagine more specific topics that might be good follow-ups:

      * Have we observed paranormal phenomena?
      * Is the Buddha-dharma a cookbook for a reliable sequence of personal enlightenment experiences?
      * Is theistic argument X valid? (shades of the heyday of Internet atheism debates!)
      * Do NDEs show that personal consciousness survives death?
      * How widespread are personal spiritual experiences whose experiencers find them hard to talk about?
      * Can DMT entities factor large integers? Can they communicate messages from one DMT user to another?
      * What’s the inter-rater reliability of Christians trying to discern God’s will through prayer?
      * Should people with a naturalistic worldview take up a meditation practice derived from an enlightenment-oriented tradition?

      • Emma_B says:

        Those topics would indeed be very interesting for a follow up!

        I found the presentation of the subject very interesting and I learned many things, thank you!

        Something that is not clear for me after reading your text is that, if I understood correctly, after working together you agreed that yes spiritual experiences are important, at least for the people having them, but nothing more. Did you really not agree on that before starting your collaboration? As Chaosmage said, it seems trivially true.

        • schoen says:


          It was easiest to agree that people’s personal conclusions about their own spiritual experiences can be considered rational, even if they diverge from one another. I was also moved in the direction of thinking spiritual experiences may be important in a larger sense.

    • Completely understand and mostly agree with your critique. Perhaps some insight into one of my intentions with this project is relevant here.

      I think it is important to first establish common ground in the theism/atheism debate before any creative (productive) conversation might occur. I suggest empiricism in the experiential sense as one of the possible candidates for finding this common ground. The thesis here is perhaps the most basic common ground agreement required for there to be any sort of interaction on the topic. In other words, if someone prone to atheism does not think that there is anything of value in spiritual experiences, then that person will have no motivating reason to investigate or discuss them.

      My initial thought with this project was to argue something like: “Spiritual experiences are indicative of a genuine metaphysical reality,” or something like that. But in working with my collaboration partner (whom I now count as a friend), we came to settle on this current version precisely because it is the most basic, foundational statement upon which a bridge might be built.

      While methodological agnosticism certainly is not satisfactory for either side of the debate (for reasons you stated and more), it’s not a bad place to start if a conversation is desired. Perhaps this project favored collaboration over adversariality. In the future, I’ll try to be more combative and edgy. Haha. Joke.

      Thanks for reading and responding, chaosmage.

    • Ransom says:

      Pre-supposing materialism/naturalism would seem to a priori force the conclusion that all spiritual experience is unreal, no matter what the evidence might say. It seems fundamentally incompatible with an investigation into “the significance of spiritual experience”.

    • Modvind says:

      The Seven Secular Sermons blog post was an excellent read. Thanks for sharing!

      I can understand why the literature is methodologically agnostic, but after reading this ACC it indeed does seem like a dead end.

  4. When spirit is discussed, almost always I think of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, systems 1 and 2 becoming aware of each other might be perceived as a spiritual experience. The Matrix series of movies has great quotes for this.

  5. Dacyn says:

    I don’t really get the supposed analogy between spiritual experiences and ordinary sense perception. I mean, the similarity seems to be that while people’s first reaction is to take both of them at face value, you couldn’t use logic to prove either of them. But the contrasts seem more striking. If we accept sense perception, we open ourselves up to a coherent world that allows for straightforward empirical testing of a variety of claims. And all the people we can see seem to agree that our sense perception is basically valid. On the other hand, if we accept spiritual experiences (which incidentally doesn’t seem possible unless we first accept sense experiences) we open ourselves up to a world that doesn’t seem to have clear rules or any way of empirically testing things. Instead it seems to be based mostly on emotional resonances. And of the people we can see (which presumably still includes people we see via sense perception), no one is able to confirm our experience, except possibly for supernatural entities we may have encountered within the experience.

    I notice in the conclusion Schoen says “One can note that sense perceptions like vision and hearing are well-confirmed by the understanding they yield of the physical world and the predictions this understanding allows us to make, but other kinds of perceptions are socially normalized and believed even without the same degree of objective confirmation.” It sounds like he is saying that taste and smell are less well supported than sight and sound because they don’t give as many empirical predictions? It seems to me like they still give significantly more empirical predictions than spiritual experiences, though.

    • schoen says:

      I was referring mainly to interior perceptions like emotions and attitudes; one of the articles in SEP or IEP or something (which I couldn’t find later and so didn’t cite) made the observation that we often believe in things like love, friendship, anger, and so on, potentially with a much lower or different kind of confirmation and predictability than external objects and physics. We can definitely get some kind of anticipation of experience from most of these beliefs, but it’s not likely to be super-detailed and super-reliable, and it seems like much of our belief about other people’s internal experience is based on trust in their goodwill in reporting it, and on analogies to our own internal experience.

      I was interested in the argument that we might sometimes tend to hold spiritual experiences to an exceptionally high standard this way (although that’s complicated, because some people’s interpretations of these experiences also make very big claims!). My collaboration partner suggested that, in the way that our culture has gotten more sophisticated about talking about, say, people’s inner emotional life, and “comparing notes”, we might be able to get more sophisticated about doing the same with spiritual experiences. Then we might better understand what kinds of patterns and commonalities people find that there are or aren’t in these experiences.

      I remember very recently seeing a discussion of LSD use where it seemed like people were able to get very specific and recognize that they were seemingly talking about the same thing that had happened to both of them under the influence of the drug. That doesn’t commit them to any other kind of view about it, but it’s neat to see that they could accomplish that “shock of recognition”. It seems like a kind of progress over “no one will ever understand what I’m talking about” or “these experiences are totally random and personal and have no pattern to them”.

      I think this is kind of similar to the view of Buddhism as a phenomenological how-to guide where we’ve seen people here on SSC talking about these concepts like stream entry, jhanas, and so on—sometimes with what feels like reasonably strong confidence that they’re talking about the same thing.

      Now a confounding part is that someone might say “well, but everyone feels love, and everyone feels anger, so it’s easy to see that we’re all talking about the same understanding—and that’s not true for these more unusual states and experiences, where really very few people have them”. This collaboration changed my attitude toward this a bit: I felt I learned that culture is affecting these conversations much more than we might think. On the one hand, experiences that are not culturally normalized may be more common than we think (but we don’t have shared vocabulary for them), and on the other, experiences that are culturally normalized may be more diverse than we think (but we assume that they match up well because we use the same word for them).

      • Dacyn says:

        OK fair enough, emotions vs spiritual experiences is probably a better analogy, as long as you are thinking of emotions as perceptions of a subconscious that you can’t access directly. It seems like the question “what’s going on in the subconscious?” is pretty controversial, though.

  6. ReasonableFideist says:

    Perhaps this is just a different way of stating some of the points that have already been made, but I’d like to advance a personal theory to see how it compares to what’s presented here and explore some ways it might strengthen the case for subjectively justified belief. My ability to explain this needs some work and I share it in the spirit of welcoming criticism. The short version of the theory is this: We take the justification of beliefs to be mappable ala argument maps or baysian networks. Inasmuch as we cite multiple reasons for believing any claim, then multiple reasons for believing the supporting claims etc we end up creating a pyramid supporting the original claim. But if we kept following claims downwards we would eventually find the claims relying on the same core philosophical assumptions, forming something roughly diamond shaped.

    Visualizing epistemic justification in this way lets us make some interesting points.

    1.1- All attempts at epistemic justification are subject to the problem of circularity ie that if you follow the justifications far enough down you will either a. End up resting your justifications on unsupported axioms or b. Create a circle whereby your conclusion is taken to justify your premise.

    1.2- One possible method of assessing a claim might be how many nodes separate it from the core axioms. Ie in order to trust a second-hand witness of something I have to trust them, their perception of the event, and my perception of them relating the event where as if I see the event myself that can be said to be more reliable as it relies on less assumptions.

    1.3- It introduces a way of illustrating the concept of isolated demands for skepticism(or rigor). One can doubt all the way down the diamond, but if one does so in the case of some claims but not others, they may be applying their skepticism inconsistently.

    1.4- As near as I can tell, the claim at the very bottom of the diamond are the assumptions that I exist, and that my personal experience corresponds to reality. Sensory perceptions are actually one node above it. I experience sight, but I can doubt my sight without necessarily doubting the bottom assumption of experience(I might try to touch an optical illusion for example). All 5 senses are subsets of experience as are emotion, thought, imagery etc. but experience is not a subset of them. They depend on the assumption that experience corresponds to reality, but it does not necessarily depend on them.

    1.5- This would seem to lead to the conclusion that phenomenology is first epistemology. That phenomenological claims have epistemic superiority to all others that are mediated by more assumptions. Phenomenology would be the most primary means available to study psychology, self, the world, or any other aspect of experience as all other epistemic methodologies are only possible through experience.

    Some possible conclusions from the model as it relates to the justification of religious experience:

    1: Per 1.4 and 1.2, religious experiences would claim a closeness to core axioms at a level equal to the 5 senses in general, but closer than any claim made through them. Unlike the claim that my computer is in front of me which is mediated by the claim that my experience of sight is reliable, some religious experiences are reported to have a quality of “givenness” of truth to them, unmediated by anything except the most core assumption that experience(in general) is reliable.

    2. Some religious experiences claim, as you pointed out, to be “more real than real”, or in the words of one of William James’ witnesses, “I could not anymore have doubted that He was there than that I was. Indeed I felt myself to be, if possible, the less real of the two”. If such claims can be taken seriously, than it would appear that in the moment something actually establishes an epistemic certainty below the assumptions of personal existence and experience correspondence. If taken seriously, this may be the most grounded epistemic claim possible. If one really can’t doubt it without doubting existence and experience themselves, then doubting it without doubting all the things above it would constitute inconsistent skepticism. Doubting it after the fact, when what remains is a memory of the event rather than the experience of it would be a different matter, but doubting it from within the experience itself would seem near impossible. Which is how it is reported.

    • Hi ReasonableFideist!

      I’d like to take more time reading and responding to this comment, because there’s a lot here to take in, but I wanted to respond briefly now.

      I think there’s a lot in Alston’s work Perceiving God that mirrors your approach here. Alston would agree with your point on epistemic circularity. Your conclusion that “This would seem to lead to the conclusion that phenomenology is first epistemology,” is definitely compatible with Alston’s view that sensory perception produces the most basic building blocks of any knowledge we may claim to have about the world. I think that this is rather difficult to argue against, but I’m interested to see what objections might be raised against it.

      However, Alston then states that mystical perception is real and phenomenologically available, and that it functions in a similar way to sensory perception. This is what I consider to be the sticking point for any argument along these lines (among them, yours, which you outlined above). How do those with mystical experiences communicate these experiences in a way that is comprehensible and relatable to those who are skeptical of them?

      This is too short of a response than your comment deserves. Hope you had a merry Christmas!

      • ReasonableFideist says:

        However, Alston then states that mystical perception is real and phenomenologically available, and that it functions in a similar way to sensory perception. This is what I consider to be the sticking point for any argument along these lines

        I’ve gone back and forth on this point myself. If what he says here is true of the experience people report, then he’d be right and trusting the reliability of religious experiences correspondence with reality would be a mediating node in the same way trusting sight is.

        We’re getting into the ineffability of such experiences and I currently only have access to mine as memories, but it seems to me that some had a quality of “experienced as true” to them equal to or even greater than the way we experience sight as true. So it wasn’t that I was experiencing a spiritual experience of God’s love, but rather I experienced God’s love directly and the truth of it was given in the experience of it. Unmediated. Such experiences are rarer still. I’ve had many of the quality of mediated by having a spiritual experience, but can think of only two that had this more direct quality. And I’m still not sure I’m describing it accurately. Without reading through all if it again, I think some of the experiences you related may have had similar qualities.

        Your conclusion that “This would seem to lead to the conclusion that phenomenology is first epistemology,” is definitely compatible with Alston’s view that sensory perception produces the most basic building blocks of any knowledge we may claim to have about the world. I think that this is rather difficult to argue against, but I’m interested to see what objections might be raised against it.

        I’m very interested to hear counter-arguments to this point as well. My personal explorations along those lines have led me to a graduate program in Existential Phenomenological Psychology that I’m loving and I’ve just recently discovered that Amedeo Giorgi made similar claims.

        Thank you for your and your partner’s effort on this collaboration.

    • aho bata says:

      I can think of a couple objections off the top of my head. Sorry if they sound cavalier or overly “gotcha”-y; I’m currently 40,000 feet in the air and trying to make the most of my limited free Wi-Fi.

      1. This is just a nitpick, but I don’t understand how the skeptical challenge of 1.1 serves the rest of your argument, seeing as how in 1.2 you go on to accept “core axioms” as a vital part of your model.

      2. Related to your conclusion 1,
      a) Why is a separate node needed for each individual sense? If one of my parents tells me P, and I have an axiom saying that anything one of my parents tells me is true, should the fact that it was my mother in particular who told me make me give it less credence? Maybe so, insofar as I cannot be 100% sure I know why my mother is… but the analogy to sensory experience would be that I cannot be 100% sure that sight in particular is an experience, which seems odd. Is that what you meant to imply?
      b) Why not say that the property of “givenness” confers on spiritual experience the status of a core axiom? It’s unclear to me why the givenness of a truth claim obviates the need to depend on a specific kind of experience but not the need to depend on experience in general.

      3. You assume that the direct sensation of truth not only is a factor in how much credence we should give a belief, but trumps other ways of knowing. As people from Socrates to Stephen Colbert have noted, this is an unreliable heuristic at best. Some people are overconfident, and would only become more overconfident (and thus worse learners, and thus less knowledgeable than they would otherwise be) if told that their gut feelings are the supreme source of knowledge. The reason the direct sensation of truth is inferior to the physical senses is that the latter’s consistency makes them more verifiable. I close my eyes, and when I open them, what I see is the same as before. Two people can effortlessly describe the same object the same way in very fine detail. We take these things for granted, but my impression is that the bar for agreement on spiritual experiences is set much lower. And it’s not just by happenstance that the physical senses are more consistent. Most strains of empiricism are grounded in the notion of an outside world with physical properties. The senses pick up on these properties, and some computation is done to determine how credible our perceptions and the inferences based on them are. The sensation of credibility doesn’t respond to anything in the outside world if cut loose from the senses. You might counter that this assumes that the world is purely physical, and I would agree that that is probably not the case. But it isn’t clear why the analogous argument wouldn’t apply to whatever the equivalent of the physical senses in non-physical domains is. The perception of truth is ideally an output of the reasoning process, not an input to it (although there may be some situations where it is both).

      4. I’m generally sympathetic to claims along the lines of your 1.5, but note that when you say that phenomenology should be of primary importance, there are different levels at which “phenomenology” could be interpreted, some more radical than others. To go back to the elephant metaphor, the blind man who feels the elephant’s flank could elevate phenomenology by concluding that he was touching a hard surface (correct), or slightly more adventurously, a wall (incorrect). To get the most informative correct answer, he would have to confer with others and depend on abstract, potentially untrustworthy nodes like “I can believe in the testimony of other people” and “I understand the English language.” You could argue that belief in these abstractions is ultimately justified by one’s past experience, but at that point it’s not clear what non-trivial argument in favor of phenomenology you are making.

  7. Telomerase says:

    If any of this spiritual technology worked, the world’s militaries would include turbojet-powered prayer wheels for karma boosts and units of drafted monks using synthetic entheogens for battlefield reconnaissance.

    But they don’t. The closest the military gets to the X Files is its ongoing effort to convince us that we are being surveilled by travelers from other times or world-lines:


    • Bugmaster says:

      You scoff, but modern Russian military parades do include priests tasked with the blessing of ICBMs. Russians are considering banning the practice — for ethical reasons, and not due to any lack of effectiveness. Presumably.

      • Telomerase says:

        Thanks Bug… this Missile Blessing Gap can be the next hallucination/”campaign issue” to move us closer to WW3 😉

        Seriously, orders of magnitude, dude… if religion were good for anything physical it would get some DARPA funding.

        Religion IS, of course, good for controlling humans. And money does go into research for improving it for that… maybe even some DARPA or black-budget money. The US is still using bombers from the 1950s and missiles from the 1960s, so the money certainly isn’t going into improving them 😉

        • Bugmaster says:

          Well, on the plus side, while the USA is currently at a disadvantage vis-a-vis the blessing gap, we hold a vast strategic reserve of theological resources. While the Russians are limited to Eastern Orthodox blessings, our population is well-equipped to provide a wide gamut of spiritual augmentation. We have hundreds if not thousands of Christian denominations alone, and that’s before we start counting Wiccans, Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Norse Pagans, etc., etc. My suggestion is to begin implementing the Pan-Theological Enhancement project ASAP (with me as its Director, of course). Let the Russians have their priests — let’s see what they can do when faced with the combined might of Jesus, Shiva, Thor, Allah, and the four elements !

        • Bugmaster says:

          And, speaking of theological gaps…


    • Dacyn says:

      I mean, that logic gives you an upper bound on how well “spiritual technology” can work. But it seems like that bound is still pretty far from “doesn’t work at all”.

      • Telomerase says:

        Well, where is your controlled test of blessed vs. unblessed missiles?

        And don’t say the Albigensian Crusade, the missiles on both sides were blessed 😉

        • Dacyn says:

          I’m assuming you meant to reply to Bugmaster?

          • Telomerase says:

            No, I meant to reply to you, Dacyn… you need to be able to quantify effectiveness in order to prove that “doesn’t work at all” isn’t correct.

          • Dacyn says:

            @Telomerase: Huh? I don’t at all want to “prove that ‘doesn’t work at all’ isn’t correct”: in fact, I don’t believe in the supernatural and think that “spiritual technology doesn’t work at all” is a fine way of describing that. But if you are trying to base your argument for the non-existence of the supernatural on the non-existence of “turbojet-powered prayer wheels for karma boosts and units of drafted monks using synthetic entheogens for battlefield reconnaissance”, then you have quite a long way to go.

          • isitisorisitaint says:

            > you need to be able to quantify effectiveness in order to prove that “doesn’t work at all” isn’t correct

            Wait, are you suggesting that default state of truth is not Unknown, but True or False (ie: a lack of evidence is a logical proof that a theory is False)?

          • Bugmaster says:

            To be fair though, wide-spread adoption and rapid improvement of a technology (as opposed to scientific theories alone) is exactly what we’d expect if such technology was truly effective. Look at how quickly the automobile replaced the horse-and-buggy, for example; or the wildfire explosion of computing technology in our own time. Curiously, theological technology had not done that. Yes, obviously people all over the world still pray fervently every day; but (unless I’m mistaken) there had been no improvement in the yields of prayer for thousands of years (and in fact adoption of prayer had gone down, on average). Meanwhile, we went from smoke signals to cellphones. Clearly, there must be some difference between theology and regular technology, no ?

          • Dacyn says:

            @Bugmaster: Sure, my point was just that “truly effective” and “doesn’t work at all” are not mutually exhaustive possibilities. You could imagine that maybe it works a little bit, but not powerfully or reliably enough to ensure widespread adoption.

          • Bugmaster says:

            I guess I’m having trouble visualizing what “not powerful enough” means. Can you give me some examples of other technologies that are not powerful enough to merit widespread adoption, yet have existed for thousands of years ?

          • Dacyn says:

            @Bugmaster: Well, the first example that springs to mind isn’t a thousand years old, but I would be somewhat surprised if we found a use for it in the next thousand years (though it’s not impossible). Quantum entanglement allows for “spooky action at a distance” in a way that is clearly beyond the abilities of classical particles, but this phenomenon cannot be used for “communication” in the usual sense. Instead it can be used for things like “each of two people picks a number between 1 and 3; then the device gives each of them a number between 1 and 2, and the outputs are the same if and only if the inputs are the same”. (Actually it cannot even do this, but this is an example of the kind of thing that it can do.) There are theoretical scenarios where such “communication” would be useful, but it is not clear that any of them are plausible.

            That was an example of a not-very-powerful technology. Not-very-reliable is more tricky, because if it’s not reliable then it probably can’t be reliably tested, in which case we wouldn’t be able to be sure that it even exists. But for example, suppose that Jesus really did have the ability to work miracles (leaving aside the question of what the theological implications of this are). Then that’s great for people in first-century Galilee, but if no one else can work miracles then it doesn’t have much implication for what militaries today will be doing.

            Now maybe such blatant unreliability as “only works for one person” is implausible. I personally think that the regularity of physical law is a strong point in favor of the proposition that the physical law is all that there is. But if you are going to be talking to people who don’t share that assumption, you’ll have to argue it instead of just asserting that if Jesus can work miracles then everyone else should be able to as well.

        • Bugmaster says:

          I sincerely hope that a full-scale test for such missiles never comes about…

    • Jaskologist says:

      Is there a military currently around that doesn’t have chaplains?

      • Bugmaster says:

        Technically, no one has Chaplains but the Imperium of Man. The Emperor protects ! 🙂

        That said though, AFAIK the US chaplains don’t go around blessing missiles as part of their SOP. I could be wrong, admittedly.

      • Shpoon says:

        Interestingly the Wikipedia page for Military Chaplain includes a notice to this effect:

        The examples and perspective in this article deal primarily with the United States and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject.

        I’d also assume that countries with an inimical opposition to organized religion (The PRC, DPRK, and Socialist Republic of Vietnam come to mind) won’t have anything resembling the Western military chaplain.

        I only say this since it was a claim worth checking out – in all fairness I am pretty positive that all of the countries I use as examples have something that fulfills an analogous role; Political Commissars in the PLA arguably fill the role of imbuing the armed forces with greater legitimacy and reminding military personnel of the “big picture.” I suppose in an ultra-secular society where politics and ideology fill an almost soteriological role, political/ideological operatives *may* come to play a role similar to the chaplaincy.

        Counterpoint: the pluralistic assumptions of Western governments mean chaplains don’t hold authority over troops of other faiths. In the PLA, I imagine holding faith in anything other than the party is something to keep to yourself.

    • Ransom says:

      If any of this spiritual technology worked, the world’s militaries would include turbojet-powered prayer wheels for karma boosts and units of drafted monks using synthetic entheogens for battlefield reconnaissance


      This is only true if a) prayer or ritual is technology, a sort of magic, and b) prayer or ritual is “additive” in the sense that repetition or numbers of prayers increased the effect. I don’t know about, say, Buddhism, but certainly neither thing is true in Judaism/Christianity/Islam.

      • schoen says:

        I’ve always been curious about prayer flags and prayer wheels. I know some Buddhists have things akin to the Catholic rosary, where they can keep track of where they are in a practice with a number of elements or repetitions (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhist_prayer_beads), but prayer flags and prayer wheels seem like something else entirely, notably because you don’t have to mentally interact with the text at all in order to use them! I remember visiting a Buddhist temple in Asia that had a huge prayer wheel on the roof that guests were invited to turn (I think containing the Diamond Sutra or something), but we couldn’t even *see* the text inside, and perhaps a majority of the visitors to that temple had never studied it. That seems like a particular ritual that has a technological or magical element at least because of all of the other experiential elements that it doesn’t include.

        I’ve heard the idea that turning a prayer wheel counts as a recitation of the texts inside it, but it’s interesting that this should be so in some sense even for people who aren’t familiar with them.

  8. Bugmaster says:

    I don’t think I fully understand the matter at hand.

    The fact that people have various spiritual experiences is practically undeniable. Likewise, it is pretty obvious that many of such experiences are similar to each other. Spiritual experiences can occur spontaneously, but could also be induced by near-death, drugs, meditation, etc. AFAICT, we have at least three possible models that can explain these facts:

    1). Spiritual experiences are a product of our biochemistry and nervous systems. We currently do not have a perfect (or even moderately adequate !) understanding of how our brains work; still, we can use spiritual experiences to guide further research. We do have viable explanations for some of these experiences, e.g. those induced by drugs.

    2). Spiritual experiences are caused by some hitherto unknown external factor interacting with our brains — similarly to how e.g. visual experiences are caused by photons impacting our retinas. It is not surprising that altered states of consciousness affect spiritual experiences, for the same reason that they affect visual experiences. We do not know what this external factor could be, but we can use spiritual experiences to design experiments to collect more objective data (analogous to building photo cameras to capture light).

    3). Spiritual experiences are caused by an external factor that cannot, in principle, be studied in any way other than by subjectively thinking and/or feeling about it. The best we can do is to rely on people’s recitations of their experience; but, since such experiences cannot be adequately put into words anyway, we are unlikely to get very far.

    As I see it, model #3 is what is meant by “non-empiricism”; but how useful is it ? How would you even demonstrate that it was likely to be true; and if you did, what good would it do ? I should also add that “X is undetectable, in principle, by any instrument now or in the future” is pretty close to saying “X doesn’t do anything”; in which case, again, what’s the point ?

    Models #1 and #2 are competing explanations for the same phenomenon that can, in principle, be studied; better yet, their proposed mechanisms clearly do something, at least. However, model #2 is currently at a disadvantage due to nearly total lack of tangible evidence behind it. That doesn’t mean it’s false, and if you want to study it, your time probably wouldn’t be entirely wasted; but, if we assign equal priors to models #1 and #2, then #1 is currently winning — Bayesianly speaking.

    • Dacyn says:

      Well, if spiritual experiences lead you to believe that a religion is true, then presumably you can follow the precepts of that religion; this is presumably useful.

      It does seem unfortunate that the whole exercise appears to just be a sub-question of the debate over religions, and not really a separate question in its own right.

      This project seeks to explore the viability of spiritual or religious experiences as empirical evidence for a component of reality that transcends or is radically different from our ordinary experience.

      • Bugmaster says:

        Well, if spiritual experiences lead you to believe that a religion is true, then presumably you can follow the precepts of that religion; this is presumably useful.

        This only works if I already believe that some specific religion is true. Otherwise, as is noted in the article, the spiritual experiences do not provide sufficient reason to prefer one religion over the other — since Christians have Christian experiences, Hindus have Hindu experiences, etc.

        • Dacyn says:

          Sure, but presumably if you decide that spiritual experiences are pointing at something supernatural then you will be more motivated to figure out which religion (if any) is the most likely.

          I mean, I agree with you that it’s not very actionable information, but it is at least a little actionable. And I think it’s common to discuss questions which are not particularly actionable.

          • Bugmaster says:

            Well, every kind of information is at least a little actionable, but the question is, how much ? The butterflies flapping their wings outside of my window do have some nonzero effect on weather; but if I want to find out if it rains tomorrow, I’m going to check the satellite maps.

            Obviously experiencing supernatural things would motivate me which religion was more likely — but, again, this already assumes that I believe that my experiences are, in fact, supernatural; and that the very concept of religion is at least somewhat valid. I can’t use supernatural experiences alone to go from agnosticism to theism, because they are entirely consistent with both naturalistic and theistic models of the world.

          • isitisorisitaint says:

            > Obviously experiencing supernatural things would motivate me which religion was more likely — but, again, this already assumes that I believe that my experiences are, in fact, supernatural; and that the very concept of religion is at least somewhat valid. I can’t use supernatural experiences alone to go from agnosticism to theism, because they are entirely consistent with both naturalistic and theistic models of the world.

            Are you speaking from personal experience here?

            And while you may not be capable of this, do you have reason to believe no one is, that no one can go from being a strong atheist to spiritualist based on their experiences?

          • Bugmaster says:

            Are you speaking from personal experience here?

            Probably not in the way that you mean. I’ve had some amazing experiences (and some of them were even unrelated to sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll !), but, not being a believer, I’ve never had a reason to interpret them as being supernatural.

            do you have reason to believe no one is, that no one can go from being a strong atheist to spiritualist based on their experiences?

            When did I say that ? Obviously, religious converts do exist. While I cannot presently imagine any kind of an experience that would convince me personally that supernatural entities do exist, that doesn’t mean that such experiences cannot happen. However, if we are talking about truly supernatural entities — i.e., entities that are by definition impervious to empirical analysis — then no one could be rationally justified (in the Bayesian sense) in believing in them (EDIT: in the absence of strong priors in the supernaturals’ favor). But obviously Bayesian reasoning is only one type of reasoning that people use, it’s not like Bayes is my personal Lord and Saviour, you know ?

          • Dacyn says:


            every kind of information is at least a little actionable

            This is kind of like saying “every statement is either true or false”. Yes, that’s what makes it a statement. But if you have some random string of words, it’s not always immediately obvious whether it’s a statement/information or not. To put it another way, actionability demonstrates that you are not arguing about whether a tree falling in the forest “makes a sound” or something like that.

            entities that are by definition impervious to empirical analysis

            I don’t think this is a good definition of the supernatural. I like Richard Carrier’s definition more: “A ‘supernatural’ explanation appeals to ontologically basic mental things, mental entities that cannot be reduced to nonmental entities.” So it should theoretically be possible to be rationally justified in believing in them.

          • Bugmaster says:

            Your (well, Carrier’s) definition is more focused than mine, but I think the two are compatible. How would you empirically test the existence of mentally basic entities ?

        • DinoNerd says:

          Reading the above – and admittedly somewhat biased – I felt as if the context presumed a single omni-benevolent deity. I’m not sure whether this impression came from the quotes or the framing text; I was getting annoyed enough by this that I was skimming rather than reading.

          Now there are plenty of sects that claim there is only one deity, and that it (usually “He”) is omni-benevolent, but that is still a pretty strong common element.

          I suspect that this may be
          – an artefact of the text, not the experiences
          – specifically an artefact of referring to the entity experienced as “God”
          – an artefact of everythign being in English – or any other language coming froma monotheistic culture
          – my buttons being pushed

          rather than an attribute of the experiences themselves. (Polytheists I know, unsurprisingly, report different kinds of experience, if they mention them.)

          But if it were true – that these experiences have a common element of singular (there is no other) deity and an impression of benevolence to all – that would be the start of a common religious tradition.

  9. Protagoras says:

    In James’ classic discussion, one of the subcategories of experiences with similar characteristics he mentioned was intellectual insight, the feeling of just seeing that a mathematical or scientific claim had to be true. I’ve always been a bit more interested in that one, insofar as it seems to be the only subcategory of spiritual experiences I’ve had personally.* Instances of this category also have the virtue of usually being in some way indepedently testable, of course, and so we know that however overwhelming their verisimilitude, they do not appear to be infallibly accurate. I wonder if rationalists have them more than empiricists; Descartes’ frequent talk of the natural light or the light of reason is quite different from what you encounter in even comparably mathematically inclined empiricists.

    * Once wrt Goedel’s theorem, once wrt relativity. The feeling was not lasting, and I don’t think I’m presently any more convinced of those two things on the basis of my memories of those intense experiences than I am of other logical, mathematical, or scientific claims where I’ve had no such experiences but there is a broad consensus and I’m familiar with the evidence and/or reasoning. But in each case the feelings were quite intense at the time.

    • JohnBuridan says:


      I always found intellectual insight to be a compelling reason to have faith in an ordered cosmos, which to me is a reassuring thing. When I read James this felt like permission to characterize intellectual insight as religious experience. I spend a lot of time meditating on the beauty of geometrical proofs, Goedel, evolutionary theory, and Relativity, and I am willing to characterize this as “connecting my mind to Providence” when it helps me find common ground with traditional believers.

  10. ReasonableFideist says:

    This is an excellent compilation and summary of the relevant points and may be the new place I direct people for an introduction to the topic. I don’t have the time to sit down and write a complete response(this took hours as is) so I’ll instead list some brief bullet points that I can elaborate on individually if discussion continues along any of these lines.

    1. As another commenter already pointed out, I believe the assumption of sense perception vs spiritual sense epistemic equity merits further development. How are they similar, how are they different, what role do priors play in the justifiability of beliefs based off of them, what roles does inter-rater reliability play, what role does individual test-retest reliability play, what role do predictions play?

    2. I’d like to point out the important distinction between verification vs falsification oriented epistemology. These experiences seem to generally have the power to verify claims, but less to falsify them. You did mention some religions offering processes that lead to spiritual experiences. I’m wondering if such tests are taken to have both verification and falsification power, or if they should be.

    3. I’d like to advance four additional ways that religious experiences can be studied empirically.
    3.1- Where claims are made that certain processes lead to religious experiences/confirmations, whether or not they do, or the conditions under which they do can be studied. Those claims make predictions.
    3.2- In my experience, some religious experiences are shared between people within a group. Comparisons in the individual experiences of people who had a shared religious experience would be interesting.
    3.3- Some religious experiences contain elements of prediction, revelation, or foreknowledge of objective events. The study of these would be interesting(see 4).
    3.4- While religious experiences do vary from religion to religion, culture to culture etc. It’s possible that the actual specifics of what are communicated by them are universal, but the individuals have a tendency to overgeneralize from the specific. For example, a catholic person might have a religious experience that communicates God’s love. But because it happened in a catholic context or reading the Bible they over generalize the experience and take it to indicate the truth of Catholicism or the Bible. A Hindu person also has a religious experience that communicates the love of God, but since it was prompted by reading in the Hindu scriptures they take it to indicate the truth of Hinduism. In both cases, the actual religious experience would have communicated the same thing. It would be interesting to compare religious experiences cross-culturally to see what contradictions or similarities arose while digging into the specifics.

    4. As I said, some religious experiences have elements of prediction of objective events. The following is a personal story of one such. I am an expert level whitewater kayaker. Some friends and I drove over to kayak a class IV river with one class V rapid on it(at the current flood level flows). It was all of our first times on this river, but I was the most experienced kayaker there so I was leading(after doing plenty of research and scouting from the road). The one class V rapid was actually fairly safe as long as you made sure to keep to the right 25% of the river. If you ran it on the left 75% there was a death sieve. A tree that had fallen across it, forcing the water underneath where a swimmer or kayaker would be caught in branches and drown. Making the move to the right was fairly easy, you just had to know about the potential issue, make the move, and everything would be fine. We had a great time finishing our run and then had lunch at the bottom for a couple hours before heading up to do our second run.

    As soon as we started loading up our boats, I felt a quiet disease and a firm impression that I should not do the second run. That if I did, something bad would happen. The impression had no rational justification. We’d driven a long way to be there, I’d just ran it flawlessly, and my friends were counting on me to lead again. If anything, the group would be less safe without me in it. I fought the impression for a few minutes, then gave in and told my skeptical friends that I wouldn’t be doing the second run with them, as well as my “impression” rationale(some shared a religious background).

    We drove up and I dropped them off before driving down the river to stop and take pictures. When I got to the big class V rapid with the death sieve I spotted two men down by the river bank, one drinking on shore and the other about to push out into the river. He was very drunk, in a walmart fishing raft, using two plastic toy shovels as paddles, wearing no life jacket and pushing off on the left side of the river only several hundred yards above the death sieve. With the force of the current as it was, there was a 100% change he would go into the sieve and I’d predict a 90%+ chance of death. I ran down the bank, catching his attention in the very act of pushing off and then spent the next 30 minutes explaining to him that I really really knew what I was talking about when I told him that if he pushed out there he would die. In my expert(at kayaking) opinion had I not heeded that prompting, he would be dead. I still have a picture of his little raft and the toy shovels somewhere.

    This was a personal experience, but the objective parts were also shared. I’ve kayaked with those same friends countless times and never felt or claimed anything similar. I told my prediction to my friends beforehand. I had no reason to predict the event by any rational means. And the prediction came true. I’ve had similar experiences of spiritual predictions many times, although few as dramatic. In part because of my exposure to the rationality community I’ve made it a habit to write down those predictions, then follow up afterwards to check for false positives. Some are still open, but none that I’ve had the confidence to write down have proven false. Such experiences seem worth study.

    5. If one takes the arguments presented here seriously, that individuals may be justified in belief in subjective religious experiences but that people who don’t have them are equally justified in not believing, then two questions are raised. One, why do some people have religious experiences and others don’t. Two, why would a “God” create these conditions, rather than just provide objective evidences, or even just show up himself. What interest could he have in hiding himself to some, but revealing himself to others and only in ways that were not provable to those outside the subjective experience? I admit these explanations are mostly post-hoc, and are just ideas to play with.

    5.1- Why do some people have religious experiences and others don’t? I don’t know. I can only speak to my experience, but it is my experience that 99% of the time they only come as or after I do certain kinds of spiritual work. They have a strange quality of happening only as I already believe, and don’t need them as evidence to cause me to believe. The not needing them to believe, or being open to not having them seems a pre-condition for having them. Another pre-condition I’ve noticed is that they tend to only happen when I’m willing to pre-commit to believing in what might be revealed or acting on what might be asked, even if that means believing something I’d normally desire to not believe, or doing something I’d normally desire not to do. I’ve incorporated the litany of tarski into prayer on numerous occasions. “If the sky is green then I desire to know the sky is green”. When I come to really mean it, the door for such experiences is opened. Based off my experience and my experience with how difficult coming to those places is, I can only suppose that many people don’t do the work to get there. Or that perhaps they’ve never before been told it might be worth a try to get there or shown how.

    5.2 Why would a God make the conditions for knowing him subjective? Again, I don’t know. But maybe it has something to do with wanting us to “be our own scientists”, rather than rely on the words of others. It’s also possible that with more knowledge of him, comes more accountability that we’re not all ready for(basilisks). Another answer, proposed by Kierkegaard, God doesn’t want our belief in him in the sense that one believes that a fridge is white. If he wanted us to believe him as one might any other fact of existence, he would reveal himself as just another fact of existence. But if what he wants is our devotion, or a lived trusting of him, then he might condition objective evidences on subjective interest. Kierkegaard dismisses the projects of historicity or rational argument for God’s existence, because he believes that the kind of “knowing” we need of God is the kind a child might have for a parent who they trust loves them. Such knowledge is only appropriated as one might appropriate the knowledge that a rope is trustworthy. By testing it, little by little until it is proved. He is skeptical of our projects to be neutral or objective because they do not have the power to produce that kind of movement of testing, and because they are false. We can pretend to be value neutral or objective, but in reality we are always invested from the start and experience itself is always wholly subjective. No one has ever had an objective experience. So he would encourage us to acknowledge the reality of our subjectivity and pre-investedness and embrace it.

    • Thank you so much for this detailed response.

      Your kayaking story is a great example of how spiritual experience has utility. I’ve heard so many similar stories of people who inexplicably “knew” that some sort of action would either have profoundly positive or negative effects. This gut feeling/instinct/conscience is a certain type of spiritual epistemology that almost always leads to better outcomes. In the Christian tradition, most of these kinds of experiences would be attributed to the activity of the Holy Spirit. I, too, have had these kinds of experiences, and they are impossible for me to ignore or dismiss.

      You ask a few great questions here:

      One, why do some people have religious experiences and others don’t. Two, why would a “God” create these conditions, rather than just provide objective evidences, or even just show up himself. What interest could he have in hiding himself to some, but revealing himself to others and only in ways that were not provable to those outside the subjective experience?

      I think a partial answer to all these questions is to see God as a relational entity. People who have experiences with God are usually those who want them. It’s kind of like how most of us end up being friendly to people who are first friendly to us. That’s not a perfect analogy, but it gets the point across. God responds to people who want to interact with Him. I believe that the nature of spiritual experiences is predicted by two intersecting characterizations of God: 1) He wants a relationship with people. 2) He has given free will to humanity, and he respects that free will.

      In partial answer to the issue of objectivity, you present an idea that the spiritual experiences you have had are the result of your “spiritual work” and that they do not arrive for the purpose of convincing you. This is absolutely in parallel with my own experience. If I put in the time and effort to talk to God, He “talks” back in a multitude of ways (although never audibly).

      I am also curious why God does not seem to present objective. concrete, unmissable evidence of His existence (other than like the vast overwhelming beauty of the universe and the laws of physics, etc.). But perhaps it is because He wants us to come to Him. I love your inclusion of Kierkegaard, whom I greatly admire. Kierkegaard characterized God and the spiritual life as foundationally relational. As you state, the Kierkegaardian conception of belief is not about facts or objectivity, but about a subject-subject relationship in which humanity finds identity in God.

      Again, thank you for your thoughtful response to this piece.

  11. aho bata says:

    I’m not sure I understand Zaleski’s position. She won’t vouch for the veridicality of near-death spiritual experiences, but still finds it significant that people with different biological conditions and prior beliefs about spirituality have substantially similar experiences. So it seems she is rejecting, respectively, any account based on direct perception of non-physical entities, mechanical disruption of neurological systems affecting perception/belief formation, or any kind of higher psychological-level narrative-making that can interface with relevant prior beliefs. What accounts for the (apparently – I haven’t looked into it myself) high inter-subject overlap in experiences then? The only thing I can think of is that maybe the content of one’s experience actually does depend on one’s beliefs about death and the afterlife, but that even seemingly relevant factors like religious identification are too coarse to get at the beliefs and attitudes that are actually important. It’s hard to imagine what these religion-orthogonal beliefs and attitudes might be, though. And it’s not obvious what is so special about near-death spiritual experiences that they alone, and not entheogenic or spontaneous spiritual experiences, should be thus dissociated from one’s surveyable priors.

    Also, a quibble about spiritual vs. other perceptions:

    Love can be explained in terms of neurochemical and social mechanisms, ranging from the influence of advertising to the lure of pheromones; but scarcely anyone suggests that knowledge of these mechanisms should prohibit people from believing that they are in love and rearranging their lives accordingly.

    Sensory experience is different from emotional experience in that there is often* a factual (as opposed to deontic) proposition about the outside world to which it naturally relates, and when assessing the “validity” of the sensation, one can choose whether or not to set it against this proposition. For example, when looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses, it’s accurate to say the subject-focused “I see everything as pink,” but not the object-focused “everything I can see really is pink.” Emotional experiences have nothing corresponding to the latter; if you feel like you’re in love, it automatically follows that you are in love. Spiritual experiences, it seems to me, can go either way. If you feel comforted, or at one with the universe, well, who’s to say you’re not? Such feelings are true to the extent that they are truth-apt. But if, say, you “feel” like you’re being guided by a divine entity, then for that to be true in the way Zelaski seems to want to claim, actual evidence is required.

    That said, her point is well taken that it is not necessarily less rational to act on subjective experience of supernatural beings than to act on subjective feelings of love. Romantic love tends to be, though isn’t always, a reliable signal that you would be happy with somebody, or that you should continue to nourish a fulfilling relationship you are in. Similarly, I wouldn’t think of as deluded or irrational anybody who let themselves be influenced by what appeared to them to be a supernatural entity, as long as they didn’t project their experience onto the outside world, and their guardian angel had a good track record of helping them make the right decision (whatever “right” means to them).

    *”Often” and not “always” because for some sensations it is not obvious what the corresponding “This is what the world is actually like” proposition would be, as shown by the absurdity of something a friend of mine once said (apparently in all seriousness): “MSG doesn’t actually taste good, it just tricks your tongue into thinking it does.” It may not be a coincidence that this was the same kid who in middle school would kick his fellow classmates in the balls and try to overrule their pain by saying “What? It was just a joke.”

  12. Vermillion says:

    I appreciate all the very apparent thoughtfulness and care that went into this. I also really like how the footnotes were hyperlinks so that I could move back and forth easily between there and the text. Scott that should be mandatory in all your future posts here. I applaud your effort. But. But I have to say.


    Ok but really, I tried man. I got about midway through and just my eyes glazed over like little, sleepy donuts. I am really sorry about that and strongly considering deleting this before I post it. But also I want to give you this note, and know that it comes from a sincere wish to help you both be better writers. If you want to reach a reader who does not study philosophy or religion at, or near, a level where they are paid to do so, then you must find a way to be more concise when making your points. When I read, “…and we have chosen therefore to quote them at length” my heart sank and I gave up not long after.

    My challenge to you, write this same essay, cover all the sections you did before, and use ~1/3rd of the words (5781 or thereabouts). And if you don’t care about reaching me or my fellow dilettantes, that’s certainly fair, and I won’t begrudge you.

    And again thank you for your efforts, reading some of the other comments here it looks like a lot of people enjoyed it and got a lot out of it. I really wish I could say the same.

    • schoen says:

      I’ll admit that it’s probably longer than it should be for this format and could probably be done in a much pithier way. I remember that one time I wrote a multi-thousand-word blog post that Aaron Swartz then tried to summarize in 500 or 700 words or something—and darned if he didn’t manage to get most of the point of the post in there.

      Thanks for your attempt at reading it and your feedback.

    • Your criticism is absolutely valid. I think it was a case of “sorry this letter is so long, but I didn’t have the time to write a short one.”

      My process of writing is to attempt to capture all the relevant details of my research as completely as possible, and then edit from there. We ran out of time to really cut it down. I guess I preferred to let it be overkill, rather than miss an important point.

  13. Phil H says:

    Aw maan. While I agree with Vermilion that there was too much, and I too did not read it all… this is precisely why SSC is so great. The delirious excess of words and facts and ideas is exactly why it’s marvellous. Dipping in and out is good!

  14. Ghillie Dhu says:

    However, most humans naturally function primarily in an empirical manner in the formation of worldview, beliefs, and knowledge.

    This is where you lost me; you must’ve met very different humans than I have.

  15. entognatha says:

    I remember very distinctly the first time I had a revelation; it was an emotionally impactful event. And it was when I realised there were no gods.

    From my personal experience, if revelations and spiritual experiences impart truth, there is no god or gods. If they are just fallible brain phenomena, and they’re the only evidence for a god or gods… there are no god or gods.

    I totally get why people believe their revelations, because they are powerful, but in my view it’s absurd to take them as anything more than the culmination of thinking about something a lot and then coming to a rapid conclusion. Eureka!

  16. hnau says:

    Holy ecstatic crap that was a lot of text. Points for thorough research (how did you guys manage to read that much dense psychology / philosophy?!), negative points for yawn-inducing presentation featuring big fat block-quotes from dry academic texts. On the issue itself it sounds like both collaborators moved toward the “more significance” side as a result of research, which given the thoroughness of the write-up is a useful signal. And when I was trying to come up with objections to the write-up’s treatment I realized that it actually addresses all of them I had in mind. (Examples: the Aumann’s Agreement Theorem reference in the footnotes, understanding that evidence of a physical “mechanism” isn’t sufficient to rule out the supernatural, the details of the argument re: analogy with dream experience, and the way the discussion relates to the overall framing of the question.)

    My one substantive quibble is that I’m still a little hazy on what the collaborators mean by “significance”. They don’t want to say that spiritual experiences should be treated as Bayesian evidence for the supernatural, they don’t want to reduce it to “spiritual experiences are sometimes observed to change people’s behavior” (which is uncontroversial and presumably could be explained even under a theory of “malfunctioning” physiological mechanisms), and yet I’m hard pressed to come up with an alternative understanding of significance that lies between the two. Do the authors actually intend to endorse meditation, “trips”, etc. as a practice? If so, for whom and to what end?

    In any case this was one of the more interesting, challenging, and thoroughly researched / documented collaborations. It didn’t shift my priors much (I’m a Christian and have neither had any “spiritual experiences” to speak of nor sought them out, though I know people who have) but it still left me with a lot to think about.

    I rate this collaboration as a 7/10 (no particular scale or judgment implied; this is just for my own reference). As always, many thanks to the authors for putting in the work to create this.

  17. fluorocarbon says:

    Thank you to the two authors for writing this. It looks like it took a monumental amount of effort. As I was reading it I had a few thoughts:

    * I’m confused about the hypothesis of the post. Is it that spiritual experiences are an important part of many people’s lives and worthy of study? That seems obvious and uncontroversial to me. How would the “against” side argue against that proposition? “A lot of people experience this very similar thing and say that it’s literally the most important thing that ever happened to them in their entire life but it’s not worth studying?” Am I misunderstanding something?

    * Alston’s claim about sense perception and spiritual experiences being strong evidence of God strikes me as a YouTube “checkmate [a]theists”-level argument. True, on some level, trusting sense perception requires faith (see Descartes, René) but when skeptics argue against believing spiritual experiences and for believing sense perceptions it’s not really the same thing.

    If I see a giant aquatic lizard in a lake for a minute before it dives underwater I’m going to dismiss it as a trick of the light or a weird hallucination. If I see the lizard in the same place every day, my friend also sees it when I point it out, I can capture its image with an instrument like a camera, and I can see its effects on the environment around it, I’m going to trust that it exists and call the local university. The same thing applies to spiritual experiences. If someone has the experience of communing with angels who reveal the true nature of reality after a stressful experience, it’s like seeing the giant lizard once. If they commune with angels every day at exactly 7:00pm, then it can actually be tested. Maybe they can ask the angels to factor particularly large numbers.

    * The section about the Eleusinian Mysteries argues that the entheogenic substance hypothesis is the scholarly consensus but I do not believe this is true. In my opinion the post would have been stronger without this section because it doesn’t add much while unintentionally stepping into a big argument among classicists. Also, for those interested in making it, the recipe for kykeon is not entirely lost. Some version of it is described in the same Homeric Hymn quoted at the beginning of the section: part barley-meal, part water, and some “glechon” which is probably a type of mint (line 208). So sort of like a liquidy porridge flavored with mint.

  18. fion says:

    Well done both. Was this essay longer than the other ACCs? Somehow i found it much harder to get through. Perhaps it was too long. I think I also struggled with the large walls of quoted text, eventually resorting to skimming and skipping them.

    Or perhaps it was my poor attention span and not your fault at all. I just wanted to mention it in case the authors are interested in such feedback. Very impressive collaboration, all the same.

    • Telomerase says:

      So many people are commenting on the length of this entry as a flaw. Obviously it was intended as a way to symbolically include not only the explicitly discussed Near Death Experiences, but the more common and spiritually significant Near Life Experiences (NLEs) such as high school and SQA meetings.

      (I agree though… come back with some spiritual technology that can extend telomeres, or quit wasting our time 😉

  19. P. George Stewart says:

    I’ve never been convinced by the argument from dreams, to me dreams have always seemed totally categorically different from waking reality, with no chance whatsoever of confusing the two.

    I think when people say “it’s so convincing” they’re just remembering the dream and trying to convince themselves (and us) that it “seems real” just for the sake of the argument. The only way you could possibly have a thought about the dream (about whether it’s convincing or not) at the time you’re dreaming is if you’re lucid dreaming, but that’s a different experience again, and again, there’s no confusion there either – you’re awake in your dream and you know that you are dreaming.

    And funnily enough (quite as per the Yoga categorization) mystical experience, the non-dual kind, is itself another state of experience that’s unmistakable and different from waking or dreaming states (and I’d actually include drug experiences in the category of waking states). It’s at right angles to both of them.

  20. Charlie says:

    Thank you for publishing this study, it was interesting to read. I think that spiritual experience can only be most objectively understood when it is your own experience. Although an outside view can also give a lot of understanding. On the Internet channel of ALLATRA TV there is a program “DOES GOD EXIST?” https://allatra.tv/en/video/does-god-exist I think it would be interesting for people who are doing research on spiritual experiences to see it.

  21. Manx says:

    Really fascinating and excellent article. With some edits you could get this published in the Atlantic or other major publication.