Mysticism, Philosophy, and the Womb
In “Mysticism and Logic” Russell lists four characteristics typical of the mystical temperament: a belief in a special way of knowing, a craving for unity in the world, a denial of the reality of time, and a disbelief in evil. The mystic believes that we (some of us) have a special faculty of knowing (“intuition”, “insight”) that transcends sense perception, intellect, and reason—and hence exceeds the possibilities of scientific knowledge. He or she also believes that the world is fundamentally unified, an “organic whole”, so that apparent divisions and distinctions are unreal, illusory (“All is One”). In addition, and related to the unity belief, time and change are unreal, so that reality is permanent and fixed; it only seems to us that things change. Finally, evil and suffering are illusory, so that we need not be concerned by them; we can remain tranquil.Religion clearly exemplifies these conditions. It is supposed that we can know God by revelation or by prayer and ritual, and he can know us by means of his superior cognitive powers. The soul is equipped with more faculties of knowledge than science recognizes (as is God). The world is a unity by virtue of being created by God for a specific purpose; it isn’t just a random collection of unrelated objects. In some religions pantheism ensures a deeper form of unity, because God is a unified being. Moreover, true reality is hidden—another feature of mystical thought. Time is unreal because God does not exist in time; time only seems real to us because we are finite mortal beings with limited knowledge. And evil is unreal because it will be rectified in the afterlife: it too is just an illusory appearance. Accordingly, the mystical impulse (as Russell describes it) is catered to by religious doctrine. Mystical experience, therefore, is natural to the religious life—while the scientific life will not be so conducive to it. Mystical cults will naturally spring up around such beliefs, bolstered by rituals and practices that encourage mystical experience. Architecture and iconography will reinforce the mystical tendency, which seems endemic in the human mind. But mysticism will not be confined to religion, because its core beliefs are not necessarily theistic; we may find mystical strands cropping up elsewhere, not always explicitly acknowledged. Thus, in philosophy we find mystical ideas dotted throughout the history of the subject, as in Parmenides, Plato, Pythagoras, Spinoza, Hegel, Wittgenstein, and others. In the Tractatus we find three mentions of mysticism towards the end of the book: “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists (6.44); “Feeling the world as a limited whole—it is this that is mystical” (6.45); “There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical” (6.522). As usual, Wittgenstein does not spell out his remarks, but we can see echoes of Russell’s characterization in these cryptic pronouncements. If I say to myself that the world exists, I treat the world as an object of singular reference, i.e., a unitary thing. We don’t usually make such sweeping existential claims, limiting ourselves to things within the world; but apparently, we can ascend to a higher level and make such statements about the world considered as a whole; then we are in mystical territory. This is made explicit in the following section in which Wittgenstein speaks of “feeling” the world as a “limited whole”: we experience it as a unified being. The third quotation expresses the idea that some things are ineffable, indescribable, and yet we have a kind of awareness of them; this awareness transcends the capacities of the intellect (we are in the realm of “intuition”). At a more general level, the whole Tractatus is an exercise in mystical thinking, because of the (alleged) unifying power of logic, its hiddenness, its other-worldliness, and its accessibility only to a faculty of logical intuition. At the time of writing the book, Wittgenstein was steeped in religion, and it shows. The basic conception is not so far removed from the Pythagorean picture of the physical world as constructed from mathematical objects. This is logical mysticism. Mathematicians have often had mystical tendencies (Godel, notoriously, also Russell himself). But I don’t think the tendency in question is limited to those who avow it; in fact, I think it is pretty common. I would say that panpsychism has mystical connotations (it certainly used to), as do idealism and neutral monism—because they all involve the assertion of hidden unity and present themselves as revelations (not science or common sense). I also think that materialism has mystical roots: it seeks to unify reality, and is often more a matter of faith than demonstration. Quine has mystical leanings, because of his belief in the sacred status of (first-order) predicate calculus and his insistence on generalized materialism: he levels plurality; he denies ordinary distinctions (the “desert landscape” is a mystical vision). Oddly enough, dualism is not really mystical, because it doesn’t attempt to force metaphysical unity on the world; it seems commonsensical. The idea of a “singularity”, as in big bang cosmology, has mystical overtones, and inspires religious awe, because it squeezes the entire universe into a single unified dot. Frege’s system has mystical elements too, because it seeks to impose a monolithic order onto apparent variety, and it deals in occult objects: thus, the generalized notion of a function, and the claim that truth-values are objects. Accordingly, Frege inspires a cult-like following: you have to swallow some pretty weird propositions in order to join it, which requires special insight on the part of cult members. Mystical cults are seductive, entrancing, because they offer simplified visions and esoteric knowledge. Hence, the dreamy look in the eye, the serene confidence, the disdain for outsiders. But all this leaves us with a question, a psychological question: whence the appeal of mysticism? Why are we susceptible to its charms? Why do its characteristic claims resonate with us? This is where the womb comes in, or where we come into the womb. For consider what it’s like to be inside the womb: the fetus’s world is a unified world, an undifferentiated world, an unchanging world. There is not a multiplicity of objects ranged around but just one—and it is barely distinguishable from the fetus itself. No self-other distinction has yet been drawn; it is as if the fetus is absorbed into the mother (as believers have dreamt of being at one with God). Moreover, at this stage of human life no intellect has yet formed, so all awareness is non-intellectual. Nor is it really sensory, or only primitively so; the fetus simply feels the mother—but not as a mother but as a kind of nebulous warm presence. Time has no real meaning for the fetus, since nothing much changes, and memory and expectation are non-existent at this stage. There isn’t much of William James’s “blooming, buzzing confusion” but rather a state of steady unchanging tranquility—a kind of dream state but without any world-directed content to the dream. Time begins for the infant when she is propelled into the outside world and experiences the chaos and mutability of that world. And, of course, there is no evil in the womb, no suffering, no deprivation. So, the state of consciousness of the fetus in the womb is rather like the consciousness of the convinced mystic: a unified homogeneous world, non-intellectual apprehension, no passage of time, no evil. The yearning for mystical enlightenment (or immersion) is really a yearning to return to the womb (an idea familiar from the psychological literature). That, at any rate, is a hypothesis to be pondered. Confirmation of it might be found in the connection between mysticism and drug experience: for it is commonly reported that certain drugs induce a feeling of enhanced perception, a sense of oneness with reality, intimations of a unitary transcendent world, distortions of time perception, and an access of feelings of well-being, as if all is well with the world. So, adult mysticism might be seen as an expression of womb nostalgia, possibly abetted by suitable drug-induced experience. This would mean that mystically inclined philosophers (and scientists and mathematicians) are subject to influences from early life, as early as pre-natal life. Imagine if you were born at a more mature stage than you actually were (rather like many other mammals), so that you had a clear memory of life in the womb. You might nostalgically remember those halcyon days and seek to recreate them. Religion would then be a natural way to go, given its characteristic doctrines and practices. But so would certain philosophical (or scientific) systems: they might satisfy your mystical cravings, partially at least, spurred by your memories of life in the womb. Really, many animals, including us, live two lives, each quite different from the other: pre-natal womb-life, with its characteristic features, and post-natal life with its pluralities, cognitive burdens, the relentless passage of time, and ever-present suffering and deprivation. Surely, a yearning to return to the earlier life would be natural, even inevitable, though the mystical life-style might be only a pale simulacrum of the womb-ensconced life-style. Some part of our brain retains an impression (let’s not call it a memory) of life inside the womb and this reverberates throughout our life, making us susceptible to mystical enticements. Of course, there might be sound intellectual reasons for accepting doctrines with a mystical aura, but there could be a more basic mystical impetus lurking in us too. Fetal phenomenology might lie behind adult ideology. Mysticism might have its roots in primitive pre-natal existence.
 Evidently, mysticism, as so understood, is something of a hodge-podge of loosely connected ideas, though one knows it when one sees it. It is a kind of detachment from ordinary reality, a bracketing of sharply individuated objects, a distancing from the senses and discursive thought, in favor of something more primitive, more elusive, harder to put into words. Music can produce the state in question, pictorial art too (as in William Blake).It aspires towards the holistic, the interconnected. It can be ecstatic, or at least heightened, sometimes transformational. Yet it is often associated with youth, with naïve apprehension of nature; adolescence is a time for mysticism. It is often seen as a recovery of something lost, before civilization has done its work.
 We should not intellectualize the mystical experience just because intellectuals talk about it. I had my first mystical experience when a child of 5 or 6 (I still remember it), as a response to nature, and I don’t think I am an exception. This was only a few years out from my womb-life with its distinctive phenomenology. The universality of mystical experience across cultures suggests a common biological basis, as predicted by the womb theory.
 Of course, I am well aware that this is a fantastically speculative piece of developmental psychology, and very difficult to test. However, most infant psychology is highly speculative and difficult to test; and in the case of the fetus, experiments are pretty much excluded. Still, the hypothesis is perfectly meaningful and we can have indirect evidence that bears on it. It should not be rejected out of hand simply because it is hard to test. I actually think it is very plausible, because I think we can have a clear idea of life inside the womb and it maps neatly onto the established picture of the mystical state of mind. Any other ideas?