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PSYCHIC RESEARCH 45 



PSYCHIC RESEARCH 

HOWARD N. BROWN 
Boston 

Psychic Research, " not to put too fine a point upon it," 
means for the most part thus far a careful and systematic 
investigation of the phenomena of spirituaUsm. A more 
elegant and reputable camouflage might be devised for it, 
and of course the name can be legitimately used to desig- 
nate the study of many things with which spiritualism 
has nothing to do. But words have to be taken in the 
sense which common usage gives to them, and practically 
psychic research is the study of spiritualism. It used 
to be said by almost everybody, except the spiritualists, 
that the matter was not worth investigation; it was all 
an unwholesome mass of fraud, imposture, and delusion, 
to which no reasonable person would think for a moment 
of giving serious attention. Very likely a good many 
people are saying that still; but not if they have enough 
knowledge of the facts to serve as the basis of intelligent 
judgment. Whatever frauds may be practiced in the 
name of spiritualism, there are plenty of occurrences which 
no sane mind, having real knowledge of them, will at- 
tribute to that source. 

It is more common now to hear these occurrences as- 
cribed to telepathy, which is perhaps correct; though 
where that conclusion is most confidently stated there is 
probably least right to hold it. Of telepathy very little 
is yet known, and what has been proved would seem to 
indicate that it is a faculty of quite limited range and 
power. It cannot be invoked to explain the facts which 
spiritualism presents without extending its capacity enor- 
mously, far beyond anything that is known of it elsewhere. 
Possibly it has this greater gift; but that is something 



46 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

which requires to be shown, not merely taken for granted. 
One can only jump to the conclusion that it has the gift; 
and this jump is often made, one must say, less for the 
sake of getting at the truth than for the purpose of get- 
ting rid of spiritualism. However, the investigation has 
now proceeded far enough so that we may intelligently 
state the issue to be, " spirits versus telepathy." Either 
there is some limited communication with personalities 
which have survived the change of death, or telepathy is 
a power of the mind possessing hitherto undreamed-of 
capacity. 

The purpose of the present paper is abundantly fulfilled 
if it can be shown that this is the issue to which psychic 
research has brought us, and that however unable we 
may now be to demonstrate in favor of spirits, we are 
quite as far from being able to give the case to telepathy. 
Whether or not this is a matter which no one can ever 
find out, remains to be seen. At present not many have 
the means at hand for making a decision of that question. 
Some minds of first-rate ability in close contact with the 
investigation have given their verdict strongly and un- 
hesitatingly in favor of spirits. The general public may 
be in a better, or worse, position for exercising a dispas- 
sionate judgment; but it has no right to deliver an opinion 
which would close the case. As the matter now stands, 
with what it now knows or what can be shown to it, this 
public cannot be fairly asked to accept the views, say of 
Sir Oliver Lodge. But neither has it any good right to 
say that he is altogether deluded and mistaken. So far 
as it has any right to judge, the case for telepathy is quite 
as dubious as that for spirits. 

The heart of the problem which psychic research has 
attacked is the attempt to decide the real value of what 
purports to be evidence of the survival of personality 
after death. Its main task is the study of what is offered 
as proof of personal identity from a source beyond our 



PSYCHIC RESEARCH 47 

sight. Is one disqualified for that study when he admits 
the possibiUty of such survival ? No more, certainly, 
than when he starts with a denial of such possibility. In 
truth, whatever may be its prepossessions, a candid mind 
ought to be able to deal fairly with what it finds. The 
demand on it in this case is that it shall concentrate its 
attention on this question of the sufiiciency of the evidence 
for personal survival. 

It is often said that the chief interest lies elsewhere. 
One hears people declare, for instance, that they will listen 
to what psychic research has to tell them when it can 
disclose something worth while about the nature and 
character of a future life, and not till then. But the first 
question is. Do spirits exist ? Surely if an effort were 
made on the other side to communicate with us here, the 
first endeavor would be not to describe conditions there 
but to say, " This is So-and-so, whom you have formerly 
known. By such and such memories which we share in 
common you may know that I am speaking." In point 
of fact this is mostly the character which the sponta- 
neous communications take. The first thing to do is to 
find out, if possible, whether this appearance of actual 
communication is true or false. 

It may be said that if they who are, by hypothesis, try- 
ing to give assurance of their continued existence can 
furnish this, they ought to go on and satisfy our curiosity 
about many other things, and that their apparent in- 
ability to do this throws fatal discredit upon the whole 
manifestation. But that is a too hasty and superficial 
judgment. The means of transmission might suffice for 
the one thing and not for the other. If we consider pres- 
ently what such a line of transmission may possibly be, 
this should be quite evident. Just here it cannot be said 
with too much emphasis that if there is anything of this 
sort to investigate, it is, first of all, the question of per- 
sonal survival and personal identity. Do the supposed 



48 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

communicators give sufficient evidence to warrant the 
conclusion that they are real persons, and is the assertion 
that they are such more reasonable or more credible than 
other explanations of the origin of the communications ? 

Probably all who have looked into this for themselves 
will agree that it is not a case for snap judgment, for or 
against. Questions of personal identity are generally apt 
to need rather careful handling. Everybody must know 
something of the way they are treated in our courts of 
law. What a long time it took, and what almost endless 
discussion, to dispose of the Tichborne case in England! 
Do such and such things prove, or do they not, that the 
claimant at bar is Roger Tichborne or Arthur Orton ? 
How this debate went on for days and weeks, and on 
what " trivialities " it mostly turned! The question in 
the case of psychic research is not unlike that. 

First and last there is a very considerable amount of 
evidence in the literature of psychic research that is 
worth serious study. Unhappily, thus far it lies embedded 
in a mass of irrelevant matter, so that the search for it is 
like the quest for Gratiano's " two grains of wheat hid in 
two bushels of chaff." And when it is found everyone 
has to be his own lawyer in dealing with it. No one can 
doubt when he hits upon some of the more striking inci- 
dents in this literature that they do constitute evidence 
of something. But just what it is that they prove is likely 
to be, to the mind unskilled in the handling of such evi- 
dence, one of the most baffling questions it could take up. 
It is difficult to make any theory cover all the facts in the 
case. There is great need that someone should make a 
selection of what really has evidential value, and examine 
it with that critical skill which a good lawyer or a good 
judge brings to bear upon the evidence presented to a 
jury in court. A little of that has been done, but not 
very much; and if the investigation is to go on, it is a 
job that some competent person ought soon to tackle. 



PSYCHIC RESEARCH 49 

Suppose we glance for a moment at the method pur- 
sued in gathering this evidence, and at some of the diffi- 
culties of arriving at a satisfactory conclusion with regard 
to its meaning. Most investigations now make use of 
automatic writing, which is found on the whole to yield 
better results. This has the advantage of making an exact 
record of the alleged communications, and also it stops 
an immense amount of merely inconsequent talk; thus 
reducing the labor of separating from the flood of verbiage 
anything that seems to deserve further study. Now it is 
easy enough for anyone to write whatever comes into his 
head and call it " automatic." But whoever cares to look 
into the matter can soon satisfy himself that there is 
plenty of such writing in which the person who does it is 
not consciously responsible for what is written. Auto- 
matic writing, however it is to be explained, is an un- 
doubted fact. 

Mostly, when left to itself, that is to say when it is not 
guided by leading questions, this writing takes the form 
of an attempt to reveal and establish personal identity. 
It pretends to come from some person, no longer living 
in this world, who seeks to convey to those who are still in 
the flesh an assurance of his continued existence. Now 
and again what comes in this way is remarkably convinc- 
ing. It really seems as if the person in question were close 
at hand, dictating the words that are being spoken or 
written. We are told, and no doubt with truth, that the 
best of this evidence does not get into print. It is too in- 
timately personal to submit to public inspection. How- 
ever, what is printed, if one will have the patience to fish 
for it in somewhat extensive seas of vapid talk, is often 
very good. But it comes only as it were in brief snatches, 
and is never long sustained. After a kind of sunburst of 
startling impersonation which fairly takes one's breath 
away, so realistic does it seem, the communications trail 
off into a sort of dream-like drivel, or even into mere 
stupid misstatement and gross fabrication. 



50 HARVAED THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

Why is it then that these attempted impersonations are 
by fits and snatches so remarkably lifelike, and for the 
rest so wretchedly ineffective ? If they are the mere mas- 
querade of secondary personality, why this curious un- 
evenness of quality, and where does the information come 
from on which the impersonation is based ? Does it come 
from other adjacent minds through some process of tel- 
epathy ? Perhaps so. But the telepathy which can get 
into the mind of an utter stranger and, with little delay, 
select out of a great store of memories covering many 
years a group of pertinent incidents connected with one 
single personality, is a somewhat staggering thing to 
think of. To go by the record, we are required to sup- 
pose that this telepathic faculty sometimes ignores alto- 
gether what is in the foreground of the consciousness it 
is exploring, and brings forth what turn out to be facts 
from a depth which conscious memory does not reach. 
Moreover, it has to be a telepathy that can work upon 
occasion across hundreds of miles of space. The writing 
has been known to use information that could not have 
been derived from any living person without going that 
far afield. No one is in position to say that this cannot 
be done; but really it sounds quite as incredible as any 
other hypothesis that can be offered. 

Meanwhile, if we look a little closer at what assumes 
to be a line of communication between the living and the 
dead, though we may be unable to make a wholly satis- 
factory explanation on the supposition that this is real, 
we can get a little start toward some possible explanation. 
The common spiritualistic assumption has been that a 
spirit gets into or takes possession of a physical organism 
conveniently loaned for the purpose, and proceeds to 
write or talk through that organism in place of its real 
owner. No long or profound study is required to lead to 
the conclusion that this is not what generally takes place. 
Whatever comes from another world, provided anything 



PSYCHIC RESEARCH 51 

does come from that source, the spirit remains in some 
sense quite apart, and only sends what it can through 
what might be described as two different layers of con- 
sciousness, both of them, it would seem, in an abnormal 
and irresponsible state. The line of transmission, if such 
there be, lies through two independent mental strata, 
either of which is liable at any moment to begin talking 
on its own account. 

First of all, we are dealing with the subconscious mind 
of the so-called medium. To all intents and purposes 
that is in a state of sleep, and not under the control of a 
conscious will. Most Ukely it is having a dream of its 
own, and anyone wanting to use it to transmit a message 
would have to get the message into and through that 
dream. And behind this subconscious mind there is very 
constantly, seemingly a vital part of the manifestation, 
what is called a " control." This purports to be a spirit 
in charge of the line of communication; and it so fre- 
quently intervenes with comment or explanation as to 
make us know that it is always there. We are given to 
understand that it takes from some communicator what 
he desires to send, and transfers this to the medium, who 
then delivers it to the person to whom it is addressed. 
Now this " control," almost certainly, is also more or less 
irresponsible, like the subconscious mind of the medium. 
If both are forms of secondary personality, they are alike 
incapable of distinguishing truth from fiction. If the con- 
trol is a real spirit, very probably it has to put itself, in 
order to make a line through, into a condition like the 
medium's trance; which means that it also is in a some- 
what dreamlike state. 

Imagine then an intelligence like our own on the " other 
side " wishing to send some message through a channel 
like this. Obviously a task of no small size confronts it. 
Its one chance of success is so to get the attention of these 
two separate " streams of consciousness " that they will 



52 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

suspend, or partially suspend, their own dreaming oper- 
ations to repeat parrot-like what they are told to say. 
The message is nothing that concerns them, and they are 
apt to take no more than a languid interest in it. Even 
though they went to sleep with the fixed purpose of lend- 
ing themselves to such a transfer of intelligence through 
them, being once asleep they might not much respect 
that purpose. They might listen carefully and report 
faithfully, or again they might not. In the latter case 
they would probably take up with and expound their own 
silly dream instead. 

The conjecture that some such process as this is in- 
volved in the communications furnished by automatic 
writing is not here offered as answering to all the facts 
in the case; but it goes as far in that direction as one 
reader of this literature can get. It has to be acknowl- 
edged that, as thus described, it is an exceedingly fragile 
and uncertain line of transmission. Perhaps it is even 
less trustworthy than what has been already said would 
make it out to be. For there is reason to think that what 
comes is largely in the form of symbolic pictures, and that 
what is delivered is such an interpretation of these pic- 
tures as the subconscious mind of the medium can make. 
If the message were in words, names ought to come as 
easily as other parts of speech. But as a rule they do 
not; they occasion great difficulty; though curiously 
enough they are sometimes given with great ease, and 
again for no apparent reason cannot be had at all. But 
the dream-mind which assumes to be delivering the mes- 
sage always spends much time in describing what it sees; 
a kind of panoramic vision that is passing before its sight. 
It is possible that some communications which have 
been received with much ridicule, like that about the 
cigar factory in Sir Oliver Lodge's book, are due to the 
attempt to tell something, nobody knows just what, in 
this pictographic way. 



PSYCHIC RESEARCH 53 

It should be said also that though we have spoken of 
three separate entities, or quasi-entities, that enter into 
the manifestations — the communicator, the control, and the 
medium — the three often appear to be fused together 
in some inexplicable way, and it is all but impossible to 
tell which is for the moment on top. Altogether nobody 
can be much blamed for saying that it is sheer waste of 
time to fool with what is offered as a possible link between 
two worlds, if this is the best account of it that can be 
given. One can imagine that it might be genuine enough, 
as far as it goes, and that spirits might exist most plenti- 
fully at the other end, but would pay little attention to 
the means of communication because of the extreme un- 
certainty of being able to use it in any satisfactory way. 

And yet a good many of us, as we go over the record, 
are again and again impressed with the strong probabil- 
ity that, wavering and unreliable as it may be, there is 
a fitful connection here and that something does get 
across. It would be foolish to expect very much. Of 
predictions about the future, for example, we could never 
be very sure just where they came from or what they were 
worth. Though we were entirely satisfied about their 
source, there is no reason to think that spirits with which 
we are likely to come into contact have much greater 
knowledge of coming events than we possess. Whatever 
descriptions may be attempted of the manner of life here- 
after, there is no possible way by which we can check 
them up to determine their accuracy. 

The one thing that we can hope to get from the con- 
nection, if it really exists, is some new ground for assur- 
ance of personal survival after death. This must come 
from the conviction that good evidence of personal iden- 
tity has been submitted through the communications. Is 
there hope of getting evidence of that kind which 
would satisfy the majority of reasonable minds, and what 
would it be worth if we had it ? One does not see that 



54 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

the hope is extravagant or absurd. Poor as the instru- 
ment is with which psychic research works, it perhaps 
suffices as well as did the earliest devices for the trans- 
mission of sounds by means of electricity. Possibly with 
further experiment this instrument may be improved. 

Those who are closest to the investigation are just as 
sure that the possibility of intelligent communication has 
been established as were the men who worked so long on 
the invention of the telegraph and the telephone. They 
may be entirely mistaken; but, on the other hand, the 
people who are sure that there is " nothing in it " appear 
to base their certainty on a priori grounds, which in like 
case have often proved untenable. Many a quest has 
been ardently followed with less promise of ultimate suc- 
cess to support it; and it is not probable that the scorn- 
ful indifference of " orthodox " science will be able to 
smother this. 

If it should turn out that evidence which compels the 
world's attention and assent can be thus gathered, what 
would that be worth ? At this moment we are much in 
the mood to say that materialism is not a good word to 
conjure with. We are not disposed to place reliance on 
the fruits of a purely materialistic civilization. But can 
we get what we want out of an idealism which, when all 
is said and done, is a kind of sunset effect, a painting of 
attractive possibilities on mists and clouds ? Does it not 
all come down at last to the question, " If a man die, shall 
he live again ? " With the assurance that our personal 
existence is to be carried forward into another state of 
being, we seem to have a hold upon idealism and a defense 
against materialism that can be gained in no other way. 

Probably in any event there is not much reason to fear 
actual extinction of the belief in immortality. But can 
those who cherish that belief afford to neglect or despise 
any means of strengthening assurance in the common 
mind ? If psychic research can ever do for the many 



PSYCHIC RESEARCH 55 

what it has done for a few, it has a very important part 
to play in building up the higher life of the future. This 
appears to be so plain that one must think the prejudice 
against it is based, more than anything else, on the fear 
of its failure. No poverty is quite so bad as that which 
follows the break-down of plans for the sudden acquisi- 
tion of great wealth. 

This risk certainly has to be reckoned with. Yet the 
prejudice might be moderated to a reasonable caution. 
It is not as if we were staking our whole fortune on this 
one cast. May we not profitably remember the proverb, 
" Nothing venture, nothing win ? " When we consider 
the changes which the increase of scientific training and 
the growth of a scientific temper are likely to make in the 
minds of men, it is evident that there would be much ad- 
vantage in the possession of something like scientific 
evidence of the reality of the future life. The promoters 
of psychic research are quite confident that such evi- 
dence, good enough for anybody, is attainable. They 
may be too sanguine about this; promoters often are. 
But then again some of us may wonder in days to come 
why we did not make an earlier investment in an under- 
taking whose promise we were too slow to see. It is not 
quite clear yet who the fools in this case really are, and 
it is as well perhaps to be a little frugal in the use of that 
epithet.