And once again
You’ll pretend to know that
That there’s an end
That there’s an end to this begin
It will help you sleep at night
It will make it seem that right is always right
– Smashing Pumpkins
The idea of dead scientists engaging in an experiment in eugenics is incredible enough. Yet the most striking feature in this episode – only fully revealed more than 100 years after the scripts began to appear – is the power that is ascribed to science itself. While spiritualism evolved into a popular religion, complete with a heavenly “Summerland” where the dead lived free from care and sorrow, the intellectual elite of psychical researchers thought of their quest as a rigorously scientific inquiry. But if these Victorian seekers turned to science, it was to look for an exit from the world that science had revealed. Darwinism had disclosed a purposeless universe without human meaning; but purpose and meaning could be restored, if only science could show that the human mind carried on evolving after the death of the body. All of these seekers had abandoned any belief in traditional religion. Still, the human need for a meaning in life that religion once satisfied could not be denied, and fuelled the faith that scientific investigation would show that the human story continues after death. In effect, science was used against science, and became a channel for belief in magic.
Much of what the psychical researchers viewed as science we would now call pseudo science. But the boundaries of scientific knowledge are smudged and shifting, and seem clear only in hindsight. There is no pristine science untouched by the vagaries of faith. The psychical researchers used science not only to deal with private anguish but also to bolster their weakening belief in progress. Especially after the catastrophe of the first world war, the gradual improvement that most people expected would continue indefinitely appeared to be faltering. What had been achieved in the past seemed to be falling away. If the scripts were to be believed, however, there was no cause for anxiety or despair. The world might be sliding into anarchy, but progress continued on the other side.
Many of the psychical researchers believed they were doing no more than show that evolution continues in a post-mortem world. Like many others, then and now, they confused two wholly different things. Progress assumes some goal or direction. But evolution has neither of these attributes, and if natural selection continued in another world it would feature the same random death and wasted lives we find here below.
…The fantasies that possessed the psychical researchers and the god-builders still have us in their grip today. Freezing our bodies or uploading our minds into a supercomputer will not deliver us from ourselves. Wars and revolutions will disturb our frozen remains, while death will stalk us in cyberspace – also a realm of mortal conflict. Science enlarges what humans can do. It cannot reprieve them from being what they are.
It looks like a fascinating book. Though I’m beginning to fear that I might need an afterlife just to read all the books I’m accumulating. If only science could help me do away with eating and sleeping…
But yes, the belief in some sort of immortal soul and afterlife, and the belief in a teleological essence to life itself both seem to me to be more interesting issues for skeptical attention than that of God’s existence or lack thereof. As Schopenhauer said, given a stark choice between belief in personal immortality and belief in God, most people wouldn’t hesitate to become atheists. And while some branches of Buddhism have managed to reconcile belief in a continuation of personal consciousness beyond death with a denial of any meaningful deity, Buddhists in general may be the only people who wouldn’t suffer a crisis of identity if forced to relinquish an attachment to the idea of progress, the numbing distraction of being in constant motion toward a goal.