The fascination with the nature of reality, the existence of a soul, an after-life, of continuation of consciousness after death–does not diminish. After all, the belief in such has an enormous impact on how we live our lives. From our views on our personal death, to those we love, to our notion of a higher purpose for our lives–all these and much more are affected by our core metaphysical belief.
A recent book by Deborah Blum, GHOST HUNTERS–William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death is a fascinating exploration of this topic. It is a historical description of the work of William James MD, a true giant in the archives of American intellectual achievement, and his ‘scientific’ approach to the issue of life after death. Living during the later half of the 19th century and into the first quarter of the 20th century, James encountered considerable Resistance and disdain from the scientific community of his day. Science had demonstrated its potency with the discovery and promotion of electricity, the internal combustion engine, the telegram, the telephone, the photograph,anesthesia and other accomplishments.
Darwin had astounded the intellectual world with his convincing theory of evolution, religion was on the defensive and science seemed to offer the only path towards true knowledge.
James had been a Harvard trained physician, philosopher and the first American psychologist. Yet his willingness to follow the truth wherever it led him, offered enormous challenges to his reputation as an intellectual. He was a vigorous proponent of psychical research including the study of mediums. He was one of the founders of the American Society of Psychical Research, the cousin of the earlier British Society.
Their approach was based on a critical appraisal of the information that could be obtained from mediums. They were instrumental in uncovering a great deal of fraud among so-called mediums. Yet, there were several whose statements and information proved impossible to deny.
James and other well respected scientists and professors studied one medium, Mrs. Leonore Piper extensively for many years. The details of their work are outlined in the book. Despite the existence of charlatans and frauds, the existence of one true medium would clearly have an enormous impact on what we could know about the nature of reality and life after death.
In his often quoted words, James noted, If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black…….it is enough to prove one single crow to be white’. …’My own white crow is Mrs. Piper….’ For James, the existence of Mrs Piper and her phenomenal reporting of information that she could not possibly have known, was enough for him to continue his research.
He was critical of those scientists who dismissed his research because it did not fit into a scientific category. Their paradigm for truth was their own set of guidelines–the scientific method. By believing that the only path to truth was through scientific exploration, they were essentially dismissing any other approach. They were defining reality, then expecting reality to conform to their own definition.
Those readers who have been fascinated by their personal experiences with psychics and mediums should keep this in mind. Science has unquestionably contributed to our state of being. Know one would deny its value and success. It would be dangerous, I believe, to be closed to alternative ways of knowing.
It is interesting to note, however, that science may find itself in a more humble position in the early stages of the twenty-first century than it did one hundred years ago. Now it must deal with the realities of quantum theory, relativity theory, superstring theory, chaos theory, dark energy, quantum uncertainty and others. Science is leading us into realms which defy logic as we know it. The ‘universe as machine’, understandable and predictable is gone. We are being led into a reality in which perhaps physicist James Jeans is correct, the universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. Or as physicist Paul Davies noted A rational explanation for the world in the sense of a closed and complete system of logical truths is almost certainly impossible. We are barred from ultimate knowledge….We have to embrace a different concept of understanding. …Possibly a mystical path is the way to such an understanding…
To fellow metaphysicians–feel free to explore with an open-minded skepticism. Read and wonder. Think for yourselves and enjoy the ride.