Experience and Reality

by Rebecca Bynum (June 2010)
Previously. I have argued that contrary to the assumption of most contemporary philosophers, it is entirely possible that mind exists as a reality in and of itself and this independent reality is perceived and utilized by the material brain as are other aspects of reality. And the current materialist vogue of dismissing the reality of the non-material amounts to an attack on the reality of mind. For example, in How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker condescendingly asks,

How does the spook interact with solid matter? How does an ethereal nothing respond to flashes, pokes and beeps and get arms and legs to move? Another problem is the overwhelming evidence that the mind is the activity of the brain. The supposedly immaterial soul, we now know, can be bisected with a knife, altered by chemicals.

Therefore, each human being creates his own “mind bubble” of experience, and therefore psychology, not to mention morality, is reduced to a series of electro-chemical “flashes, pokes and beeps” in the individual brain and the mental process, that is to say our thoughts, may be controlled, and perhaps one day entirely controlled, by chemical means.

The modern scientific tendency to explain all experience in material terms has engendered a marked hostility toward any experience not so readily explainable, especially that of the value-realm, love, or even what one might term “religious experience.” Today, such life-changing occurrences are likely to be diagnosed as schizophrenic delusions and anti-psychotic medications quickly prescribed rather than to be taken seriously as actual, meaningful, personal experiences. As Thomas Scheff explains,[2] this labeling (diagnoses coupled with drug treatment) creates social isolation of the patient which reinforces his feelings of disconnectedness and confusion which may in turn prolong the mental crisis and even turn it into a chronic state of psychological dysfunction. When one considers that often these crises are the result of an initial spiritual experience (which can cause temporary disorientation) we begin to see a tendency to isolate and medicate those with the wrong ideas. Spiritual birth can sometimes be quite traumatic, but when it happens in a society that labels this kind of sudden awakening as mental illness, it can be devastating, even life-threatening to the individuals involved.

Scheff contends that recovery from psychosis is directly related to the patient maintaining a connection with at least one other person through a loving relationship – someone who sticks with him through thick and thin.[3] Psychiatrists, however, generally put a tremendous amount of pressure on the patient to remain on anti-psychotic drugs, drugs that can be extremely debilitating. This reinforces the idea that the person is “sick” and “different” not simply experiencing something extraordinary or going through a psychic reorientation as a result of an extraordinary experience. In a footnote, Scheff states that “the biography (Nasar 1998) of John Nash, a Nobel Prize winner…shows that Nash’s mother and wife aided his recovery, since they never gave up on him. However, A Beautiful Mind, a film purportedly based on Nash’s biography, misinformed on the drug issue. Nash, played by Russell Crowe, attributes his complete recovery to ‘the newer antipsychotic drugs.’ But the biography states that Nash refused to take drugs after 1970, long before the newer antipsychotics. Indeed, the biographer states that his refusal may have been fortuitous, making possible his complete recovery (1998, p. 353).”
Less dramatically, the everyday religious experience consists of the discovery and progressive realization of values – Truth, Beauty and Goodness – their combination in love and activation in service. Values are first experienced and then the reasoning mind seeks their explanation through theology and philosophy. There is no more striking evidence of society’s hostility to religion than the fact that the psychiatric profession considers strong or extraordinary religious experiences as psychotic delusions and actively isolates and medicates a certain percentage of those who have trouble processing those experiences.

In the world-view of material determinism, there is no place for the concept of free will, and therefore not only is it entirely inadequate as a source of explanation for the human condition, materialism poses a real danger to personal autonomy and freedom. It is a reflection of the extreme arrogance of modern man that he would turn on that faith which sustained his ancestors for centuries and label religious individuals “crazy.” Psychologically speaking, there may always be an urge among the young to turn against the old order, the “father” of their existence. According to Sigmund Freud, the urge toward parricide runs through religion from its earliest inception,[4] and in a certain sense, this latest effort to destroy God is also a religious act, though unrecognized as such.

In essence, two different methods exist for seeking reality. One is entirely external (the realm of science, materialism) and the other, internal (the pursuit of values, or religion). And even though there is evidence philosophy is beginning to regain its former role of reconciling and balancing these two methods, the last century has been entirely dominated by the former. Just last month, Stephen T. Asma wrote in The Chronicle Review:

No self-respecting professor of philosophy wants to discuss the soul in class. It reeks of old-time theology, or, worse, New Age quantum treacle. The soul has been a dead end in philosophy ever since the positivists unmasked its empty referential center. Scientific philosophy has shown us that there’s no there there.

But make no mistake, our students are very interested in the soul. In fact, that is the main reason many of us won’t raise the soul issue in our classes: The bizarre, speculative, spooky metaphysics that pours out of students, once the box has been opened, is truly chaotic and depressing. The class is a tinderbox of weird pet theories—divine vapors, God particles, reincarnation, astral projections, auras, ghosts—and mere mention of the soul is like a spark that sets off dozens of combustions. Trying to put out all these fires with calm, cool rationality is exhausting and unsuccessful.[5]
Such efforts are ultimately doomed to fail because of two experiential factors. One is the direct experience of value and the other is the unmistakable feeling or sense that the body is not all that we are, even that the body is a thing apart from our true selves. The experience of value is not the result of reasoned deduction. We may deduce that something is relatively true through the use of reason, but the experience of the light of Truth, like that of Beauty or Goodness is just that – an experience. The aspect of personal reality which directly experiences value is something we call the soul. By this we mean the realest and truest part of ourselves and to deny its reality feels something like a betrayal.

One might even question whether it is at all reasonable to deny the reality of value-feeling any more than it would be reasonable to deny the reality of sight or sound. Though one cannot transfer religious experience from one person to another any more than one may see through the eyes of another, it is the height of arrogance to assume that because one has not experienced something that another has not experienced it either. It is worse to assign what may be the most meaningful experience of a person’s life to the effects of cerebral dysfunction. It may certainly be argued that those who embrace the experience of value lead more meaningful and well-adjusted lives than those who deny that reality and who attribute the experience of God-knowing to the effects of neuronal misfire. To those who proclaim “you do not know,” the believer can only respond, “how do you know I don’t know, and furthermore, who are you to deny my experience?”

So because true religion ultimately rests upon personal experience, it is not something that lends itself readily to debate. Though points of theology, philosophy and religious history may be challenged and altered through time, the experience of the believer stands apart. The experience of soul growth, that is, the process of assimilating Truth, Beauty and Goodness and thereby feeling one’s soul become increasingly real is not something that can be objectified, despite the assertion of Pinker cited above, because it is an entirely personal experience. Nor is it something that can be altered with the latest fads in psychology, religion or science, though all these things may color and shape how these experiences are interpreted.

When we contemplate how our rapidly decaying culture might be revitalized, the obvious solution is through religion, the ultimate source of cultural nourishment, and the basis of culture. Yet religion cannot be revived by appeals to the past, no matter how scholarly, noble or erudite ancient thinkers were. Religion has to be restated in modern terms that make sense to modern people steeped in scientific reason. We can’t simply retrace our steps and return to the Age of Faith. A new religious understanding must be born, shorn of superstition, and respectful of science, but not subservient to it. A strong reassertion of the reality of the non-material, the reality of mind and of transcendent value along with the reaffirmation of personal religious experience and personal autonomy will go a long way toward reclaiming the foundation of religious faith which has the power to solidify social unity. We may disagree on points of philosophy or on solutions to a myriad of social problems, but if we can find a unity of spirit and agree on the general direction of what “should be,” then we can also find the strength to defend those cultural values we hold most dear, including freedom of expression and freedom of worship.

[1] Steven Pinker as quoted by Marilynne Robinson in “Thinking Again,” Commonweal May 7, 2010

[2] Scheff, Thomas J. “The Concept of Normalizing: Neither Labeling nor EnablingNew English Review, June 2010

[3] Scheff, Thomas J, “Instances and General Ideas: Parts and WholesNew English Review, April 2010

[4] See Rubenstein, Richard L. “There Is Nothing Final About The Death Of GodNew English Review April 2010

[5] Asma, Stephen T., “Soul Talk” in The Chronicle Review May 2, 2010

To comment on this essay, please click here.

To help New English Review continue to publish thought provoking essays like this one, please click here.

If you have enjoyed this article, and would like to read more by Rebecca Bynum, click here.

Rebecca Bynum contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all her contributions, on which comments are welcome.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

New English Review Press is a priceless cultural institution.
                              — Bruce Bawer

Order here or wherever books are sold.

The perfect gift for the history lover in your life. Order on Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon, Amazon UK, or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon or Amazon UK or wherever books are sold

Order at Amazon, Amazon UK, or wherever books are sold. 

Order at Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Available at Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Send this to a friend