22 Jun 2019

Making the Supernatural Scientific

Raia. The New Prometheans: Faith, Science, and the Supernatural Mind in the Victorian Fin de Siècle. University of Chicago Press (17 Jun. 2019)

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In a world increasingly shut in by the iron-clad determinism of Victorian physics, the Society for Psychical Research, founded in 1882, - tasked itself with finding scientific evidence for phenomena science had all but denied. The point was not to refute physical explanation, but to give it pause, turning its attention away from nature's routines toward its more mysterious intervals. Psychical research was a fully academic discipline concerned only with mental (as opposed to supernatural) phenomena, yet its scheme of evidence was of the most extraordinary kind: telepathy, mesmerism, clairvoyance, apparitions, psychokinesis, et. al. Though it concerned itself mainly with establishing the facts, the implications of its data were profound: consciousness was an objective structure of reality. There was also the corresponding inner truth already mined by poets, mystics, psychonauts, and séance mediums: every individual consciousness maintained some connection to the greater whole. Psychical research managed to take this romantic view of consciousness and affirm it within an empirical theory of academic psychology.

The book plots the lives of four leading British intellectuals, all brought to psychical research by questions their own disciplines could not answer: the depth psychologist Frederic Myers, the chemist William Crookes, the physicist Oliver Lodge, and the anthropologist Andrew Lang. They all had exceptionally high profiles in both the scientific and psychical communities, and moral energies that brought them out of academic circles and into the public sphere. By layering their scholarly papers, textbooks, and lectures with more intimate texts like diaries, letters, and literary compositions, The New Prometheans opens a window onto an important historical moment, a time when the Victorians attempted to draw the mystical into modern science and bring modern and sacred knowledge into a new concordance.