SSE Talks


Framing The Scientific Search For Spirit
May 12, 2010 at 5:22 PM EST | C. EMMONS


Charles Emmons


This is a preliminary report on a sociological study of scientific approaches to the study of spirit/consciousness. More generally it falls under the sociology of knowledge, which includes an analysis of socially constructed "frames." In the nineteenth century Spiritualists and serious scientists, as for example in the Society for Psychical Research (founded in London, 1882), undertook the study of "spiritualistic" phenomena. Clearly such research was problematic in normal science, partly because of the serious split between science and religion after Darwin, and partly because of the professionalization of science by the end of the nineteenth century. J.B. Rhine and others brought parapsychology mostly into a laboratory setting and established statistical tests of psi. They also defined paranormal abilities more as anomalous forms of communication and motor activity than as surviving or disembodied "spirit" (more of a religious concept). ESP (or "superESP") has become a more nearly normal scientific frame for the paranormal than the Spiritualist frame of spirits and ghosts. Although there are certainly researchers today, parapsychologists and others, who study phenomena related to the survival question, the focus is more on "consciousness," a more legitimate-sounding term than "spirit." From a neuroscientific point of view, the question becomes whether alleged phenomena such as OBEs, NDEs, apparition experiences, spirit mediumship, and memories of past lives can be explained by brain physiology and function alone. By one interpretation all of these phenomena might provide evidence of consciousness apart from the body (and by extension, possible survival of consciousness after death). At a loss to identify scientifically verifiable mechanisms for "paranormal" findings, some scientists (and mystics) see quantum physics as a plausible scientific paradigm to account for apparent nonlocal connections in paranormal events that otherwise would suggest a problematic dualism of consciousness and matter. Even researchers who consider some or all of the above anomalies to require something beyond normal neuroscientific explanations do not agree on whether they provide evidence for an out-of-body consciousness or for survival beyond death. Nor do they agree on what types of evidence are or would be the best. The question arises to what degree these issues are a matter of evidence and to what degree they reflect different socially constructed frames. Examples of some of these frames and of how they seem to impact the evaluation of evidence are presented in this paper, based on interview data and on review of the literature.


Charles F. Emmons is a sociologist at Gettysburg College, author of Guided by Spirit: A Journey into the Mind of the Medium (with Penelope Emmons), Chinese Ghosts and ESP, and At the Threshold: UFOs, Science and the New Age. Current research: "The Scientific Search for Spirit."




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