Curt J. Ducasse

C. J. Ducasse

(1881-1969), French-born, highly respected Professor of Philosophy at Brown University. Awardee of the Carus Lectures prize (American Philosophical Association). Contributed to the "Journal Information for Philosophy and Phenomenological Research", "Causation", "Immortality" (Edited by Paul Edwards), "Philosophical Dimensions of Parapsychology" (edited by James M. O. Wheatley). Ex-student of Josiah Royce. Pursued a career in philosophy but retained a strong interest in logic - so much so that he took the initiative to create the Association for Symbolic Logic with its Journal of symbolic logic. Among his many important papers on survival are "How the Case of The Search for Bridey Murphy Stands Today" Journal of the ASPR 54: 3-22, and "What Would Constitute Conclusive Evidence of Survival After Death?" Journal of the SPR 41: 401-406. His books included "A Critical Examination of the Belief in Life After Death", "Paranormal Phenomena, Science and Life After Death" (Monograph), "A Philosophical Scrutiny of Religion", "Nature, Mind, And Death", "Truth, Knowledge and Causation", "Philosophy As a Science: Its Matter and Its Method" and "Philosophy of Art".

Physical Phenomena in Psychical Research(1)

What marks an event as "paranormal? | Paranormal physical events | Why paranormal events are largely neglected | Quantitative experiments | Paranormal raps | Poltergeist phenomena | Levitation, telekinesis, experimental psychokinesis | Fire immunity | Materialization, dematerialization, ectoplasm | Are the physical phenomena important? | Are the phenomena due to the agency of invisible spirits? | Were the phenomena reported genuinely paranormal?

 - Curt J. Ducasse -

(1) This paper is an expanded version of a lecture delivered to the American Society for Psychical Research by Professor Ducasse on May 29, 1957. It was published in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, Volume LII, January 1958, Number 1.

          PSYCHICAL RESEARCH - whether felicitously so named or not - is a branch of inquiry which concerns itself with occurrences that are queer or, as we now technically say, "paranormal." Some of them may be termed, more specifically, parapsychological; others, paraphysiological; and others, paraphysical. But it is important that we should anyway be quite clear as to what essentially constitutes the paranormality of the events we label "paranormal."

1. What marks an event as "paranormal"?

The most illuminating account of this I have seen is the analytical one offered by Professor C. D. Broad in Section 1 of a recent book, Religion, Philosophy, and Psychical Research(2). He there points out that "we unhesitatingly take for granted as the framework within which all our practical activities and our scientific theories are confined" certain principles which, because of the confining function they thus perform, he calls the "basic limiting principles" of all normal thought and action (p. 7).

(2) Harcourt, Brace & Company, New York, 1953.

One of them would be that an event cannot "begin to have any effects before it has happened" (p. 9). And this obviously rules out the possibility of what is called precognition; that is, the possibility of perceiving today, whether in a waking vision or in a dream, the concrete details of an event which in fact does not happen until some hours or days later, and which was unpredictable in any normal way - for example, the headlines on the front page of next Sunday's newspaper. Such pre-perception would be paranormal because in all normal perception the event or object perceived must exist before it can cause us to perceive it.

Another of the "basic limiting principles" mentioned by Broad is that no person can come to know the thoughts or feelings of another except through perceived bodily signs of them - signs such as words, gestures, facial expressions, or the like. And this "basic limiting principle," if it is valid without exception, obviously rules out the possibility of telepathy.

Mention of these two "basic limiting principles," out of several others listed by Broad, is enough to enable us to grasp the meaning of the term "paranormal event." It is this: A paranormal event is one which conflicts with one or another of the basic limiting principles of all normal thought and action. It is an event which ought not to happen at all if the basic limiting principle with which it conflicts is valid without exceptions. And psychical research is the branch of inquiry which concerns itself with "ostensibly paranormal events"; that is, with events, alleged to have occurred, "which seem prima facie to conflict with one or more" of the basic limiting principles (p. 7).

2. Paranormal physical events

The two kinds of occurrences paranormal in this sense which have just been mentioned, namely precognition and telepathy, belong to the class of "mental" or "cognitive" phenomena and are now often referred to by the general name of Extrasensory Perceptions. But another class of paranormal phenomena consists of those that are of physical kinds; and they are the ones I propose to speak about more particularly on the present occasion.

Consider, for example, a certain very simple apparatus which anybody can construct. It consists of a piece of board about four inches square in the center of which there is a small hole. In it, a small cork has been inserted, and in the cork a fine needle, point up, about three quarters of an inch high. On the point of the needle is balanced a sliver of aluminium foil cut out of the crease of a folded sheet of foil. The needle and the sliver are protected by a transparent plastic cover, the edge of which fits closely into a groove cut in the wood, so as to exclude all external air currents (see Figure 1).

Now if any one of us, or all of us together, could, by merely willing, make that sliver move, then its motion would be paranormal; for it would violate one of the other basic limiting principles listed by Broad, namely, that an event in a person's mind - in this case, a volition - cannot "produce directly any change in the material world except certain changes in his own brain" (p. 9). Volition to move one's arm can, directly, cause in the nerve cells of one's brain certain material changes. These propagate themselves along the nerves leading to the muscles of the arm and cause them to contract and thereby move the arm. In this indirect manner, the volition to move the arm causes the arm to move; and its motion may in turn cause some physical objects other than the body to move - a table, for instance, or a pencil, etc. But what the basic limiting principle just considered asserts is that a volition cannot directly cause the table or the pencil to move, or even the arm of the person concerned. The only physical event the volition can cause without any intermediary is some change in the nerve cells of the person's brain.

Yet some people whose testimony is very difficult to dismiss on any ground have explicitly testified that, under conditions which made dependable observation possible, they have again and again seen various physical objects moving somehow without physical contact either direct or indirect with any of the persons present, and without those objects being acted upon by any of the physical forces - whether gravitation, magnetism, electricity, or other - which could normally have caused such objects to move. Such occurrences would be examples of what is called telekinesis - action at a distance - which is one kind of paranormal physical event. Other kinds, some of which overlap to some extent, would be paranormal raps, so-called poltergeist phenomena, levitation, fire immunity, materialization, and dematerialization.

Paranormal events of physical kinds have during the last twenty-five years been largely neglected, discounted, or even flatly denied by many persons interested in psychical research, although this has been the case more in England and in the United States than on the continent of Europe. Before we turn to an examination of some of the best attested reports of paranormal physical phenomena, it is well that we should be clear as to the reasons for this neglect of kinds of occurrences which, if real, are certainly of great interest.

3. Why paranormal physical phenomena are at present largely neglected

One reason, of course, is that since paranormal physical phenomena are alleged to be possible in most cases only in darkness or in very subdued light, they obviously lend themselves to fraud. And fraud, sometimes ingenious and sometimes crude, sometimes deliberate but sometimes apparently unconscious, has again and again been detected. Hence, since it is much easier to jump to sweeping conclusions than to limit oneself to the qualified ones the existing evidence rationally warrants, reports of paranormal physical phenomena have impatiently been dismissed as all based on fraud, or mal-observation, or misinterpretation of what was actually observed.

Another reason is that the mediums in whose presence physical phenomena are reported to occur are rare; and in addition, that even genuine ones would have no appetite for the unscientific ways in which purportedly scientific investigators have often treated mediums - sometimes, for instance, reporting fraud when in fact it had not been detected but merely suspected. For in such matters the will to disbelieve is quite as real - especially in scientists since their status in orthodoxy is at stake - as is the will to believe in addicts of the marvelous or in bereaved persons. And to satisfy their hunger to believe is easier, and is an activity more flattering to a medium's ego, than would be the role of guinea pig in a scientific investigation. Few mediums are intelligent and educated enough to realize the enormous scientific and philosophical importance to mankind of the physical phenomena they somehow mediate, if these are indeed genuinely paranormal.

Another factor which has contributed to turn the attention away from physical paranormal phenomena is the policy - deliberately adopted by some psychical researchers but very naïve both logically and psychologically - of ignoring thenceforth any medium who is believed to have been detected in fraud. This policy is logically naïve because of its blindness to the fact that what is of paramount scientific importance about a medium's purportedly paranormal physical phenomena is not whether all of them or even most of them are genuine, but whether some of them, even if only a few, are so.

But that policy is naïve also psychologically, in its tacit moralistic assumption that mediums can be classified as either honest or dishonest, and in assuming still more naïvely that dishonest ones cannot have any genuinely paranormal powers. This is as unrealistic psychologically as it would be to classify business men as either honest or dishonest, and to assume still more unrealistically that a dishonest one cannot have any but adulterated goods to sell. If something he sells is to be had nowhere else and one wants it if it be what he alleges it to be, then the sensible thing to do is to examine it carefully before accepting it, not to turn away from his door on the high moral ground that the seller is known not to be a perfect gentleman, always completely honest. As prospectors say, "Gold is where you find it"; and the "where" turns out as often as not to be an unsavory place.

Highly instructive in this connection is a recent book, Clock Without Hands, by Ronald Edwi(3). The author confesses that for years he practised fraud as a medium purporting to bring to the bereaved communications from the spirits of their dead; whereas the information which made his messages convincing was actually obtained by him from the bereaved themselves through the use of powers of extrasensory perception which - as in the case of the paranormal powers of Palladino and more recently of Hurkos - came to him, he says, as unexpected effects of an injury to his head when he was a boy. Whether or not one accepts his claim to genuine possession of these powers, he does at all events paint a very realistic picture of the psychological pressure to deceive to which would be subjected a person who has them, who is made by them queer enough to incapacitate him for ordinary jobs, and who then faces a hundred bereaved, lonely people, desperately seeking reunion with their dead. "Is it," he asks, "so great a sin to give it them? It is easy enough... just one little cheat to comfort some poor soul" (p. 73). How many of us are ready to swear that if we were in the predicament he depicts, if our paranormal powers were sporadic, and if we were dependent on the exhibition of them for a living, we would nonetheless remain 100 per cent honest?

(3) Sidgwick & Jackson, London, 1955.

Another reason still for the contemporary disinterest of psychical researchers in physical phenomena of mediumship is the quite legitimate desire for repeatable experiments. This desideratum, unfortunately, is seldom met by physical and indeed even by mental paranormal phenomena. The card-calling and dice-throwing experiments, on the other hand, have gone some way towards repeatability; and the prestige of the word, "quantitative," which has been applied to them, has contributed to center attention upon them to the exclusion of mediumistic phenomena.

4. Quantitative experiments

It may not be amiss, however, to point out in passing that, with minor exceptions, those experiments are not quantitative in the sense this term usually has in science, that is, in the sense that the phenomena and their factors are measured and that quantitative laws are then inductively obtained from the results. What the statistical treatment of the results of the so-called quantitative ESP and PK experiments quantifies is only the probability that there is a causal connection between the fact to be guessed and the guess made of it; i.e., that the guess is not purely a matter of chance but is influenced paranormally by the fact to be guessed. This, of course, is of great importance to establish, but does not constitute quantitative study of the phenomena themselves.

Let us, however, turn from these preliminary remarks and consider the phenomena. I shall now cite and quote from a number of the most impressive reports of physical paranormal phenomena. Later, some comments will be offered on them and on the questions to which they give rise.

5. Paranormal raps

A frequently reported physical phenomenon is that of raps not being caused in any of the manners known to be capable of producing similar sounds and impacts under the same circumstances.

For the fact that paranormal raps, scrapings, and other such noises do occur, and are accompanied by vibrations which can be felt in the objects rapped, we have abundant, detailed, and high grade testimony. For example, the testimony of, among many others, Sir William Crookes who, it may be recalled, was one of the most eminent physicists of the nineteenth century, was President of the Royal Society and of the British Association, and editor of the Quarterly Journal of Science. In an article published in the January 1874 issue of this periodical(4), he states that he had "almost unlimited opportunity" of testing these and other phenomena occurring in the presence of Kate Fox. He writes:

"It seems only necessary for her to place her hand on any substance for loud thuds to be heard in it, like a triple pulsation, sometimes loud enough to be heard several rooms off. In this manner, I have heard them in a living tree - on a sheet of glass - on a stretched iron wire - on a stretched membrane - a tambourine - on the roof of a cab - and on the floor of a theatre. Moreover, actual contact is not always necessary; I have had these sounds proceeding from the floor, walls, etc., when the medium's hands and feet were held ... I have felt them on my own shoulder and under my own hands. I have heard them on a sheet of paper, held between the fingers by a piece of thread passed through one corner. With a full knowledge of the numerous theories which have been started ... to explain these sounds, I have tested them in every way that I could devise, until there has been no escape from the conviction that they were true objective occurrences not produced by trickery or mechanical means."

(4) Reprinted with others of his articles as a small book, Researches in the Phenomena of Spiritualism, which has had several printings. The passage here quoted is from pp. 95-6 of the 1926 edition, Two Worlds Pub. Co., Manchester.

Of the theories to which Crookes alludes, the chief was that the raps were produced by the snapping of the knee joints. It is obviously inadequate to account for the occurrences described by Crookes, which took place in full light. As it happens, I personally could, in the dark but with my hands and arms and my feet and knees firmly held, produce raps which would then be very puzzling to the persons present. They would be due to the exercise of a capacity I happen to possess, but which most people do not even know exists. It is the capacity to dislocate my jaw bone, with a very audible cracking sound! But neither this, nor the capacity to snap my toes, which I also have, nor the more common capacity to crack the joints of the fingers, comes anywhere near enabling one to reproduce the facts Crookes describes.

Many other similarly circumstantial reports of paranormal raps could be cited if space allowed; for example, several by Sir William Barrett, physicist and Fellow of the Royal Society, in his book, On the Threshold of the Unseen(5). The only experience I have myself had of hearing raps which, so far as I could judge, were paranormal was a few months ago, when an elderly lady who was sitting a foot or two away from me around the corner of a table with her hands on the table in plain sight, underwent a series of spasms which were accompanied by showers of raps on the table, such as her foot could not have made.

(5) E. P. Dutton & Co., New York, 1918, pp. 37-45.

6. Poltergeist phenomena

I turn next to so-called poltergeist phenomena, which consist not only of raps but also of disturbances of many other kinds.

The Providence Evening Bulletin for August 17, 1957 has a news item describing mysterious occurrences which, whatever the explanation of them may be, are typical of those traditionally called poltergeist phenomena. The item states that Mr. and Mrs. James Mikulecky, who, with their granddaughter Susan Wall, aged 15, live in Rest Haven near Wilmington, Ill., reported that

"during last week, a crocheting needle floated from a sewing box on their patio into the bedroom; a shoehorn from a bathroom medicine cabinet flew into the living room; ... chairs popped up and down - sometimes traveling sixty-five inches into the air; ... a cabbage and a quarter pound of butter hit Susan ... etc."

The term, Poltergeist, from the German, means a boisterous ghost; but use of it must not be allowed to beg the question as to whether a discarnate intelligence is responsible. By Sir William Barrett and generally in psychical research, the word is used as "a convenient term to describe those apparently meaningless noises, disturbances and movements of objects, for which we can discover no assignable cause(6) ... The movement of objects is usually quite unlike that due to gravitational or other attraction. They slide about, rise in the air, move in eccentric paths, sometimes in a leisurely manner, often turn round in their career, and usually descend quietly without hurting the observers. At other times an immense weight is lifted, often in daylight, no one being near, crockery is thrown about and broken, bedclothes are dragged off, the occupants sometimes lifted gently to the ground, and the bedstead tilted up or dragged about the room ... Stones are frequently thrown, but no one is hurt; I myself have seen a large pebble drop apparently from space in a room where the only culprit could have been myself, and certainly I did not throw it" (p. 378, cf. 392). Also noises of scratching, tearing, tapping, ticking, sometimes light, sometimes loud "like those made by a heavy carpenter's hammer driving nails into flooring" (p. 393).

(6) Proc. S.P.R., Vol. XXV, 1911, p. 377.

These phenomena generally

"appear to be attached to an individual, usually a young person, more than to a place ... They appear to have some intelligence behind them, for they frequently respond to requests made for a given number of raps ..." (p. 377).

Out of many detailed and well-authenticated reports of such phenomena, space permits quoting here from only one - that of the "Poona Poltergeist." The report is by a lady, Miss H. Kohn, German by birth, sister-in-law of Dr. Ketkar and residing in his house. She is a graduate of London University and held the post of teacher of European Languages at the Deccan College, Poona, which is connected with the University of Bombay. The time of the events is 1929, and the phenomena appeared connected, as usual in such cases, with a young person - in this instance, Damodar Bapat, eight years old, the adopted son of Dr. Ketkar. Her account is of special interest as ruling out the hypothesis - natural in such cases and correct in some of them - that the child concerned is simply playing tricks. She writes:

"A small class jar containing vegetable extract, which stood among other jars in the closed cupboard in the dining room, was hurled forcibly from that room into my bedroom at the moment when Damodar in my presence was undressing for bed. In order to land where it did the jar must have turned a corner. It broke into many pieces. So again the next day: at 5:00 p.m., while we were having tea in the dining room (in the presence of a friend, Miss H.) Damodar stepped into my bedroom. At the same moment a small screw top jar, in which my brother-in-law had succeeded in preserving some ink for some days, was hurled from his study in the front of the house, across the dining room in which we were sitting, into my bedroom where Damodar stood. It broke, spilling the ink."

Again, on June 24th,

"a man called to see my brother-in-law. I crossed the room and was in the act of picking up a pad and pencil for him, when an aspirin bottle which had stood on a shelf in the dining room was suddenly hurled in my direction by 'an invisible hand' with such tremendous force that I involuntarily screamed, anticipating a violent crash. However, the bottle fell gently by my feet, without breaking: only the metal stopper was dented. At the moment when this happened, my nephew (Damodar) was standing quietly near me."

Father Herbert Thurston, from whose book Ghosts and Poltergeists(7) these passages are quoted, mentions that a medical man, Dr. J. D. Jenkins, who had been called in to observe the boy, reports occurrences even more startling - stating, for example, that sitting in a closed room alone with the boy, whom he had placed naked on the bed and covered with a sheet, he "saw the bedclothes pulled off the bed ... the bed was pulled into the middle of the room, and the lad actually lifted off the bed and deposited gently on the floor" (p. 146).

(7) Burns Oates, London, 1953, pp. 140-50; reviewed in this Journal, Jan., 1955.

7. Levitation, telekinesis, experimental psychokinesis

Let us next consider some instances of levitation - a term, from the Latin levis = light - which is used to designate the rising, unsupported in the air, of the human body or of various other heavy objects. At least seventy saints or mystics have been reported to have become levitated on various occasions. The case of St. Joseph of Copertino in the first half of the seventeenth century is perhaps the most notable among them because of the definiteness and numerousness of the accounts of his many levitations, and because of the eminence and diverse initial biases - skeptical as well as pious - of several of the witnesses who testified to the occurrence of the phenomenon. An account of them, based on the statements of the witnesses, may be found in the book, Some Human Oddities, by Dr. E. J. Dingwall(8). Having had occasion to quote from it in an earlier lecture, however, I shall not return to it here but will open the subject with a quaint statement made to the explorer Fosco Maraini by the Princess Pema Choki Namgyal, of Sikkim, concerning her uncle who, she said, was the most extraordinary man she had ever met. The statement reads:

"Yes. He did what you would call exercises in levitation. I used to take him in a little rice. He would be motionless in mid-air. Every day he rose a little higher. In the end he rose so high that I found it difficult to hand the rice up to him. I was a little girl, and I had to stand on tiptoe. There are certain things you don't forget!"(9)

(8) Home & Van Thal, Ltd., London, 1947, pp. 9-37.
(9) Secret Tibet, Viking Press, New York, 1952, p. 55.

Among the persons who were neither saints nor mystics, and for whose levitations testimony exists that is both abundant and responsible, none is more famous than the medium D. D. Home. Sir William Crookes observed him on numerous occasions, and under circumstances, provided by himself, which made dependable observation possible. Crookes' statements concerning the levitations both of Home's body and of various material objects are so detailed and definite, and therefore so interesting, that they deserve quoting at some length:(10)

(10) The quotations are from statements made by Crookes in the course of a discussion of a paper by Sir Oliver Lodge at a meeting of the S.P.R. at the Westminster Town Hall, Friday, Oct. 26, 1894, as reported in the Journal of the S.P.R., Vol. VI, Nov., 1894, pp. 341-4.

"The best cases of Home's levitations I witnessed were in my own house. On one occasion he went to a clear part of the room, and after standing quietly for a minute, told us he was rising. I saw him slowly rise up with a continuous gliding movement and remain about six inches off the ground for several seconds, when he slowly descended. On this occasion no one moved from their places. On another occasion I was invited to come to him, when he rose 18 inches off the ground, and I passed my hands under his feet, round him, and over his head when he was in the air. On several occasions Home and the chair on which he was sitting at the table rose off the ground. This was generally done very deliberately, and Home sometimes then tucked up his feet on the seat of the chair and held up his hands in view of all of us. On such an occasion I have got down and seen and felt that all four legs were off the ground at the same time, Home's feet being on the chair. Less frequently the levitating power extended to those sitting next to him. Once my wife was thus raised off the ground in her chair" (pp. 341-2).


"One of the most striking things I ever saw in the way of movements of light objects was when a glass water-bottle and tumbler rose from the table. There was plenty of light in the room from two large salted alcohol flames, and Home's hands were not near. The bottle and glass floated about over the middle of the table. I asked if they would answer questions by knocking one against the other. Immediately three taps together signified 'Yes.' They then kept floating about six or eight inches up, going from the front of one sitter to another round the table and answering questions in this manner. Quite five minutes were occupied by this phenomenon, during which time we had ample opportunity of seeing that Home was a passive agent, and that no wires or strings, etc., were in use. But the idea of any such tricks was absurd, as the occurrence was in my own house, and no one could have tampered with anything in the room, Home not having been in the room till we all came in together for the séance."

Crookes adds that

"Home always refused to sit in the dark. He said that with firmness and perseverance the phenomena could be got just as well in the light, and even if some of the things were not so strong, the evidence of one's eyesight was worth making some sacrifice for. In almost all the séances I had with Home there was plenty of light to see all that occurred, and not only to enable me to write down notes of what was taking place but to read my notes without difficulty" (p. 344).

Concerning Home's levitations, Crookes writes elsewhere:

"There are at least a hundred recorded instances of Mr. Home's rising off the ground, in the presence of as many separate persons... To reject the recorded evidence on this subject is to reject all human testimony whatever; for no fact in sacred or profane history is supported by a stronger array of proofs"(11).

(11) "Notes of an Enquiry into the Phenomena called Spiritual during the years 1870-73," Quarterly Journal of Science, Jan., 1874. Reproduced in the book cited earlier. A highly interesting article by Dr. E. J. Dingwall, concerning the movements of heavy objects at three sittings with Home in Florence in 1856, appeared in the British Journal of Psychology, Feb., 1953, under the title "Psychological Problems arising from a report of Telekinesis."

Two more instances of levitation - in their case, of a table - may be cited. They are more recent than those of Home. The medium was Kathleen Goligher, seventeen years of age, a girl who worked in a factory in Belfast. The first is reported, with many others, by Dr. W. J. Crawford, Lecturer in Mechanical Engineering in Queen's University, Belfast, who carried on a long series of experiments with this girl for over five years, beginning about 1915.

He states that one evening, in his own house, a table weighing sixteen pounds was levitated many times, and that, during one of these levitations, while

"the surface of the table was nearly shoulder-high in the air, I entered the circle and pressed down with my hands on the top of the table. Although I exerted all my strength, I could not depress the table to the floor. A friend who is over six feet in height then leaned over the circle and helped me to press downwards, when our combined efforts exerted to the limit just caused it to touch the floor"(12).

(12) The Reality of Psychic Phenomena, 2nd. Ed., John M. Watkins, London, 1918, pp. 63-64.

The second report is by Sir William Barrett, who was given the opportunity by Dr. Crawford to be present at a sitting with the same girl. He states that he and Crawford sat outside the circle formed by Kathleen and members of her family, and that the room was illuminated by a bright gas flame in a lantern with a large red glass window, which made it possible to see all the sitters clearly.

Loud knocks and movements of a trumpet occurred. Then

"the table began to rise from the floor some 18 inches and remained so suspended and quite level. I was allowed to go up to the table and saw clearly no one was touching it, a clear space separating the sitters from the table. I tried to press the table down, and though I exerted all my strength could not do so; then I climbed up on the table and sat on it, my feet off the floor, when I was swayed to and fro and finally tipped off. The table of its own accord now turned upside down, no one touching it, and I tried to lift it off the ground, but it could not be stirred, it appeared screwed down to the floor. At my request all the sitters' clasped hands had been kept raised above their heads, and I could see that no one was touching the table; - when I desisted from trying to lift the inverted table from the floor, it righted itself again of its own accord, no one helping it. Numerous sounds displaying an amused intelligence then came, and after each individual present had been greeted with some farewell raps the sitting ended"(13).

(13) On the Threshold of the Unseen, E. P. Dutton and Co., New York, 1918, pp. 47-48.

In connection with these movements of objects without contact in the presence of a medium, it is appropriate to mention the experiments made in recent years at the Duke University Parapsychology Laboratory and elsewhere, with ordinary persons. The subject's task was to influence, by merely willing, the fall of dice over which he had no normal control. Long series of throws were run with the appropriate precautions, and above chance results were obtained, though not as decisive as those of the card-guessing experiments for testing extrasensory perception. Both of these kinds of experiments are of great interest and importance as providing a to some extent repeatable confirmation of the reality of the paranormal phenomena concerned, and as showing that possession of the capacity for manifesting them is not confined to mediums or psychics, even if others are able to exercise it only in minute degree except perhaps on rare special occasions.

8. Fire immunity

Another extraordinary physical phenomenon for the reality of which solid testimony exists from diverse sources is that of the human body's occasional temporary immunity to fire. Here again, Home gave the probably most convincing demonstrations of it. The following statement is by Lord Adare (later Earl of Dunraven) and is from his account of Experiences in Spiritualism with D. D. Home(14). What he relates occurred at the house of Mrs. Hennings, at Norwood, early in November, 1868:

"Home then went into a trance. He walked about the room ... he went back to the fire and with his hand stirred the embers into a flame; then kneeling down, he placed his face right among the burning coals, moving it about as though bathing it in water. Then, getting up, he held his finger for some time in the flame of the candle."

(14) Reprinted in Proc. S.P.R., Vol. XXXV, 1926, pp. 133-135.

Home was able to confer temporarily on others the same immunity to fire. Lord Lindsay (later Earl of Crawford) stated:

"Eight times, I myself have held a red-hot coal in my hands without injury, when it scorched my face on raising my hand. Once, I wished to see if they really would burn, and I said so, and touched a coal with the middle finger of my right hand, and I got a blister as large as a sixpence; I instantly asked him [Home] to give me the coal, and I held the part that burnt me, in the middle of my hand, for three or four minutes, without the least inconvenience"(15).

(15) Report of the London Dialectical Society's Committee on Spiritualism, London, 1871, p. 208.

Sir William Crookes too testifies to Home's ability to handle red-hot coals while in trance:

"Mr. Home again went to the fire, and after stirring the hot coals about with his hand, took out a red-hot piece nearly as big as an orange, and putting it on his right hand, covered it over with his left hand so as to almost completely enclose it, and then blew into the small furnace thus extemporized until the lump of charcoal was nearly white-hot, and then drew my attention to the lambent flame ... licking round his fingers ... "(16)

(16) "Notes of Séances with D. D. Home," Proc. S.P.R., Vol. V1, 1889-90 p. 103.

Reports have been numerous from various parts of the world of religious rites during which certain of the participants walk over beds of red-hot coals with impunity. Two recent ones may be cited briefly. One of them is by Mr. Martin Ebon, Administrative Secretary of the Parapsychology Foundation, who observed the fire-walking rite in the village of Saint Helen in Greece on May 21, 1956, and reports what he saw in the Summer 1956 issue of the magazine, Tomorrow (pp. 71-2). He describes the building of the fire, of wood to which charcoal was later added, which burned for forty-five minutes before the actual dancing across the embers began. He names two men and three women who for some twenty minutes then danced barefoot across the embers, crossing them respectively eleven times, six, fifteen, six and five times, two of the dancers carrying ikons. He states that their feet were then examined by an officer of the Greek Army Medical Corps and by an American anthropologist and found "entirely normal, apparently completely unaffected by exposure to the intense heat." He adds that he "examined the embers immediately upon cessation of the dance, and found them still so hot as to be hardly touchable."

In the same issue of Tomorrow, Admiral Angelo Tanagras (ret.) of the Greek Navy describes a similar rite which he witnessed on May 21, 1940 at another Greek village, Mavrolefki:

"By and by the fire died down leaving red hot coals ten inches deep over an area of about twenty-five square feet. The three original Anastenares, aroused again by the music, danced into the middle of the circle led by Panayo Christi. Without a moment's hesitation, still holding the icon, Panayo danced barefoot into the fire, crossed it, recrossed it and then went over it a third time. Iphigenia followed her example, but with her stockings on. She danced across the hot coals, and as if this were not enough, she stooped and plunged her bare hands into the fiery embers and strewed them about. Venetia Klokou, who had kept her shoes on, didn't tread on the fire but contented herself with plunging her hands several times into the burning coals.... There was not the least trace of scorching or burn" on Panayo's feet, nor on the hands of lphigenia or Venetia (pp. 77-78).

9. Materialization, dematerialization, ectoplasm

Perhaps the strangest of all reported paranormal physical phenomena is that of the materialization, apparently in part or wholly out of nothing, of portions of human bodies - hands, for example, which move, grasp, carry things, etc.; or of entire bodies which act, speak, and breathe like living beings; and after a while dematerialize, suddenly or slowly. The materializations of "Katie King," repeatedly observed by Sir William Crookes as well as by others, and measured, auscultated, tested, and photographed by him - Florence Cook being the medium - are perhaps the most famous as well as among the most impressive of the many materializations that have been reported.

The materialization, in whole or in part, of human bodies and of their clothing and accoutrements, appears to depend on and to consist at least in part of a mysterious substance that emanates from the medium's body, and to which the name of "ectoplasm" has therefore been given. It is apparently able to exert or to conduct force. It is sometimes vaporous, sometimes filmy like a veil, sometimes gelatinous, sometimes solid like thick dough.

The latter was its consistency on the one occasion when I personally had an opportunity to see in good red light, to touch, and to photograph a substance emanating from the mouth of an entranced medium, which, whether or not it was "ectoplasm," did not behave, feel, or look as any other substance known to me could, I think, have done under the conditions that existed. It was coldish - its temperature being comparable to that of steel. This gave the impression of being moist, but it was dry and slightly rough like dough whose surface has dried.

Many photographs of "ectoplasm" have been published, but, in connection with them and with photographs or other purported objective records of materializations, of levitations or of other paranormal physical phenomena, the following words of Professor Charles Richet always have to be kept in mind:

"Photographs, impressions on blackened paper, on clay, on plaster, or on paraffin wax have no value in themselves: everything depends on the conditions. There are photographs so skillfully counterfeited that I should make no conclusions at all on any such shown to me unless the circumstances under which they were produced were given with such precise detail as to make all trickery impossible"(17).

(17) Thirty Years of Psychical Research, Collins & Sons, London, 1923, p. 460.

Charles Richet, Professor of Physiology at the University of Paris and Nobel prizeman for 1913 in physiology and medicine, had, as indicated by the title of the book where the words just cited appear, some thirty years of experience in psychical research. In the first part of the third chapter of Book III of that work, he discusses in detail the possibilities of fraud in purported materializations, and the precautions necessary to preclude it; and he concludes that, in the case of the best of the available reports of the phenomenon - a number of which he mentions - neither fraud nor illusion is a possible explanation:

"When I recall the precautions that all of us have taken, not once, but twenty, a hundred, or even a thousand times, it is inconceivable that we should have been deceived on all these occasions" (p. 467).

Out of the many descriptions on record of ectoplasm and of material forms it assumed, I shall quote only an account Richet gives of some of the occurrences which he personally observed under especially favorable conditions. He writes:

"Sometimes these ectoplasms can be seen in process of organization; I have seen an almost rectilinear prolongation emerge from Eusapia's body, its termination acting like a living hand. Similarly in the formation of Bien Boa, at first the limbs appeared thin and stiff, like narrow stalks; little by little they thickened, taking the form of more or less solid limbs similar to normal limbs. I have also, like Geley, Schrenck-Notzing, and Mme. Bisson, been able to see the first lineaments of materializations as they were formed. A kind of liquid or pasty jelly emerges from her mouth or the breast of Marthe which organizes itself by degrees, acquiring the shape of a face or a limb. Under very good conditions of visibility, I have seen this paste spread on my knee, and slowly take form so as to show the rudiment of the radius, the cubitus, or metacarpal bone whose increasing pressure I could feel on my knee... At the Villa Carmen I saw a fully organized form rise from the floor. At first it was only a white, opaque spot like a handkerchief lying on the ground before the curtain, then this handkerchief quickly assumed the form of a human head level with the floor, and a few moments later it rose up in a straight line and became a small man ... who took two or three halting steps in front of the curtain and then sank to the floor and disappeared as if through a trap door. But there was no trap door"(18).

(18) Op. cit. pp. 469-70. Richet adds a footnote here and another on p. 505, in which he takes cognizance of allegations that he had been the victim of fraud at the Villa Carmen, and maintains that trickery would not account for what he saw. He traces those allegations to the spite of a servant at the Villa, who had been dismissed for theft, and to the exploitation of the lies he then told by a local sensation-seeking newspaper. Cf. R. Tocquet's Tout l'Occultisme Devoile, Amiot Dumont, Paris, 1952, pp. 233-40 and 312.

In connection with reports of materializations, such as those just cited, it should be mentioned that at least one documented report exists of the temporary dematerialization of part of the body of a living person. At a séance held in Helsingfors, December 11, 1893, at the house of Professor Max Seiling (of the Polytechnic School in Helsingfors) and attended by fifteen persons, the medium, Mme. d'Esperance, was seated in a chair in front of the cabinet. The lower part of her body, from the waist down, is reported to have then dematerialized. Mme. d'Esperance - who remained conscious during her séances - became aware of the dematerialization when she lowered her hands to rest them on her lap, but found the lap missing. She then asked several of the persons present to come and verify by manual exploration of the whole seat of the chair what those nearest her could clearly see, to wit, that only the empty folds of her gown remained there, whereas the upper part of her body was still in the chair in the same position as before. After a while, the gown below the waist was seen to fill out, as the absent part of the body rematerialized. Detailed statements by those persons were obtained by Mr. M. A. Aksakof, who published them in the book Un Cas de Dematerialisation Partielle du Corps d'un Medium(19).

(19) Librairie de l'Art Independant, Paris, 1896. Translated from the French by Tracy Gould under the title, A Case of Partial Dematerialization of the Body of a Medium, Banner of Light Publishing Co., Boston, 1998.

10. Are the physical phenomena described important?

We have now before us a sample of some of the best testimony on record as to the occurrence of physical phenomena of the chief ostensibly paranormal kinds. A number of questions about them naturally arise: Are they of any importance? Are they due to the agency of discarnate spirits? and, of course: Were the phenomena reported genuinely paranormal? Let us consider them in turn.

As regards the importance of the phenomena, what must be said is that - assuming them to have been genuine - their scientific implications are momentous notwithstanding that the phenomena in themselves, or some of them, are trivial. For the mere occurrence of such phenomena shows that there are limits to the validity of the "basic limiting principles" mentioned earlier, within which all contemporary scientific and lay thinking and practical activity are confined. In other words, those phenomena show that there are forces or dimensions of Nature, as yet unknown and unexplored, to which the paranormal physical phenomena are clues.

This type of situation has presented itself many times in the history of science. It has led, not to suppositions of "supernatural" interferences with the course of Nature, but to the discovery and exploration of natural agencies until then unsuspected. Examples of such agencies would be electricity, magnetism, and more recently atomic radiation. There is no reason why scientific attention to the paranormal phenomena in view should not eventually have a similar result. If so, they will then be termed normal, no longer paranormal; just as photography through solid bodies, which before the discovery of X-rays would have ranked as paranormal, is now normal routine.

11. Are the phenomena due to the agency of invisible spirits?

Paranormal physical phenomena - again assuming them genuinely to occur - provide a temptation practically irresistible to uncritical, emotional, and imaginative minds to ascribe them to the agency of invisible "spirits," whether divine or devilish, human or subhuman. Thus, for example, the levitations recorded of saints are ascribed to the power of Almighty God, notwithstanding that the power to levitate a human body does not have to be almighty, but only mighty enough to lift some 150 pounds more or less!

Again, poltergeist phenomena - as the very word indicates - are ascribed to the action of mischievous spirits; and various of the other phenomena mentioned are generally ascribed by persons who accept them to the agency of spirits of the dead; or, by others, to the agency of the Devil.

But evidently these suppositions would be relevant only to a question as to who causes the phenomena, not as to how they are caused; whereas only an account of how they are caused would constitute an explanation of them in the scientific sense of the word "explanation." This fact somehow eludes many of the persons who have an interest in paranormal phenomena and who also believe that the spirit of man survives the death of his body. They strangely assume that their departed friend John Doe, who like the rest of us was until he died able to move physical objects only by using the muscles of his body, suddenly becomes capable of doing it without muscles and simply by an act of will, merely because his body has died!

The hypothesis of agency by discarnate spirits has any relevance at all in connection with paranormal physical phenomena only when these do not merely occur but in addition manifest intelligence and purpose - as, for example, when questions asked are intelligently answered by means of paranormal raps according to a code. Then, but only then, does the question arise as to whether the intelligence which answers is a discarnate mind, human or other, or, on the contrary, is a human mind still incarnate - and more particularly, perhaps a temporarily dissociated part of the mind of the entranced medium.

If the information so communicated is veridical, but was not obtainable in any normal manner by the medium, then the powers which make it possible for the medium to communicate it are no less mysterious, i.e., no less paranormal, if one ascribes them to a discarnate mind that imparts the information paranormally to the medium, or in some paranormal way takes direct control of the medium's body, than if one ascribes appropriate powers of extrasensory perception to the entranced or awake medium's still incarnate mind. And the latter ascription has the advantage that the existence of the medium is known; whereas that of discarnate minds is in such cases only postulated. The question whether there is other and better evidence of the existence and activity of discarnate minds than the paranormal physical phenomena provide need not be gone into here; but only the fact pointed out that the paranormal physical phenomena, however striking and in themselves of revolutionary scientific importance, do not constitute particularly strong evidence of survival of the human mind after death(20).

(20) Cf. in this connection the acute and extensively documented Traité de Parapsychologie, by René Sudre, Payot, Paris, 1956.

No doubt, if one is fortunate enough to witness a materialization where the materialized form duplicates the appearance of a departed friend or relative, speaks as the latter did, and utters information of an intimate nature which few if any but the deceased and oneself possessed, then the temptation may well be psychologically irresistible to conclude that the deceased himself is with us again, in temporarily materialized form.

But with regard to such materialized "ghosts" as with the visible but usually intangible apparitions popularly called ghosts - neither of which present themselves naked but always clothed - the remark is relevant that "if ghosts have clothes, then clothes have ghosts." That is, if a materialized face or hand is taken to be evidence that the mind, personality, or spirit which animated it before death survives after death, then must one not if one is to be consistent take a materialized familiar gown or coat or headdress to be evidence that these too have survived in a "spirit" world (even though the originals may be still hanging in a closet at home, reverently preserved in moth balls)? On the other hand, if one assumes that the materialized clothing is a materialization only of a memory image in one's mind, of the deceased's clothing, then does not consistency require one to assume that the materialized face is likewise a materialization only of one's memory image of the deceased's face?

These questions are raised here, not in order to insinuate one rather than the other of those two hypotheses as to what the materialization really is of, but in order to underline the necessity of formulating explicitly the criteria, if any, on the basis of which one would propose to rule out one of the two hypotheses and to accept the other.

12. Were the phenomena reported genuinely paranormal?

We come finally to the question, which of course is logically prior to all the others, as to whether the phenomena really occurred as reported; or perhaps, if we were present ourselves, really occurred as we thought we actually saw them occur. Might not the appearance of paranormality be explained as due to malobservation, or to misinterpretation of what was actually observed, or to fraud whether deliberate or unconscious on the medium's part?

No pat answer can be given. In order to judge as to these possibilities in concrete cases, it is necessary to be familiar, not only with the details of the circumstances - seldom adequately reported - and, not only with the psychology of waking hallucinations and of illusions of perception, but also with some of the devices by which conjurers induce illusions of perception; and also with the tricks of fraudulent mediums which, because performed under conditions usually very different from those of stage performances, are themselves usually different too.

Among other books useful to study in this connection may be mentioned D. P. Abbott's Behind the Scenes with the Mediums; H. Carrington's The Physical Phenomena of Spiritualism, Fraudulent and Genuine; R. Tocquet's Tout l'Occultisme Devoile: J. J. Proskaner's The Dead do not Talk; J. Dunninger's How to Make a Ghost Walk, and Inside the Medium's Cabinet; J. Rinn's Sixty Years of Psychical Research. Some of these, incidentally, provide unconscious testimony as to the gullibility in reverse of some of the "debunkers" of paranormal occurrences, and of some stage magicians who, like Houdini on the subject of hypnosis, naïvely believe that no phenomenon of which they can give a convincing fraudulent imitation under circumstances of their own choosing can possibly ever genuinely occur.

In order to complete our discussion of paranormal physical phenomena, it would be necessary to present samples of the criticisms of some of the evidence cited which have been made by various persons. Also, to present the replies offered by persons who thought that the criticisms did not successfully invalidate the reports. This, however, would make a long and involved story which it is not possible to introduce here. I can only say that I have taken some pains to familiarize myself with those criticisms and objections, and that, even when they had some ground, they did not, as it seems to me, come anywhere near invalidating most of the positive evidence, of which I have cited some samples.

One important lesson, which scrutiny of what has been urged against the validity of the testimony cited has taught me, is that allegations of detection of fraud, or of malobservation, or of misinterpretation of what was observed, or of hypnotically induced hallucinations, have to be scrutinized as closely and as critically as must be the testimony for the reality of the phenomena. For there is likely to be just as much wishful thinking, prejudice, emotion, snap judgment, naiveté, and intellectual dishonesty on the side of orthodoxy, of skepticism, and of conservatism, as on the side of hunger for and of belief in the marvelous. The emotional motivation for irresponsible disbelief is, in fact, probably even stronger - especially in scientifically educated persons, whose pride of knowledge is at stake - than is in other persons the motivation for irresponsible belief. In these matters, nothing is so rare as genuine objectivity of judgment - judgment determined neither by the will to believe nor by the will to disbelieve, but only by the will to get at the truth irrespective of whether it turns out to be comfortably familiar or uncomfortably novel, consoling or distressing, orthodox or unorthodox.

As a single example of the sort of irresponsibility on the skeptical side to which I allude, I may mention the disparaging but wholly gratuitous allegation that the suicide of Dr. W. J. Crawford (some of whose observations I cited) which occurred on July 30, 1920 following collapse due to overwork, was motivated by disappointment in some way with his investigations of the phenomena of Kathleen Goligher. This allegation is irresponsible because evidence disproving it is easily available, in the form of published extracts from a letter written by Crawford four days before his death, in which he tells his friend, David Gow, to whom it was addressed:

"I have been struck down mentally. I was perfectly well up to a few weeks ago. My psychic work was all done before the collapse, and is the most perfect work I have done in my life. Everything connected with it is absolutely correct, and will bear every scrutiny. It was done when my brain was working perfectly, and it could not be responsible for what has occurred. It is not the psychic work. I enjoyed it too well. I am thankful to say that the work will stand. It is too thoroughly done for any material loopholes to be left"(21).

(21) See Appendix to E. E. Fournier d'Albe's The Goligher Circle, May to August 1921, John M. Watkins, London, 1922, p. 70; and the Introduction by David Gow, to Crawford's The Psychic Structures at the Goligher Circle, Watkins, London, 1921. Also, Dr. Dingwall's review of Fournier d'Albe's book above, in the S.P.R. Journal, Vol. XXl, 1923-4, pp. 19-24.

The phenomena of which we have considered reports are indeed hard to believe - as hard for me as for anyone else. But why? Ultimately, only because they are very rare and we do not happen to have observed them ourselves. Belief is essentially a matter of habit: levitation is not in itself any more or less paradoxical than gravitation. But the latter is very familiar to all of us; the former very rare.

In the light of all this, I can do no better than to bring these remarks to a close by two quotations. One is from Sir William Crookes who in 1889 wrote:

"Most assuredly, so far as my knowledge of science goes, there is absolutely no reason a priori to deny the possibility of such phenomena as I have described. Those who assume ...  that we are now acquainted with all, or nearly all, or even with any assignable proportion, of the forces at work in the universe, show a limitation of conception which ought to be impossible in an age when the widening of the circle of our definite knowledge does but reveal the proportionately widening circle of our blank, absolute, indubitable ignorance"(22).

(22) "Notes of Séances with D. D. Home," Proc. S.P.R., Vol. VI, 1889-90, p. 100.

It is appropriate to note that the above remarks were written at a time when the transmutation of elements was still thought to be only a dream of medieval alchemists; and radio, radar, or television did not yet exist.

To those words of Crookes, let us add a statement to the same general effect by Professor C. A. Mace, Past President of the Psychology Section of the British Association:

"It is a paradox ... that the defenses we erect within ourselves against prejudice and superstition themselves tend so to encrust and petrify the mind that it becomes increasingly resistant to novel truths. No one has had better reason to be conscious of this paradox than the student of psychical research in his efforts to invoke co-operation from orthodox scientists in relevant and allied fields of investigation"(23).

(23) Supernormal Faculty and the Structure of the Mind. The Fifth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture, Proc. S.P.R., Vol. XLIV, 1937, p. 279.


Home | Intro | News | Investigators | Articles | Experiments | Photographs | Theory | Library | Info | Books | Contact | Campaigns | Glossary | Search


The International Survivalist Society 2003