Empirical Evidence of The Supernatural

 photo ecstasy_zpsc471511b.jpg
Bernini's "Ecstasy of St. Teresa"
Even though St. Teresa was a great mystic of the Christian faith
and she had visions like this one, visions are not part of mystical
experience per se.

This article is a summary my book, the Trace of God by Joseph Hinman (available on Amazon). I recently posted essays showing that the true Christian concept of Supernatural is mystical experience nothing more. Now I show mystical experience is empirical, thus SN is empirical.

The argument from religious experience is deemed too subjective to be of any real interest to rationally minded skeptics. Yet over the last 50 years, a huge body of empirical scientific work has emerged in peer reviewed journals that strengthens the case for religious experience as a God argument. Unfortunately, this body of work is largely confined to psychology of religion and is virtually unknown to theology or even religious studies. In this paper I examine the research methods used in this body of work, particular attention to the mysticism scale developed by Ralph Hood Jr. (University of Tennessee at Chattanooga). I then apply the findings to an argument from religious experience. After demonstrating how the data supports the argument I will deal with two major issues: (1) Is an argument based upon the universal nature of these experiences appropriately Christian, or does it undermine a Christian witness by implying a unilateralist perspective? (2) Do counter causality arguments based upon brain chemistry and structure disprove the argument? Finally, I present “six tie breakers” that warrant decision in answer to the brain structure argument.

In 1948 The British Broadcasting Corporation aired a radio debate between the celebrated philosopher Bertrand Russell (atheist) and the author of a famous and voluminous History of Philosophy, Frederick Copleston S. J., (Christian), concerning the existence of God. [1] Most of the debate centered on issues such as necessary being. Copleston also advanced the moral argument but he gave passing mention to religious experience, specifically the kind of experience called “mystical.”Copleston admitted that the argument was subjective and he couched his appeal on an abductive basis, the best explanation for the feeling is God. Russell intimated that it was the lack of an objective referent that made the argument “rather private.”[2] After that the argument languished in the nether word of “not one of the five proofs.” Critics and apologists have dismissed it for the same reason. In the 1980s Caroline Franks Davis made an excellent attempt at bringing empirical data to the argument, but more and better studies have been done since her book.[3 ] William Alston Wrote a brilliant work on mystical experience as a logical basis for belief, but he did not tap into the studies that Davis used.[4] The argument continues to be on the back burner in apologetcs, but not because there is no concrete data. There is now a huge body of academic research from peer reviewed journals that makes an empirical basis for the argument possible.

In this article I will discuss the studies and their methodologies, then construct an argument designed to warrant conclusion in favor of the reality of God using this data. The argument makes claims based upon and discuss the scientific basis for the data, answering the major objection that might be lanced against any or all of the arguments from scientific quarters. What makes these arguments ground breaking is that these studies have been largely well known in psychology of religion and are virtually unknown to those who would want to make use of them for apologetic purposes. These arguments are not specific to any particular religious tradition. This argument is not meant to prove the existence of God but to establish that belief in God is rationally warranted. Nor is it intended to prove the Christian God. It seeks only to establish that belief in some notion of God, perhaps the Christian God, is rational and backed by empirical data. 

In speaking of “mystical experience” we are not talking about visions or voices. We are not talking about miracles or God speaking to people. We are talking about “the sense of the numinous,” a sense of presence, of all pervasive and overwhelming love, and a sense of undifferentiated unity of all things. Those constitute two different kinds of experience both termed mystical.” The claim is often made that this is an unmediated experience of reality. The veil is taken back on the thing behind the facade of “reality” is experienced directly. The notion of an unmediated experience is debatable and not essential to an understanding of the experience. Mystical experiences come in two media:, introvertive and extrovertive. Intorovertive experiences are without time and space; they are not keyed to any external landmark or visual que. They seem to be beyond word, thought, or image. Extrovertive experiences are often keyed to a land mark and seem like projecting a sense onto the image of nature. [5] For example the sense that God is pervading the physical space in nature around which one views a scene in nature. Or a sense that all the natural landscape around forms some sort of whole that’s meaningful and indicative as an understanding of all reality. Introvertive mystical experience has been identified as “pure consciousness.” This kind of experience lacks content and can’t be tied to a cultural construct or personal influence. [6] While it is the case that these kinds of experiences are interpreted in various ways, and it is the case that various theological explanations tailored to a given tradition are advanced for these, as many as there are mystics to have them, the real diversity comes not from the experience but from the explanations attached to the experiences.[7]Much of the discussion about common core is tied to the texts of a given literature. There are various bodies of mystical literature, the important one for our purposes is the empirical. This is a measurement based empirical scientific corpus such as the work of Hood.

The “M” Scale

....Many names loom large in that body of literature; Greeley, Maslow, Wuthnow, Nobel, Lukoff and Lu, all major researchers whose studies form the bulwark of the corpus in the field. But perhaps the major researcher in researcher is Ralph Hood Jr., since his Mysticism Scale (or “M scale”) has become the standard control mechanism for determining the genuineness as truly mystical experience for a given subject. There two other scales such as a specific question by Greeley (1974) and the State of Consciousness Inventory by Alexander (1982; Alexander, Boyer, & Alexander, 1987) [8] This is a 32 item questionnaire that is scored in a particular way. Hood's M. Scale is designed to test the veracity of the theories of Philosopher W.T Stace, who advanced the “common core” theory of mystical experience[9] That theory argued for the universal nature of such experiences.. In other words, if actual modern mystics around the world experience the things Stace thought they do, in the way Stace thought they experienced them (see the five point list above) they would answer certain questions in a certain way [10] Hood’s work in the M scale is becoming the standard operating procedure for study of mystical and religious experiences. It hasn’t yet been understood by everyone so we find that people evoking religious experience by manipulating stimulation of the brain don’t use any sort of control, such as the M scale, for establishing a valid mystical experience. Thus they can’t prove they are evoking real mystical experiences.[11] Dale Caird said that “research into mystical experience has been greatly facilitated” [12] by Hood’s M scale. Caird did one of the studies that validated the M scale. Burris (1999) has shown that the M scale is the most commonly used measurement for the study of mysticism. [13]

The M scale enables us to determine the validity of a mystical experience among contemporary people. In other words, did someone have a “real mystical experience” or are they just carried away by the idea of having one? [14] There are two major versions of the M scale, what is called “two factor” solution and a “three factor solution.” The two factors are items assessing an experience of unity (questions such as “have you had an experience of unity?”) and items refereeing to religious and knowledge claims. In other words questions such as “did you experience God’s presence?” Or did you experience God’s love?” In each section there are two positively worded and two negatively worded items. [15] The problem with the two factor analysis is that it tried to be neutral with Language, according to Hood himself. It spoke of “experience of ultimate reality” but with no indication that ultimate reality means reality of God. As Hood puts it, “no language is neutral"[16] One group might want ultimate reality defined as “Christ” while others who are not in a Christian tradition might eschew such a move. In response to this problem Hood and Williamson, around 2000, developed what they termed “the three factor solution.” They made two additional versions of the scale one made reference where appropriate to “God” or “Christ.” They had a “God” version and a “Christ” version and both were given to Christian relevant samples. The scales were “factor analyzed,” they weighed each difference as a factor such as it’s mention of God or mention of Christ. In this factor analysis, where the scale referred to “God,” “Christ” or simply “reality” the “factor structures were identical.” That is the respondents saw “God,” “Christ” and “ultimate reality” as coterminou. That means Christians who have mystical experience understand God, Christ, and Reality as referring to the same things. [17]

All three versions matched Stace’s phenomenologically derived theory. “For all three intervertive, extrovertive and interpirative factors emerged.” [18] Respondents were answering in ways indicative of having both types of mystical experience and deriving interpretive experiences from it, they understood their experiences in light of theological understanding. The only exception was that the introvertive factors contained the emergence of ineffability because there was no content to analyze. Of course where the scale has been validated the same technique was used and tailored to the tradition of the respondent. Buddhists got a version applicable to Buddhists and Muslims got one appropriate to Islam, and so on. The same kinds of factors emerged. This demonstrates that mystical experiences are the same minus the details of the tradition, such as specific references to names. In other words Buddhists recognize Buddha mind as ultimate reality, while Vedantists recognize Brahmin as ultimate reality, Christians recognize Jesus as Ultimate reality, Muslims recognize Allah as ultimate reality, but all say they experience ultimate reality. This is a good indication that the same basic reality stands behind this experience, or to say it another way they are all experiences of the same reality.

Hood wrote a Text book with Bernard Spilka. [19] They point three major assumptions of the common core theory that flow out of Stace’s work:

(1) Mystical experience is universal and identical in phenomenological terms.

(2) Core Categories are not always essential in every experience, there are borderline cases.

(3) Interovertive and extrovertive are distinct forms, the former is an experience of unity devoid of content, the latter is unity in diversity with content.

The M scale reflects these observations and in so doing validates Stace’s findings. Hood and Spilka (et al) then go on to argue that empirical research supports a common core/perennialist conceptualization of mysticism and it’s interpretation.

The three factor solution, stated above, allows a greater range of interpretation of experience, either religious or not religious. This greater range supports Stace’s finding that a single experience may be interpreted in different ways. [20] The three factor solution thus fit Stace’s common core theory. One of the persistent problems of the M scale is the neutrality of language, especially with respect to religious language. For example the scale asks about union with “ultimate reality” not “union with God.” Thus there’s a problem in understanding that ultimate reality really means God, or unify two different descriptions one about God and one about reality. [21] There is really no such thing as “neutral” language. In the attempt to be neutral non neutral people will be offended. On the one had the common core idea will be seen as “new age” on the other identification with a particular tradition will be off putting for secularists and people of other traditions. Measurement scales must sort out the distinctions. Individuals demand interpretation of experiences, so the issue will be forced despite the best attempts to avoid it. In dealing with William James and his interpreters it seems clear that some form of transformation will be reflected in the discussion of experiences. In other words the experiences have to be filtered through cultural constructs and human assumptions of religious and other kinds of thought traditions in order to communicate them to people. Nevertheless experiences may share the same functionality in description. Christians may want the experiences they have that would otherwise be termed “ultimate reality” to be identified with Christ, while Muslims identify with Allah and atheist with “void.” The expressed is important as the “social construction of experience” but differently expressed experiences can have similar structures. Hood and Williamson designed the three factor analysis to avoid these problems of language. [22]This is a passage from my own work, The Trace of God :[23]

In a series of empirical measurement based studies employing the Mysticism scale introvertive mysticism emerges both as a distinct factor in exploratory analytic studies [24] and also as a confirming factor analysis in cultures as diverse as the United States and Iran; not only in exploratory factor analytic studies (Hood & Williamson, 2000) but also in confirmatory factor analyses in such diverse cultures as the United States and Iran (Hood, Ghornbani, Watson, Ghramaleki, Bing, Davison, Morris, & Williamson. (2001).[25] In other words, the form of mysticism that is usually said to be beyond description and beyond images, as opposed to that found in connection with images of the natural world, is seen through reflection of data derived form the M scale and as supporting factors in other relations. Scholars supporting the unity thesis (the mystical sense of undifferentiated unity—everything is “one”) have conducted interviews with mystics in other traditions about the nature of their introvertive mystical experiences. These discussions reveal that differences in expression that might be taken as linguistics culturally constructed are essentially indicative of the same experiences. The mystics recognize their experiences even in the expression of other traditions and other cultures. These parishioners represent different forms of Zen and Yoga.[26] Scholars conducting literature searches independently of other studies, who sought common experience between different traditions, have found commonalities. Brainaid, found commonality between cultures as diverse as Advanita-Vendanta Hinduism, and Madhmika Buddhism, and Nicene Christianity; Brainaid’s work supports conclusions by Loy with respect to the types of Hinduism and Buddhism.[27]

The upshot of this work by Hood is two fold: on the one had it means there is a pragmatic way to control for the understanding of what is a mystical experience and what is not. Using Stace as a guide we find that modern “mystics” around the world are having Stace-like experiences. Thus Stace’s view makes a good indication of what is and what is not a mystical experience. That means we can study the effects of having it. Of course Stace drew conclusions from his own survey vof literature of the great mystics. Now other scales have been attempted and none of them had the kind of verification that the M scale does, but taken together the whole body of work for the last fifty years or so (since Abraham Maslow) shows that religious experience of the “mystical” sort is very good for us. People who have such experiences tend to find positive, dramatic, transformation in terms of outlook, mental health and even physical health.

Over the years numerous claims have been made about the nature of spiritual/mystical and Maslow's “peak experiences”, and about their consequences. Wuthnow (1978) set out to explore findings regarding peak experiences from a systematic random sample of 1000 persons and found that peak experiences are common to a wide cross-section of people, and that one in two has experienced contact with the holy or sacred, more than eight in ten have been moved deeply by the beauty of nature and four in ten have experienced being in harmony with the universe. Of these, more than half in each have had peak experiences which have had deep and lasting effects on their lives. Peakers are more likely also, to say they value working for social change, helping to solve social problems, and helping people in need. Wuthnow stressed the therapeutic value of these experiences and also the need to study the social significance of these experiences in bringing about a world in which problems such as social disintegration, prejudice and poverty can be eradicated. Savage et al., (1995) provided clinical evidence to suggest that peakers produce greater feelings of self-confidence and a deeper sense of meaning and purpose. Mogar's (1965) research also tended to confirm these findings.[ 28]

The body of work to which I refer consists of about 200 studies (one could say 300 but let’s be conservative). [29]A huge part of that (about 50) is taken up with the prolific work of Ralph Hood. Not all of these studies use the M scale but it has become standard since the 90s. The body of work here discussed stretches back to the 1960s and the studies of Abraham Maslow. The study of mental health aspects has grown by leaps and bounds over the last couple of decades. Since the deployment of the three part solution of the M scale the studies have been more empirical and better controlled. The effects and their transformative qualities could be understood as rational warrant for belief in God, I have so argued in The Trace of God. [30]

[1] Broadcast in 1948 on the Third Program of the British Broadcasting Corporation. Published in Humanitas (Manchester) and reprinted in Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1957). chapter 13.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Caroline Franks Davis, The Evidential Force of Religious experience. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989 no page indicated.

[4] William P. Alston, Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1991.

[5] Walter T.Stace, The Teachings of the Mystics, (New York:The New American Library, 1960).15-18

[6] Ralph Hood Jr. “The Common Core Thesis in the Study of Mysticism.” In Where God and Science Meet: How Brain and Evolutionary Studies Alter Our Understanding of Religion. Patrick Mcnamara ed. West Port CT: Prager Publications, 2006, 119-235., 127.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Jayne Gackenback, “Pure Cobciousness. Mystical Experiences.” Childhood Transpersonal Childhood Experiences of Higher States of Consciousness: Literature Review and Theoretical Integration, Spirit Watch, online resource, URL:

http://www.sawka.com/spiritwatch/cehsc/ipure.htm accessed 3/32016.

[9] Walter T. Stace, Mysticism and Philosophy, New York: Macmillan,1961,44.

[10] Ibid, 128


[11] John Hick, The New Frontier Of Religion and Science: Religious Experiejhce, Neuroscience, and The Transcendent. UK: Palgrave: Macmillan, 2006, 66.

He does not mention the M scasle per se but shows that they do not use a standard and some use slip shod criteria for evaluation.

[12] Dale Caird, “The structure of Hood's Mysticism Scale: A factor analytic study.”journal for the Scientific study of religion 1988, 27 (1) 122-126


[13] Burris (1999) quoted in Hood, op, cit., 128

[14] Hood, ibid, 128

[15] bid.

[16] Ibid, 129

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid, 129

[19] Bernard Spilka, Ralph Hood Jr., Bruce Hunsberger, Richard Gorwuch. The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach. New York, London: the Guildford Press, 2003.

[20] Ibid, 323

[21] Ibid\

[22] Ibid, Hood in McNamara.

[23] Hinman, Trace ...op. Cit., 168 fn72-75.

[24] Ralph Hood Jr., W.P. Williamson. “An empirical test of the unity thesis: The structure of mystical descriptors in various faith samples.” Journal of Christianity and Psychology, 19, (2000) 222-244.

[25] R.W. Hood, Jr., N.Ghorbani, P.J. Waston, et al “Dimensions of the Mysticism Scale: Confirming the Three Factor Structure in the United States and Iran.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 40 (2001) 691-705.

[26] R.K.C. Forman, Mysticism, Mind, Consciousness. Albany: State University of New York Press, (1999) 20-30.

[27] F.S. Brainard, Reality and Mystical Experience, Unvisited Park: Pennsylvania State University Press. (2000). See also D.Loy, Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy. Amherst, New York: Humanities Press.

[28] Krishna K. Mohan, “Spirituality and Wellbeing: an Overview.” An Article based upon a Presentation made during the Second International Conference on Integral Psychology, held at Pondicherry India 4-7 January 2001, published in hard copy, Cornelissen, Matthijs (Ed.) (2001) Consciousness and Its Transformation. Pondicherry: SAICE.On line copy website of the India Psychology Institute. Site visited 9/3/12. URL:http://www.ipi.org.in/texts/ip2/ip2-4.5-.php Accessed 2/7/2016

[29]Bibliogrophies from which I took the studies include Voyle. LL, Mohan, Franks. gackenback

[30] Hinman, Trace...op. Cit., this is the gist of all of chapter 2, 61-135,especially 92-107.

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Don McIntosh said…
Joe, I appreciate your efforts to get religious experience off the "back burner" of apologetic approaches. Your book is a step in the right direction. How many skeptics are not intellectuals looking for a "rational worldview" but people who simply have never experienced God because they've been taught not to trust their perceptions or emotional states?

As a Christian I have experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit, healings, and a presence so overwhelming I dared not raise my bowed head. I do not have experiences like these often, but they are, for me at least, utterly convincing.

"Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who trusts in Him"
-- Psalm 34:8
Joe Hinman said…
Thanks Don. Atheist so totally resistant to that message. a lot people have shown interest who are not particularly religious but the new atheist type totally avoids it or ridicules it.
Joe Hinman said…
One of the publisher's people reading the manuscript said "I need some of that joy juice."
im-skeptical said…
There is nothing empirical about the M-scale. It's a method of classifying self-reported experience - in other words, subjective. It's rather like asking someone how they rate pain on a scale of one to ten.

Joe Hinman said…
I see you don't understand the concept of empirical Saying there's nothing empirical because its subjective is a contradiction in terms. fist and foremost empirical means first hand experience, that is by definition subjective.

Science barrowed the word empirical and changed it's meaning somewhat to describe inductive proofs. It still carries the connotation of firsthand research, The M scale is scientific and it does validate the experiences. Even tho0ugh the experience these es are subject they are also imter-subective because they can be studies scientifically.

I explained how it worked in they article., the idea being self reported means they could be lying is disproved statistically as I said in the article to lie their way to validating Stace they would have to have read Stace and they would have to know that the study seeks to validate Stace.

That is so because with 32 it3mw have to be answered a certain way the odds of them validating Stace by accident are astronomical. That means they would have to know what to lie about. But Iranian peasants who don't speak English are not going to know bout English philosopher Stace.
Don McIntosh said…
Joe, I think that was a fair point that Skeptical brought up, but I think your rebuttal answers it nicely. You're right; empiricism ultimately means reliance on sense experience, and reliance on sense experience means subjectivity.

This is why I always say that knowledge cannot be had without faith. It's true that we can believe without knowing (as skeptics are quick to point out), but also that we cannot know without believing.
Joe Hinman said…
these experiences are inter subjective meaning they are subjective but we compare and when we do we find they are the same kind of experiences thy fit Stace's theory.
Don McIntosh said…
Agreed. I recall you addressing that point in your book.

Speaking of Stace: I'm currently slogging my way through an old philosophy of science text with a selection by Stace on p. 352. Given that I'm currently on p. 110 it may be a while before I get to his. But while I have an interest I may "cheat" and cut straight to his, which is only about six pages of text.
Joe Hinman said…
Interesting. I would like to read that. I've only red his stuff on mysticism.
im-skeptical said…
Religious experience is not sensory experience. It is emotional. Empirical evidence (at least as far as science is concerned) is objective evidence. And this is, after all, what you are trying to say in the OP.
Joe Hinman said…
Any first hand experience is empirical. Mystical experience is not just emotional, in fact emotions are really a side light, The basis of mystical experience is the beyond words aspect of the experience, The kind of information being important is often difficult to even discuss or name. That's why it's called "mystical."

Essentially it come down to two things: a sense of undifferentiated unity of all things (all is one) and an overwhelming all pervasive sense of love (sense of the numinous). There are physical effects both in connection with the experience and as a result of it. Some of them measurable. For example in one study 14% o people with that experience are able to give up drug addiction.

another tangible result is that most people with these experiences score higher on measurements of self actualization.

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