Guy Christian Barnard

Literary critic and little-known writer on mediumistic and psychical phenomena. His most famous work on psychical research, "The Supernormal," was published in 1933. In it Barnard attempts to establish a strong case for the extension of the living personality to explain the apparent evidence for survival. 

Science and the Supernormal

 - G. C. Barnard -

          THERE IS a natural tendency, which is shared by all who are not unduly credulous or superstitious, to dismiss as absurd, and obviously impossible, any highly unusual idea and any testimony as to the experience of highly unusual phenomena. Without this tendency, indeed, we should readily become the prey of every unsubstantial figment of our imaginations, as, in fact, some unfortunates are. It is to be observed, however, that the common objections to such phenomena rest ultimately on an appeal to everyday experience, so that we argue that a thing is impossible when it seems to contradict our own, or most other people's, experience. This, of course, is a useful practical test, but it is philosophically unsound, because the new facts, whose claim to admission we thus deny, are themselves an extension of human experience.

It behoves us, therefore, if we propose to examine any alleged phenomena, to reflect that the term "impossible" has an extremely limited field of useful application. Many things which clever men once labelled impossible are nevertheless true, and are now universally recognized as being true. The record of the orthodox champions of science in this matter is not wholly spotless, as many well-known stories attest. When Harvey proclaimed the fact of the circulation of the blood, Venetian doctors ridiculed the idea. When Galvani discovered electric currents he was set down by the scientists of his day as being "The Frog's Dancing Master." Aviation was proved, over and over again, to be contrary to mathematical physics; Hypnotism was opposed for a century. And so it is without much value to dismiss modern psychic science on the mere ground that some scientists disbelieve in it. On the contrary, when one hears Flammarion's story of Dr. Bouillard and the Phonograph, one is inclined to credit anything which such scientists deny. When Edison's invention was first demonstrated at the Academie des Sciences in Paris, the worthy Dr. Bouillard rose angrily and denounced the demonstrator as a ventriloquizing cheat. Further than this, he had the hardihood later on to write that, after giving this supposed invention a thorough investigation, he had convinced himself that there was nothing in it but ventriloquism!

Now these examples of what we can recognize as the blind folly of pseudo-scientists are not rare or in any degree unusual; they typify a state of mind which is extremely common, even amongst present-day scientists, and which has retarded the development of psychic science not a little. We must, therefore, agree at the outset that nothing be deemed impossible except such propositions as involve a necessary contradiction in terms; the proposition, for instance, that a triangle having only two sides can exist, or that a material object may be moved without the application of any external force. Perhaps there will be some readers who will object even to this limited use of the word, and maintain that "contraries may be equally true," as in William Blake's state called Beulah. In fact, to a mystic such a proposition is but natural, and mystics have, from the days of Lao-Tse to Ouspensky, maintained that logical contradictions may be true, that the part may equal the whole, and that A may be both A and Not-A. But these are considerations of greater subtlety than is required for our purpose here; we can learn quite enough about the elements of psychic science if we allow the impossibility of anything that involves a logical contradiction in terms.

Granting now that much of what has hitherto been deemed to be impossible, and therefore unworthy of investigation and discussion, is by no means so in reality, let us see what is the proper attitude to adopt in an inquiry into the supernormal and occult regions. Are we to throw the methods of science on one side and cultivate an emotional state of faith, or are we to submit everything to the test of experimental research and reason? It all depends on our personal temperament and on our aim. If we wish to experience the workings of occult forces, to see forms and phantasms, and to hear mysterious voices, then we must cultivate our own latent powers in these directions, or at least cultivate our faith in their reality; and this is most efficiently done by becoming a Spiritualist and joining a circle of believers. But if our object is to know and comprehend intellectually whatever may be true, then we must follow the same methods that we follow in any exact science; we must examine critically (which does not mean distrustfully) and we must devise experiments to test our hypotheses. And in this connection we may well bear in mind the following passage in which Freud (one of the greatest analytic minds of any age) discusses the evidence on which some of his own conclusions are based. He says:

“It is a mistake to believe that a science consists of nothing but conclusively proved propositions, and it is unjust to demand that it should. It is a demand made only by those who feel a craving for authority in some form and a need to replace the religious catechism by something else, even if it be a scientific one. Science in its catechism has but few apodeictic precepts; it consists mainly of statements which it has developed to varying degrees of probability. The capacity to be content with these approximations to certainty and the ability to carry on constructive work despite the lack of final confirmation are actually a mark of the scientific habit of mind.” (Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis, page 39.)

The best scientists, of course, are generally the least dogmatic. They recognize that few of the most widely accepted scientific "laws" or even facts can be conclusively proved, in the sense that a theorem of Euclid's can be proved. Consequently it is with no little wonder that we find many of these same scientists, who in Physics or Chemistry or Biology show such an appreciation of the difference between a mathematical and an "evidential" proof, demanding the most impossible degree of logical rigidity before they will consent to discuss the evidence for a psychic fact. The most unquestioned facts of, say, Chemistry, rest ultimately on human testimony; we accept the evidence as given by a quite limited number of men, whose word we trust because, in the main, they all agree, and because their statements enable us to co-ordinate a large number of other facts. But if we attempted to verify any one chemical generalization without assuming the truth of most of the others we should soon get so lost in the maze of interrelated hypotheses and alleged facts that we should quickly realize the practical impossibility of our task. It is then unfair, and indeed ridiculous, to expect a psychic phenomenon to occur in such a manner that it is susceptible of absolutely rigid, cavil-proof demonstration. On the contrary we should study the evidence which has accumulated, using our discretion in judging which witnesses are reliable, and out of this mass of evidence we should select what seems capable of experimental proof, and of repetition under diverse conditions, and should attempt to develop it.

That there is something to develop, something to test, and something by which we may extend our knowledge of this world (I shelve the question of our knowledge of the next) is, I think, not to be disputed. One fact is striking, and needs explanation; namely, that there is a group of men, a group containing many of the greatest modern scientists, who have deliberately given their testimony to the reality of supernormal phenomena. De Morgan, Crookes, Zöllner, Lombroso, Morselli, Richet, Flammarion, W. James, and Lodge are perhaps the chief scientists of international renown who have devoted a considerable portion of their time to patient experimental investigation of psychic phenomena; and they have all staked their reputations on the existence of facts unknown to the orthodox sciences. In the face of this important fact, what is the average man to think? He may lightly say that all these men, be they never so eminent, are mad, and therefore irresponsible for what they have written. A noteworthy phenomenon, indeed, and one that would lead us to suppose that anyone else whom we chose was mad; for these men have carried on all their other work with as much sanity as anyone else could claim.

Another hypothesis, which has often been suggested, is that these men have deceived the public, and written books full of falsehoods. But if scientists of standing, men who have achieved their eminence precisely because of their unusual fidelity to the exact truth, are to be thus accused when they proclaim new discoveries, our whole outlook on humanity, and our whole attitude to positive science in particular, must be changed. If Crookes' researches into Spiritualism are impugned, what grounds have we for believing in his researches on Electrons? One will say that the latter have been corroborated and expanded by the work of other scientists; but so have the former also, and in some instances by the very same scientists!

The third hypothesis, that the investigators have been hallucinated or hypnotized by clever mediums, is equally ridiculous. Hallucination (by which is not meant mere mal-observation, a fault which would keep any scientist in a very obscure back row) is a very unusual thing outside the mad-house, and the simultaneous and identical hallucination of two or more persons is so rare that I doubt if a single authentic case has ever been recorded. We feel that if two or more persons were simultaneously to see the same non-existent object, the object would really be there! As to hypnotism, which we may take here to include illusions induced by suggestion, it is usually the medium who is hypnotized, not the person conducting the research. Finally, one cannot hallucinate or hypnotize the self-registering instruments, cameras, cinematographs, phonographs, or recording needles, which have been used repeatedly to confirm the objectivity of various phenomena.

And so it is to the fourth hypothesis, namely fraud on the part of the medium, which all objectors turn eventually. This, indeed, is an easy postulate, and a medium is considered fair game. It is a fact admitted and deplored by all those who investigate or believe in supernormal occurrences that a large number of mediums do cheat in one way or another[1]; some habitually; some only occasionally; some deliberately; and some while in a trance, and therefore not conscious (with their normal waking personality) of their actions. And, moreover, this is quite natural and easy to understand. There are religious, personal, and financial motives sufficiently strong to make many people try to impress others with their supernormal powers, or to convince them that "spirits" are communicating. Moreover, the most genuine and honest medium may, while unconscious, produce physical phenomena (raps, levitations, etc.) which are supposed to be due to spirits, but which are in fact due to normal physical means. This is easily explained, for, adopting for a moment the theory that a genuine medium is able to materialize a kind of extra limb and raise a table by means of this, we may suppose that such a procedure will only occur on account of some desire on the part of the medium to lift the table. But if the entranced medium desires to move an object, is it not natural for him to attempt this by normal muscular action, such as is habitual to his organism, if it is possible, rather than embark on the hazardous enterprise of materializing a pseudo-limb? In general we might expect that if a medium can move an object by normal means he will do so, and that supernormal methods will only be used when the habitual physical mechanisms are inapplicable. This, of course, is not universally and rigidly true, but it seems a useful point to bear in mind. As a corollary (and also from the observations of many investigators) we must admit that the proved occurrence of fraud in any one instance has very little relevance to the question of the genuineness of other instances. It is only when fraud is deliberate and consciously contrived that its discovery should seriously affect our attitude towards the medium.

[1] Nevertheless Sir Oliver Lodge, in the witness-box during a recent case, stated: "I have heard about fraudulent mediums, but I have not come across them." He was, presumably, only referring to deliberate conscious frauds; but still his opinion is significant and suggests that he demands a rigorous proof of fraud before he will accept it as an explanation, whereas many people am satisfied with the bare demonstration of its possibility.

Moreover, even if a medium is shown to be consciously fraudulent, we cannot always conclude that he is thereby shown to be incapable of genuine phenomena; for we have to consider the facts of the individual case. Suppose, for one moment, that a young girl is subject to trances and that in these states she speaks strangely and moves objects unaccountably; that, in a word, some genuine supernormal phenomena do occur. Is it not probable that she will soon be regarded as a medium for spiritualist purposes, and become a person of importance in a certain circle? Will she not be pressed to produce more phenomena, and, finding that they are entirely beyond her voluntary control and often refuse to occur, will she not be tempted to supplement them by simple fraud? In most spiritualistic séances such fraud would be undiscovered, because no one would try to look for it. I should say that every medium must sometimes find circumstances are tempting her to help on, or to counterfeit, phenomena; and thus many may become fraudulent.

But it is to be observed that all this must be based on a real power of mediumship, without which it would never start at all! If you or I, for example, were to put forward claims as to clairvoyance or the power to materialize a spirit, our friends might perhaps say, "Well, we will see what you can do." But unless in the first instance we could produce some phenomena which not merely aroused interest, but convinced people of our powers, we should be at once discredited.

Moreover, we cannot suppose that a medium who thus supplemented her genuine powers by amateur trickery would be able thus to produce any of those numerous phenomena in which the force exerted is quite beyond the normal muscular power of even strong men; nor would such trickery deceive capable investigators who specially set out to look for and to prevent it, and who imposed their own conditions on the medium. Nor, indeed, would such a medium submit to the rigid investigation demanded.

If, therefore, fraud is to be postulated to explain the feats of such mediums as Eusapia Palladino, Eva C (Marthe Béraud), Kluski, and similar people, it must be conscious, well-rehearsed, skilled fraud of such a kind as to baffle the prolonged and searching scrutiny of the most competent scientists in the world. In short, it must be far and away superior to anything that we know to be producible by a Houdini, a Maskelyne, or a Devant. And yet most mediums have demonstrably no particular technical skill, or conjuring ability, of this order.

Only those who take the trouble to read the detailed records of some of the researchers[2] in this field can appreciate the difficulty of controlling conditions, of observing, and of recording phenomena in such a way that, not those present at the time, but the outside reader can say with certainty that fraud could not enter. Perhaps it is impossible, but in so far as it is humanly possible it has been done. That is to say, the probability of fraud in these cases has become smaller than the probability of genuineness. When we find that a medium is medically examined before and after the sitting, the examination including all the natural orifices and extending so far, in one instance, as the administration of an emetic to ensure that no objects were produced by regurgitation or disposed of by swallowing; when the medium is completely stripped and then sewn up in a specially designed costume; when the investigator has his own special séance-room, to which the medium has no previous access; when a cinematograph record is made of the phenomena of materialization; when the process of extrusion of a substance from and re-absorption into the body is both watched and photographed; when all this and yet more is done, and the séance conducted in light up to 100 candle-power, it becomes rather imbecile to cling irrationally to the conviction that it was all fraud. The evidence for the analysis of water into Oxygen and Hydrogen is no stronger than Schrenck-Notzing's evidence for the production of ectoplasm.

[2] e.g. Dr. Schrenck-Notzing's work, Phenomena of Materialization.

We thus arrive at the position that we admit the occurrence of genuine supernormal phenomena, and wish to sort them out, classify them, and attempt to "explain" them. And here we may consider the meaning of the word supernormal. It does not imply any more than that the phenomena in question are highly unusual, and take place under conditions and through agencies of whose nature we are ignorant. No scientist can admit the existence of supernatural phenomena or any contrary to the laws of nature. If a fact appears to be contrary to our statement of a natural law, and yet the fact is proved, then it is not the fact which is above nature, but our statement of a law which is false. No fact can be outside nature. It is necessary to accept this view, however much one may prefer the frankly mystical philosophy which admits the supernatural, if one is to consider the field of psychic science and attempt to co-ordinate and interpret the facts; if our object, that is to say, is to gain an intellectual comprehension of this subject. But I freely grant that perhaps this is a vain endeavour, because our intellect may be incapable of dealing with the facts; incapable of escaping from the hypothesis of Causation, which may be a chimera. It is here that the Spiritualist and the scientist may reasonably differ. The former has no faith in, and no desire to establish, intellectual representations of the mechanisms by which supernormal phenomena occur; to him it is intellectually sufficient to assume the existence of spirits and their power of acting at will on the objects and minds in this world. He does not hesitate, on occasion, to allow them something approaching omnipotence, and omniscience and consequently he has no need to formulate a science. What is the use of observing, of classifying, of experimenting, if a spirit may wilfully do anything at any moment and invalidate all your conclusions? Nothing need ever happen twice in the same way, for all is (or can be) at the mercy of caprice. The most thorough Spiritualists, perhaps, recognize the irrationality of their philosophy, and do not enter into arguments; they simply make assertions.

A scientist, however, has different intellectual needs. He must study the conditions under which phenomena occur, and interpret their mechanism or perish. He cannot bear to live in a world where nothing is orderly, nothing is predictable, and everything happens through the caprices of demi-gods - where tables rise in the air because the spirits have suspended the laws of gravity; and where fire will burn him on one occasion and not on another, because the spirits have set up vibrations which nullify the heat vibrations; where a hostile spirit may knock him on the head at any moment, or a moral spirit prevent him from placing a bet on the Derby winner. It is therefore incumbent on him, when he is faced with facts of a psychic nature, to examine them and attempt to interpret them as he would those belonging to any other category. This, be it observed, is a very different thing from denying them without any examination, which is a usual attitude of scientists today.

The investigation of the supernormal, however, is not a task to be undertaken by any man, however eminent he may be in any department, without some preparation, or without guidance from his precursors. Would a chemist consider himself qualified to undertake a research on Cancer, without making himself as familiar as possible with all that previous workers had done in this field, and without undergoing any training in medicine and surgery? No more can he, or anyone else, expect to do good work in psychic research without preliminary study. And yet one constantly hears of men, frequently quite untrained individuals, who investigate the subject for a few days or weeks, and then, having discovered nothing, "expose" it as a delusion and a fraud! In any science the first task is to observe, to note what happens, and to record the conditions under which it happens. Then one may attempt to find out which of the many conditions are essential, and so arrive at some judgment as to the inner nature of the phenomena. But this takes time and needs patience unbounded. Yet the first thing these amateur "exposers" do is to impose their own conditions; and when an experiment brings no result they stop investigating, having really succeeded in achieving their secret aim, which was to be able to go back and say: "There's nothing in it!"

In this book we will not be put off by such people, nor shall we consider the mass of dramatic and really touching material which has been provided in abundance by enthusiastic Spiritualists and bereaved parents who have none of the patient reserve of judgment, none of the sceptical critical faculty, nor the familiarity with such psychological or pathological factors as may be operative in any given instance - none of the mental qualifications, in short, which are necessary in this field. We shall base our survey only on such cases as have been fully observed and well reported by reliable men, whose observations have been checked and corroborated by others. In taking this course we shall necessarily limit our scope, and exclude many interesting phenomena - some will say, exclude all the most interesting ones! - because our criterion relates to the observer, not to the phenomenon. But the main object of the book is not to review everything that may pertain to the field of Psychic Science, but only to set forth the chief phenomena which have definitely and unquestionably been verified, and in this way to lay out the foundations of ascertainable fact on which the scientific superstructure may be built. If for any reason we depart from this course, and refer to more doubtful cases, this will be indicated. Spiritualists will doubtless note, and deplore, the fact that we cite authors like Schrenck-Notzing, Flournoy, Richet, Mrs. Sidgwick, and Osty, in preference to the champions of Spiritualism, and we will certainly admit that in our opinion the definite statements and observations of these and similar more sceptical writers carry more weight, other things being equal, than those of the Spiritualists; though we have no hesitation in accepting the observations of men like Zöllner, Sir Oliver Lodge, Dr. Crawford, and any others whose work reveals a similar care and exactitude of observation. If the fundamental tenets of Spiritualism are capable of scientific proof, which is greatly to be doubted, it is only through the work of men like these that the proof will be attained, and not through the melodramatic accounts of séances published by laymen.

In my own case, I started with the desire to get at the basic established facts, and to see where they necessarily led. The further I went, the more clear it became to me that the popular spirit theory is not by any means satisfactorily proved, and is usually based on quite insufficient arguments; though this may, of course, be due to my own sceptical or agnostic prejudices. The reader will have to judge, during the course of the book, whether the facts seem to be capable of a naturalistic interpretation on the whole, or whether there is yet any definite and positive proof that discarnate souls communicate with people on this earth. Possibly he will arrive at a negative conclusion in respect to both propositions; but at least he will, I think, see that a large portion of the phenomena usually adduced as proof of spirit survival are no proof of it at all, since they are equally capable of interpretation in terms of the living personality.


"The Supernormal" by G. C. Barnard (London: Rider & C0., 1933).


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