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.

What is Science?

The Opposition Between Science and Rationalism

 - G. N. M. Tyrrell -

          IT WILL have been noticed that some of the critics quoted in the previous chapters repudiate the study of psychical research in the name of science. They do not make it very clear why it is unscientific to investigate the more unusual faculties of the human being; but some appear to think that the practice of psychical research is illogical. Professor Troland compared paranormal phenomena with a perpetual motion machine, that is to say with something which the laws of nature show to be impossible. Professor Jastrow described the hypotheses of telepathy as "an egregious logical sin." He also said that the study of this subject shows "the weak hold that principle and logic" have gained on the human mind. It is quite common for people to deplore the study of psychical phenomena in a "scientific age," as though science ought to cure us from studying facts which lie outside some arbitrary line. The views of these university professors are by no means unique. The almost universal tendency to smile at the mention of psychical research is alone sufficient to show that most people do not regard it as a field for serious study. In view of such criticisms it may be as well to clear the ground by reminding ourselves of what science is. This has been admirably done by Professor A. N. Whitehead in the first chapter of his book, Science and the Modern World.

He reminds us that science arose as a "new colouring of ways of thought," which "had been proceeding slowly for many ages in the European peoples." He says it was, " ... just that slightest change of tone which yet makes all the difference," a change which "to modern minds has resulted in a vehement and passionate interest" in the relation of general principles to irreducible and stubborn facts.

Until the close of the Middle Ages, men did not look on facts as exemplars of general principles or feel impelled to examine them minutely in order to discover these principles. China, Persia, India, Rome and even Greece did not develop the true scientific spirit of our own time. The very fact that the Greeks were "lucid thinkers and bold reasoners," says Whitehead, militated against it. "Their genius was not so apt for the state of imaginative, muddled suspense which precedes successful inductive generalisation?'

"Science," says Whitehead, "has never shaken off the impress of its origin in the historical revolt of the later Renaissance. It has remained predominantly an anti rationalist movement based upon a naive faith. What reasoning it has wanted has been borrowed from mathematics, which is a surviving relic of Greek rationalism following the deductive method. Science repudiates philosophy. In other words, it has never cared to justify or to explain it's meaning; and has remained blandly indifferent to its refutation by Hume. Of course the historical revolt was fully justified: It was wanted. It was more than wanted: it was an absolute necessity for healthy progress. The world required centuries of healthy contemplation of irreducible and stubborn facts. It is difficult for men to do more than one thing at a time, and that was the sort of thing they had to do after the rationalistic orgy of the Middle Ages. It was a very sensible reaction; but it was not a protest on behalf of reason.''

Again, he says: "The Reformation and the scientific movement were two aspects of the historical revolt which was the dominant intellectual movement of the later Renaissance. The appeal, to the origin of Christianity and Francis Bacon's appeal to efficient causes as against final causes were two sides of one movement of thought. Also for this reason Galileo and his adversaries were at hopeless cross-purposes, as can be seen from his Dialogues on the Two Systems of the World. Galileo keeps harping on how things happen, whereas his adversaries had a complete theory as to why things happened. Unfortunately the two theories did not bring out the same result. Galileo insists upon 'irreducible and stubborn facts,' and Simplicius, his opponent, brings forward reasons, completely satisfactory at least to himself. It is a great mistake to conceive this historical revolt as an appeal to reason. On the contrary, it was through and through an anti-intellectualist movement. It was a return to the contemplation of brute fact and it was based on a recoil from the inflexible rationality of medieval thought."

The appeal to brute fact against the arguments of reason, based on fixed presuppositions, is the essence of science. Science opposes IS to MUST BE. Reason is, of course, essential; but it is applied after the facts have been ascertained and not before. People often say that science is measurement or that science is accuracy. This is to erect means into principle. The primary object of science is to ascertain facts. Its secondary object is to infer general laws from them. Whether or not in ascertaining the facts use is made of measurement or mathematics depends entirely on the nature of the subject matter. It is not a matter of scientific principle but of common sense or expediency. Non-metrical methods can be just as scientific as metrical if the type of inquiry demands them.

But this is not the whole story. Science also depends on a belief in the intelligibility of nature. "I do not think, however," says Whitehead, "that I have even yet brought out the greatest contribution of Medievalism to the formation of the scientific movement. I mean the inexpugnable belief that every detailed occurrence can be correlated with its antecedents in a perfectly definite manner exemplifying general principles. Without this belief the incredible labours of scientists would be without hope. It is this instinctive conviction, vividly poised before the imagination, which is the motive power of research - that there is a secret, a secret which can be revealed. How has this conviction been so vividly implanted in the European mind? When we compare this tone of thought in Europe with the attitude of other civilisations when left to themselves, there seems but one source for its origin. It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher. Every detail was supervised and ordered: the search into nature could only result in the vindication of the faith in rationality."

When psychical research is repudiated in the name of science, the critic possibly feels that this second principle of science is being undermined. Perhaps that is what Professor Troland was trying to say when he compared paranormal phenomena with perpetual-motion machines. He may have regarded these phenomena as destroying the scheme of scientific order. Telepathy and precognition appear at first sight to be unattached and unassimilable "brute facts." The scientist is placed in a dilemma. He is pledged in the first place to trust in empirical observation. He believes in the second place that all observed facts must fit into a single, ordered scheme. What is he to do when he finds an observed fact which will not fit into any part of his ordered scheme? Nor is it the scientist alone who is faced with this dilemma. The phenomena of psychical research appear to violate even the familiar order known to the man in the street. It was this dilemma which worried Mr. Everard Feilding when he said that if paranormal phenomena were true, he felt as if he must contemplate the possibility that the statue on the Albert Memorial might drop in to tea!

Can phenomena, which show no sign of falling into line with either common or scientific experience, be acknowledged to exist simply because careful observation shows that they occur? Which of the two principles of science is to be sacrificed, the appeal to fact or the belief in order? Should we, on the one hand, say that, whether or not these things can occur, experience shows that they do? Or, on the other, that, whatever experience shows, reason declares that they cannot? It is interesting to observe that when faced with this dilemma (it is only in physical research that the dilemma becomes acute) men of science tend to adopt the latter attitude. The rationalist in them is stronger than the scientist. They take their stand with the opponents of Galileo in unconscious witness to the immutable power of the psychological substructure of human nature.

One might have expected that, to a man endowed with true scientific curiosity, the merest hint of telepathy would act like the scent of battle to a war-horse. But the scientist does not behave in the least like a war-horse. He behaves much more like a mule: neither pushing nor pulling will move him. When the real test comes, he proves himself to be an a priori theorist at heart. Let me give one last example of this. In an obituary notice of the psychologist, Dr. Morton Prince (not to be confused with Walter Franklin Prince) written by Dr. T. W. Mitchell, the following passage occurs. "He was unwilling to admit the supernormal character of any of the phenomena which he regarded as genuine, and believed that they could all be explained in terms of abnormal psychology. He held a theory of the relation of consciousness to the physiological processes of the body which compelled him to deny the possibility of survival of consciousness as we empirically know it..."(1) Theory first; appeal to fact afterwards!

(1) Journal SPR, Vol, xxvi, p. 42.

How skin-deep, when we come to look into it, is the hold of scientific empiricism even in this scientific age. Now let us try to gather together the significance of the evidence we have been studying.

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
• 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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Some parts The International Survivalist Society 2003