Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Trace of God by Joe Hinman

“Are mystical experiences real?” asks Joe Hinman in his new book, The Trace of God: A Rational Warrant for Belief. It should not be too much of a spoiler to reveal that he concludes that they are. Joe has distilled the research on mysticism since William James to determine the commonalities of these experiences and to ask how much they can tell us about aspects of reality not readily accessible to everyday experience.

There are plenty of problems with studying mystical or “peak” experiences. For a start, they are highly subjective and extremely difficult to describe. Francis Spufford gives it a go in his excellent book Unapologetic, but reading about someone else’s experience is always second best. I am a decidedly non-mystical person and so I find the subject alien, if quite fascinating. Joe introduces us to Ralph Hood Jr’s “M scale” which attempts to provide a measure of mystical experience so that they can be compared and validated. In fact, it turns out that there has been a great deal more work in this area than your might imagine. This has revealed uniformities that mean we can certainly group these experiences into a single category.

But are they real? The standard rationalist response is to dismiss mysticism was something that goes on inside our heads, often aided by illicit chemicals. It has no external cause and so it is of interest to neurologists and hippies only. It certainly can’t tell us anything about God. As Joe explains, the problem with this dismissal is that all our experiences are ultimately subjective. We never enjoy unmediated access to reality, but only the most radical solipsist would claim this means that reality doesn’t exist. We know when we are awake and quite often know when we are dreaming. Mysticism isn’t like that – it feels more real than everyday life.

Still, the strength of science, says the rationalist, is that it overcomes subjectivism by insisting on repeatability. Joe marshals Thomas Kuhn and other sociologists of science to argue that scientists are just as prone to herd mentality as the rest of us. I’m not sure this goes far enough to mean a mystical experience can claim parity of subjectivity with a laboratory experiment. But Joe doesn’t want to take things that far. He just argues that the mere fact that mystical life is subjective does not rule it out of court as a valid experience from which we can extrapolate knowledge. His basic argument is that we are justified in accepting religious truths on the ground of our own experiences (what is called the “religious a priori”). Thus, mysticism can provide us for a rational warrant for religious belief.

The bulk of The Trace of God is taken up by detailed rebuttals of sceptical arguments against mysticism: that it is just emotions and feelings, caused by drugs or brain chemistry. Joe blunts these arguments, but he would be the first to admit that he has not proved that mystic experiences are not purely internal. However, by showing that rationalists cannot invalidate mysticism, he leaves the road open to his own argument: these experiences are evidence of God in the way that a footprint is evidence of a wild animal. Mysticism provides a trace that gives us a rational warrant to postulate the existence of the being that gave rise to the spoor. We’re not dealing in proof here. In that respect, Joe’s project is similar to Alvin Plantinga’s work on warrant. But whereas Plantinga floats his justifications on rarefied philosophical air, Joe builds on the solid ground of widely experienced phenomena. No one, as far as I am aware, believes in God because of philosophy. Plenty of people base their religious faith on mystical experience.

This leaves us with two difficult questions: is belief in God warranted by someone else’s mystical experience? And where does religious doctrine fit into experiences that can be wildly inconsistent? Joe doesn’t really deal with the first of these. He concludes that the evidence of mysticism provides him with warrant for knowledge about God that he has anyway. It doesn’t seem to provide much evidence for the non-believer unless that non-believer is willing to invest in a religious interpretation of these experiences. As far as apologetics goes, this is a “come on in, the water’s lovely” argument. 

And what about doctrine? Joe, like me, is an orthodox Christian of liberal persuasion. One senses that, for him, the universal aspects of mysticism are an advantage not a problem. A Christianity that damned the rest of humanity (or worse a Christian sect that damned most Christians into the bargain) is not one that Joe or I would be comfortable with. If mystical experiences provide warrant for believing in God, they also provide evidence of God’s interest in all of humanity. Joe distinguishes between knowing God “face to face” and the knowledge of doctrine. He finds evidence for the distinction in the writings of Paul: the man who had the most famous mystical experience in history. 

Overall, as a first book that breaks new ground in the philosophy of religion, this book represents a considerable achievement. Joe’s publishers, Grand Viaduct, also deserve credit for helping him overcome the disadvantage of dyslexia to communicate his ideas in a format such that they might achieve the recognition they deserve.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


Kristen said...

Good review! I agree with you and Hinman that it's a good thing that these experiences are not limited to a single religious expression. I think God's mercy is far wider than that.

Refuge JAMr said...

Hi James, I like what you have to say. It's funny to me that the reason that we all get together is to celebrate, worship and 'be with' God, but there seems to be all this manipulating and application on how people should operate as peoples of a faith. Like God was an automobile we get in, or a recipe we must follow.

Experiences can be wild, out of the ordinary where there are miraculous healing, or 180 degree turn-arounds.

But people are taught not to trust. Everything has to be explained. Mystical experiences are unexplainable. We live in two worlds, the internal and external.

People are taught to jump to to the conclusion that it's mental illness, or the dairy you ate last night. People stop sharing their experiences.

We live only half lives.

Banshee said...

Well, it's not really the first book. James' The Variety of Religious Experience is pretty much essential, although a lot of the mystics themselves have lots to say about it.

I would say that you shouldn't believe _because_ of a religious experience, and there are plenty of people who have astounding miracles happen right in their face and still don't. But I would say that it's a sign, a powerful indication that you should pay attention to, but mostly you should be looking where it's pointing, not at it.

So don't feel bad about not having mystical experiences. It's a hindrance for some people who let it be, as the mystics themselves point out. (Boy, St. John of the Cross in The Ascent of Mt. Carmel can be pretty harsh about that temptation to want all mysticism all the time.)

Logic is also a way to know God.

Anonymous said...

This reference describes the psycho-physical structures of the human body-mind-complex and how they determine and limit the nature of ones experience. This is especially the case in the first 3 stages, where most of us "live".
Indeed our entire "culture", including all of its (mostly exoteric) religion conspires to reduce/limit us to the first 3 stages.

Plus multiple references to outshine your "normal" dreadful sanity

Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

Thanks for you8r great review. One thing I make the point of the book neve3r gets addressed: the voluminous studies show the effects are real and vital. I think that answers all criticisms.

wfpillow said...

God Loves You – But Do You Believe It?

The media have proclaimed, “God is Dead.” Individuals, too, have felt dismayed over His lack of public intervention in mass calamities and His apparent failure to respond to their pleas for personal help. Yet, God’s original expression of love for each of us—our immortal souls—has been hidden from us by religion, which seems to consider it to be competition for its human orthodoxy. Reincarnation and souls were common beliefs in Jesus’ day. That, of course, was more philosophical than empirical, which the soul has become today. However, in 553 CE, the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian removed reincarnation and souls from Christian orthodoxy.
Consider that Abraham was born about 1800 BCE, Jesus was born about 4 BCE, and Muhammad was born in 571 CE. Yet, God’s gift of His spiritual intermediary—our souls—began at least 70 millennia ago! That was revealed through hypnotic past life regression of a woman, with a very advanced soul, who first incarnated on Earth at least that long ago. Furthermore, God still creates new souls in Heaven so that every newborn human has one!
Yet, for the past 1500 years, the concepts of reincarnation and souls have not appeared among religious teachings. So very few people know that they have a God-given soul. Those who do know, apologetically call it by some academic alternative—with two notable exceptions. They are the two eminent psychotherapists who accidentally found that traditional hypnotic regression—used for traumatic early childhood memories—could also reach back before birth. Serendipitously, psychiatrist Brian Weiss has since been able to heal traumatic past-life memories that caused present-life problems for thousands of his patients, which otherwise could not be treated with current methods.
The other psychotherapist, Michael Newton, had a patient in past-life hypnotic regression who fortuitously moved her trance beyond its past-life death scene and into her soul’s memories of the “life-between-lives” (i.e., Heaven). Hundreds of hypnotherapists around the world have now been trained at the Institute for Spiritual Regression, and have since documented thousands of sessions for patients and clients. Both psychotherapists therefore expanded the classical use of hypnotic regression and thereby established an empirical basis for the reality of the soul.
Other clinical phenomena now offer additional empirical evidence for the soul throughout human lifetimes, including its survival of mortal death and return to Heaven for future reincarnations. God naturally established an eternal “game plan,” so to speak, for His gifts of immortal souls, in which souls can both learn and help their human hosts on Earth. This may be why souls have been called “sparks of God.”
Yet, without the assistance of religion to acknowledge God’s gift of love and to help their followers realize, understand, and honor both God and their souls, this world’s increasing malevolence and disregard for one another may never be stopped. The book Religion Has No Monopoly on Death is a concise, very readable, and easily understood non-technical book that helps explain the significance of souls, and especially their survival of mortal death, in our troubled world today.