Thursday, 29 April 2010

Weighing the Soul - Comments on ‘Body and Soul’, by Paul Chambers

Weighing the Soul - Comments on ‘Body and Soul’, by Paul Chambers

When I tried to post some comments on the Fortean Times message board concerning an article called ‘Body and Soul’, by Paul Chambers, I was constantly thrown back to the profile update section. I thought that I would place them here instead, in an elaborated form.

Paul Chambers’ article on efforts to weigh the soul by Duncan MacDougall and others [FT262, May 2010] contained some omissions and errors. To begin with a popular and readily-available book, there is no mention of Len Fisher’s chapter on the subject in his volume with the giveaway title Weighing the Soul: The Evolution of Scientific Beliefs (2004). Fisher suggests an explanation for the weight reduction MacDougall found at the point of death: convection caused by the body cooling – precision balances being sensitive to air currents – which although not persuasive, could have at least been mentioned by Chambers. Interestingly, but not significantly, Fisher and the FT article both have photographs of Fairbanks Imperial Grocer’s Scales which are slightly different to each other (Fisher’s one also appears on the cover of the US edition of his book).

The Metaphysical Magazine (‘A monthly review devoted to science, psychology, philosophy, metaphysics and occult subjects’) for April 1907 (p.377) picked up on the press reports and included a short article on MacDougall’s efforts, entitled 'Weighing Human Souls'. The author had no doubt that MacDougall’s findings were accurate and thought that they supported the contention that the soul was “a material substance of a sublimated character”, but decided, in less esoteric terms, that weight loss might be due simply to the exhalation of breath as the lungs collapsed. Again, Chambers does not include this suggestion, even if it is about as plausible as convection.

Chambers does cite Mary Roach on weighing the soul, but rather than read the chapter in her book Spook (published as Six Feet Over in the UK) he has relied on it as reproduced on a website called Lost magazine. Unfortunately this is not the complete chapter, but has sections left out. A reference to the book would have been more useful than to an expurgated version, even if the latter was easier to find. One of the sections not in the online version, but which is included in Roach’s book, relates to Lewis Hollander’s experiments with sheep, which showed a small but temporary increase in weight at the moment of death. This work is mentioned by Chambers, as Hollander’s paper in the Journal of Scientific Exploration is available online. But he does not include Masayoshi Ishida’s 2009 paper ‘A New Experimental Approach to Weight Change Experiments at the Moment of Death with a Review of Lewis E. Hollander’s Experiments on Sheep’, also in JSE, which subjects Hollander’s work to a mathematical analysis and finds problems with his procedures and results. While Fortean Times is not the place for a technical discussion, a reference to this later examination would have helped to contextualise the apparent anomaly presented by Hollander’s research.

Chambers mentions, in passing, experiments carried out by H Lav. Twining and gives Hereward Carrington’s Laboratory Investigations into Psychic Phenomena as a source. According to Chambers, Twining found no change in weight at death during trials in which he killed thirty mice. In an appendix to his book, however, Carrington reprints extracts from a letter he had received from Twining (pp.243-5) in which Twining says that “after some thirty experiments I found that the loss of weight was caused by the expulsion of moisture at the instant of death.” There was only no loss when the container was hermetically sealed with the mouse inside. Carlos Alvarado describes these findings in a letter in the March 1980 issue of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. Fisher discusses them too but questions whether the loss of moisture would be that rapid, in either humans or mice. Chambers cannot have read any of these accounts to conclude erroneously that Twining claimed that no change in weight occurred (Chambers is not just referring to the trials with sealed containers).

Another piece of research that would have been of interest to FT’s readers was conducted at Addenbrooke’s hospital by Bernard Carr (better known these days as an astrophysicist) in 1969-70, and reported in the Proceedings of the SPR in 2008. This used sleeping patients rather than dying ones, but with the addition of hypnosis and meditation which might induce astral separation. Results were inconclusive and not written up at the time, but it was a useful attempt to update the original approach in a more ethical age.

Towards the end of his article, Chambers baldly refers to a mouse experiment mentioned in the New York Times on 13 March 1907 and states that he could find no other details of the work, but does not say what was in the newspaper on that day. The article on 13 March quotes an unnamed “eminent physiological chemist” describing experiments by anonymous German students. They, some unspecified years previously, had experimented on mice and found no weight loss when the animals were in a sealed container, whereas those in an open vessel did show loss of weight. The chemist asserted that a gas was given off at the point of death, and concluded that, as MacDougall was effectively replicating an open vessel with his human guinea pigs, gas was the factor in his experiments also, the weight loss being on the same scale as with the mice. These experiments sound so similar to Twining’s that one wonders whether he was the “German students” the chemist had in mind, or was even the ‘chemist’ himself. There is uncertainty over the date of Twining’s experiments. Chambers says it was 1915, but that was the year he published his book The Physical Theory of the Soul, and his experiments occurred earlier. The letter to Carrington is dated 12 September 1933, and although he reprints part of this and short extracts from Twining’s book, no date is given for the experiments.

Chambers gives a number of references from NYT in his list of sources up to 15 March 1907, but the story was alluded to after that date, culminating with a rather nice poem by Walter Beverley Crane on 21 October beginning “I cannot weigh my soul to-day, it is too heavy laden”. Correspondence in the newspaper was generally satirical in tone, and an entertaining article by ‘Diogenes’ on 4 August 1907 explored the implications of a compulsory quantitative analysis of the soul, in a society in which every member had to carry a “soul card” open to inspection, showing their foibles to anyone who asked to see it. The implication is that society would not be happier for such a facility.

Of course the function of FT is to entertain as well as inform, but Chambers’ article (surprisingly given first place in the magazine as the cover story) could have been strengthened with a little more primary research. It isn’t particularly long and there would have been space to expand on the post-MacDougall work. Weighing the soul is a fascinating subject, but its treatment here doesn’t do it justice.