Saturday, December 12, 2009

Catherine Crowe and the Battle for the Mind and Heart of Humanity

This might well be a post that some people would rather skip. I have a good friend who accuses me, disapprovingly, of producing "candy" on this blog. He wants me to write about things like the nature and purpose of Creation, the reason why evil is inevitable in the world, what GOD wants and the meaning of existence...etc. Well, I'm not afraid of that and maybe someday we'll do it. But since this blog already indicated the existence of GOD [via John von Neumann] in post #3 [and#4], presented Bob Jahn's proof for the freedom of the will in post #7, indicated post-death survival in posts #5 &16, and the spirit world left, right and center all over the place, I thought we weren't doing too badly. But it's a tough crowd out there. This post isn't about any of these superheavyweight topics [at least directly] but it's not "candy" either. The reason for this, and what I'm about to do, is this: I have been reading Catherine Crowe's 1840's book, The Nightside of Nature. I didn't suspect what I would find there. Catherine Crowe is a forgotten genius and intuitive warrior for the maintenance of our awareness of the presence of the spiritual world. She is also one of the most insightful people about the narrowing of the establishment academic mind and, what we would call, its CSICOPean debunking trajectory. She, in the 1840s saw clearly all the problems and cultural stupidities that we, who are interested in the anomalies, see today. Magnificient. But not "candy". I am driven to write about her. But I am likewise driven to place her and her concerns within the intellectual historical context which produced her thoughts and concerns, which remain ours today. So, some may like this; some may tolerate it; some may be bored stiff---you are forewarned. The other thing is: this is not simple intellectual history analysis--I may not be up to the challenge. I just hope that I don't botch it too badly. So, first, placing Dear Catherine [I'm already in love with her, though the age difference will probably make this not work out] respectfully "in waiting", let's go back to one of the beginnings of this huge story.-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
In the seventeenth century there had developed a serious hole in the Truth-speaking hierarchy.The churches had lost their position as guardians of what one must believe [partly because they were "churches", post-reformation, and not just "Church"]. The royalty had authority only in the sense that they'd hurt you if you didn't do what they said. No one else had yet "stood up". Galileo and Kepler et al didn't quite cut it. And then along came Newton. I believe that it is nearly impossible to overrate Newton's impact on changing the entirety of the world's mind about what is true and what is acceptable. Newton filled the Truth gap. Newton's accomplishments made people think that we don't need churches nor royalty anymore; we can do this Truth thing all by ourselves. Science was the path. Religion was not. Strangely that was the exact opposite of what Newton himself thought. When Newton went about his explorations, he was doing nothing but looking for GOD. When he found how Gravity behaved, he felt that the simple mathematics which described it was a thought from the Mind of GOD. When he hefted a stone, he felt that he was directly experiencing the Will of GOD. But others went the other way. Throughout the eighteenth century [The Enlightenment], the researchers in the physical sciences were more and more discarding the Spiritual as having any relevance whatever. When Napoleon handed Laplace back his great astronomical treatise [which sort of "completed" Newton's mechanics] , he claimed to have read it [a joke], but wanted to know why he had not seen any mention of GOD in it. That's when Laplace gave his famous retort: "I have no need for that hypothesis". Laplace, speaking for the Enlightenment, was saying more than merely a comment about atheism. His comment nullifies at a stroke all-things-spiritual and sweeps half the stars from the "scientific sky". It is the gauntlet thrown, even in the face of the mightiest ruler in Europe, that the spiritual is myth. Physics is the easiest science, as it is the simplest. The new reductionism could flourish there. But others were trying to apply the new attitudes to more complex matters. This included the nature of Humanity and the mind itself. A prominent enlightenment figure, Baron d'Holbach, promulgated the idea that the human was essentially an elaborate machine with no "ghost" inside to will it. This was a bit much for some to swallow, in the late 1700s, but it was an idea that was gaining ground in reductionist "scientific" circles. It got a big boost when Luigi Galvani applied voltaic fluid [electricity] to a dead frog, and apparently reactivated the frog's "life force". Reductionists jumped on this as demonstrating that Life itself was just electricity coursing through a machine. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
About 40 years ago, when I was pretending to be a science historian, I noticed, as had many before me, that this reductionism did not go down well with a large important segment of the culture of the time. These people were the artists and the poets and the music-makers. The mathematical clock world of Laplace et al, the lifeless world of d'Holbach, the essential "deadness" of people and nature, just wasn't resonating with the "artistic" intuitive soul. And as a result, there was a huge revolt which we today call the Romantic Revolution. It began with poets like Byron and Shelley, and painters breaking away from the mannered controlled style of rococo, and the Mozart and Beethoven emotion as they left behind Haydn's beautiful but sterile Clocks. Ultimately even Science itself shucked its excess restrictiveness and let fly some grand theories which in their ways sponsored a burst of creative discoveries on their own. The main driver for the Revolution was the distaste for the Man-as-nothing-more-than-Machine concept. It is no accident that precisely in the heat of this revolt was Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. This is no "scary bedtime story". This is the big fear that we are no more than meat, purposeless meat, animated by purposeless electricity. This is the horror NOT that the monster will destroy its creator, but that the concept of the monster, if true, destroys all of us in any sense of significance. This was the war that was going on "for the souls of humanity" when Catherine Crowe was becoming an educated woman in Edinburgh. She sensed that this was not only horrible but wrong even from an empirical point of view. Thus she wrote her great book.-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
The late 1700s and early 1800s was an unusual time for women as well. Women were somehow managing to overcome obstacles and become deeply educated in things that they were left out of previously. Doubtless to the surprise of most of the males, some of them proved to be more intelligent than they were. Three outstanding examples of this were Mary Sommerville [astronomer and physicist] who not only "read" her own papers of discovery before the Royal Society, but published the best treatment of the scope of physical discovery which pointed to the great attempt at a "theory of everything", 19th century-style. Margaret Bryan, schoolteacher and astronomer, wrote her Compendious History of Astronomy, the best such treatise of the subject. Jane Marcet, an American, wrote Conversations in Chemistry which strongly influenced the great Michael Faraday to take up the subject. Some of these ladies were educated in Girl's schools, some got their science from public lectures. Part of Catherine Crowe's studies came from lectures given in Edinburgh as an unofficial activity of the University and certain key local intellectuals. This was the Edinburgh Association for Procuring Instruction in Useful and Entertaining Sciences. Formed in 1832 under the leadership of an unusual man, George Combe, it offered public lectures [for a small fee] to all comers [including the ladies]. Catherine Crowe was one who attended Combe's and doubtless many other lectures. The subjects ranged from Chemistry to Astronomy to Physiology to Phrenology. Despite phrenology being the least reputable of the offerings [in this case for good reason], it was by far the most attended. Combe himself was the lecturer on that and his predilection for the subject doubtless made him a rebel against the materialist reductionism that had grown large again in London. Catherine Crowe thought highly of Combe's general attitudes about about the nature of mankind being more than just the physical, though she said little or nothing about his phrenology ideas. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
What she DID get fired up about was the elimination in intellectual circles [the wave of Romanticism was rapidly ebbing by 1840] of consideration of the spiritual. Debunkers were now aggressively on the rampage and the trend towards laughing off such outdated errors and primitive folklore beliefs was on. One of the most prominent of these early CSICOPeans was the excellent laboratory optical scientist, David Brewster. Brewster believed that it was part of his duty to squash these old myths which had been holding the human march of knowledge back for so long. One way that he pursued this duty was to publish one of the earliest debunking books on record, Letters on Natural Magic, which he addressed to Sir Walter Scott. In it he serially blasted one "myth" after another, including things like apparitions, ghosts, hauntings et al which he attributed to errors of the human mind, including actual diseases. In the page to the right, he states that these matters are nothing but "spectral illusions" of the unstable mind and nothing of significance. Combe, of course, believed entirely otherwise, and Catherine was positively outraged by the idea [though she has the discipline to politely tell these sorts of folks that they are not only unscientific, closed-minded, prejudiced, but full-of-crap---Catherine would never use such language of course].--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Being as she was a well-educated, well-read, and well-connected lady, Catherine already knew many people who had had apparitional or haunting experiences, and Brewster's "explanations" seemed to apply to few if any of them. To check herself, she did what any good anomalies researcher would do: find out just how widespread the phenomena really were. To do that, she actively sought out the stories from her contemporaries, while also reading the literature, including the foreign publications. She found much in both these areas, especially the German literature, which she read fluently---even translating some of it for the British readership. An author that was particularly interesting to her was Joseph Ennemoser, whose works she read prior to them being translated by Howitt [I'm mentioning all this detail because I want to make it obvious that this is a major "woman-of-substance"]. She also quotes from sources like Johan Jung-Stilling and many others. It would be a very bold claim to say that she was not well read in the relevant literature nor knew what she was talking about. Throughout her reading she is primarily interested in the reports of anomalous spirit-oriented encounters, more than the "philosophies" of the writers, though she is interested in them as well, and certainly understands what these guys are talking about. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Out of all that came the book at the left. It is a forgotten classic and you can read for yourself what the chapters cover. I'm going to go over some of her specific cases and thoughts in the next post. Today I want to complete by quoting some of her insight. Dear Catherine, the stage is yours: "A great many things have been pronounced untrue and absurd, and even impossible, by the highest authorities in the age in which they lived, which have afterwards, and indeed within a very short period, been found to be both possible and true. I confess myself, for one, to have no respect whatever for these dogmatic denials and affirmations, and am quite of the opinion that vulgar incredulity is a much more contemptible thing than vulgar credulity [you go, girl!]. We know very little of what is and still less of what may be; and till a thing has been proved, by induction, logically impossible, we have no right whatever to pronounce that it is so. As I have said before, a priori conclusions are perfectly worthless; and the sort of investigation that is bestowed upon subjects of the class of which I am treating, something worse; inasmuch as they deceive the timid and the ignorant, and that very numerous class that pins its faith on authority and never ventures to think for itself, by an assumption of wisdom and knowledge, which, if examined and analyzed, would prove very frequently to be nothing more respectable than obstinate prejudice and rash assertion. " Woo-Wee---give 'em hell! I was definitely born 150 years too late. But, returning to a more scholarly mode: our great lady has just expressed the war cry of the intelligent anomalist, and even pointed out how these boxed-in reductionists actually harm the business of science which they erroneously think they protect. And, most importantly in Catherine's mind, they harm the whole of humanity and our future by denying that part of reality which gives purpose to anything. In the next post, once I recover from this marathon piece of intellectual history, I'll try to begin at least to give some of the specific cases that Catherine thinks are true and support her case for the spirit reality. "Catherine's Candy" here we come.

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