James Hyslop

James Hyslop

Professor of Logic and Ethics from 1889-1902 at Columbia University, New York. One of the most distinguished American psychical researchers, a prolific writer and the greatest American propagandist of survival. When Richard Hodgson died in 1905 Hyslop took his place as chief investigator of Mrs. Piper and devoted the following year to the organisation of a new American SPR. "I regard the existence of discarnate spirits as scientifically proved", said Hyslop in "Life After Death" (1918).

Theoretical Difficulties of a Future Life

 - James Hyslop -

          WE SHALL have to give illustrations of statements regarding the nature of another life, but we cannot do so without first warning readers of the difficulties under which we labor in determining their value. We have not expressed any certain conviction as to the nature of a spiritual world and its life; while we did indicate indifference to what it might be as long as it had no definite relation to our ethical obligations in this life. If rational at all, it must have some such relations, but they remain still to be determined. We have made only slight progress as yet in regard to the questions involved, except that of mere survival. The public forgets or is ignorant of what the great problems are, and so assumes that it is enough if we prove survival to carry with it any idea it pleases about the nature of the life which makes it possible. It has not discriminated between two wholly distinct problems, and the different methods involved in solving them.

The two problems are (1) that of survival and (2) that of the nature of the world in which we survive. The first of these is very easy of solution compared with the second, and from the painfully slow progress before the public of the first problem, we can imagine what the second will be. The solution of the first of the problems is effected by satisfying three requirements. (a) The exclusion of fraud and secondary personality from the facts which claim to be communication from the dead. (b) The acquisition of supernormal information bearing upon the personal identity of the dead. (c) The exclusion of the telepathic hypothesis in explanation. Now I regard it as a comparatively easy task to satisfy each and all of these conditions. Those who have not investigated the subject live in the blissful illusion that it is extremely difficult to satisfy any one or all of these conditions. But this illusion grows out of ignorance and indolence. If they knew in the least how to experiment, they would find it a very easy thing to exclude every condition tending to discredit the facts. It is respectability only that enables the skeptical attitude to linger and persist in its difficulties. I regard it as perfectly easy to prove survival and I shall here take it as proved with sufficient clearness to justify ignoring the objectors to it. The evidence is clear and conclusive, and indeed so overwhelmingly plentiful that concession to ignorance and skepticism is no longer justifiable.

But when it comes to the second problem I would express a calmer judgment. That is not so easy. It involves complications which the other does not have. Had the means been supplied for experiment in this field the second problem would not be so hard as it seems. The difficulty in getting the public to see what it is and what the funds needed for it are is a greater problem apparently than that of experiment. It would be an easy task to perform had the experimenter the means and the help to carry out the necessary experiments, but most people, scientific men as well as laymen, expect the case to be decided over night and by accepting the messages in accordance with the ordinary interpretations of language, and so approve or disapprove of the "revelations" according to their prejudices for or against the case. This is another inexcusable delusion on the part of both sides.

Now let us examine something of the method involved in settling whether personal consciousness survives death. We start with the assumptions which the materialists teach us; namely, that consciousness is a function of the brain and that all knowledge is derived by normal sense perception. Now telepathy negatives the latter and shows that some knowledge can come to us independently of normal sense perception. But it does not prove survival. We must obtain intelligent messages bearing on the personal identity of deceased persons not known to the percipient or subject through whom such messages come.

Now it is perfectly easy to obtain conditions under which all normal knowledge of particular persons has been excluded. All that we have to do is to take a total stranger to a psychic and make a verbatim and complete record of what is said or occurs there, and then determine whether the contents are possibly due to guessing or chance coincidence, whether conscious or subconscious, and whether they articulately represent facts once known to the alleged deceased person. That is perfectly easy to do and it is just as easy to exclude any known telepathy from the explanation. But in securing this evidence of personal survival we do not require to raise any questions regarding the conditions for communicating the messages. It suffices to know that they represent supernormal information, after excluding all possible sources of normal explanation. We do not require to know anything about even the physiological conditions that affect the result, any more than we require to know anything about the spiritual processes by which the result is produced. It is the facts that exclude normal explanations which decide the case, provided the incidents relate to the personal identity of the dead. The subconscious of the medium may color them as much as you please or bury them up in its own chaff, provided only that they are evidently not of its own creation and give evidence that they are not such. We do not need to know how the thing is done. The facts when supernormal demand an extraneous source, whatever their relation to processes by which they are produced.

But when it comes to accepting statements about the nature of a spiritual world it is a different matter. We have then to understand something about the conditions under which information about it comes to us. This general principle is even true about intercourse between the living about the material world, though the difficulties are not so numerous or so perplexing to overcome. When a man tells us that he has made a new discovery in science we require to know how he did it and to ascertain whether the conditions under which he announces the discovery make it truthful or not. And this in a world where we have a tolerably easy command over things. But when it comes to telling us about a transcendental world it is not so easy. It is not enough to get statements about it. We have to confirm them and to know something of the conditions by which they get to us. In proving personal identity it does not make any difference whether communications are distorted or not, so we can recognize that they are not primarily products of the living mind. We are trying, in deciding that issue, only to ascertain whether personality in some way survives, and we do not require to know whether this personality requires a bodily connection of any kind or not. It may be anything you please in so far as that limited issue is concerned. But when we ask whether personality has a spiritual body or not; whether it is a functional stream in the universal energy of the cosmos, or whether it is an attachment of a spaceless point of force, we have a very different situation confronting us.

The difficulties which we encounter in the endeavor to ascertain the nature of a spiritual world manifest themselves even in proving survival; for the messages are not all of them evidential. They are, many of them, not only non-evidential, but so clearly subconscious that we have to accept the evidential matter under the handicap of subliminal coloring. I have never known a spirit message to come without this coloring. The language and limitations of the medium are always apparent in the best of material. This liability is conceded by spiritualists themselves, but they rarely if ever reckon with it in their treatment of the facts. Besides they do not adequately distinguish in most cases between evidential incidents and subliminal chaff that can make no pretense whatever of spiritistic origin. The conditions may not wholly prevent transmission, but they serve in most cases as a restriction on free communication. What they are we do not know as yet and can only conjecture them along the broadest lines. We can imagine that the analogies of normal experience may enter into them. Thus the individual has to begin at birth to gradually acquire power to move his own organism and after years of patient endeavor to obtain such facility in it as we observe in normal experience. When an accident to the body occurs, like paralysis or illness of any kind that weakens control of the organism, even the living have gradually to recover that power. This is a fact so familiar to all of us that it does not require discussion. Now it is conceivable that a discarnate intelligence, having severed its connection with its own body would encounter tenfold, perhaps a thousand-fold, greater difficulties in acquiring power to control a new organism, with other connections and experiences belonging to a living soul, than it would have with its own organism, and these were great enough there, especially when the normal conditions were affected by accident or disease.

Now if we will only add to this difficulty the next one; namely, the necessity, perhaps, that all messages must either come through the mind of the psychic or be affected by the mental, physical, and moral habits of the psychic, and as a consequence be affected by these conditions, we shall see that we must always have a source of confirmation for our facts. In the study of personal identity, we have the testimony of the living to determine for us whether the communications are true or not, and our own experience in the physical world enables us to interpret their meaning. We find, too, that even the best messages are extremely fragmentary and confused, so that they are not testimony to the total material that was probably sent on its journey to the living. But subconscious coloring and contributions add immensely to the data that passes for spirit messages and we have to select from the mass those incidents which are clearly not subconscious fabrications, but which are verifiable by the living as supernormal information in spite of distortion by the mediumistic mind or organism through which they come. The fact of distortion suggests that all messages are subject to such influences and that proper discount has to be made for messages reporting the nature of a transcendental world.

It's not necessary to suppose that any purpose exists to distort them. It is inevitable, just as it is inevitable that any mind reporting impressions and narratives must act in accordance with its past experience and habits and express its conceptions in the mould of these prejudices, which we may call them. A bell always rings its own tone, no matter with what it is struck. A piece of wood gives its own sound in response to impact. It is the same with any physical object. A mirror reflects images according to the nature of its surface. A bell will not produce an opera; a piece of wood will not ring curfew; a mirror will not sing a song. Each object acts and reacts according to its own nature, and the human mind is no exception to this law. It must act along the line of its structure and habits. The amount of knowledge which it possesses determines the limits of its power to receive and express ideas. A mind which knows nothing but the commonest sensations cannot be made the vehicle for impressive oratory. It takes a mind of some intelligence to do this. A mediumistic mind must have some qualifications for expressing what comes to it from a transcendental world and its communications with such a world will be limited to its abilities and its experience as a vehicle for ideas of any kind.

If the spiritual world be only a replica of the physical and so expressible in the terms that are intelligible to us in the physical world, the main obstacle will be in getting communications at all. They might be self-explanatory, if that world could be described in our terms. But suppose it be quite different. The whole process will then encounter difficulties of which people little dream. Some would even go so far as to say that no possible conception of a transcendental world could be obtained, unless it had some points in common with the physical life, and this contention would be hard to refute. Let us take a good analogy.

Suppose that a man born blind but having hearing tried to tell his auditory experiences to a man who had lost his hearing, but retained his vision intact. How would such a person describe his experiences to the blind man? It would be in fact absolutely impossible for him to communicate any intelligible idea of his auditory experiences. There is nothing in common between the sensations of sight and hearing. All that the blind man could say about his auditory sensations, or the deaf man about his visual sensations would convey nothing to the friend who had not the sense which the communicator retained. The only common element in such experiences might be the emotions which each had in his own experience. The visual experiences of the one might have the same kind of emotions accompanying his visual sensations that the other's hearing had in connection with audition. They could communicate with each other intelligibly only in terms of common emotions. The sensations and their meaning would be wholly absent for each of them, so far as common knowledge is concerned.

The process of communicating anything at all between the living is much the same. We have to possess a common language or we are much isolated from each other as spirits can be supposed to be from the living. Signs, where language does not exist, are no exception to this statement. Language is only an auditory sign as mimicry and imitation are to vision. We have to agree on symbols beforehand in order to communicate at all. Language in that way, combined with imitation on the part of the younger generation, builds up a vast system of symbols of common experiences, where we assume that we are alike in constitution and experiences, and thus we come to be able to symbolize what we know, and the person hearing the symbols can use his own experience for understanding what we mean.

This means that, naturally or normally we cannot communicate with each other at all, even among the living, and that we have had to develop an arbitrary and conventional system of symbols for social and other purposes. And all this is true in spite of the advantages which we enjoy in the possession of a physical organism and sensory relations which do not subsist between the living and the dead. But when a spirit is bodiless, as we know bodies, and without the conditions for producing on the living the same impressions as a living organism and its speech can do, how much more difficult it must be for the dead to communicate with us. It is quite natural to believe it absolutely impossible, but any such belief would be based upon assumptions that might not be true, though we are not familiar with anything in normal experience to make it impossible. How can a disembodied reality exercise any influence on an embodied one? I do not ask this question to imply a negative answer, but to suggest the difficulty of the problem which the alleged fact of communication creates. But it is certain that the difficulties must be greater than between the living, where we regard it as naturally impossible and achievable only by conventional means.

Now if the transcendental world be totally different from the physical in its essential characteristics, how can we expect any ready commerce of ideas between it and us? Suppose it be a mental world altogether, how can we expect our sensory ideas to represent it? Assuming it to be a purely mental world, we should encounter at least the same difficulties that we meet in our physical life when we try to tell each other what we mean by mental phenomena. Indeed we cannot do it in sensory terms and we have to rely upon symbols of common sensory experiences with the hope that common mental events may become intelligible to each other by association with the sensory. Uniformities of coexistence and sequence between mental and sensory may enable us to suggest to each other what we mean by our mental states, and indeed it has been this very antithesis between the mental and the physical that has given rise to a dualistic philosophy and shown the difficulty of making our inner life intelligible in sensory symbols.

Let me illustrate what I have said. First a man familiar with steam engines could not make clear to an Esquimau what such an engine is, even by the use of the English language, so far as an Esquimau would know it, much less if the Esquimau did not know any English. He might call it a horse with wheels and fire for power, but this would not convey to him a correct conception of it. He might convey some idea of its motion by comparing this motion with that with which the Esquimau was familiar, by saying for instance, that in so many degrees of movement of the sun it went such and such a distance with which the Esquimau was familiar in his own movements. He would find that the engine had an incredible velocity compared with his own, but this would not help him to any clear conception of what the engine was. It would only give some analogy of its behavior compared with his own. It would not give him a mental picture of what the engine was.

It should be clear therefore, what the difficulties are in trying to form a conception of a transcendental world. If it were completely analogous to the physical world the same language would describe it that describes the physical. But conceding its resemblance to this life, with nothing but the supersensible to distinguish it from our sensory ideas, we should encounter all the difficulties in the process of communication in our effort to obtain a clear idea of it. These difficulties represent or are represented in the fragmentary and confused nature of the messages coming from its inhabitants, in the limitations imposed by subconscious conditions through which the messages have to come, constituted by the experience and prejudices of the medium, and perhaps many other obstacles. Then in addition they lack, at present, the confirmation we desire.

But now suppose that the spiritual world is wholly different from the physical. Suppose that supersensible means more than merely inaccessible to sense perception, though like it in form. Suppose it means a purely mental world in which the forms of time and space, as perceived by sense, do not participate. What probability is there that we can form any intelligible conception of what it is like, even if communication were perfectly easy? Here we would seem to have conditions under which adequate ideas would be impossible, though we might have reason to believe that the stream of consciousness survived.

Now in addition to the possibly radical difference between a physical and transphysical world, let us suppose what is also possible, that there may be either or both of the following conditions associated with communications from the transcendental. (1) That communicators are in an abnormal mental condition when communicating. (2) That the method of communication is by telepathic hallucinations produced in the living by the dead.

It was Dr. Hodgson that advanced the first of these hypotheses and I defended it after him for a long time. But much occurred to make me pause in my allegiance to it. The work of recent years showed me that the "mental picture" method undoubtedly prevailed in certain psychics and certain conditions, probably, of all psychics. It explained so much that the first hypothesis seemed to be unnecessary or untrue. But, while I am convinced that the terms "trance" and "dream state" do not correctly describe the condition of the communicator, there is still much to suggest and to sustain the theory of some mental condition not normal as we might understand the term.

It is possible that two other conceptions of the condition may describe it and explain the similarity of the situation to that described by "trance" or "dream stake." I refer to the "Apparent Analogies with Aphasia" and the "Associates of Constrained Attention," both of which have been discussed elsewhere at great length. It is possible that the situation may be fully explained by either one of these without the other. But either of them does much to explain the similarity of the results to what would occur in a trance or dream state. They would both of them represent some sort of abnormal mental condition, though having analogies with the relation between voluntary and spontaneous thinking with the living and the differences of effect on the organism. But this aside for the moment, the main point is that the relation of a discarnate spirit to a new organism not its own and when severed from such a relation as the soul had when living, might prevent any such causal action on a living organism as it had been accustomed to when living. Analogies with aphasia might readily occur in that situation without involving any internally abnormal mental condition for the spirit. But it would be some sort of an abnormal condition even if not mental and if only in the physical condition of the psychic and the physical relation of the organism to the communicating spirit. Though that does not confirm any theory of abnormal mental conditions in the spirit, it does indicate important difficulties in the way of giving us adequate knowledge of what a spiritual world is.

Again, suppose this hypothesis of abnormal mental conditions in the spirit be untrue, it is pretty clear that the process of communicating by mental pictures is a common one. This would seem to imply that the spiritual world was a mental one and that thoughts are transmitted from the mind of the spirit in the form of "pictures" or hallucinations adapted to any sense and so seem to represent that world as like our own in all its external characteristics. Apparitions representing spirits in their earthly clothing, and objects exactly as known among the living convey the impression to the living that the transcendental world is exactly like our own in its form with no difference but inaccessibility to the physical senses. Ethereal organisms and senses are supposed. This is the reason that the layman has always accepted these phenomena with their superficial interpretation. But a critical study of large masses of phenomena and the perplexing problem of "spirit clothes" tend to show that what we take for reality is a telepathic hallucination produced by the dead in the minds of the living, and so prevents our forming any such conception of that world as the phenomena seem superficially to imply. So long as we do not attribute form to thoughts, such apparitions would only reflect the form of action or product of the mind on which the discarnate thought had acted, and we should still be left in the dark as to the real nature of a spiritual world, except that it might be one of "pure thought," whatever that expression may mean.

It is quite conceivable that the transcendental world should have the same character as the physical in respect of space properties and yet this "mental picture" method be the only way to reveal its existence. This is actually the situation in our present existence, according to the idealists. We do not require to suppose the antithesis to be what it seems in some of our phenomena of sense perception. In spite of the idealistic interpretation of knowledge and mental phenomena we conceive the world to be what we call physical, and sensations are "mental pictures," so that the nature of a transcendental or spiritual reality may remain, in relation to the method of revealing it to us, just what the physical world is to sensory knowledge. But the difficulties and perplexities in the process of learning what it is may yet be as great as I have indicated.

There is one more difficulty of very considerable importance which seldom or never receives notice. It is the liability to differences of opinion about the spiritual world on the part of its inhabitants. We never think of this, or we ignore it if we do think of it. It is the habit to assume that a message from the spiritual world tells the facts about it, and we forget to suppose that it may be nothing more than the communicator's opinion about it. That opinion may be good or bad according to the person's equipment to tell about it. Now if we add to this situation the hypothesis that the spiritual world is a purely mental one the differences of opinion about it will be extraordinarily great. And we find them so in reports about it. Let us see the actual situation about the physical world among the living.

Two people can hardly describe a physical object in the same way. One will mark features that the other does not notice and the description as a whole will not be the same in the two instances. Then if one of the two is an educated person and the other ignorant the accounts will differ so much often as not to recognizably refer to the same thing. Then if the description in any respect depends on opinions about it instead of mere observation of facts in sense perception, the differences will vary out of all calculation. Suppose a common peasant is asked to describe the moon. Compare his account of it with that of a learned astronomer and we should not imagine that the two were describing the same thing unless they both used the word "Moon." The astronomer's account would be mixed up with his theories about it and would not be based on the limited observations of the peasant. His theories about it would be a part of the description. It is the same with every object of existence. The scientific man's account of it would be quite different from that of the common man.

Now when we allow for differences of sensory natures the two might differ radically from each other in describing what they see or feel. The color blind person will not see what the color perceiver can see. Training and education of the senses may enable one man to see what another cannot see, or even make the same person see at one time what he could not see at another. In each and all experience and various interpretations of sense perception may introduce opinions into our ideas of reality and instead of reporting what we see we will inevitably report the results of what we believe about an object rather than what we actually see. There is no uniformity of conception of the physical world and people's accounts of it vary as much as do the accounts of a spiritual world. But we do not sufficiently reckon with this circumstance in estimating the revelations of a spiritual world. We get into the habit of accepting without question what is reported of that world on the ground that it comes from a spirit, after we have removed our skepticism of their existence. We think spirits are to be believed because they are spirits and we do not practise critical ways as we would regarding the statements of the living. People who read fiction and the newspapers do it for amusement, not for instruction or study. We have been taught to believe that a spiritual existence is such that only the truth can come from its inhabitants. But there is no scientific reason for believing this of that world, while the facts we get tend to prove the very opposite, namely, that the statements are more unreliable than anything we obtain from the living about their own earthly existence.

Even if the transcendental world were like the physical world in its formal characteristics, or in all others save their non-sensory influence, we might expect the accounts of it to be imperfect and varying. We find it so with the living, as I have remarked. If its inhabitants are in any way abnormal in their mental life, the effect of that on their communications would have to be expected. I do not assert or assume that they are so, but we know so little opposed to this hypothesis, and so much in accord with it, that we have to allow for its possibility. But if it be a purely mental world, we may imagine that the differences in opinion about it would be as great as the differences of opinion among the living. Add to this the possibility that the cranks among the living still retain their ideas and identity and may be those who are more interested in communicating than the better developed, and we can imagine what a chaos of ideas would be communicated about that life. Make it a dream life, for that type at least, and what unity could we expect in the accounts of different communicators. Then add to all this the fact that all communications are fragmentary and many are confused, and we again have a situation justifying the utmost reservations on the messages about that life. We might well nigh suppose it impossible to obtain any clear idea about it at all. But after centuries of work we might construct some intelligent conception of it, after the manner in which astronomers have outlined the stars and their relations, or the physiologists the human organism and its functions under the aid of the microscope and the scalpel. But each communication, possibly affected by all these limitations added to those of the psychic through which they come, and nothing can be accepted until verified, and that verification is a task whose magnitude can hardly be measured as yet.

All that we can do at present is to compare the casual results of personal experience in communications or alleged communications until we can ascertain a unity that is not the effect of collusion between the parties or of common education. When we have the means and the men to carry on experiments for a long period of time we may make some advance on the problem. But the messages cannot be accepted as an unquestioned revelation in any instance. The material has to be treated as we would any statement of a living man. It must be subjected to critical study and comparison for a long period of time and from various psychics. In ordinary life, our own experience is an effective guide for measuring statements about things. We have to determine the probabilities of any man's account of some distant region by its relation to our own experience, according as that is wide or narrow, and we can safely assume sufficient common elements to estimate the probabilities to some extent.

But when it comes to estimating the probabilities of what is said about a spiritual world, the normal man has no criterion to go by in his ordinary experience. Only the few can even claim the right to speak, and what they say has to be discounted for the influence of the subconscious and the prejudices established by normal experience, for the differences of opinion on the part of communicators, for the possibility that the conditions of communicating are sufficiently abnormal to affect the messages, for the certainty that messages are fragmentary, for the fact that they are often confused, for the possibility that different levels of spiritual development may affect the nature of communications, and for other possible limitations, so that we have before us one of the most perplexing problems science ever attacked, when we try to ascertain what such a spiritual world is like. Critical habits of mind, far beyond those usual with the people most interested, will have to be cultivated and practised, if any intelligible conception of the matter be possible. There are common elements in many of the messages from different sources, but there are also differences which are intelligible on the theory that it is a mental world, but they do not yet make us able to estimate its nature with any assurance.


The article above was originally entitled 'Difficulties of the Problem' and was taken from James Hyslop's "Life After Death. Problems of the Future Life and Its Nature" (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd, 1918).

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