Tech is driving a quiet but quickening scientific revolution
The trailer for Gwyneth Paltrow’s show The Goop Lab, launched January 24 on Netflix, tantalizes the audience with promises to explore “out-there” topics like exorcisms and orgasms. In case you’ve never heard of the “yoni” egg suit, Paltrow’s tech startup Goop is famous for their jade vagina egg that resulted in a civil fine because there was no scientific evidence to support the claim it supported women’s health. Exorcisms and orgasms will happen without scientific evidence for their usefulness, but what about some of The Goop Lab’s topics like mediumship, psychedelics, energy healing, and psychics?
Would you be more surprised to learn there’s credible scientific research supporting these phenomena or that this research is largely funded by tech companies and investors? If you’re more surprised by the first point, I’ll refer you to this book (I’m a co-author) and this paper (same).
Today, I’ve become inspired to write about the emerging “post-materialist” economy that benefits independent scientists like me, and some concerns I have about the currently lopsided funding picture.
What is post-materialism? Let’s start with materialism. Materialism is the currently accepted scientific worldview that everything in nature is made of physical forces and matter. According to this idea, thoughts and feelings don’t have any direct impact on the physical world. The brain creates our thoughts and feelings like a sausage machine creates sausage: the sausages might feed the mechanic, but they don’t directly affect the machine.
Post-materialism is the controversial but quietly growing scientific conviction that consciousness, thoughts, feelings, and what has been called “subtle energy” have a causal role to play and may be fundamental to the structure of the universe.
No one knows for sure how either materialism or post-materialism would fully describe all of nature. But that’s never stopped scientists before; that’s why we have jobs. Right now the difference between materialist and post-materialist scientists is largely based on what research they feel they can trust, and how loud they feel they can voice their opinions without losing funding.
While there are some philosophers who support views related to post-materialism (check out Thomas Nagel and Galen Strawson), in high-status scientific circles, post-materialism is currently taboo. I regularly receive requests for private conversations with scientists working at institutions including Harvard, Yale, the NIH, the NSF, and several University of California schools. First, each scientist tells me about their “wild” experimental results or their personal experience dreaming about a friend’s unexpected death just before it occurred. Then I have to suppress my urge to violate their anonymity — I want to introduce them to each other so they can troubleshoot how to defeat the looming taboo they face as they try to do their work with intellectual honesty.
I have notably different conversations with scientists working at Google, X, Amazon, and various tech startups. There’s often a request for anonymity, but the focus is not how to deal with bizarre experimental results and experiences. It’s more like: Can we teleport products? What about time travel? Remote healing? Tricorders? What problems can we solve by letting go of materialist assumptions?
Bridge Builders Collaborative is one investment firm that is situating itself to find out. Early leaders in the brain-training space, they financed Headspace, Insight Timer, Happify and Pear Therapeutics, which recently offered the first two FDA approved software drugs for the treatment of addiction. These investors are savvy, selective, and trend-aware; as of now, 3 of their 12 investments have $100M valuations and 5 have $300M valuations.
Now Bridge Builders is trend-setting again, with their “Chapter 2” project that publicly launched January 14. Quietly pursuing post-materialist trends using anonymous funding is what I’m used to from the tech sector, but Bridge Builders is publicly outing their plans to pursue subtle energy, psychedelic healing, and “deeper human experience” approaches to create social change. These are not goals embraced openly by any US government agency or mainstream academic institution, so by default tech investors are the major initial movers in the post-materialist economy. It’s thrilling for me and my like-minded colleagues, but there’s a risk that academic and government scientists will be left behind.
Don’t get me wrong — as a post-materialist scientist not affiliated with a major research institution, I benefit from tech funding. I received over $1M over the last four years from various tech investors and tech-friendly foundations, funding projects including: creating human-robot interactions that produce feelings of unconditional love, teaching tech executives about how to use psychic ability to predict future events, and examining whether photons emitted from a light source in the future can be detected in the present. So yes, I owe my unusual career to tech, for sure.
The problem, as I see it, is that a small but growing group of academic and government scientists privately sense that post-materialism offers a way forward, and they do not feel free to speak in the current public funding climate. Some of them see post-materialism not just as a powerful way to interpret unusual results, but also as a way to make science more relevant to humanity’s fundamental questions about (to quote Douglas Adams) life, the universe, and everything. I agree with this feeling that as we discover there’s more to humanity than beautiful biological machinery, this not only advances our knowledge, but actually offers hope.
However, if advances in post-materialist science are funded mostly by tech companies, tech investors and private foundations, fundamental discoveries may be missed, simply because fundamental mechanisms need not be pursued. You can sell a product or service that has been scientifically validated without understanding much about how it works — ask pharmaceutical companies. But as we grow more secular and science-focused as a culture, changing the world’s attitudes requires shifts in our scientific understanding of how the world works, as well as shifts in beliefs. Imagine the ripple effects of a multi-site study showing that your feelings toward your father actually affect his health through a strictly mental mechanism, even if you haven’t talked with him in years and live thousands of miles away. It’s easy to see that this ripple effect is weakened if a company sells a product to enhance your father’s health, but they can’t defend how it works because non-industry scientists won’t study that product, for fear being involved in telepathy and remote healing research could hurt their reputations.
Whatever you think of The Goop Lab, and I think it is regrettably light except for the “Are You Intuit?” episode where they interview my rigorous and brilliant colleague Julie Beischel, Goop is working to open up public minds to post-materialism. Meanwhile, Bridge Builders is bringing investor attention, cash, and intention to the post-materialist economy. Both of these shifts are necessary, in my view, for any healthy research funding climate. Regardless of your views on post-materialism, it is clear from past scientific revolutions that public and industry support are keys to progress on the path of science.
In particular, the world looks at well-trained scientists at major research institutions in the United States to be arbiters on what is true as well as what is important. The existence of human-produced global warming, the importance of vaccination and hand-washing to reduce the possibility of disease, the value of attention, reading, and compassion in child development — these are all publicly known evidence-based conclusions made by scientists, agreed upon by much of the world.
Although I stand to lose funding if more investment is made in scientists connected to tier 1 research institutions, it’s clear to me that they must receive equal and open support for their post-materialist pursuits. This will allow them to independently check into the claims of post-materialist products and discuss openly their growing understanding of nature. One way tech companies and investors can help is by donating money to major university psychology, physics, mathematics, and biology departments that allow them to create endowed chairs for professors who do research on post-materialist topics. Such endowed chairs support complete academic freedom for these professors who have too long labored in the dark.
Let’s not leave for future generations perspective-shifting discoveries about the warp and woof of the universe, or we risk delaying the positive social changes that could follow a well-funded and well-researched scientific revolution.
Below are some non-profit U.S. scientific resources featuring scientists and engineers pursuing post-materialist scientific ideas. These are groups that are continually seeking funding to support their courageous research — some contain scientists affiliated with tier 1 research institutions, others employ scientists who would likely be so affiliated if they would forgo post-materialist research. Please email me if I forgot to mention your U.S. nonprofit post-materialism-friendly scientific organization on this list.