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An Interview with Professor William James

Posted on 12 February 2024, 8:42

During his final years at Harvard and immediately thereafter, William James, is said to have suffered from fits of depression, what he called “soul sickness,” and even considered suicide.  Apparently, the “death of God” and the increasingly materialistic world view of the times brought on by the Ages of Reason and Enlightenment and then Darwinism, seriously impacted him. However, he overcame his depression to some extent in 1872 when he accepted a position to teach physiology and anatomy at Harvard.

 jamespiper

In 1876, James founded the first laboratory for experimental psychology in the United States, and along with Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Wundt, and John Dewey, is considered one of the pioneers of modern psychology. However, he gradually moved from psychology to philosophy as he felt that psychology was too limited. He is also one of the pioneers of psychical research, and one of the founders of the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR), an offshoot of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in England. His interest in the field was prompted by a dozen sittings in 1885 with trance medium Leonora Piper, whom he came to refer to as his “White Crow,” the one that upset the law that all crows are black.

Recently published by White Crow Books, Mind Dust and White Crows, edited by Gregory Shushan and with an introduction by Andreas Sommer, provides many interesting lectures and writings by Professor James and an explanation as to his views and reservations about the survival hypothesis, especially in the chapter on “Human Immortality.”  I “interviewed” Professor James on the 100th anniversary of his transition to the spirit world in 2010 for a magazine and a journal. The “interview” was conducted by extracting James’s words from various reference, all now in the public domain, and putting questions to them. I had many of the references in Shushan’s book available to me, so I’ll stick with my original interview rather than attempt a new one.  But a future blog will discuss more that Shushan’s book brings to light. Words in brackets are inferred to create a smooth transition from question to answer.

Professor James, in spite of having called Mrs. Piper your “white crow” and having received some very evidential messages, you continue to sit on the fence relative to the survival hypothesis.  Is it really that difficult to accept?

“Tactically, it is far better to believe much too little than a little too much; and the exceptional credit attaching to the row of volumes of the SPR’s Proceedings is due to the fixed intention of the editors to proceed very slowly. Better a little belief tied fast, better a small investment salted down, than a mass of comparative insecurity.”

I know you have been reluctant to accept Dr. Phinuit (Mrs. Piper’s early “control”) as a spirit and concluded that he might be some kind of secondary personality.  Would you mind telling the readers of this interview a little about Dr. Phinuit?

“The most remarkable thing about the Phinuit personality seems to me the extraordinary tenacity and minuteness of his memory. The medium has been visited by many hundreds of sitters, half of them, perhaps, being strangers who have come but once.  To each Phinuit gives an hour full of disconnected fragments of talk about persons living, dead, or imaginary, and events past, future, or unreal.  What normal waking memory could keep this chaotic mass of stuff together? Yet Phinuit does so…So far as I can discover, Mrs. Piper’s waking memory is not remarkable, and the whole constitution of her trance-memory is something which I am at a loss to understand.” 

It often seems that you are playing the devil’s advocate.

“[True], I have myself been wilfully taking the point of view of the so-called ‘rigorously scientific’ disbeliever, and making an ad hominem plea.” 

And yet you seemingly change hats very easily by rebuking the scientific point of view relative to God and immortality.

“I can, of course, put myself into the sectarian scientist’s attitude, and imagine vividly that the world of sensations and scientific laws and objects may be all.  But whenever I do this, I hear that inward monitor which W. K. Clifford once wrote, whispering the word ‘bosh!’ Humbug is humbug, even though it bears the scientific name, and the total expression of human experience, as I view it objectively, invincibly urges me beyond the narrow ‘scientific’ bounds.”

Herbert Spenser’s philosophy seems to have been pretty popular with scientific men and scholars of your era.

“Agnostic substantialism like that of Mr. Spenser, whose ‘Unknowable’ is not merely the unfathomable but the absolute–irrational, on which, if consistently represented in thought, it is of course impossible to count, performs the same function of rebuking a certain stagnancy and smugness in the manner in which the ordinary philistine feels his security.  But considered as anything else than as reactions against an opposite excess, these philosophies of uncertainty cannot be acceptable; the general mind will fail to come to rest in their presence, and will seek for solutions of a more reassuring kind.”

There are those who claim that such reassurance is not necessary, that we can live moral and happy lives in the present without any regard for God or life after death.

“A philosophy whose principle is so incommensurate with our most intimate powers as to deny them all relevancy in universal affairs, as to annihilate their motives at one blow, will be even more unpopular than pessimism.  Better face the enemy than the eternal Void!  This is why materialism will always fail of universal adoption, however well it may fuse things into an atomistic unity, however clearly it may prophesy the future eternity. For materialism denies reality to the objects of almost all the impulses which we most cherish.  The real meaning of the impulses, it says, is something which has no emotional interest for us whatever…Any philosophy which annihilates the validity of the reference by explaining away its objects or translating them into terms of no emotional pertinency, leaves the mind with little to care or act for…A nameless Unheimlichkeit comes over us at the thought of there being nothing eternal in our final purpose, in the objects of those loves and aspirations which are our deepest energies.” 

Living in the moment or in the present as the materialists advocate is not as simple as they make it out to be.

“[Exactly.] The luster of the present hour is always borrowed from the background of possibilities it goes with.  Let our common experiences be enveloped in an eternal moral order; let our suffering have an immortal significance; let Heaven smile upon the earth, and deities pay their visits; let faith and hope be the atmosphere which man breathes in; and his days pass by with zest; they stir with prospects, they thrill with remoter values.  Place around them on the contrary the curdling cold and gloom and absence of all permanent meaning which for pure naturalism and the popular-science evolutionism of our time are all that is visible ultimately, and the thrill stops short, or turns rather to an anxious trembling.”

Yet, I have friends who claim they have no fears of extinction and have no problem enjoying themselves in the present.

“It all depends on how sensitive the soul may become to discords….A little cooling down of animal excitability and instinct, a little loss of animal toughness, a little irritable weakness and descent of the pain threshold, will bring the worm at the core of all our usual springs of delight into full view, and turn us into melancholy metaphysicians.  The pride of life and glory of the world will shrivel.  It is after all but the standing quarrel of hot youth and hoary eld.  Old age has the last word: the purely naturalistic look at life, however enthusiastically it may begin, is sure to end in sadness.  This sadness lies at the heart of every merely positivistic, agnostic, or naturalistic scheme of philosophy.  Let sanguine healthy-mindedness do its best with its strange power of living in the moment and ignoring and forgetting, still the evil background is really there to be thought of, and the skull will grin in at the banquet…The old man, sick with insidious internal disease, may laugh and quaff his wine at first as well as ever, but he knows his fate now, for the doctors have revealed it; and this knowledge knocks the satisfaction out of all these functions.  They are partners of death and the worm is their brother, and then they turn to a mere flatness.” 

So, you must certainly take issue with the humanistic philosophy?

“[Most certainly.]  I propose this as the first practical requisite which a philosophic conception must satisfy: It must, in a general way at least, banish uncertainty from the future. The permanent presence of the sense of futurity in the mind has been strangely ignored by most writers, but the fact is that our consciousness at a given moment is never free from the ingredient of expectancy.  Everyone knows how when a painful thing has to be undergone in the near future, the vague feeling that it is impending penetrates all our thought with uneasiness and subtly vitiates our mood even when it does not control our attention; it keeps us from being at rest, at home in the given present.  The same is true when a great happiness awaits us.  But when the future is neutral and perfectly certain, ‘we do not mind it,’ as we say, but give an undisturbed attention to the actual.  Let now this haunting sense of futurity be thrown off its bearings or left without an object, and immediately uneasiness takes possession of the mind.”

It is obviously easier to adopt the moralist or humanistic philosophy when one is young and does not have death on his mind.  Do you agree?

“[Of course.] The moralist must hold his breath and keep his muscles tense; and so long as this athletic attitude is possible all goes well – morality suffices.  But the athletic attitude tends ever to break down and it inevitably does break down even in the most stalwart when the organism begins to decay, or when morbid fears invade the mind.” 

Would you mind summarizing your primary belief?

“The whole drift of my education goes to persuade me that the world of our present consciousness is only one out of many worlds of consciousness that exist, and that those other worlds must contain experiences which have a meaning for our life also; and that although in the main their experiences and those of this world keep discrete, yet the two become continuous as certain points, and higher energies filter in.  By being faithful in my poor measure of this over-belief, I seem to myself to keep more sane and true.” 

So, you see faith as a necessity in your belief system?

“Faith means belief in something concerning which doubt is still theoretically possible; and as the test of belief is willingness to act, one may say that faith is the readiness to act in a cause the prosperous issue of which is not certified to us in advance…The only escape from faith is mental nullity…We cannot live or think at all without some degree of faith.  Faith is synonymous with working hypothesis. The only difference is that while some hypotheses can be refuted in five minutes, others may defy ages.” 

Where does religion fit into all of this?

“It does not follow, because our ancestors made so many errors of fact and mixed them with their religion, that we should therefore leave off being religious at all. By being religious we establish ourselves in possession of ultimate reality at the only points at which reality is given us to guard.  Our responsible concern is with our private destiny, after all.”

Mainstream science has been reluctant to accept the findings of credible scientists who have risked sanctions in exploring the psychic world. What is the problem here?

“I think that the sort of loathing – no milder word will do – which the very words ‘psychical research’ and ‘psychical researcher’ awaken in so many honest scientific breasts is not only natural, but in a sense praiseworthy.  A man who is unable himself to conceive of any orbit for these mental meteors can only suppose that [the founders of the SPR] mood in dealing with them must be that of silly marvelling at so many detached prodigies.  And such prodigies!  So, science simply falls back on her general non-possumus; and most of the would-be critics of the Proceedings (SPR reports) have been contended to oppose to the phenomena recorded the simple presumption that in some way or other the reports must be fallacious – for so far as the order of nature has been subjected to really scientific scrutiny, it always has been proved to run the other way.” 

In spite of your outward reluctance to fully accept the spirit hypothesis, it often seems that you want to but are held back by academic and professional considerations. Am I misinterpreting your position?

“[Let me just say this:] One who takes part in a good sitting has usually a far livelier sense, both of the reality and of the importance of the communication, than one who merely reads the records. I am able, while still holding to all the lower principles of interpretation, to imagine the process as more complex, and to share the feelings with which [Richard] Hodgson came at last to regard it after his many years of familiarity, the feeling which Professor [James] Hyslop shares, and which most of those who have good sittings are promptly inspired with [i.e., the spirit hypothesis].”

Thank you, Professor James, any parting comments?

“[The work of the SPR has], it seems to me, conclusively proved one thing to the candid reader; and that is that the verdict of pure insanity, or gratuitous preference for error, of superstition without an excuse, which the scientists of our day are led by their intellectual training to pronounce upon the entire thought of the past, is a most shallow verdict….The tide seems steadily to be rising, in spite of all the expedients of scientific orthodoxy.  It is hard not to suspect that here may be something different from a mere chapter in human gullibility.  It may be a genuine realm of natural phenomena…My deeper belief is that we psychical researchers have been too precipitate with our hopes, and that we must expect to progress not by quarter-centuries, but by half centuries or whole centuries.” 

Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.
His latest book, No One Really Dies: 25 Reasons to Believe in an Afterlife is published by White Crow books.

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Next blog post:  Feb. 26


   

 

 


Comments

David,

Thanks for the comment, but I think the distinction has to be made between “gaining an insight to the life hereafter” and having a conviction that consciousness does survive death and that it survives in something other than the (pardon my continuously using the expression) a humdrum heaven and a horrific hell. To some degree they overlap, but there is a clear distinction between the two. One might infer that those in the first group already have the conviction, while those in the second group don’t.

By “conviction,” I mean something that goes well beyond the “blind faith” of religions, i.e., true faith.

Your last comment about James being focused on this life rather than the life to come leads to the argument that this life can be lived with much more peace of mind once we have the conviction that consciousness survives.  Some of the current NDE researchers used to dismiss the afterlife issue by saying that the NDE helps the experiencer deal with this life better and that it is not necessary to get into the afterlife aspect of it all, but I think they have all come to realize that it is the belief in the existence of an afterlife that makes this life better.  If they believe in an afterlife but one doesn’t really exist, the implication is that it is psychologically OK be duped into enjoying this life.

Michael Tymn, Thu 29 Feb, 00:19

While William James failed as an enthusiastic evangelist for the afterlife, his Ingersoll lecture on Immortality is one of the clearest academic explanations for how the mind can function beyond the confines of brain and body. He explains his ambivalence about the topic of survival early in his lecture:

“The whole subject of immortal life has its prime roots in personal feeling. I have to confess that my own personal feeling about immortality has never been of the keenest order, and that, among the problems that give my mind solicitude, this one does not take the very foremost place. Yet there are individuals with a real passion for the matter, men and women for whom a life hereafter is a pungent craving, and the thought of it an obsession; and in whom keenness of interest has bred an insight into the relations of the subject that no one less penetrated with the mystery of it can attain.”

For the afterlife enthusiast it is difficult to undersand how one versed in the evidence for survival would not be compelled to shout the good news from the rooftops. Indeed, the general reluctance to engage the topic, even by those who have a general belief in immortality, is something of a mystery to me.

But Jame’s attitude is understandable in that his passions and interest were directed towards matters of this life rather than the life to come. Why some persons have a “pungent craving” to gain insight into the life hereafter while others have a heaven can wait attitude is an interesting conumdrum.

David Chilstrom, Wed 28 Feb, 21:13

Karen,

I recall being very impressed with the book you mentioned.  I still have it somewhere, but I failed in my brief search to find it.  It probably was on the bottom shelf and my problem these days is going to my knees and attempting to get back up, so I don’t even try.  I do recall being impressed with the book, but I also recall that the author never identified himself.  The name he used was a pseudonym and so that detracted from the value of the book, at least for me. I’ll find the book one of these days if I live long enough.

Thanks to Amos for the link to a very interesting case.

Michael Tymn, Sun 25 Feb, 08:13

Michael,
Here is the Ryan Hammons/Marty Martyn case.  - AOD

https://psi-encyclopedia.spr.ac.uk/articles/ryan-hammons-reincarnation-case

Amos Oliver Doyle, Sat 24 Feb, 14:57

In putting books in bookcases, I came across a book that Mike reviewed once. It’s “Wisdom from the Great Beyond A True Story of Life with a Ghost.” by Jan von Denmarc - 2003 - Hats Off publisher. As Mike states in his review, the author while sitting in his study and reading one night in 1978, he turned around a saw a figure resembling a human in the mirror. It disappeared, reappeared and began a conversation. The ghost told him he had once lived in his house and he was remaining to be a ghost waiting for his wife to die and join him. Jan eventually had conversations with the ghost named David and his friend Stephen who has recently died. I’m glad I bought the book and have read it now as it is a great read. Every mystical definition and concept is explained in Jan’s conversations with David and his friend Stephen. Mike do you remember this book?

Blessings Karen

Karen Herrick, Sat 24 Feb, 10:18

Amos, i am familiar with the Leininger case and even devoted most of a chapter to it in my last book, but I don’t recall the Hammons case.  I’ll have to look into that. I don’t know that I am prepared to extend consciousness as far as you do, but don’t forget that those of us who may have reincarnated here after lives on other planets. That can easily make up the difference.  Thanks for your continuing participation.

Michael Tymn, Fri 23 Feb, 19:37

Mark…

A fascinating synopsis—thank you for sharing it.

I was particularly interested in the segment where you (or Leslie) were discussing the “disappearance” or dematerialization of the medium Harris. This was very much in concert with an incident that occurred during one of the apparitions of Mary at Medjugorje in the 1980’s—in which Mary announced that she was going to take the two young seers present at the time (the youngest boy, and an older girl) on a brief tour of “Heaven and Hell.” The tour commenced—and for a period of roughly twenty minutes, the children were nowhere to be seen. The boy’s mother, who had been with the children until immediately before the apparition, made a thorough search of both the house and grounds, to no avail—until both children suddenly reappeared at the conclusion of the “tour.”

I think that a similar event may have occurred during the apparitions at Kibeho (in Rwanda) as well, but won’t swear to it. In any event, this is all in my first book—probably in the chapter on Mary, although I don’t have a copy at hand at the moment…

Don Porteous, Fri 23 Feb, 19:01

If we really believe in the survival of consciousness and that consciousness inhabits all living things, not just humans.  And that a physical body is just a shell encasing consciousness and that consciousness can inhabit any shell, perhaps according to its spiritual development; meaning that the more advanced the consciousness spiritually, the more likely, but not necessarily, it would inhabit a form that allowed it more abilities to learn and develop spiritually.  And in order to evolve in consciousness, it would have to inhabit more than just one form, either the same or different, over many, many lifetimes.


It is consciousness that survives not a physical form.  And, the Earth is teaming with trillions of consciousnesses from the smallest microbes (and maybe in plants) to the most physically developed creatures either on Earth or elsewhere in the universe all uniquely designed for the environment in which they live.


I always think how narrow-sighted people are who question how there could be reincarnation if the human population of the world keeps increasing. What they fail to take into account is that consciousness exists in not only human form but in a myriad of other living forms on earth and throughout the universe; each containing a spark of God.  There is more than enough evolving consciousnesses to inhabit the current human population of Earth and much more. - AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Fri 23 Feb, 00:17

Professor James Hyslop was introduced to psychical research by William James.  He had this to say about James in the November 1919 issue of the ASPR Journal: 

“James seems to have confused means and ends in the method of determining ethical truth,
and also to have wholly missed the basis of scientific truth which may be wider than ethical truth.” 

Hyslop further stated: “James’s pragmatism was sound for ethics, but was not the criterion of fact which is the object of science and philosophy. “While his aim was apparently to establish science in the place of dogmatism and abstraction,” Hyslop went on, “he stated his position so that it meant something else and only aroused controversy instead of solving a problem. The opposition is between empirical and a priori
methods, not between theoretical and practical, or between ‘rational’ and ‘pragmatic’ methods”

Hyslop opined that James leaned toward polytheism and seemed to prefer the doctrine of Spiritualism, but he “could not openly avow such a doctrine.” He added that “when it came to that one doctrine and the application of his view to it, he halted with more respect than the logic of his pragmatism
required.”

Hyslop continued:– “The fact is that he never clearly understood the problem of psychic research. This is clearly proved by his anomalous and paradoxical position in the Ingersoll lecture on the immortality of the Soul, delivered at Harvard University. He had very little to do with
the Society’s work, tho the public thought he had much to do with it, and after he had rejected the spiritual-body doctrine of Swedenborg it was hard to make him see just what the tendencies of psychic research were….”

Michael Tymn, Thu 22 Feb, 22:28

Mark,

We are on the same page relative to William James, Alec Harris, and reincarnation.  You’ve prompted me to reread a book about Alec Harris(“They Walked Among Us”).  It will likely result in a future blog. 

What I don’t get with the “fence-sitters,” past and present, is that they think they have to be all-in or nothing, 100% or zero belief. They should simply say, “the evidence points in the direction of survival” or “it strongly supports the idea that consciousness survives death, but more evidence is needed,” something to that effect.

Michael Tymn, Thu 22 Feb, 22:03

Here is a better link: - AOD

https://psi-encyclopedia.spr.ac.uk/

Amos Oliver Doyle, Thu 22 Feb, 18:45

Just a word about reincarnation.  I think that the concept of reincarnation is gaining momentum in American culture with the popularization of American cases including the James Leininger case and the Ryan Hammons case.  Both of these cases were investigated by Dr. Jim Tucker of the University of Virginia and a popular book has been written about the Leininger case and the Hammons case was included in Dr. Tucker’s recent book “Before: Children’s Memories of Previous Lives.”  There are many good articles about reincarnation at https://psi-cyclopedia.spr.ac.uk/ including accounts of James Leininger and Ryan Hammons.  - AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Thu 22 Feb, 18:38

Great piece on James here Mike and very well put together as always. It seems clear to me that he was another of those very learned men of good reputation who was troubled by conflicting elements regarding his current understanding of reality. I think he was badly affected to the point of depression when new concepts like Darwinism and materialism started to replace certain philosophical and religious beliefs that he’d had much faith in previously.


I’m never really sure about the thinking of people whether scientists, philosophers or the general laymen who sit on the fence regarding the belief in a world beyond this mortal reality especially after the receive much evidence related to such. Some seem to opt for a more feasible explanation like psi or some form of power produced by the subconscious mind which to me are even more outlandish and incredible than the ‘spirit hypothesis’ and they don’t offer any explanation as to how these alternative ‘solutions’ could arise. Obviously having never experienced a seance myself I can’t comment from first hand experience. The nearest I’ve been would be messing about with a ouija board for a laugh as a teenager with a few friends of mine the results of which left us in a state never to touch the thing again.

It would be interesting to see an interview in a similar format with a psychical researcher who clearly stood on the other side of the fence regarding the spirit hypothesis like Tony Cornell for instance.

The following account is taken from the Psychic News of November 1962 and was noted during a seance with Alec Harris (name spelled incorrectly in the account). Alec Harris as you probably know was one of the best physical manifestation mediums the world has ever known and most people who attended his seances came away dumbfounded and amazed at what had taken place and for many it was conclusive proof that we do go on after death and can communicate from the other side under certain conditions and circumstances.


“When a fortnight ago, we referred to anti-Spiritualist comments made by Sir Shane Leslie in The Tablet, a Roman Catholic journal, we stated that there seemed good ground for a debate between father and son.

The son, Desmond Leslie, of flying-saucers fame, we added, had been to s’eances where he had communications from the “dead”. This has brought the following letter from him.

” ‘It is true that I have been to a number of s’eances, good and bad. Perhaps the most impressive were those given by the Alec Harris circle in Cardiff where full materialisations took place, sometimes two at once. The materialised beings could talk, sing and answer questions.

” ‘They might for all the world have been a group of actors draped in cheesecloth except that (when we were allowed to touch them) their flesh was cold like the furniture in the room, and one of them dematerialised before our eyes.’

” ‘Only one question remained unanswered’ were they the actual spirits of departed men and women or were they manufactured by the fantastic power of the subconscious utilising a principle we know nothing about?”

” ‘There seems no sure way of determining which. The evidence they gave was very impressive. One of them knew details of my life to which no one in the room could have had access, but it was still possible that these details originated in my own sub-conscious mind. . . .’ “

Mr Leslie goes on to tell us: ” ‘Possibly the most valuable thing that happened during the Harris demonstrations was the dematerialisation of the medium himself. For about twenty minutes, he existed somewhere without a physical body, thus proving for the first time the existence of a soul. Had he been only a body he would surely have been dead when he was put together again. That, I think, was the most important demonstration of
all.’”

Generally speaking I’d say Desmond Leslie was on the sceptical side which is natural I suppose but even after this experience there is still doubt and questioning as to what he thinks is really happening. Alec Harris was reputed as being able to materialise spirits that conversed in languages such as ancient Greek and Tibetan which were languages Harris didn’t have one iota about and he could also produce apports. How a subconscious mind could account for this is beyond description as well as Harris actually disappearing altogether. Leslie then mentions that this disappearance is proof of the existence of a soul which for someone who has just stated that the manifestations might be produced by the subconcious mind might seem a little confusing and somewhat strange. One other thing is how is the subconscious ‘a fantastic power’ as he puts it and where is the evidence to back this up? I’d say the subconscious mind does all the stuff in our bodies that we’re not aware of and probably a bunch of other things like thought transference perhaps if indeed that is possible but it’s not some miracle causing super power that can produce a myriad of spectacular phenomena as associated with the above in my opinion at least plus we don’t truly know if and where such a mind exists. Is it in the brain or outside of it? maybe part of a huge collective data bank I don’t know. Many times at Harris’s seances he was seen sitting in his chair in the ‘cabinet’  (subdued red lighting being used) the curtains pulled back and spirits could still be seen materialising and de-materialising.

Douglas Baker who had had four years in medical school testified that the materialisations had weight could be embraced, had pulse beats, breathed, had intelligence of their own and personalities. During one of Harris’s seances Baker felt the pulse of several of the thirty different forms that materialised over a three hour period and their hearts were beating at 72 to the minute. Baker later testified at a public lecture on the reality of the materialisations only to be subjected to the cries of ‘what rubbish’  ‘charlatan’ ‘the man should be horse whipped’ from a retired colonel but no surprise there I suppose.

Of course it was suggested Harris was a fraud as sadly seems to be the case with quite a few naturally gifted mediums. Tony Cornell (mentioned above) was a parapsychologist and investigator of paranormal activity and was not very impressed after sitting in on one of Harris’s seances in which he seemed to think most of the phenomena were produced by Harris himself changing disguises behind the curtains and picking up various little titbits of conversation from the sitters which enabled him to cold read and thus create the impression that they were in contact with actual spirits. He noticed a lot of the spirits who manifested were apparently a very similar size to Harris. But there was one thing Cornell couldn’t understand or fathom and that was how one of the materialisations suddenly dropped down and disappeared below the floor boards right in front of his eyes but he seemed to concede that there must have been a trap door of some sort. I’m sure if this had been the case he would have purposely checked after the seance to make sure that there was no way for this figure to disappear in the way it did through any human cause or invention but there was no mention of this. Even a trained magician was present at one of Harris’s seances and he admitted that there was no way that Harris or anyone else could concoct such effects by trickery alone and admitted that fraud was out of the question.

Cornell attributed much of the phenomena to psychokinesis apparently supplied by the sitters and the medium although scientific evidence then and now in relation to psychokinesis existing at all is still very lacking either that or there was some other way Harris managed to pull off the charade according to Cornell. He also wrote that there was no evidence for the spiritualist hypothesis whatsoever which seems a pretty bold statement to make when there is apparently reams of evidence if you only make the effort to look for it. He also wasn’t impressed with the Scole experiment even though members from the Society for Psychical Research experienced very tangible phenomena that couldn’t be put down to fraud or trickery. It’s a pity that most of Harris’s seances were not recorded in written down transcripts as that would have added so much more to their credibility and there are no photos or very little that I can find that were taken at his seances even without flash which is obviously dangerous but things might have been captured in the dim red light without flash that might have offered more conclusive evidence and this was also one of Cornell’s arguments against the credibility of the seances.

But what of Harris’s motives? If it was fraud, as he apparently would take no money from people who attended his seances, then it would have to be for some kind of strange entertainment which seems highly unlikely as he and his wife Louie seemed very genuine humble and sincere people. Also Louie would come in after 10.00pm at night after working as a theatre pianist in the evening and then attend the seances as apparently she added much power to them and it was reputed that she supplied the direct-voice part while Alec supplied the manifestations. So they both seemed quite committed to this work in my opinion and in a loving thoughtful way at that.

In concluding I think James seemed like a man balancing precariously on a tightrope watching his footing very carefully being cautious not to fall one way or the other dare he stumble and fall into the abyss or sitting on the fence painting one side white and the other side black while staring admiredly and wantonly at a rainbow of vibrant colours on the far horizon. Some people will just never accept such things that seem so outlandish and impossible and don’t fit with their current understanding of what reality is which lets face it is a clash of classical and quantum physics (neither being compatible with each other) and they are so blinded by their own belief systems of how reality ought to be that nothing will convince them otherwise.

As for re-incarnation I have no belief in it myself maybe for a certain few but in general I believe I have one existence in this reality and after that I will go onto another level or levels of spiritual progress. The group soul hypothesis would be something that I would be willing to endorse and seems so much more likely. Having listened to a lot of the Leslie Flint recordings (of which there is much talk on the group soul) there seems to be conflicting views from those in spirit towards re-incarnation some say it’s a given while others say they don’t think it happens and say things like ’ I wouldn’t want to come back to your world at any cost anyway’. Just my gut feeling but I’m on a one way street with no u-turns.

Mark Harrison, Thu 22 Feb, 01:25

Michael,
I like what you said about being “open to little hints that we come across here and there.” I think that is the best we can do from this vantage point.  I too don’t look forward to a boring existence in the “higher levels” of the afterlife but that is because I have absolutely no conception what that might be like and actually, I don’t think I am ready for or deserve that level yet.  Perhaps because of that anticipated boredom and a need to continue to grow, I might choose to reincarnate again wanting to make up for all of the things I missed in my current life.  I hope I fulfilled my purpose in this life but in my next life I want to spend more time on me rather than on everybody else.  There is certainly nothing boring about being in the flesh and after a “rest upon the wind” I look forward to it again. - AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Wed 21 Feb, 18:18

I would like to quote what I think are some very good thoughts about a group soul.  I found them in a book by Dr. Oliver Lazar titled, “Beyond Matter.” 

’:“. . . Basically, we all have a higher self, a kind of main soul in the spiritual world, which contains all our aspects from previous and future lives.  This main soul always remains in the spiritual world, and when we incarnate only parts of this main soul are extracted, combined and formed into a new individual human soul.  This constellation of soul parts is unique and will only exist once in this form.  However, this human soul of an individual is permanently in contact with its main soul rather in the way of a radio link.  If one has lived one’s life as this unique person, all one’s soul parts will return to the main soul complete with one’s new experiences after death.  So, when I die one day as Oliver the soul aspects that made me up will merge again with my main soul.  There I am stored eternally as Oliver and will never incarnate again in this constellation.  In these circumstances no one need to fear that the soul of a loved one has already reincarnated and can no longer be encountered.  In a new incarnation new part of my main soul would again be combined and a new individual would be formed.  This new individual soul would then also carry the experiences and memories of me (Oliver).”

“. . . It is hard to understand this in our present human state when we all perceive ourselves so clearly as individuals on earth.  I imagine it in such a way that when we return to our main soul, we will become aware that as human beings we have actually only slipped into a role.  We will perceive ourselves as a whole main soul, but we can slip back into the respective roles of our lives at any time.”

-AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Wed 21 Feb, 18:00

Amos,

Bill and Don said what I had in mind, other than to again quote the Glastonbury spirit who said that we are all “Blind Gropers” when it comes to understanding the larger life. I’m more or less content to know that consciousness survives death in an afterlife that is much more dynamic than that taught by religions. I’ve given up trying to understand those dynamics, although I am open to little hints that we come across here and there as to what it is like on the lower levels. I’m still trying to figure out how to use the three monitors for my television set, so there is little hope that I can grasp more complexity than that. The higher levels of the afterlife seem somewhat boring, but, again, I see no point in trying to understand something that is beyond my comprehension. If we were to understand it, there might be too much of a rush to get there.

Michael Tymn, Wed 21 Feb, 17:20

Amos…

If you’re successful in unraveling the reincarnation/consciousness question, you will have accomplished something that, according to Imperator, the higher spirits themselves have not been able to do—with different opinions abounding among them.

In any event, Bill Ingle of course has it right in observing the very distinct difference between the “mind” and the “brain”...

Don Porteous, Wed 21 Feb, 13:37

I don’t know, Don.  My brain is getting water-logged with all of this stuff.  I guess I am really contemplating whether or not the current understanding of what the subconscious (or subliminal) mind is, is accurate or complete!  If we don’t have all of the pieces of the puzzle then a whole picture can’t be appreciated.


Recently I have been taken by the “group soul” idea.  I think Michael endorses this idea too.  I am beginning to think that Patience Worth, Pearl Curran and others were all part of one group soul, a group that Pearl Curran could tap into to write her novels, poems etc. I am not saying that Pearl Curran was the reincarnation of Patience Worth but that they may be part of the same group soul.
 

I am toying with the idea that the “subconscious” mind really is the group soul to which each individual personality of each sequential lifetime belongs.  I say this as I am thinking about reincarnation and what it is that actually reincarnates in each lifetime. - AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Tue 20 Feb, 19:20

Amos:

Don’t confuse mind with brain.

Bill

Bill Ingle, Tue 20 Feb, 18:44

Thanks Jon!  - AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Tue 20 Feb, 15:43

Amos…

In essence, you’re really asking about the difference between the “physical” and the “spiritual” worlds. As we’ve been told many times, the difference is not really a question of “where” but rather the difference in “state of being” with the key modulator being the rate of “vibration.”

I’ll leave it to your more philosophically-questioning mind to figure out how that relates to the various memories involved…

Don Porteous, Tue 20 Feb, 14:32

Damn!  I don’t know how I could type a ‘d’ for an ‘l’ but maybe I did, unless auto-correct thought it knew better than I do.    It’s “RELUCTANT MEDIUM” not “Reductant Medium”! (Maybe it thought I was talking about chemistry and a ‘reductant.’!)- AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Tue 20 Feb, 12:49

I am finishing up a chapter on reincarnation for my book, “Reluctant Medium” about Pearl Curran and Patience Worth.  As I add to the Reincarnation chapter it has occurred to me that in cases of reported reincarnation, especially in children under 5 years old, where were those past-life memories stored?  They cannot be stored in the brain of the child because the child’s brain didn’t exist when the past lives were lived.  I think that might apply to adults who recall past lives also.  Those past life memories can’t be stored in their ‘subconscious mind’ unless perhaps   our understanding of what the ‘subconscious mind’ is, needs to be revised.  Maybe the ‘subconscious mind’ is really the spirit entity, or soul or group soul or whatever and that is why children and adults remember past lives when their current brain had no input of those memories. They are drawing upon their oversoul for those memories.

That’s just a thought!  - AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Mon 19 Feb, 18:10

Andrew,

Many thanks for your kind words and thanks to all others for the meaningful comments here. They are much appreciated.

As for William Stead, yes, he was a very important person in the history of psychical research.  He has been discussed quite a bit at this blog, the last one on February 3, 2020. Put his name and/or Titanic into the search at the left of this page and you will find more about him, including the Blue Island book.  He is the key player in my book, “Transcending the Titanic.”

Have a good trip to California.

Michael Tymn, Thu 15 Feb, 21:07

Hi Michael, tried to send a comment on the regular blog but wouldn’t accept so here we go; Thanks for the wonderful interview with William James. As one of your readers says ‘’ your stamina amazes him’’ We are fortunate to have you Mike as the treasure trove of resources you uncover for your readership is truly remarkable. I’m on my way to California tomorrow for a few weeks so will keep this short.
I just read ‘’ The Blue Island’’  by William and Estelle Stead. I found it to be an exceptional and extraordinary account of a man who committed his life to others and then perished in the’ Titanic ’  disaster in 1912. He then communicated through his daughter and provided evidence of the afterlife, He had also written at least one other book ‘‘life Eternal’’ which I also read a few years ago. I would be grateful for your opinions on his books as well as any of your readers who are familiar with his work. Thanks again Mike for all your work. Andrew

Andrew Simpson, Thu 15 Feb, 09:21

Stafford,
An inciteful comment “I am struck by the resemblance in the writing styles between the language that flows through her book and James’s unique style. This is one of the classics of spirit literature, not to be missed by anyone on this thread.”

I always look for the writing styles of spirits and compare them to their earthly endevours. I know only too well the distortion that a medium will have on style.
When I was working for the government we had a very thick style manual to have an acceptable style. Writing styles are like fingerprints.

Letters to Juliet by Juliet Goodenow were letters delivered from the spirit of Myers. (Yes allegedly should be used to qualify this statement ). Myers invited “a few of my friends” to participate. Myers explains how to differentiate between speakers. The last speaker was Ralph Waldo Emerson. In her words, Emerson was the last to speak and I anticipated much from this interview, but strange to relate my pen refused to write. After waiting eagerly for some minutes I gave up work for the evening. The next morning I tried once and received just a few halting words -“I feel like a schoolboy”. The third morning I received the message from Mr Emerson. In commenting on this episode , a literary man in New York told the following story, saying “That was a characteristic of Emerson. Emerson once excused himself from his friends to write a telegram. After waiting a long time, one of the friends went into the study and Emerson was sitting looking perplexed. He said “I cannot get this telegram in ten words”.

I can tell when I am receiving messages the writing style of the spirit.
I was the Minute secretary for technology committees and recorded the thread of the discussions. They were very technical discussions hence a technical minute secretary. I liked the thinking styles of each of the committee members. It is the same technique in receiving spirit messages.

Thanks
Bruce  

Bruce, Wed 14 Feb, 08:34

I am fascinated by William James as I live in a tiny town in NH where James ‘s summer home is located, in the hamlet of Chocorua. Our library has a collection of his work and books about him. In 2010 to mark the centenary of his death, the Chocorua library held a weekend to honor James , scholars came from everywhere and professors talked about his philosophy. Strangely most people in this town have never heard of him.

Anni, Tue 13 Feb, 08:50

I am always happy to see recognition given to Jane Roberts’ channeling of William James. I am struck by the resemblance in the writing styles between the language that flows through her book and James’s unique style. This is one of the classics of spirit literature, not to be missed by anyone on this thread.

As for this latest blog—much too humble a word—by Michael, his collection of these best James quotations is a treasure for all of us. What a great winnowing job Michael has done.

Stafford, Mon 12 Feb, 23:04

Mike,

A classic.  I’ve always liked your “interviews”’ Very clever.

Mike

Michael Schmicker, Mon 12 Feb, 20:28

Michael,
Nice interview with William James.  I have never felt the need to read James, so I am unable to make any meaningful comments about him. I do think however, that his relevance may have passed. Several new ideas have come on the scene since his time.

James was not able to factor-in the theories of quantum mechanics which suggest that the universe may be more of a thought than material substance.

Some scientists today have expanded theories concerning Darwin’s ideas about evolution and the survival of the fittest, adding to his concepts the idea of intelligent design for which there is very convincing evidence in the cell, and including thoughtful consideration of creative design in living organisms.  This is an exciting burgeoning area for more in-depth study. 

During James’s time, near death experiences were not reported as they are today and made known to millions of people by means of the internet, neither were reported out-of- body experiences to the extent they are today.

Then there is the work of Ian Stevenson, Jim Tucker, Carol Bowman and others researching spontaneous reincarnation reports of children; as well as past lives elicited by means of hypnosis.

Mediumship is still very common today, but perhaps presenting differently than it did in Leonora Piper’s time especially with the advent of Zoom group readings via computers, e.g. Matt Fraser

And there are still reports of apparitions today which due to mass communication through the internet are more easily made known than in James’s time

Then there are the UFO phenomena to consider. 

If William James had all of these new discoveries, thought and theories that we have today, he may have been less likely to be a ‘fence-sitter’ than he was, more than 100 years ago.  - AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Mon 12 Feb, 19:22

I remember attending a 3-day conference in NYC once on Wm James. One lecturer stated that James’ father had been so exacting in telling his children that he didn’t care what they became but that he wanted them to be the best at what they did become. This lecturer said it made James ambivalent about what he believed and he would see-saw back and forth on many subjects. I hear that ability to see-saw in your interview. Very nice - I had read it years ago and I greatly enjoyed your interview each time.

Blessings, Karen

Karen Herrick, Mon 12 Feb, 18:12

Hi Michael -
Did you know that medium Jane Roberts also interviewed William James in the 1960’s or 1970’s and wrote a book about it called “The Afterdeath Journal of an American Philosopher”?
https://amzn.to/3OFHHiF

Suzanne Carter

Suzanne Carter, Mon 12 Feb, 18:06

Hi Mike,

It’s been awhile since we exchanged emails and I have to say how very impressed I am with your continued and highly productive flow of work.  Your stamina amazes me.

But I am writing to you today because your entry startled me with coincidence.  I’m smack in the middle of rereading Jane Roberts, The Afterlife Journal of an American Philosopher, where she channels James.  As with most books, I’m enjoying it much more the second time around and very impressed with his observations on American society and humanity at large in his day, and now.

All the best, and hope you’re doing well.

Dave

Dave Daughters, Mon 12 Feb, 18:03


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