Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Science of the Occult

“Occult Science and the Science of the Occult: Astral Projection and the Disenchantment of Fin-de-Siècle Britain,” Johnstone Metzger’s Bachelor of Arts (Honours) thesis submitted to The Faculty of Arts History Department, University of British Columbia, 2012, takes on a dual task: looking at the subject of astral projection through the lens of London’s Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn during the 1890s, and then comparing it with the attention given by Richard Hodgson in his 1885 report on the astral phenomena connected with Blavatsky. It is an ambitious undertaking but Metzger manages to provide a concise documented account of the evolution of the astral practices of the Golden Dawn.

More impressive is that Metzger has actually read Richard Hodgson’s report to the Committee appointed by Council of the Society for Psychical Research “to investigate the evidence for marvellous phenomena connected with the Theosophical Society.” This second part of the thesis examines the scientific response to the subject as provided by Hodgson’s 1885 report. No other sources seen to have been consulted, though the author’s argument would have benefited by the research of Walter A. Carrithers, Vernon Harrison, Leslie Price and J.P. Deveney. Metzger concludes that “Hodgson’s report had more in common with a legal trial than it did with a physics experiment,” and adds the interesting insight:

Though he does not make this explicit, Hodgson portrays himself following a two-step process. First, he determined which testimonies could be trusted, and which ones he discarded, based on his position as the expert observer. Then he used the viable testimony to create possible scenarios, and used them to judge, impartially and without prejudice, whether the reported phenomena were fraudulent or genuine. As these two positions are directly at odds with each other, there were some areas where they overlapped uncomfortably.

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