Book: "Psychical Research and Survival"

Author: Prof. James Hyslop

Availability: Out of Print

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- Chapter One -



          THE TERM 'psychic research' is easily misunderstood by two separate and opposed types of mind. Both classes assume that it primarily has to do with spirits; but one ridicules the subject, while the other looks to it for proof of its hope or belief. This limitation of import, however, is a mistake. The only thing that will make this clear is a history of the movement which names its work by this term.

In 1882 the English Society for Psychical Research was founded by a group of men who felt that it was a scandal to science that certain apparently supernormal phenomena had not been scientifically investigated. Professor Henry Sidgwick of Cambridge University was its first President; Mr. Arthur J. Balfour, then a Member of Parliament and afterward Prime Minister of England, Professor W. F. Barrett (now Sir William Barrett), Professor Balfour Stewart, Richard Hutton, and others were Vice Presidents. Mr. Frederic W. H. Myers, Mr. Edmund Gurney, Mr. Frank Podmore, Professor Barrett, and others made up the Council. Before many years had passed the Society numbered among its officers or members of the Council a large number of able scientific men in England. Among them were Sir William Crookes, Lord Rayleigh, Sir William Ramsay, and others. The Members and Associates went into the hundreds, and their number has steadily increased since that time.

The motive for organizing the Society was the existence of current stories about mind-reading and the general phenomena of spiritualism. They had all been classed together by one type of mind and referred to the interference of spirits in the phenomena of mind and matter, whether there was any ground either for the acceptance of the facts as alleged or the explanation of them was the problem to be solved. There was no doubt as to the fact that unusual phenomena were frequently alleged, but the question for science was whether they were what they appeared to be. In his first address to the Society Professor Sidgwick asked and answered the question why a Society should be formed. He said: "In answering this, the first question, I shall be able to say something on which I hope we shall all agree: meaning by 'we,' not merely we who are in this room, but we and the scientific world outside; and as, unfortunately, I have but few observations to make on which so much agreement can be hoped for, it may be as well to bring this into prominence; namely, that we are all agreed that the present state of things is a scandal to the enlightened age in which we live. That the dispute as to the reality of these marvellous phenomena, of which it is impossible to exaggerate the scientific importance, if only a tenth part of what has been alleged by generally credible witnesses could be shown to be true, I say it is a scandal that the dispute as to the reality of these phenomena should still be going on, that so many competent witnesses should have declared their belief in them, that so many others should be profoundly interested in having the question determined, and yet that the educated world, as a body, should still be simply in the attitude of incredulity." 

This was in 1882, and the memoirs of John Addington Symonds tell us that Professor Sidgwick was experimenting on his own account as early as 1867, fifteen years prior to the organization of the Society, with mediums to ascertain if he could find evidence of human survival of bodily death. Just when the interest of Mr. Myers arose I do not know, but very early he had seen the importance of the subject and enlisted in the cause. His father was a clergyman in the Church of England, and between that environment in his early life and his classical studies he imbibed scepticism, while he lost no ethical interest in the ideals of religion. Others felt the same, and it was quite fitting that one of the authors of The Unseen Universe should be conspicuous in the formation of the Society.

It was thus no idle curiosity that led to the foundation of this research. It was a keen appreciation of the wide significance of such phenomena, if they could be scientifically substantiated. They had been safely laid away by the materialistic movement as uninteresting to its outlook or of no concern in its theories. But they refused to remain in that condition. They were forever reappearing in each generation, as if the cosmos were determined to see that they did not die at the command of a respectable hierarchy of intellectuals. It seemed to these open-minded men whom I have mentioned, that it was high time to investigate what had been rejected without this ordeal, and the Society for Psychical Research was the result.

It was inevitable that the claims of spiritualism should occupy a prominent place in the work. They were the object of intense interest to one class and a good butt for ridicule by the other, and anything that did not savour of this alliance or offer some practical outcome was a matter of curious interest to people who had nothing else to talk about. The men who founded the work, however, placed it on a comprehensive basis. It was not to be devoted exclusively to estimating the claims of the spiritualists, but it was made to include a large number of alleged facts which presented no superficial evidence of ' supernatural' agencies. These other phenomena were dowsing, telepathy or thought-transference, hypnotism and the various phenomena of the subconscious and secondary personality, together with certain types of hallucinations. The spiritualistic phenomena inviting attention, whether they had that explanation or not, were apparitions, mediumship, and certain types of coincidental dreams. Some of the last phenomena shared their meaning with telepathy.

There are just two ways in which we may study such phenomena. First, we may assume that the scientific materialism of the age has established itself sufficiently to be accorded the right of judgment regarding them, and so make every concession to its prejudices. This means that we shall assume that the probabilities are against the hypothesis of any spiritual meaning for the world. This is the sceptical attitude of mind, and it may be held by the man who wishes to believe but feels that evidence is lacking for a spiritual interpretation of nature, or it may be held by the man who refuses to revise the verdict of materialism and insists on the resolution of all the alleged facts into some sort of illusion or superstition. The second way of looking at the facts will be that from the assumptions of normal life a spiritual meaning for human life and its development is desirable and possible. The materialist, whether he avows or ignores this view, assumes that the present life is sufficient unto itself and will not listen to the monitions of a normal mind and conscience. But the religious mind, not always safely ensconced in a salary f or indulging in intellectual athletics, insists on trying to find if life is worth living, and it will not surrender without a fight to the dark fate which the materialist assigns to consciousness. This second class of minds intends to take the wider view of things, and not to evade or ignore facts in the interest of a scientific dogmatism that may only have substituted the worship of matter for that of spirit.

But there have been so many illusions, and so much superstition and error associated with past religious beliefs, that the triumphs of physical science have gained for it the admiration and confidence of all intelligent minds who see no assurance for the existence of spirit and fear the restoration of the ages of barbarism in which spiritualism prevailed. Ever since the revival of science, which followed on the introduction of Copernican astronomy, the study of nature has dissolved a host of beliefs that had taken refuge in religion, and has associated intelligence with scepticism and the emancipation which it brought the human mind. The age of authority which rested on tradition declined, and in its place came the demand to verify, in present experience, every assertion made about nature. This was the essential feature of science; the interrogation of the present moment for its testimony to the nature of things. The cultivation of this method has established it in authority, and made it the judge of what is valid about the past, instead of accepting the past as the standard for measuring the present. Its exclusive devotion to physical phenomena gives it the prestige which success always guarantees, and it uses that criterion to justify its interpretation of nature. It has supplanted the authority of religion, and with its predilection for physical conceptions and phenomena, which are by far more universal for normal experience, it can sustain a position which is not to be easily questioned. This makes it necessary for any belief that circumscribes the claims of physical science to make concessions to its method if that belief is to modify scientific authority, and this whether or not it accepts the assumptions by which the power of physical science has been acquired.

There is no use in disguising the fact that the controversy about psychic phenomena is between those who sympathise with materialism and those who sympathise with the desire for a spiritual interpretation of the world. Prejudice is probably about equally distributed on both sides, and accusations of it are justified only as a tu quoque defence. We may try to disregard the nature of this dispute by talking about the scientific aspect of the phenomena, thereby trying to make ourselves and others believe that we have no ulterior interests in studying the phenomena; but the real nature of the issue will not be evaded in this way. It is correct enough to treat the facts in this manner as a means of insisting that prejudices on one side or the other must be suppressed and the conclusion established in the light of cold reason and truth. But that is not a good ground for saying or believing that the facts have no relation to the ancient controversy between matter and spirit, even though we come to the conclusion that they are pretty much the same thing.

The study of primitive culture shows unmistakably that spiritualism has been perhaps the universal belief of savage races, and it is that fact which makes it the source of so much ridicule on the part of the cultured and the scientific. It is so much the habit to use savage beliefs as evidence of ignorance and superstition, that one wonders why they are not also made the subject of abuse for believing in the existence of matter. It has always been the mark of progress that a man shall have escaped the dominion of beliefs and customs of the uncivilised, and spiritualism among savages was marked by such immoral practices that the belief had to go the way of its associated ideas and customs. All the great religions had to face this primitive belief, and f or political reasons usually compromised with it, where they could not displace or modify it. It was the revolt against its inhumanities and its superstitions that instigated a new civilisation and determined new standards of morality. No wonder that the belief in a future life inherited the bad odour of its associated incidents and practices. The philosophic point of view which had represented the study of nature, a well-ordered and stable cosmos, as against the capricious interferences of divine beings, soon became the criterion of culture and intelligence, and ever since that time the belief in the ' supernatural ' became the mark of weak intellects. Whether the pendulum had not swung too far the other not a matter of interest here. I am way is only indicating the actual facts of history which determine the standard of judgement for most men in regard to everything. The intellectual and moral interests associated with one or the other point of view have perpetuated themselves through all ages, and will do so as long as men differ in regard to the general meaning of things, or in regard to the place of imagination and hope in human belief and action.

But it was not the controversy between materialism and spiritualism that was the avowed interest in the organisation of psychic research. That was but the latent issue behind the scenes. The scientific spirit was triumphant enough to insist that the human mind must be indifferent to consequences in the investigation of the facts. Science had succeeded in making Stoics of devotees. They were men who were interested in the truth for its own sake, and who would sacrifice the dearest interests of the heart to their passion for the facts, and this passion allowed no choice between the emotions and the intellect in the determination of the truth. Moloch was no more implacable a divinity than science. Hence those who asked for the investigation of psychic phenomena, could not beg for any preconceived conclusions or theories to account for them. They had to abide the judgement of scepticism. Investigation might dissolve the alleged facts into illusions or explain them by some other cause than spirit. Consequently the inquiry had to be made on the basis that there was only a residuum of real or alleged phenomena as yet unexplained by existing hypotheses. What investigation might establish no one could forecast, least of all that it should issue in confirming a theory which had been the favourite of savages and the contempt of the civilised.

Besides, there were phenomena which could not lay any claim, superficially at least, to the spiritualist's explanation. They were certainly not evidence for such a view, and it was necessary to investigate the subject discriminatingly. The layman had simply resorted to one general explanation of all incidents which seemed a little mysterious to him, and it had frequently been found that he was too hasty and had made no allowance for slight extensions of well-known laws of events. Hence the first duty of science was to classify its facts and determine those which were relevant and those that were not relevant to the spiritualist's claims. The Society, therefore, announced as the object of its inquiries the following several fields of phenomena:

"1. An examination of the nature and extent of any influence which may be exerted by one mind upon another, apart from any generally recognised mode of perception.

"2. The study of hypnotism, and the forms of so-called mesmeric trance, with its alleged insensibility to pain; clairvoyance and other allied phenomena.

"3. A critical revision of Reichenbach's researches with certain organisations called sensitive, and an inquiry whether such organisations possess any power of perception beyond a highly exalted sensibility of the recognised sensory organs.

"4. A careful investigation of any reports, resting on strong testimony, regarding apparitions at the moment of death, or otherwise, or regarding disturbances in houses reputed to be haunted.

"5. An inquiry into the various physical phenomena commonly called spiritualistic; with an attempt to discover their causes and general laws.

"6. The collection and collation of existing materials bearing on the history of these subjects."

It will be noticed that several types of phenomena now considered as important in psychic research are omitted from this list, and that the conception of spiritualism is limited to the physical phenomena, with apparent ignorance of the mental phenomena in mediumship that have much more significance than the physical. This may have been the fault of the people who had so emphasised the physical phenomena as to make scientific men think there were no others; but it is a conspicuous fact that trance and other mediumship than physical, and dowsing, secondary personality and the whole field of the subconscious, have been added to the problem since the inception of the Society.

Among these groups of phenomena, dowsing. telepathy, physical phenomena, afterwards technically named telekinesis, and hypnotism contain nothing that can be regarded as evidence of spiritualism, whatever explanation we may give them. They, or some of them, were quite evidently supernormal in some sense of the term, but they afforded no evidence of transcendental agents like spirits, and hence they suggested the possibility of eliminating spiritistic influences from the whole field of the supernormal. But whatever the case, the scientific problem required that conclusions should not be preconceived, and the popular conception of the phenomena as to their meaning had to determine the first form of stating the objects of the Society, which would change, and did change, as the observation of facts required it to do.

It was inevitable, however, that spiritualism should occupy the first place in the general conception of the Society's work, and this in spite of any or all efforts to circumscribe it. Human interests are too great to meet with repression on this point, except for respectability, and they will tolerate rival phenomena only by compulsion. It is the resolute purpose of the scientific spirit, however, to insist that personal interests, no matter how important, shall wait on critical investigation, and hence the Society insisted upon its duty to respect the best scientific method it knew in the study of the facts.

Telepathy seems to have been the first field in which results were plentiful or accessible with any degree of assurance. But this term soon began to be misunderstood and has not yet been made clear. From being a term to express mental coincidences between living people not due to chance or normal sense perception, it became an explanatory term of wide import, though the fact is that we have not the remotest conception of what the cause is that determines the coincidences. It, however, offered the best field for the study of phenomena that could have no superficial claim to being spiritistic, and hence would encounter less prejudice than the hypothesis of spirits. Gradually, however, the phenomena of apparitions and mediumship came into consideration, and though they were modified or explained away by telepathy of a wonderful and incredible sort, they remained and still remain to plague the inquirer. In recent years there has been little experiment in telepathy; most of the work has gathered about mediumship of some sort, and opinion remains divided as to its meaning. But the recognition of something to investigate is now well nigh universal, and animosities are shown on both sides of the problem.

On the one hand, the materialist is keenly conscious of the consequences to his general interpretation of nature, and fears a reaction toward the ' supernatural' against which modern science had fought its most successful battles. On the other hand ' there are two interested classes. One is the Church, which plays a waiting game to see what the result will be, and the other is the enthusiastic spiritualist who has abandoned both the Church and the materialistic school, and cares for no prejudices based upon the finality of past theories. The scientific man who has hitherto felt safe in the achievements of his method for the last three centuries, having excluded superstition, as he calls the ' supernatural,' from his consideration, has at last been brought to feel that it is a life-and-death struggle for the supremacy of his results. It is no place to forecast this here. It suffices to remark the critical nature of the situation, and men will ally themselves on one side or the other of the controversy according as they feel about the meaning of nature. Those who wish to widen the significance of human consciousness and its ideals will hope that science will find a way to protect them. Those who do not care for spiritual ideals and are joined to materialistic theories will contest any other view of the cosmos. But spiritual idealism will always be strong enough to have its votaries and to challenge any application of science which does not respect it or offer it some means of expression.



Notes / Preface / Chapter 1 / Chapter 2 / Chapter 3 / Chapter 4 / Chapter 5 / Chapter 6 / Chapter 7 / Chapter 8 / Chapter 9 / Chapter 10 / Bibliography

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