“Altered States”

Kevin Cauley

In 1980 a movie called “Altered States” came out in which a University Professor of Abnormal Psychology sought to explore whether “our other states of consciousness are as real as our waking states.”  In this movie, the professor conducted bizarre experiments with drugs and isolation chambers in order to explore his hypothesis.  The fictional movie portrayed the professor as being able to physically change into other states of existence while conducting these experiments, purportedly to get in touch with “ultimate reality.” [1] The movie buys into the philosophical viewpoint that one’s personal experiences while in altered states of consciousness are no less real than the world experienced under normal, empirical conditions.[2]

In a recent conversation, it was reported that the Bible was a roadmap for normal reality, but that for other realities brought on by altered states of consciousness, other road maps needed to be followed.[3] The statement itself implies that the Bible makes no mention of such altered states or realities, and that it is not intended to address existence in such places.[4] It would, moreover, imply that God has not revealed anything to us regarding such realities in the Bible, thus cutting off the Bible as a potential source of information regarding the existence of such places.  Outside of revelation, then, we must examine the potential existence of such realities in terms of the evidence that presents itself to us outside of Scripture.  So, in looking to examine the claim that other road maps are necessary for alternative realities, how should we proceed?

One way would be to talk to the individuals who claim to have experienced such alternative realities.  This would inevitably lead to a series of conversations in which individuals who have had such experiences verbally explain or describe such “realities” in terms that we can understand.  However, the only terms we can understand are terms related to this reality.  Hence, it would be impossible to describe these alternative realities.  This makes talking to individuals regarding their experiences with these alternative realities a dead end.  We could never get a sufficient description in terms that we could understand.  To such an incommunicable state, mystical religions agree.  William James wrote, “…the absence of definite sensible images is positively insisted on by the mystical authorities in all religions as the sine quo non of a successful orison, or contemplation of the higher divine truths.”[5]

Another way to examine these claims would be to try to experience the alternative reality ourselves.  These altered states of consciousness are purportedly brought on through drug use. Others claim to have had such experiences through intense meditation or as a result of physical trauma.[6] Supposing, however, that we were able to enter one of these altered states of consciousness through one of these methods, we would still be left with a vexing problem.  What is there to connect the “reality” that we experience to the “reality” that anyone else has experienced?  We run into the same problem as above, namely, that we could never sufficiently describe our experience of this alternative reality to another in a meaningful way, even if this other person has experienced it as well.  There is no accurate and meaningful terminology to employ.  Thus we would never be able to objectively confirm (through independent sources) that we have indeed experienced an alternative reality.  This places the entire claim into the realm of the subjective which makes such experiences amusing at best, but falls far short of demonstrating an alternate reality’s true existence.

There is not sufficient evidence in either of these methods of inquiry to conclude that anything objective can be observed regarding these alternative realities.  If we are truly speaking of an alternate reality, then it could never sufficiently be described in terms we could understand through the reality we know.  That makes it impossible for someone else who has experienced this alleged reality to communicate it to us, and it makes it impossible to sit down, experience the reality, and communicate it to another.  It cuts one off from objective confirmation of the claimed alternative reality.  The only conclusion left to us, if we are going to be rational, is that these alleged realities are simply subjective states of consciousness brought on by an individual abnormally manipulating his senses to induce wholly subjective experiences.  In other words, there is no “alternate reality” at all; it is, proverbially speaking, “all in their mind.” [7]

Stepping outside of the previous line of thought, we should now consider whether there are any principles taught within Scripture or that we know to be true from correct reasoning that would exclude the existence of these alternative realities.

First, the God of the Bible is set forth to be the God of reality, period; He is not simply the God of “this” reality.  Isaiah declares God to be the one who inhabits “eternity” (Isaiah 57:15) and not simply the god of a particular limited existence.  If God is indeed infinite, as the Bible declares Him to be (Psalm 147:5), then there is no place where man can go, objectively or subjectively, and God not be there.  Paul told the Athenians in Acts 17:28, “For in him we live and move and have our being.”  In other words, our being, our existence, is wholly contingent on God wherever our experiences (objective, subjective, or otherwise) might take us.  There is no “reality” that we can experience where God is not; He is, to coin a word, pan-existential.

Second, the Bible implicitly declares the reality that exists to be dualistic.  This is the concept that there is only one reality, but that it is composed of two fundamentally different realms that are connected together.  In philosophy, Plato first suggested this idea with his description of the physical world having its ultimate explanation in the world of forms, a metaphysical realm.[8] This is also, in essence, what the Bible declares.  Genesis 1:1 implicitly sets this forth when we read of God, with no physical stuff in existence, creating the heavens and the earth out of nothing, ex nihilo, as it were (Hebrews 11:3).[9] Moreover, consider 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:1:

For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.  For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.  For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

Paul sets up a dichotomy of thought in these verses.  Consider the following contrasts:

  • The outward man vs. the inward man.
  • Light affliction of the moment vs. the eternal weight of glory.
  • Things which are seen vs. things which are not seen.
  • Temporal vs. the eternal.
  • The earthly house vs. the heavenly house.

All of these contrasts lead us to the conclusion that reality is fundamentally dualistic and that the spiritual, not the physical, is the ultimately real place.

When we come to God’s existence as well, we find that God is not a physical Being, but a metaphysical/spiritual One.  We conclude that the physical is not the fundamental essence of reality, but the spiritual, because it is from spiritual power that the physical was created and came into being (Genesis 1:1).  Alternate realities, such as those suggested in the movie “Altered States,” posit something fundamentally different from the Bible’s picture of true existence.  The movie, along with those who posit such “realities,” suggest(s) that somehow the physical is simply another aspect of the spiritual, thus confusing the two concepts all together.[10] However, the Bible makes a clear cut distinction between the two, though it does not preclude their interaction.

Finally, let us appeal to the foundation of rationality itself, the principle of non-contradiction.  This principle states that a thing cannot be itself and not itself at the same time and in the same sense.  For statements, a precisely stated proposition cannot be both true and false.[11] This principle is self- evident.  When we come to an object, whether it is a rock, tree, house, or whatever, we immediately realize that it cannot be both itself and not itself.   Its identity makes it what it is.  This law is not merely true for the physical realm, but for the spiritual as well.  It is a law that covers anything that exists – a law of thought, and hence, a fundamentally spiritual phenomena.[12] By virtue of its being such, that places it in both the spiritual (metaphysical) and the physical realms.

God is a rational God.[13] When we, as God’s creation, seek to be rational, then we must exclude any alternate states of reality as nothing more than subjective manipulation of one’s sense experience.  One might reply that if we exclude sense experience, regardless of how distorted it might be as an avenue from determining what reality is, then we have in essence excluded all reality together.  But this presupposes an empirical epistemology.  It is not with our sense experience alone that we come to conclusions about reality, but rather, the combination of sense experience with the ability that we have to make appropriate discernments based upon the law of non-contradiction and other such fundamental laws of thought.  In fact, it is the law of non-contradiction that makes it possible for us to discern between one particular item experienced and another, whether by vision, hearing, smelling, touching, or tasting.  A thing cannot be both itself and not itself.  Of this we are cognizant a priori.  That is the basic rule of discernment that we bring to the table of our experience of reality whether that reality is physical, spiritual, or even some subjectively posited alternate reality.  We simply cannot escape using this principle to filter our experience and, if we cannot escape it, then we require evidence based upon it to prove the existence of any suggested realities.

In conclusion, so long as man’s thinking continues to be based upon the law of non-contradiction, and God’s existence continues to be infinite and eternal, we cannot accept the premise that the Bible is only a roadmap for one reality among many.  Instead, we explicitly affirm the Bible to be the roadmap for all reality.

[1] Altered States. Dir. Ken Russell, Warner Bros. Pictures production. Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers, 1980, video recording.

[2] Perhaps similar to the thought of Artaud, Antonin, The Theater and Its Double, (Grove Press: New York, 1958).

[3] Presumably the motivation behind this statement is to suggest that one need not follow the Bible if one has learned to transcend this reality.

[4] One wonders if such a statement implies that one ought to explore these realities before coming to conclusions regarding the correctness of the Bible.

[5] James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, (Penguin Classics: London, 1982) p.54.

[6] Leary, Timothy F. et. al., The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, (Citadel Press: New York, 1995) p. 11.  It is even suggested that dreaming may be considered an alternative reality.

[7] In this regard, I would agree with Paul Kurtz when he says, “Appeals to mystical experiences or private subjective states hardly suffice as evidential support that some external being or force caused such altered states of consciousness; skeptical inquirers have a legitimate basis for doubt, unless or until such claims of interior experience can somehow be independently corroborated.”  Kurtz, Paul. Why I am a Skeptic about Religious Claims. May 23rd, 2008. <http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?page=pkurtz_26_4&section=library>

[8] Hamilton, Edith, Ed., The Collected Dialogues of Plato Including the Letters, (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1989) pp747-750..

[9] See also 2 Maccabees 7:28 and Torchia, N. Joseph, Creatio ex nihilo and the Theology of St. Augustine: The Anti-Manichaean Polemic and Beyond (Peter Lang Publishing: Bern, 1999).  Augustine’s concept of ex nihilo was polemic in response to the Manichean view of the physical world being an emanation of God.  Hence, the world (perceivable reality) was not distinct from God in this theology.  If, however, creation is ex nihilo, reality becomes fundamentally dualistic for the thing created stands in stark distinction to the creator, exactly opposite of the Manicheans contention.

[10] Not very different from the Manichean view and others.  See Tart, Charles T. ed., Altered States of Consciousness: A Book of Readings (Wiley: Hoboken, 1969).

[11] Sproul, R.C., The Consequences of Ideas: Understanding the Concepts that Shaped our World (Crossway Books: Wheaton, 2000) p.41-43.

[12]Aristotle, Metaphysics IV Section 4.  Ross, W.D. Trans, (University of Adelaide: Adelaide, 2007).  Available online at <http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/a/aristotle/metaphysics/index.html>.

[13] See Isaiah 1:18, Acts 17:2, Acts 18:4, Acts 24:25.  See also Moreland, J.P. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Intervarsity Press: Downers Grove, 2003) p.606-607.

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