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Imagine we were wondering about religious experiences, specifically, purely mental ones. It's rather hard to see how we could compare such experiences to say whether they were long or short, easy or difficult to attain, or of differing moral status (from the Devil or from God). But we're not very sure about ordinary experiences like seeing colors either, and we compare those all the time; some sects in religions such as Buddhism have extremely elaborate hierarchies of mental experiences and will compare religious experiences frequently, even holding them up as the goal of religion. (Zen Buddhism, for example, has many terms and practices dedicated to nurturing, describing, and testing experiences such as 'dharma combat'.)
The first question one wants to ask is how does a religion relate to the experiences it cultivates? Are they multiple paths to one general experience? Or are their disparate techniques & systems producing equally disparate experiences? Both seem equally plausible. Psychoactive drugs can produce an endless variety of distinct hallucinations or effects; DMT for example, so reliably produces one particular visual hallucination that they've been named 'machine elves'. On the other hand, many apparently different mental techniques turn out to operate essentially by causing self-hypnosis.
Worse, the religious experiences get reported in many different ways. Sometimes one is one with the universe, sometimes one no longer exists, sometimes one travels through the celestial spheres to meet Allah, sometimes... They most definitely do not seem to describe one or even a few distinct experiences.
Strip out the extraneous language? Remove all the claptrap about feeling Christ's wounds or striking down the Buddha? Even if we assume that the entire cultural & religious context is not important and that a purely phenomenal kernel is in the reports from the mystics & devotees, how are we going to know where to cut? If we cut too broad and some hidden cultural assumptions slip in, then we will wind up with still differing descriptions and will conclude that there are multiple experiences and not just one. If we cut very narrow, we might inadvertently reduce our descriptions to basically 'I felt different for a while, and then I came back', and we will conclude there's just one experience or state. We will determine in advance our conclusion by our method, which seems circular & unsatisfactory. So we will simply take the reports at face-value and not try to interpret them or fix them.
The multiple-experiences (ME) viewpoint is easily consistent with the reports. Different techniques lead to different experiences. The single-experience (SE) viewpoint is a little more difficult: there's one experience, but it gets reported many ways because everyone has their own biases & preconceptions & mental frameworks, and these experiences almost by definition are very rare - seconds or minutes at most, and then one's memories and especially one's verbalizations are all that one really has.
The SE does have in its favor the general, extremely simplified, observation that Sufis tend to report Sufi experiences even when in different Sufi sects - some of which use dance and some use meditation etc. - and likewise Buddhists tend to report similar enlightenments even if they are in sects in entirely different divisions (such as Mahayana vs. Hinayana; crudely comparable to Catholicism/Protestantism vs Orthodox). If technique or attitude determined everything, one might expect every experience to be different.
So maybe broadly similar techniques & attitudes will lead to the same experience. There aren't an indefinite number of experiences, but merely multiple.
At this point, both seem to explain the reports equally well. How do we decide?
We can start with an appeal to Occam's Razor. Both theories have to accept as a given the reality that there are a lot of complex religions out there, with very complex beliefs & practices - endless reams of theology & debate & rules. The theories differ on how many experiences there are; clearly it is simpler to postulate just 1 experience (SE) rather than 10 or 20 or 100 or however many would turn out to be needed by ME. Finally, the connection between the many practices/techniques and the experience(s) can be seen as additional complexity - if there is one experience, the connections are simple & predictable as they all lead to the same place, but if they are multiple, then the connections must match up, one practice/technique to one experience (disregarding overlap where one experience is reachable from multiple places).
The practices/techniques cancel out as equally in favor of both sides; the reports too are consistent with both sides; but unfortunately for ME, it really is more complex to postulate multiple experiences than SE's single experience. Straightforwardly, then, Occam's Razor will push us towards SE.
But hold on, the ME might say. We 2 theories do not really predict & explain all the same phenomena. Being more complex is only bad if the complexity does not do anything useful; Occam's Razor specifically applies only when 2 theories are equal on all other grounds.
But, ME, how do you differ then? Here's one way I see. SE says that reports differ only because the culture/religion differs; that is the sole factor. But ME says that culture/religion is only part of why the report differs and may not even matter - differing techniques can get you to the same place. But doesn't this imply that a person in one culture/religion can take the techniques of some entirely other culture - and get some other experience? That is, if Buddhist techniques lead to Buddhist experiences, and Sufi techniques lead to Sufi experiences, then: 'we will never see a Sufi using Sufi techniques to get a Buddhist experience'.
Ah, ME says, that's right. But then how could you know this? How could you know the Sufi is reporting a Buddhist experience, since he will be couching it - as ever - in Sufi terms and concepts? You have already conceded that you cannot compare the 'kernel' of 2 reports, and that is precisely what you, the outside observer, would need to do here. This is a difference which makes no difference.
Very well, ME, but how about this: if ME is correct about techniques being the necessary & sufficient condition for a particular experience, and we grant that a person having an experience is at least able to know whether their experience is the same as or different from a previous experience, then shouldn't this be true: 'we will never see a Sufi using Buddhist techniques to get a Sufi experience'? This is a very falsifiable prediction, and one that intrepid believers may well have already falsified.
That's the consequence of ME trying to escape Occam's Razor: the only way to justify the complexity is to suggest different observations, but unfortunately for ME, the differing observations are *not* the ones that are hidden to observers behind the veil of language & mind. The differing observations are conducted by the person having the experience, and it seems very reasonable indeed to say that they are competent to judge this matter. As the movie line goes, ME, are you feeling lucky?
So that's the dilemma: either ME is more complex than SE and so disfavored, or it has a clear path to disproof. SE looks like the better theory to me.
# Bibliography
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- Whitehead, A. N., _Process and Reality_. London: McMillan, 1929. Corrected Edition. New York: The Free Press, 1978.
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