Charles T. Tart, Ph.D., IONS Fellow, transpersonal psychologist, author of The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together, and keynote speaker at the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) conference in San Diego on October 16-17, 2009, co-sponsored by SANDIONS, ACISTE, the Windbridge Institute for Applied Research of Human Potential, and the International Holistic Healing Circle and Society.
BB: What is paranormal research and why is it important to know about this?
CTT: The prefix “para” means literally “besides” something, so it means besides normal. If you define normal as what happens to a lot of ordinary people, then having paranormal or parapsychological experiences is normal.
We live in times where people think that science has somehow shown that all spiritual ideas are total nonsense. Paranormal phenomena indicate, from the best scientific approach, that human beings do show the kind of properties we would expect spiritual beings to have. It’s not inherently nonsensical, or crazy or neurotic to be interested in spiritual things. All my psychological or personal research shows that we are spiritual beings in some real sense. To deny that is to create all sorts of psychological problems.
BB: Do you feel that the research of William James has anything to teach us?
CTT: My best answer to that is to ask you a question: How in the world did you ever hear about William James? He‘s practically forgotten in modern psychology. He had a much wider conception of the mind and its possibilities than we have nowadays, and that’s largely ignored, unfortunately.
BB: I read about other people’s visionary experiences in his classic book Variety of Religious Experiences I was amazed at the openness and breadth to his approach to spirituality and psychology. He didn’t make a separation between the two.
CTT: And he was extremely interested in parapsychological phenomena. He understood that they were part of psychology and had to be taken in, whereas, modern psychology totally ignores the existence of parapsychological phenomena. When I was in graduate school, I was occasionally reminded that it’s been less than 100 years since they let us out of the philosophy department and if we’re not scientific enough, they might send us back there.
When you’re doing what you think is straightforward science, you’re actually making a lot of assumptions of what reality is all about and if you don’t know that, you can get in trouble. When we don’t know we’re assuming things, we’re stuck.
JF: What do you make of the way the meeting of science and spirituality have begun to penetrate mainstream society through, television, books, and movies?
CTT: Mainstream scientists would say that that’s popular culture, where people have no intelligence or discrimination, ad all of that is nonsense that they’re giving themselves, because science has again shown that all that is impossible and we’re so dumb we’ll believe anything.
There are some more serious attempts to build bridges between science and spirituality. There have been some books, like Dean Radin’s Entangled Minds, and the like. But they don’t deal with the central issue: Has science disproven the spiritual? Look, religion has a grand idea about the expansive nature of the universe, and look, the Hubble telescope has shown us a grand and beautiful universe, so let’s be friends. Well, that’s the issue in my book: Has science shown that spirituality is all nonsense, or is something real happening there that’s important to us, which of course is what I claim.
BB: Can you distinguish between science and scientism as you do in your book?
CTT: Science is an open-ended process for getting and refining knowledge. And it means things are always open to question, to looking at again, and to checking out against reality. But anytime something you think to be science starts to become rigid like it is the law and you’re not really allowed to look at it any more; that is scientism. It’s like a fundamentalist religion and there are certain basic things you are not allowed to think about or question. That’s dogma; that’s doctrine. Scientism has doctrine and dogma but science never says that. People practicing scientism always say they’re practicing science.
BB: What about the evidence for out-of-body and near-death experiences?
CTT: Well, I’d have to say that realistically the average scientist has never heard of such evidence. They kind of know that people have NDEs, but the write it off as hallucinations while their dying brain is malfunctioning. They don’t look at it as serious evidence, unfortunately. So, it has not made much of an impact at all on the scientific community in general. I happen to think the evidence is very good, but your mainstream scientists don’t know anything about it.
BB: National Geographic did a program called Moment of Death, which included people’s NDE accounts, but they did not include all of the evidence.
One case involved a woman, Michaela Roeser, who overheard her family talking in the cafeteria while she was comatose. They flew her mom out to verify this and then completely cut that out that part of the story.
CTT: If you assume that the purpose of the media is the simple, honest reporting of the facts, you must live in a different country. In point of fact there are editorial policies that make it difficult to get things published or aired.
Let’s take a view of materialism, which is the dominant view of our society. Materialism says that there’s just material stuff and there’s no meaning for it. The universe just accidentally came into being and here we are, but it doesn’t mean anything. Your not liking that it doesn’t mean anything is just a chemical reaction in your brain. Let’s say I want to get rich and I think you’re exploitable. Why shouldn’t I exploit you? You’re just a meaningless mass of chemicals and I know how to exploit you so that the chemicals in your brain take the right form, and increase my richness and power, great! Who cares? The game you play is to get everything you can now and don’t worry about anything because we’re all going to die anyway. Materialism has consequences.
BB: You claim in your book that we’re in a bio-psychological virtual reality. Does this mean we’re in our own artificial world, like in the film The Matrix?
CTT: Our biology and psychology, our history and conditioning, clearly color our perception of the world and our ideas. And every night when we dream we enter a virtual reality which seems perfectly real! Our ordinary reality is also a virtual reality that is built up in the same way as our dreams. It’s semi-arbitrary, but not too arbitrary. If it gets too far off from what is out there, it gets uncomfortable; at worst, we don’t survive. In other words, we live in a construction, that most of the time when we’re awake is highly synchronized to the sensory world, but it’s something other than what it seems to be.
BB: Do you mean that we’re really in a waking dream?
CTT: Yes! That is the essence of many spiritual teachings. That we’re not simply in reality; we’re in an illusion, in a waking dream, in samsara. What that means is that while we’re “awake” we’re probably making a lot of mistakes in the way that we put it together, and that causes us suffering.
JF: In connection with any collective change in consciousness, what part could individual transformative experiences that you and Beverly have had, affect others?
CTT: Oh yeah! I think they’re essential. I don’t understand big mass movements, but I understand how one person can affect the other. Simply being around somebody who’s had a major spiritual experience, can speak to something in you, and start a transformative process.
My main professional identity now is as a transpersonal psychologist, a fancy name for spiritual psychologist. One of the main things that could make this world better would be to discover how to give people mystical and other transformative experiences. As they go out into the world, they’ll radiate that, and inspire that sort of thing in others. I mean deep experiences, not telling people how to act. I think we could learn to induce them.
JF: Then, how can the rigor of science and the deep wisdom of subjective experience help to advance individual and collective transformation?
CTT: I’m an optimist about human beings. I regard science as a discipline for overcoming your own prejudices and shortcomings. Abraham Maslow, the founder of Humanistic Psychology, said that science can be used as a marvelous, open-ended personal growth system, or it can be one of the highest-prestige personal defense mechanisms. I think we can use science to make our spirituality more effective.
BB: In your closing speech at the 2009 IANDS Conference you will call for an evidence-based spirituality for the 21st Century. What is that?
When I talk about meditation, we have lots of ancient techniques for meditation that don’t work very well. For the few people they work for, it’s wonderful, but most people give up on them because they don’t really do anything. Why don’t we research how to make them more effective?
We can eventually reach a state where we can recommend specific meditations that have worked for people like them in the past. That would be marvelously transformative; since spiritual development through meditation could now become effective for most people instead of something I ought to do, but gee, it doesn’t work. This is true for Westerners as well as Easterners. The best meditation teachers have a 5% retention rate. That’s like a college with a 95% drop-out rate! We could do better than that.
JF: Is there anything you’d like to say in summary?
CTT: The bottom line of The End of Materialism book is that too many people have had their spiritual impulses or beliefs confused and denied by scientism so that they think they’re dumb or crazy. Those are the people I want to know that real science does not automatically tell them that they’re nuts; it’s reasonable to be both scientific and spiritually oriented. That’s my big message. I hope to cut down on a little human suffering by helping people see the difference between science and scientism.
JF: What a wonderful message and an important reason to write your book. Thank you.
Beverly Brodsky – Leader of San Diego IANDS, founding board member of the American Center for the Integration of Spiritually Transformative Experiences and past Community Group Coordinator for IONS.
John Falchi – SANDIONS Community Group Leader for the Institute of Noetic Sciences, founder of the Meta-Networking Group P.A.C.E., and development management consultant. John is a frequent contributor to this publication.
Originally published in The Light Connection, October 2009.