Book: "Psychical Research, Science and Religion"

Author: Stanley De Brath

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- Chapter 1 -

The Scientific Aspect of Supernormal Facts


"The actuality of psychical phenomena is doubted to-day only by the incorrigible dogmatist."

Hans Driesch, D.Phil., LL.D., M.D., Professor of Philosophy, Univ., Leipsic

          THIS quotation is from an article by the distinguished biologist who has recently been lecturing to scientific audiences at the London University, in The Quest of July 1924. The article is On the Biological Setting of Psychical Phenomena; its purpose is to show that the mechanistic theory of life is inconsistent with experimental facts. Life is not a mere mechanism.

He was apparently led to his conclusions by the study of the supernormal facts (as was A. R. Wallace), but he has supported them by some crucial physiological experiments. If two out of the four cells first formed in the fertilized egg of certain marine animals (sea-urchins) are removed, the remaining pair develop into a perfect animal, but halfsize. This, and other experiments, show that the primordial cells of an organism are not appropriated to the production of specific organs, but that each cell contains the potentialities of the whole.

This is the fundamental distinction between Mechanism and growth: no part of a mechanism can be removed without impairing its function: Life only can make good the parts removed. There is a psychic factor, and the supernormal phenomena illustrate its nature.

1. The Genesis of Modern Science

In order to make the position clear, the psychic facts must be linked up with Science generally, for the sake of the unbroken sequence, and I will therefore take a hasty glance at what everyone is supposed to know, because these things lead into one another in a manner not generally recognized.

In the "good old times" of the fourteenth century, when there was no drainage of any kind and all household refuse was thrown into the streets; when one-fourth of the whole population of Europe died of the Plague (the Black Death); when thieves, coiners, and clippers were hanged publicly in batches; when heretics were burned alive, and women were drowned or burnt for witchcraft; when England was engaged in the Hundred Years' War to maintain a shadowy claim to be suzerain of France, a German monk named Schwartz seems to have discovered or brought to notice a new explosive.

This was felt to be so valuable an invention that it was speedily adopted, and Chemistry came into respect not the less that it was by the many thought to be diabolical. Later this invention produced some very far-reaching results - it was a main factor in bringing the Feudal System to its end by enabling the Crown to have the monopoly of that useful instrument of applied science known as Artillery, and it struck the first really serious blow at the authority of the Papacy by encouraging kings to maintain standing armies of professional soldiers. It was all very well to absolve subjects from allegiance to a monarch who could only dispose of baronial levies, but became futile when he could deal with rebels with grape-shot, and batter down any baronial castle. Other merely intellectual discoveries were less practical and attracted much less attention.

In 1540 a Pole named Koppernigt (Copernicus) pointed out that observations show reason to conclude that the earth is not the centre of the universe, nor even of the solar system, and that if it be moving round the sun, all the phenomena of seasonal change are simply accounted for. This being contrary to common-sense, to received opinions, and to Holy Scripture, was ill-received and remained in abeyance for seventy-three years.

In 1608 a Dutchman named Lippershey arranged two lenses as a telescope. In 1613 an Italian, one Galileo, improved it and showed that the moon is a sphere. The professors of Padua University refused even to look through the instrument. He also made experiments on gravitation and discovered its chief laws. He favoured the Copernican theory, but the Holy Office (not the Pope) denounced it as "I absurd in philosophy and formally heretical." Galileo had to recant, but was gently dealt with. The story Eppur si muove is a fiction.

2. The Experimental Method

Another seventy-three years elapsed, and in 1686 an Englishman named Newton published a book on mechanics, in which he showed, among a few other things, that a heavy body in motion will go on at the same speed in a straight line for ever till arrested or deflected by definite forces. In fact it will go on till there is something to stop it; not, said the critics, any very notable discovery. It was notable, however, for it substituted real forces for the usual notion of "affinities" and "tendencies" as the causes of motion. He also calculated that if gravitation extends as far as the moon, that would account for its fall of fifteen feet per minute towards the earth, and, in conjunction with the despised First Law above-mentioned, would also account for its orbit. He also found that all other planetary notions could be similarly explained.(1)

(1) Newton did not discover gravitation, and the story of the apple is a silly fiction. Gravitation was discovered by the first palaeolithic flint-chipper who dropped his flint on his foot. He did not kick it because his toes were bare, and he did not swear because he had not yet learned how, but he discovered that heavy bodies fall vertically. Galileo made the next step and Newton applied it to astronomy.

The Copernican astronomy, condemned by Catholics and Reformers alike, was proved true by results, but Newton himself was violently assailed, as all great discoverers have always been. He wrote to his friend Oldenburg:

I see I have made myself a slave to philosophy, but if I get free of Mr. Lucas' business, I will resolutely bid adieu to it eternally, except what I do for my private satisfaction or leave to come out after me; for I see a man must either resolve to put out nothing new, or to become a slave to defend it.

Fortunately his love of truth prevented that resolution being kept; he discovered and published a good many other facts, all of which are dependent on the invariable laws of that invisible entity which we now call Energy. He invented the differential calculus in his spare time to make his work easier, and it may reasonably be claimed that modern science, based on experiment instead of argumentation, begins with his name. Again about seventy years after Newton, towards the middle of the eighteenth century, when the mathematics of the Principia had won their way, a group of Frenchmen, of whom the most distinguished were Lavoisier and Laplace, established by experiment the general principles of physical science that have prevailed ever since. Lavoisier, for instance, discovered that the "ash" of a metal is heavier than the metal from which it is derived; and he drew the remarkable inference, much disputed at the time, that something had been added to the metal. That "something" he isolated and named it Oxygen, and on that he founded the chemical nomenclature that has been in use ever since, by which the structure of a compound is described by its name. Laplace, adopting Newton's astronomy, developed the brilliant theory known as the Nebular Hypothesis. Thenceforward, continuous progress followed the Experimental Method which consists in examining closely small or exceptional facts of Nature which the average man disregards or denies.

Two more landmarks must be noted: In 1841 Faraday found that the motion of a wire towards a magnet generates a tiny pulse of electricity. This trifle grew into the immense electrical industries of to-day.

Five years later Grove, in his Correlation of the Physical Forces, showed that electrical, magnetic, and thermal energies are mutually convertible in mathematically exact and invariable quantities; they are, in fact, different forms of the same thing - invisible, intangible, and imponderable Energy - the proximate cause of all change whatsoever. This last discovery needs more than a passing notice, for it revealed something in Nature radically different from the crude chemical atomic Matter which was then thought to be untransformable and is now artificially transformed with difficulty, and in very small quantities, whereas heat is easily transformed into motion, magnetism, electricity, light, and chemical change, and vice-versa.

A fairly definite concept of Energy is absolutely essential to any understanding of the supernormal facts. Here again, however, we need not trouble ourselves about what Energy may be in itself. For practical purposes it is "the power of doing mechanical work," i.e. the power of producing visible motion or changing the state of matter, from solid to liquid and liquid to gas, or otherwise. Energy can be stored (potential, as in a coiled spring or a raised weight) or it can be kinetic (active, as actual motion). For instance: Potential energy is released (as heat) by the combination of coal with the oxygen of the air-changes water to steam, no pressure can stop this-the pressure and expansion of the steam in the cylinder drives the engine - thus converting the heat into motion. This motion is measurable in foot-pounds, i.e. the unit of power being 1 lb. raised 1 ft. against gravity. Every change in Nature - the wind, the tides, growth of plants, flow of rivers, fire, light, and chemical change of all kinds - is produced by invisible intangible energy. Gravitation, Heat, Light, Electricity

Nervous Power are all forms or manifestations of energy. Solar energy grows the wheat, its energy is communicated to the body as food, and expended in physiological acts, and is "dissipated" as lowgrade heat, but not destroyed. It is remarkable that a cold wind or a fall in the temperature of the room is often concomitant with supernormal physical phenomena. This indicates a loss of energy by the environing atmosphere, and is important as indicating some clue to the source of energy utilized.

The physical energies are interconvertible in exact quantities (e.g. energy required to raise 1 lb. of water I0 Fahr. = 772 foot-pounds). Energy in itself is not intelligent, but can be directed. All manufactured articles are the results of energy directed by human minds. Engineering science is the science of directing the energies of Nature to the service of man. Natural objects and phenomena are the results of energy directed by the Cosmic Mind.

This energy requires a vehicle or medium for its transmission; and as the form of energy called light has a measured speed and comes to us from the sun and stars, it is inferred that all space, including that occupied by material things, is permeated by an imponderable, elastic, frictionless, invisible substance which has also a very high rigidity and is called the Ether. It is only imponderable in the sense that water is imponderable in water, but it has a whole realm of Physics to itself. It's qualities are contradictory from the point of view of ordinary physics.

Latterly, the analysis of the chemical atom has shown that our solid ponderable Matter is not a self-existent ultimate entity, but it also in the last analysis is a form of impalpable energy, being simply a more permanent form of etherial relation than the so-called physical forces. It is said to consist of protons and electrons in motion at planetary velocities in atoms themselves ten thousand times too small to be seen by the microscope.

This, which is much more unimaginable than any of the supernormal phenomena, is readily accepted.

Why? We may suspect that the reason is that it makes no claim on morality. This, however, belongs to the religious aspect and not to the scientific.

3. The Present Position of Science

In short, starting with the first application of chemistry to political life (as a foretaste of its benefits still in store in the shape of high explosive and poison-gas), there have been discoveries that have revolutionized the arts of peace and war, and all point to the impermanence and quite secondary importance of material things compared with the character that makes use of them.

There is also great confusion of mind between the relativity that includes Matter and that which does not. The materiality of the electron (if it is material) is very different from the materiality of the chemical molecule. But, however the chemical atoms came into existence and whatever their composition, the atoms that we know as oxygen, iron, sodium, etc., are at the base of the relations in which we exist. Space is the distance measured in three directions between real or imagined masses; Time is rate of change, either in material things like the ageing of a tree, or in position as of the earth with respect to the sun. The actual duration of the minute and second is inversely proportional to the mass of the earth; on a larger planet the pendulum would swing faster, on a smaller one slower than with us; our notions of Time are bound up with Matter, our bodies are made of it and our senses are related to it. We really know three, and only three, kinds of reality in this relation - Matter, Energy and Mind. All that has weight belongs to the first: all change of form is caused by the second: and all living things (and probably all inanimate things also) are, as Professor Driesch shows, products of energies directed by Intelligence (Mind): all art, literature, inventions, and human activities are mind in action; and Churches, nations, and parties are but groups of minds in different modes of manifestation. We need not go behind this for our study of the supernormal facts, though the explanation of them may take us into that etherial realm whose physics science has begun to explore. This consideration will relieve us from the perplexities of the Fourth Dimension and Einstein's Time-space - speculations almost as mysterious as the peregrinations of the young lady named Bright, who would travel much faster than light. She started one day in a relative way and came back the previous night!

4. The Conflict of Science with Theology

After Grove a whole galaxy of new sciences came into being, and showed uniformity of law pervading a universe so vast that its spaces are estimated in light-years - light, travelling at 186,00 miles per second, taking centuries to reach us - extending to unimaginable depths of time and space. All change was recognized to be by the transfer or transformation of Energy; the earth is not the centre of the universe, but one of the smaller planets attendant on a sun which is but a minor star; and Man was developed from a lower animal form.

The Churches, which had ignored (and, as Dean Inge remarks, still ignore) Copernicus' abolition of a local heaven in the sky, were seriously alarmed by Lyell's Geology and Darwin's Descent of Man. They elected to stand on the inerrancy of the Bible, though Origen (A.D. 250), whom Harnack considers "the most distinguished and influential of all the theologians of the ancient Church with the possible exception of Augustine, "had shown that the value of all the Old Testament narratives (the New Testament was not yet compiled) lies in their reception as vehicles of spiritual ideas, independently of their authenticity, and had ridiculed their literal acceptance. Unable to perceive that this view would have made any conflict with scientific discoveries impossible, the Churches identified Religion with an infantile theology. In conflict with facts they were of course defeated all along the line, and lost prestige accordingly.

Now Science is the verification of facts sensorially perceived and discovery of their proximate causes; and in the laboratory, the observatory, and the dissecting-room only physical facts can be verified. Their interpretation can only be by such few laws of energy as have yet been discovered. So long as Science stands on that ground, she speaks with the voice of truth - her facts are established, and her theories are admittedly provisional working hypotheses.

But sundry professors, irritated by the clerical attitude, went much farther than this, and leaving the province of Science for the realms of Philosophy, they undertook to formulate a philosophy of life, forgetting that "science" is "knowledge," not "wisdom," and that any valid philosophy must cover all facts - physical, biological, historic, aesthetical and ethical. Haeckel undertook to answer the Riddle of the Universe, and dismissing genius, art, music, religion, and ethics (in short, the phenomena of Mind) as "epi-phenomena" - chance by-products - he declared that thought is a secretion of the brain impossible without phosphorus, that Mind is a product of Matter and Energy, and that all things proceed from a ceaseless interchange of energy undirected by conscious Intelligence. He says:

The development of the universe is a monistic mechanical process, in which we discover no aim or purpose whatever; what we call "design" in the organic world is a special result of biological agencies ... all is the result of chance ... Our own human nature" which exalted itself into an image of God in an anthropistic illusion, sinks to the level of a placental mammal which has not more value to the universe at large than the ant, the fly of a summer's day or the smallest bacillus ... The Conservation of Energy "rules out the three central dogmas of metaphysics - God, Freedom, and Immortality " - (Riddle of the Universe, p. 87.)

This doctrine of remorseless and conscienceless competition by the Struggle for Existence and Survival of the Fittest, repeated in cycles of endless change till the earth falls into the sun, was proclaimed as the last word of modern science. Nietzsche, who declared that he had searched through the New Testament without finding one noble thought, stigmatised Christianity as "a slave-religion," and claimed that the superman is "above good and evil." He asks, "What is more harmful than any vice?" and supplies the answer, "Pity for the weak and helpless."

This release from moral responsibility was found so attractive that it spread through Europe like a contagious disease. Germany in particular went back twenty centuries to the ethics of the Roman Empire, and sought to re-establish the Roman Weltmacht. Europe has reaped in the Great War and the burdens it has left behind it the first crop of its sceptical sowing. There is still a harvest of classwar, race-war, poison-gas, incendiary bombs and high explosive, awaiting maturity or weeding out.

5. The New Departure

This neat and final materialistic theory accounted for everything except the selective and directing forces of life, right and wrong, genius, supernormal phenomena, and a few other things like unselfish love and heroism, and the character by which men and nations live. It is not a philosophy, because it leaves matters of the highest importance unrecognized and unaccounted for. It might have been judged by its fruits independently of reason; but it has been rudely upset by undeniable facts proving the existence of forces of quite another order than the physical.

The physical forces are unintelligent, they show no volition - chlorine will bleach or asphyxiate, electricity will light, warm, or kill with sublime indifference. The new forces are intelligent and volitional-they produce living or semi-living forms; they cognise the past, the distant and (sometimes) the future. They began in unaccountable "rappings" that conveyed "messages," and these weak things which seem chosen to confound the wise have forced their way into public notice after seventy years of denial, doubt, ridicule and obstruction.

There are always, however, men aware of the immense difference between facts and opinions. They knew that Science dates from the adoption of the experimental method instead of dialectic, and they applied that method to the alleged phenomena.

The new departure had astounding results. Expecting to find the phenomena illusions or frauds, they found them true. Crookes, the eminent chemist who discovered thallium, said: "I do not say this [materialization] is possible; I say it is true." Wallace, who started in complete scepticism, said: "I was convinced by the weight of the facts." In 1882 the Society for Psychical Research was founded under the presidency of Henry Sidgwick, Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Cambridge, by Edmund Gurney, F. W. H. Myers, Andrew Lang, Professor (now Sir William) Barrett, Mrs. Sidgwick, F. Podmore, Lord Tennyson, Lord Rayleigh, and Professor Adams. Its programme was the examination of (1) Telepathy, (2) Hypnotism, (3) Sensitives, (4) Reports on apparitions, monitions, "haunted houses," and the like, (5) Spiritualist phenomena, and (6) historical data.

Extensive experiments were carried out on the first, and observations on the fourth items of this programme, resulting in the definite proof of influence from mind to mind; but the methods of the Society being chiefly by "research officers" investigating sporadic phenomena of the fourth class, it was largely dependent on the views of individual critics. Spiritualistic sťances being rarely conducted under rigid systems of control and mostly without any control at all, they were generally assumed to be fraudulent, fell under the ban of the Society, and dropped more or less out of investigation; and the decision not to employ "professional mediums" (i.e. specially gifted persons) cut at the root of experimentation. As time went on, dialectical discussion tended more and more to displace experiment, except such as was carried on by private enterprise, and for the records of systematic and scientific experiment on objective phenomena we have to look to France, Italy, Germany, and Poland. There are two, and only two, methods of scientific progress - (1) direct first-hand experiment; and (2) study of the works of those who have so experimented. The practical English mind has devoted itself with immense success to the former in physical and mechanical science, but despite the pronouncements of so practical a man as Mr. Gladstone that psychical research is the most important scientific work of the day and of Mr. G. F. Romanes, F.R.S., that "if the alleged phenomena are true, they would be of more importance than any other in the science and philosophy of our time," this kind of experimentation has been systematically neglected in England. This is the more surprising as the objective facts are not only the guarantee of reality, but throw much light on the subjective group, whereas the subjective facts are of little or no help to understanding the objective. It is not too much to say that the former cannot be explained at all without the latter.



Contents / Preface / Chapter 1 / Chapter 2 / Chapter 3 / Chapter 4 / Chapter 5 / Chapter 6 / Chapter 7 / Chapter 8 / Chapter 9 / Chapter 10 / Appendix

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