Abstract Details

Mystical Experiences and Epistemic Justification  Noa Latham (Philosophy, University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta Canada)   C22

This paper first examines definitions and classifications of mystical experiences (MEs), then argues that MEs provide no epistemic justification for believing in any of their intentional content. It ends with some remarks about the value of MEs. I begin by examining and refining the account of MEs offered by William James. I argue that for something to be an ME it must seem revelatory, contain elements that seem impossible to adequately describe linguistically, and seem greatly significant. I point to several other characteristic marks of MEs that fall short of being necessary conditions. Next I distinguish two types of ME, arguing that experiences with minimal phenomenological structure are very different both intrinsically and in their causal history from richly structured experiences. Richly structured MEs have an introspectible intentional content which typically has experience of a unity as at least a component. Minimally structured experiences, the limiting case of which are pure consciousness experiences, lack the structure to have an intentional content and are not introspectible. Because of this, I restrict my focus to richly structured MEs. Reports suggest that while having an ME, people believe what they take to be the content of their experience with the highest possible subjective certainty, and take the experience itself as justifying this belief. However, for most of the contents of these experiences there are people whose experiences have contradicting contents, which is enough to show that MEs are not a reliable provider of first-person epistemic justification of belief in their contents. A more plausible idea is that there can be third-person epistemic justification for belief in the content of MEs provided that it is a content that is common to all MEs. By considering reports of MEs from Margaret Montague, Genevieve Foster, Irena Starr, Arthur Koestler, Jane Goodall, and Edgar Mitchell, I argue that even James? minimalist proposal that the core content is just the existence of a wider self that is helpful, fails to accommodate all MEs. And I argue that there is no plausible non question-begging criterion restricting the class of experiences that are to be taken as candidates for mystical apprehensions of reality that can deliver a common core. Next I consider the idea that all that is necessary for justifying belief in the content of an ME is that that particular content is not contradicted by the contents of any other MEs. I raise some difficulties with this approach and conclude that it is implausible that MEs can provide epistemic justification for any mystical belief. Lastly, I remark that an ME can have transformative value in causing a mystical belief, regardless of whether that belief is true or justified, because the belief itself rationalises and causes dispositions such as universal love, a reduction of selfishness, increase in sense of meaningfulness, and decrease in fear of death. I also show how these dispositions can arise directly from an ME without requiring any such mystical beliefs.