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The Universality of Mystical Experiences

In 1956, a group of ten researchers gathered at Dartmouth College for a six-week summer program in which they would, for once and for all, solve the matter of artificial intelligence (AI). Gathering funding for their project, they submitted this excerpt as part of their proposal:

We propose that a 2 month, 10 man study of artificial intelligence be carried out….The study is to proceed on the basis of the conjecture that every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it.¹

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you this clearly didn’t pan out the way they had hoped. If it had, then maybe Siri would correctly understand every time my baby girls want “Baby Shark” streamed on our HomePod.

Now, I’m not trying disparage these researchers by any means. I’m sure these people were very smart and probably did contribute a lot to our current understanding of AI today. They were simply naive in the understanding of the topic. And truthfully, I think AI researchers today are also very naive if they think we’re going to get to an artificial general intelligence (AGI) in the next hundred years!

But enough about AI. I have other posts on that if you want to learn more. My point here is that even the smartest, most well-intentioned people make naive proclamations based on a very narrow experience or knowledge on ANY given topic. These Dartmouth researchers thought they had all the tools and methodologies they’d need to create something like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey and were quickly humbled when their work did not yield that fruit at the end of that summer.

If you need a good example of this in action today, go and fire up your Twitter app. Everybody seems to have an opinion on everything, and I highly doubt most people truly know what they’re talking about. Take President Trump, for example. Everybody loves to hate on him, but then when you read the stuff about persuasion psychology that Scott Adams puts out, Trump doesn’t seem so crazy after all. (That’s not my endorsement of him but simply an acknowledgment that it’s possible that the public at large may be wrong about what they believe to be true.)

Speaking of Scott Adams, his book Win Bigly opened my mind to the idea that maybe I’ve been wrong about things my entire life. Or, at least, maybe I’ve had too narrow a view on them.

Of course, I’m speaking about spirituality.

Coinciding with an existential crises due to my personal struggles in the church, I really sought to explore my faith to see what was true and what was not. I’ve never been interested in discarding faith entirely, however, because a handful of mystical experiences keep drawing me back to “something”, just not sure what that “something” is. When I mean mystical experiences, I mean intuitive, gut-level, non-empirically verifiable sensations that one cannot explain through rational methods. I know I’m not alone in having these mystical experiences, and I’d bet that whether you like to admit it or not, we’ve all had some sort of mystical experience at some point in our lives.

The most interesting one for me was one experienced by my family. At the time of her death, my sister — who lived her whole life with cerebral palsy and couldn’t control her limbs very well — outstretched her withered hands and raised her arms simultaneously three times before dying. I was at college when this happened which is why I wasn’t present, but I have no reason to doubt that my five adult family members told me the truth.

For years, I interpreted that experience as a physical expression of giving up her spirit to go with God, but I took an extremely narrow Christian view on it. I thought, “This is God telling us that he’s real and a witness to why all the other religions of the world are wrong.” You gotta remember, my sister died my freshman year of undergrad at which point I still had every intention of becoming a Christian church pastor. That experience became my tangible witness of an experience that, yes, miracles do happen and, yes, Jesus wants you to accept Him into your heart. (Or enjoy burning in Hell forever, sinners!)

But the truth of the matter is that mystical experiences happen to everybody, regardless of religion or worldview. To label my experience as a purely Christian experience is very naive of me. If that Christian view is correct, then how am I to interpret the experiences of others? Are they lying? Misguided? “Demonic”? For me to dismiss their experiences as lies or half-truths, then I should also treat my own experience the same.

Clearly, I’m not willing to do that.

Scientifically speaking, we have to open ourselves to the possibility that just like we all experience the same deliciousness of pizza, we can’t rule out that we all have equal employ of miraculous, mystical experiences regardless of religion / worldview. I know, that’s a bit paradoxical because by definition, a mystical experience is one that we cannot empirically explain. But — as naive as this may sound — I believe that we cannot today explain these experiences simply because we don’t have the means to scientifically unpack them. After all, there are WiFi, radio, and television signals floating all around you right now. You don’t doubt that though your body has no means of directly experiencing them, do you?

How do we know that these mystical experiences aren’t real and that we just don’t have the means of verifying that?

For me now, I think about my sister’s death and still see that experience as giving herself up to God. But when I mean God, I mean God as Joseph Campbell says it:

God is a metaphor for a mystery that absolutely transcends all categories of human thought, including being and nonbeing.²

This understanding is much more inclusive than a narrow naive lens, even if it isn’t a necessarily satisfying answer. “Mystery” is a very good word here because, well, this whole business is a mystery! But having spent the last few months learning what Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity (yes, Christianity) espouses, then my family’s experience of my sister’s passing still holds water. I’ve found the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita as interpreted through Ram Dass to be as equally enriching as my initial Christian interpretation of the event.

(And in case you’re wondering why I choose to use the word “God” still…it’s just a lot easier to do so. *wink*)

Of course, it would be naive of me to say that there truly is nothing more than what we can empirically verify today, but my personal experiences coupled with emerging studies on psychedelics incline me otherwise. I’ve found this path to be enlightening, inclusive, and beautiful throughout. Some may say I am no longer Christian, but I do not believe that at all. Like Father Richard Rohr states, I believe we’re very much in “baby Christianity” still, and we will continue to see this evolution in spirituality as we move forward in time.

Friends… we’re just on the cusp of it today.

It’s an exciting time to be alive.

[1]: Taken from Nick Bostrom’s book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, and Strategies, page 5

[2]: Taken from Pete Holmes’s book Comedy Sex God, page 183

Written by

Machine learning engineer by day, spiritual explorer by night.

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