DURING THE many years that I was an Honorary Officer of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) I was often consulted by persons who, under the stress of recent bereavement, wished for enlightenment on the question whether man survives the death of the body. Many of those seeking advice had, before they were bereaved, no settled convictions: their vague recollections of early religious teaching about the future life, itself perhaps lacking precision, contended in their minds with equally vague nations that science had disproved all that. Others who had reached what they supposed to be a secure position of belief or unbelief, found that it did not hold fast against the shock of bereavement.
Not all bereaved persons of course find themselves in either of these predicaments, but evidently many do. They come to the Society expecting that it can not only give a plain yes or no to a problem that has exercised the mind of man from the earliest ages, but can put shortly and crisply the reasons and evidence for or against belief.
They have no clear idea of the sort of evidence which psychical research has brought to bear on the problem, its variety and complexity, the different degrees of certainty attaching to different parts of it, the alternative interpretations to which much of it is susceptible. As bereavement comes, sooner or later, to most people, and no one can say in advance how much he will be shaken by it, it is surely prudent for everyone to prepare himself in some degree for the shock, by considering the problem from all its relevant aspects-religion, philosophy, physiology and psychology in all its branches, and especially that branch of psychology known as psychical research, with which this book deals.
Myers's Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death, left uncompleted by him when he died in 1901, is a splendid book, but the evidence bearing on the problem of survival that has accumulated since his death is immense, and much of it of a kind unknown at that time. Of more recent date are several brief summades of the evidence with instructive comment, notably the latter part of Tyrrell's
Science and Psychic Phenomena (1938), Gardner Murphy's papers in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research (1945, 1946, since reprinted in book form) and Professor Broad's Myers Memorial Lecture (SPR 1958). Fuller accounts are to be found in Mrs. Heywood's
The Sixth Sense (1959) and Professor Hornell Hart's The Enigma of
Survival, which cover so much of the ground as to leave me in doubt whether I should be justified in putting my own views before the public. It seems to me, however, that the importance of the subject is such that anyone whose experience has given him both a fairly wide knowledge of psychical research as a whole, and a detailed knowledge of sides of it still unfamiliar to the public,
ought to put forward his views, and put them forward candidly, regardless of whether they are in line with opinions generally held, or with such as are held by more eminent persons, or whether they rest on items of evidence or processes of reasoning that will strike many readers as odd.
I should perhaps say at the outset, what the reader would soon discover for himself, that I have nothing more than the most superficial knowledge of any of the provinces of learning on which psychical research abuts-the other branches of psychology, philosophy, or science in general. I trust that I trespass on these provinces only when necessary, and then with a diffidence not inferior to that shown by their rightful occupants when they discuss psychical research without making a close study of it. The
SPR has made it a settled policy to express no corporate opinion, leaving the field open for unfettered discussion. It is therefore not in any way responsible for the opinions expressed in this book by one of its former officers. But I take this opportunity of thanking the Council for permission to quote extensively from its publications.
Any discussion of survival naturally raises questions as to the bias of the parties to it. The emotional tinge that usually affects professedly intellectual arguments as to the destiny of human personality after death suggests that very deep levels have been stirred, that the primitive animal instinct for self-preservation has perhaps sublimated itself into a desire to perpetuate individual life beyond bodily death. But the bias is not always, of course, in favour of belief in survival. An emotional horror of the whole idea of life after death inspired Lucretius to write one of the world's greatest poems. Many sensitive persons have been led partly by the cares of bodily existence, and partly by distaste for their own personalities to hope that the gospel preached by Lucretius may be true. Then again there is the "Conflict of Science and Religion", not indeed nowadays waged with the same acrimony as a century ago, but having none the less an influence on the beliefs of the ordinary citizen, who has probably never bothered to examine the issues critically. Who can be sure how far and in what way his judgment as to survival has been conditioned by these varied and contrary influences?
In this matter no one can claim complete immunity from bias, but a high degree of protection is given by a long training in psychical research. To be effective the training should include a wide general knowledge of all the phenomena, of the past history of the subject, and of the background of popular belief and sentiment. To this should be added a much more detailed knowledge of at least one of the main branches, "mental" or "physical", spontaneous, mediumistic or experimental, combined with a good deal of first-hand experience as experimenter, sitter or automatist. An officer of the
SPR, and doubtless of some other societies too, acquires much of this in his day-to-day work. He is constantly interviewing enquirers who report occurrences that have puzzled them and that they are inclined to regard as uncanny. He gets letters from all over the world giving similar reports. Long manuscripts purporting to have been dictated by spirits are submitted for his opinion. From time to time he visits a "haunted" house, or sits with a medium, or takes part in an experiment for extrasensory perception. Whatever he reads, hears or observes he can discuss with experienced colleagues of an independent turn of mind, and, if he is wise, he will do so whenever he comes across anything seeming to require serious consideration.
In dealing as part of the routine of his office with this bewildering and heterogeneous mass of material the researcher has to keep his attention closely fixed on the details. It is only by doing this that he can hope to understand What sort of happenings his fellow-citizens regard as "supernormal" and why, or to grasp the strong and weak points in a report of an apparition or a poltergeist, in a sitting for "physical" phenomena, or of an experiment in clairvoyance. A very intimate knowledge of detail in any subject will prevent the possessor of it from too freely generalising on it. This may be a reason why most of the surveys of psychical research - Myers's great book is an outstanding exception-have been written by persons whose minds were not preoccupied by the day - to-day work of the
SPR or of any other body with similar aims and methods.
I have been a member of the SPR for more than forty years and an officer for most of that time, but engaged more in administration than research. I should
like to think that I had been sufficiently involved in research to derive a fair degree of immunity from bias in writing on it, but not so involved as to inhibit generalisation.
My wife's membership of the Society was even longer and her first-hand experience, extending to most branches of the subject, much fuller. Neither of us had followed closely recent developments in quantitative experiment. She had a great deal more experience of sitting with "physical" mediums than I had, as after a time I found the strain on the eyes during a
sťance in dim light intolerable. We might both claim considerable knowledge of "spontaneous cases" (i.e., apparitions, etc.), trance mediumship and automatic writing.
She was a member of "the SPR group of Automatists", of which her mother, Mrs. Verrall, was the first member in point of time. The automatic writings of the group are generally agreed among psychical researchers to be of great importance, entitling them to more than summary treatment. But many aspects of them have never been made public before, or only scrappily in an article here and there, and I am therefore discussing them with a fullness that would otherwise be out of proportion to the scale of the book.
I first began to write this book six or seven years ago, but circumstances prevented my then completing more than the first half. After some years' interval I took it up again and finished it, not to my entire satisfaction, as some of the later parts did not join on well to the earlier ones. When the book was begun and when the first draft was finished, I had not suffered any recent bereavement. About eighteen months ago I began trying to remodel it by pulling it together. I had not gone far when I suffered the crushing blow of my wife's sudden death. I can no longer therefore claim to write with emotional detachment but will most positively assert that the opinions I now put forward are substantially the same as those that my wife and I often discussed together, and that I formed when the end of earthly life seemed far off for either of us.
The question one often hears put, "Is death the end?" is too stupid to deserve an answer. After the death of anyone things are different from what they would have been if he had never lived, and that is true whether the death be of Socrates, Caesar, or Shakespeare, or the veriest Simple Simon.
Something continues, and the question that needs an answer is, what is that something? In this book, after a chapter defining the nature of psychical research, its scope and methods, there will follow chapters concerned with the evidence sometimes claimed to support the opinion, ancient and widespread, that after the death of the body of flesh and blood men and women live on in a body having some, but not all, of the properties we associate with ordinary matter. In these chapters apparitions of various kinds, poltergeists, and the so-called "physical phenomena" of the sťance-room. will be discussed.
The succeeding chapters will deal with evidence, derived from "trance-mediumship" and automatic writing, that does not raise the question of survival in a quasi-material form. This section will open with a discussion of various psychological states which, though not in themselves mediumistic, throw light on mediumistic trance and the Controls that emerge in it, and will proceed to consider how far communications purporting to come from the spirits of the dead can be attributed to the faculties, normal or paranormal, of the living. An attempt will then be made to construct a theory that will cover all the evidence set out in the previous chapters that is, in my view, trustworthy.
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