What I Understand about Mind and Reality – 50 Year Perspective

Recently my colleague Ed Kelly circulated a set of bullet points summarizing some consensus arising from the Esalen invitational Sursem conferences on the possibility of postmortem survival.  The focus at these conferences had slowly widened from how do we scientifically investigate the possibility of postmortem survival per se to questions about the ultimate nature of reality and human consciousness.  Dr. Kelly’s brilliant summary of this consensus inspired me: it was time to make some statements about my own understandings of reality and consciousness after a half century career of personal and scientific investigation.  I agreed with practically all Dr. Kelly expressed, but added some modifications.  So, as a summary and to stimulate others, here’s what I think – lots of uses of Dr. Kelly’s words here, they were so good, but the final version here is strictly my responsibility, not his.

→       Mainstream physicalist/reductionist science cannot account for well-documented mental and psychophysiological  phenomena of the sorts catalogued in Irreducible Mind (and elsewhere), and must give way to something larger.  [Irreducible Mind by Edward F. Kelly (Author), Emily Williams Kelly (Author), Adam Crabtree (Author), Alan Gauld(Author), Michael Grosso (Author), Bruce Greyson (Author) is the best reference around for these points.]

→        The ontological doctrine of classical physicalism must be rejected when it is claimed to be a complete description of reality, and instead seen as a special case of a larger reality.

→        Science itself, however, is inherently more adaptable and must not be rejected; it can and must be expanded to a form more nearly commensurate with the dimensions of our subject matter. This is not to say, of course, that science is all-powerful and can explain everything.  And it is vitally important to discriminate science as a method of investigating and understanding from scientism, a “psychological hardening of the conceptual arteries,” a common kind of pathology of cognition.

→        Reliable data from science and human experience demand that we consider that both the world we experience and our experience itself emerge out of some sort of hidden background that under normal conditions is not accessible to most of us – at least not consciously.  This background can be investigated to a degree to be determined by our efforts.

→        At the psychological level, a filter-type theory of the Myers-James-Bergson-Irreducible Mind type, that we screen out most non-local information from wider Mind for the sake of concentrating on local information relevant to our biological survival, seems to be headed in the right direction – and that theory can certainly be developed further – but we must also strive to identify a coherent ontology that complements and supports it.  Note too  that the concept of “filter” often seems rather passive, though, a filter just sits there and screens out predefined material.  The actual psychological “filtering” may be an active process, filtering/construction, though, creating a virtual world of experience normally best adapted to dealing with the physical world.  I’ve written about how it’s useful to conceive of us as living in a biological-psychological virtual reality in several articles on www.paradigm-sys.com/cttart/.

→        High quality scientific data. as well as human experience. make it clear that some kinds of psi are real, and. while interpretation of the data are complex, there is excellent evidence for some kind(s) of post-mortem survival and reincarnation, so these should be treated as facts of nature, and an empirically adequate metaphysics must somehow accommodate them.  As to the kinds of psi that are real or maybe real, see the distinctions I’ve made between the Big Five (telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, psychokinesis and psychic healing) and the Many Maybes in my The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together.

→        Existing data and theorizing suggest it would be worth while to postulate that reality is, at bottom, in some sense, “mental” in character, and the inescapable everyday phenomenal distinction between mind and matter vanishes at some level beneath or beyond that of everyday appearances.  Investigations conducted from this premise will probably be very fruitful.

→        It is classical, Newtonian physics that seems to say psi phenomena can’t happen, but in some versions of quantum theory, one of the most successful theories in the history of science, consciousness is an inherent part of reality and psi, in some versions, either is possible or, indeed, is required.

→        Ordinary consciousness, a semi-arbitrary construction emerging from the brain and the ultimate nature of mind, is very useful in myriad ways but may not be capable of some kinds of needed understandings.  Thus observations and ideas obtained from investigation in various altered states of consciousness (ASCs) need to be refined, expanded and tested for their usefulness in further understanding the nature of mind and reality, along the lines of creating state-specific sciences, as proposed by me in Science in 1972 (article available on my www.paradigm-sys.com/cttart/ site.

→        Research on mystical experience, and on the known means of systematically producing it such as meditation and the major psychedelics, seems of the highest priority, scientifically speaking.

→        Scientists, religious scholars, and scholar-practitioners can work together productively on these matters, and they should!

→        Contrary to the recent spate of anti-religious polemics by mainstream scientists, which are based on distorted and culturally limited ideas of human spiritual experience, meaningful reconciliation of science and religion – i.e., a reconciliation that is both comprehensive and theoretically satisfying – constitutes the most humanly urgent and potentially consequential task of the present era.

Thanks again for Dr. Kelly for stimulating me this way!


  1. I wonder though.. are they moving away from the question of survival and into the development of theoretical development because they agree the evidence is strong enough?

    1. Yes, general agreement that the evidence for some kind of survival is very good, but what is it that survives and how might it survive, etc. That is, we need a much better understanding of what a human personality is to get a better understanding of what might survive and how, what it’s destiny might be, etc. Our ordinary idea of our selves is too narrow and that makes understanding difficult.

  2. I understand. I like the direction the center is taking, many of the complaints I get from people trying to debunk survival is that there is no adequate theory to account for it.

    Are you familiar with some of the theories the group is working in? I’ve read Eric Weiss’ work and I gave to say that I like the idea of actual ocassions, subtle worlds/bodies and what not. Is there any model in particular that you like?

    What is your take on the “What survives?” question?

  3. Great stuff, Dr. Tart!

    I’ve communicated at some length with Eric Weiss and briefly with Ed Kelly as well as Jim Carpenter (who has developed the extraordinary “First Sight” psi theory). My own sense is that the turn toward Whitehead that Dr. Kelly has taken is useful but will ultimately prove a dead end. Direct knowledge (intuition or prajna) of that wider Mind will be essential, I believe, for the scientists of the future, and Sri Aurobindo (alone, i think, among 20th century yogis, east or west) has developed a very detailed description of the relationship between the ordinary mind and the vast realms of consciousness beyond mind (and even beyond “Wider Mind”).

    I recall somewhere reading that you, Dr. Tart, remain rather agnostic on some of the questions regarding those wider regions of Consciousness. I don’t see that as being any problem in terms of this kind of preliminary scientific work. I ‘m looking very much forward to Kelly’s new book, “Beyond Physicalism” which will be out in a few months.

    1. >I recall somewhere reading that you, Dr. Tart, remain rather agnostic on some of the questions regarding those wider regions of Consciousness. <

      Agnostic, yes, in the sense of wanting to understand better and not putting all my eggs in one basket by totally believing in any one approach. Driven by curiosity and a desire to be of service. Big distinction here between "doubt" as a destructive attitude and "doubt" as openness and non-attachment. We do live in a pretty cynical (for good reasons) culture, though, so I find it hard sometimes to not let open-minded doubt slide over into some cynicism… One of my personal growth issues…

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