A Walk with William James, Part 10: White Crows and The Empirical Trace (Part 2 of 2)

On March 31, 1848 Kate Fox heard a spirit knocking in her house in Hydesville, New York. And thus began an interesting, if little known, alliance between faith and science.

The Fox sisters are often credited with starting a surge of interest in spiritualism in America and Europe during the last half of the 1800s and into the early 1900s. In the wake of the Fox sisters scores of mediums and mesmerists rose up to meet the raging demand for fortune-telling, seances, and spirit communication.

Interestingly, many preachers were very supportive of the spiritualism movement. The movement seemed to provide evidence for the soul and life after death. And in a similar way, many famous scientists saw in spiritualism a means to test and probe the supernatural realm. Thus was born a very odd campaign: The quest to scientifically prove the existence of life after death. It's an odd and quirky tale that continues to this day.

William James was a part of this effort. He was an early and influential member of the Society for Psychical Research, a group of famous scientists who systematically investigated evidence of the supernatural and paranormal. The thesis of the group was simple: If supernatural phenomena is occurring in ways we can sense and experience it must leave some empirical trace. The SPR set out to detect that empirical trace.

Mainly, they debunked a lot cranks and hucksters. Even the famous Fox sisters were found to be frauds (although their story is a very tragic one).

After years of debunking, James himself grew weary of the work. But one case kept him coming back. Miss Leonora Piper.

In their own words, the scientists of the SPR were looking for "the white crow." This was a popular metaphor to illustrate one of the problems with inductive reasoning. In inductive reasoning we gather particular observations and then, based on these isolated observations, draw a general conclusion. Thus, day after day we see crows. And all of them are black. We also pool the experiences of our friends and historians and conclude that all the crows ever seen (that we know of) were also black. So we feel very confident to make the general conclusion: All crows are black.

Then we wake up one day and a white crow lands in our backyard.

The point? A billion observations can lead to an induction. But it only takes ONE contrary observation to invalidate the whole chain of reasoning. With induction you can never be sure that your white crow isn't waiting for you around the corner. (BTW, an interesting recent book on the "white crow" phenomenon in the marketplace is Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.)

The hope of the "white crow" for the SPR researchers was that a billion hucksters did not prove the non-existence of paranormal phenomena. All they needed was just ONE legitimate medium. Just one. And William James strongly suspected that Leonora Piper was the "white crow."

Just why James (and others) came to believe this about Miss Piper is a fascinating story. For more, pick up Deborah Blum's excellent book Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death. Blum's book is an excellent historical account of the spiritualism movement and how the scientific establishment responded to it. But for a quirky modern tour through the paranormal, from a bemused but curious skeptic, check out Mary Roach's Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. Roach is an amazing writer and her curiosity and humor make for great reading. In fact, before reading Spook, I'd start with Roach's bestselling book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. (As you can tell, Roach has a quirky sense of humor. Stiff came first, followed by Spook.)

Okay, why go into all this stuff?

Well, any walk with William James should confront his interests in the paranormal. In the end, despite his study of Miss Piper, James retained his skepticism of the supernatural and in the prospect of life after death. He was hopeful, but skeptical.

But the issues raised by James' brush with the supernatural are still with us today. Specifically, the question remains:

Does the supernatural leave an empirical trace?

For example, is intercessory prayer effective? Much more specifically, are praying Christians more likely to recover from physical illness due to the power of prayer?

If so, this would result in an empirical trace. In fact, this is the reasoning behind many of the medical studies that have examined the effectiveness of distant intercessory prayer in clinical trials. The outcome to date? Despite some intriguing findings to the contrary, the overall trends tend to average out to zero. Prayer does not seem effective in any consistent fashion.

No empirical trace.

In another example, I've written a lot about free will and the soul. That is, if the soul is the apparatus of free will there should be an empirical trace in the neural firing of the brain. If supernatural causation is occurring in the brain we should see some causal loose ends: Neurons firing for no (observable) reason. This would be the empirical trace of free will. But to date, no one has observed such a thing.

Miracles should also leave an empirical trace. But as isolated, unrepeatable events they are hard to verify.

So, in the end, James' experiences with the SPR are very relevant to us, on theological grounds. James' work forces us to ask these questions:

Does the supernatural (however you conceive of it) leave an empirical trace?

If so, science should be able to detect it (unless it's a miracle).

But if not, what are the theological implications of THAT? And should it matter?

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15 thoughts on “A Walk with William James, Part 10: White Crows and The Empirical Trace (Part 2 of 2)”

  1. Richard,

    This without comment (except that):

    "In No Strange Land" by Francis Thompson

    The kingdom of God is within you

    O world invisible, we view thee,
    O world intangible, we touch thee,
    O world unknowable, we know thee,
    Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!

    Does the fish soar to find the ocean,
    The eagle plunge to find the air--
    That we ask of the stars in motion
    If they have rumor of thee there?

    Not where the wheeling systems darken,
    And our benumbed conceiving soars!--
    The drift of pinions, would we hearken,
    Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.

    The angels keep their ancient places--
    Turn but a stone and start a wing!
    'Tis ye, 'tis your estrangèd faces,
    That miss the many-splendored thing.

    But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
    Cry--and upon thy so sore loss
    Shall shine the traffic of Jacob's ladder
    Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.

    Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,
    Cry--clinging to Heaven by the hems;
    And lo, Christ walking on the water,
    Not of Genesareth, but Thames!

  2. Richard,

    I am anonymous (not really). I sent the above poem too hurriedly. It seems to me that Thompson (a contemporary of James) makes the case for an epistemology of faith.


    George C.

  3. Richard
    Great posts as always. I struggle with the same sort of issues. At one extreme I think I want there to be some type of unexplainable phenomena, one that cannot be reached, some type of justified mystery. At the other extreme, I am a PhD student in neuroscience and find that my entire is oriented around finding the explainable in the previous mysteries.

    I can't help but wonder if this is because my theological systems are set=up too much on a "god of the gaps" foundations where the only thing that is considered spiritual is that which is not physical. I then move towards the idea of developing a theology of the material, but then start to see a lack of congruence with a lot of the happenings in the Bible, and wonder if I am just using metaphor to describe the physical and give "meaning" to ease discomfort.

    I think two questions arise out of this:
    1) Does a religion have to be "supernatural" and if not, is that which remains anything like Christianity? (From what I understand Zizek says that it is possible and counterintuitively suggests that the true understanding of Christianity is only available from an materialist/ atheistic sensibility)
    2) What would this theology of the material look like... how can we determine the good or ought, as it seems previous conceptions of good or ought were correlated with the spiritual realm?
    3) Is this even a fruitful endevour?

    Would love to hear your thoughts


  4. Perhaps the best (also probably the most subjective) way of looking for these "empirical traces" is in looking at the lives of believers. Does Christianity (or religion in general) really make people better people? This is something that Christians are in nearly universal agreement on: that God wants and is active in changing our lives to be like him. Is he? That is an open question... Of course the answer won't say anything about the existence God per say, but it does say something about the relationship of God with the world.

  5. Richard,

    Whereas you like to come back to Jesus dinning with sinners, I always come back to the blind man. I relate to him more than any character in the Bible when the Pharisees asked a bout Jesus, he replies, "Whether he is a sinner or not, I don't know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!"

    I know the difference Jesus and his teachings have made in my life and I can't really get past that even when I've tried.

    Of course, then one of the most humorous sections of the Bible, the man asks the Pharisees if they want to become Jesus' disciples too!

  6. George,
    Thanks for the poem. Yes, I think it does make a case for a fresher and richer kind of epistemology.

    That is a deep question. I'm unfamiliar with Zizek and his suggestion, is there a place where I can find/read it?

    Mainly, here, I'd just say that my own ideas are not fully worked out. In some ways, I live as if there is no supernatural realm. That is, I tend to take life as it comes to me: Fairly random and often meaningless. That is, as I interpret the events of my life I tend to refrain from trying to discern their spiritual content. Life is what it is.

    But from an ethical standpoint I'm very much conforming to a "supernatural" standard. This is that orthopraxis focus that Daniel here comments on.

    Anyway, I'll keep thinking about this!

    Pecs and Daniel,
    Per your comments I was teaching a class a church last night and came across this quote by Peter Rollins:

    The Truth in Christianity is not described but experienced. This is not then the affirmation of some objective description concerning Truth but rather descries a relation with the Truth. In other words, Truth is God and having knowledge of the Truth is evidenced, not in a doctrinal system, but in allowing that Truth to be incarnated in one's life.

  7. Hey Richard

    Here is a book by Zizek that I think gets to what Mark was suggesting.


    Rollins draws a decent amount on his work, as it can be relatively radical, sometimes depressing, mostly deviations from orthodoxy as currently understood, but always entertaining. Calvin College had him come to speak this fall, and you can listen to his talk on some of the same topics here.


    The notion of incarnational truth in Rollins books is appealing to me, but I think poses some other unique challenges. I know in my own life a tendency to justify my own feelings at "incarnation of truth" because of my own bias. Doctrines are dangerous at times, but can also be guides. How do we get into the right relationship/ understanding with these doctrines, in what ways are they necessary, in what ways are they not?

    David Brooks also had an article you might be interested in last week in the NY Times Op/Ed that deals with the relationship of taught values to behavior, and the limitations of this given our neoropsychological makeup.

    Peter B

  8. Well, John Travolta was on TV last night saying how that if only Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, Belushi, etc., had been Scientoligists that they would have survived Hollywood, so isn't he making the same arguement for Scientology that I'm making for Christianity? My question would be do other faiths/philosophies sometimes work for people because much of Christian teaching is self evident (treat others with respect, etc.) and that these other philosophies will only work where they follow Christ and will fail where they don't (am I being elitist if I postulate that radical Islam doesn't work that well?). Or does Scientology work for Travolta the way Christ works for me and the way Islam works for bin Laden? Would we need some definition for "works for" or would that definition be different for each person? Is Islam "working" for the suicide bomber just because he/she says it does? Does it not work just because I say it doesn't? Not sure.

  9. Hi Richard,

    A while back I asked a question concerning whether James' thought--which prizes and emphasizes the role of faith in constituting a persons intellectual framework--can at the same time be used to critique the role that faith plays in forming a persons intellectual commitments.

    In the Preface to his last book (The Meaning of Truth)James provided this overarching conclusion to his foundational intellectual commitment (radical empiricism): "...the parts of experience hold together from next to next by relations that are themselves parts of expereince. ...[experience] possesses in its own right a...continuous structure." It may well be--and I have never read a bio of James--that his "psychic" research was a means of testing his radical empiricism, in that it would have revealed intrusions into the stream of human experience that cannot be connected with the "continuous structure" of human experience, as James posited.

    The answer to whether there can be "white crows" from the standpoint of James' basic philosophical commitment, then, would appear to be "No." But what if we take a "white crow" to be any exception to James' doctrine of radical empiricism? Then meta-questions such as religion can be taken to answer fall outside of James' philosophical commitment, and frankly seem to overthrow it. Consider the meaning of "Jesus is the only begotten Son of God" in the context of a belief system that holds that human beings were created in the image of God. Doesn't Christian belief in this example set up a crucial criteria by which human experiences are judged versus being one more belief that is to be placed in the continuous structure of a person's cognitive commitments? In other words, the cognitive commitments a person brings to her experiences plays a defining role in what counts as fitting into the structure of human experience. In Christian terms it would seem a moral filter, constituted by the biblical record of Jesus' life, is added to other cognitive filters for determining what does/should fit into our cognitive structures.

    Somewhere James called musings about extra-empirical possibilities "the ontological wonder-sickness." As always he is delightful in his language. But here that language might betray a prejudice that his overall body of work won't support: faith lays the bricks that extend the structure of human understanding in his thought. Thus, to exclude the use of faith in providing the foundation stones that define the ultimate shape of one's cognitive structure plain seems unfair and inconsistent.

    I am sorry if I have said too much in answering that question you asked me to "ping" you with again--but I have been thinking about it ever since. I'd love to hear any reservations you have about these thoughts, But more than that I'd love to see a future blog entry dealing with the question of to what extent faith--religious or otherwise--can properly play a role in determining a person's cognitive commitments.

    This comment got overlong. (Sorry!)But I do hope it is worth your time.



  10. Hi Tracy,
    BTW, what do you do? I'm just curious. :-)

    Okay, to the point.

    First, my interests in James have been more focused on his psychological stuff than with this philosophical stuff. Thus, I'm weaker on his radical empiricism (RE), his most abstract and philosophical writing. Which means I might make some mistakes in this discussion or take awhile to get clear on your position. Be patient with me:-)

    As I understand it, James' RE was his attempt to overcome problems in british empiricism and Cartesian rationalism. He thought Hume's view that experience was "discrete" and non-relational was wrong. Consciousness is inherently relational, the famous "stream." He also rejected Descartes subject/object dualism in favor of the monism of "pure experience." Knower/known dualism are simply abstractions imposed on the flow of experience in a secondary way. In the flow of experience there is no division, there is just experience.

    Okay, all that is table-dressing. What I'm now about to say might talk right past you, so come right back at me so I can find you in this haze of words.

    As I read him, when James speaks "faith" he is speaking pragmatically. That is, I'm not sure how to relate "faith" with his RE. RE seems to me to an abstract philosophical attempt to clear up muddles in Western philosophy.

    So, I guess James would say that, yes, as you suggest, our cognitive commitments structure our experience. But James would, I think, say that those commitments also arise from experience, and so on. There is no getting "outside" of experience. Experience is all there is.

    So, thinking about your comments about faith and experience I guess I'd ask, as a proxy for James, this: How did faith get inserted into the stream of consciousness? If I'm reading you right, you have faith (or other cognitive commitments) setting up experience "downstream" as it were. But I guess we should ask if "faith" and "cognitive commitments" are not themselves "downstream" from other experiences? If so, then we simply have the flux of experience, amenable to scientific study, the truth of which is judged pragmatically.

    Okay, I've just talked about loud here, simply recapping my understanding of James rather than answering you directly. Push back and help me focus more tightly on your questions.

  11. Hi Richard,

    About me? 25 years ago I decided to postpone a decision to go to seminary or grad school in philosophy, because I felt that I needed to become better informed before making such a momentus choice. I've been driving truck for most of those years, but have recently formed a company that is working on what I believe will be a dramatically better way to propel a bicycle. After I file the patents I'll put up a web site, and you can take a look.

    To the fun stuff!

    First, James' definition of faith is utterly simple: belief when doubt is possible. Here's a passage from "The Will to Believe" that addresses the question of faith to the empiricist mindset: "But if we are empiricists, if we believe that no bell in us tolls to let us know for certain when truth is in our grasp, then it seem a piece of idle fantasticality to preach..our duty of waiting for the bell." In short, the tough-minded empiricist is a hypocrite, if he disparages faith, because doubt is almost always possible, making faith, as defined, the norm, not the exception, for all.

    Second, faith in a propositional sense gets "inserted into the stream of consciousness" via the experience of language, and as a feeling of trust in taking the hand of a friend who offers to steady you when stepping across a mountain stream, etc.: again, because certainty is almost unheard of, faith is ubiquitous, at least implicitly so, in all varieties of experience--not just religious experience, where it is often explicit. (I don't know whether the section on language in Volume I of the Principles is still of value, but it goes into great detail on how language takes its place in the stream of con.)

    Third, on the relation of faith to radical empiricism: I think that radical empiricism was, in effect, a faith for James. "I am...myself a complete empiricist so far as my theory of human knowledge goes. I live...by the practical faith that we must go on experiencing and thinking over our experience, for only thus can our opinions grow more true..." (Will to Believe)

    Last, but most importantly, James realized that most of the really big questions that we face have competing answers. You deal with many of those big questions in your blog. God/no God; free will/ determinism; moral relativism/ moral absolutism; etc. Theology and religion are often at the epicenter of debate concerning these questions. And faith--regardless of the belief posited--plays an especially big role here.

    Here we hit beadrock: I believe that faith plays its marquee role on the religious stage precisely because religious questions typically are too big to fit into the usual means of investigating truth. As you can't decipher the meaning of an author's text by doing chemical analysis on the page, so science may not be able to do anything relevant to test the hypothesis that there is a God. That, for instance, would mean that ID cannot be science, and yet that might not in the least be a criticism of ID.(Just a possibility, but one that seems right to me.)

    To retool a comment made above to fit my conclusion, trying to exclude the use of faith for providing the foundation stones that define the ultimate shape of our cognitive structures is a delusion (and I think I have James' blessing here). And I don't think that faith is downstream from other experiences, as your suggested it might be. Rather, when faith plays its essential role in answering "the big questions," it helps form the stream bed: by informing the kind of life we want to lead and the the way we interpret our experiences.

    Wow! This got way too long! And I can'tentertain as I expound--as you do. (Come to think of it, it's probabaly a good thing that I have spent most of my working life driving truck rather than boring students or congregations.)


  12. Hi Tracy,
    You're a truck driver?! How wild is that? If I ended up single after college (I didn't) one of my plans was be a truck driver and spend my days driving and thinking. Have you ever read Socrates Cafe? Roving, non- institutional philosophical inquiry has always had this romantic hold on me. Anyway, I think Tracy is very cool...

    Let me try to summarize your argument. James does have a positive view of faith. But you think that faith goes much deeper that justifying our next actions. Faith may be integral to the structure of consciousness itself, the "stream bed" guiding and supporting the "stream of consciousness" as you state.

    It that getting at it? That faith is not just about action but about the very fabric and structure of consciousness?

    Thanks for the conversation! It's helping me think more deeply about the implications of James' thought.
    PS-BTW, if you'd like to articulate this position more fully I'd be happy to post it as a guest post in the blog. Send the post to beckr@acu.edu

  13. Richard,

    Thanks for the nice comments!

    Yes, driving and thinking do go together. I'll ask my wife to get a copy of Socrates Cafe for my birthday next week.

    You know,I am thinking much more deeply about James' thought too, being pushed a bit to articulate incipient ideas by you. Your comment to capture the gist of my comments is good: "That faith is not just about action, but about the fabric and structure of consciousness."

    I tell you what, I'll take a swing at fleshing out that perspective with a proviso: You will understand that I am honored just to be asked, that it will be good for me just to learn what I can by giving it a try, and that (here's the proviso) you will not post my effort, if for any reason you have reservations about doing so, once you've seen my offering. There would be no shame in not making the grade when it's a consistent A+.

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  15. I'm jumpping into this conversation a little late, but if I may I would like to interject a couple of points to ponder.

    1. With regard to the little or no emphirical evidence for the effects of prayer: It seems such "tests" are too limited and probably doomed anyway.

    I say this because I strongly suspect that the assmuption is that all prayers are equal or at least that all Christian prayers are equal. If we look at the NT we see one particular incident where the Disciples were baffled by their lack of power to effect a healing whereupon Christ told them "this kind goeth out not but by prayer and fasting". If you read early Christian literature you find other incidents of otherwise fine Christian confounded in their prayers until they meet a holy one who shows them what effective prayer is. So given that the test subjects might come from any confession (as if they were all equal) and may have any depth or lack thereof of genuinely spiritual life it would make sense if they could do little or nothing by their prayers...and further given that those who do have power in their prayers have historically shunned public attention (in the most ancient communions) it is not likely they would be successfully corraled to take part in such a test.

    Secondly, unless they think Christians believe in the "Force" then it is also no wonder such "prayers" return so little definative result. Presumably they are praying to Someone Who is very much aware that He is being manipulated in the interests science, which might well mean His answer when asked to participate is "No." In short God is not likely to be a cosmic vending machine or organ monkey to render goods for our button pushing or a dance for our coin.

    2. With regard to a theology of Material. I suggest you delve deeply into the theologial foundations of Orthodox Christianity (Eastern Orthodox). It has a very high view of material creation in intersection with spiritual life. First, God became man which means the stuff of creation in indissoluably united to the Godhead since then. This means matter is good, not evil, because it can bear the grace of God's presence. This means the material goods of the world may serve as sacramental bridges and windows of grace...like icons which are considered the blunt edge of beatific vision...windows to heaven. Or consider the Holy Eucharist, bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ without ceasing to be bread and wine just a God became man without ceasing to be God.

    Well that's the starter kit. Something to think about.


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