Given the geographically, culturally, and chronologically widespread occurrence of mystical experience and the important place it has held in the creation of cultures and civilizations, mystical experience is not something that can be ignored or cast aside as unnecessary or insignificant. On the contrary, the evidence indicates that mystical experience is an innately and universally human phenomenon that has played a significant role in the shaping of historical events. That it is innate and universal does not imply that all persons will have such experiences. Rather, what is meant by innate and universal is that these experiences have occurred to a number of individuals in nearly every culture in the world and these individuals have in large part claimed that these experiences are possible for others given the right conditions and effort toward that end. Mysticism, then, stands in need of an explanation if one is to hold a worldview that is consistent with the facts of actual human experience. There are three possible explanations, though not each is equally plausible.
One possible explanation of mystical experiences, and perhaps the first resort of the strict materialist who wishes to maintain his worldview intact, is that those who claimed to have undergone such experiences are, simply put, lying. It is possible for the atheist to argue that many of these experiences exist only within the realm of legend and hearsay. The experience of the Buddha, for example, was not written down for some years after his lifetime and may reflect legendary accretions to his original account of whatever happened to him under the bodhi tree. It may very well be the case the bodhi tree itself is such a legendary accretion. The biblical accounts of the experiences of Abraham, Moses, and the apostles have been the subject of particularly vehement attacks by modern atheists, given the Western cultural context in which most atheists have been bred. Those cases that fall within the more potentially trustworthy record of history, such as the claimed experiences of Benedict of Nursia, Muhammad, Thomas Aquinas, Guru Nanak, and Blaise Pascal, cannot be dismissed so easily as legendary accretion. If one is to hold that all accounts of mystical experience are fabrications these cases must be deemed cases of intentional fabrication.
The motivation for such a fabrication on the part of many of these figures seems wanting, however. While one might argue that Muhammad, for example, created a story of a vision of an angel and his subsequent revelations from God in order to unite the disparate Arab tribes and forge the new political and military power he did indeed create, others among those who made the claim of a mystical experience seem to have had no such ulterior motive. In Aquinas’s case, the mystical vision he claimed to have experienced led him to abandon his writing, the very act through which he gained fame and honor. Pascal kept his mystical experience a secret throughout his life and never attempted to gain wealth, prestige, or any other goods from it.
There is, in addition, the problem of the widespread nature of these claims. These claims have occurred, as has been shown, in a wide variety of locations and are spread out through the whole of recorded history and beyond. In addition, as has been shown through the use of William James’s four criteria of authentic mystical experience, the reported mystical experiences bear a great deal of similarity to each other, an especially surprising fact given the wide divergence in cultural context and idiom between the various claimants to these experiences. For the position that each of these claims are intentional fabrications to be a claim that accurately accounts for all cases, it must be maintained that multiple individuals independently invented nearly identical fabrications. If this were the truth, it would be more miraculous than if the mystical experiences themselves are true!
A second possible explanation for the occurrence of mystical experiences is that the experiences have their source not in contact with a divine and transcendent being but rather as the product of physical processes. It may be that these experiences were hallucinations of one sort or another. One proposed physical explanation that has maintain its popularity since it was first posited is the idea that these mystical experiences may be the product of epileptic seizures. The response of the early 20th century occultist Aleister Crowley to just this assertion regarding claims of mystical experience seems as appropriate today as when he wrote it over a hundred years ago, however: “Even if epilepsy were the cause of these great movements which have caused civilization after civilization to arise from barbarism, it would merely form an argument for cultivating epilepsy.”
Mystical experiences have been the defining moments in the lives of those who have had them. Aquinas stopped writing; Pascal began writing; Paul became the leading advocate for the religion he would eventually die for. Mystical experiences have been the defining and originative moment in nearly all of the world’s great civilizations. The culture of East Asia is in large part the product of the Buddha’s experience under the bodhi tree. Western Civilization is the product of the conglomeration of the movements that resulted from the experiences of Abraham and Moses, the prompting of Socrates’s daemon, and the visions of James, John, Peter, and Paul. Islamic civilization traces its origins to Muhammad’s vision of Gabriel in a cave in Arabia. That the great bulk of mankind lives within a civilization that is the product of a mystical experience and that the greatest achievements of mankind have been the products of these civilizations seems a fine case for cultivating epilepsy or whatever other mental illness is responsible for these visions in the first place, if indeed they are the product of mental illness. Indeed, it seems rather to be the case that the common state of rational thought and ordinary brain functioning is the worse of the two possibilities and is itself the illness if hallucinatory man creates civilizations while rational man merely lives within them and enjoys the benefits of the insanity of the former.
There is a third explanation, however, and this is the most plausible of the three, when the implications of the former two proposed explanations are taken into account. The third possible explanation for mystical experience is that these experiences are, in all truth, authentic experiences of a divine and transcendent order or being. The implications of such an explanation of mystical experience are, no doubt, quite extensive. If mystical experiences are authentic, God does exist and religion, at least one of them, is correct.