Curt J. Ducasse

C. J. Ducasse

(1881-1969), French-born, highly respected Professor of Philosophy at Brown University. Awardee of the Carus Lectures prize (American Philosophical Association). Contributed to the "Journal Information for Philosophy and Phenomenological Research", "Causation", "Immortality" (Edited by Paul Edwards), "Philosophical Dimensions of Parapsychology" (edited by James M. O. Wheatley). Ex-student of Josiah Royce. Pursued a career in philosophy but retained a strong interest in logic - so much so that he took the initiative to create the Association for Symbolic Logic with its Journal of symbolic logic. Among his many important papers on survival are "How the Case of The Search for Bridey Murphy Stands Today" Journal of the ASPR 54: 3-22, and "What Would Constitute Conclusive Evidence of Survival After Death?" Journal of the SPR 41: 401-406. His books included "A Critical Examination of the Belief in Life After Death", "Paranormal Phenomena, Science and Life After Death" (Monograph), "A Philosophical Scrutiny of Religion", "Nature, Mind, And Death", "Truth, Knowledge and Causation", "Philosophy As a Science: Its Matter and Its Method" and "Philosophy of Art".

A Critical Examination of the Belief in a Life After Death - Part 4

Chapter 15: Survival and Paranormal Occurrences

1. Where empirical evidence of survival might be found | 2. Critique of Rhine's account of what marks an event as paranormal | 3. Broad's analytical account of the marks of paranormality4. The chief kinds of ostensibly paranormal occurrences | 5. Questions relevant to reports of paranormal occurrences

 - Curt J. Ducasse -

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          IN CHAPTER II, we examined the chief of the arguments alleged to prove the reality of a life after death, and we found that, because of one or another defect, each failed to prove it or even to establish that it is probably a fact. On the other hand, we surveyed in Chapter Ill both the current empirical and the theoretical arguments that purport to show that survival of consciousness after death is impossible; and, after clarifying in Part II the key concepts employed in those arguments, we found in Part III that the arguments quite fail to prove the alleged impossibility. The positive upshot, then of Parts I, II, and III is that persistence of consciousness in some form after death is both theoretically and empirically possible: theoretically possible since analysis of the supposition of such persistence finds no contradiction implicit in it; and empirically possible since that supposition is not inconsistent with any definitely known empirical facts.

The task before us is now to inquire whether there are any empirical facts at all that would establish the reality of survival or, failing this, would show it to be more probable than not.

1. Where empirical evidence of survival might be found

Obviously, neither any commonly known facts nor any of the recondite facts of the natural sciences provide evidence of survival; for otherwise survival would hardly be in doubt. Hence, if any empirical evidence at all is to be found that consciousness continues after death, that evidence must be sought among paradoxical occurrences of the kinds termed "supernatural" by naive persons, but to-day designated simply as "paranormal" by persons too critical to assume tacitly as do the former that Nature can comprise only what is known and understood as of now.

The term "paranormal" has - in addition to its freedom from the religious or superstitious connotations of "supernatural" - the virtue of being free also from the special assumptions that are packed into such terms as "parapsychological," "paraphysical," or "parabiological." For "paranormal" means only that the kinds of occurrences so labelled are contrary to what is "normal," i.e., contrary to what "the common sense of the epoch" regards as possible. As Dr. W. F. G. Swarm has pointed out, each theory - whether of the nature of the world or of man - that meets with enough success in accounting for the facts it concerns to gain wide acceptance, "grows around itself an aura of common sense, the common sense of its epoch." But knowledge and understanding increase as a result of man's taking novel or neglected facts into account, and in time new or improved theories supersede the old. "And so the center of gravity of common sense changes with the epoch, and the nonsense of the past becomes the common sense of the future."(1)

(1) Nature and the Mind of Man, Lecture, delivered at the Stated Meeting of the Franklin Institute, Wednesday February 15, 1956. Pub. in Jl. of the Franklin Institute, Vol. 261 No. 6. June, 1956. The passages quoted above are from p. 593.

Since occurrences ostensibly paranormal thus necessarily constitute the sort of evidence we shall have to examine in our presentation of the case for the reality of survival, we need first to sharpen our concept of paranormality by considering in more detail the nature of the criterion we tacitly employ when we class a given occurrence as paranormal. The most painstaking attempts to formulate it the present writer knows are those of Prof. J. B. Rhine and of Prof. C. D. Broad. Let us examine each in turn.

2. Critique of Rhine's account of what marks an event as paranormal

Paranormal occurrences have also been designated "metapsychical," "parapsychological," or simply "psi" phenomena. Prof. Rhine ordinarily employs one or the other of the last two of these terms. According to him, what marks certain phenomena as parapsychological is their non-physical character: they "defy physical explanation and require a psychological one. They always happen to people (or animals) or involve some associated or at least suspected personal agency or experience; ... they definitely appear to challenge explanation by physical principles."(2)

(2) New World of the Mind. Wm. Sloane Associates, N. Y. 1953, p. 150.

The required psychological explanation, however, is not supplied by Rhine, who does not even formally supply criteria of what he means by "physical" or by "psychological." Moreover, the character of being incapable of explanation in physical terms, or more exactly, in terms of the "the physics of today(3) is not peculiar to parapsychological phenomena for, as made clear in our chapter VIII, this same inexplicability in purely physical terms attaches also to normal states of consciousness, i.e., to the contents of introspection: however dependent on physical processes in the brain these may be, they are not identically those physical processes themselves. Indeed, even the purposiveness which seems to characterize all life processes down to those of unicellular organisms is still to be accounted for adequately in terms purely of physics, notwithstanding the attempts to do so made by Schroedinger and others .4 And of course, that there is in the personality of man "a world of distinctively mental reality"(5) is no new discovery made for us by parapsychology. For, as C. W. K. Mundle pointedly noted in his review of New World of the Mind, "surely one's best evidence for [the existence of a "world of the mind"] is still the introspective awareness one has of what goes on in one's own mind."(6)

That telepathy and clairvoyance are non-physical phenomena is shown, Rhine contends, by the fact that "they defy any application of the inverse square law of decline of effect with distance."

(3) Parapsychology, Frontier Science of the Mind, pub. Charles C Thomas, Springfield, Ill. 1957, p. 7.
(4) E. Schroedinger: What is Life? 1946. Concerning the purposive character of biological processes, see for instance E. W. Sinnott: Cell and Psyche, the Biology of Purpose, 1950; H. S. Jennings: Some Implications of Emergent Evolution, in Science Jan. 14,1927; E. Rignano: The Concept of Purpose in Biology. Mind, Vol. XL, no. 159 July 1931; and The Nature of Life, 1930.
(5) Rhine, New World of the Mind, p. IX.
(6) Jl. of the Am. Soc. for Psychical Research, Vol. XLVIII:165, No. 4. October, 1954.

The trouble with this contention, however, is that telepathy and clairvoyance have not been shown to be independent of distance. What has been shown is only that distances of a few hundred or even a few thousand miles do not affect the excess of correct guesses over chance expectation, which has characterized the results of telepathy and clairvoyance experiments. For these experiments are not quantitative in the sense this term ordinarily has in science, namely, that the cause and the effect are each measured, and that a certain magnitude of the effect regularly corresponds to a certain magnitude of the cause. The magnitude of the "sender's" telepathic action is not measured, nor is the magnitude of the "receiver's" impression. But it is the magnitude of his impression - not the degree of correctness of the information received - which, if the energy involved is physical, would be expected to decrease according to the inverse square law when the distance increases. That is, the receiver's impression would be of a telepathic "shout" when the distance is short, and of a telepathic "whisper" when the distance is long. And the question whether this is or is not actually the case is not decided at all by the fact that the degree of correctness of the telepathic information was the same at great as at small distances: this fact is irrelevant because the information conveyed in a whisper can be exactly the same information as that conveyed in a shout.

Nor, again, have the "sending" and the "receiving" been timed with the extreme precision which would be necessary to vindicate the supposition that no more time is taken by telepathy over relatively long distances than over short; for the speed of telepathy might happen to be of the same order of magnitude as the speed of light - which is a purely physical phenomenon - and, in order to prove that the speed of light is finite, timings vastly more precise than any ever made of telepathy were necessary.

What the "quantitative" experiments with telepathy and clairvoyance have quantified is merely the probability that there is a causal connection between the fact to be guessed and the guess made of it. To have shown that the magnitude of this probability was significantly higher than chance is, of course, an epoch-making achievement; but it does not constitute quantification of the cause or the effect, and hence does not show that telepathy and clairvoyance are independent of distance even over the few thousand miles available on the surface of the earth for experimentation.

The criticisms made in what precedes of Rhine's attempt to state what marks an event as parapsychological do not, of course, in any way reflect on the value or the originality of his experimental work. The importance of that work and of the similar work it has inspired others to do is outstanding, for it has definitely shown, by methods similar to those used in certain of the other fields of scientific research, that telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition really occur and do not depend on the use of the known sense organs.

Nor, on the other hand, were those criticisms intended as an argument that the processes at work in paranormal phenomena are somehow ultimately physical; for what is important in those phenomena is that their occurrence points to the existence of forces and of facts which, whether or not themselves somehow physical, are anyway novel to contemporary science and therefore compel it to revise its conception of the limits of the really possible.

Those criticisms were intended only to make evident on the one hand that Rhine has not proved that the phenomena in view are non-physical; and on the other that some positive criterion of non-physicality would be required if the "parapsychological" character of an occurrence were to be applicably defined as consisting in the "non-physicality" of the occurrence. For it is one thing to say of certain occurrences that we do not know them to be physical; and it is quite another thing to say that they are non-physical. The burden of proof squarely rests on the person who, as Rhine does, asserts the latter. He does not, however, supply the proof, but leaves us with only the fact that the phenomena in view are ones for which we have at present neither a physical nor a psychological explanation. As we pointed out, however, this is true also of some occurrences not termed paranormal, and therefore does not mark off the former from the latter.

The importance Rhine attaches to the "non-physicality" he claims for paranormal phenomena appears to derive from the philosophical implications as regards freedom of the will, moral responsibility, and the validity of human values, which he believes such non-physicality would have - but which in fact it would not have at all.(7)

(7) See on this point, in Jl. of Philosophy Vol. LI, No. 25, December 9, 1954, an article by Rhine on The Science of Nonphysical Nature, especially p. 809; and the present writer's comments upon it entitled The Philosophical Importance of 'Psychic Phenomena', especially pp. 816-17. Rhine's conception of "non-physicality" is devastatingly criticized by the physicist, R. A. McConnell, in his review of Rhine and Pratt's recent book, Parapsychology, Frontier Science of the Mind, in Jl. of the Amer. Soc. for Psychical Research, Vol. LII:117-20, July, 1958, No. 3.

3. Broad's analytical account of the marks of paranormality

The clearest, most adequate and most useful analysis of the notion of paranormality to be found in the literature of the subject is probably that formulated by C. D. Broad in an essay entitled "The relevance of psychical research to philosophy."(8) He writes that "there are certain limiting principles which we unhesitatingly take for granted as the framework within which all our practical activities and our scientific theories are confined. Some of these seem to be self evident. Others are so overwhelmingly supported by all the empirical facts which fall within the range of ordinary experience and the scientific elaborations of it ... that it hardly enters our heads to question them. Let us call these Basic Limiting Principles."(9)

(8) It originally appeared in the journal, Philosophy, and is reprinted in Prof. Broad's book, Religion, Philosophy and Psychical Research, Harcourt, Brace and Co., New York 1953, pp. 7-26.
(9) Op. cit. p. 7.

A "paranormal" event would then be one whose occurrence violates one or more of those principles and therefore proves that, although they have very wide validity, nevertheless it is not as commonly assumed strictly unlimited.

Broad formulates nine of those principles but makes no claim that the list is exhaustive. They fall into four groups. Those of the first group relate to Causation in general; those of the second, to the action of mind on matter; those of the third to the dependence of mind on brain; and those of the fourth to the ways of acquiring knowledge. The following sketchy account of them will be adequate for our present purpose of making clear the distinction between normality, which they define, and paranormality, which consists of exceptions to one or another of them.

(I) An event cannot have effects before it has itself occurred. (Hence "precognition," which would be causation, by an as yet future event, of a present perception of it, would contravene this principle and would therefore be paranormal.)

Then come two other principles regarding causation, which in substance are that causation at a distance in space or in time is impossible without some intermediary chain of causes and effects.

(II) Next is the principle that it is impossible for an event in a person's mind to cause directly any material event other than one in his own brain. (This would preclude psychokinesis or telekinesis, e.g., the influencing of the fall of dice by mere volition; and occurrence of it would therefore be paranormal.)

(III) Then comes the principle that some event in a person's living brain is a necessary condition of any event in his mind. (Continuation of consciousness after the body's death, which this principle would preclude, would therefore be paranormal.)

(IV) Lastly, four principles concerning the acquisition of knowledge: (a) that physical events or things can be perceived only by means of sensations caused by them in a percipient's mind. (Clairvoyance, i.e., extrasensory perception of physical events or things, would be ruled out by this principle; and occurrence of it would therefore be paranormal.)

(b) That it is impossible for a person A to know what experiences another person B is having or has had, except by perceiving and interpreting sensory signs of them made by B then or earlier. (Telepathy, which would be extrasensory cognition of another person's experiences, would conflict with this principle, and would therefore be paranormal.)

(c) That it is impossible for a person to know the future, except by inference from data and rules of inference relevant to them, known to him personally or through testimony; or by non-inferential expectations resulting from associations formed in the past and presently stimulated. (Precognition, which would violate this principle, would then be paranormal.)

(d) That a person can know the past only from memory, or from testimony as to memories, or from records of perceptions or of memories, or by inference from present data and relevant rules of sequence. (A violation of this principle would constitute "retrocognition," which would therefore be paranormal.)

4. The chief kinds of ostensibly paranormal occurrences

Some kinds of paranormal occurrences have no obvious bearing on the question of survival after death; yet almost any of them can have, indirectly if not directly. Hence brief description of the chief kinds of which cases have at times been reported is appropriate at this point.

In many of them some person, referred to variously as a "psychic", "sensitive," "automatist," or "medium," apparently plays some role. The term "medium" was originally used to mean that the person so described functioned as an intermediary through whom communication takes place between the deceased and the living. The term, however, and those other terms too, will here be employed in the broader sense usual to-day, of a person in whose presence paranormal phenomena occur at times, and on whose presence their occurrence is somehow dependent.

Paranormal occurrences are commonly divided into two classes - the physical and the mental; and within each, two subclasses may be distinguished. As will appear, however, the four resulting sub-classes are not as sharply separate as could be wished, and the placing of a given paranormal occurrence in one rather than in another of them is sometimes rather arbitrary. Also, some phenomena have both physical and mental features. Nevertheless, the following classification is convenient.

(1) The first of its four classes is that of occurrences that are physical and in addition extrasomatic; that is, external to the bodies of all the persons present. Examples would be paranormal raps on tables, walls, or other objects; motions of objects without their being touched, or moved by any other normal cause; paranormal sharp decreases of temperature in some part of a room; materialization apparently out of nothing, or dematerialization, of flowers, of hands or other parts of human bodies, or of other objects. Apparitions of the dead or the living would come under this heading if perception of them is due to a somehow physical stimulus. Usually, however, they are more plausibly classed as hallucinations and therefore as mental.

(2) The second category is that of physical phenomena that are somatic in the sense of taking place in or occurring to the body of the medium or of some other person present. Examples would be the levitation of the body - that is, the rising of it in the air and floating or moving there unsupported; or again, temporary paranormal immunity of parts of the body to fire; or paranormally sudden healing of wounds or diseases; or extrusion from the body of the entranced medium of a mysterious substance which has been termed ectoplasm, which varies in consistency, and which is capable of taking on various shapes and of exerting or conveying force.

Paranormal occurrences classed as mental, on the other hand, consist in a person's acquisition of information somehow otherwise than, as normally, through the employment of his sense organs. Here again, we may distinguish two sub-classes.

(3) One comprises paranormal mental experiences of the kinds termed extrasensory perceptions, whether occurring spontaneously or under laboratory conditions. Examples would be Precognition, that is, not discursive inference but detailed and correct virtual perception, perhaps in a dream or in a waking hallucination, of events that have not yet occurred; or the guessing, correctly to an extent significantly above chance in a large number of trials, of the order the cards will have in a pack after it will have been shuffled. Also, Retrocognition, which is quasi perception similarly detailed and correct of past events one has never perceived or perhaps even known anything of. Again Telepathy, that is, communication between minds independently of the channels of sense and notwithstanding distance and intervening material obstacles; Clairvoyance, that is, virtual perception of objective events or things that are not at the time accessible to the organs of sense. A special case of this would be Object-reading (sometimes inappropriately called Psychometry) namely, correct virtual perception of facts and events in the life of a person with whom a given object has been closely associated, but who, or whose identity, is unknown to the percipient.

Again, hallucinations, whether waking or oneiric, that are veridical in the sense that their content includes, or their occurrence correctly signifies, particular facts not otherwise known to the percipient. Apparitions of the dead or of the living would often be instances of this; also what are termed heautoscopic hallucinations (or "out-of-the-body," or "projection," experiences,) namely, experiences in which a person observes his own body and its surroundings from a point in space external to it, as we all do the bodies of other persons.

(4) Lastly, there are the communications that come through the automatic speech or writing of a medium; or according to some agreed code, through paranormal raps or paranormal motions of an object in the presence of a medium; and that convey information that turns out to be veridical but was not obtained by the medium in any of the normal ways. The communications, usually but not always, purport to emanate from the surviving spirits of persons who have died, who claim to be temporarily occupying or indirectly using the body of the medium, or to be causing the raps or motions of objects that answer questions and spell sentences according to a code.

Another classification of ostensibly paranormal occurrences - which cuts across that just presented - divides them into the spontaneous, the experimental, and the mediumistic ones. Evidently, the class of mediumistic occurrences may overlap to some extent the other two of these.

The existing evidence that phenomena occur that are paranormal in the sense defined is much stronger for some of the kinds mentioned than for some of the others. It is strongest and practically conclusive in the case of extrasensory perception - especially of precognition, clairvoyance, and telepathy since, for the testing of these, certain experimental methods, and statistical procedures for the treatment of the results obtained by those methods, have been devised and employed; and in this way demonstration of the reality of these paranormal perceptions has to some extent been made repeatable.

5. Questions relevant to reports of paranormal occurrences

If one's interest in reports of ostensibly paranormal occurrences or in observations of them one may personally have made is, as in these pages, the scientific and philosophical rather than the religious or sentimental, then certain questions present themselves which it is important to distinguish and to keep in mind.

They fall into four groups according as they concern (a) the genuineness or spuriousness of a given ostensibly paranormal occurrence; or (b) the testimony available for the occurrence of a putative instance of a paranormal kind of phenomenon; or (c) the observation made by the witness of the particular occurrence concerned; or (d) what the occurrence, if genuinely paranormal and if correctly observed and reported, signifies.

Let us examine each of these more particularly.

(a) That a given apparently paranormal occurrence is genuinely so means that the manner of its production really constitutes an exception to some one of the "basic limiting principles" stated by Broad. On the other hand, that it is spurious means that the manner of its production is really normal, or perhaps merely abnormal in the sense of unusual; but is not paranormal, i.e., does not, but only seems to, violate one of those limiting principles.

If it is spurious, it may be so because of deliberate fraud on the part of the purported medium or of some other person; or because of unconscious fraud by a medium or by someone else present. Unconscious fraud in the case of a physical phenomenon could mean for example, that the medium, in a trance state akin to somnambulism, is using his hands or some other normal means of moving objects without realizing that, for the purposes of the occasion, this is illegitimate though it is quite natural from the standpoint of the dreamed situation that constitutes the content of his consciousness at the moment.

Deliberate fraud in the matter of communications allegedly from spirits would mean that, in so far as the content of the communication corresponds to true facts relating to the deceased and peculiar enough to identify him, those facts had previously been ascertained in some normal manner by the supposed medium.

(b) Concerning now the reports that are made of particular supposedly paranormal occurrences, the questions to be answered are those relevant to the validity and the value of testimony in general. They are (1) whether the witness is truthful, i.e., not deliberately mendacious; (2) whether he is objective, i.e., impartial not biased by wishful belief in the occurrence or non-occurrence of phenomena of the kind he testifies he perceived or failed to perceive; (3) whether the report is precise, detailed, and full, rather than vague, superficial, or inclusive only of the more striking features of what occurred or of the conditions under which it was observed; and (4) whether the report is, or is based on, a record made at the time the occurrence was being witnessed; or if not, made then how soon after; or on no record but only on what is remembered at the time the report is written.

(c) As regards the observer as such, rather than as reporter, the main question would be whether he has, and used, the possibly special critical powers necessary for competence to perceive correctly what occurred, under the conditions that existed at the time. Such critical powers would include familiarity with the psychology of hypnosis and of hallucinations; also, familiarity with the devices or accessories employed in conjuring tricks; and, more generally, with the psychology of illusions of perception. The latter has to do with the practical difficulty under some circumstances of distinguishing, in what one believes oneself to be perceiving, between what is strictly being observed and what is automatically and unconsciously being added to it - i.e., supplied by one's past experience of what did occur in various past cases to which the present one is similar in obvious but perhaps unessential respects. The performances of illusionists make one perceive things that are really not occurring; and thus bring acutely home the extent of what, in perception, is supplied by interpretation based on habit and on the expectations it generates, as distinguished from what is strictly and literally observed. This additive activity, however, occurs not only when one witnesses conjuring tricks, but constantly. But, in most though not in all ordinary instances of it, what it supplies is correct instead erroneous.

It should be mentioned in this general connection that experimenting parapsychologists, and the research officers or research committees of the societies for psychical research, are in general familiar with and fairly expert at guarding against the various sources of possible error that were considered in what precedes. The purported paranormal phenomena brought to their attention are investigated usually with care and competence. Hence although the accounts of them published in the proceedings and journals of those societies are not necessarily beyond question; nevertheless they cannot as a rule be just shrugged off as probably naive. To do so is what would be naive.

(d) Finally comes the question as to what a given occurrence, if genuinely paranormal and correctly observed and reported, signifies; i.e., what the true explanation of it is. For example, in the case of precognition, what does it signify as to the relation between causality and time. Or, in that of "out-of-the-body" experiences, do they signify that man's mind is detachable from and capable of existing and of functioning independently of his body. Again, in the case of telekinesis, of levitation, or of so-called "poltergeist" phenomena, is the occurrence due to paranormal psychokinetic action by excarnate "spirits" whether human or other; or to such action by some dissociated part of the medium's personality. Or, in the case of communications purportedly from spirits of the dead, is what they really signify only that the medium has paranormal capacities of telepathy, clairvoyance, or retrocognition which - rather than communication from the deceased - supply him with the recondite correct information the communications contain. Or, on the other hand, do these really emanate from some part of the personality of the deceased that has survived the death of his body; and if so what specific part, and in just what sense can it be said to be still "living."

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Contents | Preface | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 | Chapter 16 | Chapter 17 | Chapter 18 | Chapter 19 | Chapter 20 | Chapter 21 | Chapter 22 | Chapter 23 | Chapter 24 | Chapter 25 | Chapter 26

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