What is it about?

How seriously should we take reports of experiences of extra-mental realities and encounters supernatural entities? I propose an experientially controlled metaphysics of multidimensional reality that recognizes the legitimacy of experience in various states of consciousness as an empirical starting point.

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Why is it important?

Clinically, the question of whether there exists a category of exceptional human experiences that are ontologically real is important because a diagnosis of mental health or psychopathology centers on whether a client’s experience corresponds to the nature of existence as it really is. Scientifically, the question is important because scientific research hinges on the general picture of the world guided by metaphysical hypotheses about the category of things that can and do exist. Philosophically, the question is important because it bears on the problem of religious pluralism and the different claims about the true nature of ultimate reality. At its heart, the question points reaches directly into psychology’s core assumptions about the basic reality of subjective life and what sort of science it aspires to be.


The issue of the possibility that mystical, paranormal, psychedelic, or transpersonal experiences might actually reveal something real or true about the nature or structure of being or existence (i.e. possess ontological reality) is the “white elephant” in the room of most discussions of anomalous phenomena in psychology. It has been an issue studiously avoided largely because it has been impossible to specify conceptually in the context of the Cartesian-Kantian metaphysical foundations of normal science and, as a result, the philosophical movement of modern psychology in this area was and remains to this day very limited. Any psychology that allows even such a possibility of the ontological reality of transpersonal experiences is heretical as far as many orthodox, Western psychologists are concerned because it would shatter the foundations of their philosophical stance of positivism, atheism, and materialism. Yet today’s heterodoxy can turn into tomorrow’s orthodoxy when theoretical and philosophical frameworks change. From my personal perspective, one starting place for this change is the development of an empirically (experientially) controlled metaphysics that (a) embraces a broad notion of the natural and the real, (b) recognizes the epistemological integrity of personal experience, (c) acknowledges the multidimensional nature or structure of the Real, and (d) takes experience in various states of consciousness as an empirical starting point in research programs of the transpersonal nature of human psychology and the basic reality of subjective life.

Paul Cunningham
Rivier University

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This page is a summary of: An empirically controlled metaphysics in a science of spirituality—Is something real happening?, Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, August 2022, American Psychological Association (APA), DOI: 10.1037/teo0000210.
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