Book: "Psychical Research and Survival"

Author: Prof. James Hyslop

Availability: Out of Print

Contents / Previous Chapter / Next Chapter


- Chapter Five -



          IT WAS apparently the phenomena of Cumberland and Bishop that first suggested the investigation of mind-reading, or thought-transference, which is what is meant by the term 'telepathy.' But their alleged mind-reading was either nothing but muscle-reading, or so closely allied to it, that neither in method nor in results was it impressive for the scientific man. Besides, there were other and more reliable facts that suggested it. Bishop and Cumberland were professionals, and their performances so nearly resembled those of mountebanks and adventurers, that perhaps no serious attention would have been given them but for more impressive facts of a wholly different type in respect of method. Such as they were, however, they attracted the attention of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research, and were the first to receive investigation. It is not probable that they were the chief interest of its members, but they tended to excite less ridicule than the claims of spiritualism, and might be used to modify that belief; at least, the later history of telepathic hypotheses suggests this situation. In the course of the first eleven years' work, and to a less extent since that time, the Society accumulated a vast number of facts, both spontaneous and experimental, which indicated some unusual connection between living minds not due to the ordinary processes of sense perception, whatever they were. The spontaneous incidents were of the type which represented A a., getting the thoughts of B more or less simultaneously with the occurrence of those thoughts in B, and at various distances, sometimes near and sometimes far. The experimental results were those in which A thought of certain objects, scenes, or ideas, and B recorded his impressions. Sometimes A drew figures and B was to draw what came into his mind. The coincidences were frequent enough to show that chance coincidence and guessing were not the explanation. To certain types of them, 'involuntary whispering' was the objection raised. The experiments of Lehman and Hansen were designed to maintain this theory against telepathy when agent and percipient were near each other. They were criticizing some experiments by the Sidgwicks, and to test their own hypothesis they repeated the experiments under the same conditions, and found the results were not beyond chance coincidence. They then stood in the foci of microphones, and found that the results were more than chance coincidence would explain. They then maintained that consciousness unconsciously affected the vocal muscles sufficiently to produce the same type of vibration in the throat that the voice would produce, and that these vibrations were magnified by the microphones sufficiently to produce a subliminal impression in the percipient, and this emerged in consciousness without any normal sensory knowledge of the stimulus. While this was an entirely legitimate objection to certain kinds of experiments, when agent and percipient were near each other, it did not apply to many other types of phenomena and experiment. It was therefore thought that the facts on the whole justified the hypothesis Of telepathy. We cannot go into the evidence for it, or give detailed illustrations. The detailed reports of eleven years' observations and experiments cannot be even summarized in the space at our disposal. Readers will have to go to the original data for these. Personally I regard the evidence quite adequate for such a thing as telepathy, mind-reading, or thought-transference. To me it seems scientifically proved.

But the real question is: What has really been proved? It is not enough to say that telepathy has been proved. The important inquiry is: What is telepathy? It was a mere word for the facts which suggested or illustrated phenomena that could not be explained in ordinary ways. But this was not the feeling of either the public or of many who were engaged in the collection of evidence. It was defined as the 'transmission of thought independently of the recognized channels of sense,' and then used as a process to limit the evidence of spiritistic intervention, or to explain away the phenomena regarded as spiritistic, when they were of the mediumistic and mental type. This latter step was going beyond the evidence. It gave an explanatory import to the term when its primary meaning was purely descriptive. Here began all the troubles of psychic researchers with the scientific man. The layman at, once began to use telepathy to explain the most marvellous phenomena, whether they were proved to be facts or not, and men like Thomson Jay Hudson found in it a universal resolvent for all the mysterious coincidences of mind. In his conception of it, telepathy was almost a substitute for gravitation! It could do anything as infinite as that. It was a process of reading any and all living minds at will, selecting memories therefrom to suit any purpose the mind chose, and all this subconsciously done!

It has been this sort of use of the term that has excited the ridicule of the scientific man. Recently a strong controversy has sprung up among advocates and opponents of telepathy, some of the scientific sceptics taking the radical position that there was no evidence whatever for telepathy. These antagonists of it did not make clear what they were opposing, not having defined clearly what they were talking about any more than the advocates of it. They no doubt had in mind the popular conception of it as a more or less infinite process of reading other persons' minds subconsciously and at will, which is the prevalent idea, and unfortunately encouraged by many a psychic researcher who should have known better. What, then, is telepathy? What is 'mind-reading' or thought-transference, for which I think there is adequate evidence?

The one most important thing to remember about telepathy is that it is only a name for facts. It is not a name for an explanatory process. It does not hint even remotely at any known process whatever. If it had not been for the hasty desire to get rid of spirits in supernormal phenomena, it is probable that no misunderstanding of the term would have arisen. It was entirely the assumption that it was a substitute for certain real or alleged spiritistic causes that gave currency to the explanatory implication of the term. Perhaps the use of the term 'transmission' in defining it helped this view into currency. The original definition was as I gave it above, namely, 'the transmission of thought independently of the recognized channels of sense.' Perhaps the terms 'channels of sense' tended to make us think that the process was central or otherwise than through even supernormal functions or sensory processes. But in whatever way equivocation might be due to these terms, the qualification 'recognized' was enough to remove it, and the whole definition but described the facts. It did not name a cause or a known process, or indicate anything about the directness of the transmission. This last was assumed in the desire to limit spiritistic hypotheses.

The definition which I should adopt for telepathy is that it denotes coincidences between two living persons' thoughts, which are not due to chance coincidence or to normal sense perception. This is a negative definition, and I intend it as such. I do not think we know anything whatever of the process or what the cause is. I merely think that the coincidences are due to a cause, and a cause not discoverable by normal sense perception. But I do not believe that we have any evidence whatever as to what the special cause is that would account for the coincidences. So far as present knowledge is concerned, the phenomena simply exclude chance and normal sensory processes. The term is thus only a name for the facts that baffle normal explanations, and indicate our ignorance, not our knowledge. The term does not explain or name any process that would explain. It only classifies a group of facts which cannot be used as evidence for spiritistic agencies. The primary condition of a spiritistic hypothesis, as we have already shown, is that the phenomena should clearly illustrate the personal identity of deceased persons. But many of the mental coincidences which suggest or prove telepathy, represent nothing but the identity of the living, or are not memories which deceased persons might be expected to give. The coincidences are between living persons' thoughts, not between the living and the dead. The term thus limits evidence, it does not explain. It stands for facts, not for known causes. This is the only meaning of the term which I think scientifically legitimate. This conception of the facts I think proved.

This opens the way to consider those conceptions of the term which I think are not proved. In the exigencies of limiting the evidence for spiritistic theories people have assumed various things about the process. The first is that the communication is direct between living minds, which means that the consciousness of one living mind acts in some way directly on the mind of another. This assumption is wholly different from that- which defines the coincidences as causal rather than casual and supernormal rather than normal, and it requires independent evidence for itself. But I contend that there is no scientific evidence whatever that thought is directly transmitted from one living mind to another. There has been no attempt even to investigate this problem. There may be no better hypothesis, but that is another question. We are not obliged to have hypotheses. We may prefer to express ignorance and to wait for further investigations. On this matter of direct telepathy between living people, I prefer to take this course. All that we know is that the coincidences are not due to chance or normal sense perception. The appeal to mysterious subconscious processes does not alter the case. They are quite as unknown as any telepathy can be, and I shall have occasion to take this up in a moment. I am here dealing with those coincidences which cannot possibly be referred to any subconscious processes closely allied to the normal, and so have in mind distances which exclude even the subconscious, except such as would be convertible with telepathy. What I am denying is the evidence for the directness of the process. I do not deny that it may be a direct process. I am too ignorant to deny this. All that I am insisting upon is that we have no evidence whatever of a scientific sort that telepathy is directly between the living. There may be no other legitimate hypothesis, but that makes no difference.

We may legitimately enough assume this directness of telepathy between living people when trying to convert the sceptic to the spiritistic theory, if we happen to believe that view. But this is not granting the truth of it. It is merely a concession to his prejudices for the sake of presenting facts which do not consist with it. We may stretch such a view till it breaks, but this does not commit us to a belief in it as a fact. When it is a dispute between two forms of credulity, so to speak, we may concede direct processes between the living for the sake of cautiousness or of converting another to another theory when the facts do not fit this supposition; but assuming a possibility for the sake of conversion is not admitting a fact as an explanation. Psychic researchers have made this great mistake and assumed to be a fact what is only a conceivable possibility. They have not produced any evidence for the directness as a fact, but have tried to pacify scepticism, throwing a sop to Cerberus by trying its credulity in the name of the supposedly 'natural.' But wise is the scientific man who will not be caught in that trap.

A second conception of it is that some sort of vibrations, perhaps ethereal, carry thoughts from one person to another. But there is absolutely no evidence whatever that consciousness is either vibration or in any way connected with vibration. It may be this for all that we know, but there is no scientific evidence for it. It was perhaps the relation of speech to sound undulations and the communication of thoughts by this means that suggested such a view of telepathy. But we do not communicate thoughts by speech. Language is only symbolical and does not communicate thoughts. People with different languages or symbols cannot communicate with each other at all. We have first to agree, in some way, upon what a symbol shall mean, and then interpret these symbols. Thoughts are not transmitted. They only occur 'in our heads,' so to speak, and agreement on symbols enables us to infer what others think. If thought were vibration-and it may be for all that I know - it might be transmitted from mind to mind, but we have no evidence either that it is vibration or that it is or could be transmitted if it were vibration. We are again perfectly ignorant of what it is.

A third analogy which is frequently used is that of wireless telegraphy. The mystery of this process is supposed to lie in the absence of the usual medium for transmitting wireless messages. But the analogy is a wholly mistaken one. Thoughts are never transmitted by wireless telegraphy any more than by any telegraphy. Again, the whole process is one of agreement on mechanical symbols of ideas, and telegraphy, whether wireless or otherwise, transmits only mechanical effects, and these are interpreted at the other end of the line. Without the agreed symbols neither wireless nor other telegraphy would transmit messages or thoughts. Besides, it is not supposedly without a medium of transmission for mechanical effects, any more than the ordinary telegraphy is. In wireless we suppose the ether to be the medium instead of a metallic wire. Consequently there is no scientific ground for using either vibrations or wireless analogies for making telepathy intelligible, whether direct or indirect. It may be that such processes are facts. I do not know, and science has produced no evidence for the fact. The term telepathy thus remains only as a name for facts and is not an explanation.

As long as it is not explanatory it will not be a rival hypothesis of spirits in any situation whatever. We shall see later why spirits explain certain types of phenomena, whether the proof be adequate or not. But telepathy serves only as a means of curtailing the evidence. It classifies and describes; it does not explain. But those who apply it to the phenomena which at least superficially suggest spirits, not only use it as an explanation, but wholly distort the meaning with which they started their inquiries. The conception of telepathy as a direct process had the advantage of two things: (1) the fact that the coincidences were not evidence of the identity of the dead; and (2) that the phenomena conformed to the law of stimulus, as possibly indicated in the dynamic influence of one mind on another. The coincidences were between two present and active mental states, so that one mental state seemed to act like any other stimulus on the mind of another. The consciousness of the agent seemed to act on the mind of the percipient like any stimulus on a sensorium. It is true that we had and have no scientific evidence, perhaps no evidence of any kind, that consciousness thus acts dynamically at a distance. The nearest we know of its dynamic or causal action is on the organism of the subject, both by the will and unconsciously, or in a reflex manner on the various functions of the body. But as for dynamic influence on minds at a distance we have no evidence at all; and even if we had, the law of it shows no resemblance to any of the laws of the distribution of energy as we know them. But the coincidences in telepathy at least resemble and suggest such causal action. However, they involve only the present active mental states, and there is no evidence that the subconscious states act on any other minds.

Now it is peculiar to the extension of telepathy which many writers and thinkers have given to the process, that it directly involves the idea either that the subconsciousness of the agent acts on the percipient, or the subconsciousness of the percipient reaches out, so to speak, and selects from the mind of others what is necessary for its purposes. As to the subconsciousness acting as a stimulus on the percipient, we have no evidence whatever. The coincidences may suggest that in some cases, but they not only do not prove it, but many of them are not coincidences with the contents of the subconsciousness of the person supposed. Thus A is a sitter with a psychic, and receives incidents which he or she does not know, but which are found to be true of the alleged communicator. But they are verified by some living friend of the communicator at a distance, so that the application of telepathy to the facts must assume that the subconsciousness of a distant person acts just at the right time to stimulate the percipient to complete a system of facts of which only a part is known by the sitter. Or are we to suppose that all mental states whatsoever of the living are telepathically imprinted on other living minds so that the sitter is the reservoir of all the thoughts of all living people, and these can act on the psychic in the right order to stimulate or impersonate the dead? There is no evidence whatever for either hypothesis. Indeed, we cannot tell anything about when the subconscious acts, or whether it does so at all, on other minds. We cannot establish a coincidence with it, or we cannot establish its coincidence with any other mental state in other minds. It is impossible to experiment with it in that direction. It is only the imagination that supposes the subconscious to have any such powers, and there is not one iota of evidence for it.

We are then left to the supposition that the percipient selects subconsciously from the subconscious minds of others what it wants, and represents the source to be spirits of the dead rather than the minds of the living. But this hypothesis totally changes the fundamental conception of telepathy. That term originally expressed or implied that the process conformed to the law of stimulus. It was A acting on B, and not B selecting from A. This new conception reverses the process and abandons the law of stimulus, and this without any evidence whatever. There can be no doubt about the selective nature of the facts reproduced in mediumship, so that it is only a question of who or what does the selecting. But a selective telepathy must assume an infinite intelligence to discriminate rightly between all other memories of the sitter, and also all other memories of all living people, and then give us confused and erroneous statements about the right ones. It always goes in the right direction, and is so intelligent that it must know where it gets its facts, but always lies about where it gets them. Now there is not one iota of evidence for this selective process by the living mind. It is pure imagination and gratuitous assumption. We not only have no evidence that the connection is direct, but we have also no evidence that it is selective by the assumed percipient.

The psychic researcher who assumes or presses telepathy to explain the majority of mediumistic phenomena is doing so without any rational reason whatever, and it is no wonder that the scientific man is sceptical of such methods or hypotheses. Coincidences that are not due to chance he can understand, but an infinitely selective process without any causal analogies in experience defies rational thinking, and no one with any sense of humour or scientific intelligence would be tempted with it, except as an escape from the existence of spirits in whom it is not respectable to believe, though it is respectable to pretend that you are seeking to believe in them. No intelligent person would be tempted by such a hypothesis for any other reason. Nor am I either assuming or defending the spiritistic theory by this criticism of telepathy. There may be no adequate evidence for it either; but this fact does not make the indefinite extension of telepathy without evidence any the more scientific. We may be entitled to imagine any indefinite extension of it so as to gain assurance for any other theory by making telepathy appear preposterous; but while this is perfectly justifiable, we should never permit the process to delude our own intellects or to exempt us from the obligation to procure evidence that the extension is scientifically supported.

I do not need to dwell on the objections to telepathy which arise from alleged instances of it where muscle-reading, suggestion, and various sub-conscious stimuli may give rise to coincidences that might be unusual. I am keeping in mind those instances where distance and adequate protection exclude unconscious whispering and other sources of normal perception. Scepticism has its rights, especially when its motive is to ascertain the correct conception of things. It is easy and often delusive to build up a large philosophy on a few facts or inadequately proved facts, and here it is that scepticism performs as important a service as belief. It is the corrective of delusions; so that I am not defending the supernormal in the interests of any theory. Parties have been quite as prejudiced on both sides of this problem as they are in politics, and we are here interested only in demanding dispassionate consideration for facts and clear thinking in regard to them.

The phenomena of nature are not all of the same type. Even within the compass of terms which name special groups there are differences that shade off into other types of phenomena; and the case is not wholly with those who select special instances and endeavour to force all others into that mould. Unconscious whispering, suggestion, hypereasthesia, and other similar delicate conditions of sense perception lie between the rougher processes of knowledge and the more recondite, or may even shade into telepathy. But the extremes between hearing a bell a hundred feet distant and hearing one in Germany when you are in the Mississippi valley, do not admit of classification together. It is these extreme instances that invite attention, and whether we call them chance hallucinations, illusions, or telepathy, they are not to be classed with normal experiences. Spontaneous and experimental incidents are numerous enough to justify the use of some term to describe them. Perhaps the term 'telepathy' implies too much regarding the process implied in the result, and if so I should be satisfied with any other which did not create worse illusions about the facts. In any case, however, the term does nothing more than name or describe the facts. It offers no explanation whatever of them.

Let us then summarize the status of telepathy as an hypothesis. (1) It is nothing but a name for facts, for mental coincidences excluding chance, guessing, and normal sense perception. (2) It is not a causal explanation of anything whatever, even of the mental coincidences described. We know absolutely nothing about the process involved, whether 'brain waves,' ethereal undulations, or other conditions exist to make transmission possible; and even if they did exist the case would not be any the more intelligible. (3) We do not know whether the process of transmission is direct between the living or involves some tertium quid or third agent to carry the message. Our knowledge is so limited in the matter that this hypothesis is as good as any to account for the facts. (4) The only telepathy for which we have any scientific evidence whatever is connected with the present active mental states of the supposed agent and those of the percipient. There is no scientific evidence that it is primarily or exclusively a subconscious affair initiated and carried out by the percipient. The evidence connects it with the apparent stimulus of the agent's thought. (5) The telepathy which assumes that the percipient selects desired information from the subconsciousness of a person present has no scientific evidence whatever for itself. Yet this has been assumed in order to eliminate other hypotheses. (6) The still further extended telepathy which assumes that a percipient can at any time gain access by subconscious action to the subconsciousness of any person at any distance, or of all living persons, and select what is necessary for its purpose, has absolutely no evidence whatever, scientific or otherwise, for its assumed action. It has nothing but the imagination of people who have no scientific knowledge to support it. It will be conceivable when it produces at least an iota of evidence in its favour.

All this shows that telepathy is not only nothing but a name for certain facts requiring to be explained, but also that we have only a negative conception with which to deal. By this I mean that we conceive it, not by what it is, but by what it is not. It is not a normal process of gaining information, and that is all we know about it. The consequence is that we cannot use it for explaining anything. Human intelligence never explains anything by what it does not know, but by what it does know. Telepathy represents what we do not know in terms of a process, and hence is worthless for scientific explanations. It can only classify facts which limit evidence for other hypotheses, and it can do no more.



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

Home / Intro / News / Challenge / Investigators / Articles / Experiments / Photographs / Theory / Library / Info / Books / Contact / Campaigns / Glossary


The International Survivalist Society 2002

Website Design and Construction by Tom Jones, Graphic Designer with HND