On the Scientific Foundations of Transpersonal Psychology: Contributions from Parapsychology

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: As a field, transpersonal psychology is largely ignored, and at best marginal from the perspective of mainstream science, which is dominated by scientistic materialism. Its prime subject matter, transpersonal experience, is held to be inherently illusory and frequently pathological. From a scientistic perspective, mind is considered to be only the operation of the brain and nervous system. Experiences which appear to transcend these physical limits are illusions. The author argues that essential science (the basic scientific method), as it has been applied in the similarly criticized field of parapsychology, demonstrates with high scientific rigor that the mind is more than the brain and so provides an empirical basis for considering many transpersonal phenomena as having reality. While there are political costs in allying with another controversial field, in the long run the case for transpersonal psychology can be based on a rigorous scientific base such as parapsychology provides.

At the first all-professional transpersonal psychology conference, sponsored by the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology and the Association for Transpersonal Psychology in February, 2004,1 presented a lecture with the deliberately provocative title, Flakey California nonsense in a scientific age? Is there any scientific support for transpersonal psychology? This paper will explore those questions in three major sections. The first will address the scientific, scholarly, and practical status of transpersonal psychology as a discipline, a focus on what we might call the "politics" of the field. Are we going to continue to be thought of as those folks from California and their New Age sympathizers who are a bunch of flakes? Or are we going to be considered as reputable professionals with something of value to contribute in this modern age? In the second section I will talk about reality rather than politics, the scientific and ontological foundations of transpersonal psychology. In the third section I return to the questions of politics: what is liable to advance or hinder our field, given current social reality, and conclude by considering the question of what we should do. We will begin by looking at another field, parapsychology, which is in a similar situation to transpersonal psychology. The central theme of this article focuses on the potential contribution of scientific parapsychology to transpersonal psychology.


I have raised similar kinds of questions for the field of parapsychology (Tart, 2001b), as a substantial part of my career has been spent functioning as a parapsychologist. I have been disappointed in many of my colleagues in parapsychology because they want mainstream scientific acceptance so badly that they tend to downplay or ignore the really important and interesting aspects of the findings of parapsychological studies-as if mainstream scientists won't notice the revolutionary, and hence threatening, aspects of parapsychological findings if they are not reminded of them. Too many of my parapsychological colleagues tend to act as if our findings have no human significance, talking frequently about "anomalies," for example, or statistical fluctuations, and hiding behind really fine methodology. But somehow in the emphasis on the rigor of the methodology, they've lost touch with what's really important. Yet I have found that this is not the way it all started. A surprising number of parapsychologists came into the field as a result of spiritual interests (Tart, 2003), just as in transpersonal psychology, and while, at this point in time, a majority say they are in the field mainly out of disinterested scientific curiosity, still over a third of them came from primarily spiritual/transpersonal interests to work in the field. This reality can be acknowledged as a legitimate motivation for scientific research.

At this point an important distinction must be made between popular parapsychology and scientific parapsychology. …