HENRY SIDGWICK, one of the founders and the first President of our Society (SPR), was born on 31st May 1838. His centenary has recently been celebrated by a memorial lecture at Leeds, in the neighbourhood of which city he was born, and at Cambridge, where he dwelled and worked throughout the greater part of his life. As the S.P.R. owes its existence and its present status of at least semi-respectability in scientific circles very largely to the courage, patience, wisdom, and generosity of Sidgwick, it is only fitting that the great services he rendered to it should be recalled at this time to our members. From the nature of the case, most of Sidgwick's intimate friends and colleagues are now dead or advanced in years. The present writer never knew Sidgwick personally and has had no access to unpublished sources of information about him. But he happens to have succeeded him,
longo intervallo in every sense of the phrase, both as President of the S.P.R. and as Knightbridge Professor at Cambridge, and he finds Sidgwick's attitude both in philosophy and in psychical research peculiarly admirable and sympathetic. These seemed to him to be adequate grounds for undertaking to write for the
Proceedings an account of Sidgwick's relations with psychical research in general and the
SPR in particular.
It will be as well to begin with a very brief account of Sidgwick's life. He was born at Skipton on 31st May 1838, being the third son and fourth child of the Rev. William Sidgwick and Mary Crofts. His paternal grandfather was a cotton-spinner at Skipton, and his uncles carried on the business. His father was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and entered the Church. He held various cures, and, at the time when Henry was born, he was headmaster of the grammer school at Skipton. He died in 1841, when Henry was three years old, leaving his wife with a family of young children. After attending preparatory schools at Bristol and at Blackheath Sidgwick entered Rugby in 1852. His cousin, E. W. Benson, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, was then a young assistant master at Rugby. In 1853 Sigdwick's mother moved to Rugby and he and Benson lived with her. His school career was happy and brilliant, and he made several friendships which lasted throughout life. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in October 1855, where he studied mathematics and classics. He was a respectable mathematician and a brilliant classic. In 1856 he shared the second Bell Scholarship with J. M. Wilson, in 1857 he won the Craven Scholarship, and in 1858 he shared the Browne's Prize for Greek and Latin Epigrams with G. O. Trevelyan. In 1859 he was thirty-third wrangler in the mathematical tripos and was placed first in the classical tripos. In the same year he won the First Chancellor's Medal and crowned his academic career by being elected to a fellowship at Trinity. The rest of his working life was spent at Cambridge.
During the sixties Sidgwick was engaged in a desperate internal struggle with the intellectual difficulties which the Christian religion, as then understood in England, presented to honest and instructed minds. In the course of these inquiries he gained a thorough mastery of Hebrew and Arabic, made an elaborate study of theology, and immersed himself in philosophy. At that time it was a condition of holding a fellowship that the holder should declare himself to be a
'bona fide member of the Church of England'. This obligation was not usually taken very seriously, but Sidgwick was an exceptionally conscientious man. By June 1869 he had come to the conclusion that he did not fulfil the condition literally enough to justify him in holding a paid office on these terms. He therefore resigned his fellowship and assistant tutorship at Trinity. The college accepted his resignation with deep regret and did what it could to compensate him by creating a lectureship in Moral Science, without theological conditions, and appointing him to it. Nevertheless, Sidgwick suffered a considerable loss of income and amenities for a number of years.
In 1875 Trinity appointed Sidgwick Praelector in Moral and Political Philosophy, which gave him an increased income and an assured position. In the same year he became engaged to Eleanor Mildred Balfour, whom he married in 1876. He and his future wife had met while working at the two subjects which were destined to occupy most of their future time and energy, viz. psychical research and the higher education of women at Cambridge. It should be unnecessary to remind members of the S.P.R. of the magnificent work which Mrs. Sidgwick did for the Society and for the subject during her long and active life. Anyone who will take the trouble to read the memoirs of Mrs. Sidgwick by Miss Johnson, Mr. Salter, and Mr. Besterman, in Vol. XLIV of the
Proceedings, and will then refer back to the numerous and masterly articles which she contributed to previous volumes, will see that one of Sidgwick's most important services to psychical research was to encourage his wife to pursue the subject.
By 1880 the movement for the education of women at Cambridge had progressed so far that a new Hall of Residence at Newnham had been built, and Sidgwick and Mrs. Sidgwick temporarily moved into it. In the following year Trinity made him an honorary fellow. He had applied for the Knightbridge Professorship of Moral Philosophy on the death of F. D. Maurice in 1872, but ano her candidate had rather unaccountably been chosen. The professorship again fell vacant in 1883, and this time Sidgwick was elected. He held the chair until his last illness in the spring of 1900.
Throughout his life Sidgwick had been an active participator in various attempts to reform the constitution of his own college and the university. In 1876 Lord Salisbury set up a statutory commission for Oxford and Cambridge on the lines desired by the Cambridge liberals. The new statutes came into force in 1882, and Sidgwick was much occupied during the next ten years in the delicate work of initiating and trying to carry through certain financial and educational changes which they had made possible and which he thought desirable.
In 1892 Mrs. Sidgwick accepted the Principalship of Newnham College on the death of Miss Clough. The building at Newnham which she was to occupy was completed at the end of 1893, and the Sidgwicks then gave up their house in Cambridge and moved into Newnham College, where Sidgwick spent the last seven years of his life. Early in 1900 he underwent a serious operation, from which he never recovered. He died on 28th August, 1900, at the house of his brother-in-law, Lord Rayleigh, at Terling in Essex. He is buried in the churchyard of Terling.
During the period which has been covered in this sketch of Sidgwick's life he was busily engaged in his academic work in philosophy, political theory, and economics. The most important works which he published in his lifetime were
The Methods of Ethics, Outlines of the History of Ethics for English
Readers, The Principles of Political Economy, and The Elements of
Politics. After his death four substantial books were made out of his lectures, viz.
Philosophy, its Scope and Relations, The Development of European
Polity, Lectures on the Ethics of Green, Spencer, and Martineau, and Lectures on the Philosophy of
Kant. He wrote numerous articles on literary, educational, and other subjects, and a collection of these has been published under the title of
Miscellaneous Essays and Addresses.
The reader is now in possession of the main facts about Sidgwick's work in other fields than that of psychical research. Let us now consider the history of his activities in the latter field. His interest in ostensibly supernormal phenomena goes back to the beginning of his undergraduate days. When he went up to Cambridge a society called the 'Ghost Society' already existed there. One of the founders of this had been his cousin, E. W. Benson, Westcott was secretary of it until 1860, when he left Cambridge for Harrow. Sidgwick joined the Ghost Society while he was still an undergraduate.
It is plain from his letters that he was collecting stories of supernormal phenomena in the late fifties and early sixties. In a letter to his sister of 30th October 1859, he refers to a ghost-story sent him by his mother, and to others which he had had from an Irish friend. In another letter, later in the same term, he mentions a newspaper cutting, sent to him by his Uncle Robert, narrating a dream of her son's death which a poor woman had on the night of the wreck of the 'Royal Charter'. He makes the characteristically cautious comment: 'It was curious, but, considering how fruitful of dreams such a night must be, not very strong evidence.' In a letter to his mother, in July 1860, he thanks her for a ghost-story and says that he has had two very remarkable ones at first hand from a clergyman. 'Mind you shut up everybody who says that such stories can only be got from "cousin's cousin's friends" or such like distant parties' is the admonition which he gives to his mother at the end of the letter.
In 1860, whilst staying in London with his friend Cowell, he had his first experience of a sitting with a professional medium for physical phenomena. In a letter to his sister he describes the medium as 'a complete humbug'. In 1864 he and Cowell had sittings together for automatic writing. Cowell produced the writing and they were both puzzled by hearing unexplained raps, but they agreed that there was nothing in the contents of the scripts that could not have come from their own minds. Many years afterwards Sidgwick gave an account of these sittings to F. W. H. Myers, which is printed in Myers's article on 'Automatic Writing' in Vol. III of the
Proceedings. Two points of interest emerged. One was the ingenuity which the unconscious part of Cowell's mind displayed in puzzling the conscious part of it. The other was the elaborate stories which would be developed in the automatic script to account for the failures of the ostensible communicator to pass the tests which Cowell and Sidgwick had devised in order to examine his claims to be an independent entity.
The first period of Sidgwick's investigations into Spiritualism extends roughly from 1865 to 1875. In 1863 he writes to his friend Dakyns: 'I have not yet investigated Spiritualism, but I am still bent on doing so as soon as I get an opportunity.' He also mentions that T. H. Green 'sniffed at' it, as one might perhaps have expected. In writing to his mother early in 1864, in reference to a book which she had recommended to him, he says: 'I am pretty well read in pneumatological literature, but I have not heard of the book that you mention.' Later in the year he writes to Dakyns saying: 'As to Spritualism I have not progressed, but am in painful doubt. Still, I have some personal experiences and much testimony, and I find it hard to believe that I shall not discover some unknown laws, psychological or other...' Writing to Roden Noel in December 1866, he makes some interesting comments on the effects which his recent reading of Lecky's
History of Rationalism has had on him. The book had set him to consider the
evidence for medieval miracles, a topic which Lecky explicitly ignored. Sidgwick was considerably impressed by this evidence, and he writes to Noel as follows: 'I dimly foresee that I shall have to entirely alter my whole view of the universe and admit the "miraculous" ... as a
permanent element in human history and experience...' He suggests that these reflexions link up with his interest in Spiritualism, and that together they may throw a light on the origin of all religions.
In the summer of 1867 Sidgwick was staying in London and he had many experiences of spiritualistic phenomena. Some of them were impressive, but he could never get absolutely satisfactory evidential conditions. During this period he happened to meet Mazzini at a dinner party, and he was greatly interested by a story of a collective hallucination, due to mass-suggestion, which Mazzini related to him from his own experience. The case is described in a footnote to Chapter XVIII of
Phantasms of the Living (p. 477 of the abridged edition). It seems to he worth quoting. In or near some Italian town Mazzini saw a group of people standing gazing upwards into the sky. He went up to one of them and asked him what he was gazing at. 'The cross - do you not see it?' said the man, pointing to the place where the cross was supposed to be. Mazzini could see nothing in the least cruciform in the sky; but, on inquiring of others, he found that they also thought they were seeing a cross. At length Mazzini happened to notice one gazer who looked rather more intelligent than the rest, and also seemed to have a faint air of doubt and perplexity. Mazzini went up to him and asked him what he was looking at. 'The cross,' he said, 'there.' Mazzini took hold of his arm, gave him a slight shake, and said to him: 'There is not any cross at all.' A change came over the gazer's face as if he were waking from a kind of dream, and he answered: 'No, as you say, there is no cross at all.' He then walked away with Mazzini, leaving the rest of the crowd to enjoy their collective hallucination. Sidgwick always remained greatly impressed with the importance of this story in relation to the evidence for the ostensibly supernormal physical phenomena of Spiritualism.
From 1869 onwards Sidgwick began to be associated with Myers in a common interest in psychical research. In the very eloquent and moving memoir of Sidgwick which Myers contributed to Vol. XV of the
Proceedings he states that it was during a star-light walk in Cambridge, on 3rd December 1869, that he broached the subject to Sidgwick and determined, if possible, henceforth to pursue the elusive quarry with the latter as his guide. Myers had read classics with Sidgwick as his private tutor when he came up to Trinity as an undergraduate in 1860. The occasion of the visit to Cambridge in December 1869, from which he dates the beginning of their co-operation as psychical researchers, was the fact that Myers was then examining for the Moral Sciences Tripos. The first mention of such co-operation in Sidgwick's published letters is in a letter to Myers dated 30th October 1873. The following passage is so characteristic as to be well worth quoting: 'As for spirit-rapping I am in exactly the same mind towards it as towards religion. I believe there is something in it, don't know what, have tried hard to discover, and find that I always paralyse the phenomena. My taste is strongly affected by the obvious humbug mixed with it, which at the same time my reason does not overestimate.'
In 1871 Sir William Crookes had published, in the Quarterly Journal of Science and elsewhere, an account of his experimental researches in the physical phenomena of Spiritualism. He wrote further articles about it in 1874 and in the same year Alfred Russell Wallace had published in the
Fortnightly Review a paper entitled 'A Defence of Modern Spiritualism'. Sidgwick, writing to his mother on 11th July 1874, said:
'No one should pronounce on the prima facie case for serious investigation - this is really all that I maintain on behalf of Spiritualism - who has not read Crookes's
Researches.' Sidgwick and Myers now started to investigate together, and they formed a small association for the purpose, which was a kind of forerunner of the
SPR Edmund Gurney, who was to become one of the most active and important workers in the
SPR, was at first hesitant at joining and contented himself with giving his warmest sympathy to this association. However, A. J. Balfour and Lord Rayleigh both joined, and experiments were conducted in their homes. It was in the course of these experiments that Sidgwick met the sister of A. J. Balfour, whom he afterwards married.
These experiments were subsequently described by Mrs. Sidgwick in an excellent article in Vol. IV of the
Proceedings entitled 'The Physical Phenomena of Spiritualism'. The mediums concerned in 1874 were Miss Showers, Mrs. Jencken
(nee Kate Fox), and Miss Eva Fay. In the first three months of 1875 Sidgwick, Myers, and Gurney had sittings for materialization at Newcastle with Miss Wood and Miss Fairlamb, and they had another series of sittings with the same mediums in London later in the year. Mrs. Sidgwick was not present at these, but she was present at a further series held in London in July and in Cambridge during August and September. These two mediums quarrelled and separated some time during the year 1876, and the final sittings, which the Sidgwicks held at Newcastle in January 1877, had to be conducted with Miss Wood and Miss Fairlamb separately. In 1874, and again in 1876, Sidgwick had a series of sittings with a medium called Williams. Sidgwick and Mrs. Sidgwick had some sittings in the summer of 1876 with a young and palpably fraudulent Mr. Bullock, who, as Mrs. Sidgwick dryly remarks: 'may have acted wisely in his own interests when he gave up the career of medium and took to that of exposer of Spiritualism, as he did six or seven months later'. In the same year the celebrated Dr. Slade came to London. It was reported that his control by four-dimensional spirits had enabled him to tie knots in a bit of string whose ends had been sealed together by the German psychologist Fechner. He also specialized in causing writing to appear inside a locked double slate in answer to questions put by sitters. The Sidgwicks had ten sittings with him for slate-writing. Mrs. Sidgwick also had three sittings with Eglinton, another famous slate-writing medium of the period.
The results of all this work with paid professional mediums for physical phenomena may be fairly summarized as follows: Many of the sittings were complete blanks. In some fraud was actually detected and in some there were circumstances which made it almost certain that fraud had been practised. In the very few cases where it looked as if a positive supernormal effect had been obtained there was always some unfortunate breakdown in some part of the control, or some diversion of the sitters' attention by external interruption, which made it possible to account for the phenomenon by normal causes. The course of Sidgwick's disillusionment and disgust may be traced in his letters during this period. Writing to Myers at the end of 1874 he remarks that he has had to drop Mrs. Jencken and will now have to drop Miss Fay out of his 'case for Spiritualism'. He adds the following remarks: 'What induces me, not to abandon, but to restrict, my spiritualistic investigations is not their disagreeableness (they have never been other than disagreeable so far as paid mediums are concerned) but their persistent and singular frustration.' The subsequent experiences of the
SPR with physical mediums have emphasized the 'persistence' and diminished the 'singularity' of such frustration.
In the autumn of 1876 Professor Ray Lankester instituted criminal proceedings against Dr. Slade, whom he claimed to have detected in fraud. Sidgwick expected, though he did not desire, to be
subpoenaed by Ray Lankester's lawyers. Writing on this matter to Dakyns on 10th October 1876, Sidgwick says that, so far as his own experience goes, he would unhesitatingly pronounce
against Slade. But he admits that there is testimony for him which he would like to see examined in a court of law.
This whole period of Sidgwick's dealings with psychical research is well summed up in the following passage from a letter which he wrote to Roden Noel on 24th June 1878. 'I have not quite given up Spiritualism, but my investigation of it is a very dreary and disappointing chapter in my life.'
We come now to the revival of Sidgwick's interest which led to his consenting to take an active part in founding and guiding the
SPR. This was due to the apparent success of certain experiments in thought-transference which Professor William Barrett had been carrying out at Dublin. At Barrett's instigation a conference was convened, and it met on 6th January 1882. At this conference the
SPR was planned. It was to include persons of all shades of opinion, from sceptical scientists who were reasonable enough to admit that there was a
prima facie case for investigation to convinced Spiritualists who were reasonable enough to admit that there was a great deal of fraud and imposture and self-deception to be eliminated. Barrett represented the scientific wing and Stainton Moses the spiritualistic wing. Myers tells us that he and Gurney, whilst heartily approving the general scheme, consented to join if, and only if, Sidgwick would do so and would consent to be President. They encouraged him to undertake this task, but it was only after considerable hesitation that he accepted. There were strong and respectable motives against doing so. Why should
he spend more of his time and energy, both of which were very fully occupied in work immediately beneficial to his fellow-men, in order, as Myers puts it, 'to get the moon for a child who had not even cried for it'? Orthodox believers did not want their special revelation to be shown to be part of a wider system; and orthodox scientists treated the whole matter at best with compassion and at worst with contempt. On the other hand, Sidgwick had never considered that the original question, which he had spent so much time and trouble in investigating with so little result, had been answered in the negative by his abortive researches in the mediumistic underworld. There had never been any moment at which he had felt that he had the right to abandon further investigation of the subject. And he had certain positive motives, connected with his religious, ethical, and philosophical perplexities, for wishing the question at issue to be settled definitely in one direction or the other. To these motives we shall return at a later stage.
At present it will suffice to say that eventually Sidgwick consented to join the
SPR and to be its first President. His entry carried with it the adhesion to the Society of several others who were destined to play a most important part in its life and work. It brought in Mrs. Sidgwick, her brothers Arthur and Gerald Balfour, and her brother-in-law, Lord Rayleigh, and, as we have already seen, it was the condition without which the Society would have lacked the inestimable services of Edmund Gurney and
Frederic Myers. Moreover, the fact that Sidgwick, whose reputation for sanity, truthfulness, and fairness was well known to everyone who mattered in England, was at the head of the Society gave it an intellectual and moral status which was invaluable at the time. It was hardly possible to maintain, without writing oneself down as an ass, that a society over which Sidgwick presided and in whose work he was actively interested consisted of knaves and fools concealing superstition under the cloak of scientific verbiage. Needless to say, this feat was not found to exceed the capacity of some critics; but, with almost anyone else as President, their numbers would have been far greater and their influence might have sufficed to kill the Society in its infancy.
Sidgwick gave his inaugural address to the SPR on 17th July 1882. He delivered a second presidential address on
9th December of the same year, and a third on 18th July 1883. These will be found in Vol. I of the
Proceedings. Vol. II contains another presidential address delivered on 28th May 1884. He resigned the Presidentship in 1885, thinking that the Society could now profit from a change, but at the same time he undertook the editorship of the
Journal. His successor in the presidential chair was Balfour Stewart.
During the year 1884 the SPR appointed a committee to take evidence in London from leading members of the Theosophical Society about the marvellous phenomena alleged to have taken place in India in connexion with Madame Blavatsky and certain other members of her sect. Madame Blavatsky, Colonel Olcott, and a Brahmin disciple called Mohini spent some months in London and gave evidence to this committee. Sidgwick as President was
ex officio a member. The Theosophical contingent visited Cambridge early in August, attended a meeting in Oscar Browning's rooms in King's, and were entertained to luncheon by Myers. The Sidgwicks rather liked Madame Blavatsky, who was evidently an engaging old humbug with a rich and racy personality and full of courage and resource. They found her, it is true, externally unattractive and not prepossessing in manner; and indeed her habit of smoking incessant cigarettes and indulging in relatively strong language, though it would pass unnoticed in our more enlightened age, could hardly fail to attract unfavourable attention in a Cambridge drawing-room of the eighteen-eighties. Sidgwick says of her in his diary for August 10th: 'If she is a humbug, she is a consummate one; as her remarks have the air not only of spontaneity and randomness but of an amusing indiscretion.' (She had referred to a certain Mahatma, a class of beings for whom the Theosophists entertained the highest reverence, as 'the most utter dried-up old mummy' that she ever saw.)
The Theosophical sub-committee issued a balanced interim report which was privately printed and circulated to members of the
SPR. At the end of it they announced that Richard Hodgson was on his way to India to investigate and report at first hand. Hodgson completed his task and returned to England in April 1885. His evidence as to the fraudulent character of the Theosophical marvels was damning; though one could have wished that he had not had to rely so much on the revelations of two discharged employees of Madame Blavatsky who had quarrelled with her and were busily engaged in biting the hand which had not ungenerously fed them. The final report, embodying Hodgson's findings, was written mainly by Mrs. Sidgwick. It occupies a considerable part of Vol. III of the
Proceedings and is easily the most dramatic and entertaining bit of work that the Society has ever published.
During the latter part of 1884 Mrs. Sidgwick was working at the important paper on 'Phantasms of the Dead', which she read on 30th January 1885. It is published in Vol. III of the
Proceedings. In preparation for it Sidgwick investigated critically the numerous ghost-stories that had been sent to the
SPR, and in September 1884 he made a tour to interview persons who had contributed such stories. He says that the evidence is not so good as for phantasms of the living, and that out of about three hundred cases not more than twenty or thirty can be pronounced good. After returning from his tour of interviewing he remarks: 'The stories that become worse after oral examination are those that we had already judged to be objectionable, and some are decidedly improved by the examination.' His comment after Mrs. Sidgwick had read her paper was: 'It looks as if there was
some cause for persons experiencing independently in certain houses similar hallucinations. But we are not at present inclined to back ghosts against the field as
In the meanwhile, Myers, Gurney, and Podmore, were busily engaged in comminuting and refining those masses of crude ore from which the two volumes of
Phantasms of the Living were eventually smelted. This is undoubtedly an epoch-making work, in the strict sense that it laid the foundations of a new subject and still remains a classic indispensable to all students in its own field. Both Sidgwick and his wife were, of course, in constant touch with the authors at all stages of their work.
In June 1885 Myers read his introduction to Phantasms of the Living as a paper to the
SPR. Sidgwick's comments in his diary are of great interest.
'In the end', he says, 'if the SPR's work should all be negative, it will be regarded by sceptics as the last element of proof necessary to complete the case against Christianity and other historical religions. But
for a long time the only difference would be that those religions will have to
support their miracles instead of being supported by them. They can go on doing this for a long time until sociology has been really constructed and the scientist steps into the place of the priest.' The same thought is expressed in the following sentence of Myers's Obituary Notice on Sidgwick. 'It would be hard for future men to persuade themselves that what in ages of knowledge and clarity was seen to be fraud and illusion had yet been verity and revelation in the confused obscurity of he past.' Neither Sidgwick nor Myers could foresee that in another fifty years compulsory education would have produced throughout the civilized world a populace of literate imbeciles, ready to believe or to disbelieve anything with equal passion and unreason, and that science would have provided, in the cheap press and the wireless, an immensely powerful engine for generating irrational beliefs and disbeliefs at will. Before taking leave of this topic we may recall the remark in which Gibbon contrived to twit both the Jews and the Christians. Referring to the rejection, by the Jews of apostolic times, of those stupendous miracles which, according to the Christians, were happening under their very noses, Gibbon remarks: 'Contrary to every known principle of the human mind, that singular people seem to have attached a more explicit credence to the testimony of their remote ancestors than to the evidence of their own senses.'
Sidgwick's central position, and his oscillations about it, during this period are well brought out by the following quotations from his diary. On 3rd January 1886, after a meeting of the
SPR, which now had 600 members and associates and could, in his opinion, 'run without further nursing, he wrote as follows: 'I do not doubt that thought-transference is genuine, and I hope that it will soon be established beyond cavil; but 1 see no prospect of making any way in the far more interesting investigation of Spiritualism.' On March 7th of the same year, after listening to a mildly spiritualistic paper by Sir William Barrett, he wrote: 'I feel that the natural drift of my mind is now towards total incredulity in respect of extra-human intelligences. I have to remind myself forcibly of the arguments on the other side, just as a year ago I had to dwell deliberately on the sceptical argument to keep myself balanced.' On 28th January 1887 he wrote: 'I am drifting steadily to the conclusion that we have not and are not likely to have empirical evidence of the existence of the individual after death.' On 16th July 1888, after giving an address to the
SPR in which he pleaded for the collection of further cases of spontaneous telepathic action, he wrote: 'I have not much hope of our getting at positive results in any other department of our inquiry, but I am not yet hopeless of establishing telepathy.'
Even about telepathy, which he regarded as established to his own satisfaction, he was subject to the set-backs and disappointments which are the lot of the psychical researcher. In his diary for 29th November 1884, he writes: 'I am shaken in my view of the telepathic evidence by the breakdown of Sir E. H.'s narrative in the
Nineteenth Century. He tells an elaborate story of what happened to him less than ten years ago. His wife, who was an actor in it, confirms it. Her mother bears witness that the wife told her next morning. Yet the story is inaccurate in fundamental details - it is difficult to understand how any of it can be true.' Lastly, there was a sad disappointment in his experiments with Miss Relph at Liverpool. Sidgwick investigated her claims to telepathic powers in March 1887. On the 30th the results were so good that he was able to say 'they leave no doubt in my own mind that I had witnessed the real phenomena.' On March 31st the attempts to repeat the results under unexceptionable 'conditions' were a complete failure. Sidgwick still accepted the former results, but realized that they were not enough to convince an outsider.
On 25th June 1888 there befell one of the great tragedies of psychical research, viz. the sudden death, at a comparatively early age, of Edmund Gurney through an overdose of chloroform taken for neuralgia or insomnia. It was a terrible blow to the Sidgwicks personally, and it will be evident to anyone who has studied
Phantasms of the Living or read the admirable articles which Gurney contributed to the early volumes of the
Proceedings that his death was an irreparable loss to the Society and to the subject. Sidgwick had now become President of the
SPR for a second period after a considerable interval, and he delivered his presidential address on 16th July 1888, three weeks after Gurney's death. This brings us by a natural transition to the next important piece of work with which the Sidgwicks were closely concerned, viz. the SPR's
Census of Hallucinations.
Everyone is familiar with stories of the following kind. A has an hallucinatory visual, auditory, or tactual perception in which he seems to himself to be seeing or hearing or touching a certain friend or acquaintance
B. Afterwards, A learns that B was dying or in serious danger at the time when the hallucination was experienced. The
SPR was naturally inundated with stories of this kind and its first business was, of course, to weed out all the cases which might reasonably be explained by misreporting, exaggeration, errors of memory, normal expectation and inference, and so on. When this had been done there remained a substantial residue of such stories which appeared incapable of any normal explanation. As regards this residue only two alternatives were open. Either the approximate simultaneity between the hallucination in
A and the death or illness or accident in B was a mere coincidence, or there was some supernormal causal connexion between the two. It had been quite evident to Gurney that no rational decision between these two alternatives was possible except on a statistical basis. It was essential to know how frequently such hallucinatory experiences occur among sane waking persons in contemporary civilized societies. The more frequent they are, the more likely it is that some of them will happen to coincide with the death or danger of the person whom they concern. Now this was a subject on which no reliable statistics existed at the time. In
Phantasms of the Living he had attempted an estimate of the frequency of such hallucinations among contemporary Englishmen from the data at his disposal. He had come to the conclusion that, whilst they are much commoner than one would have been inclined to believe, they are not nearly common enough to make it reasonable to regard those which turn out to be veridical as mere chance coincidences. But he was well aware that the question could never be satisfactorily settled until a direct statistical inquiry on a very large scale had been made in order to determine the frequency of such experiences, veridical and delusive, among the population.
Sidgwick was most anxious that such an inquiry should be carried out, both because of its extreme scientific importance and because it would round off the work of his dead friend and colleague. Accordingly he induced the
SPR to appoint a committee, consisting of himself, Mrs. Sidgwick, Myers, Podmore, and Miss Alice Johnson, in order to undertake a census by means of a questionnaire. The collection of statistics went on steadily between the spring of 1889 and that of 1894. It entailed an immense amount of very tedious work. Sidgwick introduced the subject to the Society in a special address on 8th July 1889, in which he explained the importance of the census, asked for volunteer collectors, and pointed out the precautions which ought to be taken. He gave a second address on the subject on 11th July 1890, in which he reports the progress already made, urges the members of the Society to fresh efforts, and comments on certain types of hallucination which have been reported. In the summer of 1889 the Sidgwicks attended an international congress of psychologists at Paris. Owing to the presence of Richet, whom Sidgwick had first met in October 1885 and had greatly liked, there was much discussion on psychical research. The congress gave its sanction to a census of hallucinations on the same lines as that conducted in England by the
The SPR committee published its final report in Vol. X of the Proceedings. It occupies about 400 pages and is a most masterly production. It was written mainly by Mrs. Sidgwick and Miss Johnson, in close consultation with Sidgwick himself. The upshot of the inquiry was as follows. About one visual hallucination in sixty-three occurs within a period of twenty-four hours round about the death of the person whose apparition has been 'seen'. If such death-coincidences were purely fortuitous concurrences of causally independent events the proportion would be about one in
nineteen thousand. There is a most elaborate and careful discussion of the fallacies to which such statistics are liable, and a very clear and detailed statement of the precautions which the committee took to avoid them. Anyone who now argues airily on this subject without having studied this report is merely wasting his own and his hearer's time. Yet
I venture to doubt whether so much as one per cent of the teachers and students of experimental psychology in this country have ever troubled to flutter the pages of what is, on any view, a unique and meticulously careful contribution to an important branch of their subject.
From the spring of 1885 onwards the Sidgwicks had from time to time taken part in experiments on thought-transference in connexion with hypnotized subjects. Sidgwick records visits to Brighton for this purpose on 22nd March and 4th July 1885. On 10th January 1887 he mentions the abortive conclusion of a week's investigation of a professional mesmerist, Mr. D., who pretended to transmit ideas to his mesmeric 'subject'. In spite of the fact that Mr. D. had been a French master in a school and had a brother who was a Cambridge graduate and a clerk in Holy Orders, he was detected by Richard Hodgson using a code which depended on the variations in the subject's breathing. A much more important series of hypnotic experiments was carried out in the summer of 1889 with Mr. G. A. Smith as hypnotist and telepathic agent, and two young clerks, whom he mesmerized, as telepathic percipients. The results of these experiments formed the subject of an article in Vol. VI of the SPR's
Proceedings. The successes were altogether beyond chance, and in view of the precautions taken it is difficult to think of any normal explanation for them. Further experiments with the same hypnotist and the same subjects were carried out by Mrs. Sidgwick and Miss Alice Johnson in the years 1890, 1891, and 1892. The report of them will be found in Vol. VIII of the
Proceedings. The results are, in some respects, more remarkable, since successes well above chance were scored with Smith and his subjects in different rooms.
A sequel to these hypnotic experiments was the occasion for Sidgwick's last contribution to the
Proceedings. Two Danish psychologists, Messrs. Lehmann and Hansen of Copenhagen, published in Wundt's
Philosophische Studien a long paper describing their experiments on what they called 'involuntary whispering'. Now most of the work on transference of ideas which Sidgwick and his wife had done with Mr. Smith and his subjects was concerned with guessing two-digit numbers printed on discs which Smith drew from a bag and concentrated his attention upon. On the basis of the Copenhagen experiments Messrs. Lehmann and Hansen claimed to show that the degree of success scored by Smith's hypnotized subjects could be explained by supposing that Smith involuntarily whispered the numbers as he concentrated his attention upon them, and that his subjects were in a state of auditory hyperaesthesia.
As a matter of fact, the Sidgwicks had carefully considered this possibility and had discussed it elaborately in their first report in Vol. VI of the
Proceedings. Moreover, in the second series of experiments, reported in Vol. VIII, a significant degree of success had been scored when Smith was out of the room and on a different floor from that occupied by the percipients. Nevertheless, Sidgwick thought that Messrs. Lehmann and Hansen's suggestions were important enough to merit serious attention, since they certainly threw fresh light on the hypothesis of unconscious whispering.
He began by repeating the experiments, in a somewhat simplified form, with his wife and Miss Johnson. They found that in all cases the whispering was completely
voluntary, and they detected in themselves no trace of that tendency to involuntary whispering which the Danish psychologists had alleged to be the natural accompaniment of attempts to concentrate on a number. But they verified the Copenhagen claims to the following extent. They found that it was quite possible for a person
deliberately to whisper in such a way that an observer who fixed his attention on that person's
mouth and lips could neither see nor hear any signs of whispering at a distance of two feet. And yet, at a distance of eighteen inches between this person's mouth and a percipient's ear, the percipient could hear enough of the agent's whispering to score a considerable amount of success in his guesses. It is therefore reasonable to assume that,
if the hypnotic agent whispered in this special way, a hypnotized subject, in special
rapport with him, might hear distinctly at a considerably greater distance without any sign of whispering being audible or visible to third parties. Sidgwick noted that if an observer directed his attention to the
neck and throat of the whisperer, instead of his mouth and lips, the fact that whispering was taking place became obvious. Accordingly he undertook some further experiments with Smith, concentrating his attention on the latter's neck and throat without telling Smith that he was doing so. He used as percipient Mrs. Verrall, who had practised detecting whispering with Mrs. Sidgwick and Miss Johnson. The result was completely negative. Sidgwick could see no special movements in Smith's neck and throat, and Mrs. Verrall could hear no whispers coming from Smith.
Sidgwick published these results in an important note on 'Involuntary Whispering' which he contributed to Vol. XII of the
Proceedings. After stating his experimental conclusions, he undertook an elaborate statistical analysis of the mistakes which had been made in guessing numbers in the hypnotic experiments and in Messrs. Lehmann and Hansen's researches. He claimed to show that the distribution of mistakes among the Copenhagen guesses closely resembled the distribution of mistakes among the guesses made by the English hypnotized subjects on their
unsuccessful days, when their scores were plainly due to chance. He ascribed this similarity to a likeness in number-habits between the English and the Danish subjects. Whilst I accept Sidgwick's conclusion that it is most unlikely that the success of the hypnotic experiments can be explained by involuntary whispering, I am not altogether satisfied with his statistical argument and I should like to see the whole subject treated again by modern statistical methods which have become available since Sidgwick's day.
The rest of Sidgwick's activities in connexion with psychical research can be very briefly described. They were concerned with the physical medium, Eusapia Palladino, and the mental medium, Mrs. Piper. In the summer of 1894 Myers and Sir Oliver Lodge, in company with Richet, were investigating Eusapia at Ile Roubaud. They wrote to Sidgwick stating that they thought they had got physical phenomena under test conditions. He and Mrs. Sidgwick therefore went out to France. The phenomena, as usual in their presence, became less striking, but at the time he was almost convinced that some of them were genuinely supernormal. In August 1895 Eusapia stayed at Myers's house in Cambridge and was subjected to an elaborate investigation. The Sidgwicks concluded that her phenomena were fraudulent, and that they were produced by a certain trick which was suspected at an early stage and was worked out in detail by Hodgson. It is significant that Eusapia steadily refused to comply with conditions which would have excluded the use of this method.
The discovery of Mrs. Piper in Boston by Professor William James was the beginning of an important new stage in the development of psychical research and the work of the Society. Her mediumship has been of the utmost importance because it gave results which are quite certainly supernormal and which seem,
prima facie, to be very difficult to explain without going beyond telepathy from the living. It is roughly true to say that Sidgwick's death happened at a transition point in the history of the subject. In the past were the comparatively straightforward problems of the experimental and statistical establishment of the transference of simple concrete ideas and emotions. In the future lay the subtle and complex problems of cross-correspondences, book-tests, and so on, in which we are still immersed. Mrs. Piper's mediumship is the connecting link between the two stages, and Sidgwick lived only long enough to participate in the very early phases of the investigation. Myers and others invited Mrs. Piper to England in the winter of 1889, and she stayed until the spring of 1890. Sidgwick took a prominent part in the investigations. He had no success in his own sittings with her, but he was much impressed by the experiences of some of his friends. Subsequent work with Mrs. Piper was mainly conducted in the U.S.A. under the direction of Richard Hodgson.
Mrs. Sidgwick survived her husband for many years and maintained up to the end her active interest in the Society and her invaluable work on the subject. We have her own authority for stating that, in her opinion, the evidence as a whole provides an adequate ground for believing that human beings survive bodily death. One would give a great deal to know whether the facts which became available after 1900 would have caused Sidgwick himself to accept so positive a conclusion.
Having supplied the reader with a fairly adequate history of Sidgwick's dealings with psychical research, I will now say something about the nature and extent of his contributions to the subject. His own estimate of his capacities is characteristically modest and accurate. It is recorded in an entry in his diary for 11th September 1884. He thinks that he has a mind much better qualified for seeing relations in the history of thought than for suggesting hypotheses in psychical research. 'I don't feel the least gift', he says, 'for making a legitimate hypothesis as to the causes of the phenomena, and I am too unobservant and unimaginative about physical events to be at all good at evaluating particular bits of evidence... To tell whether a "psychical" experiment or narrative is good or not, evidentially, requires one to imagine with adequate accuracy and exhaustiveness the various possibilities of "natural" causation of the phenomenon, and judge the degree of improbability of each. Nora is much better at all this than I am...' This extremely high and very just appreciation of Mrs. Sidgwick's powers is reiterated on 2nd May 1894, where he says that his only reason for doubting whether she was right in accepting the Principalship of Newnham is that he fears 'that she may not find time for the work of the
SPR', for which, he says, 'I think her uniquely fit - much more fit than I am'. He thinks that in psychical research the one function that he can exercise is the judicial. 'I feel equal to classifying and to some extent weighing the evidence, so far as it depends on general considerations.'
Making due allowance for Sidgwick's natural modesty and generosity, I think that this estimate of his powers is essentially correct so far as it goes. His main contribution to psychical research did not consist in making ingenious experiments or suggesting fruitful and far-reaching hypotheses. It consisted in the weight which his known intelligence and integrity gave to the serious study of the subject, in the tact and patience with which he handled the very difficult team which he had to lead rather than to drive, in the extremely high standard of evidence which he inculcated both by example and by precept, in his courage and persistence in face of repeated failure when success seemed almost within reach, and in the general maxims which he laid down in his various addresses to the
SPR. It will be worth our while to consider in some detail the teachings of Sidgwick's presidential addresses, for they are still highly relevant to contemporary conditions.
The first three are concerned with the raison d'etre of the SPR, with certain criticisms which had been made on the very idea of such a society, and with the nature of the evidence which already exists and the further evidence which is required. When he occupied the presidential chair for the second period he devoted his first two addresses to a survey of the work of the
SPR since its beginning, an account of the modification which experience had shown to be necessary in the original plan of campaign, and an answer to certain criticisms to which it had been subjected from various quarters. His third presidential address of this period was explicitly concerned with the
Canons of Evidence in Psychical Research.
According to Sidgwick the fundamental cause of the characteristic difficulty and controversy which attaches to psychical research is the fact that we are called upon to weigh one improbability against another. We have to balance the antecedent improbability of the events reported against the antecedent improbability that sane and respectable witnesses should be lying or should be deceived in relevant respects. Now there is no rule for estimating the antecedent improbability of such events as the reported physical phenomena of mediumship, hauntings, telepathy, clairvoyance, etc. We have no means of telling what proportion the facts that we know about the 'habits' of matter and of mind bears to the facts of which we are still ignorant. As regards the reliability of witnesses and their reports there are some general rules. When normal people, with no obvious motives for deception, testify to quite
ordinary events we do not raise questions about the probability of their testimony being false. But in the law courts, if the testimony of
two such persons to a quite ordinary event conflicts, we do raise this question. For a precisely similar reason we must raise it when a witness, however intelligent and respectable, testifies to an
extraordinary event. Now it is known that the main sources of error are the following:
1) alteration and heightening of a story that passes through a chain of narrators;
2) errors of memory even in first-hand reports; 3) failure to observe relevant details and tendency to mistake inferences for observations;
4) lastly, if another person beside the witness was present he may have produced an illusion in the witness's mind. Therefore we have to consider (a) any facts about the observer which might tend to make him the victim of an illusion, and (b) any facts about the second person which make it likely that he was able or willing to produce an illusion in the witness.
In Sidgwick's opinion two important consequences follow. In the first place, it is plain that in every case the probabilities can be only vaguely estimated, and in many cases they must be estimated differently by different people according to their knowledge of beliefs about the character of the persons concerned. Therefore great and irreconcilable differences of opinion are inevitable, and it is useless to bewail them and unreasonable to complain of the slow rate at which the subject progresses.
Secondly, all talk of 'crucial' experiments, 'knock-down' proofs or disproofs, 'completely water-tight' cases, is futile. We must make each individual experiment and report as 'water-tight' as we can, and we must go on accumulating more and more such cases. Neither quality alone nor quantity alone will produce conviction; nothing will do so except a constant stream of cases in which the evidence is of the highest quality.
Since this is a matter about which there is still frequent discussion in our Society, and since Sidgwick seems to me to have said exactly the right things about it, I propose to state his views in rather more detail. First, as regards quantity and the need for a constant supply of fresh cases. In no single case, Sidgwick says, can the admissibility of normal explanations be absolutely excluded. This is impossible 'even in the case of our own most conclusive experiments, when regarded from the point of view of the outside public. For all records of experiments must depend ultimately on the probity and intelligence of the persons recording them; and it is impossible for us or any other investigators to demonstrate to persons who do not know us that we are not idiotically careless or consciously mendacious.' It is sometimes alleged that the SPR's demand for quantity shows that the quality of the available evidence is poor. This is not true. The quality of much of it is very good; it would be regarded without hesitation as conclusive if the alleged facts were not antecedently so improbable. The need for accumulating evidence is in order to swamp the antecedent improbability of the events to which it bears witness.
There are two other points which may conveniently be treated under this head of quantity. The first is a warning which Sidgwick gave to the Society soon after the publication of
Phantasms of the Living. Many members were inclined then, and I suspect that still more are inclined now, to regard the case for spontaneous telepathy as established, and to think that it is not worth while to trouble to collect and investigate fresh alleged instances of it. Sidgwick pointed out the extreme folly of this tendency to be at case in Sion. Unless a fairly constant stream of well-attested cases is produced sceptics will certainly argue as follows: 'On the basis of the statistics which you published in
Phantasms of the Living and in the Census of Hallucinations there should be roughly so many fresh cases in England every year. If there were, you would, presumably, receive and publish a fair proportion of them. Since you do not, it is reasonable to suppose that they do not happen nearly so frequently as the Early Fathers of your Society alleged. And so the statistical case which they built up may be dismissed.' No doubt it is
logically cogent to answer: 'We don't get such cases, simply because our members, regarding spontaneous telepathy as an established fact, don't bother to look for them, or to investigate those which are brought to their notice, or to report those which they have noticed and investigated.' But, though logically satisfactory, this answer is quite useless for the practical purpose of convincing
The other point which may, with a little stretching, be brought under the head of quantity of evidence is the following. Critics in the very early days of the
SPR constantly said, as they constantly say now, that no experimental result will satisfy them unless it can be reproduced at will in the presence of any number of sceptical observers. To this Sidgwick makes the obviously sensible answer that, whilst we should all be delighted to have evidence of this kind, we have no right to assume that it must be attainable. (To take an example from important physiological work which has been done since Sidgwick's day, it was only with enormous difficulty that Pavlov was able to secure such complete uniformity in the internal and external conditions of the animals on which he experimented that his experiments gave uniform results. And the presence of a stranger, or even of the experimenter himself, completely upsets the reaction of the animal, although this takes only the very simple form of salivation. It is at least as likely that thought-transference, if it happens at all, depends on a peculiar relation between agent and percipient which is very easily upset, as that the salivation of dogs in Pavlov's experiments is partly dependent on a whole complex of background conditions which can be kept constant only with great difficulty.)
We can now leave the subject of quantity and pass to Sidgwick's views about the quality of evidence which the
SPR should demand. He is perfectly clear that a mere accumulation of inferior evidence is of no use. In each single experiment, he says, 'we have done all that we can. When the critic has nothing left to allege except that the investigator is in the trick. But, when he has nothing left to allege, he will allege that.' No evidence should be published until it reaches that degree of cogency. 'We must drive the objector into the position of being forced either to admit the phenomena as inexplicable, at least by him, or to accuse the investigators either of lying or cheating or of a blindness or forgetfulness incompatible with any intellectual condition except absolute idiocy.' These quotations are taken from Sidgwick's presidential address of 17th July 1882. He returned to the topic in his address of 10th May 1889, and I will quote one sentence from the latter. 'My highest ambition in psychical research is to produce evidence which will drive my opponents to doubt my honesty or veracity. I think that there is a very small minority of persons who will
not doubt them, and that, if I can convince them, I have done all that I can do. As regards the majority even of my own acquaintances I should claim no more than an admission that they were considerably surprised to find me in the trick.'
There is one other remark made by Sidgwick which is worth mentioning because it still has constant application. In his presidential address of 18th July 1883, he refers to various normal explanations of ostensibly supernormal phenomena. After detailing these, and saying that every one of them is a
vera causa which must be excluded before we can seriously consider any claim to supernormality, he proceeds to make the following highly pertinent remark. It is a very common fallacy to put forward a normal explanation which accounts very satisfactorily for nine-tenths of the phenomena of a certain kind, but fails to account for the remaining one-tenth which are equally well attested; and then either to ignore this recalcitrant residue or to reject the reports of it and claim that one's normal explanation covers all the facts. As Sidgwick says: 'It is not a scientific way of dealing with testimony to explain what you can and say that the rest is untrue. It may be common sense, but it is not science.' He cites as an example Faraday's well-known explanation of table-turning. This is a valuable explanation of
most of the phenomena. But there are well-attested stories of tables moving
without contact or rising wholly off the ground, and, if a single one of these is true, Faraday's theory does not fit all the facts. It seems to me that Sidgwick here puts his finger on a besetting weakness of the late Mr. Podmore, and that that distinguished member of our Society has left spiritual descendants who are with us at this day.
No account of Sidgwick's dealings with psychical research would be complete if it ignored the ethical and religious motives which influenced him in taking it up and in persisting with it. I will therefore conclude my paper with a brief account of this factor in his life.
We must begin by reminding ourselves that Sidgwick was the son of a clergyman, that he was brought up as an Anglican Christian, and that it was not until his twenty-second or twenty-third year that he finally abandoned the idea of taking Orders. Next, we must remember that reports of miraculous events play two parts in Christianity, one being absolutely essential and the other useful but dispensable. Christianity differs from most of the other great religions of mankind in the following way. An essential part of its doctrine consists in propositions about the nature and unique status in the universe
of its own Founder. Therefore certain miracles, such as his reported resurrection and his subsequent appearances to the apostles, are
parts of Christian doctrine, and not merely parts of the evidence for Christianity. Other alleged miracles, such as those performed by Christ during His ministry or by the apostles afterwards, are in a different position. If every one of them were rejected, no single doctrine of Christianity would need to be modified in the smallest degree. The importance of these miracles, if genuine, is evidential. The fact that Christ was able to perform them, and that he was able to convey to His apostles the power to perform similar, if somewhat less spectacular, miracles, is held to be strong confirmation of the Christian doctrine about his unique nature and metaphysical status. Now in England, when Sidgwick was a young man, enormous stress was laid on the New Testament miracles as evidence for the truth of Christianity. But it is alleged by followers of other religions that similar miracles have occurred in connexion with them, by Roman Catholics that such miracles have continued in their Church without cessation from apostolic times up to the present day, and by Spiritualists that they are happening here and now in mediumistic seances. These allegations placed the standard Protestant argument from the New Testament miracles in an extremely awkward dilemma for anyone as
clear-sighted as Sidgwick. Either the New Testament miracles were unique or they were not. If they were unique, they would, no doubt, provide an unique support for Christianity against its rivals. But, in that case, the whole burden would ultimately rest on the trustworthiness of the stories recorded in the New Testament and the untrustworthiness of all the innumerable similar stories told in connexion with other religions and by contemporary Spiritualists. If they were not unique, it might be much easier to accept them as rare but not unparalleled phenomena. But then they could provide no
special evidence for the truth of specifically Christian doctrine.
Sidgwick's earlier struggles, like those of most of his intelligent contemporaries, were to disengage himself from the first horn of this dilemma. He had been deeply impressed in 1862 by reading Renan's
Etudes d'Histoire Religieuse, and he set himself to learn Hebrew and Arabic in order to make a comparative historical study of religion. In a latter to A. J. Balfour written in 1897, describing his position in the sixties, he says that what he then wanted in theology was that the evidences for historical Christianity should be examined with complete scientific impartiality 'as a duly instructed rational being from another planet (or, let us say, from China) would naturally weigh them'. Looking back, we can see that the result was a foregone conclusion. By the middle sixties Sidgwick had reached the position that no religion which depended on the correctness of historical statements about mysterious events in a foreign country and a remote period could possibly reach the evidential standard which he demanded. Writing to Dakyns at the end of 1864, he says: 'I have never before freed my innermost consciousness from the thraldom of a historical belief. Long after the belief had gone the impression remained that it was all important to have a view on the historical question.' Now he has reached the conclusion that there has been enough study of the Bible. What is needed is a comparative study of the mystical and of ecstasy; the remote past being always subordinated to the present.
In 1869 Sidgwick resigned his fellowship, but he stated at the same time, in a letter to Benson, that he had no desire to leave the Church of England. In 1870 he published a book on
The Ethics of Clerical Subscription. His mature views on this subject are clearly expressed in a letter which he wrote in May 1881 to J. R. Mozley in answer to a question which the latter had put to him. He said that a layman could conscientiously be a member of the Church of England, provided that he accepted the Apostles' Creed; but he added that no one could be said to accept this honestly unless he accepted the miraculous birth of Christ. Anyone who proposed to
take an office which involved membership of the Church of England would be dishonest in doing so if he doubted this dogma, and no bishop could dispense him. If, on the other hand, it were merely a question of taking part in the
worship and the sacraments of the Church of England as a private individual, a much laxer standard was permissible, and a bishop's permission might be highly relevant.
The religious position which Sidgwick had reached by the age of forty-two is very clearly stated in a letter which he wrote in the summer of 1880 to Major Carey, an old Rugbeian friend. The following are the essential points. It is now long since he could imagine himself believing Christianity after the orthodox fashion. He is not, indeed, inclined to reject the miraculous as such; but it is clear to him that, if you accept it in Christianity, you cannot reject it off-hand in other religions or in modern Spiritualism. For many years past he has not thought of Christianity except as the creed of his friends, fellow-countrymen, etc. As regards Theism, he says: 'I don't know whether I
believe or only hope that there is a moral order in the universe ... a supreme principle of Wisdom and Benevolence guiding all things to good ends and to the happiness of the good. I
hope this. I don't think it can be proved. No opposed explanation of the origin of the cosmos - e.g. the atomistic theory - seems to me even plausible. And I cannot accept life on any other terms or construct a rational system of my own conduct except on the basis of this faith.' He recognizes that his correspondent might well say: 'The question is, not whether you would
like to believe in God, but whether the belief is true.' To this, Sidgwick says, he would answer by asking the following question: 'What guarantee have you for the fundamental beliefs of science except that they are consistent and harmonious with other beliefs that we find ourselves naturally impelled to hold?' And he would continue to argue his case as follows. 'This is precisely the relation which I find to exist between Theism and the whole system of my moral beliefs. Duty to me is as real as the physical world, though not apprehended in the same way; but all my apparent knowledge of duty falls into chaos if my belief in the moral government of the world is conceived to be overthrown.'
His position, then, may be summed up as follows. We cannot make an intellectually coherent system out of the data of sense-perception unless we interpret them in terms of certain general principles, such as the Uniformity of Nature and the Law of Universal Causation, which go beyond them and cannot be proved inductively from them. We cannot make an intellectually coherent system out of the data of our moral intuitions unless we interpret and supplement them in terms of Theism, which also cannot be proved from them. Now the latter data are as indubitable as the former, the demand for intellectual coherence is the same in both cases, and the principles required are not self-evident or capable of proof in either case. Logically and epistemologically there is complete parallelism. Either we have no right to make the postulate in either case or we have an equal right to make it in both. The one position which cannot be defended is to make the postulates demanded by science, and then, in spite of or even because of this, to refuse to make the postulates demanded by morality.
Some further very interesting information about Sidgwick's religious beliefs and doubts is contained in the letter of May 1881 to J. R. Mozley, which I have already quoted, and in another letter of 1890-1 to the same correspondent, who had showed him some letters from Cardinal Newman. In the former communication Sidgwick says that he is not prepared to admit that the experience of Christians that prayers for spiritual help are often answered is an adequate ground for believing in the objective reality of a sympathizing and answering Spirit. He also makes the following important point. We must distinguish, he says, between the following three questions: (i)
Has Christianity in the past been beneficial or indispensable to human progress? (ii) Is it so
now and is it likely to be so in future? (iii) Is it true? He thinks that there is very little logical connexion between the second and third of these questions. He would be prepared to admit that, if it could be shown that Christianity
would always be indispensable to human progress, this would be a prima facie ground for thinking it likely to be true. But he sees no reason to believe that it always will be indispensable; though he is inclined to think that, if the general belief in it were to break down now or in the immediate future, the results would be disastrous.
In the second letter to Mozley he sums up his attitude to Christianity as follows. Some form of optimism is indispensable for progressive humanity as a whole, though not for every progressive individual. The theistic form of optimism is the most attractive and intelligible for most people. There is no adequate rational basis for
any form of optimism; and so the theistic form is, in this respect, no worse off than any other. He thinks that theism will survive, because it is needed; and, if it does so, it will be because of the support which it still obtains among Europeans from the traditional belief in Christianity. For his own part, Sidgwick says, he 'has taken service with reason and has no intention of deserting'. But he confesses that, if he yielded to his hankerings after optimism, it is likely that the last exercise of his reason would be to submit himself to the authority of the Church of Rome. If he were to submit himself to
any external authority, he would have no hesitation, on broad historic grounds, in choosing the Roman Church.
One more quotation, this time from a note which Sidgwick wrote in 1895-6 to Lord Tennyson about his father's
In Memoriam, must be given as illustrating his reflexions at the end of his life on the religious controversies of his early manhood. In the sixties, he says, men were absorbed in struggling for freedom of thought in the trammels of an historical religion. Now
that struggle is over. 'Freedom is won, and what does freedom bring us to? It brings us face to face with atheistic science. The faith in God and immortality, which we had been struggling to free from superstition, suddenly seems to be
in the air; and, in seeking for a firm basis for this faith, we find ourselves in the midst of the "fight with death" which
In Memoriam so powerfully presents.'
We have now before us a fairly clear picture of Sidgwick's religious struggles and their outcome. Most intelligent and conscientious Englishmen of his generation went through similar struggles, but hardly any of them came out by the same gate as Sidgwick. Some took the path which Sidgwick tells us he was tempted to follow, and elected to 'open their mouths and shut their eyes' and swallow whatever the Pope might give them. A few, such as Frederic Harrison, who wanted the jam of Catholicism without the powder of Christianity, joined the Comtist Church, at one of whose reunions Huxley found 'three persons and no God'. Many more, of whom Huxley himself and W. K. Clifford were the most distinguished examples, found spiritual satisfaction in a kind of revivalistic agnosticism accompanied by much vigorous banging of the ethical tambourine. (Clifford's solemn excommunication of the eminent scientists who wrote the
Unseen Universe, and the exquisitely pompous ex cathedra pronouncement 'The world is made of atoms and ether, and there is no room in it for ghosts', may still be enjoyed as perfect examples of what Jeremy Bentham called (nonsense on stilts' and may still be used as warnings against attaching too much weight to the pontifications of contemporary scientific pundits.) Others, again, contrived to muddle themselves into a kind of Hegelian Christianity, in which everything turned into its opposite, and Materialism and Mentalism were resolved into a higher synthesis in the glow of which one felt it to be crude and ungentlemanly to raise concrete questions about historical events and contemporary phenomena.
It is noteworthy that all these exits, except the ever-open atri janua Ditis which Sidgwick was tempted and declined to take, are now utterly out of date and closed to contemporary men. It is inconceivable that any intelligent and instructed Englishman at the present day should find a solution of his religious or philosophical perplexities in Comtism, in revivalistic Agnosticism, or in Hegelianized Christianity. This suggests that Sidgwick's insight was deeper and his purview wider than those of his contemporaries, since they prevented him from accepting those solutions which satisfied so many of them and which can now be seen to have been delusive. But, it may be said, Sidgwick's own attitude (it cannot be called a 'solution') is just as much dated and just as impossible for ourselves as the alternatives which he rightly rejected. I shall make no attempt to discuss this very large question as a whole; but I will conclude my paper with some remarks on that part of it which is specially relevant to our subject, viz. the connexion between Sidgwick's religious and philosophical position, on the one hand, and his interest in psychical research on the other. In what follows I shall be stating my own opinions, and I shall be doing so dogmatically for the sake of brevity; but I believe that Sidgwick would have accepted them, in outline at any rate, and that a good case could be made out for them.
The physical data supplied by normal sense-perception and the mental data supplied by the introspection and observation of normal waking persons are the bases on which the whole system of natural science, including psychology, is built. In this vast coherent system there is not a single fact to suggest that consciousness ever occurs except in intimate connexion with certain highly specialized, complex, and delicate material systems, viz. the brains and nervous systems of living organisms. There are innumerable facts which show that, during the life of an organism, the nature and degree of consciousness associated with it vary concomitantly with the general health and the special physiological processes of that organism. If we confine our attention to this aspect of the case, we receive an overwhelming impression that consciousness is utterly and one-sidedly dependent, both for its existence and for its detailed manifestations, on brains and nervous systems and on processes in them.
When the philosopher comes to reflect on what the scientific specialist tends to ignore while he is engaged in his professional business, viz. the fact that the human individual is not only an object to be observed but is also the experimenter who devises tests and deliberately carries them out and the theorist who speculates and infers, he finds it very difficult to fit the two aspects of the whole into a single consistent picture. He also notices that no scientist, even when occupied in doing his professional work, ever regards himself or his colleagues for an instant as 'conscious automata'. Plainly there is some very thin ice with some ominous cracks in it.
Still confining our attention to perfectly normal phenomena whose occurrence no one would question, we notice that each of us, beside perceiving, acting upon, and thinking about the external world of material things, is constantly engaged in reflecting upon the actions, thoughts, desires, and emotions of himself and his fellow-men, and in making judgments about them which involve such predicates as 'right' and 'wrong', 'good' and 'evil', 'valid' and 'invalid', 'true' and 'false'. Such judgments are organized into more or less coherent systems with characteristic principles of their own, which are formulated in ethics and in logic. These facts about human nature are not particularly easy to unify with that 'conscious automaton' view of it which seems to be forced on us when we confine our attention to the aspects which are studied by the natural sciences.
At this stage we may, perhaps, be emboldened to put the following question to ourselves. Need we feel the slightest surprise at the palpable inadequacy of the account of human nature supplied by natural science? Natural science is concerned
only with the data of human sense-perception, and, for most purposes, only with the data supplied by the two senses of sight and touch. Even within this extremely limited region there is a further selection. It deals only with a normalized extract from the visual and tactual sensedata of normal waking men. Quite rightly, for its own purposes, it ignores the peripheral and the abnormal, the sense-data of dreams, of delirium, of persons under hypnosis, and so on. Since men are not merely sensitive beings, and since their peripheral and abnormal sense-data are just as genuine as their central and normal ones, why should one expect that an account of human nature based exclusively on this extract from an extract will be adequate? Echo, so far as I can judge, answers Why?
So far, it seems to me, we can get without going beyond common-sense reflexion on universally admitted facts and without making any appeal to ideals or emotions. The next step is as follows. We all know that in the past claims have been made by various persons to have had
supernormal experiences, in which they either gained knowledge of ordinary facts under extraordinary conditions or had revealed to them facts about the nature and destiny of mankind which could not be known by ordinary means. We also know that such claims are made by or for some of our contemporaries. If such claims related solely to the remote past, and if there had been no independent reason to question the adequacy of the account of human nature based on natural science, these stories might reasonably have been dismissed with a smile or a sigh. But, in the actual situation, there is a clear call to investigate such claims with scrupulous care when they are made by those of our contemporaries who cannot be summarily dismissed as knaves or fools. If any such claims by them should survive investigation, we may have to view certain stories about the past with a less sceptical eye.
Suppose, now, that we should find, as a result of our investigations, that some at least of the claims to supernormal knowledge of ordinary facts are valid. This would not, of course, have any direct tendency to show that any human mind existed before or will exist after the death of its present body. Indeed, as members of the
SPR know full well, it may weaken the force of arguments for that conclusion based upon mediumistic communications. Nevertheless, it would have an
indirect bearing on the question of pre-existence and survival. For a great part of the difficulty of any argument in support of this conclusion is the enormous weight of antecedent improbability which it has to overcome. Now this antecedent improbability is largely dependent upon the belief that every known activity of the human mind in life is correlated point to point with some process in the brain and nervous system. If the occurrence of extrasensory perception were established, we should have positive empirical grounds for doubting this assumption. Our view of the nature of the human mind and its relation to its organism would be profoundly modified, and this modification might well reduce the antecedent improbability of its existing in the absence of its present body.
We come now to the last step, and here, for the first time, there is a reference to ideals and aspirations. It seemed to Sidgwick, and it seems to me, that, unless some men survive the death of their bodies, the life of the individual and of the human race is 'a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing'. I cannot understand how anyone with an adequate knowledge of physics, biology, psychology, and history can believe that mankind as a whole can reach and maintain indefinitely an earthly paradise. Such a belief is a sign of amiability in the young; but of imbecility, ignorance, or
willful blindness in the mature. I am not suggesting for an instant that survival is a
sufficient condition of any great good; it is obvious that the world might be infinitely worse with it than without it, as it would be, e.g., if the majority of men survive only to be tortured unendingly in Hell. All that I maintain is that it is a
necessary condition if the life of humanity is to be more than a rather second-rate farce. I do not desire to survive myself; so far as I can judge. it would be an immense relief to me on purely selfish grounds to be assured of mortality, and I am not altruistic enough to bother very much about the fate of the rest of the human race in my absence. But Sidgwick was a man of noble character and high ideals, with an overmastering sense of duty and the courage to face suffering and unpopularity in doing what he believed to be right. That such a man should strongly desire survival for himself and his fellow-men, as the
conditio sine qua non of the seriousness and worth of human life, was inevitable. And it was natural that, in desiring it, he should seek for evidence of it in the one corner in which it seemed to him that evidence might still conceivably be found.
I suppose it is inevitable that some clever fool should triumphantly remark that the fact that Sidgwick approached the subject from this angle and with these desires discounts the value of his work in psychical research. It should be a sufficient answer to point out that in fact Sidgwick reached a purely negative conclusion about the evidence provided by psychical research for human survival. And, if I may pass from the particular to the general, I would conclude with the following observation. A conscientious and critical person who realizes the immense importance of human survival is much more likely to weight the scales against
prima facie evidence for it than to accept such evidence lightly. His desire that it may be true, and that it may be proved to be so, will indeed make him persevere and constantly return to the attack after each set-back and disappointment. This effect it did have on Sidgwick. But he will be so anxious lest his desires should trick him into accepting fairy gold that he will be in some danger of rejecting real gold if it should ever be offered to him.
Source: "Religion, Philosophy and Psychical
Research" by C. D. Broad (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953)