A note on the title:
(1) "Midwestern" means, among many other things, something taken for granted. So are the revelations about which I write. But the Midwest is the breadbasket of the land.
(2) I spent eighteen years in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, where I had my share of Midwestern Revelations.
(3) A good friend who wants to be a folk singer wrote a fine song by the same name. One of the chorus lines runs like this: "Can you believe in what's revealed?"
Men of science have experimented with "pleasure centers" in the brain; we know the effect their stimulation has had in animals. We can picture the monkey, clutching a lever, replenishing with quick jerks his artificial stimulation, again and again, in unquestioned preference to any more natural satisfaction. But let's indulge our imagination further, and consider a much evolved version of this apparatus, one extremely sophisticated and "humanized." We believe our own pleasures to be subtle and complex — we will have, then, the most complex of pleasure machines. We will call it, as others have before, the Experience Machine — meaning by that term whatever process science realizes someday that is able to reproduce in human consciousness, with perfect verisimilitude, any and all experiences, feelings, or thoughts that one ever might desire. Equally possible would be any matrix of experiences, however complex. In considering the machine, the first thing we should do is remember how often it seems that the essential motivation for everything we do is the knowledge (or hope) that we will, in some sense, feel good while or after we do it. We must assume that the Experience Machine, hardly expending a microwatt, would be able to produce immediately all such good feelings — across the widest spectrum of "good" that we can imagine. It would specialize in making men feel absolutely right about themselves and their world. All synthetic experiences, played directly through brain centers, would be vivid, convincing, and wholly indistinguishable from their real counterparts.
In the Spring of 1973, Philosophy Professor Robert Nozick challenged a class of students filling most of Harvard's largest lecture hall with the prospect of plugging into such a perfected Experience Machine. He included the assurance that anyone agreeing to become a new Man of Experience could opt to either pre-program his own full-life experience before the final hook-up, or choose a more random and surprising array of experience, selected carefully by others. And the hook-up must be permanent. Out of the hundreds, two confessed willingness — even anxiousness — to plug in immediately. They offered reasons: the Machine would not only guarantee the realization of all their more realistic hopes, but could just as surely provide the satisfaction of their most unlikely dreams. It offered, to them, the fullest imaginable life — or even fuller, for the Machine could make them Everyman.
Yet the disturbing thing was not the response of these two, but that of the other hundreds. When Nozick asked that someone take up the majority's side, there was an astonishingly long pause in which no one spoke — no one attempted to defend "real life" against the Machine. Finally, there were some hasty declarations, but none seemed to make sense under scrutiny. For none could stand up to Nozick's persistent question: "Yes, but what in the world are you hoping to gain, in the end, that is not simply a reproducible mental experience?" Nothing, we knew, for there is nothing conceivable for a human being that is not a mental experience. It was a strange and shaky moment for all of us — knowing we were somehow right, but having no adequate reasons why. It was a feeling rather like that of a small child, who lacks the verbal and logical facilities to defend some great certainty.
Troubled, remembering that confused time, I've been wondering about an ultimate pledge of allegiance. The world is forever producing people and things that want to challenge our allegiance at the most fundamental level: prophets, great teachers, new gurus and philosophers; the primitive's, the chemist's discoveries of substances to alter consciousness; techniques that bring bliss; and now, the advent of the ability of science and technology to manipulate our brains and our genes and hence all we know, all we experience, all we are. We must evaluate and decide what we want to do with these offers — embrace one, ignore most, ridicule some, battle with a few. But we would do well to explore, early on, the very process we go through in judging the worth, or the "truth," of available marked changes in our consciousness. We should pay particular attention to how we deal with those who declare they have discovered or mastered the answer and the way, and offer us the unusual fruits of their realizations.
Many grandiose claims are made; it seems that recently they've been rather rapidly accumulating. But to begin, let's set up a rather distant boundary, to define the limits of the field of thought in which we will run. For an initial example, we'll take up the invention that is most extreme — our Experience Machine.
Given as an alternative to life as we live it, rarely would any of us choose to spend all his days in our benevolent Machine. That is, most of us would not choose this kind of life of continued and guaranteed bliss — or one offering the certain attainment of all desired experiences — no matter how much we're frustrated, suffering, or just uncertain in this more risky one. The Experience Machine is not a sufficiently attractive offering, though it can fully realize everything experience has to offer. The troublesome, but apparently unavoidable conclusion is that we are interested in something more than our experiences. But of course, we can't conceive of anything beyond experience, and this reasoning leads only in circles. So, perhaps we should rephrase the claim that we are interested in something more than experience, so that it goes something like this: we demand that our experiences be of a certain nature, or posses a certain quality. But even with this, we remain before the mouth of our Machine — which is nicely capable of producing just those "experiences of a certain nature" that we decide we value so much.
No, we have to try to approach this puzzle from another angle. Let's look at a man who has succumbed, lying for forty years in a small dark room, electrodes fastened to his skull, experiencing, moment by moment, his greatest satisfactions, realizing every dream, creating and implementing his own values, constructing, perhaps struggling for, but surely reaching each new goal. Looking at him now, from our vantage point on the outside, we're vastly interested, but probably revolted — we decide that man is nothing, not a man, an indefinite experiencing mass, a passive receptor, a perversion of human being. We pronounce the verdict that the essence of that man's being is a self-imposed deception. Though we all hold our own deceptions, what is most alarming about this man's is its completeness. He has decided to be wholly fooled into believing, in his electrical dream, that he is doing the things that normally might bring the satisfactions he is enjoying. And we, looking on, know that he does nothing, he is nothing, his blanket of deception is absolute, and admits no light. Combining those terrible attributes, and throwing them over, we propose that the real reason we long for certain experiences or satisfactions from life is not simply to enjoy them — but that we long, still more, to actually be the way, or actually do the things, necessary to gain those experiences. That seems to provide us with some structure for explaining our revulsion, and sits well with placable conscience. But it is too convenient and limited a rationalization, and fails to do justice to the difficult questions that prompted it. Those questions will come up again.
Recall the notion we've neglected just now — that the man we've peered in on lives in perfect peace — or ecstasy if he likes — and will be happy every moment of his life, if he likes, and come to death without fear. We, who look on with disdain, must struggle with the loneliness, the fears, the lurking despair, surely the misunderstanding and grief, the painful and the sickening in life — they always find their way back to plague us. Yes, that Man of Experience is deceived, and we can say, with confidence, "We are something, he is nothing." But what are we, if "being something" is so much worth our defense? How can we be so certain and self-righteous in our rejection of the Machine's deception, its guaranteed way of living our lives for us? How do we know that this life is not something we might just as well step out of, in the easiest, most enjoyable way possible — by being fulfilled to perfection for the rest of our days in the benevolent current of our Experience Machine?
A distinction that was too quickly passed over should be reiterated here. There is a vast difference between how we feel about the possibility of strapping into the Experience Machine, as we consider it from the outside, and how we would feel once we were fully under its influence. From the outside, something anonymous in our mind tells us that to plug in is not right, would not be good. But once plugged in, everything in our mind would be telling us blazingly and continually that all is good, that all is right. It should shock us to admit that our minds can be that fundamentally changed, and by something man could invent. And whenever we talk of the Machine, we should think of it as only an exaggerated analogue to many of man's other inventions. It is important to realize that things and processes with less of an iron grip than the Experience Machine hold the power to change us, too, and fundamentally. And certainly, one is far more likely to willingly enter a refuge that is subtler than our Machine. How often do we consider someone who is experimenting with, or has embraced what he claims as a new awareness, and judge, "That man is incapable of seeing anything objectively anymore," or "He's not in contact with reality." Such judgments, clearly, are simply toned-down versions of the verdict we returned on the ecstatic Man of Experience with electrodes in his brain.
There are so many offers made us, promising a change in our view of the world, a great upwelling of happiness and peace, spiritual one-pointedness, celestial music, realized archetypes, or the energy of creation. All these are surely less complete in their influence and control than our perplexing Machine — but how are they different in kind? And especially, how do they escape the charges leveled against electric Experience of loosening our hold on precious reality, and substituting created or imposed experience for the "real"?
The man caught up in mystic raptures, or in the bliss of perfected meditation, is hardly more likely or able to abandon his practice than our Experiencer is to throw off his electrodes. We will not admit that it is satisfaction or the greater bliss to which we owe our highest allegiance; those are the freest gifts of our spurned Machine. But satisfaction or bliss — once fully achieved by us, or granted to us — would enthrall us automatically and completely, regardless of their source. Satisfaction and bliss — once fully achieved — would immediately silence all arguments we may have had against whatever process brings them on. We admit that, once plugged in to the Experience Machine, we would feel no lack; we would experience complete satisfaction by definition. Yet now, as we are on our own, not hooked to anything but the basic output of our world, we decided — because we intuit — that something human would nevertheless be lacking for the man who joins the Machine.
It's clear, then, that we think there is something special, some quality or potentiality about our present condition, which would vanish as soon as we entered the Machine — something, we have to assert, that is more precious to us than that which is most precious, bliss. And it must be very different from bliss, for this most precious thing cannot, paradoxically, be any kind of experience. Even though we may never hope to attain that sense of completion and fulfillment and security in truth that is the constant nirvana of the plugged-in man, we think we're on to something better. This becomes especially odd when one considers that most major religions have promised nothing more at the end of our corporeal existence than what the plugged-in man might be continually enjoying. And as for those of us who have abandoned hope for a conventional heaven, do we want to throw away the chance for the only one we might attain?
We do. Or at least for this electric one. Then what is this thing to which we pledge our ultimate allegiance? A fiat seems to have come to us, in this case, from a faculty other than the rational. We more or less intuit that we can't use that Machine, and then, only later, force ourselves to shuffle into reasons why not, most or all of which break down under fire. Whatever is operative in evaluating and rejecting the Machine, it is something deeply ingrained, largely taken for granted, and mostly inarticulate. It's not something we think about very frequently; we'll try to think about it a bit more now.
Our general goal is to build toward a cogent, unified insight into ourselves, our universe, and our relationship to that universe — ourselves, that is, in full context. And our purpose in that is to derive some ideas on how we should live. When we are offered a fundamentally new or different way to live, we need a way to evaluate and respond. In response to the Experience Machine, we've answered with a firm no, and justified the answer with what is really a makeshift and equivocal notion that a man must be, not just experience what being can produce, and that "live" must remain an active verb. But beyond claiming that such is the nature of being human, this offers no explanation. One could construct a plausible case that the true goal of being human is to build a world in which all men can escape their deficiencies and achieve full satisfaction, by whatever means possible. The Experience Machine would mark the onset, then, of the first real Golden Age on this planet. All earlier human efforts would be justified by our final creation — a Machine to grant all men the fullest, happiest of lives. To deny that scenario, perhaps we can't go much beyond assertion. But now, we need the refreshment of a new perspective.
Leo Tolstoy was plunged, in his late forties, into doubt almost deep as despair; all his formulations and habituations fell away. For a time, he felt that "Had a fairy come and offered to fulfill my desires, I should not have known what to ask." In the radical revision of his perspective and aims that he forged in the next years, Tolstoy tells us eloquently and dramatically that faith is necessary for a man to live. In the broadest sense, faith must mean the simple belief that one's way of understanding himself and the universe is important and valid. Essentially, the man who refuses the Machine does so because he has faith in his conception of his life and its purpose. Whatever that faith is specifically, however dogmatic or uncertain, it is strictly incompatible with the passivity and deception of life in the Machine. Is it a blind faith, then, that we all exhibit as we reject that waiting mechanical Eden, or so many other nearer approaches to paradise? A kind of prejudiced, self-righteous closed-mindedness, honorably disguised?
We require a short digression. Let's consider, briefly, mystical experiences; I think we'll discover some useful clues. William James, in his careful and sensitive inquiry, The Varieties of Religious Experience, provides us with some criteria: mystical experiences are intense and ineffable, and their insights are wholly convincing. These are the times when complete affirmation is virtually drawn up out of a man, as if by some magnetic power far greater than he. Not only do such experiences feel as though they come from a greater power — but that power is in an important sense indefinable, unspeakably beyond man, not of this world, and, above all, not of our creation. Or so it seems to those (and James document many) who have known such mystical communion. We could suggest, then, that the man who undergoes a mystical experience has faith in the insight it brings both because it is somehow inherently compelling, and because he is sure it comes from a source beyond comprehension or control.
My claim, in the light of that suggestion, is that we won't allow the experiences produced by the Machine to replace the experiences of our lives, because we think we know so much more nearly the source of the Machine's experiences. That source is something lesser than we are, something we do comprehend, indeed even something we ourselves created and control. The Experience Machine makes us closed systems, each an infinity of mirrors. We can't, we won't believe in it — we are somehow dedicated, rather, to pursue, or think we are pursuing, that which might provide more clues about the mystical, the not yet understood, the beyond.
Surely, that claim doesn't follow directly from what we said about faith in grand mystical experiences. The fact that we do believe in one kind of experience because it possesses a certain quality by no means necessarily implies that we won't believe in a different kind of experience which lacks that quality. But we can push the bounds of the mystical much further than one might think, and vastly increase our range of applicability.
James wrote: "One might say truly, I think, that personal religious experience has its root and center in mystical states of consciousness." He delivers home the realm of the mystical to all of us who have known any kind of religious experience. But the mystical can be drawn in even closer. For what James includes about our personal religious experience applies as well to experiences that seem far more quotidian. I think we can ascribe to the mystical a very great range of influence, and go so far as to say that experiences which we would have to consider mystical form the foundation and provide the impetus for all our important intuitions and beliefs — for our faith. And that faith, in turn, as we saw in the case of the Machine, is primarily responsible for the outcome of the major decisions we face concerning the direction and allegiance of our conscious lives.
We have a habit of paying attention only to cases of mysticism that are dramatic and extreme. That habit did help James to point out the essential shared characteristics of those experiences. But it also tends to encourage, I think, the notion that mystical experiences are, by their nature, of a certain grand magnitude, and concerned with some lusty apparition of God. Yet it doesn't seem that there should be any certain level of intensity beneath which, or subject matter outside the bounds of which, an experience that is otherwise ineffable and convincingly true should no longer be considered mystical. We tend to think quantitatively even about ineffable experiences, calling the "larger" ones mystical, shuffling the others away as fortunate pleasant occurrences.
What of the brief moments when the earth hesitates, and fades into awe? Wordsworth's spots of time, Joyce's epiphanies, Longinus' sublimity? Stand atop the highest mountain in the range; watch lightning strike the nearest peak. What part of your uncontrollable vision at that moment is not ineffable and true? Perhaps at Shakespeare, for another, Beethoven, for still others, the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Or a wisp of perfume. What of the great welling up, the almost spoken meaning, lying in the evening with one we love? Those moments of passion or compassion, when everything is right, when all that need be is understood? What of all elevated moments, however fleeting? And all brief transport? Zarathustra exclaims, "Did not my world become perfect just now?" And there is no reason to remains even at this height. What of the lights that play between good friends — or the flash of a chance event in the middle of the day? The bluest sky against red stone, or storm clouds hurtling their bulk over our heads. I'm speaking of those wonderful seconds (we're lucky when they're longer) — so quick to come and quick to leave us that we can hardly remember them — those fleeting moments that come almost every day, and bring brief but complete affirmation and understanding. When, if you could be asked, in the fractions of a second before the feeling faded; of the worth of your existence, you could say only "Yes, yes" — so confident, so wise. The times when no argument is possible, the whole being is confidently saying yes to the universe, or its piece of it — when we are sustained, momentarily, not by habits or formulations, but by a power. Almost anything can spark such moments; their continued appearance is what keeps us going. These moments are transient, and almost as much taken for granted as our senses, or awakening from sleep. But can we say they are insignificant, illusory, or different in any substantive way from the mystical?
These more common experiences do, in an obvious sense, have far less profound impact on our lives than would, for example, a personal vision of the Transfiguration of Christ — the stuff of conversions. But that, I think, is mostly a result of our tendency to think comparatively, quantitatively. For if we look to what must be the base of our lives, to what is really holding us up above an abyss many have seen — it is nothing, beyond the formulations that are only generalizations of smaller urgings, but the accumulation and continuation of the tiny mystical moments, the Midwestern revelations. They tell us, unarguably, that amidst all our efforts we touch some right chord, we are doing something right. There is little agreement as to exactly what that something is, or how we know it, though many have produced theologies, theories, mythologies; the first common fact is that we have simply come to believe it, often without even knowing it.
These fleeting common revelations, like all mystical experiences, bring a confident intuition that they come from a source beyond what we are. When we ponder such moments, they often take on a dream-like, a magical or spiritual quality. Though science will soon be able to describe to us what processes must occur simultaneously in our nervous systems to produce a mystical experience, and though technology may soon be able to duplicate those processes, we still will not fully understand where those experiences come from, or why they come, when they visit us "naturally." This is the essential mystery; this is part of what draws and sustains our special faith. That faith comes in many forms and degrees. One thousand men can draw on its source, and live one thousand drastically different lives. But one thing most all of us share is faith enough to know we should continue to live, and not shut all our doors.
But we haven't yet put our initial problem to rest. I've claimed that our general faith grows from certain experiences we all have had, the common mystical ones. And we might therefore fear we're back, once again, to the Experience Machine. We do stand before it, perhaps consider it again — but we have decided, for now, to reject it. And if we reject it for reasons beyond custom, beyond prejudice, beyond our strict invented formulations, we reject it for our faith in the importance of remaining open to the unknown significance of the future. Unless we believe, somehow, that we are building — either as a race, or as individuals — to something not yet attained, or even imaginable, it is difficult to understand why we would not more readily choose to experience, electrically, the best of the presently possible. We have some intimations that there may be significant and perhaps humanly realizable potentialities beyond anything we now know. Yes, those intimations could be reproduced by our Machine — but we decide that we are not primarily interested in simply reproducing them. For we do not value such intimations merely for the feelings they carry, which could be easily duplicated. Rather, we especially value the implied message and challenge they bring us — to honestly respond to and work with the intimations, in ever greater efforts to understand and concur, as we can, with their source. The challenge is vague; but it clearly demands that we remain actively receptive.
We can move away, for now, from the Experience Machine; let it hum to itself. As for grand mystical experiences, whatever brings them to certain people, they're generally powerful enough to transform the recipient's consciousness, and absorb his allegiance as if by eminent domain. The question of disinterested evaluation, in such cases, is obliterated by the lightning flash of the apparent revelation. But whatever they are in truth, tremendous, spontaneous mystical experiences are not something we can choose to have. Let's deal, for the time being, with those things we can choose, whose potential effects are perhaps equally great. There are many. Here is Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey, there young Satguru Maharaji, here Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Sri Chinmoy, there Don Juan, and the echo of Zen. Each offers the possibility (and I've obviously been arbitrary in my choices) of a consciousness vastly different from our own — vastly different from that which we've come to hold so much faith in, as the uniquely right ground state of reality from which all other states must be judged. But we are at least interested in the claims of these others. As always, we peer in at them from outside their world of experience, and try to see what, for them, life might be like. We apply what intuitive standards we have.
There are certain obvious differences between all these possibilities and our Experience Machine. One is that there are people now living and available who profess to hold these different kinds of consciousness, and they are generally quite willing, even anxious, to speak about their experience. Often, they seem significantly "in contact" with the real world. But they can tell us only so much; eventually, all resort to claims of significant ineffability. From many sides we're told: "Only begin with this, you will come, in time, to understand, and find peace." And we reply "Yes, I'm sure I eventually would. But that's not quite enough." For we also need to be certain that it won't violate our own deepest allegiance. And, as we aren't usually certain exactly what that is, we must continue to apply our intuitions.
Another considerable departure from the Experience Machine is that we may be able to do quite a bit of experimenting with some of these other possibilities, without losing the ability to abandon them if they prove somehow unsatisfactory. But it's hard or impossible to know just when one is stepping over a camouflaged line of irrevocability, especially if one likes to get close enough to really see. Once a new delusion begins deluding, if it's at all competent, you no longer are what you think. So, a whole new area of initial evaluation opens up — how much should we even experiment with possibilities of different consciousness?
Recall the most useful standard we were able to come up with — that we can, or must, trust the mystical experiences (great or small) that, seen from our ground state, seem to be reflections, or intimations, of something far beyond our comprehension. Some corollaries will prove interesting. What is, in the broadest sense, our attitude toward the "reality" we've grown so attached to, this condition which we attempt to remain within? One of the primary attributes of reality is that we don't now fully know it. And inseparable from that attribute is the desire to come to know and understand more. So does a child grow up asking always why, so does a civilization rise up and multiply its inquiries. So do we, on so many levels, go about our lives wishing we could see clearly, trying to understand. This, I think, is why we all thrive on the common revelations — they are the tiniest glimpse of more, a glimpse of an anonymous place we somehow believe, or hope, we are approaching. We're very used to bits and pieces, and very used to abandoning one bit when a larger one comes along. Along come new paradigms, theories, cosmologies and philosophies — all approximations, but each, hopefully, encompassing a bit more of this elusive reality. Above all, we believe, on the urging of the frequent revelations we can collect, that there is always more to be understood, always more of the real to be found out. We may not know how we will discover more, or how it will be discovered for us, but we want, above all, never to place ourselves in a position that could preclude or interfere with new communications. And in a world where the authentic, the real, is rolling always one step out of reach, we must and do value the striving after it.
Our goal, then, is to be ever in the world, freely taking in as much as we can, and on as many channels — but never to be taken in by the attractive delusions men will invent. Few standards are more vague, or more difficult in application. How can we decide about this man's technique, this man's drug, this man's nirvana, or our own ground state of striving?
For one thing, we've decided that, in order to be acceptable, the thing offered must convince us that it will reveal a further piece or pieces of the puzzle that is most important to us. The Machine does not reveal; it merely plays though our minds an omni-sensual tape of what is already conceivable and controllable. It gives us Humanity's Greatest Hits. Any newness is only in the novelty of combination, not in content. The case of some drugs, and most disciplines, techniques and religions is far less clear cut. One thing most of these do share, however, is some degree of active work on reality, a rising to meet the challenge we've been faced with. The goal, at least, of most of them is exactly ours — to take in and comprehend and make ours more of what is, to discover and fit more jigsaw matches, and live accordingly. They claim to help us in our search, to give us some needed directions or aid in finding our way.
Were we destined necessarily to remain within the limitations of reason in this matter, Kant and others have shown that most of these questions should be dismissed as unknowable. But our reasoning has been far from strict; we've given great weight to intuitions and intimations, running a middle road. When we deal with what James would broadly label the "religious experience," our task is greatly complicated by the claims of many of these "religions" that their processes effectively open a kind of new eye, or new faculty of perception (Rennie Davis claimed recently that his sixteen year old Perfect Master may be opening the pineal gland) and that they thus grant us equipment unavailable to reason or to our ground state. William Blake declares from his visionary pinnacle:
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks in his cavern.
Aldous Huxley took up Blake's phrase, and some of his perspective, in relating his own mystical experiences with mescaline, in The Doors of Perception. When presented with claims from beyond reason's realm, we wonder about their probable source. Perhaps the man who makes such a claim is responding to personal experience that is revelatory and mystical — of a kind with the remarkable experiences we all respect most highly, but in more direct and potent doses than our own. But perhaps, too, that man has simply managed, through practice or through chance, to channel himself into a state of consciousness more pacifying, one with a far greater resemblance than ours to the equilibrium or directed passion possible through our Experience Machine. Reason at least guides most of our judgments; but these claims find their support in something different from — their adherents would say "beyond" — the limits of reason. That is a difficult duality. But there is a strong connective thread: for even in our more reasonable state, we grant special attention and belief to our own fleeting bursts of mystical experience. We are not strictly reasonable, but drink from a tiny revelatory spring.
Yet, even given this thread, the duality remains, and without even clearly defined boundaries. It becomes difficult to make specific distinctions. Let me relate an example of some relevance. Influenced strongly by LSD and ostensibly cosmic religious music, someone I know well was visited by what seemed an intense and rather lengthy mystical experience. I won't much attempt to describe it, as he did, but want only to say that as an experience — of bliss, of certain truth, of something seeming beyond life and beyond goodness — as an experience, per se, there is nothing his imagination could come up with that could even compare, not even to bask in the warm glories of Aquinas' God at the end of his good life. He didn't claim that God waxed pale in comparison to his experience, just that the evocative concept of God could go no further than the felt infinitude of those moments. He had already far exceeded what he thought were his limits. The force of the vague insight into spiritual progress that came out of it remained with him to alter his consciousness. There was no question, during the experience and for a good while after, that this was a glimpse behind some raised curtain, a further flash of greater reality.
But there is some question for him now. And that is the perplexing thing. For if there didn't arise these questions, these doubts, his experience would fulfill all the characteristics we've found to identify those experiences we most value and trust. In this case, when he settled back more nearly to his ground state, he began to question the source of his experience: was it a moment of opening doors to a meaningful, freely given sign from beyond; or was it only the drug, acting, through the music and his thoughts, like a tiny, loaded, blissful spark? To go much further about this example, though, would be to enter into the extended ramifications of the drug question, and that's beyond us here.
It rankles, slightly, that we won't be able to put together a list of concrete, testable checkpoints to evaluate each new issue or experience. Surely, it would be a mistake of over-limitation to apply to new offerings such simplistic and presumptuous standards as "applicability to our present life" or "coherence with the experience of the rest of mankind." The analogy to Galileo and the early seventeenth century is perhaps overused, but still touching and clear. The Roman prelates, set on putting that bold explorer away as a heresiarch, refused to look through his telescope and at his evidence. They knew, the world knew, everyone had always known, certainly God and Ptolemy knew, that every object on the celestial spheres was visible to the beholding unaided human eye — for so were things created. There was no need, indeed it was seriously wrong, to tamper with, or attempt to improve upon our endowed perceptive faculties — for they alone revealed reality. The prelates would not hear of mountains on the moon, dark patches on the perfect luminosity of the sun, little planets circling Jupiter — and more stars and scientific unknowns in the universe's deep reaches than man had ever imagined, much less perceived. But we feel sure, now, that the right action was, in that case, to look — and with the new equipment. We think the prelates unreasonable men, surely — above all, they were blinded by their faith. But when some cosmic Galileo tries to offer us a new way of seeing, we generally don't care to look. Ours, then, is a two-homed problem: to avoid both the blindness (like the prelates) of a faith too strict, and the delusions (like the Experiencer) of a faith too lax. What we're searching for and living in, that meaningful "reality," lies somewhere in between. We need only all be Galileos in this matter.
The precise method of this new kind of "golden mean," if there is one, remains beyond our reach. But there is worth, I think, in the kind of thinking we required to get even to this point. Meanwhile, we are sustained by a succession of the briefest flashes, revealing, at times, what looks like our goal — and leaving always, as Abraham Heschel writes, "a memory and a commitment to that memory." Amidst all the business of our lives, our task is to remain true to what signs we may be given, and not to be taken in exclusively by the ones we create for ourselves. And there is a pledge of allegiance in this. We can willfully embrace and commit ourselves to the challenge of attending to and pursuing the confluence, within us all, of the forces that are known and the influences that are beyond our knowledge. Such a commitment provides us, immediately, with no specific answers. Yet it is the most fundamental requisite step towards the search we are bid to undertake.