H. H. Price

Henry Habberley Price

Educated at Winchester and served in the Royal Air Force from 1917 to 1919. Went to Oxford as a scholar of New College, got a first and then became in his own words, 'a professional philosopher', in various posts, among them that of Wykeham Professor of Logic from 1935 to 1959. Lectured at many British universities, at Princeton, and at the University of California at Los Angeles. President of the Society for Psychical Research from 1939 till 1941 and again from 1960 till 1961. Among his books were Perception, Hume's Theory of the External World, Belief (his Gifford Lectures) and Essays on the Philosophy of Religion.

Psychical Research and Human Personality

- H H Price -

          MY AIM in this paper is to show the relevance of Psychical Research to certain questions which interest all reflective persons, and have always interested them - in one form or another - in all ages and countries.

Many people, even highly educated and highly intelligent people, still speak and write as if Psychical Research did not exist. Many people think that it is the same thing as Spiritualism, whereas Spiritualism is really just one hypothesis among others to account for certain of the phenomena which Psychical Researchers investigate. And some people who make neither of these mistakes still seem to think of the Psychical Researcher as a collector of rather queer facts which have no particular importance. Certainly the facts are queer (perhaps there is nothing in our whole experience which is queerer than Precognition). But they are not on that account unimportant. On the contrary, if they are genuine - as I am sure many of them are - they make a fundamental difference to our whole outlook: to our conception of human personality and of its place in the universe. That, at any rate, is what I hope to show.

In our Western society, the traditional conception of human personality was a dualistic one. The classical expression of it is to be found in the philosophy of Descartes. It was thought that the human being is a compound of two wholly different but interacting substances, mind or soul on the one hand, body on the other. With the advance of scientific knowledge, this theory has come to seem less and less credible. It is not that any empirical facts have been discovered which conclusively refute it. But can one deny that the appearances are against it? The biological sciences find no evidence in support of psycho-physical interaction. On the contrary, they suggest that mental processes of every kind are unilaterally dependent upon physico-chemical processes in the brain. No doubt it is true that each of us 'has a mind', if you mean by this that mental events do occur in connection with every living human body. But the notion that there is a mental substance or soul-thing, the res cogitans of Descartes. to which these mental events 'belong', has come to seem absurd. What they 'belong to', it would be said, is just the living human organism, as physiological processes like digestion also belong to it. This, or something like this, is the Materialistic conception of human personality, technically called Epiphenomenalism. It has come to be accepted by the vast majority of educated Western people; or rather, it is not so much accepted by them (for this would suggest a conscious choice between one theory and another, and that stage has long been passed), but has come to be taken for granted as something obvious and beyond dispute. What interests them now are not the arguments in favour of this conception of human nature, but its consequences; the secularistic or 'this-worldly' outlook which it entails, and the transvaluation, or devaluation, of traditional values which follow from this.

The Materialistic theory of human nature (or the Naturalistic theory if that term be preferred) is certainly a most impressive one. It draws its strength from a large mass of well-established empirical facts. Yet it has one weakness. It confines itself to the facts of 'normal' experience. But these are not the only relevant data there are. We must take the 'supernormal' phenomena into account as well. The Materialist appeals to the empirical facts, and rightly so. 'Very well,' we must say to him, 'thou hast appealed to Caesar: to Caesar thou shalt go.' There are empirical facts, and highly relevant ones too, which he has failed to consider at all.

It is obvious at once that if there were conclusive empirical evidence for the persistence of human minds after bodily death - evidence as conclusive as that which convinces us of the continued existence of human beings who have emigrated to Australia - then the Materialistic conception of human personality would be directly and finally refuted. If the human mind continues to exist after the disintegration of the brain, it cannot be true that all mental events are unilaterally dependent upon physical events in the brain, as the Epiphenomenalist says they are. Now, of course, there is a good deal of empirical evidence which supports the hypothesis of human survival; most of it is derived from mediumistic communications, which are among the most important of all supernormal phenomena. I do not, however, think that this evidence is as yet absolutely conclusive, though it does not follow that it never will be. I know that many investigators, whose opinion I respect, will disagree with me; they hold that the evidence for survival is conclusive already. I would suggest, however, with all deference, that they have not taken sufficient account of the very queer facts established by Abnormal Psychology concerning dissociated personality and the possibility of secondary personalities. I think that they are taking an oversimplified view of the human mind (the mind of the medium in this case); in fact, the view of Descartes, who regarded the human mind as a simple thinking substance. I shall come back to this point later; I believe it is highly relevant to all the problems of Psychical Research, and certainly it is relevant to this one. We must face the possibility that what appears to be an extraneous and discarnate personality, manifesting itself by means of the vocal or other organs of the medium, may in fact be a secondary personality of the medium herself. Such secondary personalities can show a surprising degree of autonomy and internal cohesion, as the phenomena of Psychopathology make clear; they can also show a surprising degree of intelligence and purpose. There is no reason why they should not possess supernormal cognitive powers, such as telepathy and clairvoyance. Indeed, there is some reason to think that such powers are more likely to operate freely when the mind is in a dissociated state and the normal personality is in abeyance. In view of these troublesome complications - and it really will not do to ignore them - I would only venture to go as far as this: I think that there are some mediumistic communications which are very difficult indeed to explain on any other hypothesis except the hypothesis of survival, but I do not think that there are any which absolutely prove it. The man who denies survival is certainly on dangerous ground. But I think that he still has a leg, or half a leg, to stand on. And if I am right, this 'short way with Materialism' - his direct and knock-down method of disproving it - is not open to us, at any rate at present.

But though the short way is not open to us, there may be a longer way which is. Mediumistic communications are not the only sort of supernormal phenomena, important as they may be. I think that if we consider the implications of Telepathy, the most elementary and the best established phenomenon in the whole field of Psychical Research, we shall see that they are incompatible with the Materialistic conception of human personality. In the remainder of my paper I shall try to show that this is so. If my argument is correct, it will, of course, follow that the antecedent improbability of the survival hypothesis (an improbability derived from the facts of normal experience, especially the findings of the biological sciences) is greatly diminished, once the existence of telepathy is admitted, as I think it certainly must be.

In telepathy one mind affects another without any discoverable physical intermediary, and regardless of the spatial distance between their respective bodies. The Materialist, once we can get him to admit the facts, will no doubt try to explain them by physical radiations of some kind. Indeed, that is what he must do if his conception of human personality is to stand. But no explanation of that kind seems to be feasible. Such physical radiations, if they exist, ought to be detectable by physical instruments. It ought to be possible to intercept them en route; and their intensity should vary in some way with the spatial distance between the body of the agent and the body of the percipient. But none of these consequences, which ought to follow if the Radiation Theory is true, is in fact verified. If the supposed physical radiations do not have any of the empirically verifiable properties which physical radiations have, what is the point of calling them radiations at all, and what is the point of calling them physical either? They cannot be physical in the ordinary sense of the word 'physical', the one which the Materialist is using when he says that all mental events have physical causes. For in the ordinary sense of the word 'physical' nothing is a physical event or entity unless it is perceptible by means of the sense-organs; either directly, or indirectly by means of instruments which can themselves be directly perceived. This is true of events in the nervous system, the events of which the Materialist was speaking when he formulated his Epiphenomenalistic theory of human personality; but it is not true of the hypothetical physical radiations which are alleged to be the cause of telepathy. They have just been postulated ad hoc, because no physical explanation of telepathy is possible in the ordinary sense of the word 'physical'. And all that the postulate really amounts to is this: 'something or other must be happening in space when telepathy occurs, but we have not the ghost of an idea what it is'.

For my part, I see no empirical reason for making any such postulate. But if one does make it (as I know that many people are inclined to) I do not think it really supports the Materialist's case at all. What it would support is something very different - what I will call the Occultistic conception of human personality. According to the Occultists, every human being has several 'higher' bodies, in addition to the ordinary physical body which our senses make us aware of; and each of these higher bodies responds in its appropriate way to a 'higher' sort of physical environment, which likewise differs from the ordinary physical environment revealed by our senses. It seems to me that the postulated spatial processes, 'thought waves' and the like, together with the organs for emitting and receiving them, will have to exist in one of these 'higher' physical worlds if they exist at all, since we cannot find them in this one.

Now, of course, we know very little about the universe, and it may well be a much queerer place than most of us think. It is theoretically conceivable that there might be such higher bodies, and higher worlds in which they function. But I see no reason to believe it, unless or until their existence can be empirically verified (presumably by some sort of clairvoyance). I suppose that there could be a kind of Occultistic Epiphenomenalism - perhaps there is - a theory which holds that all mental events are unilaterally dependent upon events occurring in one or other of these superphysical bodies. But such a theory, what one might call 'Materialism with a higher kind of matter', would still be quite incompatible with ordinary Materialism, which is the only kind that concerns me in this paper. For according to the Occultists these higher bodies can and do continue to exist when the ordinary physical body is destroyed.

However this may be, I think that in our present state of ignorance we should stick to the ascertained facts. And these suggest a purely 'mental' theory of telepathy. They suggest that in telepathy one mind affects another directly, and that nothing whatever travels through space between their respective bodies or brains. Such a type of causation seems to be quite inconsistent with the Materialistic scheme. As we have seen, the Materialist will not allow that there is any such thing as purely psychological causation even within the individual mind. (The causal linkage, in his view, is a linkage between the 'underlying' physical events in the brain, and not between one mental event and another.) If an experience in my mind, for example a dream, is directly caused by an event in another mind, without any intermediate causal linkage between our respective brains, then it cannot be true that all mental events are wholly caused by brain events, as the Materialist says they are. He may indeed point out that all the telepathic experiences we know of have occurred in embodied minds; and this, he may say, suggests that the presence of a living and normally functioning brain is a necessary condition of their occurrence. But even if we allow that he is right in this, it still does not give him what he needs. The presence of a living and normally functioning brain is a general precondition of all experiences whatever, at least in the embodied mind; but it does not explain any one experience in particular. In the case of telepathy there is not that detailed correlation between mental events and brain-events which the Materialist theory requires - the kind of correlation which we do find between brain-events and visual sensations, for example.

We must conclude, I think, that there is no room for telepathy in a Materialistic universe. Telepathy is something which ought not to happen at all, if the Materialistic theory were true. But it does happen. So there must be something seriously wrong with the Materialistic theory, however numerous and imposing the normal facts which support it may be.

It is to be noticed, however, that although telepathy does not fit in with the Materialistic conception of human personality at all, it does not altogether fit in with the traditional religious conception either, at any rate if we confine our attention to the religious tradition of Western Europe. For the traditional religious conception of human nature is not only dualistic, regarding mind and body as two different and separable entities. It is also, if I may say so, an 'isolationist' conception with regard to the individual mind. It holds that each individual mind is a separate and complete substance, whose only direct causal relations with the rest of the universe (apart from God) are relations with its own brain. The individual mind, it is supposed, can affect and be affected by other finite minds only in a very indirect and circuitous manner, by a long intervening chain of physical causes. The existence of telepathy shows that this 'isolationism' is false, even with regard to embodied minds; and a fortiori false with regard to disembodied ones, if there are any. It is not true that the only part of the universe with which a given mind has direct causal relations is its own body. It also has them with other minds. (If Telekinesis is ever established as a genuine fact, we shall have to say that it has them with other parts of the physical world as well.)

Moreover, and equally important, when the traditional religious theory of human personality maintains that the individual mind is a psychical substance, we have to point out that the notion of substance does not seem to fit the empirical facts. Here, as elsewhere, Psychical Research joins hands with Abnormal Psychology. The phenomena of dissociated and alternating personality seem to show that the individual human mind does not have the internal unity which the notion of substance requires; and they certainly show that it is not the simple substance which the old Dualistic philosophers thought it to be. On the other hand, the phenomena of telepathy show that one mind is not separated from another by any sharp and clear-cut boundary. Imagine two minds which were in a state of complete and continuous telepathic rapport, so that every experience of either directly affected the experiences of the other. Would there any longer be any sense in calling them two minds and not one? If the causal connection between two sets of mental states were as close as this, we should have to say that there was one mind in two bodies; just as, if there is a sufficient degree of disconnection between two groups of mental states both of which are associated with the same body, we have to say that the mind animating that body has been split into two separate personalities.

It comes to this: both ad intra and ad extra (if I may so put it) the unitariness of the human mind seems to be a matter of degree, and not a matter of all or none. In relation to other minds, it is without clear boundaries; and its internal coherence is greater or less in different circumstances, and never perhaps complete (some degree of dissociation occurs in all of us whenever we dream). In view of these facts, it is quite inappropriate, indeed positively misleading, to say that the human mind is a substance.

I think that in the philosophy of mind, as in the philosophy of matter also, the time has come when we must throw overboard the heritage of Descartes. The concepts devised by that illustrious man have formed as it were the intellectual working capital of educated Europeans for three centuries, both in their thoughts about the physical world and in their thoughts about the human mind. But now, in both spheres alike, they are becoming a nuisance. It seems to me that one of the greatest obstacles to the understanding of supernormal phenomena is precisely the Cartesian notion of the human mind as a psychical substance or res cogitans. The phenomena do not make sense in a Cartesian universe, no more than they make sense in a Materialistic one. They make no sense, because we are choosing the wrong unit, so to speak; we are trying to map out the psychological world into so many distinct and separate individual minds, and assuming that every mental event must be attributed to one or other of them. But this way of mapping out the psychological world does not fit the facts. Is the 'control' of a medium an individual mind or not? If a haunting apparition displays a certain degree of intelligence and purpose, but not very much, are we to say that it is a manifestation of an individual mind or not? If we are to talk intelligently about such queer entities, if we are even to ask intelligible questions about them, I believe that we must change the unit, as it were. We must take as our fundamental unit something far less complicated than a complete mind, something like an individual idea, and build up the various grades of psychical entity out of them: from not-very-purposive ghosts and Freudian complexes at the one end, to the complete and healthily integrated human mind at the other, with mediumistic 'controls' somewhere in the middle. All these different sorts of mental entity, we must say, and any others there may be, are idea-systems of different degrees of complexity and different degrees of autonomy and internal coherence(1).

(1) This is very like the late Mr. Whately Carington's Psychon Theory. But his fundamental unit is a mental image rather than an idea, and he would have objected very strongly to the qualifications introduced in the next paragraph. Cf. his book Telepathy, pp. 96 ff.

I do not want to suggest, however, that Descartes was entirely wrong when he introduced the notion of a res cogitans or conscious substance. Human personality is a very complex thing, and there may be some factor in it which does deserve this honourable title. But if anyone thinks that there is, I believe he would be well advised to go behind Descartes to an older tradition, which divides human nature into three parts, body, mind (or soul) and spirit, instead of Descartes' two, body and mind. And one would then say that it is the spirit or pure ego which is a substance, though the mind or soul is not. This tripartite division of human nature appears under various names in Neoplatonism, in some of the religious philosophies of the Far East, and in some Christian thinkers also. There are philosophical arguments in favour of it which have some weight; moreover, certain forms of mystical experience seem to support it. If we do accept this threefold division, we shall have to say that it is mind or soul, and not spirit, which is the subject-matter of the psychological sciences - Normal Psychology, Abnormal Psychology, and the Supernormal Psychology which we now call Psychical Research. The thing which does not deserve to be called a substance, the thing which has no clear boundaries and whose internal unity is a matter of degree, will be mind or soul, according to this terminology. In the study of telepathic phenomena, we are investigating the fuzziness of its boundaries, the way in which one mind or soul overlaps with others; in Abnormal Psychology, we are studying its internal coherence and the conditions which cause that coherence to break down.

Such considerations, however, take us far away from the Materialistic conception of human personality, and we must now return to it. For the phenomena of telepathy are relevant to the truth or falsity of the Materialistic conception in another way, which I have not yet mentioned. It seems pretty clear that the telepathic 'contact' of mind with mind (or the telepathic 'overlap' of one mind with another) is something which occurs in the first place at the unconscious level; in the terminology of F. W. H. Myers, it occurs in the subliminal region of our minds, beneath the threshold of consciousness. It looks as if telepathically received impressions had some difficulty in crossing the threshold and manifesting themselves in consciousness. There seems to be some barrier or repressive mechanism which tends to shut them out from consciousness, a barrier which is rather difficult to pass, and they make use of all sorts of devices for overcoming it. Sometimes they make use of the muscular mechanism of the body, and emerge in the form of automatic speech or writing. Sometimes they emerge in the form of dreams, sometimes as visual or auditory hallucinations. And often they can only emerge in a distorted and symbolic form (as other unconscious mental contents do). It is a plausible guess that many of our everyday thoughts and emotions are telepathic or partly telepathic in origin, but are not recognized to be so, because they are so much distorted and mixed with other mental contents in the process of crossing the threshold of consciousness. It is also a plausible guess that we receive many telepathic impressions which never reach consciousness at all; or if they do, reach it only in the form of a vague 'tone' or 'colouring' pervading our consciousness as a whole (a kind of mass-effect as it were, in which individual items cannot be distinguished).

Now it might be argued that in the Materialistic conception of human nature the only mental events which are recognised at all are those which occur within consciousness, and that the subliminal region of our personality is ignored altogether. If so, telepathic phenomena would be inconsistent with the Materialistic conception in another way, since we cannot make any sense of them unless we take subliminal mental events into account. Of course, if this argument were valid, the phenomena of Abnormal Psychology would be equally incompatible with the Materialistic theory; for we cannot make any sense of them either, so long as we suppose that the only mental events there are those which occur within consciousness.

It must be admitted, I think, that some Materialists have ignored the subliminal or unconscious strata of human personality, and have spoken as if the only mental events which occur at all were those which occur within consciousness. If so, they were mistaken and their conception of human personality was far too simple to be true(2). Nevertheless the Materialistic theory can perfectly well admit the existence of unconscious or subliminal mental events, even though its advocates have not always seen that it can. The brain is a very complicated structure indeed. All kinds of other physical processes go on in it besides the ones which (in the Materialist view) produce conscious mental states; and some of these other physical processes might have unconscious mental states as their by-products. Moreover, we must remember that physical processes may have different levels of complexity. It might be that processes at the sub-atomic level produce unconscious mental events, while processes at the atomic or molecular level produce conscious ones. Thus there is plenty of room in the brain for physical correlates of unconscious mental events, if anyone wants them. We must remember also that the intrinsic nature of subliminal events is quite unknown to us. We only call them mental at all because of the nature of their effects. (We say, for example, that Smith's behaviour is caused by an unconscious hostility towards Jones, because he acts or speaks or dreams as if he wished to injure Jones, but is not in fact conscious of any such wish.)

(2) I am assuming here that a purely physiological theory of the Unconscious is inadequate. It is certainly inadequate if our physiology is mechanistic, as Materialistic physiology is.

Thus there is no logical absurdity in a Materialistic theory of the subliminal mind. Some students of Abnormal Psychology do in fact profess to be Materialists; and we need not suppose that this is just a face-saving inconsistency, designed to placate scientific orthodoxy. The objection to this extension of the Materialistic theory is not that it is in any way inconsistent with the Materialist's premises. It is rather that an Epiphenomenalist conception of the subliminal mind is completely unfruitful. It is altogether too vague and general to throw any light on the empirical facts. It does not enable us to explain the phenomena of either Abnormal or Supernormal Psychology in detail, or to make verifiable predictions, in the way that the Freudian theory of dreams, for example, does. On the other hand, we find that we can to some degree explain and predict the phenomena if we conceive of unconscious events in a purely psychological manner, without any attempt to correlate them in detail with 'underlying' physiological occurrences. In fact, a Materialistic theory of unconscious mental events has the defect which some metaphysical theories have; by explaining everything in general it explains nothing in particular. Indeed, it is a metaphysical theory in the dyslogistic sense of the word 'metaphysical', whereas the Materialistic theory of conscious mental events - right or wrong - is an empirical one.

I have said a great deal about telepathy, too much perhaps. But, of course, there are other supernormal phenomena which are equally difficult to reconcile with the Materialistic conception of human personality. Precognition is one. Precognition seems to require a mode of causation in which the effect occurs earlier than the cause, and there is clearly no room for such a process in a Materialistic universe. But I should not like to lay too much stress on this, because it is very hard to find room for such a paradoxical form of causation in a non-Materialistic universe either. It is difficult to think of any hypothesis at all which will make precognition intelligible. The most hopeful perhaps is the suggestion that there is some other kind of time (or some other dimension of time) besides the one we are familiar with in our normal experience. If there is such a non-physical time or time dimension, and if some human minds have access to it, this again is clearly something which does not fit in with the Materialistic philosophy in any way.

What is to be said about Clairvoyance, the veridical cognition of contemporary physical objects or events without the use of any sense-organ or any process of rational inference? Some recent investigators have maintained that the evidence for clairvoyance is quite inconclusive. They hold that the empirical facts can all be accounted for by telepathy or a combination of telepathy and precognition (though Dr. Rhine does not agree). I am not altogether persuaded that they are right. Certainly it is difficult to isolate clairvoyance from telepathy under experimental conditions, and experimental tests for pure clairvoyance have several times yielded negative results. But there are still the spontaneous cases of clairvoyance, and I doubt whether all of these can be wholly explained by telepathy and/or recognition, though some of them probably can be. If I am right, and if there is after all such a thing as pure clairvoyance, however difficult it may be to isolate, then here again is a phenomenon, which is irreconcilable with the Materialistic conception of human personality. According to the Materialist theory, all our knowledge of the external world comes to us indirectly, through a long chain of physical causation, by means of physical stimuli affecting our sense-organs, which in turn cause physical changes in our nervous systems and brains. But clairvoyance involves some sort of direct relation between the mind and the external world. No doubt clairvoyance, like telepathy, is something which occurs in the first place at the subliminal level, and manifests itself in consciousness indirectly, often in a symbolic form. All the same, the subliminal mind itself must be in a direct relation with physical objects or events outside the body which has nothing to do with the physical sense-organs.

It is, however, sufficient for my argument if the reality of telepathy is admitted. Telepathy, as I have said, is something which ought not to occur at all if the Materialistic conception of human personality is correct. But it undoubtedly does occur. The Materialistic conception of human personality must therefore be mistaken, even though all the facts of normal experience seem to favour it, and even though the philosophical arguments against it are inconclusive.

In conclusion, I would again like to address myself to the people whom I mentioned at the beginning (I believe they are fairly numerous); to those who agree that Psychical Research has succeeded in establishing various queer facts about the human mind, but think that these facts are mere curiosities and oddities, of no particular importance. Certainly card-guessing does appear at first sight to be a rather trivial occupation. And if a few dreams turn out to be telepathic or precognitive, if people do occasionally have veridical telepathic vision, why should anyone make such a fuss about it? On the contrary, these queer facts are not at all trivial, and it is right to make the greatest possible fuss about them. Their very queerness is just what makes them so significant. We call them 'queer' just because they will not fit in with orthodox scientific ideas about the universe and man's place in it. If they show, as I think they do, that the Materialistic conception of human personality is untenable, and if they throw quite new light on the age-old conflict between the scientific and the religious outlooks, we shall have to conclude that Psychical Research is one of the most important branches of investigation which the human mind has ever undertaken.


The above article by H H Price was taken from the Hibbert Journal, Vol. XLVII, No. 2, January 1949.

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