Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things

By Ann Taves | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3 Explanation ATTRIBUTING CAUSALITY

Although the debate over religious experience was framed in terms of experience and representation, the underlying issue that made the debate so contentious had to do with causal explanations. If language, tradition, and culture constitute experience, then experiences could be explained in socio-cultural terms; if some of the more unusual experiences are crossculturally stable, then more unusual psychological processes and brain states presumably play a causal role as well. Scholars in the humanities generally valued linguistic and cultural explanations because they emphasized cultural differences that psychological and neurological explanations tended to obscure. In arguing for the cross­cultural stability of certain types of experiences that they construed as mystical, the neoperennialists bucked the dominant trend in the humanities. They did so, not because they were eager to embrace the naturalism or, as they would say, the “materialistic reductionism” of the sciences, but because they were sympathetic to the idea that consciousness itself might be separable from matter and able to exist independently. In this view, consciousness itself is potentially very special, perhaps so special that it exists as an absolute apart from the body, mediated by—rather than a product of— brain processes, and highly amenable to mystical or spiritual ascriptions (Kelly and Kelly 2007; Forman 2008).

Amidst these competing and conflicting perspectives, what does it mean to explain experience? Robert Forman (2008) reported on a conference held in Freiburg, Germany, in July 2008 on the topic of “Neuroscience, Consciousness, and Spirituality” that can help us to distinguish between two possible answers. The participants, who were mostly scientists, gathered to ask if “a modern day neuroscientific, functionalist or emergentist model of consciousness [can] accommodate spiritual experiences?” What, they asked, would a model of consciousness have to look like to be “both true to our modern scientific knowledge and phenomena reported by spiritual traditions?” There are two ways to approach these questions, depending on what it means for a model of consciousness to accommodate spiritual experiences and to be true to both scientific knowledge and phenomena reported by spiritual traditions. Given the conference participants' interest in questions such as whether consciousness can verifiably exist out-

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