Mysticism’s Function

For our ancestors, mysticism functioned mainly to offer “higher” and stronger motives and excuses to do what they had more practical reasons to do.  In war:

Anthropologists universally reported one “spiritual” factor as being among the most prominent causes of warfare among hunter-gatherers, as well as among primitive agriculturalists.  This was fears and accusations of sorcery. … Accusations of sorcery … do not appear randomly.  They generally arise and are directed against people whom the victim of the alleged sorcery feels have reasons to want to harm him. … Chagnon’s account … of sorcery among the Yanomamo:

No two villages that are within comfortable walking distance from each other can maintain such a [neutral] relationship indefinitely: They must become allies, or hostility is likely to develop. … A death in one of the villages will be attributed to the malevolent hekura sent by shamans in the other village, and raids will eventually take place between them. …

Trespassing was often regarded in hunter-gatherer societies as an offense against a group’s sanctified territory.  In other cases, an act of sacrilege against the clan’s totem was regarded as an insult to the clan itself. … The Dugum Dani … who fought for pigs, women, and land … [also felt] they had to placate their ghosts who became angry with them if a killing … was not avenged. … Similarly, the Gebusi of Lowland New Guinea had the highest homicide rates recorded anywhere. The reason given for the killings was retribution for sorcery, but … there remains a striking correlation in Gebusi society between homicidal sorcery attribution and lack of reciprocity in sister exchange marriage …. Gebusi sorcery attribution is about unresolved and even unacknowledged improprieties in the balance of marital exchange.

In “peace”:

During the witch trials in Europe the accused were precisely those persons who had somehow aroused the suspicion that they were envious and hence desirous of harming others.  Gradually, however, the envious man himself became the accuser, the accused being people who were good-liooking, virtuous, proud and rich. … This double role played by envy in witchcraft is again apparent among primitive peoples.  The outsider, the cripple, anyone at all handicapped, is suspected. ….

Of 222 cases of accusation of [Navaho] witchcraft … 184 involved adult males, 131 of these being of great age.  All the females  accused were also very old.  The Navaho are usually so afraid of the sorcery of old people that they do their best to propitiate them with lavish hospitality and the like, even though the person concerned may be extremely unpleasant. … [They are] suspicious of all persons in extreme positions – the very rich, the very poor, the influential singer, the extremely old. …

The Zuni Indians share with the Hopi a distaste for competitive behavior and open aggression, and sacrifice individuality to the collective.  Bu this does not eliminate envy.  Both very poor and particular rich Zuni can be suspected of witchcraft.  The constant accusation of witchcraft serves to maintain social conformity. … A deceived husband or a jilted lover is described in Zuni legend … as a man to whom it is intolerable that he alone should be unhappy. …

If an old [Comanche] man failed to adapt himself with good grace to the role of peaceable old age, he was suspected of envious magic.  He might even be killed by the relatives of someone who suspected him of being a witch.

Can’t bring yourself to slaughter a nearby village, or a long-time associate?  Mysticism can help you believe they already attacked you first, and that the stakes are so much higher than your personal gain.

We similarly self-deceive today to give ourselves higher and stronger excuses to do what baser motives require.  Beware: if you won’t accept and act on your baser motives, your subconscious may well get you to achieve similar ends via self-deceptive delusions.  For a better chance at believing the truth, accept your ignoble desires.

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  • Rob

    Beware: if you won’t accept and act on your baser motives, your subconscious may well get you to achieve similar ends via self-deceptive delusions. For a better chance at believing the truth, accept your ignoble desires.”

    So is it that such acceptance might enable one to override the promptings of our baser motives and thereby act on loftier ones? Or is it just a matter of expediency (i.e. the promptings obtain regardless of whether one accepts them, but acceptance is a better means of realizing them than non-acceptance)?

  • Philo

    This is an attempt (humorous?) to be provocative: “Beware: if you won’t accept and act on your baser motives, your subconscious may well get you to achieve similar ends via self-deceptive delusions. For a better chance at believing the truth, accept your ignoble desires.” But what device is my subconscious likely to cook up to substitute for a belief in sorcery, which I am too enlightened to embrace? There is really no reason that I cannot reasonably aspire to “accept”–i.e., recognize the existence of–my baser motives, while avoiding “acting on” them.

  • Mysticism, or shall we just out an out call it religion, motivates you to behave better or worse than you otherwise would. It’s an amplifier. So, I’m not sure that more cynicism would be a better thing.

    The question is whether there are ways to construct religious systems that harnass the good side of religion without also having the bad.

    I find the work of David Sloan Wilson and Jon Haidt most illuminating here, though I remain somewhat skeptical about group selection.

  • >lack of reciprocity

    That is it in a nutshell.

  • Philo:
    >But what device is my subconscious likely to cook up to substitute for a belief in sorcery, which I am too enlightened to embrace?

    Belief in your enlightenment.

    It does not matter what form that enlightenment takes. It might be drug trances, a subjective connection to the isness of being, divine revelation, possession of a holy book, belief in one’s superior race, a stroke, a high score on an IQ test, a scientific education, attaining high academic rank, a dedication to overcoming cognitive biases, a thorough grasping of the principles of Bayescraft, or merely a perception that one is smarter than one’s peers.

    The thought that you can think better is always a threat to actually thinking better: your enlightenment becomes the proof of your words instead of the other way round.

    • Philo

      Sure, overconfidence is bad. But am I *over*confident, or just *appropriately* confident? I’m absolutely certain I don’t believe in sorcery. What’s the comparable rationalization of my base desires that I *do* believe in?

      • >What’s the comparable rationalization of my base desires that I *do* believe in?

        The one I suggested: “I am rational, therefore the arguments I come up with must be rational.” Of course, it won’t feel like that when you’re doing it. You’re never aware of rationalising. If you think you are and deliberately go on doing it, your real rationalisation is somewhere else.

        [Some warning signs](
        [More warning signs]( Anyone describing themselves as a Socratic gadfly, or their views as inconvenient truths or cold equations is likely to be flaunting the banner of rationality while smuggling in some point of view unargued.

    • michael vassar

      The way I would put that is that it’s not enough to “have” or “have demonstrated” enlightened thought processes, for them to cause enlightened behavior you have to actually be using them right now.

      The way our brains work we can’t actually commit now to always using such thought processes in the future, and we won’t be using them all the time, even if we always ARE using them “when we are introspectively ‘looking'”.

  • This is this concept:

    …? It sure doesn’t look much like it any more. How about some other hypotheses – mysticism makes people feel good, makes them less likely to be depressed, more social, and makes the world seem more wonderful.

    The benefits of religion are well-known – and it does not really boil down to providing an excuse to bang the neighbouring tribe over the head.

  • Marc

    Mysticism isn’t just an excuse to yourself. Possibly more importantly it’s a justification for everyone else in your society.

  • Buck Farmer

    Mysticism is just a way of explaining apparent causal relationships in the world. It’s not ‘specially designed to delude us into maintaining socially-acceptable external views while pursuing socially-unacceptable goals.

    Isn’t the market a spooky/mystical thing? Evolutionarily, we’re not used to it, or to market-based exchange.

    People behave as if banks covering their positions i.e. shorting or buying insurance is a form of sorcercy that causes businesses and nations to fail. Similarly, people used to be superstitious about life-insurance.

    This is just an example of the human brain being hard-wired to see agency behind the unexplained outside a few primitive phenomena present in our primordial past (like rocks falling). It helps us to interact with each other…to see other minds, but it also makes us come up with all sorts of foolish (and dangerous) superstitions like blaming the old woman down the street for your ulcer.

  • Tyrrell McAllister

    For our ancestors, mysticism functioned mainly to offer “higher” and stronger motives and excuses to do what they had more practical reasons to do.

    It seems like this could be said of any justificatory scheme whatsoever. What makes this account particular to mysticism?

    Consider any arbitrary system for determining right action. Such a system purports to give “good” reasons for the actions that it recommends. So, unless the system is very objective and difficult to game, you can always use it to give “better” reasons for an action that you actual desire for ulterior motives — better reasons than you could otherwise muster for that action.

    Perhaps you could define mysticism as the class of justificatory schemes that are particularly easy to game in this way.

  • Rob, I’m not suggesting you can change what you want, just that admitting it will help you see things more clearly.

    Philo, as Richard suggests, don’t underestimate your subconscious.

    Thursday, it seems more specific than a generic amplifier.

    Marc, yes the main reason we need excuses is for others to hear.

    Buck and Tyrrell, many of our moral/legal rules depend on facts; mysticism lets us bend the facts to become what we need to get around such rules.

    • Buck Farmer

      Robin, I agree that mysticism effectively allows us to bend facts to suit our motives. I would only add that many other ways of explaining the world are also subject to human interpretation. This does not seem to be unique to mysticism. It is endemic in scientific inquiry as well.

      You titled the post, “Mysticism’s Function,” but I think you are confusing a side-effect of explanatory systems generally for why a particular explanatory system was used and persisted.

      I’m saying it was used and has persisted because of a hard-wired bias in human understanding towards seeing agents and agency everywhere.

      • michael vassar

        This seems pretty obviously correct to me.

        Another way of thinking of this is not even to see it as a bias, so much as a limited conceptual tool-kit. Language is a non-conscious multiple choice verbal analogies game and the analogies are generally rough. Using naive physics to explain the market’s behavior just won’t work at all. The systems that you use to predict the behaviors of agents don’t work that well either, but they work better than naive physics, so you invent agents (which anthropologists translate as spirits) to explain market behavior and you do a little better. Some societies ultimately invent other ways of modeling things, (first luck, then abstract attributes like health, then ideal forms, ‘scientific’ concepts like status which make explicitly tested predictions, and eventually mathematical models) but if you just have two types of thing in your perceived world, naive physics and spirits, you really are surrounded by spirits.

      • mjgeddes

        Think of a hologram here, and consider that it can have various ‘resolutions’ – you can keep cutting up a hologram into pieces and still see the whole picture but the resolution degrades , the picture becomes more and more coarse grained and fuzzy. I think that (past a certain minimum threshold), intelligence (and rationality) is just like that hologram – the higher IQers can’t in principle see any concepts the lower IQers can’t, they just see the concepts in more and more fine-grained detail.

        Suppose reasoning through categorization starts with a very few coarse grained concepts. Any probabilities derived from those will obviously also be very coarse-binned and imprecise. But now, consider, the fan of categorization can start introducing more and more fine-grained distinctions (more and more ‘multi-choice questions’ or more and more analogies) which have the effect of ‘perturbing’ the original probability estimates to a more and more fine-grained level.

        Consider the hologram analogy again: truth is equivalent to the entire picture and Bayes deals in precise detail with any small area of it. Categorization is a way of adjusting the ‘resolution’ of the whole picture to any desired level of magnification. By making enough fine grained distinctions (‘perturbations’ of original prototype concepts), categorization can duplicate Bayesian Induction to any desired degree of accuracy. Ergo, Bayes is really just a special of categorization where the resolution of the picture is turned up to 100%.

    • >don’t underestimate your subconscious.

      Subconcious, now there is a myth. Care to explain to me how it works?

      • Your brain does a lot of computation. You only have introspective access to a tiny fraction of it. This introspective access, the part of your thinking that you are “aware” of, is the “conscious” brain, the conscious you.

        But there’s a whole lot of other brain computation going on inside your head, that your conscious self has no sensors into. Some of it is obvious, like the way your eyes build a 3D model of the world from incoming light. You don’t know how that works; it just does, and your conscious brain is presented with the results of the computation. (Optical illusions allow scientists some insight into the visual algorithms used by this hidden part of the brain.)

        The part you are missing, is that your subconscious can have a strong influence on your beliefs, goals, and desires. Worse, your subconscious can have goals which differ what what your conscious self believes are its conscious goals. And the subconscious has all sorts of tricks (e.g. rationalization, hindsight bias, etc.) for achieving its goals, all the while tricking the conscious mind into believing that the conscious mind is “really’ in charge.

      • How does the unconscious bind into the conscious? Are they not simply different attributes of the same thing.

  • Buck Farmer

    People usually perform better if they believe that what they are doing is good, right, and noble.

    If we’re going to do base things anyway (consciously or by subconscious trickery), then why should we prefer to do worse at doing these base things by forcing ourselves to be conscious of our delusions.

    As a reminder, base things, while they are not identical with the good and noble, are also not identical with the depraved and loathesome. Baseness has kept the species going for quite some time, and status-competition has produced a rich and magnificent civilization.

    Why should we screw that up?

    Alternatively, do you think if we are aware of our base motives we will be able to also dispell delusions of the world?

  • Marc

    Thinking about the prestige/power status distinction it seems that the two correspond to different stragies for providing benefits to offspring.

    Power provides direct benefits regarding protection of the offspring.

    Prestige provides implied benefits about the genetic fitness of the offspring.

    Power is something that can be gained or lost so I can imagine people would be envious of it. Genetic fitness is something that can be acquired so perhaps there’s less point in being envious (and therefore disparaging) of it.

  • tom
  • tom
  • ERIC

    mysticism functioned mainly to offer … excuses to do what they had more practical reasons to do.

    So you feel that what they judged as practical was in fact so? I can imagine it being tough for a lot of people to accept that it’s OK to sacrifice an individual(s) for the sake of the group.

  • ERIC

    Would you say that this “practicality” led to success and survival?

    Was there any other “better” way to act?

    Given our rules today (in some places) is mysticism more or less influential?

  • Matthew C.


    In this post, as in several in the past, you use the word “mysticism” when what you are talking about is much better labelled as religion and/or magical thinking.

    Mysticism is a clear “seeing” of the relationship the individual “self” and the whole of reality and people like Carl Sagan and Albert Einstein were certainly mystics. If you want a prototypical statement of a mystic, you can’t get better than this one from Einstein:

    A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest–a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us.

    Mystics are pretty much the opposite of fundamentalists — and mystics are the least likely to engage in physical or intellectual warfare with believers in alterative memeplexes (and almost always see them as co-mystics rather than memetic rivals). Applying “mystical” as a bogeyman word to refer to voodoo-style magical thinking — is a poor use of terminology.

    • Robert Koslover

      Just to clarify, do you agree with the Wikipedia description?

      • Matthew C.

        If you substitute the unhelpful word “God” for something more like “Ultimate Reality” or “The Universe”, then the article isn’t bad.

      • Matthew C.

        Also, I would disagree with all concepts like the “universal mystic way, the actual process by which the mystic arrives at union with the absolute”.

        “You” do not “arrive at union with the absolute”. Rather it is seen (by no one!) that there never was a “you” after all. Like Einstein wrote, the apparent “you” is nothing more than “an optical delusion of consciousness”. There is nothing “you” can do to reach “union with the absolute” because what you actually are was and could never be separate from the absolute, except as a concept.

        But for a Wikipedia article, it’s not too bad.

    • >A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest–a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us.

      The paradox of this statement shows that some content of living is missing. What may that be?

  • Sasha


    I think you incorrectly use the term mysticism to describe the phenomena in the post. . I can’t recall a single example of a violent or aggressive mystic.

    • Matthew C.

      I’ve noticed many of the OB / LW crowd, as well as the Ayn Rand circle, use this same, odd pejorative interpretation of “mystic” and “mysticism”. Perhaps the former have picked up this term from the latter through some kind of memetic transfer.

      • It is a common sceptical thought that mysticism is all about souls and other intangible things – and is therefore nonsense. There really is some mysticism which is like that – so this is at least understandable.

      • I like the other mysticism that is not all about souls and other intangible things. It could still be nonsense of course.

      • Sasha

        I see. I did read critique of mysticism by Ayn Rand and it seems that she at least partially misunderstands the concept. Yet she is right about the fact that mysticism is esoteric to some degree – I can hardly comprehend the concept without some form of experience first. Kind of like quantum mechanics :).

        I also have noticed that the word *myth* has been mostly used in the sense of “untrue story” rather than it’s original meaning.

    • michael vassar

      Many monastic orders have historically been aggressive, whether in Japan, China or Tibet. They weren’t trying to force others to accept the authority of their memes, but they still may have followed the violent precepts of their societies. This probably applies to some mystical Stoics too.

      • michael vassar

        More recently, some of the Beats were mystical and pretty violent.

  • Norman

    So the more interesting question then becomes this: What ignoble desire are you *actually* pursuing when you work toward “a better chance at believing the truth”?

    • Good question. 🙂

      • Truth-seeking seems pretty strange as a moral system.

        On thing it has going for it is that it is relatively non-egocentric. Truth seekers are not *particularly* out for themselves. Such a trait is useful when wanting to signal non-selfishness in interactions with others – which is something people fairly often want to do.

        However, you would think that classical utilitarianism did this more effectively. Perhaps that is something to do with why self-professed truth-seekers seem uncommon.

    • mjgeddes

      Beware of any of the following baser urges of intellectuals:

      *getting money from seeming impressive
      *getting titles and perks from affiliations with prestigious organizations
      *getting laid from travel and conferences
      *getting enjoyable feelings of superiority from knowing hidden truth
      *getting a chance to leverage technical know-how for some radical breakthrough enabling them to secure a decisive political, economic or social advantage.

      Hilarious really.

      • Robert Koslover

        Woah, wait just a minute here. Am I supposed to be “getting laid from travel and conferences?” Evidently, I’ve been missing out on all the fun.

  • Anonymous

    I know this is probably going to be dismissed but: 9-11 anyone?

  • placidus

    keep on trashing such stupidity ,any idiot old enough knows intuitively of that type of rationalisation.keep your energy to understand the really mysterious.the nature of mystery for a start.and stop thinking that the universe is waiting for you to know where it stands.