Sir J. Arthur Thomson

Sir John Arthur Thomson

1861-1933. Professor of Natural History at the University of Aberdeen from 1899 to 1930, Lecturer on Zoology and Biology in the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons in Edinburgh. Wrote and lectured widely on science, edited "The Outline of Science" (1922), wrote "Riddles of Science" (1932), "What Is Man? (1923), "Science and Religion" (1925), translated August Weismann's "Evolution Theory." Knighted in 1930.

Is Telepathy a Fact?

 - Sir J. Arthur Thomson -

          THE WORD "telepathy" (feeling from a distance) was invented by Myers in 1882 to denote "the communication of impressions of any kind from one mind to another, independent of the recognized channels of sense"; and the typical phenomena concern two living people, an "agent" and a "percipient" (also called "recipient"), the latter appearing to receive some novel information from the former. Thus the recipient may tell the experimenter what the agent (of course, unseen, unheard, and out of touch) was thinking intently about, the subject being in both cases registered in writing before verification. Or the recipient may make a rough sketch of a simple object that the agent was handling, drawing, or even thinking about - say a ring or a cross, a key or a banana. Just as it is now possible to send across the Atlantic, by some television method, a facsimile of a cheque, so, but probably in some very different way, the agent with a horseshoe in his hand can so influence the recipient that he on his part draws a horseshoe!

For the sake of clearer argument let us keep, to begin with, to the relatively simpler phenomena of telepathy or thought transference, where a living agent influences the recipient from a distance, so that the latter is able to tell what the agent was thinking about. Let us keep to what is called "intentional telepathy," where the agent seeks to influence and the recipient is willing to be affected. Let us also avoid for the present the more complicated cases where two or three people widely separated in space combine in expressing by automatic writing a somewhat subtle single thought. Let us also, for the present, avoid discussing the possibility that the agent may be a person no longer existing as a protoplasmic organism. As a matter of scientific procedure, it is probably best to begin with clear-cut cases of simple thought transference or telepathy between a living agent and an attuned recipient or percipient.

We have introduced the word "attuned," since only some people are successfully recipient; and it must be added that some agents are much more effective than others. It should also be noted that for a large number of cases, though not for all, there is not a shadow of doubt as to the bona-fideness of the recorded experiences; and the number of such reliable cases is, for certain phenomena, large enough to rule out merely "chance correspondence." The evidence for telepathy is given at length in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, and an enquirer who wishes to investigate the subject seriously should consult the data in these volumes. The impression conveyed to an expert of the calibre of Professor William McDougall is that "the evidence for the reality of telepathy is of such a nature as to compel the assent of any competent person who studies it impartially." In scientific discussion one does not care to appeal to big names, but, as in agreement with McDougall, we may cite Sidgwick, James, Forel, Freud, Bergson, and Driesch. Freud writes: "There is a strong case for accepting telepathy."

It appears to us that telepathic experiments have yielded reliable data well deserving the most thoughtful scrutiny. There is strong - if not conclusive - evidence that an agent can deliberately affect from a distance an attuned recipient, so that the latter is often able to tell what the former was concentratedly thinking about. In discussing the factuality of telepathy, Professor Hans Driesch, who used to be a very skilful experimental embryologist, playing the most beautiful tricks with eggs before philosophy claimed his whole service, has some caustic remarks on those who have decided beforehand that so-called "psychical" phenomena "never can and never will be."

The philosopher remarks, in his Crisis in Psychology (1925), "Such people, who were with God when He created the world, and who know what He was able to do and what not, never die out." It seems nearer to scientific temper to keep an open mind, and to be willing to consider detachedly the "factuality" of the data which careful students of telepathy have presented. It seems to us that there are many well documented cases which strongly suggest that a living agent can specifically influence a susceptible percipient at a distance.

But it will be noted that our admission is far from saying that an agent can specifically affect an unwilling percipient, or that the percipient can be informed by a deceased agent, whatever that may mean. Nor does an admission that there are facts to be accounted for involve the acceptance of any of the particular theories of how telepathy comes about.

Many of the records of cases seem to the scientific sceptic to be sadly lacking in precision. They do not show sufficient incredulity. Let us illustrate. (1) When P in England makes an outline of a dumb-bell which A in France is holding in his hand, the experiment should be increased in value if A also drew the dumb-bell and put the sketch in a sealed envelope to be opened by the experimenter when P's corresponding sealed envelope is opened - all in the presence of accredited witnesses. (2) Common sense suggests that we, the interested outsiders, should be told the percentage of failures and successes and negative results. It would also be of value to analyse the failures, to discover, for instance, whether the percipient could sketch a well-defined object of an unfamiliar kind or shape. Some of the percipient's drawings e.g. of the agent's fish-remind one irresistibly of Shakespeare's "very like a whale." (3) In cases where the percipient is affected in a definite informative way, it seems a little elementary that we should not always be told the precise relation in time between the agent's effort and the percipient's experience. How often have the clock-times been adjusted so as to prove simultaneity or show the exact time-relation. It would be quaint if the percipient's experience sometimes came first! (4) It is very striking that a percipient member of Professor Gilbert Murray's family circle should be able to outline a scene that another, the agent, was silently thinking about - the scene being sometimes from a book that the percipient had not read; but it seems to us that there is, in less careful hands, a tendency to lug in, as evidences of telepathy, various types of experience that can be accounted for with fewer assumptions.

Just as there are uniformities in bodily processes, so there are in mental sequences. It would not be necessary to invoke telepathy to explain that tens of thousands of Englishmen widely distributed in space are thinking more or less simultaneously in the morning of bacon and eggs. Two good companions, such as husband and wife, often break a silence synchronously with the same remark. Simultaneity of thought may readily occur between intimately acquainted percipient and agent, who agree to think quietly about the same time (so as to secure similarity of external suggestion), yet the hypothesis of a "message" is unnecessary. Far too little has been made of this uniformity of mental processes, well known in the extreme case of identical twins, who may at the same time buy the same present for one another - one in Edinburgh the other in London.

Finally, it seems good sense that we should seek to become better acquainted with simple intentional telepathy before dragging in the complexities of so-called "spontaneous" and "multiple" forms, or the alleged telepathic communications from the departed.

Suppose it be certain that P in England can be specifically and informatively affected by A in France, how is it done? There is no hurry about this question, for our first scientific duty is to collect more facts and with increased precision. But suppose we accept the "factuality," accepted by thinkers like Bergson and Driesch, Freud and McDougall, we cannot help thinking of the possible modus operandi. (1) Some say that a "purely physical" influence passes from A to P. But apart from electric fishes and luminescent organisms no living creature is known to give off radiations. (2) Some say that the phenomenon is "purely psychical," and we are told that the impression passes from the agent's consciousness to his subliminal mind, thence to the corresponding level in the percipient, whence it emerges into his conscious mind. But science has not really got so far as all this would suggest. (3) Some cautious enquirers object to such terms as "purely physical" and "purely psychical," pointing out that all we are sure about is that two highly strung nervous organisms are in the mutual relation of agent and percipient, but beyond the range of known sensory influence. (4) There are some, not parsimonious with hypotheses, who believe that P is not directly influenced by A, but through the intermediation of a super-mind in which all mind is, so to speak, pooled. We are personally unable to breathe at these heights of speculation. (5) If we agree with the authorities cited, that there is actual thought transference from a distance, then the unsolved problem is as to the means by which this is brought about; and we have given a respectful statement of the suggestions that have been offered. But in the cautious scientific mind there arises a prior problem: Is telepathy, telepathy? There is no doubt that there are phenomena to be explained, but are they such that they necessarily involve any travelling influence or thought transference at all? Thus, we have sympathy with those who would suspend judgment until more account has been taken of the uniformity of mental processes and sequences in kindred minds, for this might explain many results that are assumed to be telepathic. It seems to us possible that the term "telepathy" is a misnomer, and that the real scientific riddle may turn out to be: Is telepathy, telepathy; and if not, what?


The article above was taken from Sir J. Arthur Thomson's 1932 book "Riddles of Science" published by Liveright.


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