Are there truths that cannot be proven—that science simply has no answer for? If something cannot be definitively proven, does that make it any less real? Is there room in the modern world for “extreme possibilities”? (tm Fox Mulder)
At the turn of the 20th century, a group of scientists, psychologists, and other interested individuals, in both Great Britain and the United States, set out to investigate psychic phenomena and the mediums who showed psychic gifts. Some were skeptics, others were inclined to believe, but all claimed to want the truth. In Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death (which I learned about from Eva at A Striped Armchair), Deborah Blum writes of their investigations and their findings.
The stories Blum tells are fascinating. There are incidents of people having visions of loved ones right at the time of their death. My own favorite was the man who was writing to a friend when he heard a voice say, “What write to a dead man? Write to a dead man?” only to learn later that his friend had just died. The very idea of disembodied voices just creeps me out.
There are stories of sittings with mediums with varying degrees of honesty and apparent psychic talent. Some are obvious frauds, others appear to resort to tricks some of the time (which causes many investigators to discredit them entirely), and one whose talents the investigators could never quite explain. And Blum just shares their stories. Never does she imply that of course they were all frauds and that the investigators were too dumb to see it. But neither does she declare that these phenomena must be real. Blum seems to be attempting to report, not to convince. Both skeptics and believers (or folks like me who are a bit of both) will find much here to support or to challenge their views.
Another point of interest is how Blum incorporates the transition to a modern, scientific society. Science was making huge, new leaps at the time. One of the investigators, in fact, was Alfred Russel Wallace, who developed a theory of evolution similar to Darwin’s, but independently of Darwin. Despite Wallace’s scientific credibility and William James‘s credibility as a founder of modern psychology, the scientific establishment wanted nothing to do with their scientific research into psychic phenomena. The men who pursed such research were perceived with suspicion, no matter how rigorous their methodology. I found this especially interesting, given that some of the investigators went into the work expecting to be debunkers. If the phenomena aren’t real, what’s the harm in investigating? In fact, what’s the harm of investigating if the phenomena are real? Shouldn’t truth be the goal? Blum, to her credit, does not priviledge one side of this debate over the other; she presents their arguments in a way that causes thoughtful readers (or listeners) to consider how we do arrive at truth, particularly truth about spiritual matters.
I will confess that I’m not particularly well versed in turn-of-the-century spiritualism, and it’s possible that some who are more knowledgeable than I could perceive ways in which Blum stacks the deck by leaving out certain facts or emphasizing others. However, as a reader new to the topic, I found Blum to be remarkably even-handed, and I appreciated her efforts to put readers into the minds of the people of the time, rather than to impose our more modern, more “enlightened” views.
I listened to this book on audio, read by George K. Wilson, and although I enjoyed it in that format, I did at times wish I had a hard copy. There were a lot of different names and incidents to remember. I couldn’t keep all the investigators, mediums, and controls (spirit guides) straight. If I had been reading a hard copy, I probably would have left sticky notes on key passages when new people were mentioned. With the audiobook, I’ve come away with a fuzzier grasp of the details than I might have otherwise. Still, it was enjoyable, and I learned a lot.