Stace and the Question of Objectivity in Mysticism (1996)

Mark I. Vuletic


[This paper was written for a seminar in mysticism taught by Neal Grossman at The University of Illinois at Chicago in Spring, 1996]

In Chapter 3 of Mysticism and Philosophy, W.T. Stace considers the question of whether the mystical experience is objective "in the sense that it gives information about the nature of the world outside the human mind"(134).[1] This question - as precisely phrased by Stace - should strike the reader as strange, since Stace characterizes the introvertive mystical experience as involving experiential certainty that ultimate reality is human mind at its deepest level. However, I presume Stace's intent was to ask whether the mystical experience provides evidence for a reality beyond both the conscious human mind of day-to-day existence, and the unconscious mind acknowledged by psychology - that is to say, Stace is asking whether the "reality" experienced in the mystical experience is "really there" as opposed to being an illusion generated by the mind. The answer that Stace wishes to argue for is that mystical experiences[2] are neither objective nor subjective - they fall into a third, non-traditional category which Stace calls "transsubjectivity." I will argue that the creation of a new category is unnecessary, and that Stace's conclusion derives more from misconstrual of the question than from the nature of the mystical experience itself.

Order and Objectivity

Stace starts out in chapter 3 by establishing that mere unanimity across isolated cultures and peoples is not enough to prove the objectivity of mystical experiences.[3] He then argues that orderliness in internal and external relations is the missing component that, when added to unanimity, provides the necessary and sufficient conditions for an experience being objective. Likewise, disorderliness in either relation is enough to show that an experience is subjective (see 140). By "orderliness," Stace means "regularity of succession, repetition of pattern, 'constant conjunction' of specifiable items" (140). With this definition of order in place, Stace can argue that mystical experiences are not objective, because

the very essence of the [introvertive mystical] experience is that it is undifferentiated, distinctionless, and destitute of all multiplicity. There are no distinguishable items or events among which repeatable patterns or regular sequences could be traced. With this the claim of introvertive experience to objectivity collapses. (144)

But neither can the mystical experience be subjective, because "subjective" implies either privateness or disorder to Stace. We cannot say, Stace argues, that mystical experiences are either ordered or disordered, because they have no parts to be compared and contrasted with one another or with the order of the natural world - only sequences of experiences can be ordered or disordered.[4] But, Stace concludes, mystical experiences must be something, so if they are neither objective nor subjective, we have to create a new category - transsubjective - for them.

Objections to Stace

But this just will not do. Let us recall the original question: does the mystical experience provide evidence for a reality beyond both the conscious human mind of day-to-day existence, and the unconscious mind acknowledged by psychology? This is not a question that admits of degrees. Either mystical experiences are creations of the mind,[5] or else they are evidence of a reality beyond the mind. If we take a subjective experience to be one that is mind-generated, and an objective experience to be one that is not,[6] then it is clear that every experience must be one or the other.

So how does Stace manage to create such a mess out of such a straightforward question? I believe the answer lies in the fact that Stace's criteria do not really provide necessary and sufficient conditions for objectivity and subjectivity. To demonstrate this, let us consider the following case:

Imagine a clan that lives in the desert, no member of which has never seen an open pool of water (the clansmen get their water from wells). The clansmen are accustomed, however, to seeing mirages, and are fully aware of the constant conjunction of approaching large bodies of water and the subsequent vanishing of those bodies. One day, Ibn - a member of the clan - while out alone, approaches what seems to be a mirage, and walks straight into a water hole.

Ibn's experience is private, since he is alone,[7] and his experience is disordered, because it violates the "regularity of succession" that Ibn knew so well up until the instant he walked into the water hole. Yet the experience is objective because, after all, the water hole really was there. Now recall, also, that up until Ibn has his experience, the clan is accustomed to seeing large bodies of water vanish when they get close to them. This experience is unanimous in the tribe, and it is ordered, because it represents a constant conjunction of events with which the clan is familiar - as far as they know, water holes always vanish when you approach them. But the experience of seeing water vanishing is not objective in the sense of proving that actual physical water out there vanishes when a conscious entity gets close to it. The experience is subjective for the purpose of Stace's question, even though the experience is public and ordered. Ibn's case shows that order is not necessary for objectivity. The clan's case shows that order is not sufficient for objectivity. Once we patch up the criterion for order, it will no doubt turn out that objectivity and subjectivity are, after all, the mutually exclusive and exhaustive categories they need to be for the purposes of Stace's question (see Appendices A and B). Therefore, Stace's current analysis is insufficient to show that we need a third category to describe mystical experiences.

So since Stace has somehow managed to evade his own question, how do we answer it? I believe the only way to determine whether something counts as "objective" is to see whether it fits in with our best theories about the nature of reality. If our best the ories are materialistic ones, then the mystical experience is subjective - an experience dependent upon the properties of the human brain, rather than upon the existence of a cosmic mind or "world-soul". If our best theory of reality is mystical, however, then the mystical experience is very likely[8] to be objective, because it may well depend upon the actual perception[9] of the cosmic mind (or whatever). Of course, all of this leaves the question of which theory is our "best" theory, but this is an issue for philosophy of science to decide - we apparently decide between theories on the basis of explanatory power, parsimony, degrees of falsifiability, internal coherence, and so forth. Which theory has more of these virtues? Which one is more of a stretch - to posit a world soul, or to posit mass-illusion on the part of the mystics? I will not attempt to answer this question here; it is sufficient to note that whichever way we decide, we will not end up labeling mystical experiences as "transsubjective."

To close, let me note as an aside that the theoretical considerations I have discussed help show why Stace's proof based upon the indiscernibility of the "object" of the mystical experience (149-152) fails - we may have qualitatively identical experiences, but we decide what is behind our experiences by reference to whatever theory we use to interpret reality. Stace argues that the "One" at the basis of the mystical experience, being partless, is indiscernible from one person's experience to another's. But this is not necessarily so. If our best theory of reality is a materialistic one, we will presume that mystical experiences are something purely in the mind. In this case, people can have the "same" experience qualitatively, but they will not have exact ly the same experience because the reality underlying the two is the discharge of two sets of neurons that are at some spatiotemporal distance from one another. By reference to this spatiotemporal interval, we can, as materialists, differentiate between the two experiences. Whether such a differentiation is possible depends, of course, upon whether one accepts a materialistic theory to begin with. It is a sufficient answer to Stace, however, to just note that the strength of his proof comes entirely from mystical theoretical premises smuggled in, and those premises must be justified independently before his proof can carry any weight.


James, William. 1902. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Penguin.

Stace, W.T. 1960. Mysticism and Philosophy. Los Angeles: Tarcher.

Appendix A

I have very strong doubts about whether any definition of "order" will simultaneously (1) correctly provide the conditions for "objectivity," and (2) satisfy Stace. This is because Stace wants to allow for the possibility of an order that does not correspond to the order present in the physical world - he believes "it is possible to conceive that there is somewhere a systematic order of events which the laws would be quite different from those with which we are familiar" (140). But if this is so, then constant conjunction seems to be all that is required for an experience to be ordered, since scientific laws express only one possible systematic order of events. But imagine now, that humans are constructed such that every time they fall asleep, they dream they are in France. Now, while teleportation to France is not possible given our current scientific knowledge, the experience present in the dream is ordered and unanimous, because the same thing happens every time anyone falls asleep. But clearly, the dream is subjective. The reality behind their experience is not that they are teleported to France. Or, once again, consider the pre-Ibn clansmen. The same problem arises. It seems to me that the only account of "order" that gives a solid match to "objectivity" is a theory-dependent version - by this account, an "ordered sequence of events" is just "any sequence of events that our best theory says is ordered." This account, of course, leaves the door open to the whole theoretical debate we ran into in the conclusion, but at least it dispenses of the need for any weird third category of "x-jectivity."

Appendix B

Stace might argue that the mystical experience cannot be considered objective or subjective on any account of order and disorder, precisely because the experience has no parts. But this argument, while admirably subtle, rests on a false premise. Remember that it is sequences of events that satisfy the condition of being ordered or disordered. Stace is correct that we cannot level an internal criticism against the mystical experience, because there is no sequence within the mystical experience to examine. However, we can clearly examine the mystical experience externally. All we need to do is imagine a sequence of events that contains a mystical experience, and ask our theory whether or not this is an ordered sequence of events. This is how we are able to tell that vivid dreams are subjective - we have a sequence of orderly events punctuated by a sub-sequence in which the dreamer (who went to bed in his home in New Brunswick) finds himself in France, which is impossible according to our best physical theories.[10] In the case of a sequence of events containing a mystical experience, we have a sequence of orderly events punctuated by the dissolution of the ego into the cosmic mind, or the sudden realization that everything is One, which is definitely disorderly on a materialist account, but perfectly orderly on some non-materialist accounts. The absence of parts in the mystical experience does not prevent us from being able to determine whether it disrupts the orderliness of a sequence it interrupts.


[1] All page numbers refer to Stace, 1960.

[2] Whether introvertive or extrovertive.

[3] Stace argues for the unanimity of mystical experiences in chapter 1 of Stace, 1960; see also James, 1902, for more extensive argumentation in favor of unanimity. I do not necessarily agree with either Stace or James, but we can assume they are correct for the purposes of this paper.

[4] Likewise for the extrovertive mystical experience, because "the multiplicity in the experience is not as such a mystical perception. Only the oneness is. But the oneness as such has no multiplicity and no distinguishable items in it"(146).

[5] When I use the word "mind", I refer only to the conscious and unconscious mind as described in the first paragraph. Hence, "mind-generated""should not be taken as including that which (if anything) is generated by a cosmic mind.

[6] Except insofar as the mind acts as a perceiver, and interprets the reality it sees.

[7] If you wish, we can also imagine that the water pool dries up before anyone else from his camp can verify that it was there.

[8] Nothing about the existence of a world soul entails that no experience of the world soul can be a neurological illusion, just as the existence of humans in the materialist view does not entail the objectivity of every experience in which one seems to come into contact with humans.

[9] Or perhaps "sensation" or "experience" is better, since the subject-object distinction is supposed to break down in mystical experiences.

[10] Or "impossible for all practical purposes" for those who worry about quantum tunnelling.

Copyright © 2002, Mark I. Vuletic. All rights reserved.