Cognitive Mysticism

by Vered Arnon

Mystical experience is a very difficult phenomenon to examine, since it’s only accessible to the mystic who has the experience. A similar phenomenon which is self-contained is sense perception, so to analyse mystical experience, it is most often compared or contrasted to sense perception. Martin and Wainwright take different positions on whether or not mystical experience is cognitive like sense perception. Martin offers a poorly constructed argument claiming that mystical experience differs from sense perception because it’s not cognitive, but his argument fails because he doesn’t conclusively establish the cognitive status of sense perception itself. Wainwright, on the other hand, establishes a clear argument supporting the cognitive status of such experience and refuting all reasonable objections.

In his article “Seeing God”, Martin claims that mystical experience is not cognitive, by attempting to draw a distinct disanalogy. First he explains that the effect of adding “seem” to religious assertions is significantly different from adding the word to sensory assertions. To say “I seem to see something” as opposed to saying “I see something” isn’t a very dramatic difference. On the other hand, Martin says, “In the case of the religious statement ‘I have direct experience of God’ the addition of the phrase [‘I seem to’] is fatal to all that the believer wants to assert” (Martin, 76). When one makes a claim about God, according to Martin, the claim needs to imply the existence of God in order to be doing more than just describing a person’s feelings and sensations. Thus he implies that assertions about sensory perception do establish the existence of the object perceived. Yet one can argue, that to say “I seem to see this thing” is just as fatal an assertion, if one is trying to talk about an external perceived object, since the addition of “I seem” destroys all existential implications of the sentence, reducing it merely to a description of feelings and sensations. As far as their status as existential claims, assertions about religious experience in fact seem no different from assertions about sensory experience.

A second way in which Martin attempts to draw a disanalogy between mysticism and cognitive experiences is to compare religious experiences to emotions, like pain and sadness. He writes: 

“One’s pain is not a thing that exists independently of one’s experience. I do not establish the existence of my pain on the basis of experience. There is nothing to establish beyond the experience. Presumably there is something to establish on the basis of religious experience, namely, the presence of God” (Martin, 82). 

He goes on to explain that to consider religious experience cognitive, would be like considering the personal visual perception of an object to be cognitive. He says that merely seeing something, only establishes that one has had an experience, it doesn’t establish that the thing seen actually exists. Other people have to have seen it, and so on. If one is to accept his claim that mystical experiences are not cognitive, then one must also believe that sensory perception is not cognitive. The disanalogy here loses its functionality. 

“… When someone uses the sentence ‘I have or have had direct experience of God’ in such a way that he counts as relevant to its truth only his experience at the time, he is talking only about that experience, though the sentence has the form of making a statement about the presence of God, and neither does it help if he calls it a ‘cognitive experience’” (Martin, 83). 

It is just as easy to say that when someone uses a sentence “I have directly seen this object”, he is asserting to the existence of the object on the basis of his experience alone. According to Martin, this is different from mystical experience, in that there are various tests and checking procedures, and thus the assertion to having seen something does not inherently stand alone, whereas there are no tests or checking procedures for mystical experiences, and thus the mystic is always using the sentence in such a way that only his experience is relevant to its truth. This is a very biased position, and Wainwright discusses at length how mystical experience, just like sense experience, can be tested and validated by standard procedures.

But Martin is firmly convinced that mystical experience can never be concretely tested and verified. The fact that people who claim to have had mystical experiences, in fact need never to have truly experienced God, seems to undermine the significance of mystical experiences. People may have very intense feelings and experiences, “But whether the experiences are or are not of God is not to be decided by describing or having those experiences. For whether anything or nothing is apprehended by experiences is not to be read off from the experiences themselves” (Martin, 87). He proceeds to give a ridiculous analogy, claiming that merely seeing a piece of paper in no way implies that the paper exists. Firstly, this analogy portrays sensory perception as a noncognitive experience, weakening the significance of his argument that mystical experience is noncognitive. Secondly, it is human instinct, when seeing something, to read off the experience that something exists. When a woman walking through a forest sees a low branch of a tree, she ducks down and avoids it, rather than first testing to determine whether or not it in fact exists.

In his article “The Cognitive Status of Mystical Experience”, Wainwright gives a clear, detailed, thorough argument in support of the analogy between mystical experiences and sense perception. Unlike Martin, he consistently defends the cognitive status of sense perception, thus avoiding one of the major defects that so marred Martin’s argument. He writes, “On the basis of both types of experience [mystical and sensory] claims are made about something other than the experience itself. These claims are corrigible and independently checkable” (Wainwright, p393). Both types of experience are noetic, there is something which is the object of the experience. While Martin argues that since one cannot prove God’s existence on the basis of mystical experiences, it is false to claim that they are experiences of something, still there is no basis to claim that there couldn’t possibly be an object of these experiences. Sense experiences are used to justify claims about the material world, just as mystical experiences are used to justify claims about God. Just as Martin rejects mystical experiences as a confirmation of God’s existence, there are philosophers and theologians who claim that sensory perception of physical objects does not provide a foundation to believe that the physical world actually does exist. There is no real difference between the two types of assertions, both of them are indeed cognitive, since they do provide the basis for apprehension and understanding of reality independent of the experiences themselves.

Wainwright explains, 

“… on the basis of their experiences, mystics make claims about something other than their own experiences. They believe that they have directly apprehended a reality which others accept on faith, or on the basis of certain arguments, and they appeal to their experiences to justify their claims. Furthermore (assuming that there is no disproof of God’s existence, or the reality of the One, etc.) these claims are not known to be false” (Wainwright, p394).

Mystical experiences are like sense perception, and contrary to Martin’s claim, they are unlike emotions. Emotions do not make any sort of existential assertion about anything outside of the experience itself. While one’s pain, as Martin says, does not exist independently of the experience, clearly mystics are apprehending something independent of their own experiences. Martin’s main reason for refusing to accept this, is his biased refusal to acknowledge any forms of testing and checking procedures.

But in fact, there are many ways of testing mystical experiences. As Wainwright points out, Martin seems to think that mystics view their experiences as carrying some sort of self-guarantee. But this isn’t true at all, and even St Teresa had doubts about her own experiences. 

“It is true that mystics are usually certain of the truth of the claims that they make, but this is no more incompatible with their corrigibility than the fact that I am certain there is a red pen in front of me is incompatible with the fact that the claim is corrigible. In short, claims about God…. are not self-certifying, and we have some idea of the sorts of things which count for and against them” (Wainwright, p395). 

Mystics do not, as a rule, discount any evidence against their claims or consider tests irrelevant. Mystics themselves have no reason not to be as questioning as those who don’t have such experiences, and there are a variety of standard ways to establish the validity of their experiences.

There are two ways by which people ascertain the validity of their sensory experiences. Firstly, they seek corroboration and agreement of other people, and secondly, they seek to determine if their experiences succeed or fail when used as a basis to predict truths about reality (Wainwright, 397). Exactly the same sorts of tests are employed when verifying mystical experiences. 

To address the first test, seeking agreement or disagreement: 

“The mystic bases bases ontological statements upon his experiences and seems to believe that the fact that others have similar experiences confirms those claims…. It is possible that if others were to fail altogether to have similar experiences, he would take this fact as counting against the veridical character of his own experience. In these respects mystical experience appears to be more like sense experience than like feelings of nausea or depression” (Wainwright, 399).

Mystics all over the world have similar experiences. Different communities use different criteria and methods to determine whether or not certain experiences are in fact experiences of God (or whatever term that community uses to refer to divine or transcendent power). While one might then be persuaded to argue that mystics from different parts of the world can’t back each other up because their claims conflict, given deeper analysis this is a false assumption as well. Mystical experiences from one culture to another aren’t the same, but they’re also not incompatible, and they have basically the same essence, although people from different backgrounds describe and interpret their experiences in different ways.

The way that one’s psyche is formed while growing up in a community determines that they will interpret and describe their experiences in the vocabulary of their community. This is distinctly parallel with the way a person interprets sense experiences. If a person sees a creature with four legs, a head, and a tail, feels that it’s fuzzy, and hears it meow, then if they are from the suburban American community, they will interpret it as a housepet. Someone in rural South China would interpret it as vermin. But either way, the experience of perceiving this animal can be confirmed or denied with various kinds of tests. Different people give different accounts of their religious experiences, but the experience itself can still be tested and validated or invalidated.

To address the second kind of test employed when seeking to verify mystical experience, Wainwright explains that whereas sensory perception seems to have a much higher success rate when making meaningful predictions about reality, this is not significant and it’s inappropriate to draw a disanalogy, since the nature of God is radically different from the nature of objects we perceive with our senses. One has different expectations of God than one has of physical objects. Sense experience and mystical experience are both cognitive, and the discrepancies that arise between them are not a result of the experiences themselves being different, but rather the result of the objects they deal with being significantly different. Wainwright argues,

“The nature of an object should (at least partly) determine the tests for its presence. Given the nature of physical objects it is reasonable to suppose that genuine experiences of those objects can be confirmed by employing appropriate procedures and obtaining similar experiences, and that non-genuine experiences can be disconfirmed by employing the same procedures and obtaining different experiences. God’s nature, on the other hand, is radically different from the nature of physical objects. It is therefore not clearly reasonable to suppose that (apparent) experiences of God can be confirmed or disconfirmed in the same fashion” (Wainwright, p401).

For example, to God’s incomprehensible nature, it is unreasonable to assume that there could be any standard failsafe way of obtaining a mystical experience at will. God will reveal himself to whomever he wishes, he doesn’t respond to the whims and fancies of people. Thus if someone repeats the procedures that resulted in a mystical experience, and nothing happens the second time, this doesn’t in any way discount their first experience. Since God is neither temporal nor spatial, it’s unreasonable to expect him to be governed by the laws that govern physical objects. Physical objects are predictable, but God is not. Therefore the unpredictability of mystical experiences gives them support.

In one paragraph Wainwright sums up his position very clearly.

“It is by no means clear that the logical relations between sense experiences and physical objects are significantly different from the logical relations between mystical or numinous experiences and an object like God. It is thus not clear that some sort of special justification is needed in the one case which is not needed in the other. If a special justification is not needed in the case of sense experience, and it does not seem to be, then it is not needed in the case of mystical experience” (Wainwright, p410).

Wainwright makes a much more clear, compelling case than Martin, establishing the similarities between mystical and sense experience, and explaining how both can be verified with tests. It is unreasonable to deny that mystical experiences are cognitive, when they function the same way that sensory experiences do. The differences, as Wainwright illustrated, are the result of the difference in objects, not the difference in experiences. And while Martin seems inclined to disregard mystical experiences since they do not prove God’s existence, as long as there’s no concrete disproof of God’s existence, there’s no reason to automatically assume such experiences cannot make reasonable existential assertions, or reasonable claims about reality.


Martin, CB. “’Seeing’ God” from his Religious Belief, Cornell University Press, 1959.

Wainwright, William J. “The Cognitive Status of Mystical Experience”; from Rowe & Wainwright, ed. The Philosophy of Religion.

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