“Empiricism and idealism alike are faced with a problem to which, so far, philosophy has found no satisfactory solution. This is the problem of showing how we have knowledge of other things than ourself and the operations of our own mind” – Bertrand Russell

Ready? Set. Go!

William Danmar (1853-1937), a Professor of Architecture at Cooper Union and the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences (forerunner of the Brooklyn Museum), civil engineer, and member of the American Society for Psychical Research was unhappy with both spiritualist and materialist explanations for ghosts, after years of hanging out at séances and trying to work out the physics of ghosts.  He wanted some hard facts to work with, commenting “A naturalistic theory of the world of death and of ghosts or spirits is to be the outcome of ‘modern spiritism’ if it is to have philosophical value that will hold the people. What is the substance of the spirits, and what its relation to the substances of daily experiences? What is the position of those beings in nature? Where is the location of the ‘spirit world’?” (Danmar, 1917, p39).  Danmar was particularly unsatisfied with the answers ghosts were conveying (via psychic mediums) as to where “the ghost world” they inhabited when not rattling chains, breaking plates, or haunting houses actually was.  He considered the possibility that the relative proportion of dumb ghosts reflected the proportion of dumb living folks, but he was nonetheless perturbed by the standard spiritualistic interpretations of the geography of the spirit realm.

Spiritualist belief as to the location and structure of the ghost world was by no means uniform, but one commonality was the idea that the afterlife was comprised of hierarchical “spheres” through which the human spirit can progress, rather vaguely located somewhere “above us”.  This is of course a major point of contention with the Protestantism that Spiritualism emerged from, which maintained that the soul was assigned to Heaven or Hell based on the quality and character of their mortal existence.  As there was no central spiritualist authority, and spiritualist organizations proliferated, variations on the structure of the afterlife similarly emerged, but always within the context of a spatially-oriented hierarchy.  For example, while not “mainstream spiritualism”, the Chicago-based spiritualist Order of the Rose (which introduced some Rosicrucian elements into their theology), founded by Jesse Charles Fremont Grumbine (1861-1938) delineated a very specific geography of the spirit world, and was very concerned with its physical and social dynamics.

Geographically the spirit world, with its three zones, swings daily around with the earth on its axis and annually with the sun on its orbit. And these zones of the spirit world are no more affected by this diurnal and yearly motion than is the earth itself. The third heaven of Paul, the first in our order, is not influenced by the earth’s orbit. These zones are not separated from each other by parallels, but they unite as gases which chemically fuse with each other, and yet each one is distinct.  For lucidity, it can be said that the first zone, nearest the surface of the earth, is the abode of earth bound spirits, spirits whose ideals in life, if they had any at all, were very low and whose spiritual development was exceedingly limited. They embody the dynamics of evil, and because within the gross, earthly attractions, they seek to obsess mortals. These spirits are recruited from all classes, and dwell in the darkest planes and are themselves without any radiating light. They are not lost souls; such nowhere exist or if they do, they are the supernormally insane, laboring under the hypnosis of criminal teaching, from the terrible effects of which the more enlightened and luminous spirits, who minister to them, are daily seeking to lift them…The second zone is occupied by familiar spirits, those dear ones who are summoned to vacate their places in the homes and who, whatever their age, find rest from labor, freedom from pain, violence, poverty, decrepitude, disease and insanity, and a release from deformed bodies, in which the struggle for existence made their lives a long sad requiem. They are called familiar spirits because they still have interests in their home, they still love their children, wives, husbands, parents, relatives and friends, from whom they were summarily called, and are occupied in some earth attractions and find a special work to do, in inspiring, guiding and comforting their nearest and dearest friends, although, as is often the case, so few of those left behind even give them a second thought, having been taught in the church that they are asleep in their graves, or are forever silenced…The third zone distant from the earth, but interpenetrating the other two, is the celestial, and is the abode of the angels of the earth. This is the third heaven which Paul saw when he was clairvoyant or entranced. It is made up of luminous ether so pure, that the eye hath not seen, nor ear heard of the unspeakable glory of those who dwell in it. These intelligences dictate the conditions for the advancement of those who live in the lower spheres and have their administering spirits who are guides, guardians and messengers to their evangels on earth. The space occupied by this zone is that which geographically lies outside the earth’s attraction toward the sun, held to the earth by a tender cosmic influence but still influencing the earth spiritually and not materially (Grumbine, 1909, p27-30).

Now, this was by no means a consensus view in its specifics among spiritualists, but it does capture the “spirit” (if you’ll pardon the pun) and flavor of a typical spiritualist geography of the land from which ghosts emanated.  The main problem is that the majority of our intelligence regarding afterlife dispensations was coming from ghosts themselves (provided under questioning during séances), and their responses ranged from unintelligibly bizarre to cryptically vague.  Professor Danmar was having none of this.  Philosophically he wasn’t a materialist, but he was a naturalist, a subtle and much over-looked difference in these days of orthodox skepticism, but amounting to the belief that the universe was not ultimately irreducible to purely physical things, rather adhered to natural laws, where supernatural occurrences were merely as of yet undiscovered natural phenomena.  Danmar got down to business.  By the opening of the 20th Century they has a pretty good idea that the only thing clearly over our heads was space, thus Danmar concluded we needed a little more technical detail if we ever expected to pinpoint the precise location that harbored the plethora of disembodied spirits that the spiritualists had on speed dial.  He opted for a series of time trials, and gave a nice summary of his methodology.

We are now searching for heaven, not by mounting an airship but by letting the ghosts do the travelling and we taking notes of the time-lengths of their travels. That “spirits travel as fast as thoughts” may do for mentalists but our ghosts are stuffy bodies who meet resistance which they have to overcome and which takes time. Experiments to determine the location of the ghost-world relative to the earth were made first in the year 1885 and several times afterwards. The results were reported in 1887, 1900 and 1914 in books and meanwhile in articles, but they did not appeal to spiritualists who believed in mentalism, because they were “too physical”, which means too natural. These experiments consisted mainly in measuring the time it took a number of co-experimenting ghosts to go from New York to their homes and back. Mediums were used who did not know the purpose of the experiments (Danmar, 1924, p122-124).

Basically, the idea was that in order to figure out where the “ghost world” was, the ghost would be summoned to a séance in New York, released to return to its humble abode, and then called back again, giving us a number for the latency between departure and re-arrival at different times of night, and although this would not necessarily give us the speed at which a ghost could travel, it might help point us in the general direction of their home.

Danmar’s geography of the spirit world

The following general points were gained: The up and down trips of the young ghosts were shorter than of the older; according to their explanation because they did not dwell so high, though all dwelt “above the clouds.” Starting at 7 P. M., the different ages made the following times: 20 years, 17.5 minutes; 38 years, 19 minutes; 58 years 25.5 minutes, 80 years, 30 minutes. Old ripe ghosts made their trips in from 40 to 50 minutes.  The second important point gained was that the nearer to midnight the ghosts made their trips the shorter time it took them. A ripe ghost made his trips a number of times with the same results. We will call him G. He testified to the following figures being correct when he was splendidly materialized at another medium (in Mrs. William’s séances): At 8 P.M., 45 minutes in the average; at 12 o’clock at night, 22 minutes and 4 A.M., 32 minutes. Our figure (see above) illustrates this result. Part 1 shows the earth from the north and the upper part is the night-side. The inner circle marks the latitude of New York. The hours at night are marked by radii.  From 8, 12 and 4 o’clock at night, lines are drawn into the shadow, meeting at G with the proportions of 45 to 22 to 32, the numbers of minutes of G’s travels. Two such points could be found but the lower is in the globe where G. does not go. His home in the ghost-world is over a point on the earth where it is 1 o’clock at night, this point, of course, runs over a latitude. Under G’s home it is always 1 A.M. In his home are “no days and no nights.” He complains of no darkness up there. His trips were neither vertical nor even in the plane of the latitude but much declined to the south. This declination was stated but not determined experimentally and, therefore, the height of G’s home above the earth’s crust was not ascertained. All that is clear from the experiments is that his home is in the northeasterly quarter of the earth’s shadow over one o’clock at night. It would require three measurements at that hour on three distant points of a meridian to determine G’s home more closely. When the scientists get through with their materialistic troubles they will draw maps of the ghost-world, showing the locations of the different races, nationalities, classes, believers and what else divides the human beings into groups, because the foolishness of our world is continued over there (Danmar, 1924, p122-124).

Danmar’s experimental results led him to the puzzling conclusion that the earth has “a tail which consists of vegetable, animal and human spirit-bodies. This tail has its location in the shadow of the earth, and is in many respects analogous to the tail of a comet” (Danmar, 1887, p3).  He proceeded to elaborate an explicit theory about the physics of the spirit world (and took to referring to spirits as “zeroids”), and if you ever care to delve into his extensive analysis of the spirit world based on a combination of his experiments, ghost testimony from séances, and wild, yet intricate speculation, I highly recommend a good stiff drink and a copy of Danmar’s treatise The Tail of the Earth; or, the Location and Condition of the Spirit World. Baby, it’s a wild ride.

Now, I don’t know whether Danmar’s speculations represent the unexpectedly wide availability of quality psychoactive drugs in turn of the 20th Century New York, or the reasoned conclusions of a practical engineer/architect who dismissed both the overtly metaphysical and credulous interpretations of the spiritualists as well as the logical positivism and fundamentalist physicalism of contemporary scientists, but it does fly in the face of the ever present denials of science and skepticism that claims of the paranormal have never been subjected to empirical testing, based on the purely ontological supposition that non-corporeal spirits might exist.  Danmar asked a simple empirical question.  If spirits exist, where do they spend their time?  He proceeded to elaborate a testing methodology.  The skeptical may argue that he is a curious exception in the history of ghost hunting, particularly during the heyday of spiritualism, but one needs only peruse the vast literature of the Society for Psychical Research (1882-Present) to see that many otherwise sober and empirically-minded individuals were suggesting and implementing novel methodologies for collecting data about the alleged spirits of the dead, requiring only the a priori assumption that some form of consciousness might persist after death, and obtaining curious results.

Pure empiricism is as problematic as pure rationalism, but the problem is when we assume we have a complete understanding of the laws of nature and can thereby determine what the appropriate methodology for all inquiry is (which frequently unmasks our ontological biases).  Philosopher of Science Paul Feyerabend once said, “Naive falsificationism takes it for granted that the laws of nature are manifest and not hidden beneath disturbances of considerable magnitude. Empiricism takes it for granted that sense experience is a better mirror of the world than pure thought. Praise of argument takes it for granted that the artifices of Reason give better results than the unchecked play of our emotions. Such assumptions may be perfectly plausible and even true. Still, one should occasionally put them to a test. Putting them to a test means that we stop using the methodology associated with them, start doing science in a different way and see what happens”.  Professor Danmar would approve.

Danmar, William.  “Facts and Theories”. Psychical Research Review v2:12, 1917.
Danmar, William. The Tail of the Earth; or, the Location and Condition of the “Spirit World”, New York: Concord Co-Operative Print Co., 1887.
Danmar, William. Modern Nirvanaism, or the Philosophy of Life and Death, Jamaica, New York City: the Author, 1914.
Danmar, William. World Cognition; Absolute Being, Reality, Nature, Death, New York City: The Academy Press, 1923.
Danmar, William. Ghostology, the Naturalistic Philosophy of the Ghosts, New York City: the Author, 1924.
Grumbine, J. C. F. The Spirit World. Boston, Mass.: The Order of the White Rose, 1909.