Science and Religion, Fit and Non-Fit

Recently I received an email from a scholar who will be reviewing my The End of Materialism book for a journal. He noted that:

In the book you say: “….genuine science [shows] that a wide variety of traditional religious views about reality are factually wrong; they just don’t stand up to empirical tests.” Can you give me at least one example?

I think my response to him is interesting to many….

In our culture most people would immediately think of the battle between those who interpret the Bible to mean the world was created some 5,000 years ago vs the scientific theory of evolution. Given the incredible levels of animus and politicization around that one, I’ll pass. It also saddens me that profound teachings about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you can be demeaned down to such levels.
I’m a human, which means I have many, often contradictory aspects, but one of the roles I try to fill is that of scientist. To me that means I value truth, without claiming (to myself or others) that I have some sort of exclusive and final understanding of it. Rather I look at areas that interest me, see what happens (the data) and try to make sense of it – the theories. Sometimes my (and colleagues’) theories make good apparent sense of the data and have strong predictive power, so will be useful for some time – until new data comes along that requires revision. Sometimes things don’t make very good sense, so we keep collecting data, thinking about it, and hoping.
To me spiritual experience is data. Something happens to someone. Being human, we try to make sense of it. For some people, if it’s apparently spiritual or religious in nature they say it’s a Revelation, The Truth. It’s very satisfying to feel you have The Truth about anything, of course, so this is an emotionally very appealing course. In my most rational moments, the theory I come up with about any spiritual data is simply the best sense I can make of it at the time, and it’s subject to possible later revision. All religions, to my knowledge, say humility is a good thing, attachment to The Truth (except the particular ones espoused by ones particular religion….) is dangerous and blinding. I sometimes feel that, as a scientist, I have a great advantage over those known as spiritual or religious leaders: I can honestly say “I don’t know” about a lot of things, instead of faking more knowledge than I actually have because religious leaders are supposed to know The Truth….
Now a particular example, which I will probably use in my Presidential address at ISSSEEM (International Society for the Study of Subtle Energy and Energy Medicine) this June – our conference theme, incidentally, is “Evidence-Based Spirituality for the 21st Century,” and was inspired by my book.
In Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism which I have some moderate knowledge of, the human realm is considered the most advantageous place to seek enlightenment from, it has the right balances of suffering, freedom, and intelligence. So, since it usually takes many reincarnations to progress, getting reincarnated as a human is highly desirable.
Unfortunately, the doctrine, as I have heard it, says it’s extremely rare to be reincarnated directly as a human rather than in less favorable realms for many lifetimes. The analogy given is the probability of the world covered by one vast ocean, one 6 foot diameter hoop floating on it, and a turtle who surfaces for air once every thousand years. What are the odds it will come up in the hoop? Vanishingly small…..
The big exception is realized beings, saints and holy people, who have a much better chance of coming back human next time around, Tibetan tulkus, e.g.,
As a moral tale to motivate one to make good use of opportunities for spiritual growth while alive, I like it. But it’s presented as truth, as the actual case of things.
OK, we can roughly (our first attempt) make that a testable scientific theory. If people could remember their previous incarnations, the immediately previous one would almost never be that of an ordinary human being.
Now the data. The great majority have no previous incarnation memories (because we discourage them?), but there are exceptions, and the laboratory at the University of Virginia, founded by the late psychiatrist Ian Stevenson, has about 4,000 cases of children remembering previous incarnations while still young. About 2,000 of these have been rated and coded into a data base to date.
Prediction from Tibetan theory: most of these folks would have been monks, nuns, yogis, dervishes, etc. in their immediately previous life, obviously holy persons, sincere seekers, to have made it back so soon.
Result: the folks who run the database have not examined it in detail for this, but in response to my query tell me that there were maybe half a dozen holy people in previous lives in their 2,000 cases. The rest all remember being ordinary people, the butchers, the bakers, the candlestick makers. Some were not nice people.
This is an initial and crude attempt, but the best we can do at the moment. Yet it illustrates how we can get some empirical, scientific handles on pretty esoteric concepts like karma and reincarnation. And in this case, the traditional theory is quite lacking, it needs drastic revision or replacement by something better.
So I’m quite excited to be helping to launch the idea of evidence-based spirituality. Not that I think everything of importance in the spiritual can be handled with rational, scientific inquiry, but the more various kinds of knowledge fits together, the better. My big attempt in proposing that, incidentally, but which I think was way ahead of its time, was my proposal for the creation of state-specific sciences back in 1972 in Science (article is on my site).
Have I addressed your question well enough?
Charles T. Tart

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