Gerald N. M. Tyrrell

G. N. M. Tyrrell

Educated at Haileybury and London University. In 1923 he decided to devote himself entirely to Psychical Research. Wrote several highly acclaimed works. Joined the Society for Psychical Research in 1908 and became President in 1945.

Alternatives to Discarnate Theory

What the Rejection of the Discarnate Theory Implies

 - G. N. M. Tyrrell -

          THE EVIDENCE we have considered which most strongly suggests discarnate agency is contained in the case of Patience Worth, the Cross-correspondences, the Automatic Writing of Mrs. Willett, certain examples of Control-Mediumship, and the Dark Note-book, Fountain Pens and London cases. It is not easy, perhaps it is impossible, to find or even to suggest evidence which would settle the question of discarnate agency out of hand. The limits of telepathy, and of extra-sensory faculty in general, are unknown; consequently it is always possible to suggest an alternative hypothesis to the agency of the dead, although such hypotheses are largely based on drafts on our ignorance.

We found in Chapter 6 evidence of a broad principle, I which seems to underlie most paranormal phenomena, that events taking place in the subliminal region of the self are not made known to consciousness directly but are mediated to it by means of some constructed symbol or vehicle. In the case of apparent communications from the dead, this principle still seems to hold. The general contempt for mediumistic and automatic communications arises, at least in part, from a failure to grasp their nature. People seize upon some poor type of mediumistic communication and, taking it quite naively, say: "If this is how the dead speak, they must have become imbeciles." But the "message" is, in fact, not so much a message as a dramatic construct, probably of multiple origin. To regard it as on a par with a telephone message sent by one human being, to another is to misunderstand the whole situation.

But what about the communicator as he appears to the sitter? Mrs. Sidgwick pointed out, in her analysis of the Piper case, that "the characterisation of even genuine communicators, with the whole dramatic machinery employed, is probably merely dream-like." But the better the conditions the clearer and more lifelike does the communicator become.

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that none of these messages proceed from the dead: how can we then explain them? We have to admit, not merely telepathy in the sense of thought-transference, but something much more comprehensive. As far as I am aware, no one who is at all conversant with the evidence denies this. It is highly desirable that anyone who does deny it should say definitely how he explains this evidence without postulating a faculty so puissant and comprehensive as to deserve the name of super-telepathy.

To explain the phenomena discussed in Chapters 16 to 19, without postulating discarnate agency, we must assume two things: 1) a power possessed by the subliminal self of gathering any information it requires from any living mind which possesses it; 2) a power to construct dramatic personalities out of the information so acquired.

The case of Patience Worth might be explained in this way. We could say that the subliminal self of Mrs. Curran collected all the information it wanted about foreign lands, historical facts, linguistic peculiarities, dialects, etc., from the minds of various historians and scholars, or possibly even from the pages of printed, books in libraries, and wove it into stories; also that it had a power of creating dramatic characters far exceeding anything that the conscious Mrs. Curran possessed. This is sufficiently startling; but when we come to the cross-correspondences, we have to admit more than this. The subliminal selves of all the automatists there concerned must have got together and, in subliminal committee-meetings, have worked out the plans for the various cross-correspondences. The classical knowledge must have been supplied by the subliminal self of Mrs. Verrall, and the distribution of the parts agreed upon by all. The vivid communicator, Gurney(w), Myers(w) and so on, must have been constructed out of information gathered about their characters, either from Mrs. Verrall, or from others who had known them in life. When Mrs. Verrall died in 1912, this did not prevent the communicators from continuing to appear, so that some re-shuffle of the subliminal committee must be presumed to have taken place.

Let us assume that, so far as the acquisition of knowledge was concerned, the resources of a super-telepathy were equal to it. This is a vast admission. We are not concerned with the conveyance of simple ideas from the mind of A to the mind of B - the kind of thing which used to be called "thought-transference": we are assuming that all kinds of facts, even of the most recondite and speculative nature, once known to a person who is now dead, can be picked up from the minds of those who knew that person in the past through devious telepathic channels. Even small personal characteristics, such as a typical sense of humour, habitual caution, a sudden access of impatience, a characteristic turn of phrase, can be picked up in this way and exactly reproduced. Suppose we admit all this: we are then faced with a much greater difficulty. This information is not given out as information. It is supplied in dramatic form as the characteristics of extremely life-like communicators. Myers(w), Gurney(w), Sidgwick(w), etc., are, on this view, personalities constructed in the automatist's subliminal self. They are, for the time being, centres of consciousness endowed with the knowledge, the memories and other characteristics appropriate to the deceased persons they represent. These centres of consciousness may be inherent in the automatist's personality and not existing independently of her; but, for all that, they do have a genuine, if temporary, existence. We are faced by this extraordinary situation. If, say, Gurney(w) has all the knowledge, the memories and mental and moral characteristics of the original Gurney, and, moreover, believes himself to be the original Gurney, even though he is no more than a phase of the automatist's personality, shall we not have to admit that he is, nevertheless, temporarily the real Gurney? On what grounds can we draw a distinction between an imitation Gurney, who possesses all Gurney's original qualities, and a temporary recall to being of the real Gurney? The two would amount to the same thing. Our "telepathic" view of the communicators would resolve itself into the statement that the subliminal self of an automatist can actually create real and living human beings, who are, in fact, former human beings come to life again for a short time. This appears to be the alternative to the view that the real Gurney and Myers, etc, are communicating. It seems possible to hold this view, since we do not know the limits of the power of the subliminal self; but surely it is the more staggering hypothesis of the two. It credits the subliminal self with such immeasurable powers that the question of survival reappears in another form. Why should a being endowed with such powers be mortal? Does such an admission square with the reasons usually put forward for the view that the human being is mortal? And how are these powers correlated with physiological processes in the brain? One of the chief grounds of objection to survival is the view that all conscious and mental processes are exactly correlated with nervous processes. An epiphenomenalist who sets out to explain the cross-correspondences has surely a good deal of explaining to do.

It comes to this. The phenomena of psychical research (properly so-called) point strongly towards communications from the dead. It is possible to escape from this conclusion, but only at the expense of introducing a still more extravagant hypothesis. The facts are quite clear. They cannot be got rid of by maintaining a masterly silence, by looking in the opposite direction or by making false statements about them. Sooner or later they will have to be faced. Those who wish to know the truth about the nature of the human individual might as well face them now.

Two other hypotheses concerning these phenomena may be briefly referred to. Professor C. D. Broad has suggested the view that mind, as we know it, may be a compound of two factors, neither of which separately has the properties of mind. One is a "bodily factor," the other a "psychic factor." This "psychic factor," he suggests, may persist after death and become a temporary mind again when it unites with the "bodily factor of a medium."(1)

(1) "The Mind and its Place in Nature", p. 538.

Another view, which is commonly advanced by the Catholic Church, is that mediumistic communicators are impersonations contrived by the Devil or by satanic agency, or possibly by other types of non-human beings, such as "Demons." The following passage occurs, I believe, in Cardinal Newman's Apologia: "Also besides the hosts of evil spirits I considered there is a middle race, neither in heaven nor in hell, partially fallen, capricious, wayward, noble or crafty, benevolent or malicious as the case might be."

It seems to me that both these hypotheses need to be worked out in greater detail with respect to the evidence. Could the "psychic factor" in Professor Broad's hypothesis form such a perfect Gurney-communicator by uniting itself with Mrs. Willett's "bodily factor," while Mrs. Willett herself is still united with the same "bodily factor" and remains conscious of her identity?

The demonic view is, in any case, inconsistent with the philosophy of materialism. Space is lacking in which to discuss these views further. The point is that the evidence raises an acute problem for the scientific interpretation of psychological facts, and for philosophy. It cannot be lightly dismissed except at the cost of abandoning the principle of unbiased appeal to fact.

Source: "The Personality of Man. New Facts and their Significance" by G. N. M. Tyrrell (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1946).


Other articles by G. N. M. Tyrrell

• Alternatives to Discarnate Theory
• Attitude to Psychical Research. Part 1
• Attitude to Psychical Research. Part 2
• What is Psychical Research?
• What is Science?
• The Significance of the Whole
• The Subliminal Self and the Unconscious
• Psychical Research and Religion
• Is there Anything Besides Fraud in the Physical Sιance Room?
• The Case of Patience Worth: An Outstanding Product of Automatic Writing
• Mrs Willet: Communications Ostensibly Proceeding from the Dead
• What is Science? The Opposition Between Science and Rationalism
• Discarnate Agency: More Evidence on the Discarnate Problem
• Trance Personalities
• Sense-Imagery
• Modus Operandi of the Mediumistic Trance
• The Boundary of the World of Sense
• The Movement of Modern Spiritualism

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