Explorations in Mysticism, Philosophy, and Science by Paul Marshall
“If the universe is experience,
what is the experience like?”
Transforming the world into experience: An idealist experiment (2001)
Philosophers have long been interested in the fundamental nature of reality (“metaphysics”) and the ways in which it can be known (“epistemology”). Many modern thinkers assume that the only route to knowledge of the world is through perceptual experience mediated by the sense organs, augmented by scientific observation and interpreted by the rational mind.
There is, however, an older view that reality can be accessed through an immediate, intuitive, nondiscursive way of knowing—Greek gnōsis, Indian jñāna—that reveals things as they are behind sensory-conceptual veils. This traditional view is supported by modern-day reports of exceptional experiences, often called mystical, that seem to bring direct insight into the nature of reality.
“experiences are ‘mystical’ if they bring a sense of deepened contact with reality, the contact consisting of unity or at least intimate connection or presence, and often an intuitive type of knowing.”
Mystical experiences as windows on reality, Beyond Physicalism (2015)
Those who have these powerful experiences tend to regard them as genuine, while modern philosophers, with some exceptions, have given them little or no metaphysical or epistemological significance, and have not turned to the study of mystical experience for metaphysical inspiration. Nor have scientists generally supposed that mysticism has anything useful to contribute to investigation of the natural world. The experiences are commonly brushed aside as biological and psychological aberrations or constructed products of religious indoctrination.
My work, presented in several books and articles described on this website, takes a different view and explores intersections between mysticism, metaphysics, and science. In particular, I consider the possibility that mystical experiences can provide insights into the nature of reality, including the natural world. One of these insights is the primacy of consciousness, and I have long argued for an “idealist” understanding of the relation between mind and matter: experience/consciousness is fundamental, while matter is derivative, to be understood in terms of the structural contents of experience and their transformations. The universe is thoroughly experiential.
In coming to advocate a metaphysical idealism of this kind, I have been influenced by mystical, philosophical, and scientific considerations, although it was mystical experience that first encouraged me to view mind as basic. Philosophically, my outlook is particularly indebted to the metaphysics of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), and I have developed his system in some novel ways. I first presented these ideas in The Living Mirror (1992) and most recently and comprehensively in The Shape of the Soul (2019). Because I take Leibniz as my metaphysical starting point, my thinking shares some common ground with Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy, including its panpsychism, but I stay closer to Leibniz in important respects (see The Shape of the Soul).
For philosophical perspectives on what the “universe as experience” may be like, see my 2001 Journal of Consciousness Studies article. For mystical perspectives, see my various writings on mystical experience, including Mystical Encounters with the Natural World (2005) and The Shape of the Soul.
For an introductory article on mystical insights into the nature of reality, click here.