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William James & the Original Ghost Busters

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

By Deborah Blum

Publisher: Penguin Press

Pages: 384 pages

Price: $24.95

Review Author: Arthur C. Sippo

Arthur C. Sippo is a physician and specialist in aerospace medicine who has written and lectured as a Catholic apologist for over 30 years. He writes from southern Illinois.

On January 29, 1996, my mother Mildred lay dying in Calvary Hospital in the Bronx with end-stage thyroid cancer. She had taken a turn for the worse and was in a coma. Her breathing was steady and unlabored. She looked like she was just sleeping. My sister Carol had called my brother William and me the day before and advised us to come as soon as we could. I arrived on the evening of January 28, but my brother the surgeon had patients scheduled and could not leave until the afternoon of the 29th. He was on active duty in the Army, stationed in El Paso. My sister and I were at Mom’s bedside just before noon when the phone rang. It was my brother’s wife, Jisa. She asked us in an excited voice, “What’s the matter with Milly?” My sister answered, “Nothing. She’s sleeping.” We then both looked at Mom, and I noticed the color drain from her ear. She had no pulse and no respiration. My sister-in-law, who was over two thousand miles away, had known the exact moment of my mother’s death before those of us who were standing right next to her. Jisa later told us that just before she had called she had felt an arm go around her shoulders and had heard my mother’s voice say, “I am leaving now.”

This is what psychic researchers call a “crisis apparition.” A person hundreds or thousands of miles away manifests himself to someone he knows around the time of his death, who otherwise has no means of knowing that the death had occurred. Thousands of such incidents have been documented over many centuries. There is no scientific explanation for this phenomenon. When pressed on it, the skeptic will claim it was “just a coincidence.” As someone who has witnessed a crisis apparition, I do not find such an explanation to be satisfactory.

Such paranormal experiences have occurred throughout human history and have been seen as proof of life after death. During the Enlightenment, secular scholars became systematically skeptical of anything smacking of the supernatural, especially since it was well known that, in the past, religious figures had faked paranormal phenomena with trickery and sleight of hand. With the rise of serious scientific investigation techniques in the 19th century, some scientists were willing to examine evidence for the supernatural to understand and possibly explain such things if they were real or debunk them if they were not. Ghost Hunters tells the story of some of these investigations and the involvement of Harvard psychologist William James.

Author Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer Prize-winning science author who was asked to deal with this topic by her editor. Taking up her task, she was naturally skeptical and anticipated that she would find little basis for serious belief in mediums, telepathy, or telekinesis. But Blum was changed by her investigation. She is no longer “as smug or as positive of my rightness” (her words). The documentation by these psychic researchers points to something real and mysterious that cannot easily be explained away. Even Blum was convinced of this.

The 19th-century scientists who pursued these investigations were neither credulous nor careless. They included in their number Nobel Prize winners such as Charles Richet and Lord Rayleigh, tough-minded investigators such as Richard Hodgson, scientific pioneers such as Oliver Hodge and William Crookes, and men such as William James who respected science but who thought that there was more to the universe and human life than science alone could comprehend. Even that old skeptic Mark Twain had had experiences of telepathy that led him to be a supporter of psychic research.

This was an important time for such studies. Modern science was in its infancy and was just beginning to study the human mind. The foundation for scientific psychology had not yet been established. Would it follow the Enlightenment program into a purely mechanistic paradigm or would it take cognizance of the spiritual in man? Would it recognize what made man more than an animal or try to reduce him to nothing more than a biological machine?

The investigators collected reports of various ghostly manifestations, including crisis apparitions. Most of them could not be documented sufficiently and others were dismissed as suspect. Still, a small yet significant number of these cases could not be dismissed as hoaxes or mere coincidences.

They also found evidence of thought transference done under rigorous conditions so that there was no chance of trickery. Many of those alleging such powers were shown to be hoaxers using stage trickery. But, against the odds, a small number seemed to be genuine. Unfortunately, the apparently genuine incidents were hard to reproduce on command, leading skeptics to question whether the original results were due to mere luck or to a more sophisticated form of legerdemain.

This always seemed to be the problem with psychical research. Results from experiments with electricity, momentum, chemical reactions, and the like were easily reproducible in different laboratories by different investigators. But psychic phenomena were elusive and required the talents of special people who had good days and bad days manifesting their “gifts.”

One of the most problematic types of phenomena — the one the book covers more than any other — was that of mediums who claimed to be able to contact the dead and channel information from them to the living. Some were “professional” mediums who regularly performed either for a fee or for donations. Many of these turned out to be con artists. Yet some seemed to be the genuine article.

It is a sad fact that psychic phenomena were not as easily or reliably studied as more mundane natural phenomena. This made the scientific establishment more than skeptical about any alleged positive results. But there was also a much deeper antipathy between the new scientific worldview emerging in the late 19th century and the older spiritual views. Many in the scientific community on both sides of the Atlantic were functional atheists, agnostics, or deists who refused to have anything to do with such “superstitions.” These were heady days when “human progress through science” looked like the solution to all of man’s problems.

The scientific community at large refused to give William James and other serious researchers a fair hearing. Blum finds this as shocking as James did. The only real way to refute a theory is to test it in the laboratory. The 19th-century scientific establishment, however, refused to do so and merely denounced psychic research as wishful thinking from a bygone age. No matter how well controlled or documented their experiments were, psychic researchers were not taken seriously.

After the turn of the century, the original group of “ghost busters” began to die off. The next generation of such researchers would not be as credible, impartial, or scientifically rigorous. In the meantime, the holistic humanism of William James was eclipsed in the science of psychology by the narrow atheism of Freud. Despite later attempts by men such as C.G. Jung, psychology would try to re-imagine man as a rat-in-a-maze and not as either a ghost-in-a-machine or as an integrated union of mind and body.

From the Catholic perspective, psychic phenomena are not matters of faith. Many of them — medi­umship, for example — are condemned in both Scripture and Tradition. Nevertheless, belief in the survival of the human soul after death is a tenet of the Christian faith. Any science of the human mind that excludes it is contrary to revelation and as such misses the truth about man. Psychic phenomena are part of the warp and woof of a world in which God speaks to men in dreams, apparitions of Mary appear to visionaries, and men can petition the prayers of the saints in Heaven. The fact that these early researchers were able to obtain some positive results shows that there is something here that is worth studying scientifically and which challenges the merely materialistic basis of the sciences.

Blum’s Ghost Hunters is an honest portrayal of a tragic period in intellectual history when the prejudice of atheistic science prevented an honest evaluation of psychic phenomena.

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