Psychic - What Constitutes Evidence?
( Originally Published 1918 )
IN the autumn of 1915, when the casualty lists were terribly lengthening, the Editor of the International Psychic Gazette asked a number of eminent men to send, if possible, "messages of comfort to the bereaved" for publication. Many helpful replies were received from men who, on. one ground or another, believed in the survival of personality past death; but the most striking, to me, was the response of Mr. Edward Clodd. He said: "As the evidence that we possess seems to me conclusive against survival after death, I can say nothing on the lines which you suggest." (October issue of the Gazette, p. 6.) We can hardly doubt that it must give pain to anyone to make a statement like that, for it would strike a chill to the heart of any mourner ; and it is permissible to suppose that Mr. Clodd regretted his negative convictions. I wish to suggest that it is not necessary to hold them; that they are the result, not of evidence against, but of non-acquaintance with evidence for, or of materialistic prejudice. Hume said that miracles were contrary to experience ; but he meant only that they were contrary to his own and that of those whose testimony he believed; which proves nothing, for there are others.
The evidence, we are told, seems conclusive against survival. The obvious question at once arises : "What evidence?" Mr. Clodd gives none. And indeed for a very good reason; namely, that there is none to give. There can be no evidence that there is no such thing as a white crow; even if there is no record of anybody seeing one, this furnishes ground for a provisional judgment only, for at any moment a white crow may turn up. And in the matter of survival, there are a few millions of people in the world who have seen their white crow. Mrs. Piper was Professor James's. One piece of positive evidence shatters a negative presumption. One white crow disproves the proposition that all crows are black. One piece of spiritualistic evidence suffices at least to throw doubt on the negative presumption against survival. This presumption is based on ignorance or prejudice, not on knowledge; as with a cleric known to me who "could see no evidence for evolution." Ile. did not want to see it. The ostrich was supposed to persuade itself that it had no pursuers by hiding. its head in the sand. The existence of white crows can be disposed of if we decline to look at them. Spiritistic evidence can be ignored, as indeed it generally is. "It is magnificent, but it is not war," said the French General, watching the charge at Balaclava: the audacity of ignoring psychical evidence is similarly magnificent, but it is not science. It is not even fair-minded common sense. We cheerfully admit that it is possible to advance several different and more or less reasonable hypotheses in explanation of the phenomena, without invoking spirits ; but the existence and significance of these phenomena can hardly be ignored much lower. There is room for differing interpretations, but it will soon have to be recognized that there is something there to be interpreted. The negative dogmatizer is approaching extinction. Mr. Clodd belongs with von Helmholtz, whose words we now read with amusement. He once said to Sir William Barrett that "neither the testimony of all the Fellows of the Royal Society nor the evidence of his own senses would lead him to believe even in thought-transference, as it was impossible." The experts were once equally sure that it was impossible for trains to run at the appalling speed of thirty miles an hour. And I am pretty sure that my grand-father would never have believed in wireless telegraphy.
But, putting aside mere ignorant prejudice, we may well ask why psychical evidence, though now obtaining serious recognition, is still looked on with some distrust and doubt ; and I think there is a reasonable explanation and a reason-able cause of this. A large amount of evidence, particularly in recent publications, has been obtained through mediums, sometimes paid ones; and there is a natural tendency to regard such people as rogues until they are proved honest, and even afterwards. I sympathize with this, though it is mistaken in its over-cautiousness. Palmists and fortune-tellers are mostly or entirely frauds; but such people are not mediums. Of this latter class I believe the majority to be perfectly honest, though there is much self-delusion and erratic faculty. But it is certainly very desirable that evidence of this character should be supplemented by other evidence which is above all suspicion of dishonesty. Of course many of us are acquainted with private sensitives or mediums through whom is often obtained evidence even stronger than the best given by professionals; but it is usually private matter, and the sensitive, moreover, is under no obligation to take the world into his or her confidence. Mr. Clodd's ignorance of the existence of such per-sons is shown in a letter of his, dated December 31, 1916, to the Yorkshire Post: "I am tempted to ask whether communications from the departed are to be had only by payments to professional mediums." Evidently he doesn't know, and the tone of the letter suggests that he considers his question a knock-out—which is rather amusing to those who do know. It is unfortunate that Mr. Clodd, by the vigorous "rationalist" writings which so plainly show his prejudice, should close up the channels through which information might come to him. People naturally will not tell him things which they know would be received with derision instead of scientific and open-minded consideration.
But apart from private mediums who get communications more or less regularly, there are many individuals who enjoy evidential but only occasional enlargements of perceptivity. From time to time during the last twelve years I have received from such persons accounts of spontaneous psychical experiences of many kinds, from dreams which only just touch the fringe of the supernormal up to full-blown apparitions seen by several people. Further, I have had the opportunity of studying other accounts of a similar kind which have been sent to friends of mine. In particular I have to thank Sir Oliver Lodge for his kind permission to use material which has been sent to him. I need hardly say that in all cases I have received the senders' permission to print, but all names and places are disguised, lest the narrators' reputation for sanity should suffer; for it is extremely unwise, if we regard the opinion of the man in the street at all—and few of us can afford to disregard it entirely,—to let it be known that we have experienced anything approaching a hallucination.
These accounts do not come up to what I conceive to be the evidential standard of the Society for Psychical Research, or I should have sent them there. But, though falling below the standard which the S.P.R. rightly keeps high, these cases seem to me good enough to print. In many of them the weakness of the evidence is due to accident or an unfortunate set of circumstances, as when important corroborative testimony is obtainable only from someone who is hostile to the subject and will not testify, or is away at the war and cannot be got at, or who has died. But a continued correspondence or, better, personal interviews which in some cases I have had, is often enough to give almost as much confidence in the narrator's reliability as would corroborative testimony by another person; and I have included no case without having been convinced by either such correspondence or interviews that the narrator is a person of sanity and integrity, whose word we should accept without hesitation in more ordinary matters. I do not expect readers to attach as much importance to the narratives as I do, for I cannot give all the data which go to make up my estimate in each case; I can only hope that they will be read with a sort of provisional acceptance of them as perhaps at least partly true.
Before or after each case I indicate my own attitude to the various possible explanations of it, but this is only tentative, and readers may skip my comments if they wish.