Book: "The Survival of Man"

Author: Sir Oliver Lodge FRS

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- Section One -

Aims and Objects of Psychical Research

Chapter 1

The Origin of the Society for Psychical Research


          PUZZLING and weird occurrences have been vouched for among all nations and in every age. It is possible to relegate a good many asserted occurrences to the domain of superstition, but it is not possible thus to eliminate all. Nor is it likely that in the present stage of natural knowledge we are acquainted with all the workings of the human spirit and have reduced them to such simplicity that everything capable of happening in the mental and psychical region is of a nature readily and familiarly to be understood by all. Yet there are many who seem practically to believe in this improbability; for although they are constrained from time to time to accept novel and surprising discoveries in biology, in chemistry, and in physical science generally, they seem tacitly to assume that these are the only parts of the universe in which fundamental discovery is possible, all the rest being too well known.

It is a simple faith, and does credit to the capacity for belief of those who hold it-belief unfounded upon knowledge, and tenable only in the teeth of a great mass of evidence to the contrary.

Aims and Objects

It is not easy to unsettle minds thus fortified against the intrusion of unwelcome facts ; and their strong faith is probably a salutary safeguard against that unbalanced and comparatively dangerous condition called "open-mindedness," which is ready to learn and investigate anything not manifestly self -contradictory and absurd. Without people of the solid, assured, self-satisfied order, the practical work of the world would not so efficiently be done.

But whatever may be thought of the subject by the majority of people at present, this book is intended to indicate the possibility that discoveries of the very first magnitude can still be made-are indeed in process of being made-by strictly scientific methods, in the region of psychology: discoveries quite comparable in importance with those which have been made during the last century in physics and biology, but discoveries whose opportunities for practical application and usefulness may similarly have to remain for some time in the hands of experts, since perhaps they cannot be miscellaneously absorbed or even apprehended by the multitude without danger.

It has been partly the necessity for caution-the dread of encouraging mere stupid superstition-that has instinctively delayed advance in these branches of inquiry, until the progress of education gave a reasonable chance of a sane and balanced and critical reception by a fairly considerable minority.
But, within the last half century, assertions concerning psychological supernormalities have not only excited general attention, but have rather notably roused the interest of careful and responsible students, both in the domain of science and in that of letters.

Thirty-three years ago, in fact, a special society with distinguished membership was enrolled in London, with the object of inquiring into the truth of many of these assertions. It was founded by a few men of letters and of science who for some years had been acquainted with a number of strange apparent facts-facts so strange and unusual, and yet so widely believed in among a special coterie of ordinarily sane and sensible people, that it seemed to these pioneers highly desirable either to incorporate them properly into the province of ordered knowledge, or else to extrude them definitely as based upon nothing but credulity, imposture, and deceit.

The attempt was to be made in a serious and responsible spirit, a spirit of genuine "scepticism, "-that is to say, of critical examination and inquiry, not of dogmatic denial and assertion. No phenomenon was to be unhesitatingly rejected because at first sight incredible. No phenomenon was to be accepted which could not make its position good by crucial and repeated and convincing tests. Every class of asserted fact was to have the benefit of inquiry, none was to be given the benefit of any doubt. So long as doubt was reasonable, the phenomenon was to be kept at arm's length : to be criticised as possible, not to be embraced as true.

It is often cursorily imagined that an adequate supply of the critical and cautious spirit necessary in this investigation is a monopoly of professed men of science. It is not so. Trained students of literature - not to mention experts in philosophy-have shown themselves as careful, as exact, as critical, and as cautious, as any professed student of science. They have even displayed an excess of caution. They have acted as a curb and a restraint upon the more technically scientific workers, who - presumably because their constant business is to deal at first hand with new phenomena of one kind or another - have been willing to accept a fresh variety of phenomenon upon evidence not much stronger than that to which they were already well accustomed. Whereas some of the men and women of letters associated with the society have been invariably extremely cautious, less ready to be led by obtrusive and plausible appearances, more suspicious of possibilities and even impossibilities of fraud, actually more inventive sometimes of other and quasi-normal methods of explaining inexplicable facts. Name no names, but from a student of science this testimony is due: and it is largely to the sceptical and extremely cautious wisdom of some representatives of letters and philosophy, as well as to their energy and enthusiasm for knowledge, that the present moderately respectable position of the subject in the estimation of educated people is due.

The first President was Professor Henry Sidgwick, and in his early Presidential addresses the following sentences occur:-

"It is a scandal that a 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.

Now the primary aim of our Society, the thing which we all unite to promote, whether as believers or nonbelievers, is to make a sustained and systematic attempt to remove this scandal in one way or another.

If any one asks me what I mean by, or how I define, sufficient scientific proof of thought-reading, clairvoyance, or the phenomena called Spiritualistic, I should ask to be allowed to evade the difficulties of determining in the abstract what constitutes adequate evidence. What I mean by sufficient evidence is evidence that will convince the scientific world, and for that we obviously require a good deal more than we have so far obtained. I do not mean that some effect in this direction has not been produced; if that were so we could not hope to do much. I think that something has been done; that the advocates of obstinate incredulity - I mean the incredulity that waives the whole affair aside as undeserving of any attention from rational beings - feel their case to be not prima facie so strong now as it was.

Thirty years ago it was thought that want of scientific culture was an adequate explanation of the vulgar belief in mesmerism and table-turning. Then, as one man of scientific repute after another came forward with the results of individual investigation, there was a quite ludicrous ingenuity exercised in finding reasons for discrediting his scientific culture. He was said to be an amateur, not a professional; or a specialist without adequate generality of view and training ; or a mere discoverer not acquainted with the strict methods of experimental research ; or he was not a Fellow of the Royal Society, or if he was it was by an unfortunate accident. We must not expect any decisive effect in the direction at which we primarily aim, on the common sense of mankind, from any single piece of evidence, however complete it has been made. Scientific incredulity has been so long in growing, and has so many and so strong roots, that we shall only kill it, if we are able to kill it at all as regards any of those questions, by burying it alive under a heap of facts. We must keep 'pegging away', as Lincoln said; we must accumulate fact upon fact, and add experiment upon experiment, and, I should say, not wrangle too much with incredulous outsiders about the conclusiveness of any one, but trust to the mass of evidence for conviction. The highest degree of demonstrative force that we can obtain out of any single record of investigation is, of course, limited by the trustworthiness of the investigator. We have done all that we can when the critic has nothing left to allege except that the investigator is in the trick. But when he has nothing else left to allege he will allege that.

"We shall, I hope, make a point of bringing no evidence before the public until we have got it to this pitch of cogency."

To many enthusiasts outside and to some of those inside the Society - who, through long acquaintance with the phenomena under investigation, were already thoroughly convinced of their genuine character - this attitude on the part of the founders and leaders of the Society for Psychical Research always seemed wrong-headed, and sometimes proved irritating to an almost unbearable degree. The hostility of the outside world and of orthodox science to the investigation, though at times fierce and scornful, and always significant and deserving of attention, has been mild, or at any rate intermittent, compared with the bitter and fairly continuous diatribes which at one time issued from the spiritualistic press against the slow and ponderous and hypercritical attitude of those responsible for the working of the Society.

It has been called a society for the suppression of facts, for the wholesale imputation of imposture, for the discouragement of the sensitive, and for the repudiation of every revelation of the kind which was said to be pressing itself upon humanity from the regions of light and knowledge.

Well, we have had to stand this buffeting, as well as the more ponderous blows inflicted by the other side; and it was hardly necessary to turn the cheek to the smiter, since in an attitude of face-forward progress the buffets were sure to come with fair impartiality ; greater frequency on the one side making up for greater strength on the other.

Reply to Religious Critics

There is a persistent class of objector, however, whose attacks are made more in sorrow than in anger, and whose earnest remonstrance's are thus sympathetically parried by the founders of the Society:-

"One word in reference to another objection, which proceeds from a different quarter. There are not a few religious persons who see no reason to doubt our alleged facts, but who regard any experimental investigation of them as wrong, because they must be the work either of the devil or of familiar spirits, with whom the Bible forbids us to have dealings. . . What we should urge upon our religious friends is that their scruples have really no place in the present stage of our investigation, when the question before us is whether certain phenomena are to be referred to the agency of Spirits at all, even as a 'working hypothesis'. . .

Origin of the Society

Many of us, I think, will be amply content if we can only bring this first stage of our investigation to something like a satisfactory issue; we do not look further ahead; and we will leave it for those who may come after to deal with any moral problems that may possibly arise when this first stage is passed.
"There are persons who believe themselves to have certain knowledge on the most important matters on which we are seeking evidence, who do not doubt that they have received communications from an unseen world of spirits, but who think that such communications should be kept as sacred mysteries and not exposed to be scrutinised in the mood of cold curiosity which they conceive to belong to science. Now we do not wish to appear intrusive; at the same time we are anxious not to lose through mere misunderstanding any good opportunities for investigation: and I therefore wish to assure such persons that we do not approach these matters in any light or trivial spirit, but with an ever-present sense of the vast importance of the issues involved, and with every desire to give reverence wherever reverence is found to be due. But we feel bound to begin by taking these experiences, however important and however obscure, as a part of the great aggregate which we call Nature; and we must ascertain carefully and systematically their import, their laws and causes, before we can rationally take up any definite attitude of mind with regard to them. The unknown or uncommon is not in itself an object of reverence; there is no sacredness in the mere limitations of our knowledge.

"This, then, is what we mean by a scientific spirit that we approach the subject without prepossessions, but with a single-minded desire to bring within the realm of orderly and accepted knowledge what now appears as a chaos of individual beliefs."

To prevent misconception, it must be expressly stated that Membership of the Society does not imply the acceptance of any particular explanation of the phenomena investigated, nor any belief as to the operation, in the physical world, of forces other than those recognised by Physical Science. All seriously interested people are welcome as members, provided they have no selfish or commercial ends to serve by seeking to join. Their interest, and in a minor degree their subscription, tend to promote the object we have in view. Moreover, they themselves have the benefit of a good consulting library in addition to becoming recipients of the Society's contemporary publications. Merely superstitious and emotional people would find themselves out of place at our meetings, but otherwise we do not seek to be exclusive. It is a kind of work to which any fair-minded and honest person can, as opportunity offers, contribute his or her share.

Members and Associates are asked to remember that the name of the Society is not The Psychical Society, nor any of the other popular appellations applied to it, but The Society for Psychical Research; its present home is 20, Hanover Square and its abbreviated designation the S.P.R.



Contents / Preface / Chapter 1 / Chapter 2 / Chapter 3 / Chapter 4 / Chapter 5 / Chapter 6 / Chapter 7 / Chapter 8 / Chapter 9 / Chapter 10 / Chapter 11 / Chapter 12 / Chapter 13 / Chapter 14 / Chapter 15 / Chapter 16 / Chapter 17 / Chapter 18 / Chapter 19 / Chapter 20 / Chapter 21 / Chapter 22 / Chapter 23 / Chapter 24 / Chapter 25

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