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Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death

Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death
Deborah Blum, 2006, The Penguin Press

Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is a professor of science journalism at the University of Wisconsin and has written about scientific research for publications such as the New York Times, Discover and many other publications. Her book is concerned with several prominent scientists, including renowned scientist William James, and his commitment to proving life after death. Blum explores the courageous actions of these scientists in both their response towards the Darwinist critics along the organized religious dogma facing them; they questioned if the current simplicity of the world being carved out, both from the Darwinist and Religious doctrine near the end of the 19th Century, was too simple in nature to explain the complexity of our reality and how we define life after death. These scientists became known as psychical researchers (psychic studies) and they collaborated for over a span of 30 years intrigued by a greater complexity that many where were unable to define in the scientific thinking of their time. We still play with the idea, yet have no 'concrete' proof for such conjectures today. This book explores not only the possibilities of a greater complexity we have yet to prove or understand, but offers an interesting historical telling of a group of renowned scientists who questioned Darwin and the emerging scientific community regarding their seemingly simplistic approach to the natural world.

A keen example of this is Alfred Russell Wallace, a British naturalist, explorer, geographer, anthropologist and biologist who coauthored the theory of evolution with Darwin. He was a prominent researcher in this movement. He said this about the significance of this psychical research and how understanding supernatural events could help demonstrate “the nature of life and intellect, on which physical science throws a very feeble and uncertain light.� (44) In the midst of Wallace's work, Darwin challenged him with these words regarding his psychical research: "I defy you to upset your own doctrine." (40)

In greater depth, William James, a pioneering American psychologist and philosopher at Harvard who wrote influential books on the young science of psychology (The Principles of Psychology), educational psychology, psychology of religious experience and mysticism, and the philosophy of pragmatism, said this about psychical research: “It seems to me that psychology is like Physics to Galileo’s time—not a single elementary law yet caught a glimpse of.� (168) This book explores James' lead role in the documentation of a possible existence outside our normal reality. Many of the explorers in this research community questioned through traditional scientific lens such as electromagnetic field theory and came to believe that there were underpinnings difficult to define with language and scientific certainty.

Many of the scientists involved did not follow any organized religious doctrine; in fact, many proposed that the same limitations that religion provided was the same limitations offered by the emerging traditional scientific theories of their time. Fredrick Myers said their work was "an endeavor to learn the actual truth as to the destiny of man" while Wallace argued that their serious scientific investigation "dealt with as constituting an essential portion of the phenomena of human nature." (33,35)

Though not a part of this research community, Thomas Edison shared his belief about the work of Jame's and other prominent scientists with a journalist: "Well, there you are. We do not understand. We cannot understand. We are too finite to understand. The really big things we cannot grasp as yet." (318)

Everard Feilding said society was "unwillingly children of the time in which they live." (321) It is here where scientific determinism becomes cemented in our collective consciousness. Blum, the author, expands the idea by stating that the people of James’s and Feilding's time "lived surrounded by new knowledge, inundated by facts; they were told absolutely that such information was the only route to certainty about the universe."

We seem to still be struggling with this same problematic approach to our thinking today.

I found this book relevant as an interesting juxtaposition to the readings, discussions, and presentations that we have explored with complexity theory. There were indeed an organized group of scientific intellectuals and researchers who not only questioned the dominant deterministic philosophy of their time, but also challenged the very doctrine of traditional religion. I find myself intrigued by such openly pragmatic inquiry. I think this allows for greater complex, adaptive thinking/consideration to enter into our conversations and our consciousness building. Many of the same themes resonate throughout the telling of this scientific movement. I find the same intuition and scientific courtesy present in the studies and words of today’s complexity theorists. Almost all of these 19th Century scientists ascribed to Darwin’s theory , but many questioned its reductionist simplicity; even Wallace, who helped coauthor the theory questioned its many limitations publicly during Darwin’s life. The book explores Darwin’s many responses along with the angst of the traditional scientific community in response to this unconventional scientific study. The topic (psychical research) today is still considered controversial at best.

To further intrigue you; here is a list of the many scientists, intellectuals and artists involved in this psychical scientific movement. Many of them committed their entire academic lives to prove the theory of life after death detailed in this book.

A sample from the book:

• Richard Hodgson: Philosophy
• TH Huxley— English biologist, physician & scientific scholar who coined the word agnostic. Huxley used the term 'agnostic' to describe his own views on religion, a term whose use has continued to the present day, and which throws light on his demanding criteria for proof in science
• Henry Sidgwick: English philosopher published Methods of Ethics out of Cambridge University.
• Who started the British Society of for Psychical Research in 1882? Frederic Myers-- a scholar, a poet of distinction and a psychologist and Edmund Gurney who wrote The Power of Sound (1880), an essay on the philosophy of music.
• William Fletcher Barrett-- he discovered Stalloy, a silicon-iron alloy used in electrical engineering and he was the first physicist to join the movement
• Famous folks who joined the British Society for Psychical Research included painters, clergymen, politicians, spiritualists, and writers: Alfred Lord Tennyson (Britain’s poet laureate), essayist & social critic John Ruskin, Rev. Charles L. Dodgson (pen name Lewis Carroll) who wrote Alice in Wonderland, and Samuel Clemens (pen name Mark Twain)
• Charles Richet—who won the Nobel Prize for Physiology and investigated neuro-chemistry, digestion, thermoregulation in homoeothermic animals, and breathing; he wrote para-scientific subjects, which dominated his late years, including Traité de Métapsychique ("Treaty of Metapsychics", 1922), Notre Sixième Sens ("Our Sixth Sense", 1928), L'Avenir et la Prémonition ("The Future and Premonition", 1931), La grande espérance ("The Great Hope", 1933).
• Julian Ochorowicz-- Polish philosopher, psychologist, poet, publicist and was a pioneer of empirical research in psychology
• Oliver Lodge-- was a physicist and writer involved in the development of the wireless telegraph; altogether, he wrote more than 40 books, about the afterlife, ether, relativity, and electromagnetic theory.

Enjoy, it is truly fascinating to see prominent thinkers question the limitations of Darwin’s thinking during its emerging phase. It is also interesting to read about the potential of a reality beyond our everyday experience during a time that was more open to such inquires of the supernatural workings of the world then compared today in the scientific community. It begs for us to consider that perhaps our view is tunneled and that we are unable to embrace, or perhaps in fear of, what it means if the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.