Monday, August 8, 2011

Evidence based spirituality

Recently I read an interview, dated July 2010, on the internet (Buddhist Geeks) with the grand title: Evidence based spirituality of the 21st century, by transpersonal psychologist Charles Tart. Transpersonal psychology is a form of psychology that studies the transpersonal, self-transcendent or spiritual aspects of the human experience. I have no issue with the subject matter. The approach that Tart used however did boggle my mind, as I shall explain below, using the subject of reincarnation to argue my case.

The first contention of Tart is that reincarnation is evidence-based, and that therefore reincarnation is a scientific fact rather than psychic or theological fact. Tart based his contention solely on the study of one psychiatrist by the name of Ian Stevenson, who, according to Tart, claimed himself to have proved reincarnation. The gist of Ian's study was that he interviewed many cases of kids at age 3-6 who claimed to be able to remember previous life experience, many also with sudden death memory.

But does that prove anything? Cancer is a disease we all dread. Around the world there have been many reported cases of people taking various kinds of folk formulations or practice for a miraculous cure (e.g. urine, exotic herbs, vegetable and fruit juices made from powerful blender, various kinds of chi-kung). Like Ian's reincarnation research, the above cancer curing formulations are all evidence based. But that doesn't PROVE they can do their better job of curing cancer as claimed. The FDA would need scientifically vigorous tests, and in particular with tests with placebo before it will certify the formulation as PROVED to be potent.

Concerning the Ian/Tart's evidence, I believe it is strong enough to support the formulation of the hypothesis: "reincarnation is a fact". The next proper step is for them to put it into a falsifiable statement, and finally to put the statement to a physical test. According to Sir Karl Popper, a scientific statement is one that is falsifiable. In conclusion, rather than "proved", the Ian/Tart study on reincarnation, as a scientific pursuit, is still work-in-progress. It seems that they have no interest to pursue further but contented to "believe" their statement to be proved and ventured into further speculations, as I shall explain below.

On interesting thing arises from Ian/Tart's evidence: the "ability" to reincarnate doesn't depend on one's level of meditative achievement! That goes directly opposite to the belief system of Tibetan Buddhism. In a stroke of theatrical or magical gesture, Tart claimed that Tibetan Buddhism should change their theology in the light of Ian/Tart's new evidence! And by my own extrapolation, perhaps a corollary claim is that all other religions that do not believe in reincarnation should change their theologies too! (Don't laugh!)

I don't think I am doing disfavor to Ian/Tart position. They claimed to be scientific, and I have simply used scientific discipline to bring their position to its logical conclusion.

How about the concept of reincarnation in Tibetan Buddhism. As far as I know the Buddhists never say they use scientific method to prove the existence of reincarnation. The gist of the matter is the Buddhists (like the faithfuls of all other religions) based their belief on the inner communication with the Divine (however it is to be defined, Emptiness (空) or otherwise). Ian joked about the process of finding the next Dalai Lama in Tibet as unscientific (should add double-blind, he said). Ian missed out the fact that the senior lamas doing the search can have a psychic reality of being guided inside by some kind of Divine intervention. It would indeed be silly for the lamas to "believe" in the scientific process of "double-blind" rather than listening to their inner voices.

In conclusion, as Carl Jung had always insisted, scientific pursuit has nothing to do with theology, and the limit we can approach the Divine scientifically is through studying the psychic reality of the faithfuls. The approach of Ian/Tart is not even close. And I rest my case here.


  1. As a meditation practitioner, scientist and a physician, I fully support the approach of evidence based spirituality. Apparently, the Dalai Lama supports this too as he said that if scientific evidence contradicts Buddhist beliefs, Buddhists should examine the evidence and adjust their beliefs according to the truth, not blind faith.

  2. Thanks for your comment. My point was that Tart proved nothing. And the fact that he proved nothing is quite irrelevant to the faithfuls and their belief systems as well as to religion or spirituality as an academic subject. I'm pro rather than against the scientific approach, as explained succinctly by Sir Karl Popper.

    My contention is further that the Ian/Tart "proof" can't survive the rigorous scientific criteria. And therefore they statement is actually a statement of belief rather than science.

    I'm sure that the Dalai Lama is also pro-science too (this however doesn't contract with his belief system which speaks a different language).


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