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Mystical Consciousness and the Perception of Paradox: An Empirical Investigation of the Relationship between Mystical Experience and Reason

by Douglas Hocker
The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga


Historically, it has been claimed that mystical experience is beyond or above the grasp of reason, just as religion has been criticized for involving a logic of absurdity full of irresolvable contradictions (Reich, 1991). In his seminal analysis, Stace (1960) identified paradoxicality (apparent contradiction) as an essential characteristic of mystical experience, arguing that mystical experiences necessarily imply logical contradiction. Opposingly, Jones (1986) has argued that all of the mystical paradoxes resolve without logical contradiction. According to the cognitive model advanced here, Stace and Jones are actually emphasizing distinct components to the perception of paradox, and the role of paradox in mystical states can be understood by a type of thinking called "complementarity" (Reich, 1991) or "dialectic" reasoning (Peng & Nisbett, 1999). In two studies, this project investigated individual differences in the perception of mystical paradox and the factors that may influence such perception. Toward that end, a measure of paradoxicality, the Hocker Paradox Inventory (HPI), was empirically derived and used in conjunction with a measure of mystical experience, the Mysticism scale (M-Scale), and a measure of analytical reasoning ability, Raven's Progressive Matrixes, to investigate the relationship between mystical experience, paradoxicality and reason.

The purpose of this project was to examine the role that personal experience and logical reasoning may play in the perception of mystical paradox. The goal of Study 1 was to derive an internally consistent scale from an initial item pool based on Stace's conceptualization of mystical paradox that measures individual perceptions of paradox, while testing hypotheses regarding factors that may predict individual differences on the HPI measure. HPI items consist of paired propositions asserting opposite qualities to the world, generated from Stace's conceptual categories of mystical paradox. Scores above the midpoint on the HPI scale are indicative of complementarity reasoning, that is, conceptual resolution of paradox, while scores below the midpoint represent the degree of perceived contradiction. Study 2 tested the reliability of the finalized HPI measure with a new population while further exploring its' construct validity by comparing HPI scores with reported mystical experience (M-Scale scores) and analytical reasoning ability (Raven's scores).

Initial HPI items displayed high reliability in both studies (alpha = .967 and .971, respectively). As predicted in Study 1, age, education, and religious conservatism all significantly contributed to the total variance in HPI scores. Results of Study 2 revealed a positive relationship between HPI and M-Scale scores (r = .441) as hypothesized. No significant relationship was discerned between Raven's scores and either the HPI or the M-Scale. This project developed the first measure of paradoxicality and produced results suggesting that the perception of mystical paradox is influenced by an experiential component and not by analytical reasoning ability per se. These results imply that mystical paradox may be conceptually resolved, not on logic alone, but rather on the basis of personal experience.

Productive future research may be generated by further identifying experiential influences on the perception of paradox, and examining belief structures related to individual differences in the perception of paradoxicality.

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