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A different kind of believer

Michael S. Roth is president of California College of the Arts in the Bay Area and author of "The Ironist's Cage: Memory, Trauma and the Construction of History."

WHEN religion and science meet, it often seems like a clash of civilizations. Many who see themselves as beacons of rationality have wanted to eradicate what they consider primitive modes of thinking that survive only through a pernicious combination of human weakness and organized indoctrination. Philosopher Daniel Dennett’s latest book, “Breaking the Spell,” is a recent instance. He calls religion a “natural phenomenon,” because he regards it like any other human attribute -- in this case, one that has become maladaptive: It should be cured, or it should disappear. On the religious side, there are those who imagine that faith can lead to a rational outlook on the world; The “intelligent design” movement is the best current example. Existing somewhere in the middle of this continuum are scientists who carry on advanced research while maintaining their religious faith. They keep these worlds separate, occasionally bringing them together for the consideration of ethical rather than, say, biochemical questions.

Deborah Blum is a science journalist who has written incisively on the interconnections of science, politics and culture in “The Monkey Wars,” “Sex on the Brain” and “Love at Goon Park.” In “Ghost Hunters,” she takes on a more historical subject: the efforts of a determined group of scientists at the end of the 19th century to prove the existence of life after death.

Her story focuses on Harvard psychologist and philosopher William James, regarded by many as the greatest American intellectual figure of his time. James believed that science should explain those matters seen as supernatural. Telepathy, premonitions and, most important, the ability to communicate with the dead were taken as fact by millions; shouldn’t one therefore try to understand these weird phenomena? Most scientists dismissed them as delusions or amazing coincidences unworthy of scientific attention and resources. James and his like-minded colleagues became objects of criticism and ridicule because they dignified these “trivialities” by organizing experiments around them. They developed tests designed to expose fraud (asking a medium to contact the researcher’s deceased wife, when there was none, for example) or to explore the question of whether human beings might actually be forms of energy that persisted after their biological containers had expired.

For these psychical researchers, as they called themselves, nothing could be more important. After all, they were trying to find out if those they loved and had lost to death might still exist -- and if they themselves would have a “discarnate” existence after their own bodies perished. The inventions of the telegraph and telephone had shown that one could communicate easily across space; the next task was to communicate across time, and this meant, ultimately, eliminating the border of death. French physiologist Charles Richet, who would win a Nobel Prize in 1913 for his work on the immune system, lent legitimacy to this enterprise by linking it to the history of scientific discoveries. Electricity, for example, had once been considered occult. Blum notes his breezy confidence that one day science would “easily manage and even manipulate the supernatural.”

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Blum begins her account in the late 1800s, when evolutionary theory had religion very much on the defensive. She calls this an “era ... of intense moral imbalance.” Science had undermined the notion of a purposive universe with humankind at the center of things, but it had not generated an alternative sense of meaning and direction. Technological change seemed dizzying to many. Industrial societies were increasingly secular, eradicating the sacred. What would replace it?

If death was not final, there might be some hope for a higher purpose beyond biology and evolution. Blum describes research into ghosts, clairvoyance, Ouija boards and automatic writing, all of which dealt with a realm beyond the visible. She also describes the dogmatic refusal of the scientific establishment to take this stuff seriously. The British and American societies for psychical research (James was a founding member of the American society and later served for two years as president of the British society) were the butt of jokes in the popular press and stridently criticized in academic journals. Blum doesn’t take an overt stand, preferring to tell the story without explicit judgment. But she comes close to saying that scientific authorities were as closed-minded as their religious counterparts, being incapable of studying what didn’t fit into their conceptual framework.

The best pages of “Ghost Hunters” are filled with strange tales of people who seem to know things they should not be able to know. Sometimes these are mediums, who in a trance report in amazing, accurate detail on the lives of dead relatives of the strangers in their seances. Sometimes it’s an ordinary person who has a vision of a body hidden in a particular place -- and a corpse is discovered that had previously been impossible to find. Scientists construct experiments to show that the trance is real, the information accurate, the vision not just a lucky guess.

At the center of these efforts was James, author of the masterwork “Principles of Psychology,” maintaining his receptivity to new experiences without making himself completely vulnerable to fraud or illusion. He realized that by remaining open to such bizarre occurrences he was compromising his reputation and the rest of his work, but he was convinced that only through openness could discoveries be made.

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His scientific peers pointed out that there were countless examples of fraud among the so-called mediums. James knew very well about the fakes, but he also knew of cases that couldn’t be explained away. “For my own part,” he wrote, in an 1896 essay titled “The Will to Believe,” “I have ... a horror of being duped; but I can believe that worse things than being duped may happen to a man in this world.” He concluded that “a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule.” By remaining open to belief, we allow for opportunity; this became key to the pragmatist creed.

Shortly after James’ death in 1910, a reporter asked Thomas Edison why he thought the celebrated psychologist and philosopher had engaged in this strange research. The great inventor replied that James’ quest was undoubtedly “born of our tenacity of life” but that he himself had no use for an afterlife. “Mercy? Kindness? Love? I don’t see ‘em. Nature is what we know.”

But James had a different picture of nature. “Nature is everywhere gothic not classic,” he wrote in 1903. “She forms a real jungle, where all things are provisional, half-fitted to each other and untidy.” As Blum observes: “It was only by acknowledging the messiness of life itself that a picture of reality could be drawn.” “Ghost Hunters” is a sympathetic account of researchers who held on to their picture of “the messiness of life” by infusing it with their hope that there was ultimately no such thing as death.

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From Ghost Hunters

JAMES had established a small laboratory at Harvard to run psychology experiments. His work paralleled a similar, even more ambitious push in Europe, especially Germany, where scientists rushed to design and install equipment for monitoring physical evidence of psychological stimulus. Yet as this German approach, with its stress on measurement and quantifiable result, gained influence and acceptance, James found himself increasingly alienated from the science he had helped pioneer. A humanist at heart, and a contrarian, he gradually turned away from a mechanistic view of human behavior.


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