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.

Wallace writes to the Scientific Press

The Harmony of Spiritualism and Science | The Journal of "Science" on Spiritualism

 - Alfred Russel Wallace -

The articles below and the introductory comments were taken from Charles H. Smith's website at

The Harmony of Spiritualism and Science [top]

A letter printed in the 25 July 1885 number of Light (London) responding to criticism of Wallace's essay of the same name.    

          I FIND some difficulty in comprehending the exact position of Mr. Frederick F. Cook in his elaborate "Rejoinder" to my article, but with your permission I will briefly notice his direct criticisms of my views, because they have a certain amount of plausibility owing to the extremely condensed form in which I was compelled to express myself in the space that was allowed me.

Mr. Cook first objects to my proposition that - "man consists essentially of a spiritual nature or mind intimately associated with a spiritual body or soul, both of which are developed in, and by means of, a material organism." This, he says, is a case of spiritual suicide, and is directly opposed to my previous statement that - "mind is the cause of organism and perhaps even of matter itself." But surely, it is clear that in the last quoted passage I am speaking of mind in the abstract or as a fundamental principle, while in the former I am dealing with mind as individualised in the human form. There is, I conceive, no contradiction in believing that mind is at once the cause of matter and of the development of individualised human minds through the agency of matter. And when, further on, he asks, "Does mortality give consciousness to spirit, or does spirit give consciousness for a limited period to mortality?" I would reply, "Neither the one nor the other; but, mortality is the means by which a permanent individuality is given to spirit."

His next serious objection is to my supposition that, "it may well be that evolution is a fundamental law of the universe of mind as well as that of matter." This, he says, is a purely materialistic thought. But here again it is clear by the context that I am referring solely to the development of individualised human minds, of which alone we know, or can know, anything, not to mind in the abstract, of which we know absolutely nothing; and I see no materialism in the supposition that such finite individualised minds can only be produced under some law of evolution.

The last special criticism refers to my belief that "progress towards a nobler and happier existence in the spiritual world" is dependent on the cultivation of our higher moral feelings here. My critic says that this is an utter denial of justice or equality, because our moral nature, as well as our environment, is imposed upon us; but he does not say whether he accepts the alternative position, that all are to be at once good and happy in the future state, and that the most selfish, vicious, and sensual are to make equal progress with the benevolent, self-sacrificing, and virtuous. It seems to me that this latter condition of things would be the most opposed to justice, and even to possibility, and would render the present world, with all its trials, a hopeless and insoluble mystery, while it is certainly opposed to the whole body of information and teaching which we receive from spiritual sources.

It seems to me that my critic, throughout, confuses together the general with the special, the universal with the individual, in discussing the relations of spirit and matter, while he equally confounds proximate with ultimate results in his remarks on the spiritual world. My observations and reasonings have been confined throughout to the nature and relations of individualised human minds and their proximate condition in the spirit world. Speculations on the nature or origin of mind in general as well as those on the ultimate states to which human minds may attain in the infinite future, I look upon as altogether beyond the range of our faculties, and to be, therefore, utterly untrustworthy and profitless.

The Journal of "Science" on Spiritualism [top]

Printed in the 11 July 1885 number of Light (London).    

          MY ARTICLE on the "Harmony of Spiritualism and Science," written for an American newspaper, and republished in Light of May 30th, has been honoured by a notice in the Journal of Science, and I have been requested to make a few remarks in reply to the same. I cannot say that I myself think the criticism worth answering, because it is founded on assumptions which will, I am sure, not be granted by men of science in general; still, as they may present difficulties to some readers, it is perhaps as well to show their weakness.

The writer's main and fundamental objection is stated as follows:

"Science is based upon what we, for want of a better name, term law. Spiritualism rests upon will. Science, and not merely our present science, but any possible science, so far as I can conceive it - takes its stand upon the causal nexus, upon the regular sequence of cause and effect. Iron always sinks in mercury, and always dissolves in hydrochloric acid, etc., etc." ...

In this passage and in what follows, the term "science" is completely misused. It is taken as synonymous with a limited branch of science, namely - physics. There are, however, whole regions of science in which there is no such regular sequence of cause and effect and no power of prediction. Even within the domain of physics we have the science of meteorology in which there is no precise sequence of effects; and when we came to the more complex phenomena of life we can rarely predict results and are continually face to face with insoluble problems; yet no one maintains that meteorology and biology are not sciences - still less that they are out of harmony with or opposed to science. The absence of uniformity, and the impossibility of predicting what will happen under all circumstances are not, therefore, confined to Spiritualistic phenomena alone. Assuming that they are so, however, the writer thus continues:

"With the advent of Spiritualism all this beautiful simplicity has been swept away. If Spiritualists are not mistaken there are around us numbers of finite invisible beings, of unknown powers, and of unknown intentions capable of interfering with the order of nature. They can raise bodies in the air against the force of gravitation. They can kindle fires at pleasure, or deprive fire of the power of destroying organised beings or of occasioning pain... To me it seems that, if these contentions are true, if there exist beings around us capable of exerting such powers, there are introduced, so to speak, into every equation a number of unknown quantities, rendering it for ever insoluble. We can only say 'such results will follow under such conditions, if no spirits think proper to interfere.' It seems to me that before any harmony can be shown between Spiritualism and science it must be ascertained what are the limits of the powers of these 'spirits' and under what conditions can they be exerted. In that manner only can a basis for science be saved."

In this passage there are both misstatements of fact and illogical conclusions. There is little or no proof that the "spirits" around us can of themselves do any of the things alleged. They require in almost every case, perhaps in every case, the assistance of human beings, and not only so, but of particular human beings with special organisations - those we term mediums. Here at once is a limitation to their power, and so great a limitation that the cases in which they can interfere with the ordinary effects of natural law are but very rare exceptions. Unless specially sought after, not one person in a thousand ever comes in contact with these phenomena, and even when sought for the general complaint is that they are exceedingly hard to find. To maintain that all science is impossible because once or twice in the lives of one person in a thousand some interference with the ordinary course of nature may occur, is about as sensible as to maintain that agriculture is impossible because phenomenal hailstorms may destroy, or exceptional whirlwinds may carry away, crops, or to give up all quantitative astronomical observation because earthquakes or terrestrial tremors, which cannot be predicted, may alter the level or the orientation of the instruments. And when we come to vital, and mental, and moral phenomena, we are still more subject to "unknown quantities in our equations." The apparently healthy man dies suddenly, while one who has always been weak and ailing lives to a good old age. The sober, moral, and religious citizen suddenly commits a horrible crime. The man of commanding genius becomes hopelessly insane. Yet these terribly real "unknown quantities" do not render either vital, or mental, or moral science impossible, still less do they place these studies altogether outside of science and in antagonism to it.

Again, as regards the impossibility of any science, as the critic alleges, where will intervenes, we have the human will as a constant factor in sociology, in anthropology, in ethical science, in history, in psychology, yet no one maintains that all these studies are opposed to science even if they have, as yet, no claim to rank among established or exact sciences.

Now, so far as we know, the will of spirits is no more erratic in its manifestations than the will of living men. It appears to be equally subject to general laws and influences, and, on the average, no more affects the orderly sequence of Spiritualistic phenomena than do the individual wills of human beings affect the orderly sequence of mental, social, or moral phenomena. It is a great mistake to impute all the uncertainty of phenomena with mediums to the erratic will of the spirits concerned. Very little is probably due to this cause, while the greater part is certainly owing to what may strictly be termed terrestrial conditions. We know something of these conditions already, and when we know more we have every reason to believe that much of the uncertainty will cease. Not less unsatisfactory is the remark with which our critic concludes this part of the subject:

"To harmonise science with Spiritualism it will then be, in the first place, necessary to discover the limits of the power of spirits, under what conditions it is exerted, and how it may be combated when and where it is desirable."

But in all these respects Spiritualism is fully as advanced as is science itself. We know, practically, the limits of the power of spirits on this earth at the present day, and under ordinary conditions, quite as well as we know the limits of the power of earthquakes and volcanoes, of disease, of insanity, and of human intellect, and we know how to combat their evil effects quite as well in our domain of observation as do men of science in theirs.

Then we have the bugbear of the "creation or destruction of energy" in Spiritualistic phenomena brought forward, and we are told that scientific men will seek for "precise answers" to the question where the power comes from "before they can accept the Spiritualistic theories." But nobody asks them to accept the Spiritualist theories before they have investigated the Spiritualist facts.

It has usually been the boast of science that it accepts, and co-ordinates, and studies all the facts of nature in order to explain them; but with respect to our facts it applies a different rule and asks for a complete theory - a "precise explanation," before it will even begin to study them. We are informed that, in order - "To establish a harmony between Spiritualism and science it will be necessary, I submit, to show the origin of the energy which is at the disposal of spirits." But science itself does not yet know the "origin of the energy" of gravitation, yet the theory of gravitation is its proudest boast. Science only guesses at the "origin of the energy" of the magnet; and in tracing all terrestrial energy to the sun it only removes the difficulty one step, and cannot do more than make more or less probable guesses as to where the energy of the sun comes form. It is surely not scientific to demand of a new and very difficult science the complete solution of its most fundamental problems as a preliminary to recognising its existence, yet this is how the writer in the Journal of Science proposes to treat the students of Spiritualism.

The last passage I shall refer to is that in which the critic considers that Swedenborg was the victim "of delusion or imposture," because, while describing Jupiter and Saturn he said nothing about Uranus or Neptune. The assumption underlying this argument is, that if spirits exist and communicate with men they must necessarily know more of the material universe than men do, and must communicate their superior knowledge to us. This extraordinary misconception well illustrates the tone of mind of the writer, who has evidently given very little attention to the theories and conclusions of the more advanced of modern Spiritualists. He has yet to learn that the facts of Spiritualism are one thing, the value of the information obtained from Spiritualistic sources quite another thing. It is marvellous that so many people who deny that we have any evidence whatever of the existence of spirits, yet claim to know a priori exactly what spirits ought to know and ought to tell us, if they do exist!

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