A technician explains measurements whilst a scientist explains observations.

The spiritual aspect of empiricism

Won't somebody tell me
Answer if you can
Won't somebody tell me
Tell me what is the soul of a man?
Blind Willie Johnson

People have believed in a spiritual aspect to life for millennia. Either they were all crazy and over attached to mythical stories or there is a genuine core to experience that might be called "spiritual". This core is about conscious experience itself rather than about events in the world beyond the body (the term "spiritual" means incorporeal).

The term "spiritual" can be defined in an empirical manner by examining what a spiritual feeling is like. The most primitive form of spiritual feeling is the "oneness" that can occur where we do not just feel like observers of the content of our minds but become one with them. William James investigated this experience and recorded his findings in his lectures called "The Varieties of Religious Experience". The following excerpt is typical of the various reports:

"I have on a number of occasions felt that I had enjoyed a period of intimate communion with the divine. These meetings came unasked and unexpected, and seemed to consist merely in the temporary obliteration of the conventionalities which usually surround and cover my life.... Once it was when from the summit of a high mountain I looked over a gashed and corrugated landscape extending to a long convex of ocean that ascended to the horizon, and again from the same point when I could see nothing beneath me but a boundless expanse of white cloud, on the blown surface of which a few high peaks, including the one I was on, seemed plunging about as if they were dragging their anchors.

What I felt on these occasions was a temporary loss of my own identity, accompanied by an illumination which revealed to me a deeper significance than I had been wont to attach to life. It is in this that I find my justification for saying that I have enjoyed communication with God. Of course the absence of such a being as this would be chaos. I cannot conceive of life without its presence."(James 1902).

Many readers will have had experiences of this sort. These experiences can also happen in meditative states and are what are known by practitioners of yoga and Buddhist meditation as states of "rapture" or "ecstacy".

I would contend that the poetic and ecstatic are both what are known as "spiritual" experiences. In common to both of these is the presence of meaningfulness within the mind. It is a state of being extended in space and time without being filled with the mechanical analysis of this state.

The time extension in these experiences is also important because, if time exists, then the past is still existent with all that that implies..

It is also likely that the Buddhists are right about rapture. Rapture itself is a delusion being the physiological state induced by the spiritual experience, but the non-physiological part of the state itself is a spiritual form (see Gunaratana 1988).


Henepola Gunaratana. (1988) The Jhanas In Theravada Buddhist Meditation. The Wheel Publication No. 351/353 ISBN 955-24-0035-X. 1988 Buddhist Publication Society. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/bps/index.html

William James (1902). "The Varieties of Religious Experience, a Study in Human Nature".


  1. Hello. I'm the guy from sapien's place that you gave a link to to this post. I read it. And, I must confess, I very strongly disagree. Personal testimonies, no matter how many there may be, are not evidence for anything. There are plenty of people who will give personal testimony that they were abducted aliens, can read minds, or levitate. That doesn't necessarily mean that these events actually took place. This is just anecdotal evidence. Which, isn't really evidence at all. I look forward to continuing this conversation. And, I hope that you will continue reading my blog as I will now link to yours.

  2. You have picked up an important omission from the article: I did not stress that these experiences might only be credible as personal experiences. I have amended the text to make this clear.

    If people extrapolate spiritual experience to the actual existence of events in the world at large, outside of their brains, then they will need further evidence besides the personal experience itself.

    The only events in a spiritual experience that certainly take place are the events that constitute the original experience in your own mind. This does not isolate us because if you have had experiences like those reported by William James in his excellent investigation ("Varieties of Religious Experience..") or friends who have had similar experiences then you will be able to affirm that such experiences happen in minds such as yours.

    On your point about personal testimonies, if we are talking about the occurrence of these events in the world outside our minds then I agree with you when you say "That doesn't necessarily mean that these events actually took place". However, suppose you believed you were abducted by aliens, if you found another person with this belief then it is true that you and they share a particular personal experience. This might be enough for someone to research what had happened in your brain to create this story. I would stress that what you share is a belief, not necessarily a reality in the world beyond your brain!

    On the surface this analysis might suggest spiritual experiences are just nonsense because they are, as often as not, unaccompanied by verifiable events in the world outside the body. However, many spiritual experiences are solely about the mind. The sense of joining or being one with the contents of conscious experience can be very moving and a strong reminder that what is meaningful to us is internal, as Blind Willie Johnson put it "A man aint nothing but his mind".

    We will only finally understand the significance of some forms of spiritual experience, such as the sense of joining, when we understand the physical nature of the mind.

  3. I think I understand a little more about what you are saying. And, I'm starting to agree with you. I just have one question: suppose two people do have similar "spiritual" experiences in their mind, such as being abducted by aliens. What's the point of calling it spiritual if it's all just in their head? Shouldn't it be called physiological or biological since it's just nerves and chemicals in the brain interacting?

  4. Oh, and you get major points for quoting Blind Willie Johnson!

  5. I think I'm with you in considering alien abduction as an experience with little spiritual content (I could be wrong, never having had that experience!). The experiences described in William James' book and the Buddhist and Yoga "joining" experiences are purer spiritual experiences. They are purer because they are largely about conscious experience itself, not about things apparently happening in the world.

  6. But what's spiritual about a feeling, or an idea? It's just a feeling. There's nothing spiritual about it.

  7. I agree that the properties of the world outside our bodies and the output and stages of information processing are not spiritual.

    What people regard as spiritual is normally about conscious experience itself, as a thing in its own right. As an example the buddhists talk of the experience of boundless space, in yoga the height of attainment is joining with the contents of experience, in christian mysticism religious experience is also about "oneness". Taking a physicalist viewpoint these reports seem to be about being the substrate of the information in experience rather than the information.

    Information can exist on any substrate, it is simply an arrangement of a substrate (like a row of balls and missing balls or ink spots and missing inkspots etc.). Whatever it is that is you or I is a particular substrate, not just an arrangement. Furthermore it is a substrate that has a peculiar form reminiscent of projective geometry. So, being a physicalist, I would guess that religious experience is about the matter and form of the substrate that is our being itself rather than the content impressed upon it.

    See Time and conscious experience for a more extended discussion.