4.2 The field of consciousness
Reversing the order of James’s own discussion, we shall begin from his last lecture, in which he advances his own account of the nature and meaning of religious experience, based on the more descriptive discussion he builds up in his previous lectures.
For present purposes, we shall leave aside James’s elaborate rejection of what he calls the ‘survival theory,’ namely, the idea that religious life is simply some form of relic of more primordial and archaic times, and that should be dispensed with today. In this discussion, James makes two points that we already covered in our previous lectures coming from different angles. First, ‘primitive’ religious forms (among which one might want to include shamanism) are based on dreams, hallucinations, or revelations, and this interweaving of ‘altered’ experiences with religious life seemed to have remained fairly normal up to the modern period. Second, in considering these aspects an anachronism and attempting to discard them using scientific findings, the survival theory draws too sharp a boundary between subjective experience and the scientific objective worldview. This problem is akin to the divide between first-person and third-person perspective introduced in Lecture One and further discussed in Lecture Two. James is vocal about this: ‘it is absurd for science to say that the egotistic elements of experience should be suppressed. The axis of reality runs solely through the egotistic places’ (James 1902 , Lecture XX, 499-500). James stresses that a subjective view can never be fully abandoned, and since religious experience is primarily encountered through this subjective view, neither religion nor science can ever be entirely free of it.
These two points illustrate how refreshing James’s discussion on these matters is. Many of the worries and concerns he voices still inform today’s debate, albeit often phrased using different keywords. However, given time and space constraints, we might skip these nuances and move on to the core of James’s reading.
Based on the phenomenology of religious experience that he has provided, James presents the following generalization:
Summing up in the broadest possible way the characteristics of the religious life, as we have found them, it includes the following beliefs:—
- That the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe from which it draws its chief significance;
- That union or harmonious relation with that higher universe is our true end;
- That prayer or inner communion with the spirit thereof— be that spirit “God” or “law”—is a process wherein work is really done, and spiritual energy flows in and produces effects, psychological or material, within the phenomenal world.
Religion includes also the following psychological characteristics:—
- A new zest which adds itself like a gift to life, and takes the form either of lyrical enchantment or of appeal to earnestness and heroism.
- An assurance of safety and a temper of peace, and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections. (James 1902 , Lecture XX, 485-486)
James suggests that despite the diversity of ideas, creeds, and philosophical or theological views that can be used to flesh out the five points just mentioned, all religious experiences abide to a relatively simple psychological structure: uneasiness and solution, wrongness and salvation. In other terms, the underpinning scheme is soteriological: there is some fundamental problem with the ordinary human condition, but this problem can be met and solved in a way that leads to a transcendence of the ordinary condition.
This point builds on some elements of James’s psychological theory introduced sparsely in his previous lectures and now used to build his account of the facts presented. Two elements are particularly relevant. The first is James’s view that personality, or the sense of self, has a ‘centre.’ In Lecture IX, introducing the topic of conversion, James made the following remark:
The key point is that the experience of a conscious subject can be represented as unfolding in a space-like field, some parts of which are identified as nearer to the centre of the field, while others as being more remote. James notices that this view can be accommodated even in frameworks in which no substantial soul or self is accepted, like those of Hume or Buddhists (his association between the two seems to go without need for explanation). The aspect that James stresses, though, is that what constitutes the centre is dependent upon the emotional charge or energy associated with certain contents. As the same passage continues:
Emotional charge (arguably shaped by desire or aversion) determines what gets to the centre of experience, and hence what is appropriated as the core of ‘my’ experience. If this emotional charge is wavering and oscillating, then the sense of self that ensues is equally unstable and struggling, while if the charge becomes constant and unwavering, then the sense of self becomes established and more fixed. Religious conversion is one instance of this process of stabilization, although in James’s account it has its own peculiarity. Non-religious stabilization usually draws from any emotional force directly available to the ordinary scope of consciousness, while religious conversion (the stabilization of the personality centre around a core religious experience) draws from forces that are usually not part of ordinary experience. This is where another important psychological idea of James’s account comes into the picture.
James presents consciousness as a field and argues that its boundaries are fuzzy. James’s terminology on this point is not always fixed, and he usually speaks of ‘subconscious’ or ‘subliminal,’ more rarely ‘unconscious,’ regions. In his words:
Let us pause and point out a few remarkable features of this view. First, experience (‘consciousness,’ in James’ terminology) is best conceptualized as a sort of holistic state, in which the overall content that is present affects the nature of the experience, rather than a sequence of discrete units or ‘ideas.’ My experience of what is happening is not a collection of discrete units or bits of information (‘ideas’) that somehow represent different objects independently from one another. Rather, I experience an overall complex situation, within which, depending on the movements of attention and on the underpinning motives and drives that steer it, I can discern relatively discrete units and pick them out for deeper inspection or engagement.
Second, the complex contents (or else the manifold of contents) that appear within a field of experience are not static. In fact, these fields succeed one another in a flow, which seems reminiscent of the theory of ‘mind-moments’ developed in Buddhist Abhidharma (which underpins some of the discussion of gappyness encountered in in Lecture One and Two). Third, the scope of these fields (how broad or narrow they appear) has not only a cognitive implication (how many different contents one experiences, or how complex that content can be), but also an emotional component. The narrower the field, the stronger the sense of constriction; the wider the filed, the stronger the sense of relief. We will see that this point is important. Before getting to it, here is how James continues:
The field of experience is thus relatively fuzzy. Ordinary consciousness is consciousness of what is right in the middle of this field, but beyond it there is a vast and potentially unlimited region that at the same time is related with ordinary consciousness (since without subconscious memories and cognitions, ordinary consciousness could not properly work) but also escaping from its reach. On this point, James signals his discrepancy with the more standard psychological view he is referring to so far. Contrary to this standard position, James refuses to characterise what lies beyond the conscious margins as merely non-existent and non-conscious at all. James recalls that
This view adds significant depth to James’s analysis. On the one hand, the field of experience has a centre that can and does shift due to the oscillations in emotional charges. The scope of the field itself can also be broader or narrower, and this in turn affects the sorts of emotions that experience elicits. On the other hand, the whole field of ordinary waking experience is surrounded by a vast and largely unmappable space, which directly affects the field. James uses this account to explain the nature of religious experience and any claims to truth based on that kind of experience.
In particular, religious experience seems to turn on a kind of excess, something ‘more’ that goes beyond what is ordinarily available, and which deeply affects and shapes it. Conversion is the process of opening up to this ‘more,’ and religious practice (like prayer) a way of keeping in touch with it. James thus suggests:
What Christians call ‘God’ could be understood as the force that occupies and shapes the space that lies beyond the fragile boundary of ordinary consciousness. James advocates that this power is real, since it produces tangible effects in people’s life. This might not entirely square with more traditional views about the nature of God. As James acknowledges, it would require some other ‘over-belief,’ chiefly the idea that this ‘power’ that lies in subconscious spaces is the absolute world ruler. But the most precious conclusion that results from James’s discussion is his acknowledgment of the need to widen our conception of what counts as conscious experience. As he writes:
From this point of view, religious experience amounts to an enlargement of the sense of self, insofar as it establishes a more stable contact with the regions of experience that are usually inaccessible to ordinary waking experience. This broadening of experience entails a positive emotional component, which is witnessed as an essential ingredient of religious life, and in turn helps consolidate the new personality centre that is established at the moment of conversion.
The idea of a gap between the ordinary waking (narrow) domain of experience and the unfathomable and yet real space that lies beyond its boundaries is robust enough to account for the ‘transcendence’ of ‘God’ with respect to an ordinary individual, without any further need to invoke further ontological divisions. Transcendence is experienced in religious life, and thus it must happen within the overall field of experience, and it does so by enlarging that field. In this respect, the traditional question about the existence of God is somewhat defused. In a way, it is positively answered, insofar as there is more to experience than what waking ordinary experience can witness; yet, in another sense, God does not exist in the sense of being ontologically separated from the field of experience as a whole. The latter point results from James’s analysis of religious experience as a witnessing of the union with God, rather than of the separation from it.
However, the remark just quoted invites also a further step, which James does not take, but which we shall take regardless. The kernel of religious experience has relatively little to do with ‘God’ conceived as a self-standing entity and very much to do with ‘me’ and ‘my’ struggle. Of course, according to most of the Christian sources discussed by James, God is the solution to that struggle. However, the whole problem turns around ‘my’ sense of self and its relatively narrow conception. To inject our leading claim at this point, the ordinary self struggles to control its limited domain of experience. The feeling and overwhelming awareness of the impossibility of succeeding at this task is what leads to a crisis of that sense of self, and at this junction a religious experience can arise as a solution. James acknowledges that religious life is very much about the broadening of the sense of self until it gets almost dissolved in the mystical union with God. We can dispense from any further speculation about God as such and take this sort of religious approach as chiefly aimed at producing the dissolution of the sense of self. If the ordinary self is a problem (because its attempt to master experience is doomed to fail), the dissolution of the self is also a dissolution of the most pressing problem, and therefore (in fact) a relief. To support this view, we can review the phenomenology of religious life that James presents and distill further elements from there.