Book: "Psychical Research and Survival"

Author: Prof. James Hyslop

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- Chapter Six -

The Survival of Personal Consciousness


          ONE OF the curious things in this discussion is the violent antagonism which the scientific man displays toward the possibility of surviving consciousness. If he is an out-and-out materialist, he ridicules such a supposition, and rightly enough, if his own theory of consciousness be true. But he ought to see that he has no absolute proof that consciousness is a function of the brain. To prove it he would have to show that, when the body perishes, consciousness is annihilated. This he has not done and cannot do. All the evidence, as we have seen, from normal experience suggests his view, but it does not prove it scientifically. He must give us the same proof that the consciousness is annihilated as he gives that the physical organism dissolves. But he never faces the fundamental issue that the present existence of consciousness is quite as mysterious as any supposed future existence of it. It is no more impossible for consciousness to exist in the future than it is at present. The materialist does not know enough about atoms or ions and electrons to predict the existence of consciousness from that knowledge. It is not an implication of any knowledge we have or suppose regarding them. If we cannot infer the necessity of consciousness from atoms or any other physical units in the world, we certainly cannot infer its annihilation from the dissolution of the relation between atoms. It is merely a question of fact, of evidence, whether consciousness is a function of the organism and whether it survives. The necessities of the matter have long since been banished from scientific speculations.

The question, then, is whether we have any evidence that the soul or personal consciousness survives bodily death. I have indicated that I think we have abundant evidence for the existence of telepathy, but that I do not regard it as explaining anything, much less the character of the facts which suggest survival after death. There remains, then, to ask if we have evidence of this survival. It is not whether we have a soul or not, because I regard that question as bound up with the problem of surviving consciousness. If we had a soul other than the brain, of course, it would not follow that it perished when the body did, but it would also not follow that personal consciousness would survive with this soul. It might be exceedingly probable that it would survive when the soul did. but it is not a necessary consequence of it, and hence we require separate evidence for personal survival. We must have the proof of personal identity, and this requires the communication of earthly memories under conditions that exclude normal knowledge of them by the person through whom they come. The facts must be numerous enough to evade explanation by all normal means, such as guessing, chance coincidence, fraud, and other possible theories. and they must show that organic unity which would make their meaning unmistakable if the same facts were told us over a telegraph wire.

Now this is not the place to give scientific evidence for such a conclusion. The space at our command here would not suffice to present scientific credentials that would remove an obstinate scepticism. We can only refer readers to the records of the various Societies for Psychical Research and scientific data, published and otherwise, for adequate evidence of survival. Its richness and complexity cannot be presented here in the form of evidence. All that we can do is to pass judgment on the evidence and let the case stand with that. But the kind of facts which it is necessary to have is such as would prove a man's identity in the civil courts. He must communicate little incidents in his past life-and the more trivial the better, provided they are wholly exceptional-that will make it unmistakable as to who is meant by them. They must show that selective unity which a mind would give them in its natural recollections, and exhibit the play of interest and association which would make a spiritistic theory the most probable as an explanation.

The question here is not whether spiritualism is true or not, but whether personal consciousness survives. There is no objection to calling this view spiritualism, except that many people associate the term with the form of the phenomena rather than with their scientific meaning. Some day the term will come again into respectable usage, but only when it has emancipated itself from the offensive associations which it has now before the public. In the meantime, scientific men have adopted the term spiritism to evade those misunderstandings. The real meaning of the term spiritualism, after the time of Swedenborg, was communication with the dead, in whatever form, though its medieval import was simply that man had a soul as against the materialistic theory that he had not. But in America the term, while it implied communication with the dead, became complicated with the form of the communication, especially in physical phenomena, and also immoral ideas and practices, until the scientific world had to signify its position by adopting the term spiritism for the phenomena that suggest the survival of personality. It has some things in common with the term spiritualism, but it aims especially at denoting severer critical methods than have prevailed among those who have called themselves spiritualists, as well as at excluding the religious and non-ethical associations of the latter term. But it is not absolutely necessary to use either term, though it is convenient to have a short word to denote the point of view, and for this purpose spiritism is the one chosen here. It will stand for the bare fact of communication with the dead, and the exclusion of the associations which have made the other term a byword. It will denote the method and evidence that opposes the materialism which denies that a soul exists and that personal consciousness can survive death.

I shall content myself here with simply affirming that I regard the evidence for the survival of personal consciousness as satisfactory for all intelligent people. I cannot produce, and shall not endeavour to produce, it here. It must be found in the records and books discussing the subject. I can only say that, to me, it is conclusive. Were I at all interested with the absurd theories of telepathy about which some people talk so glibly, I might feel the force of the evidence much less than I do. But as I do not regard telepathy as an explanatory hypothesis at all for anything, and as I contend that there is no evidence whatever for selective telepathy as a fact, I do not give that theory of the phenomena any serious consideration whatever. To me chance coincidence, fraud, and subconscious productions are much stronger rivals of the spiritistic theory than that of telepathy. I do not say that chance coincidence, fraud, or subconscious production actually apply to such facts as I regard as evidence of the supernormal or of spirits, but that all facts which can be explained by these hypotheses have to be excluded from the evidence, and that spiritistic assumptions cannot be admitted until these several theories or objections can be removed. They are limitations of the evidence and cannot apply to the main facts without destroying all standards of truth whatsoever.

In securing and testing this evidence for survival, the stress has been laid upon such complex incidents as easily exclude chance coincidence, guessing, fraud, and fabrication; and other important characteristics have been disregarded, not because they were irrelevant, but because they were not the primary condition of the evidence. In excluding telepathy from the case, we had to emphasize those facts which were not known by the experimenter as well as the psychic. But as corroborative of this we may regard the psychological features of the phenomena which illustrate the idea of independent personality rather than anything we know of thought-transference. For instance, A, in communicating with B, refers to C in a natural way instead of to D, who is known to B, but is not interested in or known by A in a manner to make a reference to him natural. This sort of thing is very common in the evidence, and it illustrates an important law of the mind, which we should not expect any telepathic process to follow, unless we make it fiendish. But I had, perhaps, best summarize the facts which bear upon the proof of survival, and in doing so I must estimate the weight of real or alleged rival theories.

1. Telepathy is not an explanatory conception, as we have already indicated. It is merely a name for facts.

2. The directness of telepathy as a process -has never been scientifically proved, and this must be proved before it can be used even to limit the evidence for spirits.

3. The only telepathy that has any scientific credentials whatever is connected with the present mental states of the agent and the percipient. There is no evidence whatever that telepathy can read the subconscious mind of any one apart from present mental action on the subject of communication. But no progress whatever can be made in explaining the facts unless telepathy with the subconscious of the agent, and by the subconscious of the percipient, be assumed. This assumption, however, cannot be scientifically made without evidence that such a process is possible by the subconscious.

4. Assuming, however, that telepathy can tap the subconscious of the experimenter or sitter in mediumistic work, even this hypothesis would make no headway with the results in many cases, because the experimenter does not know many of the facts, though it can be proved the deceased person purporting to communicate did know them when living. Hence the only hope of using the term telepathy to cover the facts, assuming that it might explain at all, is to stretch it to include the possibility that the psychic can have access to all living consciousness and subconsciousness, that it can select the right person, and that it can select from his or her subconscious the right facts to impersonate a given deceased person. Short of this assumption, there is no hope of applying a telepathic theory at all. But there is not one iota of evidence for any such selective process. There is indeed no evidence (a) for the directness of the telepathic process, (b) for the access of the process to the subconscious states apart from present active mental states, and (c) for the selective nature of the process or its extension to all living minds. This ought to be absolutely fatal to the application of telepathy, and especially to the claim to call it scientific.

5. Possibly another conception of telepathy would be to suppose that all living thoughts of all living people are telepathically transmitted to all other individual minds, including that of the psychic, so that the psychic may either subconsciously select the right incidents from his or her own subconscious or from the subconscious of the person present. It is needless to propose such an hypothesis before a scientific court, until we can give adequate evidence for it; and evidence of any kind there is absolutely none for any such view. It is only a modified form of the other infinite telepathy, and whether absurd or not has no standing whatever anywhere, and will receive none until proper evidence is forthcoming.

So much for the negative evidence for the spiritistic theory. This means that we remove thereby the objections to it. We come next to the positive evidence.

6. The psychological unity of the facts sustains the spiritistic view. By this I mean that the facts chosen to prove identity in any case, such as we have on record, are just the kind of facts which any living person would select to prove his identity, if it were questioned. For instance, X mentions Y and says he is a friend of Z after relating facts in the life of Y. Or the sitter asks about some trouble in the sale of an article; and in the reply the communicator mentions the room in which his mother passed her last days, and the sequel shows that this room was connected with the trouble in the sale, though the sitter had not thought of that fact but only the trouble and the place where it occurred. Thousands of such facts occur, and readers have only to consult the records to find them.

7. The unity of personality and consciousness manifested in the same personalities extending over years of work. while there is no confusion with the work of other personalities in the same time, also makes a rather strong, if not conclusive, argument for the spiritistic theory. I refer to a fact, which I may give by way of illustration. We suppose that A communicates today. Before he has a chance to do so again an interval of a month elapses. When he comes again he shows the same characteristics, a memory of the past communication, and connects rightly the new facts with any that have been given in the past, and may extend this memory over years of work and through different psychics. Such a process cannot be called telepathy without making it infinite; and at the same time we have to admit that it is perfectly helpless in regard to nearly all the facts of human consciousness. Nothing but a spiritistic theory can make any such facts intelligible.

8. There is, again, the difference between communicators. Some communicators are clear and very successful in giving evidence of their identity. Others are very poor. In one case the sitter may have known a given communicator well and abundant facts about his life, but gets little or nothing important from him. Another about whom he knows little or nothing may, on the other hand, be very successful in giving supernormal evidence abundantly. This is absurd on a telepathic theory, and yet it correctly represents what might be very natural on the spiritistic hypothesis.

9. What may be called the dramatic play of personality is another interesting argument. By it I mean that the contents of what purports to come from spirits conform exactly to what we find in the ordinary drama where we find each actor an independent person. The messages and general contents conform to the reality of the whole thing and not to subconscious fabrication. Thus even those personalities who do not prove their personal identity, sustain their character consistently, carry on their work so as to make it appear that conversation on 'the other side' goes on, and interfere in the process of communication like persons in a drama, not like objects in a spectacular show. Their individuality is complete and rational, rather than like products of the subconscious which interfuse or do not show any multiplicity or interaction with each other at all. It is impossible without elaborate study and illustration to make this argument clear, but it will be clear to students of psychology who give any attention at all to the facts and the problem.

This is no place, however, to examine all the facts which bear upon the issue. I can only mention these few. There are difficulties which have to be considered, and readers will have to be referred to the records for the study of the complications which make the proof of survival overwhelming. I turn to other matters.

It is the triviality of the incidents that excites most opposition, at least among laymen, to the spiritistic theory. The simple reply to any such objection, real or imaginary, is that any man who raises it from this point of view does not understand what the problem is for the scientific man. He would ridicule the layman for bringing it forward. Nothing but trivial facts will ever prove either supernormal knowledge or personal identity, and these must be shown in order to prove the spiritistic theory. Just let any man sit down and ask himself what he would select to prove his identity to a friend. He would soon find himself thinking of some practical joke, a broken jack-knife and a wart, a cow kicking over a bucket of milk, and other such incidents. He can do nothing else, if he is rational. Triviality is absolutely necessary to prove the case.

But then it is not true that trivial facts are the only ones communicated. We have to lay stress upon them for the reasons just explained. But there is abundant material of a philosophic and an ethical character, sometimes quite as lofty as anything a living intelligent person could give. But it is worthless as evidence for the existence of spirits. No sane scientific man would produce that sort of material as evidence of the supernormal, unless it came through a person who could not normally read or write, or had such inferior intelligence as to make the phenomena miraculous. He has to rest his case upon little trivial incidents which are provably supernormal. When we have made the spiritistic hypothesis acceptable we may then turn back to this other kind of material and discuss it. But at present it can receive no place in the evidence for the existence of spirits. We are not in a position to verify such statements. It will be a very difficult and laborious task to secure proof for any message purporting to tell us about a transcendental life. The only way such statements can be substantiated is to get the same messages about the other life through a large number of psychics not in collusion and not familiar with the literature or the ideas about the spiritual world. And perhaps we should have to have the statements checked by both the same communicators and different ones through the same and also through different sources, after we had satisfied the criterion of personal identity. Now this is a task not to be undertaken lightly. There are numerous ideas in common that have already come through different psychics, and they are not to be summarily rejected, as some of them have fair credentials for demanding at least serious consideration, even though they do not satisfy scientific requirements. But we have still to organize experiments on a proper scale for a problem of such magnitude.

We cannot accept statements on the ground that they agree with our preconceived ideas of such a world or what we think it ought to be. That only opens the floodgates to the imagination and to all the capricious opinions of people who know nothing about the criteria of truth. Besides, we could hardly expect a spiritual world to be so like the physical as to be sure that conformity with our ideas would be a criterion; and if it differed greatly we could not verify it by any human testimony until we had eliminated the influence of the subconscious and other influences from the results claiming to represent the spiritual world. We are placed in a dilemma, therefore. If the statements agree with our ideas of the physical world they will be open to scepticism, and will not be unusual enough to excite either interest or evidential probability. If they represent it as wholly different they will not be verifiable. Hence whether they agree with or differ from our ideas they cannot be accepted on their own credentials, even when we are sure of the identity of the communicator. If we knew anything about the conditions under which communications are made, and if we were assured that messages were not fragmentary and incomplete, we might attach some value to accredited witnesses from the other side, and there is no doubt that much of the testimony that comes from such sources deserves serious consideration. But we are far from any results that can be regarded as scientific proof of what the spiritual world is and what its activities are. Although this is the chief matter of interest to the general public, it is not to be decided in the way that public expects. When it is willing to put the scientific man in a position to investigate it rightly, it may, in time, expect some sort of verdict, but until it does this we shall remain ignorant.

The problem of personal identity can be decided with comparative ease. I mean, of course, compared with the problem of what the spiritual world is. If we have made little headway in convincing the world that personal identity and personal survival have been proved, it must be apparent that we are less well off in the matter of what the transcendental world is like. The difficulty in both, however, is much more in the prejudices either that prevent seeing and understanding the facts or that sustain the will not to examine them. It is a significant fact that every intelligent man who has devoted sufficient time and experiment to this subject, has come out on the side of spirits, even though he has no knowledge of what the process is by which their communications are effected. Scepticism may be justified in questioning elaborate systems from a spiritistic source, and indeed it is this, perhaps, that sustains the resistance to the belief in spirits at all. But if it would discriminate between problems it might justify its policy without being ridiculous in its destructive theories.



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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