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The Naturalisation of the Supernatural/Chapter 9


SO far the work of naturalisation has proceeded with smoothness: if we have seen reason to reject any applicants for admission it is on the ground that their credentials are unsatisfactory, not because they lie under any suspicion of an alien allegiance. If the facts of telepathy are admitted it does not yet appear that they carry us beyond the material world, the world which includes alike neural processes and ethereal undulations. The same may be said, with perhaps some reservations, of the alleged physical phenomena of the séance room. The exhibitions of materialisation, spirit photography, and slate-writing which found favour a generation ago have received no scientific endorsement of late years, and are now so generally discredited that they need scarcely be considered seriously. The manifestations which remain, such as raps, movements, and touches,—even if their occurrence apart from fraud should be incontrovertiny established,—would not necessarily involve the assumption of the agency of any "spirit" other than that of the medium herself. As already said, the phenomena, especially as observed in the presence of Eusapia Paladino, have led recent Italian experimenters to revive the theory, originally put forward half a century ago by Thury and de Gasparin, of a force emanating from the organism of the medium, and controlled presumably by her nervous system. If such a force should be proved to exist, it will afford material for the physicist and the physiologist, and will no doubt considerably enlarge our conception of the potencies of living bodies. But it was not for this that the Society for Psychical Research was founded. The distinguished men who in 1882 associated themselves in the venture were certainly not attracted merely by the prospect of enlarging the domain of physics or biology. They came together in the hope of finding empirical proof of the survival of the soul after the death of the body. No one who has read Myers's brief autobiography, or the Memoir of Henry Sidgwick, can doubt that it was this hope which formed the motive power. But it is when we approach this subject that the real difficulties of psychical research begin. We are menaced with opposition from without and danger from within. The opposition comes principally from two quarters. There are those who feel that the very quest involves a kind of impiety; that the Ruler of the world has fixed a gulf between shore and shore, so that no communication may pass from that side to this.

Nequidquam Deus abscidit
Prudens Oceano dissociabili
Terras, si tamen impiæ

Non tangenda rates transiliunt vada.

The attitude here indicated is as old as human history. It was old enough for Horace to treat it half in jest. It has been displayed at every step in human progress. There are many of the faithful now who would in their hearts join with Imaum Ali Zadi in placing all human knowledge under the ban. Said the pious Cadi, in refusing an English traveller's request for statistical information, " God created the world, and shall we liken ourselves unto him in seeking to penetrate the mysteries of his creation? Shall we say, behold this star spinneth round that star, and this other star with a tail goeth and cometh in so many years? Let it go! He from whose hand it came will guide and direct it."[1]

On the other hand, those who have not the assurance of faith are mostly indifferent—an indifference which occasionally merges into active hostility—to any attempt to solve the problem.[2] Of this indifference there are no doubt many causes. But there are two that specially concern us. In the first place, the many are indifferent because they have no hope of any result from such an enquiry. The problem is as old as the world; but apart from the claims of revelation, there is nowhere any hint of a solution. But to this it may be answered that there has never yet been any serious attempt to find the solution—at least no serious attempt by modern investigators, armed with the latest weapons from the scientific armoury. It is a vicious circle: there is no effective desire because men have despaired of success: and success will only come, in this as in any other quest, to men whom the desire of knowledge urges to eager and persistent endeavour. But there are indications now that the question is being asked more methodically and with more perseverence than ever before. Ten years before the foundation of the Society for Psychical Research Henry Sidgwick wrote: "I sometimes feel with somewhat of a profound hope and enthusiasm that the function of the English mind, with its uncompromising matter-of-fact-ness, will be to put the final question to the Universe with a solid, passionate determination to be answered which must come to something."[3] And since those words were written, the enquiry has been steadily pursued and is still proceeding.

But the indifference of the many is also no doubt partly due to distrust of the methods of the enquiry, and of the temper of the investigators. It has been pointed out in the introductory chapter that in the early years of the Society the appreciation of the evidence was a joint work. Further, the lines of work were laid down by the advice and pursued under the personal direction of Henry Sidgwick. His wisdom, his clear insight, the essential sanity of his mind withheld us from rash and premature conclusions. Of late years individual investigators have pursued their separate lines of research; and it may be thought that the will to live, which was so dominating an element in the personality of F. W. H. Myers and of Richard Hodgson, may unawares have influenced their judgment and so have led them too hastily to exchange the role of investigator for that of propagandist. This, in short, is the danger from within which must always attend upon any enquiry making so intimate and irresistible an appeal to human hopes and affections

A word of caution is perhaps necessary as regards the kind of spirit communication to which the facts to be cited in the following chapters seem to point. If such communication is at all possible, it would seem that it is of rare occurrence and beset with considerable difficulties; and further that the communications themselves are liable to be embarrassed, incoherent, and curiously defective, if not actually evasive. Not only do these characteristics of the communications, which are to be found especially in the trance utterances discussed in Chapter XIII., necessarily make the desired proof much more difficult of attainment, but they inevitably suggest suspicions of their mundane source. Dr. Hodgson was himself satisfied, after an exhaustive study of the trance phenomena, that these suspicious characteristics were not inconsistent with the Spiritualist interpretation; and that in many cases they even lend additional support to that hypothesis; and, speaking generally, those investigators who of recent years have given the closest study to the case of Mrs. Piper and other automatists have been led to attach increasing weight to the hypothesis of some form of spirit communication. In any case we have clearly no right to lay down a priori the standard to which spirit communications should conform. Mr. Schiller has some pertinent remarks on the characteristic defects and incoherences of these trance communications: "That spirit communication should be difficult," he says, "is what I should have inferred on physical grounds, that it should be rare and exhibit a gradual diminution of interest in and memory of our concerns is precisely what I should have inferred on the supposition that the human personality takes its known psychological constitution with it. The wonder is rather that the deceased should trouble themselves at all about us and have leisure to devise means of communication with the world they have left. For if we are to conceive them as surviving death at all, it must be as ipso facto entering into a new and engrossing phase of existence (all the more engrossing because of its novelty) and as needing to adapt themselves to new conditions of existence. And it is not unreasonable to suppose that even if they could effectively desire to communicate they might not find the means available. Hence there need be no trace of cynicism in the suggestion that probably the dead forget the living far more rapidly even than the living forget the dead: it merely expresses a psychological necessity. We forget because life absorbs our energies and robs us of the leisure to remember; the departed, if they survive, must forget, because a new life must absorb their energies and cut off their associations with the past to an indefinitely greater degree. Is there not, therefore, more than a touch of human conceit in the imagination which depicts the spirits of the dead as having no other function than to hover invisibly around the living as futile spectators of the follies and the crimes of earth? Nay, will not the notion appear grotesque as soon as we take up a less geocentric position in our eschatology and look at the matter from the point of view of the 'dead'"[4]

It is perhaps hardly necessary to claim that the possibility of such communication is still an open question. The possibility has no doubt been denied. "The question is . . . whether departed spirits enter into communication with living men by mediums and by incarnation. The scientist does not admit a compromise; with regard to this he flatly denies the possibility . . . the facts as they are claimed do not exist, and never will exist."[5] But for most men, whether they claim the title of philosopher or no, the possibility of anything can only be proved by experience, and until experience furnishes adequate material, the only prudent course is suspension of judgment. The philosopher who, antecedently to experience, should venture to pronounce the word "impossible," even in the region of pure mathematics, would write himself down belated. But if we admit that experience only can prove or disprove the possibility, we must further recognise that the proof which we are seeking is not likely to be salient or irresistible. We can hardly imagine any single incident which would give us satisfactory proof of the survival of a human personality. The proof, or disproof, must be in its nature cumulative. At a certain stage of the accumulation we may say, "The facts are, no doubt, not inconsistent with the hypothesis of the agency of the dead; but there are other interpretations in the present state of our knowledge equally adequate and at least equally probable." That is the stage at which our enquiry would seem now to have arrived. We have accumulated a large number of observations and experiments, open to various interpretations, but open amongst others to this particular interpretation, that they indicate in some fashion the presence of "dead" men and women. The man who at the present stage of the enquiry invites us, on the strength—or weakness—of the evidence so far available, to acclaim the proof of human immortality, may be doing serious injury to his own cause. But the other man who, because our present ignorance does not enable us to decide what is the true meaning of these elusive "seemings," condemns the whole enquiry as abortive, has surely no title to speak in the name of Science.

In the chapters which follow I shall aim at presenting fair samples of the evidences which have been or may be held to point to the agency of the dead, and to appreciate, as impartially as I can, their present value and significance. The enquiry is still proceeding, and, by the consent of all who are engaged in it, the evidence for any certain conclusion, positive or negative, is still insufficient.

  1. From Layard's Nineveh and Babylon, quoted by W. James. Principles of Prschology, vol. ii., p. 641. note.
  2. See Mr. Schiller's article (Proceedings, S. P. R., vol. xviii.. p. 416) on the result of a recent American questionnaire as to the desire for knowledge of a future life.
  3. Memoir, p. 259.
  4. Journal, S. P. R., July, 1898, pp. 276, 277.
  5. Münsterberg, Psychology and Life, p. 252.