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Teresa operating in a sixteenth century context was forced to seriously consider a naturalistic rival explanation of her experience. Contemporary materialists would likely explain St. Teresa's experience, as well as those of most other mystics, in the following terms: Such an explanatory strategy, though widely endorsed and apparently plausible, proves to be surprising complicated to articulate and defend.

Secular naturalists emphasize certain features of St. Teresa's central nervous system. This will not, however, provide a completely satisfactory rival. They can then argue that a neurophysiological account of St. Teresa's experience is not a rival explanation, but a complementary one, articulated at a different explanatory level.

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After all, a neurophysiological account of my visual experience of my word-processor does not automatically count as a rival; it in no way suggests that this visual experience is an hallucination or a dream. Sophisticated versions of substance dualism are perfectly compatible with our most up to date neuroscience. The neurophysiological explanation does not really address the question of the etiology of mystical experiences. Teresa's central nervous system in an experience-of-Christ mode at that particular moment? Secular naturalists seek an internal causal account in terms of brain chemistry, or patterns of neural firings.

Mystical Experiences | The Australian Institute of Parapsychological Research

It is not clear that empirical research will settle this matter, though continued breakthroughs will inevitably strengthen the secular naturalist's position as we learn more about the underlying physiology of consciousness in general. One looks in vain to contemporary cognitive science for detailed neurophysiological accounts of mysticism. This is hardly surprising. We are just at the beginning of the cognitive revolution. There are still huge empirical and methodological debates about consciousness and sensory experience in general.

Such an admission may strike some readers as hand waving and a desperate attempt to avoid explanatory responsibility.

It is not offered in that spirit. When knowledge of the mechanism of consciousness was in its true infancy, it was much easier for secular naturalists to propose physiological accounts.


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  • Basic aims and methods;
  • Exploring Spirituality and Culture in Adult and Higher Education;

Recall the following from Huxley that is not altogether out of date: But adrenochrome probably occurs spontaneously in the human body. In other words, each of us may be capable of manufacturing a chemical, minute doses of which are known to cause profound changes in consciousness Huxley , I am not in any way suggesting that such a view would find supporters in contemporary neuroscience, but I take it to be obvious how this kind of account could be fleshed out to provide a satisfactory, and genuinely rival, explanation of St.

Presumably more up to date naturalistic accounts would stress neural networks, or perhaps the relationship between consciousness and memory Dennett , and Churchland In fact, we typically treat them as foundational, in need of no further justification. If beliefs formed by sense-experience can be properly basic, then beliefs formed by this faculty cannot, in any principled way, be denied that same status. His developed theory of warrant implies that, if the beliefs are true, then they are warranted.

One cannot attack claims of religious experience without first addressing the question as to whether the religious claims are true.


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  7. He admits that, since there are people in other religious traditions who have based beliefs about religious matters on similar purported manifestations, they may be able to make the same argument about their own religious experiences. Alston develops a general theory of doxastic practices constellations of belief-forming mechanisms, together with characteristic background assumptions and sets of defeaters , gives an account of what it is to rationally engage in such a practice, and then argues that at least the practice of forming beliefs on the basis of Christian religious experiences fulfills those requirements.

    If we think of the broad doxastic practices we currently employ, we see that some of them can be justified by the use of other practices. The practice of science, for example, reduces mostly to the practices of sense-perception, deductive reasoning, and inductive reasoning memory and testimony also make contributions, of course. The justificatory status the practice gives to its product beliefs derives from those more basic practices. Most, however, cannot be so reduced.

    Mystical Experiences

    How are they justified, then? It seems that they cannot be justified non-circularly, that is, without the use of premises derived from the practices themselves. He then argues that the Christian practice of belief-formation on the basis of religious experience does have those features. Like Plantinga, he admits that such an argument might be equally available to other religious practices; it all depends on whether the practice in question generates massive and unavoidable contradictions, on central matters, either internally, or with other equally well-established practices.

    But they are not simple arguments from analogy; not just any similarities will do to make the positive argument, and not just any dissimilarities will do to defeat the argument. The similarities or dissimilarities need to be epistemologically relevant.

    Steps to Mystical Experience: The Inner, Universal Experience of God

    It is not enough, for example, to show that religious experiences do not typically allow for independent public verification, unless one wants to give up on other perfectly respectable practices, like rational intuition, that also lack that feature. The two most important defeaters on the table for claims of the epistemic authority of religious experience are the fact of religious diversity, and the availability of naturalistic explanations for religious experiences.

    Religious diversity is a prima facie defeater for the veridicality of religious experiences in the same way that wildly conflicting eyewitness reports undermine each other. If the reports are at all similar, then it may be reasonable to conclude that there is some truth to the testimony, at least in broad outline. A version of this objection is the argument from divine hiddenness cf. But if two eyewitness reports disagree on the most basic facts about what happened, then it seems that neither gives you good grounds for any beliefs about what happened.

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    It certainly seems that the contents of religious-experience reports are radically different from one another. Some subjects of religious experiences report experience of nothingness as the ultimate reality, some a vast impersonal consciousness in which we all participate, some an infinitely perfect, personal creator. The first is difficult to manage, in the face of the manifest differences across religions. Nevertheless, John Hick develops a view of that kind, making use of a Kantian two-worlds epistemology.

    The idea is that the object of these experiences, in itself, is one and the same reality, but it is experienced phenomenally by different people differently. Thus, is possible to see how one and the same object can be experienced in ways that are completely incompatible with one another.

    This approach is only as plausible as the Kantian framework itself is. Jerome Gellman proposes a similar idea, without the Kantian baggage.

    Spiritual Stages of Christian Mysticism, Union with God, Enlightenment

    Solutions like these leave the problem untouched: If the different practices produce experiences the contents of which are inconsistent with one another, one of the practices must be unreliable. Alston and Plantinga develop the second kind of answer. As a result, even if people in other traditions can make the same argument, it is still reasonable to say that some are right and the others are wrong.

    The things that justify my beliefs still justify them, even if you have comparable resources justifying a contrary view. Naturalistic explanations for religious experiences are thought to undermine their epistemic value because, if the naturalistic explanation is sufficient to explain the experience, we have no grounds for positing anything beyond that naturalistic cause. Freud claims that religious experiences can be adequately explained by psychological mechanisms having their root in early childhood experience and psychodynamic tensions.

    Marx similarly attributes religious belief in general to materialistic economic forces. Both claim that, since the hidden psychological or economic explanations are sufficient to explain the origins of religious belief, there is no need to suppose, in addition, that the beliefs are true.

    More recently, neurological explanations of religious experience have been put forward as reasons to deny the veridicality of the experiences. Events in the brain that occur during meditative states and other religious experiences are very similar to events that happen during certain kinds of seizures, or with certain kinds of mental disorders, and can also be induced with drugs.

    Therefore, it is argued, there is nothing more to religious experiences than what happens in seizures, mental disorders, or drug experiences. Some who are studying the neurological basis of religious experience do not infer that they are not veridical see, e. Guthrie , for example, argues that religion has its origin in our tendency to anthropomorphize phenomena in our vicinity, seeing agency where there is none. There are general problems with all kinds of naturalistic explanations as defeaters.

    First of all, as Gellman points out, most such explanations like the psychoanalytic and socio-political ones are put forward as hypotheses, not as established facts. The proponent assumes that the experiences are not veridical, then casts around for an explanation. This is not true of the neurological explanations, but they face another kind of weakness noted by Ellwood To argue that the experience is illusory because there is a corresponding brain state is fallacious. The same reasoning would lead us to conclude that sensory experiences are illusory, since in each sensory experience, there is some corresponding neurological state that is just like the state that occurs in the corresponding hallucination.

    The proponent of the naturalistic explanation as a defeater owes us some reason to believe that his or her argument is not just another skeptical argument from the veil of perception. One further epistemological worry accompanies religious experience. James claimed that, while mystical experiences proved authoritative grounds for belief in the person experiencing them, they cannot give grounds for a person to whom the experience is reported.