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".

Psychical Research

 - J. Arthur Hill -

"I will ask and have an answer, - with no favour, with no fear, -
From myself. How much, how little, do I inwardly believe
True that controverted doctrine? Is it fact to which I cleave,
Is it fancy I but cherish, when I take upon my lips
Phrase the solemn Tusean fashioned, and declare the soul's eclipse
Not the soul's extinction? take his 'I believe and I declare -
Certain am I - from this life I pass into a better'...?"
Browning, La Saisiaz.

         IT IS impossible to give here more than a hasty sketch of the evidence on which science is beginning to tolerate a theory of individual survival; but a sketch at least must be given. For fuller details, the special literature of the subject must be consulted. The best books are Myers's Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death (Longmans), Sir Oliver Lodge's Survival of Man (Methuen), and the cautious though perhaps not quite unbiased works of the late Frank Podmore - chiefly his History of Modern Spiritualism, The Naturalisation of the Supernatural, and The Newer Spiritualism. I have given, in my New Evidences in Psychical Research (Rider & Son), a description of a few sittings with mediums, with summaries of recent S.P.R. results, and a general discussion of the various explanatory theories; but it is impossible to treat the whole subject in a small book, and the larger works must be studied by those who wish to form well-grounded opinions.

The first thing to be established by the Society for Psychical Research was telepathy. It was found by experiment that it was necessary in certain cases to assume a connection between one mind and another, of a kind apparently not involving the known methods and channels of communication. For instance, an experimenter (called the "agent") concentrating his mind on the idea of a triangle or other geometrical figure, or on some object such as a tea-pot or a selected playing-card, succeeded in causing the image of the object to arise in the mind of the "percipient," who was sitting in passive mood, waiting for ideas to float into the receptive consciousness. Precautions against involuntary whispering, reflections in mirrors, etc., and other normal modes of transmission were of course taken, when the agent and percipient were in the same room; but any such normal explanation is quite ruled out by the success of experiments conducted over great distances. Miss Miles and Miss Ramsden obtained successful results over distances varying from twenty to four hundred miles. It is perhaps hardly necessary to say that it is no question here of professional "mediums." The experimenters have been truth-seeking researchers, and the two last-mentioned ladies are members of the S.P.R., and people of position.

In these experiments there is, of course, a mixture of success and failure, and it is difficult to tabulate results. Also it often happens that an incident which must be counted as a failure may nevertheless suggest that it is at least a partial success as when an agent thinks of a church, and the percipient says "cathedral." Perhaps the best form of experiment is with playing-cards. By adopting this method, the odds against chance coincidence can be mathematically determined. If a card be drawn at random, and the pack shuffled between each experiment, there ought to be one success in fifty-two trials, if there is no element concerned except chance. In a fairly long series, it is possible to show with some approach to conclusiveness (with a good percipient) that chance is not an adequate explanation. In a series conducted by Sir Oliver Lodge the odds were ten millions to one against the result being due to chance.

From experimental telepathy we pass to the spontaneous examples. To give a crude example: a near relative of mine was sitting in church, in a cheerful frame of mind and thinking of nothing in particular, when she suddenly felt a wave of depression, tears came to her eyes, and she turned to her husband and whispered: "Aunt S. is dead." She had not been thinking of her aunt, and she had no reason to expect her death; yet it turned out that the aunt had died almost at the very minute of the experience. The distance between the supposed agent and the percipient was about a hundred miles. In another case known to me, a well-known member of Parliament, after getting up in the morning well and cheerful, experienced about eleven o'clock a peculiar gloom of spirit, along with a strong conviction that something was wrong in connection with the lady to whom he was soon to be married. The depression at length became unbearable, and he telegraphed to ask if anything was wrong - a thing he had never done before. As a matter of fact, the lady had been out riding, had been thrown from her horse, had sustained slight concussion, and had been unconscious for some hours. The telepathic message was presumably from the mind of the lady's sister, who was with her and was naturally much upset; though it is possible that a person whom we call unconscious may nevertheless be conscious in some inner way, and may be able to send these super-sensory communications - in which case the agent may have been the unconscious lady herself. Indeed, there is reason to suppose something of the kind. Apparitions which are veridical ("truth-telling," i.e. bringing knowledge not hitherto possessed by the percipient) often seem to occur at a time when the supposed agent is asleep or unconscious.

In this last case the distance between the two people was about a hundred and fifty miles. The incident was unique in the man's experience, and he had no reason for anxiety. The case does not amount to proof, but it may serve as an illustration, and it would be dangerous to dismiss it altogether as due to chance. We have many similar cases which reach a higher evidential standard, I quote these two mainly because they have not hitherto appeared in print.

Now, how does this transmission of thought come about? It is of course fashionable to discuss telepathy as a kind of wireless telegraphy, and "quite simple." I have been astonished, and almost alarmed, by the easy way in which people are accepting telepathy as a fact, not because of any evidence they are acquainted with, but because of its apparent similarity to wireless telegraphy. As a matter of fact, the similarity is apparent rather than real. In wireless telegraphy we can follow the steps of the process; we know how waves or pulses are set up in the ether, and how the receiver at the other end is affected by them. But in telepathy we know nothing of the kind. It is easy to talk about "brain-waves," but no such waves are known. We are absolutely in the dark as to the physical basis of telepathy, if it has one. If it has not, if it is a super-sensible process, as Mr Gerald Balfour believes, it proves that mind is not entirely dependent on brain, but has a separate existence and activity. Its after-death continuance is therefore possible.

Passing to another kind of phenomenon, we find that a sitter with a medium (trance or clairvoyant) will often have his relatives named, messages sent to the living ones, and all kinds of true and characteristic remarks made about old times, by a soi-disant departed friend, who is trying to prove his identity, and of whose existence the medium so far as is ascertainable - has never known. This happens even when sitters go under false names, to mediums in distant cities. Says the late Professor James:

"In the trances of this medium (Mrs Piper) I cannot resist the conviction that knowledge appears which she has never gained by the ordinary waking use of her eyes and ears and wits. What the source of this knowledge may be I know not, and have not the glimmer of an explanatory suggestion to make; but from admitting the fact of such knowledge I can see no escape." - Proceedings, Society for Psychical Research, vol. xii. pp. 5, 6.

The orthodox psychical-research supposition is that the knowledge is transmitted from the mind of the sitter, if it is in the possession of the latter. But, going a step farther, we find that in some of these sittings true things are said - and things characteristic of the alleged spirit - which the sitter does not know, but which are verified by reference to some distant person. Telepathy from the sitter is thus ruled out. Finally we arrive at the famous "cross-correspondences" in which the same message is given through several different sensitives, or a message is split up "on the other side" and sent piecemeal through different mediums, the sense being unperceived until the Research Officer of the S.P.R. joins together the various pieces, as one fits in the sections of a jig-saw puzzle. These cross-correspondences indicate will, initiative, and intelligence, and thus carry forward the evidence a considerable step farther than the mere display of somehow supernormally acquired knowledge by a single medium; for in this latter case we may assume a fishing up of clusters of dead memories in a cosmic reservoir, these memories being no longer real personalities, any more than the clusters of molecules which still form the body of a dead person (and are sufficient to identify him by) are that person. This supposition of gradual disintegration of memories, parallel with the bodily decomposition, has been held by some psychical researchers, and is a legitimate hypothesis; but the cross-correspondences, by indicating intelligence, initiative, and will, suggest the full personality of the deceased person, rather than any mere decaying group of memories destitute of personality or self-consciousness.

This is the most important line of evidence, but there is strong corroboration from other sides, such as veridical apparitions and other spontaneous phenomena. The summing up of the whole matter is that those who have studied the evidence with the most scrupulous care - as, for instance, Sir Oliver Lodge, F. W. H. Myers, and Richard Hodgson - have come to the conclusion that things certainly happen which recognised scientific theories will not cover, and that some of these happenings are best explained by the hypothesis of the continued existence and agency of disembodied minds.

I am not concerned to defend the position - if there is one - of the spiritualist. I am not a spiritualist. But I think there is more sense even in its absurd extremes than in the absurder extremes of the opposite camp. What is required in spiritualism is merely a more rigorous application of scientific method. Spiritualists, once convinced, are apt to accept all phenomena at their face value. They must be more critical-must learn to judge each case on its own merits. But their principles are right, and that is the main thing. They observe, experiment, and infer, instead of reposing blind faith in other authorities. These are the principles which we wish to inculcate and emphasise. As Myers well puts it, paralleling the "cardinal theological virtues" of faith, hope, and charity:

"We must maintain, in old theological language, that the intellectual virtues have now become necessary to salvation. Curiosity, candour, care; - these are the intellectual virtues; - disinterested curiosity, unselfish candour, unremitting care. These virtues have grown up outside the ecclesiastical pale; Science, not Religion, has fostered them; nay, Religion has held them scarcely consistent with that pious spirit which hopes to learn by humility and obedience the secrets of an unseen world. Here surely our new ideals suggest not opposition but fusion. To us as truly as to monk or anchorite the spiritual world is an intimate, an interpenetrating reality. But its very reality suggests the need of analysis, the risk of misinterpretation; the very fact that we have outgrown our sacerdotal swaddling-clothes bids us learn to walk warily among pitfalls which call for all the precautions which systematic reason can devise.

"Upon a new scheme of beliefs, attractive to the popular mind as the scheme which I prefigure, a swarm of follies and credulities must inevitably perch and settle. Yet let those who mock at the weaknesses of 'modern Spiritualism' ask themselves to what extent either orthodox religion or official science has been at pains to guard the popular mind against losing balance upon contact with new facts, profoundly but obscurely significant. Have the people's religious instructors trained them to investigate for themselves? Have their scientific instructors condescended to investigate for them? Who should teach them to apply to their 'inspirational speakers' any test more searching than they have been accustomed to apply to the sermons of priest or bishop? What scientific manual has told them enough of the hidden powers within them to prevent them from ascribing to spiritual agency whatever mental action their ordinary consciousness may fail to recognise as its own?

"The rank and file of spiritists have simply transferred to certain new dogmas - for most of which they at least have some comprehensible evidence - the uncritical faith which they were actually commended for bestowing on certain old dogmas, - for many of which the evidence was at least beyond their comprehension. In such a case ridicule is no remedy. The remedy lies, as I have said, in inculcating the intellectual virtues; in teaching the mass of mankind that the maxims of the modern savant are at least as necessary to salvation as the maxims of the mediaeval saint." - Proceedings, Society for Psychical Research, xv. p. 124; also Human Personality, ii. pp. 304, 305.

Many spiritualists do, of course, live up to these intellectual virtues which psychical research inculcates; but there is an inevitable tendency to slacken in our critical demands, when once personal conviction is attained. We must keep the standard of evidence high, must examine each piece of new evidence on its own merits, for the benefit of those who, not having gone through our own course of education in these matters, have not yet reached our own position; and, still more, for the benefit of those who are too apt to sit down in lethargic belief and to accept anything that squares with that belief, without inquiry or criticism. "Prove all things" may be a counsel of perfection, but it is a good ideal to aim at. It will not result in the amassing of much creedal stock, but it will assure us against hoarding rubbish. Therefore let us be vigorous in our application of the intellectual virtues of candour and care, as well as of the other member of the trinity (curiosity), with which we are, most of us, already sufficiently endowed.


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


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