Without philosophy, mystical experience can degenerate into incoherence, or gnosis, or dogmatic fundamentalism. In common usage, the word “mystical” often means a kind of incoherent truth—“begins in mist and ends is schism.” Without philosophy, science can degenerate into scientism, grounded on mistaking intentionality (knowing of things in the external world) as the only form of knowing; and science blossoms into philosophy when the scientist asks the questions beyond the range of intentionality, questions of ultimate reality. To borrow Leibniz’ two fundamental questions: “Why is there something, why not nothing?” and “Why is the world as it is, and not some other way?” These are questions for a philosopher, and I would think that at least some scientists allow them to bubble up into consciousness from time to time as they pursue their knowledge of structures in the world, of “de rerum naturae.”
Philosophy without mystical experience degenerates rapidly into logic chopping, into word games, into sterile definitions, or sophistry, or “metaphysics,” or even atheism or nihilism. Anyone who seeks to speak about the divine, for example, must ever keep in mind the tension between knowing and unknowing, between revelation and unrevealed reality, so well summarized by Voegelin: “Even when the divine Beyond reveals itself in its formative presence, it remains the unrevealed divine reality beyond its revelation” (In Search of Order, p. 97). Without such awareness, any claim to “revelation” degenerates into dogmatic beliefs, fundamentalism, biblicism, or at its worst, gnostic claims to certainty. I know of no “religion” that does not embody the problem of degenerating mystical experience, and more generally, of the loss of contact with reality as experienced.
Philosophy and science both begin in wonder, and proceed by questioning and seeking the truth about reality—seeking insights into the mysterious Whole in which we find ourselves. Science studies particular parts of the whole; philosophy seeks to understand something about the whole in which everything participates. Philosophy has flourished without science, as in Plato; but Plato had a sharp knowledge of mathematics, language, political reality, and the like. In Aristotle, philosophy and science blossomed together, although Whitehead’s claim that “Aristotle founded science, but ruined philosophy,” deserves at least some consideration. (I have not seen a destruction of philosophy in Aristotle, but I am aware that some of Aristotle’s summary insights became taken as definitions or axioms for thinking in generations after him. Example: “man is the rational animal,” or “God is the First Mover,” and so on; and even compared to Plato, one often senses in drier passages of Aristotle some weakening of the grounding in mystical experience.) The history of philosophy amply demonstrates that philosophers need to know what other philosophers have thought, as they enter into the historical dialogue that is an essential part of philosophy; and the study of history, as in the history of philosophy, requires historical science.
In every direction in which my mind searches, I am quickly faced by the reality of my ignorance. The Whole, the divine ground, the particular structures of reality, exploring consciousness itself—all arouse in me an undying, often disturbing sense of not-knowing. This sense can be, and often has been, so intense that I have been tempted to give up the search for knowledge. But then I ask myself: What is the alternative to some search for truth about reality? To indulge in a life of pleasure-seeking, or of money-making, or of various diversions? It seems to me that the human task is to respond to beauty, to do good, and to seek the truth. Beauty awakens wonder and gratitude. Doing good brings happiness and pleasure. Seeking truth enlightens the mind and delights the heart. What else is life for, but these fundamental human activities?
Addendum: Three wonders.
Often I experience three wonders, or have three wonder-filled experiences, at the beginning of each day: the move from sleep / dreaming into waking; seeing that Moses is alive, although usually soundly asleep at that time; and seeing the stars above when I first step out of the house. In a sense, these three experiences all affirm life: that I am alive; that one I love is alive; and that the whole cosmos is alive with astounding beauty.