In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James makes the following claims about mystical experiences:
(1) Mystical states, when developed, usually are and have the right to be, absolutely authoritative over the individuals to whom they come.
(2) No authority emanates from them which should make it a duty for those who stand outside of them to accept their revelations uncritically.
(3) They break down the authority of non-mystical or rationalistic consciousness, based upon the understanding and the senses alone. They show it to be only one kind of consciousness. They open out the possibility of other orders of truth, in which, so far as anything in us vitally responds to them, we may freely continue to have faith. (460-61)
Claim (1) seems to say that mystical experiences give a sort of invulnerable authority, or, one might say, indefeasible warrant, for mystical beliefs (beliefs concerning mystical experiences). Claim (2) might be interepreted, when purged of some unfortunate features, as saying that the warrant spoken of in Claim (1) for mystical beliefs is not transmissible by testimony from the one who experienced the mystical state to one who has not.
Whether or not this is an accurate interpretation of James, I would like to ask: how should we understand James’s use of ‘authority’ in Claim (1) and does this understanding fit with Claim (2)?
Beginning with (my interpretation of) Claim (1), do mystical experiences confer an invulnerable authority on mystical beliefs? To answer this question, we must consider what sort of authority is at issue here. Previously, James spoke of religious experiences in the following way:
‘They are as convincing to those who have them as any direct sensible experiences can be, and they are, as a rule, much more convincing than results established by mere logic ever are. One may indeed be entirely without them; probably more than one of you here present is without them in any marked degree; but if you do have them, and have them at all strongly, the probability is that you cannot help regarding them as genuine perceptions of truth, as revelations of a kind of reality which no adverse argument, however unanswerable by you in words, can expel from your belief’ (72-73).
The comparison to sense experience is an interesting one. In one respect, the comparison is helpful, in another it is not. My sense experience as of a computer in front of me gives me a Moorean belief that there is a computer in front of me, and I am not tempted to withdraw this belief in the presence of a sceptical argument. (Though interestingly in my experience of teaching first year undergraduates they do seem to want to withdraw Moorean beliefs at the slightest hint of a sceptical scenario.) But my belief that there is a computer in front of me is not absolutely invulnerable, or indefeasible. I could be convinced that the sense experience is illusory, given the right sort of evidence. So, on the one hand, the analogy to sense experience seems right — my beliefs about my sense experiences are very secure and not liable to be swayed by argument, but they are not absolutely secure, given that they are not guaranteed to be infallible.
The sort of authority, I think, that James is operating with in Claim (1) is therefore not the sort of authority associated with beliefs about sense experience, but rather the sort of authority associated with Wittgensteinian framework principles. A framework principle is a sort of claim that is foundational for a particular system of belief; it is a grammatical proposition for what makes sense in a certain discourse. For example, the claim that God exists is a framework principle in Christian belief. Framework principles are the sort of principles that are invulerable within the particular belief system or discourse they govern. It is simply not sensible to think that there could be evidence for or against them within the particular system they are foundations for.
My thought is that when a subject has a mystical experience, she gains a new framework principle that then becomes regulatory over her system of belief and her life. Wittgenstein emphasises this regulatory role of framework principles. In his ‘Lectures on Religious Beliefsï¿½, in Cyril Barrett (ed.), Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, Wittgenstein claims:
‘Suppose someone were a believer and said: ï¿½I believe in a Last Judgement,ï¿½ and I said; ï¿½Well, I’m not so sure. Possiblyï¿½. You would say that there is an enormous gulf between us. If he said ï¿½There is a German aeroplane overheadï¿½, and I said ï¿½Possibly I’m not so sureï¿½ you’d say we were fairly near.
It isnï¿½t a question of my being near him, but on an entirely different plane, which you can express by saying: ï¿½You mean something altogether different, Wittgensteinï¿½.
The difference might not show up at all in any explanation of meaning’ (54).
Speaking again about the Last Judgement, Wittgenstein writes:
‘Whenever he [the believer in the Last Judgement] does anything, this is before his mind. In a way, how are we to know whether to say he believes this will happen or not?
Asking him is not enough. He will probably say he has proof. But he has what you might call an unshakeable belief. It will show, not by reasoning or by appeal to ordinary grounds for belief, but rather by regulating for in all his life’ (53-54).
So, I think, we should understand James’s Claim (1) as concerned with the sort of authority associated with framework propositions rather than the sort of authority associated with sense perceptions. This, I think, also explains why authority for mystical beliefs is not transmissible by testimony from the one who experienced the mystical state to one who has not.
Here an analogy from aesthetics will be helpful. It is rather common in aesthetics to maintain that warrant for an aesthetic belief (the Mona Lisa is beautiful) is available only to one who has experienced, or engaged with, or seen, the Mona Lisa. That is, someone who has lived all his life in the Congo and never seen the Mona Lisa, or any representation of it, cannot warrantedly believe that the Mona Lisa is beautiful simply by my telling him that it is: he must experience it himself to have warrant for that belief. I think that view in aesthetics is rather plausible.
And I think something similar maybe true in the epistemology of mystical experience: in order to have warrant for a mystical belief, one must have engaged with the object of that belief. Now that engagement can take many forms — it need not be a sort of Hollywood angels all around experience. It can be a Wesleyan “my heart was strangely warmed” sort of experience. But some sort of engagement is needed.
Now it’s clear what explains the truth of Claim (2), if it’s true at all, of course. It’s that authority only comes from real engagement with the object of the mystical belief, say, God. I want this understanding of (2) to be consistent with the following: if subject 1 has a mystical experience as of God and subject 2 has a distinct mystical experience as of God, warrant is transmissible both ways–that is subject 1 can have warrant for a belief based on subject 2’s experience and vice versa. But one who has had no experience as of God cannot have warranted beliefs based on either subject’s experience.
This requirement then fits in nicely with the sort of authority I thought was operative in Claim (1). For that sort of authority is the sort associated with framework propositions which govern belief systems and forms of life. And what Claim (2) says, perhaps, is that warrant is kept within the form of life — that is, it’s kept in the family (of God).