Bertrand Russell on Mysticism and Logic

I came across an interesting quote from this essay of the famous British philosopher and mathematician on another forums I’d like to share with you. A new online friend of mine shared both the essay and this quote on another primarily Christian forums.

…while fully developed mysticism seems to me mistaken, I yet believe that, by sufficient restraint, there is an element of wisdom to be learned from the mystical way of feeling, which does not seem to be attainable in any other manner. If this is the truth, mysticism is to be commended as an attitude towards life, not as a creed about the world. The metaphysical creed, I shall maintain, is a mistaken outcome of the emotion, although this emotion, as colouring and informing all other thoughts and feelings, is the inspirer of whatever is best in Man . Even the cautious and patient investigation of truth by science, which seems the very antithesis of the mystic’s swift certainty, may be fostered and nourished by that very spirit of reverence in which mysticism lives and moves.


I see this as dovetailing nicely with Ian McGilchrist’s distinction between the intuitive and the rational mind. In fact the title of the first section of the essay quoted from is “Reason and Intuition”, suggesting that for Russell too “intuition” and “mysticism” are synonymous.

But as you can tell from the quote Russell does not advocate basing knowledge claims on intuition alone. The gifts of intuition must ultimately stand on legs which reason provides even if it is intuition which shows reason where to look. But Russell suggests that a harmonious cooperation between the two facilities might be an optimal approach for humans. That in turn gives some support for supposing that the practice of both science and religion might be more than compatible. Of course that would suppose that those practicing religion were more in touch with their intuitive minds while atheists would likely be less so, probably not a warranted conclusion.

I wonder if my friend @Realspiritik is familiar with this quote which was new to me.

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The definitions of “metaphysics” and “mysticism” are both problematic in that so many people use them in a great variety of ways. The following are the definition I tend to use which seem to be the most useful to me.

metaphysics: The philosophical study of the nature of reality.

mysticism: The strains of philosophy and religious thinking which acknowledge and focus upon the limitations of reason. In religion this often means that in seeking God one turns from the habit of making God into a mental concept or set of theological definitions to seeking an experience of God directly in some kind of connection or union with Him. Perhaps it may be loosely associated with elements of religion that focus on the experiential rather than the intellectual.

But as another example to show how varied the use of these terms (particularly “mysticism”) can be. Scott Peck uses the term “mysticism” for a fourth stage of spiritual development that goes as follows. Comparing my description with the one in Wikipedia will reveal how varied even these descriptions can be.

  1. Individual or chaotic: all about serving and asserting the self.
  2. Institutional: self subsumed in the group, all about rules and blind faith.
  3. Skepticism: learning to question everything and accepting nothing without good reason.
  4. Mystical: going beyond skepticism to see the truth which exists despite the flaws. Neither reason nor blind faith rules because you realize sometime you just have to make a choice, acknowledging that others can make a different choice.
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Seems right to me. To make skepticism the highest organizing principle of ones thinking would be to assume that everything, finally, is rational or knowable rationally. But that is in question and it seems to me a brute fact that the rational is a subset of our experience, it is contained by our experience and cannot itself adequately serve to explain our experience to us.

Pascal of course said, “The end point of rationality is to demonstrate the limits of rationality.” It remains an extremely useful tool but if we’re interested in understanding ourselves and the meaning of our lives it cannot go the whole way.


I agree with @mitchellmckain that definitions are a problem when talking about metaphysics and mysticism.

The definition I use for mysticism comes from Bernard McGinn, University of Chicago scholar and renowned researcher on mysticism. McGinn has more than one definition of mysticism, but the one I use is this: “mysticism as a part or element of religion; mysticism as a process or way of life; and mysticism as an attempt to express a direct consciousness of the presence of God.”

Bertrand Russell was, of course, an atheist, so whatever thoughts he may have had about mysticism (using McGinn’s definition) would have fallen entirely within the realm of simple, non-religious, non-transcendent human experience. Russell may well have treated “intuition” and “mysticism” as synonymous, but from a mystic’s point of view, intuition and mysticism are two different beasties.

Intuition – a trait that all human beings are born with, though it usually gets lost as individuals grow to adulthood – relies heavily on the brain’s System 1 processing networks. When a person has a flash of intuition, there’s a brief “aha” sensation and also a sense of the ground being strongly under your feet. You see a problem or a creative idea from a fresh perspective. Intuition leads to new questions, and it’s the new questions that can lead to new answers. Sometimes it seems as if the answer is the only thing you sense, but really there’s been a rapid process of new perspectives, new questions, and then new answers – or at least an openness to new answers. It’s then incumbent upon you to go out into the world and dig through research sources (or devise your own experimental procedure, if you’re equipped to do that) to see if evidence exists for the theory offered to you by intuition.

Revelation is something different. Revelation is a sensation of receiving information from a source beyond you. In revelation (as opposed to intuition), you assume from the get-go that everything you’ve received is Truth that ought not be questioned, tested, or measured against reputable research sources. Revelation is, sad to say, often linked to major mental illness issues such as psychosis, drug abuse, schizophrenia, and Axis II issues, to name a few relevant illnesses (though there are many others). Revelation has caused a lot of problems for a lot of people over the years.

Mysticism (again, using McGinn’s definition) has some overlap with intuition, but it’s at the end of the intuitive spectrum. It’s an experience of God’s presence and it’s a voluntary state enhanced by certain brain-friendly spiritual practices (unlike the sudden, involuntary hallucinations and delusions that can accompany major mental illness) – so by definition mysticism is not something an atheist is going to be open to.

Having said that, quite a few atheists have undergone rapid conversion experiences (because sometime God doesn’t take no for an answer). So you just never know.


Often (if not always) genuine revelation is met with rejection and incredulity by the person and requires lengthy reflection and searching to ascertain the content of revelation (that it is from God, and what it means). An example is Peter dreaming of unclean animals in Acts.

I agree that mental illness may include imaginings and thoughts that may be believed by such a person to be revelation of something supernatural, but this should be differentiated from religious life.

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I wish I could say that revelation is that simple. Religious life involves practices that may, under some conditions, lead to experiences of mysticism – which is to say, experiences of the Divine presence, along with a heightened awareness of Divine communications. However, religious people are human beings with the same DNA as the rest of us, so religious people (including those in cloistered communities) are vulnerable to major mental illness, too. If we pretend otherwise, we miss the chance to arrange appropriate, timely treatment for them so they can continue in a safe manner on their journey of faith and relationship with God.

It’s very, very difficult at times to sort out the threads that separate intuition, revelation, and mysticism. But there’s little will at present among neuroscientists or religious leaders to look honestly at these questions. I think it’s because people are afraid they’ll lose too much – either too much logic or too much mystery, depending on their starting position.

Mysticism, properly understood, can actually add to both logic and mystery, which, when combined, bring great wisdom to many difficult life situations. But this means working in collaboration with others, not aggressively pronouncing one’s own revelation as the one Truth that everybody else must accept without question.

I hope you’ll agree there are many examples of religious leaders (not to mention political leaders) over the centuries who have abused their authority, and used revelation as a justification to ignore all logic, fairness, and openness to change.

The wisest religious leaders are those who accept that God is always speaking to us but also expecting us to work in collaboration with each other to learn, study, grow, and heal our families and communities.

God bless.

I agree with the thrust of your comments - I am simply emphasising that instances of revelation recorded in scripture often include incredulity and self examination, with a reluctance to accept revelation without questions.

There are writings on religious experiences that show many of these experiences are indications of psychological problems.

My personal view is that revelation (either personal or conveyed by another) must conform to our capacity to reason and assess truth content - that is to our ability to decide and choose, to come to believe that the matter is true or false. This imo takes considerable effort and self examination.

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First thanks as always for a thoughtful and interesting reply.

I agree with the two of you it is very hard to differentiate between varieties of non-rational experience.

I’m inclined to refer to that as religious or more particularly Christian mysticism but I’ll concede the point. Really, who else do I know that uses that term besides those in the Christian tradition? Point taken.

I’ve read that Russell was an agnostic and I’m not sure how ‘politically’ motivated he may have been in his atheism. Now I’m curious to know if he felt religion was a kind of primitivism or if he accepted it as I do as simply a different point of view.

I cannot imagine ever taking any irrational experience/premonition as representing the literal voice of God. For me any such experience would be understood as embedded in one context or another with the Christian variety being but one possibility. I suspect you’d have to begin with the basic faith in the historic resurrection of Christ and importance of the bible in order to take a premonition so literally. It may be my loss that my disposition does not allow me to entirely buy into any over riding story of our purpose in the world, but I am content with the view it affords me of the various narratives out there across cultures. I think there could be real satisfaction in feeling contained by one narrative but that isn’t available to me. But I don’t look at each world story and think not this one, not that one. Instead I look to see how each one is true. Perhaps one can be an all-of-the-above rather than a none, but really I don’t think it makes a great deal of difference. As long as intuition will speak to me I don’t really care what tradition it chooses as context.

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Couldn’t agree more. Thank you.

Bernard McGinn has focussed his studies on Christian mysticism, and he is himself a Christian (Roman Catholic), but this doesn’t invalidate his observations about mysticism in general. He’s had the sense to see (as few others have) that there are several different types of mysticism (e.g. anagogic, apophatic, cataphatic).

Mysticisms are found in all cultures and all major world religions, so it’s not something reserved for Christians. The early, core teachings of Buddhism, for instance, sprang from the apophatic experiences of the Buddha.

The practices, goals, and priorities of different mysticisms are surprisingly diverse. So an apophatic Christian mystic or contemplative (e.g. Thomas Merton) might have little in common with a cataphatic Christian mystic but quite a bit in common with a Zen monk. The differences among mysticisms tend to be ignored by researchers and religious believers alike. Everything gets lumped together into one pot. But this is like saying Democrats and Republicans have all the same questions and answers about justice simply because both belong to a political party.

Human beings from all cultures and religions have the biological potential to experience non-Materialist events. If you’ve had such an experience, you’re quite desperate to understand it better, so you’ll often turn to traditional, formalized religion as a way to better understand the language of your experience. Or you might turn to a psychotherapist, a New Age practitioner, or an online discussion forum (like this one!) The experience itself, however, is very personal and emotional, and rarely leaves a person unchanged.

Speaking for myself, my early mystical experiences (starting when I was in my 40’s) took place outside a traditional Christian context. It was only after several years, as I continued to listen to the guidance I was receiving, that I realized there were strands within Christianity that came closest to expressing what I’d been personally experiencing (which is cataphatic mysticism). I was looking for a sense of spiritual community, and Christianity came closest.

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I’m wishing I had involved myself in this good thread earlier, and I’ll jump in now before it gets lost.

That phrase of yours there is (I suggest) significant enough that it almost doesn’t matter what followed the ellipses where I ended your quote. Your “disposition” here is you already having bought into something. And that something would be your analytical self with a legacy stretching back to (or at least through) Descartes. Fr. Richard Rohr has long been contrasting that enlightenment trajectory that the church followed as it lurched decidedly away from its contemplative (mystical) past. He is working hard to bring our mystical or contemplative roots back in their own right, as opposed to them first needing to seek justification for admittance to our rationalistic doorkeepers. I hope I don’t misrepresent Rohr too much here, but I think he would say that contemplatives will not let living, being, experiencing, or obeying - any of those things be held hostage by our chosen “need” to have prior understanding.

[those latter thoughts might actually have been me channeling Macdonald more than Rohr, though I’m not sure Rohr would disagree. But Rohr does not strike me as any anti-rationalist, to be sure (are any of us?) … but just one who is willing to critique the positivistic and scientistic extremes that are its children.]

Well when it comes to language and communication one must consider the audience and in general I’ve found people expect a response that is rational. But language is a wriggly fish which can swim off in many directions once it reaches the ears of your audience. The analytic impulse is to carefully choose the language in a way that does not lend itself to misinterpretation. But I’m almost never analytic in reflection. In fact, my habit is to reserve language of any kind for communication with others.

Whatever analytic capacity I have is nothing but a tool. It can’t answer important questions and so I don’t employ it intra-personally. I actually have a high regard for the intuitive mind and so I’d rather listen and wait while focusing on the question itself rather than launch into a brain storming session. What I think is true is something I look to discover, not something I look to come up with.

Then I would agree with him. I am a contemplative. I do stick up for living, being, experiencing and putting rationality in the service of what matters. I don’t extoll intelligence above all else because wisdom is something else. I’m not sure why you thought otherwise.

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Sorry if that felt a bit pointed (and understandably so, given how I wrote it). I should have clarified that while I felt your quoted phrase (and by extension, you) to be a useful focal point and springboard, I nonetheless had nearly all of us here in mind as I wrote it. We are all steeped in [recent] western tradition and I would not have been so bold about pretending to know this were the inclination not also strong in myself and therefore available for inspection and self-reflection.

I like to fancy that I too have been able to (at least recently) cultivate something of a contemplative streak which is yet far from mature in my case. I also don’t doubt you are further along in that than I am. Sorry if the jab felt personal. The fact that it was acutely felt, is a sign of your spiritual vitality. Carry on, friend!


No harm done and I am very happy to call you my friend. I’m glad you’re thinking about this too. I know how it can be when you have something in the works. When you read things that lens becomes engaged and it doesn’t take much to set the radar off. But in this case the thread was specifically about the value of making room for something more than ones conscious rearranging of the furniture.

I’ve long valued @Realspiritik’s input here because I know she has gone further than most of us to make a space in her life for this. But even on my side of the belief divide the same conundrum exists. Most on my side slide into scientism and tend to discount anything for which rational provenance can’t immediately be given. On your side there is biblicism, fundamentalism and an insistence that one must already know what to expect in order to recognize the true. True faith doesn’t insist on favorable terms.

Last night we watched an interesting new movie online called The Two Popes which I think gives food for thought relevant to this thread. We both found it very moving.


You’re right to think that sides become a problem. But most people like their sides and can’t imagine what life would be like without them.

What I’m about to say may not make a lot of sense, but here goes . . . the path of the cataphatic mystic begins where most people try to begin: with logic and reason and grand attempts to reconcile faith with facts. That stage is sort of like walking on broken glass, because you’re always finding facts that interfere with faith, and faith experiences that interfere with facts. You’re always munching on the painful slivers of your own narcissistic mistakes.

Then there’s a stage where you move mostly into myth, into symbols and imagery and just the whole, pure, beautiful feeling of the thing. But this stage is a lot like walking through a primordial forest hung with mosses and lichens and a lot of fallen tree trunks. It’s beautiful, but it’s slow going, and you have to be careful where you set your feet because you really can’t see where you’re going.

You can easily get stuck in either of these two stages – and, indeed, many spiritual seekers never make it past the broken glass or the weeping forest.

If you stick with it for long enough, and are prepared to listen to what God is saying to you (instead of what ancient texts are saying to you), you emerge into a place that’s kind of like a superposed state, where you’re no longer troubled by sides (because you can see both the waves and the particles simultaneously). You can feel the facts and you can walk with your feet solidly grounded in faith, so you never have to choose between science and faith. It’s just . . . all good.

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