Amazon.com's Brian Patterson speaks with Dr. Charles Tart about the burgeoning field of parapsychology, the study of psychological phenomena that are inexplicable by science. Dr. Tart, known for his work in parapsychology and an expert on altered states of consciousness, talks about the difference between religion and spirituality, the influence technology has had on spirituality, and tips on becoming a parapsychologist.
Amazon.com: Do you have a succinct definition of the difference between religion and spirituality?
Dr. Charles Tart: I can tell you the distinction I make: spirituality is referring to experiential things that happen to people that give them the feeling that there's something much bigger than ordinary, material life. Those kind of spiritual experiences are usually what start religion. But spiritual experiences happen to a live, individual person and then, of course, that person tries to explain them to other people. So you immediately get into the problem of words not adequately conveying them, and then pretty soon they get mixed in with the social system, and you have committees meeting to decide what the founder of the religion really said and what's doctrinally correct and what's not. So by the time I'm using the word religion, I'm talking about highly organized social movements with belief systems and commitments to them.
Amazon.com: Do you feel that there is a difference between spirituality and paranormal events, things such as telepathy and the ability to see into the future?
Tart: Yes. I use the terms separately. When we're talking about paranormality, we're talking about information getting from one place to another or influence getting from one place to another, as in psychokinesis, when given our current view of the world or reasonable extensions of them, it shouldn't happen. Whether that has any spiritual significance or not varies a great deal. To me, the fact that we have scientific evidence for these paranormal events that show the mind can do things the brain can't do begins to lay a groundwork for saying, "I'm being very scientific." But within that, there's good reason to be open to ideas about spiritual realities and then, of course, going on to find out what might be the spiritual realities versus the superstitions in life.
Tart: Oh, sure. I've had many of them over the years. I wouldn't describe myself as psychic. It's not like I can do anything psychic on demand, but in terms of spontaneous experiences, I have two or three happen every year. Of course, I have very high criteria for deciding that something's a psychic experience, because part of my field of study is on how we fool ourselves. So, I have lots of things where I say, "Well, maybe that was psychic, but probably there's an alternative explanation." The ones that I think are definitely psychic I generally don't bother to remember, unless I think they give me some idea of how this stuff might work or what it might mean.
Amazon.com: The focus of Body Mind Spirit is on how some scientists are digging into spirituality. Do you think that science can really explore the ephemeral world of spirituality?
Tart: Yes. Essential science, which is an open-minded process of looking at what's there, thinking about it logically, always subjecting your theories and predictions to tests to see how well they work, and always trying to refine these processes, can refine our knowledge of the spiritual. I'm not saying it will explain it in any ultimate, absolute sense, but it can be extremely useful in discriminating the sense from the nonsense. Hopefully, the Body Mind Spirit book will help people begin to make some of those discriminations by telling them what we have pretty good facts on and what some of the indications of those facts are.
Amazon.com: Given the success of The X-Files, the proliferation of books on the subject, and the number of conventions and new research on the subject, paranormal studies seem to be surging in popularity. Do you think this interest could have a positive or negative impact on the scientific study of the subject?
Tart: It's having both. The negative impact is that people call themselves parapsychologists who have no relevant scientific training. When I get associated with those people, it decreases the value of the solid scientific work that I and other scientific parapsychologists have done.
Amazon.com: What about the benefits?
Tart: The positive side of this is even more interesting. As a psychologist, it's clear to me that people need meaning in their lives. If you don't have meaning, psychologically you sicken and die. We used to have meaning systems in the form of major religions that were handed to people when they were children, and they went along with it. It gave people a sense of why they're here, and why they should lead a good life. We now live in a time when science is the dominant religion. Is life nothing more than an accident? Is there no inherent meaning in the universe? All my studies have led me to believe that there is more to it, but people shouldn't believe something more inspiring just because they want to. We are desperate for meaning, and we're going to grasp at the first thing to fill that void. This tremendous interest in the paranormal is partly driven by this desperation. But, if we can partially fill that hunger and not be driven so much by desperation, we can be more discriminating. We have to discriminate what is real about spirituality and what is superstition.
Amazon.com:What effect do you think people's reliance on technology has on our spiritual experiences?
Tart: For one thing, the better quality of life that we live because of technological progress may change our approach to spirituality. For example, sometimes people develop real spirituality because of material suffering, but for a lot of people that material suffering has been removed. That gives us a chance to be more discriminating about what works and what doesn't work. There's also the possibility of using the technology to aid a person's spirituality. I think most of our traditional techniques, like meditation, don't work for everyone. I'd love to see our technology used in a combination of psychological tests and computer databases to test the next 100,000 people who start down various spiritual paths and check up on how they're doing, so that you know what kind of people do well on what kinds of paths.
Amazon.com: Okay, breaking into new ground: Are there organizations besides universities exploring these phenomena?
Tart: I was a consultant on secret U.S. government projects for a while. For a long time I never said anything about it, because I had to sign too many pieces of paper saying, "Penalty: $10,000 fine or 10 years in prison," to get my security clearance, but about a year and a half ago, there was a book by Jim Schnabel called Remote Viewers that really brought most of that program into the public view, so I can talk about it now. I saw examples of the applied functioning of the remote viewing paradigm that were extremely impressive. It was useful in practical intelligence applications. Sometimes it was way off. Even people who are really good at that particular psychic function can be way off. As an adjunct to other intelligence gathering apparatus, it was useful. No one ever used it as the sole source of intelligence. I don't think that there's a lot of private agencies like that though, because basically I know practically all of the parapsychologists in the world, and none of them are suddenly driving around in fancy cars.
Amazon.com: Being that there is such a shortage of funding even for these big questions, what kind of recommendation would you make to someone who wants to make a career of parapsychology or transpersonal psychology?
If they're independently wealthy, they have a lot of choices. [laughs]
Since that only applies to an awfully small number of people, and the
of us have to make a living, the advice I'd give is to find a
field that's relevant to their real interest. Psychology was relevant
parapsychology and transpersonal psychology to me; for someone else it
might be medicine or psychiatry. Obtain your training while keeping
real interest close. Eventually get into a position where you have the
freedom to work on that. For a lot of people that means getting a
position in a university where they have tenure and they can't be fired
easily. They'll still get flak, but at least they can devote some of
research time to it.
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