Some weeks ago the fact that I was engaged in investigating Spiritualism, so called, was announced in a contemporary:** The Athenæum. and in consequence of the many communications I have since received, I think it desirable to say a little concerning the investigation which I have commenced. Views or opinions I cannot be said to possess on a subject which I do not pretend to understand. I consider it the duty of scientific men who have learnt exact modes of working, to examine phenomena which attract the attention of the public, in order to confirm their genuineness, or to explain, if possible, the delusions of the honest and to expose the tricks of deceivers. But I think it a pity that any public announcement of a man’s investigation should be made until he has shown himself willing to speak out.
A man may be a true scientific man, and yet agree with Professor De Morgan, when he says—“I have both seen and heard, in a manner which would make unbelief impossible, things called spiritual, which cannot be taken by a rational being to be capable of explanation by imposture, coincidence, or mistake. So far I feel the ground firm under me; but when it comes to what is the cause of these phenomena, I find I cannot adopt any explanation which has yet been suggested. … The physical explanations which I have seen are easy, but miserably insufficient. The spiritual hypothesis is sufficient, but ponderously difficult.”
Regarding the sufficiency of the explanation, I am not able to speak. That certain physical phenomena, such as the movement of material substances, and the production of sounds resembling electric discharges, occur under circumstances |4| in which they cannot be explained by any physical law at present known, is a fact of which I am as certain as I am of the most elementary fact in chemistry. My whole scientific education has been one long lesson in exactness of observation, and I wish it to be distinctly understood that this firm conviction is the result of most careful investigation. But I cannot, at present, hazard even the most vague hypothesis as to the cause of the phenomena. Hitherto I have seen nothing to convince me of the truth of the “spiritual” theory. In such an inquiry the intellect demands that the spiritual proof must be absolutely incapable of being explained away; it must be so strikingly and convincingly true that we cannot, dare not deny it
Faraday says, “Before we proceed to consider any question involving physical principles, we should set out with clear ideas of the naturally possible and impossible.” But this appears like reasoning in a circle: we are to investigate nothing till we know it to be possible, whilst we cannot say what is impossible, outside pure mathematics, till we know everything.
In the present case I prefer to enter upon the enquiry with no preconceived notions whatever as to what can or cannot be, but with all my senses alert and ready to convey information to the brain; believing, as I do, that we have by no means exhausted all human knowledge or fathomed the depths of all the physical forces, and remembering that the great philosopher already quoted said, in reference to some speculations on the gravitating force, “Nothing is too wonderful to be true, if it be consistent with the laws of nature; and in such things as these, experiment is the best test of such consistency.”
The modes of reasoning of scientific men appear to be generally misunderstood by spiritualists with whom I have conversed, and the reluctance of the trained scientific mind to investigate this subject is frequently ascribed to unworthy motives. I think, therefore, it will be of service if I here illustrate the modes of thought current amongst those who investigate science, and say what kind of experimental proof science has a right to demand before admitting a new department of knowledge into her ranks. We must not mix up the exact and the inexact The supremacy of accuracy must be absolute.
The first requisite is to be sure of facts; then to ascertain conditions; next, laws. Accuracy and knowledge of detail stand foremost amongst the great aims of modern scientific |5| men. No observations are of much use to the student of science unless they are truthful and made under test conditions; and here I find the great mass of spiritualistic evidence to fail. In a subject which, perhaps, more than any other lends itself to trickery and deception, the precautions against fraud appear to have been, in most cases, totally insufficient, owing, it would seem, to an erroneous idea that to ask for such safeguards was to imply a suspicion of the honesty of some one present We may use our own unaided senses, but when we ask for instrumental means to increase their sharpness, certainty, and trustworthiness under circumstances of excitement and difficulty, and when one’s natural senses are liable to be thrown off their balance, offence is taken.
In the countless number of recorded observations I have read, there appear to be few instances of meetings held for the express purpose of getting the phenomena under test conditions, in the presence of persons properly qualified by scientific training to weigh and adjust the value of the evidence which might present itself. The only good series of test experiments I have met with were tried by the Count de Gasparin, and he, whilst admitting the genuineness of the phenomena, came to the conclusion that they were not due to supernatural agency.
The pseudo-scientific spiritualist professes to know everything: no calculations trouble his serenity, no hard experiments, no long laborious readings; no weary attempts to make clear in words that which has rejoiced the heart and elevated the mind. He talks glibly of all sciences and arts, overwhelming the enquirer with terms like “electro-biologize,” “psychologize,” “animal magnetism,” &c.—a mere play upon words, showing ignorance rather than understanding. Popular science such as this is little able to guide discovery rushing onwards to an unknown future; and the real workers of science must be extremely careful not to allow the reins to get into unfit and incompetent hands.
In investigations which so completely baffle the ordinary observer, the thorough scientific man has a great advantage. He has followed science from the beginning through a long line of learning, and he knows, therefore, in what direction it is leading; he knows that there are dangers on one side, uncertainties on another, and almost absolute certainty on a third: he sees to a certain extent in advance. But, where every step is towards the marvellous and unexpected, precautions and tests should be multiplied rather than diminished. Investigators must work; although their work may |6| be very small in quantity if only compensation be made by its intrinsic excellence. But, even in this realm of marvels,—this wonder-land towards which scientific enquiry is sending out its pioneers,—can anything be more astonishing than the delicacy of the instrumental aids which the workers bring with them to supplement the observations of their natural senses?
The spiritualist tells of bodies weighing 50 or 100 lbs. being lifted up into the air without the intervention of any known force; but the scientific chemist is accustomed to use a balance which will reader sensible a weight so small that it would take ten thousand of them to weigh one grain; he is, therefore, justified in asking that a power, professing to be guided by intelligence, which will toss a heavy body up to the ceiling, shall also cause his delicately-poised balance to move under test conditions.