In the last week, there has been a handful of well-placed pieces on the subject of religious experiences and how we go about explaining them (away). I point you to these links in case you missed them:
Jeff Kripal, "Visions of the Impossible"
Jeff Kripal, "Embracing the Unexplained 2"
Jerry Coyne, "Science is Being Bashed by Academics Who Should Know Better"
Barbara Ehrenreich, "A Rationalist's Mystical Moment"
Ross Douthat, "How to Study the Numinous"
For my entire career I have been studying the written records of ancient
religious people about their experiences of the divine. Historians have typically shied away from penetrating these descriptions of ecstasy because, heck, what are you supposed to do with ecstasy, especially in a modern world where God is (supposedly) dead and reality has been restricted to what we can observe and verify about the material universe?
Usually these ecstatic events reported in the ancient texts I study are declared by historians of religion to be hallucinatory or exegetical - either a record of a psychotic episode or a form of imaginative plagiarism where a person copies old texts about ecstatic experiences and gives them a new context. Or, did I fail to mention it?, a trip on drugs.
I have always been frustrated with this paradigm because it fails on so many levels. First, the ecstatic experiences I study in early Christian and Gnostic texts are more often than not connected to ritual and body-mind practices. In other words, the ecstatic experience has a religious context that is lived. People are doing things to prompt or achieve these states, to make them accessible to more people than those who have the occasional rapture experience, when ecstasy comes unbidden. These religious practices are not about trying to have psychotic hallucinations. Nor are these practices about the ingestion of drugs, although there are plenty examples of religious ceremonies that use drugs to induce ecstasy. I think it is fair to say that religions have become very good at developing certain practices to prompt experiences that people perceive to be religious, to be ecstatic and often unitive.
Second, the brain is involved in a major way, as it should be. The brain is involved in all of our typical forms of consciousness whether we are talking about being awake and alert, being in REM dream sleep, or deep sleep. Why shouldn't it also be implemented in ecstasy? Cognitive scientists have a very good idea now about the brain circuit involved when people are having ecstatic experiences. They have a very good idea about the shifts in serotonin and dopamine levels that take place in brains when people are having ecstatic experiences. They also have a very good idea about how the autonomic nervous system shows signs of being hyperstimulated when people are having ecstatic experiences. So the scientific lab has been revealing important information to us about the physical platform of ecstasy.
Some people want to leave the religious experience here, reducing it to neurons firing in a circuit, as if this explains the experience. But if we are honest with ourselves, we know that this reduction doesn't explain the experience and its reality, anymore than this type of reduction explains our experience of the color red, or our experience of a glass of wine, or our experience of love for another person (and not someone else).
Where does this leave us? It leaves us with the reality of ecstasy as a form of consciousness that involves specific areas of the brain. It is a form of consciousness that a large portion of the human population experiences, even without drugs. How do we evaluate this form of consciousness given its subjective nature? People generally frame the answer as either a reference to a reality "out there" that is being experienced, or a reality that we have constructed inside our heads. In the first case, the brain is thought to work like a filter or a gateway through which another reality is tapped. In the second case, the brain is thought to construct the reality as its own personal fantasy.
I wonder if there might be a third option. When we consider the human acquisition of language, we know how much this acquisition transformed our reality as a species. Our ability to create and use language opened up for us realities that we could never have perceived had we continued being restricted to making a few animal sounds and following our instincts. Our brain made it possible for us to talk and think using language, and reality got a whole lot bigger for us because of this. Might the same thing be going on with ecstatic states of consciousness? Is our brain circuitry making it possible for us to expand our reality yet again?