The Ghost or the Machine
I didn’t know whether to put this here in the Editor’s Page, under Book Reviews, Science or even under Anthroposophy. I’m still not sure if it’s in the right place, but at least it’s better than bashing Bush every month. But have no fear, we’ll get back to that soon enough. Be patient.
I just finished reading a very interesting book: Ghost Hunters by Deborah Blum. Don’t let the title put you off; it’s not a horror story, although it does have a lot to do with ghosts. Ms. Blum is a professor of science journalism at the University of Wisconsin. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for her writing about primate research, which she turned into a book, The Monkey Wars. She has written about scientific research for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Discover, Health, Psychology Today, etc. This time the subject of her research is “William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life after Death” – which is the subtitle of Ghost Hunters. I can imagine a tussle between the author and the publisher about the title, the latter more interested in selling books, the former worried about her reputation – with a final compromise: Title and Subtitle.
At the end of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth, Charles Darwin’s and Alfred Russel Wallace’s theory of evolution had taken the world by surprise and seemed to be the crowning touch to Science’s accomplishments. But there were plenty of people who worried that the theory of evolution would supplant God and religion. The churches refused to accept it; the masses followed the leaders. But there others, renowned scientists all, who felt that if man has an immortal spirit and death is not the end of existence, they should be able to prove it scientifically, for they also believed in science. The dilemma was how. The preeminent figure was William James – world renowned philosopher and professor of psychiatry at Harvard. But there were others, less well known now, such as Richard Hodgson, James Hyslop, Henry Sidgwick and his wife Nora, Edmund Gurney and others, including a couple of Nobel Prize winners – not to mention Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle. They came from both sides of the Atlantic and founded the British Society for Psychical Research and the American Society for Psychical Research – both of which still exist.
They turned to the mediums, who claimed to be able to contact the spirits of the dead, vowing to be open-minded, but at the same time scientifically rigorous. They were so rigorous in fact, that they discounted not only the great majority, which were frauds, or could have been frauds. That is, if they could not verify with certainly that there was no other explanation but that the mediums actually were in contact with the dead, they were shelved. They attended literally thousands of séances, many of which they ran themselves in order to make the conditions foolproof, thus becoming experts at medium fraud. They declared Madame Blavatsky a fraud based on the investigation of Hodgson. The SPR's report on Blavatsky was devastating: "For our own part, we regard her as neither the mouthpiece of hidden seers nor as a mere vulgar adventuress; we think she has achieved a title to permanent remembrance as one of the most accomplished and interesting imposters in history." Maybe, maybe not. Blavatsky's influence within and without the Theosophical Society deserved more than one person's judgement based on his attendance at one séance to be called even remontely "scientific".
What they did finally prove, at least to themselves, was the reality of telepathy. In doing so, however, they cast more doubt upon their aspirations. Some honest mediums, in trance, were able to reveal astonishing details about the lives of the dead relatives and friends of those present, with whose voices they were assumedly speaking or writing, but very little about anyone who had no connection with those present, thereby arousing the suspicion that they were innately and unconsciously skilled at telepathy and were reading the sitters’ minds rather than being vehicles for the dead loved ones.
Nevertheless, there were a few cases which they could not brush off, especially one Leonora Piper, a housewife with amazing mediumistic gifts who was not a professional medium and only wished to cooperate with the investigators in order to understand herself. After being pinched, prodded and injected (to test her trance) and tested by scientific cynics, headline-hunting journalists, as well as our well intentioned friends, she finally told them all to go to hell and got back to her own life.
They wound up baffled by mediums, but still convinced that their quest was justified. Besides all the articles they wrote, much personal correspondence between them and others has been preserved, either in university archives or in the two Societies for Psychical Research, and the author had access to all of it. So perhaps the book’s greatest attraction is her description of the protagonists’ lives, loves, frustrations, failures and successes.
All this was before Carl Jung and Rudolf Steiner became known. Jung would have had much to say about the synchronicities involved. Mark Twain, for example, born during Halley’s Comet’s pass through the earth’s sphere, died in 1910 during it’s next visit, as did three of the founding members of the Psychical Societies. Rudolf Steiner had something interesting to say about mediums. He didn’t deny that they (the honest ones) had contact with spirits, but he held them to be malicious and not the dearly beloved wife or husband the inquirer was seeking. Reading this book with that thought in mind made me wish that it had occurred to the investigators. Steiner of course believed in immortality and a spiritual world, but said that the only healthy way to attain knowledge of it is through rigorous meditative practice – what he called “initiate science”. (Check out his book - free Ebook - on the subject: Knowledge of Higher Worlds and its Attainment.)
The duel between materialism and spirituality is still going on. Essentially it began with Darwin and Wallace – the latter, by the way, while always defending the theory of evolution, was at the same time a firm believer in the spirit and cooperated with our psychical researchers. If you want to know how it all started, get this book and perhaps change your mind, as the author did, from cynical to open minded, over the course of her investigations.
P.S. For those of you who still miss the Bush-bashing that usually goes on here, see this photo of an upcoming Trial