Sunday, November 1, 2015

Do souls go bump in the night?

The nineteenth century was a time of rapid, radical change. Matthew Arnold's 'Sea of Faith' appeared to be ebbing, leaving many high and dry, left without the traditional patterns of religious faith and yet unable to embrace the new progressive, scientific materialism. Was there an alternative? Could the tools of scientific empiricism aid belief, reconfigure it for a new age?

This was a driving question behind the foundation of the Society for Psychical Research in which a high minded group of Victorian intellectuals sought to assess the evidence for powers of the mind that appeared to step beyond the bounds of the 'laws of nature' currently understood. One of the principal architects of this was F.W.H. Myers (portrayed above) - a Cambridge trained classicist and (like Arnold) a Her Majesty's Inspector of Schools.

As well as the rise of scientific materialism (and positivism), the SPR had to contend (on its left as it were) with the phenomenon of spiritualism. It is one of the virtues of Trevor Hamilton's 'Immortal Longings, F.W.H. Myers and the Victorian Search for Life after Death' that he compellingly reminds us just how powerful and present spiritualism was in the nineteenth century; and, if it was not always seen as respectable (like astrology perhaps today), this did not prevent all stratas of society engaging with it across its full range from the entertaining professional medium on stage to the privacy of the seance or the planchette.

What the SPR strove to do was to develop a scientifically robust approach to researching a wide range of phenomena from the medium to the mesmerist, from the clairvoyance of seeing (at a distance) a loved one's death to investigating haunted houses.

In doing this, they laid the foundations for 'parapsychology' (and found themselves in a similar position as the discipline today, not quite acceptable,  a discipline pursued by the gifted amateur or freelancer or the professional who either does not care for advancement in the halls of the academy or has retired (as one distinguished cognitive scientist put it to me recently on their retirement - now finally I can take up my interest in the 'paranormal')!

Myers fell into the category of 'gifted amateur', as a brilliant classicist by training, but the SPR did attract distinguished scientists, not least of which was William James, and, as Holland shows, did indeed achieve a level of rigour and methodology on which others have been able to build. They, also, in passing made significant contributions to mainstream psychological and medical understanding, for example, in the therapeutic use of hypnotism, multiple personalities; and, of the subliminal consciousness (the latter one of Myer's many coinages).

Myers, himself, was driven by a desire to know whether personal immortality was a real prospect and how this could be understood within a wider cosmic frame of human evolution. By the time of his death, he was convinced not least because he felt he had encountered, through more than one medium, Annie Marshall, a woman he had deeply loved in a wholly Platonic way, whose death had deeply marked his life. Knowing this, scepticism is inevitable for was this not simply wish fulfilment cunningly or compassionately manipulated by the medium?

It is the great virtue of Hamilton's book to suggest that the answer is not that simple as it sifts the scientific, cultural and personal context of the SPR investigations in general and Myers' role in particular. The book never loses either its compassionate interest in the pursuit or its balanced assessment of evidence, leaving the reader to judge on which side of any debate he or she wishes to stand.

It is no surprise to find myself on Myers' side not least because he (and the SPR) come over as the one's possessed of a genuine empiricism and both the spiritualists and the materialists continually betray a set of non-negotiable beliefs that do not let them see.

An example of this is with regard to fraud - on the one hand the spiritualist credulity tends to fail to see it at all, the materialist certainty projects it everywhere. Meanwhile, the SPR spy it out, though not infallibly, and, more importantly recognise, the complex human dynamics that drive fraud. Sometimes this is simply greed (mediums were often paid professionals) but often it was a result of the pressures to perform. A person might show significant results, inviting further scrutiny, but, say in the case of mediumship, this is not a simple repeatable act, that you can turn on and off at will, and yet pride or helpfulness (mingled with the need to make a living) all propel you to that repetition, so why not cheat a little, here and there? Just because one is discovered cheating does not invalidate all claims (though it greatly complicates examining them and forces you to look at the context of each and every encounter).

Through the lens of this (developing) discipline, you do begin to sense that they were (are) onto something - that mind is not wholly dependent on matter and that the shores of mind go beyond the boundaries of this particular time and space. The real challenge now is how to develop a theoretical framework that expands our understanding of consciousness to embrace these accumulating anomalies rather than merely to exclude them; and, in doing so recognise Myers and the SPR's pioneering role.

P.S. So, for example, one piece of evidence is a medium's ability to give a specific information to a sitter that (a) was connected to the sitter, that (b) the sitter did not know; and, (c) that was subsequently demonstrated to be correct and the information had a specificity that does not allow for over-interpretation and to which the medium had no conceivable access. This the SPR was able to demonstrate repeatedly, with more than one medium, and only recourse to "grand conspiracy' theories of fraud would appear to undermine.

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