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.

Possibilities of Deception in Spontaneous Observation

 - Hans Driesch -

          WE MUST first of all discuss the precautions to be taken against conscious and unconscious deception in the spontaneous observation of alleged supernormal phenomena.

As has already been said, there is no question here of obtaining 'certitude' in the strict sense of the word; for it is quite impossible that there should be 'certitude' in regard to a phenomenon about which nothing is known, not even that it is going to take place. All that can be done is to attain post factum a greater or less degree of certitude as to the genuineness of the occurrence, or rather a conviction of such genuineness, by reflecting on the conditions under which the occurrence took place. We are after all concerned here only with observation; experiment does not enter into the question even in the feeble form of anticipatory observation.

a. Physical Phenomena

The possibility of attaining to any degree of certitude after the event must always be very slight in the field of spontaneous supernormal phenomena. Something has been reported, or I have myself seen or heard it: that is all. For, as will be understood, we are here concerned with these phenomena in what we have called their 'primary stage,' that is, such phenomena on their first and quite unexpected occurrence. We shall see later that matters are different when a repetition of the occurrence is awaited' on the ground of its primary occurrence.

If a reported event is in question we shall naturally consider first of all the trustworthiness of the person making the report. Is he a fanciful or a sober minded person? Does he suffer from frequent hallucinations? Should this fact be established, or if the reporter is generally known as a fanciful individual, perhaps even a chronic liar, then of course his report would be immediately rejected. Otherwise developments would be awaited and further investigation would be carried out.

If I have myself seen or heard something of the kind, and know myself never to have suffered from hallucinations, I should inquire into my own mental state: was I possibly a little disturbed or a little afraid, perhaps because it was dark, or was I tired and in an almost dreamlike state?

If this kind of inquiry produces a result favourable to the reality of the phenomenon or at least in favour of the possibility of its reality, we must naturally preserve neutrality as to theory, a readiness to admit anything as logically possible(1), and we must proceed to objective investigation.

(1) Cp. pp. 107ff. below.

Are there rats in the haunted house? Or is it possible that a gross fraud has been carried out to frighten people by throwing stones? In the case of telekinetic phenomena, are suspicious wires or threads to be found in the room? Was there a strong wind? If so, could it perhaps have produced the movements of a curtain?

If all these inquiries have been made without any suspicious circumstance having been discovered, we must proceed to anticipatory observation. For it is clear that such investigations, even if they lead to a satisfactory conclusion, cannot produce more than a very provisional conviction of the reality of the phenomenon in the mind of a student who is at all critical. Phenomena of the kind we are discussing are very remarkable in relation to our general knowledge of empirical reality and its laws: a reflection that may, nay must, be made by a thoroughly neutral and even by an affirmative observer.

b. Mental Phenomena

In the field of supernormal mental happenings conditions are somewhat more favourable for spontaneous observation, because consideration of the conditions under which they occur can be pursued into much greater detail.

True Telepathy

We must first discuss true telepathy. It is well known that in true spontaneous telepathy we are confronted with the following type of occurrence: a given person one day says or writes that he has had a waking or dreaming experience in regard to the fate or mental state of a second person, often far distant, whom he has seen or heard in fear of death or concerning whom he has simply had a vague but very strong 'monition' of danger, though having no knowledge of his illness or other dangerous situation(1).

(1) The English investigators are particularly strict in regard to this point.

Such spontaneous experiences can be regarded as genuinely telepathic, that is, not explicable on the lines of the normal sensory acquisition of knowledge possessed by another, if the following conditions are fulfilled:

First, if the experience was written down or told to a trustworthy person before its verification, so that the result cannot be explained by an error of memory following on the subsequently received news of the event in question, as for instance, the death of the person concerned. This possibility has always been treated with special care by the investigators of the Society for Psychical Research(1).

(1) Cp. "Phantasms of the Living", i. 134ff.

Secondly, if a considerable number of other people are known to have had similar experiences in other cases.

Thirdly, if coincidence is present both as regards time and as regards content, that is, if the experience corresponds more or less accurately in time with the event experienced, and if the content of the event was correctly and super-normally 'perceived.'

Fourthly, if the distance between the agent and the percipient really is such as radically to exclude all normal seeing and hearing even assuming the presence of hyperesthesia of the senses.

If all these conditions are fulfilled the experience may be regarded as an example of true spontaneous telepathy. But if even one of these conditions is not fulfilled the supernormal nature of the experience must remain doubtful.

Now as a matter of fact there do exist occurrences in which all these conditions are fulfilled, and they even exist to a considerable number, as can be seen from a glance at Phantasms of the Living and at the additions to it in the Proceedings of the S.P.R. This fact at once fulfils our second condition, that there must be a considerable number of similar cases.

Our first condition, the reporting of the experience to others before its verification, has been observed, as already mentioned, in nearly all the cases which the S.P.R. has thought worthy of permanent record. By far the larger proportion of these cases took place over very great distances, and they thus fulfil our fourth condition, for hyperesthesia between England and India, for instance, is unknown.

There remains the third and most important condition, the required coincidence in time and content. First as to the latter. The reproduction of the objective happening in the experience of the person telepathically influenced often goes into the most minute details, which are often such as are even contrary to the percipient's knowledge of the agent.

In regard to temporal coincidence we are in the fortunate position, so far as monitions of death are concerned, of being able to undertake such precise analyses of the probabilities as to exclude 'chance' for all practical purposes. The English investigators made such investigations on the basis of two established facts, first, the datum that every man dies only once, and, secondly, the fact that the numerical relation between a man dying at a given moment and the total number of men is variable within only very restricted limits. They found that the number of temporal coincidences in alleged telepathic monitions of death is 465 times greater than the probability of such coincidences(1). Thus the alleged telepathic cases can be accepted as genuinely supernormal.

(1) "Phantasms of the Living", ii. Iff.; Proc. S.P.R., x. 245ff.

Certain reservations might still be made in so far as the temporal coincidence is not always absolutely exact, allowing, of course, for the various 'times' ruling in different parts of the world. But the experience alleged to be telepathic on the ground of its remaining indicia, when it is temporally connected with the objective event at all, follows it so closely that the small interval between the phenomenon and its reproduction cannot affect the genuinely supernormal status of the latter, especially when it is remembered that we know practically nothing of the processes of telepathic communication. Of course, if the monition was experienced a little before the event instead of a little after, the experience would not be a telepathic one according to our definition. When the supernormal experience lags behind the actual event, it is usually supposed that the subconsciousness of the recipient was actually impressed by the objective event synchronously with it, but that there was a delay in the rising of the impression into consciousness.

Thought-Reading, Clairvoyance, Prophecy

We distinguish true spontaneous telepathy from thought-reading, clairvoyance, and prophecy. Strict definitions will be given later. For the present the following descriptions will suffice: in spontaneous telepathy the agent actively 'sends,' whether consciously or unconsciously, and he who has the experience, the percipient, 'receives' in a purely passive manner. The impression sent and received becomes a part of mental experience.

In thought-reading, on the contrary, it is the percipient, usually one who is definitely a metagnome (to use the customary French word instead of the questionable term 'medium'), who is active, even if usually only unconsciously active. He 'wants' to read, that is, to acquire mental contents. The agent quite passively allows himself to be read, renders up his mental content in a purely passive manner. For in thought-reading also, both sent and received, it is mental experiences that are in question.

In clairvoyance the percipient becomes aware of objective facts in nature, whether distant in space or in the past. Clairvoyance into the future is called prophecy.

We have already considered spontaneous telepathy in the form of simple observation, which is all that is possible in regard to that phenomenon, from the point of view of the precautions to be taken. We must now proceed to consider in the same way thought-reading, clairvoyance and prophecy. We will do so on the assumption that these three groups of facts represent real phenomena and that they really are groups of different phenomena. We shall have to return later to this second point.

All these things are referred to at the moment only in so far as they are occasionally observed spontaneously. That is, it sometimes happens that a given person will suddenly, without expecting to do so, make a statement about another person's thoughts or about physical events, which statement turns out to be correct, although the person making it apparently had no means of acquiring its content normally.

What can be the criteria of genuineness of such happenings, and how far can we ensure that we do not falsely accept normal or chance phenomena as genuinely supernormal?

It appears to me that, apart from prophecy, the same conditions must be fulfilled as in spontaneous telepathy: the recording of the event before its verification, the existence of a large number of similar cases, coincidence, and exclusion of normal means of acquiring the knowledge. But how do matters stand when inspected in greater detail?

It is possible that clairvoyance may be capable of being 'reduced' to thought-reading, since objective events are also in most cases experienced by somebody, so that it may be this experience that is supernormally grasped and not the objective event as such. But let us for the time being leave such problems of theory and of interpretation on one side. If we admit thought-reading and clairvoyance, for the time being, as two distinct groups of phenomena, then the following observations may be made in regard to the precautions to be taken in observing them spontaneously.

There is nothing special to add to the first two conditions, communication to another before verification, and inclusion in a great number of similar cases.

As regards the exclusion of normal means of communication, our fourth condition, greater care is required here than in spontaneous telepathy, for often only short distances separate the percipient from the possessor of the mental content grasped by him, in the case of thought-reading, or from the objective situation, in the case of clairvoyance.

Hyperesthesia of the senses can acquire importance in this context; perhaps, for instance, the agent, without knowing it, whispers his thoughts 'to himself.' Therefore spontaneous cases can only be admitted, and allowed to lead to further investigation of an anticipatory kind, if the distances over which they occurred were not too small.

As regards coincidence, our third condition, temporal coincidence is here appreciably less important, whereas coincidence in content becomes much more important. For the question of the kind of accuracy with which an alleged supernormal statement has been made comes to the front. For instance, there are many 'long objects'! Again, quite a number of people are in love or married or have children, etc. On the other hand, there is only a limited range of types of human character, so that successful guessing is not improbable.

As we shall have to deal with all these points in more detail when we come to discuss them from the point of view of anticipatory observation and from that of experiment, the foregoing remarks will suffice for the moment. Spontaneous observation cannot, at any rate should not, ever be regarded as definitive, but should always, however impressive it may seem, be made to lead to anticipatory observation, even if it cannot tend to true experiment. What we have said about the precautions to be taken in spontaneous observation, therefore, is only intended to save the prospective investigator from the worst disillusionment and loss of time and effort. Common sense will decide whether it is worth while in any particular case to enter on a strict investigation, or whether this is not called for.

Spontaneously observed prophecy will be considered in a special section with prophecy in general.


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

Precautions in Experiment

Inadequate Precautions

Exaggerated Suspiciousness

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