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Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border Between Science and Spirituality Hardcover – January 22, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

A former senior writer at Scientific American investigates the physics of mystical experiences like prayer, fasting, and trances.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.


"A marvelous book....[Horgan has] a gift for pulling back the curtain to unveil diminutive wizards, a technique he employs adroitly in this new book...." --Dick Teresi The New York Times Book Review

"[I]nformative, critical . . . fascinating and disturbing." Library Journal

"[A] great read, full of amusing vignettes and thoughtful reflections." --Stephen Mihm The Washington Post

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 292 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (January 22, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618060278
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618060276
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (64 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #877,769 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

77 of 79 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 5, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Horgan's Rational Mysticism takes a serious look at the various approaches of mysticism. The book is roughly broken up into three broad approaches to mysticism -- philosophical, neurological/psychological, and psychotropic. Horgan has interviewed a large group of people for this book including Huston Smith, Steven Katz, Bernard McGinn, Ken Wilber, Andrew Newberg, Michael Persinger, Susan Blackmore, James Austin, Stanilav Grof, and Terrance McKenna.
Horgan asks good questions and finds contradictions between the ideas and philosophies of those he interviews, sometimes taking one person's comments from a previous interview to contradict another's answer. Sometimes he stoops to ad hominen attacks. The title about Ken Wilber, 'The Weightlifting Boddhisattva' seems like a subtle attack of Wilber's character and authenticity if he has any. In another chapter he talks about how Michael Persinger loses all credibility when he finds out that he is carrying out research into psi phenomena. I'm a skeptic when it comes to psi myself, but to throw out Persinger's neurological studies just because he wants to test psychic phenomena seems akin to throwing out the baby with the bath water. Throughout the book he uses these popular and mainstream prejudices (UFOs come up later) to cast doubts on the ideas of everyone he interviews.
I was greatly disappointed at the end of the book where he makes the following comment: "Not until I met and fell in love with Suzi (wife) almost a year after the trip did my estrangement from life and from my own self finally subside. Mysticism did not save me; it was that from which I needed to be saved."
People pursue mysticism and religion for meaning. People can pursue relationships for the same reason. I have no problem with this.
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41 of 42 people found the following review helpful By Jim R. on January 26, 2003
Format: Hardcover
This is one of the best nonfiction reads I've encountered in a long time. It's compulsively readable. I love to have my assumptions challenged and this book did that and more. I laughed, cried, rolled my eyes, argued with Mr. Horgan. It's a great ride.
Rational Mysticism was especially meaningful to me because I long ago gave up on organized religion and put my faith in science. I occasionally try to return to religion, but quickly leave in exasperation. Now I understand that either path ends in mystery. We need to respect that mystery and appreciate the reality we have more.
You will meet some fascinating people in these pages, titantic egos, brilliant thinkers, crackpots. The introduction "Lena's Feather" was profoundly moving to me. Mr. Horgan's account of the ayahuasca ceremony is not to be missed. Finally the chapter "The Awe-Ful Truth" will leave you with much to think about.
Anyone who thinks on the "big questions" whether religious or rationalist should read this book.
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75 of 84 people found the following review helpful By James J. Lippard on October 2, 2004
Format: Paperback
John Horgan has written a wonderfully entertaining and informative account of his attempt to find who is productively applying science to the field of mysticism. One other reviewer said that they do not like this sort of book, which is based on interviewing individuals and commenting on their personalities as well as their ideas, but I personally prefer this approach as an introduction to the lives and works of others. I found the book to be very insightful, as Horgan always seemed to ask the questions and raise the issues that I was interested in hearing about. His open-minded yet skeptical approach is one I find refreshing.

Horgan's subjects--Huston Smith, Steven Katz, Bernard McGinn, Ken Wilber, Andrew Newberg, Michael Persinger, Susan Blackmore, James Austin, Albert Hofmann, Stanislov Grof, Terence McKenna, Alexander "Sasha" and Ann Shulgin--are all quite interesting people. Horgan seemed most sympathetic to Blackmore, Austin, Wilber, McKenna (personality-wise more than idea-wise), and the Shulgins. He was--correctly, I believe--skeptical of Persinger after finding his pro-psi views. My own view of Persinger is that he attempts to fit everything into his temporal lobe epilepsy/tectonic strain theory views, but has often been unskeptical about the data he's pushing into the theory; I've never understood why skeptics like Blackmore and Michael Shermer have thought him to be plausible. (I've authored a critical review of Persinger's Space-Time Transients and Unusual Events for including bogus debunked events as items to be explained by his theory, and The Arizona Skeptic published an extensive bibliography of critiques of his TST assembled by Chris Rutkowski of the University of Manitoba in the July 1992 issue).
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33 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Brad4d VINE VOICE on September 17, 2005
Format: Paperback
--This is a difficult book to review, because it has notably strong and weak points. On the five-star side, the author writes well. His unusual perspective provokes thought and provides a light "kick in the mind" to conventional thinking. He provides many wonderful one-liners and brings some humor to this often-dry study. On the one-star side, the book has little to do with legitimate science, rationality, or mysticism. With a couple of exceptions, the author interviewed a small sample of people at the fringes of quasi-mystical and semi-scientific experience, and chose the most interesting, colorful, "pop star" people. That sure made for an interesting read but it's kind of like using interviews with folks like Hunter S. Thompson and William Burroughs as the foundation for a book on the Beauty of English Literature.
--The author admits his distaste for the self-responsible discipline of Zen Buddhism, and maybe that's why he seems so wrapped up in psychedelics as a cheap key to mystical awareness (although he admits drugs have an inescapable and very diabolical side. Well...... Garbage In, Garbage Out.).
--However, the author discusses an interesting question: are all mystical experiences alike? He seems to conclude they are not, and in my opinion he makes a reasonable case. Nearly all interviewees had substantially different interpretations of many important aspects of their experiences, and indeed, many had what seemed to be different experiences altogether (assuming, of course, their experiences were trustworthy ones). My own view of mysticism was enriched after reading this book because instead of seeming like some kind of amorphous monolithic entity, mystical experience seems richly diverse.
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