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International Journal of

Transpersonal Studies
Volume 21 | Issue 1 Article 19


Transpersonal Psychology as a Scientific Field

Harris Friedman
Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center

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Transpersonal Psychology as a Scientific Field

Harris Friedman
Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center
San Francisco, California, USA

The importance of the development of transpersonal psychology as a science is considered.

Arguments from romanticism, scientism, and constructionism that challenge this possibility
are countered. A distinction is drawn between the field of transpersonal psychology as a
science and the broader area known as transpersonal studies that may legitimately use
scientific or nonscientific methods. The concepts of transpersonal phenomena and
transcendent noumena are delineated, the latter being seen as outside of the purview of
science. The benefits of embracing a scientific approach are contrasted to a number of
epistemological alternatives. The scientific approach is forwarded for its potential
contribution towards providing a unifying paradigm for the discipline of psychology and for
solving crucial problems in the world. I hope that this presentation challenges the reader
to more deeply examine the role of science in transpersonal psychology.

RANSPERSONAL PSYCHOLOGY has never First, transpersonal psychology was clearly
developed a coherent scientific frame of instituted as a field that was meant to be part of
reference, and despite numerous attempts the larger discipline of scientific psychology. The
to adequately define it (e.g., Lajoie & Shapiro, major founders of transpersonal psychology were
1992; Walsh & Vaughan, 1993), still suffers from clearly invested in extending the rigorous scientific
serious ambiguity regarding its scope and discipline of psychology beyond the conventional
appropriate methodology. As a result, little boundaries of psychoanalytical, behavioral, and
progress in understanding transpersonal humanistic psychology. Their purpose was not to
psychological phenomena from a scientific abandon science, as exemplified by the statement
perspective has occurred since the founding of in the first issue of the major publication which
the field. In this paper, I consider the importance initially launched the field: "The Journal of
of specifying transpersonal psychology as a Transpersonal Psychology is concerned with the
scientific field and propose some strategies to publication of theoretical and applied research,
further its progress as a science. original contributions, empirical papers, articles
and studies in ..." (Sutich, 1969, p. 16). Thereafter,
Reasons to Restrict the Field of a number of diverse content areas were listed, but
Transpersonal Psychology to Science clearly a scientific agenda was presented. 1
Second, since the discipline of psychology is

T HERE ARE three pragmatic reasons why the

study of transpersonal psychology should be
unambiguously restricted to scientific approaches.
clearly identified as a science by the majority of
psychologists and also by society as a whole, the
field of transpersonal psychology explicitly lays

The International journal ofTranspersonaL Studies, 2002, Vol. 21, 175-187 175
© 2002 by Panigada P(esS
claim through its name to be part of that scientific the field. I believe that the best hope for lasting
discipline. Likewise, the rewards of scientific solutions to many of the grave problems faced by
status accrue to transpersonal psychology humans, and the earth itself, at this time lies in
through its association with psychology. For psychological rather than technical progress. For
example, professional psychological services are example, although pressures of escalating
provided in a context that is legitimized by overpopulation in third world nations could be
various governments based on the rationale that eased through further attempts toward
scientific standards are being used in such increasing agricultural output, as through
practice. Legitimization entails specific benefits genetically enhanced crops, this type of solution
to practitioners as provided through licensing is likely not to prove sustainable but only to
laws. A practitioner operating outside the postpone overpopulation breaking points.
scientific framework in providing applied services Psychological solutions, such as changing core
offered through a professional psychology license attitudes toward reproduction that are currently
would be perceived as violating this implicit embedded in religious belief systems, are likely
contract. It is well established in law that to be more effective than technical solutions to
psychologists who use approaches that are not these human-based problems. Furthermore, the
scientifically justifiable can be sanctioned for type of psychological solutions required for these
professional discipline such as loss of their crucial problems of contemporary adaptation,
licenses to practice. There may also be civil both human and planetary, cannot be adequately
penalties, enforced through malpractice action, addressed solely through the limited
and even criminal penalties for a licensed conceptualizations offered by mainstream
professional operating in a nonscientific fashion. psychology but require, instead, transpersonal
Furthermore, if nonscientific approaches were to considerations. Only transpersonal psychology
be allowed as a legitimate part of professional allows for innovative avenues in which scientific
practice by applied transpersonal psychologists, approaches can address many of the most
a situation of inequity would be created that pressing problems that threaten our very survival
would discriminate against other practitioners, as a species and the survival of our planet. And,
such as religious healers, who might use similar beyond mere deficit motivations, a scientific
nonscientific methods yet not be allowed a transpersonal psychology is required for the
comparable professional license and its privileges.
optimum development of our human potential.
(Even in academic and scholarly arenas,
To throw away the unique promise offered by
transpersonal psychologists enjoy benefits due to
transpersonal psychology through rejecting the
their attributed scientific status, such as in
proper role of science in the field would be not
receiving greater public acceptance as
only irresponsible but tragic.
authoritative experts.) Consequently, I argue that
In summary, based on the historic roots of the
to allow practices that are not scientifically based
field, the ethical and legal implications of its
within the field of transpersonal psychology is
neither legally nor ethically defensible. connection with the discipline of scientific
Third, and most importantly, I consider the psychology, and the importance of the field for
development of a scientific transpersonal human survival and betterment, transpersonal
psychology crucial for human survival and the psychology should be bound to a scientific
betterment of life. Relegating the field to the commitment. Those who wish to abandon scientific
collection and reportage of unscientific folk approaches to pursue their transpersonal work
traditions presented in a journalistic fashion should be unfettered as long as they use a broader
would at best be superfluous since such sources term, such as transpersonal studies, to describe
are abundant and have little likelihood of their work. But those who elect to associate their
helping humanity in any progressive way. If the work with the field of transpersonal psychology
field is used to promulgate any specific religious need to be aware of the implications of their
or spiritual folk traditions, under a falsely choice. In particular, those who disseminate their
assumed scientific label, the deception could be own religious or spiritual beliefs through their
damaging in many ways, including the possibility professional work should not present themselves
of undermining further scientific development o~ as transpersonal psychologists.

176 The International journal ofTranspersonal Studies, 2002, vol. 21

Objections from Romanticism, comfortably serve, or exploit, their clients without
Scientism, and Constructionism any accountability, at least until the regulators
and litigators arrive. In addition, romanticism
that transpersonal can lucratively be used to sell questionable
psychology be restricted to the realm of
science, I will focus the discussion now on directly
transpersonal works-witness the numerous
ludicrous books and seminars marketed to a naive
confronting the positions ofthose who are hostile public. It seems that including the terms spirit
to the possibility of a scientific transpersonal or soul in such work increases its marketability.
psychology. For simplicity, three opposing Responsible transpersonal psychologists need
positions that I label as romanticism, scientism, to consistently and rigorously examine the
and constructionism will be explored. appropriateness ofincluding extreme romanticism
The view identified with romanticism poses the within the :field: For example, should astrology be
greatest current threat to the development of a included in transpersonal psychology? Even
scientific transpersonal psychology since so many though systems of astrology are :filled with
people of this persuasion are attracted to the :field. nonscientific assumptions and fail to demonstrate
The romantic movement has long opposed the any consistent evidence of validity, numerous so-
scientific approach in all spheres. Most advocates called professionals openly promote this folk
of romanticism seem to cast doubt upon both the system in their teachings, writings, and even
value and possibility of a scientifically based professional practice. I strongly advocate that
transpersonal psychology by offering broad scientific studies on astrology, such as exploring
critiques such as that science is inherently the antecedents and consequences of belief in
reductionistic or deterministic. To be fair, some astrology, are appropriate material for a scientific
who are less extreme argue cogently that the transpersonal psychology. Likewise, it is
approach of romanticism provides initial ways to appropriate to continue to scientifically explore the
explore important realms that are not yet validity of systems of astrology, although I think
amenable to scientific approaches, such as "poetic, that the lack of evidence thus far is such that
intuitive, and visionary states" (Schneider, 1998, serious investigators would likely not want to
p. 284) but do not fully disregard the utility of invest their time further in this direction. But it
science. I accept that, while these methods of is deplorable to write or teach about astrology in
romanticism may not meet the criteria of science, any way other than as an unsubstantiated folk
they may still be legitimate and worthwhile tradition and especially to use astrology as part of
scholarly efforts within what could be called a licensed psychological practice. This abuse
transpersonal studies; however, they should not exemplifies one practice steeped in romanticism
be viewed as transpersonal psychology. The that is unfortunately tolerated within transpersonal
positions of romanticists thus range from those psychology. Astrology and similar, nonscientific
who outrightly dismiss any applicability of science practices should not be sanctioned as a legitimate
to the field to those who posit a more moderate part ofthe :field. The myriad ofother pseudoscientific
view that science may one day be useful to approaches used by those who embrace extreme
investigate the transpersonal realm but currently romanticism within the field of transpersonal
is inadequate for the task. psychology should also be held up to scientific
The former type of romanticism poses a standards or be excluded from the :field.
severe challenge to the field. There are those, for A difficult issue that should be addressed in
example, who take such romanticism as a license this discussion is the way in which traditional
to naively accept, and promulgate, questionable religions are handled . For example, many
beliefs and practices that have not been critically Western transpersonal psychologists seem to
evaluated from a scientific perspective. Such a have rejected their own religious traditions and
stance provides a variety of benefits: Clinical have become enamored of seemingly more
practitioners with this attitude, for example, may exotic traditions. It can even be claimed that at
rely on whatever happens in a psychotherapy present the field oftranspersonal psychology can
session without having to tax their skills by using be largely characterized as the Western practice
rational treatment strategies or taking of Eastern religions in a pseudoscientific guise.
responsibility for outcomes. Thus they may But why should traditional beliefs or practices

Transpersonal Psychology as a Scientific Field 177

from some other culture with little or no In dramatic contrast to the rejection of the field
supporting empirical evidence be given any special by advocates of extreme romanticism, there is
credence? The same can be said for pastoral also a strong rejection by those who advocate a
counseling in the predominantly J udeo-Christian position of scientism which is characterized by
tradition in the West. This argument is not meant an attitude that outwardly appears similar to the
to deny the importance of belief systems and their attitude of science but is actually dominated by
cultural relevance in effective psychologi cal a rigid and closed-minded view. Scientism is not
practice. The point is that science, including its a legitimate aspect of the scientific approach per
applications in professional practice, should not se, since openness is a core scientific value that
be tied to any particular religious or spiritual is complementary to skepticism; instead
tradition although it can clearly be used scientism is a perversion of science that has been
appropriately within the context of such a corrupted into a parochial ideology. Science
tradition. In addition, traditions might be sources should never be an ideology but an approach to
offruitful hypotheses for beginning to scientifically knowledge grounded in respect for understanding
explore within transpersonal psychology, but a experience. It is unfortunate that some adherents
skeptical scientific attitude should prevail unless to scientism have dismissed the entire field of
suppoxt is evidenced. Finally, I intend no disrespect transpersonal psychol ogy as fundamentally
for those in any religious or spiritual tradition as irrational and therefore not amenable to scientific
long as they do not try to characterize their approaches. Ellis (1989) has written the best
tradition as science and do not try to stop scientific expression of this misguided rejection of
inquiry, as exemplified by a recent challenge by transpersonal psychology through engaging in
advocates of creationism to the teaching of catastrophic thinking, a type of cognitive error
evolution in Kansas, USA. he made famous. In his book, he regards the
A romanticism that lacks discrimination in transpersonal perspective as having no value for
regard to numerous prevailing folk beliefs and scientific psychology and he views transpersonal
unsubstantiated claims has unfortunately psychology as thoroughly dangerous. Those who
proliferated within transpersonal psychology. This embrace scientism and reject the field in this way,
has encouraged a perspective in which rational however, err through confusing the lack of critical
scrutiny has been placed in abeyance to the degree discrimination and the excesses among those
that there is no difference perceived between, embracing extreme romanticism that is endemic
metaphorically speaking, gold and pyrite, not to in transpersonal psychology with what the field
mention denying that feet may be of mere clay. could actually achieve. Their conclusion is not
Thus many transpersonal psychologists have realistically based on any limitation inherent in
unfortunately taken the position of affirming that transpersonal psychology as a science per se, only
everything claiming to be spiritual, particularly if on fear of the consequences of unbridled
it is from an Eastern tradition, is gold. But I believe romanticism (not totally unwarranted given the
strongly we can and must distinguish gold from problems rampant in the field).
baser metals and, even more importantly, simple I find it fascinating that both romanticism and
clay. The Sufi aphorism that there would not be scientism, appearing antithetical on the surface,
counterfeiters if there were not real gold applies fundamentally agree in prematurely rejecting the
to the huge number of romantic approaches in the possibility that transpersonal psychology can be
field that suggest at least the possibility of value a science. The romanticists need to consider the
in the transpersonal area. Excesses ofromanticism futility of romantic speculation not based on
may have some role in the larger scheme ofthings, empirical observation. They should ponder the
but only scientific discrimination can allow us to prospects of their efforts helping to bring in an
reliably and validly distinguish what is of value unfortunate New Age-a New Dark Age. And
from what is not. Likewise, romanticists who those who embrace scientism need to consider the
dogmatically embrace only one specific tradition, narrowness of their approach in the light of the
seeing gold only within that tradition, need to scientific value of openness as opposed to an
consider that other traditions may also contain overly closed-minded skepticism. Neither of these
gold and even that their own tradition may also protests against the applicability of science to the
contain baser elements. field can be substantiated and, therefore, a

178 The International journal ofTranspersonal Studies, 2002, Vol. 21

science of transpersonal psychology cannot be so independence of subject and object in any valid
easily dismissed. observation or experiment. This assumption is
Another threat to transpersonal psychology's brought into question, however, by constructs
becoming established as a science stems from the such as transpersonal self-expansiveness
postmodern movement known as constructionism, (MacDonald, Gagnier, & Friedman, 2000;
a term frequently prefaced with adjectives such Friedman, 1983) in which the individual is
as social or cognitive (e.g., Gergen, 1994). This conceptualized as possibly surpassing limitations
approach emphasizes that human knowledge is that allow for any absolute subject-object
always constructed in some fashion by "knowers" dichotomy. Thus the uncertainty recognized
who bring along personal baggage. Thus all through the Heisenberg principle in all of science
knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is is magnified by the unique concerns of human,
perceived as an artifact having no real as opposed to natural, science and then is further
independent existence. Furthermore, this increased in the transpersonal :field, bringing
construction always is seen in a context limited doubt as to the ultimate worth of science in
not only by material constraints but mediated by transpersonal psychology. Constructionism,
culture, that is, those who control social power bolstered by these types of legitimate concerns
also control the way in which knowledge is about scientific limitations, provides an especially
constructed. Therefore, knowledge is always potent challenge to the hegemony of science in
relative; there is never an absolute truth, only transpersonal psychology, as well as a challenge
limited, constructed viewpoints that are to science in general.
necessarily equivocal. Several alternative positions to constructionism
The assumptions of constructionism are, in can contribute to this discussion. One is to clearly
themselves , useful observations about the posit that aspects of reality can be known, at least
limitations inherent in all claims to know ledge. to some degree, in ways that are not just
However, one unfortunate result of constructionism cognitively or socially constructed. For example,
is that all viewpoints are held to be equally valid. there may be differences among language users
This eliminates science as the defining method from different cultures as to how they might
for pursuing knowledge and even the value of any discuss the ways to climb a mountain.
knowledge. Nevertheless, the mountain appears to solidly
As applied to the :field of transpersonal exist as an independent reality regardless of how
psychology, assumptions from constructionism it is described linguistically: Thus significant
may be exaggerated in a particularly problematic relativism from the perspective of constructionism
way. For example, the recognition of limitations might primarily involve the meanings of
to knowledge widely accepted in the physical associated reality, not the reality itself.
sciences (e.g. , the Heisenberg uncertainty Remember the Zen, "First the mountains
principle) has eroded the unquestioned authority are just mountains; then, they are no longer
of the scientific method in general. Constructs mountains; and in the end they are mountains
such as consciousness and free will that are again." One interpretation of this is that after
assumed relevant to all human sciences have completing a mystical journey in which reality is
further undermined the legitimacy oftraditional deconstructed, reality should once more be
approaches to science as applied to the discipline reconstructed and realized in both levels of that
of psychology. It is argued that the limitations of word. One might argue further, from a realist
science in the material world are eclipsed by the position, that to deny the fundamental reality of
magnitude of the additional limitations science the mountain, and its dangers, would be
faces in dealing with the greater complexity foolhardy and tantamount to death if one were
inherent in the human world. Finally, in the field called upon to climb the mountain. Despite the
of transpersonal psychology, science is often current popularity of constructionism in the
blatantly dismissed as irrelevant, particularly in humanities and among some in the social
relation to arguments based on transpersonal sciences, realism is not only viable but still is the
concepts that openly defy basic scientific main philosophical underpinning of most of
assumptions. For example, one such scientific contemporary science. Nevertheless, it has been
assumption is the presumed requirement of the aptly pointed out that, "As we enter the twenty-

Transpersonal Psychology as a Scientific Field 179

first century, we psychologists are having trouble postmodernism in general and constructionism in
with reality'' (Martin & Sugarman, 1999, p. 177), particular. Science clearly remains the dominant
particularly in the attempt to reconcile modern worldview and is not about to be replaced by a
with postmodern perspectives. constructionist revolution that would immobilize
Another alternative to the constructionist it. In addition, most scientists do not engage in
argument is the kind of positivism that much philosophical reflection as they proceed in
approaches science as a language game of doing science, since the scientific method provides
theory building which may or may not relate to such obvious results. The process of most science
any ultimate reality. Sometimes this is called is basically oblivious to the implicati ons of
postpositivism when there are specific efforts to constructionism; most scientists implicitly
distance science from veridical ties to any embrace traditional scientific perspectives and
external reality. From this perspective, science avoid the nihilistic quandary of constructionism.
should avoid claims about truth and, instead, That so many transpersonal psychologists have
should only offer theories that progressively jumped on the constructionist bandwagon as
become more elegant and closely related to justification for abandoning science is truly
empirical data through their refinement over counterproductive. In my opinion, the extreme
time . Tr uth, at least in relationship to any nihilistic implications of constructionism will
underlying reality, is irrelevant to purists from eventually be seen as an intellectual dead end
such a perspective. What is relevant is the ability similar to the sophist paradoxes offered by the
of a model to be useful in the game of science. ancient Greeks that alleged to demonstrate the
This strategy is illustrated by the classic scientific impossibility of change. At the same time,
use ofthe null hypothesis, a clever ploy in which constructionism has been useful in further
scientists construct hypothetical alternative sensitizing us to potential bias issues, such as
explanations to challenge their theor etical power and position differences among scientists.
formulations. The scientific method then proceeds Study in the field of transpersonal psychology
by attempting to nullify or disprove these does involve some specific philosophical difficulties
alternative hypotheses. This method does not from a scientific perspective but, of course, all
allow for directly trying to prove the validity of sciences struggle with their unique disciplinary
hypotheses that support the theory being problems. Even though constructionism provides
entertained-that would be attempting to affirm some clear insight into scientific limitations, it
something as true: Instead attempts are made to does not demonstrate that science is irrelevant
whittle down alternative explanations so that the to transpersonal psychology- and arguments
theory offered becomes either increasingly more from extreme romanticism and scientism should
compelling or is found to have problems and is be outrightly rejected. I conclude that, in spite of
rejected. The absolute truth of any theory is thus the challenges, finding ways to proceed with a
irrelevant and never proven through this science of transpersonal psychology should be
approach to the scientific method: Instead, the ardently pursued.
systematic rejections of null hypotheses provide
increasing circumstantial evidence to enable Important Distinctions to
more confidence to be had in the potential Facilitate Scientific Progress in
usefulness of a theory. Furthermore, the Transpersonal Psychology
expectation is that a theory is always a work in
progress and will be revised as more becomes
known. All theory is therefore relative, a version
of our best understanding at t he moment.
T o FURTHER this discussion, an important
distinction alluded to earlier needs to be
formally established, namely, that transpersonal
In spite of the current popul arity of studies and transpersonal psychology are not
constructionism in some circles, science based on equivalent. The former is a broadly defined
such versions of positivism is still viable. domain of inquiry that can legitimately include
Unfortunately, it is easy for those who read a diversity of methods ranging from those of the
transpersonal literature and are not conversant humanities to those of a variety of scientific
with modern science except through transpersonal endeavors. Psychology, on the other hand, is
"pop" science to misconstrue the importance of defined by most psychologists as a scientific

180 The International journal ofTranspersonal Studies, 2002, Vol. 21

discipline; except for a few humanistic and inquiry. For example, areas resisting scientific
transpersonal adherents who insist that including efforts since they are not yet amenable to
alternative, that is, nonscientific, approaches is empirical exploration, as previously mentioned,
important for the discipline, science is widely could be appropriately explored by nonscientific
accepted as the mainstay of the discipline. A methods that are openly recognized as such. This
preliminary conceptualization of transpersonal type of exploration would then be seen as
psychology that I see as useful is to place it as a prescienti:fic in the sense that it does not preclude
:field of study and applied practice positioned at the possibility that scientific approaches may
the intersection between the broader domain of later prove possible.
inquiry known as transpersonal studies and the An extremely important area that has been
scientific discipline of psychology. Furthermore, I immensely problematic to transpersonal
see transpersonal psychology foremost as a :field psychology is the transcendent. The transcendent
within the discipline of scientific psychology that is intertwined with most conceptualizations of the
focuses on those aspects of trans personal studies :field, yet I see it as outside of the purview of all
that involve the individual, including thoughts, scientific approaches, now and in the future. I
feelings, and behaviors as found in the individual's consider it to be the ultim?te holistic concept that
biological, cultural, social, and wider contexts. can only be experienced, if at all, in a direct and
In studies or applications related to such unmediated fashion unhampered by any specific
transpersonal phenomena, transpersonal limitation. Since all concepts are inherently
psychology can draw upon content common to limited, they are inadequate vehicles for
diverse :fi,elds of transpersonal studies. As a field comprehending the transcendent. All discussions
of psychology, however, it requires responsible use of any attributes of transcendence, for example,
of the scientific approach, such as submitting through using terms such as "ultimate
transpersonal folk beliefs to rigorous scientific transcendence" in contrast to "nonultimate
examination. I consider all nonscientific transcendence," break down as meaningless. The
approaches to transpersonal material better transcendent is beyond all conventional thought
viewed as distinct from trans personal psychology that involves symbolic mediation by words or any
and classified, instead, within the broader domain limiting symbolic system and beyond all public
oftranspersonal studies. Likewise, transpersonal discourse including science. Thus any direct
approaches that are not focused on the individual, experience of the transcendent, such as unity
regardless of whether scientific or not, are best consciousness, would be accompanied by an over-
viewed as residing in other transpersonal fields. ride or shut-down of conventional thought during
Unfortunately, the domain of transpersonal the time of the experience of transcendence. In
studies is often confounded with the field of this mode, a merger of subject with object would
transpersonal psychology. This has led to much likely occur such that the knower would cease,
confusion, which I hope the distinction I have drawn in any ordinary meaningful way, to be a separate
clarifies. The present argument is not intended to individual. Since unmediated knowledge would
delimit the methods used by transpersonal studies be, by definition, experienced directly and, when
in anyway; further, it explicitly acknowledges that the experience was over, forgotten or vaguely
methods from that domain could be either coded in some system of symbols, one who
scientific or representative of other approaches of disappeared as a separate being in transcendence
knowing (e.g., hermeneutics) that are legitimate would, upon reentry into the world of ordinary
but not within the realm of science. Nor is the thought and discourse , have to rely on
argument intended to limit spiritual or religious symbolically mediated memory of that experience
beliefs or expressions, whether traditional or New after the transcendence. Even if one were to
Age. All of these pursuits can, of course, inform and remain connected with transcendent experience
be informed by transpersonal psychology in a while using a symbolic system such as language,
variety of creative ways. as an enlightened being might possibly be, that
Another way to facilitate scientific progress in use would necessarily be filtered through the
transpersonal psychology would be to overtly limitations ofthe symbolic system and would thus
recognize specific areas in which science might also be limited. Thus I conclude that science is
be irrelevant and bracket them from scientific required to be mute about the ultimate issue of

Transpersonal Psychology as a Scientific Field 181

the transcendent since it transcends the symbolic beliefs of many Eastern and Western spiritual
process itself that is the sole vehicle of science. A traditions, such as the Judaic emphasis on the
major difficulty preventing scientific progress in essential mystery of God's unknowability and the
transpersonal psychology therefore can be Taoist emphasis in the Tao Te Ching that those
avoided through making a clear delineation who speak about the Tao do not know of what
between the concept ofthe transpersonal and that they speak. There is also a long history of this
of the transcendent, a distinction which I hope type of perspective in Western philosophy, going
will lead to a productive reframing of many back at least to Plato's famous cave metaphor,
transpersonal questions. that similarly points out limits to what can be
This important distinction between the directly known.
transpersonal and the transcendent is not original. It is therefore imperative for a viable science
Valle (1998), for example, contrasted transpersonal of trans personal psychology to clearly delineate
with transcendent awareness. He described the transpersonal domain into two areas that
transcendent awareness as prerefiective, or the have been implicitly confounded by the field. For
ground of consciousness without a subject-object clarity, I am labeling these as transcendent
spl it, whereas he described transpersonal noumena which are beyond the scope of scientific
awareness as referring to experiences deeper or study, and transpersonal phenomena which are
beyond our ordinary ego sense but not necessarily amenable to scientific study. Juxtaposing the
transcendent. Transpersonal awareness still term transpersonal with the term phenomena
contains the content of self as a separate knower, is meant to establish reference to a
in contrast to the transcendent which is radically nontranscendent and non-noumenal area of the
beyond any limiting content, including rational transpersonal domain. This distinction provides
description, and thus defies direct scientific the important advantage of pointing to the
exploration. possibility of rigorous scientific examination of
However, the transperson al realm (excluding transpersonal phenomena while bracketing the
the transcendent) remains open to scientific study, metaphysical morass of the direct role of science,
as does the indirect relationship between or rather lack of role, in regard to the
indicators of the transcendent and more transcendent. The transcendent no longer
conventional concepts. Thus asking questions remains confounded with transpersonal
about the transcendent may be still within the phenomena and thus the questions beyond
realm of science as long as we recognize it is science regarding the transcendent can be
always "about" the transcendent and not directly fruitfully ignored by a scientific transpersonal
addressing it (e.g., "How does having transcendent psychology. It shoul d be explicitly restated,
experiences [or at least experiences people are however, that phenomena related to the
willing to label in such a way] change aspects of transcendent, like all phenomena, can be studied
a person's life?" or "How do different religious by science while the transcendent itself can only
conceptions ofthe transcendent relate to objective be scientifically studied indirectly through
cultural or environmental sources of secondary indicators. Thus, approaches toward
variability?"). developing a science of trans personal psychology
The distinction between phenomena and that explicitly excludes the direct study of
noumena, found throughout the history of transcendent noumena provides a firmer basis
Western philosophy, is applicable here in that for scientific progress. Of course, transcendent
science can directly study phenomena but not noumena can still be the focus of transpersonal
underlying noumena. I n this regard, some studies that utilize nonscientific methods, such
transpersonal theorists might argue that as comparing poetic depictions of transcendent
noumena should be approached only through a states.
higher-level understanding than science can It should be noted, however, that there is a
provide (e.g., the "eye of spirit" proposed by way for science to provide an indirect comment
Wilber, 1997). Alternatively, I advocate that we on the transcendent. Even if something cannot
exclude the transcendent from direct discourse be directly shown, it may be delineated through
since we cannot make .meaningful statements a process of pointing out what it is not. Since all
about it. This position is also congruent with the that materially exists may be seen as existing

182 The International journaL ofTranspersonaLStudies, 2002, vol. 21

within time and space, the realm of the another that allegedly develops transcendent
nontranscendent can be symbolically placed on qualities as part of their professional practice,
a map of space-time such as used in the should be regarded as outside the domain of the
construct of transpersonal self-expansiveness field. Of course, no religious or spiritual
(Friedman, 1983). That which transcends this approaches to the transcendent n eed to be
map may be implied by its absence. This type of questioned as long as they are not promoted as
residual approach to the transcendent can be part of the field of trans personal psychology.
heuristic and is a core feature of the construct
of self-expansiveness. This strategy toward Epistemological Considerations
approaching, but never fully grasping,
transcendence is similar to that in which some
meditative traditions stress disidentifying the
self with all limitations, resulting in what is left
T o GRASP more deeply the need for a scientific
perspective in the field of transpersonal
psychology, it is helpful to attend to how we know
being that with which one cannot disidentify, the anything- the field of epistemology. Transpersonal
residual of the transcendent . From a more psychologists who reject science as useful in the
conventional perspective, as calculus can be discipline are implicitly relying on other strategies
used to make successive approximations to for obtaining knowledge. These other strategies,
approach the true measure of the area under a including their benefits and limitations, need to
curve, so can a transpersonal approach be made explicit. Science, as one way of knowing,
gradually be like an asymptote and move toward is characterized by its emphasis on empiricism,
the transcendent while never quite achieving that is, relying on information from our experience
that goal. In my opinion, though, to grasp the as a criterion for affirming knowledge . Our
transcendent in any meaningful way would experience may be based upon external sensory
require abandoning science and directly input, as is usually emphasized in science, but also
experiencing transcendence. Thus a science of can be based on internal sources of experience such
transpersonal psychology, though not dealing as proprioception. Our experience can also be
directly with transcendence, can elucidate the extended through communication with others and
relationship of the transcendent to the world of through technology, including simple technology
space-time in which humans typically dwell such as standardized self-report procedures used
and about which humans can meaningfully in conventional psychometric instruments.
discourse. Furthermore, a transpersonal However, there are other ways of knowing that
psychology limited to the domain oftranspersonal may or may not be more useful than the
phenomena, while excluding transcendent empiricism of science, depending upon
noumena, can be potentially amenable to scientific circumstances. For example, following an
study and capable of yielding beneficial authority such as a wise guru can be an
applications. Transpersonal psychology sorely expedient means to obtain valuable transpersonal
needs a revolution in perspective, one that allows knowledge. This may be especially useful if it
for transpersonal psychology to be responsibly involves knowledge that may not yet be
grounded in scientific approaches. I hope the scientifically available.
explicit delineation offered here moves the field Science itself has sometimes been criticicized
in such a direction. as authoritarian because those who have not
Finally, I think it wise , from a scientific been initiated into the fold really cannot evaluate
perspective, to remain agnostic about the the veracity of its claims. However, at least
transcendent, even as to whether it can be potentially, individuals can replicate or
meaningfully said to exist since it is beyond any empirically observe for themselves any process
categories, even the most fundamental ones of of science and draw their own conclusions,
existence and nonexistence. Abandoning all direct although it might take years of training to do so.
speculation about the transcendent would be a Of course if the observation requires an
productive scientific strategy. Those who operate enormously expensive piece of equipment, it is
under the banner of transpersonal psychology an option open only to the scientifically elite.
while engaging in speculation about the Fortunately, science is competitive, and those who
transcendent or, worse, endorsing one system or assert any claim typically have an ample supply

Transpersonal Psychology as a Scientific Field 183

of competitors to try to disprove their assertion, be seen as a more primitive way ofknowing, based
thus providing a vital check and balance to the on body arousals that are preverbal and not
system. In this way, science strives to be highly cognitively mediated. They may arise from
antiauthoritarian, challenging any claims that simpler brain structures such as our so-called
are not backed up by evidence. reptilian brain. Thus intuition may have a
Another approach to gaining knowledge is powerful biological basis in emotion and indeed
through tradition exemplified by the common be accurate at times, but this is not a way of
platitude as to why something is done a certain knowing that I would exalt as more accurate than
way, "because it has always been done that way cognitive approaches based on higher brain
around here." Traditions are formed in interesting functions. Ideally I advocate for congruence
ways; sometimes they are useful, oftentimes they between what we cognitively know in our higher
are not. Many religious traditions may provide (mammalian) brain and what we might intuit in
valuable transpersonal knowledge that may not our reptilian brain or in our bodies. When there
yet be scientifically available. Science itself has is mismatch, much more deliberation is
sometimes been criticized for blindly following warranted.
traditions. Some of these scientific traditions may Science also draws upon intuition and some of
or may not turn out to be useful. The self-corrective the greatest scientific advances have stemmed
nature of science, however, openly encourages from intuitive insight. However science specifically
growth that can expose what traditions are useful attempts to bring these into the realm of
and what are not. consensual methods that are empirically available.
Another way of knowing is through intuition. It should be noted, too, that as ambiguity
Examples include a felt body sense such as increases in a situation, we tend to rely on others
"knowing in the bones" or through a directly through a process called social comparison. In
revealed inner symbolic system such as dreams. the transpersonal arena, ambiguity is often
Many transpersonal psychologists seem to maximized since we are looking for that which
especially honor intuition as having a power is customarily unseen, although it is all around
beyond other ways of knowing. Intuition is a very us and, indeed, we are it. Thus transpersonal
personal way to know and can seem very psychology is particularly vulnerable to the
compelling. Intuition by itself is based only on
infirmities of both misguided tradition and
one person's insight and is therefore not subject authority in which we tend to rely on others
to social testing or capable of being clearly
without question. As an example, just as
articulated and passed on to others (though it can
research subjects can be hypnotized into
be translated into a consensual symbolic system
believing false memories, even conscientious
and thereby studied scientifically). Furthermore,
meditators who are sincerely looking for a deep
intuition can be as misleading as any tyrannical
truth can unwittingly be led through subtle
system of authority or tradition, especially
considering the many biases in human judgment suggestion to believe in phenomena (and
that can alter how intuition becomes interpreted concepts about transcendent noumena) that are
into belief or action. To be able to tell the not valid. Such socially constructed meanings
difference between accurate and inaccurate may or may not be valid despite an illustrious
intuition cannot be resolved at the level of history of transmission and regardless of
intuition. I am a strong believer, for example, in whether underlying motives might be
the meaningfulness of dreams in my personal and benevolent or otherwise. In addition, when
professional life. How to accurately interpret phenomena do not easily make cognitive sense,
these dreams, which I believe are deep intuitive individuals may overvalue intuition. Since at
revelations from my unconscious (and/or perhaps present, transpersonal phenomena are not
superconscious?) is the rub. I know how easy it is understood well cognitively, overvaluation of
for me to arbitrarily flip-flop from one intuition is rampant in the area.
interpretation to another for the same dream as The scientific method provides a way of
my mood or mindset changes. knowing through which blind reliance on
I would also like to draw a parallel between tradition, authority, and intuition can be avoided.
intuition and emotional knowing. Emotions can These other ways ofknowing may still be sources

184 The international journal ofTranspersonal Studies, 2002, Vol. 21

of inspiration for scientific exploration: for Conclusions
example, they can be scientifically used to
important to consider some of the beneficial
produce potential hypotheses for empirical
testing through science. To be able to rely on Ideveloping
implications that could come with success in
a scientific transpersonal psychology.
concepts based on experience, regardless of any
authority figure or long-held tradition or The discipline of scientific psychology as a whole
individual intuitions, provides a unique openness has been struggling throughout its short history
characteristic of science. And because science to develop a unifying paradigm (Yanchar & Slife,
benefits from cumulative knowledge and is 1997). I believe that the transpersonal
inherently self-correcting, the continuous perspective is the most comprehensive
discovery of new knowledge may or may not alter perspective possible for psychology and could
what was previously believed.2 provide such a paradigm. Similarly, Cortright
As previously discussed, some transpersonal (1997) wrote, "Transpersonal psychology is in the
psychol ogists are strong adherents to unique position of being the only psychological
romanticism and blatantly reject the scientific approach to human experience that can be more
approach as too narrow to be useful to than just integrative but fully inclusive ..." (p.
transpersonal inquiry. However, James (1890/ 242). If the field oftranspersonal psychology could
1950), one of the pioneers of psychology, argued abandon its current posture of ambivalence, if not
for a broad, open approach to science that can overt rejection, toward science, it could progress
answer this concern. He called his approach beyond being an isolated and narrow endeavor
radical empiricism and, over a hundred years ago, to having a real impact on the larger discipline
clearly addressed much of the contemporary of psychology. Transpersonal psychology should
criticism that rejects the applicability of the therefore be actively concerned with contributing
scientific method to the field. I share his view of to the development of mainstream, conventional
psychology and not remain content with its
the need for a radical empiricism that can allow
marginalized status within the larger discipline.
research into a broad range of experience.
More crucially, a scientific transpersonal
Specifically, science may appropriately include
psychology could have major consequences in
innovative approaches that allow for exploring
productively addressing the massive crises
deeply private experiences or even those that
rampant in our contemporary world. Krippner
require placing an observer in an altered state of
(1998) expressed this theme well: "There is an
consciousness. In this regard, even aspects of
urgent need in today's fractious world for
certain states of meditation that can be entered
integrative transpersonal perspectives, especially
only through years of following an esoteric path if presented in ways that are self-critical and able
can be brought into the objective and consensual
to be linked in contemporary scientific and
domain of scientific scrutiny through the use of practical concerns" (pp. x-xi). Returning to its
appropriate methodologies. For example, Tart's scientific roots is the only path for transpersonal
(1975) state-specific theory of science allows for psychology to take in order to make such needed
a broad view of scientific approaches that includes contributions. Furthermore, accelerating advances
such techniques as gathering data during altered within science, such as sophisticated new
states of consciousness. His state theory approach neurotechnologies applicable to studying
to science is an excellent example of how consciousness, are increasingly opening innovative
innovative yet rigorous approaches to science can and exciting scientific avenues for exploring
fruitfully be used to explore transpersonal transpersonal psychology. A redirection back to
phenomena that were previously thought to be science would both allow tr anspersonal psychology
unamenable to scientific research. Although this to gain acceptance as a legitimate enterprise
type of scientific approach might require within the larger community of scientific efforts,
researchers to devote years toward mastering a including the discipline of psychology, and allow
meditation technique in order to research a type for its responsible application toward human
of transpersonal phenomenon, it is not so betterment.
dissimilar to the years of mastery required by Perhaps no field identified with the discipline
researchers in areas of conventional science. of psychology has openly accepted so many

TranspersonaL Psychology as a Scientific FieLd 185

nonscientific approaches as has transpersonal salvation for our species and our world can be
psychology. Wilber (1998) has aptly expressed the found only in the firm realization of the
current state of the field, as follows: "There are interconnectedness of ourselves and all
many who see all too clearly the sad shape our humankind to our ultimate ground of being.
field is in. They tell me about it all the time. They Transpersonal psychology can provide such a focus
are truly alarmed by the reactionary, for this realization. I hope that transpersonal
antiprogressive, and regressive fog thickly psychologists will become involved in a deeper and
creeping over the entire field" (p. 336). Without a more systematic examination about what the field
rededication to science, the field is unlikely to promotes and where it is heading in order to
progress or earn acceptance by the scientific and provide an additional impetus for its redirection
professional communities and, accordingly, it is
to science. Ultimately, I believe that scientific
likely to eventually stagnate and disappear, its
progress in the field will lead not only to increased
ultimate impact on humankind being slight.
transpersonal understanding but may even lay the
Transpersonal psychology could be either totally
forgotten or remembered only as an obscure groundwork for larger numbers of us to directly
footnote in a few of the more comprehensive history experience transcendence-which, indeed, goes
of psychology books. Sadly, this is generally its beyond what science can directly grasp, but toward
status now in mainstream psychology. If which science can possibly point.
transpersonal psychology, however, were to return
to its original vision and fully embrace a renewed Notes
commitment to science, it could become not only This article is partially based on the following: Friedman,
scientifically and professionally viable but also one H. (2000). Toward developing transpersonal psychology
of the most important assets to the survival of as a scientific field. Paper presented at the Old Saybrook
humankind and its continued evolution. 2 Conference, State University of West Georgia,
Simply stated, the path transpersonal Carrolton, Georgia, USA.
psychology will follow will be determined by 1. The complete statement of purpose reads as follows:
whether its scientific proponents actively The Journal o{Transpersonal Psychology is concerned
demonstrate renewed commitment toward with the publication of theoretical and applied research,
creating a responsible science or, instead, allow original contributions, empirical papers, articles and
the field to lapse into the default status of merely studies in meta-needs, ultimate values, unitive
consciousness, peak experience, ecstasy, mystical
being another superfluous New Age movement or experience, B-values, essence, bliss, awe, wonder, self-
worse, a sham promulgating Eastern religious actualization, ultimate meaning, transcendence of the
traditions under the false pretenses of being part self, spu·it, sacralization of everyday life, oneness,
of the discipline of psychology. We are at a cosmic awareness, cosmic play, individual and species
choicepoint: if transpersonal psychology fails to wide synergy, maximal interpersonal encounter,
more fully embrace science and thereby ceases to transcendental phenomena; maximal sensory
awareness, responsiveness and expression; compassion;
exist as a field, its disappearance would create an and related concepts, experiences and activities. As a
unfortunate void since no other field is so well statement of purpose, this formulation is to be
oriented toward forging the necessary scientific understood as subject to optional individual or group
perspectives to directly address pressing global interpretations, either wholly or in part, with regard
problems. In contrast, if a renewed commitment to the acceptance of its content as essentially
naturalistic, theistic, supernaturalistic, or any other
to science were to occur, competent theorists and
designated classification.
researchers would be attracted to the challenges
abundant in this field. I do not know of any field 2. As an aside, it is undeniable that many have
more worthy, nor in need, of intense scientific intentionally defrauded others for monetary or other
efforts. I am also convinced that, if concerted advantages in the transpersonal arena, not to speak of
scientific efforts were to be made in transpersonal the dogmatic intolerance in this area which has caused
much human suffering. I therefore maintain strongly that
psychology, the resulting advances could have science, as an open system with built-in checks and
great potential for improving the human condition, balances, is sorely needed in transpersonal psychology
even for preserving our planet from destruction. to protect consumers of both knowledge and services from
As we go about destroying our own planet with exploitation. In fact, I think it is needed more in
our material success (excess), the roots of any transpersonal psychology than in any other field.

186 The International journal ofTranspersonal Studies, 2002, vaL 21


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