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Alfred Russel Wallace

Alfred Russel Wallace

English naturalist, evolutionist, geographer, anthropologist, and social critic and theorist. Awarded honorary doctorates from the University of Dublin in 1882 and Oxford University in 1889, and important medals from the Royal Society in 1868, 1890 and 1908, the Société de Geographie in 1870, and the Linnean Society in 1892 and 1908. Received the Order of Merit from the Crown in 1908.

On the Attitude of Men of Science Towards the Investigators of Spiritualism

 - Alfred Russel Wallace -

The article below and the introductory comments were taken from Charles H. Smith's website at http://www.wku.edu/~smithch/

Printed in The Year-book of Spiritualism for 1871.    

          IT IS now generally admitted that all original investigation of Nature is useful and honourable; that the man who devotes himself to the observation of natural phenomena, of however obscure and apparently uninteresting a nature, who conducts experiments calculated to throw light upon their causes, and who fully and accurately records such observations and experiments, gains for himself a place in the roll of scientific investigators. But, strange to say, in order to merit this honourable position, he must strictly limit his inquiries within certain bounds. For should he have chanced to meet with any of those singular cases in which an individual exhibits exalted and exceptional mental capacities, appearing like the development of new senses, or those still more extraordinary phenomena which seem to prove the existence of intelligent beings, invisible and intangible to most men, yet capable, under certain conditions, of making their presence known to us; and if he devote his best energies to the study of these strange and exceptional cases, and, after long-continued inquiry and careful experiment, arrive at the conclusion that they are veritable realities, and, as such, of the highest importance to his fellow-men, - instead of being welcomed as a discoverer, or rewarded as a scientific investigator, he finds himself set down as credulous and superstitious, if not openly accused of falsehood and imposture, and his careful and oft-repeated experiments ignored, as not worth a moment's consideration.

That the public at large should thus deal with new and unpopular inquiries is not to be wondered at; but that philosophers and men of science should act in the same unscientific and unphilosophical spirit is truly extraordinary. While proclaiming loudly that the only way to acquire knowledge is by observation of facts, by experiment, and by the formation of provisional hypotheses to serve as the basis for further experiment and more extended observation, they have yet, for many years, refused to accept any facts or experiments which go to prove the existence of recondite powers in the human mind, or the action of minds not in a visible body. They have ridiculed the idea of any effects being produced by the latter cause, and have repudiated as imposture or delusion all those which appear due to the former. To show that this is really the case, I have only to quote the names of such men as Dr. Esdaile, Dr. Elliotson, Dr. Lee, Dr. Ashburner, Dr. Gregory, Dr. Reichenbach, Dr. Herbert Mayo, Dr. Haddock, Mr. H. G. Atkinson, Miss Martineau, Prof. De Morgan, William Howitt, Prof. Hare, Prof. Bush, Judge Edmonds, Robert Dale Owen, and a host of others, who, for more than twenty years, have published detailed observations and experiments, which corroborate each other in a variety of details, and agree with many facts recorded throughout history; but which observations and experiments are all ignored or denied. There has never yet been a work written in this country, which has fairly grappled with the facts addressed. It has never yet been shown, why, à priori, they may not be true; it has never yet been explained, how, if not true, we are to account for the vast mass of direct testimony to them. The declaration so often made or implied, that facts witnessed thousands of times by honest and intelligent men, and thousands of times carefully examined to detect fraud or delusion which has never been discovered, can not exist, because they imply a subversion of the laws of Nature, is a most weak and illogical objection, since all we know of the laws of Nature is derived from the observation of facts. No fact can possibly subvert the laws of Nature; and to declare that it does so is to declare that we have exhausted Nature, and know all her laws.

In the history of human progress, we look back in vain for a case parallel to the present one, in which the professed teachers of science have been right. The time-honoured names of Galileo, Harvey, and Jenner, are associated with the record of a blind opposition to new and important truths. Franklin and Young were laughed and sneered at for discoveries which seemed wild and absurd to their scientific contemporaries. Nearer to our own day, painless operations during mesmeric trance were again and again denounced as imposture; and the various phenomena of mesmerism, as due to collusion and fraud: yet both are now universally acknowledge to be genuine phenomena. Even such a question of pure science as the evidence of the antiquity of man has met with similar treatment till quite recently. Papers by good observers, recording facts since verified, were rejected by our scientific societies, as too absurd for publication; and careful researches now proved to be accurate were ignored, merely because they were opposed to the general belief of geologists.

It appears, then, that men of science are at least consistent in treating the phenomena of Spiritualism with contempt and derision. They have always done so with new and important discoveries; and, in every case in which the evidence has been even a tenth part of that now accumulated in favour of the phenomena of Spiritualism, they have always been in the wrong. It is, nevertheless, a curious psychological fact, that they do not learn by experience to detect a truth when it comes before them, or take any heed of the warnings of their greatest men against preconceived opinions as to what may, or may not, be true. Thus Humboldt declares, that "a presumptuous scepticism, which rejects facts without examination of their truth, is, in some respects, more injurious than an unquestioning incredulity." Sir Humphry Davy warns them, that "one good experiment is of more value than the ingenuity of a brain like Newton's. Facts are more useful when they contradict, than when they support, received theories." And Sir John Herschel says, that "the perfect observer in any department of Nature will have his eyes open for any occurrence, which, according to received theories, ought not to happen; for these are the facts which serve as clews to new discoveries." Yet in the present day, when so many things deemed absurd and impossible a few years ago have become every-day occurrences, and in direct opposition to the spirit of the advice of their most eminent teachers, a body of new and most remarkable phenomena is ignored or derided without examination, merely because, according to received theories, such phenomena ought not to happen.

The day will assuredly come when this will be quoted as the most striking instance on record of blind prejudice and unreasoning credulity.

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