Debate Magazine

Spirit Quest

By Cris

It is a curious fact that spirits manifest themselves and communicate only with those who believe they exist.[1] When skeptics investigate spirits, as they have been doing for 150 years, they always come up empty-handed. Undeterred by this lack of success, some investigators continue the empirical quest for spirits. The most recent, conducted by Jesse Bering, again came up empty. Bering, a cognitive-evolutionary psychologist and author of The Belief Instinct, recently left academia for the broader pastures of popular writing. While I don’t agree with Bering’s argument that spirit beliefs originated (and were adaptive) in the ancestral past because surveilling spirits encourage moral behaviors, we are kindred spirits in skepticism.

For his most recent story, Bering investigated Professor Ian Stevenson’s claim that he could communicate a code (which would in turn open a safe) to the living after he had died. Stevenson died in 2007. The safe remains locked, despite thousands of “messages” and attempts to open it. When Bering asked one psychic why the code had not been communicated, he was told:

The souls have no interest in proving to us that they exist, that is part of our lesson of faith on the earth. Dr Stevenson — now that he is in the hereafter, would respect that more than anything else, and would not ‘bend the rule’. The more I work in this field, the more I understand why keeping that secret is so precious to the souls, and why not knowing 100 per cent is so valuable to us.

Here we have another impervious-to-proof argument (similar to Scalia’s below). Bering’s reaction is similar to my own:

Personally, I’m a fan of neither faith nor secrets. I think I’d pass on any heaven that would have ‘Trust what you’re told and don’t ask too many questions’ as its most important lesson for mere mortals. In the end, I’m left where I started on my little paranormal adventure. I did manage to pry open my mind for a while, but what blew in was only some good intentions and a bunch of hot air. My bet remains that immortal souls — yours, mine, and Ian Stevenson’s — are but the elusive shadows dancing on the walls of our physical brains. That doesn’t make them any less interesting or important. Such slippery spirits have plenty of codes of their own to be deciphered by scientists.

All this brings to mind another investigation done in the 1860s by a founder of anthropology, Edward Burnett Tylor. As he was gathering materials for his magnum opus Primitive Culture (1872), Tylor left his armchair to do fieldwork among “spiritualists” in London. Although Tylor did not formally report his negative findings, historian George Stocking published Tylor’s “Spiritualism Notes” in 1971. At the time of his investigation, Tylor had already formulated his famous idea that spirit beliefs were “primitive and child-like survivals” from an earlier epoch in human history.

seance-berlin-1930sGiven this hypothesis, Tylor was puzzled by the fact that several eminent Victorians, including the co-discoverer of natural selection Alfred Russel Wallace, were ardent spiritualists. Though Tylor ultimately found that most of the spiritualist phenomena were faked or could be explained without recourse to spirits, he could not explain why educated, upper-class Victorians such as Wallace persisted in such beliefs. Had Tylor given this issue more thought, he might have realized that spirit beliefs are not limited to children and “primitives.” Such beliefs are the complex products of cognition and culture working in tandem. They are unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

[1] One possible explanation for this, given recently by Justice Scalia, is that the Devil and his minions have gotten wise to skepticism so they no longer manifest themselves as they did back in biblical times. In so arguing, Scalia concedes that spirits have never been empirically measured or scientifically confirmed. Like any good lawyer, Scalia knows that this lack of evidence must be explained. Hence, he offers this impervious-to-proof argument. It is worth noting that many millions of Christians disagree with him: they claim to see, hear, smell, touch, and talk to devils (and angels) on a regular basis. It is also worth noting that independent investigators have never been able to observe, measure, record, or verify any of this alleged intercourse.

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