SPIRITUALIST SCIENCE: John Gray's Book the Immortalization Commission Examines Pseudo-Science - Done in the Name of Scientific Investigation-And Spiritualism That Fed off a Fear of Death
Heiser, James D., The New American
The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death, by John Gray, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, hardcover, 273 pages.
"During the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century science became the vehicle for an assault on death. The power of knowledge was summoned to free humans of their mortality. Science was used against science and became a channel for magic." John Gray is no stranger to controversy, but the introductory words of his latest book, The Immortalization Commission, are a particularly blunt introduction to the thesis he endeavors to defend in his most recent work. Gray maintains that the decline of religion has not brought an end to the desire for eternal life, and The Immortalization Commission documents the occult directions taken in the name of science in pursuit of a triumph over death.
Gray was a professor of European thought at the London School of Economics and Political Science before his retirement in 2008, but throughout his career and since his retirement, his greatest influence has been through his published writings, many of which have been quite controversial. For example, Gray's 2007 book, Black Mass, was an examination of the religious utopianism that he believes underlies the wars in the Middle East. An earlier work, Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern (2003), attempted to establish Gray's thesis that 21st-century jihadism is essentially a modern, Western ideology--despite the claims of its adherents, and 1,400 years of Islam's war against the West.
Despite the length of The Immortalization Commission, the work is divided into only three chapters. The first chapter ("Cross-correspondences") explores the popularity of the pseudo-scientific pursuits of Spiritualism in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The second chapter ("God-builders") is a window into the obsession in Soviet Russia with the transcendence of death by means of technology. In the final chapter ("Sweet Mortality"), Gray attacks more recent attempts to defeat death--cryonic suspension and uploading human consciousness into computers, for example--before turning to an apologia for the "sweet scent of death:'
Throughout the first two chapters of the book, the reader is struck by the pathetic character of the broken lives documented therein. Whether one is considering English Spiritualists who were haunted by personal tragedies--and the desire to contact loved ones who had died--or Russian Socialists--who denied there was a survival of the soul, and therefore were desperate to cling to life--a sense of pity and even horror pervades the pages. On occasion, the antics may have an element of humor; however, more often than not, the story that emerges from a cloud of personal tragedies, violent political purges, and elaborate self-deceptions is devastating to the image of those who were caught up in their various "scientific" quests--and Gray's assault intentionally undermines the surety of those who boast of the objectivity of science:
Both the God-builders and the psychical researchers believed humans had powers beyond those recognized in the science of the day. In fact scientific investigation of the paranormal failed to reveal the new human powers of which they dreamt. Instead it showed the limits of conscious awareness, and the vast tracts of life that can never be governed by human will. Much in the study of the paranormal was what we would now call pseudoscience. But the line between science and pseudo-science is smudged and shifting; where it lies seems clear only in retrospect. There is no pristine science untouched by the vagaries of faith. An old fairy tale has it that science began with the rejection of superstition. In fact it was the rejection of rationalism that gave birth to scientific inquiry.
Much of Gray's treatment of the Spiritualists is devoted to the "cross-corre-spondences": the purported connections between the labors of various "automatic writers" who supposedly wrote down those things that were dictated to them from beyond the grave. …