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Spiritistic Phenomena As Evidence Of Life After Death

( Originally Published 1904 )

IN the examination of any question requiring the exercise of the power or faculty of discrimination between what is and what is not good evidence for or against a given proposition it is always best to begin by excluding from the field of inquiry all irrelevant side issues. In no realm of human inquiry is the application of this rule more important, nor is it anywhere more generally disregarded than in estimating the value of spirit phenomena as evidence of life after death.

It is true that a vast congeries of phenomena, of indefinitely varied character, is presented for our consideration, each of which we are invited to believe is produced by a disembodied spirit ; and to the superficial observer each is entitled to a separate investigation, or at least to equal consideration as to its evidential value. It is, however, obvious to the scientific investigator that this assumption is not warranted, and that, in point of fact, there must be much of the phenomena that in itself possesses no evidential value whatever.

A moment's consideration will reveal a clear line of demarcation between those phenomena which may possess evidential value and those which can by no possibility prove or disprove the claim of spiritism. The latter class comprises all of the physical phenomena, such as rapping, table-tipping, levitation of ponderable bodies without physical contact or mechanical appliances, slate-writing, et hoc genus omne. It is not, how-ever, necessary either to doubt or deny that these phenomena are produced by supernormal means, except perhaps for the purpose of assuming to be ultra-scientific; nor is it necessary to believe in their genuineness, for they all may be fraudulently produced; or they may all be veridical without affecting the question of spirit intercourse. A few words will make my meaning clear.

Let us take, for example, the phenomenon of levitation of furniture. In itself it is no more wonderful that a table should be lifted without physical contact than that a horseshoe magnet should levitate its armature. There is, however, a vast difference between the two phenomena, in that there is an intelligence connected with the movements of the table. It will answer questions and carry on a conversation with those present; and in answer to a question as to the source of the intelligence, the usual reply is that it is the spirit of some deceased person. And here let me say, in all candor, that, in the absence of the light afforded by recent discoveries in psychology, the animistic theory of causation was the most rational explanation of the phenomena. But of this later on. The point I wish to make now is that it is the intelligence with which we have to deal in searching for an explanation of the phenomena. The physical phenomena of themselves afford no possible clue to their origin ; and it is only by an analysis of the intelligence displayed that is to say, the " communications " received that we can find evidence as to their source. We may therefore safely leave out of consideration all purely physical phenomena, at least until we have definitely located the source of the alleged communications. The advantages arising from pursuing this logical " method of exclusion " are these : (1) the issue is vastly simplified ; (2) the range of inquiry is confined to essentials ; (3) it eliminates from the field of inquiry a vast number of phenomena each of which easily lends itself to fraud and legerdemain, and neither of which, whether genuine or fraudulent, possesses in itself the slightest evidential value.

In pursuing the policy of ignoring irrelevant questions, that of the selection of a proper psychic, or " medium," is also very much simplified. All that is required is one who has acquired the power of selfhypnotization, or, as it is commonly termed, the power to enter with facility the condition of trance, and while in that state to answer questions and perform the usual mental feats of so-called mediumship. As an example of this method of investigation reference is made to that adopted by the Society for Psychical Research, and to the celebrated Mrs. Piper as a representative of the type of medium required.

The theory of spiritism is that spirits of the dead take possession of mediums of this class and employ their vocal organs and hands, respectively, for speaking and writing directly to those present, the functions of the medium's brain being in the meantime suspended.

This at once presents the real issue : is it true that spirits of the dead communicate with the living through so-called spirit mediums ? Or, to put it still more fairly and conservatively, is there any valid evidence that spirits do so communicate ?

In discussing this question it is first in order to inquire what reasons are given by spiritists for believing that the so-called communications, purporting to emanate from disembodied spirits, are in reality what they are alleged to be. It will then be in order to examine the validity of those reasons, or, in other words, to inquire whether the phenomena cannot be otherwise accounted for. In making the latter inquiry I will strenuously insist upon the recognition of the axiom of science that " we have no logical right to attribute any phenomenon to supermundane agency that can be accounted for on principles of natural law."

In stating the reasons for the spiritist belief I will endeavor to do so with absolute fairness, and to that end I will suppose the most favorable conditions that a spiritist could desire. The " reasons " naturally group themselves under two heads. The first group pertains exclusively to the medium, and the second to the character of the " communications." They will be considered separately and in their order. The first group may be stated as follows :

1. The medium is honest, and is normally incapable of dissimulation.

2. The medium sincerely believes the communications to be what they purport to be.

3. The medium is unconscious of having any part or lot in determining the contents or character of the communications, or of possessing any psychological power or attribute that would render unconscious participation possible.

4. The medium, though normally possessing no dramatic power whatever, often personates the soi-disant spirit with wonderful accuracy, often to the extent of imitating the voice, gestures, and even the mental idiosyncrasies of the supposed personality.

5. The alleged spirit often manifests mental and moral characteristics antipodal to those normally possessed by the medium, sometimes strenuously disputing her preconceived opinions, and often displaying an obliquity shocking to her moral sensibilities.

It is obvious that here is a series of statements which, if true and unexplained, go far toward establishing the validity of the claims of spiritism. A very few years ago these statements could be met in but one of three ways, namely, (1) a denial of the facts, (2) a charge of fraud against the medium, or (3) an admission of the tenability of the spiritist hypothesis. To-day it would be foolish to deny the facts, since they can be so easily substantiated ; to charge the medium with dishonesty would raise an irrelevant side issue; and, in view of the discoveries of modern science, the spiritist hypothesis is no longer tenable. That is to say, the phenomena can now be accounted for by reference to known psychological laws. We may, therefore, begin by admitting all that is embraced in the foregoing propositions; for we shall have no difficulty in finding a solution for all that is mysterious in the phenomena on principles of natural law with which scientists are now well acquainted principles which are perfectly consistent with the integrity of all concerned, and which, more-over, obviate all necessity for seeking a solution in the realms of the supermundane.

It seems almost superfluous to say that a perfect solution of all this phase of spiritistic phenomena is found in the law of suggestion. This law is known to every psychological student, except perhaps a few scientists who are committed to the spiritistic hypothesis. For their benefit I will explain briefly what the law is. It was discovered a few years ago by European scientists in the course of their investigations of the psychological problems of hypnotism. It was found that hypnotic subjects invariably accept, believe, act upon, and carry to its legitimate conclusion every statement, or " suggestion," that is made to them. Thus, if a subject is told that he is blind, he will manifest every symptom of a total lack of visual powers. If told that he is deaf, the unexpected firing of a gun in his presence does not startle him. Apparently he does not hear it. If told that he is an infant, " mewling and puking in the nurse's arms," he will simulate physical helplessness and an infantile mentality. In short, he may be told that he is a dog or a devil, a demon or an angel, and he will carry the suggestion to its legitimate conclusion, so far as it is physically possible, firmly believing the suggestion to be true. What is more to our present purpose, if the suggestion is made that he is some other individual, he will impersonate that individual with wonderful accuracy and dramatic power, the excellence of the performance depending, of course, upon his knowledge of the characteristics of the personage represented. What is still more suggestive of our theme is the fact that any good hypnotic subject will respond to the suggestion that he is possessed by a spirit ; and, other things being equal, he will deliver messages from the spirit suggested precisely as a genuine so-called medium would do it.

These phenomena, together with innumerable cognates, each pointing to the one conclusion, led to the discovery of the law of suggestion. At first it was supposed to apply only to persons in a state of lucid somnambulism, whether spontaneous or induced ; but it was eventually discovered to be a general law, governing, at all times and under all conditions, that part of man's mental organism which is the active agency in the production of all psychic phenomena. Under the theory of duality of mind, which is now very generally either openly advocated or tacitly admitted to be a good working hypothesis, this intelligence has been variously designated by psychic scientists as the " secondary personality," the " subliminal consciousness," the " subconscious mind," the " unconscious mind," the " subjective mind," etc. I have ventured to adopt the term " subjective mind," for the reason that, unlike most of the older terms, it does not imply a theory either of causation or of its relation to the mind of ordinary waking consciousness. Besides, it is the mind which is exclusively concerned with subjective states, conditions, activities, and phenomena. But, by whatever term it may be designated, the fact remains that it possesses powers and faculties exclusively its own, and it is hedged about by distinctive limitations. Among the former is the power or faculty of telepathy, and among the latter is its constant amenability to control by the wonderful power of suggestion.

It will now be seen that each of the five foregoing propositions of spiritism may be admitted to be true without affecting adversely the argument against the spiritistic interpretation of the phenomena. Indeed, there are not to be found in the wide repertoire of psychic phenomena better illustrations of the potency of suggestion, or of the universality of the law, than are found in the phenomena of spiritism. It is, therefore, unnecessary to question the sincerity of the medium, for the reason that if she is in a subjective or trance condition she is compelled to accept the suggestions imparted to her. Besides, it must be remembered that a medium commences her career under the dominance of the suggestion that she is dealing with spirits. Her education, her training, her whole environment, lend their aid to enforce that suggestion. Her reason tells her that it is true, for she knows of no other explanation. She has never heard of the laws of suggestion; or if she has, she either thinks that it does not apply to her case, or, more likely, she does not comprehend it at all. She only knows that in the trance condition she is dominated by an intelligence that seems to be independent of her own control. It says things that she has not consciously thought of, and it knows things that she does not remember in her normal condition. Of course she is honest in her belief that the intelligence manifested is just what it purports to be; and of course she is unconscious of having anything to do with the communications. Moreover, she may be unaware that she possesses any psychological power that would render unconscious participation possible. Thus it frequently happens that when a medium reveals something that is known only to the sitter, she denies the possession of any telepathic power whatever. Perhaps she has never indulged in experimental telepathy, per se, and is honestly ignorant of her own psychic powers. In any event, she is not a logician, and does not know that she is begging the question. But she is not alone in that, for many so-called " scientists " are guilty of the same logical offence when they deny that a good medium is necessarily a telepathist.

In regard to the wonderful dramatic power often displayed by mediums in impersonating an alleged spirit, enough has already been said. It is sufficient to know that precisely the same results flow from the same suggestion to a hypnotized subject. But there is one consideration that should not be lost sight of in this connection.

Astonishment has often been provoked by the fact that a hypnotized clodhopper, normally destitute of dramatic ability, often displays wonderful powers in that direction when impersonating suggested characters. The same remark applies alike to hypnotized subjects and to mediums, and the. same explanation applies to both. I venture to say that much of the mystery will disappear when it is remembered that there is, necessarily, a wide difference between conscious and unconscious impersonation. In the former the actor is normal, and is forced to study the character he seeks to imitate, to remember every gesture, tone of voice, and mental peculiarity, and to consciously reproduce the entire personality of another. In short, his effort is to identify himself with the personality he represents ; and in so far as he is capable of doing so he succeeds as an actor. On the other hand, the psychic, under suggestion, completely identifies himself with the suggested personality; for he believes himself to be that person. In his case, therefore, impersonation is not " acting " in the sense in which the term is usually understood. It is simply following an irresistible impulse to carry the suggestion to its logical conclusion ; and this he does easily and naturally, just so far as he is acquainted with the character assumed but no farther. If, now, we take into consideration the wonderful memory of the subjective mind, together with its potentially perfect powers of logical deduction from suggested premises, it will readily be seen that the law of suggestion affords a perfect explanation of the facility with which entranced mediums impersonate the characters of suggested spirits.

Cognate to this question is the fifth and last in this group, namely, Why is it that so-called " spirits," if they are not what is represented, often antagonize the medium and manifest mental and moral characteristics antipodal to those she is known to possess?

This is a very pertinent and far-reaching question; but a perfect answer is easily found in the same law of suggestion. If we will stop one moment to consider the question, What is the salient, dominating idea conveyed by the suggestion to a medium's mind that she is con-trolled by a spirit of some deceased person? it will be found that the main question answers itself. It is obvious that the dominant idea conveyed by the suggestion of spirit control is, necessarily, that the con-trolling mentality is extraneous to, and independent of, that of the medium. The logical deduction is that the medium is in no way responsible for the character of the manifestations, and that, in the multiplicity of good and bad spirits which are supposed to surround every medium, she is liable at any moment to be seized upon by some vagrant spirit whose moral character and philosophical opinions may be highly antagonistic to her own. In short, the suggestion of an extraneous personality dominating the mentality of the medium necessarily carries with it the suggestion of independence; and the latter suggestion can be carried out only by occasional antagonism.

It is scarcely necessary to say that the foregoing can be demonstrated by experimental hypnotism. Indeed, it is not too much to say that all the mental phenomena of spiritism can be reproduced by that means. It is, in fact, well known to many that some of the most celebrated mediums now living have been trained to their work by means of hypnotism.

I have now briefly stated, and, I hope, fairly answered, the first group of reasons offered by spiritists for the faith that is in them. If I have omitted any important claim that pertains to the personality of the medium, I am not aware of it, and I would be thankful to be set right. I submit that thus far I have shown that all that is mysterious is easily explicable by reference to psychological laws with which science is now well acquainted.

The second group of facts and phenomena upon which spiritism pins its faith pertains exclusively to the character and contents of the " communications " received through entranced mediums from alleged spirits of the dead.

The salient features of the messages which it will be necessary to examine may be stated as follows :

1. Statements of fact known to the medium.

2. Statements of fact not known to the medium, but known to some other person present.

3. Statements of fact known neither to the medium nor to any other person present.

In the last class may be grouped :

1. Events occurring at or before the time the message is delivered, and known to a relative, a friend, or an acquaintance of some one present at the sitting.

2. Facts known only to a deceased communicator during his natural life, a friend, a relative, or an acquaintance of his being present.

3. Facts known only to the alleged spirit during life, no relationship between decedent and any one present being known to exist.

Subsequent verification of the facts in each case is, of course, presupposed.

Again I will reduce the sum total of possible irrelevant side issues by presupposing the medium to be absolutely honest, and proceeding at once to the consideration of the various phases of the phenomena above enumerated.

The first class of communications, namely, those containing " statements of facts known to the medium," for obvious reasons need not be specially considered further than to remark, in the language of Mr. F. W. H. Myers, president of the Society for Psychical Research, that from the medium's own mind " the vast bulk of the messages are undoubtedly drawn, even when they refer to matters which the automatist once knew but has entirely forgotten. Whatever has gone into the mind may come out of the mind ; although this automatism may be the only way of getting at it." (See Science and a Future Life, p. 32.)

In regard to the second class of messages, namely, those containing " statements of facts not known to the medium, but known to some other person present," Mr. Myers has this to say : "Secondly, there is a small percentage of messages apparently telepathic, -- containing, that is to say, facts probably unknown to the automatist, but known to some living person in his company, or connected with him." (Ibid.)

I have made these quotations from Mr. Myers for three reasons, namely, First, because he is one of the ablest and fairest of the Psychical Researchers who have committed themselves to the spiritistic hypothesis. Secondly, because he distinctly recognizes telepathy as the obvious explanation of the second class of messages. Thirdly, for the reason that, inasmuch as I shall endeavor to make it clear that all that is mysterious in any of the above-named classes of messages is easily explicable under the telepathic theory, I wish first to show definitely the point where our paths diverge.

This parting of the ways occurs when the third class of communications is reached, namely, those containing facts " known neither to the medium nor to any other person present." It is at this point that the issue is declared between the two hypotheses, the spiritistic and the telepathic. On the one hand, spiritists decline to accept telepathy as a possible factor in the case if no one having knowledge of the facts related by the medium is actually present at the sitting. On the other hand, the advocates of the telepathic theory of explanation hold that if any living person who is in telepathic rapport with any one present has knowledge of the facts related, we are logically compelled to accept the telepathic hypothesis. This, of course, involves the denial on the one hand, and the affirmation on the other, that more than two persons may be concerned in the transmission of a telepathic message. And it is upon the settlement of this question that the whole controversy hinges. Reduced to its lowest terms, the question at issue may be thus stated affirmatively :

If A can, by any known means of communication, convey a message to B, B can convey the same message, by the same means, to C, other things, of course, being equal.

The truth of this proposition seems to be self-evident. It is certainly true of all physical means of communication. Why is it not true of telepathy? is a question that spiritists must solve or be thrown out of court. Telepathy is a known means of communicating facts from mind to mind. At least it is known to spiritists and Psychical Researchers, and it is to them that I am addressing my remarks. If, then, A is aware of a fact and is in telepathic rapport with B, he can communicate that fact to B. When that is done, the information henceforth constitutes a part of the mental equipment of B, who can, in turn, transmit the information to C (the medium) by the same means by which he received it from A. If not, why not?

This question has been asked before. More than seven years has elapsed since this hypothesis was first promulgated and this question asked. Thus far no one has ventured an answer to the question, or even to state the proposition fairly. It has, however, often been remarked that. " it is carrying telepathy too far "; that it "stretches the telepathic hypothesis " all out of shape, or words to that effect ; that it involves the supposition of " infinite telepathy," " omniscient telepathy," and so forth. In other words, it has thus far been dismissed by spiritists with a Podsnappian wave of the hand. Even Mr. Andrew Lang, who believes in the telepathic hypothesis, finds it expedient to throw a sop to the spiritistic Cerberus by declaring it to be a " wild hypothesis," and this as a preliminary to showing that it is obviously the only tenable hypothesis outside the realms of superstition. (See S. P. R. Proceedings, No. 36.) Mr. Lang also gives the hypothesis a new and somewhat formidable name, " telepathie a trois," which, being interpreted, means telepathy by three which is not so formidable. (Ibid.) I have no fault to find with the name, however, for it is a very appropriate addition to the terminology of psychic science.

Now let us briefly inquire whether telepathy a trois really stretches the telepathic hypothesis beyond recognition, or if it deserves to be stigmatized by its friends as a " wild hypothesis." We will begin, not with a spiritistic seance, but with a prosaic experiment in telepathy, made in the city of Washington a few years ago, the telepathist being a hypnotized subject. A gentleman from New Orleans almost a total stranger happened to be present, and in the course of the evening asked the telepathist to describe his (the stranger's) home in New Orleans. The description was made, and declared by the gentleman to be perfect as to all the inmates of the house ; and the arrangement and furniture of all the rooms, except the parlor, were satisfactorily described, even to some of the pictures on the walls. The parlor, however, was said to be all wrong. The carpet and furniture were declared to be totally unlike anything actually in the room. The piano was described as an upright, whereas the gentleman said that it was an old-fashioned square piano. On his return home, however, he found that the telepathist was right. His wife had planned a pleasant surprise for him, and had refurnished the parlor during his absence, and installed a new upright piano, paying for it all out of savings from her allowance of pin money. If this was not telepathy a trois, will any spiritist tell me just what it was? Is it " stretching " the telepathic hypothesis to suppose that the husband and wife were en rapport? Is it "carrying telepathy too far" to suppose that her pleasant anticipations of her husband's return, and of his agreeable surprise, caused her to "think of him emotionally "? Did it require " omniscient telepathy " to enable the psychic to read all this in the subjective mind of the husband? In this case spirits were out of the question, for everybody concerned was very much alive, and the hypnotist and his psychic were neither of them spiritists.

I once hypnotized a lady and asked her to describe my home, which she knew nothing of. She described everything correctly, even a huge mastiff lying on a bear-skin rug on the library floor. But doubt was thrown upon her lucidity when she described the library desk as being covered with a white cloth, and said that a lady was sitting at the desk, " doing something" which she could not clearly make out. As my desk is covered with black cloth, and as ladies seldom work at it, I regarded the description as an effort at guessing. But on my return home I learned that my wife had been " doing something" with pulverized sugar, and had covered the table with newspapers to prevent accidents to the black cloth. As that was the only time in the long history of my library desk that it had been so covered or so employed, I cannot ascribe the phenomenon to coincidence. Nor can I think of any other way of explaining it than on the theory of telepathy a trois.

Some one, however, may say that " clairvoyance " affords an easy explanation of both these incidents. But if he is not aware that clairvoyance itself is explicable only on the telepathic hypothesis, I refer him to such incidents as that related by Mr. Lang in the article above referred to. In a crystal-gazing experiment in London the psychic saw a vision of something that had happened to one of Mr. Lang's friends in India several days previous to the date of the experiment. It was subsequently verified, and Mr. Lang refers to it as a case of telepathy a trois, and also as one which excluded both the spiritistic and the " clairvoyance " hypotheses, since all were alive, and the event happened several days before the vision was seen in the crystal.

Now it must not be forgotten that phenomena cognate to the foregoing are produced every day in the year, wherever telepathic experiments are intelligently conducted. They are largely unnoted and unrecorded, for their supreme evidential value and importance are not generally understood or appreciated. That is to say, there are few among the thousands who are conducting experiments in telepathy, and still fewer of those who are invoking the spirits of the dead through mediums, who realize that upon the settlement of the question of telepathy a trois depends the scientific and logical solution of the whole problem of alleged spirit intercourse with the living through so-called mediums. And this I unhesitatingly affirm to be true; for if it is true that a fact communicated by one person to another by means of telepathy can then be transmitted by the second to a third person by the same means, it affords an obvious and easy telepathic explanation of every alleged spirit communication that has ever been recorded. A very few words will suffice to explain my meaning.

I have already shown how the hypothesis applies to events occurring at or before the time the message is delivered, and known to a relative, a friend, or an acquaintance of some one present, the spirit hypothesis being excluded by the fact that all concerned were living, the only further remark necessary in reference to cases arising under this head being that since telepathy a trois furnishes a complete explanation of the telepathic experiments related, it is difficult to imagine any valid reason for changing the explanation, even if the sitting had been called a spirit seance. Thus the suggestion to the psychics in either of the foregoing cases that spirits were present to show them the rooms would have resulted precisely as it did result. Again, the suggestion might have been that the psychics were "clairvoyant," and the results would have been identical. The rooms would have been described as clearly under any one suggestion as under any other in the list. The difference, then, lies wholly in the suggestion made to the psychic, and not in the facts. Is it conceivable that the explanation varies with the suggestion under which the psychic happens to do the work ? If not, there must be some one explanation applicable to all forms and kinds of suggestion, and the only tenable solution is necessarily one that rests on a vera causa. I submit that the telepathic explanation is the only one that is thus sustained. That is to say, we know telepathy to be a power of the subjective mind, and we know that all psychics assume the hypothesis suggested to them, whether it be spirit control, or clairvoyance, or telepathy pure and simple. I submit that we have neither logical right nor occasion to ascribe to supermundane origin any phenomenon that is explicable by reference to efficient causes that we know to exist, inherent, in the minds of living people.

The next class on the list, namely, communications embracing facts known only to the deceased during his life, a relative or a friend being present at the sitting, can easily be accounted for on the theory of telepathy a trois, since friends, relatives, and acquaintances are well known to be, potentially, en rapport at all times. The facts in the supposed case may have been telepathically communicated years before the death of the agent; but as the memory of the subjective, mind is potentially perfect, the facts may be drawn forth by telepathic agency at any subsequent time under proper conditions. There are, however, many cases, apparently belonging to this class, where the sitter's ignorance of the facts is due to forgetfulness. In other words, he may have known the facts and entirely forgotten them. As Mr. Myers justly remarks, " whatever has gone into the mind may come out of the mind." Such a case, however, would not be telepathy a trois. But it would be obtaining telepathic information residing exclusively in the subjective mind or, as Mr. Myers would say, the " subliminal consciousness " - of the sitter. And so would the same information received telepathically by the same sitter reside exclusively in his subjective mind. Will some good spiritist please explain why information can be drawn from the sitter's mind by means of telepathy in one case and not in the other? Prima facie the conditions are parallel, except as to the means by which the sitter obtained the information; and I submit that the onus probandi rests upon the the logical attitude of spiritism as grossly violative of that fundamental axiom of science which denies our logical right to seek in supermundane realms for causes that can be found in the domain of natural law.

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