Vic Stenger

In my book Physics and Psychics: The Search for a World Beyond the Senses (Prometheus Books, 1990) I summarize my thesis as follows:

At this writing, neither the data gathered by our external senses, the instruments we have built to enhance those senses, nor our innermost thoughts require that we introduce a nonmaterial component to the universe. No human experience, measurement, or observation forces us to adopt fundamental hypotheses or explanatory principles beyond those of the Standard Model of physics and the chance processes of evolution.

Since the book appeared, I have received a many letters from people who dispute the above position. Most are friendly, and some argue their cases very skillfully, calling on great philosophers of the past and authors of the ample literature of the present.

One such recent letter was from Gary W. Adamson of San Diego. After praising my "marvelous and valuable book which should be required reading in all high schools and colleges," a perceptive observation with which I can hardly disagree, he proceeds to carefully explain why his views are 180 degrees opposite to mine.

Referring to authorities from Aristotle to Kurt Goedel to Menas Kafatos, my physicist colleague from the University of Maryland, Adamson argues for the existence of "being-in-itself." Distinguished from ordinary existence, separate from the objects of experience, being-in-itself is associated with the subjective experiences we all have within our own heads, what we call consciousness and self-awareness. Being-in-itself is a phrase that philosophers use when they want to avoid the religious implications of the word "soul."

Adamson, a practitioner of Transcendental Meditation (TM), tells me: "I can disprove your statement that mysticism is 'false' by having you experience it for yourself." Actually, I don't recall ever saying "mysticism is false," but I have said that the interpretation of so-called mystical experiences as nonmaterial in nature, that is "spiritual," has no rational or scientific basis.

But before getting to that, let me address the claim that I would believe if I only had the experience for myself. This is a common argument, offered often in one form or another. I have heard it expressed as, "I don't need proof. I know there is a God." Or, "I have had too many personal, spiritual experiences in my own life to doubt that they are real." Adamson is sure that if I just try TM, I will experience the same pleasure that he has. After that experience, I will need no proof.

In response, let me say that I have indeed meditated. Now, I did not pay the TM organization $400, or whatever they charge, to teach me how. I have read enough about meditation to know that TM proponents have so far provided no evidence that their method is in any way unique, except for its high price tag. As Herbert Benson demonstrated in his book The Relaxation Response (Morrow, 1975), all forms of quiet relaxation, in which you empty your mind of thoughts, will reduce your blood pressure and make you feel and function better.

They all work, whether you use the special mantra sold to you by your TM instructor, pray to Jesus or Isis, or repeat "OMMMM" or "Elvis is King" over and over in your mind as you breathe deeply. I've done this, felt good, and still don't believe. I think it's all in the breathing, getting more oxygen to the brain. I obtain the same experience running slowly up hill while breathing deeply, with the side benefit of the exercise along the way. I recommend this, free-of-charge.

Now I suppose I have never had the profound experience, the feeling of "oneness" with the universe or the presence of god that mystics report. What if I did? My answer here can be easily misunderstood, so please read it carefully: Even if I were to have such an experience, I hope that I still would not believe--until such a time as my intellect, not my emotions, determine I should.

If the Virgin Mary were to appear to me while I was all alone meditating on top of a hill, with no one else around to objectively verify the experience, I would not believe--because I know I am as subject to hallucination or self delusion as any other human being. If others were with me on the hill, and some claimed to see the same apparition while some did not, I again would not believe--because I know that collective hallucinations and delusions can and do occur.

What would it take to make me believe? First, the phenomenon would have to be agreed upon by everyone present, including an appropriate complement of scientists, magicians, and skeptics trained in the verification of unusual events and aware of all the pitfalls associated with hoaxes, frauds, and self-deception. Second, I would insist on physical evidence that a miracle has taken place: un-doctored videotapes or films, instrument readings showing sudden changes in air pressure, temperature and the like. Perhaps some melted rocks might be found under the Virgin's feet, stones turned into gold or some previously undiscovered chemical element.

Are these requirements so unreasonable? I think not, when we are talking about establishing the existence of something so profound as a world beyond matter. And, as the fundamentalists are fond of saying when people question their acceptance of preposterous biblical stories, like the Flood, that violate the laws of physics: "God is capable of anything."

Currently, my intellect tells me that individual mystical experiences, even if I have them myself, are subjective delusions that are purely material in nature, the product of electrochemical processes in the brain. Furthermore, I think the evidence for this is overwhelming--including the data gathered at Maharishi University, where physiological measurements are made on people under meditation.

Changes in the physical characteristics of the body while undergoing so-called mystical experience can be measured with ordinary scientific apparatus. This fact strongly implies that the phenomenon is physical in nature, like all other forms of mental activity. Brain scans can locate the specific areas of the brain where certain thoughts and emotions are centered. If mystical experiences and other thinking processes were immaterial, why would they have any effect on scientific instruments?

Not a single piece of evidence beyond unscientific, subjective personal testimony indicates other than that thinking is material. People under meditation discover no new insights about the universe that can be tested against observations. They show no power to violate the laws of physics, such as levitating or performing superhuman feats. The claims for such have been thoroughly debunked by critical analyses of the data.

Now I am sure Gary Adamson will respond, as do many of my readers and listeners when I express the opinion that no rational basis exists for the belief in a world beyond matter: "You have not proved it does not exist." I can only reply that rational argument demands we accept the most economical hypothesis, and that the burden of proof is always on those who promote a less economical theory. Currently we have no need to introduce the additional hypothesis of a spiritual world.

I have provided suggestions on how the existence of a world beyond matter might someday be discovered. Basically you have to demonstrate a miracle. But that demonstration must rule out all non-miraculous explanations to the highest degree. Despite the claims of millennia, such a miracle has not yet been produced. I am prepared to live the rest of my life with the very likely prospect that it never will be.