"The vagueness and confusion inevitable at the beginning of a novel
line of research, [are] naturally distasteful to the savant accustomed to
proceed by measurable increments of knowledge from experimental bases
already assured. Such an one, if he reads this book, may feel as though he
had been called away from an ordnance survey, conducted with a competent
staff and familiar instruments, to plough slowly with inexperienced mariners
through some strange ocean where beds of entangling seaweed cumber the
trackless way. We accept the analogy; but we would remind him that even
floating weeds of novel genera may foreshow a land unknown; and that it
was not without ultimate gain to men that the straining keels of Columbus
first pressed through the Sargasso Sea."
W. H. Myers, Introduction to Phantasms of the Living
IT IS rather remarkable that the majority of learned
men have closed their minds to what have seemed bare and simple facts to many people.
Those who call themselves spiritualists have an easy and simple faith; they interpret their experiences in the most
straight forward and unsophisticated manner, and some of them have shown unfortunately that they can be led into
credulity and error, without much difficulty, by unscrupulous people. Nevertheless, that simple-hearted
folk are most accessible to new facts seems to be rather accordant with history. Whenever, not by reasoning but
by direct experience, knowledge has been enlarged, or when a revelation has come to the human race through the agency
of higher powers, it is not the wise but the simple who are first to receive it. This cannot be used as an argument
either way; the simple may be mistaken, and may too blithely interpret their sense-impressions in the most obvious
manner; just as on the other hand the eyes of the learned may be closed to anything which appears disconnected
from their previous knowledge. For after all it is inevitable that any really new order of things must be so disconnected; some little
time must elapse before the weight of facts impel the learned in a new direction, and meanwhile the unlearned may be absorbing
direct experience, and in their own fashion may be forging ahead. It is an example of the ancient paradox propounded in and about i
Cor. i. 26; and no fault need be found with what is natural.
It behoves me to mention in particular the attitude of men of
science, of whom I may say quorum pars parva fui; for in no way do I wish to dissociate myself from either such stricture or such praise
as may be appropriate to men who have made a study of science their vocation,-
not indeed the peaks of the race, but the general body. For it is safe to assume that we must have some qualities in
common, and that these must be among the causes which have switched us on to a laborious and materially unremunerative road.
Michael Foster said in his Presidential Address to the British
Association at Dover:
"Men of science have no peculiar virtues, no special powers.
They are ordinary men, their characters are common, even commonplace. Science, as Huxley said, is organised common sense,
and men of science are common men," drilled in the ways of common sense."
This of course, like any aphorism, does not bear pressing unduly:
and Dr. Arthur Schuster in a similar Address at" Manchester hedged it round with qualifying clauses:
"This saying of Huxley's has been repeated so often that one
almost wishes it were true; but unfortunately I cannot find a definition of common sense that fits the phrase. Sometimes the
word is used as if it were identical with uncommon sense, sometimes as if it were the same thing as common nonsense. Often
it means untrained intelligence, and in its best aspect it is, I think, that faculty which recognises that the obvious solution of a
problem is frequently the right one. When, for instance, I see during a total solar eclipse red flames shooting out from the
edge of the sun, the obvious explanation is that these are real phenomena, caused by masses of glowing vapours ejected from
the sun. And when a learned friend tells me that all this is an optical illusion due to anomalous refraction, I object on the ground
that the explanation violates my common sense. He replies by giving me the reasons which have led him to his conclusions; and
though I still believe that I am right, I have to meet him with a more substantial reply than an appeal to my own convictions. Against a
solid argument common sense has no power, and must remain a useful but fallible guide which both leads and misleads all classes
of the community alike."
The sound moral of this is, not that a common-sense explanation
is likely to be the right one, or that it necessarily has any merits if there are sound reasons to oppose to it, but that the common
sense or most obvious and superficial explanation may turn out to be after all truer as well as simpler than more recondite hypotheses
which have been substituted for it. In other words - the straightforward explanation need not be false.
Now the phenomena encountered in psychical research have
long ago suggested an explanation, in terms of other than living human intelligences, which may be properly called
spiritistic. Every kind of alternative explanation, including the almost equally
unorthodox one of telepathy from living people, has been tried: and these attempts have been necessary and perfectly legitimate.
If they had succeeded, well and good; but inasmuch as in my judgment there are phenomena which they cannot explain, and
inasmuch as some form of spiritistic hypothesis, given certain postulates, explains
practically all, I have found myself driven back on what I may call the common-sense explanation; or, to adopt Dr.
Schuster's parable, I consider that the red flames round the sun are what they appear to be.
To attribute capricious mechanical performance to the action
of live things, is sufficient as a proximate explanation; as we saw in the case of the jumping bean, Chapter
I. If the existence of the live thing is otherwise unknown, the explanation may seem forced and unsatisfactory. But if after
trying other hypotheses we find that this only will fit the case, we may return to it after all with a clear conscience. That represents
the history of my own progress in Psychical Research.
Meanwhile the attitude of scientific men is perfectly, intelligible;
and not unreasonable, except when they forget their self-imposed limitations and cultivate a baseless negative philosophy. People
who study mechanism of course find Mechanics, and if the mechanism is physiological they find Physics and Chemistry as
well; but they are not thereby compelled to deny the existence of everything else. They need not philosophise at all, though they
should be able to realise their philosophical position when it is pointed out. The business of science is to trace out the mode of
action of the laws of Chemistry and Physics, everywhere and under all circumstances. Those laws appear to be of universal application
throughout the material Universe,in the most distant star as well as on the
earth, in the animal organism as well as in inorganic matter; and the study of their action alone has proved an ample task.
But scientific workers are sometimes thought to be'',
philosophising seriously when they should be understood as really only expressing the natural scope of their
special subject. Laplace, for instance, is often misunderstood, because, when challenged about the place of God"
in his system, he said that he had no need of such a hypothesis, - a dictum often quoted as if it were
atheistical. It is not necessarily anything of the kind. As a brief statement it is right, though rather unconciliatory and blunt.
He was trying to explain astronomy on clear and definite mechanical principles, and the introduction of a "finger of
God" would have been not only an unwarrantable complication but a senseless intrusion. Not an intrusion or a
complication in the Universe, be it understood, but in Laplace's scheme, his Systeme du
Monde. Yet Browning's "flash of the will that can" in Abt Vogler, with all that
the context implies, remains essentially and permanently true.
Theologians who admit that the Deity always works through
agents and rational means can grant to scientific workers all that they legitimately claim in the positive direction, and can
encourage them in the detailed study of those agents and means. If people knew more about science, and the atmosphere in which
scientific men work, they would be better able to interpret occasional rather rash negations; which are quite explicable in
terms of the artificial limitation of range which physical science hitherto has wisely laid down for itself.
It is a true instinct which resents the mediaeval practice of
freely introducing occult and unknown causes into working science. To attribute the rise of sap,
for instance, to a 'vital force' would be absurd, it would be giving up the problem and stating
nothing at all. Progress in science began when spiritual and transcendental causes were eliminated and treated as non-existent.
The simplicity so attained was congenial to the scientific type of mind; the abstraction was eminently useful, and was justified by
results. Yet unknown causes of an immaterial and even of a spiritual kind may in reality exist, and may influence or produce
phenomena, for all that; and it may have to be the business of science to discover and begin to attend to them, as soon as the
ordinary solid ground-plan of Nature has been made sufficiently secure.
us - whether wisely or unwisely-now want to enlarge the recognised scope of physical science, so as gradually to take
a wider purview and include more of the totality of things. That is what the Society for Psychical Research was established
for,- to begin extending the range of scientific law and order, by patient exploration in a comparatively new region. The effort has been
resented, and at first ridiculed, only because misunderstood. The effort may be ambitious, but it is perfectly legitimate; and if it fails
But advance in new directions may be wisely slow, and it is
readily admissible that Societies devoted to long-established branches of science are right to resist extraneous novelties, as
long as possible, and leave the study of occult phenomena to a Society established for the purpose. Outlandish
territories may in time be incorporated as States, but they must make their claim good and become civilised first.
Yet unfamiliar causes must be introduced occasionally into
systematised knowledge, unless our scrutiny of the Universe is already exhaustive. Unpalatable facts can be ruled out from
attention, but they cannot without investigation be denied. Strange facts do really happen, even though unprovided for in our
sciences. Amid their orthodox relations, they may be regarded as a nuisance. The feeling they cause is as if capricious or mischievous
live things had been allowed to intrude into the determinate apparatus of a physical laboratory, thereby introducing hopeless
complexity and appearing superficially to interfere with established laws. To avoid such alien incursion a laboratory can be locked, but
the Universe can not. And if ever, under any circumstances, we actually do encounter the interaction of intelligences other than
that of living men, we shall sooner or later become aware of the fact, and shall ultimately have to admit it into a more
comprehensive scheme of existence. Early attempts, like those of the present, must be unsatisfactory and crude; especially as the
evidence is of a kind to which scientific men for the most part are unaccustomed; so no wonder they are resentful. Still the evidence
is there, and I for one cannot ignore it. Members of the Society for Psychical Research are aware that the evidence already
published - the carefully edited and sifted evidence published by their own
organisation - occupies some forty volumes of Journal and Proceedings; and some of them know that a great deal more
evidence exists than has been published, and that some of the best evidence is not likely to be
published,- not yet at any rate. It stands to reason that, at the present stage, the best evidence must
often be of a very private and family character. Many, however, are the persons who are acquainted with facts in their own
experience which appeal to them more strongly than anything that has ever been published. No records can surpass first-hand direct
experience in cogency.
Nevertheless we are also aware, or ought to be, that no one
crucial episode can ever be brought forward as deciding such a matter. That is not the way in which things
of importance are proven. Evidence is cumulative, it is on the strength of a mass of experience that an induction is ultimately
made, and a conclusion provisionally arrived at; though sometimes it happens that a single exceptionally strong instance,
or series of instances, may clinch it for some individual.
But indeed the evidence, in one form and another, has been
crudely before the human race from remote antiquity; only it has been treated in ways more or less obfuscated by superstition. The
same sort of occurrences as were known to Virgil, and to many another seer-the same sort of experiences as are found by folk-lore
students, not only in history but in every part of the earth today happening now in a scientific age, and sometimes under scientific
scrutiny. Hence it is that from the scientific point of view progress is at length being made; and any one with a real desire to know the
truth need not lack evidence, if he will first read the records with an open mind, and then bide his time and be patient till an
opportunity for first-hand critical observation is vouchsafed him. The opportunity may occur at any time: the readiness is all. Really
clinching evidence in such a case is never in the past; a prima facie case for investigation is established by the records, but real
conviction must be attained by first-hand experience in the present.
The things to be investigated are either true or false. if false,
pertinacious inquiry will reveal their falsity. If true, they are profoundly important. For there are no half-truths in Nature; every
smallest new departure has portentous consequences; our eyes must open slowly, or we should be overwhelmed. I once likened
the feeling of physical investigators in the year 1889 to that of a boy who had long been strumming on the keyboard of a deserted
organ into which an unseen power had begun to blow a vivifying breath.(1) That was at the beginning of the series of revolutionary
discoveries about radiation and the nature of matter which have since resounded through the world. And now once more the touch
of a finger elicits a responsive note, and again the boy hesitates, half delighted, half frighted, at the chords which it would seem he
can now summon forth almost at will.
(1) Modern Views of Electricity, P- 408 of third and current edition.