Searching for scientific evidence of an afterlife

Review Science

August 13, 2006|By GLENN C. ALTSCHULER | GLENN C. ALTSCHULER,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

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

Deborah Blum

The Penguin Press / 371 pages / $24.95

When his father died, William James, the renowned psychologist and philosopher, grew "dizzy" with the possibility of immortality. Although friends warned him that those who sought proof of life after death were often deemed "weak in the head," James joined other researchers in the United States and England in a Society for Psychical Research.

In nature, James claimed, "all things are provisional, half-fitted to each other and untidy." Dispassionate and systematic, scientists should remain open to "really supernormal knowledge." And not be deterred by false leads or fakers: "If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black, you mustn't seek to show that no crows are; it is enough if you prove one single crow to be white."

In Ghost Hunters, Deborah Blum, a newspaper science writer who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for articles about primates, recreates the search for evidence of an afterlife by members of the SPR. Blum is by no means the first writer to examine spiritualism in the late 19th century. Nor does she reach beyond the familiar interpretation of the search for proof of life after death as a conflict between empiricism and materialism and faith in an "unseen world." But she is a gifted storyteller, who brings back to life a captivating cast of characters, including Australian Richard Hodgson, who exposed the Theosophist Madame Helen Blavatsky as a fake and then became a believer in telepathy and ghostly apparitions, and Mrs. Leonora Piper, the Boston medium whose seances with her "control," a spirit who called himself Dr. Phinuit, established her as William James' "white crow."

To refute the claim that spiritualism was the enemy of progress, "the ruck and muck of modern culture," Blum's ghost hunters conscientiously applied scientific methods and made sure that every finding "absolutely reeks of candor." They shackled the hands and legs of mediums to guard against spirit "rapping," unexplained gusts of wind and levitating tables. They measured breathing to confirm that a medium was in a trance. They appeared at seances unannounced, masked or with false identities, providing mediums with no information about relatives and childhood experiences. They were skeptical about ghosts who appeared fully clothed, seeking tests for the hypothesis that observers created "the look" of apparitions to conform with their expectations.

Their most ambitious project was a Census of Hallucinations, which was completed in 1892. The researchers asked 17,000 English citizens and 7,000 Americans if they had had a "crisis apparition" about the death of a relative, friend or acquaintance. Using a statistical formula developed by Nora Sidgwick of Cambridge University, they calculated that the possibility of a "hallucination" occurring on the very day that person died was one in 19,000. After throwing out cases where a death was expected, the census-takers reported that in England "ghosts" appeared within 12 hours of death 442.6 times more often than the rate predicted by chance. In the United States the ratio was 487 times greater than chance. Had they proved that some apparitions were "hallucinations of the sane"? William James wasn't sure. The census, he wrote, was "a slouchy piece of work" unlikely to conquer disbelief. Acknowledging that he might be dooming himself "to the pit in the eyes of a better-judging posterity," James reaffirmed his view that knowledge was probably transmitted outside the ordinary senses, through telepathy, psychometry (gleaning information about people through contact with objects they had touched) or messages from the dead. But proof, he now knew, would not come in his lifetime, perhaps because "the Creator has eternally intended this department of nature to remain baffling," never susceptible to full corroboration.

When James died in 1910, the 20th century, Blum writes, had already "left dusty notions of faith and spirit behind." But the real casualty of the modern age, as James sensed, with regret, was a loss of confidence in the capacity of science - and reason - to provide answers to the fundamental mysteries of life.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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