Buddhism, Reincarnation, Science, Parapsychology

My recent interview on the Buddhist Geeks web radio show (www.buddhistgeeks.com), noting scientific evidence for a Buddhist idea like reincarnation, has resulted in some spirited comments on their website. I think my response to these, dealing with the nature of science and whether there is really scientific evidence for something like reincarnation or whether science has disproved all that stuff would be of general interest. So here’s my response, and, if it’s really of great interest to you, you can listen to the interview any time and see the comments that triggered my remarks.


There are many points that I could respond to in these interesting and important comments on my interview….but, for lack of time, I can just touch on a few….Hopefully I do this in the Buddhist spirit we share of less attachment to opinions and ideas, and more accurate perception of reality….

Classical Buddhism, as I understand it, is about lessening and, hopefully, completely ending one’s suffering.  I believe we all think this is a desirable goal.  A major question for our times would then become “How effective are various aspects of Buddhist practice in doing this in today’s world?”  Reincarnation, gods and goddesses, spirits, etc., were an accepted part of most people’s reality in the Buddha’s time, e.g., but if they are not literally true – we won’t deal with their psychological functions here – then they can be big obstacles to effective practice for many of us moderns, distracting or confusing us.  Can we have a completely materialist or physicalist Buddhism that is an effective way of lessening or ending suffering?

By materialist, I mean a basic belief that nothing fundamentally exists but physical objects and forces of the type we are familiar with, stuff and forces that can be sensed with our physical senses or instrumental extensions of our senses.  For the complete materialist, our minds, our consciousness, our experience arises solely from the operation of physical forces in your brain, and cease when the brain ceases to function.  Your understanding of what you’re reading now, e.g., or any of your experiences, is, in principle, totally reducible to the electrical and chemical configuration of your brain.  Any suffering you have is an unsatisfactory configuration of your brain’s electrochemical state, any satisfaction is another electrochemical configuration of your brain.  Basic Buddhism, with it’s admonitions to live a moral life and practice meditation, is then a psychological method designed to lessen or eliminate unsatisfactory brain states and increase satisfactory ones.  I’m oversimplifying greatly, of course, but that’s the essence, as I see it, of Buddhism from the point of view of complete materialism.

Note I said “complete” materialism.  There are philosophical positions that admit the importance of the physical without assuming that only the physical is ultimately real.  They assume, as I do as a working, scientifically testable hypothesis, that there is something real we loosely call “mind” that is of a different nature than the physical  brain, but which can effect the brain and body.  This approach does not necessarily mean, as many committed complete materialists seem to assume, that the universe can’t really be understood because “mind” is some kind of “supernatural,” inherently non-understandable phenomena.  You can let “mind” be of a different nature and nevertheless assume it has its own properties and regularities, “laws,” that we can discover and use.  Classical Buddhism of course assumes this position: it knew nothing of brains, but felt it knew a lot about minds and minds’ effects, such that suffering could be lessened or eliminated.  Personally I think that knowing the properties and laws of both mind and brain will allow more effective functioning than knowing only one set, so I’m all for appropriate research on both.

By analogy, I am the “mind” as far as this computer I am typing on is concerned, but the real physical action and outcome is a set of electrical configurations in the material substrate of the computer – which ultimately convey my mind’s meaning to your mind via your computer.  That’s a dualist position.

Materialist Buddhism:

We could, then, have a completely materialistic adaptation of Buddhism.  No minds, spirits, gods or goddesses, psychic stuff, etc., just brain states and meditation practices to optimize our brain functioning, less suffering, more happiness.  “Mind” or “mental practices” are just semantically convenient ways of referring to processes that are actually physical processes in the brain.

Interestingly, I initially mistyped “meditation” in the previous paragraph as “medication,” so it read “medication practices,” my fingers (or unconscious mind or whatever) anticipating the point I’ll now make.  If complete materialism is true, then probably all this meditation stuff, taking so many years and not working well for so many people, will eventually be replaced as Big Pharma develops the drugs to optimize our brain states.  Then you have to wonder: how fast will Big Pharma get there?  How bad is my personal suffering?  Shall I put in all this time meditating, even though it may not work for me, before I die but it might, and so less suffering might happen before Big Pharma develops Nirvana®?  Or shall I spend all this time doing what pleasures me and bet that Big Pharma will ultimately eliminate all my suffering in time with Nirvana®?

Charles T. Tart

[the website says my comment is too long, so above is part 1, next will be Part 2.]

Part 2:

What I’m For and Against:

Understand clearly that I am not opposed to anyone having a completely materialist philosophy of life – as long as they admit that it’s a philosophy, a belief system.  Nor am I at all opposed to Big Pharma developing drugs that will lessen human suffering!  We’ll have to watch out for the side effects, and maybe they won’t work, but I’m all for trying things that lessen human suffering.

What I am opposed to is anyone claiming that (a) materialism is science or (b) that science has “proven” that all spirituality is nonsense.  I discuss the reasons for these positions at length in my recent “The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together” book, but I want to sketch them here as these issues are very important for Buddhists.  To put it one way, are you spending/wasting a lot of your time sitting on a little black cushion when you could be enjoying life and waiting for Nirvana®?  Or are you on to something deeper?  Or?

(The last “or” is to recognize how much oversimplifying I’m forced to do in this limited space….)

So, is materialism the same thing as science?

Jayarava, in this discussion, e.g., puts a lot of emphasis on publication in high-prestige, peer-reviewed science journals like Science and Nature as giving us the best factual, scientific information.  OK, I’ve had major – many pages long, not one page reports – articles published in both Science and Nature, as well as dozens of other papers in peer-reviewed journals, so if there’s a mantle of scientific authority to wear, I don it now….     😉

(This is fun: I’ve never played Authority before…..)

My Science article (many of my articles, including this one, are available on my www.paradigm-sys.com/cttart/ site) started with a detailed discussion of the nature of science, emphasizing that being scientific is primarily being factual, coming back to observables.  Theory, no matter how mathematical, elegant, fashionable, logical, etc., is always secondary in the sense that it must account for all known relevant data, and theory IS ALWAYS SUBJECT TO FURTHER TEST.  Always.  And if new facts don’t fit the old theory, it’s got to be modified or rejected, irregardless of its elegance, etc.

The rest of that Science article proposed the creation of state-specific sciences, a drastically new idea for that time (and still so).  I didn’t push it, but I was really proposing a scientific basis for both testing and expanding spiritual disciplines like Buddhism, arguing that altered states techniques like meditation could be used to advance our scientific knowledge of the world and self.

I got lots of criticism from older scientists on the idea that we might do science in altered states of consciousness, how dare I suggest that!  Only our ordinary conscious was a rational state you could do science in!  Younger scientists thought it was a great idea and wanted to get on with it.  Those older scientists would see Buddhist meditation as basically crazy-making.  As practitioners of Buddhism, of course, we’ve heard a lot, and probably confirmed in our personal observations, that ordinary consciousness is largely a state of samsara, illusion, attachment.

But in the decades since publishing that Science article, no scientist has declared that I don’t understand the basic nature of science, so I wear my mantle of Authority on what science is comfortably.

So Is Materialism The Same Thing As Science?

No.  Materialism is a preference for explaining observations in terms of known material objects and forces.  Done rigidly, it’s a samsaric attachment.  Since science as organized activity has focused almost exclusively on the material world, surprise, this has worked very well!  But it’s a leap of faith to believe that material explanations will work to explain spiritual phenomena, especially when in the vast majority of cases where the “science has explained spirituality away” mantra is invoked, there has never been any actual observation of or experimentation with the spiritual phenomena.  We see attachment and samsara in operation.  The belief system I am attached to – materialism – says there are no spiritual phenomena (reincarnation, e.g., or psychic healing) to explain, so I don’t have to bother to look for evidence, much less examine it in a reasonable, fair way.  So, not having looked and so not having seen any evidence that contradicts my belief system of materialism, I then go on and say there is no contradictory evidence!

Psychologically this is all very circular and understandable, it’s one of the irrational things we humans do, it’s samsara, but it’s not science.  That a lot of people professionally identified as “scientists” do this is a reminder that scientists live in a state of samsara too.  They may be quite rational within the limits of their specialty, but can be quite attached and irrational outside it, “scientists” within their specialty, “believers” outside it.

[conclusion in Part 3]

Part 3:

There Is No Evidence for Psychic Phenomena?

If you accept that the Buddhist approach to ending suffering is based on the 8-fold path, not just exotic meditation techniques, then Right Speech, accuracy, is important.  I would like to ask that we use right speech when we discuss the evidence for psychic phenomena (like reincarnation or telepathy), which imply possible spiritual realities.  This evidence and its implications is what my “The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together” book is all about, and my book in turn refers to many other scientifically accurate books and articles on this area.

Right speech would not allow a statement that there is no evidence for psychic phenomena.

Right speech would allow statements like the following:

I believe a priori that there are no psychic or spiritual realities and so neither look for nor pay attention to any evidence which might contradict my view.”

I believe a priori that there are no psychic or spiritual realities, I look for articles and books which support my view and neither look for nor pay attention to any evidence which might contradict my view.”

I apply my critical faculties extensively to look for flaws in arguments whose conclusions I don’t like but am quite uncritical and accepting of arguments whose conclusions I want to believe.”

These are honest statements which would be accurate representations of many people’s views.

Most of us could probably also accurately state:

My beliefs and feelings about psychic and spiritual possibilities are largely the result of my cultural conditioning and person history rather than a result of rational investigation and thought.”

A commitment to Right speech would also note that if you want to make accurate and authoritative statements about this area, scientifically accurate statements, you have a lot of studying to do!  I got actively involved in parapsychological research, e.g., in the early 60s, and subscribed and read practically all the scholarly and research reports in the four refereed specialty journals for that field since then.  At two to five articles per issue, four issues per year, that’s a rough estimate of 50 years, 32 to 80 articles per year, that’s a total of 1,600 to 4,000 articles.  Plus many books, of course.  And there were hundreds of experimental articles published before I came into the field.

I could go on, but I’ve gone on at probably too much length already.  So I’ll just conclude with the basic theme of “The End of Materialism.”  When you actually apply basic scientific method, you find humans occasionally demonstrating psychic abilities which are the sorts of things you would expect a spiritual being to have, so it’s reasonable to be both scientific and spiritual in your approach to life.

Can you still gain something valuable as a materialistic Buddhist?  Probably.  Should you believe everything labeled “spiritual” or “Buddhist?”  Of course not, there’s lot of nonsense under these labels….as there are in all areas of life.  Develop your sensitivity, discrimination, ethical character, meditative skill, and your logical abilities – we’re moving in an interesting direction!

Charles T. Tart

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *