Sir William Crookes. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
In 2006, Deborah Blum’s insightful book entitled, “Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death,” was released. In it she chronicles the investigative efforts of the core members that made up the origins of the American Society for Psychical Research, as well as those with whom they partnered in the British Society for Psychical Research. Key members on the American side were William James, Richard Hodgson, and James Hyslop. On the British side, a couple of names of note were Henry Sidgwick and Edmund Gurney. Determined efforts were pushed forward by these academic fellows in the heydays of spiritualism for seeking answers about mediums and ghosts.
Another interesting figure involved in these efforts was that of a Londoner of the same time period named, Sir William Crookes. Crookes was a gifted scientist and developed what came to be called the Crookes tube. His work on this vacuum tube led to it becoming the better version for use in the lab, and we have it to thank for the later coining of the term, “cathode ray.” There is no mistaking the intelligence of Crookes, nor his aptitude in the lab, and he even discovered an element that we see on the periodic chart.
However, there is another important side to the story of Crookes that is red flagged by those who champion critical thinking. It is well known in matters of the paranormal, or of any other beliefs, that a believer can certainly be highly intelligent. They may indeed be on the level of being an accomplished laboratory scientist. But, this fact does not make an individual immune to the belief engine. Convictions may still reside within the subjective makeup of such an individual that may seem to run counter to their intellectual accomplishments. There are multiple factors to consider when dissecting the belief engine, but I am choosing to focus in on one specific factor that can understandably accommodate such a hoped for assumption.
There were also a couple of other intelligent contemporaries of Crookes who took a corresponding path. Like Crookes, they wound up becoming avid spiritualists. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is one of these gentlemen, the man I have to thank for creating my favorite consultory detective of all time. The other gentleman is that of Bishop James Pike, who held clerical duties in the American Episcopalian Church. What was the adhesive commonality that these three gentlemen shared?
All three persons, Crookes, Doyle, and Pike had all suffered significant personal losses. Crookes had a dear brother that became deceased while at sea. Doyle had lost his son Kingsley, as well as his brother Innes. And, Pike had a son who took his own life at the age of twenty. I have James “The Amazing” Randi to thank for having synthesized this information, but even more importantly, I’d like to call attention to the quote that Randi attaches to the situation of Crookes. In an effort to cope with his separation from his brother, Randi writes of Crookes having become highly sympathetic to spiritualism.
“…Sir William did what many another intellectual has done: he embraced an unlikely but satisfying set of beliefs that
removed him from the pain of the loss…”
This phrase is the center piece to this blog entry. When we stop to consider another human being’s personal loss, discussions about investigative methods and warning against logically flawed conclusions becomes secondary. Our initial response should always be to firstly, empathize. And, I can certainly understand why anyone dealing with the losses cited above might seek solace where assurance is provided that departed loved ones are still in existence somewhere else.
At this point, I can begin to try and pick up my own personal story in comparison to Crookes (as well as Doyle and Pike). At a young age, after watching my grandparents not only die from cancer, but also after having to watch them suffer terribly from the disease before they did pass, my life became forever changed. This couple who had become the spiritual center for me as honored by my ambition to try and emulate their examples as people were mercilessly abused by disease. They were then discarded to physical death with no reverence, whatsoever, by the ravages that separated them from the existence that I have known since then. Needless to say, I completely understand what these three accomplished gentlemen cited above would have been feeling, and I can still relate to them if spiritualistic beliefs were what gave them dispensation of their grief.
My interest in putting the idea of ghosts to the test with strict reduction has not been at the expense of my empathy. To the contrary, perhaps my own grief pushed me harder to face the question head onward. If the proposition is going to perpetually be put forth by culture that an afterlife exists, then for those of us who do wish it could be known that our loved ones are tucked away somewhere that cannot be directly seen from here, then somewhat of a confrontation results. But, if the confrontation is to take place, it needs to be done so responsibly and not at the forfeiture of a baseline of testing that is objective in nature. In my opinion, the only realization more cruel than accepting the proposition that a loved one ceases to be upon physical death is as follows. To embrace a counter message claiming proof of the existence of the afterlife in a specific case where it is known to have been counterfeited by failing objective testing, I find to be more appalling. My commentary may often seem to be too rigid, but this particular blog entry, written more from the human side of things, seeks to illuminate how my own compassion has not become foregone in the process of applying logic. I’m simply one who does not think it is fair for a concept to be furthered if said furtherance takes place through faulty, or even dishonest, means. I’m not stating explicitly (or even implicitly, as I will explain at a later time) that an afterlife does not exist. What I am saying is that I don’t lean on submitted, “proof,” for the idea if it is suspect in its substantiation.
But, what is the risk if grief overcomes our grounds for unbiased testing? I have Deborah Blum to thank for encapsulating this discussion that is paramount in skeptical thought. When Crookes developed his specialty tube, we still did not have the model of the Bohr atom. Blum comments on the scientific community’s rightful forecast that such a model would be found. Crookes may have taken the same approach to forecasting and wishfully prognosticated that a model for psychic aptitude would follow suit, as well. Perhaps we still shouldn’t say that ultimately this model won’t come forth, but the debate over there being any validity to psi abilities within the brain is still hotly contested. In regard to the case in point, Crookes emulated the thought in his field at that time and as an accurate model of the atomic and subatomic worlds were anticipated, Crookes felt like he was justified to go ahead and adopt psychic feats as legitimate.
Some of Crookes’ psychical research made it to the hands of Charles Darwin. Darwin, who apparently raised his eyebrows at some of the reported findings, still deferred and chose not to take them at face value. Deborah Blum credits T.H. Huxley for reconciling the matter for Darwin by calling attention to what skeptics have been adamant about while endeavoring to try and keep the public apprised. Documented history definitely shows that a brilliant scientist can be fooled by someone carrying out the art of conjuring.
I will never forget my first night’s stay in an antebellum mansion where ghost hunters had left pieces of paper behind certifying that it was haunted. I was able to frequent the home for about a decade, going behind ghost hunting teams and getting to look over some of the evidence they left behind. Not only did I enjoy being given the freedom to observe the premises in the ways that I felt best, but the greater thrill, over time, was the fact that the home owner had become like an honorary grandmother to me. In all of my time spent there, I never experienced anything ghostly, and I found explanations for some of the smaller things cited as being possible indicators of a haunting. And, I didn’t have to worry about grief impeding my judgment, because as life often scripts without expectation, I was granted the honor of being given a second grandmother during the unfolding process of my going to evaluate her haunted property. She became the hallmark of why I had the epiphany that there can actually be a positive side to chasing ghosts.
The exact spot where I spent my first night in a haunted home. (Photo taken by me)
As time forwarded, I also had the wonderful introduction to a home that has been much more enigmatic than the other referenced above. It too, comes with a heart wrending story, a story that is said to have befallen the former earthly soul that is supposed to now literally walk its halls. However, the story is really more of an overlay based on what has been told by family members. There has been paranormal phenomena reported with the home going back farther than was the death of the daughter who is supposed to be responsible for the haunting in present times. One also has to decide whether or not to attribute the home with multiple ghosts since there are additional stories that have been told with other assumptive linkages having been applied.
The home has had numerous stories associated with it for decades, and there have been multiple claimants who have made them. My personal wish would be to perform a lengthy and proper study of the house in an effort to better understand why this particular property has had such a high number of reportings claiming ghostly phenomena. It has become sort of a grail for me personally as the challenge exists, as stated by eyewitness claimants, that here is a genuinely haunted home waiting to be exposed for what it is. Proper access could mean maybe an answer or two as to why the structure has had such a storied lore about what has, and does, take place within its walls.
Photo courtesy of The South Reporter.
The home has a story of sadness, or happiness (depending on who you speak with), that could seem to mirror Crookes in his grief/solace. What has made it to print is more that of a sad version of details. The departed, who was to have been extremely unlucky in the earthly life, is now doomed to a curse in the next life, as well, perhaps adding to her unrest. But, I had the great thrill of getting to speak with three of the granddaughters who grew up in the home, and one of them spoke about what the house had represented to her personally. Despite any other depressing stories attached to the ghost, this particular granddaughter instead felt that the ghost was just a part of the family and was part of a bond of love that was palpable in the surrounding environment.
My reaction to the home is somewhat like that of Darwin’s to Huxley’s reassurance that Crookes’ tests were invalid. Deborah Blum records in her book that, “he disliked wobbling away from the solid ground of scientific reality.” This home beckons me, if not taunts me. It is the challenge I have been waiting for ever since I first set foot in a haunted house. It is the house that reportedly has an attitude, and supposedly it has made a convert out of more than one non-believer. And, that is where the challenge is welcomed; a chance to put the home to the test without wobbling from scientific reality. Again, as Darwin is quoted in his opinions on Crookes’ work while corresponding with Huxley, “an enormous weight of evidence would be requisite to make one believe in anything beyond mere trickery.” So goes the line of reasoning of the rational skeptic. Such is the line of reasoning to which I have held for eighteen years now, which is not to say it has now been put to the test to a slight degree. This house serves as the ultimate for putting through the paces so as to try and gain some form of measurable accuracy via investigative findings. The home stands as the golden fleece on whether it simply appeals to the emotions of a Crookes, Doyle, Pike, or me, or if it really yields something more noteworthy underneath an objective microscope?
Ironically, the home where things started for me has no ghost stories attached with it. It was built in 1933, but I have mistakenly referred to it as having been built in the 1920s in other writings. As a child, I thought I had heard that it was built in the decade of the 20s. Whatever the case, it is where the closing days of my grandparents were spent, and it is where my best memories reside. I will never forget where my grandmother reclined in her bed while battling the onset of cancer, and I will never forget the silhouette of my grandfather against a living room window while he was confined to a hospital bed. The bed took the place of his recliner where he used to sit and listen to the radio while Jack Buck called the baseball games for our nearest major league team. The home was a modest farm home, but to me it may as well have been Buckingham Palace. Thankfully, there are numerous fond memories, calculable enough to counteract the sad ones. In referring back to intrigue with Randi’s eloquent quote, I have never been removed from the pain of the loss. Therefore, even though I speak of holding ghosts against a scientific standard, I can certainly empathize with anyone when a discussion about ghosts is strictly kept a human one rather than that of a scholastic one.
It is not just science that may help to chip away at some of the childlike wishes that make life more pleasant by harboring the hope for possibility. There is also that fact of living and learning, and realizing that not only can the circumstances of the world be cold, but so can some of its people. These abrupt reminders sometimes invade the thought process and whisper in our ear that there is no need to hope for happy endings. Other worlds, by default, must strictly be imaginary.
The home of my grandparents, and where my journey of developing an affinity for science and philosophy began (for better or worse).
In her book, Blum also includes the quote of William James, whereby an intellectual dares to defy these devilish whisperings and even he resists total resignation. James writes that, “I confess that at times I have been tempted to believe that the Creator has eternally intended this department of nature to remain baffling, to prompt our curiosities and hopes and suspicions all in equal measure, so that, although ghosts and raps and messages from spirits are always seeming to exist they can never be fully explained away.” However, what skeptics can call attention to, especially after considering the mishaps that occurred in the investigations by James and company, is that we can be too rushed in siding with this quote from a strictly investigative analysis. But, the quote serves in its existence a duality. It makes us cling to hope, while at the same time, it serves as a reminder about what we can substantively know. We have to cautiously watch our steps, and apart from any flawed investigation, be aware of our underlying biases. Personally, I love the quote by James, but I also stay aware that I can’t allow my own personal history to shape the argument if we strictly speak in terms of science.
Blum’s publisher follows this quote of James by stating that her, “…book is about the investigation of the ghost stories–the instances of supernatural phenomena that could not be explained away–and it is about the courage and conviction of William James and his colleagues to study science with an open mind.”
If I follow suit with James and colleagues, it is at my peril if while my mind is open, my eyes are closed.