Book: "Why I Believe in Personal Immortality"

Author: Sir Oliver Lodge FRS

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- Chapter 6 -

Can it be Possible to Communicate with the Dead?


The time is ripe for a study of unseen things as strenuous and sincere as that which Science has made familiar for the problems of earth.

Science, as we know, will not rest with complacency in presence of the exceptional, the catastrophic, the miraculous . . . Her highest ideal is cosmic law; — and she begins to suspect that any law which is truly cosmic is also in some sense evolutionary.

The discovery of telepathy opens before us a potential communication between all life . . . . And if, as our present evidence indicates, this telepathic intercourse can subsist between embodied and disembodied souls, that law must needs lie at the very centre of cosmic evolution.

Have our notions of the dignified and undignified in nature . . . guided us in the discovery of truth? Would not Aristotle, divinizing the fixed stars by reason of their very remoteness, have thought it undignifled to suppose them compacted of the same elements as the stones under his feet? May not disembodied souls, like stars, be of a make rather closer to our own than we have been wont to imagine?

F. W. H. Myers, "Human Personality," II, Chap. IX.

          PEOPLE often wonder about the process of mediumistic communication, and may doubt whether it is legitimate even if it were possible to talk familiarly, through any channel, with those whom it seems customary to regard as either sacred or extinct. As a matter of fact they are neither : and the sooner the world realizes this truth in a rational way, the better both for them and for the world. Difficulties due to long habit and traditon must be gradually overcome, partly by direct experience, but in the first instance by reading and study. So I address myself to those who feel some difficulty — perhaps even a religious difficulty — about the bare idea of posthumous communion, and who seriously ask the question: Can it be possible to hold converse with the dead, or for them in any way to communicate with us?

No reply can be given on a priori considerations, unless it be a contemptuous negative based on too hasty a guess about the significance of the main word in the query. If it be true that "the dead know not anything," they practically have no longer any personal existence, and it cannot be possible to communicate with nonentity. But this is reasoning in a bind-before or pre-posterous manner. The right method of attack is to ascertain first, by experiment and observation, whether communication is possible; and then from that fact, if it becomes an established fact, to infer that after all the dead do know something, and that they have a personal existence.

But then the obvious question arises: How can it be possible to communicate with anyone, however intelligent, who possesses no physical instrument or organ for the conversion of thought into act? How can it be possible to appreciate mere thought?

A partial answer is given by the experimental discovery of telepathy, which appears to be a direct process of transmission from mind to mind. But still, for any kind of reproduction or utilization or conveyance to others, a physical process is necessary; and therefore, so far as we know, a physiological mechanism is necessary.

An instrument of some kind there must be; but it does not follow that the instrument employed need necessarily be the property of the communicating intelligence. A musician deprived of his favourite instrument might learn to play on another. Without an instrument of some kind — be it only a pen — his soul might be full of music but it would be silent and unapprehended, it could not be reproduced, it could not even be written; but an inferior or a strange instrument would be better than nothing, and might once more confer upon him some power of utterance.

Now the facts of multiple personality show that a single human body can, under exceptional circumstances, be played upon by several intelligences, not only by one: the normal occupant can, as it were, be ousted sometimes, and its place taken by others. That is the appearance; and the appearance may turn out to be nearer reality than had been thought likely.

There are certain people whose value for the purpose of enlarging our experience is much greater than has yet been recognized, who self-sacrificingly allow the bodily part of themselves to be employed in conveying messages, which are received telepathically or they know not how, from intelligences other than their own. Their own personality goes into abeyance or into trance for a time, while their body and brain continue active, and thus messages are transmitted about facts previously unknown to them, and which subsequently may leave no accessible deposit in their memory.

A person thus employed as a transmitting mechanism for another intelligence is called a "medium." There are various grades of medium-ship, and it is not always associated with complete normal unconsciousness, by any means; but in all cases it appears to be a healthy and useful variety of what in pathological cases is called "multiple personality." The secondary personality in temporary control need not be obtrusive or troublesome, it may be well-controlled and amenable to reason and convenience, but it is not the normal intelligence of the medium, and the stratum of memory tapped is a different one. Facts known to some other person come to the front: facts familiar to the medium recede for a time into the background. The mind and memory thus tapped can occasionally be traced to an ordinary incarnate person; but the material or flesh body does seem to be an obstruction, if only because sensory methods of communication are so customary and familiar. It turns out to be really easier for the medium’s organism to be controlled by a discarnate intelligence, that is, by one who, having gone through the complete process of dissolution or dissociation from matter, is commonly spoken of as "dead."

Whatever other and higher methods of communion there may be — among them what is spoken of as inspiration — this rather commonplace utilization of a medium’s powers is a genuine one; and many there are who are familiar, by direct firsthand experience, with messages thus received. The facts selected for mention or transmission in such cases are often trivial domestic occurrences, such as have no public significance, but which are well adapted to prove the identity of the person who remembers them. The triviality of the incidents recalled matters nothing, if they have this identifying character. Events of importance are not nearly so useful; for either they can hardly be verified, or they are of the nature of public knowledge. It is the trivial and the domestic that give the evidential clues and personal traits desired by sorrowing survivors.

Of mediumship there are many grades and varieties. The trance condition above spoken of is one of the most complete forms; but automatic or semi-conscious writing can be obtained by some people without letting more of the body than the hand go out of customary control. The instrument in that case is the hand supplemented by pen or pencil; it is worked no doubt by the muscles in a normal way, but it is not guided as to the sense of the message by the normal mind of the person working it. Sometimes the pencil is fixed to a larger piece of wood, so that the muscular action can be simpler and less like that employed in ordinary writing — a method called " planchette." Sometimes such a piece of wood is constructed so as to be able to point to printed letters instead of writing them. And sometimes a rather more troublesome but still simple form of physical instrument is used, and the message comes in the form of bare signals — akin to flag-wagging or key-depressing, or in the case of those who do not know the Morse code, by repeating the alphabet to the tilts of a table which stops at the intended letter. Table-tilting seems like an old and despised amusement rather than a serious method: it would seem more adapted to mere games, but with care and sobriety even this forms a possible vehicle for communications of a definite kind. A table is manifestly only a variant, a clumsy and bulky variant, of a planchette, or again of a pen or pencil, which is also a bit of wood actuated by muscles.

Modes of converting thought into physical movement are innumerable, and it matters but little which of them is used. The hand, the larynx, the arm muscles, the throat muscles, are all pieces of matter amenable to mental influence through the brain and nerve mechanism associated with them. How they can be actuated by mind, is a puzzle; but the fact that they can be so actuated is undeniable. The element of strangeness about any kind of communication is not that matter is moved in accordance with a code, so as to reproduce thought in another percipient mind; for that is equally true of speech and writing; the strangeness of supernormal instances is that the substance of the communication is alien to the person transmitting it, and is characteristic of some other person who is dramatically and vividly represented as really desirous of sending intelligible information, or else an identifying and comforting message, and who employs such bodily organs and physiological mechanism as he may be permitted for the time to use.

Now let me indicate the kind of messages which may be received.

Some of these relate to facts and experiences "on the other side," — the kind of life lived there, the surroundings, the conditions, the persistence of vivid interest in affairs of earth, and the difficulties and to some extent the rationale of communication. Plenty of this kind of attempted information is recorded in books. But all these belong to what we call "unverifiable" topics — we have no means of testing the assertions or ascertaining what amount of truth the messages contain; so that they must be cautiously treated. Suffice it to say that the invariable assertion is that the conditions on "the other side" are much more like conditions here than the communicators themselves had expected. They speak of flowers and animals, birds and books, interest and beauty of all kinds. They assure us that they know very little more than we know, that their character and personality are practically unchanged though still progressing, that they have not suddenly changed into something supernal — nor infernal either—that they are themselves just as before, with tastes and aptitudes not dissimilar, but that they are subject to conditions happier and more conducive to progress, freer from difficulty and gratuitous obstruction, than when they were associated with matter.

They also say that things round them are quite solid and substantial, and that it is the old material things which now appear shadowy and evanescent. So they seem barely cognisant of happenings on earth, save when definite duties are allotted to them to help those who are coming over, or when we are thinking of them, or again when they make a spontaneous effort to get through to those they have loved and left behind. They are keenly susceptible to friendly feeling and affection, and they are less shy or chary of expressing their feelings than they were down here. They do not appear to be in another region of space, but are interlocked and closely associated with this order of existence. The same unconscious constructive ability as did in the long course of evolution succeed in building up their old visible organism by arranging particles of matter, seems able to continue its task under the new conditions, and has constructed another body or mode of manifestation out of such substance as is there available — the ether it may be hypothetically supposed to be. This constructive ability probably belongs not only to human and animal but to all forms of organic life, so that the surroundings, in what some are beginning to think of as an etherial world, need not be very different from those familiar to us in this realm of matter — that realm which is now so real and all-absorbing to us, which excites our keenest admiration, and yet of the real mode of construction of which we know so little.

However all that may be, the first messages which come through are not of a descriptive character; they represent not attempts to inform, but attempts to convince, to make us realize that lost ones are still vivid and active, and that they are happy so far as we will let them be. They grieve with our sorrow, but otherwise find their new life full of interest and helpfulness and a kind of joy.

The first messages which come through, therefore, are messages of affection; and next come those little family reminiscences which, to those for whom they are intended, are often very clear and satisfying, although to outsiders they require so much explanation that they lose much of their force.

References to pet names, to pet animals, to occurrences on holiday excursions, small accidents or contretemps, all these things seem to jump to the memory when an effort is made to think of some identifying message; and although names are rather difficult to get clearly and correctly, through the majority of mediums, and although the importance of names as evidence may easily be over-estimated, still names, too, are often spontaneously given, especially names of an intimate and private character. A sudden question, such as asking for a predetermined test, is apt to confuse and blur clearness. Everyone must know how easy it is to break a thread of ideas down here.

Over-anxiety on the part of a sitter is by no means helpful. Calmness and placidity are. Early messages, however, are often stimulated by a keen desire apparently felt to relieve the mind of survivors of some anxiety, some suspicion, some misunderstanding, or some trouble, which is casting a shadow over their lives. To such things departed friends seem peculiarly sensitive, and often make great and energetic efforts to get comfort through to a particular person whom they perceive to be thus afflicted.

How they know, may well seem to be a puzzle; but of course such things are obscurely felt also in this life, and they may come into more prominence and arouse more remorse when easy opportunity of explanation is ended. I should judge that remorse is rather a notable feature of the discarnate mental state, if there is good cause for it; and that the feeling may be akin to that sadly felt by us sometimes in the night-watches.

The possibility of telepathy, also, whereby mental impressions of deep-seated character may influence other minds — even though discarnate — seems likely to furnish another way in which feelings of this kind may hypothetically be aroused. Whatever the method, perception of the sentiments of survivors is undoubtedly a fact; and one great merit of the communications received in such cases is the relief and comfort they have brought to the feelings of those on both sides of the veil.

In times of widespread distress such messages are very necessary, and they are numerous. In all sorts of ways they come. Youths struck off in full vigour of manhood, are not likely to rest contented if they find their loved ones sorrowing unduly for their loss, and spoiling what remains of their lives here. They may be sceptical of their power to get through — they often are; but if by the help of friends, or by any other means, they come to perceive the possibility, they will strain every nerve to awaken in those still here a corresponding desire; so that in some form or other, sooner or later, communion—it may be of a very subjective character — can be accomplished.

In a fairly well-known book on life and death I give examples of messages which prove the survival of personal identity and of memory and affection and character beyond death. I give examples, indeed, of family conversations which have been held with Raymond and others; but these must be considered and treated as a whole: it is not useful or fair to pick out bits and quote them out of their setting.

There is no need for such conversations to be too frequent or too persistent. Once those on both sides are made fully aware of undying interest and affection, the few years of separation can be endured; and the main work of life, whether on that side or on this, can be attended to.

The value and importance of the present terrestrial existence is fully recognized by our friends on the other side. It would be a poor return for the privilege of occasional communication, and an especially ungrateful recognition of the noble and self-sacrificing spirit in which so many in recent times have gone to their death, if lamentation for them — or even an eager desire for communion — were allowed to sap energy, or to interfere with the full activity of every kind of service such as is possible to us in our present grade of existence.

Finally it may be asked why, if those other intelligences exist, we have not known about them all along. But surely many a Seer, many a Saint, has known about them, has been in communion, and has felt their influence. Poets, too, have had their inspirations. Yet wonder is sometimes expressed, even by those who are inclined to admit their existence, that they do not tell us more about their activities, and make us understand the nature of their surroundings. The answer is, first, that they have told us more than is generally or widely known; and secondly, that confessedly the telling is not easy. So I propose to conclude this chapter with a childish fable.

The Flounder and the Bird

A solitary flatfish flopped its way to the edge of a Scottish loch to bask. A swallow happened to flit by, grazing the water in its flight to and fro. The fish gaped in astonishment at the dimly seen apparition and murmured to himself: "So, after all, there really are living things up there. I always thought there might be; there have been shadows and indications; our free swimmers have hinted at something. But it is all fanciful and unreal; it is safer to lie firmly on the ground; we can at least make sure of our mud and sand : the rest is imagination." Then, as the swallow flitted by again, he inquired, "What are you? Have you fins?"

The swallow answered briefly: "We don’t swim, we fly," and then added good naturedly, as if in response to an unspoken question, "It’s much the same thing really, only it’s finer and fleeter and happier. We have feathers such as you could not dream of, we soar above the earth, and can travel immense distances. Even your free swimmers don’t know half that is to be known.

"The fish was astonished and silent for a time, but soon recovered his usual presence of mind, and began to answer volubly and without hesitation, "This is most extraordinary; we haven’t really believed in your existence. A few of us say they are able to fly, at least for a short time, and have told us of catching glimpses of other creatures during their flights, but of course they are not believed. They tell us that when up there they can actually see ahead, so as to foretell the coming of those dark hulls that perturb us occasionally; but they are often wrong. We hold that flying ought to be suppressed; we will not allow ourselves to be deceived.

"The swallow hovered a moment on hearing this last confession, and said with an upward glance, "You would do well not to be deceived, but there may be more than one kind of deception. Are you on your guard against self-deception? You little know all the glories of existence."

"Do you know all?" asked the flounder, trying to rear its head out of the water, and getting suffocated in the process. "Is everything plain to you up there in your soaring freedom? Tell us what your world is really like."

"I cannot tell you," answered the swallow : "you would not understand. It is something like your world, only far more beautiful. You, too, have beautiful things down there, if you look for them, or if you listen to your free swimmers; they tell you of bright stones and seaweed and shells; even your own scales are beautiful. But we — we find trees and flowers and fruits; we fly over glorious mountains, and rejoice in the showers and the sunshine, the rainbows and the dew; we build nests on barns and churches; we . . ."

"I don’t know what you are talking about," interrupted the fish. "What on earth are churches?"

"Ah! There you go beyond my knowledge," said the swallow. "There is much that even we do not know. We cannot tell why they were erected; they are something like barns, but have more string-courses, and ledges; they are somehow different; they seem to represent a view of the universe higher even than our own."

"Well!" said the flounder to himself, as the swallow’s utterance trailed away into silence. "He can’t tell us what his surroundings are like, and yet he speculates about regions still more incomprehensible. No! It is all too vague and indefinite. We did right not to believe in any-thing beyond this home of ours. If I were to tell the others that those flying fish have spoken some kind of truth, I should be laughed at. Better say nothing. And yet — well, even I dimly remember that in my infancy I used to swim more freely… Alas! those early gleams have died; I must be content with the light of common day." So saying, he began to flounder back, and settle himself once more into his mud.

But his experience was not wholly lost; he could not resist occasionally blurting out something of it, in spite of the contempt of his fellows; and he really felt happier, though more conscious of ignorance, than he was before. He still wondered, however, why the bird could not more clearly enlighten him as to the nature of the world beyond.



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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