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Can Science Explain Mysticism - EVAN FALES | Baal Shem Tov | Mysticism

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Can Science Explain Mysticism? Author(s): Evan Fales Source: Religious Studies, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Jun., 1999), pp. 213-227 Published by: Cambridge University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20008221 Accessed: 07/08/2010 03:58 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp. JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permi
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  Can Science Explain Mysticism?Author(s): Evan FalesSource: Religious Studies, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Jun., 1999), pp. 213-227Published by: Cambridge University PressStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20008221 Accessed: 07/08/2010 03:58 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available athttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp. JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unlessyou have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and youmay use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use.Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained athttp://www.jstor.org/action/showPublisher?publisherCode=cup.Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printedpage of such transmission.JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org. Cambridge University Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to  ReligiousStudies. http://www.jstor.org  Rel. Stud. 35,pp. 2I3-227. Printed in theUnited KingdomCI999 CambridgeUniversityPress Can scienceexplain mysticism? EVAN FALES Department f Philosophy,TheUniversity fIowa,IowaCity,IA52242Abstract. JeromeGellman has recently disputedmy claimthatanaturalisticexplanation for mysticalexperiences is available,abetterexplanationthanany current attempt to showthat God is sometimes perceivedinthoseexperiences. Gellman argues (i)that some mystics donot'fit' the sociological explanationof I.M. Lewis; (ii) that thesociological analysisoftribal mysticismcannot properlybeextended to theisticexperiences; and (iii) that mystical experiencesmeritprimafaciecredence,sotheburden of prooffallsonthenaturalist.Ireply(i)that thealleged counter-examples eitherdo fitLewis's explanationor are toopoorly knowntojudge;(ii) that Lewis's theory,supplemented byrecentneurophysiologicalfindings, providesastrong explanation forall mystical experiences;and (iii) that the burdenofproof,ifthereis one,nowfallson thetheist.I Intwo earlier articleswhichappearedinthis journal,I took up aprovocativeclaim,madebyWilliam Alstonandothers,thatmystical experiencehas notbeen,and isveryunlikelyevertobe,scientificallyexplained.'That claimisassociated with defencesoftheview that mystical experienceshave a supernatural etiology-thatthey are,indeed, more or less veridicalexperiences ofGod.Theclaimisprovocative,inpart,because it has not been accompaniedby any adequatereview of scientificapproachestomysticism,andinpartbecauseit invokesanincorrect,thoughcommon, misconceptionofmysticalepisodesassosporadicandunpredictableas to be unamenabletoscientificstudy.Myresponsefocusedupononecentral contribution to theemergingscientific understandingofmysticism,that of theculturalanthropologistI.M. Lewis. Lewis'sextensive cross-culturalcomparisonsreveal that mysticism does notoccur at random. There are twoprimarypatterns.The first of thesepatternsLewis callsperipheralmysticism, becauseitoccursamong groupsofpeoplewhoaresociallymarginalized.Lewisillustratesthewaysinwhichperipheral mysticismserves, within thesocialsphere,as atechniqueorstrategy bymeansofwhich themarginalizedcan 'SeeWilliam P. AlstonPerceivingod:TheEpistemologyf ReligiousExperience Ithaca, NY: Cornell UniversityPress, I991),228-234;alsoWilliamWainwright Mysticism:AStudy ofItsNature, CognitiveValue, and MoralImplications (Madison,WI: TheUniversityofWisconsinPress, I98I),ch.2;Keith E. Yandell The Epistemologyf ReligiousExperienceNewYork, NY:Cambridge UniversityPress,I993), ch.7; andSteven PayneJohnof theCrossand theCognitiveValueofMysticism (Boston,MA:KluwerSynthese HistoricalLibrary,v.27,I990),I88-209.Formy response,seeEvan Fales'Scientificexplanationsofmysticalexperiences,PartI:Thecaseof StTeresa',Religious Studies,32(I996), I43-I63, and 'Scientificexplanationsofmystical experiences,Part II: Thechallengetotheism',Religious Studies, 32 (I996),297-3I3  214 EVANFALES make their voices and concerns heard, in a way which exerts pressure uponcentral authoritywithoutrequiringaradicalbreak oropen rebellion. Peripheral mystics (who are more often women than men) are typically possessed by supernatural beingswhich are(atleastexoterically) characterizedas demonic or mischievous, as challengers of the status quo (though esoterically they maybe revered as divinehelpers).The second pattern is central mysticism. It occursinsocieties in whichaccess to positions of leadership is not heavily institutionalized but is fluidandinsignificant degreea matter ofindividual initiative and charisma.Aspirants to leadership are,inmany such cultures, seized by the 'central'gods-theprotectorsofsocial customs, morals,andinstitutions-and'recruited' to their service, often through a process of travail and resistance.Inboth cases, whatever the material rewards, concourse with thegods/demonsisregularlyportrayedasassociated,atleastinitially,withperiodsofaffliction (physical and/or mental);and themystic styleshim- orherself anunwilling victim,as much asabeneficiary,ofthe attentionsofthesupernatural world.Lewisnotes somevariationsuponthese two dominant modesofmysticalpractice, which clearly represent adaptations to particular circumstances.Oneespecially interesting adaptation,which Lewis touchesuponbutdoesnot very fully discuss, can occur whenasubcultureorsubsociety withadistinctidentityliveswithin the ambit ofalarger society,and ismarginalizedbythat dominant culture. Here-especiallywhen the subculture hascentralmystical traditions harkingbacktoearlier timesofindependence-therecanarisemysticswhoare,vis'ais their ownsubculture,'central'mystics,whilesimultaneously functioningasperipheral mysticsandchampionsof theiroppressed groupvisavis thelarger society.2Butinevery case, mysticisminthepublicarena servestoforward theinterestsofindividualsorofgroupswhose concerns themysticservestoarticulateinamannerdesignedto deflectthesuspicionthatmerehumaninterestsarebeing promoted. Indeed, peripheral mysticsoften run substantial risksinarticulatingthedemandsof thedisadvantaged groups they serve;and for centralmystics,therhetoric ofpossessionisfunctionallyarepresentationof thenotion thatthepossessedleaderacts,not inhisorherowninterest, butinthatof thecommunityasa whole.Inmyearlierpapers,Iarguedthat Lewis'stheorygoesalongway towardexplaining scientifically (and naturalistically),notonlythemysticismfoundinexoticcultures,but Christianmysticismaswell.Ididsoby applyingLewis'sanalysisto oneparticularly prominentwomanChristianmysticabout whose life and circumstancesa fairbitis known-St Teresa of Avila.Ialsoargued,moregenerally,thatmystical experience is, paceAlstonetal., 2SeeI.M. Lewis EcstaticReligion 2ndedn. (London: Routledge, I989), 34-35, 37-38, 80-83,I01-I05,andI12. In my view,agoodcasecanbe madethat St Paul was such amystic.  CAN SCIENCEEXPLAINMYSTICISM? 2I5 quiteamenable to scientificinvestigation(even predictableandcontrollableunder certaincircumstances),thatattempts todiscount or demote certainexperiences(such ascontrollableor exotic ones)infavourof others (thosereveredby the homereligion)fail, andthatattemptsto'graft'a theisticetiologyonto Lewis'sexplanationisimplausible.I didconcede- andwillreturnto this presently-that thereseemstobeacertain incidenceofmysticalexperienceamong 'ordinaryfolk'whose mysticallives remain essentiallyprivate andarguably beyondthe scopeofLewis'scategories(thoughthe datahere areequivocalandsparse).I concludedbyissuingachallengeto theists-that they find counter-examplestoLewis'stheory, e.g,non-marginalizedmalemysticsin acultureinwhich accessto authorityishighlyascriptiveandnon-charismatic(suchas, say,medievalor ReformationRomanCatholicism).IIJeromeGellmanhastakenupthischallengein thisjournal.3Gellman'sresponsecan be dividedintotwo parts. First,hepresents,notone,butfivemalemystics (oneChristian, fourJewish)whohe claims cannot beaccountedforbyLewis.He admits thatfivecounter-examplesdonotbythemselvesbreakatheory,but certainly,suchcases deserveto beexaminedseriously,to discoverwhatsortof evidenceagainstLewis's viewsthey provide.Andinanycase,Gellmangoeson,inthe secondpartof hisresponse,toargueonvariousother,more general grounds,thatLewis'stheory,and theconclusionsI draw from itconcerningtheepistemicstatusofmysticalexperienceasevidentialgroundsfortheism,areunwarranted.Ishall undertaketo consider Gellman'schallengeby addressingeach ofthepartsof hisargumentinturn. Sofirst,what of the fivemalemystics?ThemysticsGellman asks usto considerareJakobBoehme, theBa'al ShemTov(Israelben Eliezer),Abraham benMoses and his great-great-grandson,David ben YeshuabenAbraham,andfinally,Rabbi AbrahamIsaac Kook.Boehmewas asixteenthtoseventeenth-centuryGerman mysticinthe (orrather,a)Christian tradition.The Ba'al Shem Tov (orBesht) is famousasthereputedfounderof Hasidism. Abraham and Davidaremoreobscurefigures,hereditaryleaders of the Egyptian Jewishcommunityand directdescendantsof Moses Miamonides. Rav Kook served asa rabbi in Polandandthenin theemergingnation of Israel while it wasunder the BritishMandate. Heservedas the first Chief RabbiofPalestine.Imust prefacemy brief discussionof these five figureswith twocautionaryremarks.First,itiswithsome misgivings(these wereexpressed inthe first ofthetwoarticlesIpublishedinthisjournalinI996)that Iembarkedupon 3 Jerome I. Gellman'Onasociologicalchallengetotheveridicalityoftheisticexperience', ReligiousStudies,34(I998), 235-251.
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