Is mystical experience a perception of something real?

Andrew M. Davis has posted a link to an exchange between Rupert Sheldrake and Slavoj Zizek, in which Zizek raises a common objection to the reality of mystical experiences.

This is something I have agonised about at length. After all, when I had my first peak mystical experience, I was a scientific materialist, and my obvious question was to explore what, other than a glimpse into the underlying workings of the universe, which I didn’t think possible, might have prompted that experience. This was despite the fact that the experience itself was very real to me, more real, in fact, than anything else in my experience. I canvassed every potential cause which I or others could come up with. No, I hadn’t taken any mind-expanding substance, I wasn’t in a strong electromagentic field, I wasn’t hungry or sleep deprived, I wasn’t under any psychological stress. And after a visit to my GP, I was reassured that I didn’t have any of the brain abnormalities known to produce such experiences (such as temporal lobe epilepsy), nor any psychological conditions (such as schizophrenia) which apparently do likewise.

But this was not a type of experience which others around me could testify to. Indeed, it was some years before I met someone else who had had a similar experience. I’ve written elsewhere about my attempts to find both a language of expression to talk about it (which I found in the writings of mystics) and a way of repeating it (which I’ve never found a wholly reliable way of doing).

So, was this (as Zizek seems to say) something which was nothing but an anomalous brain state? In the case of Sheldrake, his was at least initially produced by a mind-expanding substance, so the challenge has more “bite” to it. But mine wasn’t.

I found significant assistance from considering my own eyesight. I’m short-sighted. I can’t see much detail in things more than a few feet from me, and the far distance is just a blur. I could go and get laser surgery, which providers assure me would let me see things I couldn’t otherwise see with clarity – that would be an external interference with my perceptual apparatus producing a change in my perception. As it happens, I haven’t done that, but I wear spectacles for any activities which need me to see clearly at any distance – and that is another, temporary, interference with my perceptual apparatus.

I’ve also noted that by applying slight pressure to the side of my eyeball, I can bring things into focus which would otherwise be unclear – clearly I’m slightly changing the focal length of my eyeball in the process.

The thing is, I don’t write off things I see this way or by wearing specs which I wouldn’t otherwise be able to see as being merely products of interference with my perception. I therefore ask myself why I should write off mystical experiences, however they are arrived at, as merely products of interference with people’s perceptions. I will rather hold to the idea that, for some reason unknown, I suddenly became able (on fairly rare occasions) to perceive something real, but which was normally beyond my perception.

Mostly, it’s more analagous to wearing specs or deforming the eyeball, but some traces of that perception have never gone away. I cannot see existence other than in that light, ever since that day in August 1967 – and that makes it, at least a little, analagous to the laser surgery.

Limited success…

In the face of astoundingly stupid moves by Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng, Labour have been showing a 33% lead over the Conservatives recently, which has led at least one commentator to produce a projection that would give the Conservatives only three seats (and the LibDems 7) in an otherwise massively Labour-dominated House of Commons. As this article in the Guardian shows, that is probably very different from what might actually happen. The article is right to point out that Scottish voting looks very different from that in England (and Wales); it does not, however, factor in the fact that in much of the southern half of England, the LibDems are better placed to benefit from a historically unpopular Conservative party.

Nonetheless, I am worried. I’m worried that Labour might do too well in the next election, and have that handsome overall majority they have been dreaming of since the halcyon days of Tony Blair.

Now, one of the first things a sensible Labour government should do is bring in proportional representation for Westminster elections. In conscience, very high on their priority list ought to be reversing Brexit (so far as it’s possible for them to do that). It is a no-brainer, in the face of economic decline (and potentially collapse) for us to remove trading barriers with our nearest and largest market. The recent Labour conference has finally voted in favour of PR, which is a good sign – but not in favour of rejoining Europe.

The trouble is, Labour is led by Keir Starmer. Now, I like Starmer (unlike many friends who label him as being a crypto-Conservative). I think he’s principled, a quality much lacking in recent UK politics, I think he’s intelligent, I think he’s a competent administrator, as you’d expect from a man who formerly ran the Department of Public Prosecutions and was knighted for his role there. I think he would make a pretty good prime minister, in the most general terms.

The trouble is, I think he’s too principled. I’ve shuddered as he’s stated in no uncertain terms both that he would not seek to rejoin Europe and that he would not institute PR, and while a less-principled individual might well follow the time-honoured political ploy of promising whatever they thought would get them elected and then doing something different, I rather suspect that Starmer wouldn’t do that.

Unless he was forced to, of course. There, the saving grace from my point of view for the next election is the unlikelihood of that absolute majority, and the need to obtain support from the SNP and possibly, I would hope, the Liberal Democrats. The SNP might well be bought by a promise of a new independence referendum, though I could hope that they would also stick to their party principles and demand PR as well. The LibDems, I think, would insist on PR, and I hope would not be bought off by the promise of a referendum, as was the case with the coalition government of 2010-15. (The only thing on which I would support a referendum is what kind of PR we should adopt – the chances of falling into the trap of people arguing about what kind and getting none are far too high).

But I remember the 1997 election which brought Tony Blair to power. It was on the back of a historically unpopular Conservative government, led by a less-charismatic replacement in John Major for the charismatic but incredibly divisive Margaret Thatcher (which may ring bells for our current situation of Truss replacing Johnson). I remember Liberal Democrats being swept away by the red tide leading to that (including myself at local council level) despite the fact that we were absolutely not complicit in the previous government, which (due to the coalition) I am not certain can still be unequivocally claimed by LibDems now. Anti-Tory turned into pro-Labour, irrespective of whether you’d been actively campaigning against the Tory government for years as (for instance) a Liberal Democrat. “We have to get the Tories out” became a vote for Labour, whether or not the best chance of “getting the Tories out” was a LibDem vote.

So, what might that mechanic produce? I could swallow a Labour absolute majority better than the alternative, that “getting the Tories out = vote Labour” actually worked to keep a lot of Tories in southern England IN. I don’t think a Labour government set against rejoining Europe and PR both would be a particularly good thing, but it would be streets better than any form of continuation of Tory rule.

Thus, I wish Starmer well, but in a limited way.