On Mysticism and Logic

Bertrand Russell’s famous essay “Mysticism and Logic” can seem striking to readers at first glance. The first reason being that Russell actually seems to admire some mystic’s line of reasoning. Bertrand Russell, the philosopher that redefined mathematics and logic, giving praise to mystic’s wondrous and deep intuition. Despite being written in a period where Russell was redefining his own beliefs, that is especially odd for a man of his convictions. The second most striking thing is that, for being a man so adamant about logic and reason, he really doesn’t know much about mysticism.

The essay’s main focus is analyzing what Russell believes to be universal traits of mysticism. In contrast he often analyzes these traits along with their opposite beliefs in the realm of logic, these issues being:

  • Intuition
  • Unity
  • Time
  • Good and Evil

These are definitely core issues of mysticism, intuition and unity being the most common. The basic claims with these two are that mystics reach their conclusions merely through insight or intuition, as opposed to logic and reason. This is a slight generality, but works for our purpose. Even Hegel, whom Russell claims is a more mystic philosopher, can undoubtedly be attributed high functions of reason in his philosophy. The second issue, unity, is something so central to much of Eastern philosophy. Here Russell sights the sayings of Heraclitus, such as “good and ill are one,” and “the way up and the way down is one and the same.” Even someone only familiar with philosophy on a satirical level understands the commonality of these sayings.

But there is some things in which Russell himself seems uncertain. For instance, he claims “Mysticism is, in essence, little more than a certain intensity and depth of feeling in regard to what is believed about the universe.” While this is certainly true, I believe it misses some of the point about mysticism. At the core of the matter, is not quite the rejection of science, but only the acceptance that science cannot prove everything. With that idea, it follows that a person can hold certain beliefs that go against scientific thought, merely because science cannot claim to provide truth more than some intuition can. At this point mysticism surely does stem from intuition if not science, but it obviously has a reasonable base.

NPG x84663; Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell by Bassano
Bertrand Russell, the famous British philosopher and one of the founders of the analytic school of philosophy, born on 18 May 1872 and died 2 February 1970.

There is, however, one extremely interesting claim Russell makes that he never follows up on. That is of course the statement that “Reason is a harmonizing, controlling force rather than a creative one. Even in the most purely logical realm, it is insight that first arrives at what is new.” There is hardly anything controversial in this, but it deserves to be analyzed a little more. One crucial thing about mysticism is its appeal to so many people. When describing reason as a “harmonizing, controlling force” Russell seems to admit that it is applied second to a situation. In other words, it is so much easier to apply a mystical theory as opposed to a logical one. And first off, a mystical theory may be all our minds have to cope with a situation before a sufficient number of facts is provided.

Is this not true in our daily lives? Think of how often people attribute mystical causes to an event. While it may be a crude example, think of the many people that even half-seriously joke that their house is haunted. Take this situation as an example: a man returns home everyday from work only to find that a new coffee mug falls from cabinet every day and shatters on the floor. So at the end of each day he replaces the mug and goes to sleep. After a week, he jokingly tells a friend “I must have a ghost in my house.” Instead of any actual inquiry into the matter, he begins to superficially believe this claim himself. And worse off, every time that something along this line does happen it only reinforces the ghost theory. It would only take an hours worth of observation to realize the cat is knocking the coffee mugs off the cabinet shelf after he leaves, but the mystic theory seems to be more convenient.

Like I said, this is a crude example, but it begins to show the line of reasoning behind many trails of thought. Another appeal of mysticism, again that Russell half-heartily acknowledges, is that it is more creative, and in many cases more fun. This may seem odd, but anyone that has visited New Orleans is well familiar with this. Visiting many of the voodoo shops in the French Quarter and talking with mystics is an enlightening experience. Almost immediately you know that their voodoo claims are irrational and fake, but they’re so enticing that you have to at least listen. Walking through a voodoo store reveals the same feeling, you know it’s all fake but it’s interesting to look anyway. Especially when listening to mystic explanations of a real world event like Hurricane Katrina, the mysticism is a force that draws you in, but reason is what pulls you out.

Something, however, Russell had no way of identifying was the role of science and technology in mystic thought. It sounds contradictory, but it’s an odd justification. Take those cliche ghost hunter reality shows on television. Not only are they searching for ghosts, which a surprising number of people believe in, but they now incorporate instruments used to search for the ghosts. It almost seems like science fiction, using instruments to detect movement, patches of energy, the distortion of sounds, ect, and yet many still wait until 3 a.m. to fully use this equipment! It’s an odd phenomena with half-hearted pseudo science being used to fuel mystical thought, but nevertheless it’s there.

To return from my tangent, while it may be superficial, I do believe it is useful to judge ideas based on a linear line from mysticism to logic. Nobody is denying the validity of the fun aroused from mystical musings, but to quote Russell “[Intuition] is an insufficient guarantee of truth, in spite of the fact that much of the most important truth is first suggested by its means.” Essentially, it is natural to hold some mystic beliefs, especially when first being introduced to a subject, but it is folly to continue those mystical beliefs when confronted with facts.


20 thoughts on “On Mysticism and Logic

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  1. Cool subject. I personally identify myself as a mystic and one who absolutely loves reason and logic. Thanks for this!


  2. I think mysticism is an intuitive attempt to explain the science man cannot explain yet by the awareness of humanity’s own limitations. Although mysticism embeds in the philosophies of one’s own mind, at least it attempts a noble feat to acknowledge the origin and depth of spirit. ‘Facts’ as established by the scientific community do well with subjects of matter and space but stumble elsewhere. In other words scientific proof, like mysticism, is only as good as the universal continuity of such proof over time and evolutionary stability.


  3. Yes, you do write an interesting and entertaining article. I have not read Russel’s book so I have little to base any analysis. But I should like to point out that Logic, while precise and rule based, does have a flaw or two. The early electronic computers used to use one’s complement in their ALU until it was discovered that under certain conditions one could end up with a negative zero (I did that exercise forty years age and it is true). But one can define logic very exactly. One can ‘measure’ it very precisely. Mysticism is the black cat that doesn’t exist in the totally dark room that a blind man can’t see but manages to find never the less. That is about as close to a working definition as I can conceive that would cover all forms of ‘mysticism’. Of course the other parameter is that one really has no way of obtaining its measure or validity.

    Ideas such as intuition and second sight are imprecise by their nature. How exactly does one acquire intuition or second sight? Why is one individual’s intuition of one future action right but other future actions incorrect? How can one tell whether one has ‘picked a winner’? Cognitively an exceptional few may have perceptions about certain ideas, activities, or existences to a heighten degree that most of us lack. One has only to point to the ability of dogs to ‘read’ behavior cues from humans and other dogs to understand that the so called look of devotion is merely that of intense concentration of attention toward the the human master. So I can understand why a philosopher whose world is built to such an exacting degree upon logic would encounter difficulty in understanding mysticism. Mysticism is much like predicting the weather.


  4. Jordan, great post. Mysticism and Logic are two sides of the same coin and I believe exist together, so say some of the greatest philosophers and of course, you. By the way, I lived in Memphis for 5 years when I was in college. Karen


  5. ” Very much this: “At the core of the matter, is not quite the rejection of science, but only the acceptance that science cannot prove everything.” Might I add that Mysticism is so attractive (and science possibly ‘threatening in nature’) because it not only allows individuals to believe what they want to believe and therefore grasp control of their own reality, but it also appeals to our sense of the unknown, our need to push the boundaries and explore beyond what we know.

    It is interesting to note that often a sense of disappointment accompanies learning the secret behind a magic trick; and people often resist logical explanations to the point of insanity.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I am worried that the line between scientific inspiration and intuition is much less pronounced than Russell suggests.

    Karl Popper believed that scientific theory could emerge from just about any source. Induction is certainly not the only inspiration for inquiry.

    Of the ways in which theories are formed, Einstein said, “There is no logical path to these laws; only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding of experience, can reach them.”

    Of paradigm shifts, Thomas Kuhn wrote, “No ordinary sense of the term ‘interpretation’ fits these flashes of intuition through which a new paradigm is born.”

    Obviously empirical evidence contributes much of the data we use to form theory. But I think that many of the great thinkers in philosophy of science have understood that there is an intuitive, perhaps “mystical” element to this process.


  7. “Un no sé qué que quedo balbuciendo …” San Juan de la Cruz / Saint John of the Cross. Totally untranslatable, I think, but a great comment on our approximations to mysticism and the true mystics.


  8. What a wonderful piece. I think science and mysticism really do go to the same place- it’s just that they both can be manipulated by people who enquire for profit, we might say, rather than for the love of the quest. They also both function better when you begin and don’t think you a) know everything and b) CAN know everything. It’s kind of the life’s uncertain, eat dessert first thing!


  9. “but it is folly to continue those mystical beliefs when confronted with facts.” Immediate memory of growing up knowing there was no Santa Claus, the jolly fat man in the fir-trimmed red suit, who came to your house on Christmas Eve (never mind you didn’t have a chimney) and left you presents. Mom never pretended. But I pretended on my own that Santa existed. And almost every Christmas, there were presents to each of us from “Santa.” That wasn’t and isn’t folly to me. It was and is a necessary component of my reality.

    Like the post.


  10. To begin, let me just say that this piece was clearly written with a combination of both a close reading and some of your own introspection, and I really admire that. In addition, it seems to be well written and concise, and I agree with most of what you’re saying. This is something that I’ve struggled with for a long time, not so much on a reasoning level as it is on a personal level. Mysticism (again, I’m using Russell’s pretty broad definition here) is a natural inclination for a lot of things because of the relative certainty it provides, because of the agency it ascribes almost naturally. It imbues the world with purpose of its own accord and makes us feel bigger, even important in a world that logic repeatedly shows us does not care so much about us. The danger of mysticism, is, of course, both the harmful behaviors and beliefs that can be espoused as a result (belief that the ghosts are breaking my mugs and fear of the ghost that is breaking my mugs, for example), but the great benefit is the ease of developing a conclusion and the immediate sensation of meaning that develops. The world is not so mundane as a cat knocking over the mugs, mysticism wants to say. The world is full of ghosts, and these ghosts would like to interact with *me*, and there is a purpose for it. I think Nietzsche was ahead of his time and spoke to something deeper when he said God is dead, that we killed him. He meant that a purely logical approach to life is not always the best approach because of the great cost that comes with it – the most powerful, encompassing, and widely accepting myth has been breached.


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