This book although highly interesting, is a book that must be read with critical faculties fully on the alert. It begins with a neural imaging study done on a Buddhist monk at the peak of meditation. The authors find significant an interesting patterns of brain activity which they also find subsequently in other Tibetan Buddhist meditators and in scans of Franciscan nuns at prayer. From this and an apparently somewhat cursory reading of mystic literature from a variety of traditions they attempt to unravel the neurobiology of mystical experience. They succeed in arguing a cogent case for the fact that a mystical experience is within the possibility of a normal functioning brain. That is, it is not a pathological state such as a seizure, or a psychological maladjustment, as is often assumed by intellectuals and academics.
More boldly still the authors then undertake the question of whether a mystic state may actually be what it claims to be, i.e. a glimpse into a larger and more real reality than what we typically think of is real life. They do this by deconstructing the imagistic nature of our apprehensions of ordinary sense data and pointing out that our experience of the real world is, in fact, a construct cobbled together from sensory input. What we think of as “the real world” is not directly known, but is instead only known through electro-chemical inputs into our brain. The brain determines what is real or not by comparing these electro-chemical impulses and piecing them together into a construct of the world.
While this is a bit of an oversimplification, and overlooks the use of reasoning, critical evaluation and consensus in shaping our worldview, it does bring out an important point, namely, that the mystic and the materialist both argue for the truth of their experience on precisely the same neurochemical basis, i.e. that specific activity actually occurred in their brains.
Again, this is an over-simplification, since the claims that the materialist and the mystic make about the source of these experiences are radically different. It is because of this over simplification (which is necessary in the context of such a short book on such a weighty subject) that the book cannot stand alone, but must be read in context of a good base of knowledge on mysticism, philosophy and theology. When the authors discuss what religious people and mystics believe, the reader must be able to fill in the blanks, or he will be developing very serious misunderstandings.
Throughout the book they conduct themselves with great intellectual honesty, and admit that the ultimate questions of whether God exists, or if he does what his nature might be, or whether mystical experience as they define it is correlated with an objective metaphysical reality, are questions that science cannot answer. They also make an honest attempt to distinguish clearly between facts established by research and their theoretical interpretations of these facts. If this is not always clearly delineated in black-and-white, I believe it is not due to Malisour confusion on their part, but simply the difficulty of explicitly stating every single time they make a statement whether it is a fact or a theory. This is why I say that this book must be read with the critical faculties wide-awake.
My study of Buddhism thus far has been so shallow that I am not qualified to comment on it. My studies of Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and other major religions even more so. However I have read a good deal of Christian mysticism, as well as the Christian theology that goes with it. My strongest critique of this book is that their understanding of Christian mysticism and how it fits into Christian theology is shallow at best and inaccurate in places. Specifically, throughout the book they present Christian mysticism as a an opposition to or even a contradiction of the black-and-white, dogmatic nature of Christian, by which they especially emphasize Catholic, theology. They demonstrate no understanding of the close ties between mysticism and theology within the Catholic tradition.
As an example of the care and attention this book requires, the authors present two significant “myths” of their own. The first they claim explicitly as a myth, a theoretical description of how religion might first have evolved from a mystical experience. The second purports to show how the self might arise spontaneously from the neurology of a newborn infant and his interactions with the external world. While they do cursorily remind the reader in passing that this also his only hypothetical, it is presented with much less emphasis on it’s purely speculative nature than the previous myth. A lazy or unfocused reader might make the mistake of thinking that
All in all, this book is well worth reading although slightly behind the times as scientific works go. It is not a pop psych book, nor is it a rigorous scientific treat us, but something in the middle. It is worth reading critically by any reader believer or not.