Transpersonal Psychology, Science and The Supernatural


Jorge Ferrer, 2017


book chapter in Participation and the Mystery: Transpersonal Essays in Psychology, Education, and Religion


To download a pdf, please click here for the article and here for the references.




Should transpersonal psychology be a scientific discipline? Do transpersonal psychologists need to pledge to the exclusive use of empirical methods in their research and scholarship? A number of contemporary transpersonal scholars have so argued (see Daniels, 2001, 2005; Friedman, 2002, 2013a; MacDonald, 2013). Although with different emphases, they propose that transpersonal psychology should focus on the scientific study of the naturalistic (i.e., physical and psychological) aspects of transpersonal phenomena, staying away from not only supernatural or metaphysical considerations, but also nonempirical approaches such as hermeneutics or contemplative methodologies. Their explicit aim is to free transpersonal psychology from religious ideologies, secure the field’s metaphysical neutrality, and thus enhance its social and academic legitimacy as a scientific discipline.


While I argue against the pursuit of these aims in this article—and in particular against Friedman (2002, 2013a) as their strongest advocate—I also recognize the value of a scientific approach. First, although I have elsewhere critiqued the ‘‘empiricist colonization of spirituality’’ (i.e., the import of empiricist standards such as falsifiability to spiritual inquiry; see Ferrer, 1998, 2002), I also think that transpersonal psychology would benefit from more scientific studies. To discern the transformative outcomes, neurobiological correlates, and phenom-enology of transpersonal events, among other possible empirical findings, is hugely important; quantitative and qualitative approaches should be regarded as equally vital for the field (see Anderson & Braud, 2011, 2013).1 Second, I agree with Friedman (2002, 2013a) that transpersonal psychology should neither become a religion nor be exclusively tied to any particular spiritual tradition or metaphysical worldview. With this goal in mind, some of my past works sought to expel spiritual ideologies underlying transpersonal models through a participatory framework that does not privilege any spiritual tradition or orientation over others on objectivist, ontological, or metaphysical grounds (i.e., saying that theism, monism, or nondualism corresponds to the nature of ultimate reality). Those writings also offered criteria for making qualitative distinctions regarding spiritual matters, based on pragmatic and transformational grounds such as selflessness, embodied integration, and eco-social-political justice (Ferrer, 2002, 2008a, 2011a, 2011b). Third, although accounts of the scientific method from the transpersonal defenders of science more closely resemble what one would find in a science textbook than the activities of a practicing scientist, these authors are not naı¨ve scientists. Rather, these scholars present a philosophically informed scientific approach that properly acknowledges science as but one path to knowledge, the provisional nature of scientific products, and the hermeneutic dimension of science (i.e., data are theory-laden; Friedman, 2002, 2013a; MacDonald, 2013).


In this chapter, however, I show that the scientific approach can be—and indeed has been—taken too far. I first argue that these scholars (e.g., Daniels, 2001, 2005; Friedman, 2002, 2013a; MacDonald, 2013) underestimate how the powerful ways in which modern science is embedded in a naturalistic metaphysics betray their goal to free the discipline from fidelity to any metaphysical worldview. Then, after identifying serious problems with these authors’ adherence to a neo-Kantian epistemology and associated metaphys-ical agnosticism, I show the residual scientism afflicting their proposals for a scientific transpersonal psychology. Next, I present the critical metaphysical pluralism of the participatory approach and discuss the challenge of shared spiritual visions for scientific naturalism. Finally, as a possible direction to relax the field’s metaphysical tensions, I offer an example of a participatory research program that bridges the modern dichotomy between naturalism and supernaturalism (though I later argue against the need for either term, they are appropriate when discussing this so-called divide). I conclude by arguing that although transpersonal psychology should encourage scientific studies, the field should not be defined or limited by its allegiance to any single inquiry approach, epistemology, or metaphysical worldview.




In two important manifestos, Friedman (2002, 2013a) proposed to restrict the term psychology to refer to the scientific study of transpersonal phenomena and to use the broader category transpersonal studies for nonempirical approaches.2 Friedman’s main motivation appears to be detaching transpersonal psychology from specific metaphysical worldviews, such as those espoused by religious traditions. Because metaphysical statements cannot be empirically tested, Friedman argued, a scientific transpersonal psychology should remain agnostic about metaphysical and supernatural claims and concentrate instead on the naturalistic study of the physical and the psychological (cf. McDonald, 2013).


Leaving aside the circularity of this argument, a more serious issue emerges when considering that, as generally understood and practiced in modern times,3 science entails a naturalistic metaphysics associated with an ontological materialism and reductionism that is antithetical to ‘‘supernatural’’ worldviews (De Caro & MacArthur, 2000, 2004a; Dupre´, 1993; Ellis, 2009; Mahner, 2012). In other words, far from being metaphysically neutral, modern science endorses the naturalistic ‘‘view that all that exists is our lawful spatiotemporal world’’ (Mahner, 2012, p. 1437). Metaphysical naturalism, Mahner (2012) added, should be considered essentially constitutive of science—‘‘a tacit metaphysical supposition of science, an ontological postulate’’ (p. 1438) without which science would no longer be science (cf. Schafersman, 1997).

To read the full article, please see this PDF and this one for the references.