Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, by Mary Roach

Spook. Science Tackles the Afterlife

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife is kind of a whimsical look at scientific and pseudoscientific (mostly the latter, to be honest) efforts to prove life after death or communicate with the dead.

Roach writes in a breezy style, tossing in a good amount of wit (which mostly works—there are plenty of solid laughs in the book).

She doesn’t openly make fun of the folks she writes about—if anything she bends over backwards to find at least some merit, some potential, in what they’re doing, even when that’s not very plausible—but just by describing them she’s sort of making them available to be laughed at. There’s an intelligent, articulate, wry, “aren’t wacky people entertaining” air to her writing, but she avoids blatant ridicule.

The author insists she’s not a skeptic or debunker, because in her mind those are people who have made up their minds in advance against a claim. That means she either doesn’t know what a skeptic is, or at least is using the term very differently from what I’m used to. A “skeptic,” according to, for instance, the magazines Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer, is someone who examines claims open-mindedly and goes where the evidence takes him or her. Presumably in that sense she’d embrace the term skeptic for herself.

She also notes early on that she’s not going to get into the philosophical questions about life after death (“because I can’t understand them”). That’s too bad, because to me there are plenty of intriguing philosophical implications to claims of life after death, and—despite her false humility—they’re not all horribly complicated to discuss.

For example, consider how the issue of life after death and the issue of personal identity intersect. Let’s say there is such a thing as a soul, and furthermore that after you die the soul that was in your body gets reincarnated into a newborn baby. Would that really constitute you surviving your death? Are you and the baby somehow the same being? Wouldn’t it make as much or more sense to say the baby is a different person who has the same soul you had? Is there really all that good a case to be made that the soul is where personal identity resides?

As she makes her way through the dubious field of life after death research, not surprisingly she finds nothing to present to the reader that’s even slightly convincing or promising.

She approaches each encounter with hope, and seems to root for it to be a source of meaningful evidence. Yet she also seems pretty smart, and pretty well-versed in science and rationality, so you have to think she knew all along that by far the likeliest outcome was that she wouldn’t find any convincing evidence for life after death. So you kind of sense that her stance is not phony necessarily, but a bit strategic. Like she doesn’t want to come across as the bad kind of skeptic so as to turn off her interviewees or readers.

Frankly a lot of the experiments and hypotheses, like weighing souls, make little or no sense a priori. Whatever a soul is, why would it have a weight?

With the reincarnation stories, it’s suspicious, as she notes, that they are overwhelmingly more likely to come from countries and families that believe in reincarnation. Also, if reincarnation is true, why do most people have zero memories of their past lives, while others have very few (but seem to have a lot more once people encourage them and reward them for having them)?

For that matter, why is communication with the dead so tenuous? Why is it like some extraordinarily bad phone connection, where the medium is struggling mightily to come up with tiny little tidbits of information that might mean something to the client (mark)? (“I’m getting something that may be a ‘buh,’ or a ‘duh,’ or a ‘tuh’ sound. Is there someone in your life who has passed over who is maybe a ‘Betty,’ or a ‘Bernard,’ or a ‘Bob’? Or possibly a ‘Dean’ or a ‘Debbie’? Or perhaps a ‘Tony’ or a ‘Teresa’?” For heaven’s sake, can’t someone get the dead to stop mumbling?)

The class on becoming a medium that she attends is quite entertaining, and revealing. There’s strong social pressure in the class to articulate your intuitions about a person and the dead people they might be connected to, and for that person to be very liberal in congratulating you for being right. To show that one likes and supports a person straining to find their inner medium, one looks for any way to label what they’re saying a hit.

I think that routinely happens in areas such as religion and pseudoscience. In such contexts, it can be socially accepted—indeed all but mandatory—to agree with the other participants and tell them what they want to hear. It’s the considerate thing to do. (Whereas those nasty skeptics, with their overemphasis on truth, just go around hurting people’s feelings willy nilly.)

Anyway, Spook is a fun read. If anything, it can be criticized for taking its subject a little too seriously.

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