Why I’ve Studied Survival of Death Research, and What I Conclude, So Far…
Charles T. Tart
Back when I was a teenager, more than 60 years ago, I became interested in psychical research and parapsychology, including the question of whether we survive physical death in some real fashion. It makes
a difference in what you want to do with your life if this physical life is it and then oblivion, versus some kind of continuing existence. Was there scientific evidence indicating we might survive? Useful evidence, even if not finally absolute one way or the other? Probabilities, even if not certainties?
I was not happy with scientism, the faith-based imitation of science already so popular then, a total materialism blindly believed to explain everything. Yes, materialism as a basis had worked very well in studying material matters, but the essence of science is that observation, data, facts, experimental results always have first priority over theory, over belief. So the materialists’ arrogant, cavalier dismissal of any possibility of survival, “It’s impossible,” while not bothering to look at what evidence we had, was an insult to the scientific enterprise.
I have been interested in and investigated many aspects of the mind over my life and career, rather than specializing in any small area. So survival research has been part-time, largely a scholarly activity of mine, keeping up with and interacting with the (sadly) very few researchers who have focused on survival evidence. Recently in discussing the evidence with these more active experts, the idea was raised that it would be helpful if we knew each other more personally. This would be useful not only for the inherent values of friendliness in general, but to see what our personal qualities were that could affect the way we observed and thought about data relevant to survival research. Why did we get interested in this tiny, socially disapproved of field? What sort of conclusions have we reached? How have these understanding affected our personal lives? Some colleagues were particularly interested in why I did not make an unequivocal statement, “We survive death” or “We don’t survive death.” Some of them had made up their minds, but I keep saying that the evidence that we have for survival is good, but it’s complicated, something paranormal is happening, but I’m not sure it means we survive death…
This is an essay I wrote along these lines. I’m sharing it because the possibility of survival of death is of great human importance. And as much as I strive for objectivity in my scientific work, I’m well aware of the importance of personal qualities in affecting what we (“we” includes “me”) do, and believe it’s better to be aware of and share these complexities than to pretend to an idealized, total objectivity we don’t have. For those who want a more objective and comprehensive overview of survival research from my perspective, my most recent book, The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together (Tart, 2009)(this hardcover is out of print, although used copies can be found), or its slightly revised softcover version, (Tart, 2017) will be helpful.
This essay will be long – but I hope interesting if you want to get to know me better. I will wander a bit at times, it hasn’t been thoroughly polished or edited for brevity, but you’ll know me a little more, especially concerning my interest in survival research, and the essence of what I think about survival.
To begin with, we humans have many ways of forming and supporting our beliefs, and coping with the world. One way that has worked very well for us in the last few centuries has been the scientific method. I emphasize scientific method, not the currently accepted findings and theories, what’s traditionally called the corpus, the body, of science, at any particular time.
It’s not that I think scientific method, as currently understood and practiced, is the only way to get better understandings of reality, just that it has worked very well in many areas, and so is worth trying with respect to survival. I’ve long ago proposed expanding scientific methodology considerably by developing state-specific sciences (Tart, 1972), so we can better deal with experiential data, and not just be limited to physical data. When we talk about “evidence” today, I think we’re mainly talking about what would be considered material facts, observable from current scientific perspectives. Certainly when I contribute something to discussions among the small community of experts, I usually tried to base it in as much of a current scientific perspective as I can. I feel I have some expertise in doing that, as do my colleagues. Whereas if I was simply talking about my personal beliefs, then our professional discussion would not be an ongoing conversation among scholarly and scientific experts, just an ordinary conversation. Not that ordinary conversations can’t be incredibly important.
In the expansions of science that I’ve envisioned, a lot of the things we want to know more about are basically experiences. There are objects and events you can observe from the outside of your body, with your exteroceptors, your physical senses, or with a machine. There’s also your own direct experience, and reports of other people’s experience. If it’s one thing that’s clear, we humans are not cold, unemotional, unbiased computers, simply processing facts according to some absolute logic. The writing style of contemporary science often acts like that. Objectivity can be a wonderful goal, and sometimes we can be quite objective. But our personal nature, our hopes, our fears, our beliefs, have powerful influences on what we observe, what we experience, and how we think. One of the first jobs of usefully expanding science is to get better at understanding these aspects of ourselves. Just assuming we are objective, while intellectually and emotionally satisfying, makes us more likely to be influenced by our biases.
My “self” is the “instrument” through which I do my scientific observation, so I need to know its characteristics. If my visual sense only respond to visible light, to create an example, and someone shows me his or her strange new machine which they say operates in the “ultraviolet,” and I say I see nothing happening in their device, it’s not actually invalidating their observation, it’s a limitation of my instrument, my self, my senses, my instincts. I will, as needed here, speak of my personal characteristics that can affect my understanding of the survival issue.
History: Developing A Personal Interest in Survival:
So when and where did I start to have an interest in possible survival of death?
I was born in the late 1930s, raised in a fairly conventional way. My parents never spoke to me about religion, that I recall, but my grandmother, who lived in an apartment downstairs from us, took me to Sunday School regularly and, once I was old enough, started taking me to church, until I was old enough to attend church on my own. I was raised as a Lutheran, and I basically absorbed that outlook as a child.
I see with the wisdom of hindsight, that I didn’t understand most of the religion, but I absorbed it. It became a largely automatic way of thinking. That included the “fact” that after people died, if they were good, they went to Heaven, if they were bad, they went to Hell. There was a recognition that Catholics had some more complicated system involving Purgatory, but that didn’t really mean anything to me, and I knew nothing about non-Christian religions as a child. I “absorbed” it all in the sense that my grandmother was a source of wondrous, non-judgmental love (she probably spoiled me rotten!), so if this Lutheran stuff was good enough for her, it was good enough for me!
I was confirmed as a member of the church when I was 12, after undergoing a confirmation class with the pastor and some other 12-year-olds, to further explain the basis of our religion. I pretty much took it like any other primary school class. Here are the things you had to learn, an adult with Authority to explain it, and, to succeed, you had to be able to give the correct answers. I also joined the Boy Scout troop that was sponsored by my church, and so the church and the Boy Scouts, which incorporated basic Christian values, remained major influences in my life through my teenage years, up until I went off to college.
Conflicts Between Religion and Science:
As a teenager, I fell in love with science. I couldn’t get enough of it! I built a laboratory in our basement. I experimented with electrical and chemical stuff, I read lots and lots of books about many branches of science. I gradually became aware that there was a considerable conflict between science and the religion I knew. Science, as I and most people understood it, was essentially totally materialistic, and apparently had proven that the religion which I had automatically absorbed, was a lot of nonsense! It often drove people crazy, and was certainly responsible for many of the evils in the world.
Lots of the adult Christians I knew were kind and decent people, but I slowly realized, in general, that people often used their religion as an excuse for abusing or even slaughtering anyone who wasn’t of the same religion, or even co-religionists whose difference from them seemed very minor from an outside perspective. I gradually developed an increasing conflict between what my religion told me about the world and what science was telling me about the world, reinforced by the fact that, like most teenagers, I became very aware of the widespread hypocrisy of adults. They preached a good game, they seldom lived up to it. What was reality?
Then things got even more interesting.
The SPR and Parapsychology to the Rescue!
Among the many books on science and related subjects I found in the city library, I discovered books on psychical research and parapsychology. I discovered what opened an amazing possibility to me, the motivation of the people who’d founded the SPR, the London based Society for Psychical Research. These people had also suffered through conflicts between religion and science, but instead of accepting or rejecting religion wholesale, decided why not apply the methods of science to start discriminating among aspects of religion which were probably useful and fit the facts better (including experiential facts, not just material ones) from those that insisted on beliefs which did not fit the facts well? Make more and more accurate and discriminating observations, come up with theories to explain them, test the consequences of these theories, share one’s knowledge, etc. Just because religion was obviously wrong about some things from a scientific perspective, it also gave us some of our highest values. Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water! Keep refining these aspects of essential science, and slowly develop a knowledge of the religious and spiritual*, a knowledge about things that did work, that had some reality, and slowly get rid of lots of old superstitions and craziness embedded in religion. This goal has basically been the guiding principle in my personal life and especially in my scientific career ever since.
* Note: I was slowly developing an essential differentiation between the “spiritual,” in the sense of moving and unusual experiences which changed an experiencer’s views, “mystical” experiences, and the “religious,” which was about the transformations that happened, for better or worse, as some spiritual knowledge was absorbed into a culture. I’ll use the word religion to include both aspects in this essay.
So when I think about myself as a scientist who is trying to understand the nature of human consciousness, and, particularly, to understand something about the possibility of the survival of some aspect of consciousness after death, this is some of the background that works, largely automatically, in me. Part of my job as a scientist, the job of “calibrating and refining my instruments,” as it were, is to stay alert for the functioning of various conditionings and biases so that I don’t become led astray by them. Like essentially all scientists, I have external methods of observing the facts and plans for improving these methods, but this need for attention and refinement also applies, just as or more importantly, to my internal, experiential methods of observation and thinking.
Getting More Educated on Psychical Research:
My education in psychic research and parapsychology, as well as related areas, was essentially solitary through my teenage years. I knew no one in my hometown of Trenton that I could knowledgeably talk to about any of this material, but I read a lot of books. By the time I went off to college, MIT in 1955, to become an electrical engineer, I was pretty well educated on psychical research, the general overview of unusual experiences with religious implications. I was also knowledgeable about psychical research’s specialized laboratory branch, parapsychology. I could think in fairly sophisticated methodological terms, and it was clear to me that the basic psi phenomena, to which we give more specific descriptive names like telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, and psychokinesis, were real. There was simply too much high quality experimental evidence to logically doubt their existence, even if total materialists refused to look at this evidence.
It was hard to make parapsychological effects happen in the laboratory, though. Our methods were unreliable, so even when they happened, psi effects tended to be pretty small in size, and could be easily overlooked in the noise of human variability, but they were there. By the mid-1950s, I could say, as a basic statement, that the nature of the human mind could not be limited just to the material brain, even though the brain and nervous system were undoubtedly very important. But there was more to the mind, a “more” that could not be reasonably explained by the physical sciences of that time. I can still make that statement more than half a century later: there is no theory in the physical sciences that begins to adequately explain psi effects, even though a few very bright physicists have been thinking about psi lately.
A useful model of this need to understand both the nature of the brain and the “more,” the something else I’ll loosely call mind here, was comparing it to radio.
I had learned electronics and could explain how commercial radio transmitters worked and build amateur versions, but that told me little or nothing about what kind of information radio broadcasts could convey, what happened in distant studios. pic of me w ham radio? My thinking on the nature of radio was pragmatically dualistic. It was good to learn more about the electronics of radio, and good to learn more about people’s psychology. But it would be foolish to assume that as my knowledge of electronics got better that would explain why people said what they said on the radio. There was more involved than the electronics. That’s a parallel to my working position that understanding psi and the nature of the mind and its possible survival of death would involve different methods of understanding, not all be reducible to one process or to one physical processes. As a scientist, of course, I must emphasize that this is a pragmatic decision about using appropriate methods and seeing what you learn. Consciousness, mind, seems quite different from physical stuff, even though it’s widely assumed that if you put enough physical stuff together consciousness lawfully occurs, rather than “something” needing to be added to the physical vehicle. But if some line of research produces computers that develop consciousness and can communicate with us, I will be delighted to talk with them!
I had also read extensively about a lot of the early research on spiritualism, as well as topics like astral projection, non-Christian religions, and occultism. I became one of the few people who had actually looked at the relevant data on survival. So anyone who said the survival of consciousness couldn’t, a priori, be possible because of the decay of the brain with death, or that there was no evidence contradicting the statement that death was the total end of consciousness and identity, was simply prejudiced and ignorant.
I was still young with the idealism of the young (actually I’m still pretty idealistic). It amazed me that people who were trained as scientists, who, in principle, knew that data was the most important thing, not theory, not your beliefs, could ignorantly deny the possibility of survival. Yes, there were a lot of complications as to exactly how you interpreted the data, but something very unusual was going on.
By my mid-twenties I had rejected my previous Christian belief in Heaven and Hell, but the actual evidence strongly suggested that something went on after death. Not “proven” beyond any possible doubt, but persuasive evidence supporting the idea.
Enormous Changes in College:
Entering college, I had planned on becoming an electrical engineer. Electronics had been my hobby, and I had also learned enough to pass the Federal test and be able to make a living in it as a federally licensed radio engineer. But in being educated to be an electrical engineer, I discovered calculus — or rather I discovered that I didn’t really understand calculus, and my lack of understanding was getting worse and worse as my required calculus courses got more advanced! Also, I had loved chemistry while in high school, but I was going to have to take a required basic chemistry course at MIT over again because of having only gotten a D in it, and I was horrified!
As far as I could tell, what you needed to pass that course was simply a good ability to memorize a lot of chemical equations, not any real understanding of principles of chemistry. I’m not good at rote memorizing, and it shook my confidence that chemistry was actually a science. Maybe it was just an awful lot of miscellaneous chemical reactions that we could write equations for? As a professor myself years later, I realized I was slow, yes, but the calculus and chemistry courses had been poorly taught, I wasn’t a total dunce…
I had taken a couple of humanities courses at MIT – they tried to humanize us techno-nerds a little- and also gotten somewhat involved in the psychical research culture that had been centered in Boston in the past century. Instead of just book learning, I met people who knew a lot about both parapsychology and mediumship. I also realized that there was a profession I could aim for, becoming a psychologist. Psychology would teach me a lot about the way the mind works and so be very useful for understanding parapsychology and religion, as well as being fascinating to me. I also knew I needed a profession to be able to make a living. Jobs in parapsychology per se were almost non-existent, so psychology probably be the closest I could come. I met people like Eileen J. Garrett, perhaps the world’s most famous and scientifically studied medium at that time, as well as leading parapsychologists like J. B. Rhine, when they lectured in Boston. With Rhine’s assistance, I managed to transfer to Duke University for my junior year, now majoring in psychology. I escaped the specter of the dreaded calculus and chemistry course repeats and went to the world center of experimental parapsychology!
Where I was told by Rhine to give up my interests in parapsychology, my youthful ideas were too unorthodox to be good science… But that’s another story…
Knowledge Status of Psychical Research as a Young Adult:
Basically, by my early 20s I was convinced of the reality of psi and its importance in understanding a lot of religious and spiritual phenomena, and I thought survival was likely. At that young age, the survival question was not a high priority for me, my assessment of the evidence was that it was likely, but more basic questions had my attention. Although basic questions about the nature of psi were of fundamental importance to the question of survival.
From my hobby as a teenager as an amateur radio operator, I was very aware of the difficulties in communication that could happen if your equipment wasn’t very good, atmospheric conditions were bad, unpredictable interferences, etc., It was very clear to me that the major problem in advancing parapsychological research was to increase the signal-to-noise ratio, that is to make psi happen more reliably and more strongly, so that you could then begin to profitably study its nature. If aspects of a person survived death, their attempts at communication with the living had to be done with some sort of psi. As it was, psi usually (unreliably) manifested in laboratory studies as statistically significant, but practically trivial, getting psi to work better would help survival research.
The analogy I created back then to illustrate this is that the study of psi was where the study of electricity had been stuck for most of human history. Sometimes rubbing a glass rod with rabbit fur might result in the temporary and mysterious phenomena of being able to lift a feather off the table with the rod – psi lab results – and sometimes lightning struck, and was spectacular, but over in a second, and all we had to study were memories from startled people – some of the spontaneous cases of psi communication in ordinary life. We needed a psi battery. It didn’t need to be anywhere near as powerful as lightning, but it had to be stronger and more reliable than minuscule static electrical effects. Then we could get on with studying the nature of psi and practical applications of it. Once the battery was invented, our knowledge of electricity made a huge leap forward! I still think the invention of the “psi battery” will do the same! Studies and applications of the remote viewing approach to psi (Targ & Puthoff, 1977), unfortunately now largely ended for political and religious reasons, looked like they were giving us that psi battery, although quantifying the amount of psi in a successful remote viewing has been hard.
Personal Emotional Investment in Survival
So most of my interest in survival research as I started my career, conventionally a psychologist, but with a strong interest in parapsychology. It, was a basically intellectual interest. I had had a number of older relatives die while I was still a child, and I remember going to their funerals, but I had not been especially close to most of the deceased and just accepted deaths and funerals as part of life. I seemed to have an awful lot of relatives too, which tended to dilute the immediate importance of the connections.
There was one death which had an especially deep effect on me though, probably more than I actually understand even now.
When I was nine years old, my grandmother suddenly and unexpectedly died. She and my grandfather lived in an apartment in the same building as us, and I was extremely close emotionally to her. I say emotionally, because as I think about it, I didn’t really know her as an adult knows another person. She was my grandmother, of course she loved me! That was wonderful, a natural and unquestioned part of realty, but I have no idea what else she was interested in or what was important to her, except that she did go to church regularly.
One afternoon, when I was eight, she walked uptown to shop, and, while walking back, collapsed with a heart attack and died very quickly.
When I was told about it, I was devastated.
I don’t remember the details of my grief, it’s been so long, but the primary source of unconditional love had disappeared from my life. Yes, my mother loved me very deeply too, but mothers are responsible for shaping you to be a good person, including punishing you when you’re bad, but grandparents get to spoil you, it’s all unconditional love.
Within a year or so of my grandmother’s death, I was at school one morning and, as was common then in schools, we students were standing in neat rows, hands on our hearts, while our teacher led us in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic…..” Suddenly I began to notice this beautiful, diagonal grid pattern, like a wire, chain-link fence, colored gold. The next thing I knew I was sitting on a wooden chair in the school nurse’s office, she was mopping my forehead with a wet towel. I had fainted.
My mother came to school and took me to our doctor. I had come down with rheumatic fever.
The therapeutic treatment they gave me was absolute bed rest. For years I felt I had spent nine months in bed, although my mother told me years later it was really only about nine weeks. That was the end of going to school for me for a year or so. To say my life changed dramatically is putting it mildly.
At that time there weren’t any drugs that could treat or cure rheumatic fever. My parents didn’t tell me this back then, but when I read up on rheumatic fever as an adult, I found my life expectancy had become very short. Kids who got rheumatic fever generally died some time in their 20s, if not sooner.
It was only many years later, when I was doing a lot of psychological work as part of the goal of understanding myself, that I began to realize that, on a feeling level, I was so upset by my grandmother’s death that I wanted to die so that I could be with her again in Heaven.
And I was dying of what could be described as a broken heart, for rheumatic fever usually damages the heart badly.
Fortunately I didn’t get my wish!
I had a wonderful visiting teacher, Mrs. Perry, who came for an hour or so a couple of days a week. She brought me books I requested from the library, often adult books I requested, and, very important, she talked to me like I was an intelligent person, not just a kid. She respected and nourished my mind, not just seeing me as a sick kid who needed distraction and what little education was possible. I think she saved my life. My inherent optimism and curiosity came to the fore again.
But I recognize that, at some deep emotional level, part of me is still looking forward to dying and meeting my grandmother in Heaven.
I can feel tears beginning to come to my eyes just writing about it.
This is the kind of deep bias a scientist who wants to investigate experience has to be on the alert for. I won’t say I have to somehow squash it, fight it, but I need to make it clear and conscious enough that I don’t allow it to seriously distort my functioning as a scientist. That’s something about learning to be emotionally intelligent, not just intellectually intelligent…My work in Humanistic Psychology in my 30s taught me a lot about developing some emotional intelligence.
By and large, I have become fairly sensitive to possible emotions and biases distorting the research I carry out, and of my interpretations of its results. Or distorting my life in general. I would certainly not claim to be totally unbiased about anything, but I believe my understanding and interpretation of the data we have suggesting possible survival of death is reasonable and fits the data well.
Enrichments and Complications of Survival Research:
A few approaches (we can call them theories or biases) to survival research dispose of the data by explaining it away.
One is the commitment to a total materialism, in which the very idea of the survival of death is ridiculous, so the data may be simply ignored. It’s what I’ve been calling faith-based materialism in this essay. As scientists have huge investments in believing they are much more objective and intelligent that ordinary people, it’s hard for them to realize they can be biased like this. Most scientists and academics who claim that survival is impossible don’t bother to learn anything about the data, much less study it. Such people give science a bad name, and mislead us, their claim is just another form of prejudiced opinion unworthy of people who claim knowledge and objectivity. They are like the officials of the Church who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope to see the moons of Jupiter because the Church taught that the lights in the sky were perfect circles because God was perfect, and the circle embodied perfection. It would be a waste of time and disrespectful to actually try to look at the moons more clearly.
The second way of denying the possibility of any survival of death is to accept the fact that there has sometimes been sufficient evidence in mediumistic, mystic and other data that ostensible spirits seem to know some of the identifying personal characteristics of the deceased. It’s beyond what you would expect from guessing, generalities, etc. We know the living can sometimes use psi, and can use it without knowing they are using it. So the data is important, but it’s about the living, and since survival is a priori impossible, it’s a mistake to attribute the correct information to surviving souls.
The third way is the super-psi hypothesis to explain the survival data, a more powerful and extensive version of the second way. It postulates that our unconscious minds can put together illusory systems of thought and feeling, can create imitations of a surviving personality. Those are ordinary human possibilities. So it is not all unreasonable to think that, in order to (at least partially) calm our fears about dying, our unconscious mind artificially creates a simulacrum of the ostensible surviving spirit, and makes that simulacrum apparently more evidential by adding in some correct, factual information obtained by psi, indeed lots of such information.
Perhaps this is indeed the case in some cases of mediumship, so while survival may be possible, some cases may indeed be unconscious imitation bolstered with (super) psi. But some deniers of survival attribute all evidence of survival to super-psi, which calls in many cases for powerful and consistent uses of unconscious psi that have never been unequivocally demonstrated in the living.
The huge problem, recognized by knowledgeable survival researchers, is that the super-psi approach is not a scientific approach because it fails a basic need of any scientific hypothesis, namely possible falsifiability. There is no way you can “prove” that something is not brought about by unconscious impersonation aided by super-psi. Some parapsychologists theorize that psi is an inherently a very small effect, but super-psi means psi can probably do anything, we know of no limits on it. I think regular human psi can be powerful at times, but making it “super” defines it as out of the range of something we can get clear and reliable knowledge on.
The fourth approach simply says there is overwhelming evidence that at least some people survival death and communicate enough about their pre-death life to establish who they were. We do survive, let’s focus on what these surviving spirits tell us about the post-death life.
What Might A Post-Death Existence Be Like?
In the sixty plus years of my professional career, a number of things have come to light that make our ideas about the nature of reality more complicated — and more interesting.
One of these is a recognition that it is too simple to believe there is a lawful physical reality “out there,” which our ordinary physical senses pick up with reasonably high fidelity. Rather, work on developing virtual reality (VR), more specifically computer-generated-virtual-reality (CGVR) has demonstrated in some detail how the creative abilities of the mind (make that brain for total materialists) can generate entire worlds of experience. This is always been obvious to me from my personal experience as someone who had generally rich dream experiences for most of my life. Essentially every night, I would wake up from adventures and travels in a world that seemed real enough to me at the time I was in it, even though, in retrospect, I would say my consciousness was sort of “fuzzy.” As one of the defining qualities of ordinary dreams, I certainly did not know my “real” state, that I was lying in bed with a part of my mind creating that dream world entirely. Of course I was properly socialized to eventually, indeed automatically, begin to think of dreams as completely unreal fantasies, and so not take them too seriously.
As I helped bring to much wider attention of people interested in consciousness in my Altered States of Consciousness book (Tart, 1969), there were also special altered states called lucid dreams. I had experienced several lucid dreams while still a child, but most people had never heard of. This ignorance was probably a matter of them not getting much cultural attention, not being talked about. They were just dreams, worthless fantasies. Thus many people who had experienced one or more lucid dreams may have simply dismissed them as something queer since they didn’t fit in with consensus knowledge. Yet a lucid dreamer has dreams that, in general, are more sensorially vivid than ordinary dreams and, in terms of their own experience of how their mind is working, they know their real condition, namely that they are dreaming, and they can often exercise a fair amount of volitional control over how the lucid dream goes on. If you ask how a lucid dream feels, it feels pretty much like your mind feels right now, except if it were a lucid dream you would simultaneously know you are dreaming (Tart, 1991). Just as if I ask you right now “Is your experience of reading this essay happening in a dream?” you would usually know instantly that this moment is not a dream.
I would not claim that the functioning of the mind in a lucid dream is totally identical to its waking functioning, but it feels much like it. So the world creating function can not only create somewhat dim world imitations in ordinary dreams, it can create quite realistic ones at a much higher level of cognitive functioning.
I had also gotten quite interested in out of the body experiences (OBEs) while still in my teens, although I haven’t personally had one. The vivid experience of some people was that they “woke up” in terms of the functioning of their consciousness from dreamless or dreaming sleep, but found themselves in some location other than where their physical body was. They were really at that other location rather than simply dreaming about it, and, as in lucid dreaming, that their consciousness was pretty much the same as when awake. Sometimes the OBE gave them information about some distant place or event they experienced themselves as being located at, information that they couldn’t have known normally. Such correct information reinforces the experiential conviction that they really were out of their body and located someplace else, not just dreaming.
Today many people have been alerted to the reality of lucid dreams, and some people learn to cultivate them. I haven’t had time to even try to follow the enormous amount of discussion about them on the world wide web. Dreams, lucid dreams and OBEs raise an interesting question: if we survive death, might our existence be something like a dream, a lucid dream, or an OBE? A relatively clear quality of consciousness within an experienced world that is partly “objective,” having properties independent of you, but partly subjective, influenced by your thoughts and feelings?
If so, that might still constitute evidence for the survival of at least some aspect of personality and consciousness, but the descriptions of spirit worlds or after-death worlds by mediums might be semi-arbitrary constructions of the mind rather than a high fidelity description of something that has an independent reality. Or perhaps the after-death state has independent, “real” qualities, but they are mixed with dreamer-created aspects?
Frequent OBEr Robert Monroe, e.g., whom I knew well, talked occasionally about having an OBE where he visited various places he described as “belief worlds,” collections of surviving souls who had held the same beliefs about the afterlife in embodied life and so collectively made the afterlife state manifest that way for them after death. I’ve discussed ways of investigating the possible independent ”reality” of non-physical worlds in more detail elsewhere (Tart, 2019).
My reading and experimentation with various altered states of consciousness (ASCs) also made it clear to me, both as a scholar and from personal experience, that the mind can temporarily take on drastic new configurations as to how it perceives (a) the world and (b) itself, (c) how it feels about those perceptions, (d) insights it could have, (e) the apparent “truths” about reality which might be experienced (experiencers would tend to say “revealed”) in ASCs, etc. Many of these experiencers left the experience with a conviction that they were more awake, more perceptive, more intelligent than in ordinary consciousness, that there were some altered states that were more real than ordinary reality. What would survive death in that case? A limited imitation of ordinary consciousness, or something more like a mystical or psychedelic experience?
The Mind as Holodeck?
Finally I might add that, around the turn of the century, I gradually came to build a working model of the nature of ordinary consciousness, paralleling the development of computer-generated virtual realities (CGVRs), that says ordinary consciousness is a Biological and Psychologically generated Virtual Reality, a BPVR. It is a map of your self and your world. Most of the salient features of that map are determined through evolutionary, social and other pressures to focus on and highlight what is useful to physical survival and happiness, not what is necessarily a clearer observation of the nature of physical (or spiritual) reality per se. So at this very moment each of us is living in a BPVR, a Biological-Psychological-Virtual-Reality, which we ordinarily take as a straightforward perception of who and what we are, and what our situation is. Right now, if you glance around, it is way too simplified to say you are looking at the “real world.” You are looking at a highly sophisticated and useful construction, being updated moment by moment to fit significant features of the actual world around you.
In many ways the construction of an experienced world in the dream state and the construction of an experienced world in your waking state are pretty much the same process. But in the normal dream state, there’s no sensory input to speak of, so the construction can vary a lot from your ordinary waking experience. In waking, the constructed victual world must be constantly updated to fit significant features of the physical world as detected by our senses. If a similar world construction process goes on after death—mostly subjective, like an ordinary dream, or shaped by some kind of “perception” of an independently real after-death world, then?
Why am I listing the above developments? To show some of the factors that make the question of “survival,” post-death, of the “self” a more complex and much richer question.
Half a century ago I pretty much automatically accepted what were, for modern Western society, conventional models of the self. I had lived decades of experience of being ordinary “me.” I had a personal history, a social security number, conventional fears and desires. If someone gave me a test involving selecting personal characteristics that made me “me,” as opposed to not really me, more someone else, I would have little trouble filling out the test. I grew up in New Jersey, belonged to the Lutheran Church, had studied to be an electrical engineer but found I wasn’t very talented at math, especially calculus, e.g.. I was shy around girls: my wife kidded me the other day that she was the first girl I’d ever met who was interested in the things I was. We could talk to each other, so of course I fell in love with her – lots of other factors, of course. 😉
The personal qualities that made me “me” were embodied in circuits in my brain and in my body, and, perhaps, in something “more” than the physical. Over the years, I was involved in humanistic and transpersonal psychology, so I became more and more aware of how basic those things were to my identity. I developed a working model of my self along empirical, dualistic lines, and still tend to think that way today. My “mind” or “self” is something more than the outcome of my brain and body, even though they shape it’s functioning in many ways. My mind was something – and “thing” is not a good part of this thought, but coining a word like “someprocess” is awkward – more.
But my brain and body are going to die. How could the essential “me” survive if the physical mold, the brain/body processes shaping much (but probably not all) of my mental action, was no longer shaping my mind into conventional “me?”
This is an intellectual way of putting it, and a major part of my personal maturation has been to realize that intellect is only part of how I process information and make decisions. But the questions I’m raising here go beyond intellectual considerations.
At the mildest level, I’ve worked on self-observation along Gurdjieff’s lines for many years (Tart, 1986, 1994, 2001). Often I’ve noticed that my intellect works quite differently when I’m in an emotional mood, e.g. Like many in our culture I was raised to regard emotional effects on my intellect and judgement as almost always being distortions, interferences, to be gotten rid of. Gurdjieff’s insistence that we have three main types of “cognitive” functions, processes that tell us about the state of the world and our selves, intellectual, emotional and body/instinctive functions, each of which is more or less intelligent in its own style, now makes a lot of sense to me. It’s been a long struggle to try to consciously accept all three of these functions as part of my nature, as part of evaluating situations. I don’t need to suppress or eliminate any emotions or body/instinctive inputs, I need to develop emotional intelligence and body/instinctive intelligence, as well as intellectual intelligence. I need to evaluate and make decisions based on a wise balancing of these several kinds of intelligence.
At its most extreme level, I was a subject for repeated experiments by a psychiatrist when I was in graduate school, experiments with psilocybin and LSD, back in the early 60s. Because I knew intellectually that the drugs were affecting my perceptions, reactions, and thinking, I tended not to get overly carried away by the experiences, but I believe I had brief tastes of some of the mystical experiences sought after by mystics in various spiritual traditions. One of these, e.g., would be a deep realization from my altered, psychedelic state that my ordinary state was OK, I was a decent fellow, but that ordinary self was a tiny part of some totality that I really was, or that was me… Words fail me here, and it’s been a long, long time since those experiences, but they remind me to not get too absolutely wed to any particular understanding.
So, Bottom Line, “Who” Might Survive Death?
My assessment of the evidence for survival – as someone much more knowledgeable of it than most people, but not a specialist in this field – shows strong support for the idea that aspects, perhaps all of the ordinary mind somehow “survives” death. It can then manifest, usually with the help of a medium, as the ordinary pre-death self of the deceased, thus providing evidence for survival. But investigation shouldn’t stop there. Can the ordinary self after death continue evolving into something “more?” Wouldn’t it be a shame if spiritual evolution stopped?
We few researchers have done a great service in compiling evidence that some recognizable aspects of pre-mortem personality at least sometimes survive death. At the least, it gives us a long-term perspective on life! But, again, what a shame if personal evolution stopped there. I like me, but centuries of me? It would probably get very boring. We have some data through mediumship suggesting that evolution can go on, but that’s harder to evaluate than basic survival itself.
Such potential spiritual evolution is an intriguing possibility. If you like to do research, like to find out stuff, instead of feeling the survival problem is solved, there’s a lot more to do…
Bottom Line: How Do I Live Assuming Postmortem Survival Happens?
Now, allowing for the fact that my beliefs and actions can be influenced in ways visible and invisible to me, but thinking now from the perspective of my ordinary self, where I think I have some (but far from total) control over my beliefs and actions…have affected the way I live my life.
My working hypotheses** (subject to change if relevant new data and ideas come in) are as sketched out below.
**If “working hypotheses” is too fancy a term – can’t help it, it’s the way my colleagues talk! – think of these as my best guesses for now… 😉
The More: My ordinary self is a systems emergent of both my Body/Brain/Nervous System (BBNS) and some deeper, “non-physical” aspect of my being, a “More.”. BBNS is a working system subject to the laws governing the properties of physical things, but there is an aspect of mind that has some different kind of reality. From the intimate interaction of the two kinds a system is created which has properties neither aspect has on its own. A car that is driving about, e.g., is a systems emergent of the physical properties of the car and the psychological aspects of the driver. Either one by itself cannot, e.g., move around at 60 miles per hour.
Evidence Supporting the Idea of The More: There are two main sources of evidence that support the idea of the More. One type is various personal experiences in my life, including occasional personal psychic experiences, that don’t reduce to a physical explanation, and psychedelic experiences from long ago that, while largely faded from my conscious memory, gave me tastes of being/manifesting something beyond the physical. A second type, a much more extensive and primarily scientific body of evidence are the reports of others’ altered states experiences and psychic experiences, and the hundreds of high quality laboratory studies that show beyond what I consider a reasonable doubt that we humans sometimes show/experience psi, things we crudely call telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, psychokinesis, and psychic healing. Other probable but not well proven parapsychological phenomena with names like out-of-body experiences (OBEs), near-death experiences (NDEs), mediumistic data, and transpersonal experiences we vaguely call “mystical” have also strongly influenced me, although the evidence is more scattered and more complex to evaluate than that for the existence of basic psi.
I’m not going into any detail to speak of with regard to the relevant evidence, this essay is already too long, but my more detailed description and assessment of the evidence for various kinds of psi is most conveniently found in my most recent book, The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together (Tart, 2009),more recently republished in paperback under the more exciting title, The Secret Science of the Soul: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together (Tart, 2017) .
Reincarnation: I have enjoyed learning new things all through my life and have often become more capable and a little wiser through such learning. There is so much that could be learned, though, that one lifetime is obviously way too short to do more than begin, so I choose to believe that we probably have many lifetimes.
The normal forgetting of previous lifetimes looks like a useful way to keep the ordinary, incarnated mind from being overwhelmed with too much information, and so being more capable of new learning. Hopefully the best of the learnings and growths cumulate over lifetimes. We’re lucky that there is the occasional retention of some apparent memories of a previous lifetime, as in children’s’ unexpected memories of previous lives, to cue us in on this possibility.
Note that I don’t think reincarnation of some sort is “proven,” but I like the idea. Some of the evidence is impressive (see, e.g., Stevenson’s classical work, (Stevenson, 1974)) and I choose to believe reincarnation is likely. This has consequences.
My wife Judy and I saw a program on child prodigies a few days ago…and when you see a one year old baby stretching his hand to try to play the piano properly, it’s hard not to think of reincarnation…
Karma: I believe in some kind of karma, consequences of reincarnation. I doubt there are spirit scorekeepers counting up every good and bad deed, but psychologically karma makes sense. If you choose to get ahead by beating down others, e.g., I think this forms habits that may go from one lifetime to the next. Such habits have the natural consequence of bringing about lots of suffering you might otherwise not have because you make a lot of enemies by habitually lashing out to get your way. They will probably get their chance to repay you, perhaps in a future incarnation if not this one. Treating people decently becomes common sense then, not some moral imperative imposed on your from the outside.
With this working belief, I try to take a long-term, multi-lifetime view of my habits and qualities. Insofar as I discover anti-social and cruel qualities in myself in this life, e.g., I try to discover their causes and at least bring them under reasonable control in order not to cement them more firmly, turn them into negative karma. If I did not have this working belief and could almost certainly get away with getting ahead by taking from others in this lifetime, why not? But I choose to believe I would be reinforcing bad habits, karma, that will cause trouble in the long run. And the ideas of being cruel to others, exploiting them, etc., are very distasteful to me anyway.
Survival: My general working belief is that I probably won’t like dying, but expect to regain consciousness (of some sort) after death, in some sort of afterlife. As to what that afterlife will be like….very complicated to even guess. Mediumistic statements about this are undoubtedly affected by various beliefs and may not be accurate.
Ordinary Self/Deeper Self: While I expect to regain consciousness (of some sort) after death, I’m not at all sure that “I,” my ordinary, this-lifetime self will regain consciousness, given the considerations above about what my (and others’) deeper selves may be like. Perhaps it will remain available as a subroutine to use when needed?
Manifestation of Ordinary Life Self from Post-Death: I suspect that the cases of alleged spirits showing the qualities and knowledge of their ordinary pre-death selves to provide proof of the reality of survival, is something like a large, overall computer program temporarily running a sub-program that manifests the pre-death qualities. The More that I think is our deeper nature temporarily “reincarnates” the pre-death self as a kindness to those seeking contact. This is not casting doubt on some kind of postmortem survival, but a caution to accepting the apparent survival of pre-death personality as any kind of ultimate.
A child part of my mind, for example, still loving and missing my grandmother, hopes to meet her, hug her, thank her, love her after I die. But the idea that she has hung around unchanged in some kind of bardo state, in inactive storage, as it were, sounds depressing and wasteful to me. I hope she survived and has been going on through all sorts of spiritual growth experiences. Although, hopefully, there will be a way in which she will “genuinely” be non-physically “reincarnated” for a while to greet me and receive my love when I die. I know what I’m saying isn’t all that clear, it’s not to me, but… It’s a big universe.
And If I Die But Don’t Survive? One belief from my childhood that I have consciously rejected is the idea of an insecure seeming God who is very vengeful and punishes people at death by sending them to some kind of hell, either temporarily or permanently.
By the time I was a teenager, I was puzzling over the idea that God loved us, indeed was Love, but also was so vengeful that he not only punished the sinner but the sinner’s children, the sinner’s children’s children, down on through several generations! This is a God who loves? Creating such fear is an unfortunately effective tactic of human dictators to frighten the ruled so badly that it doesn’t take as many soldiers to keep them in line. I see this and many other Old Testament kinds of material as an early human attempt to make sense of the idea of an ultimately powerful god, but probably based on unfortunate human experiences with human tyrants serving as models of what powerful beings were like.
Maybe there’s a temporary kind of afterlife state where you need to learn something? There might be researchable (from here) aspects to that, but let’s not drift that far off now…
So my thinking on my death is pretty binary. Either some aspect of my consciousness survives in some form (and hopefully goes on growing and being useful to the best in some Cosmic Plan?) — or my consciousness is totally extinguished.
So the consequences of my working belief being some kind of survival, with potential learning and karmic consequences? Interesting, challenging, and hopefully I’ll be smart enough to not have to learn most things through suffering. I’ll be a good person, that’s what I prefer anyway, and try to be an open, growing person rather than letting myself get too rigid. If there is some kind of personal/spiritual evolution through reincarnation, practicing being open and curious seems like it would help future progress for me and my world.
And if it’s total extinction?
Then I’ll never know I had some fallacious beliefs while alive, so no embarrassment for me at being mistaken…
This is not the usual kind of reference list, providing a comprehensive guide to the literature on survival research, but just a convenient listing of mainly articles and books of mine relevant to the issues brought up in this essay.
Stevenson, I. (1974). Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation (2nd ed.). Charlottesville VA: University of Virginia Press.
Targ, R., & Puthoff, H. E. (1977). Mind Reach: Scientists Look at Psychic Ability. New York:: Delacorte Press/Eleanor Friede.
Tart, C. (1969). Altered States of Consciousness: A Book of Readings. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Tart, C. (1972). States of consciousness and state-specific sciences. Science, 176, 1203-1210.
Tart, C. (1986). Waking Up: Overcoming the Obstacles to Human Potential. Boston: New Science Library; currently in print through www.iuniverse.com.
Tart, C. (1991). Terminology in lucid dream research. Lucidity, 10, 57-58.
Tart, C. (1994). Living the Mindful Life. Boston: Shambhala.
Tart, C. (2001). Mind Science: Meditation Training for Practical People. Novato, California: Wisdom Editions.
Tart, C. (2009). The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together . Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
Tart, C. (2017). The Secret Science of the Soul: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together. Napa, CA: Fearless Books.
Tart, C. (2019). On the potential role of psi in an expanded science of the physical, experiential and spiritual. Journal of Scientific Exploration,, 33(3), 359-405