Friday, May 09, 2014

Barbara Ehrenreich - A Rationalist’s Mystical Moment (Living with a Wild God)


I just ordered a copy of Barbara Ehrenreich's newest book, Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything. Her last book (as far as I know) was Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America (2009), a very fascinating and insightful book:
In this utterly original debunking, Barbara Ehrenreich confronts the false promises of positive thinking and shows its reach into every corner of American life, from Evangelical megachurches to the medical establishment, and, worst of all, to the business community, where the refusal to consider negative outcomes--like mortgage defaults--contributed directly to the current economic disaster. With the myth-busting powers for which she is acclaimed, Ehrenreich exposes the downside of positive thinking: personal self-blame and national denial. This is Ehrenreich at her provocative best--poking holes in conventional wisdom and faux science and ending with a call for existential clarity and courage.
I have no doubt her new book will be equally as fascinating and astute in its observations.

There have already been a ton of reviews, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Slate, Seattle Times, The Independent, The New Republic (an interview, included below), NPR (another, much longer interview - best choice), Harper's (still another interview), and many, many more.

This quote is taken from the review in the LA Times:
"How," she asks, "do we reconcile the mystical experience with daily life? Let us be open to the anomalous experience. If you see something that looks like the Other, do not fall on your knees. Find out what it is and report back."
Thank Darwin for an open-minded atheist.

The following is a brief excerpt from her new book.

A Rationalist’s Mystical Moment

APRIL 5, 2014 | New York Times

Credit Kris Mukai

MY atheism is hard-core, rooted in family tradition rather than adolescent rebellion. According to family legend, one of my 19th-century ancestors, a dirt-poor Irish-American woman in Montana, expressed her disgust with the church by vehemently refusing last rites when she lay dying in childbirth. From then on, we were atheists and rationalists, a stance I perpetuated by opting, initially, for a career in science.

How else to understand the world except as the interaction of tiny bits of matter and mathematically predictable forces? There were no gods or spirits, just our own minds pressing up against the unknown.

But something happened when I was 17 that shook my safely rationalist worldview and left me with a lifelong puzzle. Years later, I learned that this sort of event is usually called a mystical experience, and I can see in retrospect that the circumstances had been propitious: Thanks to a severely underfunded and poorly planned skiing trip, I was sleep-deprived and probably hypoglycemic that morning in 1959 when I stepped out alone, walked into the streets of Lone Pine, Calif., and saw the world — the mountains, the sky, the low scattered buildings — suddenly flame into life.

There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with “the All,” as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, too vast and violent to hold on to, too heartbreakingly beautiful to let go of. It seemed to me that whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze. I felt ecstatic and somehow completed, but also shattered.

Of course I said nothing about this to anyone. Since I recognized no deities, and even the notion of an “altered state of consciousness” was unavailable at the time, I was left with only one explanation: I had had a mental breakdown, ultimately explainable as a matter of chemical imbalances, overloaded circuits or identifiable psychological forces. There had been some sort of brief equipment failure, that was all, and I determined to pull myself together and put it behind me, going on to finish my formal education as a cellular immunologist and become a responsible, productive citizen.

It took an inexcusably long time for me to figure out that what had happened to me was part of a widespread category of human experience. Some surveys find that nearly half of Americans report having had a mystical experience. Historically, the range of people reporting such experiences is wide — including saints, shamans and Old Testament prophets as well as acknowledged nonbelievers like Virginia Woolf and the contemporary atheist writer Sam Harris. It is of course impossible to ascertain how much these experiences have in common. We may be comparing apples and asteroids.

On the religious end of the spectrum, people have tended to describe their experiences as encounters with familiar deities or spirits, while nonbelievers — like some quoted by William James — are likely to speak of a more generic “living Presence.” Others write of something more akin to my own experience, which was wordless and profoundly unsettling. When the early 20th-century Protestant theologian Rudolf Otto surveyed the works of (mostly Christian) mystics for clues as to the nature of the “Other” they had encountered, he concluded that it was “beyond all question something quite other than the ‘good.’ ” It was more like a “consuming fire,” he wrote, and “must be gravely disturbing to those persons who will recognize nothing in the divine nature but goodness, gentleness, love and a sort of confidential intimacy.”

Of course all such experiences can be seen as symptoms of one sort or another, and that is the way psychiatry has traditionally disposed of the mystically adept: The shaman was simply the local schizophrenic, Saint Teresa of Avila a clear hysteric. The Delphic oracles may have been inhaling intoxicants; all of the great Christian mystics showed clear signs of temporal lobe epilepsy. A recent paper from Harvard Medical School proposes that the revelations experienced by Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Paul can all be attributed to “primary or mood-disorder-associated psychotic disorders.” I suspect we would have more reports of uncanny experiences from ordinary, rational people if it were not for the fear of being judged insane or at least unstable.

An alternative to the insanity explanation would be that such experiences do represent some sort of encounter. It was my scientific training, oddly enough, that eventually nudged me to consider this possibility. Sometime in middle age, when I had become a writer and amateur historian, I decided that the insanity explanation may have been a cop-out, that I could have seen something that morning in Lone Pine.

If mystical experiences represent some sort of an encounter, as they have commonly been described, is it possible to find out what they are encounters with? Science could continue to dismiss mystical experiences as mental phenomena, internal to ourselves, but the merest chance that they may represent some sort of contact or encounter justifies investigation. We need more data and more subjective accounts. But we also need a neuroscience bold enough to go beyond the observation that we are “wired” for transcendent experience; the real challenge is to figure out what happens when those wires connect. Is science ready to take on the search for the source of our most uncanny experiences?

Fortunately, science itself has been changing. It was simply overwhelmed by the empirical evidence, starting with quantum mechanics and the realization that even the most austere vacuum is a happening place, bursting with possibility and giving birth to bits of something, even if they’re only fleeting particles of matter and antimatter. Without invoking anything supernatural, we may be ready to acknowledge that we are not, after all, alone in the universe. There is no evidence for a God or gods, least of all caring ones, but our mystical experiences give us tantalizing glimpses of other forms of consciousness, which may be beings of some kind, ordinarily invisible to us and our instruments. Or it could be that the universe is itself pulsing with a kind of life, and capable of bursting into something that looks to us momentarily like the flame.

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of Living With a Wild God and Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on April 6, 2014, on page SR8 of the New York edition with the headline: A Rationalist’s Mystical Moment. Order Reprints|Today's Paper|Subscribe
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Here is the interview she did with The New Republic - the interview is most interesting as an example of how NOT to interview a smart person.

Barbara Ehrenreich: I'm an Atheist, But Don't Rule Out "Mystical Experiences" A Q&A with the author of "Living With a Wild God"

APRIL 20, 2014
Barbara Ehrenreich, the best-selling author of Nickel and Dimed: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, is generally known for reportage on subjects such as the minimum wage and the rights of workers. But this month she has released a new book that is less a change of pace than a step in an entirely different direction.

Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliver’s Search for the Truth About Everything is Ehrenreich’s personal story of mystical experiences that she says first occurred when she was a girl. It is also a critique of science for failing to adequately investigate experiences like her own. The book has aroused controversy and discussion, in part because it comes from such an unexpected source.

Ehrenreich and I recently spoke on the phone about her problems with monotheism, why she can’t read Christopher Hitchens, and why she still insists on calling herself an atheist.

Isaac Chotiner: What are you arguing in this book?

Barbara Ehrenreich: This book is not an argument. It is a report.

IC: Tell us what you are reporting then.

BE: I think of it as a metaphysical thriller. The story starts when I am a child, around 12, and I start asking the questions, What is this all about? Why are we here? What is going on? My parents were atheists, strong atheists. I never got the answer “God.”

IC: Some things happen in the book that cause you to ask the questions differently.

BE: Right. When I was 13, I had some particular mental adventures. Perceptual adventures. I began to see things rather differently. It seemed like a layer peeled off the world, layers that contained all the meanings and words and significance. Everything we apply to the world. I didn’t find it frightening. It was fascinating.

Then when I was 17, I had an experience that I later learned could be called a “mystical experience.” It was almost violent. No faces, voices, nothing like that. It is like the world burst and flamed into life all around me. That is not a great image, but it is as good as I will ever do.

IC: At that age, what was your explanation?

BE: I had a sense that I had answered those questions from earlier. What is the world about? But there were no words for it. I knew it was an encounter with something, some being or beings. But I also knew or suspected that the rational or scientific explanation would be mental breakdown. And I decided to go with breakdown. And then I thought I got better. It was only in middle age I began to say, “No, that was a kind of encounter.”

IC: What caused the change?

BE: I became a student of the history of religion. I am fascinated by how religions often center on mystical experience, and in the Old Testament tradition you find flames, the burning bush. I was beginning to find that other people had experienced such things. And furthermore I became convinced that historically our kind of monotheism is a kind of aberration. Multiple dieities, animal deities, but not good and benevolent deities. We now have a strange and limited vision.

IC: Saying these experiences are real—that there are other spirits or consciousnesses out there—is very different from saying that maybe our brains just make us think that they are real?

BE: What do you mean? Our brains visually perceive the world if we are not blind. The world is real.

IC: So there is no difference between perceiving a spirit and perceiving a chair? I am confused.

BE: It takes work to even perceive the world that you and I share. Protons travel to my eyes but the brain has to do a lot of work to say, “desk, chair, table.”

IC: Yes but we both agree the desk I am leaning on exists. That it is real. It may take a lot to perceive but it is there.
BE: We are impelled to see the world as dead, without conscious agency. We are reductionists. We see the chair and know we can sit in it or lift it. But there are some things we experience that maybe do call for a different sort of explanation. And as a rational person with a scientific background I am putting that forward. And being called insane.

IC: I am not calling you insane. I still don’t know whether you think they are real or whether they are products of our brain. Those seem like hugely different claims and ideas and even subjects.

BE: As I say in the last paragraph of my book, it is all in my head. And yes, of course, it is.

IC: But it is not all in your head if there are other conscious beings floating about.
BE: Well, that’s what I would like to know. Here is one example. In the 19th century, most physicians would have said that contagious diseases were caused by mist in the air. If you had said, no, there are living things, you would have sounded insane because those things were invisible. There is a lesson in that. There may be invisible things that are still there.

IC: Well, there is no end to the number of things that might be there.
BE: That’s right.

IC: When you say “wired,” do you mean designed, like with intelligent design, or just some evolutionary reason?

BE: I wouldn’t even speculate. I have no theory of why natural selection would favor these sorts of experiences.

If there is something I am arguing, it is a critique of science. Science has consistently denied the existence of consciousness other than human. Only in the last 20 years do we have acknowledgement of animal feeling or culture or experience.

IC: No one considered the existence of animal feeling before 20 years ago?1
BE: Absolutely no! We know in our ordinary lives that our pets are conscious beings with feelings. But the doctrine was still Cartesian. These are little mechanisms or things. We are alone. That has been central to science, the denial of agency except in the case of humans and some hypothetical diety.

IC: Are you critiquing science or just saying science needs to get better? We know all this stuff because of science.
BE: I remain a scientific rationalist. I want science to look at these odder phenomena, and not rule out the possibility of mystical experiences with another kind of mind.

IC: Are scientists ruling it out, or saying these are not evidence for it?

BE: We need databases. William James kept one. But it is unexamined, the data that might be there. People are so afraid to talk about it. My book has gotten readers, and I have gotten friends to tell me that similar things happened but they were scared to talk about it. This is going to sound totally crazy to you but this is a public health issue! When people have a shattering type of experience and never say anything about it, it is time to investigate.

IC: The last five or ten years have seen the rise of what’s called the ‘New Atheism.’ How do you think about this, and about the use of the word atheism?

BE: I am an atheist. As for the ‘New Atheists,’ I am not that interested because I was raised on this. I couldn’t, delightful as he is, read Hitchens’s book. He sounded too much like my dad. I have heard it all. That is a tiny American working class tradition. Skepticism, free thought, atheism.

IC: It’s interesting that you call yourself an atheist rather than an agnostic.

BE: I am insistent on atheist. If we are talking about a monotheistic, benevolent God, I know there is no such thing.

IC: How do you know that there is no benevolent God when you think there might be spirits talking to me?

BE: It depends on what I have experienced. I have many areas of experience which show there is no giant benevolent force.

IC: But some people claim to experience a monotheistic God.

BE: That is not my experience.

IC: But we don’t make these grand judgments based on our own experience. [Pause] Do we?

BE: Yeah.

IC: We do?

BE: To an extent. Where is the evidence for a benevolent God?

IC: I agree with you. But there isn’t evidence for spiritual figures in the room either.

BE: Well, we need to find out.

This interview has been edited and condensed.
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