W. H. Salter

William Henry Salter

1880-1969. Went to Trinity College, Cambridge, with a Classical Scholarship in 1899, took a first class degree in 1901, turned to read Law, and was called to the Barin 1905. Joined the Society for Psychical Research in 1916, to become a member of its Council three years later. From 1920 to 1931, a very difficult financial period, he served as Honorary Treasurer; and from 1924 to 1948 he was Honorary Secretary. He was President from 1947 to 1948. He made many contributions to the SPR Journal and Proceedings, and published two admirable books, Ghosts and Apparitions (1938) and Zoar (1961).

From Zoar, or The Evidence for Psychical Research Concerning Survival
(1961, Sidgwick and Jackson, London).

Chapter 15: To What does the Evidence Point?

- W. H. Salter -

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          IN PSYCHICAL research there are no short cuts. It has been necessary in the foregoing chapters to explore a few by-paths just far enough to show that, however well trodden, they lead nowhere. It has also been necessary to take a roundabout course which, in Chapters VII and VIII in particular, may seem to have strayed a long way from the goal. A stage has now been reached where the negative parts of the enquiry may be left behind without regret, and attention fixed on its positive aspects.

Basically these are the functions of the subconscious as a creative agent and as an organ whereby the individual is in touch in a special way with external intelligences. Its creative powers in dreams and in poetic inspiration were illustrated in Chapter VII by several examples, in some of which the subconscious collaborated with the conscious faculties more or less an equal terms, while in others it was so definitely the dominant partner as to seem almost to supersede them. In some instances, again, subconscious activity was shown as occurring in a context having no relation to communication with discarnate minds; in others the poet felt that the inspiration reaching him from some superhuman source was bound up with, or was evoked by, a dead man's surviving personality. This latter sensation is described in the passages quoted from Adonais and In Memoriam and in Blake's letter of the 6th May 1800.

Factual evidence is of no help in judging whether or not the inspired poet is justified in his claim to have derived his inspiration from the surviving intelligence of a dead man, or from some superhuman reality, like Milton's Urania, or from some mysterious union of the two. But whatever the poet's conviction may be as to the source from which his best work is inspired, it cannot just be disregarded. Difficulties there may be in the way of its literal acceptance, but in any attempt at a complete map of the subconscious some place must be found for it.

Full verification, on the other hand, is possible as to the functions of the subconscious as an organ of contact with the intelligences of other living persons. Observation of spontaneous paranormal occurrences and experiments in telepathy with "free" material, if inadequate as exact proof of that faculty, have brought it within the bounds of reasonable conviction, and have very usefully supplemented the quantitative experiments, which have demonstrated the reality of it as a faculty of living persons, by throwing light on its nature and on the way it works. As the basis for the summing up I am now about to attempt I regard telepathy as occurring not only by a one-way transmission from a single agent to a single percipient, but transfusively in such a way that both the persons concerned, or all if more than two, are agents and percipients at the same time: see p. 33.

The examples of telepathic action given above, omitting for the present those the context of which raises the question whether some discarnate intelligence may not be participating, are either unusual, perhaps unique, experiences of ordinary people, as e.g. crisis apparitions mostly are, or repeated but discontinuous actions of persons having exceptional powers, such as percipients in experiments. If those were the only ways in which the faculty operated it would be natural to wonder what purpose it served in the scheme of things, and to suspect, as some students have done, that it survives as a curious relic of a distant age before sight, hearing and the other senses were sufficiently developed, or differentiated, to serve as means of communication between man and man. For thousands of years men have communicated with each other by speech and writing with a certainty, precision and fullness far in excess of anything that could be claimed for experimental telepathy or for that faculty as it manifests itself in crisis apparitions. Telepathy was indeed at one time a speedier means of conveying news over great distances than any of its normal competitors, but scientific invention has for a long time robbed it of even this advantage.

There are however grounds for believing that telepathy has in the past fulfilled and still fulfils a useful purpose not in competition with but as supplementary to more normal means of communication. When the resources of speech are under discussion it is well to hear what the experts have to say, the scholars and the poets. I will quote one from each group, both men of distinction recently dead. Gilbert Murray, whose scholarship was combined with experience as a successful percipient, declared that without telepathy language could not have developed. Walter de la Mare said that without telepathy there could be no intimate conversation.

This latter pronouncement is supported by what my friends tell me and my own experience confirms to be a not uncommon occurrence. It is what is popularly called "taking the words out of one's mouth". A group of friends with a similar mental background are talking together, each contributing something. Then, out of the blue, two of them will at the same moment say the same thing. What they say may arise naturally out of the preceding talk, in which case there is nothing remarkable. But every now and then, as many people would assert, what is said by the two, while not, it may be, entirely unconnected with what has gone before, strikes both the speakers and their friends as giving the conversation a new and surprising turn. It is a sport, something like the spray of pink flowers I noticed today on a scarlet rosebush. The subject of the verbal sport is often trivial enough, and the deviation from the general run of the talk not as distinct as the difference in colour of the roses. It is not therefore a thing that would carry any weight in an argument to prove the reality of telepathy. If however that is proved, as I take it to be, this odd, intangible phenomenon does, I think, reinforce the view implicit in de la Mare's pronouncement, that as between friends telepathy is continuous.

Another type of occurrence, where the evidence for its being paranormal is equally intangible, is the exchange of letters between friends who have not corresponded with each other for a long time. Here again, if some event of interest to both has become known to them, of a kind to prompt the exchange, there is no need to invoke telepathy. But is that always the whole story? The case for continuity receives much stronger support from cross-correspondences, but these lie outside the immediate discussion which is confined to the normal and paranormal faculties of the living in circumstances in which there is no question of discarnate activity.

The utility of telepathy, if continuous, is not far to seek. Intercourse between friends by conversation and letters is intermittent. Moreover, language, spoken or written, just because it is so precise in its conveyance of information as to facts, is defective in the transmission of more subtle thoughts and feelings. The dictum that "Language was given us to conceal our thoughts" was no doubt cynical in intention, but it is a matter of common observation that even where there is no desire for concealment or deception of any sort, the spoken or written word often gives rise to distressing misunderstanding. Telepathy, as a continuous stream of common subconscious thought and feeling would help not only to check these misunderstandings, but to fill in the gaps incidental to normal intercourse by speech or letter.

In two passages in Human Personality Myers puts the claim for telepathy even higher. He writes (Vol. I, p. 111):

"Beyond and above man's innate power of world-wide perception, there exists also that universal link of spirit with spirit which in its minor earthly manifestations we call telepathy."

And later (Vol. II, p. 282):

"Love is a kind of exalted but unspecialised telepathy: the simplest and most universal expression of that mutual gravitation or kinship of spirits which is the foundation of telepathic law."

The emphasis on universality in these two passages and elsewhere in the book implies a belief in some form of "common subconscious" shared by all sentient creatures. This is a conception difficult to imagine and impossible to prove. It is the psychological counterpart of the mystic idea of the Great Soul. When this idea takes the form of a belief that there is no link between creature and creature except through the Great Soul, it is rejected even by those who, like Tennyson, claim to have had mystic experience of the Great Soul: see In Memoriam, XLVII.

To illustrate the first of the two passages quoted, Myers prints a long summary of part of Plato's Symposium. He lays most stress on the discourse of Diotima who maintains that earthly love leads on to an impersonal fulfilment in knowledge of Very Beauty, but to his summary of her discourse he prefixes a much shorter summary of the discourse of Aristophanes who regards as the goal of love the complete and eternal fusion of pairs of lovers. Myers arranges his summary of the two discourses in such a way as to indicate that there is nothing contradictory between a fully personal union between two lovers in life and death, and communion with the Great Soul in its aspect of Beauty, but rather that the one conception is complementary to the other. Whether Plato shared that view is another matter. All that is relevant here is to note that acceptance of a subconscious linkage between individuals has not committed all those who have proclaimed it to "the faith as vague as all unsweet" that leaves no place for human love or friendship after the death of the body.

The nature of the evidence for precognition and clairvoyance as faculties of the living, sometimes distinguishable from each other and from telepathy, has been briefly treated in Chapter XI. Sometimes however the evidence is sufficient to show that there has been paranormal activity, but not enough to show whether the activity was telepathic, clairvoyant or precognitive, or perhaps of a nature not conforming to any of those three terms in their usual meaning. In such cases it is convenient to speak of General Extrasensory Perception (GESP), or more briefly Psi. Any phrase however of which the word "Perception" forms part is unsatisfactory as a label for faculties of the kind that are operative in the more complex forms of mediumistic communications and, more particularly, in the cross-correspondences. A term is needed that does more justice to the intenseness and the duration of the activity there shown, that implies the progressive element of thinking rather than the more static notion of perceiving.

It is however less important to invent new technical terms than to emphasise that where discarnate intelligences are, ostensibly at least, acting through living persons, the difficulty of assigning the paranormal activity shown to one or other of these three faculties is greatly increased. The investigators of Mrs. Piper, whether they took the survivalist view of her mediumship or not, were agreed that the veridical element in the communications could be attributed to telepathy between the living only by crediting that faculty with powers unparalleled by the results of experiment. The "One Horse Dawn" case certainly was not plain ordinary telepathy, and in addition it raised in a curious way the problem of time. Whatever the cause of Mrs. Leonard's successful book-tests may have been, it was certainly not plain, ordinary clairvoyance, if those epithets are applicable to so obscure and dubious a faculty. What is there in the context of ostensible discarnate activity that makes these faculties, or GESP, or Psi, if those terms are preferred, undergo so curious a transformation?

Arguments as to survival seem often to start with a preconceived idea as to what constitutes survival, and then to debate whether the evidence is of a kind to establish that idea. It is a more sensible procedure to take the evidence step by step and note what sort of survival, if any, it points to. This is the course I propose to follow, beginning with evidence that is completely normal, and generally accepted, not to say commonplace.

On one point everyone is agreed, believers in the traditional faiths, spiritualists, men inclined to "honest doubt", and convinced materialists, that part of what we are disposed to regard as a man's personality, the part which comes to our mind most immediately and insistently when we think of a living friend, his bodily presence with the well-known features, gestures, tone of voice, suffers dissolution on death. In considering the survival of personality we are considering a personality that by common consent has suffered some loss. It is at this point that disagreement begins. Is the "natural body" to be regarded as "this muddy vesture of decay" freedom from which is all gain, or as the essential person conditioning all thoughts and feelings, or as something intermediate between the extremes of these idealistic and materialistic views, to which Horace's words may be applied: Non omnis moriar multaque pars mei/vitabit Libitinam?

But what of the distinction between conscious and subconscious? Do both survive the death of the body, and if so are they divided in the same way and to the same extent as in life? That during life the division was not at any time complete, and was in some circumstances obliterated, has already been shown. If the view is correct that the function of the conscious is to cope with the immediate, day-to-day problems of bodily existence, there would seem to he no point in its continuance as an even partially distinct part of a discarnate intelligence, supposing such a thing to exist. Communications through mediums and automatists often contain both elements, material which, if its origin were a living person, one would unhesitatingly assign to his conscious mind, and other material suggestive of subconscious activity. if a durable fusion of conscious and subconscious is a feature of discarnate existence, the result might be assumed to be an intense intellectual activity, a foretaste of which is during life in the body offered in moments of inspiration by the temporary fusion of those elements. But the difficulty of communicating with friends still in the body would be increased by such fusion, as in this life recognition of friend by friend occurs on the conscious level on both sides. Communicators often mention the difficulties they purport to experience in sending messages intelligible to those intended to receive them. The trouble may be due to their inability to recapture the feelings appropriate to their own previous unintegrated condition.

To return to Horace and his claim that a part, a large part, of him would escape the Goddess of Funerals, it was through his poetry that he claimed a long life for himself, and that "life" in fact has already lasted five or six times as long as he predicted. A similar thought has inspired men and women in many ages and countries to perpetuate such a "vicarious existence", to adopt Samuel Butler's phrase, by their achievements in peace and war. It is not an ignoble concept, and it represents all that many thinking people of our time, especially when not under the stress of recent bereavement, either expect or desire. Nor is such posthumous existence confined to a chosen few. The village Hampdens and the mute, inglorious Miltons have it as certainly, if not for so long, as the more illustrious men who bore those names.

Among distinguished men Horace has been one of the lucky ones. All his writings have come down to us, and there is, I think, no serious dispute as to their general meaning and intention. But of other ancient authors of equal fame only a small part of their work, and of some practically nothing, has reached us, or what has reached us is of debatable meaning. Horace's fame and influence have grown, as he foresaw, but through what he wrote before Libitina claimed her share, and not through any subsequent writings.

The founders of great movements in religion and politics have been on the whole less fortunate. Within a few generations, possibly within a period shorter than their life on earth, their followers will have explained, expanded, subtracted from their teachings so as to make them unrecognisable to their authors, had these the power to follow the course of events since their death.

But to most of mankind the case of "the rude forefathers of the hamlet" is of more concern than that of the leaders of the race. Everyone can, if he so chooses, leave behind him pleasant memories of love and friendship, and a tale of useful if inconspicuous work. But within a hundred years the personal memories will have faded, and the work been overlaid by that of his successors. That for him is the end of vicarious existence, so long as it depends on the operation of normal causes.

Telepathy however changes the picture a good deal. The natural effect of it will be to intensify and prolong vicarious existence by keeping fresh his friends' memories of the dying man. If he was devoted to any cause during his life, his devotion will have been more fully understood by them, and any legacy of ideas he may leave behind him will suffer a smaller risk of perversion.

A much more important consequence of telepathy has however to be considered if it be regarded as continuous and transfusive in the way already described. This brings in the problem of the group mind. Imagine a closely knit group of friends sharing a common, absorbing interest, religious perhaps, or political, or professional. In addition to the conscious linkage between them due to their meeting each other and exchanging letters, there will also be a subconscious bond impelling them by their group-relation to act in a special, distinctive way. Such is the basis of military discipline. But the minds of the members of the group would still be their separate minds, and there would be no group mind as well. Except, perhaps, where the conscious and subconscious bonds were reinforced by particularly intense emotion, as in some religious communities, both primitive and more highly developed. In primitive religions, we are told, rites come before deities, who are a personification and projection of the communal emotions of those who celebrate the rites. That is how it appears to sophisticated scholars. To the primitive thiasos however the centre of the rite, that gave the rite its purpose and validity, was no abstract personification, but a person with a mind and will of his own. And possibly the thiasos knew best.

In more fully developed societies mediumship offers favourable opportunities for watching the workings of the group mind. According to the "ectoplasmic" view of physical phenomena held by some eminent men like Richet, the force needed to produce the phenomena is generated partly by the medium and partly by the sitters. Some of the instances that the believers in "ectoplasmy" have quoted, the materialisations of Eva C., for instance, were very dubious, but there may all the same be something in the notion of collaboration of medium and sitters in stimulating paranormal activity. In trance mediumship, where the phenomena are less suspect, the force is of course of a different order.

It is not however necessary to have recourse to mediums in order to observe the emergence of an interpersonal intelligence, on a small scale indeed and in conditions that do not favour definite proof. The old-fashioned practice of table-tilting has fallen into disuse, regrettably I think. I have on various occasions joined with friends in this practice, and have read reports of table-tilting, planchette or other forms of automatism as conducted by other groups. The experience gained in this way has left on me the clear impression, in a matter where proof is not to be expected, that during the process of automatism and through it an ad hoc intelligence emerges which is not the intelligence of any single member of the group. I use the word intelligence, as I have previously used the phrase script-intelligence, non-committally. Whatever it is that emerges is too rudimentary and transient to be called a personality, but if my impression is correct, we have here a clue that will help us to understand phenomena that, on a much larger scale, suggest the existence and activity of a group mind. It is a misfortune that so little seems being done at present in the way of experimental automatism by groups of friends willing to give open-minded, critical attention to the psychological aspects of the results. One further qualification must be added, that they have no bias against an entirely qualitative assessment of the product.

For group phenomena on a larger scale one must turn to the scripts of the SPR group of automatists discussed in the two preceding chapters. They are in fact the largest piece of connected material in psychical research, largest in respect of the volume of scripts, the length of time, over thirty years, during which they were produced, and the number of automatists involved, about a dozen, if a few who made minor contributions are included. They are also notable for the distinguished ability of several both of the automatists and of the interpreters, for the carefulness of the documentation, and above all for their complexity and the many curious problems that they raise.

The scripts which have already been published amount, with the comments, to a whole literature, and there are a large number still awaiting publication when favourable circumstances, including finance, permit. For judging however the relations of the group to the persons composing or connected with it the published material is fully sufficient. The group situation here is highly complex, as there is not simply one group involved, but three inter-connected groups, those of the Communicators, the automatists and the interpreters. In each group some of the members were linked by ties of love, friendship or kinship, with some others of the same group, and also with some others of each of the other two groups. This naturally increased the need for care in preventing unintentional leakage between the automatists, who had in fact for the most part very slight normal connections with each other, and it also increased the difficulty of the interpreters, in deciding how much allowance should be made for unavoidable leakage, e.g. through publication of early scripts while later ones were being produced, and for latent memory. Fortunately they were men and women of superhuman pertinacity. But the multiple emotional relations pervading the three groups may very well have been an essential condition for the production of paranormal work of this size, complexity and duration.

The outstanding features of the scripts of the group were (1) the evidence of design, and of a designer outside the group of automatists, provided by the cross-correspondences some examples of which have been discussed in Chapter XIII; (2) the evidence of a purpose common to the group and set out cryptically in a common symbolic scheme persisting during the whole duration of the scripts, i.e. from 1901 to 1930 or later, as explained in Chapter XIV; (3) references to events not normally known to the automatist in whose script they occur, for examples of which see' Lady Balfour's recently published paper, The Palm Sunday Case in Proc. 52, Part 189. Besides these there are remarkable instances of other types of material, the product of a single automatist rather than of the group, such as the case of Myers's "posthumous" message (Proc. 52, I) and the Statius and Ear of Dionysius cases (Proc. XXVII, XXIX).

The automatists differed among themselves in the relative emphasis laid in their scripts on the Communicating group as a group and on its separate members. Personalisation of the separate Communicators is strongest with Mrs. Willett, and faintest with H.V. and Mrs. Stuart Wilson. The difference seems to correspond to their differences of temperament, Mrs. Willett being more prone to subconscious dramatisation than the others, and it is therefore superficial. In substance the Communicators, though very closely bound together as a group, are clearly represented as not completely merged in it. Each draws on his own memories and associations, and some of them are represented as using their special abilities to further in different ways the common purpose.

In his admirable papers on the survival problem in the Journal of the American SPR for 1945 Gardner Murphy stresses the need for distinguishing between evidence that points to a "static" survival, and evidence supporting the conception of survival of an active kind, the only kind that would be generally recognised as survival in any true sense. This chapter and the two preceding ones are intended to-show a particular instance of active survival on a large scale, namely in a group the members of which promote their post mortem activities through that group, and convey information as to those activities by means of the subconscious activities of another group, that of the automatists.

The psychical researcher can say as much as that, but no more, without stepping outside his legitimate province, and he can say it with the support of evidence that is not open to reasonable criticism of its genuineness, of the care with which it has been recorded and verified, or of the skill with which it has been interpreted. The last point is important, as unless the interpretation of the cryptic language of the scripts is substantially right, the argument I have put forward is seriously weakened.

To Phantasms of the Living (1886) the authors prefixed three lines of Greek verse the meaning of which is that wise men receive the highest truths through oracular riddles from which dullards learn nothing. It was doubtless out of politeness that the authors left these lines untranslated. No question of politeness now arises, for a generation that finds William Blake and James Joyce easy reading could not possibly boggle at the oracular riddles of the scripts. All that is needed is patience to master the symbolic scheme, as expounded in several papers in SPR Proceedings, and willingness for a time to forget Freud. It is of course a pertinent question why the scripts do not say a plain thing in a plain way. Piddington's suggestion, that the intention was to prevent the automatists guessing prematurely the inner meaning of their own scripts, seems to me borne out by the increasing explicitness with which over a long period certain topics are referred to.

It will no doubt have been noted that little of positive evidence cited in this book is of recent date. That this is so is most regrettable It is largely, 1 think, due to the widening gap, noticeable soon after the end of the First World War, between psychical research and psychotherapeutics. Freud's immense contribution to the understanding of the subconscious was from an early date recognised by psychical research and he, personally, was always friendly to the SPR, of which he was a Corresponding Member from 1911. Many however of his leading followers chose to adopt an attitude of doctrinaire superciliousness towards psychical research, which made co-operation impossible. The climax came in 1924 after he had written to Ernest Jones, his most prominent supporter in the United Kingdom, saying that the impression made on him by the reports of the Gilbert Murray experiments was so strong that he would "even be prepared to lend the support of psychanalysis to the matter of telepathy". This so alarmed his supporters that they put pressure on him to soft-pedal his interest. The public were permitted to learn these facts for the first time in 1958, thirty-four years after they occurred, and nineteen years after Freud's death.

There are welcome signs that a younger generation of Freudians are more willing to follow Freud's line, but it was disastrous that for so long the psychoanalytic school should have narrowed its enquiry into the subconscious by rejecting so valuable a key to it as telepathy, and have also refused all co-operation with psychical researchers who were pursuing their own enquiries into the same subject in no less scientific a spirit and with longer experience. How much material came the way of the psychoanalysts and failed to yield all the information about the subconscious that could have been gained by examination from the angle of psychical research, we shall never know.

Nor axe psychical researchers altogether free from blame in narrowing their own enquiries by concentrating them almost exclusively for the last twenty years on material suitable for quantitative assessment. This is a useful line of research which has yielded important results, but it excludes from purview all but the simplest mental processes and everything tinged with emotion. Enquiry directed to the paranormal manifestations of complex and emotional thinking must proceed concurrently, if psychical research is not to abandon that exploration of human personality to which it, and no other branch of science, is committed. Here again the signs are not unhopeful. The renewed activity in the collection and analysis of spontaneous cases, such as those described in Chapters III and IV, is a welcome beginning.

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