Book: "Why I Believe in Personal Immortality"

Author: Sir Oliver Lodge FRS

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- Chapter 3 -

The Case for Psychical Research


"When the pioneer, battered and tested by oppugnant forces, shall at length have made good to the general mind his case, at the ripe moment Authority will yield and will open the door; and the once heretical merchandise will be quietly passed into the depots of orthodoxy."

Cited in the Hibbert Journal for January, 1928, by the Rev. Hubert Handley in a note dealing with von Hugel’s utterances on ecclesiastical, not psychical problems.

"If our inquiry lead us first through a jungle of fraud and folly, need that alarm us? As well might Columbus have yielded to the sailors’ panic, when he was entangled in the Sargasso Sea. If our first clear facts about the Unseen World seem small and trivial, should that deter us from the quest? As well might Columbus have sailed home again, with America in the offing, on the ground that it was not worth while to discover a continent which manifested itself only by dead logs."

F. W. H. Myers, "Human Personality," II, 306.

          THE history of science is no doubt a record of brilliant achievement, but it is also a record of opposition and conservative obstruction. Well-established theories hold the field, and new departures are apt to be resented. The advocates of truth have always had to run the gauntlet. of hostile criticism, and some of them have been lucky if they have escaped persecution. Anatomists had to carry on their work in secret. The circulation of the blood was received with opprobrium. Galileo’s telescopic discoveries were objected to, and some professors declined to look through the instrument, having a fixed idea that the appearances were deceptive. Thus not only theories, but actual facts, were turned down or disregarded. Roger Bacon was accused of magic and superstition; and nearly every discovery has been received with some opprobrium. Even in our own day it may be remembered that Joule’s first demonstrations of the conservation of energy were shelved, and the first elaborate Paper on the kinetic theory of gases was turned down and rejected, by the Royal Society. It cannot be said that even the discovery of the chemically inert gas "argon "was received by chemists with enthusiasm.

Hence there is nothing surprising in the fact that the investigations of Sir William Crookes into psychic phenomena were looked at askance, disbelieved, and left wholly outside the domain of science. To this day they are not admitted; and there is certainly some excuse for scepticism, inasmuch as they were of a character which seemed frankly incredible. He went on, however, to devise some few simple experiments of a mechanical kind, exhibiting either an apparent alteration in the weight of bodies or else the exertion of a mysterious force, which he did hope at one time that the officials of the Royal Society could be induced to examine. Again, however, without gaining their consent to be present at what seemed like an impossibility.

It is perhaps instructive, though nowadays rather difficult, to realize that the experimental method itself, the method of direct unfettered examination of phenomena, is not many centuries old. It had to be advocated by Francis Bacon, Lord Verulam; and when put into practice by Galileo it seems to have struck people as almost an impious novelty. The results obtained were often out of accord with ancient teaching, which had the authority of centuries or even millenia behind it. Some of the opposition no doubt came not only from Aristotelian philosophers but also from ecclesiastics and other literary scholars, who took their stand upon ancient sacred writings, with which the facts of Astronomy and Geology were, or seemed to be, inconsistent. Indeed, clerical opposition to Geology comes almost within living memory.

Nevertheless the pertinacity of scientific men has now in most subjects won the battle for free exploration of nature, no matter what old views were upset, or what the expected consequences might be. The method of experiment, in chemical, physical, and biological sciences, has at length secured general favour, with only a few dissentients; so that now rational opposition is mainly concerned with theoretical views, which may quite legitimately be questioned: while facts are for the most part accepted, or at any rate carefully examined and looked into, by practically the whole body of science. In that way genuine facts are sorted out from the spurious variety, and working hypotheses are tolerated as a reasonable effort to understand them. It may be said now that nothing in the old-established doctrines of Mechanics, Physics, and Chemistry, is regarded as too sacred or too absolutely certain for re-consideration, improvement and reform. It might even be claimed that the willingness to admit revolutionary theories, such as the quantum and relativity, has run to excess; for hypotheses are freely made on slender evidence, and admitted as stepping-stones to higher and fuller knowledge in the future, even though for a time they run counter to our prepossessions and predilections, based on what we have considered a fairly adequate and comprehensive view of the general structure of the universe.

But although this is true in most of the established sciences, it is noteworthy that what for brevity may be called Psychic Science has not yet secured its charter of freedom; the experimental method in that science is under a cloud of suspicion and dislike. Facts are asserted by competent investigators which no orthodox Society thinks it worth while to attend to: they seem to be discordant with the general structure of the universe as now ascertained, and they are accordingly outside the pale. The time, however, will surely come when this opposition will be broken down by the force and continued reiteration of the facts themselves; even apart from the advocacy of those who have sacrificed themselves so far as cautiously to attempt their examination.

The experimental method, applied to what Professor Richet calls Metapsychics, that is the unusual or abnormal branch of Psychology, is on trial, and is only making its way slowly against difficulties caused by general disapprobation, and a tendency to persecute the human instruments through whom alone knowledge on the subject can be obtained and by whose aid experiments are conducted.

Well, for a time this condition of things must be endured. For admittedly the facts are surprising. They have to be studied under unusual conditions; they have often been enveloped in an atmosphere of folklore and superstition; and some of them have laid themselves open to charges of priestcraft and fraud. Moreover, in so far as they seem, some of them, to have a bearing on the hopes and aspirations of mankind, in so far as they are mixed up with human affection and bereavements, in so far as they contribute to consolation and have a bearing on religious faith, we instinctively and rightly feel that they must be examined and criticized with extra care: and it requires an effort to treat them in the cold-blooded critical spirit appropriate to scientific enquiry.

In one form or another the phenomena have been asserted throughout human history. Ancient religious literature is full of them. Relics of them can be traced in the practices of uncivilized races. They seem, somehow, alien to our present state of civilization, and only with difficulty can they be accepted by trained modern scientific observers. But all this only exhibits their immense importance if once their actual truth can be established; for according to the assertions of investigators they are of a very extensive variety. The facts involved are not mental alone, but are physical and physiological also; and if in the long run they prove true, it must mean the opening of far more than a new chapter, a new volume, in human knowledge.

Let us briefly run over some of the points in which they seem discordant with the general trend of mechanical and material explanation, which since the days of Newton has been so fruitful and successful.

First of all we must insist that in no way do they deny or replace a mechanistic explanation so far as it goes: they supplement it, as do all vital phenomena. For they clearly call upon us to go further, and admit that physiological mechanism is by no means the last word. Unless something mote is taken into account, the mechanistic explanation is incomplete. They involve an admission of life and mind as realities, apart from matter, as something outside material processes, which nevertheless interacts with them, guiding and determining them in full accordance with the laws of energy, but yet producing results which otherwise through inorganic nature would never have occurred. The brain becomes the organ or instrument of mind, not mind itself. The organism, whether it be a protoplasmic cell or a conglomeration of such cells, is activated by a non-understood entity called life, which utilizes matter and energy for its own purposes. The mechanical operations can be followed in every department of metabolism; the stages in the gradual growth of an organism and of its several parts can be followed in detail, but the spontaneous behaviour of an organism cannot be explained in terms of molecular activity alone.

Moreover, these higher entities which we speak of. as life and mind are being found to have powers of an unsuspected and hitherto unexplored kind; going beyond the usual and well-known processes hitherto studied in the various branches of Biology and Psychology. And there are certain facts which seem to show that the activity of mind is not limited to the working of its bodily instrument or organ, but that it can conduct operations apart from any material instrument; though admittedly a material instrument is necessary for displaying the result of those operations. Probably this is because we are hampered in our perceptions by the limited nature of our sense-organs, — those organs which we share with the animals, — which tell us directly only of matter, and which were evolved for purposes far other than scientific and philosophical inquiry. It is true that we supplement our physiological organs by instruments; but these also are of a material and mechanical nature, at least if we admit electricity as part of the material universe. Strictly speaking, however, electricity and magnetism and light, cohesion and gravitation, though displayed by the behaviour of matter, are in the broad sense physical rather than material. And it seems to me that when we take the ether into account, to the full extent which hereafter we shall find justifiable, we may hope to find the clue to the indirect interaction with matter of those more directly apprehended entities, life and mind, which in all probability have a more genuine and permanent connexion with the ether than with the particles of matter embedded in it. That is at present a working hypothesis, which must not be unduly pressed. But those who are impressed with the necessity for a physical concomitant of every activity, mental or other, need not give up all their belief prematurely, but may continue to hope that some hitherto unsuspected and therefore recondite explanation of life and mind may ultimately be found, through a better understanding of the structure, properties, and functions of the ether of space.

Leaving aside all this as speculation, what are the experimental facts which have been asserted and held to be substantiated by those who have probed into them sufficiently to form an opinion?

First of all stands the phenomenon of telepathy; that is to say, the communication from one mind to another of information or ideas, or even sensations, apart from any recognized bodily channels of communication. The faculty of telepathic reception is not widespread; at any rate among civilized people, who have achieved so many other methods. It may be that speech and writing have rendered telepathy unnecessary; so that the faculty is partially atrophied. Or it may be that it is the germ of a nascent faculty which will only attain full development when the bodily organism. is discarded. For the bodily organism certainly seems to isolate us as individuals, and to screen us from the reception of thoughts except through the familiar channels of hearing and sight and touch.

But experiment has shown that with certain individuals it is possible to transmit from one to another by unknown and unrecognized means. The thing transmitted may be the notion of an object, or it may be a localized pain, or it may be an impression of illness or death. The latter transmission, however — that of illness or calamity — does not come within the experimental range: it comes rather as a spontaneous impression, apparently independent of distance, and is sometimes so vivid as to call up an image, or what may be called an hallucination or vision, or sometimes an audition, of the ill or distressed person at a distance. Many people there are who have thus received as it were a "call" from someone far off who is longing for their presence. And the possibility of these sometimes pathetic instances has been justified by the experimental variety of thought-transmission, when no emotion is involved, and when the idea transferred is of the most commonplace character, determined merely by the investigator in charge of the experiment.

The general outline of telepathic experiments of this character must by this time be fairly well known; and it is quite likely that if more experiments were carefully tried, many people would be found to have some trace of the receiving faculty. But undoubtedly these phenomena have their own laws; we have to find out the conditions for success, and every experimenter knows that he must not be disappointed by failure.

Suppose that telepathy is definitely established, what is its importance? Its main importance seems to consist in a demonstration that mental activity is not limited to the bodily organs and instruments through which it is normally conveyed: in other words that mind is independent of body, and that we are not bound to assume the destruction or cessation of mind when its bodily instrument is destroyed. It would be in fact a step, though only a first step, towards a demonstration of survival.

But a further step has already been taken by investigators. They assert, and indeed I myself assert, that it is possible to get into telepathic communication with those who have survived the death of the body. Their mind, their character, their personality, persists; and though they cannot directly make any impression on our material senses, yet urged by continued affection, or by some other sufficient motive, they can occasionally make use of a physiological instrument — the brain-nerve-muscle mechanism of a living person endowed with the receptive or telepathic faculty—so as to convey messages to those left behind. And in so doing they often take steps to prove their identity and establish their continued existence.It is not easy to say all this, for it is not a thing to be said lightly. I only say it on the strength of a great body of evidence, now known to me and to many others. Either it is true or false. If it is true, it is difficult to overrate its tremendous importance. In so far as the hopes and future of humanity, or rather of human individuals, are concerned, the evidence must be long and carefully scrutinized.

Well, this is the kind of experiment which hitherto has been completely ignored by orthodox science. Experiment in such matters is resented both by the scientific and the religious world. The instruments or so-called "mediums" through whom we make these experiments are in danger of prosecution by the law. The charter of freedom has not yet been completely won by science. There are still unpopular branches of enquiry; there still seem to be subjects into which we are forbidden to look. The old gauntlet of ridicule and opposition has still to be run. But times are gradually changing: the atmosphere is clearing; already it is far clearer than it was in my youth, when I too should have turned all this down as hopeless superstition. I expect that before long some of the younger members of the scientific fraternity, not only physicists but biologists also, will open their minds to unsuspected possibilities, and in process of time will construct a splendid edifice on the gropings and hesitations and incredible assertions of the past.

But these mental phenomena that seem to group themselves about the discovery of telepathy, and to establish the fact of survival, are by no means the only phenomena which investigators have asserted or found to occur. They are in some respects the most interesting, though the least tangible and material portion of the subject. It is sometimes claimed that there is not only telepathy, mind acting on mind, but telergy, mind acting on body and brain. That mind acts on body is familiar enough, but it acts usually on its own body. In the unusual cases an alien mind appears to be acting and temporarily working physiological mechanism whose owner has relaxed control. It is probably through ordinary mental transmission that hypnotic phenomena are produced. But subconscious mind can act on body in a peculiar way, according to medical testimony, producing blisters and other marks in the organism, and interfering with normal processes in unexplained fashion. The assertion is made that this also can be done from a distance, and that even the cells of a brain may, by special effort, be stimulated by a discarnate mind not usually associated with that particular brain; and that thus automatic writing or speech can be produced concerning things unapprehended by the normal personality.

Furthermore it is claimed that under certain conditions, and in the presence of a suitable organism, even inorganic things can be moved — weights raised, things carried about, and other actions performed, which though easily done by the muscles, can apparently be done exceptionally in some other way. These strange phenomena have been chiefly explored by investigators on the Continent, whose medical training enables them to take the precautions necessary to secure the genuine occurrence of facts of this nature. The working hypothesis is that the objects are moved by a sort of emanation from the body of the medium, which is called "ectoplasm," or extruded protoplasm, a temporarily extraneous portion of the organism, which, having achieved its object, returns to its place. Some of these phenomena may seem repulsive; but they demand enquiry from those competent to investigate them. They belong to the biological and perhaps pathological region, wherein I usually hold my peace. It is claimed that by means of this strange material actual materializations may occur, so as to display and bring into the region of matter forms which had previously only existed in the ether. It is claimed that just as we are incarnations or materializations, associated with matter for a period of something less than a century, so these are temporary formations or materializations, which show themselves for a short time and then disappear; meanwhile, being able to be seen, handled, and photographed.

Is it surprising that science turns a blind eye and a deaf ear to these weird phenomena, so troublesome and sometimes painful to produce, so difficult to investigate? It is not at all surprising; yet the evidence is strong; and those who are by training competent to investigate these things, incur responsibility if they discountenance them. Every new fact may seem odd at first. There seems no place for these things in the recognized body of science; and for myself at present I make no assertion about them, for my first-hand acquaintance with them has been comparatively small. But I have seen enough to know that telekinesis at any rate, the motion of objects without apparent contact, does occur; and I have an open mind — justified by some experience — for the assertions of those physiologists and anatomists who have testified to the phenomena of materialization.

The extrusion of ectoplasmic material from the body seems at first a repellent object of enquiry; though it must be remembered that our own internal organs are not superficially attractive, however useful they are, and however interesting they may be to those who study them. Ectoplasm is only the name given to a kind of organized cellular material, which it is asserted does emanate from certain individuals for a time; it appears to have unexplained and extraordinary properties, being able to mould itself or to form simulacra of hands and faces, as if guided by some subconscious intelligence to do outside the body the same sort of processes as are usually performed inside. For undoubtedly the material supplied as food is formed by the normal activity of the body into the various organs appropriate to the locality whither it is carried by the blood. It is not the food itself, but the formative principle which determines whether it shall form a nail or a hair or contribute to a muscle or an eye or any other part of the body. Indeed, by aid of a placenta a fertilized ovum is able to form a complete separate new organism — in itself one would think a sufficiently astonishing fact.

That this same formative principle can ever act outside the body, as it normally acts inside, is hardly credible, and by orthodox science is not yet believed. The question of whether it is a fact or not is a straightforward one; to be answered, not by theory or prejudice, but by observation and experiment. Those who undertake such experiments should be qualified by previous training in physiology and anatomy. It is purely a scientific question, which if answered affirmatively must enlarge our knowledge of the connexion between mind and matter; but otherwise it would seem to have no special bearing on the question of survival or any of the things in which the majority of mankind are interested. At the same time it must be admitted that any fact, so it be a fact, must have an importance of its own; and we have high authority for the statement that nothing in nature is to be regarded as common or unclean.

There is yet another group of phenomena, not so superficially repellent as the last, which go by the name of Clairvoyance and Lucidity — the perception of events occurring at a distance, the reading of sealed letters, or of closed books, and the detection of hidden objects or of subterranean streams. The evidence, for a power of this kind, possessed by certain exceptional individuals, is growing in strength; and some of the facts do not seem explicable by telepathy or mind-reading. But that is still uncertain. The hypothesis of telepathy must be stretched to the uttermost before any further hypothesis is made. We always wish to appeal to as few final causes as possible. And inasmuch as anything written or printed must have been in somebody’s mind at some time, we must be careful before we assume that the actual script is read directly by supernormal means, that is, by some method to which we are unaccustomed, and to which therefore we have no clue. It is really wonderful that black marks on paper can mean so much to us as they normally do; and though we have got used to that method of stimulating ideas and artistic perception, it would be rash to suppose that we have exhausted every such method, in the face of evidence to the contrary.

There seems, indeed, to be a reciprocal action between mind and matter. By our thought, will, and intention, we can cause matter to be moved; and thus produce not only speech and writing, but great structures, bridges and cathedrals, previously designed in the mind. And the material arrangements thus produced, say in works of art, have the power to call out in subsequent minds something of the feeling and emotion felt by their designer. This is the whole principle of works of art. They are detents or triggers for a store of latent intelligence and emotion. The question arises whether other arrangements of matter can appeal to us in a less pre-arranged manner. Mental impressions can already be stored in matter, by such instruments as the gramophone and the photographic plate. There are some who think that violent emotion can be likewise unconsciously stored in matter; so that a room where a tragedy has occurred shall exert an influence on the next generation, or rather on anyone sufficiently sensitive to feel it. In this way it is hoped that some day the strange influence of certain localities, whereby a tragedy seems to be re-enacted, can be rationally explained; and the puzzling phenomenon popularly known as "haunting" can be removed from the region of superstition to the domain of fact.

In many respects the powers of the subconscious mind, as exhibited in the various kinds of clairvoyance or lucidity, or what by Professor Richet is called "Cryptesthesia," transcend the ordinary limitations of space, so that distance and opacity are no bar to this kind of ultra-normal perception. Some further facts have been testified to, facts which have gradually overborne the natural scepticism of those who have examined them, and led them to think that occasionally even the limitations of time can be transcended; so that events can be dimly discerned, not only in the past, and not only at a distance, but also to some extent in the future likewise. The whole subject of premonitions and precognitions is an exceptionally difficult one; and how far the future is prearranged, so that a perception of what is likely to occur can be attained, raises questions about the nature of time which at present we cannot answer.

We know that prediction is possible in the inorganic world, especially in the simplified motions studied in astronomy; and it may be assumed that a wider knowledge, say of the motion of molecules and of the structure of matter, might enable us to foresee those cataclysmic changes which we commonly call accidents, and thus to anticipate disasters and convulsions of nature before there are any normal indications. It can be granted that the universe is an orderly sequence of cause and effect, and that a full knowledge of the present condition might enable us to infer the future emergence of what is already in preparation. Such wide knowledge we do not ourselves possess; but if there ate higher intelligences in the universe — and it would be a strange assumption to assume that we are the highest — they may have channels of information such as we do not possess; and, through sensitive individuals, they may be able to communicate their knowledge.

In such speculations we are going far afield, beyond the range of recognized science; and we must tread warily. But I imagine and believe that gradually we shall find we are not so isolated in the universe as we had thought, that we are surrounded by intelligences, of which we have no normal knowledge, who are only indirectly and occasionally associated with matter. And I expect that the continued cautious and careful study of psychic phenomena will lead us far beyond our present acquaintance with things as they are, and guide us into a domain of which we now only catch dim and puzzling glimpses. Science in fact is beginning — only beginning — perhaps has not begun — to discover the reality of that spiritual world which has long exerted an influence on poets and saints and mystics: that world which has been the perennial fount of inspiration, and has always been the theme of Theology and the motive power of religion.



Contents / Foreword / Chapter 1  / Chapter 2  / Chapter 3 / Chapter 4 / Chapter 4a / Chapter 4b / Chapter 4c / Chapter 4d / Chapter 4e / Chapter 5 / Chapter 6 / Chapter 7

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