BG 179: An Evidence-Based Spirituality for the 21st Century

Episode Description:

We’re joined by Charles Tart, one of the founders of the branch of psychology known as transpersonal psychology. Dr. Tart’s life work has to do with putting forward an “evidence-based spirituality for the 21st century.” In this conversation we explore the evidence that he explored for phenomena like reincarnation, as well as the “big five” of telepathy, clairvoyance, pre-cognition, psychokinesis, and psychic healing. With all of these phenomena Charles warns about adopting a “scientistic”—as opposed to scientific—view of reality, which says that none of those things can be real, simply because they don’t fit into the mainstream view of materialism. Instead, he suggests, we should be looking at the evidence and letting it shape our understanding of reality.

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Vincent: Hello, Buddhist Geeks, this is Vincent Horn, and I’m joined today by Dr. Charles Tart. Charles, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. I’m really excited about this topic. It’s going be interesting I think.

Charles: I think it’s going be fun too.

Vincent: Yeah, yeah, and the topic I’m speaking about is… well it includes a couple things. One is the scientific materialist worldview. The other is the evidence for things like reincarnation, things like telepathy, clairvoyance, some of these things in the Buddhist tradition we might think of as siddhis or special powers.

And Charles is actually one of the key figures in the transpersonal psychology movement and he’s been studying the paranormal as a scientist for some 50 years. So you’ve been at this for a long, long time.

Charles: It’s been an interesting life, I’ll tell you. [Laughter]

Vincent: And you also are an on and off again, as you say in your book, The End of Materialism, Buddhist practitioner. And it sounds like you’ve had some periods of life where you’ve been very serious about Buddhist practice, and then it sounds like you’ve had other periods where maybe you’ve gone in other directions. And I was wondering if you could say a little bit to start with about your relationship to the Buddhist tradition and Buddhist practice?

Charles: Well, yeah it has been pretty varied, you know. I guess my first contact with serious Buddhists was in the late ’60s when I met Tarthang Tulku, a Tibetan lama who settled in Berkeley. Some friends and I went to talk with him and he very quickly figured out that we weren’t very serious, and said he had no secrets to give us and said goodbye. And in retrospect that was quite appropriate. But then a few years later after some other kinds of spiritual training I ended up taking a basic meditation course from him. In fact, I took his course three times and tried to take it a fourth time because I felt that I didn’t get it. And he said you do so get it; you’ve have to go take the advanced course.

But it really has been on again, off again, because I’ve never felt that I was particularly good at meditation, which is the heart of the Buddhist practice to me. Until I met Shinzen Young back in the ’70s, and that was quite interesting because I heard him give a lecture on meditation in the context of a scientific conference. And I didn’t know who he was, but some part of me sat there and listened and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. It’s like I was thinking this guy actually knows what he’s talking about from experience. And I realized these many other meditation teachers had all had great lines because those lines have been practiced and perfected for a couple thousand years. But I didn’t know whether they were actually speaking from experience or just been taught to say these things. Shinzen made me into a pretty regular meditator.

Vincent: That’s cool. Yeah, we’ve interviewed Shinzen and I’d have to say he’s one of the geekiest people we’ve interviewed by far.

Charles: Oh I know. We get on the phone and have very geeky conversations sometimes.

Vincent: Yeah. So it’s interesting, you have this sort of spiritual background and spiritual life, and then you’re also a trained scientist. And you say in your newest book, The End of Materialism, that these are two aspects of your life, or two aspects of your identity, that you’ve now become quite comfortable in being both. And for most people these things seem to be at odds. And you claim that it’s not actually that they’re at odds, it’s actually that the second rate versions of each of these things are at odds. And you make this distinction by saying there’s a difference between scientific and scientistic. I was wondering if you could share a little bit about that distinction and why it’s important?

Charles: Yeah, it’s not a distinction I was the first to make by any means. I think sociologists first came up with it back in the ’30s and ’40s of the last century. They talked about scientism to mean when instead of remembering science is a process where you’re constantly asking questions and revising things, you start to take what the current best findings are and assume that they are the final truth for things. It’s a very human thing you know. We want certainty, your mind hardens into taking something as a doctrine. Now the trouble with scientism is that most people confuse it with science, and scientism is very rampant and it has no place at all for spirituality.

My main purpose in writing The End of Materialism, for instance, was to help people who’ve had spiritual experiences of one sort of another, and to then think well, science has shown this stuff is all nonsense. I must be dumb or crazy. And what I really tried to do in that book is show that if you use real science, not scientism, but real science, and bringing this data from parapsychology particularly, you see there’s lots of very good scientific evidence that we human beings have the kind of qualities you would expect a spiritual being to have. So, you can be both scientific and spiritually inclined. That doesn’t mean you should believe anything and everything that’s got a spiritual label on it, of course. There’s lots of nonsense in that category. But, you shouldn’t reject it a priori either. You shouldn’t think somehow science has proven the spiritual is all nonsense.

Vincent: There’s one quote that I was struck by in the introduction of your book where the Dalai Lama says, “The view that all mental processes are necessarily physical processes is a metaphysical assumption, not a scientific fact.”

Charles: Yeah, it’s as if people think that science has somehow proven that only the physical processes in the brain constitute consciousness. And, that hasn’t been proven. That’s all right as a working hypothesis, but there’s lots of things that say, “No, that’s an inadequate hypothesis. That won’t explain everything.”

Vincent: Nice, and I really appreciate that as a starting point because part of the reason I thought it’d be fun to interview you is because, recently, we interviewed a teacher named Steven Bachelor, and we had a really interesting discussion with him on Buddhist atheism. In particular on the Buddhist doctrines of Karma and rebirth. And, he took a very interesting stance, which was that he felt there simply wasn’t evidence to support reincarnation. And so we shouldn’t blindly believe in that doctrine. And that doing so could actually have harm in terms of how we approach our life and how we approach our practice, and so forth. And, I didn’t know that you were a listener, but apparently your wife Judy suggested that you come on and respond to that because the point of your newest book, The End of Materialism is to actually show that, in fact, there is evidence for many of the things that we consider spiritual in nature like reincarnation.

So, I was wondering if you could share with us some of the evidence that you found while doing research for this book, for instance, that might support a contrasting view on reincarnation for those that may have been sort of confused or provoked by Bachelor’s suggestion that there simply wasn’t any evidence to support that from a scientific perspective?

Charles: Oh, there’s so many ways I could respond to that. First off, there’s a lot of very interesting evidence. Apparently, he’s just not aware of it. And, one of the problems we human beings have is that when we have certain beliefs, we usually won’t bother to look at any evidence that might contradict them, and that keeps our beliefs very strong, but keeps our knowledge less than it should be.

And as to beliefs in something like reincarnation being harmful, well, I would say that any belief in anything can be harmful if you use it in certain kinds of ways and helpful in other kinds of ways. So, for instance, if you use the belief in reincarnation to say, “Well, I’m not going to bother to clean up my act or grow or anything like that,” then if reincarnation’s true, you’re certainly hurting yourself. But, getting down to the reality of it, there is excellent evidence for that. Now, I don’t know if I should talk about the more easy kind of things, the big five as I called them in my book first or jump right into reincarnation? What’s your preference?

Vincent: Well, I think, starting with that and, maybe, explaining the difference between, in your book, what you call the many maybes, which I understand are different than what you’re calling the big five.

Charles: Sure.

Vincent: So, maybe, you could sort of explain the difference and then we could finish by exploring the things that actually seem to have very, very compelling evidence for the.

Charles: Sure. The many maybes are a class of psychic phenomena for which, I think, there’s enough evidence that you’d be foolish to just ignore it and say, “There’s nothing there.” But, there are things that I don’t feel comfortable about saying, “These are proven. We have 99.9% confidence in these things,” as compared to the big five that I’ll talk about later where we have so many solid experiments and observations that, I think, you could just take these as fundamental realities.

Well, reincarnation is one of those many maybes. And, the prime kind of evidence for it is not the stuff you see in the movies where somebody’s hypnotized and regressed, cause that usually yields an awful lot of fantasy. But, really, it’s the cases which now number in the thousands of little kids, usually somewhere between three and six years old or something like that, who suddenly start talking about a previous life, and who talk about it with enough specificity, they lived in such and such a town. Their name was so and so. They had relatives named so and so and all that, that you’re then able to go to that other place and find someone who died not long before that kid was born and be able to come up with a reasonably good match there. If there were one or two cases like that you’d think “ah, you know, coincidence or they heard somebody talking about somebody who died,” but we’ve got thousands of them where that kind of thing has been ruled out. You know, when you’re a three year old and you suddenly start talking with specificity about somebody in a village 150 miles away who died, there’s no context with your family in that village or something, and it matches, then you’ve got something to look at.

Most of these cases were collected were originally by a psychiatrist named Ian Stevenson, now deceased for several years, who himself never said he proved reincarnation, but he collected a lot of evidence for it. And his successors at the University of Virginia Medical School, now have, let’s see, last time I talked to them they have about 4,000 cases total in their files and about 2,000 of them have been analyzed and digitized enough to go into the computer that they’re beginning to look for patterns in them.

I’ll tell you one of the most interesting patterns that’s been found for instance, and that is that a lot of these kids remember a violent death. And it’s as if the trauma of that violent death somehow knocked out the usual forgetting mechanism for reincarnation. And particularly interesting subset of those kids, they not only remember being killed in a certain way, but they have birthmarks on their body that look like the kind of scars you would expect if they were killed that way. So for instance, some little four year old remembers being killed because somebody shot him in the chest with a shotgun, and he’s got a little round birthmark on the front of his chest, and a much bigger one on his back behind that, which would look like the entrance and exit wounds for a shotgun AT close range. So you apparently get these biological markers once in a while.

This is fascinating. I mean this is why I say you know, you can’t ignore this kind of thing. Even though I would like to see a lot more research on it. The idea that reincarnation is so unimportant that we’ve only had one person and maybe a few colleagues investigate it in the last 50 years, that’s crazy. I think whether reincarnation is true or not is a lot more important than curing the common cold. But the people who fund research don’t share my views.

Vincent: Yeah, yeah, I guess it’s been difficult to find a way to make significant pharmaceutical products from that sort of research. [Laughter]

Charles: Yeah, that’s true. What in the world could you sell if reincarnation was true? No wait, wait, accountants and lawyers would love it because they’d set up trusts where if you could identify yourself properly in the next lifetime, you could inherit all this property.

Vincent: Oh, that’s be awesome. I can think of a few people who would like that.

Charles: It’s gonna happen now that we’ve found the commercial angle.


Vincent: That is really interesting, and I was wondering since you’re somewhat familiar with the research coming out of the University of Virginia Medical School, if there seem to be any conclusions that can be drawn from some of the patterns of some of the research? And how they might fit in with some of the views of reincarnation that come from some of the other wisdom traditions?

Charles: Yeah, well let me give you one specific example which I don’t think I used in The End of Materialism book at all, and that is the theme I’m working on for probably the rest of my career is that we need to develop an evidence -ased spirituality for the 21st century. That is, as much as possible we need to look at evidence for and against particular aspects of spiritual and religious beliefs, and make our practice fit around those as much as possible.

So I’ve come up with one around the idea of reincarnation. As a student of Tibetan Buddhism, I’ve heard the story many times, I bet you’ve heard it too, it was used to say that you’re really luck to get a human reincarnation. That it’s very rare to come back as a human being without going through a lot of other things first. And that’s why you should practice so hard in this life to build a big karma. And the illustration usually used to reinforce that admonition is you imagine a world that’s all ocean and there’s a six foot ring floating on it. I think of it as a big hula hoop, but I’m probably dating myself. And you imagine a turtle that once every thousand years comes up for air. What are the odds it’s going come up in the center of that floating ring? It’s a very dramatic way of saying it’s really hard to come back as a human being.

Well I started thinking about that and I said, this is a theory about some of the aspects of reincarnation that could be tested. Let’s look at these thousands of cases of kids at the University of Virginia’s database, and say okay, if it really is that rare, and you’ve got to have really good karma to come back as a human being immediately in your next reincarnation, then most of these kids will obviously have been monks and nuns and yogis and saints of one or another who have really good karma to comeback of the human being so quickly.

So I asked the folks of Virginia, they are all friends of mine, I said you know how many holy people have you got in your re-incarnation of kids memories stuff database. And they thought and thought and they said “Well, of the two thousand we have scored so far maybe half a dozen”. Well that does not like you have to be a saint to come back. I mean, these kids remember very ordinary kinds of lifetimes. So I appreciate the idea that it is good to encourage people to practice when they have the opportunity, but if you are encouraging them with a theory that is false as far as the facts go, I think it’s time to change that particular theory and this is also an example of how basic scientific methods can interact with spiritual beliefs and start to refine them, start to make them more discriminating.

Vincent: I have heard a couple times even the Dalai Lama, for instance is open to revising the Tibetan Buddhist doctrine, at least in his order based on evidence and that that seems interesting that there are leaders out there who share that kind of view or opinion.

Charles: Yeah, he is quite wonderful and quite unique that way. That’s also another example where I think science can help spirituality. When I read about the way they choose the next Dalai Lama, the testing situation they use would never pass muster in a parapsychological experimental setting. With monks actually there who knew the previous Dalai Lama, you have all this chance for sensory cues to coach a child to give the right responses. We should teach they how to do it double-blind and then you get a more accurate reading.

Vincent: That would be awesome, the double-blind Dalai Lama!

Charles: There you go.

Vincent: Nice, nice and besides the many maybes which re-incarnation is one of them, you also spend a lot time exploring what you consider the big five. I wanted to hear about that because you feel from the research that it’s actually much more persuasive, the evidence that these five things are actually like you are saying earlier they’re actual realities. They are not simply things that might be the case but there is actually some very strong evidence to suggest that they are real.

Charles: And it is mostly experimental evidence too, where you have good control over conditions. Something like these kids cases you know, it just happened it is not like you can produce it on demand. Although in moments of darker humor, I’ve thought perhaps we should barcode corpses and see if that would effect incarnation, and make them come up with birthmarks where we could just read with a scanner, but we have to bring a little humor to this situation. [Laughter]

The big five we have, dozens to hundreds of experiments showing that this stuff can happen. One of course is telepathy. You separate people so that as far as our known sensory apparatus goes there is no way that they can communicate, but sometimes what one person is thinking can be picked up by another person when they are completely shielded.

Another of the big five is what we call clairvoyance, the direct perception of physical reality. The information you want is not in somebody else’s mind at the time, It’s just the physical state of affairs, but people get it. The classic kinds of experiments that started these were basically card-guessing experiments. You separate two people, you have the sender in a telepathy experiment thoroughly, and usually that’s 10-12 times shuffle a deck of cards, and look at them one by one while trying to send them. If you get by chance, we are talking about Telepathy. If the cards are just thoroughly shuffled but nobody is looking at them and the person has to try to figure them out anyway at a distance and they get them that’s Clairvoyance. They’re somehow directly perceiving the state of the physical world.

The third of the big five is pre-cognition, where you accurately predict a future state of events when even if you knew the present state of events you couldn’t predict it because there are random processes in between scrambling things up.

The fourth one is psychokinesis, the direct effect of mind over matter. Originally studied with dice throwing experiments, eventually resulting in these wonderful Rube Goldberg machines throwing dice, while a subject would stand on the other side of the room, and be told, “Make them come up fours this time. Thank you, now make them come up threes,” and so forth. And you get these deviations from chance that show that sometimes the person’s intention is indeed affecting it.

And the fifth one is psychic healing of one sort or another. This might actually be a form of psychokinesis, or it might be some separate form of psychic ability, but there’s lots and lots of evidence, now.

These are the big five. These are the things human beings can do, that we don’t have any feasible explanation of, in terms of our current material understanding of the world, or reasonable extensions of that. And I say reasonable extensions, because who knows but that there might be some drastic revisioning of physics the way, for instance, quantum physics revisioned classical physics, and then things might fit in. But for now, they don’t fit in, and that’s why I talk about non-materiality; they don’t fit that material kind of view of things. So, we should study these things on their own terms.

Vincent: One of our earliest guests was a gentleman named B. Alan Wallace, and he talks about how we’re sort of poised for a revolution in the mind sciences, the way there was a revolution in the physical sciences, or in the biological sciences, and it sounds like some of this stuff sort of fits in with his position that there’s, in fact, a lot we can learn about the mind through this sort of exploration. That’s cool.

Charles: It’s stuff we have to learn also, you know. I’ve seen innumerable books and articles that try to explain the mind solely on a physical basis, and I immediately look in the index to see whether they even deal with these psychic kinds of phenomena, and if they don’t deal with it, I know immediately they’re trying to explain things while ignoring an important part of reality; there’s got to be something wrong.

Vincent: It’s interesting, I guess for me personally, as we’re exploring some of these things. It brings up the question, because I can look back at my own experience being a Buddhist practitioner, and I can see that there have been periods where I’ve been extremely skeptical of any sort of psychic phenomena, and those sort of things. And yet, at the same time, I’ve had a lot of crazy experiences doing meditation, and being on retreat, and even just in my normal life where I’ve become more and more open to these things, and yet it seems like such a difficult thing to talk about, because those are sort of subjective accounts, they’re not really evidence based in terms of double-blind studies, and things like that. But I wonder for people out there who have had these type of experiences, what it’s like not really being able to talk about them without the potential of being sort of outcast.

And then on the other side, we’ve got people who may be extremely skeptical, and have not had experiences like this, and simply find it unhelpful. All of these people are sort of coexisting in different spiritual traditions. I know in the Buddhist tradition, they’re definitely together practicing, and I wonder, on a cultural level, how do we deal with that rift? Do you have any ideas about how these things can be brought together?

Charles: I love the way you ask me thirty questions, simultaneously…

Vincent: Sorry. [Laughter]

Charles: I’ll take a shot at it. Sometimes, for instance, when I teach basic meditation practices at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, where I teach part-time, I’ll deliberately avoid mentioning any spiritual components of it at all, and I’ll present it as sort of a basic meditation for materialist. And you can present it that way as a very minimal sort of thing , and say “this is something that will help your brain get in a better sort of state and you’ll like that.” And that’s not bad. I mean you know, if you can help people be happier or whatever with the belief system they have that’s a fine thing to do.

My own feeling though is if you reduce Buddhism to nothing but a way of putting your brain in order, then let’s face the fact that meditation is a very inefficient way to do it. All those thousands of hours sitting on your ass with weird things happening, and being bored and tired, and distracted, and all that… And the pharmaceutical companies will invent a pill that will do it much better someday if indeed it is nothing but material.

But, if our minds are something more than our brains, if we are spiritual beings in some sense, then I don’t think we should think that the big pharma is going solve all our problems someday. They might help us. They might come up with a drug that makes us meditate more effectively, but we have to understand what mind is on its own terms and work with that also. And that’s why I think the spiritual side of Buddhism is important, okay. It’s fine as just a psychotherapy for materialists to make their brains function more smoothly, but it’s much more than that. And I think Buddhism has to recognize that.

There’s all these attempts right now to keep finding brain correlates of meditation. And I think it’s wonderful, I mean I’m a nerd, I’ve done that kind of research in the past. And politically it’s an excellent thing to do. When I was in graduate school for instance, I wanted to do my research on dreams. And dreams were considered subjective and unscientific, and all my mentors were discouraging me. And then along came the discovery that dreams were accompanied by a change in brain waves. “Oh my gosh, that means dreams are real.”

I saw the same thing happen for meditation about a dozen years later. In psychology up to the point, meditation, to put it harshly, was something done by foreigners who were half-naked sitting in the mud, and they were probably schizophrenic. And it was weird and crazy. And then all of the sudden there were brain wave changes down from meditation that became real and legitimate to study for it.

Well, I think it’s great to study that stuff. I mean the brain is part of who we are and if we can make it work more effectively, great. But it’s real important whether you’ve had psychic experiences or not or if you’re even open to them, to not let Scientism tell you that if you have these unusual experiences they can’t be what they seem to be, you’re probably dumb or crazy to have them. Again, that’s the main reason I wrote The End of Materialism to give people a basic factual background that says that these things happen and they imply a spiritual side of man, and don’t be ashamed of them. Try to understand them on their own terms. Develop them.


Charles Tart

Dr. Charles T. Tart has been involved with research and theory in the fields of Hypnosis, Psychology, Transpersonal Psychology, Parapsychology, Consciousness and Mindfulness since 1963. He has authored over a dozen books, two of which became widely-used textbooks; he has had more than 250 articles published in professional journals and books, including lead articles in such prestigious scientific journals as Science and Nature, and provides regular public speaking appearances.

Website: Charles T. Tart Home Page and Consciousness Library