Do ecstatic experiences tell us anything reliable about the universe?
There is a growing consensus among secular psychologists that experiences of ecstasy and ego-transcendence are good for us, and tell us interesting things about the nature of the mind. But do they tell us anything interesting or reliable about the nature of the universe? I'm trying to figure this out. Here are my thoughts so far - please respond in the comments.
New Atheist Sam Harris says that ecstatic experiences tell us reliable things about the nature of the self - that the ego is not a stable, permanent entity, and when we go beyond the ego with the proper care and guidance, it's very good for us and for our societies, leading to greater well-being and compassion. He is prepared to accept as reliable this subjective evidence from contemplation and psychedelics.
However, it's also true that, when people go beyond the ego, they feel connected to the universe and to other beings. They feel their consciousness is intimately connected to other consciousnesses, and they often feel that the universe itself is somehow filled with consciousness, in some sense or other. Harris rejects this subjective insight as unreliable and 'specious'. So he's prepared to accept one ecstatic insight as reliable - there is no ego and to discover that is broadly good for you. But he dismisses another ecstatic insight - our consciousness is connected to other consciousnesses - as specious and unreliable. Indeed, he calls Deepak Chopra a 'charlatan' for making claims about the universe based on people's spiritual experiences.
There is, I think, an inconsistency here. He's accepting some forms of subjective experience as evidence, but not others. Why should the insight that there is no stable self be reliable? And if the 'point' of transdendent experiences is that they make people happier and more compassionate, then is that not an argument for a form of benign religion? After all, religious communities have led to many more people having transcendent experiences than atheist communities. Harris is something of a prophet in the wilderness as an atheist who insists these experiences are valuable.
Never mind the 'religion is good / bad' argument, which is not my concern in this blog. I want to argue that ecstatic experiences do tell us something about the nature of the universe. They tell us that this is the kind of universe that creates conscious minds which seek transcendence. It also tells us something about evolution - that, on this planet at least, evolution has led to conscious minds which seek a transcendence beyond survival and reproduction, and which finds that transcendence to be the most meaningful aspect of existence.
What's the point of ego-transcendence, from an evolutionary perspective? Why should we pursue it so relentlessly, and value it so highly? After all, ego-transcendence helps us accept death, which isn't adaptive at all from an evolutionary perspective. Evolutionary psychologists have put forward four theories of transcendence. Firstly, it's a consequence of the accidental evolution of self-awareness. Consciousness is broadly adaptive, but it has the side-effect of making us self-aware of our smallness, isolation and mortality, which causes us suffering. In ego-transcendence, we create mechanisms to overcome this anxiety, through illusions of unity and immortality. So these experiences which humans value above all others are really consoling delusions. That's possible, although rather depressing.
The second theory, put forward by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, is that ego-transcendence allows humans to shift into the 'hive mind', which improves group-bonding and makes your tribe more competitive. That's partly true, but it misses out a lot about ego-transcendence. These aren't just collective experiences, they're also individual experiences in which an individual feels healed and made whole. And they're moments of connection to nature and the cosmos, not just the tribe.
A third theory, put forward by William James, Frederic Myers, Aldous Huxley and others, is that the universe is a machine for generating ecstasy. The universe creates conscious minds that seek transcendence, wisdom and love-connection.Not just our conscious minds, but our entire psyches seek self-transcendence - through reason, but also through dreams, epiphanies, trips and states of flow. The pursuit of transcendence is deep in our nature, like a seed waiting to flower. Conscious minds seek transcendence on Earth, and also presumably on thousands of other planets throughout the hundred billion galaxies. Ecstasy is the universe waking up, knowing itself, and dancing. That's the theory I am inclined to believe.
The fourth explanation, which I think Harris would put forward, is that ego-transcendence helps humans beyond the fiction of the ego, which can make us happier and more compassionate, but it's entirely something that happens in the brain, with no relevance to the fundamental nature of reality or life after death. I can accept the logic of this, but why bother seeking ego-transcendence - which is a very difficult and dangerous thing to seek - if it just means you may eventually feel a bit happier and more compassionate? Why not just take oxytocin pills, which are a much quicker short-cut? Why bother sitting on your bum meditating for several months?