Book: "Psychical Research and Survival"

Author: Prof. James Hyslop

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- Chapter Four -

The Problem


          WE RESOLVED the meaning of the materialistic theory of human consciousness into the proposition that consciousness is a function of the brain or organism, and its evidential statement into the formula that consciousness in normal experience is always associated with physical structure, and with the absence of this organism no ordinary traces of its independent existence are found. This is to say that consciousness and organism are always associated, and that consciousness is not present when the organism disappears. This conception of the situation makes nothing of the nature of consciousness. It does not raise any questions about its nature, but only as to the fact of its connections. As already explained, the traditional schools of thought made the question of the soul depend on certain well-defined conceptions of what consciousness was, distinguishing it radically from physical phenomena. But materialism abandons this point of view and insists that it is an open question as to what mental states are, while it is not an open question as to its associations and connections. Science investigates facts, or the uniformities of coexistence and sequence, and the nature of a thing is secondary to its being a fact. The consequence is that it asks for evidence that will appeal to all men and that will not be left to a priori opinions about the nature of mental states. It finds the universal fact that consciousness' in normal experience is always connected with the physical body, and when that body dissolves after death consciousness ceases to manifest itself in the same way. It is but natural to suppose that, like other functions of the body, it has ceased to exist. The burden of proof, therefore, rests upon the man who believes that it is not a function of the organism.

The situation as defined by materialism requires its antagonist, spiritualism, to show that a particular individual consciousness has not ceased to exist, even if it cannot manifest in its old way. This is to say that we must get evidence that it exists in isolation from the body. In some way, therefore, this consciousness must get into communication with the living, and prove its personal identity by telling its memories to an extent that will make it scientifically clear that we are dealing with a surviving personality. How this is to be done I do not mean for the present to explain. I am here only indicating the situation and the nature of the problem. It means nothing more nor less than the isolation of individual consciousness from its original associations, and communication with it to establish its personal identity. The necessity for this and for proving its identity is determined by certain facts which have greatly altered the problem for modern times.

With antiquity it sufficed to believe that we had a soul to decide the issue. But with a further and more careful analysis of the problem we, distinguish between the soul and its activities, between the subject and its functional actions. We can conceive that a soul should survive without the consciousness of its identity. It is personal identity that interests us most. We want to know if we can retain memory of the past and consciousness of who we are. In other words, we have an interest in being the same that we were, and in remaining the same in the future, even if that identity be nothing else than the stream of consciousness with its recollections as the condition of the only identity that interests us. But modern psychology shows us that, whatever theory we take about the existence of a soul, it may change its personality so greatly as-to lose even the sense of personal identity, at least apparently. This is illustrated in the phenomena of secondary personality. Whether by accident or disease, many persons fall into an abnormal condition in which they have no recollection of their past, and go on living a new life without the slightest knowledge of what their past has been.

The Ansel Bourne case is a celebrated instance of this phenomenon, This man disappeared from home in Providence, Rhode Island, and no trace of him could be found. Eight weeks later he awakened out of an abnormal condition in a small town in another state, where he had been keeping a junk shop, and had no reeollection of how he got there, or of the name by which he had called himself when there, namely, William Brown. He was hypnotized by Dr. Richard Hodgson and Professor William James, and in the state of hypnosis told the story of the eight weeks, but remembered nothing of it in his normal state. I have a ease in which this secondary state continued for four years, and the man then awakened from it in almost precisely the same way that did Mr. Bourne.

There are many such cases. What they mean is that, whatever we say about the soul, or whatever we say about the brain and its identity, the functional activity of consciousness may be so different at different times, as to appear to be a totally different personality. That is, the soul, if there be such, may so change its functional activity as to lose the consciousness of personal identity; and then the problem arises to determine whether death may not produce just such an alteration of personality as we see in cases such as that of Ansel Bourne and others. The consequence is that it does not satisfy to show that something more than the brain is required to prove that we survive in the manner which has a personal and moral interest for us. We have to ascertain if the soul has a memory of its past and retains a consciousness of its identity such as it normally does when living in association with the physical body. The consequence is that our problem is determined for us in this way. We must prove the survival of personal consciousness and its knowledge of personal identity.

It should be apparent to any scientific man what the method is which we have to pursue. I say 'scientific man,' because I am referring to the scientific problem, not the problems of philosophy and faith. Whether the philosophic and religious method be valid or not-and with these we have nothing to do here-it is clear what the scientific procedure must be. It must get into communication with the discarnate, if such exist, and obtain facts which will prove survival of personal identity. The ways in which that may be possible may be examined again. There are certain preliminary questions to be briefly considered, which may be regarded as assigning limits to the confidence which the materialistic theory has in its conclusions. While that view rightly approaches the problem with the idea that it is a question of the facts of human experience, it assumes too positively that our knowledge of the real situation is clearer than is the case. What I wish to do, therefore, is to show that, at the very point where we are supposedly sure of certain facts, or, if this is not the way to express it, sure of what our knowledge is, we may have to qualify it by proving an amount of actual ignorance that is not at all assumed by the materialist about consciousness and its associations. I refer to the processes by which we obtain our assurance about the existence of consciousness in our normal experience. We forget that we have entirely different methods of determining when and where consciousness exists, one of them direct, and the other indirect; but the materialist neglects to consider what the indirect method means for the modification of the certitude with which he holds that consciousness is a function of the organism. Let us therefore approach the definition of our problem by the various steps in normal experience which will lead us up to the method of ascertaining whether personal consciousness survives bodily death.

The first fact about which there can be no dispute is that each man is directly aware of his own consciousness. I shall not enter into any nice definition of what direct knowledge is. I mean that a man is immediately aware that he is conscious. He cannot be argued out of this. Any attempt to dispute the fact involves the consciousness itself, so that scepticism can never be aroused against the personal existence of consciousness in the man who is himself conscious of his own mental states. Now the interesting thing is, that he has forms of mental activity which may not even be aware of the body which is the supposed organ of consciousness. The most conspicuous instances of this are certain dreams which we remember when we awaken. In them we have no knowledge of our bodies or their whereabouts. The next set of instances consists in cases in which we neglect the sensations which may accompany them, and think only of the inner reflective states which are not sensation. Then again, parts of our body are never accessible to the visual sense which is our best source of knowledge in this respect. Indeed, it would seem that knowledge even of our body was more or less indirect. At any rate, without pushing this to extremes, it brings out the real gist of direct knowledge, by showing that it is the means of knowing that consciousness exists. We may not know what consciousness is, but we certainly know directly that it is. Our own existence is thus given beyond dispute, though we may not know what this existence is or even what its connections are. But that we are conscious cannot be disputed without undermining the materialistic theory as well as all others.

Now I have no direct knowledge that I have a soul, any more than I have a direct knowledge of my brain. I may have assurance that consciousness has a subject, that is, that the phenomenon of consciousness implies something that is conscious, but whether it is brain or a soul I do not directly know. The only absolutely assured thing is the fact of consciousness itself as an immediate object of my knowledge. As I have indicated, we may not have even a direct knowledge of the body which the materialist makes the basis of mental states, and we certainly are not directly assured of a soul.

But when it comes to saying that there is any other consciousness in the world than our own, the whole case is completely altered. We have a direct knowledge, as explained, only of our own mental states. All knowledge, if knowledge it be at all, of the existence of any other consciousness in the world than our own is indirect and inferential. I do not know immediately, and in the same way that I know my own mental states, that any other external being or organism is conscious. I have to infer this from its behaviour. I know directly that consciousness accompanies my own actions, and when I observe similar actions directly in others, I infer that the same kind of cause or accompaniment is associated with them. I explain the actions by the same cause as that which 1 directly know in myself. But, so far as direct and immediate knowledge is concerned, I have no different evidence in kind of the existence of an external consciousness than I have of the cause of dew or rain. I have only indirect knowledge of foreign consciousness. I have to observe the physical movements of other organisms, and infer from them that consciousness accompanies them. My argument for it is an application of the teleological argument, as it is called, the argument from design. It is the same method as that which the theologian applied and applies to prove the existence of God or Divine Intelligence. The difference is only in the quantity of the evidence, or in the complications with which we have to reckon in the one case that are not present in the other. In the case of human actions and accompaniments, they are more numerous, and the evidence is so plentiful in normal life that we have no doubt about an external intelligence, though our knowledge of it is not direct. But it is inferential and not immediate as it is in the awareness of our own consciousness.

The one important thing to deduce from these two phenomena is the fact that in my personal knowledge of myself I have a securer basis for the existence of consciousness than I have for that of my body; not that 1 feel any special doubt of the Iatter, but that there is no situation in which I can eliminate consciousness and retain any evidence for the existence of the bodily organism. It is the material world that is here subject to the judgment of consciousness, and my assurances are first for the mental and for the physical afterward. But when it comes to the knowledge of foreign consciousness it is the reverse. When I attempt to set up external consciousness my assurance of its existence is not so direct and ineradicable as is that of the material world or the body. That is, I am surer of another man's body than I am of his mind; or, if that is not precisely the correct way to speak, I can raise the question of doubt about his consciousness more easily than I can of his body. The Cartesian philosophy made that position axiomatic, as it referred all animal action to mechanical processes and refused it the accompaniment of consciousness. And it is true even when we have abandoned the narrower application of Cartesian thought, that there are many phenomena in man and animal which imitate intelligence without either being evidence of it or being accompanied by it as we know intelligence introspectively. This fact only protects the assertion that our knowledge of external intelligence is not so ineradicable as that of the body which accompanies it when we know it. This is only to say that of ourselves self-consciousness is primary and knowledge of the body secondary, while in objective knowledge the primary consciousness is of the body, and the belief or knowledge of the accompaniment of consciousness is secondary and indirect.

The materialist does not often bethink himself of this difference and of the fact that it indicates limitations of the assurance with which he may assert the dependence of consciousness on the organism. He assumes too readily that we are as well assured of external as we are of internal consciousness, and that the evidential problem is simpler than is the fact. He forgets that the situation leaves an open question where he thinks the issue closed, and how ever true his maxim may be about the observed relation of consciousness to physical structure, the absence of evidence for survival is not evidence for the absence of survival. We may press on him, too, the evidential question. He may take up the agnostic position from the rule of bodily and mental connections, but this is not proving that consciousness does not survive. It may prove that we lack satisfactory evidence, but it does not supply evidence for denial of its independent existence. To this idea we may have to return again, and I allude to it now only to summarize the meaning of the situation in the two cases discussed.

We may go further with illustrations that make the case still stronger than we have thus far made it. All that we have suggested by normal life is the fact that we are not assured of external consciousness in the same way that we are of self-consciousness. Now there are situations in which external consciousness may actually exist and yet betray no evidence at the time of the fact. When self-consciousness suspends or disappears we have no knowledge of anything whatever. For us, all is annihilated. But we have cases in which, self-consciousness surviving, so to speak, we are aware of external bodies in an inert condition, and with no evidence that consciousness of any kind is there. Paralysis and catalepsy are illustrations of this. Many such cases have occurred in which those who know something about death (which means the disappearance of consciousness from its bodily associations) come to the conclusion that the person is dead. This means the permanent suspension of bodily consciousness, whether its fortune be one of survival or annihilation. In a number of cases, however, people have recovered normal consciousness and testified to the fact that they knew all along of events which we supposed could not be known. I have personally witnessed cataleptic instances of this, and there are authentic cases of paralysis in which normal consciousness came back to prove that knowledge was present where we thought it was absent. The situation was quite different from what we first supposed. We inferred that consciousness was absent or non-existent because the evidence was absent or non-existent. But the recovery came to remind us that our inference was wrong, and that consciousness may exist without immediate evidence of it. Such instances offer us an experiment in which we discover that while it is the bodily movements that are the evidence of external consciousness, their cessation is not evidence that consciousness has ceased, but only evidence that it cannot prove its existence, if it still subsists. It is the evidence of external consciousness that has ceased in paralysis and catalepsy, and this cessation of evidence is not evidence of its cessation. The case remains open. No doubt we are not entitled to believe that it continues under the circumstances, but no more are we justified in saying that it does not.

It is conceded that the case against materialism is not complete in any such illustrations. It still has the resource of the hypothesis, and it is nothing more than an hypothesis, that, though motor action has ceased, the brain may still continue to function in consciousness without resulting in the motor action necessary to prove its continuance. That position, as an hypothesis, is unanswerable until we can prove that consciousness actually survives the permanent dissolution of the body. Whether that can be done is not the question at present, but only a clear conception of the evidential situation for both sides, and that means the limits of our knowledge of the facts. These limits are, so far as these illustrations are concerned, that we cannot be assured either of continuance or discontinuance of consciousness unless we have situations quite different from those described. We have to keep conviction in abeyance.

But there is one clear conclusion from paralysis and catalepsy, and that is that we cannot infer the cessation of consciousness from the cessation of the evidence of consciousness. This is demanding as much agnosticism of materialism as it asks of spiritualism. We may go farther, however, in limiting the possibility for materialism to prove its denial of survival, if it goes so far as this and abandons the more humble position of agnosticism. We may concede that the presumptions lie on the side of the evidence always, and that the evidence taken from normal life alone establishes such a known relation between consciousness and the organism that we have no right to the belief in survival, however much we may prefer it or hope for it. But that is as far as materialism can carry us. It has one special weakness when it endeavours to assert the certainty against survival. It has to face the fundamental axiom of all proof ultimately. The position taken in regard to self-consciousness as the primary source of assured knowledge shows that all reasonings, inductive or deductive, come back to this basis for assurance of any kind in any belief. You cannot prove the pons asinorum to an idiot. The subject to whom the proof is presented must have the capacity to see it. That is, ultimately proof is seeing a truth or proposition, realizing it in our own self-consciousness, or it cannot be believed tit all. Now the evidential situation is such that the materialist cannot prove his doctrine at all, if he goes so far as to deny survival. He may prove that all or the best evidence from normal life is for agnosticism or suspense of judgment, but he cannot say that he is conscious of his coming annihilation. He can only infer it from the truth of his hypothesis, and that is always contingent on a knowledge of the relation between consciousness and the organism, which he must confess he does not have; and as long as the cessation of the evidence for the existence of consciousness is not evidence of the cessation of consciousness, he will have to admit that he can have no assured inferential knowledge of annihilation. He remains where he does not know. The fact of annihilation would also cut him off from proof, because he should have to survive to be conscious of his non-survival! An Irish bull would hardly go so far. If he is conscious after the body disappears his theory is refuted. If he is not conscious it cannot be proved, because there is no mind to see the proof. Hence the utmost that we can rationally reach is agnosticism, until we die, when we may have a chance to prove survival, but none to prove annihilation.

All this means that there is no way of assuring ourselves that materialism is true or provable. It may be the only legitimate hypothesis from the standpoint of normal evidence; but that is not equivalent to scientific proof. It means that the problem is an open one, and that we are always in a position to examine any new evidence that may present itself for the modification of materialism or the disproof of it. It clearly indicates what the evidential problem is for deciding the issue, and that is the isolation of an individual consciousness, if that be possible, as the only way to settle it on this side of the grave. Materialism cannot be proved here or hereafter. It can only say non-proven on the basis of normal experience, and if it refuses to look at any other experience it closes the door to investigation and takes the position of dogmatism, which is wholly unscientific. We are certain of the disappearance of the human organism, and we must remain totally ignorant of survival if we refuse to admit the possibility or the fact of communication with the dead, which is the only hope of scientific evidence for a future life. I am not concerned in this remark to say whether any such thing as communication with the dead be either possible or desirable. That has to be determined by other considerations. I am only indicating the method necessary to arrive at any but an agnostic attitude of mind toward survival by any man who knows what science and scientific method are in the attainment of any certainty in any matter whatsoever.

Whether we have any facts to which such a method can be applied is not the question in this chapter. We are merely outlining the problem and not assuming or deciding that it is soluble. It is merely a question whether science can conceive a method of studying the problem. The spiritualists have all along affirmed the existence of the phenomena, and whether admissible or not as alleged, it is certainly possible to ascertain whether they are facts or not, and we may then examine their relevance to the claims made regarding their explanation. But apart from all this, nothing is clearer than the fact that materialism cannot assure itself beyond the agnostic verdict. It can only say that there is no evidence for survival in normal experience, and await the claims of supernormal experience for consideration in the same connection.

The real difficulties of the problem begin with the estimation of the evidence. Mankind has been accustomed to appeal to every new fact as evidence for something mysterious. Anything outside its familiar experience took on the character of the inexplicable, and in many cases was regarded as miraculous. The spiritualists seized upon certain classes of these phenomena as proofs of the action of spirits. They especially appealed to the alleged movements of physical objects without contact, and the phenomena of alleged levitation and similar physical inexplicabilities, such as the 'materialization' of physical objects so called, whether of persons or things. But they also included apparitions, mind-reading, mediumistic phenomena, raps and knockings which purported to be communications from the dead, clairvoyance, the supernormal perception of concealed objects, including dowsing or the finding of water and minerals, automatic writing, inspirational speaking, genius, or any unusual phenomenon that did not easily and quickly lend itself to ordinary explanation.

The first thing for the scientific man is to explain all new facts consistently with what he already knows. This is usually called seeking a 'natural' explanation. But the term 'natural' has now lost all the significance that made it antagonistic to the idea of spirit, and hence it serves no useful purpose in controverting the purposes of psychic research. But what is often or always intended by its employment may be legitimate enough, and that is to make the familiar the standard of explanation. It is unity in the world that we seek, constancy and uniformity of events, as a means of prevision and the adjustment of our conduct. If the phenomena of 'nature' were always miraculous and incalculable, we should have no means of assuring rational thought and conduct for ourselves. Hence the term 'natural' has come to mean the uniform and constant, and not necessarily the physical. When employed to indicate that our standard at first in the explanation of facts must be the familiar, it denotes just what the man of scientific mind must always assume. He may find that there are phenomena that do not fall under the forms of the familiar in ordinary experience, and in many events, whether physical or mental, he finds this to be the case, even when he has no reason to make them miracles so-called. Hence when it comes to the claim for the interference of spirits in the order of 'nature' or normal experience, his first duty is to exhaust the explanations with which he is most familiar, before admitting the existence and intrusion of anything presumably so extraordinary as discarnate spirits. But there is one limitation to this duty, and this is that it be carried out without undue prejudice, or without any prejudice at all. The prejudices are not all on the side of the 'supernatural.' They are quite as strong on the side of the 'natural,' and there has to be as much impartial investigation into this as into exceptional events. It is only the interests of constancy in nature that make it imperative to go slowly in the admission of irregular and capricious causes. Many of the fundamental conditions of rational conduct require fixed laws in order that volitions may have hope of fruition, while a capricious order of the world would often defeat the most imperative commands of conscience. Hence much can be said against views that reinstate caprice in the order of the cosmos.

But there are other interests also besides regularity, and they are such as are connected with moral ideals and free action. Consequently, whether we call spirits 'natural' or 'supernatural' things, they may have a place in the world regardless of any assumed capriciousness in their action. We are not bound to the familiar beyond the needs of ethical idealism. There would have been no necessity, however, of mediating between two types of thought in this way, but for the extravagances of both against each other. The truth lies somewhere between the two. But the first duty of the scientific method in trying to solve the problem is to exhaust familiar explanations and to extend them as far as they will reach. It must discriminate in the evidence.

This duty requires it to define carefully what would be evidence for the existence of discarnate spirits, and then measure the relation of other facts to this supposition by that given standard. Now I have shown that the only effective answer to materialism is communication with the dead, and communication with the dead can be determined only by two conditions: (1) by the existence of supernormal knowledge; (2) by this supernormal knowledge being in the form of incidents which would be memories of their earthly life if spirits actually survived. These two conditions must be satisfied. They could be subdivided into subordinate types of phenomena, but that is not necessary here. The exclusion of normal explanations and the convergence of the facts upon memories which the dead would have if they retained their personal identity, are the two ways of determining the standard of the spiritistic theory. Whether it can ever be satisfied is not the question here, but only the formal conditions of satisfying it.

Now this standard enables us to cast out of consideration as evidence a number of groups of phenomena which the spiritualists have always regarded as evidence of their theory. The first group is all those physical phenomena which are associated with the contact of any person supposedly the medium of communication, or of the effect of such contact. In all these cases unconscious muscular action may give rise to phenomena that are not voluntarily produced by the subject, and we are so familiar with unconscious muscular action in many of the ordinary affairs of life that we have no assurance of foreign interference. The next group consists of all those mental phenomena which are evidently not related to the personal identity of the dead. Here we have the whole field of the subconscious and secondary personality, as they are called. By these we mean the mental states which occur without the ability to control them by attention, and of which we ourselves are as much spectators as we would be of the acts of others; or even those evidently mental phenomena that occur when we are wholly unconscious, such as hypnotic states and actions or trance phenomena not suggesting the supernormal. There are persons like Ansel Bourne, mentioned above, who live out a life of which they have no normal consciousness. All these phenomena of the subconscious life or secondary personality must be excluded from the evidence for spirits. These include inspirational speaking, whether it be in or out of a trance. Then come the mental coincidences between the living that have been classified as mindreading, thought-transference or telepathy. Following these will be the apparitions of the living, of which there seem to be authentic instances; the phenomena of dowsing, of finding lost articles by clairvoyance, as it is sometimes called, or perhaps better teleasthesia, the perception of physical things and events, not obtainable by telepathy or by any normal impressions on sense, if such things exist. One might add also all physical phenomena whatsoever of a real or alleged supernormal character, and unaccompanied by mental phenomena suggestive of intelligence beyond that of the subject which might cause them. Then there is the large field of chance coincidences, fraud, phenomena due to hypereasthesia in certain subjects, subconscious perceptions, guessing, whether conscious or subconscious, suggestion, hints and inferences by suggestion, restoration of forgotten memories, etc. All these have to be eliminated before we admit even the supernormal, and even when the supernormal is admitted, all those types of it as well which are not constituted out of incidents bearing upon the personal identity of the dead, have to be excluded from the evidence.

It is quite possible that explanation by means of spirits may extend over many phenomena which are not evidence of their existence and action. But that must be determined after we have reason to believe that such agencies exist, and hence other possible explanations must be suspected until that of the discarnate is proved. I fully agree that many of the so-called 'natural' explanations are not explanations at all. They are but names for unknown causes. Telepathy is one of them, clairvoyance is another, suggestion is still another. They are but terms for classifying phenomena, not for explaining them. They are useful in determining the evidential but not the causal problem. This is often or nearly always forgotten by those who are loth to admit the existence and agency of spirits. But they will have to come to this admission, that they are not explanatory in any sense in which science has to use them, namely, that of familiar causes. They are names for the unknown, and all scientific explanation must appeal to the known. This is an axiom, and telepathy, clairvoyance, suggestion, dowsing, many of the appeals to the subconscious, are all subterfuges for escaping other possibilities 'and deceiving the public. They serve to protect the pretence of knowledge where the ignorance is as great or greater than the appeal to spirits. But nevertheless they are legitimate as means of limiting the evidence and suggesting that we may find some explanation which does not require an appeal to the discarnate. They are at least good means for postponing judgment where many people want to appeal hastily to the transcendental, and in this too they are legitimate enough. But they can never be pressed as putting an end to further inquiry, as is the habit of the contented opponents of the discarnate to indicate or imply. Hence the fundamental problem is to find supernormal evidence of the personal identity of the dead, in order to assure us of their continued existence. Whether there is any such evidence, however, is not the issue in this discussion of method.



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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