The Mysticism of Scott Alexander
A prominent rationalist flirts with spirituality
In a recent post, What is Mysticism? A working definition for skeptics, I tried to reconcile Mysticism with Rationalism. What better way to follow up than to look at the mystical influences of popular contemporary rationalist, Scott Alexander.
Scott is a practicing psychiatrist who writes Astral Codex Ten, formerly Slate Star Codex. While he mainly writes about Science (he is at the top of Substack’s Science category), he often writes about Mysticism. Even the names he’s chosen for his blogs are vaguely mystical.
Let’s take a look at Scott’s attitude and approach to Mysticism.
Back when I was in college, I loved stuff by Robert Anton Wilson…On the one hand, it was the ultimate insight porn, with a new seemingly-revelatory epigram from a new tradition on every page. On the other, it was filled with very vague nod-and-a-wink promises that if you genuinely understood it you would break into a new level of understanding in which you would stand taller, have a more melodious voice, and finally be able to get that one cute girl/guy to pay attention to you. It was seductive and I was successfully seduced by it.
This is a stark and sobering admission from a rationalist, akin to admitting he’d regularly visited a Psychic or converted to Evangelical Christianity. It’s also one I appreciate deeply, because I too was briefly drawn in by Anton Wilson’s matter-of-fact treatment of Mysticism.
Scott appears to have learned an invaluable lesson from the experience, one that every aspiring mystic must eventually absorb:
There are certain fields where it’s really obvious to everyone that learning about the field is different from learning the field. There are probably historians of music who have never picked up an instrument, and they don’t fancy themselves musicians. And political scientists don’t delude themselves into thinking they would make great politicians.
Mysticism is not one of these fields (rationality isn’t either, but that’s a different blog article). Because so much of mysticism revolves around the idea of the gnosis, a specific kind of knowledge, it’s easy to mistake knowledge of mysticism for the knowledge that mysticism tries to produce.
Or to put it differently: the field of Mysticism is full of popular charlatans. But Scott makes sure not to rule out Mysticism in its entirety:
This is in no way a complaint against mysticism. I think it’s quite possible that there are forms of mysticism which successfully fulfill the promises Wilson made both in terms of insight-into-reality and improved-life-success. Meditation probably does. Yoga (the real type, not the contort-your-body-for-exercise type) might.
If I get into mysticism again – and I think I should, it seems like one of the highest-value areas for me – I am going to force myself not to read any books about mysticism except extremely sparse how-to instruction manuals.
He seems to have followed up on this promise.
The Mind Illuminated
Nearly five years later, Scott reviewed The Mind Illuminated, a manual on meditation. The book—written by neuroscientist John Yates, aka Culadasa—has particular appeal for Scott’s predominantly rationalist world view:
I usually hate meditation manuals, because they sound like word salad…Culadasa avoids this better than most people.
But in his review, Scott repeatedly references the concept of mystical knowledge (emphasis mine):
Tradition divides meditation into two parts: concentration meditation, where you sharpen and control your focus, versus insight meditation, where you investigate the nature of perception and reality. TMI follows a long tradition of focusing on concentration meditation, with the assumption that insight meditation will become safer and easier once you’ve mastered concentration
And further on:
This isn’t enlightenment. Enlightenment is something else. TMI calls it a “cessation event”:
A cessation event is where unconscious sub-minds remain tuned in and receptive to the contents of consciousness, while at the same time, none of them project any content into consciousness…What makes this the most powerful of all Insight experiences is…[the mind] fully understands the object from the perspective of Insight: as a mental construct, completely “empty” of any real substance, impermanent, and a cause of suffering. This profound realization leads to the next and final moment of complete equanimity…
This is very weird for a self-described rationalist. It is an acknowledgement that there is knowledge to be gained from subjective experience (edit: see discussion for counterpoint). It fits the three criteria of mystical knowledge:
It is ineffable: while Culadasa is able to describe the knowledge, his description does not convey the knowledge itself. It must be experienced to be known.
It is attainable: one only needs to arrive at what Culadasa calls a “cessation event”.
It matters: it leaves the experiencer with an improved sense of well-being.
But Scott’s credulous treatment of Culadasa’s ideas should be contrasted with his description of “persistent non-symbolic experience” (PNSE) or what he calls “a scientific-sounding culturally-neutral code word for ‘enlightenment’”.
Persistent Non-Symbolic Experience
Scott’s review of the PNSE Paper, a study of people who self-identify as enlightened, constitutes a pretty sober and underwhelming view of Enlightenment:
What I like about this paper is the parts where it departs from these stereotypes. It makes clear that most of these people’s external characteristics didn’t change at all. In many cases, their friends and family didn’t even notice anything was different, and could not be convinced that anything about them was different…Similarly, despite people saying that they no longer had any sense of agency, they were behaving as agentically as anyone else
Enlightenment hasn’t transformed these people’s personalities. It hasn’t given them infinite willpower or productivity or the ability to shoot qi bolts from their third eyes. It hasn’t even given them that much self-understanding.
This seems to be as close as Scott gets to saying “enlightenment doesn’t exist.” It seems to rob Enlightenment of a core criterion for existence within a rationalist framework—observable effects.
And yet he does acknowledge that something appears to be happening, even if it’s more underwhelming than most gurus would admit:
The experience itself is hard to describe, but seems marked by drawing the self-other boundary in a different place…They don’t feel like they have stress, even if the stress is physiologically present and obvious from their actions…they were more aware of certain low-level perceptual processes that are usually unconscious.
Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha
Finally, Scott attempts to reconcile Rationality and Mysticism in his review of Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha:
MCTB is very happy to discuss mysticism and the transcendent. It just quarantines the mystery within a carefully explained structure of rationally-arranged progress, so that it looks something like “and at square 41B in our perfectly rectangular grid you’ll encounter a mind-state which is impossible to explain even in principle, here are a few woefully inadequate metaphors for this mind-state so you’ll know when you’ve found it and should move on to square 41C.”
Later, Scott again credulously summarizes the book’s conception of Enlightenment:
When you understand all of this on a really fundamental level – when you’re able to tease apart every sensation and subsensation and subsubsensation and see its individual components laid out before you – then at some point your normal model of the world starts running into contradictions and losing its explanatory power. This is very unpleasant, and eventually your mind does some sort of awkward Moebius twist on itself, adopts a better model of the world, and becomes enlightened.
While it’s surprising to see a Science writer engage so openly with the idea of transcendence, Scott’s commentary remains quite sober. I love how well Scott is able to incorporate mystical concepts into a world view that is predominantly based in reason and logic.
But the articles above skirt past some of the weirder aspects of mystical experience. Fortunately Scott grants himself more license in his fiction.
Scott is one of those rare writers who is able to produce high quality fiction and non-fiction. Aldous Huxley is the only other author I can think of with the same capacity. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Huxley was also very interested in mysticism. Because nothing is ever a coincidence.
My Immortal was already famous for being particularly terrible, celebrated in much the same way as The Room. Scott, however, identifies it as an ingenious alchemical treatise, comparing it favorably with Goethe’s Faust:
Most of the second part of My Immortal mirrors Part II of Faust. But its ending transcends the source material. The moral of Faust is that you can be redeemed. But My Immortal actively demonstrates the redemption that Faust can only point at.
What’s fascinating about this article is that Scott demonstrates encyclopedic knowledge of Alchemy, especially from the Jungian view that it represents a mental or spiritual process—so much so that he appears to be the first to recognize the
intended (edit: definitely not intended) alchemical allegory of My Immortal.
Why would a self-described rationalist know so much about Alchemy? It’s an arational, deeply complex, and completely esoteric subject, comprising dozens of contradictory treatises. Is his interest purely academic? I find it hard to imagine Scott staying up late reading Paracelsus. But here we are.
And that brings us to Scott’s only major work of fiction, Unsong.
Despite some rough edges (Unsong is self-published and available for free), it’s a brilliant novel, equally hilarious and insightful. It imagines a world identical to ours up until December 24, 1968, when Apollo 8 crashed into the crystal sphere surrounding the world, and broke The Simulation.
Unsong could be described as a work of Kabbalistic fanfic—the main character is an “applied kabbalist” seeking out names of God which grant him superpowers like invisibility and teleportation. The Sefirot are a major factor in driving the plot forward, and again Scott demonstrates in-depth knowledge about their nature and workings, on par (at least from my layman’s perspective) with a typical scholar of religious studies.
Unsong also draws heavily from the extensive mythology created by William Blake. Each chapter title is drawn from a Blake quote (except the interludes, which are given a Hebrew letter). But for our purposes, we should focus on the character Uriel, an analog of Blake’s Urizen, and a personification of Reason (or Rationality).
In Blake’s work, Urizen is mainly a villain. Originally part of a balanced set of gods, in harmony with his counterpart Los, Urizen tries to elevate himself above the others. The discord and strife and suffering of the created world ensues. Urizen’s rule can be seen as an allegory for the Age of Enlightenment, which Blake sort of took issue with.
For Scott, Uriel is a hapless, vaguely autistic demigod, responsible for the day-to-day operations of the universe. Uriel speaks of the world as a tremendous piece of software (written partly in Ruby on Rails!) which is riddled with bugs. He is well-intentioned, but callous and ruthless—for example, he immediately murders any man, woman, or child attempting to boil a goat in its mother’s milk, which for reasons unknown causes the universe to malfunction.
Here’s Uriel meeting his eight-year-old protege for the first time, and deciding whether or not to kill her:
The thing was, he had never killed anybody before.
Okay, that was completely false. He’d smitten some towns that he thought ruined various pleasing symmetries on maps. He’d erased Taiwan when he couldn’t figure out how to debug it. There was that whole debacle with the Red Sea. He might have sort of kind of created the bubonic plague just to see if it would work (it had). He’d caused several earthquakes to make the stupid tectonic plates line up right. There had been that one time he had forgotten to turn off the rain and large parts of Belgium ended up underwater with a death toll in the hundreds of thousands. But he’d never killed a specific human.
Wait, no, that was also completely false. He’d smitten people who were using up too many system resources. Or who were trying to go into areas he hadn’t finished simulating at the necessary level of fidelity. And of course people who were boiling goats in their mothers’ milk. Or who were planning to boil goats in their mothers’ milk. Or who looked like the sort of people who might do that.
But he’d never killed an eight year old girl before. Especially not one who could wiggle her ears.
I don’t want to read too much into Scott’s intentions here—I’m sure the reason he explores these ideas in fiction is to ensure they’re not taken too literally or seriously—but I would summarize his depiction of Uriel as saying, “Reason is the driving force behind our ability to know and manage the world, but left unchecked it can result in tremendous suffering.”
Scott’s nonfiction writing tends to advocate for a maximalist approach to Rationalism. But I would argue that Unsong (and the rest of his fiction) betrays a conscious or unconscious acknowledgement that even Rationalism has its limits.
Universal Love, said the Cactus Person
One of Scott’s most popular short stories is about a researcher who wants to verify the reality of DMT entities—alien beings that are often encountered by users of psychedelic drugs. In it, Scott demonstrates pretty handily the problems with trying to reconcile Mysticism and Rationalism.
The main character takes Ayahuasca, and meets the entities in question: specifically a cactus person and a big green bat. He repeatedly asks them to factor a large semiprime number, a known-hard problem that would prove these entities have access to knowledge unavailable to humans.
In response, the entities offer nothing but platitudinous sayings about Universal Love and Transcendent Joy. At some point the big green bat delivers a fairly insightful monologue about Enlightenment using a metaphor involving cars. But both bat and cactus refuse to factor the number.
All this is a perfect demonstration of the apparent incompatibility of Mysticism and Rationalism, and a pointed reminder that a maximalist approach to Mysticism is obviously inadequate.
Meaningful is a particularly short short story. In it, we see progressively more intelligent beings discussing the nature of water:
An AI bot, which makes a coherent statement about water: “The boys splashed water in each other’s faces until they were both sopping wet”
Two children discuss whether the AI truly understands water, or has just learned a correlation between the words “splash” and “wet”
Two chemists discuss whether the children truly understand water, or if their understanding of its subjective phenomena (wetness, appearance, taste) is secondary to its chemical structure
Two angels discuss whether the chemists truly understand that “there are levels of understanding humans are incapable of accessing”
The story is worth a read. I believe it encodes a metacognitive truth which can’t be easily and directly conveyed. Scott has effectively deployed a small work of fiction to help him articulate it.
I don’t want to belabor the discussion of Scott’s fiction, since there’s only so much we can infer about the author’s ultimate intentions. But I want to mention a few more pieces that shed light on Scott’s attitudes toward Mysticism:
Samsara, in which the last unenlightened person on Earth desperately tries to remain unenlightened
In the Balance, in which we meet an infinite regress of demons all trying to convince us of their vision of the Ultimate Good
The Gods Only Have Power Because We Believe In Them, in which students and sages discuss the relationship between belief and reality
Idol Words, in which we see several petitioners approach three omniscient idols—one of which lies, one of which tells the truth, and one of which says something random—and eventually learn an epistemic truth about ineffable knowledge:
By the ancient oath sworn by the God of Knowledge, I am forbidden to give you knowledge directly. I can only tell you that there is something worth knowing.
Criticism of Mysticism
Scott can also be somewhat dismissive of Mysticism, and a couple of his articles focus mainly on its limitations.
Mysticism and Pattern-Matching
In an article entitled Mysticism and Pattern-Matching, Scott explores the idea that Mystical revelation is the result of overloading our innate pattern recognition systems:
I notice that the same people who have hallucinations also have mystical experiences. By mystical experiences, I don’t just mean “they see angels” – in that case, the relationship to hallucination would be a tautology. I mean they feel a sense of sudden understanding of and connection with the universe. I know at least three groups that do this: druggies, meditators, and prophets. The druggies report feelings of total understanding on their drugs, and also report hallucinations. The meditators occasionally achieve enlightenment, but look at any text about meditation and you find mentions of visions and hallucinations experienced during the practice. The voices heard by the prophets are too obvious to mention.
One well-known way of bringing on such experiences is to abuse your pattern-matching faculty. The Chicken Qabalah of Rabbi Lamed Ben Clifford (not really recommended) manages to link a pretty boring Bible verse to the letter yud, the creativity of God, the essence of existence, the sun, the phallus, the plane of Malkuth, and the number 496, then explains:
Like a mountain goat leaping ecstatically from crag to crag, one thought springs into another, and another, ad infinitum. You can continue, almost forever, connecting things that you never thought were connected. Sooner or later something’s going to snap and you will overcome the fundamental defect in your powers of perception.
This seems like a pretty valid explanation of mystical revelation, at least from the standpoint of contemporary Psychology. It echoes the opinions of brilliant (and I can’t help but mention, disgraced) cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky:
There is a not uncommon phenomenon—sometimes called mystical experience—from which a person emerges with the conviction that some unsolvable problem (like the purpose of existence) has been completely explained; one can't remember quite how, only that it was answered so well as to leave no doubt at all. This, I venture, reflects some mental mechanism (perhaps one of last resort) that, in a state of particularly severe turmoil or stress, can short-circuit the entire intellectual process—by creating the illusion that the problem has been settled.
Scott mediates his criticism here, saying:
I think all of this is about strengthening the pattern-matching faculty. You’re exercising it uselessly but impressively, the same way as the body-builder who lifts the same weight a thousand times until their arms are the size of tree trunks.
…why mystical experiences are linked with a feeling of no time, no space, and no self; why prayer or extreme devotion seems to induce them (eg bhakti yoga), and why they can be so beneficial – that is, why do people with mystical experiences become happier and better adjusted?
Is Enlightenment Compatible with Sex Scandals?
In this article, Scott candidly deals with the fact that many allegedly enlightened individuals have also allegedly done terrible things. In particular, he mentions the fact that our enlightened neuroscientist from The Mind Illuminated, Culadasa, has been accused of repeatedly cheating on his wife with prostitutes.
Scott reaches no conclusions in the article, but thinks this might help to explain why we have to strive for enlightened states, instead of just naturally being born into them:
There are all these transformative practices that purport to give you a higher level of consciousness. But by Algernon’s Law, there’s presumably some reason we’re in this state of consciousness, some reason our system protects its usual state so diligently that you need powerful drugs or years of meditation to break through to anything else. Are there advantages to samsara? Are they related to the reason why so many enlightened people end up in sex scandals?
This is a really pertinent question and one I hope to expand on in the future.
Here’s a list of all the articles mentioned above:
And some bonus links:
Gupta on Enlightenment, in which Scott praises the mystical understanding of a cryptocurrency guru. I honestly don’t know what to do with this one.
Meditative States as Mental Feedback Loops, in which Scott discusses a potential link between meditation and neuroscience
Jhanas and the Dark Room Problem, in which Scott links meditative states to a neuroscientific mystery
If there are any articles I missed, let me know in the comments!