Tart is a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California (Davis campus), where he served for 28 years and is now a core faculty member of the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto, Calif. He has authored more than a dozen books, including Altered States of Consciousness (1969) and Transpersonal Psychologies (1975). He studied electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before deciding to be become a psychologist. He received his doctoral degree in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1963, and then received postdoctoral training in hypnosis research with Professor Ernest R. Hilgard at Stanford University.
I recently put some questions to Dr Tart by e-mail.
Dr Tart, what prompted your interest in parapsychology and consciousness studies?
‘As I described at some length in The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together, as a teenager I went through a struggle that I know is common to many people, a struggle between science and the religion I was raised in. With the wisdom of hindsight, I see most people resolve this kind of conflict by going to one extreme (My religion is True, don’t question!) or the other (Science is right, religion is all nonsense!), or they psychologically isolate and compartmentalize their religious and scientific beliefs. All of these are costly psychological strategies, since part of you is denied. I was very lucky, for in my voracious reading of science books, I came across the psychical research and parapsychology literature and adopted the ideal of its founders of applying basic scientific methodology to refining religion and spirituality, instead of accepting or rejecting wholesale. This has been the dynamic behind my career for half a century. How do we separate the truth from the nonsense? How do we get better understandings of what truth there is?’
The title of your latest book implies that we are becoming less material and more spiritual. But when I look at the younger generation, those in their teens and 20s, all I see is rampant narcissism and hedonism, neither of which seems to lend itself to spirituality. What am I not seeing here?
‘A more technically accurate, but less appealing, title for my book could have been ‘The End of Dismissive Materialism.’ Materialism is a philosophy, a style of trying to understand the world that works very well – for material things! My objection is its irrational, dogmatic rejection of any possibility to the spiritual. My personal and scientific knowledge is that we are at least partly, if not even more than that, spiritual beings, and to suppress and reject that knowledge causes us psychological and spiritual harm. I want to end that harm. The widespread materialistic and scientistic (materialism masquerading as proper science) denial of any spiritual purpose to life doesn’t leave a thinking person much else to do than play what we might call the pig-in-the-trough game, get all the material pleasures you can because there is nothing else. If we didn’t have this scientistic denial of the spiritual, the natural idealism of youth would be a much more powerful factor in our world!’
How does the field of consciousness studies differ from parapsychology? And is there a distinction to be made between parapsychology and psychical research?
‘Contemporary consciousness studies is pretty new, a decade or two, since the reigning behaviorism in psychology had pretty much excluded consciousness as a legitimate subject of study for a long time. So far, though, it’s a primarily material approach. Consciousness is considered to be nothing but brain functioning. We have no idea how a brain can produce consciousness, but it’s an item of faith in materialistic science that someday we’ll understand this. This, incidentally, is what philosophers call a doctrine of ‘promissory materialism,’ and it’s not a scientific attitude. A real scientific theory is capable of disproof and replacement by a better theory, but you can never disprove that someday they will explain consciousness in terms of brain functioning. Parapsychology is basically ignored in almost all consciousness studies work (I’m one of the few exceptions), as it is in almost all fields of science still.
‘Parapsychology and psychical research? They overlap, but parapsychology generally implies rigorous laboratory investigations on a limited range of psi phenomena, such as precognition or clairvoyance, while psychical research, the older term, generally implies interest in a much wider range of possible psi phenomena, like postmortem survival. I can use either label to describe my own work, but since my interests are very wide I think ‘psychical researcher’ is more accurate than ‘parapsychologist.’’
Many researchers in your field seem to buy into ESP and various aspects of the paranormal, yet reject the idea of the survival of consciousness at death, accepting super-psi or some other explanation for it all. Do you agree? Should they be classified as materialists?
‘I would say that most of the very few researchers who have any knowledge whatever of the postmortem survival problem are scientifically on the fence. You can make a good argument for super-psi as an alternative explanation of some evidence that would otherwise imply postmortem survival, and no one has been able to see how you could definitively and logically differentiate the two theories. Personally I don’t worry about this issue. The kind of being who could use super-psi looks to me like the kind of being who might well survive death.’
Do you see much to be gained by proving telepathy, precognition, and other forms of ESP without survival?
‘Yes, the existence of these phenomena, part of what I call the Big Five in The End of Materialism, are the solid foundation phenomena of parapsychology. They’ve already been proven to exist beyond any reasonable doubt in my opinion. Whether you think survival has been ‘proven’ or not, the Big Five certainly open your mind to that possibility!’
I know a number of materialists who call themselves humanists. They claim not to have any concerns about their eventual extinction. William James saw the attitude as just so much bravado, but some of my friends are very convincing when they say they don’t care and I wonder if perhaps there is a mindset there that I am not capable of understanding. What are your thoughts on this?
‘I don’t think it’s that simple. If you want to use your computer, you can’t breathe on it or whack the case, you’ve got to use the keyboard or the mouse. Similarly if you’re a human being, you’ve got a nervous system and body with built-in functions and limitations. Fear of death is one of those, it’s ‘preprogrammed,’ as it were, from the ‘factory.’ Psychologically we can work out all sorts of more or (often) less rational strategies to deal with our inevitable death, and there’s lots of individual variation, so I don’t want to over-generalize here.
‘As to some of your friends saying they don’t care – excuse my black humor here – you might try holding their heads under water for a minute or two….I think you will find a very strong urge to survive once we get beyond detached intellectual discussion. Because we can intellectually detach from feelings under some conditions doesn’t mean the feelings don’t matter.’
If survival could be completely disproved, do you think it would significantly change our way of living? Would most of us be able to adjust to the humanist philosophy?
‘If, as I illustrate in my Western Creed exercise in the book, an experiential exercise designed to bring up the emotional underpinnings of our attitudes about life, purpose, survival, etc., I was definitely convinced there was no survival, I would do the only ‘sensible’ thing, viz. maximize my physical safety and physical gratification, and to hell with everybody else. What would I care if none of us are anything more than accidental, meaningless chemical reactions anyway? Unless manipulating them to feel happy was the best way to get them to work to maximize my happiness, of course. This is not at all the way I feel or am convinced of!’
In your book, you mention that post-mortem survival is a taboo topic in mainstream science. Have you noticed any recent changes in this respect?
‘Nope. It’s dogma in scientistic materialism, and, as in any fundamentalist religion, dogma is not open to examination. The Church of Materialism can be very dogmatic and has its Inquisitors, the pseudo-skeptics, working vigorously to stamp out Heresy.’