W. H. Salter

William Henry Salter

1880-1969. Went to Trinity College, Cambridge, with a Classical Scholarship in 1899, took a first class degree in 1901, turned to read Law, and was called to the Barin 1905. Joined the Society for Psychical Research in 1916, to become a member of its Council three years later. From 1920 to 1931, a very difficult financial period, he served as Honorary Treasurer; and from 1924 to 1948 he was Honorary Secretary. He was President from 1947 to 1948. He made many contributions to the SPR Journal and Proceedings, and published two admirable books, Ghosts and Apparitions (1938) and Zoar (1961).

From Zoar, or The Evidence for Psychical Research Concerning Survival
(1961, Sidgwick and Jackson, London).

Chapter 2: The Scope of Psychical Research and the Nature of the Evidence

- W. H. Salter -

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          PSYCHICAL RESEARCH is the attempt to complete the exploration of human personality by the systematic investigation of all its real or supposed faculties that appear to be part of the natural order of things but not to have been effectively brought within the province of any other department of science that deals with human activities.

Popular belief has in many times and places firmly held that some persons, at least, had the gift of apprehending events, distant in space or future in time, and of getting into touch with modes of existence other than the everyday life of the body. The evidence to this effect, which in the form of ghost-stories and reports of premonitory dreams and similar happenings had accumulated for ages without systematic enquiry, received in the nineteenth century a large increase from some of the effects observed by the early students of hypnotism and from the reports of phenomena occurring at Spiritualist sťances. The case for a careful, impartial examination of the evidence was thus growing stronger at the same time that the theological objections to it were weakening. This led to the foundation in 1882 of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) by a group which included many leading scientists, philosophers and scholars.

So little was known about these things at the time, that the founders of the Society, in a manifesto issued by them in the first volume of the Society's Proceedings, did not attempt a more exact definition of the subject-matter of their proposed researches than to describe it as "that large group of debatable phenomena designated by such terms as mesmeric, psychical and Spiritualistic". The enumeration in the same document of particular kinds of phenomena is now mainly of historical interest.

These phenomena and the faculties through which they seemed to be produced were in the early days of the Society known as "supernormal", a word which was unfortunately liable to confusion with "supernatural", especially as many of the occurrences with which psychical research had, and still has, to deal are of kinds to which long established tradition has attached supernatural associations; apparitions, for example, and foreknowledge. It cannot be too clearly stated that psychical research neither affirms nor denies the reality of any beings, or things, or events belonging to the supernatural order. When however, as is often the case, such events occur in a setting which seems to be part of the natural order of things, that setting can properly be investigated by ordinary, mundane methods. The ethical or devotional significance of any event transcending the natural order may be of the greatest importance to the psychical researcher as a person, but it lies altogether outside the province of his studies, just as a student of birds may have an intense aesthetic enjoyment of their colouring, although scientifically he is only concerned with it as distinguishing one species from another, or for its protective value or other biological utility.

"Paranormal" has now in general use taken the place of "supernormal" and will he used with that meaning in this book. It is itself however not free from objection. What, it may be asked, is meant by the "normal"? Not, it is important to say, the usual or habitual, although in other contexts the word is often loosely used with that meaning. It has been found necessary in psychical research to draw a distinction between what is and what is not, at any given time, accepted as real by general scientific opinion, and to fix on a word that will briefly indicate whatever is so accepted. For this purpose "normal" is perhaps as good as any other, but there is, as I shall try later to show, reason to believe that some faculties which have not as yet won scientific recognition are as widely distributed as any that have won it, though they may often not manifest themselves in a way to attract casual attention.

The prefix also needs justification. One of the objections to "supernormal" was that it suggested that the things so described were in some ways superior or preferable to the general run of things. Whether or not such a suggestion corresponded with the facts, it was undesirable even to hint at it in a term descriptive of things the distinctive character of which was determined in quite another way. The prefix "para" suggests some resemblance between the faculties and events that are the proper study of psychical research and those that are more generally recognised, some parallelism between them. It has, for example, been claimed that by "clairvoyance" a written message enclosed in a sealed and opaque envelope can be read, and that by "telekinesis" a medium can raise an object without the use of muscular, mechanical or other physical force of any kind known to science. If these claims are to be regarded as substantiated-and in my view "clairvoyance" and "telekinesis" are among the more dubious phenomena of psychical research-it is only in the effect produced, the reading of the message or the raising of the object, that they can be considered parallel to recognised faculties and forces. There is no resemblance of method, and in that lies the essential difference. Exceptional efficiency in the use of recognised forces does not constitute paranormality. The lifting of a few ounces at a sťance held under strict conditions would count for more in that way than all the muscular feats of a modern Hercules.

The Founders' manifesto already mentioned contained the following paragraph:

"The aim of the Society will be to approach these various problems []ee above] without prejudice or prepossession of any kind, and in the same spirit of exact and unimpassioned inquiry which has enabled Science to solve so many problems, once not less obscure nor less hotly debated. The founders of this Society fully recognise the exceptional difficulties which surround this branch of research..."

It is, then, to the spirit of scientific enquiry, and not necessarily to the method, or any of the methods, followed by science that psychical research is committed. Observation and experiment are both used by established branches of science, the relative importance of the two methods varying in the different branches. Observation, for example, for reasons too obvious to call for elaboration, predominates in astronomy, and experiment in chemistry. Both methods also have their use in psychology, and, there also, with degrees of importance that vary according to the particular department of that science.

There are many factors that restrict the efficiency of experiment with human beings. Reasons of humanity, in civilised countries, forbid some kinds of experiment, and in other kinds the experimenter may be frustrated by deliberate resistance or deception on the part of his subject. Notwithstanding these and other difficulties, much has been learnt partly by experiment and partly by observation about such mental activities as are common to mankind or to large human groups - national, cultural, religious, economic - and the strength and prevalence of the factors involved can be statistically assessed.

There are however other factors of mind, temperament and disposition that vary so from one individual to another as to be beyond the reach of mass experiment or exact quantitative assessment. Of this kind is the subject matter of psycho-therapeutics, and the difference between two branches of psychological science, one of which works with measurable units, and the other does not, is immediately apparent on glancing at representative samples of the relative literatures and noting the frequency of statistics in the one and their almost complete absence in the other. This does not, of course, mean that the psychotherapist is dealing with a mass of phenomena so heterogeneous as to defy classification, or to prevent him drawing significant correlations between one class and another, but that it is by qualitative reasoning that he must reach his conclusions.

Medical psychology and psychical research deal largely with exceptional and peculiar cases and seek to build up a system of organised knowledge out of refractory material of this kind. Historically the two lines of enquiry, when both were new, ran close together. Much of their subject matter, hypnotism for example, was common to both, and many of the early researchers were active in both fields. There was, however, always some difference of approach, the medical psychologist having a tendency to focus his attention on pathological material with a view to effecting cures, while the psychical researcher could not, consistently with the task he had undertaken, impose any comparable restriction on his studies. It was a matter of indifference to him whether the real or supposed faculties, the evidence as to which he was examining, appeared to suggest a deviation for the worse from average human nature, or as some of them in fact did, something a good deal better. He had one concern, and one only, to see that all serious evidence suggesting the possible existence of human faculties not recognised by other branches of science or imperfectly explored by them, was examined by whatever methods led to the fullest and most accurate knowledge.

The difference of objective between medical psychology and psychical research reveals itself in a difference of treatment even when both are dealing with identical material. Take the case, for example, of a dream related to a psychoanalyst by a patient, in which the patient sees a near relative, an uncle perhaps, run over by a bus. This may provide an important clue to the patient's suppressed wishes regarding the senior male members of his family, and that is the line of enquiry that the analyst, quite properly for his purpose, follows up. It is from his point of view irrelevant to enquire whether the uncle was in fact run over, and, if he was, whether the details of the accident corresponded with those in the dream. This on the other hand is just the point of interest to the psychical researcher. If he has reason to suppose there was a correspondence between dream and accident, he cannot shirk the often difficult and tedious task of ascertaining whether there was in fact any correspondence and, if so, how close it was, and whether it can reasonably be attributed to the patient's knowledge (e.g., of his uncle's habits) or to chance. To put it shortly, the psychoanalyst is concerned with the subjective aspect of the patient's experience, the psychical researcher with its possible objective aspect as an instance of paranormal cognition of a kind to be discussed later. For a complete exploration of our mental activities we need not only psychology in its more general form but such special developments of it as medical psychology and, of equal importance, psychical research.

Psychical research employs different methods according to the many different kinds of material that it is investigating. Like all other organised enquiries it has developed a terminology of its own, of which I shall make as sparing a use as practicable, explaining, when they first occur, such technical terms as I have not been able to avoid. In accordance with the established practice among psychical researchers, qualifications such as "alleged" or "ostensible" are for the sake of brevity omitted in the discussion of real or supposed faculties or phenomena, except where the omission might cause misunderstanding.

Enough has already been said as to the meaning of paranormal phenomena. The primary division of them is into "mental" and "physical", clumsy terms for which, were they not so well established, ingenuity and a Greek lexicon could doubtless find substitutes. The distinction between the two classes is easily illustrated by comparing and contrasting "telepathy" and "telekinesis". If the mental content of two or more persons is in whole or in part the same in circumstances which do not, when examined, offer an adequate explanation by the normal means of communication, such as speech and writing, nor by chance coincidence, nor yet by the natural association of ideas deriving from a common normal knowledge of facts, this is called telepathy. An instance of telepathy is, so far as can be ascertained, a mental event only, since it has no patent counterpart in the physical world. If, as is sometimes supposed, there is a physical basis for telepathy, "waves" for example, it has not been observed and remains at the best an inference. In reports of telekinesis on the other hand an observable physical event has to be explained, whether or not the evidence when examined points to the operation of some force which could be called "paranormal" as being unrecognised by science.

Again, phenomena, whether mental or physical, can be classified according to the conditions in which they are observed as spontaneous, mediumistic and experimental. The word "spontaneous" explains itself. For example, someone perceives an apparition without any effort or intention on his part. So far as he is concerned, it is spontaneous, whatever intention or impulse on the part of someone else may possibly be behind it.

At the other end of the scale is the experimental evidence. The ideal scientific experiment is one in which the material is wholly within the experimenter's control, so that he can apply whatever conditions he wishes, can exactly measure the results under varying conditions, and can repeat the experiment with the assurance that under the same conditions he will get the same results. When human beings are the subject matter that ideal, as already stated, is unattainable, though it is possible for the psychologist to measure with a fair amount of accuracy the actions of human beings under conditions which he can to a considerable extent control and vary, so long as such actions depend on faculties that are universal or at least widely spread, so that his results can be checked by other experimenters working with similar material. Faculties that can be investigated in this way become sooner or later, and after less or more opposition from orthodoxy, incorporated in official science, and so ipso facto pass out of the province of the psychical researcher. The history of hypnotism illustrates that process.

While some interesting results have been obtained in psychical research through experiments with groups of subjects - and this is the type of experiment which approaches nearest to the repeatable -investigation is mainly concerned with individual subjects endowed with exceptional powers for the production of phenomena, mental or physical. Some subjects are able to produce positive results under conditions adequate, so far as the investigator and his readers can judge, for the elimination not only of deliberate deception by the subject, but also of the innocent production by normal means of effects that could be mistaken for paranormal. Results obtained with individual subjects under conditions reaching this standard may be classed as experimental, even though, for the reasons already given, there has been no repeatable experiment.

With other subjects the investigator may have to make the best compromise as to conditions that he can, or he may even have to accept the phenomena as they come, and reserve his critical faculties for the appraisement of the results. There is therefore a very wide range of conditions governing the production of paranormal phenomena by exceptionally endowed subjects. But it would be a mistake to set out the phenomena in a scale of descending evidential value, beginning with the fully experimental, and passing through the semi-experimental to the spontaneous, without taking into account other factors. Do the phenomena conform as to general type to other phenomena supported by independent evidence, or are we dealing with some unparalleled lusus Naturae? And (a more embarrassing question), to what extent does the evidence depend on the good faith of the parties concerned, and how far can their good faith be reasonably assumed?

It will be seen from the foregoing that in most branches of psychical research the enquirer, when assessing his material and attempting to arrange it in order, finds himself in a very different situation from that of the chemist, physicist, or biologist. He has to form a judgment of the character and qualities of the persons whose reports on phenomena he is studying, of their integrity, their carefulness as observers and recorders, their Competence to distinguish the true from the spurious. When he is satisfied that he has got at the real facts he must then consider whether they admit of a normal explanation such, for example, as chance coincidence. Where experiments have been framed, as many experiments in telepathy and kindred faculties have been, in such a way as to produce results capable of statistical analysis, the problem of chance is fairly easy, but for much of his material even this guide will be lacking, and he must depend on his own commonsense. There will therefore inevitably be a subjective element in his conclusions.

This weakness must be recognised but should not be exaggerated. The researcher of today can build on the experience extending over nearly eighty years of a long line of predecessors. Many of these were eminent in various branches of science. Others had distinguished themselves in public affairs or business, careers in which success depends on making correctly the same sort of judgments of men and events that, in psychical research, appraisal of the evidence often demands. It is therefore possible to make use today of various techniques skilfully elaborated over this long period for the purpose of avoiding errors due to faulty observation, to lapses of memory, to insufficiency of written record and to deception, deliberate or subconscious.

The mass of material that has been investigated during all this time also provides a check on what can with confidence be accepted as the basis for theory. In this respect the publications of the SPR have a unique importance. It has an unbroken history since 1882, at no point of which has it fallen under the control of cranks or doctrinaires. The eminent men and women who have guided it have differed widely among themselves in their opinions both as to details of evidence and on larger issues, such as survival. Everything that it has published has first been scrutinised by an experienced and critical committee. The SPR publications have indeed no monopoly of value: much, for example, of the highest quality has come from America. Nor do I claim that all the evidence published by the SPR is above criticism; I shall in fact myself criticise some parts of it. But for a combination of quantity, variety and quality the SPR literature is without a rival and no writer need apologise if he takes it as the main source of the evidence he cites to support and illustrate his argument. Examination of the material recorded in this literature shows that most of it sorts itself out into certain classes, and that most of the items conform to certain types, which soon become familiar to the psychical researcher and are easily recognised by him when he meets them again and again. Before any piece of recorded evidence is used to build an argument on, it should be subject to a double scrutiny:

(1) Does it in all substantial respects comply with the canons of evidence generally accepted in psychical research? (Formal defects do not necessarily vitiate the record, but this dictum must be applied with caution and commonsense.)

(2) Does the occurrence recorded show a general correspondence with other recorded occurrences that are individually well evidenced?

If an item passe both these tests me is justified in embodying it in one's argument. If it fails badly in the first test, it is useless for that purpose, though it may do good in sharpening one's watchfulness for better evidenced instances of the same type. If it passes the first test but fails at the second, what is to be done? As most of the material of psychical research is exceptional, it would be monstrous to reject absolutely an item that was otherwise well authenticated because it was exceptionally exceptional. The only reasonable course seems to me to be to take careful note of it, but to keep it in a sort of quarantine until enough parallels have occurred to show that it is not just a slip of the kind to which even experienced enquirers applying well tested methods may be prone, but a genuine instance of a novel type for which a place will have to be found in any theoretical structure. If however all the investigation that is constantly proceeding into spontaneous cases, all the experiments, all the sittings with mediums, do not within a reasonable time produce parallels supported by good evidence, the anomalous instance had better be consigned to limbo.

To support my argument, so far as it is positive, I shall not use any material that does not seem to me to pass both these tests or that my judgment rejects or hesitates to accept m more general grounds. In extenuation of this egotism it might be said that the material used by me has been accepted by other psychical researchers of greater eminence. There remains the problem of how many and what instances to put before the reader. To throw at him the thousand and one spontaneous cases, experimental results and mediumistic records which may have influenced the writer would merely befog him, unless they were accompanied by a commentary several times as long, which would bore him to extinction. Where the matter is of a kind that has been abundantly discussed in recent times there is no point in quoting more instances than are required to illustrate the argument. For a more detailed examination of the evidence reference can be made to other literature. Less familiar material, on the other hand, requires fuller treatment, as it receives in some of the later chapters of this book.

But my argument has a negative side, too, and in developing this I have set out and analysed some material which I definitely do not accept. To have omitted it would have laid me open to the charge either that I was ignorant of what some people hold to be vital evidence, or that it had been suppressed because it told against my argument. Here also some selection has been necessary. Several views that seem to me erroneous are each of them held on the strength of several pieces of evidence that seem to me defective or spurious. A critic of these views cannot reasonably be required to demolish each several piece in turn. He has discharged his duty if he goes straight for the best known instances and those to which the adherents of these views attach the greatest weight.

Much of this book, especially of the earlier part of it, is negative. From the foundation of the SPR in 1882 it has been necessary to clear away continually the accumulations of credulity, hearsay and (it must be added) fraud. Only by so doing have the remarkable positive achievements of psychical research been possible. A negative attitude in itself makes no appeal to me, my only desire being to advance, if it be but a little, positive knowledge of a subject of supreme importance.

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Contents | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 | Chapter 16

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