Friday, January 18, 2013

Proof of (After)Life

Book Reviewed: Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life after Death, by Deborah Blum

I am hoping to read more nonfiction in 2013 to make up for the paltry amount I read last year.  So far, I'm off to a good start because the first new book I read this year was nonfiction.  I randomly came across an online piece Deborah Blum had written about the stupidity of most poisoners.  The article was funny and informative, so I did a little research into Blum's other writing.  Turns out she's a famous science writer with a handful of books about the practice of sciences through specific times in history.  This particular book, Ghost Hunters, sounded especially interesting (partly because I became briefly obsessed with fake mediums in Mary Roach's Spook a couple years ago).  I am glad I read it, as it turned out to be one of the most interesting things I've encountered in a long time.

The reason I loved Ghost Hunters was because I knew almost nothing about its subjects: a handful of 19th-century British and American scientists who became obsessed with proving the existence of an afterlife.  I admit I don't know a lot about the history of science, but I'm finding that it's becoming something of a pet reading project for me.  This could also be because I appreciate the simply elegant way really good science writers tell a story.  Deborah Blum is hardly the type of writer who spins a real yarn or who has stylish flourishes, but she does an incredible job explaining alien concepts and giving just enough anecdotal background to keep a reader interested.  The book hooked me from its very first chapter.

The book's subtitle claims it's about William James, one of the most important psychologists who practiced in the 19th century, and one of the most prestigious scientist-philosophers of his time.  And while the book largely examines James's varied interests and sometimes-troubled personal life, it is much, much bigger than that.  In fact, it seems almost as if Blum got a bit sidetracked in the even more fascinating lives of the British scientists she explores, particularly the doomed Edmund Gurney.  James, along with a fairly large constituent of fellow American and British scientists, became obsessed with the possiblity of merging science and spirituality by attempting to prove the existence of an afterlife.  These scientists were tired of the way science and its practitioners had become completely cold and unwilling to run experiments on the more mystical happenings in the world.  James, Gurney, and their friends (and occasional enemies) believed that all questions were meant to be examined - including questions about God, death, and ghosts.  These men were hardly the ghost hunters of today, willing to call anything a ghost if it seems just enough out of the reach of easy explanation.  Rather, they were mostly skeptical, and as time wore on and they had less and less definite proof of an afterlife, the more dishearted they felt about the practice of the scientific method. 

In the second half of the 19th-century, James and the other scientists interested in the bigger questions of existence formed the British and American Societies for Psychical Research.  Some of the scientists in the society were among the most elite of thinkers, scientist and inventors who had discovered or created many of the things we use today (cathode tubes, wireless communication, modern concepts of psychology, et cetera).  Genuine Renaissance men, the entire world fascinated them.  They wanted explanations, and they believed science was the best way to get at those explanations.  Questions about "crisis apparitions" (ghosts of people who show themselves to a loved one at the exact moment they're dying somewhere else in the world) and telepathy and mediums deserved as much attention as anything else in the world.  Some of them were hardcore skeptics (in fact, the book's most interesting and loveable figure, Richard Hodgson, never fully believed any experimental results and constantly made other psychical scientists look foolish, despite being the Society for Psychical Research's most dedicated member).  Some were lovelorn believers who might have secretly wanted their own source of comfort in proving the existence of life after death (particularly British scientist Fred Myers, who always mourned for a lost lover who killed herself decades earlier).

What is most interesting about this book has nothing to do with ghosts or telepathy, but rather with the men who dedicated their lives to study the strange and occasionally beautiful.  They wanted to believe that spirituality and science did not have to be exclusive to one another.  Rather, they yearned for a mystical world that could open its heart to the benefits of scientifc study.  And at the same time, they wanted science to accept that all things were worth inquiry, including the supernatural.  Blum presents these scientists, who never did get the kind of catharsis they were looking for, as incredibly intelligent, often mentally anguished, sometimes admirable, men as some of the rarest of human beings: the kind who literally believed there are no limits to what is worth knowing.