Arthur J. Balfour

Arthur Balfour

1848-1930. Educated at Trinity College, Cambridge. Devoted himself to philosophical studies for many years. First went to Parliament in 1876. Published "A Defense of Philosophic Doubt" in 1879, pleading for individual freedom of thought as against the increasing dogmatism of science. Through his sister, the wife of Prof. Henry Sidgwick, the first president of the SPR, he became interested in psychic phenomena and the question of survival in 1882. In 1894 he occupied the presidential chair of the SPR and in 1893 he became President. Eleven years later he became President of the British Association. Served as the British Prime Minister from 1902 to 1905. His paper on the Ear of Dionysuis cross correspondence (attributed to the discarnate minds of Prof. Butcher and Prof. Verrall) which he read before the SPR in November, 1916, is a most constructive presentation of an excellent piece of evidence for survival.

Presidential Address to the Society for Psychical Research

 - Arthur Balfour -

           WE HAVE lost another distinguished member of our body - not in this case one who was associated very closely with our work, but one, nevertheless, who by the lustre of his name added dignity to our proceedings, and who might, had his life been spared, have largely helped us, I believe, in experimental investigations - I allude to Professor Hertz, a corresponding member of our body. As those of you will know who have had the opportunity of following recent developments of physical science, he was the fortunate individual who demonstrated experimentally the identity of light and of certain electro-magnetic phenomena. This identity, had been divined, and elaborated on the side of theory, by one of the greatest of English, I ought perhaps to say of Scotch, men of science, Clerk Maxwell, but it had never been conclusively proved until Professor Hertz, about five years ago, startled Europe by the experimental identification of these physical forces. The extraordinary interest and the far-reaching importance of a discovery like this will not perhaps be appreciated by every one of my audience, but all of those who take an interest in such subjects will see that by this stroke of experimental genius a very large stride has been made towards establishing the unity of the great physical powers of nature.

The mention of a great physical discovery like this, made by one of our own body, naturally suggests reflections as to our actual scientific position. What, we feel tempted to ask, is at the present time the relation of such results as we have arrived at to the general view which hitherto science has taken of that material universe in which we live? I must confess that, when I call to mind the history of these relations in the past, the record is not one on which we can dwell with any great satisfaction. Consider, for example, the attitude maintained by the great body of scientific opinion, whether medical or physical, towards the phenomena which used to be known as mesmeric, but which have now been re-baptised, with Braid's term, as hypnotic.

There were, I believe, no less than two or three Commissions of inquiry - three, I think, - instituted in France alone, one in Mesmer's lifetime, and the other two, unless my memory deceives me, after his death. The amount of evidence collected, at all events by one of those Commissions, composed of some of the most eminent scientific men in France, should have been enough to call the attention of all Europe to the new problems thus raised. The report which embodied this evidence was, nevertheless, allowed to lie unnoticed upon the shelf; and it has only been by a gradual process of re-discovery, a constant and uphill fight on the part of the less prejudiced members of the community, that the truths of hypnotism, as far as they are yet attained, have reached something like general recognition; even now, perhaps, their full importance - whether from a therapeutic or a psychological point of view - has not been sufficiently acknowledged.

What I have just very briefly and rudely sketched out to you is the history of an investigation into one small section of these alleged phenomena which fall outside the ordinary field of scientific investigation. If we took it by itself we should say that scientific men have shown in connection with it a bigoted intolerance, an indifference to strictly scientific evidence, which is, on the face of it, discreditable. I, however, do not feel inclined to pass any verdict of so harsh a character upon the action of the great body of scientific men. I believe that, although the course they pursued was not one which it is very easy rationally to justify, nevertheless there was a great deal more of practical wisdom in it than might appear at first sight. I have always been impressed by the lesson taught us by the general course of history, that you cannot expect, either of any single nation or of any single age, that it will do more than the special work which happens, so to speak, to be set before it at the moment. You cannot expect men, being what they are, to labour effectively in more than one relatively restricted field at the same time; and if they insist on diffusing their energies over too wide a surface, the necessary result, as I believe, will be that their labours will prove unfruitful. Now just consider what it is that men of science have done in the century which has elapsed since the first French Commission investigated Mesmer's discoveries. I do not believe it would be going too far to say that the whole body of the sciences, with the exception of mechanics, especially mechanics as applied to celestial motions - that the whole body of the sciences outside that limited sphere has been reconstructed from top to bottom. Our leading ideas in chemistry, our leading ideas in physics, the theory of light, the theory of sound, the whole of geology, the great generalisation known as the conservation of energy, and all the speculations and extensions which have succeeded that great generalisation, the whole theory of natural selection and of biological evolution, are all the birth of the hundred years which have elapsed since first Mesmer made hypnotic phenomena notorious through Europe. I think if scientific men, looking back upon the past, choose to set up for themselves this defence, that after all only one thing can be done at a time, that they were occupied in co-ordinating within certain lines the experimental data then available, and that, in harmony with a given conception of the material world, they were laying deep the foundations of that vast and imposing fabric of modern science, I for one should accept the plea as a bar to further proceedings. For the men who did that work could not have done it, I believe, unless they had rigidly confined themselves to one particular conception of the world with which they had to deal. If they had insisted on including in their survey not merely the well-travelled regions of everyday experience, but the dark and doubtful territories within which our labours lie, their work would have been worse, not better; less, not more complete. They may have been narrow; but their narrowness has been our gain. They may have been prejudiced; but their prejudices have been fruitful, and we have reaped the harvest. I have often thought that when, on looking back over the history of human speculation, we find some individual who has anticipated the discoveries of a later age, but has neither himself been able to develop those discoveries nor yet to interest his contemporaries in them, we are very apt to bestow on him an undue meed of honour. 'Here,' we say, 'was a man before his time. Here was a man of whom his age was not worthy.' Yet such men do very little indeed for the progress of the world of which at first sight they would appear to be among the most distinguished citizens. There is no use in being before your age after such a fashion as this. If neither you nor those to whom you speak can make use of the message that you thus prematurely deliver, so far as the development of the world is concerned, you might as well have not lived at all. When, therefore, we are asked to put our hands in our pockets and subscribe towards the erection of memorials to half-forgotten worthies like these, by all means let us do it. It is natural and even praiseworthy. But do not let us suppose that those whom we thus honour really stand out among the benefactors of our species. They are interesting; but hardly useful.

This, however, is merely a parenthetical reflection, to which I do not ask your agreement, and which, after all, has nothing to do with the general drift of the argument that I desire to lay before you. The question I now wish you to consider is: Granting to men of science that they had, if not a theoretical and speculative excuse, still a practical justification, for the course they have adopted in regard to these obscure psychical phenomena during the last hundred years, is that justification still valid? For myself, I think it is not. I think the time has now come when it is desirable in their own interests, and in our interests, that the leaders of scientific thought in this country and elsewhere should recognise that there are well-attested facts which, though they do not easily fit into the framework of the sciences, or of organised experience as they conceive it, yet require investigation and explanation, and which it is the bounden duty of science, if not itself to investigate, at all events to assist us in investigating.

I am, of course, aware that there are necessarily connected with our work difficulties and obstructions in the way of experiment with which scientific men are not familiar, and which not unnaturally rouse in their minds both dislike and suspicion. To begin with, there is the difficulty of fraud. The ordinary scientific man no doubt finds the path of experimental investigation strewn with difficulties, but at least he does not usually find among them the difficulty presented by human fraud. He knows that, if he is misled in any particular, it is the fault of the observer, and not the fault of the observed. He knows that, if his cross-examination of nature fails to elicit anything, it is because he has not known how to cross-examine, not because nature when put in the witness-box tells untruths. But unfortunately in the matters with which we have to deal this is not the case. We have come across, and it is inevitable that we should come across, cases where either deliberate fraud or unconscious deception makes observation doubly and trebly difficult, and throws obstacles in the way of the investigator which his happier brother in the region of material and physical science has not to contend with.

And there is yet another difficulty in our work from which those who cultivate physical science are happily free. They have, as the ultimate sources of their knowledge, the 'five senses' with which we are all endowed, and which are the only generally recognised inlets through which the truth of external nature can penetrate into consciousness. But we of this Society have perforce to deal with cases in which not merely the normal five or six senses, but some abnormal and half-completed sense, so to speak, comes into play; in which we have to work, not with the organisations of an ordinary and normal type, but with certain exceptional organisations who can neither explain, account for, nor control the abnormal powers they appear to possess.

This is not only a special difficulty with which we have to contend; it is the basis of a serious objection, in the eyes of many scientific men, to the admission of the subject-matter of our researches into the sphere of legitimate investigation. These critics seem to think that because we cannot repeat and verify our experiments as we will and when we will because we cannot, as it were, put our phenomena in a retort and boil them over a spirit lamp and always get the same results - that therefore the phenomena themselves are not worth examining. But this is, I venture to say, a very unphilosophic view of the question. Is there, after all, any inherent a priori improbability in there being these half-formed and imperfectly developed senses, or inlets of external information, occasionally and sporadically developed in certain members of the human race? Surely not. I should myself be disposed to say that if the theory of development be really sound, phenomena like these, however strange, are exactly what we should have expected. For what says the theory of natural selection? Why this, among other things: that there has gradually been elaborated by the slaughter of the unfit and the survival of the fit, an organism possessed of senses adapted to further its success in the struggle for existence. To suppose that the senses elaborated in obedience to this law should be in correspondence with the whole of external nature, appears to me to be not only improbable, but, on any rational doctrine of probability, absolutely impossible. There must be countless forms of being, countless real existences which, had the line of an evolution gone in a different direction, or had the necessities of our primitive ancestors been of a different kind, would have made themselves known to us through senses the very character of which we are at present unable to imagine. And, if this be so, is it not in itself likely that here and there we should come across rudimentary beginnings of such senses; beginnings never developed and probably never to be developed by the operation of selection; mere by-products of the great evolutionary machine, never destined to be turned to any useful account? And it may be - I am only hazarding an unverifiable guess - it may be, I say, that in these cases of the individuals thus abnormally endowed we really have come across faculties which, had it been worth Nature's while, had they been of any value or purpose in the struggle for existence, might have been normally developed, and thus become the common possession of the whole human race. Had this occurred, we should have been enabled to experiment upon phenomena, which we now regard as occult and mysterious, with the same confidence in the sources of our information that we now enjoy in any of our ordinary inquiries into the laws of the material world. Well, if there be, as I think, no great antecedent improbability against there being these occasional and sporadic modifications of the organism, I do not think that men of science ought to show any distrustful impatience of the apparent irregularity of these abnormal phenomena, which is no doubt one of their most provoking characteristics.

But there is another and a real difficulty, from the point of view of science, attaching to the result of our investigations, which is not disposed of by the theory which I have suggested of imperfectly developed senses. Such senses, if they exist at all, may evidently be of two kinds, or may give us two kinds of experience. They may give us a kind of experience which shall be in perfect harmony with our existing conception of the physical universe, or they may give us one which harmonises with that conception imperfectly or not at all. As an example of the first I might revert to the discovery, previously referred to, of Professor Hertz. He, as I have already told you, has experimentally proved that electro-magnetic phenomena are identical, as physical phenomena, with ordinary light. Light consists, as you all know, of undulations of what is known as the luminiferous ether; well, electro-magnetic waves are also undulations of the same ether, differing from the undulations which we call light only in their length. Now it is easy to conceive that we might have had a sense which would have enabled us to perceive the long undulations in the same way as we now perceive the short ones. That would be a new sense, but, though new, its deliverances would have fitted in with the existing notions which scientific men have framed of the universe. But unfortunately in our special investigations we seem to come across experiences which are not so amenable. We apparently get hints of the existence of facts, which, if they be well established, as they appear to be, cannot, so far as I can judge, by any amount of squeezing or manipulation be made to fit into the interstices of our accepted view of the physical world; and, if that be so, then we are engaged in a work of prodigious difficulty indeed, but of an importance of which the difficulty is only a measure and an indicator. For we should then be actually on the threshold, so to speak, of a region ordered according to laws of which we have at present no cognisance, and which do not appear to harmonise - I do not say they are in contradiction to, but at least they do not appear to harmonise - with those which govern the regions already within our ken.

Let me dwell on this point a little more, as it is one of central interest to all who are engaged in our special investigations. What I am asserting is that the facts which we come across are very odd facts; and by that I do not mean merely queer and unexpected: I mean 'odd' in the sense that they are out of harmony with the accepted theories of the material world. They are not merely dramatically strange, they are not merely extraordinary and striking, but they are 'odd' in the sense that they will not easily fit in with the views which physicists and men of science generally give us of the universe in which we live.

In order to illustrate this distinction I will take a very simple instance. I suppose everybody would say that it would be an extraordinary circumstance if at no distant date this earth on which we dwell were to come into collision with some unknown body travelling through space, and, as the result of that collision, be resolved into the original gases of which it is composed. Yet, though it would be an extraordinary, and even an amazing, event, it is, after all, one of which no astronomer, I venture to say, would assert the impossibility. He would say, I suppose, that it was most unlikely, but that if it occurred it would not violate, or even modify, his general theories as to the laws which govern the movements of the celestial bodies. Our globe is a member of the solar system which is travelling I do not know how many miles a second in the direction of the constellation Hercules. There is no a priori ground for saying that in the course of that mysterious journey, of the cause of which we are perfectly ignorant, we shall not come across some body in interstellar space which will produce the uncomfortable results which I have ventured to indicate. And, as a matter of fact, in the course of the last two hundred years, astronomers have themselves been witness to stellar tragedies of incomparably greater magnitude than that which would be produced by the destruction of so insignificant a planet as the world in which we happen to be personally interested. We have seen stars which shine from an unknown distance, and are of unknown magnitude, burst into sudden conflagration, blaze brightly for a time, and then slowly die out again. What that phenomenon precisely indicates, of course, we cannot say, but it certainly indicates an accident of a far more startling and tremendous kind than the shattering of our particular world, which to us would, doubtless, seem extraordinary enough.

This, then, is a specimen of what I mean by a dramatically extraordinary event. Now I will give you a case of what I mean by a scientifically extraordinary event, which as you will at once perceive may be one which at first sight, and to many observers, may appear almost common-place and familiar. I have constantly met people who will tell you, with no apparent consciousness that they are saying anything more out of the way than an observation about the weather, that by the exercise of their will they can make anybody at a little distance turn round and look at them. Now such a fact (if fact it be) is far more scientifically extraordinary than would be the destruction of this globe by some such celestial catastrophe as I have imagined. How profoundly mistaken, then, are they who think that this exercise of will-power, as they call it, is the most natural and most normal thing in the world, something that everybody would have expected, something which hardly deserves scientific notice or requires scientific explanation. In reality it is a profound mystery if it be true, or if anything like it be true; and no event, however startling, which easily finds its appropriate niche in the structure of the physical sciences ought to excite half so much intellectual curiosity as this dull, and at first sight common-place, phenomenon.

Now do not suppose that I want you to believe that every gentleman or lady who chooses to suppose him or herself exceptionally endowed with this so-called will-power is other than the dupe of an ill-regulated fancy. There is, however, quite apart from the testimony of such persons, a vast mass of evidence in favour of what we now call telepathy; and to telepathy the observations I have been making do in my opinion most strictly apply. For, consider! In every case of telepathy you have an example of action at a distance. Examples of real or apparent action at a distance are of course very common. Gravitation is such an example. We are not aware at the present time of any mechanism, if I may use the phrase, which can transmit gravitational influence from one gravitating body to another. Nevertheless, scientific men do not rest content with that view. I recollect it used to be maintained by the late Mr. John Mill that there was no ground for regarding with any special wonder the phenomenon of action at a distance. I do not dogmatise upon the point, but I do say emphatically that I do not think you will find a first-rate physicist who is prepared to admit that gravity is not a phenomenon which still wants an explanation. He is not ready, in other words, to accept action at a distance as an ultimate fact, though he has not even got the first clue to the real nature of the links by which the attracting bodies mutually act upon one another.

But though gravitation and telepathy are alike in this, that we are quite ignorant of the means by which in either case distant bodies influence one another, it would be a great mistake to suppose that the two modes of operation are equally mysterious. In the case of telepathy there is not merely the difficulty of conjecturing the nature of the mechanism which operates between the agent and the patient, between the man who influences and the man who is influenced; but the whole character of the phenomena refuses to fit in with any of our accepted ideas as to the mode in which force may be exercised from one portion of space to another. Is this telepathy action an ordinary case of action from a centre of disturbance? Is it equally diffused in all directions? Is it like the light of a candle or the light of the sun which radiates equally into space in every direction at the same time? If it is, it must obey the law - at least, we should expect it to obey the law-of all other forces which so act through a non-absorbing medium, and its effects must diminish inversely as the square of the distance. It must, so to speak, get beaten out thinner and thinner the further it gets removed from its original source. But is this so? Is it even credible that the mere thoughts, or, if you please, the neural changes corresponding to these thoughts, of any individual could have in them the energy to produce sensible effects equally in all directions, for distances which do not, as far as our investigations go, appear to have any necessary limit? It is, I think, incredible; and in any case there is no evidence whatever that this equal diffusion actually takes place. The will-power, whenever will is used, or the thoughts, in cases where will is not used, have an effect, as a rule, only upon one or two individuals at most. There is no appearance of general diffusion. There is no indication of any disturbance equal at equal distances from its origin, and radiating from it alike in every direction.

But if we are to reject this idea, which is the first which ordinary analogies would suggest, what are we to put in its place? Are we to suppose that there is some means by which telepathic energy can be directed through space from the agent to the patient, from the man who influences to the man who is influenced? If we are to believe this, as apparently we must, we are face to face not only with a fact extraordinary in itself, but with a kind of fact which does not fit in with anything we know at present in the region either of physics or of physiology. It is true, no doubt, that we do know plenty of cases where energy is directed along a given line, like water in a pipe, or like electrical energy along the course of a wire. But then in such cases there is always some material guide existing between the two termini, between the place from which the energy comes and the place to which the energy goes. Is there any such material guide in the case of telepathy? It seems absolutely impossible. There is no sign of it. We cannot even form to ourselves any notion of its character, and yet, if we are to take what appears to be the obvious lesson of the observed facts, we are forced to the conclusion that in some shape or other it exists. For to suppose that the telepathic agent shoots out his influence towards a particular object, as you shoot a bullet out of a gun, or water out of a hose, which appears to be the only other alternative, involves us seemingly in greater difficulties still. Here then we are face to face with what I call a scientifically extraordinary phenomenon, as distinguished from a dramatically extraordinary one.

If beyond the mere desire to increase knowledge many are animated by a wish to get evidence, not through any process of laborious deduction, but by direct observation, of the reality of intelligences not endowed with a physical organisation like our own, I see nothing in their action to criticise, much less to condemn. But while there is sufficient evidence, in my judgment, to justify all the labours of our Society in this field of research, it is not the field of research which lies closest to the ordinary subjects of scientific study, and, therefore, this afternoon, when I was led to deal rather with the scientific aspects of our work, I have deliberately kept myself within the range of the somewhat unpicturesque phenomena of telepathy. My object has been a very simple one, as I am desirous above all things of enlisting in our service the best experimental and scientific ability which we can command. I have thought it best to endeavour to arrest the attention, and, if possible, to engage the interest of men of science by pointing to the definite and very simple experiments which, simple as they are, yet hint at conclusions not easily to be accommodated with our habitual theories of things. If we can repeat these experiments sufficiently often and under tests sufficiently crucial to exclude the possibility of error, it will be impossible any longer to ignore them, and, willingly or unwillingly, all interested in science will be driven to help, as far as they can, to unravel the refractory class of problems which this Society is endeavouring to solve. What success such efforts will be crowned with, I know not. I have already indicated to you, at the beginning of my remarks, the special class of difficulties which beset our path. We have not at our command the appropriate physical senses, we have not the appropriate materials for experiment, we are hampered and embarrassed in every direction by credulity, by fraud, by prejudice. Nevertheless, if I rightly interpret the results which these many years of labour have forced upon the members of this Society and upon others not among our number who are associated by a similar spirit, it does seem to me that there is at least strong ground for supposing that outside the world, as we have, from the point of science, been in the habit of conceiving it, there does lie a region, not open indeed to experimental observation in the same way as the more familiar regions of the material world are open to it, but still with regard to which some experimental information may be laboriously gleaned; and even if we cannot entertain any confident hope of discovering what laws these half-seen phenomena obey, at all events it will be some gain to have shown, not as a matter of speculation or conjecture, but as a matter of ascertained fact, that there are things in heaven and earth not hitherto dreamed of in our scientific philosophy.


The article above was taken from "Arthur James Balfour As Philosopher and Thinker: A Collection of the More Important and Interesting Passages in his Non-Political Writings, Speeches, and Addresses, 1897-1912" (Longmans, Green and Co., 1912) by Wilfred M. Short.


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