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A fascinating book for all to read

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#1 canuck


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Posted 23 October 2008 - 09:03 PM

I have just finished reading a particularly interesting book; and I believe that anyone with an interest in spookology would find it a fascinating read.

The book is entitled: “Ghost Hunters: William James and the search for scientific proof of life after death.”

The author is Deborah Blum, a Professor at The U. Of Wisconsin-Madison, a Pulitzer Prize winner for her works in scientific writing, and past President of the National Association of Science writers.

You can read an interview with her, regarding this book, at:

In order to save myself the work of writing a book review, I copied the following review from the commentaries section on “Amazon”:

(The link for this review is: )

Noting that Blum is a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer and journalism professor, I had more or less anticipated a contemptuous treatment of the subject matter. Since journalists generally tend to ape mainstream scientists in superciliously smirking, snickering, sneering, and scoffing at the paranormal, I assumed Blum would find much caustic humor in the pursuits of educated and reputable men (and one woman) who dared stray outside the bounds of scientific fundamentalism. I assumed wrong again.

As the subtitle suggests, Harvard professor William James, remembered more for his contributions to psychology and philosophy than psychical research, was one of the early leaders in scientific research aimed ultimately at determining whether consciousness survives bodily death. The research was prompted by advances in science - advances that seemed to relegate religious dogma and doctrine to mere superstition. "Could any God - Christian or otherwise - survive in an age where religion feared science and science denied faith?" Blum expresses the sentiments of Frederic W. H. Myers, another pioneering researcher. "It was into that divide that Myers saw psychical research bravely marching. The goal was to bridge research and religion, to show that they were not incompatible, that one could even explain the other."

Myers appears to have been motivated, Blum observes, by a feeling that science was reducing the universe to a large machine and people to small ones. Other scholars and scientists were similarly motivated. "He was an educated man; he understood and even appreciated the arguments for a purely mechanical universe," Blum describes Edmund Gurney, one of Myers' research associates. "Life lived as a cog in a cold, godless, indifferent machine, however, had come to seem to him unbearable."

The research was primarily with mediums. "Mediums were peculiar creatures; there was no denying it about even the best of them," Blum explains. "How could they not be? They spent hours of their time surrounded by people desperate to talk with the dead. They fell into trances reputedly inhabited by ghosts. They agreed to be hogtied by investigating scientists. Skeptics mocked them; journalists parodied them; former friends feared them. One had to wonder why anyone would choose to become a medium."

The most credible and intriguing of all mediums was Leonora Piper, a Boston housewife, who was discovered by James and studied for some 18 years by Richard Hodgson, an Australian who was recruited to head up the American Society for Psychical Research. Hodgson had a reputation as a debunker of fraudulent "mediums," but became convinced that Mrs. Piper was the real thing, what James called his "white crow," the one that proved all crows weren't black.

The researchers were often frustrated by charlatans as well as by their arrogant scientific colleagues who assumed the subject was too absurd for educated men. One such haughty professor was James Cattell of Columbia University. He sneered at his fellow professor, James H. Hyslop, when Hyslop became interested in psychical research, and when Hyslop published articles that strongly supported non-mechanistic theories, Cattell tried to have him fired. In his defense, Hyslop, noting scientific efforts to find a species of useless fish to support Darwin's theory, asked "why it is so noble and respectable to find whence man came, and so suspicious and dishonorable to ask and ascertain whither he goes?"

Other researchers, including Alfred Russel Wallace, co-originator with Charles Darwin of the natural selection theory of evolution, William Crookes, a brilliant chemist and physicist whose invention led to the X-ray, Oliver Lodge, a pioneer in electricity and radio, and William Barrett, a Dublin physicist knighted for his scientific work, came under attack by their peers when they dared report on evidence that did not fit into the post-Darwin scientific paradigm. "Humbug is humbug, even though it bear the scientific name," James lashed out as the cynics, "and the total expression of human experience, as I view it objectively, invincibly urges me beyond the narrow `scientific' bounds."

While some of the researchers, including Wallace, Crookes, Barrett, Lodge, Hodgson, and Hyslop were able to satisfy themselves that a spirit world exists, and, concomitantly, that consciousness does survive bodily death, James was more guarded and would remain warily perched on the "fence" separating believers from non-believers, seeing that position as the only way to reconcile the differences between science and religion. Moreover, James recognized the difference between the subjectivity of proof and the objectivity of evidence. "The concrete evidence for most of the `psychic' phenomena under discussion is good enough to hang a man 20 times over," James once admonished the scientific fundamentalists.

The closing chapters of the book deal with the famous cross-correspondences - messages coming through different mediums in different parts of the world, which in themselves meant nothing but when collected by the researchers formed coherent messages. The best of these messages were said to have come from Frederic Myers after his death in 1901. Hodgson also began offering convincing messages through Mrs. Piper after his death in 1905.

In the end, it is a matter of what James called the "will to believe" versus the "will to disbelieve."

Blum examines the work of the psychical researchers with respect, objectivity, and understanding. She apparently spent three years researching the subject. I thought I knew the subject pretty well from over 10 years of study, but I learned a lot from this book. As I consumed the book over mochas at Starbucks, I delighted in my initial false assumptions and continually marveled at the accuracy and detail of the stories as well as at Blum's prolific writing.

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