Philosophy of Religion (Paper 1) – detailed notes on William James and Mystical Experience for students following the Edexcel syllabus.

From the syllabus:

2.1 The nature of religious experience   a) Context of religious experience across religious traditions, range of definitions related to belief in God and/or ultimate reality, theistic and monistic views, ineffability, noetic, transience, passivity.   b) Types: conversion, prayer, meditation, mysticism, numinous. Relationship between religious experience and propositional and non-propositional revelation.   c) Alternative explanations, physiological and naturalistic interpretations, objectivist and subjectivist views.

With reference to the ideas of W James and R Otto.

2.2  Influence of religious experience as an argument for the existence of God. a) Inductive reasoning based on evidence, the link between appearances, how things seem, how things really are and conclusions drawn from experience about reality and existence. Principles of testimony and credulity, the value and role of testimony to religious experience.
With reference to the ideas of R Swinburne and J Hick.
b) Strengths and weaknesses of religious experience as an argument for the existence of God: experiences influenced by the religious context of the believer, religious experiences interpreted as any other sensory experiences, complexity of interpretations, issues of probability and proof as relating to the argument, nature of God, including transcendent and immanent, limitations of language, lack of uniformity of experiences, refinements of and challenges to the argument.

With reference to the ideas of Michael Persinger and Richard Dawkins.

NOTE 1: this post should in no way be taken as endorsing drug-taking. In addition to providing an overview of William James’s ideas about mystical experience, the purpose of it (in part) when it comes to evaluating his views is simply to alert readers to the existence of some unusual, groundbreaking research involving psychedelic substances that has been taking place at entirely respectable institutions of higher learning in the US and UK and that would seem to lend support to his thesis.

NOTE 2: this post only deals with some aspects of the Edexcel syllabus as summarised above. Nevertheless, it should prove to be useful, not just for students following the Edexcel specification but also for those who are studying the topic of religious experience with other examination boards.

Biographical information

William James was a remarkable man who was born in New York City in 1842. His father was a wealthy, well-connected, eccentric, one-legged philosopher who spent a lot of time educating his five children. As a result, a lot of James’s childhood was spent receiving private tuition, visiting Europe’s main art galleries and museums, and meeting famous writers and poets. Although he eventually went on to study painting, James soon gave it up and entered the Harvard Medical School, ending up as one of the first ever teachers of a new subject: psychology. James’s style of teaching was lively. His lessons would include lots of jokes, so much so that his students often felt the need to ask him to be more serious, and he was very keen on getting his pupils to think for themselves. James was also a philosopher, one who believed that philosophy should be able to make a difference to people’s lives. He is the most famous contributor to the American school of philosophy known as Pragmatism which, in turn, influenced Joseph Fletcher when he was devising the ethical system known as Situation Ethics. See the course notes on Situation Ethics provided elsewhere on this site for more on that.

James on Consciousness and Mystical Experience

In his classic work The Varieties of Religious Experience (1901), James stated his conviction that everyday waking consciousness “is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.”

“At any rate”, he concludes, these other states, the existence of which he personally believed in himself, “forbid a premature closing of our accounts of reality.” Note that these words pose something of a challenge to hard materialists/atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who might be perceived as having closed their particular accounts.

Specifically with regard to mystical states of consciousness, James prefaces his discussion of them with an admission that, “my own constitution shuts me out from their enjoyment almost entirely.” Here, James is alluding to his own experiments with drugs, that apparently included nitrous oxide.

Note that a mystical experience might be defined as a private and personal experience involving direct contact or union with God or a Higher Power or Reality. A couple of 19th Century examples should convey a sense of what is indicated here. First, here is the American poet, philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Standing on the bare ground, – my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,- all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.

And here is the British poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, describing in a letter an experience of what he called a “waking trance” that had happened to him sporadically since he was a child:

All at once, as it were out of the intensity of the consciousness of individuality, the individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade into boundless being; and this was not a confused state, but the clearest of the clearest, the surest of the surest; utterly beyond words, where death was an almost laughable impossibility; the loss of personality (if so it were) seeming no extinction, but the only true life.

For a recent and especially interesting example, see this Ted Talk by the neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor. Bolte Taylor survived a massive stroke at the age of 37 and it took eight years for her to completely recover. But her initial experience included a mystical dimension that was life-changing and continues to impact on the lecturing that she does today.

However, instead of venturing his own definition of this form of experience, James describes four “marks” that distinguish it. Firstly, there is ineffability:”The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. “

Secondly, these experiences are infused with a noetic quality (new knowledge is acquired or disclosed): ‘Mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge…They are illuminations, revelations full of significance and importance….and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority.” James additionally touches on the blandness of these insights and their provision of “that deepened sense of the significance of a maxim or formula which occasionally sweeps over one. ‘I’ve heard that said all my life,’ we exclaim, ‘but I never realized its full meaning up until now.’ ” Presumably James might have had something in mind like, ‘Love makes the world go around’.

Michael Pollan (a journalist and professor at Harvard) who has investigated the effects of psychotropic substances like psilocybin and LSD on the brain has commented about the propensity of these substances to produce mystical experiences that conform to James’s typology in patients who have been administered them for therapeutic purposes (see below for more on this). On their noetic aspect he writes, “along with the feeling of ineffability, the conviction that some profound objective truth has been disclosed to you is the hallmark of a mystical experience, regardless of whether it has been occasioned by a drug, fasting, flagellation, or sensory deprivation. William James gave a name to this conviction: the noetic quality. People feel that they have been let in on a deep secret of the universe, and they cannot be shaken from that conviction. As James wrote, “Dreams cannot stand this test.” No doubt this is why some of the people who have such an experience go on to found religions, changing the course of history or, in a great many more cases, the course of their own lives. “No doubt” is the key.

The third mark of mystical consciousness is transiency. The initial experience may not last for long but its traces persist and may even recur, “and from one recurrence to another it is susceptible of continuous development in what is felt as inner richness and importance.”

Lastly, James highlights the essential passivity of the mystical experience: ‘The mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a higher power.”

Are mystical experiences ‘veridical’ (a word often found in discussions of them which means ‘truthful’ or ‘genuine’)? James seems to have thought so but believed that the answer to this question was unknowable. So instead, he suggests that we should judge this kind of experience by its “fruits”. Does it have a transformative effect on someone’s life that is lasting and positive?

James’s reluctance to fullly embrace veridicality may have been the result of personal experience. Here is an extract from science journalist John Horgan’s book Rational Mysticism.

Mystical revelations are often said to be so self-validating that someone lucky enough to have one never doubts its veracity thereafter. This was not the case for William James. Under the influence of nitrous oxide, he did indeed glimpse a realm in which all the world’s contradictions were resolved and evil vanished. But James had difficulty reconciling this vision with the world in which he lived.

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, James raised doubts about Huston Smith’s faith that we are ‘all in good hands’ ; [Note: Huston Smith was one of the most famous US scholars in the field of Religious Studies who believed that mystical experiences were genuine. He was an advocate of what is called the ‘perennial philosophy’. See below for more on that term] after all, “melancholic” visionaries see the world as meaningless or malignant. James recounted some “diabolical” visions in Varieties, including one attributed to an anonymous French physician. The physician was alone in his dressing room when he suddenly recalled an epileptic patient he had once encountered in an insane asylum. The patient was a “black haired youth with greenish skin, entirely idiotic…moving nothing but his black eyes and looking absolutely non-human. That shape am I, I felt, potentially” the physician thought.

The physician was describing a unitive expereience of sorts, but his identification with the epileptic youth – his realization of what Hindus call Thou Art That – triggered not mystical bliss but “horrible dread”. All that separated him from the insane boy, the physician recognized, was luck. He was left with an excruciating awareness of “the pit of insecurity beneath the surface of life.”

Only after Varieties was published did James admit to a translator that his vision of of the epileptic youth was actually his. James struggled throughout his life with depression and panic attacks, during which he recoiled from the randomness, injustice, and meaninglessness of existence. ‘

Michael Pollan on ‘The New Science of Psychedelics’

NOTE: the relevance of this book to James’s typology may not be immediately obvious. But this is not an irrelevant detour, and the reasons for introducing it at this point will be disclosed below.

How to Change Your Mind

In his latest book, Pollan draws attention to the revival and renaissance that is taking place when it comes to the potential deployment of ‘entheogens’ or psychedelic substances like the ones mentioned above in the field of medicine. Specifically, ongoing clinical trials at institutions like New York University, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and Imperial College in London are yielding some dramatic findings, namely, that a one-off, carefully controlled drug-induced mystical experience can have entirely benevolent and profoundly transformative effects on patients who are struggling with addiction, anxiety, depression, and a diagnosis of terminal cancer. For example, in trials at NYU and Hopkins, 80 per cent of cancer patients exhibited clinically significant reductions in standard measures of anxiety and depression, an effect that was maintained for at least six months after having been given a dose of psilocybin.

Though the sample was small —fifteen smokers— another study found that twelve had gone without smoking six months after their ‘trip treatment’ . Twelve subjects, all of whom had tried to quit multiple times, using various methods, were verified as abstinent six months after ingesting psilocybin, a success rate of eighty per cent. Previously, these experimental subjects had tried to stop smoking unsuccessfully, using a variety of methods, on several prior occasions.

Additionally, the recreational use of psychedelics has been famously associated with instances of psychosis, flashback, and suicide. But these negative effects were not experienced by patients in the trials at NYU. and Johns Hopkins. After having administered nearly five hundred doses of psilocybin, the researchers have reported no serious negative effects, though it should be noted volunteers are carefully vetted prior to their experience, and are then guided through it by skilled therapists who are well-positioned to help those volunteers manage the episodes of fear and anxiety that many of them do report.

Here is Pollan providing some historical context for this research and an overview of it.

Evaluating James’s typology with the help of Pollan

Under the influence of these entheogens, patients – according to one researcher – “…transcend their primary identification with their bodies and experience ego-free states . . . and return with a new perspective and profound acceptance.” Another commented that ‘people who had been palpably scared of death—they lost their fear. The fact that a drug given once can have such an effect for so long is an unprecedented finding. We have never had anything like it in the psychiatric field.”

So if, as James recommends, we should judge mystical experiences according to their impact, the clinical trials described above suggest that the administration of hallucinogens in a carefully controlled medical setting can have a lasting and therapeutically positive, life-altering effect on those who have received them. Commenting on one of the first studies that took place at Johns Hopkins University, Pollan notes that, “their psilocybin journeys had taken place ten or fifteen years earlier, and yet their effects were still keenly felt, in some cases on a daily basis. “Psilocybin awakened my loving compassion and gratitude in a way I had never experienced before,” a psychologist who asked not to be named told me when I asked her about lasting effects.”

As far as James’s typology is concerned, Michael Pollan frequently invokes it to make sense of his own experiences (he personally experiments with various psychedelic substances) and to make sense of the mystical states reported by the participants in the studies that he subsequently interviewed. So it is obviously helpful as a descriptive template. For example, when it comes to the category of ineffability, Pollan writes that, “all the volunteers I spoke to at one point or another despaired of conveying the full force of what they had experienced, gamely though they tried. “You had to be there” was a regular refrain.”

The noetic aspect is also foregrounded in the self-reports of the volunteers:

“I had a sense of initiation into dimensions of existence most people never know exist, including the distinct sense that death was illusory, in the sense that it is the door we walk through into another plane of existence, that we’re sprung from an eternity to which we will return. “

“And then there was this light, it was the pure light of love and divinity, and it was with me and no words were needed. I was in the presence of this absolute pure divine love and I was merging with it, in this explosion of energy…Just talking about it my fingers are getting electric. It sort of penetrated me. The core of our being, I now knew, is love.”

Strikingly, non-believers were similarly affected. Pollan states that, “Many of the people I’d interviewed had started out stone-cold materialists and atheists, no more spiritually developed than I, and yet several had had “mystical experiences” that left them with the unshakable conviction that there was something more to this world that we know – a “beyond” of some kind that transcended the material universe I presume to constitute the whole shebang.”

Nevertheless, when it comes to veridicality, like many of the researchers themselves, Pollan is cautious and invokes James once again:

“William James grappled with these questions of veracity in his discussion on mystical states of consciousness. He concluded that the import of these experiences is, and should be, “authoritative over the individuals to whom they come” but that there is no reason the rest of us must “accept their revelations uncritically”. And yet he believed that the very possibility people can experience these mystical states of consciousness should bear on our understanding of the mind and world: “The existence of mystical states absolutely overthrows the pretension of non-mystical states to be the sole and ultimate dictators of what we may believe.” These alternate forms of consciousness “might, in spite of all the perplexity, be indispensable stages in our approach to the final fullness of the truth”. He detected in such experiences, in which the mind “ascend[s] to a more enveloping point of view”, hints of a grand metaphysical “reconciliation”: “It is as if the opposites of the world, whose contradictoriness and conflict make all our difficulties and troubles, were melted into unity”. This ultimate unity, he suspected, was no mere delusion.”

Sceptical perspectives on drug-induced mystical experience

The exciting outcomes of this ongoing research has caused at least one commentator to describe it as amounting to a ‘psychedelic renaissance’. But the views of earlier critics who were writing before these studies had been initiated are still possibly relevant. One such critic is the philosopher Steven Katz, who, when interviewed by John Horgan, the aforementioned author of Rational Mysticism, dismissed the claim that drugs can induce genuine mystical experiences. According to Katz, those who think they have had this kind of experience after taking drugs, “didn’t have mystical experiences. They had drug experiences. All you are doing when you are taking a drug is experiencing your own consciousness.” In support of this assertion, Katz observes that for those who practise meditation, yoga, prayer, fasting and other techniques of spiritual transformation, “The object is not to change brain chemistry but to put you in touch with metaphysical realities.”

The Soto Zen Buddhist blogger and author Brad Warner has also attacked the notion that drugs can tune those who ingest them into a mystical level of reality and in doing so takes a similar line to Katz. In a wonderfully titled chapter of the above book entitled, ‘Pass me the Ecstasy Rainboy. I’m Going to Nirvana on a Stretcher!’, he argues that there are no elevated states of mystical consciousness and that all that is entailed by the notion of Buddhist enlightenment is an experience of non-separation from whatever our present experience happens to be:

“…if there is one thing I want to make clear, it’s that Buddhism has nothing to do with “transcendent states” or “higher levels of consciousness” or “optimal levels of being…Buddhism isn’t about anything so diminutive as any of your mental states at all. It’s much deeper than that. There is no optimal state of consciousness. Optimal is just an idea, another manifestation of the Great Somewhere Else...Drugs won’t show you the truth. Drugs will only show you what it’s like to be on drugs…The very idea of higher states of consciousness is absurd. Comparing one state of consciousness to another and saying that one is ‘higher’ and the other is ‘mundane’, is like eating a banana and complaining it’s not a very good apple. The state of consciousness you have right now is 100% surely what it is. It is neither higher nor lower , better or worse, more or less significant, than the state of consciousness once achieved by some spaced out swami who came back down and then wrote a book about his memories of it.

Elsewhere in the book, Warner observes that taking drugs in an appropriate “setting”, one which is carefully arranged so as to avoid the possibility of a bad experience “almost always includes one person who stays straight and looks after the safety of the drug-user. Now, just why is it that people at higher levels of consciousness can’t seem to survive without one of us low-level folks to help them out? Those of you who’ve ever been that caretaker know just how much fun it can be to try to keep folks in “heightened states of awareness” from doing themselves grievous bodily harm.”

The implication is that occupying a genuinely mystical state of consciousness should not impair one’s ability to function normally, both physically and mentally.

The Perennial Philosophy – Is there a ‘common core’ to mystical experience?

Extract from the inside cover of the first edition of Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy

The great spiritual traditions of the world appear to be very different. For example, Jews, Christians and Muslims are monotheists, believers in one God, whereas Buddhists and Jains are non-theistic faiths. Additionally, for Hindus, Brahman (a term deployed in texts like the Upanishads) denotes an impersonal ultimate reality that is identical with and not separate from, the universe and ourselves. However, advocates of the perennial philosophy maintain that these traditions are nevertheless expressing the same fundamental truth about that aforementioned ultimate reality. This is a reality that transcends time and space and individual identity. It can only be properly apprehended through mystical experience. Mystical experiences are, it will be recalled, ineffable. So in attempting to convey the contours of such an experience it is necessary to resort to words, to say the unsayable. Another problem is that language is inherently dualistic. Sentence formation inevitably entails distinguishing between a subject and an object. But this is problematic too, as the mystical experience is said to be monistic. The experiencer feels that they are no longer separate from the reality they are attempting to describe. But even to state that ‘I am one with everything’ maintains a distinction between ‘I’ and ‘everything’, so it cannot accurately express a state in which there is no longer a separation between the experience and the experiencer.

See this brief clip for the famous ‘Mystic Pizza’ joke

Faced with these difficulties, the great mystics are therefore compelled to unpack this undifferentiated experience in terms that inevitably reflect their own religious backgrounds, and so this is why we end up with the differences in the descriptions of ultimate reality that are found in sacred literature.

Two famous promoters of the perennial philosophy are the English novelist, poet and essayist Aldous Huxley, and the US scholar Huston Smith, who was widely regarded as one of the world’s most influential figures in Religious Studies during his lifetime. Huxley is famous for having written a book called The Doors of Perception which is an account of his own mescalin-induced mystical experience, one that he repeated on his death bed.

One implication of the perennial philosophy is that there must therefore be what is known as a “common core” to mystical experience. It is everywhere and always the same. However, Steven Katz has been sharply critical of this assumption.

Firstly, Katz sees James’s list of four common features as the imposition of a misleading consistency on what are, in reality, very different types of experience.

Futhermore, to say that there is a common core to religious and mystical experiences is to suggest that these experiences share the same basic features no matter how they are unpacked by mystics according to their particular religions. But Katz disagrees. He argues that ‘there are NO pure (i.e. unmediated) experiences’. In other words there is no universal truth or pure, raw experience that is being apprehended by Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs alike. According to Katz, this is because mystical or religious experiences are shaped by concepts while the mystic is actually having the experience.   It is therefore not the case that the mystic has an experience and then describes it according to the religion or culture they have been brought up in. Instead they have certain ideas and expectations about the kind of experience they should have and these then shape the experience. For example, if I have been doing Theravada Buddhist vipassana or ‘insight’ meditation for ten years it is unlikely that I will then have an experience which causes me to declare that “I am the Truth” like the Sufi Muslim mystic al-Hallaj, whose declaration was taken to be a claim to divinity in the sense that Allah was speaking through him.

As far as the issue of veridicality of mystical experience is concerned, there is therefore a problem. This is because we will never be able to isolate a core mystical experience or set of experiences which would provide the basis for a discussion about veridicality. However, this does not mean that studying mystical experiences is pointless. Instead we would have to take each experience on its merits. For example, we might end up deciding that some experiences are genuine while others aren’t.

Katz, however, has been criticised. Mark Fox has argued that mystical experiences often do involve the dropping away of all our cultural conditioning, religious upbringing, prior expectations  and conceptual baggage. In this way, the experience shapes us rather than the other way around. What Katz has therefore overlooked is how often religious and mystical experiences are novel and surprising to those who experience them.  People don’t always get what they expected.

Then there is the possibility that there is a neurological common core to religious and mystical experiences. For example, two neuroscientists (Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman) scanned the brains of eight American Buddhists practising a form of Tibetan meditation and three Franciscan nuns engaged in contemplative prayer and found that there was both an increase and decrease in the neural activity of the same parts of the brain in their experimental subjects.

Michael Pollan’s book also highlights some important recent research into the neural correlates of psilocybin-induced mystical experience, which links a characteristic sense of ego-loss or ego dissolution with reduced activity in what is known as the ‘default mode network’ or DMN of the brain.

It is not necessary to attempt to memorise the following, but the key structures making up the DMN are the medial prefrontal cortex, the posterior cingulate cortex, the inferior parietal lobule, the lateral temporal cortex, the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex, and the hippocampus formation. However, Pollan cautions that “While neuroimaging indicates strong links between these structures, the concept of the default mode network remains new and is still not universally accepted.”

In spite of this reservation, what is of significance here is the fMRI scans of the brains of expert meditators and those of volunteers under the influence of psychedelics are “remarkably alike”. In Pollan’s own words, “It appears that when activity in the default mode network falls off precipitously, the ego temporarily vanishes, and the usual boundaries we experience between self and world, subject and object, all melt away. This sense of merging into into some larger totality is, of course, one of the hallmarks of the mystical experience…” According to Pollan, those volunteers who had he most complete mystical experiences (in terms of ego loss) also had the best outcomes when it came to overcoming an addiction or accepting their own mortality in the face of a cancer diagnosis.

This discovery would therefore seem to undercut Katz’s claim that (as he put it in an interview with John Horgan) that those who ingest psychedelics “didn’t have mystical experiences. They had drug experiences” and that “All you are doing when you are taking a drug is experiencing your own consciousness”, whereas traditional techniques of spiritual transformation like meditation, prayer, yoga and fasting “are different…The object is not to change brain chemistry but to put you in touch with metaphysical realities.” By extension, it might instead be concluded that a ‘common core’ to spiritual experience might exist at the neurological level of explanation.

Michael Persinger

Persinger is a neuroscientist who regards all religious experiences (not just the mystical variety) as a by-product of excessive activity in the temporal lobes, or what he refers to as TLT (‘Temporal-lobe transients’) episodes. In other words, his research implies that such experiences could be all in the mind. However, Newberg and Waldman have found that in addition to the temporal lobes, other parts of the brain are implicated in mystical experience, such as a diminution of activity in the parietal lobes, which – as has already been mentioned above – leads to a sense of loss of self.

Effectively, neuroscience has therefore arguably moved forward from Persinger’s research, which might thus be regarded as no longer cutting-edge. However, as Persinger has been name-checked by Edexcel, here is a more detailed summary of it.

Persinger is renowned for having created a special device (resembling a motorcycle crash helmet) that stimulates the temporal lobes of people who put it on. A significant number of those who wore the helmet reported a ‘sensed presence’, a feeling that there was someone or something in the room with them. Persinger thinks that people who have religious experiences in which they sense the presence of God therefore have unusually active temporal lobes.

Further support for Persinger’s perspective comes from the research of neuroscientist Professor V.S. Ramachandran, who is an expert in brain disorders. He found that his patients with epileptic seizures sometimes had intense religious experiences. One example of this was a man called Paul who talked and wrote obsessively about religious subjects. He told Ramachandran that during his epileptic seizures he experienced a rapturous ‘Oneness with the Creator’ that carried over into the rest of his life. When Ramachandran asked Paul about if he believed in God, Paul replied ‘But what else is there?’

See the following two YouTube clips for a fuller exploration of Ramachandran’s perspective.

Ramachandran also designed an ingenious experiment in which experimental subjects were exposed to 3 types of word that flashed up on a computer screen: religious words like ‘holy’, erotic words like ‘nipple’, and neutral words like ‘chair’. By measuring galvanic skin response, Ramachandran was able to show that patients with TLE or Temporal Lobe Epilepsy showed enhanced emotional responses to the religious words, diminished responses to the sexually charged words, and normal responses to the neutral words. Contrastingly, ordinary subjects respond with enhanced emotion to the erotic words. These results suggest that the medial temporal lobe is specifically involved in generating some of the emotional reactions associated with religious words, images and symbols.

Ramachandran’s research raises the interesting possibility that many of the great spiritual teachers may have been suffering from Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. For example, when Prophet Muhammad received revelations from Allah they were sometimes attended by phenomena like shaking, trances and loss of consciousness. This could mean that their experiences of religious awakening may be nothing more than the symptoms of an illness.

Ramachandran does not, however, draw this conclusion himself. He suggests that we cannot tell whether the temporal lobes produce or receive religious experiences. And the Canadian journalist Ian Cotton reports that in a follow-up interview after a session with Persinger’s God helmet, the aforementioned device that is designed to provoke a ‘sensed presence’ through the stimulation of the temporal lobes (see HERE for further details), Persinger emphasised that his research did not, in his view, discount religious experience. Specifically Persinger stated that, “The fact that we can actually insert [into conscious awareness] a God experience [via the helmet] doesn’t change the fact that the process is there for some functional or evolutionarily significant reason. If one accepts that God created the universe, then why not have a brain mechanism whereby these experiences take place?”‘

Additionally, John Horgan’s book Rational Mysticism (see above) contains the following paragraph:

‘Persinger insisted that his hypotheses are not intended to undermine religious belief by reducing it to mere neurophysiology or neuropathology. “I’m not trying to dismiss God,” he said, “I’m trying to understand the area of the brain that’s involved in the electrical pattern” that generates religious belief. Persinger contended that God’s existence can be neither proved nor disproved by science. “It’s something that is invisible, nonphysical, eternal, and everywhere. If you’re going to define it that way, then there’s no way you could ever test it.” ‘

Elsewhere in the same book, Horgan notes that, ‘In spite of his demurrals about scientific neutrality, Persinger has clearly suggested that alien-abduction reports and religious and mystical visions stem from brain-induced delusions’, while in a separate analysis and evaluation of Persinger’s work, Mark Fox describes it as a ‘sustained example of a scientific attempt to bring religious experiences ‘down’ to the level of brain processes. If correct…such research threatens to strip religious experience of any claim to put experiencers in touch with ‘higher’, supernatural, spiritual realities. Instead, it tries to show how subjects are, in fact, misinterpreting unusual but essentially brain-based experiences as transcendent – even divine – ones.’

Criticisms of Persinger and the ‘sensed presence’

  • An attempt to replicate Persinger’s study by a team of Scandinavian researchers led by Pehr Granqvist failed to duplicate his results*. According to the journalist Will Storr, ‘”I have found out that scientists in Sweden have been trying to replicate Persinger’s experiments – except this time, the helmet wearers were not warned that they were going to be exposed to magnetic fields. When the Swedes followed this all-important ‘double-blind protocol’, they concluded that magnetism has no discernible effect effect at all.”
  • In Rational Mysticism, John Horgan writes that, ‘Actually, Persinger’s work merits scepticism, for several reasons. Media coverage of Persinger often implies that his subjects have profound religious visions – of “Elijah, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Mohammed, the Sky Spirit” as Wired put it. But his papers describe much less dramatic results. Mr Cook [a graduate student of Persinger]…told me that most subjects who sense a presence usually just have a vague feeling of being watched, with little emotional affect – and of course they are being watched, by the researchers. Cook could not recall anyone attributing divine or demonic qualities to the sensed presence. The experience is commonly described as “relaxing”, “interesting”, or “really neat”, he said…No one stimulated by the God machine has publicly reported anything resembling a classic mystical experience with sensations of bliss, unity and ineffability.’
  • The ‘sensed presence’ therefore, at best, perhaps only seems to explain some types of religious experience e.g. feeling in the presence of God or an angel, Rudolph Otto’s sense of the numinous (a feeling of awe and fear evoked through being in the presence of God e.g. like Moses at the Burning Bush in Exodus Chapter 3). In fact, as Otto’s description includes an element of fear, Persinger’s ‘sensed presence’ might explain this aspect of the numinous religious experience because some of Persinger’s experimental subjects did apparently become unsettled or genuinely frightened when his helmet stimulated their temporal lobes. But it would not explain Buddhist experiences of Nirvana or Enlightenment, for example because they are typically non-theistic i.e. they don’t involve an encounter with a personal, transcendent God.
  • A lot of people who say that they feel in the presence of God are not scared or unsettled by the experience like some of the people who donned Persinger’s helmet. Their experiences would also not conform to Otto’s description of the numinous experience which – as we have seen – includes ‘awe inspiring terror’ (according to one of the old ‘A’ level textbooks) as well as awe and wonder.
  • Often people report feelings of oneness with the universe. For example, one woman who was dying of cancer had a religious experience whilst meditating that made her unafraid of death. She wrote ‘My self, my body is dissolved in phenomena like a sky’s rainbow caught in a soap bubble’. This kind of experience is sometimes not temporary and is quite unlike what Persinger’s subjects said about their experience, as noted by Horgan.
  • A study of Buddhists doing meditation (already referenced above) found that parts of the brain other than the temporal lobes were involved. Using a brain imaging technique, Andrew Newberg, a radiologist at the University of Pennsylvania and his team studied a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks as they meditated for approximately one hour. When they reached a deep, meditative state, they were asked to pull a kite string to their right, releasing an injection of a radioactive tracer. By injecting a tiny amount of radioactive marker into the bloodstream of a deep meditator, the scientists soon saw how the dye moved to active parts of the brain. Later, once the subjects had finished meditating, the regions were imaged and the meditation state compared with the normal waking state. The scans provided remarkable clues about what goes on in the brain during meditation. “There was an increase in activity in the front part of the brain, the area that is activated when anyone focuses attention on a particular task,” Dr Newberg explained. In addition, a notable decrease in activity in the back part of the brain, or parietal lobe, recognised as the area responsible for orientation, reinforced the general suggestion that meditation leads to a lack of spatial awareness. Dr Newberg explained (again as has already been noted above) that : “During meditation, people have a loss of the sense of self and frequently experience a sense of no space and time and that was exactly what we saw.” Newberg and his collaborator Waldman also produced the same results with Franciscan nuns engaged in contemplative prayer.

An additional thought: perhaps the temporal lobes are involved with religious experiences of the numinous variety while decreased activity in the parietal lobes would explain the sense of egolessness and oneness associated with mystical experiences that simultaneously confer a sense of peace or tranquility.

  • With this issue and that of visions and voices in mind, the following extract from Newberg and Waldman’s book How God Changes Your Brain provides an interesting neurological perspective :

‘….parts of the brain are associated with different notions and experiences of God. For example….the temporal lobes…allow some individuals to hear God’s voice. If these areas are injured, some patients begin to see or hear all sorts of phenomena that they interpret as religious, mystical or demonic. The parietal lobe, when active, gives us a sense of our self in relation to time, space, and other objects in the world. This allows us to imagine a God that is separate from ourselves, existing beyond the boundaries of our personal being. Our brain scan studies of contemplative forms of Buddhist and Christian meditation show that when activity in the parietal areas decreases, a sense of timelessness and spacelessness emerges. This allows the meditator to feel at one with the object of contemplation: God, the universe, peacefulness or any other object on which he or she focuses. However, when Pentecostals speak in tongues [an example of a corporate or group religious experience], parietal activity increases. This gives them a sense that a separate entity is communicating with them. Thus, they do not report the experience of feeling at one with God. Since the parietal area also plays a role in language formation and articulation, it makes sense that we would see this type of activity during the Pentecostal experience….Increased parietal activity is [also] associated with increased consciousness, alertness, and the ability to resonate to other people’s feelings  and thoughts.’

  • In his study of religious experiences that include encounters with unusual light phenomena, Mark Fox writes as follows:

As we have seen, a large number of unusual experiences of light are rich, coherent and meaningful, and this tends to be reinforced by their occurrence at significant times – often when they are most needed. By contrast, many of the experiences evoked by Persinger and his colleagues appear fragmentary and dreamlike, making them more like…pathological hallucinations.

…Secondly, the ‘fruits’ of the experiences discussed by Persinger – both laboratory-induced and spontaneous – appear very different from those reported by the subjects of this study. We have seen few examples in previous chapters of light-experiencers becoming confused, disorientated proselytizers…On the contrary…the reader is often struck by the clarity of their recall of events and the way in which they have incorporated them meaningfully into apparently rich and ongoing lives.’

Veridicality as an ethical issue

The final question for each Edexcel examination requires the candidate to make connections with other aspects of the syllabus explored in the other papers. With this in mind, the following may be of help when it comes to Paper 2.

Many spiritual teachers and mystics have claimed to be spiritually ‘enlightened’ and religious movements have sprung up around them. And yet these same teachers and gurus have often been accused of manipulating and brutalizing their followers. For example, the Japanese teacher Shoko Asahara had some of his own students murder critics of his movement (Aum Shinri Kyo) and eventually authorised the release of sarin in the Tokyo underground in an attempt to kick start Armageddon. It is cases like this that remind us that studying religious experience is not pointless. The issue of veridicality matters because research may eventually enable us to distinguish the genuine mystics from the charlatans.


As far as veridicality is concerned, neuroscience may therefore not be in a position to shed much light on this issue, as mystical experiences are necessarily subjective and therefore unknowable (in the sense that none of us have direct access to the minds of others that would allow us to confirm the veracity of the claims that a person has made about a mystical experience). However, neuroscience in its present state does seem to suggest that there may be a common core to mystical experiences at the level of brain activity, and this includes drug-induced mystical experiences. Lastly, the research described by Pollan certainly confirm James’s point about judging mystical experiences by their ‘fruits’, the effect that they have on people, which seem to be significant, positive and lasting for those who have been the subjects of the clinical trials that Pollan describes.


  • James argued in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) that the best way to study religion is by looking at the religious experiences people have had.
  • He thinks that we should take these experiences at face value and not simply try to explain them away as something that is simply the product of our brains.
  • But he also thinks that we should not let someone else’s religious experience have any power of us.
  • When we look at religious experiences, a certain type of experience known as the mystical experience seems to have 4 qualities.
  • These are that the experience tends to be ineffable (it cannot be put into words), noetic (some new kind of knowledge is gained through it), transient (temporary) and passive (it happens to you, you don’t make it happen).
  • The fact that people from different times and places have experiences with these same features suggests that a) there might be a common core to mystical experiences.
  • This common core might indicate that there could be some higher spiritual reality that we are not usually aware of.
  • James also thinks that we should judge the value of these experiences by the effects they have on people.
  • Ongoing research into the effects of psychedelic substances on subjects who have been struggling with addiction, depression and the acceptance of a terminal diagnosis does seem to confirm that the mystical experiences that ensue can have a profoundly positive therapeutic impact, even though the veridicality of such experiences cannot be confirmed by this.


  • Not all mystical experiences are transient and passive e.g. Buddhist experiences of Nirvana can be permanent and result from many years of active dedication to doing meditation.
  • The philosopher Steven Katz has pointed out that we cannot know whether someone is experiencing the same ineffable reality. So the ineffable Brahman (Hinduism) is not necessarily the same as the ineffable Allah (Islam) or the ineffable Nirvana (Buddhism).
  • Furthermore, Katz argues that mystical experiences can never be said to be ‘pure’ in the sense that they are free from interpretation during the experience itself.
  • If Katz is right there might therefore not be a common core to mystical experiences.
  • However, Mark Fox has suggested that Katz may have overlooked the novel and surprising element of mystical experiences, which suggest that they entail a dropping away of prior cultural conditioning and expectation that cannot therefore be said to shape or mediate the actual experience itself.
  • And the researchers Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman have found that when Christian nuns in prayer and Buddhists meditate activity in the parietal lobes in the brain decreases leading to a feeling of becoming one with reality. So there might be a common core to mystical experiences in terms of brain activity.
  • It might well be that having a religious experience makes someone a better person but surely it still matters if their actual experience was genuine or not.
  • Given that people with temporal lobe epilepsy sometimes have religious experiences, it is surely sometimes right to explain at least some of these experiences in terms of chemical imbalances in the brain or unusual brain activity rather than to take them at face value as James suggests.
  • But the neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran has stated that he is not sure whether the temporal lobes are the producers or the receivers of religious experiences.
  • And although he is, according to the journalist John Horgan, ‘clearly less sympathetic toward either religion or mysticism than neurotheologians such as Andrew Newberg,’ Persinger insists that his hypotheses are not intended to undermine religious belief by reducing it to neurophysiological or neuropathological states. “I am not trying to dismiss God” Persinger has stated in interview, “I’m trying to understand the area of the brain that’s involved in the electrical pattern.”
  • Horgan additionally reports that ‘No one stimulated by the God machine has publicly reported anything resembling a classic mystical experience with sensations of bliss, unity and ineffability’.
  • It is also significant that attempts to replicate Persinger’s research with his ‘God helmet’ have not yielded the same results*. A possible explanation for this is that Persinger’s subjects knew in advance what the helmet was meant to do to them, and these expectations might have influenced what then actually happened when they wore it. Contrastingly, the Scandinavian researcher Pehr Granqvist’s subjects were not given this information and subsequently failed to experience the ‘sensed presence’.

For more on some of the above bullet points, see the BBC Horizon documentary ‘God on the Brain’ (available on Vimeo).

* Though see THIS summary of a Brazilian study, which ‘demonstrates that the effects from the God Helmet (shown in many documentaries creating artificial mystic experiences) are not due to suggestion or suggestibility in subjects, as some critics have suggested’.