Mysticism By Default

Non-Dual Reality, Karma, & Rebirth

Progress & Conservationđź”°
37 min readDec 1, 2023
The Universe in a Drop of Water, generated using AI

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour”
— William Blake,
Auguries of Innocence

In this essay, I want to argue that the core claims of mysticism can be demonstrated to be extremely likely to be true by the simple application of logic using nothing but premises that are generally acknowledged as true by people who hold to a modern scientific naturalist worldview. I want to demonstrate that the modern scientific naturalist worldview might logically entail such mystical conclusions as: (1) the unity of being, (2) the unity of consciousness, (3) rebirth after death, and (4) immortality.

I have titled this essay Mysticism By Default because I wish to demonstrate that the modern naturalistic and scientific view of the universe implies something very much like mysticism. The title is also an allusion to Wayne Stewart’s Metaphysics By Default, which argues that something very much like reincarnation might actually occur if naturalism is true. Of course, as a critical rationalist, I admit that all knowledge is conjectural and, therefore, that the hypothesis that I am about to lay out is conjectural, tentative, and hypothetical.

The Oneness of Being and Oneness of Consciousness

In Einstein’s framework, the fabric of spacetime came into being with the Big Bang. Time is a feature of the originated universe. Time is relative and is affected by speed or rate of movement through space. Spacetime is a single interwoven fabric. So, from the perspective of the predominant current scientific understanding, spacetime began with the birth of the universe. It didn’t exist before then, as far as our understanding goes. Spacetime was originated at the moment of the Big Bang. It emerged with our universe as a fundamental aspect of the universe’s being. We can think of the fabric of spacetime like the fabric of a canvas. The Big Bang describes the origination of the canvas, and then the painting of the galaxies, stars, planets, and everything else emerged on the canvas.

I refer to the universe as originated rather than “created” because whatever happened “before” the Big Bang can’t be causally related to the universe. Causality is itself a feature of relative existence, a category that only exists within the spacetime framework of our originated universe. The cause precedes the effect in time. This collides into that at a point in space. Outside of spacetime, how can we even speak of causality? If there are no distinctions within space and time, cause cannot be distinguished from effect. Whatever preceded the Big Bang, then, cannot causally relate to the originated universe in which we live. I use the term originated rather than “created” because the latter term implies that it was made by someone or something, which I believe is a wrong-headed view. The universe seems to me to have originated by emanation rather than by creation — but even “emanation” isn’t quite the right term because human language fails to describe the Ultimate Reality. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the universe originated via inflation. That sentence too is inadequate.

Time, relative to the Ultimate Reality, is unreal. The Real, or ultimate reality, exists in eternity, outside of the spacetime framework of our universe. But, within our universe, time is relative. Time would move differently for a person on a super-fast spaceship than it would for people on the surface of the planet that that ship departed from. But time as we perceive it is a construct of our minds. Our minds evolved a sort of user interface that sits between us and reality, presenting us with a representation of reality that is accurate enough to enable our survival but, nevertheless, is only phenomenal. We don’t see the noumenon — the thing-in-itself — but only the phenomenon— the thing-as-perceived. When you look at a table, it appears to be a solid object but it is actually comprised of atoms — and atoms are over 99.9% empty space. The apparent solidity is a result of charges that prevent other atoms from passing through that mostly empty space. And our phenomenal experience of time is a feature of our evolved user interface. To a certain extent, what we experience as time is an illusion. Our conception of time is a way for our brains to make sense of the changes in the universe. Our evolved user interface is merely a map of reality. Our brains evolved to experience time in a moment-by-moment linear fashion because that is the simplest and most actionable way of mapping reality for survivability of the species. Our phenomenal experience of time is a map of time that allows us to navigate the real world — our linear experience of time’s passage is an aspect of perception rather than a fundamental feature of reality. Just as a table appears to be a single solid object while actually being composed of trillions of atoms — atoms that are, themselves, mostly empty space — , so too we find that time as it really is seems to be quite different from time as we perceive it. Einstein’s theory of relativity presents a very different picture of time than the conventional linear picture of time. But even this relativistic picture of time applies only within the originated universe in which we live. The Real beyond this universe, the Source, is beyond time — eternal.

From the perspective of ultimate reality, the past, present, and future all exist simultaneously. What seems to be true is something like the block universe hypothesis where time is conceived of as a fourth dimension. In the block universe model, the past, present, and future are already determined and fixed, laid out in the spacetime continuum already, while the distinction between past, present, and future is a result of our perceptual apparatuses. All events that ever have occurred or ever will occur ultimately coexist in simultaneity. All events occur simultaneously without separation in time or space. From the ultimate perspective, everything coexists in the eternal now. At the same time, from the perspective of ultimate reality — the view from outside of “created” spacetime — , all things coexist simultaneously without any separation in time or space. We can only distinguish this thing from that thing because of the spacetime framework. They occupy different spaces or occur at different times. Without this spacetime framework, there is no way to distinguish this from that. It seems to me that this implies non-dualism because ultimately everything would basically be a monad or singularity. Without separation in time or space, all things and events become indistinguishable or identical.

Galaxy in a Drop of Water, generated using AI

Without separation in time or space, things become indistinguishable. What emerges is a picture of some sort of undifferentiated Monad or Singularity at the beginning of time, where all differentiated things dissolve into identity with all other things in a primordial substance of pure potentiality. But what of consciousness? From the perspective of ultimate reality, all points of consciousness also coexist simultaneously in the same “space.” (I just said “the same space” but really I should have said “without separation in space.” It’s difficult to talk about these things without projecting our spacetime categories into the realm of the Real, a realm where our categories do not apply. But if we want to say anything about the Real, we must sometimes use these categories as analogies.) From the perspective of the ultimately real, all points of consciousness coexist simultaneously without any separation in space and time — they are indistinguishable one from another, identical! If there’s no separation of space and time between minds, can we really distinguish them as separate and distinct minds rather than as aspects of a single unified Reality. From the ultimate perspective, outside of our originated universe, all minds coexist simultaneously in the eternal now. The separations that we perceive — between past, present, and future, and between individual minds — are merely aspects of our lived experiences within spacetime. They do not reflect ultimate reality. From the perspective of eternity — outside the bounds of spacetime — all being, including consciousness, is unified. If spacetime is an emergent phenomenon, the distinctions we perceive between past, present, and future are mere artifacts of our consciousness navigating this continuum. This leads to a startling proposition: all events, and by extension, all states of consciousness, exist in an eternal now. Our hypothesis posits that the universe, in its truest form, is a singular entity without division. What appears to emerge here is a non-dualism akin to that of Daoism or Buddhism.

Just as thinkers like Wayne Stewart (in Metaphysics By Default) and Thomas Clark (in his essay Death, Nothingness, and Subjectivity) argue that naturalism might actually imply the existence of an afterlife, I think it can be argued that naturalism also implies something like a mystical conception of the universe. Remember that we started off with premises that are generally accepted among those who hold to the modern naturalistic scientific worldview and then we demonstrated that the implications are downright mystical. A striking implication of this theory is that the past, present, and future all coexist simultaneously. Every event in time — every moment — is as real and concrete as any other. In this view, events do not “happen” or “pass” but simply are. The most profound, but seldom realized, implication of this modern scientific naturalist worldview is the unity of all consciousness. If spacetime is relative, the separateness of individual consciousnesses is ultimately an illusion. A consistent naturalistic picture of the universe might regard all minds as part of a singular, universal consciousness — a collective experience and existence transcending individual perceptions and identities.

Another striking implication of this theory is that it implies immortality. From the ultimate perspective, all events occur simultaneously in the eternal now. There is no past, present, and future. Therefore, from the perspective of the Real — the vantage point outside of spacetime — , you and I are always being born, living our lives, and dying in the eternal now. We never stop existing.

How This Conflicts With Religious Mysticisms

I want to point out that this hypothesis seems to accord with the conjectures of mysticism in general but also strongly conflicts with most religions, especially Judeo-Christian religion. The logic laid out above rules out the possibility of any sort of Creator/creature distinction. While one may be tempted to take the Real as described here (“primordial singularity,” “unity of consciousness,” etc.) as being equivalent to God, this is a mistake because (1) it is not all-powerful or benevolent, (2) it does not stand in relation to the universe as a creator to its creation, (3) it does not act as an intelligent designer or guide natural processes, (4) it does not lay out moral guidelines or codes of conduct and is not the basis of morality, (5) it does not verbally or psychically communicate its will to specific specially elected people. While the insights of mystics, sufis, hesychasts, kabbalists, yogis, and shamans frequently seem to point to something like what we are suggesting here, the interpretations of mysticism imposed by human philosophy and religion are generally wrong and entirely ruled out by the logic of the argument we have put forth. Moreover, the mystics tend to read entirely way too much into the hallucinations that accompany their experiences of what they suppose to be the Real. The closest parallels to be found in human philosophy are in Daoism and Buddhism as explicitly non-theistic forms of mysticism. The Dao as the primordial singularity rings true but the Elohim of the Bible falls flat on his face.

I also wish to point out that the modern scientific naturalist worldview upon which our argument is built would also preclude the conventional conception of God. Humans evolved through a process of natural selection. If you properly understand natural selection, you recognize that there is no room in it for any conception of guided evolution. Furthermore, human ethics is particular to the human species. Through the course of biological evolution, a peculiar human nature emerged — and one part of our human nature consists of the shared values that form the basis of human morality. The Real, not being human, cannot be the basis of human morality and, as far as we can tell, exists beyond good and evil. We also have no evidence or reason to believe that the Real has any sort of gestalt (i.e. no reason to think that it is more than the sum of its parts). We have no reason to believe that there is any consciousness experiencing reality from some ultimate perspective outside of our space-time world, though there most certainly might be. But we ought to tread softly, for much of human history has been heavily motivated by false philosophies based upon superimposing human characteristics onto the Real.

Daoist Master With Tea and Book, generated using AI

What Happens When We Die?

In the remainder of this essay, I want to talk about how a modern scientific naturalist worldview might logically entail some sort of conception of an afterlife that closely resembles the Buddhist conception of rebirth. And to demonstrate this, I will be looking at several thought experiments that were put forth by three philosophers in particular: Alan Watts, Thomas Clark, and Wayne Stewart. All three of these individuals were able to argue, I believe successfully, that one can arrive at a conception of afterlife resembling reincarnation through simple logic with no magical or supernatural premises or presuppositions.

The Buddhist Conception of Rebirth

Before delving into the thought experiments of Watts, Clark, and Stewart, it would probably be good for me to explain the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth. The Buddhist conception of rebirth is fundamentally different from the more commonly known idea of reincarnation or the transmigration of souls from one body to another following death. In the Buddhist conception of rebirth, there is no soul or unchanging permanent self that transmigrates between bodies. Instead, there is a stream of consciousness that evolves over time and spans incalculable lifetimes. The consciousness that is snuffed out at the end of one life gets re-ignited with the birth of another sentient being, and the stream of consciousness continues. The concept of rebirth in Buddhism is tied to the notions of anitya (or impermanence) and anatman (or not-self). There is no permanent self that moves from one life to the next but a fluid stream of consciousness that evolves over the span of incalculable lifetimes.

The Buddhist conception of rebirth is tied to the Buddhist understanding of karma, or the law of moral cause and effect. This too differs from the conception of karma that is associated with the doctrine of reincarnation in Hinduism. In Hinduism, there is a Supreme Being or God that is “in charge” and who may be meting out rewards for good deeds and punishment for sins. In Buddhism, there is no God or Supreme Being that metes out rewards and punishments. The Buddhist conception of karma is not retributive. Instead, karma is merely a natural law of the universe, where intentions and actions influence future states of consciousness and life circumstances. Good actions lead to positive states of consciousness in the future and rebirth into positive states of consciousness in the next life, while bad actions lead to negative states of consciousness in the future and rebirth into “hellish” worlds following death. Karma, then, is the key factor determining the circumstances of future lives. And, it should be mentioned again, for emphasis, that in Buddhism there is no external deity or force that judges actions as good or bad. Instead, it is the natural quality of actions themselves that shape future experiences. And Buddhist ethics, overall, is consequentialist. Bad actions are bad because they lead to suffering, whereas good actions are good because they reduce suffering.

In summary, rebirth in Buddhism is a continuous, ever-evolving process of consciousness, distinct from the idea of a soul migrating from body to body as in the doctrine of reincarnation. Karma plays a crucial role, acting as a natural law where actions and intentions set the stage for future experiences and states of being, shaping the nature of one’s rebirth without the intervention of any external judge.

Alan Watts’ Argument

Alan Watts raises the question of “what it must be like to go to sleep and never wake up” or cease existing. He suggests that natural sleep gives us a little bit of a picture of what this may be like. Whenever we have dreamless sleep, we simply go to sleep at night and wake up the next day and there is nothing in the interim. From the point of view of conscious experience, there is no experience of that interim but rather a leap forward in time. It’s almost like the save point in a game. Watts asks the question, “What would it be like if that nothing experienced in the interim never ended?” If we meditate on this question, Watts suggests that the fact that we exist as conscious entities at all starts to feel incredibly odd.

Watt’s notes that there are two dominant views on afterlife in the West. The first proposes that when we die, we go to another life in some other world (heaven, hell, or purgatory), while the second proposes that when we die we simply cease to exist. But he notes that we tend to have a vision of this cessation of existence as if it were something that we could experience, like being swallowed by the darkness. And this is a very gloomy picture. And he contrasts these Western views to the conventional “Eastern view of reincarnation [or rebirth], of going through life after life after life in an endless series.” Watts goes on to suggest that this Eastern view is really self-evident, that it’s sort of true by default and doesn’t really need to be proven.

To demonstrate how this Eastern view of rebirth or reincarnation is self-evident, Watts puts forth the following thought experiment. Take the following two statements. Statement one: “After I die, I shall be reborn again as a baby but I shall forget my former life.” And statement two: “After I die, a baby will be born.” Watts suggests that these two statements are actually saying the exact same thing. And, moreover, we can be certain that the second one is definitely true because babies are always being born. Sentient beings of various sorts are always coming into existence after others die. Why are these two statements, according to Watts, identical statements? Watts says, “Because, after all, if you die and your memory comes to an end and you forget who you were, being reborn again is exactly the equivalent of somebody else being born. Because we have no consciousness of our continuity unless we have memory. If the memory goes, then we might just as well be somebody else.”

From this observation, Watts goes on to emphasize that the implication is that consciousness continues after death. He says, “Although a particular set of memories vanishes, death is not the end of consciousness.” He goes on to suggest that the conception of death as endless darkness or endless nothingness is both inconceivable and meaningless because the absence of experience is not something that can be experienced. So, instead, he proposes that the vacuum created by the extinguishing of the conscious experience of self in you is immediately filled by the emergence of the conscious experience of self in some other being being born. This other being “is I just as you feel you are I.” Watts notes that it’s funny that the sense of self, the sense of being I, can only be felt in the singular. One cannot experience being two or three I’s at the same time.

According to Alan Watts, the disappearance of our memories is not something that should necessarily be regretted. Everyone wishes to hold the memories of the things they like, the memories of loved ones and of joyful experiences, in their mind forever. But, Watts asks, if we really think about it, is that really what we want? He says, “Isn’t it inconceivable that even in a very distant future, we wouldn’t get tired of it?” Then he goes on to suggest that it is actually “the forgetting of things that renews their wonder.” Imagine opening your eyes as a child and seeing how brilliant colors are for the first time, how amazing the sun was up in the sky, how struck by wonder you must have been. The wonder we must have experienced was only because these things were all new to us. Imagine re-reading a book that you’ve read before. If you’ve forgotten the plot of some of the details, it can be quite exciting to re-read it, but if you remember every single detail then it’s likely to be boring and unexciting to re-read it. It is through what Watt’s calls “the dispensation of forgetting” that experiences are renewed again and again, allowing us to fall in love and become deeply attached to things for the first time again with a sense of “renewed intensity.” It’s precisely because we don’t remember having had this experience or similar experiences before that this experience ends up being exciting and meaningful to us.

I would add that there are obviously a great many things that are better off not being remembered forever. It would be better to forever forget traumatic events that make us feel shame, guilt, anger, and sadness. And so the dispensation of forgetting is also a kind of cosmic mercy.

Watts notes that our mental world, the world as we perceive it, is centered where we are. I see things around me from the perspective of looking out through the eyes from the vantage point of this body. You experience the world from the perspective of looking out through the eyes from your body. Watts raises the question, “Why do I feel like the world is centered from this place?” From my perspective, the world is centered where I am but, from your perspective, the world is centered where you are. Meditating upon this makes one realize that everyone has the sense of being I, “everyone’s name is I,” he says. And he continues, “There will always be I’s in the world…. And there is no escape. It goes on and on and on and on. So long as there is consciousness anywhere, there will always be I.”

The Afterlife, generated using AI

Thomas Clark’s Argument for Generic Subjective Continuity

Thomas Clark starts by noting that we often speak of death as “fading into the darkness” or “going into nothingness,” as a “dying of the light.” We reify “nothingness” into a sort of primordial substance into which we will eventually merge. But Clark notes that we can’t experience nothingness when we die — first, because nothingness is not a thing to be experienced and, second, because we won’t be there to experience it.

Clark then moves on to note that lapses in consciousness happen throughout our lives, when we sleep, when we go under anesthesia for surgery, get hit in the head, etc. We never, at any point, experience nothingness or a gap in consciousness. From the point of view of the subject, the individual having the experience, they simply remember going to sleep and the next thing they know they experience the first moment of being awake.

Now suppose that a person is cryogenically frozen, put into a long-term sleep, and then woken from that state a century later. Though a hundred years have passed, there is no experience of a gap in consciousness. The subject just remembers going asleep in the cryo-chamber and then suddenly, the next thing they know, they are awake. They don’t experience “nothingness” in the interim.

Now imagine that the individual who was cryogenically frozen suffers brain damage that erases all of their memories. They experience going to sleep in the cryo-chamber and the next thing they know they are awakened a century later but have no recollection of their previous life, the cryo-chamber, or anything else. There is a subjective continuity here. It’s still the same person before and after. If someone goes to sleep tonight and wakes up tomorrow with amnesia, not remembering their whole life up until that point, they wouldn’t suddenly be a whole new person. It’s still the same stream of consciousness.

Now imagine that someone goes to sleep tonight and dies, the next experience to occur is somebody else waking up for the first time. There’s a sort of generic subjective continuity between the consciousness that was snuffed out in the death of the first individual and the consciousness that was sparked in the birth of the second. How is this scenario different from the case of someone with amnesia, other than the accidental fact that the first scenario takes place within a single body?

I would like for the reader to take a look at the final three paragraphs from Tom Clark’s essay Death, Nothingness, and Subjectivity.

“Despite my naturalistic and materialist caveats at the beginning of this essay, such a conclusion may still seem to have a mystical ring. It may seem as though I give too much weight to the subjective sense of always having been present, and, in claiming that subjectivity, for itself, always “is,” I ignore the vast times and spaces in which no consciousness exists at all. Nevertheless, I believe a materialist can see that consciousness, as a strictly physical phenomenon instantiated by the brain, creates a world subjectively immune to its own disappearance. It is the very finitude of a self-reflective cognitive system that bars it from witnessing its own beginning or ending, and hence prevents there being, for it, any condition other than existing. Its ending is only an event, and its non-existence a current fact, for other perspectives. After death we won’t experience non-being, we won’t “fade to black.” We continue as the generic subjectivity that always finds itself here, in the various contexts of awareness that the physical universe manages to create. So when I recommend that you look forward to the (continuing) sense of always having been here, construe that “you” not as a particular person, but as that condition of awareness, which although manifesting itself in finite subjectivities, nevertheless always finds itself present.

To identify ourselves with generic subjectivity is perhaps as far as the naturalistic materialist can go towards accepting some sort of immortality. It isn’t conventional immortality (not even as good as living in others’ memory, some might think), since there is no “one” who survives, just the persistence of subjectivity for itself. It might be objected that in countering the myth of positive nothingness I go too far in claiming some sort of positive connection between subjectivities, albeit a connection that doesn’t preserve the individual. I might be construed as saying, to borrow the language of a different tradition, that an eternal Subject exists, ever-present in all contexts of experience. I wouldn’t endorse such a construal since it posits an entity above and beyond specific consciousnesses for which there is no evidence; nevertheless such language captures something of the feel for subjectivity and death I want to convey.

It is possible that this view may make it easier to cope with the prospect of personal extinction, since, if we accept it, we can no longer anticipate being hurled into oblivion, to face the eternal blackness that so unsettled Burgess (and, I suspect, secretly bedevils many atheists and agnostics). We may wear our personalities more lightly, seeing ourselves as simply variations on a theme of subjectivity which is in no danger of being extinguished by our passing. Of course we cannot completely put aside our biologically given aversion to the prospect of death, but we can ask, at its approach, why we are so attached to this context of consciousness. Why, if experience continues anyway, is it so terribly important that it continue within this set of personal characteristics, memories, and body? If we are no longer haunted by nothingness, then dying may seem more like the radical refreshment of subjectivity than its extinction.”

Afterlife, generated using AI

Wayne Stewart’s Argument for Existential Passage

In his essay Metaphysics By Default, Wayne Stewart argues that there are three criteria necessary for personal identity. They are: (1) memory, (2) continuity, and (3) subjectivity. In this context, memory refers to the recollection of events of an autobiographical nature rather than simple remembrance of facts and information. Continuity refers to bodily continuity over time and the continuity of the persistence of the same internal perspective over time, which is to say the perspective of this body being the center of the perceptual world or the vantage point from which one sees and hears the external world. Subjectivity refers to consciousness or being aware of this sense of having experiences.

In his essay, Stewart goes to great lengths to demonstrate that all three of these components of self-identity actually have a corporeal basis. He goes into detail about how memory and awareness correspond to objective brain states, then attempts to establish what he calls complete mortality by demonstrating that the breakup of the body irreversibly entails the breakdown of personal identity. Allow me to read a passage from his essay:

“Both subjectivity and memory require bodily continuity for their function. The neurons that comprise the working brain must be kept in a healthy state, continuously, for the duration of life. Damage to the neurons — any break in their continuity — has a deleterious effect. For example, a deficiency of potassium impairs nervous transmissions and is experienced as confusion. So it is almost certain that the onset of continuity must in some way precede the onset of subjectivity and memory during the emergence of consciousness.

As for subjectivity and memory: subjectivity may be more robust than memory. The subjective experience can sustain itself in the event of widespread damage to frontal lobes…. More to the point, infants are seen to exhibit subjective awareness during the period of memory failure known as “infantile amnesia;” and adults also maintain subjectivity when injury leaves them unable to acquire long-term memories. This suggests that the brain can maintain a minimal subjectivity even when a long-term memory system is absent. So perhaps subjectivity in some way precedes memory during the emergence of consciousness.

At birth, the possible order of emergence for personal identity criteria would therefore be:

(1) continuity
(2) subjectivity
(3) memory”

He then notes that the “cell death throughout the brain would break the functional continuity of the nervous system” at death, making it impossible to reinstate personal identity, concluding: “Complete mortality would seem therefore to nullify personal identity at death.”

Wayne Stewart then goes on to explain William James’ notion of a “stream of thought.” Within one’s personal consciousness, thought is sensibly continuous over time. It is “continuous” in the sense of being without any breaches. In other words, as James put it, “thought feels continuous over time.” Any interruption or gap in consciousness is not experienced as such. You simply lay down to sleep at one moment and then wake up the very next moment, when consciousness resumes. When time-gaps occur, the consciousness following waking up “feels as if it belong[s] together with the consciousness before it.” As William James puts it, “Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits.” This seemingly contiguousness is what James calls the “stream of thought,” the apparent continuous flow of consciousness over time.

Stewart proposes that there are two views that must be considered separately on their own terms. There is the external objective view of things and the internal subjective view or the experiential aspect of it. Objectively, we know that consciousness is actually broken and not contiguous over time. Subjectively, however, the experience is felt as a single continuous stream of thought.

Stewart then gives us some thought experiments to think about. The first thought experiment comes from William James and is that of Peter and Paul. He gives us the example of Peter and Paul who both go to sleep and wake up in their own beds, with their own distinct streams of consciousness naturally reconnecting upon waking. The stream of consciousness of Paul prior to sleeping naturally merges with the stream of consciousness of Paul upon awaking from sleep; it never happens that Peter’ and Paul’s streams of consciousness get switched so that Paul goes to sleep and wakes up as Peter. The story highlights that even after periods of unconsciousness, like sleep, each person’s consciousness seamlessly re-establishes connection with their past self. This phenomenon is used to demonstrate the idea that personal consciousness and identity feel continuous and connected over time, despite potential interruptions or time-gaps in conscious experience.

The second thought experiment is that of Paul as an amnesiac. Now suppose that Paul suffers a stroke while sleeping, resulting in total memory loss or amnesia. This event changes his identity from that of Old Paul to that of New Paul. When Paul wakes up, he is no longer the same person as he was before the stroke. This transformation is due to the loss of his memories, which are an essential component of personal identity. Although New Paul cannot remember his past, his conscious existence is a direct continuation from the moment Old Paul’s consciousness was interrupted. New Paul’s consciousness is still a continuation of Old Paul’s life. Even though the memories have vanished, the stream of consciousness of Old Paul nevertheless merges with the stream of consciousness of New Paul.

The third thought experiment is that of Nicos and Thanos. Suppose that Nicos and his wife Casta live together, isolated, with no other sentient beings existing anywhere in the universe. Nicos passes away in his sleep due to old age. However, prior to his death, Casta had conceived a son, Thanos, who is born after Nicos’ death. Upon Nicos’ death, there is an open-ended unfelt time-gap, much like the time-gaps that occurred throughout his life when he went to sleep and awoke the next day — the only difference is that this time gap is open-ended. With the death and decay of his body, the memories contained within his brain cannot be restored. Stewart refers to this type of open-ended unfelt time-gap as “mortal amnesia:” or “the forgetfulness of existence we can associate with the failure of the criteria of personal identity.” After Nicos’ death, his son Thanos is born. From an external objective point of view, we see complete mortality — Nicos is gone forever. However, from the internal subjective point of view, non-existence or gaps in consciousness is not something that is ever experienced. From the perspective of subjectivity, there is simply an unfelt time-gap between the death of Nicos and the birth of Thanos. Nicos’ death is tantamount to the death of Old Paul in the previous thought experiment, and Thanos’ birth is tantamount to the birth of New Paul upon waking up with amnesia. Thus, from the perspective of subjective experience, there is a single continuous stream of thought flowing from Nicos into Thanos. This flow is what Thomas Clark had called generic subjective continuity but Wayne Stewart refers to it as existential passage, the existential passage of consciousness from one life to the next.

Next, Stewart introduces the metaphor of two connected islands. A group of travelers on a cruise stop off on an island. The travelers see a second island off in the distance. The islanders tell them that there is actually only one island. And, lo and behold, when the tide rolls back, a land bridge between the two islands emerges. This land bridge is likened to the existential passage between Nicos’ and Thanos’ streams of consciousness. The two islands are actually separate peaks on the same underwater mountain. In fact, all islands and continents are connected in the same way, such that if the entire ocean dried up, there would simply be one big piece of land spanning the entire planet. Stewart suggests that consciousness is actually something like this.

The existential passage between lives does not entail the transfer of memories or bodily continuity but only the natural shift of an awareness of existence from one individual to another, facilitated by the cessation of one life and the commencement of another. Of course there is a loss of Nicos’ personal identity, which was bound up with his memories which were physically stored within his brain, but, at the same time, there is a sort of generic subjectivity spanning these two streams of consciousness. The case of Nicos dying and Thanos waking to a new life is substantially no different than the case of Old Paul losing his memories upon having a stroke and New Paul waking up with amnesia.

Karmic Rebirth

So Stewart, like Watts and Clark, basically arrives at a naturalistic conception of an afterlife that looks very much like the Buddhist concept of rebirth. The only thing that makes their concepts different from the Buddhist conception is that there is no karmic link between lives. In their conceptions, the stream of consciousness of the one who dies simply links up with the next new stream of consciousness to emerge after the first person’s death. Nevertheless, I think it is quite easy to integrate a conception of something like karma into this naturalist framework of generic subjective continuity.

In the Itivuttaka, the Buddha says:

“If this person [with a corrupt mind] were to die at this time, he would definitely be born in hell, as if a heavy load were to be dropped down on one’s head. What is the reason for that, it is because his mind is corrupt. It is because of the mind’s corruption that some beings in this world, at the breakup of the body after death, are reborn in the plane of misery…” and “If this person [with a pleased mind] were to die at this time, he would definitely be born in heaven…What is the reason for this? It is because his mind is pleased. It is because of the mind’s confidence that some beings in this world, at the breakup of the body after death, are reborn in a good destination.”(Itivuttaka 20–21)

It’s interesting here that, according to the Buddha, the state of consciousness at the exact moment of death supersedes everything else that one has done. Why is this? I suppose because the state of mind that one is in at that final moment is the causal effect of all karmic events preceding it within one’s lifetime. I propose, then, that all of the karmic actions throughout one’s life only matter to the extent that they determine one’s state of mind. If I meditate daily and do charity work on a regular basis, I am more likely to be in a calm and peaceful state at the moment of death. If I am habitually rude and hateful to those around me, I’m more likely to be in an unpleasant state of mind at the moment of my departure.

Now I ask, within the framework of generic subjective continuity or existential passage, why would we assume that the passage is from one conscious entity to the very next conscious entity that is born and not that the passage goes from that conscious entity to the very next entity with a similar baseline consciousness? Why should my stream of consciousness link up with the very next being’s stream of consciousness to emerge? Why not, instead, conceive of the existential passage going from me at death to the very next person born who is “on the same frequency” as me.

There’s a passage in one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books where he talks about people asking him for his email or phone number so that they can “keep in touch.” Instead, he suggests that if they truly want to stay in touch, they should just do their meditation like he has taught them because when they are in the meditative state like he is, their streams of consciousness align, and even if separated by thousands of miles, that is as close as two people can ever actually be. The Buddha says the following in the Itivuttaka:

“Monks, even if a monk, grabbing hold of my robe, following right behind me and placing his feet in my footsteps, were greedy for sense pleasures, strongly passionate, angry, corrupt in thought, unmindful, lacking awareness, unconcentrated, confused, and living with uncontrolled sense faculties, then he would be far from me, as I am far from him. What is the reason? Because, monks, that monk does not see the Dharma. Not seeing the Dharma, he does not see me.
“But monks, even if a monk were living one hundred miles away and had no greed for sense pleasures, was not strongly passionate, nor angry, was uncorrupted in thought and lived with mindfulness established, with wise awareness, with a concentrated and unified mind, and with controlled sense faculties, then he would be very close to me and I would be very close to him. What is the reason? Because, monks, that monk sees the Dharma. Seeing the Dharma, he sees me.”

What Gautama Buddha and Thich Nhat Hanh were suggesting is that the closest two beings can ever be to one another is when they are “on the same frequency” or in the same states of mind. If we were to meditate just like Buddha and Thich Nhat Hanh, perhaps our state of mind would at some point perfectly align with theirs such that our consciousnesses would become essentially the same if not for the accidental features of our bodies and memories that make us separate.

Now I want to suggest that the link between lives is very much like this closeness that Thich Nhat Hanh and the Buddha describe. If I cultivate virtue throughout my life, behaving in a good manner and developing good habits of thought, that will help me to form a baseline consciousness that is relatively pleasant. Then, when I die, my consciousness will transfer to the next being that is born on the same frequency as me. And so, we see here a model of generic subjective continuity that closely resembles the Buddhist doctrine of karmic rebirth. And this conception of karmic rebirth can be extrapolated from nothing but naturalistic premises.

It appears then that the Buddhist narrative of streams of consciousness trapped in samsara, the cycle of rebirth, can be demonstrated to be basically true if the perspective of modern scientific naturalism is correct. If naturalism is true, then some sort of generic subjective continuity that closely resembles rebirth can be logically demonstrated to take place. Wayne Stewart has criticized my position on karmic rebirth on the grounds that such terms as “baseline consciousness” are vague, but I would point out that metaphysics and mysticism is a realm of philosophy where precision of language is impossible. I’m also not a scholar, so I don’t really care to spend too much time refining my terminology and defining terms in order to convince philosophers that I am correct. As a Buddhist, I feel like this is a good way of looking at the afterlife and I’ve yet to encounter any arguments to convince me that this is not what happens when we die.


Supposing that we really are stuck in samsara, as the thought experiments of Watts, Clark, and Stewart suggest, and further supposing that it is our state of consciousness at the moment of death that links streams of consciousness between lives, could we not fit something like nirvana into this framework? I believe that we can. If we cultivate mindfulness and extinguish the fires of craving, developing a state of mu-shin or “empty-mindedness” and we depart this world in that state of mind, would that perhaps bring the stream of consciousness either to extinguishment or to connection with the minds of all other enlightened beings? That might, perhaps, be what nirvana actually is. From our perspective, such nirvana might look like extinction but, as we saw at the beginning of this essay, ultimate reality is timeless. Ultimately, then, nirvana can be seen as passing into eternity or, as the Buddha put it, going through “the gate of the deathless” by awakening to the Real. So all of the components of the Buddhist conception of rebirth, including karma and nirvana, seem to be compatible with a modern scientific naturalist worldview.


It appears then that the modern scientific naturalist worldview and our current understanding of the world indicates that the core insights of mysticism are probably correct. Among these insights are: (1) non-dualism or the unity of being, (2) the unity of consciousness, (3) rebirth in the afterlife, and (4) immortality.

P. S.
Empirical Mysticism?

It seems odd to me that the modern scientific understanding of the nature of the world should lead to a conclusion roughly in accord with the claims of mysticism. We started with a naturalist worldview and arrived at a sort of naturalist mystical perspective, realizing that — if our current understanding of the science is correct — it seems to be the case that the claims of mysticism about the unity of being, unity of consciousness, rebirth, and immortality are all, in some sense, basically true. We have arrived at this conclusion through abstract philosophical speculation based upon premises that proponents of modern scientific naturalism would acknowledge as true. However, mystics throughout history have claimed to have arrived at these conclusions through direct experience of the oneness of being. They claim that one can directly experience the reality of these claims through a mixture of ascetic and meditative practices. This raises the question of whether or not there is something to these claims. Is it possible that the unity of being and unity of consciousness are things that can actually be directly experienced? This also suggests that mysticism, ideally, ought to be empirical.

In their best moments, mystics have beckoned others to empirically test their claims. Mysticism is not about abstract philosophical speculation but, rather, about direct experience of the ultimate nature of reality. Al-Ghazali claims that sufi mysticism opens another eye that allows one to see ultimate reality.

“Beyond the stage of intellect, there is another stage. In this another eye is opened, by which man sees the hidden….
“This is what is meant by prophecy…. the perception of this kind of thing which is outside the things normally perceived by the intellect….
“Therefore, seek sure and certain knowledge of prophecy [through fruitional experience], not from the changing of the staff into a serpent and the splitting of the moon….
“[I]f your faith were based on a carefully ordered argument about the way the apologetic miracle affords proof of prophecy, your faith would be broken by an equally well-ordered argument showing how difficulty and doubt may affect that mode of proof…. Fruitional experience, on the other hand, is comparable to actual seeing and handling; this is found only in the way of the sufis.” — Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (
Al-Ghazali’s Path to Sufism: his DELIVERANCE from ERROR, al-Munqidh min al-Dalal [translated by R. J. McCarthy])

The occultist and mystic Aliester Crowley holds that the experiences of occultists and mystics are real and naturally follow from the practices that they prescribe. Crowley argues that one can replicate these results by doing what mystics and occultists have done before but warns that one ought to remain skeptical and not rush to the conclusion that visions or hallucinations prove the real existence of the things and entities encountered.

“In this book it is spoken of the Sephiroth and the Paths; of Spirits and Conjurations; of Gods, Spheres, Planes, and many other things which may or may not exist. It is immaterial whether these exist or not. By doing certain things certain results will follow; students are most earnestly warned against attributing objective reality or philosophic validity to any of them.” — Aleister Crowley (Book IV)

This sort of skeptical approach, unfortunately, is almost never consistently maintained by the proponents of empirical mysticism. You will see the basis of an empirical mysticism in the writings of sufis and hesychasts but they quickly go off into ungrounded speculation and attempt to reconcile their experiences to the scriptures and ideas of their religious traditions. Thus, John Romanides, for instance, presents a muddled empirical mysticism juxtaposed to the idea of scriptural authority and the presupposition that mystical experiences prove the real existence of the thing experienced.

“With the exception of Christ in His human nature, nothing in the created world is an image of God.
“This is the reason why we are free to borrow any name or concept and attribute it to God as long as we do so in an apophatic way, because God does not have any likeness in the created world and because there are no concepts in the created world that can be attributed to God as a way of identifying Him. So on the one hand, we do attribute a name to God, but only if, on the other hand, we also take it away from Him. For example, although we say that God is Light, we negate this at the same time by saying that God is also darkness….
“This means that the Fathers do not follow the rules of logic when they deal with theological matters or talk about God. Why? Because the rules of logic are valid, in so far as they are valid, only for God’s creation. The rules of logic or philosophy are not applicable with God. There is not any philosophical system or system of logic that can be applied to God. The Fathers consider those who think that they can approach God via pure mathematics to be terribly näive, simply because there is no similarity between the created and uncreated. What is valid in the created realm is not valid for the uncreated reality that is God, because there are no rules from created reality that can be applied to uncreated reality.
“The Fathers do not say anything about God on the basis of philosophical reflection. They do not sit at their desks like the Scholastics in order to do theology, because when the Church Fathers theologize, speculation or reflection is strictly forbidden. The only sensible way to study the Bible is not to speculate (that is, to try to understand Holy Scripture by employing reason or abstractions), but to pray. But what do we mean by prayer? Noetic prayer, because noetic prayer means that the Holy Spirit visits the believer and prays within his heart. When this occurs, the believer is illumined and becomes capable of rightly understanding….
“If and when someone reaches
theosis, he will know from the very experience of theosis precisely what is meant by the sayings and concepts that he comes across in the Bible.” — John Romanides (Patristic Theology, Part 1, § 21)

There is a terrible inconsistency in the logic of the mystics. On the one hand, they describe an ultimate reality that is “absolutely other,” one that cannot properly be anthropomorphized and, yet, on the other hand, they go on to anthropomorphize it and identify it with the personal God of their respective religious tradition. What they claim to have experienced seems utterly different from the God of their respective traditions yet they constantly attempt to identify the Real that they experience with the deity described by the theology of their tradition.

There is a strain of occultist thought known as “results-based magick” or “chaos magick,” which attempts to apply a scientific approach to mystical and occult practices. This approach essentially says that, rather than engaging in belief or disbelief, we ought to put the claims of mystics and magickians to the test. There are rituals, formulas, and methods used in all mystical, shamanic, and occult systems. The results-based magick approach urges us to see if we can scientifically replicate the results of mystics and occultists by doing what they did.

This approach is, in many ways, similar to the approaches of Orthodox hesychasts within Christianity and sufis within Islam. These traditions within Christianity and Islam represent a flawed and inconsistent version of a sort of “scientific mysticism.” Mystics like St. Gregory Palamas and al-Ghazali followed a formula — a method passed down through an apostolic tradition, tracing back to the prophets of old. The problem with sufi and hesychast mystics is that they work within a religious framework and tend to get sucked into the snares of dogma. When they do the meditative techniques and the rituals and something happens, they take it for granted that this something happening confirms the objective truth of the particular religious framework within which they are working. If you want to have an encounter with the “divine light” or see Mother Mary or Christ face-to-face, there is a method for doing so! But the fact that mystical and occult practices cause one to have visions and hear things does not confirm the objective reality of the things that one experiences as a result of said practices. The fact that an experience is real does not tell you what the reality behind that experience truly is. If you smoke salvia divinorum, you may see extra-terrestrial entities — that doesn’t mean that the aliens you encounter are really real.

It is entirely possible that the practices prescribed by mystics and occultists do actually lead to certain experiences but that these experiences are merely hallucinations. It is also possible that some of these experiences are entirely baseless hallucinations with no grounding in reality whereas others have some basis in the really real. Unfortunately, all knowledge is conjectural so no certainty can ever be achieved. We can only approach things empirically and tentatively hold to what seems true — we can never really know what is really real.

My current approach to mysticism and the occult is heavily influenced by this results-based magick approach, as found in the thought of people like Austin Osman Spare, Aleister Crowley, Peter Carroll, Phil Hine, Andrieh Vitimus, Alan Moore, and Robert Anton Wilson. I would not say that I adhere to “chaos magick” in particular because — although chaos magic and results-based magick are almost synonymous — I feel that chaotes often drift towards something less scientific. Orthodox Christian mystics warn that “spiritual delusion” (plani or prelest) is the biggest danger a mystic can run into, so having an experienced and well-grounded guide through the mystical landscape is necessary. One should take counsel from someone who has walked this path before but avoid the peril of turning them into an exalted guru or quasi-divine being. On the one hand, it is easy to put too much faith in one’s guide but, on the other hand, you may need someone to help you screw your head back on after it floats away from you.

I propose a scientific approach to mysticism and occult practices — a sort of results-based mysticism that remains ever-skeptical but also tries to empirically test the claims of mystics. If I chant this mantra and meditate in this way, do I have such-and-such an experience as a result? And, to what extent do the mystical experiences that I encounter seem to accord with what logic suggests the ultimate nature of reality is?

I think that this approach would have a lot of value but I also believe that there is a real danger in it. As far as I can tell, no one has ever consistently applied such an empirical approach, so it may be the case that some degree of delusion is inevitable when going down the road of mysticism.



Progress & Conservationđź”°

Radical centrist, functional finance, universal healthcare, social dividend, universal basic income, land value tax, nominal GDP targeting, social democracy