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Pre-publication Endorsements

"It's hard to be entertainingly irreverent and deeply earnest at the same time, but John Horgan pulls it off in Rational Mysticism as he searches for answers to the biggest questions: Why is there suffering? Is lasting fulfillment possible? What happens after death? Do we live in a benign, even purposeful universe or a cold, indifferent one? His quest brings him in touch with sages, boundary-stretching scientists, and the occasional crackpot whose psychedelic experiments may have gone on too long. All are appraised with Horgan's patented wit and pungency, and with a fine balance of skepticism and sympathy. You may disagree with some of these people, but you'll finish this engrossing book with new data to bring to old, deep questions." Robert Wright, author of Non-Zero and The Moral Animal

"This book is as much a personal quest for mystical enlightenment as it is a thought-provoking pilgrimage to the growing interface of science and spirituality. Horgan's odyssey is both intellectually courageous in confronting the 'big' questions and personally adventurous... Beautifully written, it is an informative and compelling read." Lester Grinspoon, Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus, Harvard Medical School, co-author of Psychedelic Drugs Revisited

"A wonderful book. A modern Odysseus, John Horgan sails through unmapped, dangerous waters to bring back tales of personal enlightenment and the scientific understanding of what it may mean in terms of brain biology." Robert Pollack, Professor of Biological Sciences, Director, Columbia University Center for the Study of Science and Religion

Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border Between Science and Spirituality
Houghton Mifflin, New York, 2003

Publisher's Description

How do trances, visions, prayer, satori, and other mystical manifestations "work"? What are their neurological mechanisms and psychological implications? John Horgan investigates a wide range of fields chemistry, physics, psychology, radiology, theology, and more to narrow the gap between reason and enlightenment. As both a seeker and an award-winning journalist, Horgan is uniquely positioned to profile researchers and their work. To find the ends of enlightenment, he communes with a number of experts, including the theologian Huston Smith, spiritual heir to Joseph Campbell; Andrew Newberg, the scientist whose quest for the brain's "God module" was the focus of a Newsweek cover story; Ken Wilber, the doyen of transpersonal psychology; Alexander Shulgin, the legendary chemist who has synthesized scores of psychedelic drugs and tested them on himself; and Susan Blackmore, a Zen practitioner, psychologist, and parapsychology debunker who teaches at Oxford.

Horgan also explores the strikingly similar effects of "mystical technologies" like sensory deprivation, prayer, fasting, trance, dancing, meditation, and drug trips. He tells of participating in experiments that seek the neurological underpinnings of mystical experiences. And, finally, he recounts his own tortuous search for enlightenment adventurous, poignant, and sometimes surprisingly comic.

Horgan's conclusions resonate with the controversial climax of The End of Science because, as he argues, the most enlightened mystics and the most enlightened scientists end up in the same place confronting the imponderable depth of the universe.


"A marvelous book....It's 'The Varieties of Religious Experience' meets 'Siddhartha.'....What elevates 'Rational Mysticism' above the normal
journalist-takes-a-road-trip are Horgan's special talents. He is not your typical milquetoasty science writer....[Horgan has] a gift for pulling back the curtain to unveil diminutive wizards, a technique he employs adroitly in this new book....Books about mysticism come in two main varieties: the gooey prose of the believer and the adolescent bitchiness of the skeptic. Horgan tackles this impossible subject journalistically--critically but with an open heart." Dick Teresi, New York Times Book Review, March 23, 2003.

"This is a spendidly written, beautifully organized, honestly and passionately argumentative book, balanced on the cusp between belief and unbelief, a provocative and even moving book over which hovers the questing shade of William James. Though he never abandons his rationalism, Horgan is clearly a seeker; he understands perfectly the allure of the spirit...Still, as Horgan implies, it is the journey toward understanding why there is something rather than nothing, not the arrival, that matters." Martin Levin, Globe and Mail, Toronto, April 19, 2003.

"In Rational Mysticism, [Horgan] profiles an eclectic group of scientists, philosophers and dabblers in psychedelic substances, all of whom are trying to explain the enlightened and altered states of mind associated with mystical experiences. It's a great read, full of amusing vignettes and thoughtful reflections... Rational Mysticism is less about the science of mysticism than about a search for the meaning of life. From the opening pages, in which Horgan gives a poignant account of a cherished pet's death, he is looking for answers to the classic questions about existence, the universe and the immortality of the mind." Stephen Mihm, Washington Post Book World, March 9, 2003

"Horgan has had an uneasy relationship with the metaphysical, and this tension fuels his narrative. In his earlier years, he tells us, he'd been a seeker of sorts, puzzling over esoteric books, dabbling in yoga, meditation and psychedelic drugs in hopes of locating some sort of nirvana...Horgan then turned to science for the answers mysticism failed to provide, but that path, too, failed to solve the existential dilemma...In this eminently readable book, Horgan re-approaches the query that propelled his earlier dabbling: How are we to find comfort in this world with no reassurance of an afterlife and no definitive understanding of what mystical experiences mean? But this time, he pairs the skepticism of the scientist with the heart of one who wants to believe." Bernadette Murphy, Los Angeles Times, February 11, 2003

"Imagine, if you can, a hyper-intellectual road flick. It consists of strung-out string theorists, PoMo contextualists battling essentialist running dogs; Jim Jarmusch, no, Spike Jonze directing; music by John Zorn and Terry Reilly. It's Steven Weinberg meets Hunter Thompson tracking the Holy Grail. Lots of character development, high tech deus ex machinas, shamanism, the whole megillah. Gonzo science for the digerati! Yes!" Thomas Patton, Skeptic Magazine, October 2003.

"Science author Horgan tackles modern metaphysics from a critical perspective in this entertaining New Age travelogue, combining interviews with leading spiritual scholars like Huston Smith and Ken Wilber with visits to research centers where scientists study peoples' brainwaves while they meditate... [Horgan's] willingness to share his doubts and attractions give his book a refreshingly personal feel. Extending the candor, he applies the same rigorous interrogation to himself, sharing how his views have been shaped by, among other things, experiences with psychedelic drugs as a young adult and a recent group experimentation with the South American hallucinogenic plant ayahuasca... The result is a title with crossover appeal: believers can point to Horgan's willingness to grapple seriously with their tenets, while skeptics can find ample support for the argument that it's all in our heads." Publishers Week, December 23, 2002

"Horgan has written an informative, critical, and by turns fascinating and disturbing examination of the relationship between drug use and mystical experience... Horgan focuses on the diverse beliefs, controversial experiments, and personal experiences of several major advocates of research into mysticism: Steven Katz, Andrew Newberg, Huston Smith, and Ken Wilber. Of particular interest are the science-oriented ideas of James Austin, Susan Blackmore, Michael Persinger, and Franz Vollenweider. Religious themes range from the influence of science on spirituality to the dangerous steps that an individual will take to experience God or cosmic unity. For many informed readers, this book will neither discredit scientific materialism nor verify the objective value of mystical experience; instead, it clearly demonstrates the direct relationship between chemical influence on the brain and having a mystical experience." Library Journal, February 15, 2003

Selected Works

McSweeney's Books, paperback edition, 2014.
"Cross-check" (Scientific American blog), August 12, 2014.
Review of Steven Pinker's "The Better Angels of Our Nature," Slate, October 3, 2011
A rebuttal of the deep-roots theory of warfare. Discover, June 2012.
Drones may soon become ubiquitous in U.S. skies.
Brain and Mind
Don't hold your breath for the Singularity. IEEE Spectrum, June 2008.
Article on scientific explanations of religious experiences, Discover, December 2006.
Profile of Jose Delgado, pioneer of brain implants, Scientific American, October 2005.
Investigation of controversial "grandmother-cell" hypothesis. Discover, June 2005.
Investigation of peyote use in Native American Church. Discover, February 2003.
Tenth-anniversay update of The End of Science. Discover, October 2006.
Chronicle of Higher Education, April 7, 2006.
New York Times, August 12, 2005
New York Times, December 12, 2004
A list of articles written for Scientific American and other publications.
Rational Mysticism Outtakes
An account of Horgan's efforts to achieve satori in a Zen class.
A profile of the German anthropologist and authority on shamanism Christian Ratsch.
A profile of Diana Alstad and Joel Kramer, authors of The Guru Papers.
A profile of the Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast.
A profile of the British Buddhist Stephen Batchelor.
A profile of the guru Andrew Cohen, founder of What Is Enlightenment?
Basic Books, 2015 (with new preface). Originally published by Addison Wesley, 1996.