Everard Feilding

Primary known for his involvement in the SPR investigation of Eusapia Palladino in 1908 with W. W. Baggally and Hereward Carrington. The report centres on 11 séances held in November and December 1908 in a Naples hotel. It concluded that Palladino was able to produce genuinely paranormal phenomena. Written mainly by Feilding, it is often referred to as the Feilding or Naples Report and has been widely regarded as providing some of the most convincing evidence in support of physical mediums.

Can Psychical Research Contribute to Religious Apologetics?

 - Everard Feilding -

NOTE BY E. J. DINGWALL: This paper was originally prepared for delivery as a talk at a Catholic dinner, but for some reason the lecture was not given and appeared later in a revised form in the Dublin Review.

Mr. Feilding's friend, the famous English Jesuit Herbert Thurston, had been discussing certain scripts purporting to be from the spirit of Oscar Wilde and Feilding's opinion was that they furnished at least some evidence for the survival of Wilde's personality. Father Thurston disagreed and thought that no such evidence was provided and Feilding took the opportunity to state not only that he disagreed with Father Thurston's conclusions but also with the whole attitude of Roman Catholics toward the supernatural, which he found quite inconsistent.

This paper, which was a notable contribution to controversy in religious circles over the problems of psychical research, shows Feilding at his best and illustrates his courage as a Roman Catholic in pointing out what he considered a wrong-headed attitude toward parapsychology in general.

[A word of explanation and possibly of excuse for the form of this paper. It was first written as a subject for debate at a Catholic Dining Club which, for various reasons, found itself unable to accept it. Though cast in a style intended rather to be suitable for oral delivery in that atmosphere of spiritual conviviality than for the sober pages of this Review, it is here, by the courtesy of the Editor, presented practically unaltered from its original shape. - Everard Feilding.]

          SOME MONTHS ago I had the honour to be a guest of this club on an evening when my friend Father Thurston read a paper on the evidence for survival of the personality of Oscar Wilde shown in certain automatic script which had been published and which purported to emanate from his spirit. For the benefit of those who may not have been present, I may be allowed to explain that for some time past a quantity of alleged communications, some of them published, have been received through two separate mediums, Mrs. Travers Smith, a well-known lady of high repute, daughter of the late Professor Dowden; also a certain mathematical master, who prefers to be known in this connection as Mr. V.

These communications come in two ways: (1) through Mrs. Travers Smith by an instrument called a ouija, which consists of a board on which are displayed the letters of the alphabet, and a runner held in the hand of Mrs. Smith and which indicates the letters at a speed so great that the matter has often to be taken down in shorthand; and (2), by Mr. V., by automatic writing. While Mrs. Travers Smith receives these communications alone, Mr. V. cannot write unless the hand of one or two other persons, one being Mrs. Travers Smith, is lightly laid on his hand, whereupon the pencil which he holds starts off and writes, also at a very great speed, and, what is especially curious, in a handwriting entirely unlike that of Mr. V. and very like that of Oscar Wilde. The matter which is thus composed is miscellaneous in character; literary and dramatic criticism; reflections in general; descriptions of Wilde's present and animadversions on his past; personal reminiscences of facts, of which the mediums absolutely disclaim any previous knowledge and among which, I am informed by Mrs. Travers Smith, are some of so intimate and private a kind that, although she has, through friends of Oscar Wilde, been able to verify them, it is impossible for her, for the sake of certain living persons, to divulge them; and perhaps the boldest, most challenging coup of all, a play. All of these writings are highly characteristic of Oscar Wilde, and I think there is no question but that, if they had been published under his name in his lifetime, they would in literary excellence have taken a very respectable place among his other work. Those who are sufficiently interested to study them for themselves will find the chief and published specimens in a little work by Mrs. Travers Smith entitled The Psychic Writings of Oscar Wilde, and in several numbers of the Occult Review. Those who like to form some kind of a judgment on what they read will find themselves up against a choice of three alternative hypotheses in order to account for them: (1) a deliberate and conscious mystification on the part of the two mediums, together with a very remarkable literary capacity of each of them individually for imitating the style of Wilde and for rivalling his wit; or (2) a very unusual instance of subconscious automatic activity on both their parts, involving respectively an imitation, not only of Wilde's style, but also of his handwriting; and an astonishing knack of correctly giving facts, names and addresses, some of which the mediums claim to have been necessarily unknown to them, whether consciously or subconsciously, implying either a remarkable faculty of clairvoyance, or, in Professor Richet's phrase, "cryptaesthesia." Finally, if these two hypotheses are considered insufficient, there is a third, namely communication from some extramundane source, whether Oscar Wilde himself or some comedian with a marked talent for impersonation from the au delà.

I am personally of the opinion that the first of these hypotheses, that of deliberate and artful fraud, may be discarded, and it is not my purpose to-night to pronounce in favour of either of the other two. I am content if you will go so far with me as to think that for each of them a fairly good case may be made out. In support of the second, that of pure automatism, there is no doubt a strong presumption arising from the great body of experience of the far-reaching capacity of the human subconsciousness, but I am not aware of any other case in which the evidence furnished by the combination of similarity of handwriting, speed and spontaneity of composition, identity of style, quality of wit and accuracy of knowledge of obscure facts connected with the individual from which the script so insistently purports to emanate - in which, I repeat, the evidence puts so high a strain on the supposition that no other element beyond that of mere automatism is at work. And the more difficult it is to attribute it all to irresponsible subconscious automatism, so the less improbable necessarily grows the hypothesis that the agency may be in some way connected with the deceased intelligence of Oscar Wilde. In other words the case, in my opinion, furnishes at least some evidence for the survival of his personality. Father Thurston's conclusion, however, after setting out all the considerations which I have just given, was that it furnished none.

It is immaterial for my purpose, to the point of which, after this long and, I fear, wearisome preamble, I have at last arrived, to argue whether he is right or wrong. What I propose as a subject for discussion is whether, assuming him to be right, it is a conclusion which Catholics, and especially those engaged in trying to promote Catholicism or any other form of positive religion, should rejoice in or deplore. Speaking for myself, I deplore it sincerely. I have for many years made a considerable study of the evidence supplied by Psychical Research generally towards the great question of human survival, sometimes hopefully, often despairingly, without ever being able to reach finality in my conclusions; and just as I feel, knowing Father Thurston's fastidious and penetrating mind, that perhaps one of the most notable credentials of the Catholic Church to credibility is that Father Thurston actually believes in it, so, if only the evidence for survival in this case had found even the slightest favour in his eyes, I should have felt a renewed impulse towards seeking an experimental proof of it. Obviously, no single case can supply such proof. It is only by patient accumulation of facts, discarding sources of error which experience gradually indicates, that ultimately a probability can be built up which in the end becomes so probable as to exclude any other reasonable conclusion.

So far the participation of Catholics in this work of Psychical Research has been chiefly conspicuous by its absence. They regard it, according to their prepossessions, as a pursuit either immoral, or foolish, or, lastly, merely futile. On the one hand are those to whom it is religiously taboo; who, while believing all, and more than all, of that which it is the object of such research to investigate, regard such investigation as a sealed book into which it is not for men to pry and of which the contents must be attributed to the authorship of Beelzebub alone. In point of numbers, these form certainly the majority. Their arguments are irresistible. They quote the penny Catechism with crushing effect, and I am too modest to venture to engage them in controversy. And yet, if in our gathering tonight Beelzebub would but condescend to manifest, what play they would make with the fact, what excellent propaganda it would afford, more effective than a whole shelf full of sermons!

There are others who, notwithstanding the constant appeal made by the religious system to which they adhere to the testimony of the supernatural, are yet in practice so influenced by the reigning scientific scepticism of to-day - or perhaps I may say of yesterday - that heedless of their own inconsistency, they dismiss as unworthy of serious attention the evidence for the occurrence of phenomena of the kind to which I refer, while complaining of the crude materialism of the science which takes the same course regarding the beliefs they hold so sacred. By many, I think, these beliefs are accepted rather than assimilated; inherited rather than reasoned on. A supernatural fact, if part of such inheritance, is acquiesced in, but not emphasized; possibly, till attacked, is unconsciously even somewhat deprecated, but when attacked, hotly defended. But a supernatural fact outside their own inheritance or experience, though supported by respectable evidence, is derided by them as unworthy of examination. The visions of the Apostles or other Saints, the inspiration of the Prophets, the Gospel incarnations of the Evil One are part of their traditional system, and tolerated as such without serious difficulty even in their own minds. Nevertheless, alleged spiritualistic manifestations tending to furnish modern evidence of what they themselves admittedly believe - what without intentional irreverence I will call the communion of Saints; telepathic communication between minds apparently without any mechanical nexus, tending probably to demonstrate a fundamental portion of their own faith, the ultimate severability of mind from matter; the dynamic influence on material objects of forces as yet unrecognized in nature, such as the alleged phenomena known as telekinetic movements, "apports," etc., tending at least to establish the reputation for veracity of the prophet Habbakuk - all these they regard merely as pathetic evidence of a disordered brain or of a condition of childish gullibility. The members of this class go to church, lead worthy lives, study the daily Press which largely moulds their views on all subjects other than the dogmatic element in religion, are more concerned with the practice of the latter than with the problems which it presents, and to them also I shall not further refer.

Lastly, there are those who, while admitting the possibility of the phenomena alleged to occur, and perhaps even recognizing the plausibility of the evidence adduced for them, see in them no manner of significance either for their own spiritual fortification or for that of others and regard any efforts to establish them, with a view to affording at least a basis of belief in the supernatural founded on experiment, as a very crude, unphilosophical exercise. They are disgusted by the frequent triviality of the facts related and feel only contempt for those who would seek to utilize these vulgar spirit babblings, these monkey tricks with tables or with tambourines, even as one stone in the great edifice of knowledge relating to the nature of the soul of man, to his place in God's universe, either as regards the unidentified faculties with which he may be endowed in this life or the conditions to which he may be subject in a life to come. For such as hold this attitude sincerely one cannot but entertain the profoundest respect, not untinged, it may be, with a touch of envy. They are blessed with an inward religious experience which suffices to them as its own justification. They received the faith spiritually, and they maintain it so; vexed, it may be at times, with problems which, while they may recognize their incapacity adequately to solve, they are satisfied to leave without solution, resting content with the grasp they have acquired of the inner knowledge of which they are aware, without necessarily having the means to express or explain. They trust to the intuitions which to themselves suffice and in which they may successfully defend their confidence, while unable to communicate it effectively to others. I hope I shall not be misunderstood if I charge them, nevertheless, with a certain spiritual egoism, unconscious though it be, and springing from their inability to recognize that the spiritual experience of others less favoured is sometimes insufficient to support the burden of difficulties that their own enables them to bear so lightly; that there are others, heirs to the same fundamental faiths and experiencing the same spiritual hunger, by whom the unseen remains unseen forever; of whose souls the wings are feeble and bear them nowhere; who stretch out their hands, perhaps through all their lives, and meet no answering touch; and to whom, as to Savonarola on his pyre, the Heavens, for all their crying, remain obstinately silent. These others are confused by the presence, by the obviousness of the facts of daily life, and by the absence, the elusiveness of the facts of that other life in which their interest is nevertheless much deeper. If but some link could be established between the two, some stepping stone laid on which they could venture out into the dark stream, their confidence would be restored. They are unwillingly children of the time in which they live. They see around them in all departments of knowledge facts at first dimly apprehended gradually established by experiment, and they are taught that by such empirical knowledge alone may certainty be reached. Why, then, is it unreasonable that they should seek to fortify a faith in which such stress is laid on the interplay of the supernatural and the natural, with knowledge thus empirically gained?

Many years ago I had the honour of addressing the Newman Society at Oxford. Among my audience, besides undergraduates, were a contingent of Jesuit Fathers and students. My subject was more or less as to-night - What contribution could Psychical Research offer to religious apologetics? "You are engaged," I said in effect, "in trying to teach an elaborate system of doctrinal theology based on a revelation of facts concerning a spiritual world to a material world which is in considerable doubt about whether there exists anything beyond itself. You seek to get men to pray, to receive sacraments, to prepare themselves for another life, when they hesitate to agree that there is any extra-mundane intelligence to listen to their prayers, any other life for which they need trouble to make ready. Suppose it were possible by experimental methods to establish at least some of the propositions on which you base your teaching; by adducing irrefragable evidence of continued communication with an identified discarnate intelligence or by showing material consequences due to the action of such intelligence, to place on a basis of reasonable scientific certitude the fact that there is a spiritual existence parallel to ours, that there is another life to which man certainly will pass; to parallel, or at least supplement, belief by knowledge, faith by vision; would such an achievement be regarded by you as a gain or hindrance to your work, a stimulus or a clog to spiritual life? Would you, in the construction of the Cathedral which you seek to erect, rejoice at finding that your toil might henceforth commence at a higher storey; that the foundation, which you have hitherto found the hardest portion of your labours, had been already laid?" And to my surprise they all replied that they would not. The object of my paper to-night is to seek to ascertain whether this reply is common to all our religious teachers and whether the laity who have been taught by them will unite in the same negation. And if so, I hope to be given the reason why. That reason I failed to elicit on the occasion I speak of, and I have often speculated on it since.

Theology differs from physical science in that it is necessarily unprogressive. We know no more about the conditions of our future state now than was known 1,900 years ago. Prolonged study of theology has no influence in enlarging the body of knowledge about the matters of which it treats. It merely enlarges the, field of theories about the original deposit of faith on which it rests. Nor does it result in, or even tend towards, agreement in their conclusions between those who devote themselves to it, but, notoriously, towards disagreement; whence three hundred religions in England alone. It results only in greater facility in demolishing rival theories, and, by deductive methods, in supporting one's own. Whereas in physical science a savant will be able to give an authoritative answer to problems in his particular branch which, within limits, will coincide with the answer of a colleague of equal eminence, in divine science such coincidence can only be expected as between colleagues who start from the same standpoint as regards the deposit. Regarding the conditions of the present life, an eminent physician can tell an inquirer more than can a young medical student; but regarding those of the next, a bishop is no wiser than a bell-ringer, nor a Doctor of Divinity than the rawest seminarist. Why, then, should the assistance of other methods of advancing knowledge be a priori rejected? Even if by conscience, or by authority, one is oneself precluded from personal participation in the research, why should not the results of others be welcomed in confirmation of one's own faith?

It will not, I think, suffice to tell me that inherently it is impossible to supply evidence of the unseen in terms of the seen - a philosophical reply which may perhaps be attempted - without condemning equally the practice of many religious teachers themselves. It is, I believe, the rule that when a canonization is proposed, it is necessary, in order to prove the suitability of the candidate for saintship - in order to show, before, as it were, an invitation is issued to the faithful to invoke his intercession, that he is "there" and capable of giving effect to such intercession - to prove a certain number of miracles directly attributable to it. This procedure does not, it seems to me, differ in kind from that of the modern psychical researcher, and its aim is the same. What otherwise was Father Woodlock's endeavour when he recently devoted a sermon in Farm Street to the case of a girl said to have been cured miraculously at Lourdes and invited the attention to it of the medical profession? Was he not attempting to show by material evidence the efficacy of prayer and the existence and potency of the person to whom it was addressed? If he had succeeded, not only in this case, but by adducing a multitude of others, in producing a scientific probability that it was by prayer, and not by some hidden power of the human mind alone that the cure was effected, would this achievement have been rejected by my Oxford audience?

Or is this hesitation to accept aid of the kind I have suggested due to a fear lest the substitution of faith by knowledge would come but as an added burden? At present we believe by faith, and, since we are told that that faith is in itself a virtue, we derive a legitimate, or at least a pardonable, spiritual satisfaction from that mere fact. We have at all events achieved one virtue. And as it is rarely in moments of living faith that temptation comes, if in our lapses from such vision we fall and sin, we are able to say, "Forgive us, for we knew not what we did." But if by any means a portion of our living faith became translated into mere earthly experience, if the consequences of present sin became, say, as cognizable as the consequences of buying stock in a falling market or of swallowing a severe emetic, gone would be our poor achievement, vain our poor excuse. Is it perhaps the fear of this surrender that deters so many from looking where they might hope to see? Do they prefer that darkness should veil the pitfalls into which they would at times fain stumble?

One last word. An obvious answer is that my proposition is inherently absurd, my premises impossible; that if after all these years of research the results of it all are merely what we may see every day in the "stunt" Press and at once dismiss from serious attention, it is not likely that present company, at all events, need be in a hurry to trouble themselves. While I think it possible that those who would answer thus may not know the facts, I will not dispute with them. I will indeed offer them an opening of which they may make not ineffective use. I will tell them a ghost story. I feel it is expected of me, and I will oblige. It is a true ghost story which came recently to the Society for Psychical Research. An old village woman in Norfolk who had lost her husband many years ago was one day visited by his apparition. The apparition remained with her for half an hour. It looked at her, and she at it, apparently without emotion and without further consequences. She was a respectable old woman, in good health and not of an imaginative type. The clergyman of the parish investigated the case, and was unable to shake her account of it. Since, as I have said, no consequences had followed, the old woman asked him what he thought might be the reason of this visitation, and the clergyman, unlike Father Thurston, but like Father Woodlock, seeking to improve the occasion and turn it to some spiritual use, said that he thought it possible that God had wished to bring light and comfort to the old woman's soul and had vouchsafed this vision as an earnest that her husband yet lived, and that she might look forward confidently to joining him hereafter. Seeing her evident hesitation to accept this conclusion, he asked her what she herself thought of it. She answered, slowly and impressively, "Well, I don't rightly know, but there be some as says that it means - Rain." This is a fact, and not an allegory; but for the purposes of argument from the particular to the general, my opponents may find it handy in the latter capacity.


The article above was taken from "Sittings with Eusapia Palladino and Other Studies" (New York: University Books, 1963).

Other articles by Everard Feilding

The Case of Abbé Vachère
Sittings with Christopher Chambers

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