Crowley on Religious Experience

Re­ply to: The Sa­cred Mun­dane, BHTV: Yud­kowsky vs. Frank on “Reli­gious Ex­pe­rience”

Ed­ward Crowley was a man of many tal­ents. He stud­ied chem­istry at Cam­bridge—a pe­riod to which he later at­tributed his skep­ti­cal sci­en­tific out­look—but he soon aban­doned the idea of a ca­reer in sci­ence and turned to his other pas­sions. For a while he played com­pet­i­tive chess at the na­tional level. He took to moun­tain-climb­ing, and be­came one of the early 20th cen­tury’s pre­mier moun­taineers, co-lead­ing the first ex­pe­di­tion to at­tempt K2 in the Hi­malayas. He also en­joyed writ­ing po­etry and trav­el­ling the world, mak­ing it as far as Nepal and Burma in an era when steamship was still the fastest mode of trans­porta­tion and Bri­tish colo­nial­ism was still a thin ve­neer over dan­ger­ous and poorly-ex­plored ar­eas.

But his real in­ter­est was mys­ti­cism. He trav­el­led to Sri Lanka, where he stud­ied med­i­ta­tion and yoga un­der some of the great Hindu yo­gis. After spend­ing sev­eral years there, he achieved a state of mys­ti­cal at­tain­ment the Hin­dus call dhyana, and set about try­ing to de­scribe and pro­mote yoga to the West.

He was not the first per­son to make the at­tempt, but he was cer­tainly the most in­ter­est­ing. Although his par­ents were re­li­gious fa­nat­ics and his father a fun­da­men­tal­ist preacher, he him­self had been an athe­ist since child­hood, and he con­sid­ered the vast ma­jor­ity of yoga to be su­per­sti­tious clap­trap. He set about elimi­nat­ing all the gods and chants and taboos and mys­te­rian lan­guage, end­ing up with a short sys­tem of what he con­sid­ered em­piri­cally val­i­dated prin­ci­ples for gain­ing en­light­en­ment in the most effi­cient pos­si­ble way.

Read­ing Crowley’s es­say on mys­ti­cism and yoga at age sev­en­teen rewrote my view of re­li­gion. I had always won­dered about east­ern re­li­gions like Bud­dhism and Hin­duism, which seemed to have some un­der­ly­ing truth to all their talk of “en­light­en­ment” and “med­i­ta­tion” but which seemed too vague and mys­te­ri­ous for my lik­ing. Crowley stripped the mys­tery away in one fell swoop.

When listen­ing to Eliezer de­bate Adam Frank on “re­li­gious ex­pe­rience”, I was dis­ap­pointed but not sur­prised to hear just how lit­tle they had to say. Even Frank, who was fas­ci­nated enough to write a book about it, con­sid­ered it lit­tle more than a sense that some­thing was in­spiring or es­pe­cially im­pres­sive. I quoted a bit of Crowley’s es­say on the thread, and peo­ple seemed to like it and want to know more.

But I am very re­luc­tant to share, and do so now only af­ter be­ing speci­fi­cally re­quested by a few peo­ple. You see, I have been try­ing to paint a sym­pa­thetic view of Crowley over the past few para­graphs. With the un­sym­pa­thetic view you are fa­mil­iar already. Un­der his nick­name “Aleister”, he wrote some of his­tory’s most in­fluen­tial oc­cultist works. Even in this do­main, he held him­self to a high ra­tio­nal­ist stan­dard, record­ing that he tested each spell and rit­ual be­fore­hand and passed on only the ones that ac­tu­ally worked as ad­ver­tised.

...I don’t know what that means ei­ther. Either he was one of those psy­chopaths gifted with the abil­ity to lie perfectly and ab­solutely, or a psy­chotic ge­nius able to in­duce hal­lu­ci­na­tions in him­self at will. Crowley him­self oc­ca­sion­ally en­dorsed this lat­ter ex­pla­na­tion, but af­ter pon­der­ing it a while de­cided he didn’t care. The im­por­tant thing, he wrote, was to de­ter­mine what tech­niques pro­duced what re­sults. After that, the philoso­phers could de­ter­mine whether they were phys­i­cal or men­tally me­di­ated. Be­sides, he said, the en­tities he sum­moned were so differ­ent from him­self that if they rep­re­sented fac­ul­ties of his mind, they were ones to which he had no con­scious ac­cess.

My point is that I am go­ing to link you to Crowley’s es­say on mys­ti­cism, yoga, and re­li­gious ex­pe­rience, and that you might get more out of it if you tried to avoid any bias upon see­ing the name “Aleister Crowley” on the ti­tle page. Yes, I feel prop­erly guilty post­ing this on a ra­tio­nal­ism site, but if we’re go­ing to talk about re­li­gious ex­pe­rience we might as well listen to the peo­ple who have had some.

Although it is Less Wrong tra­di­tion to rewrite a the­ory rather than sim­ply link to it, it would be in­ap­pro­pri­ate in this case. Get­ting Crowley filtered would be like hav­ing some­one sum­ma­rize Godel, Escher Bach to you—you might learn a few things, but you’d lose the chance to en­joy the su­perb writ­ing. It’s a long es­say, but not so long you can’t read it in one sit­ting. Even just read­ing the Pre­face gives an idea of the the­ory. Without fur­ther ado: Crowley on Reli­gious Ex­pe­rience.

I post this es­say to clar­ify why I be­lieve three things. First, that both Eliezer and Adam miss the point of re­li­gious ex­pe­rience. Se­cond, that cer­tain seem­ingly su­per­nat­u­ral or silly be­liefs can be more rea­son­able than they ap­pear (see for ex­am­ple Crowley’s ex­pla­na­tion of re­li­gious laws on “virtue” and “pu­rity”). Third, that some mys­tics’ work is of suffi­cient rele­vance to ra­tio­nal­ists to be worth study.