Gerald Heard

Took honours in history at the University of Cambridge and studied theology there. Worked for Lord Robson of Jesmond and for Sir Horace Plunkett. Began lecturing from 1926 to 1929 for Oxford University's Board of Extra Mural Studies. From 1929 to 1930 he edited "The Realist," a monthly journal of scientific humanism. In 1929 he published The Ascent of Humanity, an essay on the philosophy of history that was awarded the Hertz Prize by the British Academy. From 1930 to 1934 he served as a popular commentator for the BBC, reporting on science and current affairs. Additionally, in 1927 he began lecturing for South Place Ethical Society, and from 1932 to 1942 he was a council member of the Society for Psychical Research.

Science and Psychical Research

- Gerald Heard -

          THIS IS a scandalous subject: do not let there be any doubt about that. The title is not startling and may seem to you a little vague. Most of us realize now that in every subject there is much more that is unknown than is known. You can make an inquiry into the unknown in every science from astronomy to physiology. But in this series of talks*, 'Inquiry into the Unknown' does not mean mapping the ground that lies behind each official science. It means attempting to explore areas clean off the scientific map. Professor T. H. Huxley defined orthodox science when he said: 'Science is organized common tense.' The goal of orthodox science is to be able to explain the whole of nature by the working of simple mechanical laws. Is there anything to be found beyond that? That is the question these talks will raise. Are there facts - is there evidence which cannot be fitted into those simple, mechanical, commonplace laws?

* This article was part of a series of ten talks on BBC Radio in 1934 on psychical research. See also Theodore Besterman's How Psychical Research is Done.

But why call such an inquiry scandalous? Surely today even physics, the first and strictest of the sciences, has ceased to have anything to do with common sense? That is true. But we must remember that these strange new theories of physics - about bending space and contracting and expanding time - are all based on quite commonsense observations. The calculations and the deductions made from the observed facts may be elaborate and very difficult. But about the facts themselves no one has any doubt. Any person possessed of the ordinary number of common senses can view the evidence for himself - though he may not be able to make the calculations whereby that evidence is put in order and made to agree with other evidence. It is when we go beyond commonplace observations that our difficulties begin. When the facts themselves are in dispute, then scandal arises, motives begin to be questioned, honesty doubted.

So orthodox science says: Leave such a subject alone. Until there is produced evidence which can be repeated by any researcher in a scientific laboratory, there is nothing to explore. If you go on trying to inquire and investigate you will only be deluded and deserve to be deluded, and your so-called evidence will be worse than useless, for it can only serve to feed greedy superstition. There is much to be said for taking up such an attitude. But there is one great argument against it. It is not the way that science itself has advanced. For at the beginning of most sciences, the phenomena studied could not be brought into the laboratory. Fire-balls - the true thunderbolts - for example, could not and still cannot be produced and studied in a laboratory. They have had to be studied wherever nature chose to display them, and no one could say for certain when and where that would be. They were and they remain rare and freakish phenomena, uncontrollable and indefinable. On these grounds orthodox science for a long time denied their existence. Today out-of-door observers have proved that fire-balls do exist and at last photographs have been taken of them.

And science has not only had to begin by studying happenings which could not be made to take place in a well-lighted laboratory. Science has often had to begin by studying things which could not be seen at all. The cosmic radiation which penetrates sixteen feet of lead can nevertheless only be recorded by the most sensitive of instruments and none of our senses give us a hint of its existence, though it is always passing through our bodies. It is not treason to truth to go on studying phenomena although you cannot yet lay down the rules under which the phenomena must occur.

Yet the phenomena about which this inquiry is to be made are the most difficult that men can investigate. For, first of all, only a very few of us have ever experienced happenings clean contrary to common sense, except in conditions of darkness, etc., when it was very difficult for us to be sure what was going on. That is a serious difficulty. But there is an even graver obstacle to attempting to find out what may be behind these strange happenings. That is due to the fact that nearly all of us feel very strongly about them: either we want them to be true, we want something contrary to common sense to take place, or, quite as often, quite as strongly and quite as unfortunately for the truth, we want them to be untrue. That is why what are called psychical phenomena, happenings which may be evidence of the working of unknown forces, are in a class by themselves. That is why they are peculiarly and exasperatingly difficult to investigate. When we need to be absolutely unbiased, because the evidence is so slight, so scattered and so strange, we find that almost all of us start with strong views as to whether there can be such facts and if so what they mean.

That, of course, is an utterly unscientific attitude and we cannot hope to discover truth if we start in that spirit. 'Beware of finding what you are looking for' is sound scientific advice. But the other side of that piece of advice is: 'Beware of saying nothing is there, because you wish nothing to be there.' The neglect of this double warning has held up psychical research. A glance at the history of science and of what we may call psychics will make that clear. For two hundred years science had been advancing steadily before psychics crossed its path. It had been more and more successfully explaining away everything in the universe as due to the working of mechanical laws, until Laplace, the great astronomer, when asked by Napoleon: 'Is there not a spirit behind it all?' replied: 'Sure, I have no need of such an hypothesis.' But just then the awkward fact of mesmerism turned up. Dr. Mesmer came to Paris, where he demonstrated mesmerism (what we now call hypnotism - the way to use a hidden capacity in our minds to give us strange powers over our bodies). He was examined by scientists and they had to own that he had got hold of some power which they knew nothing about, but which they were certain was not what he said it was. That, in a phrase, has been the position of science ever since, when it has tried to settle this question. For the problem that Mesmer raised was: 'Can the mind really alter the body?' If it could, then materialism was untrue. All through the nineteenth century, science assumed materialism to be true and on that assumption made amazing advances, advances which seemed to have no limit. Science had, therefore, to dismiss as inherently impossible all evidence of mind being anything but a by-product of matter. As Huxley said, mind was only the steam given off as the bodily engine worked.

Yet all through the last century, while science advanced, other queer facts, for which science had no use, kept on turning up. Not only was hypnotism now being practised by qualified doctors, and pains relieved and several stubborn diseases cured. Other odder powers came to light. For instance, water-divining - the power of finding water by some unknown sense became better and better proved. Mr. Besterman will tell you more about that in the next talk. And serious people kept on vowing they had actually seen ghosts quite lately in London. Other intelligent people attested they had had true visions of the future: others that friends still alive but far away, sometimes at the moment of death but sometimes when they were quite well, had suddenly appeared before them. Some people when hypnotized could read passages in books shut up in libraries far away, others who could not draw a line could make wonderful fantastic pictures. Some people seemed to become possessed by another character who spoke about places long ago disappeared and in another language. Strangest of all, some people seemed to split up into several persons as though personality was a sort of clay out of which one could model one figure or several. And men who studied foreign races reported that many of them seemed to have strange powers. They could put themselves into a trance and when they came awake again they could say what was going on hundreds of miles away. They could also put themselves to sleep, so that they seemed dead, cold, rigid and breathless, have themselves buried for weeks and then be dug up and come put red-hot irons on their flesh, on their tongues and not be burnt. They could walk slowly through fire and not be singed. What was science to do about all this? One thing was clear: these happenings would not repeat themselves regularly whenever people should choose to test them. At the same time, so many people, many of them highly educated, swore that they had seen these strange things that it was possible that happenings, so rare as to be unknown to science, did take place now and then. If you had a really open mind you could not dismiss the question.

So in 1882 the Society for Psychical Research was founded, and many other such societies have since been founded. Soon it became clear that there was a nucleus of fact which could not be accounted for on the current orthodox scientific principles. There was a case for investigation. But then how was the investigation to go ahead? We have seen there were three great difficulties in the way. First, the evidence was itself rare: second, those few people who claimed to be able to produce it on demand were nearly all unanimous in their refusal to undergo careful tests; third, the scientists, the men most qualified to test it, could not believe that by any chance it could be true. The scientific principles of materialism ruled it out of court. However, since 1900, the old-fashioned materialism has been discarded by physics itself and so scientists no longer have to dismiss the evidence on that ground. It still remains tremendously difficult to find out what actually happens when a happening is owned to be rare and the laws under which it takes place are still quite unknown. But once scientists will allow that something may be there, and those who have had a psychic experience will allow that we really cannot at present have any clear idea of what it is, a new age of research is opening.

Of course, we are only at the beginning. For the more we study the subject the more we realize how inherently complicated it must be. In advanced physics it is found that you cannot observe the electron without altering it, for the ray of light, without which you cannot see it, must upset it. The same difficulty, but in a more acute degree, must turn up in advanced psychology, in psychics, for you cannot observe a mental state without altering it. Probably all psychical phenomena are subject to this very awkward disturbance. Still, as physics manages to advance among the too sensitive electrons, so psychical research may manage now to advance in its still stranger exploration of rarer and even less understood forces. That, then, is the line this inquiry will take. It will start by making no assumptions. Mr. Besterman, in 'How Psychical Research is Done,' will tell you how a number of researchers to-day is attempting to use scientific apparatus and carefully thought out tests to collect evidence of rare faculties and happenings. He will also tell you how water-divining has been tested and brought to light. The question naturally arises whether some of these rare powers could be explained by modern scientific theories of radiation. So in the succeeding talk Lord Charles Hope will deal with rare happenings which seem to take place round rare human subjects. Many of the people who claim these powers are both odd and simple-minded. Could they have special endowments? Savages have been said to have such powers: so anthropology, the scientific study of savage races, may throw light here. Professor Seligman will therefore tell you something about primitive people's practices, magic, etc., and in the succeeding talk he will, as a physician, link this up with our new knowledge of the back of our own minds, the primitive side of us which survives in all of us still. We shall then be ready to listen to further evidence of strange mental powers. First the evidence for telepathy, for minds being able to communicate without any physical means. That will be given by Mrs. Salter, who has studied this matter very fully. Then, further evidence of dreams and prevision, as an extension of powers of which telepathy is an example, will be given by Dame Edith Lyttelton. After that Sir Ernest Bennett will tell us about ghosts and haunted houses, and Sir Oliver Lodge can then put before us in the light of all these reports the question: 'Do we Survive?' As a summing up, a Professor of Philosophy, Dr. C. D. Broad, will tell us what are his conclusions. This is very important. Quite a number of famous physical scientists have been convinced by this evidence. The answer against accepting their evidence as decisive is - they were specialists, and, outside their own subject, they were easily misled. All right. Let us hear the present conclusion of the whole matter from a man whose job it is to show how to think clearly, test evidence and arrive at sound conclusions. I think in the end we shall find our minds widened and, whatever conclusion we arrive at about psychical research today, we shall realize that our deepest knowledge now will look like ignorance tomorrow.


The above article was taken from Theodore Besterman's (ed.) "Inquiry into the Unknown. A BBC Symposium" (London: Methuen & Co., 1934).

Related Articles

Background to Psychical Research by Rosalind Heywood
ESP in the Framework of Modern Science by Henry Margenau

Are the Phenomena of Spiritualism in Harmony with Science? by Alfred Russel Wallace

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