J. Arthur Hill

Friend of Sir Oliver Lodge. Popular writer on spiritualism, religion and psychical research. His books included "Religion and Modern Psychology", "Spiritualism, Its History, Phenomena and Doctrine", "Emerson and his Philosophy", "Man is a Spirit", "New Evidences in Psychical Research" and "Psychical Investigations".

Popular Sentiment Regarding Immortality

 - J. Arthur Hill -

         THE QUESTION, "Do you believe in a future life?" is fairly common, and the replies are affirmative, negative, or non-committal, according for the most part to the temperament and up-bringing of the answerer. Probably those who answer most readily are those who have given the least thought to the subject. A lady acquaintance of mine who persisted in discussing theology with me - much against my will - once asked me, with suspicion in her eye, whether I believed that Jesus was God. I replied that I had not studied the matter sufficiently to have any definite opinion. She rejoined with surprising tartness that, as for her, she had not studied it sufficiently to have any doubts. It struck me as one of the truest things the good lady had ever said. She had inherited her beliefs along with the colour of her eyes, and there was an end on 't.

The question just mentioned, concerning belief in immortality - or rather let us say, for the present, in survival of bodily death - is usually futile, for the majority of people have no real belief either one way or the other; and, in order to avoid thinking about it, are apt to give the expected or conventional answer, like the man who of course expected to go to heaven when he died, but who in the same breath requested his interlocutor not to talk about such depressing subjects. Such people have no real individual conviction, and it is not much use asking about their belief.

It is, however, somewhat different with their sentiments regarding survival. An inquiry into their wishes, or feelings, on the matter, will educe replies which have a good deal of psychological interest, and which, moreover, have rather far-reaching implications. Instead, therefore, of asking people whether they believe in continuance of personal life after bodily death, the thing to do is to ask them whether or not they wish for such continuance.

An inquiry of this kind was made some years ago, but did not receive the attention which its results deserved; chiefly, no doubt, because those results were not very pleasing to anybody in particular. They were, indeed, rather shocking. For it must regretfully be confessed that a large proportion of the people asked, manifested an unexpected indifference. They did not seem to care whether they "survived" or not. They were apparently making the most of this present world, and were leaving any possible other to take care of itself. They did not "sigh for the Prophet's Paradise to come": far from it.

"Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go,

Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!"

That was their philosophy. Indeed, some of them out - Omar'd Omar, for they confessed that, as to this question of a future life, they had never thought about it; but, now that the subject was brought before them, they thought they would rather like another life - "provided always," as the lawyers say, that it should be something like this one, but preferably rather better.

I confess to a certain friendliness towards these tough minded fellows. I like the good brown earth and its wholesome solidity. Whitman's attitude, for instance, appeals to me intimately:

"I think I could turn and live with the animals ...
They do not sweat and whine about their condition;
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God; ...
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago;
Not one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth."

Undoubtedly this out-of-doors healthy-mindedness may be carried too far; for, as James says, it does not follow that the man who is always thumping his chest and feeling his biceps is really a bigger or better man than a puny Newton or epileptic St Paul; but it is refreshing as a contrast to the smug sanctimoniousness and excessive other worldliness which have sometimes been associated with the name of religion.

It is interesting to note, in the case of these "toughs," how little real hold the eschatological conceptions in which they have been reared seem to have on their minds. Their notions, such as they are, are much more Swedenborgian than Calvinistic or Dantesque. And in this their instincts are right. For it is clear that if the next life were entirely different from this, it would be entirely inconceivable to us. We could not say anything true of it, except in negations. Our language would not apply to it. It would be just nothing. We must proceed from the known to the unknown, must interpret any future by our knowledge of past and present(1). Seeing this instinctively or rationally - these good folks are disposed to admit a certain likeness between this world and any possible next. Among them, however, are many varieties, all more or less humorous in an unconscious way. One man, for example, while admitting that the next world, if there is one, must be conceived as something like this one, nevertheless objects to the alleged evidence of psychical research, because the messages are so trivial-so human, so natural. In other words, he disbelieves in a supernatural "other side," yet complains because the evidence isn't supernatural enough!

(1) Aristotle, Eth. Nich., 1. 3, 5.

Others dislike the evidence because some of it comes through dubious channels. Mediums are not necessarily saints, and there is a natural feeling of repugnance to the idea of "communications" by their aid. Mr Andrew Lang says: "My bias is a desire not to believe that the dead are in any way mixed up with sittings at so many dollars,"(2) and at first sight every one will be disposed to endorse the sentiment.

(2) Proceedings, S.P.R., xv. p. 527

There are, however, several countervailing factors to be considered. Firstly, the popular notion that the medium can command or "call up" the spirit of a dead person, may be dismissed as quite unsupported by satisfactory evidence. A discarnate being, looking out for opportunities to communicate, sees something corresponding to a light in the murky world-atmosphere, wherever there is a person with the gifts which we vaguely call psychic. Descending to this light, he manages somehow to give his message, as into a telephone, or even by taking control of the vocal or writing muscles. Of the details of this process we know nothing, and can scarcely even guess; but the point to be noted is that there is no compulsion. The spirit comes and communicates by his own free will or not at all.

Further, this matter of the undesirable character of mediums has probably been exaggerated. Many of them are admirable people, whose characters would serve as useful models to ourselves. The fact that some of them have had no opportunities of education ought to be borne in mind when judging. To me the matter for surprise has often been that, taking into consideration their disadvantages, they should still be so worthy in the main things. They often have a natural nobility and unselfishness which more than compensate for intellectual lacks. Knowledge, after all, is only superficial - a veneer on character.

And then as to payment. This is perhaps regrettable, and may in some cases encourage fraud, conscious or subconscious. But, here again, are we quite fair and open-minded on the point? If these mediums have powers which we have not, what right have we to expect their exercise gratis? We pay the doctors, and even the clergymen, for their services. The labourer is worthy of his hire. And of course it must be remembered that there is a great deal of psychical-research evidence which is in no way connected with paid mediums(3).

(3) I do not wish to be understood as encouraging promiscuous experiments with the advertising variety of professional mediums, though I am quite convinced (by good evidence) of the genuineness of some even of these. It is best to stick to those of whom we know something, lest we encourage fraud.

In all this I am trying to procure a fair hearing for the evidence. The sentiment towards it, is important. If hostility, general or particular, is widely diffused, it follows that conviction based on scientific evidence for survival will win its way slowly, if it wins its way at all. People who do not want to believe, will not believe; and any attempt to influence them by evidence will be almost or entirely wasted. As Dr Schiller has said, you cannot even make a man see that 2 + 2 = 4, if he refuses to add; and it is much easier to remain blind to the complex evidence for survival, than it is to blink the piece of arithmetic just mentioned.

The idea of an attempt at finding out the state of people's wishes on the subject seems first to have occurred to Dr F. C. S. Schiller. He suggested to the Society for Psychical Research that it should make systematic inquiry. Dr Hodgson saw the importance of the question, and the American Branch undertook the inquiry. About 10,000 people were asked, and over 3000 answers were received. The questions were as follows:

1. Would you prefer (a) to live after "death" or (b) not?
2. (a) If (a), do you desire a future life whatever the conditions might be? (b) If not, what would have to be its character to make the prospect seem tolerable? Would you, e.g., be content with a life more or less like your present life? (c) Can you say what elements in life (if any) are felt by you to call for its perpetuity?
3. Can you state why you feel in this way, as regards questions 1 and 2?
4. Do you now feel the question of a future life to be of urgent importance to your mental comfort?
5. Have your feelings on questions 1, 2, and 4 undergone change? If so, when and in what ways?
6. (a) Would you like to know for certain about the future life, or (b) would you prefer to leave it a matter of faith?

Spaces were left for name, age, nationality, sex, profession, and date. Collectors were instructed to collect answers from educated adults as far as possible. It is probable that the answerers were not quite typical of the average mind, for they included a fair proportion - higher than the whole population would present - of people who were interested in psychical research. These latter may be regarded as almost certainly desirous of a future life, and therefore, on the whole, the questionnaire probably indicates a more extensively felt wish for survival than is actually the case.

This being so, it is more surprising than ever to find how comparatively low is the proportion of those who do desire a future life.

Question 1 is difficult to deal with alone, for many answers were, naturally, conditional. A thinking person usually does not feel able to say whether or not he desires a future life, until the kind of life is specified. Most people would prefer a happy future life to annihilation, and annihilation to an unhappy one. A distinguished philosopher argued that all rational beings would think thus, and that therefore all the answers to the questionnaire would be the same. But he was wrong. "He had not made sufficient allowance for the ability of human psychology to overcome difficulties which, as stated abstractly, seem to logic sheer absurdities. And so it turns out that not only is a real desire for the heaven of what used to be thought orthodoxy decidedly rare, but that a good many actually have so strong an objection to it that they assert they would prefer annihilation. Moreover, 22 per cent. - 739 out of 3321 - of the answers agree with Huxley and Milton's Satan in desiring a future life at all costs."(4) These 739 people probably are individuals who have had a happy life, and do not know how painful various kinds of suffering may be not merely physical suffering, but also that which comes from baffled effort, baulked ambition, regrets, loneliness, disgust, despair of the humanity that is powerful, and sorrow for that which is crushed the heavy and the weary weight of all this unintelligible world. These 739 good folks are surely lacking either in experience, or imagination, or both. As to those who do not desire the orthodox heaven, they might or might not desire a future life of another kind. Probably very few honest people capable of introspection would say that an eternity of psalm-singing and harp-playing would content them. The Western spirit is too active for such an ideal. It must be doing something, must he overcoming obstacles, striving, achieving.

(4) F. C. S. Schiller, Proceedings, S.P.R., xvii. p. 426.

To Question IV., Do you now feel the question of a future life to be of urgent importance to your mental comfort? there was a predominance of noes - 1314 yeses out of 3321. Many of the noes were very decided; "not at all," "not in the least," "never think about it," being common phrases. And there is reason to believe that many of the yeses were from people who answered more or less thoughtlessly, because they vaguely felt that it would be very shocking to say they did not care. Some minds find it difficult to distinguish between what they do feel and what they think they ought to feel. Sixty per cent., then, and probably more, are not very seriously concerned about the matter. They are content to take things as they come. One world at a time. And this attitude is not to be hastily condemned, for we could not do our work efficiently here if our concern about the future were to become seriously distracting. Still, between serious distraction and reasonable interest there is a considerable step; and, as Dr Schiller remarks, the "frequency of utter absorption in worldly affairs gives one a sort of aesthetic shock."(5)

(5) Op. cit., p. 429.

Coming to Question VI. - perhaps the most vital one from the S.P.R. point of view - 1706 voted for "knowledge," 749 for "faith," 415 for "ignorance," etc., while 178 were already certain that there is a future life, and 63 were certain that there is not! This certainly shows a majority in favour of "knowledge," but the answers to the other questions show that large deductions must be made. Many of the 1706 did not want a future life, and only sought knowledge on condition that it should turn out negative (225)(6). Others (123) only want to know on general grounds, or use phrases showing that their desire for knowledge is slight or doubtful; while 64 desire knowledge but believe it to be impossible.

(6) These are the ones who are suffering in this life, no doubt.

After these and other adjustments, we find that 681 out of 3218, i.e. rather over 21 per cent., may be credited with a desire for scientific knowledge of the possibility of a future life. But even those figures, Dr Schiller thinks, probably exaggerate the importance of the desire. "For they doubtless include the votes of many whose desire to know, though real enough, is not very strong, and would not impel them to inconvenience themselves in order to satisfy it. And, moreover, I shall have to admit that there is a probability that the questionnaire has unduly selected those who desire to know, so that about one out of five indicates the maximum, but not the probable, strength of the desire."(7)

(7) Op. cit., p. 432.

This gives ground for moderate satisfaction, though not for jubilation, to those who see in psychical research a possible avenue to the knowledge in question. Probably the proportion will rise during the next few generations; for I believe that the lack of interest is due, more largely than the questionnaire showed, to disbelief in the possibility of knowledge - a particular instance of the general distrust and dislike of science. I well remember an old Sunday-school teacher who used to declaim most emphatically that it was impossible to measure the distance of the planets, sun, etc. - presumably because you can't walk to them with a yard-stick or a measuring-tape. No use appealing to this brother for help to endow an observatory! Peace be with him - he is dead now, and I hope he has learnt enough to give up saying that anything is impossible, outside self-contradictory propositions. But the temper of mind for which he stands is not by any means obsolete. There is little real faith in science little faith in the possibility of the extension of knowledge into places hitherto inaccessible; though the success of its application in the material domain, in marconigrams and aeroplanes, may perhaps help to bring about a better attitude towards its efforts in other directions.


The article above first appeared in "Religion and Modern Psychology" (1911, William Rider and Son) by J. Arthur Hill.


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