William James on Mystical States and Agnosticism

Mystical States

“One may say truly, I think, that personal religious experience has its roots and centre in mystical states of consciousness,” William James

Our tendency to ‘pyschologise’ our experiences may well have grown since the time of William James but I rather think that now we know more about the works of the human mind, we tend to at least try to attach natural explanations before leaping feet first into the realms of the mystic and supernatural.  Ecstatic states that apparently provide sustenance for a human need for personal affirmation should not be merely issued with unquestioned validity.  Believing something that makes you ‘feel good’, or provides consolation or even offers comfort to the bereaved, does not make it accurate or true in any sense.

Childishly clinging to any imagery is a hindrance to meditation as any instructor will tell you.  So why should we be expected to maintain religious imagery for the sake of tradition? We shouldn’t.  These religions offer us nothing and have now reached the point that the followers of such now struggle to justify the existence of said religion.  This is so much so that very few can do more than bluster about the ‘marginalisation’ of Christianity and how they are being persecuted, waffle on about their country’s tradition being rooted in Christianity (despite all evidence to the contrary), and then parrot what they heard on Fox News the night before.  Tradition, by the way, is no reason to continue any practice, it is merely an excuse used to justify the continuation of a dubious habit.

James acknowledged that mystical experience has a lot to do with emotion along with memory and awe so even he admitted that these experiences are affected by the subject’s own cultural knowledge.  He also admitted that the experiences must be filtered through the subject’s conscious scrutiny so as not to attribute it wrongly to mysticism.  Mr Vernon only gives this acknowledgement a passing mention.  James did not however, believe that the correct means of assessing the truth of these mystical experiences was that advocated by who he referred to as the ‘medical materialists’ for whom mysticism had no meaning other than to suggest hysterical and semi-hypnotic states in an intellectually limited and superstition-biased mind.  Indeed, they would have been the ideal people to test the ideas as they had no interest in their truth.

James’ theories are now at odds with modern conventions of psychology and scholars of mystical experience.  He believed it had little to do with time or place but rather emphasised a need for dialogue of the experience and examination of the historical context in order to distinguish between a real experience and a mere imagining.  James’ interest rested in the individual’s experience more than in the communal as he viewed the former as the ‘real and positive’ version.  The shift in perspective between what is real and what is imagined does little more than add to the religious delusion; because one felt small and alone before, they involuntarily invented an event which allayed a negative and uncomfortable emotional state.  This still does not prove that these experiences were in any way mystical.  However much James wished for there to have been truth to the claims of mysticism, it does not grant them that truth and for or those people to have experienced any positive effects from their moments of epiphany, they would have to have had a negative view of their lives beforehand.  Unless we know their state of mind, what they were doing or how they were living prior to their visions, it is impossible to do anything more than take James at his word that the changes were positive.  It is also likely, considering this was in 19th CE America, that James himself had a preconceived and strict idea of what constituted a good lifestyle and whatever did not fit into that mindset, did not qualify as ‘good’.

Even the great mystics do not claim that their good deeds prove the truth of their visions but instead that misdeeds invalidate them. James’s propensity to disregard the influence of prior knowledge or experience leaves him vulnerable to other charges of biased investigation such as side-lining historical context.  James attempted to judge these accounts based on reasonableness and how well it fit within existing and articulated systems of belief and went on to stress that it is the overall consequences for the individual which matter: the quality he thought of as ‘saintliness’.  I agree that the consequences matter but only in the sense that those who experience these episodes should seek help from the psychiatric profession rather than the church.


Vernon, wrote in his article that there is an agnostic sentiment in James’ writing.  This may be, but only if he was an agnostic with a desire to believe.  A claim of knowledge which is based only on a religious vision can not truly be taken seriously in scholarly circles.  We have already established that James had become convinced that these visions were helpful to mankind regardless of any ill effects and probed the accounts he had collected in an attempt to prove his case.  One of his observations in from his 18th lecture was that mysticism was too private and varied a matter to be able to claim any form of authority of any overall positive effect on mankind as a species.

“Can philosophy stamp a warrant of veracity upon the religious man’s sense of the divine?” William James

But what is religious philosophy and how does it have any bearing here?  James believed very much that it was a secondary consideration to experience because he felt that humans were driven by passion and emotion rather than reason that drove human this area of inquiry.  He deemed philosophy a necessary, but not sufficient, means of exploration and explanation.  He also had quite a scathing view of intellectualism, describing it as a “preference for concepts over reality” and an insidious means of becoming a spectator of life rather than a participant.  In summary, he felt it encouraged speculation for its own sake with mere ‘intellectual bubbles’ as it’s result.  James detected this intellectualism within religious circles in attempts to prove the existence of God as a fact  but decided that these ‘proofs’ were sought by those who felt the need to separate themselves from what they saw as the randomness of the world.

James charged the Cardinal John Henry Newman of being a ‘vexed spirit’ with a ‘disdain for sentiment’ though considering James’ own disdain for reason and rationality in examining what he believed to be mystical encounters, I do not feel this accusation is entirely a fair one.  Newman made a clear distinction between ‘notional assent‘ and ‘real assent‘ and believed that to determine a belief using only philosophy is to give it only notional assent.  The Cardinal believed that this was an inadequate way to think about such things because it only engaged the rational and that real assent required more than reason.  He also stressed that he believed that in order to achieve a real understanding of mysticism the subject must examine all the evidence and experience as a whole – rational, emotional, cultural and observational.  Though each, on its own, are not conclusive proof of anything but added together, he believed, they supported the truth of a powerful belief.  Newman used the an allegory of a cable to symbolise the elements of religious beliefs.  If one strand is broken then the cable remains intact.  But the more strands that break the weaker the cable becomes until it eventually breaks and thus the individual is freed from the yoke of belief.  The tactic employed by the leaders of organised religion is that they aim to keep their congregations attention away from the man behind the curtain (as it were) by focusing on other issues; the supposed ‘persecution and marginalisation’ of Christianity, for instance. Real assent implies that God is a fact rather than a mere hypothesis and requires a complete suspension of disbelief in order to just accept it as a possibility.

belief in God is “an action more subtle and more comprehensive than the mere appreciation of syllogistic logic”, John Henry Newman

In his essay, ‘The Will to Believe‘, James drew upon the tenuous preoccupation with belief which doctrine requires of its adherents. He admits to the absurdity of the idea that a belief in God can simply be willed.  The essay seeks instead to justify individual belief in God even when those individuals have not been coerced into them.  He began by attempting to define religious belief.  Firstly the beliefs must be ‘real’ to count as such and secondly those individuals must consider those beliefs to be real possibilities.  For example, the subject must consider adherence to a religion and a set belief system to be a viable option for themselves.  They also had to affect the subjects’ outlook on life to be considered ‘religious’.  In the same essay James makes reference to Pascal’s wager, the hypothetical argument in favour of a belief in god, which many have taken seriously in the years since.  The wager is, as James saw it, based upon the logic of the gaming table.  James however had failed to see the wager for what it was; based upon very long odds indeed.  Instead James took it to mean that Christianity was a valid option for the French philosopher and mathematician despite the obvious objections to the suggestion that one may even feign belief if the odds favour a positive result for doing so.

instead of being powerless, [it] seems a regular clincherWilliam James

The wager did not work for Pascal any more than it should have worked for James (it didn’t) or for anyone else for that matter.  Pascal may have had a will to believe but that ‘will‘ does not render one capable of submission to religious belief for to do so we non-believers and agnostics would have to consciously and deliberately ignore all of the evidence and education we have accumulated over the course of our lives (and over human history).  The form of objectiveness demonstrated in the wager does not work in the case of religion because religion requires that we voluntarily lay aside our reason, independent thought and rationality, and our will to question ‘authority’ (rendering objective thought impossible) in favour of becoming a form of intellectual slave to ancient superstition.  That does indeed require a certain willingness but it is not one that I, or anyone in my non-believing activist circle, are in possession of.



5 thoughts on “William James on Mystical States and Agnosticism

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