The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together

The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together

by Charles Tart

Charles Tart reconciles the scientific and spiritual worlds by looking at empirical evidence for the existence of paranormal phenomena that point toward our spiritual nature, including telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, psychokinesis, and psychic healing.

Science seems to tell us that we are all meaningless products of blind biological and chemical forces,

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Charles Tart reconciles the scientific and spiritual worlds by looking at empirical evidence for the existence of paranormal phenomena that point toward our spiritual nature, including telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, psychokinesis, and psychic healing.

Science seems to tell us that we are all meaningless products of blind biological and chemical forces, leading meaningless lives that will eventually end in death. The truth is that unseen forces such as telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, psychokinesis, psychic healing, and other phenomena inextricably link us to the spiritual world, and while many skeptics and scientists deny the existence of these spiritual phenomena, the experiences of millions of people indicate that they do take place.

In this book, copublished with the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), transpersonal psychologist Charles Tart presents over fifty years of scientific research conducted at the nation's leading universities that proves humans do have natural spiritual impulses and abilities. The End of Materialism presents an elegant argument for the union of science and spirituality in light of this new evidence, and explains why a truly rational viewpoint must address the reality of a spiritual world. Tart's work marks the beginning of an evidence-based spiritual awakening that will profoundly influence your understanding of the deeper forces at work in our lives.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A faculty member at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, scientist Tate (Altered States of Consciousness, On Being Stoned) spent more than 50 years studying the paranormal. In this challenge to traditional science and spirituality, Tart employs scientific skepticism and an open mind (both essential to interpreting results "as objectively as possible") to question the seeming contradiction between "the formal, rational rules of science, which have worked so well in understanding the physical world" and "behaviors that cannot be reduced to materialistic explanations." To substantiate his thesis, Tart analyzes a number of scientific paranormal experiments: distinguishing the color of face-down cards, testing the hypothesis that feedback training improves telepathic ability, attempts to show a relationship between electromagnetism and clairvoyance, etc. Elsewhere, Tate makes intriguing comparisons between out-of-the-body experiences and near-death experiences, both of which support (but don't prove) the phenomenon of "postmortem survival" (children who "remember" past lives are also examined). While admitting that he has no "final, absolutely certain, and wonderful answers," Tart covers a wide range of phenomena (remote viewing, psychic healing, mediumship) and leaves readers much to ponder.
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Noted science writer Sharon Begley, in her recent book Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves (2007, 131–32), reports how His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the highest-ranking lama in Tibetan Buddhism and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, watched a brain operation while on a visit to an American medical school. His Holiness has always been fascinated with science. He has enjoyed hours of conversations with neuroscientists over the years, and was fascinated by ways they had explained to him that all our perceptions, sensations, and other subjective experiences represent and are produced by chemical and electrical changes in our brains. If patterns of electrochemical impulses surge through our brain’s visual cortex, for example, we see, and when such impulses travel through our limbic system, we feel emotions. These rivers of electrochemical impulses may be generated in response to stimulation from happenings in the external world or result from just thoughts in the mind alone. Consciousness, His Holiness remembered various scientists explaining with great conviction, is nothing more than a manifestation of brain activity. When the brain stops functioning, from injury or death, our mind vanishes—period, end of story.

But Begley reports, the Dalai Lama had always been bothered by the seeming certainty of this kind of “explaining away” of consciousness. Even if you accept the theory that our minds are what our brains do, that our emotions and thoughts are expressions of brain activity, isn’t there more? Isn’t some kind of two-way ­causation ­possible? Perhaps some aspects of whatever mind ultimately is might act on the physical brain, modifying its activity? Could it be, as common sense seems to tell us, that mind might have an active reality of its own rather than just be a by-product of brain activity? His Holiness voiced this question to the chief surgeon.

Begley reports that the brain surgeon hardly paused before authoritatively answering no—period. What we call consciousness or mind is nothing but a product of the physical operation of the brain.

The Dalai Lama is a very polite person, and he let the matter drop. He was used to hearing such absolute statements from people who were (supposed to be) scientists.

But, as Begley notes, “I thought then and still think that there is yet no scientific basis for such a categorical claim,” His Holiness wrote in his 2005 book The Universe in a Single Atom. “The view that all mental processes are necessarily physical processes is a metaphysical assumption, not a scientific fact” (Dalai Lama 2005, quoted in Begley 2007, 132).

This book is a scientific, rather than a scientistic, answer to the Dalai Lama’s questions. The difference between science and scientism, and the differing consequences of these approaches, will become clear as you read on.

Before I give a more formal introduction to this book, read and think about the following: In 1872 Richard Maurice Bucke, a Canadian physician and psychiatrist, had the following overwhelming experience. Bucke coined the term “Cosmic Consciousness” to describe what happened to him, as well as similar experiences of others. Since he thought of himself as a man of science, devoted to factuality and accuracy, he wrote about this experience in the third person in an attempt to be as objective as possible. This is his account of his experience (Bucke 1961, 7–8):

It was in the early spring at the beginning of his thirty-sixth year. He and two friends had spent the evening reading Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Browning, and especially Whitman. They parted at midnight, and he had a long drive in a hansom (it was in an English city). His mind, deeply under the influences of the ideas, images, and emotions called up by the reading and talk of the evening, was calm and peaceful. He was in a state of quiet, almost passive enjoyment. All at once, without warning of any kind, he found himself wrapped around, as it were, by a flame-colored cloud. For an instant he thought of fire, some sudden conflagration in the great city; the next he knew that the light was within himself. Directly afterwards came upon him a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness, accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe. Into his brain streamed one momentary lightning flash of the Brahmic Splendor which has ever since lightened his life; upon his heart fell one drop of Brahmic Bliss, leaving thenceforward for always an aftertaste of heaven. Among other things he did not come to believe, he saw and knew that the Cosmos is not dead matter but a living Presence, that the soul of man is immortal, that the universe is so built and ordered that without any peradventure, all things work together for the good of each and all, that the foundation principle of the world is what we call love and that the happiness of everyone is, in the long run, absolutely certain. He claims that he learned more within the few seconds during which the illumination lasted than in previous months or even years of study and that he learned much that no study could ever have taught. The illumination itself continued not more than a few moments, but its effects proved ineffaceable; it was impossible for him ever to forget what he at that time saw and knew; neither did he, or could he, ever doubt the truth of what was then presented to his mind.

Here are the kinds of questions this book is concerned with and moves toward answering, even if not answering in any final sense:

Wouldn’t you like to believe some version of Bucke’s experience? I certainly would! On the other hand, do you hate to be fooled or feel foolish? I certainly do! We’ll return to a modern version of Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness experience and our “what if?” questions at the end of this book.

Now, for my more traditional introduction.

Seeking the Spiritual as a Scientist

“Seeking” is a word commonly associated with spiritual pursuits, but “science” and “scientist” are usually associated with a materialistic view of the universe in which there’s nothing real to the “spiritual,” so how could a scientist seek the spiritual? Wouldn’t such seeking lead to intellectual and emotional conflicts that could be confusing and invalidating, as well as a waste of time?

Indeed, that’s how it is for a lot of people today. Something in them seeks, often desperately, something “spiritual” (so far, I’m being deliberately general as to what “spiritual” means) to make their lives authentic and worthwhile, yet no intelligent person can disregard modern science and its understandings without mentally harming themselves in various ways. But modern science, which has given us so much materially, tells “spiritual seekers” that they’re, at best, softheaded folks unwilling to be completely scientific and, at worst, superstitious fools, perhaps having a serious psychopathology that drives them to seek the “spiritual.”

This all-too-common situation easily makes for an ineffective and stuttering kind of spiritual search, two or three steps forward (that spiritual idea or experience rings true in my heart!) and two or three steps back (scientifically ridiculous—I must be stupid or crazy!). One day your heart and head open toward the spiritual, and then the next day your (apparently) scientific mind rules it out as illusion and delusion.

It was probably simpler in the old days: you believed or disbelieved the one religion given you in your village, and that was it. There wasn’t much in the way of competing views. Now we have so much information! Here I am, for example, a constantly fluctuating mixture of scientist; father; husband; psychologist; parapsychologist; teacher; writer; carpenter; bulldozer operator; liberal; conservative; skeptic; and serious off-and-on student of Buddhism, Christianity, Sufism, Yoga, the Fourth Way, and aikido, believing we have the potential of gods, believing we’re usually practically mindless robots, and so on. That’s a lot of information and roles to balance! And besides just the ideas, many of these spiritual paths say it’s not enough to just think about and believe or disbelieve their ideas—you can and should live your life so that you can have direct personal experience of them.

I’ve written this book to help those who’ve experienced conflicts between their spiritual and scientific sides, or who are simply interested in aspects of science and the spiritual. In my own life I’ve not only finally become comfortable with (and proud of!) being both scientist and spiritual seeker, but I also have a dream that someday these two aspects of human life will help each other rather than be in conflict.

This book is not a scientific book per se, as are most of my earlier books and articles; I haven’t loaded it down with hundreds of scholarly and scientific references to buttress every point, sophisticated caveats, or the very latest news about all sorts of things that might be relevant. Nor is it a spiritual book per se; I’m not a natural mystic inspired by deep experiences. This book is a product of seventy years of my full humanity and complexity: scientific, humanistic, spiritual, skeptical but open—and personal, when that helps illustrate points. What’s worked for me is certainly not “The Way,” but the conflicts I’ve experienced and the insights I’ve had are those of many others, so they can help some people, and are worth sharing.

In the following chapters, we’ll look at the ongoing conflict between spirituality and science (the conflict is actually between second-rate spirituality and second-rate science) and see how the implications of the most rigorous kind of research in scientific parapsychology show that we humans have qualities that open to a reality of the spiritual. That’s why we can be both scientific and spiritual, and not have to artificially separate the two. We’ll look at research findings about most major parapsychological phenomena and some less-researched but farther-out phenomena, and think about their implications for creating a spirituality anchored in scientific facts. We’re still at the very beginnings of applying science to the spiritual and a long way from making recommendations like “Being a Baptist will produce more spiritual growth for this particular kind of person than being a Buddhist,” but we know enough to say that it makes a lot of sense to seriously work on your spiritual growth. Knowing that, our growth may still be difficult, but not so stuttering and not so deeply undercut by useless conflicts about whether or not we’re totally deluded.

In the end, I hope that you, gentle reader, I can be comfortable with, indeed proud of, being both scientifically oriented and spiritually seeking, as I am. The combination makes for an interesting life.

With this book as a basis, I hope to later write another one sharing some of the things I’ve explored about actually practicing a spiritual life in modern times.

Spirituality and Religion

Before turning to our central subject matter, there’s an important distinction to make: this is a book about science and spirituality, not about science and religion. What do I mean by that? There are at least two levels at which we can think (or, just as importantly, feel) about that. Let’s take the scholarly or rational level first and then briefly look at the more-difficult emotional level.

Although they can’t be totally separated in reality since the distinction oversimplifies a complex human situation, as I and many other writers use these terms, spirituality is primarily about life-­changing, primary experiences that happen to individuals, experiences like Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness, while religion is primarily about the social organizations and beliefs that develop and become relatively fixed and institutionalized. Such organizations and belief systems are usually initiated by spiritual experiences of the religion’s founder, and these organizations and belief systems incorporate and develop (with more or less fidelity) those basic experiences into ongoing social ­structures, relationships, beliefs, needs, and customs.

Someone, let’s call him John Everyman, for example, almost dies and, while apparently dead, has a numinous, “realer-than-real” vision of meeting a nonphysical being. Let’s call this being Angelicus. Angelicus communicates with John telepathically and tells John the deep meanings of existence and how embodied life should be lived once he comes back to it. This is a “realer-than-real” revelation to John, the most powerful single experience of his life.

John revives, and is a changed man. He begins telling others about his vision and how they should live. John has enough charm, charisma, or whatever it takes in the particular times he lives in, to strongly influence many people, and a small religious group, technically a cult, forms around the Laws of Angelicus and his prophet John Everyman.

Since any change in the social status quo threatens some who already have favored positions and appeals to others who want to change their status, accommodations in action and doctrine develop to alleviate these tensions so that Angelicusism starts to fit into society even while changing it. By the time John Everyman has been dead for a few generations, his original teachings and those of his close, early followers have been worked over to various degrees (lots of committee meetings and politics), and Angelicusism is now a distinct religion, with its own theology, rites, customs, political affiliations, and social agenda. Nonapproved interpretations of John Everyman’s visions are called heresy and condemned. If Angelicusism becomes politically powerful enough, this condemnation and suppression of other views can easily lead to violence.

The degree to which John Everyman, if he could come back a few hundred years later, would recognize his original spiritual vision in this new religion is an interesting question.

This book, then, focuses on the degree to which you can be scientifically oriented and yet seek and value personal spiritual experience and growth without the doubt and conflict generated by regarding yourself as “irrational,” “unscientific,” or “crazy.” I won’t attempt to work with all the psychological and social factors that enter in once spirituality becomes religion, but note that the distinction isn’t quite as clear-cut as we might like it to be. We humans are social creatures, and this can affect, to some degree, the very spiritual experiences we have in the first place, as well as our ongoing interpretation and understanding of them afterward. Most of us, too (and I certainly include myself here), need some ongoing social support in our spiritual lives, so I doubt we’ll ever have a “pure” spirituality unaffected by religion. It must also be the case that even religions that have changed considerably from the spiritual experiences that started them must still satisfy at least some people’s spiritual longings if the religions are to survive.

That’s the rational part of the distinction between spirituality and religion. Now, let’s move on to the more difficult emotional level. I’ll talk about my own feelings here, but I know that large numbers of people have similar feelings. Those who don’t are probably lucky.

For me, the word “religion” connotes the particular church I was raised in (Lutheran), its doctrines, and the effects on my personality or self that I can now recognize from a wiser (I hope!), adult perspective. On the one hand, there were many good effects: a concern for the welfare of others; a basic belief in some kind of wise, loving, and caring intelligence in the universe; and numerous instances of experiencing kindness and care from adults in the church that helped shape me. On the other hand, a lot of my neurotic shortcomings stem from or were reinforced by church doctrines, such as feelings of being inherently sinful, a nagging feeling that no matter how good I am it’ll never be enough, and a pervasive shame about my body and sexuality that has taken many years to largely overcome. In many ways I was forcibly brainwashed in being taught my religion when I was too young to really understand and make choices. So “religion,” for me, is a complicated category with conscious, semiconscious, and undoubtedly unconscious strong feelings, positive and negative, that can create conflicts and tension. Do you recognize yourself in this description?

“Spirituality,” on the other hand, has been a matter of relatively conscious choice on my part as an adult, and the aspects of it I’ve chosen to make central in my life have given me goals and guidance that have added much meaning and satisfaction.

So the rational distinction between spirituality and religion—primary, life-changing experiences of the spiritual versus institutionalized, socialized doctrines and practices—is important to make. But lurking in the background are all these emotional elements, tending to make spirituality a “good” word and religion a “bad” word for many of us. At bodily and emotional levels, when I hear “religion,” I tend to get a little tense and defensive, and when I hear “spirituality,” I relax and open. To the degree that I recognize these complexities and work on healing the emotional angles, I can be more rational and effective in what I write about and do.

I won’t generalize more here, because there are so many varieties of religion, and aside from their formal beliefs and structures, there are enormous variations in the way different individuals absorb and react to particular religions. By the time some of us reach adulthood, our childhood religions are a useful, and perhaps the best, vehicle for promoting and integrating our individual spiritual experiences, which in turn would further enliven our religions. For others of us, our childhood religions are the enemy of our spiritual growth. How it is for you is a matter for you to discover and work with. In this book, though, we’ll focus, as I said, on science and spirituality, not science and religion.

—Charles T. Tart Berkeley, California 2008

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Meet the Author

Charles T. Tart, Ph.D., is a core faculty member of the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto, CA. He is internationally known for his psychological work on the nature of consciousness, particularly on altered states of consciousness, and for his research in scientific parapsychology. He is one of the founders of the field of transpersonal psychology. Tart's two classic books, Altered States of Consciousness and Transpersonal Psychologies, were instrumental in introducing these areas to modern psychology. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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