The Final Frontier
William James and the Search for
Scientific Proof of Life After Death
By Deborah Blum
Penguin Press. 370 pp. $25.95
When it came to the paranormal, the American psychologist William James manifested what he called "the will to believe" -- not necessarily in occult phenomena themselves, but in their worthiness for rational inquiry. Yet toward the end of a century in which inventors created technologies that reduced the power of time and space (photography and telegraphy) and in which scientists introduced theories that shattered old beliefs (paleontology, evolution), the Harvard professor met with resistance -- and some titters -- when he suggested applying scientific method to mind-reading and spiritualism, two of the late 19th century's most tantalizing fads, along with the possibility of an afterlife and other supernatural questions. These out-of-hand dismissals galled James. As far as he was concerned, writes the science journalist Deborah Blum, "it was past time . . . for science to open its mind." Despite being already overburdened with his academic duties and not in the best of health, in the mid-1880s James undertook the mission himself.
He found ready allies in England, where educated folk tended to be less hostile to the supernatural: No less a figure than Alfred Russel Wallace, who had framed the theory of evolution almost simultaneously with Darwin, took part in séances and tended to believe in spiritual powers, and Cambridge philosopher Henry Sidgwick and his brilliant wife, Nora, were eager to apply polling and mathematics to alleged psychic phenomena. The complementary late-19th-century inquiries by learned men and women on both sides of the Atlantic are the subject of Blum's absorbing but standoffish new book, Ghost Hunters .
The dogged investigators, most of them busy people with other duties to fulfill, gathered case studies, attended séances, designed tests of claimants' veracity, and ran what came to be known as the Census of Hallucinations, which counted apparitions of persons who were found to have died on the very day they made their appearances. According to a method worked out by Nora Sidgwick, Census respondents reported a correlation between apparitions and same-day deaths that was "442.6 times the chance rate of .0723." An impressive result, one might think, but James wasn't satisfied. If the sample had been larger -- say 50,000 respondents, instead of the 17,000 combined in England and the United States -- he thought the statisticians might have had something.
To enhance their respectability, the Anglo-British colleagues tried to reach a consensus on ruling out mediums -- the conductors of séances, in which tabletops rapped on their own, blank slates suddenly bore writing, musical instruments played spontaneously, and wraiths wafted in and out of the room. So many mediums had been caught faking it over the years that they had become an embarrassment, and James, among others, recommended that they be shunned. Nonetheless, a few investigators became virtual groupies for the redoubtable Eusapia Palladino, an Italian medium who might have sprung from the brain of Chaucer. Wild and sexy (she liked to take off her clothes during her spells and often woke up avid to make love), Palladino was a shameless cheater -- except when she apparently wasn't. As one observer summed her up, "I have always said that she will resort to trickery if she can, but if she was carefully watched she still performs the most marvelous acts [e.g., making tables tip] and some of these I can explain only on supernormal grounds."
Leonora Piper, an American, was a more decorous performer. Her modus operandi was to go into a trance, channel a Frenchman named Dr. Phinuit, who supposedly lived from 1790-1860, and, in Phinuit's accented English, amaze visitors with details from their private lives that she was unlikely to have discovered by earthly means. Shy and bemused, Piper claimed to have no idea how she did it, nor did she exploit herself as a money-maker like so many of her peers. Invariably she defeated the efforts of detectives to trace the "natural" methods by which she might have gleaned so much startling information. Yet when Phinuit was asked to speak French, he could hardly get out a word, and French authorities had no record of his existence.
Blum has a wonderful eye for what the novelist Evan S. Connell calls "the luminous detail." Nora Sidgwick, Blum tells us, was struck by the fact that "everyone who claimed to see a ghost described the dead person as fully dressed. Why should that be? Why should there be 'ghosts of clothes?' " But Blum's way with her fascinating material is a bit bloodless. By the end, the reader wants to ask the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist (for her 1992 reporting on primate research), "So what do you think about all these weird goings-on?"
Periodically, she cites a skeptic. For example, she paraphrases a telling observation by T.H. Huxley, the eloquent champion of Darwinism: "He did not doubt that a talented conjuror . . . could fool even a talented scientist." And, indeed, some years after James's death in 1910, the most effective foil of mediums and psychics proved to be Harry Houdini. Hovering over the whole era, perhaps, is David Hume's devastating formula for judging miracles, which seems equally applicable to the claims of mind-readers, mediums and the like: "No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish." In other words, faith aside, which is more likely: that Jesus multiplied loaves and fishes, or that the source for the evangelists' story simply spaced out on the mountain that day? That a repeating cheater like Palladino goes straight every once in a while and performs a true wonder, or that we just haven't figured out how she manages her latest sleight of hand? Perhaps Blum's title, with its echo of the movie comedy "Ghostbusters," hints that she lines up with Huxley and Hume. But ultimately, she signs off leaving us in doubt.
In the end, this may not matter. Most readers will probably come to her book with a mind already made up one way or another on the range of supernatural phenomena. In any case, for believers and agnostics alike, Ghost Hunters contains a wealth of lively and provocative reading. ·
Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.