Book: "Why I Believe in Personal Immortality"

Author: Sir Oliver Lodge FRS

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- Chapter 5 -

Methods of Communication or Thoughts on Mediumship


"It seems necessary to insist that agreement with conclusions of "common sense," or even of scholastic philosophy, does not in itself suffice to render an hypothesis absurd or untenable."

McDougall, "Body and Mind," p. 363

"We are actually witnessing the central mystery of human life, unrolling itself under novel conditions, and open to closer observation than ever before. We are seeing a mind use a brain. The human brain is in its last analysis an arrangement of matter expressly adapted to being acted upon by a spirit; but so long as the accustomed spirit acts upon it the working is generally too smooth to allow us a glimpse of the mechanism. Now, however, we can watch an unaccustomed spirit, new to the instrument, installing itself and feeling its way."

F. W. H. Myers, "Human Personality," II, 254.

          ONE reason why people find it difficult to accept statements about mediumship, or to believe records of communications which purport to come from deceased people through the instrumentality of mediums, is because they can form no mental image of the process, so that it feels strange to them and impossible. Yet testimony as to the reality of the occurrence is bulky enough and is rapidly growing in volume, and people who have submitted themselves to the experience speak of it as feeling simple and natural enough.

Nothing but habit is necessary gradually to accustom us to communication with the dead, as it has already accustomed us to ordinary conversation with living friends; for if we analyse the process of ordinary conversation we can detect in it features which are nearly as puzzling as any which we have to face in so-called spiritualistic literature.

To make this clear I propose to ask my readers, or such of them as feel any difficulty in this respect, to bestow a little attention on the nature of our normal activities in this terrestrial life, especially on that familiar part of our activity which regulates the interchange of intelligence and emotion.
Consider, therefore, what we all really know, but perhaps seldom bear in mind, about ordinary methods of communication.

On Methods of Communication in General

The common experience of humanity is that each individual consists of both mind and body, a mind for understanding and planning, a body for receiving stimuli and executing intentions. We also know that it is through our body that we act upon the surrounding material universe, and that our thoughts and wills are fruitless and inoperative unless some part of the body is set in motion.

Our conscious bodily activity consists in, and is summed up as, muscular contraction; and the result of such contraction is to move primarily our own limbs and secondarily such other portion of the earth’s matter as comes into direct or indirect contact with them and is not too massive or too firmly fixed. The movement of matter — either the whole or some portion of a material object — is what we can accomplish; and we can accomplish nothing else in the physical realm. If we move only a portion of a solid body we subject it to a strain, which may be an elastic strain and require the continuance of force for its retention, or may be a plastic yield resulting in permanent set. If we set in motion a detached piece of matter, that motion will continue, through its own properties, until resistance stops it. Everything we do in the physical plane can be summed up as the motion, and thereby the re-arrangement, of matter.

Every other effect which follows from the movement — be it the tension of a spring, or the burning of a building, or the production of a sound, or the generation of an electric current, or the germination of a seed — follows from the inherent properties of matter, over which we have no control; an event may be planned and arranged for by us, but we can only accomplish our purpose by bringing together suitable pieces of matter so as to enable their properties to take effect in a desired way; the actual achievement of the result falls in no way within our power of direct accomplishment.

Our power over the physical world is limited to initiating or regulating movements. Making use of energy which is otherwise running to waste, we can guide it into destined channels; and by this power of physical guidance, we can achieve a surprising variety of effects. Primarily and directly, however, we are limited to muscular action.

On the receptive side we are not so limited, for we are endowed with certain organs of sense, whereby we can appreciate the physical agencies which we know by the names "sound," "light," and" heat," as well as apprehend the simple stimuli of motion and force. We can receive impressions through our muscles and general skin surface, but we get them also through our organs of special sense. Any one of the above-mentioned physical agencies can be used for purposes of elementary communication. All that we have to do is to act on matter in such a way as to cause variations or fluctuations in the intensity of these agencies; for as is well known our senses do not respond to anything which continues perfectly uniform: they only appreciate change. We can signal by variations of sound or of light or of temperature, as well as by changes of movement and pressure; though the temperature method of signalling is not, so far as I know, actually employed, save perhaps occasionally by a conjurer.

It is just possible that some of us can be responsive to a mere thought; but that is not yet a recognized method of communication, and for all practical purposes we may say definitely that if we wish to communicate with our fellows in a clear and intelligible way we must do it through the intervention of some physical process. We must do more than think the thoughts we wish to convey, we must speak them or write them; and to that end we must use a brain and nerve mechanism to actuate certain muscles in a guided and controlled fashion. In other words, we must so control a bodily machine as to cause it either to make conventional marks on a piece of paper or else throw the air into vibration in a pre-arranged fashion called language — the language being selected to suit the mental furniture of the auditors, so far as lies in the speaker’s acquaintance with the over-numerous conventional codes.

We have grown so accustomed to this oral or pictorial method of communication that it feels to us not only natural but inevitable; it is, however, not really a simple process, and the mote it is analysed the more surprising it becomes. The thought, or the emotion, while it is being transmitted, has to take the form of an aerial or etherial vibration—aerial if acoustic means are employed, as in speech or music, etherial if an optical method is used, as in writing or painting. And there may be other intermediaries such as an electric pulsation, as when a telegraph wire intervenes as part of the transmitting mechanism. The whole manner of the operation is singularly mechanical. But note that in every case the physical process has to be interpreted mentally before it is finished; otherwise the oratorical or other effort wastes itself in producing merely a modicum of extra heat.

The perceptive power of potential hearers or readers depends first on their willingness to allow the physical stimulus to act upon their sense organs; it depends secondly on their knowledge of the code, and thirdly on the extent of their own sympathetic and interpretative faculty. All three of these conditions are essential, in order that a physical stimulus may emerge as an idea. While from the transmitter’s point of view the process of communication consists in so actuating and controlling the bodily mechanism with which he is provided as to represent his mental processes in the required physical form. Our familiarity with the operation ought not to blind us to its remarkable and wonderful character. When we consider what speech and writing and artistic production really are — regarded solely from the point of view of their physical nature — it is nothing short of amazing that ideas and emotions can be transmitted in any such way.

Undoubtedly the process must be regarded as mainly a mental one; for, once given the recognized code and the necessary intelligence, almost any instrument will serve as a vehicle of communication. A telephone diaphragm, for instance — which is a circular disk of thin sheet iron — can (surprisingly) take up and reproduce the complexity of all the vibrations needed for articulate speech or an orchestral performance. The tones of every instrument are reproduced. Even a clicking lever, merely going up and down with wearisome iteration, speaks to the telegraph operator with no uncertain voice. A flag held in the hand, or the oscillations of a beam of light in the sky, can be made to transmit orders or information of great moment. A wavy line traced on a slip of paper by a glass siphon, leaving a streak of ink as the paper is drawn under it, is the usual method whereby intelligence is received by cable from the ends of the earth. Yet to the uninstructed spectator the trace of a siphon-recorder must look as unintelligible as it does to a savage. The mystery popularly attached to wireless telegraphy, at its inception, was an illustration of the fact that people in general ate ready to recognize that physical methods of communication are strange and uncanny provided that they are conducted by some method with which they are unfamiliar. The method of shouting or of flag-wagging is equally mysterious in reality; only in that case we have grown thoroughly accustomed to the receiving instrument (the eye), without, however, really understanding much about its mode of action. The reason of the retina’s sensitiveness to etherial tremors is fully known to none.

Given two minds attuned to common knowledge, and instructed in the transmitting and receiving faculty — for it does not come by nature, witness the experience of deaf and dumb asylums — we find that almost any instrument will serve the purpose of conveying intelligence between them. All that is essential is that some physical process shall be set in action, some movement caused in the world of matter. Operation through the material world seems essential, at least so long as we have brains, though the fact that mind can act at all on matter is a most puzzling one. How the gulf between mental and physical is bridged; by what means a thought in the mind can successfully control a material organism; how our will or our idea can deflect or modify the motion of the smallest fragment of matter, be it but a little finger or a brain cell — all that remains at present absolutely unknown. So also we have no theory to account for the interpretation of a physical stimulus back into the category of mental impressions.

Some Philosophers tell us that lack of understanding on our part, as to the kind of connexion between cause and effect, in this case of interaction between the psychical and physical, is nothing exceptional: we realize the difficulty more easily than in ordinary cases, but it exists in all; and our mistake lies in not perceiving the difficulty everywhere.

So at least says Lotze, though I am not at all sure that I wholly agree. This is what he says:—

The kernel of this error is always that we believe ourselves to possess a knowledge of the nature of the action of one thing on another which we not only do not possess, but which is in itself impossible, and that we then regard the relation between matter and soul as an exceptional case, and are astonished to find ourselves lacking in all knowledge of the nature of their interaction.

It is easy to show that in the interaction between body and soul there lies no greater riddle than in any other example of causation, and that only the false conceit that we understand something of the one case, excites our astonishment that we understand nothing of the other.

Quoted in McDougall’s "Body and Mind," p. 207.

I agree that we cannot fully understand the interaction of one piece of matter on another, not even what we call the force exerted by one atom on another, unless we take electric or magnetic fields — that is unless we take the ether — into account. And I urge that if any rational understanding is to be arrived at about the interaction of mind and matter, that same great and substantial physical entity will have to be appealed to as the intermediary in some at present unknown way.

But though the manner of mental and physical interaction is unknown, the fact itself is certain and familiar — so familiar as to arouse no attention and to be treated as commonplace. We, ourselves, that is our mental and spiritual selves, do as a matter of fact guide terrestrial energy, set matter in motion, alter its configuration, and produce effects which would not otherwise occur. We share this power to a certain extent with all animals, who likewise produce specific structures — such as birds’-nests and cobwebs and shells. But among these animal activities are some which are specifically human, especially those physical signs which our part of humanity has agreed upon, and which are intelligible to those of our own race. The instrument through which we achieve these and all other results on the physical plane is primarily the brain-nerve-muscle system contained in or constituting the greater part of our bodies. Somehow or other we employ or stimulate the brain centre, and an impulse is sent along its fibres at a measurable rate, which on arrival causes a given muscle to contract in a determined way. The process may rightly be considered as miraculous as everything else, no more, no less; but — whatever its character — it occurs, though we cannot analyse it completely. We can, however, say that unless some physical movement is caused, be it but the raising of an eyelid or the twitching of a nose, nothing at all is conveyed (nothing at least unless we admit the possibility of telepathy, which is not one of the usual methods); while if the control is such that an external piece of matter, such as a telegraph key or a semaphore or a pointer, or still better a pen or pencil, can be moved at will, there is no limit to the intelligence and the emotion that can thus indirectly be conveyed.

All the transmitting methods, however employed, pre-suppose another receptive person, endowed with a proper instrument for receiving the physical impression and attentive enough to interpret it mentally. We can thus stimulate the mechanism and the mind of others easily enough, if only we have the use of a transmitter.

Some instruments are better than others, but almost any instrument will serve, and it is clear that the larynx with its appendages is only more highly specialized for the purpose of transmitting messages than any other piece of matter, for it is the instrument which we have specially trained and grown accustomed to.

Possibility of Vicarious Use of Instrument

We can next go on to admit that every person has a larynx and hand connected with a brain-nerve muscle system akin to ours, and that some have developed the use of these instruments by education in much the same way as we have. Is it possible that the transmitting mechanism of another person can ever be employed by us instead of our own?

Now if a physicist or chemist enters another person’s laboratory and there tries to perform some experiment or conduct some enquiry, he would find considerable difficulty, for he would hardly know where anything was; but he could do it after a fashion, though of course he would be taking a great liberty. He would see familiar objects, such as balances and beakers and bottles, and he would know what most of the things were for; he would find many that he did not want, and would miss some that he did, but could make shift to select and adapt them more or less to his own purposes and use them in his own way.It becomes a question therefore whether this self-possessed bodily laboratory, to the use of which each person has grown accustomed, can by any possibility be set in operation and used by an alien intelligence, or by someone other than the owner; in other words, we must ask whether a thought or idea in the mind of one person can excite any movement or bring about any response in the mechanism of another.

The experimental fact of telepathy seems to hint that something of the kind is possible. Usually the telepathic action seems to occur between mind and mind, and the translation from mental to material process may be conducted in the ordinary way. But the still obscurer power of telergy, to which in appearance we are sometimes driven for an explanation of observed fact, seems to show that the transmissive apparatus of an exceptionally sensitive or specially endowed person may occasionally be worked by another mind, provided the owner is complacent enough to vacate part of his organism and generous enough to allow its employment by another.

Whether the operation be performed telepathically or telergically in any given case is a detail, and whether the operation is tare or frequent is another; the important thing is that the bodily mechanism of some people, though usually under their own control, is not exclusively so. The facts of multiple personality have long ago hinted at control by other and alien intelligences — not, indeed, always friendly; and the power which is thereby pathologically demonstrated and recognized as restive and uncontrolled, can in happier circumstances and under better and more healthy conditions be utilized for purposes of kindly service.

Mediums are persons who have the faculty of allowing their machinery to be set in operation by minds other than their own. Physiological response to stimulus from another mind: that is what mediumship is; and whether it is a real faculty or not is a question of evidence. I say distinctly that — so far as I see at present — its real existence is the simplest hypothesis that can be framed to account for certain phenomena now known by experience to a great many people. It does not appear to be even a rare faculty, though it differs in degree, and it is probably susceptible of cultivation and improvement. Many persons are able to obtain what is called automatic writing — one of the simplest forms of useful mediumship — that is, to allow the hand and arm to be controlled by an apparently alien though friendly intelligence — their own intelligence being otherwise alert all the time and only locally withdrawn from interference. Trance is a further withdrawal of conscious attention; and some persons are able, during trance, to allow their voice organs to be employed for the transmission of speech, and occasionally for the expression of ideas quite out of their normal ken. Of these utterances they have no recollection on awaking out of trance, though presumably there is always some deposit or record in a portion of their brain which might be evoked by suitable means. The state of trance differs from the hypnotic sleep, though it has many features akin to that; but whereas in the hypnotic state the patient is subject to suggestion or is more or less controlled by a living person, the striking fact about the trance state, or one special variety of trance state, is that the organism can then sometimes be manipulated by discarnate intelligences, i.e. by persons whose own bodily mechanism has been completely destroyed.

There seems to be every degree of control, and every variety of physical response, from the most elementary tipping of a table or semaphore arm, to writing or speaking intelligible sentences; and sometimes, though seldom, ideas are expressed in what, to the medium, is an unknown tongue. The facility with which communications can be made depends a good deal on the power and skill of the communicator, and on the understanding of the recipient; but it depends also on the habits and aptitudes of the physiological instrument employed. It can very easily be used to utter habitual phrases and commonplace sentences, but to get it to convey recondite ideas or to employ unusual language is much more difficult, and through an uneducated instrument may be nearly impossible.

Meaningless code words again, such as proper names, are nearly always found difficult, and require a special effort. In fact, the experience seems closely akin to the dictation of a telegram through a telephone: familiar phrases are easily picked up, while out-of-the-way words and proper names may have to be repeated several times, and sometimes laboriously spelt; so also sudden questions interjected in the middle of a message have the effect of confusing the communicator, and anything like a switch to another subject may easily spoil the clearness of a message, unless it is one that had been previously written down and is being transmitted mechanically.

In every case, the most familiar as well as the most extraordinary, it is important to realize — I, must repeat this — how remarkably mental the essential part of the process of communication always is, whether it be by articulate speech or writing or by pictorial representation. The means employed by a painter, for instance, to convey his meaning is to arrange pigments in a certain way, just as a musical composer designs future sounds — which he does by virtually writing down instructions sufficient to enable a skilled person hereafter to reproduce the sounds in the way intended. And even then, unless this reproduction is done in the presence of a suitable recipient — one with what we call a cultivated eye or ear — the message intended by painter or executive musician fails to be delivered. All that is in the picture, every intonation in the music, can be seen or heard by a savage or an animal, but in them, as in the Philistine, no response is evoked. To see a picture properly, or to enjoy music, needs a certain faculty, a kind of mental alertness and sympathy: and without that psychic response, nothing important is conveyed. Our appreciation of a work of art depends on what we bring to it.

Hence we need not be surprised that when psychic attunement is forthcoming the physical part of the transmission can be managed with ease. A gesture may convey a good deal, without speech. Lip reading is often employed by deaf people. The mere inspection of spots on lines can appeal to a skilled musician as harmony and melody. Black marks on a sheet of paper constitute the physical side of a poem. The mere tippings of a table are known to be able to convey both intelligence and emotion — however strange the fact may appear. The singular faculty of telepathy shows that in extreme cases even the slightest physical stimulus can be dispensed with; though then naturally, under present conditions, the process is usually slow and uncertain. So it is not really so very surprising that a complete bodily organization, even though belonging to another person, can with practice be employed by a discarnate intelligence; assuming that any such exist and are able and willing to convey to people still associated with matter some message of affection or some ingenious proof of their continued existence and identity.

If our relatives and friends exist at all, after they have left the body, they have all the mental or psychic furniture needed for communication : all that they lack is the physical instrument; and hypothetically the presence of a medium seems to provide that. Assuming that they can operate on an alien physiological organism, after the same sort of fashion as they used to operate on their own — not in the least knowing what they were doing but simply doing it — the rest is easy: they are acquainted with our codes and modes of thought, and if they can contrive to pull physical detents in anything like the old familiar way,, it is natural to expect that we shall be able to understand.

We must indeed put ourselves in a position of receptiveness, and give them the necessary attention, or they will be helpless. Sometimes they may make special efforts to attract our attention — to ring us up so to speak — but, to get anything like a coherent message through, there must be co-operation on both sides.

The messages got through are often simple, sometimes only words of affection, followed by attempts to establish their identity, against lifelong and traditional incredulity, by aid of trivial reminiscences and characteristic phrases. These simple halting utterances; transmitted through unwonted channels with evident difficulty and received with calculated silence and often with hardly concealed disbelief, are to the Church a stumbling-block and to Science foolishness, but to the bereaved a power and a comfort of inestimable value.



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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