Some years ago I started a private discussion group to connect the few people in the world who have published scholarly and scientific research on the question of whether we survive death in some form. Although there is an enormous amount of relevant evidence suggesting that some aspect of us survives death, there are very few of us bothering to look at this evidence, unfortunately. I have what I guess must be a strange idea that evidence as to whether we survive death or not may have a powerful effect on how we decide to live our lives, but this is obviously not a cultural priority. Anyway, the small group has had many interesting discussions over the years, and I want to share something I recently contributed to it.
One of my colleagues rightly challenged me when I wrote about the evidence for survival:
“I’m still on the fence.”
My colleague found it puzzling and exasperating that I said I was still on the fence, noting that my last book, The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together, argued decisively that total materialism, a philosophy, which believes that consciousness is nothing but an outcome of the physical operation of the brain and nervous system, and so totally ceases at death, is an incomplete way of looking at the world, and is just plain scientifically wrong with respect to many aspects of our possible spiritual lives. My colleague is a philosopher, and reasons that it follows logically that if materialism is incomplete, applying only to material things, then it’s only logical that something in us survives death. So why was I claiming to be “on the fence?”
I take his reaction as useful and legitimate stimulation to think about why I would say I’m still on the fence, and share what I find, as it may be useful to others, as I doubt my psychodynamics are absolutely unique to me. What I say may be particularly useful to students going into science or young scientists who think that it’s all a matter of finding certainty. Too, my reflections are also part of my life-long research project of figuring out how my mind works….
Conscious, Logical Reasons:
First, what I might call the conscious and relatively logical reasons for being on the fence.
Essential Science: A big one is that much of the time I am trying to function as I think a competent scientist would function, and my understanding of the essence of science is that data is far and away the deciding factor on anything and theory, while we love it, is secondary. This way I could technically say that some kind of postmortem survival strikes me as an excellent theory to make sense of the evidence we have to date, and so I take survival as a working hypothesis, but scientists must always be careful of finally accepting any theory, no matter how good, as a final answer. When you do that, you move from discovery to what historian Thomas Kuhn called “normal science,” which is very valuable, but which usually means your mind is now shaped to see further evidence in ways which fit your already accepted theory, and so you’re now working with reality with perceptual and intellectual blinders on. So survival is my working hypothesis, I give it a very high probability of being correct, but I’m willing to consider alternatives and my mind is always open to having to change my theory if future evidence calls for it.
Public Relations: Another big and conscious one is public relations. Psychical research and parapsychology are an embattled, persecuted, very small field of science, and one of the ways the bullying pseudo-skeptics constantly unfairly attack us is by calling us “believers.” By I and others talking about our working hypotheses, not that we believe, it makes it much harder for this discrediting adjective to be used in describing us.
State-Specificity: Another big and conscious one is my understanding that our ordinary style of thinking is a state-specific way of dealing with reality (see my article in Science)***, very good in some ways, poor in other ways, and we probably don’t know whether it’s good or bad in many other ways. My limited experience with altered states of consciousness (ASCs) has shown me that there can be quite different ways of understanding the world, and while those ways are not available to me in my ordinary state, nor do I have much talent for experiencing any altered states, at the least my old experiences of ASCs should remind me to not get overly attached to the understandings reached in my ordinary state of consciousness. There may be ASCs in which the data of survival point to a quite different understanding and, in that state, this new way is “obviously” true and matches the data.
Less Rational Reasons:
Now thinking about factors that are less rational and scientific, more a matter of personal psychology, but which are there.
Prestige: One of these is that to be considered a scientist is a relatively high prestige position in our society, certainly usually much higher than a “believer” in anything, at least in the social circles to which most of us move, and I enjoy this prestige. Here I, Charley, am an ordinary human being, but when Prof. Charles T Tart, PhD, speaks and writes, he gets more attention and prestige than most ordinary people. That’s a two-edged sword of course, it means the things I’m wrong about get more attention than they should, but all in all I like it and think I do well in mostly sharing factually correct and useful ideas. I discipline myself to not allow feelings of prestige to distort my teaching, lecturing and writing.
Fear: Another less rational factor, one I’ve admitted to over the years but which most of my colleagues never do, is a fear factor. The childhood religion that I was conditioned into when I was young may be consciously rejected by my current adult self, but I know it has effects at times. That includes a fear of punishment by a vengeful God if I believe the wrong things, and a fear of social rejection. Consciously I can reject this factor, but, as a psychologist and someone who has studied my own mind for a lifetime, I know I also have to respect the psychological level of my younger self, and deal with it skillfully, not just forcibly deny it or pretend it isn’t there.
Hate Being Fooled! Another less rational factor, probably stemming from some childhood experiences as well as a general aspect of the way we humans are built, is that I don’t like to be fooled. It’s embarrassing! Once I say I believe, I can be shown to be wrong and foolish, while as long as I talk about formulating and testing working hypotheses, I’m doing a great job of being intelligent and rational, scientific, even if it turns out that these hypotheses turn out to be wrong.
What the balance of these various factors is it any given time obviously course varies with the situation and my personal psychological state.
This has triggered some useful thinking for me, I hope sharing it is helpful.
Although I can’t put my finger on the quote right now, another colleague of mine summed it up quite well by saying that he teaches his students that to seek The Truth is excellent and noble, but it’s very dangerous to ever think that you have arrived at The Truth.