2020 update

One of the odder rabbit holes I ever went down:

I was so contrarian as a young man that I spent an entire month reading writers I myself viewed as sloppy and irrational, just because I was (implicitly) told not to pay them any attention by my philosophy teachers. Despite appearances, this came from an excess of scepticism: scepticism about the canon, about methodology, about academia.

(c) Roger Penrose, 1999

Can it be that so many men, of various times and nations, outstanding minds among them, have devoted so much effort, and indeed fervor, to metaphysics, when this consists of nothing more than words strung together without sense?
– Rudolf Carnap

I think now that the right thing to do would be to begin my book with remarks about metaphysics as a kind of magic. But in doing this I must neither speak in defence of magic nor ridicule it. In this context, in fact, excluding magic has the character of magic.
– Ludwig Wittgenstein, PI manuscript

[Mysticism is] a philosophical urge gone wrong. Thousands of lesser philosophers are always with us to prove that it can go more wrong still, by trying to form systems out of no knowledge at all... The occult and mystical are perennial short cuts to a supervening vision... it is quite possible for the subtle visionary and the shouting dunce to inhabit the same skull... the essential truth about people prone to catch-all theories is that they aren’t in search of the truth, they’re in search of themselves.
– Clive James

People don’t read philosophy. What do the pathologically open-minded people of the world read instead?

Bookshops tend to have only one shelf of philosophy, if that - and eight of something they call “Mind, Body and Spirit”: books trafficking in sentimental, pseudo-philosophical, pseudo-psychological superstition-porn. One step removed from Scientology.

Why care?

The most popular philosophers in the world do not receive any professional attention: they’re beneath notice. I call them the philosophical underworld. I refuse to dismiss them all just to fit in. Further: never mind true; these ideas are loved. They are the livelihood of four generations of global subculture. No matter how ill-founded, ill-grounded or even actively destructive, this gives studying them value.


Consider three different things:

  • Naturalism: that there is only Nature; all else (thoughts, sensations, spirit) are mental models of interactions of natural things.
  • Non-naturalism: that there are actually things besides physics
  • Mysticism: that you can directly access non-natural things. That the apriori is all you need, is better than the aposterior.
Ontology vs epistemology. There is a respectable and sober recrudescence of metaphysics
My intention, as a rationalist physicalist, is to see the best arguments for non-naturalism, and to be more careful about labelling non-naturalists mystics. And to see if there are useful ideas in the mystics even.


  1. Technical mystics - Pure mathematicians (Neoneoplatonists), antirealist physicists, parapsychologists, deep ecologists, noeticists
  2. Psychonauts - Drug gurus, Huxleyans, psychogeographers, hippies.
  3. Avant trolls - Mysticism used as postmodern artistic device, blurring the distinction between epistemic and aesthetic. cf. Satirists, Debordistes, Discordians, psychological fictioneers, Visionary Surrealists, guerilla ontologists
  4. Traditionalists - New Agers, occultists, Alternatives, gnostics & Theosophists, anchorites, cultists, astrologists, hand-wavers. All pseudoscientists go in here too.

Problems with my project

One of the downsides of working in philosophy is that it attracts a lot of people with mental-health problems.
– Joseph Heath

Oh, you've got the face on! The floaty face of the wise bird hovering on a million different quotes, about to do a massive wisdom shit on my head!
– Four Lions

  1. Am I wrong? Is to be a "mystic" just to be unclear, hyperbolic and without justification? At very least, shouldn't it require the mystical experience, the sudden disreputable transcendence that the religious and the extremely ill encounter? Well. I'm keeping the word "mystic", with all its recent pejoration, because I'm leaving it open for you to critically dismiss. Even Sam Harris did so.

  2. The best maxim in informal logic is _nil ad hominem_ - that we address what is said, not who says it. Even if he is called Ram Dass.

  3. . It is very easy to slip into piousness when dealing with topics like these. Those writers who put on a rhetorical style to the detriment of their argument are not disqualified, but they do make themselves dubious. This can be best seen in the soft-mystic obsession for buzzwords and other Gladwellisms.

  4. "Sir, there is a distinct difference between having an open mind and having a hole in your head from which your brain leaks out." - James Randi.

    4b. "Any sufficiently rigorously defined magic is indistinguishable from technology." - Niven's Law.

    Could be. Particularly, though, if we accept Heidegger's definition of technology.

  5. If my category hard mysticism is really just for "unorthodox inquiry with focus on the significance of the subjective", how do I draw the line between Continental philosophers and rational mystics?

  6. (And in what way is blabbering on about consciousness "socially unorthodox"? Everyone's at it!)

  7. How is a transhumanist - a person certain to be a hyper-materialist and eliminative functionalist - supposed to be "mystical"? (Well, if we can make a mystic out of Turing...)

  8. How soft can a 'critical' mystic get before they become a New Age quack?

  9. Dude, we don't disdain the occult for _aesthetic_ or prejudicial reasons; it's because it's intellectually corrosive, isn't it? What grounds the claims made by these folk? One of Nietzsche's criticisms of Spinoza is a sort of Freudian nudge - "what kind of person needs such a big ontology, eh? Eh?" Related empirical suggestions are being made these days about the neurological underpinnings of sprituality. It's painted as a pathetic psychological trick. But people aren't ever going to stop doing metaphysics, not while they remain what I understand by "people". We might as well distinguish between doing it well and in a loose, deluded way.


  • Metaphysical cosmology. (Thinking about everything at once. Just speculative systematization, not necessarily any worlds-upon-the-world. Usually implies a philosophy of life, too.)
  • Epistemically modest. (this is the one that disqualifies almost all New Age writers)
  • Taking consciousness seriously (not "taking it as given", nor as "the eternal soul!"; but as a potential ontological essence. They will have a metaphysics that subsumes what gets called spirituality rather than explaining it away.)
  • Taking values as seriously as facts
  • Non-reductionism with respect to complex phenomena.
  • Denial of the "conflict thesis". (that religion and science are irreconcilable.)
  • Small-r-romanticism: Passionate response to the world, and emphasising the philosophical significance of these feelings.
  • Capital-r-Romanticism: the World Unified. (holism, pantheism, panpsychism, the "anima mundi". Openness to idealism almost required.)
  • Supposedly polymathic (their wikipedia entries tend to list a half-dozen job titles.)
  • Uncommon sense.
  • Weird epistemology (some form of non-logical inference is involved - intuitionism, "tacit" and "implicit" knowledge, Heideggerian work, embodied philosophy of mind, noesis...)
  • Opposition to methodological individualism (the social version of nominalism.)
  • Celebrities, in their day (Depending on your politics, this will seem to you either proof of the wishful, indulgent nature of their thought, or just that they communicated something people find important.)
  • Attitude to free will varies extremely, from being the main motivator for their ontology, to utter Spinozist rejection.

We say there’s “hard” subjects and “soft” subjects, with ductility proportional to mathematical rigour. Is there such a thing as “hard” mysticism?

Famously, mysticism came back in the 60s. It recurred for a number of reasons - a plausible sketch being that postwar disillusionment with the Western script of disenchanting materialism, led to consequent bad readings of Buddhism and Hinduism, the challenge of authority in art, romance, and war, fear of Cold War realities, sex freedom. But a minor reason is because the emergent Analytic philosophy, through its boring technical topics and formalism, withdrew from the public sphere. Rightly or wrongly, philosophy is considered the source of existential insights, and when it fails to supply it, less rational forces will supply.

There does not have to be intellectual dishonesty in holding that there is more to this than this. We’ve gotten used to branding this kind of thing ‘mysticism’. So be it; but cut away the liars, Messiahs, irrationals and fanatics, leave in some of the schizophrenics, and you are left with the philosophical mystics.

Spinoza is the paradigm hard mystic. (This adds to the exemplar function he already serves for the groups “mechanical philosophers”, “early liberals”, “deductive rationalists” and “inspiring heretics”.)

Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911)

All science is experiential; but all experience must be related back to and derives its its validity from the conditions and context of consciousness in which it arises, i.e., the totality of our nature. We designate as "epistemological" this standpoint which consistently recognises the impossibility of going behind these conditions. To attempt this would be like seeing without eyes or directing the gaze of knowledge behind one's own eye. Modern science can acknowledge no other than this epistemological stand-point.

No real blood flows in the veins of the knowing subject constructed by Locke, Hume, and Kant, but rather the diluted extract of reason as a mere activity of thought.

Early philosopher of social science. His idea of "erlebnis" - that knowledge is lived as well as thought - prefigured the nascent "embodied mind" trend by about a hundred years, and his encompassing philosophy of life is a good, rigorous non-naturalist start.

William James (1842-1910)

To use the organic causation of a religious state of mind in refutation of its claim to possess superior spiritual value, is quite illogical and arbitrary, unless one have already worked out in advance some psycho-physical theory connecting spiritual values in general with determinate sorts of physiological change. Otherwise none of our thoughts and feelings, not even our scientific doctrines, not even our dis-beliefs, could retain any value as revelations of the truth, for every one of them without exception flows from the state of their possessor's body at the time.
American pragmatist, Christian, spirtualist, and one of the first modern psychologists. The New Thoughtists claim his "Religion of Healthy-Mindedness" as an inspiration.

Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925)

...it is no longer possible in our time to offer a religion of unsubstantiated miracles; our religion must rather be a proveable science.
Our first soft mystic: pseudoscientist, 'clairvoyant', cultist, and...alternative educator. Intended to found a "spiritual science" following work by Goethe. Founded the "Anthroposophy" movement instead, which enjoys a bizarre, continuing prosperity in sanitized forms, like the "Waldorf" schools. His ideas about the evolution of consciousness are rigid and simplistic, but pioneering. He also prefigures resistance to subject-object metaphysics: positivistic mysticism!?

George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (1866-1949)

Critical faith is freedom. Emotional faith is slavery. Mechanical faith is foolishness.
Be wary of anyone who only speaks in aphorisms. Massively socially-successful Theosophist and...soft mystic. His "Fourth Way".

Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950)

Our actual enemy is not any force exterior to ourselves, but our own crying weaknesses, our cowardice, our selfishness, our hypocrisy, our purblind sentimentalism.
Yogi, politician, narcissist, poet. His dad studied medicine at Aberdeen. Another borderline, this time one revered as a deity - though I'm not sure why. Updated Vedanta Hinduism with some Western frill. Through one idea, the "integral" (spooky spiritual evolution), he's the hidden influence behind a startlingly large New Age movement: "Integral Theory" (a blend of psychology, metaphysics and rank motivational speaking). Indian universities give out PhDs by the bucket on him, but you'd be lucky elsewhere.

Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961)

No one can flatter himself that he is immune to the spirit of his own epoch, or even that he possesses a full understanding of it.
Psychologist and repugnant little man, but important and indubitably mystical. Dreams... I'd like to include Lacan, too, but he wasn't especially cosmic, just awkward.

James Jeans (1877-1946)

...to many it is not knowledge but the quest for knowledge that gives interest to thought — to travel hopefully is greater than to arrive.
Physicist and popularizer. First guy to propose that matter is continuously created throughout the universe. Held that the universe is pure thought; the world is a mathematician.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955)

To write the true natural history of the world, we should need to be able to follow it from within. It would thus appear no longer as an interlocking succession of structural types replacing one another, but as an ascension of inner sap spreading out in a forest of consolidated instincts. Right at its base, the living world is constituted by conscious clothes in flesh and bone.
Catholic eco-pantheist.

Arthur Eddington (1882-1944)

We used to think that if we knew one, we knew two, because one and one are two. We are finding that we must learn a great deal more about 'and'.
Physicist and cyclist. The first patron and popularizer of Einstein's theories. His grand Platonist "fundamental theory" ended up spiralling off into its own numerological navel (he denied new data which was getting in his way), but not in any notably different way than Dirac's more reputable ideas.

Faqir Chand (1886 – 1981)

Who knows what may happen to me at the time of death? I may enter a state of unconsciousness, enter a state of dreams and see railway trains. How can I make a claim about my attainment of the Ultimate? The truth is that I know nothing...

This is the secret which has been kept so guarded by all the religions and even by the gurus of [my] Radhaswami Faith. They have kept the public in darkness. They have exploited us; they have robbed us; they have cheated us and they have deceived us by saying that they go [transcend]
Self-deconstructing guru; Socrates of the Punjab?

Aldous Huxley (1894-1963)

Now, experience is not a matter of having actually swum the Hellespont, or danced with the dervishes, or slept in a doss-house. It is a matter of sensibility and intuition, of seeing and hearing the significant things, of paying attention at the right moments, of understanding and co-ordinating. Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him.
Bloomsbury hippie. Orientalized Christian. Though he's an icon of Consciousness in general, his actual idea is "the perennial philosophy".

Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986)

Truth is a pathless land. Man cannot come to it through any organization, through any creed, through any dogma, priest or ritual, not through any philosophical knowledge or psychologist's technique. He has to find it through the mirror of relationship, through the understanding of the contents of his own mind...
Guru - social activist and sort-of-Spinozist. His adoptive parents paraded him around as the Messiah; others did so as a Buddha. Somehow he emerged from this experience as a human being. He doesn't avoid the assumption-heavy rhetoric of bad mysticism, but his philosophy is of a inoffensive humanistic kind, rather than esoteric. He's the patron saint of Bohmians, too.

Wolfgang Pauli (1900-1958)

I do not believe in the possible future of mysticism in the old form. However, I do believe that the natural sciences will out of themselves bring forth a counter pole in their adherents, which connects to the old mystic elements.
Of Schopenhauerian physics. Collaborated with Jung, but we'll forgive him that because weird things did keep happening to him.

The problem of wavefunction collapse led to a decent number of hard mystics amongst the great quantum theorists (note that there are now good physicalist Collapse Theories):
  • Bohr's complementarity is an only mildly prickly solution;

  • Schrödinger was open to Vedanta ideas throughout his life ("each individual's consciousness is only a manifestation of a unitary consciousness pervading the universe")

  • Wigner is an out-and-out idealist.

  • Heisenberg thought that pure realism was unscientific;

  • while von Neumann has a huge, terrifying theory of how we produce finity.
Einstein, stop telling God what to do with his dice."
- Bohr

Arthur M Young (1905-1995)

Helicopter engineer and process theorist. Founded an "Institute for the Study of Consciousness", which (unlike every other place with this kind of name) seems sound.

Alan Watts (1915-1973)

The idea of nothing has bugged people for centuries, especially in the Western world. We have a saying in Latin, Ex nihilo nuhil fit, which means "out of nothing comes nothing." It has occurred to me that this is a fallacy of tremendous proportions. It lies at the root of all our common sense, not only in the West, but in many parts of the East as well. It manifests in a kind of terror of nothing, a put-down on nothing, and a put-down on everything associated with nothing, such as sleep, passivity, rest, and even the feminine principles. But to me nothing -- the negative, the empty -- is exceedingly powerful. I would say, on the contrary, you can't have something without nothing... The whole idea of there being only space, and nothing else at all is not only inconceivable but perfectly meaningless, because we always know what we mean by contrast.

The sweetest counterexample to the idea that mystics are necessarily obscurantist, hollow showoffs. His work in reconciling Eastern philosophy with modern-Western beats Pirsig, Capra et al to the inevitably popular "atheist spirituality" idea.

Ilya Prigogine (1917-2003)

Thoughtful physicists concerned with the workings of thermodynamics realise how disturbing is the question of, as one put it, ‘how a purposeless flow of energy can wash life and consciousness into the world.’ ... The important laws, the creative laws, lie elsewhere ... Irreversibility is the mechanism that brings order out of chaos.
Nobelled statistical mechanic, the "poet of thermodynamics". One of the first to suggest how life doesn't violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics (because our system is an open one, we "export" entropy and create a local "dissipating structure"). Later began to proselytise about how this proved the self-organising nature of the world.
...Nobody outside of physics and chemistry has ever heard of Onsager, even though this is one of at least four fundamental contributions he made to statistical physics ... The reason is, of course, that [unlike Prigogine] Onsager did not claim any profound cultural, metaphysical significance for his work. (It has none.)"
- critic

William A Earle (1919-1988)

"Truth... is related to troth_, which is the same as loyalty or faith... The passion for truth which men of good will manifest is not a matter of ascertaining the exact chemical composition of water or the number of grains of sand on the beach. It always was and remains a passion for recognizing and honoring the divinity in oneself and the other."
Phenomenologist & film theorist. Helped found the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy in America (a bloody thankless task!) Apparently set out to do critical mysticism more or less exactly as I construe it: "strictly philosophical transcendence". There's really very little work on him.

David Bohm (1917-1992)

Open-minded physicist with mixed reviews. Worked on "quantum ontology", apparently in the true senses of each of those words.

Timothy Leary (1920-1996)

"Turn on" meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment. Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers that engage them. Drugs were one way to accomplish this end. "Tune in" meant interact harmoniously with the world around you — externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. Drop out suggested an elective, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments. "Drop Out" meant self-reliance, a discovery of one's singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change. Unhappily my explanations of this sequence of personal development were often misinterpreted to mean "Get stoned and abandon all constructive activity."
The most blatant 'Head on our list. A dismissed Harvard psychology lecturer, allegedly for popularising LSD amongst undergrads. Nixon called him at one point "the most dangerous man in America". But most of his metaphysical work can be directly linked to work by Whitehead and . He also founded two at least mildly credible fields And the philosophy of drugs is a perfectly valid enterprise, even if your interests begin to...conflict.

(See also Robert Anton Wilson (1932-2007), satirist and sceptic, who has a little posthumous nook on the MIT website. Also the best key-to-the-city announcement ever,) Ontology is the study of being; the guerrilla approach is to so mix the elements of each book that the reader must decide on each page 'How much of this is real and how much is a put-on?'"

Robert Pirsig (1928- )

It is an immortal dialogue, strange and puzzling at first, but then hitting you harder and harder, like truth itself. What Phædrus has been talking about as Quality, Socrates appears to have described as the soul, self-moving, the source of all things. There is no contradiction. There never really can be between the core terms of monistic philosophies. The One in India has got to be the same as the One in Greece. If it's not, you've got two. The disagreements among the monists concern the attributes of the One, not the One itself. Since the One is the source of all things and includes all things in it, it cannot be defined in terms of those things, since no matter what thing you use to define it, the thing will always describe something less than the One itself. The One can only be described allegorically, through the use of analogy, of figures of imagination and speech."
Motorcyclist and rhetorician. Affirmative and philosophically serious, but he has only a vibrant fan-club and 20 million sales to console him (rather than academic credibility). In 2005, Liverpool awarded the first PhD with his "Metaphysics of Quality" as a thesis.

Carlos Castaneda (1925-1998)

"One goes to knowledge as one goes to war: wide-awake, with fear, with respect, and with absolute assurance. Going to knowledge or going to war in any other manner is a mistake, and whoever makes it might never live to regret it."
Superstar anthropologist, Shaman and phoney. His scholarly work is great if considered as meta-fiction: philosophical novels pretending to do anthropology... Goes on and on about "The Warrior", a vaguely Nietzschean agent. He went on to found his own martial art, and about a hundred neologisms: ricapituration, indulgence, the Tonal ...

Roger Penrose (1931- )

Does life in some way make use of the potentiality for vast quantum superpositions, as would be required for serious quantum computation? How important are the quantum aspects of DNA molecules? ... Do we really need to move forward to radical new theories of physical reality, as I myself believe, before the more subtle issues of biology — most importantly conscious mentality — can be understood in physical terms? How relevant, indeed, is our present lack of understanding of physics at the quantum/classical boundary? Or is consciousness really “no big deal,” as has sometimes been expressed? It would be too optimistic to expect to find definitive answers to all these questions, at our present state of knowledge, but there is much scope for healthy debate..."
Platonist physicist. He has (of course) protested that it's a new physics he wants, not new mysticism. His tentative model of 'quantum consciousness' can only be seen as unreasonable because current culture brackets out consciousness, trying to ignore or dissolve it. There is no significant difference between the project of Plotinus and physical Theories of Everything. What was mystic then is not so now. In the 1920s, cosmology was a deeply disreputable field: "a pseudoscience and the preserve of scientists who might have done some useful work in their earlier years but who had gone mystic in their dotage." - Hawking

Fritjof Capra (1934 - )

Mystics understand the roots of the Tao but not its branches; scientists understand its branches but not its roots. Science does not need mysticism and mysticism does not need science; but man needs both.
Borderline, bridging the worlds of thought-porn and philosophy. The skinny is this: Quantum physics has come to parallel certain Eastern philosophical themes, especially those of Taoism. Capra himself is original and low on nonsense, but the 'quantum mysticism' that he popularised contains a shit-ton of spooky charlatans. Zen Buddhism, for example, isn't (just) constipated, misty-eyed hokum; it insists on and obsesses over the physical world, and takes as its aim the destruction of mental constructs mistaken for the world: good philosophical work.

Eugene Gendlin (1926 - )

Many philosophers avoid physics for fear of bringing reductionism into philosophy. They avoid human experiencing, for fear of bringing psychology in. Anything "ontic" threatens to bring alien explanations to philosophy. Heidegger knew better. Everything must be brought to philosophy, to questioning how it is thought, and to let it be differently...

My reform of phenomenology was not taken up. Of course I think: That is why phenomenology is rejected today. The popular assumption of neutral, uninterpreted "phenomena" had to fail. But the style has swung to assuming that all experience derives wholly from implicit assumptions breakable only by discontinuity. Either way misses the non-logical transitions.

Philosopher of psychology and populariser of large Continental ideas. I concede that the first signs are bad: is it cultish? (check, the "Focusing Institute"); is there proliferation of self-help buzzwords? (check, "Thinking at the Edge") ; is there a free online library, and paid courses? (check). But his "philosophy of the implicit" is a development of Wittgensteinian themes, though what I've read seems a little simplistic, in need of sceptical trimming. (Particularly in his claim to be "beyond postmodernism".) This is perhaps inevitable.

Terence McKenna (1946-2000)

"There is a spiritual obligation, there is a task to be done. It is not, however, something as simple as following a set of somebody else's rules. Most people make it naively by thinking clearly about the present at hand, but we intellectuals are trapped in a world of too much information. Innocence is gone for us. We cannot expect to cross the rainbow bridge through a good act of contrition; that will not be sufficient...The imagination is everything."
Psychedelic philosopher (shaman), altered statesman, and elf follower. "Loathes science" apparently, which strikes me as a pretty dim thing to say.

Ken Wilber (1949- )

The real intent of my writing is not to say, you must think in this way. The real intent is: here are some of the many important facets of this extraordinary Kosmos; have you thought about including them in your own worldview? My work is an attempt to make room in the Kosmos for all of the dimensions/levels/domains/waves/memes/modes/individuals/cultures, and so on ad infinitum. I have one major rule: Everybody is right. More specifically, everybody — including me — has some important pieces of truth, and all of those pieces need to be honored..."
Star spiritualist 'psychologist'. (A borderline gone to the Soft Side). Helped along the dubious "interpersonal psychology" field. His early work reconciling contradictory accounts of the ego is apparently good, but then rises the cultish, demi-Hegelian "Integral Theory" business. Recently endorsed faith healers & quantum quackery.

Note: William James believed in ghosts. Irrationality in one place affects only the argument it's used in.

It'd be a mistake to go to these people looking for The Answer. But this isn't what I go to Epicurus, Kant, or Dawkins for, either.


Post a comment:

Comments appear after moderation. You can use html or markdown.
Page just refreshes after successful submit.