Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

by Stephanie Chasteen on April 11, 2010

“Spook” is another one of science writer Mary Roach’s forays into the science of some weird topic (and not even her most recent, I’m just behind in my reading). Wonderfully researched, and with Ms. Roach’s typical biting humor and marvelous turns of phrase, it’s such a joy to read.  I still liked Stiff better (where she talks about what happens to your physical body after you die, from forensics to crash testing), but Spook was fantastic, giving a detailed look at the attempts to confirm (or deny) such weirdnesses as reincarnation, ectoplasm, infrasound, and ghosts).  Here’s a bit of prose from the very end of the book, where she’s a lot more generous regarding the things that people believe than she is through most of the book:

I guess I believe that not everything we humans encounter in our lives can be neatly and convincingly tucked away inside the orderly cabinetry of science.  Certainly most things can — including the vast majority of what people ascribe to fate, ghosts, ESP, Jupiter rising — but not all.  I believe in the possibility of something more  — rather than in any existing something more (reincarnation, say, or dead folks who communicate through mediums).  It’s not much, but it’s more than I believed a year ago.

Myself, I’m probably in Mary’s camp.  Most of the weird things people believe are bunk, and can be explained through psychology or trickery.  But there are some things we haven’t been able to explain yet.  There’s a lot we don’t know.  It’s important to be skeptical, but not completely closed.  On the other hand, as Lawrence Krauss says, “It’s important to keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.”  Too many people fall into that camp.


Dallas Raby April 14, 2010 at 2:30 pm

This looks like one I will want to pick up. It brings to mind C.S. Lewis’s brilliant classic, Surprised by Joy. His unsatisfied curiosity about “something other” eventually led him to resolve that there would be no more “…flirtations with any idea of the supernatural.” One of the causes, he says, was the destructive and unreasonable passion for immortality. He was especially put off by an acquaintance who’s “…ravenous desire for personal immortality coexisted in him with (apparently) a total indifference to all that could, on a sane view, make immortality desirable.” He says, “The whole question of immortality became rather disgusting to me. I shut it out.”

This confession comes on page 222 of a 238 page book. The “Surprise” is that he ultimately reached a very different conclusion and that he reached it without departing from the skepticism and intellectual brilliance that characterizes the rest of the book. The question of immortality is, after all, not the main question. He says, “it matters more that Heaven should exist than that we should ever get there.” In the end, he learned something about immortality, but not what he expected.

In concluding, “It’s not much, but it’s more than I believed a year ago,” Mary Roach may be revealing herself on a similar track.

Captain Skellett April 15, 2010 at 3:57 am

I really like that quote. I get frustrated at scientists (and non-scientists for that matter) who are closed off. They seem to think science can explain everything! There’s heaps of things that science can’t explain, and science isn’t always right. Science to me is about keeping an open mind.

But, like you say, not too open!

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