The Science of Consciousness and Mystical Experience: An Argument for Radical Empiricism

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Philosophy Department

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Research Article

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Journal of the American Academy of Religion

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Recent evidence in neuroscience and psychology militates against the dominant theory of consciousness that has typically been used in explaining mystical experience-a neo-Kantian model that emphasizes concepts and language as the necessary foundations of consciousness. Findings in neuroanatomy, psychology, and evolutionary biology indicate that emotion is more fundamental to consciousness than previously suspected, and that language does not play as foundational a role in human consciousness as has been widely believed. These developments suggest that radical empiricism-in acknowledging the possibility of nonlinguistic experience and in construing emotional/qualitative aspects of experience as nonreducible to discursive foundations-represents a more accurate understanding of the nature of human consciousness, and therefore offers a better explanation for the character of mystical experience. This perspective also has implications for the possibility of cross-cultural similarities in mystical experience and the question of the veridicality of mystical experience. © 2013 The Author.

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