“Spiritual” Experiences as Consummatory 8 April 2006Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Cognitive Science, Religion.
What is a spiritual experience or the feeling of ineffability or the moment of transcendance and awe that come for many as part of their religious practice? In many ways, these "religious" experiences are analagous to the experience you have when you see/hear/touch a work of art that is especially meaningful to you, or those rare moments when suddenly the whole world comes into focus and seems amazing and wonderful, or that gasping moment of awe when you stand in a grove of Giant Sequoias for the first time.
As humans, we live with the reality that the world is in constant flux and that at any given moment, there will arise needs and problems that we must solve. We spend our lives seeking to block out or stave off this constant movement and change. In other words, we seek constantly to create certainty, stability, universality, and order out of uncertainty, chaos, change, and transformation. In our efforts, we are in a continual process of "consummating our desires," that is, in achieving temporary ends in our quest for certainty. The efforts we make are not just physical efforts in the obdurate world, but include also emotional, intellectual, and cultural efforts to make sense of the world we experience. From time to time, through our efforts we achieve a temporary equilibrium; and those moments of consummation produce particular emotion responses, at base, of satisfaction with the world as we have made it, either physically or how our perceptions have changed.
The structure of our brains and the resultant "mind" that we experience in combination with the obdurate reality of a physical world in constant flux means that our entire lives are a process of moving from fear of uncertainty, to devising means to fix it, to enacting those means, to experiencing fleeting consummatory feelings, to experiencing new or continued uncertainty, and starting the whole process again.
It is my opinion that these spiritual experiences are indeed real, inasmuch as they emotional/physical response produced in our brains in the process of seeking certainty did occur. They are–like experiencing art, eating a good meal, having sex, finishing a job at work, cleaning the toilet–the moments when our minds have achieved the temporary feeling of certainty, but perhaps of a higher order or a greater magnitude. There is a qualitative difference between finishing a small task and that great feeling of "getting it" or of "being one" or of "satisfaction with life" that comes more rarely. In all these cases, however, it is never long before some stimulus or other from our social-cultural-obdurate environment pushes us into uncertainty again. In moments of pain and fear and anger, we often turn to past experiences of equilibrium as comfort and seek to recreate them. So in effect, when something "works" to give that consummatory experience once, we will, like Pavlov's dog's, seek to cling to it and reproduce it. But this process also has built into it the potential for profound disillusionment and disappointment when in trying to repeat a consummatory experience and recreate the moment of "stability" and "certainty" (that is, the "spiritual experience"), we find that it no longer works, the world has changed to much, and bringing the flux to a halt, however fleetingly, requires different efforts, perceptions, ideas, and feelings on our part.