Sir William Barrett

Sir William Barrett FRS

Professor of Physics at the Royal College of Science for Dublin from 1873-1910 and one of the distinguished early psychical researchers. In fact, it was Barrett who first initiated the founding of both the American and British Society for Psychical Research.

Science and Superstition

 - William Barrett -

          THE PHENOMENA we are about to discuss in the present volume are characterized by many sceptics as a "recrudescence of superstition" (see Nature, vol. 51, p. 122), and on the other hand by many believers as "evidence of the supernatural." The average busy man, who has no time for critical inquiry, probably thinks that there is a good deal of truth in both these statements, and therefore prefers to give the whole subject a wide berth. But the scornful disdain of the savant and the credulous belief of the ignorant are now giving way to a more rational attitude of mind. A widespread desire exists to know something about that debatable borderland between the territory already conquered by science and the dark realms of ignorance and superstition; and to learn what trustworthy evidence exists on behalf of a large class of obscure psychical phenomena, the importance of which it is impossible to exaggerate if the alleged facts be incontestably established. To satisfy that desire, in some slight and imperfect way, is the object of this little book.

The subjects to be considered cover a wide range, from unconscious muscular action to the mysterious operation of our subconscious self; from telepathy to apparitions at the moment of death; from hypnotism and the therapeutic effects of suggestion to crystal-gazing and the emergence of hidden human faculties; from clairvoyance, or the alleged perception of objects without the use of the ordinary channels of sense, to dowsing, or the finding of underground water and metallic lodes with the so-called divining rod; from the reputed hauntings of certain places to the mischievous pranks of poltergeists (or boisterous but harmless ghosts whose asserted freaks may have given rise both to fetishism and fairies); from the inexplicable sounds and movement of objects without assignable cause to the thaumaturgy of the spiritualistic sťance; from the scribbling of planchette and automatic writing generally to the alleged operation of unseen and intelligent agents and the possibility of experimental evidence of human survival after death.

These phenomena, even if only a fraction of what is asserted by credible witnesses be true, open a new and vastly important chapter in the book of human knowledge. If established, they reveal a wide and wonderful extension of human faculty, and give us a glimpse of the abysses of human personality, of depths that transcend time and sense and outward things, teaching us that "nature is not a soulless interaction of atoms, nor life a paltry misery closed in the grave."

But here we are met, on the one side, with the objection of many religious people, that these phenomena belong to the region of the supernatural, and therefore their investigation is a hopeless, if it be not an impious, quest; and on the other side with the complacent contempt of the superior person, who dismisses the whole matter with a shrug as pure superstition. Therefore, before discussing the evidence on behalf of these obscure phenomena, let us ask if there be any valid reason for describing them as either supernatural or superstitious.

In the childhood of the race every rare or inexplicable event, whether in the heavens or on the earth, was regarded as supernatural. Eclipses, comets, meteorites, and other unusual meteorological phenomena, were a supernatural portent or the direct interposition of the Deity. But the progress of knowledge has shown that these and all other phenomena - however mysterious and at present inexplicable they may be - are part of the order of nature, are natural and not supernatural. Even a couple of centuries ago, many of the marvels of modern scientific discovery would have been classed as supernatural. To know what was happening less than an hour ago at the Antipodes, or to listen to the voice of, and interchange conversation with, friends in different countries - the commonplace of the telegraph and telephone today - not to mention the transmission of wireless messages across the Atlantic and the instantaneous photographic record and reproduction of rapidly moving objects, all these would have been thought impossible or miraculous.

The religious mind is ever apt to forget what Bishop Butler pointed out in the first chapter of his Analogy, that our notion of what is natural grows with our greater knowledge, so that to beings of more extensive knowledge than ourselves "the whole Christian dispensation may to them appear natural, as natural as the visible known course of things appears to us." Miracles, as most theologians, from St. Augustine onwards, have said, do not happen in contradiction to nature, they are not supernatural events, but only transcend what is at present known to us of nature. We cannot pretend to determine the boundary between the natural and the supernatural until the whole of nature is open to our knowledge. If at any point scientific investigation finds a limit, what is beyond is only a part of nature yet unknown. So that, however marvellous and inexplicable certain phenomena may be, we feel assured that sooner or later they will receive their explanation, and be embraced within some part of the wide domain of science.

Nor can we restrict these considerations to the visible universe. The vast procession of phenomena that constitute the order of nature do not come to an abrupt conclusion when they can no longer be apprehended by our present organs of sense. Science already takes cognizance of the imperceptible, imponderable, and infinitely rare luminiferous ether, an unseen form of matter wholly different from anything known to our senses, the very existence of which indeed is only known inferentially. As an eminent scientific writer has said: "In earlier times the suggestion of such a medium would probably have been looked upon as strong evidence of insanity." The law of continuity leads us to believe that whatever unknown and perplexing phenomena may confront us, in the seen or in the unseen universe, in this world or in any other, we shall never reach the limit of the natural, and never be put to intellectual confusion by the discovery of a chaos instead of a cosmos. At the centre and throughout every part of this ever expanding and limitless sphere of nature there remains - enshrouded from the gaze of science - the Ineffable and Supreme Thought which alone can be termed Supernatural. For the very term phenomenon, which is only the Greek word for appearance, means something brought within the cognizance of the senses and of the reason, thereby it ceases to be supernatural and becomes another aspect of the creative thought of God. Hence the supernatural can never be a matter of observation or scientific inquiry; the Divine Being alone can transcend His handiwork.

To talk, therefore, of apparitions and spiritualistic phenomena, etc., as supernatural is obviously incorrect. Even if established they would not lie beyond nor outside nature, but merely beyond our ordinary normal experience. They are, in fine, supernormal phenomena, and that word, first suggested by Mr. F. W. H. Myers, will be used throughout this book to denote the objects of psychical research.

Then arises the question, is it worth while to spend time on subjects which the scientific world has until lately regarded as relies of superstition, and which are still so regarded by many? It is true that there is now a growing and marked change of opinion in this respect among many of the foremost men of science in every civilized country. But official science as a body still looks askance at psychical research and speaks of its adherents as more or less credulous and superstitious. What is meant by superstition? Etymologically it means the standing over an occurrence, in amazement or awe; shutting out the light of inquiry and reason. Where this light enters a mystery is no longer enshrouded by helplessly standing over it, but we begin to understand it. Superstition is, therefore, the antithesis of understanding, and of that faith in the intelligibility of nature which forms the foundation of science and the hope of all intellectual progress.

In a lecture on Science and Superstition which the writer heard the Rev. Charles Kingsley deliver at the Royal Institution in London in 1866, and which was published in Fraser's Magazine for June and July, 1866, superstition was defined as "fear of the unknown." This is the frequent accompaniment of superstition, but the ancient Greek, "who believed that every tree or stream or glen had its nymph, whose kindly office men might secure by paying them certain honours," was a superstitious man, though he did not in this case exhibit fear of the unknown. Superstition may be more accurately defined as a belief not in accordance with facts, where no connection exists between the cause ascribed and the effect imagined, and issues in superstitious practices when such a belief is regarded as affording help or injury. Some trivial occurrence may once have been followed by disaster, and forthwith it becomes an omen! Thus a chance coincidence is to the superstitious a law of nature. Not only amid the culture of ancient Greece and Rome, but right down the ages to the present time, we find this irrational habit of mind. Nor is it confined to the credulous and the ignorant. Voltaire went home out of humour when he heard a raven croak on his left. Many gallant officers and clever women dread to sit down thirteen to dinner, just as the peasant dreads to hear the screech owl. Omens and portents are still as rife throughout India as in ancient Rome. Superstition is the arrest of reason and inquiry, an ignoble and groundless belief. But in every case where science comes in at the door superstition flies out of the window. And so to-day if we wish to rid ourselves of the many silly and mischievous superstitions which abound in our midst, we must bring to bear upon them the "dry and clear light" of science.

How, then, can the scientific investigation of psychical phenomena be regarded as superstitious folly? Difference of opinion may exist as to the interpretation of the phenomena or as to the weight of evidence required to establish a definite conclusion. But no one disputes the need of inquiry, nor that numerous painstaking and competent investigators have been convinced of the genuineness of many of the phenomena we shall describe and the vast importance of the issues they foreshadow. This being so, the charge of superstition rests upon those whose scornful and irrational habit of mind leads them to a belief not in accordance with facts, and to a practice of rejecting the weightiest evidence and accepting the flimsiest - just as it suits their preconceived notions of the possible and the impossible. These are the superstitious.

There remains a more common form of disbelief in psychical phenomena, based upon the fact that they have not been witnessed by the objector and cannot be reproduced at will to convince him. Neither have many of us witnessed the fall of meteoric stones to the earth, yet we believe in their existence in spite of the impossibility of their reproduction at our pleasure. The reason why we believe is, of course, the testimony of many trustworthy witnesses to whom we have given attention. In fact there are some phenomena in physical science which are as rare, elusive and inexplicable as those in psychical research. That strange phenomenon, to which the name of fire-ball or globe lightning has been given, is an example. "As we have hitherto been unable to reproduce a fire-ball, by our most powerful electrical machines, some philosophers have denied that any such thin can exist! But as Arago says: 'Where should we be if we set ourselves to deny everything we do not know how to explain? The amount of trustworthy and independent evidence which we possess as to the occurrence of this phenomenon is such as must convince every reasonable man who chooses to pay due attention to the subject. No doubt there is a great deal of exaggeration, as well as much imperfect and erroneous observation, in almost all these records. But the existence of the main feature (the fire-ball) seems to be proved beyond all doubt." These are the words of that eminent and genuine scientific man, the late Professor Tait, and the words I have italicized are equally true of the principal phenomena of psychical research. There has been, no doubt, much "exaggeration and erroneous observation" in connection with this subject, but this can also be said of the early stages of other new and striking additions to our knowledge.

The fact is, our reason leads us to be instinctively hostile to the reception of any evidence which cannot be readily fitted into the structure of existing knowledge. We are all apt to overlook the difference between evidence which involves only a wide extension of our knowledge and evidence which involves a flat contradiction of well-established laws, such as the law of the conservation of energy. If telepathy, clairvoyance or even the existence of discarnate personalities be experimentally established, a vast extension, but surely no contradiction, of our present knowledge would be involved. Moreover, an entirely new discovery, such, for example, as the properties of radium, could never be accepted if, adopting Hume's argument against miracles, we refused to credit it on account of our previous experience having been uniformly opposed to it.

Perhaps, however, the chief obstacle to the general recognition of psychical phenomena is to be found in our disinclination to accept in this region, the experience and testimony of other observers, however eminent and competent they may be. The splendid and startling discoveries made by Sir William Crookes in physical science were universally received with respect and belief, but his equally careful investigation of psychical phenomena were dismissed by most scientific men as unworthy of serious attention. It is true the former were more, and the latter less, accessible to experimental verification; but one would have thought that at least suspense of judgment, awaiting confirmatory evidence, and not scornful contempt, would have been a truer scientific attitude.

Certainly the treatment of hypnotism and of its courageous pioneers by the medical profession, down to a comparatively recent period, is a warning of the grotesque follies into which science may fall when it rests its opposition to any new departure not upon evidence, but upon prejudice and negation. Unfortunately, science has been too often the friend of systematic negation. Facts, as the late Professor William James has remarked, "are denied until a welcome interpretation is offered, then they are admitted readily enough." No one is omniscient, and of late we have had to accept so many things once deemed impossible that we ought by this time to have learnt the axiom of that distinguished philosopher, Sir John Herschel, who tells us "the natural philosopher should believe all things not improbable, hope all things not impossible."


The article above was taken from William Barrett's "Psychical Research" (London: Williams & Norgate, 1911).

Other articles by William Barrett

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