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.

Inadequate Precautions

 - Hans Driesch -

          THIS SECTION is directed against those people who are all too readily persuaded, people of a kind that is sometimes met with in circles of convinced spiritualists.

In such circles one hears it said that phenomena must not be described as false unless the medium has been caught in flagranti faking them. That was not the case, for instance, in the Berlin sittings with Valiantine - because a solemn undertaking had to be given that no attempt would be made to catch the medium in flagranti, as by suddenly switching on the light.

Now it is quite obviously wrong to insist that fraud cannot be established without an exposure in flagranti. There are such things as indicia: all legal proceedings and all normal scientific investigations are based on them. In the present context we may say that conscious or unconscious dishonesty can be established with a very high and, in practice, adequate degree of probability if such circumstances were present in an investigation as would be expected if fraud were being practised, and if these circumstances were not suppressed notwithstanding the investigator's express wish. Such circumstances are 'suspicious,' and if they are cumulative the resulting suspicion can be very strong.

Naturally there are very many different degrees of 'suspiciousness,' from a mere doubt as to genuineness, simply because there was a loophole through which fraud might have crept in, to a conviction that it is highly probable that fraud was present.

Even such circumstances as the darkness and the singing general in paraphysical observation belong here: it would at any rate be better if these things were not necessary. But certain more specific conditions weigh much more heavily on the investigator, such as the rule that one's feet must not be stretched out, the refusal to allow the placing of luminous needles or strips at critical points, and many others. When the 'spirits' forbid such things one rightly becomes very distrustful, and if such refusals become common one attains a completely negative conviction. The same would rightly happen if a medium refused to allow himself to be examined.

It is true that we know very little about the conditions governing supernormal happenings. In some respects the 'spirits' are right, as for instance when they require that the medium should be of tranquil mind, that he should not a priori be treated as a fraud and with contempt, and the like. A poet might very well be incapable of writing in the presence of a committee who continuously observed him in order to discover whether he did not copy his poems from some existing but little-known work; if he could not compose under such conditions it certainly would not mean that on previous occasions he must have plagiarised.

But such considerations have their limits, and the investigator becomes distrustful when certain mediums require or refuse conditions which other very successful and honourable mediums do not require or refuse.

Further, the believers have recently started saying that only experienced psychical researchers should be admitted to sittings; they maintain that if some 'inexperienced young man' expresses himself in a negative sense that proves nothing. It is even proposed that an 'association of mediums' should altogether exclude such young persons.

What do these people mean here by an 'experienced' psychical researcher? It appears to me that in practice the word 'experienced' here always represents 'credulous.' As a matter of fact very little depends here on experience, which may indeed take the form of a dangerous acceptation of the conditions 'customary' with mediums. In any case, competence rapidly to grasp a situation, and a severe critical faculty, are much more important, and it seems to me that 'inexperienced young people' often possess these two qualities, particularly in psychical research. When it is said of such a 'young man' that he did not know, for instance, that with a certain medium the sitters' legs must not be stretched out if good phenomena are to take place, the assumption is made that the phenomena are in fact 'good,' which is precisely the object of the investigation.

The 'believers' are also very apt to protest against the so-called over-valuation of experiment. Now, we have ourselves said that experiment in the strictest sense of the word is not always necessary, indeed, that it is often excluded in the nature of things. Anticipatory observation with very strict precautions, even simple observation in the case of spontaneous telepathy, can produce positive results. Nevertheless true experiment remains the highest form of investigation, and polemics against it create an impression that can hardly be desired by those who conduct them, namely, that they fear exposures which might disturb their 'beliefs.'

As we have already said, spontaneous observation, except in the case of true telepathy, cannot have a more than quite temporary significance


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

Exaggerated Suspiciousness

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