1882 was the year that Friedrich Nietzsche announced that God was dead and added that “we” had killed him. At Cambridge University during the same year, Frederic Myers with several colleagues officially launched a new scientific discipline called psychical research. If ever there was a “meaningful” historical coincidence, this one certainly qualifies.What’s so meaningful about this coincidence? In brief, it speaks loudly to what we may call the most important crisis in the history of Western consciousness. It also points to a possible way of coping with that crisis. In Nietzsche’s pronouncement, it is “we” who have killed God. What does that mean?
Anyone acquainted with history knows. The rise of modern science, new physics, astronomy, geology, along with Darwin and the idea of natural selection—the new scientific picture of the world—it all contradicts the creationist picture of the world as portrayed in the Bible. The more science learned about the natural world, the more in effect we “killed” the mainline, Bible-based conception of God.
This worldview crash was bound to destabilize the collective psyche, disrupting the traditional archetypes, prompting revolutions on all fronts of culture and society. For if there is no God, then all things are possible, as Dostoyevsky said. For Nietzsche, the death of God meant the birth of the Ubermensch—the Overman (today we’d include Wonder Woman). The philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach “killed” God the way the Tibetan Buddhists do, by recognizing the gods as our psychic projections.
But that seems to suggest that God may not be dead after all, especially since Nietzsche and Feuerbach hailed the godlike potential of humanity. Maybe God is still gestating in the future of humanity.
Myers, describes in A Fragment of his biography, assembled by his wife, Eveleen, how he fell into a metaphysical funk once he realized that his biblical faith had been damaged beyond repair. Myers picked himself up and, with Henry Sidgwick, a famously scrupulous moral philosopher, resolved to use science to examine the outer limits of the human personality. Can we identify a transcendent factor at work in human experience? If that were possible, science and reason could be used to explore the ancient riddles of human destiny. So in 1882 they founded the Society for Psychical Research.
The aim of this Society was not to attempt to salvage belief in the old catechism God, so to speak. Rather, the aim was to investigate experiences that might imply the survival of consciousness after death. The English Society gave birth to French, Italian, German, Polish, Russian, and American (think William James) societies and independent researchers. The idea gained traction that the same science that began by destroying pre-scientific mythologies could be used to create new science-based mythologies of transcendence.
The ongoing evolution of science is still in a very early part of its possible future. The strange thing is that at the present micro-limit of scientific exploration of physical reality, the physical itself seems to vanish into a mysterious quantum cloud, and in the end relies on mind to attain actuality.
The researches that began in 1882 are still afoot, and the overall knowledge of phenomena related to postmortem consciousness is impressive, at least suggestive. No doubt something is going on with all those near-death experiences, ghostly apparitions, mediumistic performances, out-of-body trips, lucid dreams, crisis visions, and mystical transports. This is part of the old mythology, saved and revised by science, the part about souls and consciousness and post death. But what about the God-part of the wicked blow inflicted by modern science?
Here again we defer to the fateful 1882 when the death of God is announced and a new science of consciousness is coincidentally launched. Modern science undermines all pretentions to claiming the literal truths of creation mythologies, but at the same time it has been the spur to explore the undiscovered country of the human mind. When we reckon on the modern variety of deep approaches thereto—mesmerism, psychoanalysis, archetypal psychology, psychical research, neuroscience and quantum mechanics--what emerges is a picture of human mental life that is as vast, multilayered, and complex as physical reality.
The enormous expansion of the concept of mind—ignored by mainstream reductionists—affords us tools for reconstructing the genesis of god and goddess stories, of demons and daimons, jinns and angels, and so on and so forth. The modern, scientifically proposed (some would say ratified) notion of one great mind at large and of Myers’ and James’s “subliminal” or “hidden” self, respectively, enable us to explore the Upanishads and many of the world’s great mystical traditions from a fresh, empirically grounded perspective. “God” is originally the name for a certain form of transcendent experience; only later does it crystallize into a personality in a myth, and still later into immutable dogma.
1882 is the year of a coincidence that marks a turning-point in the history of human consciousness. It is the critical point where Western beliefs about meaning, spirituality, and transcendence undergo a crisis of near-death. It is a transformation still in progress, a story whose ending remains up in the air, unresolved and undecided.