Sunday, July 10, 2016

Rationality and Mysticism

Rational Mysticism: Spirituality Meets Science in the Search for Enlightenment
By John Horgan

Overview of the book

In Rational Mysticism, acclaimed journalist John Horgan embarks on an adventure of discovery, investigating the ways in which scientists, theologians, and philosophers are attempting to formulate an empirical explanation of spiritual enlightenment. Horgan visits and interviews a fascinating Who's Who of experts, including theologian Huston Smith; Andrew Newberg, explorer of the brain's "God module"; Ken Wilber, a transpersonal psychologist and Buddhist; psychedelic pharmacologist Alexander Shulgin; Oxford-educated psychologist and Zen practitioner Susan Blackmore; and postmodern shaman Terence McKenna. Horgan also explores the effects of reputed enlightenment-inducing techniques such as fasting, meditation, prayer, sensory deprivation, and drug trips. In his lively and thought-provoking inquiry, Horgan finds surprising connections among seemingly disparate disciplines, not the least of which is a shared awe of the nature of the universe. Reviews

4 Stars
An important, challenging, and subversive work.
By Jim R. on January 26, 2003

This is one of the best nonfiction reads I've encountered in a long time. It's compulsively readable. I love to have my assumptions challenged and this book did that and more. I laughed, cried, rolled my eyes, argued with Mr. Horgan. It's a great ride.
Rational Mysticism was especially meaningful to me because I long ago gave up on organized religion and put my faith in science. I occasionally try to return to religion, but quickly leave in exasperation. Now I understand that either path ends in mystery. We need to respect that mystery and appreciate the reality we have more.
You will meet some fascinating people in these pages, titantic egos, brilliant thinkers, crackpots. The introduction "Lena's Feather" was profoundly moving to me. Mr. Horgan's account of the ayahuasca ceremony is not to be missed. Finally the chapter "The Awe-Ful Truth" will leave you with much to think about.
Anyone who thinks on the "big questions" whether religious or rationalist should read this book.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
5 Stars
ut of 5 starsvaluable overview filled with pointers to further sources
By James J. Lippard on October 2, 2004

John Horgan has written a wonderfully entertaining and informative account of his attempt to find who is productively applying science to the field of mysticism. One other reviewer said that they do not like this sort of book, which is based on interviewing individuals and commenting on their personalities as well as their ideas, but I personally prefer this approach as an introduction to the lives and works of others. I found the book to be very insightful, as Horgan always seemed to ask the questions and raise the issues that I was interested in hearing about. His open-minded yet skeptical approach is one I find refreshing.

Horgan's subjects--Huston Smith, Steven Katz, Bernard McGinn, Ken Wilber, Andrew Newberg, Michael Persinger, Susan Blackmore, James Austin, Albert Hofmann, Stanislov Grof, Terence McKenna, Alexander "Sasha" and Ann Shulgin--are all quite interesting people. Horgan seemed most sympathetic to Blackmore, Austin, Wilber, McKenna (personality-wise more than idea-wise), and the Shulgins. He was--correctly, I believe--skeptical of Persinger after finding his pro-psi views. My own view of Persinger is that he attempts to fit everything into his temporal lobe epilepsy/tectonic strain theory views, but has often been unskeptical about the data he's pushing into the theory; I've never understood why skeptics like Blackmore and Michael Shermer have thought him to be plausible. (I've authored a critical review of Persinger's Space-Time Transients and Unusual Events for including bogus debunked events as items to be explained by his theory, and The Arizona Skeptic published an extensive bibliography of critiques of his TST assembled by Chris Rutkowski of the University of Manitoba in the July 1992 issue).

In the end, Horgan is skeptical of all of his subjects, and thinks that they've missed out on the importance of a sense of awe and wonder, as well as playfulness and fun (though McKenna seems to have had that down). I'm not sure I agree with Horgan on that--I thought that what most of these people seemed to have in common was being very comfortable (most seem to be wealthy, famous, respected, and living well) and being advocates of a quietistic conservatism that advocates being content with the way the world is. That's an easy position for someone who is comfortable to take. Horgan does touch on this subject briefly a few times, such as when he writes about "the nature does-not-care principle" and the problem of natural evil (pp. 192-194) and when he raises the issue of suffering with Austin (p. 131).

Horgan seemed most at odds with Katz, a view I shared--Katz's views seem sheer unsubstantiated dogmatism, when he insists that drug experiences have absolutely nothing to do with mystical experiences, and in his insistence on a commonality between all forms of mysticism, which reminded me of the Bahai faith--a religion that disagrees with all other religions in arguing for the compatibility of all religions.

In the end, I found myself scrawling notes of other books I'd like to read as a result of the references in this book: Austin's Zen and the Brain, Georg Feuerstein's Holy Madness, V.S. Ramachandran's Phantoms in the Brain, Francisco Varela's Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying, Anthony Storr's Feet of Clay, and Rudolf Otto's The Idea of the Holy, as well as finding numerous references to other works that seem to me to be likely to be "on the right track" (Stephen Batchelor's Buddhism without Beliefs, Ronald Siegel's books on hallucinations and drug experiences). Reading Horgan's book was for me a valuable experience that I recommend.

No comments:

Post a Comment