On Conversion Experiences

Religions have always relied on the idea of a conversion experience. But conversion experiences are essential to many of the characterizations of philosophy as a way of life. Plato’s allegory of the cave where one transitions from the corrupt sensible world to the incorruptible world of the spirit; the Stoic intuition of the presence of God in nature; Bergson’s intuition of duration; Heidegger’s recovery of the authentic self through anxiety—all seem to posit the possibility of a radical and seemingly instantaneous transformation of the self that ruptures our attachment to everyday life and returns us to some pristine essence of the soul or sets us off on a new beginning. (See Hadot for a discussion).

I’m uncomfortable with this idea. Although on these accounts, philosophical reasons bring us to the point of conversion, the final step suggests not reasons but a non-deliberative exposure to an ontological force—the Good, Being, God, or duration.

But this raises many questions. What exactly is this self that can split in two, hive off the past and reassemble on new ground? In what sense is this non-deliberative exposure rational and how can it seed a “new self?” Without habits of thought, social bonds, and a core sense of who one is, all of which must be rebuilt after a profound conversion experience, where is the defense against nonsense that is philosophy’s stock in trade?

The freedom to change oneself on a dime seems thrilling, but our personalities, habits, and patterns of thought are not so easily transformed. Whatever meaning we can attach to images of turning one’s gaze toward the Good, channeling the movement of the Logos, or intuiting the pure movement of time runs up against the inertia of character, circumstance, and history. I suspect people who undergo conversions have been subconsciously tilling the ground for a long time.

Rational persuasion, by contrast, tends to be piecemeal. No one will change substantially unless motivated from within to do so. And the offering of reasons will produce radical change in the self only if one finds that thread of fundamental beliefs on which a belief system rests and severs it. But that thread will be so entangled that it may never slip through the knots that hold it in place. Philosophers especially should not be sanguine about such transformations of the self.

Coming from a position of deep despair may provide such an internal motivation. William James, who wrote extensively about conversion experiences, tells of his own dark night of the soul. He writes “there are dead feelings, dead ideas and cold beliefs, and there are hot and live ones, and when one grows hot and alive within us, everything has to recrystallize about it.” (from Varieties of Religious Experience)

But what is that recrystallization? Coming from a place of deep dissatisfaction with one’s life is surely a legitimate motive, but the causes of that dissatisfaction are not easily uncovered or readily changed. And when they are uncovered, one needs firm ground from which to manage the chaos. Unraveling the key threads in one’s life should require patient and careful testing of boundaries and lifelines. Like good crystal, the lattice of the self must form slowly.

By contrast, becoming attuned to one’s environment doesn’t typically require a conversion. Small steps matter. Persistent attention, learning, and creativity can discover new paths. If philosophy is a way of life, it cannot be because it affords conversion experience but because it enables these small steps of attention and learning. Emergencies may require a conversion experience but for most people life is not a series of emergencies

A philosophical life doesn’t benefit from the trappings of religion. Conversion experiences are extreme reactions to extreme events, not the necessary condition of a philosophical life well lived.

Published by Dwight Furrow

Wine, food, and travel writing, philosophy, aesthetics

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