William James was a major figure in 19th century American philosophy. Indeed, he is sometimes referred to as the Father of American Psychology. He was a rigorous thinker but also had a sympathy to religious experience, particularly of the mystical type.According to James, one of the characteristics of mystical experience is that it can’t be put into words. I’m not sure if it was James who started this idea but certainly many scholars of religion make similar pronouncements: mystical experience cannot be talked about at all, what to say in precise language. At one time I believed such pronouncements because scholarly authorities had made them and also because some Buddhist masters concur. However, at this point in my life, I strongly disagree with the notion that it’s impossible to describe mystical experience precisely.
Of course, it’s true that in order to have mystical experience on a consistent basis, a person has to work through the drive to think in words. So, yes, one part of the mystical journey involves the struggle to get beyond words. But another part involves the struggle to describe in words how to get beyond words, and to describe in words what the experience of getting beyond words is like. There are many ways to get beyond words. You can find one possible description of how to get beyond words by following the ten steps presented here (pp. 39-46). Step 10 – Dance At The Source describes in words (and pictures!) what it’s like to go beyond words. You can find a more detailed breakdown here.
As most of you know, mathematics is a bit of a hobby with me. Recently I discovered a little known byway in the history of early 20th century math—an interesting dialectic between European and Russian mathematicians.
Set theory is the most commonly used foundation for mathematics, and mathematics is foundational for science, so set theory might say something deep about the mind, if not nature itself. One initial problem with set theory was that, if one accepts certain seemingly reasonable assumptions, it can lead to weird stuff and paradoxes. Not just things like Russell’s Paradox (which many people are familiar with), but really weird stuff, like the Banach–Tarski Paradox.
According one historian, Loren Graham, some of Russia’s most famous early 20th century mathematicians were followers of a renegade Eastern Orthodox sect called Imiaslavie. The Imiaslavie theologians firmly believed that God could be precisely named. According to Graham, this emboldened the Russian mathematicians to pursue certain implications of set theory that their more rationalistic European counterparts were unwilling to face.
I’m not sure how relevant this bit of esoterica is to my disagreement with James and other authorities. But, if nothing else, it’s an interesting little byway in the history of science that I thought to share with you.
You can read about it towards the end of this short article.
Also check out this interview with Loren Graham on SoundCloud: