Sir William Barrett

Death-Bed Visions - The Psychical Experiences of the Dying
Publisher: Rider & Co.
Published: 1926
Pages: 123

Chapter 1: Introduction

 - William Barrett -

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          IT is well known that there are many remarkable instances where a dying person, shortly before his or her transition from the earth, appears to see and recognize some deceased relatives or friends. We must, however, remember the fact that hallucinations of the dying are not very infrequent. Nevertheless, there are instances where the dying person was unaware of the previous death of the spirit form he sees, and is therefore astonished to find in the vision of his or her deceased relative one whom the percipient believes to be still on earth. These cases form, perhaps, one of the most cogent arguments for survival after death, as the evidential value and veridical (truth telling) character of these Visions of the Dying is greatly enhanced when the fact is undeniably established that the dying person was wholly ignorant of the decease of the person he or she so vividly sees.

With reference to these visions that eminent physiologist of European fame, Prof. Richet, writes as follows:

"Facts of this kind are very important. They are much more explicable on the spiritist theory than by the hypothesis of mere cryptesthesia. Among all the facts adduced to prove survival, these seem to me to be the most disquieting (i.e. from a materialistic point of view). I have therefore thought it a duty to be scrupulous in mentioning them."

As is well known Prof. Richet does not believe in the existence of a soul, or of survival after death, and explains the evidence afforded by psychical research of a spiritual world by his theory of cryptesthesia, by which he means the perception of things or beings, by some sensory organ at present unknown to science, a faculty not possessed by every one, but, in my opinion, conclusively established to exist in certain individuals. These sensitives are to be found in all countries, in both sexes, and may be old or young, rich or poor, educated or ignorant. This faculty of clairvoyance - this vision of persons or things invisible to normal eyesight - may occur when the sensitive is quite conscious, but is more often observed in the trance condition, especially when this is induced by deep hypnosis - the "mesmeric trance" as it used to be called.

The older mesmerists employed the word "lucidity," or "travelling clairvoyance," for the perception of things at a distance. The term clairvoyance is, however, ambiguous, for it is now used in two different senses, namely, either for:

(a) The perception of hidden material objects remote from the sensitive, such as underground water; or

(b) For the perception by the sensitive of immaterial objects, such as apparitions of deceased persons.

To avoid this confusion Myers suggested the term "telesthesia" instead of clairvoyance for the perception of material things. Telesthesia he defines as the sensation or perception of objects or conditions independently of the recognized channels of sense, and also independently of any possible telepathic communition as the source of the knowledge thus gained. Hence the term telesthesia would be inapplicable to apparitions of the dead or visions of the dying, whereas Richet would include both of these, as well as the vision of hidden material things, under his word "cryptesthesia," which appears to have the same connotation as the familiar word clairvoyance, and therefore it labours under the same ambiguity as that word. 

Other terms for clairvoyance have been suggested; in America Mr. Henry Holt uses the word "telopsis," and Dr. Heysinger the word "telecognosis"; but these terms could hardly be applied to apparitions or visions of the dying, which appear near to, and not far from, the sensitive.

Miss Cobbe in her Peak in Darien makes some interesting remarks on the subject of Visions of the Dying. She states:

"The dying person is lying quietly, when suddenly, in the very act of expiring, he looks up - sometimes starts up in bed - and gazes on (what appears to be) vacancy, with an expression of astonishment, sometimes developing instantly into joy, and sometimes cut short in the first emotion of solemn wonder and awe. If the dying man were to see some utterly - unexpected but instantly recognized vision, causing him a great surprise, or rapturous joy, his face could not better reveal the fact. The very instant this phenomenon occurs, Death is actually taking place, and the eyes glaze even while they gaze at the unknown sight."

As regards the general subject of Visions of the Dying, Mr. Myers has some interesting remarks in Phantasms of the Living. He states that in his view such an occurrence it must probably often take place though it can seldom leave any record behind it. For here we have an account of that side only of a reciprocal incident which is usually lost to human knowledge altogether: I mean of the supernormal percipience of a man in the very article of death; while there is no record of any corresponding sound or vision as experienced by those to whom he seemed to pay his visit of farewell(1).

(1) "Phantasms of the Living," Vol. II, p. 305.

There are, however, several cases on record where the vision of those who have passed over is shared by friends at the bedside of the dying person. Instances of these will be given in a later chapter.

In considering the value of evidence for supernormal phenomena the importance of the cumulative character of the evidence must be taken into account. It is the undesigned coincidence of witnesses who have had no communication with each other that constitutes its value taken as a whole, whilst a single case may be doubtful or disproved, just as a single stick may be broken but a faggot may defy all our attempts at breaking a bundle of sticks.

On this point Archbishop Whately has some admirable remarks on the value of testimony. He states:

"It is evident that when many coincide in their testimony (where no previous concert can have taken place), the probability resulting from this concurrence does not rest on the supposed veracity of each considered separately, but on the improbability of such an agreement taking place by chance. For though in such a case each of the witnesses should be considered as unworthy of credit, and even much more likely to speak falsehood than truth, still the chances would be infinite against their all agreeing in the same falsehood."(1)

(1) See Whately's "Rhetoric," Chapter I.

About fifty years ago the learned incumbent of a church in Birmingham, the Rev. J. S. Pollock, published a collection of cases of supernormal phenomena under the curious title of Dead and Gone. Although some five hundred cases are quoted, taken from various sources, no attempt has been made at the investigation of any single case, so that the book as a whole has little evidential value.

Here I may quote some suggestive remarks made by Mrs. Henry Sidgwick soon after the foundation of the Society for Psychical Research, and published in the "Proceedings" for 1885 (p. 69):

"Most of those to whom this paper is addressed probably belong to some Christian denomination, and to them the continued existence of the soul after death is, of course, no new theory invented to account for such phenomena as we are discussing, or requiring such phenomena to support it. But few will have any difficulty in agreeing with me that 1) the possibility of receiving [visions of or] communications from the dead, here and now, would not follow as a necessary consequence from the immortality of the soul; 2) that if communication of what I may call an objective kind distinguishable, I mean, from our own thoughts and emotions - is possible to all those of the departed who desire it, we should naturally expect it to occur more frequently than the most sanguine can suppose that it actually does; and 3) that its possibility, while not in contradiction with any of the known facts of physical science, is certainly not supported, or in any way suggested, by any of these facts. However firmly, therefore, we may believe in the continued existence of dead human beings, we cannot regard the supposition of their action on the minds of the living as if it were merely the reference of an effect to a vera causa known to be adequate to produce it. We must treat it as we should treat the hypothesis - in any department of physical investigation - of an entirely new agent, for the existence of which we have no evidence outside the phenomenon which it is introduced to explain. If this be so, it will, I think, be admitted that we should be violating an established rule of scientific method if we introduced such a hypothesis except in the last resort, when all other modes of explanation seem clearly to fail.

"Exactly at what point of improbability this failure of other explanations is to be regarded as established, cannot, I think, be defined - at any rate, I feel quite unable to define it. But I may perhaps say that, in my opinion, it is a point which can hardly be reached in the case of any narrative of a single event considered by itself: if we had only a single ghost-story to deal with, I can hardly conceive the kind or amount of evidence which would lead me to prefer the hypothesis of ghostly agency to all other possible explanations. The existence, therefore, of phantasms of the dead can only be established, if at all, by the accumulation of improbabilities in which we become involved by rejecting a large mass of apparently strong testimony to facts which, as recounted, would seem to admit of no other satisfactory explanation; and in testing the value of this testimony we are bound, I think, to strain to the utmost all possible suppositions of recognized causes, before we can regard the narrative in question as even tending to prove the operation of this novel agency."

On the other hand, every scientific society ought to have as its motto the opinion expressed by Sir John Herschel in his discourse on Natural Philosophy (p. 127), "that the perfect observer ... will have his eyes as it were opened that they may be struck at once with any occurrence which, according to received theories, ought not to happen; for these are the facts which serve as clues to new discoveries." Unfortunately, as Goethe remarked in one of his conversations with Eckermann, "in the sciences ... if anyone advances anything new ... people resist with all their might; they speak of the new view with contempt, as if it were not worth the trouble of even so much as an investigation or a regard; and thus a new truth may wait a long time before it can win its way."



Contents | Preface | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6

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