On Experience and Intuition in Mystical Empiricism

In Eye to Eye, first published in 1983, Wilber says that "transcendental methodology constitutes an experimental, verifiable, repeatable proof for the existence of Godhead, as a fact..." (italics in orginal)."

No doubt, various traditions have claimed a special mode of knowing particular to their "practice," a kind of "metaphysical intuition" (yogi-pratyaksha; sakshatkara; anubhava; nirvikalpa-jnana; prajna; bodhi; viveka-khyati, etc.) that transcends the "worldly" ways of knowing. In such traditions, this metaphysical intuition is supposed to provide a form of veracity, often presented as a kind of "self-evident" truth.

While such claims are interesting, I find philosophical appeals to "transcendental methodologies" to be problematic. I find them problematic because there is no uniformity as to what these various metaphysical intuitions are intuiting. In this sense, metaphysical intuition is not at all like the "experimental, verifiable, repeatable" proof that we find in the empirical sciences.

Contrary to the claims of Wilber and other perennialists, it is simply not the case that these "intuitions" are intuiting the same thing. To give an example, Mahayana Buddhists and Advaita Vedantins both acknowledge nirvikalpa-pratyaksha (direct, non-conceptual perception or "intuition" ). But they do not agree, as their Naiyayika detractors point out, on what it is that this "nirvikalpa-pratyaksha" is apprehending. For the Advaitin it is "absolute being," or the most universal generality, while for the Suatrantika-Yogacharin it is the "pure particular" (svalakshana) shorn of all generality. It is certainly not the case, as Wilber contends, that for tradition in general, there is a metaphysical intution of "consciousness as eternal." This may be the Vedantic teaching, but it is not Buddhist.

All of these "metaphysical intuitions" are, in fact, particular to particular traditions. Each tradition has its own mode of "intuition" --- a form of intellectual insight, really, a kind of "seeing" (darshana), or understanding --- and each tradition has its own "reality" corresponding to this "mode." The practice of meditation, as I see it, is concerned with developing this "seeing."

We may also note that the "eye of soul," or what the older tradition called "intellectual intuition," is conspicuously absent in the modern period. It makes a brief reappearance with Hegel in his concept of "speculatio," which grasps "absolute knowledge," but generally we find the disappearance of "intuition" as a mode of knowing in the modern period. This disappearance coincides with the "naturalizing" of philosophy, and with the movement in philosophy toward theoretical universality. In other words, while we do find "intellectual intution" in insular classical traditions like Neo-Platonism, wherein certain "noetic states" fufill a particular role within a "practice," the role of intuition becomes problematic when we begin to speak of universally applicable modes of knowing. So, we can understand why "intellectual intuition" gradually fell out of favour during the communalization of philosophy: there was simply no consensus on what it was that intellectual intuition was supposed to be intuiting.

"Experience proves the existence of such things. If only you practiced yoga, you'd understand." We can compare this approach with the following: "You'll never understand Marxism until you've had your consciousness raised. Until then, there's no point talking to you."
The problem that this approach is attempting to address is this: two parties cannot come to an agreement on some issue, say, the nature of ultimate reality, and one party is petitioning the other to participate in his "experience." The assumption here is the problem will clear up if the second party has access to a particular "experience." But, as we noted above, the problem does not clear up where two different traditions of meditation are concerned, nor does it clear up when one party does not participate in a particular perspective. 

The above being the case, the problem does not really have to do with experience, or a lack thereof, as much as it has to do with the "conflict of interpretations" and the multiplicity of perspectives -- with differing conceptual frameworks or systems of belief. This means that metaphysical views on the nature of ultimate reality are more like articles of faith than propositional contents based upon some "verifiable" experience. At the same time, these views inform experience, shape it, and cause it to conform to a particular manner of "seeing-as."

So, the problem with the above "experiential" approach, as it relates to the question of dialogue between traditions, is that it creates an unequal field of inquiry -- between those with a "privileged access" to a particular view of reality, and those with a lack thereof. This access is "priviledged" insofar as it is not based upon a mutually agreeable and "neutral" means of knowledge, but upon the a priori acceptance of a certain set of beliefs. Once the conditions of inquiry are set out in this manner, they create a situation that is inherently circular, with a predetermined result that is unfalsifiable. And this invariably creates a situation that is anthema to actual dialogue or debate.

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