If only it was rare for bridging science and spirituality to be attacked, so those of us trying to do it could get on with bridge building…. [Is there an emoticon for a patient sigh?]
It’s not too often that my scientific work and my ethics get denounced on a national level. Given my hope that my work is not simply interesting but offers some guidelines to integrating science and spirituality, it would be irresponsible of me not to provide corrections that at least some readers may see. I’d rather be writing to share new insights and possibilities on science and spirituality, but the following needs to be said…
We begin with a note from D. Patrick Miller, Publisher of Fearless Books (fascinating books on the Fearless website!) regarding a nationwide denunciation of my (Charles Tart, CTT) scientific research and character.
Publisher’s Note: The September 2017 issue of THE ATLANTIC magazine featured an article entitled “How America Lost Its Mind,” by acclaimed journalist Kurt Andersen, excerpted from his new book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire. In reviewing some significant cultural movements and thought trends of the 1960s, Andersen wrote:
In 1968, a UC Davis psychologist named Charles Tart conducted an experiment in which, he wrote, “a young woman who frequently had spontaneous out-of-body experiences”—didn’t “claim to have” them but “had” them—spent four nights sleeping in a lab, hooked up to an EEG machine. Her assigned task was to send her mind or soul out of her body while she was asleep and read a five-digit number Tart had written on a piece of paper placed on a shelf above the bed. He reported that she succeeded. Other scientists considered the experiments and the results bogus, but Tart proceeded to devote his academic career to proving that attempts at objectivity are a sham and magic is real. In an extraordinary paper published in 1972 in Science, he complained about the scientific establishment’s “almost total rejection of the knowledge gained” while high or tripping. He didn’t just want science to take seriously “experiences of ecstasy, mystical union, other ‘dimensions,’ rapture, beauty, space-and-time transcendence.” He was explicitly dedicated to going there. A “perfectly scientific theory may be based on data that have no physical existence,” he insisted. The rules of the scientific method had to be revised. To work as a psychologist in the new era, Tart argued, a researcher should be in the altered state of consciousness he’s studying, high or delusional “at the time of data collection” or during “data reduction and theorizing.” Tart’s new mode of research, he admitted, posed problems of “consensual validation,” given that “only observers in the same [altered state] are able to communicate adequately with one another.” Tart popularized the term consensus reality for what you or I would simply call reality, and around 1970 that became a permanent interdisciplinary term of art in academia. Later he abandoned the pretense of neutrality and started calling it the consensus trance—people committed to reason and rationality were the deluded dupes, not he and his tribe.
It should first be noted that it is wholly inaccurate even to mention Dr. Tart’s body of work in an investigation of how “America went haywire” or lost its mind. As a journalist I’ve closely followed Dr. Tart’s work for over twenty-five years; as a publisher I’ve recently brought two of his important titles back into print. Thus I know that his entire career has been devoted to the study and elucidation of states of consciousness for these reasons: so that people might learn to recognize their own tendencies toward delusion, enhance their opportunities for self-knowledge, and benefit from techniques of advanced self-awareness.
A clue about how Andersen could have made this substantial error of judgment lies in the way his conclusions were drawn — a process which failed to include fact-checking with Dr. Tart himself. A broad and defamatory assertion like “Tart proceeded to devote his academic career to proving that attempts at objectivity are a sham and magic is real” demands not only substantial documentation (which Andersen does not provide), but also a simple check of the assertion with the subject.
As a former investigative reporter myself, I would never have published such a claim without having first called Dr. Tart himself to ask, “I have drawn this conclusion after assessing your work. Do you have a response?” That’s Journalism 101. Both Andersen and his publisher should be deeply embarrassed that he did not pursue due journalistic diligence in this regard. Apparently Andersen quickly decided what he wanted to believe about Dr. Tart’s work, and with the same dismissive attitude he decries in his book and article, presumed that he could malign a career scientist’s reputation in print without incurring any consequences. (That presumption would be incorrect.)
In the point-by-point factual response that follows, Dr. Tart answers Kurt Andersen’s claims about his work. In so doing, he echoes his impressive legacy as a thoughtful researcher and career educator. Anyone who has closely studied the constantly shifting states of human consciousness, as Dr. Tart has, knows that a crucial key to both good research and personal development is the ready willingness to question one’s own assumptions about what is “real.” For there is no quicker ticket to a personal fantasyland than the refusal to challenge one’s own beliefs, or to avoid checking those beliefs against the input of those who are capable of disproving them. — D. Patrick Miller, Publisher, Fearless Books
Here’s my fact correcting response:
Charles T. Tart, PhD: I largely agree with the general theme of Kurt Andersen’s new book, which is that many Americans gradually stopped having any real respect for facts, and have adopted a general attitude of believing whatever they want to believe. I think this is unfortunately true across large segments of society today, and normally I’d look forward to seeing someone with Andersen’s cultural expertise revealing the details. But in his characterization of my work, he commits some of the sins he is so concerned about — particularly when it comes to getting the facts right.
Over the years I’ve had many popular articles written about my work and I’m accustomed to getting calls from fact checkers who work for a magazine or book publisher, confirming that things stated by an author are indeed factual. Just about all of what Andersen said about my work could have been fact-checked in a few minutes via a phone call or email, but no such check was performed. Some of what Andersen got wrong lies in the realm of interpretation, and some of it is just plain factually wrong. Either way, I can’t escape the feeling that Mr. Andersen approached my work with the attitude of believing whatever he wanted to believe about it — rather than testing his assumptions against the input of the most reliable source available, namely myself.
In the interest of fact-checking and providing a first-hand view of my work, here are my responses to Andersen’s chief points:
In 1968, a UC Davis psychologist named Charles Tart conducted an experiment in which, he wrote, “a young woman who frequently had spontaneous out-of-body experiences”— didn’t “claim to have” them but “had” them….
CTT: It is a fact that the young woman I cited had spontaneous out-of-body experiences (OBEs), for that is what she reported. If you go to your doctor and say you are experiencing a burning pain in your leg, it would be arrogant and very unhelpful for the doctor to reply, “So you’re claiming to have a painful, burning experience?” Whether you want to think of an OBE as a real departure from the body or merely an hallucination, an experience is an experience is an experience. Denigrating the reality of others’ actual experiences, based on your a priori assumptions about the ultimate nature of those experiences, is disrespectful and unscientific.
Other scientists considered the experiments and the results bogus…
CTT: Since Andersen doesn’t cite any of the other scientists who “considered the experiments,” I’m left wondering who they were. Frankly, I would have been delighted if many scientists from a variety of disciplines had read this article. But like most scientific articles, it was published in a specialty journal where it was likely to reach only the researchers most interested in it. None of those researchers said it was bogus; rather, they regarded it as a unique step forward in the study of OBEs under laboratory conditions. My main point in publishing it was not to prove that an OBE means a person does or doesn’t leave the body, but to show that this exotic experience could be studied in a modern laboratory, and thus tell us more about its nature. No such study had ever been done before.
I was pleased to report that it could be done. Understanding the OBE is especially important, as it’s a major life-changer for almost all those who have it. A typical comment after an OBE is something like “I no longer believe that I will survive death… I know I will, I’ve had a direct experience of being alive but not in my body.” Those of us who have not had an OBE may quibble with this logic, but it’s probably one of the main sources of the belief in a soul. That alone makes it a worthwhile subject for legitimate scientific and humanistic study.
That my OBE subject showed a unique brainwave pattern that I, as a sleep researcher, had never seen before, suggested something about the nature of her experience. That she correctly read a five-digit random number on a shelf up near the ceiling (odds against that happening by chance being 100,000 to 1) suggested that there was an extraordinary form of perception involved. But, again, the point was to show other scientists that OBEs could be studied in the laboratory, not to conclusively establish the real nature of OBEs.
Tart proceeded to devote his academic career to proving that attempts at objectivity are a sham…
CTT: Andersen presents this summary of my career as a fact, but again, neither he nor anyone employed by his publisher bothered to check this assertion with me. My career as a scientist has resulted in publishing more than a dozen books and a couple of hundred articles in scientific journals. I’d be surprised if Andersen read more than one or two of those. If he had, he would see that over and over again I kept stressing that the power of the scientific method comes from the fact that theories must lead to testable, observable outcomes, or they’re not science.
…and magic is real.
CTT: I have written that the reality of certain kinds of extrasensory perception (ESP) is well-established. That evidence is reviewed in my latest book, The Secret Science of the Soul (Fearless Books, 2017). But calling it “magic” instead of using specific research terms such as ESP or psi — referring to the capacities examined in thousands of studies — is a rhetorical maneuver intended to devalue the entire subject matter. Andersen is not the first to resort to rhetoric to dismiss research he hasn’t seriously examined or isn’t comfortable with. But it’s a far cry from objective journalism or rigorous science. Andersen eschews fact-based language, as well as a close examination of data gathered from legitimate research, in favor of reasserting what he wants to believe.
In an extraordinary paper published in 1972 in Science, he complained about the scientific establishment’s “almost total rejection of the knowledge gained” while high or tripping. He didn’t just want science to take seriously “experiences of ecstasy, mystical union, other ‘dimensions,’ rapture, beauty, space-and-time transcendence.” He was explicitly dedicated to going there.
CTT: It looks like Andersen may have skimmed, or read only a summary from some secondary source of my 1972 paper in Science. For somehow he seems to have missed my statements there about looking at all the data gathered in experiments, and about theories needing to be tested: “Any theory a scientist develops must have observable consequences, and from that theory it must be possible to make predictions that can be verified by observation. If such verification is not possible, the theory must be considered invalid, regardless of its elegance, logic, or other appeal.”
The main point of that Science article was that countless people were having powerful experiences in altered states of consciousness — the psychedelic revolution was in full swing then — and those experiences called for investigation because they were changing lives. I sketched an expansion of scientific method that would allow us to get a better understanding of altered states. Specifically, I suggested that in order to fully understand some altered states of consciousness, the investigators needed experience in those states, otherwise they would have no direct observations of the data. Psychological theories that come from no direct experience of what they’re supposed to explain are often not likely to have much value.
A “perfectly scientific theory may be based on data that have no physical existence,” he insisted. The rules of the scientific method had to be revised.
CTT: What I actually proposed was not any alteration in the basic rules of essential science, but that science could be conducted in altered states. Of course each state would need to be tested to see how well this worked: some states might be very fruitful, others useless. Again I stress that scientific theories need to have testable consequences if you want them considered scientific. My article was daring for the time, proposing expansion or altering of dominant paradigms if they empirically worked.
Besides being reprinted in several scientific anthologies, that article is still being read today (see “States of Consciousness and State-Specific Sciences” at www.academia.edu). While most articles in scientific journals seldom result in letters to the editor, this article drew more than 100 comments when it was published. There was much argument about whether we could do science in altered states. About half of the letters were against the idea, and I could see from the names of the writers and their academic ranks that they were from older scientists. The other letters were from younger scientists who basically said “let’s get on with it.” But no letter writer claimed that I was proposing that we ditch the scientific method!
To work as a psychologist in the new era, Tart argued, a researcher should be in the altered state of consciousness he’s studying, high or delusional “at the time of data collection” or during “data reduction and theorizing.”
CTT: I’ve never claimed that a scientist should be in a “delusional” state, or that one’s biases and value judgments should distort thinking. It’s important to understand, however, that both science and journalism regularly suffer from contamination by biases, value judgments and/or delusions, with or without the aid of altered states. I’m afraid that owes to human nature, not my espousal of state-specific research. Again and again in more than half a century of work, I’ve constantly harped that theories and conclusions have to be tested by observable results to be fully scientific.
Tart’s new mode of research, he admitted, posed problems of “consensual validation,” given that “only observers in the same [altered state] are able to communicate adequately with one another.”
CTT: Andersen seems to think that I’m proposing something extraordinary by saying there could be problems with consensual validation in the study of altered states. In fact, it’s an increasing challenge across all sciences. A couple centuries ago, almost any educated person could perform most science experiments to see if a finding was replicated and thus consensually validated. Today very few of us can test the theories of most modern sciences in order to replicate results, because we’d have to get into an extraordinary mindset — created by spending five to ten years in higher education and advanced training — to learn to think like a scientist in a specialized field.
Compared to the general population, many scientists are arguably in discipline-specific “altered states” which make it difficult for them to discuss or validate their findings with others not in the same mental states. Popular distortions of advanced scientific findings result from just this difficulty of “consensual validation,” because the press is often not sufficiently scientifically literate to accurately interpret research data, and thus runs with the most sensational (and usually distorted) aspects of research.
Tart popularized the term consensus reality for what you or I would simply call reality, and around 1970 that became a permanent interdisciplinary term of art in academia.
CTT: I am pleased that the term consensus reality, which I may have coined, has caught on, as the concept was a central part of my theorizing on the nature of both ordinary and altered states. If you are “normal,” you can at least act like you have a consensus with the way the other people in your culture see things. Indeed, much of your mental operations are biased by your culture. That makes it easier to automatically get along with others in your culture.
But it should be quite apparent to any socially and politically aware person that “our reality” may differ substantially from the reality experienced in cultures around across the world (or even in different regions of our own country, or right next door). Remembering that what may seem “obvious” or “real” is actually a semi-arbitrary cultural construction may alert you to your own biases, and possibly trigger transcendence of them.
Later he abandoned the pretense of neutrality and started calling it the consensus trance — people committed to reason and rationality were the deluded dupes, not he and his tribe.
CTT: Consensus reality is a value-neutral, descriptive term, intended to promote scientific objectivity and self-knowledge. As noted, there are significant limitations and biases to regarding only your culture’s consensus perspective as the whole of reality. Consensus trance, by contrast, is a deliberate reference to the cultural dulling and biasing of sensitivity and intelligence, which can have a variety of causes. I would challenge Mr. Andersen to confirm exactly where he read any assertion of mine claiming that “people committed to reason and rationality [are] deluded dupes.” If so, I’d be one of them!
The mindset that Andersen deplores — believing what you want to believe regardless of the facts —could well be described as a consensus trance. At any given time, we have a variety of consensus trances operating within our culture, making social cohesion and political progress difficult.
For instance, my research suggests that strong emotions can usefully be understood as altered states. In chronically angry people, e.g., the whole organization of their mental state has crystallized around anger. Their perceptions and thought processes are tragically altered by this hardening, but nonetheless the beliefs they act upon seem quite sensible and logical to them, from the perspective of that state. But much of their thinking and behavior makes no sense to people not in a chronically angry state.
Thus, understanding altered states — in part by observing and communicating what we experience within those states — can help us understand others’ views of reality. Even more important, it can help us recognize when our own view of what’s real, rational, or reasonable is clouded by some degree of delusion. With the social divisions and political conflicts raging in America today, the significance of such an understanding cannot be overstated. But the work begins “at home,” with the consistent questioning of our own beliefs and assumptions, making sure that we are regularly testing them for validity and usefulness.
CTT’s Summary: A central goal of my professional life has been helping to expand our knowledge of the mind. I’ve offered observations and theories differing somewhat from mainstream psychology because I’ve studied and experimented with a wider range of human experiences and activities than most researchers, including sleep, dreams, hypnosis, biofeedback, meditation, experimenter bias, and paranormal phenomena like ESP. In so doing, I’ve explored and enumerated both the advantages and disadvantages of operating from various “altered” stances. For the fact is that everyone experiences alterations of consciousness on a daily basis, and to a greater extent than we may be comfortable recognizing.
Had Kurt Andersen fully examined my life’s work or bothered to discuss it with me, he would have learned that I have spent many more years studying and teaching the higher capacities of human consciousness — especially including meditation and other techniques of advanced self-awareness — than I did studying the “altered states” induced by psychedelics. Along with colleagues like the late Arthur Deikman, M.D., I helped found the branch of psychological study now referred to as “transpersonal,” meaning that it pursues legitimate scientific exploration of advanced human capacities that have heretofore been classified as “spiritual.”
This is a realm that Andersen might well dismiss wholesale as magic. But calling it magic doesn’t make it go away, as a wide variety of profound spiritual and psychic experiences have always been part and parcel of human consciousness. That makes such experiences a legitimate focus for scientific exploration, and I am proud and honored to have contributed some of the pioneering work in that field.
Updated bio that the Publisher added to his notes for the Fearless site:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Charles T. Tart, Ph.D., is internationally known for his psychological work on the nature of consciousness, particularly altered states of consciousness — as one of the founders of the field of transpersonal psychology — and for his research in parapsychology. His two classic books, Altered States of Consciousness (1969) and Transpersonal Psychologies (1975), were widely used texts that were instrumental in allowing these areas to become part of modern psychology.
He was a Professor of Psychology at the Davis campus of the University of California for 28 years, where he conducted his research and was a popular teacher. In the 1970s Dr. Tart consulted on the original remote viewing research program at Stanford Research Institute, where some of his parapsychological work was instrumental in influencing government policy makers against the funding of the proposed multi-billion dollar MX missile system.
Besides Altered States of Consciousness and Transpersonal Psychologies, Dr. Tart’s other books are On Being Stoned: A Psychological Study of Marijuana Intoxication (1971); States of Consciousness (1975); Symposium on Consciousness (1975, with co-authors); Learning to Use Extrasensory Perception (1976); Psi: Scientific Studies of the Psychic Realm (1977); Mind at Large: Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Symposia on the Nature of Extrasensory Perception (1979, with H. Puthoff & R. Targ); Waking Up: Overcoming the Obstacles to Human Potential (1986); Open Mind, Discriminating Mind: Reflections on Human Possibilities (1989); Living the Mindful Life (1994) and Body Mind Spirit: Exploring the Parapsychology of Spirituality (1997), which looks at the implications of hard scientific data on psychic abilities as a foundation for believing we have a real spiritual nature.
His 2001 book, Mind Science: Meditation Training for Practical People presents mindfulness training in a way that makes sense for science professionals, and his most recent book, The Secret Science of the Soul: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together integrates his work in parapsychology and transpersonal psychology to show that it is reasonable to be both scientific and spiritual in outlook, contrary to the widely believed consensus that science shows there is nothing to spirituality.
He has had more than 200 articles published in professional journals and books, including lead articles in such highly prestigious scientific journals as Science and Nature.
Not just a laboratory researcher, Dr. Tart has been a student of Aikido (in which he holds a Black Belt), of meditation, of Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way work, and of Buddhism. He has been happily married for more than 50 years and has two children and two grandchildren. His primary goal is still to build bridges between the genuinely scientific and genuinely spiritual communities, and to help bring about a refinement and integration of Western and Eastern approaches for knowing the world and for personal and social growth.