Hans Driesch

German embryologist and professor of philosophy who was one of the last advocates of vitalism, the theory that life is directed by a vital principle and cannot be explained solely in terms of chemical and physical processes - a theory which he termed 'entelechy'. President of the Society for Psychical Research from 1926 to 1927.

Exaggerated Suspiciousness

 - Hans Driesch -

          AS THE previous section was directed against the believers, so now we have to argue against a certain type of sceptic, namely the sceptics at any price (not against the critical sceptics, amongst whom I number myself).

It will perhaps be asked why these arguments are not also directed against the radical negativist, that is, against the man who says that there 'cannot be' supernormal phenomena. But there is no need to argue with such a man, for if he is really radical he considers everything as finally settled, and if he acts logically he does not enter into discussion. But are there really quite convinced 'negativists'? They seem to discuss and 'refute' very readily! Most of them must merely be very severe sceptics, perhaps because they find the subject so complex and difficult that they doubt whether a solution can be found; they always suspect the presence of some unperceived source of error. Such people are not genuinely negativists.

With many sceptics, and of course with radical negativists, if there are such people, their general logical and philosophical outlook naturally plays an important part. They are either true materialists or 'mechanists' in the sense of certain (not all) neo-Kantian Schools. They are usually at once opponents of vitalistic biology and friends of so-called psycho-physical parallelism, which denies the existence of the 'mind' as an independent (empirical) entity, and only recognises 'mental phenomena,' which are alleged to be the mechanism of the brain 'seen from within.'

People logically and philosophically limited in this way can be fundamentally convinced, if they are open-minded, by a demonstration that their attitude is 'dogmatic,' that is, ungrounded. But this must be done by elucidating the concepts of nature and causality(1).

(1) Cp. my "OrdnungsIehre"(2) (1923) pp. 190ff.

The exaggerated suspiciousness of sceptics in psychical research expresses itself thus:

Supernormal phenomena alleged to be genuine could be fraudulently imitated, and consequently they are all fraudulent; only that which is incapable of being imitated is genuine. Leaving on one side the formal fallaciousness of this conclusion, it must be pointed out that, given complete freedom of conditions, every experiment can be imitated, even in chemistry and physics. But this cannot always be done when the conditions are prescribed. The given conditions are what is essential; and even under the proper conditions the phenomena must actually be imitated and not merely be capable of imitation, to make the falseness of the phenomena probable. It is thus only possible to say that if the conditions are not restricted many phenomena can be imitated; therefore such precautions should be taken in regard to the conditions of the investigation as really to make fraud objectively impossible. This is the attitude we take up ourselves.

It must not be forgotten that in the investigations of psychical research a twofold care is necessary, since at least two persons are in question, as we have already seen (p. 2), the investigator and the medium (as well as the sitters). The investigator can deceive in every sort of investigation, normal as well as supernormal, in chemistry or biology as well as in psychical research. His honour must always be trusted. Nor has this necessity had evil results: fraud on the part of an investigator in any department of science has occurred on only very rare occasions.

As for the second person, the subject of the investigation, the medium, he must be so controlled by the conditions determined by us that fraud is objectively excluded. It is possible to achieve this, even though it has not yet in a thoroughly satisfactory manner been achieved, at least in the field of paraphysical phenomena.

It is further said that normal scientific observations and experiments, in contrast to those of psychical research, can be repeated at will and are thus verifiable. In the first place, this is not always true; it is not true, for instance, in astronomy and geophysics. And moreover the subjects of normal investigation are often, as for instance in biology, no less 'capricious' than mediums.

Again, it is a fallacy to say that because a medium has cheated once he always cheats. This also is a logically fallacious conclusion. Equally fallacious is the conclusion: this medium has produced nothing today, therefore he is fraudulent.

Admittedly we may, nay must, be very careful with a medium once discovered in fraud, and similarly a failure to produce phenomena obliges us, though to a less degree, to be cautious in our interpretations. Under such circumstances we should take particularly strict precautions, but, and here the 'believers' are right, we must not go so far as to require that the phenomena must take place under any and every mental and physical condition, as when the medium is treated rudely and given to understand from the beginning that he is regarded as a fraud.

We have ourselves said that all suspicious conditions, among which the degree of light allowed must be included, should be abolished so far as possible. But it is unfortunately still true that we do not know what is possible in this field.

The sceptics further advance the objection that mediums are rare. But good hypnotic subjects are also very rare, and those who suffer from split personalities, to say nothing of madness, are happily still rarer. And yet these things exist and are universally accepted.

It is certainly very desirable that the number of mediums should be increased, and it would be still better if everybody could be made 'mediumistic.' Perhaps this will be possible one day, possibly by employing suggestion or by the use of chemical substances(2). This does not seem a priori impossible. On the contrary, it appears a priori improbable that there should exist, apart from the known psychological types, two quite fundamentally different kinds of men, normal and mediumistic. Perhaps there is only a quantitative difference between normal people and mediums, possibly one relating to the threshold of consciousness. And this difference can perhaps be levelled.

(2) It is well known that the Mexican peyotl is alleged to possess such properties.

In general, the principle must further be recognised that in the whole field of science, including psychical research, negative cases never cancel positive ones. Anybody who has done experimental biological work, as I have, knows that a given thing sometimes 'works' and then again does 'not work.'

Of course critical sceptics are entitled to point to the negative cases; but they must never overlook the positive ones and they should never, particularly in popular writings, pick out only negative or inconclusive cases from the whole available material without mentioning the good positive cases.

On the other hand, a good record of an investigation must note everything, whether good or bad. These details may be of particular importance for the study of the detailed conditions necessary for the production of the phenomena, so that it is precisely the negative and uncertain elements that may contribute to scientific progress, just as they do in the normal sciences.

During the course of a discussion at the International Congress of Psychical Research at Athens I said, 'It is better to put aside 99 genuine phenomena because they occurred under inadequate conditions, not absolutely excluding fraud, than to accept a single fraudulent phenomenon as genuine.'

This remark has often been torn out of its context, misquoted (I said 99 phenomena, not 99 mediums(3)) and still oftener misunderstood. In this context 'to put aside' means 'not yet to accept as certain.' It does not necessarily mean 'to brand as fraudulent'; and there is an immense difference between the two definitions. Of course what I saw in Berlin in the Valiantine sittings I put aside in the second sense, and Besterman, Lambert and Prince have with good reason, I think, put aside in the same sense much of what they have seen. But I do not take up this rigorous attitude towards much of what I have seen or know from the literature. All I say is that these phenomena are possibly genuine but that the technique of their investigation was inadequate to make them certain and to justify their incorporation in the canon of scientific data, thus becoming available for the construction of theories. I must unfortunately take up this attitude towards all paraphysical phenomena. For in this field nothing is really certain enough; everywhere there are loopholes in the conditions through which fraud may have entered. This is true even of what are so far the best investigations, those of Schrenck(4). So for the present I do put aside these phenomena, in the first sense which I gave to this term. Although I am strongly impressed subjectively, I suspend judgment. The experiments of Osty (see p. 28 above), which are being continued, will I hope much abbreviate my period of 'waiting.'

(3) For it is precisely my view that constant fraud must not be deduced from occasional fraud.

(4) This applies to the experiments with the Schneider brothers; of Eva C. I have grave suspicions. I pass no judgment on Palladino, although I admit that the report of the S.P.R. commission on their experiments in Naples strike one as very convincing (Proc. S.P.R., xxiii.)

It appears to me that the attitude I have described is the only one possible for a man of science, though it is certainly not an agreeable one for him. But the man of science is ever an intellectual ascetic. And science has profited much from this asceticism.

To speak in a quite personal manner: I 'believe,' I 'think,' that there are genuine things amongst those that my scientific conscience compels me as yet to put aside as insufficiently certain. It seems to me that that praiseworthy 'inexperienced young man' in London, who is so little loved by the credulous, Mr. Besterman, holds quite similar views to my own in these matters: he is quite certainly not a negativist, but he is very critical.

There are in fact not two attitudes only in psychical research, a positive and a negative: there is also a third one, the critical attitude. And this is the only one that has any value.


Others articles by Hans Driesch

The Possibility of Deception in Psychical Research

The Forms of Possible Deception in Psychical Research

Possibilities of Deception in Anticipatory Observation

Possibilities of Deception in Spontaneous Observation

Precautions in Experiment

Inadequate Precautions

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