Monday, December 21, 2009

Fechner's Little Book of Life After Death

Gustav Theodor Fechner (1801-1887) was a 19th century experimental psychologist and philosopher credited with several discoveries in perceptual psychology, such as the Weber-Fechner Law and the visual illusion called Fechner Color, in which colors may be perceived in a moving pattern of black and white. As per William James’ introduction to his Little Book of Life After Death (the present volume brings together this work and some supplementary materials from Fechner’s other writings), God for Fechner was “the totalized consciousness of the whole universe, of which the Earth’s consciousness forms an element, just as in turn my human consciousness and yours form elements of the whole earth’s consciousness.” One may see in Fechner a bit of the pantheist, or a forerunner of Bucke’s cosmic consciousness and Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious.

Fechner saw our life as an intermediate stage between fetal development and the third, postmortem, stage. Each stage is an outgrowth and fulfillment of the previous stage, as (in the timeworn analogy) the butterfly is the realization of the chrysalis. All is well and good, so far, for those willing to accept Fechner’s conception of meaningful existence, but then the good doctor makes a further leap and proposes that each human soul on this earth is an arena of influence for other souls existing in the afterlife, and that these souls, both good and evil, exert themselves through the individual‘s soul in such degree as the soul has affinity with these spirits. Sometimes one follows the better nature and guidance of these spooks, sometimes not.* Now, where Fecher has come up with this scenario, he doesn’t say. There is no appeal to precedent, although an illustration in the text gives one to believe that it is somewhat based on Fecher’s work with color and color blending. There is also a nod to the Great Man conception of history: “No man’s life is without consequences that remain always and eternally.” Fecher supports the sweet idea that when we think of the deceased, then live not only in memory, but are in fact brought to us spiritually, which naturally leads to a discussion of ghosts and why it’s not such a good thing to think of the dead too often.

All in all, Fechner’s hypothesis seems an odd and inadequate explanation for the workings of human consciousness, and given this, one’s sense of dubiousness (not to mention tedium) increases as one proceeds further into this book.

*One is also tempted to see the influence of Swedenborg in this conception.

Note: The edition under review is the Pantheon Books edition of 1943, with introduction by Willam James and preface by John Erskine. The link below is to a different edition.