Explorations on the Spiritual Side – 1

This is a possible introduction to my next book, which has the tentative working title Explorations on the Spiritual Side…  I’m going to experiment with posting sections as I’m inspired to write them and see what it does….

I am a modern man person trying to cope with life.  There is a vast maw of materialistic greed and indulgence to sink into if I had the money or power, on the one hand. But I also have a deep feeling that if I try to live with no values other than those of a pig, maximizing my material gratifications, that I will not only be at a major disadvantage in seeking happiness, I will have missed the main point of being alive.

So what about all those “spiritual” values and goals I’ve heard about?

The problem is that it’s not like it was for almost all people for all time, there’s one religion available in my village, I never travel more than a few miles from home, so if I can make some connection with that True Religion – and the priests tell me it is The True Religion – all will be well.  My struggles will be narrow, how to balance my animal desires with what The Divine Rules of my village religion are.

The problem is much more complicated today, though.  On the one hand, I have traveled many miles from home, I’ve been exposed to the religions and spiritual practices of the world.  Each almost always claims it is the best or the only really right one, and I’ll be damned if I don’t choose and follow it.  How do I make a choice? Should I make a choice?

Worse yet, the most powerful knowledge system on the planet, modern science, apparently says all this religious and spiritual stuff is total nonsense, I should reject it all….

I have bright friends and colleagues who have made various of these choices and can justify them brilliantly. And who can also brilliantly and convincingly explain why the others have made a mistake…

It’s a sign of my intelligence that I feel confused!

I’m not too bothered by science’s apparent denial of any spiritual reality now. After more than half a century of professional scientific and personal exploration, I have recognized that the so-called scientific denial of all spirituality is actually a scientistic denial, just one more powerful, fundamentalist belief system attacking its rivals. I’ve written about that in detail in my recent The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together book, where I’ve shown how it is reasonable to be both scientific and spiritually inclined. Yes, there is lots of nonsense under the labels “religious” and “spiritual,” as there is under all areas of human life, but there’s too much solid evidence that we possess qualities we would expect genuine spiritual beings to have to throw out, wholesale, any possibilities of spiritual realities. Indeed it’s pathological, it’s psychologically costly, to totally deny our spiritual side.

So if there’s some reality to the spiritual, how can we start to discriminate the useful from the useless, the deeply true from the superstitions of the centuries, the psychologically healthy from the psychopathological? How can I and you, we, add genuine spiritual aspects to our life, making it more harmonious and improving our relations with each other, with all life, with the planet? We’ve clearly got to have something like this, for if all we have is pig-in-the-trough we’ll just use up our resources, ruin the planet, and continue to be at each others’ throats over material resources., thinking they are all we have of value…

As a scientist I can call for more research, and that is a vital part of the answer. But meanwhile, how do we live? How do we make intelligent and productive choices in the spiritual bazaar? We’ve got decisions and choices to make today, tomorrow, we can’t wait for extensive and careful research programs to give us better answers in fifty years. Not to mention that it’s not at all clear that we will be intelligent enough to actually research spiritual issues…

This book is some explorations, some ideas and experiences, I’ve had about this in a varied career and life.

I would like to say that there is deep spiritual wisdom in what I write, that my prayers and practices over the years have led me to deep knowledge and wisdom. Ah, what a dream! I can say I’m reasonably intelligent and I try very hard to be honest with myself and others. That means acknowledging that no matter how highly I’d like to think of myself, I have to recognize the biases, hopes, fears, ignorances, and weirdnesses lying behind some of my ideas. When I actually recognize any of these, I try to compensate for them: I am interested in getting at a better understanding of truth, not just being comfortable in a bloated self-image. And I have to accept that I probably know little or nothing about many of them, so I can only warn you, dear reader: take what I say as stimulation, but evaluate all of it carefully in terms of your own knowledge. I know a lot compared to some people, I know almost nothing compared to others, and I am not some Spiritual Authority! If we both work on being honest on what we know and don’t know, on what we hope and fear, with mutual respect, we can learn a lot from each other.


  1. I don’t think you need spirituality to figure out that it’s better to live in a society where people are considerate and act responsibly.

    When I was an atheist I read a book that heavily influenced me. It explained that if you think people who act unethically towards you are jerks, then if you want to have self respect, if you want to consider yourself something other than a jerk, you have to act ethically towards other people.

    In a comment in a previous thread mentioned that Buddhist meditation will lead to spiritual development even for atheists.

    I don’t see the question of spirituality as one that must be answered so one can know how to live life.

    I’m not an atheist anymore. When I read about the evidence for certain spiritual phenomena I changed my mind. I found spirituality an interesting subject so I began to read a lot about it.

    I see the question of spirituality as part of the same basic human drive that causes us to search for the truth when we explore science. We believe in science when it is evidence based and the same should apply to spirituality.

    It can be confusing for someone when they try to understand what spiritual phenomena are real. However this is not unique to spirituality. It is true in science, politics, economics, history, etc etc. Most people have a hard time exercising good judgment in deciding what to believe and what not to believe. I think this is a general failing of human nature but which can be corrected in some people by education. From looking back on the history of human societies I am hopeful that this aspect of society will continue to improve in the future.

    It is unfortunate that the scientific revolution, like many other revolutions, went too far and we are in need of a counter revolution. However, ultimately I think some day mainstream science will be forced to recognize spirituality, to expand “materialism” to include it.

  2. Dr Tart,

    Why do you think people will act in a greedy “pig-in-the-trough” manner if they aren’t spiritual in some way? My husband doesn’t believe in spiritual things. He thinks religion is for foolish people who can’t take responsibility for their own lives. You won’t find a more hard-core scientist out there. But he is a good man. He looks out for other people, he isn’t greedy, he doesn’t believe in being wasteful and he is kind to animals. A pretty nice guy, which is why I married him. He isn’t perfect, but who is?

    I’m sure we’ve all heard stories of people who claim to be spiritual, but who are not always nice to others. Like when church leaders take advantage of the people who they have been trusted to provide spiritual guidance to. Not only cults but also accepted mainstream religions have done this sort of thing. So it seems to me that being spiritual is not necessarily the way to avoid the whole “pig-in-the-trough” thing at all.

    I don’t understand spirituality all that well, despite my own personal experiences. On a good day I’ll admit that what I experience does suggest that humans (not to mention plants, animals, rocks, raindrops, etc…) do have a spiritual component to our basic nature. On a bad day, I’ll denounce my experiences as crazy hallucinations if I admit to them at all. But I don’t really treat other people any differently whether or not I believe in my own spiritual nature on a given day.

  3. I would like to comment on a couple of items Professor Tart raises for consideration in The End of Materialism. I think they bear on this discussion of his ideas for his next book:

    1. The role of theory in current religions; 2. Why are we not getting a better response from the practice of yoga?

    In discussing organized religions (pp.315-316) he observes that the basic experiential data of their founders and their great leaders have become so overlaid with compulsory dogma and an unwillingness to reinterpret the core experiences that they have shut themselves off from dialog with scientists. This is indeed true for most religions at the moment; but, with few exceptions, scientists are not really willing to look at the core spiritual systems of religion, many of which can be discovered to exist—though admittedly often in modified ways–across all religions. In such cases, I believe scientists would learn a great deal and save themselves the trouble of reinventing the wheel from the ground up for things spiritual.
    A case in point is the question which Professor Tart raises toward the end of the book: “Are spiritual or religious training systems significantly more efficient than they used to be in making people more intelligent, wise and compassionate?”(p.322) This is a very good question; and when spirituality is phrased like this (for the first time in the book as far as I noticed), rather than merely in terms of potentialities for psychic experience, very pertinent to our present-day state of meltdown and apparent chaos and loss of direction. A basic question here is: If we grant that humanity does indeed have paranormal psychic potentialities, what guarantee do we have that, if developed, they will be used for the good of others? History is replete with stories of highly psychic human beings who used their abilities destructively; Rasputin and Hitler’s entourage of psychics immediately come to mind.
    My contention would be that, unlike science, religions have addressed this issue and have tried to concentrate on how to develop and direct psychic abilities constructively. This is of course a knotty issue: what just do we mean by constructively? The word can and has been applied to only one sector of society, or to only one gender, and so on. But at their living core religions have indeed made some important discoveries which I feel scientists would do well to be aware of.
    One which I think bears on Professor Tart’s question as to the efficacy of spiritual practices is: There is more than one practice, each one of which is capable of expanding psychic abilities and helping us to become actually spiritual. In a nutshell, these are: work, devotion, meditation and holistic or integral thinking. Religionists found empirically that there are different types of people, for each of whom a specific practice exists. Some people are simply workers, and meditation and so on is not really their cup of tea. In addition, people with devotional temperaments are not inclined to emphasize meditation either, nor those whose gifts are in the domain of integral thought. In short, meditation has been demonstrated over centuries to be not necessarily a universal panacea. These observations were further supplemented by an awareness that meditation and work rather tended to be mutually exclusive, while devotion and integral thinking were also more antagonistic than otherwise. Are we going to reject these empirical observations just because they are embedded in organized religion? Here we recall Jung’s similar observations of an empirical nature – but have they been taken into account in connection with the problem we are currently discussing?
    The point I am making here is that, despite its popularity and perhaps glamour at the present time, meditation may not be the optimal practice for all of those who are so seriously engaging in their earnest endeavor to get beyond the worst aspects of our materialistic and hedonistic culture. This could well impact the findings bearing on the “success rate” of meditation practices.
    To illustrate graphically another side of this issue: One practice which seems to me to be very prevalent and a rather fine illustration of what I am talking about is the very practice of science itself. As Charley makes clear, real science is an austere task-master demanding stringent honesty, discipline in designing and carrying out experiments, integrity in interpreting them, humility in subjecting oneself to peer review, and imagination and courage to create new hypotheses, which will only lead to more of the same, unforgiving, grind. Only true love could make anyone take up a lifestyle like this! What more could be asked of “spirituality”? Could genuine scientists be the “saints” of the present day? No matter that they have not “attained Cosmic Consciousness”! What do you need cosmic consciousness for if you are already a saint of work, going through the demanding discipline of science? And, more provocatively, if such a saint did have the equivalent of cosmic consciousness, how would it express itself? Surely in terms of his or her preoccupations—not, to my mind, a bad thing at all. We need people who bring spirituality into what is actually happening before us. A constructive, ground-breaking, vastly more inclusive and integrative hypothesis, applied and proven through a lifetime of hard, unrewarding work, could in fact be the equivalent of cosmic consciousness. Maybe not so “glamorous”, but certainly of the utmost value to humanity at large.
    Taking a cue from the core observations of religion, then, scientists might want to rethink their concepts of spiritual practice and how to differentiate between them when measuring their overall efficiency. Of course, there is no question that a much more empirical approach to transformational methods in general would ultimately lead to generalizations on which the methods could be made more universal and easier to practice; but I think it likely that a finer focus on the non-homogeneity of available spiritual practices might contribute to the answer Professor Tart is seeking.

    As an afterthought I would like to say that more progressive religions nowadays are coming up with the idea that each spiritual practice does not have to stand alone. If we take into account that all of our faculties work together harmoniously in one body, why cannot we use all of the different methods of self-transformation, tailored as they are to our faculties, and thereby have a well-balanced view of how we can grow and relate to others, as well as tap into what we really might be. The deeper you go, the less these distinctions matter, anyway. Why not bring this insight out into the way we live our lives?

  4. @Jean C. MacPhail:
    All excellent points!
    And yes, as we said in the 70s, “Different strokes for different folks.” What’s a good development path for one person can be a dead end or waste of time for another….now to figure out in advance what the best way for different folks is, since time is not unlimited….

  5. Jean,

    You’ve raised some really good points. Coincidentally, you managed to get into some of things that I was discussing with someone yesterday. I’ve been really struggling to maintain interest in my thesis work in order to finish my doctorate. The big issue for me is that my universe has gotten a lot bigger lately, and that is the universe that I want to describe through my research. Other than Rupert Sheldrake’s work, there is not a lot of research being done in the natural sciences to illustrate how the spooky effects of QM translate into what we see in the world around us. The thing is, once you become aware of a bigger perspective, going backwards is difficult. I can see the papers I would like to be writing, but at the moment I have to concentrate on the papers I NEED to be writing in order to get through my degree and graduate.

    I’ve wondered why I see the world the way I do. And I’ve also wondered why I came back from my NDE knowing that I had to become a scientist. The two things seem very much at odds with one another. I tried to argue the point yesterday with a very religious individual that maybe I couldn’t be a scientist being the way I am. He seemed to think that there was more than enough room in the grand scheme of things for a few “odd” scientists like myself.

    I did laugh a bit at your description of scientists working away like saints. That word doesn’t seem to fit many of my cohorts; it certainly doesn’t describe me. That being said, the process of science does have some things in common with the process of meditation. They both require that you observe what’s going on with openness and equanimity to allow various sorts of realizations so occur. In both cases, not all of the new insights are happy ones. I think that a certain amount of courage is required to make progress in both meditation and science.

    The courage part is what concerns me. I don’t think that I’m brave enough to be a good scientist. I wonder just how many people are brave enough?

    1. Sandy,
      The first stages of education can seem stultifying. I went through all this myself. But it is just a few years (perhaps) more, and then you can move out into the world you hold most dear. YOu need to get your basic creds to be taken seriously in the big, wide world.

      In the meantime, just keep reading what really appeals to you, start thinking through some experiments you might want to do after your PhD, and start networking with folks who are interested in what appeals to you, so you can build up a resume in the field that interests you.

      And, yes, it takes courage to do anything authentically. The path of the scientist is quite rigorous (as Charley showed so well in his book), but the rewards are tremendous. Pushing forward the kind of work Rupert Sheldrake does would be a big contribution to all of us.

      If you had an NDE, I think what you learned is likely to be genuine, and will support you through the drag of finding your own niche. I assume you are working at the ITP, where I would think you would find like-minded people, who see the noetic dimension as well as the scientific. There may well be folks there who resonate with your interests.

      It just takes time to find folks on your own wavelength. From my own experience, the only way is to stick to the guns that really matter to you and bit by bit folks on your wavelength will show up and work with you.

      Best wishes,


      1. Thanks for the kind words of encouragement, Jean. I’m not at ITP. I’m sure it is a neat place, but I’m guessing that they don’t have many geoscientists like myself taking classes there 🙂 . In the last week I’ve gotten the “you need the credibility of a doctorate” speech from more than a few people. Of course, financially I would be better off to take my MSc and go work for an oil company. PhDs are for people who have very tolerant spouses.

  6. Charley,

    My notion is that if you get out an idea people will respond. If people know that they are not compelled to meditate in order to develop spiritually, I think they will start to search for other paths. And they are there, mostly in religious traditions, but of course spreading out beyond religions. I just read an article in Shift on the philosophy of Nagarjuna, a most esoteric philosopher who is now going mainstream, it seems!

    The info is spreading out; and in the meantime if scientists familiarize themselves with the core texts of religion, they will become more adept at figuring out who fits what slot and in producing guidelines to help people figure it out for themselves.

    The urge to develop spiritually is so great I believe that there will be the will to figure this out.


  7. @Jean C. MacPhail:
    Thank you Jean, that’s a beautiful review!
    You’ve aroused my curiosity, though, as you only gave the book 4 out of 5 possible stars. Knowing you as a very sophisticated reader, what does The End of Materialism lack?

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