Much of my research and writing about parapsychological subjects is somewhat abstract, dealing with laboratory experiments and what they might mean. I’m just finishing teaching a course on basic Parapsychology at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, and trying to give students some personal feel for the material and its importance in human life, not just the more abstract scientific findings about it. This email came a few days ago, and it and my response to it are a poignant illustration of why parapsychology and its relation to spirituality are so important.
I’ve changed names and altered some irrelevant details to preserve the privacy of my correspondent.
Dear Dr. Tart,
My son, Billy, died last Spring from a cancerous tumor (unrelated to his genetic disorder) at the age of 23. I have been obsessed in trying to find a connection with what is real (in regards to God and the afterlife) since his death. Billy was 21 years post bone marrow transplant for a rare genetic disorder … and spent six months in the hospital having a lifesaving bone marrow transplant when he was baby at which time he actually died and was revived, and he has had countless surgeries and much pain in his short life. IF I could only get a sign from him, then I would be able to enjoy the rest of my life (knowing we would be reunited again some day). The only way can finish out my life in peace is to know that I will be reunited with Billy in the afterlife. I’m trying to convince myself- that there is an afterlife. I would be in the classification of “those who want to believe in God and who has gone to church for years–and who hasn’t gone to church in years because I don’t think the bible is God’s word but, rather, man’s word.
Is Victor Stenger’s statement in his book “The New Atheism” false? He states, “In the Tart experiment, we found that the number was visible in its reflection from a wall clock.” I am curious as to why you didn’t do the experiment again with the clock covered this time. Will you please answer that question for me.
After all your years of research, what do you think about God, death, and the afterlife? I am hoping you will respond and that your response will give me the peace and courage to go forward in my life. I don’t know if I will ever be able to enjoy life again without my little guy, but it sure would be easier if i knew we would be reunited in the end.
I do hope to hear back from you.
Belvedere, New Jersey
‘BE KINDER THAN NECESSARY. EVERYONE IS FIGHTING SOME KIND OF BATTLE ‘
My response, hopefully helpful, very inadequate by the standards of my heart…
Dear Marion Smith,
I am struck by the motto at the end of your email, “BE KINDER THAN NECESSARY. EVERYONE IS FIGHTING SOME KIND OF BATTLE.” I can’t imagine any better advice for almost all situations. I know from your letter that you are fighting some powerful battles – I hope you apply your good advice to yourself….
As a fellow human, I wish I could simply reassure you that there is a God and She is beneficent, that your son has survived death and you will indeed be reunited some day. But while I would like to be kind in that way, I have to be as accurate as I can be, for what little authority I have in giving advice comes from my role as scientist, which requires absolute honesty. At least ideally – too many scientists do not seem to have such high ideals nowadays.
> After all your years of research, what do you think about God, death, and the afterlife? I am hoping you will respond and that your response will give me the peace and courage to go forward in my life. <
As a scientist, I refer you to my recent book, The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together, for the detailed answers on what I think about these topics. Meanwhile I can give an inadequate summary by saying the question of some kind of survival after death is in the category of the book I call the Many Maybes. There is enough good evidence arguing for some kind of survival that it would be foolish to just ignore it. But some of the evidence is of questionable quality, some is open to various other interpretations, so I, and most scientific colleagues who have specialized in parapsychology (there are very few of us, though), would not feel able to say survival is proven. You would like certainty, something I want too as a human, but as a scientist and as a human being I’ve had to learn that for many, if not most things, I can have good evidence for or against them, but not certainty. Or rather certainty as a psychological state can happen, but only by shutting down parts of my mind that would continue to evaluate evidence.
Personally, rather than as a scientist, I think it’s likely my mind will continue in some fashion after death, and then I’ll know in a more absolute way. The main theme of my above mentioned book is that it is logical and reasonable to be both scientific and spiritual in one’s outlook to life, and personally I spend a lot of my time trying to grow spiritually. I’m happy, life is interesting even without certainty, and I have had deep losses too, but that’s how life is on this planet….. I’ve also studied the way our minds work, and one of the things I’ve learned is that while there are important truths in our emotions, they all lie in one way. Every emotion says “I’m forever.” Not true, emotions change over time – unless you hold very tightly on to them.
> Is Victor Stenger’s statement in his book “The New Atheism” false? He states, “In the Tart experiment, we found that the number was visible in its reflection from a wall clock.” I am curious as to why you didn’t do the experiment again with the clock covered this time. <
Here I can be specific. I haven’t read his book, and don’t plan to read books like that, as there are a large number of books which either ignore the findings of parapsychology or present them in badly distorted fashion in order to support militant atheism positions. Assuming you’ve quoted Stenger correctly above, e.g., he says “…we found.” Makes it sound like with his or his colleagues perspicacity he discovered some obvious flaw that I was blind to. But if you read my actual report, “Psychophysiological Study of Out-of-the-Body Experiences in a Selected Subject,” available in the Articles library of my http://www.paradigm-sys.com/cttart/ site, you will see that, in the first place, this was not an attempt to “prove” anything, you don’t do that with a single experiment, but to demonstrate that an unusual experience like an out-of-body experience could be studied with the precision of laboratory conditions, which the study demonstrated. I am sensitive on this point as so many of the criticism of the pseudo-skeptics, the materialists determined to debunk the study, make a big deal about how it doesn’t “prove” anything, but I’m the one who said that. That’s a standard part of scientific caution of not making too much of a single experiment – and you criticize any possible shortcoming in your own experiment so that future experimenters can do an even better job.
As to the “….we found that the number was visible in its reflection from a wall clock,” Stenger leaves out the important qualification of that statement that I (not the ambiguous “we”) made, viz.
“…she might have seen the number reflected in the surface of the case of the clock which was mounted on the wall above it. This was the only reflecting surface in the room placed in such a way that this might have been possible. Both Dr. Hastings and I spent some time in the dimly lit room to dark-adapt our eyes, and tried to read a number from the subject’s position on the bed, as reflected on the surface of the clock. As the room was dimly lit and the surface of the clock was black plastic, we could not see anything of the number. However, when we shone a flashlight directly on the number (increasing its brightness by a factor somewhere between several hundred and several thousand) we could just make out what the number was in the much brighter reflection. Thus, although it seems unlikely, one could argue that the number constituted a “subliminal” stimulus in its reflection off the clock surface. Therefore, Miss Z’s reading of the target number cannot be considered as providing conclusive evidence for a parapsychological effect.”
Again, as standard scientific procedure, I reported a possible, even if highly unlikely flaw.
As to why not repeat the experiment, Stenger fails to note that I reported that Miss Z was moving across the country, as per earlier plans, and left after this laboratory night. In a more ideal world I would have sent a few of my extensive cadre of trained assistants to continue studying her. Since it’s almost impossible to get support to do this kind of research anyway, that was the end. There were no assistants. My hope was that the published report would encourage others to do similar studies, not to argue endless and irrationally over a demonstration that showed you could study this in the lab, and that I might have had a strong parapsychological result.
I have answered this point at length to alert you to the fact that there are very active people denouncing and trying to debunk serious research in this area, so you need to be cautious in evaluating what is said, even from people who have scientific credentials, but may not be all scientific in their approach to this area.
I also find militant atheists rather amusing. I personally don’t have the chutzpah to say, in effect, “I am so smart that I can declare that there are no other creatures in the universe smarter than me!”
I hope this information is helpful. Time can heal, and we may indeed survive death in some form. Meanwhile, like most of humanity through most of history, we do the best we can even if we don’t have certainty.
Charles T. Tart