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.

Attitude to Psychical Research. Part 2

Still More Evidence on this Question. Its Fundamental Importance

 - G. N. M. Tyrrell -

          EXAMPLES of attitude towards the evidence of psychical research are not very plentiful because most people ignore the subject completely and do not express any opinion. But a small number of revealing instances are to be found on this as well as on the other side of the Atlantic.

On the 11th February, 1939, the scientific journal Nature published a review of some books dealing with scientific psychical research. These books were entitled, Evidence of Purpose, by Zoe Richmond; Foreknowledge, by H. F. Saltmarsh; Ghosts and Apparitions, by W. H. Salter; Hypnosis, its Meaning and Practice, by Eric Cudden (all published by G. Bell & Sons, Ltd.); and Science and Psychical Phenomena, by G. N. M. Tyrrell (Methuen & Co., Ltd.). The anonymous reviewer of these books said: "It can scarcely be denied that, viewed as attempts to claim scientific recognition, these volumes are of great interest. To one wholly untrained in psychical research and with no knowledge of what lies behind much of the impressive fa็ade, the effect must be considerable. Only careful and years of experience will weaken that effect, for it is but here and there that the authors under review cite cases as good, which are clearly so full of flaws that suspicion of their critical faculties is aroused."

Read these words carefully, and you will see that the reviewer assumes that the existing, carefully collected evidence of psychical research can be nothing but a fa็ade and that careful analysis and years of experience are bound to weaken its effect. It is unlikely that this reviewer has devoted even a single year to the study of the evidence. He light-heartedly brushes aside the impartial appeal to fact in favour of his own a priori assumption that there can be nothing in it. His attitude reminds one of a story told of Sir William Hamilton and Sir George Airy. "Hamilton had just published his famous mathematical discovery of quaternions and was, I believe, explaining it to Airy. After a short time Airy said: 'I cannot see it at all.' Hamilton replied: 'I have been investigating the matter closely for many months and lam certain of its truth.' 'Oh,' rejoined Airy, 'I have been thinking over it for the last two or three minutes and there is nothing in it.'"(1)

(1) Sir William F. Barrett, F.R.S., Presidential Address, S.P.R., 29th January, 1904.

We have already quoted August Forel as stating that Richet was "trying to prove" telepathy because he made some experiments on the subject. There are other instances of this curious inability to understand the empirical character of scientific research.

Dr. Wilfred Lay, a psycho-analyst, says in a book entitled Man's Unconscious Spirit: "Psychical research is striving to prove that the laws of the material universe are not the same as those of the world of mind and spirit and this without adequately showing what is the relation of mind or spirit to matter, and even incidentally what mind or spirit really is." A charming conception, by the way, of an incidental discovery!

Even Dr. W. R. Inge has written: "Psychical research is trying to prove that eternal values are temporal facts, which they can never be."(2)

(2) "Outspoken Essays", First Volume, p. 269.

When people twist a strictly impersonal inquiry into an "attempt to prove" something, this is surely evidence of an emotional bias at work in their minds.

Another very curious feature is characteristic of the attitude of many people towards this subject. Psychical research is frequently treated with a light-hearted and even frivolous irresponsibility on the assumption, apparently, that it is not of the slightest significance or importance. Men of science betray a haste and carelessness in dealing with it which would wreck their reputations if they did the same thing in any other department of knowledge. They seem to think that the most abstruse and difficult questions concerning the human being can be disposed of on the spur of the moment.

In the course of an article entitled Theories of Immortality, Professor A. D. Ritchie mentions psychical research.(3) "It has to be admitted," he says, "that a number of very queer and obscure phenomena have been observed that do not fit in well with orthodox theories about bodies and minds and their relation. These phenomena can be interpreted in terms of a theory of 'spirits' but they can equally well be interpreted otherwise and with a saving of gratuitous hypotheses. It seems that one must accept either telepathy or clairvoyance as a fact and most probably both as independent facts. Well, granted telepathy and clairvoyance, and granted too, the possibility of a certain amount of distortion of the temporal sequence of events, so that what is in the future for one person's experience is not always in the future for another's, it seems possible to account for all alleged 'spirit' communications. It can, perhaps, be done by means of telepathy and clairvoyance without temporal distortion, or by telepathy and temporal distortion without clairvoyance. The point is that the 'spirits' have never reported anything which has not been already known to some living person, or about to be known in the near future, or available in written documents, or by means of some already existing material evidence." Thus, in some twenty lines, this philosopher disposes of problems which are probably the most abstruse and difficult that have ever confronted the human mind. As well might Newton have settled the problems of gravitation while he was finishing his breakfast! This is only one more piece of evidence that a psychological complex exists concerning this subject which comes into play directly the paranormal appears on the scene.

(3) "Philosophy", April 1942, No. 66.

Here is another example. In Chapter 13, experiments were described which had been carried out by Mr. Whately Carrington under the terms of the Perrott Studentship for Psychical Research established at Trinity College, Cambridge. When the announcement of this Studentship was made public, The Times, in its issue of the 19th February, 1940, published a humorous article about it, entitled Reader in Ghosts; while the News Chronicle announced on the 12th February, 1940: "Cambridge has a Ghost Scholarship!" Perhaps nothing could illustrate so clearly as this the attitude of the public towards psychical research; for the press reflects public opinion. The general opinion evidently is that the study of human personality is not a matter to be taken seriously. Something psychological is at work under the conscious surface of the critic's mind which spurs him on to reject facts without testing them, if they depart too far from what is familiar.

William James asks pertinently: "Why do so few scientists ever look at the evidence for telepathy, so-called? Because they think, as a leading biologist, now dead, once said to me, that even if such a thing were true, scientists ought to band together to keep it suppressed and concealed. It would undo the uniformity of nature and all sorts of other things without which scientists cannot carry on their pursuits."(4)

(4) The Will to Believe, pp. 10-11.

An apt criticism of the common attitude towards psychical research occurs in Professor C. D. Broad's, The Mind and its Place in Nature, p. 550. "It compels one either to ignore all the phenomena in question," he says, "or to be continually occupied in explaining them away. The former course is not scientifically respectable; for it is quite certain that many people, quite as sensible as oneself and far more expert, have personally investigated these matters and have persuaded themselves of the genuineness of these phenomena and of the impossibility of explaining them completely by fraud or mistake. And the latter course may at any moment be barred by some fact which we simply cannot explain away."

Examples could be multiplied; but the answer to our question of why psychical research has been so universally ignored is surely abundantly clear. The major part of the scientific world does not wish to examine the evidence but endeavours only to evade and escape from it. It is not animated by a scientific desire to know the truth but is in the grip of a psychological urge to disallow what is distressingly unfamiliar. And this impulse is shared generally by educated people in the West. Ponder the significance of this fact, and the tremendous implication which lies behind it will slowly dawn upon you. Even in the midst of this age of science, Thomas Huxley's advice to "sit down before fact like a little child" is not whole-heartedly followed. We will touch again on this topic when we reach Chapter 29.

Of course, there are exceptions to the attitude we have been describing. On p. 231 certain Victorian's were mentioned who were conspicuously open-minded towards psychical research. There is, and always has been, a, minority of such opinion. Professor William McDougall supplied an example of a psychologist who appreciated to the full its importance. When he left England to take the Chair of Psychology at Duke University, North Carolina, he actively encouraged the experimental work there carried on by Prof. J. B. Rhine. The following passages reveal his sense of the wider significance of the subject. "If materialism is true," he wrote, "let us ascertain the fact by all means; let the truth be told though the heavens fall and the gods also. And let us then hope that civilisation may succeed in adjusting itself to this truth and, by its aid, may render human life better worth living. But at present it is clear that the civilised world is becoming more and more acutely divided on this question, the question of the truth of materialism. This lack of sure knowledge, and the consequent wide and widening divergence of opinion, is a scandal, a reproach to our boasted scientific culture and an actual and increasing social danger. Here, then, is one good reason why the complete scientific materialist should support psychical research."

Again, he wrote: "The case may be simply stated in this way. If materialism is true, human life, fundamentally and generally speaking, is not worth living; and men and women who believe materialism to be true will not in the long run think themselves justified in creating, in calling to life, new individuals to meet the inevitable pains and sorrows and labours of life and the risks of many things far worse than death. Human life, as we know it, is a tragic and pathetic affair which can only be redeemed by some belief or at least some hope in a larger significance than is compatible with the creed of materialism, no matter in how nobly stoic form it may be held. The fact cannot be gainsaid and men and women acknowledge it by their actions. A civilisation which resigns itself wholly to materialism lives upon and consumes its moral capital and is incapable of renewing it."

Still again: "Unless psychical research - that is to say inquiry according to the strictest principles of empirical science - can discover facts incompatible with materialism, materialism will continue to spread. No other power can stop it; revealed religion and metaphysical philosophy are equally helpless before the advancing tide. And if that tide continues to rise and to advance as it is doing now, all the signs point to the view that it will be a destroying tide, that it will sweep away all the hard-won gains of humanity, all the moral traditions built up by the efforts of countless generations for the increase of truth, justice and charity."(5) This is the social incidence of psychical research.

(5) "Religion and the Sciences of Life", pp. 53, 58 and 59.

Professor Henri Bergson said; "I regard the field open to psychical research as very vast, and even as unlimited. This new science will soon make up the time lost."(6)

(6) Presidential Address to the Society for Psychical Research, 28 May 1913.

Professor C. D. Broad, in the course of a speech broadcast on the wireless in 1934, after giving some examples of the attitude of philosophers towards psychical research, added: "It is plain from my examples that the alleged facts which they ignore are directly relevant to the very problems which it is their main business to discuss."

Dr. L. P. Jacks said with reference to psychical research: "We are working in a region densely populated with the hopes and fears of men; and not only with hopes and fears, but with superstitions, obsessions, preconceptions and fixed ideas innumerable. These things swarm round the inquirer like the evil spirits which beset the path of Bunyan's Pilgrim as he passed through the Valley of Humiliation. They threaten at every turn to drive us off from the straight and narrow road of strict scientific inquiry; they are immensely active; and nowhere are they more active than in the criticisms and the occasional contempt which are poured upon the work of this Society by those who hold aloof from it. My plea is that we should turn our back upon them all; upon the hopes and fears and all the other emotional interests that are at stake as well as upon the superstitions and fixed ideas. That is easy to say but difficult to carry out."(7)

(7) Presidential Address to the Society for Psychical Research, 28th June 1917.

It is also interesting to note that that representative scientific body, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, has shown a certain softening of opinion towards psychical research. In 1876, a paper dealing with this subject was read to it by Sir William Barrett but was unfavourably received. In 1920, at a meeting of the British Association at Cardiff, a paper was read by Dr. Prideaux of Nottingham before the Psychological Subsection of Physiology (Section 1) entitled, A Psychologist's Attitude towards Telepathy. This paper does not appear to have been published; but it was allowed to be read. At a meeting in Leeds in September, 1927, the President of the Psychology Section, Dr. William Brown, referred in his Presidential Address to personal survival of bodily death and described the investigations of the Society for Psychical Research as rightly claiming "a place in modern psychological science."

Dr. T. W. Mitchell, in a paper on the Phenomena of the Mediumistic Trance, read before the Psychology Section at the Leeds meeting in September, 1927, said: "Telepathy or some mode of acquiring knowledge, which for the present we might call supernormal, must be admitted, for if we refuse to accept telepathy, we stood helpless in face of well-attested phenomena which we could not account for and could not deny." Dr. C. T. S. Myers, who presided, said he would not like it to go forth that all psychologists had definitely made up their minds about telepathy. Many of them neither denied nor accepted it, and he was one of these. He felt that the evidence was not yet strong enough to decide whether telepathy existed or not. He was maintaining an open mind."

Favourable references are sometimes to be found in books on psychology. Dr. William Brown in his book Psychology and Psycho-therapy (1934) says: "But what of telepathy - the transference of thought independently of bodily media? Are we entitled to assume that such a thing exists? The Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research and the pages of its Journal are crowded with evidence of too strong a nature to be explained away."

Dr. C. B. Cutten in Mind, its Origin and Goal (1925) says: "Up to a few years ago it would have been dogmatically affirmed that we know of no mental action except as it is manifested through speech or some other bodily movement or experience. Now, however, there seems to be a growing belief that telepathy, the transference of thought without the use of the ordinary means of expression, is being established."

Messrs. Paul and W. R. Bonsfield in The Mind and its Mechanism (1927) say: "Telepathy is a phenomenon with which psychologists will more and more have to reckon."

Professor Hans Driesch in his book, The Crisis of Psychology (1925) assumes telepathy to be a fact.

William James and F. C. S. Schiller, already quoted, are two more examples of favourably disposed philosophers in the past. We have already quoted the balanced attitude and interest taken by Professor Broad, and must add that of Professor H. H. Price of Oxford.

Olaf Stapledon, it may be noted in passing, says in Philosophy and Living that "... in 'mediumistic phenomena' we touch upon the fringe of a vast area of possible experience for the understanding of which we have as yet no adequate concepts."

It may seem to the reader that the opinions quoted against psychical research grossly outweigh those in favour of it. The number of both might be added to: the main point is that those in favour are a minority; and the discovery of paramount significance is that the opinions of those against it, when we come to analyse them, are found to be based on a quite primitive psychological foundation which takes control of most human minds directly they set foot on the "enchanted ground" of the entirely unfamiliar. The feat of retaining intellectual poise and a sense of scientific values on this "enchanted ground" is achieved by only a few.

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
• 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 S้ance 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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