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.

The Boundary of the World of Sense

 - G. N. M. Tyrrell -

1. The Past and the Future of the Personality

          THE OUTLOOK which has been developed in the previous chapters has brought us to recognize on the subjective side that the human being is a personality which is more real and abiding than its accessories, and we have learnt to dissociate it from these and from its environment. On the objective side it has led us to question the common-sense view which regards the external world as an unconditional reality of a final kind, and to regard it instead as the aspect of a deeper essence. On both of these points we differed from the materialist, who takes the world of sense to be fundamental and is thereafter somewhat embarrassed with the human personality which refuses to fit into his scheme. His fundamental error appears to us to lie in his acceptance of the world at its face value. He seems to be making the same kind of mistake that a small child might make when taken to a cinema for the first time. The child might suppose that the human figures which he saw moving before him on the screen were actually there in living reality. But the less naïve, and truer view of his parents (although they might not express it in quite these words) would be that the figures on the screen were only aspects of the real human actors, whose activities, though seen with certain limitations here and now, had really taken place elsewhere in space and time.

The materialists include for us, not only the deliberate professors of philosophical materialism, but also all those who in practice take the commonsense view of the world for philosophic truth, and hold it in the naïve manner of the child at the cinema. We take the view of the parents. We do not believe that the actors in the film drama of this world of sense go in and out of existence with the light of the optical lantern. We believe them to possess an independent existence of their own outside the cinema-hall. This belief opens up a very long vista of possibilities, for not only were the actors in existence before the film started, and will continue to be after it is over, but there may be others in existence who never appear in the film at all.

To drop the metaphor, the recognition of human existence as more fundamental than that of the sensual world seems to carry with it the belief, not only that human beings will survive this present life, but also that they pre-existed it. The real argument for the latter point of view lies, however, not in any analogy, but in the central crux of all human thought - the problem of the nature of time.

We cannot become involved in a discussion of this problem, nor pause here to introduce the larger conception of the self which is bound up with it - the view of the self-transcendent personality which stands above the temporal flux in a higher region of being. The consideration of this subject belongs to the province of religion. But the reader may be reminded that in Chapter III it was pointed out that there exist two modes of ingression of time into the human consciousness. Time, recognized as something measurable, which belongs to the external world, was perceived as part and parcel of the world of sense. But time also entered into human consciousness directly, and was perceived as the subjective sense of enduring. These two times are quite different. The one is at home in the category of intellectual concepts. It is the clock-time that we "understand," but do not "know," using the latter word in the sense of intimate, or mystical awareness. The other is a time that we "know," but do not "understand." Now it is clear that the first kind of time is of a piece with the world of aspects. It is in fact the aspect-form of something existing in the real world of entia, and as such the form it takes for us depends, like everything else in the physical world, upon our personalities and upon their relationships towards the real world.

The space and time, or, in modern phrase, the space-time of the world of sense, performs much the same function and has much the same sort of reality as the lines of latitude and the meridians which we draw upon our globes. It serves to co-ordinate events in the sensual world, but it cannot limit the existence of our personalities. Our globe is not really divided up into a neat pattern of rectangular figures, and in the same way the existence of a human personality is not really measured out into a number of hours which are rounded off at either end by two instants marked on the clock. The fear that a human personality might go out of existence at twelve o'clock really contains the same kind of absurdity as the fear of being shipwrecked on the meridian of Greenwich. Our view of personality as a primary thing, standing above the physical world of aspects, carries with it the corollary of its pre-existence as well as of its survival of this present slice of experience that we call life.

That is how the problem of human existence begins to shape itself when it is looked at in the light of the presuppositions which we have adopted in these pages. They show us human personality as something which stands firm - as a primary and basic form of existence surrounded by a world that is merely a refracted vision of reality.

But we must not be content with the light thrown by our own presuppositions. There is a region in the external world which yields facts of a kind accessible to all, and these facts also have their bearing on the quality and status of the individual human being. This region lies on the confines of the sensual world.

2. The Border of the World of Sense

The actual facts that nowadays we call psychic, although they have always been in existence, have in past times been too vague to do more than suggest the existence of another world. They have been like a salt breeze blowing over the meadows, which suggests the proximity of the unseen ocean. But even if vague confusion has been their chief characteristic in the past, we cannot accept this as being the real condition of any part of the universe, whether comprised within the world of sense or lying beyond it. For we have a faith, which has supported us in all our explorations of the present world, and we cannot abandon it when we endeavour to cross the border. We believe that, in proportion as we are able to grasp the basic ideas needed to realize the wider reaches of the universe, we shall find it orderly and rational and not chaotic. Consistently with this faith we must, however, be prepared to admit that the most undreamed of things may be true in it. Our presuppositions prepare us for this, and we must face squarely at the outset the fact that the likelihoods and probabilities which apply in the world of sense are no guide to what lies outside it. To admit this is not superstitious but sensible.

3. Universal Sense of Awareness of Another World

We must now take a brief, general survey of the evidence which indicates that the universe extends beyond the limits of our physical senses. We will not attempt to examine this evidence in detail, but only to try the experiment of throwing it against the background of our own presuppositions.

Now, the world of sense has seemed in the past, and to many people still seems, an exceedingly well rounded-off and self-contained affair. If it is true that it is in reality no more than a single aspect of the real, and is surrounded on all sides by the larger whole from which it has been abstracted, it would seem strange that the outline that it presents at its boundary should be so clear-cut and definite. We should expect a more shadowy edge, suggesting continuity with a larger world extending beyond the bounds of sense.

Now, in point of fact the boundary of our world is not quite so clear-cut as at first sight it appears to be. There are, and always have been, phenomena which have seemed to originate beyond its confines, but, for the most part, when examined these have proved to be so bizarre and unsatisfactory in character that they have given the impression of a chimera of the imagination rather than of evidence of a continued world. Ever since the dawn of civilization, and for ages before, there has existed a steady belief in beings and influences imperceptible to the physical senses. In fact, the belief that the sensual world represents the entire universe is not at all native to early man. It arrived as a more artificial conception only after his mind had received a good deal of sophistication.

With primitive and uncivilized man a belief in supersensual beings and influences was the general and the natural thing as it also was among the early civilizations. We usually meet with this belief after it has been worked into legendary form and its origin has become hidden under an accumulation of imaginary details. In spite of the world-wide diffusion and the many local variations of these legends of the supernormal they exhibit on the whole a remarkable adherence to type. The legendary belief is that these beings share our world with us in a particular sense only. They are intangible and invisible except on certain occasions and to specially gifted persons, yet they inhabit this world in the sense of being attached to particular localities. The actual hills, trees, etc., which exist for mankind exist also for them, but in a different way and without all the usual physical limitations, as, for instance, when some of the "little people" of the Irish are said to occupy a particular hill but to live in it instead of upon it. This may easily be put down to childish imagination on the part of primitive people, but, on the other hand, in view of a possible further development of our theory of the nature and origin of the physical world, it gives rise to a curious reflection. To deal with this point now would, however, be premature.

In Europe the beliefs and legends about other-world beings belong most prominently to the Celtic peoples; but their lore and legends reach out to join hands with the beliefs of Asia, Africa, America and Polynesia, while, looking backwards in time, we can see the "little people" of the Celts reappearing as the nymphs and fauns of classical antiquity. In some of the more dominating Celtic heroes it is perhaps scarcely fanciful to catch sight again of the old Greek gods. Whole hierarchies of beings in fact have been and are supposed to exist just beyond the range of physical perception, and to be glimpsed by those gifted with more than physical sense. Anthropology explains these beliefs either by folk-memory of pre-existing races of men or by the legendary personification of the mountains, waterfalls and other natural features of the surrounding country, or simply by the innate tendency of primitive man to believe in spirits. They have, as an anthropolgist says, "their origin in the animism of primitive man and his profound belief in the power of spirits."[1] No doubt it is true that the causes assigned by anthropology have been effective in moulding the forms which all such legends have taken. Any story about legendary figures will in time become worked into literary form so that its original features tend to become influenced by national or racial traditions and by historical events. But the point is, whence came the original impulse? Why had primitive man a profound belief in the power of spirits when his senses showed him nothing but physical facts?

[1] Dr. Macleod Yearsley

It is usual to strain every physical or so-called normal explanation to the utmost before having recourse to the supernormal. This is on account of the background of presuppositions of the present age; but our own presuppositions do not oblige us to hold what are called supernormal explanations at arm's length when we are dealing with things which appear to lie over the boundary, for the supernormal means to us no more than the extension of the real world beyond the point to which we are able to see. The boundary of the world of sense is to us a subjective barrier, whereas to the materialist it is an objective barrier. There is the difference.

The scientist lays down the principle that no new factor must be introduced into an explanation until every possible use has been made of the old ones. This is a legitimate principle so long as it is not distorted in its application by dogged adherence to inadequate presuppositions, but the recognition of the world of sense as a world of aspects reveals the limits of its rational application in cases such as that with which we are now dealing. But the anthropologist, in his determined adherence to the materialistic outlook, strains out of all true proportion the explanation which he calls "normal," or, with a touch of unconscious humour, "rationalistic." His habit of trying to explain present-day beliefs and practices in terms of their earliest beginnings is like the feat of balancing a cone on its apex.

Instead of the explanation which seeks to refer back all belief in an extension of reality beyond the world of sense to a universal, but groundless belief in the supersensual on the part of primitive man, is it not more likely, according to our present presuppositions, that the root of all these legendary beliefs lay in scattered instances of real perception occurring to a certain percentage of individuals, not through the physical senses but by a non-bodily route? For we must remember that, whatever excellent qualities primitive man may have possessed, originality was not one of them.

It has not been for the primitive and uncivilized races alone that supersensual beings and their dealings with mankind have loomed important. Magic, astrology, necromancy, oracles, dreams, possessions have been with civilized and semi-civilized mankind since the dawn of history. To the majority of men until the modern period the boundary of our world has always shown itself as a fringe of twilight uncertainties, where thought was confused and where for the most part terror reigned. Out of this borderland in very early times arose the beginnings of most of the religions of antiquity, but in addition to these religions themselves, the misty fringe of the world of sense continued to be recognized as a background lying behind the world of physical things.

4. The Boundary of the World of Sense in Civilized Times

Glance back at the cosmopolitan cities of the Roman Empire in which the various forms of religious worship, gathered together from different parts of the world, jostled one another in the narrow streets. Modern research has shown them as standing in relief against a dark background of vague beliefs and fears drawn from this twilight boundary of the world. These formed an ill-defined, floating body of popular belief which constituted part of the mental climate of the age. One of its elements was the Babylonian science of astrology which held mankind in a kind of fascinated terror of the power of the stars.

"It became an obsession. This earth, the sphere of their tyranny, took on a sinister and dreadful aspect, even after death the disembodied ghost would be hemmed in by the demons of the air; the unknown spaces above; the unknown on the other side of death, were full of terrors."[2]

And again:

"We have never been thoroughly frightened: the ancient world was frightened: there is the great difference."[2]

[2] Edwyn Bevan, Hellenism and Christianity, p. 81.

There always was this misty distance full of terror - this shading away of the boundary of the world, but it did not encourage lofty conceptions of the world beyond. It was confusing and terrifying and its effect upon the stronger minds was to turn them back towards the world of sense.

Throughout the dark centuries which followed the collapse of the Roman Empire and on through the Middle Ages this shadowy background of beliefs and fears still continued to haunt mankind. Witchcraft and magic intermingled with the belief of religion in devils and demons kept the world in constant dread of the beyond.

5. The Boundary of the World of Sense in the Light of the Modern Presuppositions

Since the advent of the modern background of thought, the phenomena of the border line have tended to become grouped together so as to form a single subject. The label of "psychic phenomena" may be convenient in one way, but it is also misleading, for it gives the impression that this ancient mass of loosely connected beliefs and facts now forms a single subject which has originated in recent times and it is apt to be classed as another of those modern movements of thought with which we are only too familiar.

It is the new light of a changed climate of thought - of new presuppositions applied to the old region of the boundary which gives the impression that spiritualism and psychical research are dealing with something new to mankind.

It was when the light of scientific enquiry began to be turned on to the subject, towards the end of the eighteenth century, that we see the French mesmerists looking at certain border-line phenomena in a new light. The age of mechanics had dawned, and physical explanations for everything were the order of the day. So the old border-line phenomenon which had haunted mankind for millennia past now came to light again with a physical explanation. They were rediscovered as the effect on the human organism of a subtle "magnetic fluid," transmitted to the subject through the fingers of the operator. Interest spread to the mediumistic trance, and border-line phenomena, which gradually came to be called psychic, began to be thought worthy of investigation by the scientific method. Not that there was much scientific method about the early spiritualism, but the interest aroused in it had its origin in the new faculty of scientific curiosity.

The subject when viewed by moderns fully maintained its ancient reputation for confusion and fraud. It had always offered an attractive field for fraudulent exploitation of the credulous, and this formed a marked feature of the modern movement also. The chief difference was that the modern movement inspired less of fear, and more of ridicule and contempt than had been the case in ancient times. This again was probably due to the changed outlook of the moderns, for with the coming of the scientific presuppositions, the dreaded beings by which mankind had believed himself to be surrounded vanished. Modern man expected to encounter things and influences in the course of his researches, but he did not seriously expect to encounter beings other than his fellow-men.

There was no real reason for this change of attitude. It was solely a presupposition which had arisen from an intense belief in the self-sufficiency of the material universe as the senses showed it. Accordingly the phenomena of the border-land which re-presented themselves in modern dress at spiritualistic seances and the like were marked rather by their puerility than by any terrifying feature.

6. The Religious Passage of the Boundary

At one point only was there a passage across the boundary of the world of sense which led to a revelation of a totally different character from beyond. This other crossing is the way of religious mysticism which is mentioned here in order to emphasize the difference which marks it off from the category of psychic phenomena. Those human beings who have existed in all races and epochs, and whose perception has penetrated in the direction of mystical knowing beyond the world of sense, have found open to them an avenue of revelation of quite a different order from the channel of psychic things. They have not found the regions they have reached confused or disappointing. On the contrary, they have found in them everything which is most satisfying and most real. But as this forms part of the subject of religion it cannot be dealt with here. We must confine ourselves to the passage of the border line in the direction that is called psychic.

7. The Boundary in the Light of Our Own Presuppositions

How does the disappointing spectacle of the border line appear when looked at in the light of our present presuppositions? Why do most of the communications which reach us from a mediumistic source show such a misty confusion; so many uncertainties, inconsistencies and perplexities; why is a true touch followed by a string of banalities, and why do the claims made for the sources of messages sometimes appear wholly inconsistent with their character? If these communications really come to us from able people who have left this present world and are situated in a larger one, why are they not stamped with an impression of depth and reality?

The reason for all this confusion comes out clearly from our point of view. It is on account of the key position we have accorded to the personality, which stands as the inevitable medium through which all views of reality must be filtered. Everything which succeeds in reaching us from beyond the confines of the world of sense is obliged to traverse the bodily route of a human personality which is in what we have called a "stretched" condition. This condition is essential if the conscious level of the medium's personality is to reach out to a position where it can get into touch with other-world conditions, or if the communicating entity which spiritualists call the "control" is to insert itself into the medium's monadic system. But the very same condition which enables such a communication to be established also vitiates it on the way. For the stretching which enables the conscious level of the personality to move away, or the controlling personality to insert itself, also impairs the close co-operation of the different levels through which the communication has to pass, so that the message which reaches the physical end of the bodily route may be a very different thing from the message which started on the journey.

A little illustration will reinforce this important point. In the quiet lake from whence arise the head waters of a rivulet, a water-lily has become detached from its roots and begins to float gently down the stream. For a time it continues on its way intact and perfect, but one by one turbulent tributaries enter the main stream, jostling it about and surrounding it with floating debris. When the river's mouth is finally reached, the water-lily emerges in dishevelled remnants, mixed up with a medley of floating branches, weeds, grass and other rubbish. To sort out and reconstruct the water-lily is a task requiring the greatest skill and patience. The monadic levels of the personality when in a state of partial dislocation from one another act like the tributaries of the stream, flinging themselves at the message and adding to, subtracting from or limiting it until it is seriously distorted. But these considerations, although they stress the fact that mediumistic phenomena are a difficult problem for analysis, are also reassuring in another direction. For they show that we need not judge the further reaches of the world to be truly portrayed by the messages which appear to come to us from thence. We have an explanation of why the boundary of the world of sense has always appeared so misty and so unattractive. It has taken on the character of the media through which it has passed - the human personalities through which all impressions of it have been obliged to travel in order to reach us at all. Here also lies the reason for the violent oppositions of opinions which exist on psychic matters. As a rule little or no account is taken of the pitfalls and adventures through which the messages have to pass in traversing the bodily route of the stretched personality. The received message is assumed to be substantially identical with the transmitted one, and the medium is regarded by one school in the light of a telephone instrument for direct communication with the beyond, or, by the opposite school, as a producer of fraudulent or valueless material from the subconscious region of the personality. So, when such messages produce the impression of a crude or materialistic other-world inhabited by people of deficient intelligence, one group of critics is filled with disgust. Placing its own views about a future life in immediate contrast with these mediumistic pictures of the unseen, these people experience an intense repulsion and decide to dismiss the whole subject of psychical enquiry as superstitious, deceptive and harmful. The other group treats the communications themselves with equal naivety, but, having no objection to a future life of a materialistic description, embraces them all with fervour, regarding them as a great revelation. The one all-important factor in the mental attitude - balance and discrimination - is equally lacking in the outlook of both parties. Thus it is that spiritualists and anti-spiritualists have up to the present faced one another in two diametrically opposite and antagonistic camps.

8. The Scientific Attack Upon the Boundary

Throughout the nineteenth century the attitude of science towards the border-line phenomena then represented by spiritualism was on the whole one of complete contempt. But in course of time the repeated wonders which were reported from the spiritualist ranks, hotly denied by some and as hotly defended by others, caused thoughtful people to wish for an impartial enquiry into the whole subject.

In 1882 the Society for Psychical Research was formed in England and proceeded to inaugurate a systematic enquiry into the subject, conducted on scientific lines. This society, in spite of the general incredulity of the times, succeeded in obtaining for the subject the serious attention of able men. It set up a high standard of evidence and used it to sift all the psychic phenomena within its reach, both of the experimental and spontaneous kind. The record of what the society has accomplished is available in its Journal and Proceedings and is fairly widely known so that it is not necessary to recapitulate it here. The greater part of the really cogent evidence which is contained in English books on psychical research has been drawn from its records.

Speaking generally, it is difficult to see how anyone whose presuppositions are not strongly anti-empirical can fail to be convinced by its evidence that telepathy is a fact. At any rate no sceptic has yet attempted to apply any alternative explanation to the evidence in detail, and considering the length of time during which this evidence has been before the public, one may fairly conclude that the task has not been attempted because it is impossible.

This achievement alone is of the highest importance, as is evident when one considers what telepathy means and implies. It at once establishes mind as working in independence of the physical world.

9. The Physical Theory of Telepathy

There remains to be considered the physical explanation of telepathy. It seems to occur to one superficial thinker after another that telepathy must be a more subtle kind of radio-telephony. Thought, they say, is conveyed from one brain to another by some kind of physical radiation which travels through space. Details of the process are ignored, but telepathy is claimed as a new marvel of physical science.

Because people can turn a button and listen to an orchestra in London, Paris or Rome, many are under the impression that radio-telephony represents a radically new discovery in science. This is not the case. The sole discovery in science upon which the feat of wireless telephony depends was made by Heinrich Hertz of Bonn University and others during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. It consisted in the discovery that radiant electromagnetic energy, already familiar in the forms of light and radiant heat, extended downwards much lower in the scale of frequencies. The rest of the wireless achievement lay, not in scientific discovery, but in the technical development of appliances for putting this discovery to the desired use. So far as the principle of transmission is concerned, man in the twentieth century A.D. becomes aware of the stirring events of his time - from Lord's and Wimbledon - in precisely the same way that man of the two hundredth century B.C. became aware of his stirring events - the approach of the mammoth and the cave-bear. Both kinds of news were transmitted by radiant electro-magnetic energy. The only difference lay in the frequencies. True, the receiving instruments were very different - in one case the wireless receiver, in the other the human eye, but of the two the eye is by far the more wonderful instrument.

Of the two kinds of etheric radiation known to science, the vibrationary electro-magnetic and the corpuscular, the former only is available for communication, and there are only two ways in which this can be modified, viz. by adjusting the amplitude or the frequency of the vibrations. So that physical communication by means of radiant energy is really a very limited affair. The spectacular achievements of the radio are due to the ingenuity with which the engineer makes use of this limited means of control. But the important point is that whatever modifications are impressed by the engineer upon the radiation at the transmitting end are reproduced with mechanical precision at the receiver. All that a wireless receiver can receive is a stream of energy which varies quantitatively in time. When we turn to telepathy we find quite a different state of affairs. Telepathy, is not bound in this way. It betrays the transference, not only of words and images, but also of meanings. The kind of thing which happens in experimental telepathy is that, for example, when someone tries to transmit a picture of a cat sitting on a wall, the percipient gets a picture of a cat lying before the fire. What has been transmitted is not the picture but the idea of a cat. Physical transmission of thought does not, and cannot, work in this way. All that can be received by the transmission of light to the eye is an exact image of the object looked at. If, for instance, when we looked at a pig we saw sometimes a pig and sometimes a string of sausages, the physical theory of vision would have to go.

Another consideration which negatives the physical theory of telepathy is the question of distance. All known physical radiation varies in intensity inversely as the square of its distance from the source. This means that if a case occurred (of which there have been many) in which two people transmitted a thought from one to the other across the world they would, if brought together into the same room, be so overpowered by telepathy that they would not be able to hear themselves think! There is no evidence that distance makes any difference to telepathy.

This failure to find the explanation of telepathy in the physical world comes as no surprise to those provided with our presuppositions. It is to that more fundamental thing, the personality, that we should naturally turn for it. Communication by physical means between one personality and another is, from our point of view, a state of arbitrary restriction. Telepathy is the fragmentary intrusion into the world of sense of the the natural contact of personality with personality in the higher reaches of being.

10. Trance Communications

The definition of telepathy, as it is formulated on page 139 (Chap. VI) above, only stipulates that the information shall not be conveyed via the bodily senses. Any other method comes under its definition, so that if the information were conveyed by discarnate beings from one human being to another, this would be included under the heading of telepathy. This latter possibility forms, however, a very important sub-heading. The theory of discarnate beings scarcely arises where the results to be explained consist only of results in voluntary and experimental telepathy, but it is one which naturally arises when dealing with the telepathic matter contained in the productions of the mediumistic trance. In these cases it is nearly always claimed that the messages received originate with particular deceased persons; also the matter of such messages is sometimes peculiarly applicable to the soi-disant communicator, while there are in addition resemblances in style and manner of expression. As against the discarnate being theory, however, there occur vaguenesses and confusions; false statements and muddled statements; failures to remember and to recognize; opinions, statements and modes of expression which are quite foreign to those who claim to be communicating. In fact, the more the mediumistic trance is studied, the more the investigator realizes that he is sailing on an uncharted sea. The blending of that which rings true and that which rings false in the matter of characterization, and of that which proves true and that which proves false in the matter of evidence is disconcertingly subtle. The instability and elusiveness which has always been characteristic of the border line in time past is here again in evidence. Are we in touch with the discarnate human beings who claim to be speaking to us? Or with other, and possibly non-human beings, who are impersonating them? Or is the whole thing due to the interplay of telepathy between the living, worked into a plausible form by some dramatizing agency in the subconscious region of the sensitive? All three explanations have their supporters. The first is that held by the spiritualists as well as by some who would not so class themselves. The second is that favoured in general by the outlook of religious orthodoxy, while the third is the one put forward by the more liberal minded amongst the scientists. Interesting discussions on the evidence which may be taken to support one or other of these theories is to be found in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, but no decisive proof in favour of either theory has yet been forthcoming and opinions remain divided. The perfect psychical researcher should become accustomed to balancing on the fence which divides the first theory from the last.

Again, these three theories are eloquent of the presuppositions held by their supporters. The first is the most straight-forward and commends itself naturally to those whose presuppositions offer no reason why human beings should not manifest themselves to one another after death as much as before. The second is bound up with the presuppositions of a religious theory of demonology, which supposes that evil beings are always on the look out to injure mankind, and that mediumistic conditions present them with a special opportunity, It stresses the dangers of such communications, and it is perhaps as well to remember that the warning it issues is not based on pure theory, but on a good deal of practical experience in past times. This theory is referred to again in Chapter VIII.

The third hypothesis is the one which commends itself to the presuppositions of common sense modified by the erosions of empirical evidence.

It throws the brunt on telepathy (understood in the narrower sense of a process taking place exclusively between the minds of the living) of explaining the whole range of psychic phenomena. The faculty of mind-ranging which then has to be attributed to sensitives becomes truly astonishing.

11. Limitations of the Logical Method in Psychical Research

The proof of telepathy as defined above lies within the range of the ordinary methods of scientific research. You have only to exclude all normal means of communication between the agent and the percipient, and, if the information gets through nevertheless, then telepathy is a fact; that is if chance-coincidence can be certainly excluded. The process sounds simple, but in practice it has not been found as easy as it sounds. One of the difficulties is that a perfect case is seldom obtained. At any rate the evidence for telepathy has been accumulating steadily for the last four or five decades, and many people are not sure about it yet. But that, as we have seen in the last chapter, is more the fault of their presuppositions than of the evidence.

But the proof of human survival of death is another matter altogether, and it may even be doubted whether a complete proof of it is possible on the intellectual grade of significance alone. It may be possible, but up to the present no one has suggested a test which, if successful, could prove beyond doubt the continued existence of a human being. The difficulty resides largely in the vague definition of telepathy, and in the scattered evidence which exists of still further extension of human faculty in the direction of clairvoyance and prevision. Some writers sum up all this faculty under the term "cryptaesthesia." Admitting cryptaesthesia, and giving it the full range of its possible scope, we have to admit that it places the contents of any human mind, past or present and possibly future, at the disposal of a sensitive, as well as providing her with direct access to books and other material objects. There is therefore no test which a discarnate human being could devise to prove his identity which could not be explained by cryptaesthesia. For, in order to be verifiable, the information given must exist in some person's mind or in some book or document or as a hidden object of some kind. It may be objected that the theory of such universal cryptaesthesia is extravagant and runs beyond the evidence, but it must be remembered that telepathy is not by any means confined to set experiments in which the conscious mind takes part. That is indeed the rarest and most difficult kind of telepathy to produce. It far more often takes place in the absence of any consciousness or volition, and we have no means of ascertaining how often it takes place in daily life without our knowing it. Also, when once a hidden object has been perceived at a distance or an unseen book read or a future event foretold (and there is evidence that all these things have been done), it is impossible to draw the line in the case of a particular communication and to say: "Cryptaesthesia cannot have gone as far as to explain this." We simply do not know how far it can go.

What could a hypothetical deceased communicator B do if he were trying to prove his identity to his living friend A?

1. Let us suppose that A goes to a medium and B transmits to him a true account of an incident which happened to A and B together in the past. The explanation is that A, knowing of the event, transferred it telepathically to the medium's mind, who thereupon reproduced it as coming from B.

2. The same thing happens, but this time the event, which really happened in the past, is unknown to A, but is subsequently verified by him. The explanation is that B (or someone else concerned in the event) telepathically transferred the knowledge of it to A's mind in the past where it remained latent in his subconsciousness and was from there transmitted to the medium.

3. The same thing happens, but the event is this time in the future and in course of time duly happens as foretold. The explanation is that the medium's mind ranged forward and saw it there and adapted it as a prophecy coming from B.

This endowment of the medium with an unlimited range of cryptaesthetic faculty is admittedly an easy game to play, but it cannot be denied that, in our present state of ignorance, it does rob any proposed test of human survival of all logical conclusiveness. The very interesting series of cross-correspondences recorded by the Society for Psychical Research do increase the feeling of the simplicity and naturalness attaching to the theory of a discarnate human communicator, but it cannot be claimed that they lie beyond the range of a telepathic explanation. Sheer ignorance forbids us to come to any definite conclusion. Telepathy, clairvoyance and prevision have been discovered by the methods of intellectual research, but we do not know anything about their scope, and probably do not understand their real significance. It may be necessary to rise above the intellectual grade of significance if we are to grasp them in anything like their entirety. Not until we are in possession of their probable limits shall we be able to say: Here ends the power of cryptaesthesia to explain.

With the views at present extant on the nature of reality and the exalted notions which are current as to the power of research on the intellectual grade alone, it is scarcely likely that we should fully realize the limitations of psychical research as it is at present conducted. Pure reasoning on the basis of familiar concepts has been so successful in the physical sciences that we are naturally slow to recognize its inadequacy in this subject. Yet pure reason some times fails us when we attain a practical solution by other means. A case in point occurs in daily life, only we seldom stop to think about it. There is no clear logical escape from the philosophy of solipsism, but our full and frequent communications with our fellow-men leave us in no doubt as to their actual existence. In the same way sufficiently clear and frequent mediumistic messages would in time convince us of the identity of the communicators. We should in the end simply cease to bother about farfetched telepathic theories, although they might be as far as ever from having met their logical refutation.

12. The Two Theories in the Light of Our Own Presuppositions

How do these rival explanations appear in the light of our own presuppositions? At the outset we have no a priori objections to offer to the spiritistic or discarnate-being theory, because we do not regard death as an event which makes any essential difference to the personality. We do not share in the common feeling that the probabilities at the start must be taken as being with the telepathic theory. At the same time we look to the empirical evidence to settle the question as far as it can. But, taught by our general outlook, we look to the evidence with the expectation that it will reveal very definite limitations. We trust it with our eyes open, not taking its power for more than it is. For we know that we are faced with a subject that cannot be solved on one grade of significance alone.

Being convinced from our general point of view that the personality is not of an evanescent nature and must therefore survive the crisis of death, we should not be surprised if those who have passed through this crisis endeavoured to communicate with those whom they had left behind, but our presuppositions tell us nothing about the conditions under which such communications may be possible. Our outlook on the subject does, however, provide us with an explanation of the confused and generally unsatisfactory and unconvincing nature of the communications which actually occur, whether we suppose these to proceed from deceased human beings or from some other source. The cause is the stretched condition of the personality through which such communications are obliged to travel in order to reach us. Our point of view prevents us from putting the blame for this confusion on the originator of the messages, whether that originator be a discarnate being or an element of the medium's personality. We can see why the message is almost certain to suffer a change on the way. There is the dislocation between the levels of the personality with the consequent tendency of those levels to work in independence. There is the necessity for the ideas of the incoming message to clothe themselves in the ready-made mental currency of the medium's mind. There is also the corresponding danger of "impulse action." By impulse action I mean the tendency, which trance utterances often reveal, for an idea when impinging upon the medium's mind at the communicator's end to set going an associated train of thought which becomes blended with the original one. For example, perhaps the message which is being transmitted contains a reference to someone called Walter in connection with an incident A. It so happens that the medium has known a man called Walter and habitually thinks of him in connection with an incident B. The name Walter acts as an impulse on the medium's mind and quickens this particular association. A confused message thereupon emerges in which the two Walters and the incidents A and B are subtly blended together. Possibly also fragments of further incidents C and D are added to the message because they are associated in the medium's mind with B, so that the whole forms a difficult puzzle to unravel.

Another point to remember is the restriction which the limited calibre of the medium's personality is bound to impose upon the communications. The medium will act as a kind of selective and absorptive filter; lack of spiritual development on his or her part will inhibit the transmission of a lofty idea lack of aesthetic development of a beautiful one lack of intellectual development of an intelligent one. Probably to try to transmit a difficult idea through an uneducated medium would be like the task of trying to explain the theory of relativity in words taken from a child's first reader.

There is also the pitfall which lies in the fact that the quality of this mediumistic material is far from being homogeneous. Sometimes, at a lucky moment, a brief idea may run the gauntlet of the bodily route and emerge almost unscathed.

"When a re-presentation of a known personality is given the flavour of some special characteristic is suggested, or unique peculiarity recalled. Such a thing may suddenly illumine the long and tedious inanities, or merely dull irrelevancies of trance-mediumship, and then it is like when a thin pencil of light pierces a thick canopy of obscuring cloud. It stands out from the surrounding pattern as definitely as a fragment of spar from the earth surrounding it."[3]

[3] Lady Grey, Survival, pp. 48-9.

But there is not always such a clear demarcation between the good and the mediocre passages. There is not always a penetrating pencil. Sometimes good and bad stand side by side with little to mark the difference, so that the experimenter is in danger of being led to accept the whole communication en bloc as of a quality up to the standard of its topmost peaks.

Our presuppositions put us on our guard to be careful in the interpretation of all mediumistic phenomena, but they incline us at the same time to adopt the so-called spiritistic explanation as the most probable in a considerable portion of it. Our general outlook is such that it makes us feel that there is no need to apologize for this as if we were introducing a gratuitous or extravagant theory. Clearly the only reason for our habitual reluctance to suggest that people may manifest a continued activity after their decease is that unreasonable voice within - the voice of common sense - which wishes to persuade us that her domain of the sensual world includes the whole of reality.

13. The Meaning of Contact with a Personality

But over and above the adventurous route which impairs the quality of messages themselves, there remains the question of the meaning of communication between an incarnate and a discarnate human being. What do we expect the process of getting into contact with a deceased personality to be like? And this raises the further question: What sort of contact do we actually achieve in daily life with the personalities of those around us in this world? When we reflect, we realize that what we are in contact with in our neighbours is to a large extent a superficial camouflage employed to cover the real self. In our intercourse with people in daily life we are most frequently witnessing their reaction to the ordinary events of life along thoroughly stereotyped lines, and we may fairly ask ourselves whether, if we were brought into intimate contact with the real personalities of our friends, we should always recognize them.

With some of the higher types of sensitive the experience which they continually undergo is that of being directly impressed by a personality, and of feeling its essential quality. Whether you grant that the personality exists in independence of the sensitive or not, at least it cannot be denied that this experience is a real one with them. Any vagueness which may mark the sensitive's own account of it is not due to a vagueness of the experience itself but to the difficulty of finding words in which to express it. The experience is direct and convincing, bringing that same kind of immediate knowledge of a personality that we acquire of a physical object by handling it. The experience of the higher sensitive of the noncontrolled type approximates to that touched upon by Tennyson in the well-known verses of "In Memoriam" in which the poet describes the intimate contact of the two who meet, "spirit to spirit, ghost to ghost."

"So word by word and line by line
The dead man touched me from the past,
And all at once it seemed at last
The living soul was flashed on mine."

This immediate feeling of interfusion with a personality is just the kind of thing that language is so ill-fitted to express, quite apart from the limitations imposed upon the description of it by its passage through the bodily route.

It may be objected that although an experience which cannot easily be put into words may be convincing to the sensitive herself it is not of much use to anyone else. To a certain extent this is true. The sensitive cannot find the words in which to convey to others more than a fraction of what she has herself experienced, but that fraction may be extremely useful. If the real "feel" of a personality cannot be put into words, at least some of its leading characteristics can be.

Here are two examples from the experience of a sensitive whose highly educated and keenly critical mind renders her evidence of the greatest value. This sensitive, it may be pointed out, is neither "entranced" nor "controlled."

"In the spring of 1919 a request for communication came to me from Mrs. Kingsley Ward (pseudonym) living in London who had lost her son she was an entire stranger to me.

I answered her letter saying that I would gladly do as she requested and asked that some object belonging to him might be sent, as I had no link at all with him except her letter.

Before I received the rapport-article, however, Mr. Ward made himself known to me as a very distinct personality. From the time that his mother first wrote to me he was apparently trying to make me aware of his presence. For two days he seemed to be constantly in my room, and created a very distinct atmosphere of devotion and prayer; this struck me as remarkable as I felt him to be quite a young man. After two days of his influence it seemed to me that my sitting-room had become a sanctuary and I found myself imbued with the same spirit... It was again apparent to me that he was a strong personality and of a serious nature essentially religious; I judged his age to be just over twenty... I learnt from his mother later that my impression of his character was entirely correct; I described him to her as being pre-eminently a man of prayer, and she told me that this was the dominant note of his personality... His exact age was 23."[4]

[4] Miss L. M. Bazett, Impressions from the Unseen, pp. 97, 98.

Here we see that the personality of a man of whom the sensitive knew nothing impressed itself so strongly upon her during two days that she felt that her sitting-room had become a sanctuary."

And again:

"Only a name and a date sent through a third person was before me: but almost instantaneously the mental impression emerged of a youth full of joie de vivre, vigour and alertness in every movement of mind and body.

In rare combination with these characteristics was a mature wisdom and mellowness of mind which permeated the communication throughout, and which we more often associate with later life.

The circumstances of his death were partially apparent to me, and my own instinctive feeling was one of regret that a life so full of promise should have been cut short in so tragic a manner.

This feeling, however, was quickly checked by the man himself; not for a moment would his healthy mind entertain such an idea. With a fine sense of proportion he set aside those disastrous events of the past, which had been outside his own control, refusing to allow his present or future outlook to be warped by them.

His simple metaphor was of a train whose progress towards its destination was absorbing his whole attention, to the exclusion of that part of the journey which lay behind.

This trait in his character proved to have been even from his boyhood one of the most noticeable, as I learnt afterwards from his parents who, however, in the nature of the case shared my attitude of mind concerning his death rather than that of their son."[5]

[5] Miss L. M. Bazett, Telepathy and Spirit Communication, pp. 95, 96.

In this case something that was essential in the character of the man was so strong that it ran entirely counter to the view held by both the sensitive and the man's parents on the subject of his death, as indeed it runs counter to the general attitude of mind towards death.

We must remember that in ordinary life this direct and intimate awareness of the personality forms a comparatively small part of what we mean by "knowing" a person. By far the larger part of our acquaintance with people is confined to observation of their physical organisms and conventional reactions to familiar situations. Hence it arises that mediumistic communications as they occur in concrete fact press upon us a kind of evidential material with which our intellectual grade of thought cannot effectively deal.

You cannot, in fact, come into contact with these higher phenomena without realizing that they tend to pass away from and above the level of logical evidence. It may even be that the communicator, faced with the difficulty of getting into touch with us in this immediate and to him perhaps most natural manner, is forced to try to reproduce as best he can that external shell of himself which was what we dealt with most frequently when he was with us in this world, in order to make his manifestation convincing.

We see, therefore, that, while psychical research has a large field open to its methods as we at present understand them, yet there are limitations which begin to reveal themselves in the higher branches. It looks as if we should have to combine with the purely logical method of research, the resources of our moral and spiritual natures, if we wish to achieve a contact with the communicators which shall be of a satisfactory kind. The higher phenomena of psychical research form an example of a subject in which it is necessary to step a little above the purely intellectual level, and which we called in Chapter II rising to a higher grade of significance. Just as in the illustration of the printed book, research on the level of letter sorting was able to take the supposed investigators a certain way towards unravelling the mysteries of the book, so the evidential method of psychical research is able to carry us a certain distance towards a comprehension of the baffling difficulties of contact with a discarnate personality through a sensitive. But also, just as the conception of a meaning lying behind each sentence was beyond the grasp of the letter arrangers, so the recognition of a personality by an experience of direct contact with its essential quality lies beyond the range of logical research. And yet this latter is probably, on a higher grade of existence, the natural and normal mode of recognition and far more convincing than any logical proof. But we have a perfect right to demand and to make the fullest possible use of logical evidence, so long as we do not expect of it more than it can give. It can carry us a certain distance, but it is extremely doubtful whether it can lift us above the sea of uncertainties in which it is doomed to work. These uncertainties are present when we attempt to decide between the spiritistic and the telepathic theories. They deepen ominously when we add the possibilities of clairvoyance and prevision. The latter brings us a reminder that real illumination on this, as on all really far-reaching human problems, awaits some understanding of the central problem of all - the problem of the nature of time.

The limitation of psychical research thus runs parallel with the limitation of physics. Both are subject to the limitations of thought which is confined to one particular level, and the same limitation is common to science as a whole and to everything which lies on the intellectual grade of significance. Physics has abstracted from the universe its chosen world of measurements. Psychical research has abstracted for itself a field of judicial evidence from a larger world whose key-note is personality - but personality in a transcendent sense which cannot find adequate expression in terms of our familiar root-conceptions.

14. Inevitability of the Ingression of Spiritual Factors in Psychical Research

If we could ignore the higher significances and deal with psychical matters on the intellectual grade alone, the subject would be much simplified. But the other factors introduce themselves inevitably. With sensitives of the highest type the whole personality is involved with all its attributes, mental, moral and spiritual. Without high qualities on the part of the sensitive the best results cannot be achieved, whether in respect of evidential quality, truth in characterization or quality in tone. Unless spiritual sympathy is present in the sensitive's character, the direct interfusion of personality with personality cannot take place. Unless the mind is highly cultured and educated. This perception, if received, will not find adequate expression in words. On the quality of the sensitive depends also the efficiency of the communicating route - the transparency of the personal levels, and defect in any of these qualities has the effect of darkening this transparency and introducing confusion. Nor is the necessity for high motives and character confined to the sensitive alone. The investigators must share them or no satisfactory collaboration with the sensitive will be possible. The direct feeling that a sensitive has for a personality when in trance extends to ordinary people in daily life, and even a slight note of antagonism will have a powerful inhibitory influence at a sitting. If psychic work of the most valuable kind is to be done it must be carried out on the highest grade, which implies a disinterested motive and a willingness to face difficulties and to attack the work in no easy-going manner but with self-sacrifice and endurance. And this is necessary on the part of all concerned.

If this is realized, it clears up a point which is a source of confusion in many people's minds - why a spiritual or religious element should be introduced into psychic matters at all. This element is often attributed, half unconsciously, to quite a different source to that from which it springs. There is a deeply rooted popular feeling that anything which exists outside the world of sense must necessarily have a religious flavour about it, and as psychical research is penetrating into that region, it must, in proportion as it succeeds, find itself in a religious country. This idea is the result of a long prevalent system of religious teaching which has always placed the religious elements of a future life in the externals of another world, so that it has become impressed upon people's minds that they are living in a secular world at present with a religious world wrapped all round it. Hence the otherwise inexplicable attitude of mind which causes people who are sitting round a room in the dark, waiting for the table to be lifted by an invisible force, to occupy their time in singing hymns. The same people would not think of singing hymns while they waited for their loud speaker to talk to them, although the latter is urged into activity by an equally invisible agency.

This idea that the world apparent to the physical senses is something complete in itself and clearly separated off from the remainder of reality is of course part of a childish outlook which we have inherited from the long past. There is no more reason why a good many of the things classed as psychic should be considered religious than there is why fields of magnetic force, or the centre of the earth, or the back of the moon, or anything at all which happens to be inaccessible to our very limited senses should be classed as religious.

We do not, in fact, travel out of one world and into another when we deal with psychic things. It is merely that we are feeling out beyond the limits of our present sense-perceptions, but the universe is one and continuous for all that, and we are still in it.

Religion in its strict essentials does not inhere in anything finite and physically external to ourselves, whether that something happens to exist in that part of the universe which we can see, or in the part which lies beyond our senses. In its essence, religion consists in the highest significant experiences that we can make our own. It is therefore true that a religious element may be imported into psychic work by the maintenance of a high standard of effort on the part of the worker, involving the best which the whole personality can put forth; but it is not true that the sphere of religion has been entered because the boundaries of physical sense have been left behind.

Using this meaning of religion, it is certainly true that it ought to penetrate all psychic work which exceeds the purely scientific experimental level occupied by experiments in thought transference, the physiological examination of ectoplasmic structures, and the like. No one who takes part in psychic work which involves the higher human problems ought to do so on a level below that into which religious motives enter. Sensitives should employ their gifts exclusively for the purpose of helping others, or of giving light for the guidance of others.

It might, for example, be thought that in the case of the medium who is controlled when in trance, and whose function appears to be merely that of lending her bodily route for the passage of the communications, her own religious or spiritual attitude would be a matter of indifference. But that is not at all the case. A medium of this kind is not in the position of a postman charged to deliver a letter, but is more like a person who is told to read a message and render a précis of it. Every element of her personality enters in, acting either as a formative or restrictive factor in determining the character of the emergent message. From every point of view the best evidence and the highest quality of material will come from sensitives of the highest and most genuinely religious type.

It looks as though the psychic enquiry of the future would have to concentrate its efforts on the work of such sensitives, making culture, character, education and spirituality equally as important as the psychic gift itself.

Sensitives are the guardians of the doorway through which, so far as one can see, further enlightenment on human problems must come. We must not look at the present attempts to communicate with the departed as the sole function which sensitives have to perform. There are indications that a traffic in one direction may be established by means of which communications of the utmost value may reach us, bearing their credentials in their own innate quality which we may test upon the touchstone of our religious knowledge and of our own deepest experiences. There is also the pragmatic test of their application to practice. "By their fruits ye shall know them." Such messages are at present rare; they do not rest upon the establishment of the communicator's identity; they are franked with their own stamp. There is no possibility of mistaking the quality of high spirituality; it cannot be counterfeited, else the whole body of religious revelation, past and present, would stand suspect.

But besides these communications, there are the invaluable perceptive powers possessed by some sensitives which have been summed up under the heading "cryptaesthesia." These are pregnant with possibilities. Let anyone who has seriously pondered the position in which we human beings find ourselves in this present world think of the revolutionary upheaval in human thought which would follow an experimental revelation on the nature of time. If we are candid we must admit that our present world-outlook is an example of something scarcely less than chaos. In the minds, not only of ordinary people, but also of scientists and philosophers, a belief in determinism exists side by side with a belief in free will which utterly contradicts it, and no one knows enough about time to attempt a reconciliation between the two. The belief in interphenomenal cause and effect, again, has been one of the most fruitful which common sense has bestowed upon us. It has acted like a nurse to the infant Science throughout its youthful stages of growth, yet as soon as it is examined, this idea that one event causes the next which follows it in time, vanishes like smoke. We do not really know how things happen, or what we mean by the word "becoming."

A good example of this forces itself at the present time on the attention of the ordinary person who is able to look at things apart from the party-enthusiasms of medical or psychological specialists. A correspondence of some kind has been established between the way in which the conscious personality behaves and the functioning of the endocrine glands. But which way does it work? Does the mind affect the body, or the body the mind? There is evidence in support of both theories, but when applied in detail, it lands the whole argument in a vicious circle. Cause and effect! What is it but a piece of scaffolding?

All this results from our entirely inadequate ideas concerning the meaning of time. It is clear that when the fuller meaning of time is grasped, it will provide a conception so deep and all-embracing that it will undermine the whole of our present basic conceptions at the root, and will reveal a universe of hitherto undreamed of proportions. Its practical effect on the problems of human life will be incalculable.

Are we likely to obtain this new conception from work on the intellectual grade of significance alone? Is it not more than doubtful whether the science of physics, based as it is on the abstract field of quantity, can yield a conception of time of a really adequate scope?

On the other hand, this scarcely recognized human faculty of prevision, which science so lightly scorns, may yet turn out to be the stone which the builders rejected. If properly fostered and developed it may yet open up a field of direct experience of the real world which can scarcely do otherwise than revolutionize human thought through and through.

The cultivation, protection and encouragement of sensitives of a high type is, from this point of view, a work of the very highest importance.

Source: "Grades of Significance" by G. N. M. Tyrrell (London: Rider & Co., 1931).


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 Séance 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
Modus Operandi of the Mediumistic Trance
The Movement of Modern Spiritualism

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