Science And The Spirits
( Originally Published 1905 )
THEIR refusal to investigate "spiritual phenomena" is often urged as a reproach against scientific men. I here propose to give a sketch of an attempt to apply to the "phenomena" those methods of inquiry which are found available in dealing with natural truth.
Some years ago, when the spirits were particularly active in this country, Faraday was invited, or rather entreated, by one of his friends to meet and question them. He had, however, already made their acquaintance, and did not wish to renew it. I had not been so privileged, and he therefore kindly arranged a transfer of the invitation to me. The spirits themselves named the time of meeting, and I was conducted to the place at the day and hour appointed.
Absolute unbelief in the facts was by no means my condition of mind. On the contrary, I thought it probable that some physical principle, not evident to the spiritualists themselves, might underlie their manifestations. Extraordinary effects are produced by the accumulation of small impulses. Galileo set a heavy pendulum in motion by the well-timed puffs of his breath. Ellicott set one clock going by the ticks of another, even when the two clocks were separated by a wall. Preconceived notions can, moreover, vitiate, to an extraordinary degree, the testimony of even veracious persons. Hence my desire to witness those extraordinary phenomena, the existence of which seemed placed beyond a doubt by the known veracity of those who had witnessed and described them. The meeting took place at a private residence in the neighborhood of London. My host, his intelligent wife, and a gentleman who may be called X., were in the house when I arrived. I was informed that the "medium" had not 'yet made her appearance; that she was sensitive, and might resent suspicion. It was therefore requested that the tables and chairs should be examined before her arrival, in order to be assured that there was no trickery in the furniture. This was done; and I then first learned that my hospitable host had arranged that the seance should be a dinner-party. This was to me an unusual form of investigation; but I accepted, it as one of the accidents of the occasion.
The "medium" arrived—a delicate-looking young lady, who appeared to have suffered much from ill=health. I took her to dinner and sat close beside her. Facts were absent for a considerable time, a series of very wonderful narratives supplying their place. The duty of belief on the testimony of witnesses was frequently insisted on. X. appeared to be a chosen spiritual agent, and told us many surprising things. He affirmed that, when he took a pen in his hand, an influence ran from his shoulder downward, and impelled him to write oracular sentences. I listened-for a time, offering no observation. "And now," continued X., "this power has so risen as to reveal to me the thoughts of others. Only this morning I told a friend what he was thinking of, and what he intended to do during the day." here, I thought, is something that can be at once tested. I said immediately to X.: "If you wish to win to your cause an apostle, who will proclaim your principles to the world from the housetop, tell me what I am now thinking of." X. reddened, and did not tell me my thought.
Some time previously I had visited Baron Reichenbaeh, in Vienna, and I now asked the young lady who sat beside me whether she could see any of the curious things which he describes—the light emitted by crystals, for example? Here is the conversation which followed, as extracted from my notes, written on the day following the seance.
Medium.—" Oh, yes; but I see light around all bodies."
I—` `Even in perfect darkness?"
Medium.—"Yes; I see luminous atmospheres round all people. The atmosphere which surrounds Mr. R. C. would fill this room with light."
I.—"You are aware of the effects ascribed by Baron Reichenbach to magnets?"
Medium.—"Yes; but :a magnet makes me terribly ilk"
I.—` Am I to understand that, if this room were perfectly dark, you could tell whether it contained a magnet, without being informed of the fact?"
Medium:—"I should know of its presence ,on entering the room.'
Medium.—"I should be rendered instantly ill."
I. —"How do you feel today?"
Medium.—"Particularly well; I have not been so well for months."
I.—" Then, may I ask you whether there is, at the present moment, a magnet in my possession ?"
The young lady looked at me, blushed, and stammered, "No; I am not en rapport with you."
I sat at her right hand, and a left-hand pocket, within six inches of her person, contained a magnet.
Our host here deprecated discussion, as it "exhausted the medium." The wonderful narratives were resumed; but I had narratives of my own quite as wonderful. These spirits, indeed, seemed clumsy creations, compared with those with which my own work had made me familiar. I therefore began to match the wonders related to me by other wonders. A lady present discoursed on spiritual atmospheres, which she could see as beautiful colors when she closed her eyes. I professed myself able to see similar colors, and, more than that, to be able to see the interior of my own eyes. The medium affirmed that she could see actual waves of light coming from the sun. I retorted that men of science could tell the exact number of waves emitted in a second, and also their exact length. The medium spoke of the performances of the spirits on musical instruments. I said that such performance was gross, in comparison with a kind of music which had been discovered some time previously by a scientific man. Standing at a distance of twenty feet from a jet of gas, he could command the flame to emit a melodious note; it would obey, and continue its song for hours. So loud was the music emitted by the gas-flame that it might be heard by an assembly of a thousand people. These were acknowledged to be as great marvels as any of those of spiritdom. The spirits were then consulted, and I was pronounced to be a first-class medium.
During this conversation a low knocking was heard from time to time under the table. These, I was told, were the spirits' knocks. I was informed that one knock, in answer to a question, meant "No"; that two knocks meant "Not yet," and that three knocks meant "Yes." In answer to a question whether I was a medium, the response was three brisk and vigorous knocks. I noticed that the knocks issued from a particular locality, and therefore requested the spirits to be good enough to answer from another corner of the table. They did not comply; but I was assured that they would do it, and much more, by and by. The knocks continuing, I turned a wine-glass upside down, and placed my ear upon it, as upon a stethoscope. The spirits seemed disconcerted by the act; they lost their playfulness, and did not recover it for a considerable time.
Somewhat weary of the proceedings, I once threw myself back against my chair and gazed listlessly out of the window. While thus engaged, the table was rudely pushed. Attention was drawn to the wine, still oscillating in the glasses, and I was asked whether that was not convincing. I readily granted the fact of motion, and began to feel the delicacy of my position. There were several pairs of arms upon the table, and several pairs of legs under it; but how was I, without offence, to ex-press the conviction which I really entertained? To ward off the difficulty, I again turned a wine-glass upside down and rested my ear upon it. The rim of the glass was not level, and my hair, on touching it, caused it to vibrate and produce a peculiar buzzing sound. A perfectly can-did and warm-hearted old gentleman at the opposite side of the table, whom I may call A., drew attention to the sound, and expressed his entire belief that it was spiritual. I, however, informed him that it was the moving hair acting on the glass. The explanation was not well received; and X., in a tone of severe pleasantry, demanded whether it was the hair that had moved the table. The promptness of my negative probably satisfied him that my notion was a very different one.
The superhuman power of the spirits was next dwelt upon. The strength of man, it was stated, was unavailing in opposition to theirs. No human power could prevent the table from moving when they pulled it. During the evening this pulling of the table occurred, or rather was attempted, three times. Twice the table moved when my attention was withdrawn from it; on a third occasion, I tried whether the act could be provoked by an assumed air of inattention. Grasping the table firmly between my knees, I threw myself back in the chair, and waited, with eyes fixed on vacancy, for the pull. It came. For some seconds it was pull spirit, hold muscle; the muscle, how-ever, prevailed, and the table remained at rest. Up to the present moment, this interesting fact is known only to the particular spirit in question and myself.
A species of mental scene-painting, with which my own pursuits had long rendered me familiar, was employed to figure the changes and distribution of spiritual power. The spirits, it was alleged, were provided with atmospheres, which combined with and interpenetrated each other, and considerable ingenuity was shown in demonstrating the necessity of time in effecting the adjustment of the atmospheres. A rearrangement of our positions was proposed and carried out; and soon afterward my attention was drawn to a scarcely sensible vibration on the part of the table. Several persons were leaning on the table at the time, and I asked permission to touch the medium's hand. "Oh! I know I tremble," was her reply. Throwing one leg across the other, I accidentally nipped a muscle, and produced thereby an involuntary vibration of the free leg. This vibration, I knew, must be communicated to the floor, and thence to the chairs of all present. I therefore intentionally promoted it. My attention was promptly drawn to the motion; and a gentleman beside me, whose value as a witness I was particularly desirous to test, expressed his belief that it was out of the compass of human power to produce so strange a tremor. "I believe," he added, earnestly, "that it is entirely the spirits' work." "So do I," added, with heat, the candid and warm-hearted old gentleman A. "Why, sir," he continued, "I feel them at this moment shaking my chair." I stopped the motion of the leg. "Now, sir," A. exclaimed, "they are gone." I began again, and A. once more affirmed their presence. I could, however, notice that there were doubters present, who did not quite know what to think of the manifestations. I saw their perplexity; and, as there was sufficient reason to believe that the disclosure of the secret would simply provoke anger, I kept it to myself.
Again a period of conversation intervened, during which the spirits became animated. The evening was confessedly a dull one, but matters appeared to brighten toward its close. The spirits were requested to spell the name by which I was known in the heavenly world. Our host commenced repeating the alphabet, and when he reached the letter "P" a knock was heard. He began again, and the spirits knocked at the letter "0." I was puzzled, but waited for the end. The next letter knocked down was "E." - I laughed, and remarked that the spirits were going to make a poet of me. Admonished for my levity, I was informed that the frame of mind proper for the occasion ought to have been superinduced by a perusal of the Bible immediately before the seance. The spelling, however, went on, and sure enough I came out a poet. But matters did not end here. Our host continued his repetition of the alphabet, and the next letter of the name proved to be "O." Here was manifestly an unfinished word; and the spirits were apparently in their most communicative mood. The knocks came from under the table, but no person present evinced the slightest de-sire to look under it. I asked whether I might go underneath; the permission was granted; so I crept under the table. Some tittered; but the candid old A. exclaimed, "He has a right to. look into the very dregs of it, to convince himself." Having pretty well assured myself that no sound could be produced under the table without its origin being revealed, I requested our host to continue his questions. He did so, but in vain. He adopted a tone of tender entreaty; but the "dear spirits" had become dumb dogs, and refused to be entreated. I continued under that table for at least a quarter of an hour, after which, with a feeling of despair as regards the prospects of humanity never before experienced, I regained my chair. Once there, the spirits resumed their loquacity, and dubbed me "Poet of Science."
This, then, is the result of an attempt made by a scientific man to look into these spiritual phenomena. It is not encouraging; and for this reason. The present promoters of spiritual phenomena divide themselves into two classes, one of which needs no demonstration, while the other is beyond the reach of proof. The victims like to believe, and they do not like to be undeceived. Science is perfectly powerless in the presence of this frame of mind. It is, moreover, a state perfectly compatible with extreme intellectual subtlety and a capacity for devising hypotheses which only require the hardihood engendered by strong conviction, or by callous mendacity, to render them impregnable.
The logical feebleness of science is not sufficiently borne in mind. It keeps down the weed of superstition, not by logic but by slowly rendering the mental soil unfit for its cultivation. When science appeals to uniform experience, the spiritualist will retort, "How do you know that a uniform experience will continue uniform? You tell me that the sun has risen for six thousand years: that is no proof that it will rise to-morrow; within the next twelve hours it may be puffed out by the Almighty." Taking this ground, a man may maintain the story of "Jack and the Beanstalk" in the face of all the science in the world. You urge, in vain, that science has given us all the knowledge of the universe which we now possess, while spiritualism has added nothing to that knowledge. The drugged soul is beyond the reach of reason. It is in vain that impostors are exposed, and the special demon cast out. He has but slightly to change, his shape, return to his house, and find it "empty, swept, and garnished."
Since the time when the foregoing remarks were written I have been more than once among the spirits, at their own invitation. They do not improve on acquaintance. Surely no baser delusion ever obtained dominance over the weak mind of man.