Spiritual Motivations of Parapsychologists? Empirical Data
Tart, Charles T., The Journal of Parapsychology
Contrary to the beliefs of both extreme skeptics and spiritually committed people that parapsychologists are either, at the one extreme, mainly driven by attempts to validate their personal spiritual convictions under the guise of science or, at the other extreme, too unaware of the spiritual implications of parapsychological research Findings, empirical survey data from almost half of the members of the relevant scientific association, the Parapsychological Association, show 49% giving an unqualified "no" answer to spiritual motivation being important in their entering the field and 36% saying "yes." A third of the respondents indicated spiritual interests were of some importance in their current work, but many of these felt these interests were in conflict with the dominant laboratory orientation of contemporary parapsychological research. Illuminating comments on these issues by the respondents are available in a Web archive.
Scientific parapsychologists are the recipients of enormous amounts of (mostly unwarranted and inaccurate) criticism. One kind of criticism of interest here, that I have heard audience members express frequently when I have spoken about parapsychology, concerns the degree to which parapsychologists' work might be influenced by "spiritual" beliefs. On the one hand, the debunkers and pseudo-skeptics claim that parapsychologists are only pretending to do objective science, that they really have a hidden agenda to promote personal spiritual beliefs. On the other hand, people with spiritual belief systems wonder how parapsychologists can create such a humanly arid field of work, almost completely ignoring the obvious spiritual implications of their subject matter.
Without becoming involved in arguments for or against the objective truth of either of these positions, I will note that they are opinions based on almost no actual data. This article presents data on scientific parapsychologists' (Parapsychological Association [PA] members) own reporting of the degree to which spiritual interests or concerns are involved in their work.
As part of the preparation of a more general article arguing for important connections between parapsychology and spiritual concerns, especially as expressed in the field of transpersonal psychology (Tart, 2001), I decided to survey PA members and ask them four questions, one for background and three on spirituality. Potential respondents were assured that their identity would be kept confidential, so they could be frank in their comments.
Background Question: How active have you been in parapsychology over the last 5 years? Write "very" if it's been your primary professional work, "moderate" if it's been about half time, "somewhat" if you have done some things but it's less than half time, and "mainly an interest" if you haven't been able to actively contribute at all to the field. Also write "Full" or "Associate" to indicate your membership status in the PA.
QI. Did you enter the field of parapsychology because of, to some significant degree, what we might call "spiritual" interests or motivations, that is, important concerns with questions of meaning, spirit, connection, and the like?
Q2. If yes, does your current (now and last few years') work in parapsychology come primarily from that spiritual motivation?
Q3. If you answered yes to the first question, do you sometimes feel significant conflicts between your spiritual motivation/interests and what we might call the mainstream of laboratory, experimental research in parapsychology today?
Because almost all scientists who engage in scientific (as opposed to popular) parapsychology are full or associate PA members, I e-mailed all who had e-mail addresses listed in the 2001 Membership Directory of the PA (practically all of them) and had 77 responses to the 160 questionnaires e-mailed out. This was a 48% return rate, which is excellent for any kind of mail questionnaire study. …