Sir Oliver Lodge

Sir Oliver Lodge

President of the Radio Society, Physical Society, British Society, Society for Psychical Research and Rontgen Society. Professor of Physics in the University of Liverpool, Principal of the University of Birmingham. Knighted. Sent a radio message one year before Marconi.

On the Asserted Difficulty of the Spiritualistic Hypothesis from a Scientific Point of View

 - Oliver Lodge -

          STUDENTS OF orthodox science undoubtedly feel great difficulty about admitting the possibility of spiritual agency or the interaction of other Intelligences, even under exceptional circumstances, in mundane affairs. The idea seems contrary to the whole trend of what may be called Newtonian science, though it is true that Newton himself did not scruple to write a General or Theological Scholium as a conclusion to his great work.

To illustrate the difficulty often felt by psychical investigators themselves about anything like a spiritual interpretation of the facts, the truth of which nevertheless they fully admit on grounds of personal experience, I might quote from Professor Richet and other continental explorers; but it will suffice if I use as a text a paragraph from a recent writer in the Proceedings of the S.P.R. for 1929 about the meaning of certain Writings which he himself had unconsciously produced and which to superficial appearance seemed inspired by people who were dead. The paragraph runs thus:

" ... Regarded as a scientific working hypothesis, spiritism does not seem to me to be a very hopeful avenue of investigation. The spirit hypothesis has a delusive appearance of simplicity, but so also had Kepler's hypothesis of guiding angels. And how remote this was from the complex reality of Einstein's description of gravitation! In fact if these supernormal mental phenomena depend on the whims and caprices of departed spirits, then I for one despair of ever being able to discover any law and order in them."

Undoubtedly there is some difficulty, in our present state of comparative ignorance, about specifying or formulating the spiritistic hypothesis in any precise and so to speak scientific manner; for it is an appeal to the activity of unknown agents, acting by unknown methods, under conditions of which we have no experience, and by means of which we are unaware. We get into touch, or appear to get into touch, with these agencies only when they have affected material objects, for instance someone's brain, thereby stimulating muscles so as to produce results which appeal to our normal senses.

But the admission that we cannot understand how agents work does not justify our denial of the existence of such working. A good deal of modern mathematical physics is in the same predicament. We do not really understand how the properties of the ether, or of what it is now the fashion to call "space-time," act in producing the material effect we call weight or gravitation. We know a good deal about it; we can specify with precision the law of "weight" in so far as it imitates the resultant of an independent and unscreened attraction of every particle for every other. We can say that the earth acts nearly as if its whole mass were concentrated at its centre, that the law of force is different inside and outside, so that it changes abruptly when the surface is penetrated, and that the force attains a peak value at the surface, sloping down differently on the two sides. We can speak of the state of strain or "potential" to which the force is due, say that it is continuous across the boundary, we can give the law of its variation with distance, and so on. Newton, in fact, correctly formulated the whole theory of gravitation considered as action at a distance, but the true mechanism of what seems like a condition of strain or warp in space brought about by the very existence of matter, was beyond him, just as it is still beyond us. In philosophic mood, Newton was never satisfied with his mode of specification. It merely gave the resultant effect of something that simulated the direct attraction of one body for another across apparently empty space; he had to leave the inner meaning of such mysterious action for future discovery.

Einstein discarded the attraction or force exerted by a body at a distance, and replaced it by a geometry of space which would account for, or at least express, the observed behaviour in a more intimate and so to speak less magical manner. When a registering thermometer, with a steel index, is "set" by means of a magnet acting through the glass, the index is really moved by the analogous but different modification of space (or ether) that we call a magnetic field. An inert body can only be perturbed or guided by something in immediate contact with it; even though the particular modification of that "something," which enables it so to act, may be due to the neighbourhood of a distant mass of matter, for reasons which remain to be explored.

The fact that we sometimes have to postulate an unknown agency does not justify our attributing anything capricious to that agency. We are ignorant of how the gravitational agent acts, but we know that it acts in accordance with law and order, so that the results can he duly predicted. Einstein's view (if we may call it Einstein's, though in one form or another it must have been vaguely held by many) is after all not so very different from Kepler's asserted hypothesis. What Kepler meant by "guiding angels controlling the planets" (assuming that he used that phrase) I do not know; but I am sure he meant nothing capricious. He must have meant that an unknown something guided the planets in their path; and that is a paraphrase of the modem view. The something is now often spoken of as a warp in space - acting as a sort of groove. In so far as Kepler postulated something in immediate touch with a planet and acting directly on it, he had what now appears to he truth on his side; his thesis being perhaps nearer the ultimate truth, though far less practically useful, than Newton's delightfully, simple quantitative expression for the indirect action of a distant body.

In order to illustrate direct guidance by contact action, we may cite the familiar example of a gramophone needle, which automatically reproduces a prearranged tune, simply by following the path of least resistance. What else, after all, can an inert thing do? That is the meaning of inertia. Animated things are not inert: they need not take the easiest path. A man may climb the Matterhorn for fun. But inanimate unstimulated matter never behaves with any initiative or spontaneity: it is strictly inert. Atoms never err nor make mistakes, they are absolutely law-abiding. If they make an apparent error, if a locomotive engine leaves its track, we call it a catastrophe. All machinery works on that principle; every portion takes the easiest path. It is true that to get a coherent result there must have been planning and prearrangement. Certainly! In all cases of automatic working, whether biological or other, that must be an inevitable preliminary. But explorers of the mechanism will detect no signs of mental action by their instruments or their senses. To infer a determining or controlling cause they must philosophise. Indeed, we may go a step further and emerge from the past into the present: A wireless set talks like a gramophone, and to one accustomed only to gramophones it would seem barbarously superstitious to urge that in the wireless case some (possibly whimsical and capricious) operator was actually in control. Statements may be unpalatable, and yet be true.

Now return to gravitation. Planets behave as if they were attracted by the sun. That is certainly true. But what is attraction? A train is not attracted to its destination; lightning is not attracted to a chimney; but it gets there none the less, by continually taking the easiest path. So it is with a planet. Indeed, one might say that everything inert takes the only path open to it, it has no option. The law is a sort of truism. But the principle, once recognised, has been formulated into a clue; the Principle of Least Action can be expressed mathematically. Once postulate that, and the behaviour of the inanimate portions of the cosmos can be accurately deduced.

The modern statement that the planets move along the line of least resistance, or the easiest path, makes their motion rather closely analogous to that of a railway train guided by the rails. The path and destination of a train are determined by the continual direct influence of the rails, which make it easier for the train to travel in the right direction than to jump them and go astray. We might, if we chose, admit that the path was laid down or determined by the mentality of the surveyors and designers of the route; but a Martian spectator with partial information might still wonder at the apparent intelligence which guided one part of a train to Manchester, and another part to Liverpool, in accordance with the wishes of the passengers or the labels on the coaches. If told that an invisible guardian angel switched over the points to produce this result, he might resent the suggestion as absurdly unscientific and preposterous; as on a purely mechanistic view it would be.

After having studied trains for some time, our spectator might begin to notice the novelty of a motor-car. His first tendency would be to look for the rails in that case also; and, finding none, he might superstitiously but correctly surmise that a guardian spirit was guiding the car to its destination. In this case, moreover, further experience would soon persuade him that he had to allow for an element of caprice. But even that is not fatal to the truth: he need not throw up his hands in despair. As soon as we introduce the activity of life and mind we get out of mere mechanism and the results are not easily formulated or predicted. The activities of an animal cannot be expressed in mathematical terms, and yet animal instincts and behaviour are subject-matter for scientific investigation. It is assumed that they obey laws of some kind. Science is not limited to the accurate data and laws of mathematical physics: and to claim that a hypothesis is unscientific because we cannot formulate it completely, or because we do not understand the method of working, or even because there is a certain amount of capriciousness about it, is more than we have any right to claim. Anthropology and sociology are less advanced sciences than physics and chemistry: they have to get on as best they can, with a profusion of data, and with the inevitable complications appropriate to live things. Let us not be put out of our stride by the fear of retaining, in modified form, some of the animistic guesses of primitive man. Experience may lead us, as it led him, to contemplate stranger modes of existence, and more whimsical phenomena, thin our long study of mechanism has led us to expect. We must put aside prejudice, be guided by the evidence, and strive for truth. The superficial simplicity of materialism has served us well, as a comprehensive covering, for many centuries, and we have made good progress under its protection; but it is beginning to get threadbare and inadequate, it is not coextensive with reality, and unsuspected influences are peeping through.

To sum up. A working hypothesis can be followed up and developed rationally without being metrically exact in its early stages. The important question about the spiritistic hypothesis is not whether it is simple or complicated, easy or puzzling, attractive or repellent, but whether it is true. Its truth can only be sustained or demolished by the continued careful critical and cautious method of enquiry initiated by the S.P.R. under the Presidency of a guiding spirit or guardian angel called Henry Sidgwick, with the active (and I believe continuing) co-operation of Edmund Gurney and Frederic Myers.

Let us suppose then that some day human survival and the continuance of personality beyond bodily death will be demonstrated so clearly that the whole world will accept it as naturally and instinctively as it now accepts that other once controverted theory of the motion of the earth round the sun at the incredible pace of nineteen miles a second. Would not the new conception have as revolutionary an influence on the outlook of humanity as ever the Copernican theory had! Surely it would be momentous in its consequences in many directions. Let me try to trace in a concluding chapter some of the implications of a universal acceptance of survival as a demonstrated fact. 


Other articles by Oliver Lodge

In Memory of Prof. Frederic W. H. Myers

Psychic Science

The Mode of Future Existence

What Science Means For Man

The Possibility of Survival from a Scientific Point of View

The Mechanism of Survival

Problems Raised by the Idea of Survival
Do We Survive?

Home | About Us | Latest News | Biographies | Articles | Photographs | Theory | Online Library | Links | Recommended Books | Contact Us | Glossary | Search


Some parts 2003