- First published in the Quarterly Journal of Science, July 1870 -
SOME WEEKS ago the fact that I was engaged in investigating Spiritualism, so called, was announced in a contemporary: and in consequence of the many communications I have since received, I think it desirable to say a little concerning the investigation which I have commenced. Views or opinions I cannot be said to possess on a subject which I do not pretend to understand. I consider it the duty of scientific men who have learnt exact modes of working to examine phenomena which attract the attention of the public, in order to confirm their genuineness, or to explain, if possible, the delusions of the honest and to expose the tricks of deceivers. But I think it a pity that any public announcement of a man's investigation should be made until he has shown himself willing to speak out.
 "The Athenaeum".
A man may be a true scientific man, and yet agree with Professor De Morgan when he says: "I have both seen and heard, in a manner which would make unbelief impossible, things called spiritual which cannot be taken by a rational being to be capable of explanation by imposture, coincidence or mistake. So far I feel the ground firm under me; but when it comes to what is the cause of these phenomena I find I cannot adopt any explanation which has yet been suggested... The physical explanations which I have seen are easy, but miserably insufficient. The spiritual hypothesis is sufficient, but ponderously difficult."
Regarding the sufficiency of the explanation, I am not able to speak. That certain physical phenomena, such as the movement of material substances, and the production of sounds resembling electric discharges, occur under circumstances in which they cannot be explained by any physical law at present known, is a fact of which I am as certain as I am of the most elementary fact in chemistry. My whole scientific education has been one long lesson in exactness of observation, and I wish it to be understood that this firm conviction is the result of most careful investigation. But I cannot, at present, hazard even the most vague hypothesis as to the cause of the phenomena. Hitherto I have seen nothing to convince me of the truth of the "spiritual" theory. In such an inquiry the intellect demands that the spiritual proof must be absolutely incapable of being explained away; it must be so strikingly and convincingly true that we cannot, dare not, deny it.
Faraday says: "Before we proceed to consider any question involving physical principles we should set out with clear ideas of the naturally possible and impossible." But this appears like reasoning in a circle: we are to investigate nothing till we know it to be possible, whilst we cannot say what is impossible, outside pure mathematics, till we know everything.
In the present case I prefer to enter upon the enquiry with no preconceived notions whatever as to what can or cannot be, but with all my senses alert and ready to convey information to the brain; believing, as I do, that we have by no means exhausted all human knowledge or fathomed the depths of all the physical forces, and remembering that the great philosopher already quoted said, in reference to some speculations on the gravitating force, "Nothing is too wonderful to be true if it be consistent with the laws of nature; and in such things as these, experiment is the best test of such consistency."
The modes of reasoning of scientific men appear to be generally misunderstood by Spiritualists with whom I have conversed, and the reluctance of the trained scientific mind to investigate this subject is frequently ascribed to unworthy motives. I think, therefore, it will be of service if I here illustrate the modes of thought current amongst those who investigate science, and say what kind of experimental proof science has a right to demand before admitting a new department of knowledge into her ranks. We must not, mix up the exact and the inexact. The supremacy of accuracy must he absolute.
The first requisite is to be sure of facts; then to ascertain conditions; next, laws. Accuracy and knowledge of detail stand foremost amongst the great aims of modern scientific men. No observations are of much use to the student of science unless they are truthful and made under test conditions, and here I find the great mass of Spiritualistic evidence to fail. In a subject which, perhaps, more than any other lends itself to trickery and deception, the precautions against fraud appear to have been, in most cases, totally insufficient, owing, it would seem, to an erroneous idea that to ask for such safeguards was to imply a suspicion of the honesty of someone present. We may use our own unaided senses, but when we ask for instrumental means to increase their sharpness, certainty and trustworthiness under circumstances of excitement and difficulty, and when one's natural senses are liable to be thrown off their balance,
offense is taken.
In the countless number of recorded observations I have read, there appear to be few instances of meetings held for the express purpose of getting the phenomena under test conditions in the presence of persons properly qualified by scientific training to weigh and adjust the value of the evidence which might present itself. The only good series of test experiments I have met with were tried by the Count de Gasparin, and he, whilst admitting the genuineness of the phenomena, came to the conclusion that they were not due to supernatural agency.
The pseudo-scientific Spiritualist professes to know everything: no calculations trouble his serenity, no hard experiments, no long laborious readings; no weary attempts to make clear in words that which has rejoiced the heart and elevated the mind. He talks glibly of all sciences and arts, overwhelmingly the enquirer with terms like "electro-biologize," "psychologize," "animal magnetism," etc.- a mere play upon words, showing ignorance rather than understanding. Popular science such as this is little able to guide discovery rushing onwards to an unknown future; and the real workers of science must be extremely careful not to allow the reins to get into unfit and incompetent hands.
In investigations which so completely baffle the ordinary observer the thorough scientific man has a great advantage. He has followed science from the beginning through a long line of learning and he knows, therefore, in what direction it is leading; he knows that there are dangers on one side, uncertainties an another, and almost absolute certainty on a third: he sees to a certain extent in advance. But, where every step is towards the marvellous and unexpected, precautions and tests should be multiplied rather than diminished. Investigators must work; although their work may be very small in quantity if only compensation be made by its intrinsic excellence. But even in this realm of marvels, this wonderland towards which scientific enquiry is sending out its pioneers, can anything be more astonishing than the delicacy of the instrumental aids which the workers bring with them to supplement the observations of their natural senses?
The Spiritualist tells of bodies weighing 50 or 100 lbs. being lifted up into the air without the intervention of any known force; but the scientific chemist is accustomed to use a balance which will render sensible a weight so small that it would take ten thousand of them to weigh one grain; he is, therefore, justified in asking that a power professing to be guided by intelligence, which will toss a heavy body up to the ceiling, shall also cause his delicately-poised balance to move under test conditions.
The Spiritualist tells of tapping sounds which are produced in different parts of a room when two or more persons sit quietly round a table. The scientific experimenter is entitled to ask that these
taps shall be produced on the stretched membrane of his phonautograph.
The Spiritualist tells of rooms and houses being shaken, even to injury, by superhuman power. The man of science merely asks for a pendulum to be set vibrating when it is in a glass case and supported on solid masonry.
The Spiritualist tells of heavy articles of furniture moving from one room to another without human agency. But the man of science has made instruments which will divide an inch into a million parts; and he is justified in doubting the accuracy of the former observations if the same force is powerless to move the index of his instrument one poor degree.
The Spiritualist tells of flowers with the fresh dew on them, of fruit and living objects being carried through closed windows, and even solid brick-walls. The scientific investigator naturally asks that an additional weight (if it be only the 1,000th part of a grain) be deposited on one pan of his balance when the case is locked. And the chemist asks for the 1,000th of a grain of arsenic to be carried through the sides of a glass tube in which pure water is hermetically sealed.
The Spiritualist tells of manifestations of power, which would be equivalent to many thousands of "foot-pounds," taking place without known agency. The man of science, believing firmly in the conservation of force, and that it is never produced without a corresponding exhaustion of something to replace it, asks for some such exhibitions of power to be manifested in his laboratory, where he can weigh, measure and submit it to proper tests.
For these reasons and with these feelings I began an inquiry suggested to me by eminent men exercising great influence on the thought of the country. At first, like other men who thought little of the matter and saw little, I believed that the whole affair was a superstition, or at least an unexplained trick. Even at this moment I meet with cases which I cannot prove to be anything else; and in some cases I am sure that it is a delusion of the senses.
I by no means promise to enter fully into this subject; it seems very difficult to obtain opportunities, and numerous failures certainly may dishearten anyone. The persons in whose presence these phenomena take place are few in number, and opportunities for experimenting with previously arranged apparatus are rarer still. I should feel it to be a great satisfaction if I could bring out light in any direction, and I may safely say that I care not in what direction. With this end in view, I appeal to any of my readers who may possess a key to these strange phenomena to further the progress of the truth by assisting me in my investigations. That the subject has to do with strange physiological conditions is clear, and these in a sense may be called "spiritual" when they produce certain results in our minds. At present the phenomena I have observed baffle explanation; so do the phenomena of thought, which are also spiritual, and which no philosopher has yet understood. No man, however, denies them.
The explanations given to me, both orally and in most of the books I have read, are shrouded in such an affected ponderosity of style, such an attempt at disguising poverty of ideas in grandiloquent language, that I feel it impossible, after driving off the frothy diluent, to discern a crystalline residue of meaning. I confess that the reasoning of some Spiritualists would almost seem to justify Faraday's severe statement - that many dogs have the power of coming to much more logical conclusions. Their speculations utterly ignore all theories of force being only a form of molecular motion, and they speak of Force, Matter and Spirit as three distinct entities, each capable of existing without the other; although they sometimes admit that they are mutually convertible.
It has been my wish to show that science is gradually making its followers the representatives of care and accuracy. It is a fine quality that of uttering undeniable truth. Let, then, that position not be lowered, but let words suit facts with an accuracy equal to that with which the facts themselves can be ascertained; and in a subject encrusted with credulity and superstition, let it be shown that there is a class of facts to be found upon which reliance can be placed, so far, that we may be certain they will never change. In common affairs a mistake may have but a short life, but in the study of nature an imperfect observation may cause infinite trouble to thousands. The increased employment of scientific methods will promote exact observation and greater love of truth among enquirers, and will produce a race of observers who will drive the worthless residuum of Spiritualism hence into the unknown limbo of magic and
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