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 16: Paranormal Occurrences, Science and Scientists

1. Reports of paranormal occurrences commonly dismissed offhand by scientists | 2. What accounts for the dogmatism of scientists on the subject of paranormal events | 3. Why the paranormal phenomena are regarded as impossible | 4. Clash of a reported occurrence with the metaphysical creed of the natural sciences

 - Curt J. Ducasse -

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          IN THE next two chapters, some well-attested concrete examples of the kinds of paranormal occurrences that appear to constitute empirical evidence of survival will be cited and discussed. But the occurrences the reports describe are so shocking to the scientific commonsense of the present epoch that some re marks are called for at this point concerning the relation of paranormal occurrences to science, and concerning the attitude prevalent among scientists towards reports of them.

1. Reports of paranormal occurrences commonly dismissed offhand by scientists

During the last seventy-five years, many facts which there is strong reason to regard as paranormal have been recorded as a result of painstaking investigations made by some highly capable individuals, by the societies for psychical research, and more recently by the parapsychology laboratories. The majority of scientists, however, still do not bother to acquaint themselves with those facts, or at most only superficially; and yet are in general ready to dismiss on a priori grounds any reports of them, much as Faraday did reports of levitation when he wrote: "Before we proceed to consider any question involving physical principles, we should set out with clear ideas of the naturally possible and impossible." Premising then that creation or destruction of force is impossible, Faraday went on to declare that since levitation of an object "without effort" would constitute creation of force, it therefore "cannot be."(1) As the late Professor James H. Hyslop, founder of the American Society for Psychical Research, wrote some forty years ago, "Science, content, without thorough inquiry, to confine its investigations to the physical world in which it has achieved so much, will not open its eyes to anomalies in the realm of mind and nature and so degenerates into a dogmatism exactly like that of theology."(2)

(1) Experimental Researches in Chemistry and Physics, London 1859, pp. 478-9.
(2) Contact with the other world. The Century Co. New York, 1919, p. 425.

The following recent statement by an eminent biologist may be cited as a quaint example of such ingenuous dogmatism: -Bordering all branches of science there is of course a 'lunatic fringe' of wishful thinkers to be found defending some bogus cancer cure, mysterious radiation effect, or species of dualism. Among the latter should be classed postulates of cellular intelligence or memory, vital force, perfecting principle, cosmic purpose, extrasensory perception ("ESP") telepathy, telekinesis, clairvoyance..."(3)

(3) Science Fiction as an Escape, an article by Hermann J. Mullet, Nobel prize in biology, President of the American Humanist Association; in The Humanist, Vol. XVII:338, No. 6, Nov.-Dec. 1957.

These words, of course, automatically relegate offhand to the "lunatic fringe" of science such naturalists and biologists as Alfred Russel Wallace, Charles Richet, Hans Driesch, H. S. Jennings; such physicists as Sir William Crookes, Lord Rayleigh, Sir Oliver Lodge; the astronomer Camille Flammarion; and philosophers like Henry Sidgwick, William James, and Henri Bergson - to mention only a few of the eminent men who have thought that some of the things listed by Prof. Muller deserve serious consideration. If because of this these men belong to the lunatic fringe of science, then many of us would be proud to find ourselves included in it on the same grounds(4).

(4) The remarks in the remainder of this chapter were originally presented by the writer as one of the addresses at the Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration of the American Society for Psychical Research, held on March 2, 1956. The addresses were published in the Journal of the Society, Vol. L, No. 4. October, 1956.

2. What accounts for the dogmatism of scientists on the subject of paranormal events

Statements by scientists, such as that of Prof. Muller quoted above, compel us to ask what accounts for the dogmatism they exemplify; for the truly scientific attitude is not dogmatic but open-minded. It is free alike from adverse and from favorable prejudice. It welcomes facts as such, no matter whether they confirm or invalidate the assumptions or theories on which they have bearing. Its first commandment is to investigate and observe. In short, disinterested curiosity - the passion to know the truth - is the one scientific passion. It is a stem censor, which rules out of scientific judgments factors such as arrogance, dogmatism, hopes or fears, and wishful belief or disbelief - factors which so often vitiate the judgments of ordinary men. Such is the scientific attitude. It is altogether admirable, and the command over the forces of nature, which adherence to it and to the methods it dictates has put into the hands of man, testifies to the fruitfulness of that attitude.

But the fact that, in so far as it has actually been the attitude of scientists, they have accomplished wonders; and that these wonders have given magical prestige to the very words, Science, and Scientist - this fact does not at all guarantee that when a man who is by profession a scientist speaks, what he says always represents one of the fruits of scientific investigation. For scientists are men and usually have their share of the typical human frailties. They do park some of these outside the doors of their laboratories, for inside, of course, they either live up to the demands of the scientific attitude as characterized above, or they achieve little. But outside they are as prone as other men to pride of profession and of position; and the prestige with which the name, Scientist, has come to endow them in the public eye easily provides for many of them an irresistible temptation to pontificate concerning various questions which fall outside their professional competence, but about which naive outsiders nevertheless respectfully ask them to speak because they are known as Scientists, and Scientists, by definition, are persons who know! The oracular role which this flattering deference invites them to play leads them almost fatally to assume on such occasions that their utterances have authority; for the idea a person harbors of himself is largely determined by the picture of him which others hold out to him.

Now, that pleasing though mainly subconscious picture of himself as an oracle is what is affronted when outsiders venture to call to the attention of a scientist certain facts, such as those psychical research investigates, which seem to clash with certain assumptions of the science of his time. It is on such occasions that the admirable scientific attitude described above easily deserts him and that, as the late Dr. W. F. Prince charged, proved, and illustrated by quoting the words of some twenty scientists from Faraday, Tyndall and Huxley to less eminent ones - it is on such occasions that the outraged scientist is prone to become unscientifically emotional, obscurantistic, inaccurate, illogical, evasive, dogmatic, and even personally abusive(5).

(5) The Enchanted Boundary, Boston Soc. for Psychic Research, 1930; see especially pp. 19-133.

3. Why the paranormal phenomena are regarded as impossible

The remarks made up to this point about scientists have concerned only the psychological or more specifically the emotional factors that account for the abandonment of the scientific attitude by so many scientists when their attention is invited to the existing evidence, experimental and other, that paranormal phenomena of various kinds really occur. But something must now be said also as to the source of the quite dispassionate firm conviction of many of them that, in the light of modern scientific knowledge, those phenomena cannot possibly be real and can only be semblances, delusions, or frauds.

Let us note first that, when a scientist declares that something, which belongs to the field of his scientific competence, is possible, there is no mystery as to the basis of his assertion. It rests either on the fact that he or some other scientist has actually done or observed the thing concerned; or else that it is anyway not incompatible with anything which science has so far established.

Again, when a scientist declares something to be impossible by certain means under certain conditions, then the basis of his assertion is likewise not mysterious. It is that he or some other scientist has actually tried to cause that thing in that manner under those conditions, but that it did not in fact then occur.

On the other hand, when a scientist declares something to be impossible, period; that is, impossible without qualification, then it is a mystery indeed how he could possibly know this. In such cases, the ground of his assertion is only that occurrence of the thing concerned would clash with some principle which the science of his time has somehow come to accept and which is thus part of "the scientific commonsense of the epoch", but which has not in fact been established by science. Such a "principle" however plausible and however wide its utility as a working assumption - becomes a sheer dogma if the scientist's faith in it is so boundless that it causes him to deny a priori or to ignore facts actually observed, that constitute exceptions to it. Assertion that they are impossible because they would clash with it then is pure dogmatism, even if unawares.

The clash of the facts observed may be either with the overall metaphysical creed of the science of the time or, more narrowly, with one or another of the specific articles of it. These are certain of the "basic limiting principles" of the then current scientific thought, to which reference was made in Sec. 3 of Chapt. XIV, and which the scientist uncritically assumes to have unlimited validity, whereas what scientific experience would really warrant him in concluding would be only that it has very wide validity.

4. Clash of a reported occurrence with the metaphysical creed of the natural sciences

The reference made above to "the over-all metaphysical creed of the science of the time" calls for some words of explanation; for a scientist is likely to deny emphatically that science has any truck with that vain and vaporous thing called Metaphysics, which he is more than glad to leave to philosophers or other unscientific thinkers.

As Prof. Ch. Perelman has pointedly remarked somewhere, however, a person's repudiation and scorn of metaphysics is no guarantee that he does not himself harbor unawares some metaphysical creed-in which case he is the more helplessly captive in that mental prison because he does not suspect its existence or perceive its walls.

How this is possible becomes evident as soon as one realizes what constitutes a metaphysical creed. It is something which, if put into words, takes the form: "To be real is to have characteristic W' The word "real," as occurring in it, is essentially a value term, which specifically means "supremely or alone existent, important or significant." Hence, to have a metaphysical creed is to proceed in all one's activities and judgments, and whether consciously or unawares, under the assumption that only what has characteristic C exists, or at least is worth taking into consideration. This is what "to be real" means in, for example, the metaphysical creed that to be real is to be some material event, process, or thing, (whether at the macroscopic, directly perceivable level, or at the atomic or sub-atomic levels explored by theoretical physics.)(6) And just this materialistic metaphysical creed is, in fact, that of most of the practitioners of the natural sciences - physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology, physiological and behavioristic psychology, and the rest.

(6) For more detailed discussion of what "real" means as employed in the formulation of a metaphysical creed, see the writer's Nature, Mind, and Death, chapt. 6, and in particular Sec. 8 thereof.

It is harbored by them, however, without recognition of the fact that it simply consists of their personal inclination and commitment to dedicate their efforts to the investigation of only the material part of the world, and hence to ignore or deny mental events as such, or at least deny them any efficacy.

The material world, of course, is highly important to us, and study of it by scientific methods has yielded a vast amount of valuable knowledge. The scientists who have elected the material world as their field of exploration can justly be proud of what they have achieved; and one can readily understand that their prolonged attention to it should have brought them to the point of being psychologically unable to notice or even conceive of any facts, events, or processes other than material ones; and hence should have made them unable to suppose that any material event should have a cause or an effect other than one itself material.

This psychological incapacity, however, is only an occupational disease, which does not at all guarantee that there are not "really" such things as thoughts, feelings, mental images, volitions, and other psychological states. It only compels the scientists who are captives within the invisible walls of the materialistic metaphysical creed to assign at any cost a purely material meaning to the words which denote those psychological states. For if one proceeds from the start and all along on the arbitrary metaphysical assumption that nothing is real unless it is some process or part of the material world, i.e., of the perceptually public world, then necessarily thoughts, feelings, and the other states accessible only to introspection are conceived either as unreal, i.e., as inefficacious mere appearances; or else as themselves somehow material events.

It is, of course, perfectly legitimate and proper to push as far as it is successful the attempt to account in purely material terms for all material events, including all the activities of human bodies. But at the many points in, for example, human willed acts, where no material event can be observed that would account for those acts, there is no rational justification for insisting wilfully that their causes must, somehow, anyhow, be material events; so that when, for example, I wrote the present words, my thoughts and my desire to formulate them in writing cannot possibly have been what caused the writing of these words. What accounts for but does not justify that insistence is only the quite arbitrary metaphysical creed, harbored and uncritically cherished by most natural scientists, that only what is material is real and can have efficacy; and therefore that not only the vast majority of material events, but all - absolutely all without exception - must have purely material causes.

Nothing but Prof. Muller's pious adhesion to that particular metaphysical creed dictated his naive relegation of dualism, of extrasensory perception, and of any but material explanations, to the "lunatic fringe" of science. For of course to ascribe some material event to a mental cause is cheating at the game in which he like other natural scientists are engaged, to wit, that of seeking material explanations for all material events; just as, while playing chess, moving the king two steps at a time would be cheating. Yet the fact that it would be cheating at chess is not evidence at all that the king is inherently incapable of being moved more than one step at a time! Similarly, that to ascribe to a mental cause a material event not in fact otherwise explained is cheating at the material-science game, is no evidence at all that causation of that material event by a mental event is inherently impossible.

The substance of the following remarks may be put both summarily and picturesquely in the apt words used by Professor C. D. Broad in the preface to his Tamer Lectures at Cambridge University in 1923. What he said there was that the scientists who regard the phenomena investigated by psychical researchers as impossible seem to him to confuse the Author of Nature with the Editor of the scientific periodical, Nature; or at any rate seem to suppose that there can be no productions of the former that would not be accepted for publication by the latter!

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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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