On the Scientific Study of Other Worlds

Charles T. Tart

[A slightly shorter version of this paper was published in "Research in Parapsychology 1986," edited by D. Weiner & R. Nelson. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1987. Pp. 145-146.]




A major instigating force behind psychical research was the desire to test the essential claims of religion. Contemporary parapsychology has almost totally abandoned such an aim in its quest for technical precision and scientific respectability. Technical excellence is fine, but we must recapture what is humanly important about our research endeavor. One aspect of that is to investigate objectively the reality (or lack of it) of ostensibly independently existing "nonphysical" worlds (NPWs). NPWs are not a fashionable concept in orthodox science, but if they have any reality at all, they are enormously important for understanding our nature.

The most common contact with ostensible NPWs is during out-of-the-body experiences (OBEs). The OBEr finds himor her self in an experiential world which is "sensorily" or perceptibly real, vivid and stable, yet is clearly not our earthly physical world. The more lucid quality of OBE consciousness (compared to dream consciousness) which is typical of the OBE inclines the OBEr to take the perceived NPW reality as indicating its independent existence. Considering such an NPW independently real is especially likely if: (1) it is stable and not changed by arbi trary acts of will on the OBEr's part, as can happen in lucid dreams; (2) repeated OBE visits to the NPW show it to have con sistent, lawful properties; and (3) the characteristics of the NPW seem to validate previous beliefs of the OBEr.

The contrast with lucid dream worlds is particularly import ant here. When an ordinary dream becomes lucid, the state of the dreamer's consciousness changes such that he knows he is dream ing, he has relatively full access to waking state memories and knowledge, and he can plan actions and carry them out in a far more active way than in ordinary dreaming. The "sensorily" experienced dream world nevertheless remains real and vivid. The lucid dream world has a major difference from ordinary reality, however, in that "paranormal" (by physical world standards) events become common. By willing an object in the lucid dream world to disappear, for example, it is likely to vanish into thin air.

NPWs, compared to lucid-dream worlds, are reported to have a solidity, stability, and lawfulness that resists the OBEr's mental desires. If you want an object to disappear from the NPW scene, wishing is not enough; you will have to pick it up and carry it away, or otherwise follow the laws that appear to apply in the NPW. The possession of lawful properties in a way apparently independent of the experiencer's wishes leads to the ascription of independent reality to the world in both ordinary waking life experiences and NPW experiences.

Such experienced phenomenal independence and lawfulness of NPWs could he accounted for by retaining the hypothesis that the NPWs are still subjective creations and that there are simply more rigid psychological processes (automated habits) underlying their apparent consistency and independence. Some NPWs are probably adequately accounted for by such a hypothesis. But suppose some NPWs really are independently existing realities, not subjective creations of the experiencers' minds. How would we discriminate such NPWs from purely subjective ones?

Assuming we develop a technology for producing consistent OBE excursions to NPWs, or can locate people capable of doing this through their own natural talents, we may look for consist ency of descriptions from independent observers as a test of the NPWs' reality. If their descriptions of a particular NPW, call it NPW-A, were coherent and consistent in major details and not significantly contradictory on important details we would provisionally grant at least partial independent reality status to NPW-A.

By analogy, I have never been to "Munich," and probably never will go there. I have met a number of people who claim to have traveled to "Munich," and their descriptions of what "Munich" looks like have been, in the main, consistent. Therefore I will accept the idea that "Munich" has an independent existence. Similarly if several people claim to have repeatedly visited NPWA during OBEs, and give consistent descriptions of what it is like, I am inclined to provisionally grant at least some likelihood of independent existence of NPW-A.

Several factors will influence how much likelihood we will grant to NPW-A's independent existence. First, we know that interior experiences can be shaped by belief and suggestion, so we must ask: Is the nature of NPW-A significantly different from what would be expected, given overt cultural beliefs held by our OBErs about such ostensible worlds? Second, we must consider the influence of implicit cultural beliefs. If we have a control group of people from the same culture fantasize about having an OBE and visiting NPW-A (with minimal directions for getting there), how different are their fantasy productions from the reports given by the OBErs who claim to have actually been there?

Third, people influence each other, so we would want to establish strongly that our several OBErs have not been influencing each other during normal, physical-world contact. Ideally, they should not know each other's identities. If normal contact is effectively ruled out, the more difficult problem of ruling out psychic influences on each other, influences which might lead to consistent subjective constructions, arises. This is analogous to the problem of the super-ESP hypothesis for explaining survival data. We cannot rule that out at this stage of our knowledge, but such a counterhypothesis itself lends some support to the idea of the reality of NPWs.

Our analogy between reports of "Munich" and of NPW-A is limited, because we have two distinct advantages in establishing the independent reality of "Munich." First, our travelers can bring back physical evidence like photographs. Second, we can potentially travel there ourselves. At present we do not have anything analogous to photographs for NPW-A, but if particular NPWs do have an independent existence, perhaps something analogous might develop. Further, as we develop our sciences of altered states of consciousness and parapsychology, we may develop training methods that are reliable and successful enough that we may indeed be able to travel to NPW-A ourselves. This latter potential development does not completely solve the problem of objectively real independent existence, but it certainly raises the stakes in the game!

The proposed line of research will not be an easy one, running against current scientific prejudice as it does, but it will produce data highly germane to questions about the nature of humanity, our place in the universe, and the possibility of some kind of survival of death.


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