OK, the title of this blog post is blunter than David Chapman's "Effing the ineffable," but what I said is pretty much the point of his well-written and entertaining essay.
A few months ago I talked about discovering Chapman's web sites, which offer a pleasingly dizzying perspective on matters philosophical, scientific, spiritual, and mystical.
His take on ineffability, plus related subjects, was equally interesting reading. Chapman said stuff that I've vaguely understood in a roughly similar fashion, but hadn't been able to pin down so clearly.
Here's some excerpts from his piece, which deserves to be read in its entirety.
In my next few posts, I am going to criticize a particular “mystical” understanding of enlightenment that is common among Western Buddhists. It is the idea that meditation is the examination of inner experience in order to discover your True Self, which is unified with The Absolute (alias God), which is the transcendant source of goodness and is the entire universe, all of which are One.
...The experience of discovering The Ultimate Truth is said to be ineffable: impossible to talk about. However, believers proceed to eff about it at great length. Is this not odd?
Their effing explains what the experience means. Invariably, what it “means” is some Big Cosmic Theory Of Life, The Universe, And Everything. The metaphysical stuff is supposedly proved by the experience. For example, we know you can become God, because Maura O’Halloran felt weird one day. (And other people have felt weird in exactly the same way back to Gautama Buddha!)
Mystics use ineffability to deflect objections to their Big Cosmic Theories two ways:
- Ineffability is supposed to make enlightenment experiences a very special and holy mystery.
- Ineffability is supposed to make it impossible to argue against the Big Cosmic Theory, because arguments use words.
Here I intend to strip away those defenses, as preparation for arguing (in my next few posts) against the mystical theory of enlightenment.
What is the experience of eating a chocolate brownie like? Can you describe it?
I believe it is ineffable. There is nothing you can say about chocolate that would mean anything to someone who has not tasted it.
Chocolate brownies are one of my favorite things—but I don’t think their ineffability is a big deal.
All experiences are ineffable. The best we can ever do is say “it’s like this other thing.”
There’s nothing that’s much like chocolate. Dramatic meditation experiences are also not much like anything else. But chocolate is not a special holy mystery. No one thinks the experience of chocolate implies anything about The Ultimate Nature of Reality.
So, if meditation experiences have metaphysical implications, it is not because they are ineffable.
...Immediately after declaring enlightenment ineffable, some folks eff about it until the cows have gone to bed. If you don’t accept their metaphysical claims, they may retreat to “it’s ineffable, and moreover you haven’t had the experience, so you’re not qualified to question it.” This is a shield against all possible inquiry.
They want to have their chocolate brownies and eat them too. They get to eff, because they are enlightened—or they know someone who was enlightened, or they read a book by someone who was enlightened. But you can’t object, because it’s ineffable.
This doesn’t work. If it’s ineffable, no one can eff it. If enlightenment experiences have effable metaphysical implications, the effing has to stand on its own two feet. “I had an amazing experience that I can’t say anything about, therefore God exists” is a non-starter.