Promissory Materialism, “God of the Gaps,” and Pragmatic Interactive Dualism

I have been having a discussion with some parapsychologist colleagues about whether or not the existence of psi argues for a duality of existence in the world, a “spiritual” level or reality as I argue in my recent The End of Materialism book. Some argue that materialism will eventually explain psi, while I call that promissory materialism, as philosophers have for a long time. I thought my response to this might be of interest to some.

One of you mentioned the God of the Gaps notion.  Materialists use this term to mean that if there is any area of reality that physical science can’t explain adequately, gaps in our knowledge structure, then religionists cite these as proofs of the existence of God.  The term is understandably derogatory as used by materialists, with its implications of worshiping ignorance and covering up the gap with an unsolvable mystery.

My argument – I call my position Pragmatic Interactive Dualism – is not at all like this.

To begin, I don’t personally believe in the God usually implied by Western religionists.  That God, call him Jehovah as so many do, is a bearded old man of great powers but has, to my way of thinking, considerable psychological problems: He’s jealous of the valuing of anything but Himself, demands constant reassurance of how wonderful He is, that’s He’s Number One, and rather capriciously and cruelly punishes those who don’t worship Him properly.  From the view of those of us who like and value science, Jehovah is the Great Spoiler, a powerful yet incomprehensible being who can unpredictably violate the lawful universe we’ve tried to map out at will.

Two qualifications before I go to the crux of my comparison of the God of the Gaps concept and my Pragmatic Interactive Dualism position.

Note that I said this is my personal belief.  I don’t know in any ultimate sense whether there are one or more such superior, powerful beings, and it would be nothing but logical fallacy and huge arrogance on my part to declare that no being superior to me could exist.  So logically I am agnostic about the truth value of whether such beings exist.  I also don’t like the idea of powerful, superior, outside-the-law-as-I-can-know-it beings, so I have negative emotional pressures affecting my ostensibly logical views, and they may distort my otherwise logical views.

Note too that in most arguments I have read over a lifetime about science and God’s existence or non-existence, it has looked to me like “spirituality” has been narrowly equated with this Judeo-Christian Jehovah concept, without recognition that the whole range of human spiritual experience is much, much bigger than this.  To put it another way, a lot of Westerners don’t believe in and/or are angry at and rejecting of Jehovah, but they really shouldn’t confuse this with humanities spiritual side in general.

Now back to the God of the Gaps.

The existence of gaps in any theory is, of course, a sensible reason to wonder if the theory is really comprehensive.  How much faith you then manifest that the theory will eventually fill those gaps on its own terms is highly variable.  At one end, you can have little or no faith it will work out, and call for new kinds of research.  At the other you can have total faith that it will, no matter how bad the gaps look – that’s a faith similar to religious faith, easily leading to the Dismissive syndrome, where you automatically and unscientifically dismiss any evidence contradicting what you want to believe.  In between you can compromise, both calling for new kinds of research that may lead to a totally new theory and calling for more research within the existing theory that may fill the gaps.  I think of myself as toward the middle of this spectrum, although transient emotions may push me in one direction or the other at times.  That’s what the pragmatism in my Pragmatic Interactive Dualism approach is – what works usefully?

I argue in The End of Materialism that there are serious gaps in current materialistic attempts to understand psi in particular – the emphasis in the book – and consciousness and various altered states of consciousness in general.

I do not, like the religionists, then insist that the gaps be filled with “non-material” mysteries, religious beliefs that we poor mortals can never understand.  Aside from my quarrel with the logic of that, it’s not fun, there’s no more science game to be played any more if you say “Don’t look at area X, you’ll never understand.”

What I do advocate is that we try to develop other ways of researching these gaps, psi phenomena, that, hopefully, will lead to greater understanding.  The criteria for understanding will be, as is usual in science, prediction and control.

I do not advocate giving up attempts to explain the psi gaps in material terms.  For all my inclination to suspect there is a “non-material” something that we need to understand, I’m a pragmatist.  The first paper I will be presenting at ISSSEEM (International Society for the Study of Subtle Energies and Energy Medicine) this coming Friday, e.g., will not be my presidential address about the need to create an evidence-based spirituality but a research paper about a possible physical method of increasing or decreasing telepathy, viz. Puharich’s Faraday cage work and my partial replication of it.

OK, this has been a long, perhaps too long, request to not lump my approach in with those tiresome Western arguments between science as nothing  but materialism (science is bigger than that) and clinging to the existence of Jehovah.  We need a much more sophisticated and differentiated approach to the “science and spirituality” topic.


  1. Dr Tart, I have a lot of issues with most religious stuff in general. I wasn’t raised to take anything on faith. That could be why when I had my NDE that I didn’t see some old guy with a beard sitting on a cloud in heaven.

    The thing is, what I experienced in my NDE was pretty amazing. I wish I had the words and the context here to convey it to others, but what I need to explain it doesn’t exist here. (Maybe that’s one of those gaps you were mentioning?) I couldn’t carry it all back here with me, but I did come back with a respect for science and a desire to learn as much as possible about this world as I can.

    I don’t know if there is a “God”. I did feel very connected to everything when I died. Everything felt conscious and aware, and really important. Maybe not conscious exactly like people are, but still there was an underlying awareness in everything. And something sort of like love, but love isn’t a big enough word for it.

    I sometimes get glimpses of being that way here, but it is hard to hold onto for very long. It seems really important not just for me to understand, but for other people too.

    If god was about taking everything on faith, then why is learning so important? Love and understanding seem to go together somehow. Understanding the world, and understanding ourselves. I came back wanting to study science. I can’t seem to learn enough about the world. It’s all so awesome.

    1. When you look at the world’s spirituality, the sense/perception of some”thing” or “someone” BIG, INTELLIGENT, CARING, AMAZING, WHATEVER cannot be captured by our conditioned Western associations to God = Jehovah….

      Be a scientist! I am! What people have experienced is data, to be compared, analyzed, refined, extended. Religious beliefs are theories about what this data means, perhaps the best guesses people could come up with at the time, but because of emotional attachment and the super-importance of this stuff to us humans, what should be theory, thought about, tested, improved, becomes “revelation” and “dogma,” and you label those who don’t agree with you as heretics and kill them. Sad….

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