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Science versus scientism - a valid demarcation?
March 12, 2007
6:10 pm

In a paper published in the Journal of Near Death Studies, March 30, 1997, Prof. Charles Tart wrote:


"Science and Scientism in the Modern World:

We live in a world that has been miraculously transformed by science and technology. This is very good in some ways, not in others. The negative aspect of particular concern for us today is that this material progress has been accompanied by a shift in our belief systems that is unhealthy in many ways, viz. a partial crushing of the human spirit by scientism. Note carefully that I said scientism, not science. I am a scientist, which I consider a noble calling that demands the best from me, and I’m very much in favor of using genuine science to help our understanding in all areas of life, including the spiritual. Scientism, on the other hand, is a perversion of genuine science. Scientism in our time consists of a dogmatic commitment to a materialist philosophy that explains away the spiritual rather than actually examining it carefully and trying to understand it (Wellmuth, 1944). Those of you who have a negative feeling when I first mentioned science have probably gotten it from encounters with scientism. Since scientism never recognizes itself as a belief system, but always thinks of itself as true science, the confusion is pernicious.

The information I want to share here was obtained in my attempts to practice genuine science in areas of mutual interest to us. Genuine science is a four part, continuing process that is always subject to questioning, expansion and revision. It is a process that begins with a commitment to observe things as carefully and honestly as you can. Then you think about what your observations mean, i.e. you devise theories and explanations, trying to be as logical as possible in the process. The next, third step is very important though. Our minds are wonderfully clever, so clever that they can make sense out of almost anything with hindsight, i.e. come up with some sort of plausible interpretation of why things happened the way we observed them to. But just because our theories and explanations seem brilliant and logical, that doesn’t mean that we really understand the world we observed, we could have a wonderful post hoc rationalization. So the third part of the genuine scientific process is a requirement that you keep logically working with, refining and expanding your theories, your explanations, and then make predictions about new areas of reality that you haven’t observed yet. You’ve observed the results of conditions A, B and C, e.g., and come up with a satisfying explanation as to why they happened. Now develop your theory to predict what will happen under conditions D, E and F, and then go out and set up those conditions and see what actually happens. If you’ve successfully predicted the outcomes, good, keep developing your theories. But if your predictions don’t come true, your theories may need substantial revision or need to be thrown out altogether.

It doesn’t matter how logical or brilliant or elegant or emotionally satisfying your theories are, they are always subject to this empirical test with new observations. Indeed, if a theory doesn’t have any empirical, testable consequences, it may be philosophy or religion or personal belief, but it’s not a scientific theory. Thus science has a built in rule to help us overcome our normal human tendency to get emotionally committed to our beliefs. This is where scientism corrupts the genuine scientific process. Because people caught in scientism have an emotional attachment to a totally materialistic view of the world, they won’t really look at data like NDEs that imply a spiritual, non-material side to reality. They don’t recognize that their belief that everything can be explained in purely material terms should be treated like any scientific theory, i.e. it should be subject to continual test and modified or rejected when found wanting.

This requirement of continual testing, refinement and expansion is part of the fourth process of genuine science, namely open, full and honest communication about all the other three aspects. You share your observations, theories and predictions so that colleagues can test and extend them. Thus you as an individual may have blind spots and prejudices, but as it’s unlikely all your colleagues have the same ones, a gradual process of refinement, correction and expansion takes place and scientific knowledge progresses.

While I have described this process as genuine science, need I say that it is also a quite sensible way of proceeding in most areas of life?

Inadequacy of Scientism in Dealing with NDEs:

Now let’s apply these thoughts about science and scientism to NDEs. Scientism, a dogmatic materialism masquerading as science, dismisses the NDE a priori as something that cannot be what it seems to be, viz. a mind or soul traveling outside the physical body, either in the physical world or in some nonphysical world. So the NDE is automatically dismissed as a hallucination or, more likely, as some kind of psychopathology. But what if we practice actual science and look, with an objective as possible view, at experiences like the NDE without prejudging them as impossible?
First, there is the data from a hundred years of scientific parapsychological research that, using the best kind of scientific methodology, shows us that we can’t simply dismiss the NDE as a priori impossible. A world view that countenances such dismissal is ignorant, prejudiced, or both. It is presumptuous to summarize a century of research in one paragraph, but as I want to focus on the out-of-body aspect of NDEs, I will make an attempt.
Basically, hundreds of experiments have shown that sometimes the human mind can do things that are paraconceptual to our understanding of physical reality, i.e. they make no sense given our current understanding of physics and reasonable extensions of it, but they happen anyway. They are empirical realities. The four major psychic phenomena, collectively referred to as psi phenomena, that are well established are telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, and psychokinesis (PK). Sometimes a person can detect what’s happening in another’s mind (telepathy), detect what’s happening at a distance in the physical world when it’s not currently known to another mind (clairvoyance), predict the future when in principle it’s not predictable (precognition), or affect physical processes just by willing them to be changed (PK). The reality of these psi phenomena, the Big Four as I often call them (Tart, 1977a), requires us to expand our world view from a world that is only material to one that also has mind as some kind of independent reality in itself, capable of sometimes doing things that transcend ordinary physical limits. So if in an NDE a person feels outside her or his body, or claims to have acquired information about distant events, for example, it may be an illusion in a particular case, but you can’t scientifically say it must be illusion. You have to actually examine the experience, the data, not ignore it or prejudicially explain it away without really paying attention or being logical. Thus the Big Four of psi phenomena give us a wider view of reality that calls for a careful look at NDEs, rather than a priori dismissal.
Out-of-the-Body Experiences:
Since the beginning of my career, I've been fascinated by what used to be a very little known phenomenon, the out-of-the-body experience (OBE). While the term OBE is sometimes used rather sloppily, here’s how I defined it over two decades ago:
First, let’s talk about a subtype which I’m tempted to call the classical out-of-the-body experience, or ‘dOBE’, the discrete out-of-the-body experience. This is the experience where the subject perceives himself as experientially located at some other location than where he knows his physical body to be. In addition, he generally feels that he’s in his ordinary state of consciousness, so that the concepts space, time, and location make sense to him. Further, there is a feeling of no contact with the physical body, a feeling of temporary semi-total disconnection from it. (Tart, 1974), p. 117)
An NDE, on the other hand, usually has, speaking in an oversimplified way, two major aspects. First is the locational component, the OBE component: you find yourself located somewhere outside your physical body. Second is the noetic and altered state of consciousness (ASC) component: you know things not knowable in ordinary ways and your state of consciousness functions in quite a different way as part of this knowing. I separate these components as they don’t always go together. You can have an OBE while feeling that your consciousness remains in its ordinary mode or state of functioning. If right this minute, e.g., your perceptions showed you that you were someplace else than where you know your body is but your consciousness was functioning basically like it is right now, that’s what a classic OBE feels like. The OBE also seems as real or ‘realer’ than ordinary experience. Reality is more complex than this, but this distinction between ‘pure’ OBEs and typical NDEs will be useful for our discussion."
(the highlights are mine - Tez)

Tart goes on in this paper to discuss 6 Out-Of-Body-Experience(OBE) studies that he untertook..

What do you all think?

Is Tart right in classifying certain materialistic monistic skeptics as adherents to the philosophy of Scientism NOT science?

Is this demarcation valid?

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