Simon Newcomb

1835-1909. Canadian-born American astronomer and mathematician who was the world's most celebrated scientist at the end of the 19th century. Co-founder and first president of the American SPR. A giant in the field of celestial mechanics, his work on the orbital motion of the planets of the Solar System was the cornerstone of the nautical and astronomical almanacs of the United States and Great Britain until as recently as 1984. Albert Einstein acknowledged the importance of Newcomb's work in the development of his own theory of relativity.

Modern Occultism

Part 2 | Part 3

 - Simon Newcomb -

          WHEN EMINENT men of science announce discoveries of great interest it is an obvious general rule that their conclusions receive respectful consideration and, in the absence of strong reasons to the contrary, are accepted without serious question. But there is an exception to this rule so curious that it may well deserve our attention. Among the most important questions with which thought has been engaged are those of the possible modes of interaction between mind and mind. Coupled with this is the question of the direct action of mind upon matter, or of matter upon mind without physical agency. Ideas of this subject are older than civilization and arise so naturally that nothing but suggestion is necessary to implant them in the mind of the child. Discredited by the general trend of modern thought, the affirmative view has very generally been classed with superstition as belonging to a stage of intellectual development that the world has now left behind it. Belief in witchcraft vanished from the minds of civilized men more than two centuries ago, and with it disappeared the belief in every form of mental interaction otherwise than through the known organs of sense. But now men of eminence, whose opinion is entitled to the greatest respect, are informing us that the instincts of our ancestors did not err so greatly as we have supposed and that beliefs that our fathers called superstitious are well grounded in the regular order of nature. At least three scientific philosophers of the highest standing have placed themselves on record as accepting this view. Two of them, Sir Oliver Lodge and Professor William Barrett, have, during the past year, informed us that, not only is the direct transference of impressions from one mind to another a fact, but the spiritual world, which the thought of our time has been removing further and further from our everyday experience until it seemed likely to vanish from intellectual sight, is a reality knocking at our doors.

If these are truths, we can scarcely exaggerate their importance. Our most cherished aspirations and the consolations that religion offers to the dying and the bereaved are taken from the realm of sentiment and placed on the sure pedestal of science. A new view of mind is opened out, to the development of which we can set no limit. Accepting it, a system of conveying impressions from mind to mind at great distances, and of reading the secret thoughts of our fellows, seems more likely than it would have seemed a century ago that electricity would enable us to communicate with our antipodes. With such prospects opened out to us by scientific authorities so high, it certainly seems more appropriate that the skeptic, if such there be, should make known his reasons for the faith that is in him - perhaps we should say for his lack of faith - than that the doctrines should be treated as unworthy of attention.

A glance at the state of public opinion upon the subject will serve to guide the course of our thoughts. The class that fully accepts the views in question, notwithstanding its eminent respectability, is probably small in numbers. Between this class and those who entirely reject the views, as at least groundless, if not unworthy of consideration, there is an intermediate class holding that phenomena known as "occult" are exhibited that science has not yet satisfactorily explained. Their view has recently been happily stated by an able writer in the Saturday Review: "The existence of abnormal phenomena which science is only beginning to take notice of, a dim region of strange things which, even if they can be proved not to be supernatural, are at any rate outside the limits of organized experience," has been proved by the work of the Society for Psychical Research. "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy" has never ceased to express a feeling of the same general nature in the minds of intelligent men, and is at least one article of a creed always lending hope to the inquirer after the occult. This middle class, which thinks that there is something to learn in occultism, is certainly large, and perhaps makes up a majority of the intelligent community. It is to this class, as well as to that of believers, that the writer desires to address himself.

The personal element necessarily plays so large a part in any discussion of occultism that it may not be wholly out of place if the writer ventures on a brief statement of his own experience. The idea that the emotions of beloved relatives, sometimes at a great distance, might be agents in directing the various currents of feeling that run through the mind was imbibed in early childhood. Just how the idea originated he cannot say, but it is probably more common among children than we suspect. More than once, when hurrying home, he intently fixed his mind upon his mother with a strong desire that she should expect his coming, think about him, and prepare herself accordingly. But all these efforts proved failures. Another idea prevalent at a later period was that, by fixing the attention on someone sitting at a distance in front of you in church, you could move him to turn and look around him. But no systematic experiments in this direction were seriously attempted. When, in the early fifties, the great wave of spiritualism, with its rappings, table-movings, and communications from the dead, was reaching its height, he naturally took an interest in the subject. But what little he could see of these performances seemed so silly as to prejudice him against the whole subject.

About 1858 an agent of prime importance in the history of spiritualism is worthy of being recalled. A warm discussion of the pretensions of certain mediums in the columns of the Boston Courier ended with the offer, by an anonymous writer (understood to be Professor Felton, afterward president of Harvard University), to pay a large reward to any mediums who would, in the presence of a committee to be named by himself, perform any of their pretended feats - move a table without touching it, read a paper in a closed envelope, or produce a rap the cause of which could not be traced. The offer was promptly accepted by the leader of the Boston spiritualists, and several of the most famous mediums were brought from different parts of the country. The committee was three in number. At its head was Professor Louis Agassiz, and his coadjutors were two eminent scientific men of Cambridge. The sťances were held in the room of a Boston hotel. The result was a failure so complete that the professors felt humiliated to sit hour after hour and see nothing to enliven the proceedings. Some cabinet feats of tying and untying were attempted, but nothing was done in this line except very elementary tricks of legerdemain. The mediums could assign no better reason for their failure than the contempt of the spirits for men who disbelieved in their existence. A large measure of abuse was heaped upon the committee by the spiritualists, but no argument better than this was adduced in explanation of their failure.

After this the general attitude of the writer toward the subject was this: "I have no time to engage in the search after wonders. But tell me in any special case when I can go to a sťance with any reasonable chance of seeing something out of the usual order of nature, and I will avail myself of the opportunity with alacrity." What has especially struck him ever since has been the absence of any such opportunity. When he was told of wonderful phenomena, and inquired as to details, the stories were always about things that had happened long before. An inquiry where a medium of special power could be found elicited no answer but that her whereabouts was unknown and she had probably left the city.

But after many years of waiting, an opportunity was at last presented. The most wonderful performer yet seen came to Washington, and her feats were vouched for by a party of intelligent gentlemen who had been invited to a private exhibition of her powers. She was a Miss Lulu Hirst, of Georgia. It must be said that spiritualism, as well as any other theory, was ignored by her; but this was a minor matter, as the feats were of the same kind as those essayed by the professional spiritualists. A day or two later arrangements were made for another series of tests, in which the writer took part. Without going into details, which were published fully at the time, it will suffice to remark in the present connection that nothing was shown but what was obviously produced by the efforts of a muscular and dexterous young woman. She was quite frank and honest, without pretenses to be investigated or trickery to be exposed. Every surprising element in the narrative proved to be based on imperfections of observation and misconception of what was seen. Only one feature was needed to complete the picture. When the public performance of the "wonder-girl" came off, the press reporters were, of course, present, and their accounts of her feats as narrated in the journals rivaled or outdid the performances of the most celebrated mediums.

After the English Society for Psychical Research was organized by a body of men eminent in various fields of thought and action, the past failures of the writer did not prevent his taking part in the formation of an American society of the same kind, of which he had the honor to be elected the first president. Two years of experiment, study, and reading confirmed his ideas on the subject, but he remained for some time longer in occasional communication and cooperation with Dr. Hodgson, a well-known member of the English Society, then resident in Boston. He now invites the courteous consideration of the reader to the views of the subject that he has reached after a half-century of occasional study coupled with reading the best he could find in support of occultism.

Part 2 [top]

We may approach the heart of our subject in the easiest way by recalling two lines of research in which Sir William Crookes took a prominent part. The name of this eminent investigator has become a household word in science from his discovery that a singular radiance may be produced at the cathode of a vacuum tube through which an electric current is passing. He also observed curious phenomena of motion among material objects in his laboratory for which he could not assign any physical cause. Several years elapsed after these discoveries before either of them seemed destined to develop into an important branch of science. Then the one first mentioned suddenly assumed importance.

In 1895 Professor Rontgen made the astounding discovery that certain rays from a Crookes tube were capable of passing through opaque substances and imprinting themselves upon a photographic plate beyond. About the same time it was shown by Becquerel that rays of similar properties, but different in kind, could be produced from uranium. All the physical laboratories of the world were at once actively engaged in testing these discoveries and following up the lines of research they suggested. The result was the discovery of radium and the development of a new branch of physics - radioactivity, which has gone on expanding until it bids fair to revolutionize our views of matter, ether, and their relations. Works on radioactivity are multiplying, and physicists are looking for new theories of light and electricity that are to grow out of this field of research.

With this outcome in mind, let us trace up the lines of the other observation. More than ten years before Rontgen's work the Society for Psychical Research had been organized. The special purpose was the critical investigation of occult phenomena in general, especially those that seemed to show the passage of impressions from mind to mind without material agency. A discovery that seemed to inaugurate a revolution in science of mind was soon announced in the form of an experiment equally remarkable for its simplicity and its importance. A blindfolded person, called a "percipient," was seated at a table with pencil in hand and paper before him, while his senses, especially those of sight and touch, were protected so far as possible from the action of all external agencies. His mind was to be quite free from all prepossession and his will to be reduced as nearly as possible to a state of quiescence. The only action allowed was that of drawing geometrical figures on the paper quite at random, without intent to produce any special forms. Behind him, but not in contact or communication, was seated an "agent" with a miscellaneous collection of geometrical figures. While the agent concentrated his vision and attention as intensely as possible upon one of these, the percipient was instructed to allow his pencil to move on the paper without any prejudice in favor of any special form of motion. The process was repeated with one figure after another. When the drawings of the percipient were compared with the originals, a resemblance was found sufficient to show an undoubted relation between the reproduced figures and those on which the attention of the agent had been fixed.

The experiments were not confined to geometric forms. Others were devised with the common object of showing that the random actions of one mind were affected by the action of another mind in its neighborhood, without the use of words or signs. When the agent drew cards from a pack one by one, and at each drawing the percipient named a card at random, it was found that the proportion of correct guesses was much greater than it should have been as the result of chance, which would, of course, be 1 out of 52.

In one point these experiments had a great advantage over those of the Physicists. Crookes tubes and other apparatus required for experiments in radioactivity demand so much care and expense in their production that their use is confined to professional workers in physical laboratories. But the apparatus necessary to the demonstration of thought-transference abounds in every household. Men, women, paper, pencils, tables, screens, handkerchiefs for blindfolding, and cards make up a fairly complete list of essentials. The results to be ultimately expected from the experiments transcend in practical importance all that we can expect from the development of radioactivity. Such being the case, the natural anticipation was that thought-transference would become a branch of experimental psychology, the laws of which would form an important chapter in every treatise on this subject, and that apparatus for showing it would be as well known in every psychological laboratory as that for experimenting in X-rays is in every physical laboratory.

Twenty-five years have elapsed since the announcement, and what has been the outcome? Scientifically, nothing at all. The science of psychology has been behind few others in the extent of its development since the experiments described were begun. But if thought-transference is seriously treated in any treatise on this science the writer has not noticed it. The reason is not far to seek. No result relating to thought-transference has yet been reached that belongs to the realm of science. Science properly so called comprises the statement of laws or general facts. No collection of isolated events, however large it may be, forms a part of it. Radioactivity is a science because it is a general fact that everyone can verify that, if you organize a certain system of experiments, you can take a photograph through many opaque substances. That coal will burn when brought into contact with fire is a proposition belonging to the same domain. But if we could only say that someone in England had at some time made coal burn, then, a few years later, someone in Russia, then someone in America, and so on, such facts, though they mounted into the hundreds or the thousands, would not establish the law that coal was combustible, and therefore would not belong to science. The question of how the supposed burning came about in the special cases cited might be interesting, yet the process of investigation would be difficult if no careful experimenter were ever able to bring the combustion about.

So with thought-transference. In order that a scientific conclusion as to its reality may be reached, it is necessary to show under what conditions it takes place. The Psychical Society tried to determine, by a repetition of the experiments under various conditions, whether the action of the agent upon the percipient would pass through a screen, and how it varied with the conditions. When these questions could be answered, the first step would be taken toward placing the subject upon a scientific basis. But no result could ever be reached that was general in form. The nearest approach to a general proposition that could be formulated from all the experiments was: If you make the experiment you may possibly see what seems to show thought-transference, and you may not. The probability of success cannot be stated because we have no record of the failures, the number of which defies estimation. I have tried to learn whether during the past ten years the Psychical Society has done anything toward elucidating the subject. But nothing bearing on the case is found in its recent published proceedings. Would it be altogether unfair to put the conclusion in the form: Possibly you may succeed, but the more pains you take to avoid all sources of error, the less likely success will be?

During the past 15 years interest has been transferred from thought-transference to telepathy. The question of how, if an impression cannot be conveyed through a space of a few feet, it can yet dart from one city to another is one that, how strongly soever it may present itself, may rest in abeyance while we inquire about the seeming facts. These, as found in the fine volumes Phantasms of the Living, by Gurney and Myers, and in the publications of the Psychical Society, are too numerous to be summarized. But a typical example that will answer our present purpose is easy to give. A person is struck by a sudden hallucination, or has a vision or dream of a friend or relative, generally in distress. This impression is so vivid that some anxiety may be felt lest it correspond to a reality. Next morning, or as soon as the mail or telegraph can bring the news, it is learned that the friend or relative has either died at the time of the vision or has suffered some violent emotion. Great pains were taken to verify the authenticity of stories of this kind, and none were accepted unless deemed "veridical." Taking the hundreds of coincidences as they stand, and regarding each narrative as complete in itself, the conclusion that there must have been some causal connection between the distant event or emotion and the vision looks unavoidable. But may it not be that causes already known are sufficient to account for the supposed coincidences without introducing telepathy or any other abnormal agency? If such is the case, then the hypothesis of telepathy is purely gratuitous and uncalled-for, on the general principle that we never attribute events to new and unknown causes when we see that they are the natural results of known conditions. This is especially the case when the new causes deduced are so improbable and so far outside the line of our general experience as telepathy must be. The strongest believer in this agency must admit that its acceptance is not without difficulty. Everyone who sleeps in London is surrounded by several millions of minds within a radius of three or four miles. Among these are hundreds in a state of violent action or emotion. Scores are constantly in the throes of death. How do the inhabitants of London sleep on undisturbed by the Spiritual tumult? How is it that in the ordinary experience of life one person cannot divine the most intense feeling of another, even though he be near or dear, except by sight, touch, or hearing? So far as the writer is aware, the advocates of telepathy have evaded rather than grappled with these difficulties.

The question we shall now consider is whether there are not known causes at play that we should naturally expect to result in phenomena that seem to indicate telepathy. Those that I shall adduce are not all of one kind, but are made up of complex elements, each of which is familiarly known to all who carefully think and observe. First to be mentioned is the element of truth. Then will come the omission of important features from the narrative. I believe that Bacon remarked that men score only the hits, and ignore the misses. We also have unconscious exaggeration; the faculty of remembering what is striking and forgetting what is not; illusions of sense, mistakes of memory; the impressions left by dreams; and, finally, deceit and trickery, whether intentional or unconscious. Before reaching a conclusion we must inquire as to what we should naturally expect as the combined result of these agencies in the regular course of experience.

As to the first: error finds support in so entwining itself with truth that it is difficult to separate the two. Double personality, hypnotism, and especially the action of one mind on another by hypnotic suggestion, have been confused with telepathy through a supposed power of the operator to influence the will of his subject at a distance. The mystery that has very generally enveloped the subject of "animal magnetism" is so fertile in vague theories of abnormality that now, when the whole subject is placed on a scientific basis, the elimination of traditional and baseless ideas is by no means an easy task. The belief that a hypnotic operator influences his subject by telepathy is widely diffused through all classes of the community except professional psychologists. The latter are, I believe, practically unanimous in holding that no influence is exerted on the subject except through the medium of the senses, and that, if the subject is to act in a certain way in the absence of the operator, the latter must make known in advance the time and nature of the expected action. I am aware that Richet and perhaps other operators have found cases that seem telepathic, but a critical reading of their evidence shows it to be wholly inconclusive.

A course of events may appear ever so wonderful and incomprehensible by well-known agencies by mere omission, without deviating from the truth in any particular. I once examined an interesting case of this kind at the request of Dr. Hodgson. A naval ship had been wrecked in a storm off Cape Hatteras sonic years before, and most of those on board, including the captain, had perished. Before she sailed on her voyage one of her officers was seized with so strong and persistent a presentiment that the ship would be lost that he formally requested to be detached from her. This being refused, he left his post of duty and was tried by court martial for desertion. Dr. Hodgson desired me to see whether this story could be verified by the official records.

This was easily done, and the narrative was found to be substantially correct so far as it went. But it omitted to state that the officer had exhibited symptoms of mental aberration before his presentiment, that the latter was only one of a great number of wild fears that he had expressed to various parties, including his superior officer, and that several months elapsed after this before the ship sailed on her fateful voyage, she having in the meantime made several trips on the coast. When thus completed the story became altogether commonplace.

A coincidence between an emotion experienced by a distant person and the impression of that emotion in another at a distance can indicate a causal relation only when the coincidence is real and the impression unusual. In establishing the facts there is wide ground for error. We are all subject to errors of memory, especially if we have to state the exact time and circumstance of an act or impression. Probably few of us could tell all that we did the day before yesterday, hour by hour, without either some erroneous statement, the omission of some act, or the introduction of an event that belonged to a different day. The longer the time that elapses, the greater the liability to error. Writers on telepathy take too little account of these errors of memory. In the vast majority of cases the correction cannot be made, and the error goes on record as truth, when it becomes the basis for some remarkable coincidence. When this is not the case it passes into oblivion. If we set a net for errors that we cannot distinguish from truth, how shall we know that our catch is anything but error? it is only by having some independent test of the accuracy of a remembered event that we can be sure of its correctness. A written and dated document, if genuine, would always suffice for this purpose. But such support is almost if not quite universally wanting in the narratives of wonderful coincidences.

I only recall a single case in which the correctness of a telepathic narrative was tested by independent and conclusive authority. In the Nineteenth Century for July 1884, an article, "Apparitions," by Edmund Gurney and Frederic W. H. Myers, appeared that was justly regarded as affording, the most indisputable evidence ever adduced for the reappearance of a dead person. Sir Edmund Hornby, a judge of the Consular Court at Shanghai, had been visited during the night by a reporter desiring a copy of a decision that he was to deliver on the following morning. He rose from his bed, dictated what he had to say, and dismissed the reporter with a rebuke for having disturbed him. Next morning, on going to court, he was astounded by learning that the reporter, with whom he was well acquainted, had died suddenly during the night. Inquiring after the hour of the demise he found it to coincide with that of the nightly visitation. The authors also informed us in the article that the story was confirmed by Lady Hornby, who was mentioned in it and was cognizant of the circumstances.

This narrative was almost unique in that it admitted of verification. When it reached Shanghai it met the eyes of some acquainted with the actual facts. These were made known in another publication and showed that several months must have elapsed between the reporter's death and the judge's vision. The latter was only a vivid dream about a dead person. When the case was brought to the judge's attention he did not deny the new version and could only say he had supposed the facts to be as he had narrated them.

I cite this incident not merely to show how the most conclusive case of telepathy ever brought to light was invalidated when the facts were made known but to elucidate the further fact that a wonderful story may lose the element of surprise by quite natural and easily admitted additions and explanations. All the interest of such stories depends upon the element of wonder.

The looker-on feels most delight
Who least perceives the juggler's sleight.

It is positively humiliating to allow an amateur juggler to explain his extraordinary tricks. It humiliates one that he did not himself see how the thing was done. Why should we hesitate to ascribe any number of seemingly supernatural occurrences to the innumerable blunders that we know nearly every one of us is making in memory every day?

The statistical one-sidedness of all evidence in favor of telepathy, apparitions, and other forms of supernormal mental action must be considered, and so far as possible corrected, before any conclusion can be reached. The principle involved and the ease with which we may reach a false conclusion may be illustrated by a very simple example. If a bag of corn contains a million normal grains and a single black one, the probability that a grain drawn at random from the bag would be the black one is so minute that we should justly regard the drawing as practically impossible in all the ordinary affairs of life. If a blindfolded boy, dipping his hand into the bag, drew the black grain on the first trial, we should justly claim that there was some unfairness in the proceeding, or, if we wish to deal in mystery, some attraction between his hand and the black grain. If on a thousand trials of this kind the black grain was drawn several times our suspicion would ripen into practical certainty. And yet, if every inhabitant of Great Britain made such a trial, it is practically certain that there would be about 30 drawings of the black grain without abnormality. In fact, did such drawings number only 20, the suspicion would be on the other side. We should be sure of some defect in the enumeration or of some instinct toward evading the black grain. The whole question turns on the number of unrecorded failures.

Through inquiries made under the auspices of the Psychical Society it would seem that about one person in every ten is more or less subject to hallucinations of some kind. Probably a large majority of people have occasional dreams so vivid that in Great Britain alone there must occur annually many millions of cases in which people, during their waking or dreaming hours, see before them images of distant relatives or friends. If, as may well be the case, the chances are millions to one against the illusion coinciding with the death or distress of the person seen, we should still have in all probability many such cases in a year. Thus, when the eminent members of the Society instituted their inquiries for such cases, it might have been predicted in advance that, without any bias whatever, they would have been discovered by the hundred.

But the concession of exactness is one of great improbability. Visions and dreams are in all ordinary cases dropped from the mind and speedily forgotten. But let one be connected in any way with a death or other moving event, and the memory, instead of being effaced, grows in the mind, month after month. The event associated with the vision may have occurred days or weeks before or after it, but the general tendency will be to bring them into coincidence and weave them into a story, as we have seen in the case already quoted.

The following case, cited by Mr. Beckles Willson in his recent work, Occultism and Common Sense, may be chosen for study because it is among the most remarkable of its kind. A traveler in a railway carriage is quoted:

One week ago last Tuesday, at eleven o'clock at night, my wife, who had just retired to bed upstairs, called out to me, "Arthur! Arthur!" in a tone of alarm. I sprang up and ran upstairs to see what was the matter. The servants had all gone to bed. "Arthur," said my wife, "I've just seen mother," and she began to cry. "Why," I said, "why, your mother is in Scarborough." "I know," she said; "but she appeared before me just there" (pointing to the foot of the bed) "two minutes ago as plainly as you do." Well, the next morning there was a telegram on the breakfast table - "Mother died at eleven last night." Now, how do you account for it?

I will try to answer this question. I would not be at all surprised, could the facts be made known, if the wife had said something of the kind to her husband every day or night for a week, especially if the mother were known to be very ill. If any night had been missed, I would not be surprised if it were the fateful Tuesday. Then the problem would have been reversed, and we should have had to explain why it was that the vision failed on the night of the death. The memory of the narrator had more than a week in which to cultivate the wonder. The quotation, it will be noticed, purports to be verbatim, though, from what the author says, many years had probably elapsed. During this time the wonder, as it came from the lips of the original speaker, had ample time to develop still further in the mind of the narrator. What limit can we set to its possible growth, first in one mind and then in another? I cannot but feel that the more experience the reader has had in observing this form of growth, the less he will be inclined to set any limit to it.

Considering the natural processes of adaptation and exaggeration, from which no mind is so well disciplined as to be absolutely free, we conclude that the annual number of seeming but groundless telepathic phenomena in Great Britain alone is probably to be counted by thousands. The volumes of Phantasms of the Living might be continued annually without end could all the cases be discovered. The few hundred cases published are actually fewer than what we should expect as the result of known conditions. There is therefore no proof of telepathy in any of the wonders narrated in these volumes, and in the publications of the Psychical Society.

Part 3 [top]

We have considered the evidence for the various forms of telepathy with some fullness because the theory is, in form at least, a scientific one, and the evidence admits of being treated by the established methods of logical inference. But telepathy is only the beginning of the wonders collected by modern inquirers into the occult, who find so many phenomena unexplainable, even by this agency, that they regard the latter as only a first step in the science they are trying to construct. Our conclusion from all these supposed phenomena are so much matters of individual judgment, not admitting of being readily reduced to first principles, that they must be disposed of quite briefly. The belief in specially gifted persons - doers of miracles and practitioners of witchcraft - was once almost universal. Our modern students of occultism have revived what seems very like these discarded beliefs, though the word "witchcraft" is no longer used to express the abnormal powers in question. These powers are not merely those possessed by men in general and heightened in degree, like the faculty of the lightning calculator or the muscular dexterity of the acrobat; but they are powers of which men in general are absolutely devoid. Examples of them are "levitation," clairvoyance, ability to make one's self seen in distant places, to move objects without touching them, to put one's head into the fire or walk over burning coals without injury, and as many others as ingenuity can suggest. Men are still living who testify to having seen a medium rise in the air and waft himself around a room, or disappear through a window.

Now, if we admit the existence of gifted individuals having such abnormal powers as these, why not equally admit the existence of men having the faculty of seeing, or thinking they remember having seen, the nonexistent? The latter certainly seems much easier to suppose than does the former. It is a familiar fact of physiological optics that, in a faint light, if the eyes are fixed upon an object, the latter gradually becomes clouded and finally disappears entirely. Then it requires only a little heightening of a not unusual imagination to believe that, if the object that disappeared was a man, he wafted himself through the air and went out of the window.

What are we to say of the performances of mediums, tiers and untiers of hands, table-rappers, slate-writers, cabinet-workers, materializers, and the whole class of performers to which they belong? May we not adduce the general principle that similar phenomena are to be attributed to similar causes? These performances are quite similar to those of legerdemain, which we may witness for a few shillings in broad daylight at any exhibition of the juggler's art. The principal point of difference is that they are less wonderful and, being generally seen in a faint light, give much greater opportunity for trickery than do those of the professional operators on the stage. Is it logical to attribute them to occult causes when we regard the professional performers as mere mystifiers? This question seems to the writer to answer itself.

I have not considered the supernatural knowledge supposed to be possessed by the "trance-medium" because the data for reaching any conclusion on the subject are too vague to admit of precise statements. The careful examination of Mrs. Piper made by the Psychical Society several years ago is unique in that the proceedings were reported stenographically. A few of her expressions did seem to show supernatural knowledge of, or impression by, facts with which she could not have been acquainted by any natural process. But the relation was wanting in that definiteness on which alone a positive conclusion could be based. The balancing of the probabilities on the two sides can well be made by everyone for himself

In reaching a general conclusion upon all the evidence for the occult I would lay special stress on a feature already mentioned in narrating my personal experience. Almost all the narratives I have seen or heard relate to experiences of years previous, and scarcely ever to the present, so that the wonder has plenty of time to grow in the memory. The latest work on occultism with which I am acquainted is that of Mr. Willson, already cited. Turning over its leaves I fail to find any occurrence, in England at least, of later date than 1896, 12 years before publication. There are a few dubious-looking reports from other countries of a little later date than this, but nothing of the present time. Except the trance-mediums and fortune-tellers, who still ply their trade, and an occasional "materializer," the writer has heard nothing of mediumistic performances for ten or even twenty years. Why do

Peor and Baalim
Forsake their temples dim?

Is it not because in the course of years a wonder grows in the memory, like an oak from an acorn? The writer fails to see how a sane review of the whole subject can lead to any other conclusion than that occultism has no other basis than imperfect knowledge of the conditions, or how a wide survey of the field can leave any room for mystery.

We live in a world where in every country there are millions of people subject to illusions too numerous to be even classified. They arise from dreams, visions, errors of memory that can rarely be detected, and mistakes to which all men are liable. It is unavoidable that when any of these illusory phenomena are associated with a moving event at a distance, there will be an apparent coincidence that will seem more wonderful every time it is recalled in memory. There is no limit to devices by which ingenuity may make us see what is unreal. Every country has ingenious men by the thousands, and if a willingness to deceive overtly characterizes only a small fraction of them, that fraction may form so large a number of individuals, always ready to mystify the looker-on, that the result will be unnumbered phenomena apparently proving the various theories associated with occultism and spiritualism. Nothing has been brought out by the researches of the Psychical Society and its able collaborators except what we should expect to find in the ordinary course of nature. The seeming wonders - and they are plentiful - are at best of the same class as the wonder when a dozen drawers of the black grain of corn out of a million are presented to us. We are asked to admit an attraction between their hands and the black grain. The proof is conclusive enough until we remember that this dozen is only a selection out of millions, the rest of whom have not drawn the black grain. The records do not tell us, and never can tell us, about the uncounted millions of people who have forgotten that they ever had a vision or any illusion, or who, having such, did not find it associated with any notable occurrence. Count them all in, and nothing is left on which to base any theory of occultism.


The article above was first published in the Nineteenth Century, January 1909.

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Some parts of this page The International Survivalist Society 2004