Dr. Charles T. Tart on August 29th, 2011

I have been involved in a discussion on a professional list of “spiritual leaders” about the evidence for reincarnation and, more generally whether science has any value in casting light on spirituality and religion.

One of the list members, an ordained Christian minister, wrote that he had a difficult time understanding my mentality.  Where was I coming from?  What would I stake my life on?  I don’t think I can satisfy his or similar persons’ curiosity, but this seemed like a good time to do a quick review of my life’s work, so I’ll share the essence of my response here – the spiritual place I’m coming from, what science is, how it goes will with spirituality, etc.  It can only be a partial look, but an interesting one….

One of my favorite spiritual songs, from the CD Remembrance, by psychologist and spiritual seeker John Astin, goes

Why have you come to earth?

Do you remember?

Why have you, taken birth?

Why have you come?

The refrain is

To love, to serve and remember.

To love, to serve and remember.

This song always touches me deeply when I hear or sing it, intellectually because it summarizes my faint understandings of why I’m here so well, emotionally….because it just does, it touches me.

My best guess, as of today, as to “where” we come from is that some kind of reincarnation process is at work, and the karma driving it, the lawful causality, is partly straightforward consequences of what we have done and become in previous existences, and partly conscious choice.  Buddhists say that if you want to know what your past lives were like, look at your present life.  If you want to know what your future lives will be like, look at your present life.  Sounds reasonable to me.  Well I still have a lot, lot more to learn about love, although I’m not completely ignorant about it, I believe the work I do in helping us understand our minds and souls better is a service to all humanity, and I would like to have deeper contact with our spiritual roots, to remember….

I say my “best guess,” as I know how little I know and how much a desire for certainty, and/or the forces of hope and fear, can fool me into thinking I know more than I do.  That I am here to love, serve and remember as primary goals is my best guess – but I don’t Know in any final sense, even though I’d like to know more deeply.  And my regular prayer to Whatever/Whoever is the Highest is that I may grow in wisdom and compassion and be of greater service.  And any guidance in whatever form is much appreciated!  Meanwhile, knowing how easily I can get caught up in my hopes, fear and delusions, it’s most honest to talk about my best guesses, my best theories of how things are.

I am, of course, intellectually taking and hopefully living a basically spiritual view of life, a belief that there is Spirit (or whatever you want to call it), that life is more than just this material existence, that the Universe/Spirit is basically benevolent, and that I’d like to contribute to this benevolence and evolution, as well as reducing human suffering.  To put it more beautifully than I can phrase it, here is what R. M. Bucke, describing his Cosmic Consciousness experience, said:

Among other things … he saw and knew that the Cosmos is not dead matter but a living Presence, that the soul of man is immortal, that the universe is so built and ordered that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all, that the foundation principle of the world is what we call love and that the happiness of every one is in the long run absolutely certain.

Note carefully that I take a basically “spiritual” view of life, rather than a “religious” view.  I differentiate spiritual experience as those personal experiences where one is touched by Spirit in some deep way.  I have been blessed with some light touches in my life, and am very grateful for this.  Others have many and more profound touches, and part of my own understanding is based on their reports and ideas about their experiences.

In almost all cases, I and others are seldom able to just accept spiritual experience for what it is/was, partly/mainly because human nature is such that we have a deep desire to “understand” things, to make “sense” of them.  Given the radically different nature of much spiritual experience such that it does not express well in ordinary language, the attempts to understand, to create explanations and theories that “explain” the experiences can be very frustrating.  My favorite Kurt Vonnegut poem expresses this latter point so well:

Tiger got to hunt.

Bird got to fly.

Man got to ask himself

Why?  Why?  Why?


Tiger got to sleep.

Bird got to land.

Man got to tell himself

He understand….

So individuals have spiritual experiences, they try to understand.  They try to communicate the basic experiences and their understandings to others.  They may be so desperate to seem to understand in an explanatory framework, usually a framework (religion, philosophy) society has given us, that they gradually twist and distort their memories of the actual experiences to make them apparently fit.  We then further move into the social side of humanity, and after a while stories about the experiences or ideas about them have become religious tenets, dogmas, and those tenets pressure and shape future individuals’ experiences.

As a young man I tended to uniformly condemn this distortion process, but as I’ve gotten older I realize we need social expressions of the spiritual, religious rites and rituals to make society run more smoothly.  But I’m still quite suspicious of the way organized religions distort what we know of the basic spiritual experiences and, indeed, often suppress further direct religious experience of individuals in order to maintain the authority of the religion and its leaders.  I have heard innumerable horror stories of people who had profound spiritual experiences as children and were beaten and brainwashed to make them conform….

Science and Spirituality:

Now, please put all your knowledge about science and religion on hold for a bit.  Many of us have had our spiritual lives badly twisted and invalidated by what we think of as science, so we have to work to stay genuinely calm about this…..

Yes, religion, especially in the form of the Roman Catholic Church suppressed exploration and creation of new knowledge badly for a long time.  Science, as it was arising, had to fight badly for its freedom, there’s a heritage of a lot of bad blood.  Today scholars point out that we tend to have less overt conflict because most organized religions have ceded the territory of physical reality to science to avoid conflict.  Declare that science can’t deal with the spiritual and religious, then ignore science.  This isolation is fine with most scientists who were educated to believe religion was all nonsense anyway.

My training as a scientist, a psychologist, fits well with my basic personality and my basic spiritual orientation.  On the one hand I am curious about all sorts of things and open to all sorts of ideas.  On the other, I’ve never liked to be fooled – by others or by myself.  Basic science thrives on and encourages curiosity about, in principle, everything.  Yes, there are fashions and taboos about what it is “proper” for science to look at, but in principle essential science (see my more lengthy and detailed descriptions of what essential science, as opposed to scientism, is, in my The End of Materialism book).  Essential science is also very aware of how we fool ourselves and each other and has built-in procedures for minimizing this.

Discussing the above as a spiritual seeker strongly (but not exclusively) working to serve in the role of scientist, I would characterize individuals’ spiritual experiences as data, as facts, as experiential realities.  The interpretation of these experiences, though, is theory, belief.  The typical near-death experience report, e.g., of meeting a Being of Light who telepathically communicates with one and unconditionally accepts one is data, that’s what was experienced.  To say that means the Being of Light is God or Jesus or a Spirit that exists independently of the experiencer is a theory, an interpretation of the experience.

The beauty and power of essential science is its recognition that we love theories, we love to feel we are smart and understand.  “Man got to tell himself he understand.”  But that feeling of understanding, even if it fits with currently fashionable beliefs and wins social approval, is not sufficient for essential science.  We recognize what I have called a universal principle of rationalization.  We clever humans can take any set of facts, observations, experiences, whatsoever, and create a plausible sounding theory as to why they are as we believe.

There’s an apt parallel in mathematics, a theorem (can’t recall the name off-hand) which says you can take a sequence of truly randomly generated  numbers of any length (dozens, millions, billions) and figure out an algorithm, a mechanical formula, which will generate that sequence.  So that means the sequence is not really random but the lawful consequence of that algorithm?  No, for if you turn on your random number generator again, the algorithm will not predict the next numbers in the sequence beyond chance accuracy.

(Note I am talking about true random generators here.  There are pseudo-random number generator programs which do indeed work on an algorithm, but those are not our concern here.)

The point is to recognize the power of rationalization.  We humans are very creative, we can create apparent reasons, but they may have no relation to reality.  Thus the cardinal rule of science.  It’s wonderful if your theory accounts for all the data to date, is elegant, obviously true, etc.  But you have to then predict what will happen in new circumstances, and then actually test your predictions in those new circumstances.

If your theory predicts correctly, good, keep working with it, refine it, expand it, etc.  But if it doesn’t predict what actually, observably happens next, the theory is wrong, and either should be discarded or reworked.  It doesn’t matter how much you or others believed it, the test of prediction in new circumstances is the gold standard of evaluation.

Spiritual Experiences as Data, Spiritual and Religious Beliefs as Theories

I regard individual spiritual experiences as the data of spirituality, and spiritual or religious beliefs as theories about what that data means.

In the physical sciences, in the last few hundred years, following this procedure of essential science – observe, theorize, predict from the logic of the theory, see if the predictions work, refine, revise or replace as needed – all the physical sciences have made immense progress.  Our theories account for and predict more and more observables more and more precisely.  Where theories haven’t kept working, they have led to the creation of new theories that work better than the old ones.  That’s progress: our conceptual understanding of reality explains and predicts it more and more accurately.

So, has there been any progress in spirituality or religion in the last few hundred years?

Are the basic theories/beliefs of spirituality and religion more precise and refined than they were in the past?  Do they account for actual observables better?

We know the answer, particularly with the hardened positions of organized religions.  You’re not supposed to “test” religious beliefs, you’re supposed to believe them.  Or else!

Me and the “Spiritual Leaders” Group: Why and How?

So bringing this all back to me and the group of spiritual leaders I have belonged to for several years – why and how am I here?

The simplest why is because the group’s founder asked me to join, and I greatly respect him and his work.  I did argue with him about it, the group was for “spiritual leaders,” why was he asking me?  I’m not a spiritual leader.  More deeply, I spend most of my professional time talking to other psychologists and scientists, which is nice, but it’s a somewhat narrow range of humanity.  The prospect that I could listen to and converse with people who were “spiritual leaders,” was very interesting.  I could be exposed to and learn from whole new points of view, data and theories of people whose primary orientation/allegiance was to the spiritual, and that would be (and has been!) most interesting.  Hopefully this would enlarge my own view, and suggest practices that would increase my own devotion and understanding, which in turn would increase my ability to be of service in my main task of bridging the best of the spiritual and scientific worlds.

As to the “how” am I here: I read the various exchanges on our listserv and my mind tends to automatically divide them into two types.  The first are what I consider “data posts,” sharing of personal spiritual experiences.  The second, and by far more numerous category, are “theory” posts.  At their best, the theory posts are on the order of “My tradition thinks that such-and-such experiences mean so-and-so, the strength of this theory/belief is A, B and C, the lacks and weaknesses are D, E and F.”  At their worst, the theory posts are relatively rigid statements of theories that have turned into dogmas.  Instead of “This is the best way we can think of to make sense of this” it’s “This is The Truth.”

The ratio of the two kinds of posts varies from time to time.  When it’s too much in the dogma direction, I notice people get more argumentative and/or tend to drop out of the list.  I’ve certainly been tempted to drop out at times when I think we’ve had too much of the “My Truth is better than your truth” stuff.  Can rigid belief and the virtue of humility exist together?  Doesn’t seem like it……    ;-(

My initial  hope in joining the group was that there would be a lot of “data posts,” forming a deeper bond among us than just an intellectual one, and, even more importantly, that this kind of data and the intelligence and good will of my fellow group members would then see the creation of new theories, of new ways of thinking about spiritual experience that might lead to some new (and ultimately testable) predictions/understandings about Spirit, and, hopefully, more effective ways of helping people have primary spiritual experiences themselves.  I’m afraid there’s been very little of this theory progress and an awful lot of attempting to squeeze everything back into the old theories, the Sacred Beliefs That-Must-Not-Be-Questioned, that various members already have…..

And Yet….

I’ve learned a lot from reading the posts of group members talking with each other.  One great mystery (to me) is still just as mysterious after all these years, though.  Given how very powerful scientific thought is in our times, and given how much there’s a general perception that science has shown spirituality and religion are all nonsense – why does there seem to be such a lack of interest on the part of these spiritual leaders, the progressive and liberal wing of religion and spirituality to my way of thinking, in my beginning attempts to show that it is reasonable to be both spiritual and scientific, that there is excellent scientific evidence for this position?

In terms of seeing my life’s work as building bridges between the best of science and the best of spirituality, it’s like I’ve built a small bridge – but hardly anyone seems interested in crossing back and forth…..????  Note I’m not lost in my own ego here, brooding over why don’t you read my articles, my books, I’m referring to general attempts to bridge the best of science and the best of spirituality.

I think I’ve got a few on the scientific (not the scientistic) side feeling that it’s OK to be interested in spirituality and pursue it.  I’m not sure I’ve affected anyone on the official spiritual or religious side to see how science and spirituality can work together for more knowledge and effectiveness.  I guess I was hoping this latter process would happen with my group  membership…now I’m not sure it will.

So, that’s why and how I’m here in this group as of this time.  I’ve written a lot, probably too much, violating the guideline I’m always giving others than short posts are more likely to be actually read.  Anyway, I hope someone finds it useful.

Now I have to stop participating in this interesting discussion for a while and turn to the course material on mindfulness training I’m preparing.

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