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On Miracles and Modern Spiritualism:
by ALFRED RUSSEL WALLACE
from "On Miracles and Modern Spiritualism", 1876
sincemy article appeared in the Fortnightly Review, I have seen Dr. Carpenter's latest work, "The Principles of Mental Physiology." One or two of the learned doctor's statements have been noticed in foot-notes to this book, but there are a few others calling for remark, which I will now refer to.
At p. 296 Dr. Carpenter says, that the only answer spiritualists give to Faraday's experiments is, that—"Faraday's performers moved the tables with their hands, whereas we know that we do not;"—and he then continues—" Those who make this assertion are (of course) scientifically bound to demonstrate it, by showing that in their case the table does go round without any deflection of the index by lateral pressure, but they have uniformly refused to apply this test to their own performance although repeatedly challenged to do so." But Dr. C. omits to tell us who are the spiritualists whose "only answer" is above given, and who are they who have been "repeatedly challenged" and have "uniformly refused" to accept the challenge. On inquiry it may be found that it is the men of science who have "uniformly refused" to witness the proof of what they say spiritualists are scientifically bound to demonstrate.
In the spring of 1867, when I had obtained the proofs of force in lifting (not turning) a table (as detailed at p. 132) I invited Dr. Carpenter to attend some sittings with every probability of being able to show the phenomena. He came once. The sitting was not very successful, raps and taps of varying character being alone produced. Although strongly pressed to do so, he never came again. With Professor Tyndall exactly the same thing occurred. He came once, and declined to come again; although informed of phenomena which had repeatedly occurred in my own house, which he could not explain, and which I had every reason to believe would occur in his presence if he would only give three or four short sittings to these investigations. More recently Dr. Sharpey and Professor Stokes, Secretaries of the Royal Society, refused the invitation of one of their own Fellows,. Mr. Grookes, to witness experiments which formed the subject of a paper offered to the Society. Where we are vaguely and generally accused of "uniformly refusing" to produce certain proofs, it is only right that the public should know how our scientific opponents receive our offers to exhibit even more conclusive proofs. We must also remember that Dr. Carpenter is acquainted with the evidence of the Dialectical Committee, of Serjeant Cox, of Mr. Crookes, of Mr. Yarley, and of myself, as to the movement of heavy objects entirely without contact of the medium or any other person; yet in 1874 he can adduce nothing but the utterly exploded and almost forgotten "table turning" of the time of Faraday, as worthy of notice!
The theory of "unconscious cerebration" is Dr. Carpenter's special hobby, yet in his application of it to explaining the phenomena of dreams we find a remarkable amount of contradiction and false reasoning.
At p. 586, for example, he notices the "suspension of our power to form common sense judgments," the "suspension of our moral sense," and the "entire want of coherence between the ideas that successively present themselves," as characteristics of dreams, and to be explained as the normal result of "unconscious cerebration." But he imputes to the very same cause an exaltation of the imaginative and reasoning powers and their action in strict logical succession, so as to produce results which the whole working powers of the mind were unable to achieve; and in many cases the committal of these results to paper without a single error. And all this is still to be accepted as explained by the magical words, "unconscious cerebration."
As an illustration of Dr. Carpenter's mode of reasoning we give the narrative of a student at an Amsterdam University, adduced by him as supporting his views. The Professor having to perform a laborious and difficult mathematical calculation found that he could not get the correct result, owing to errors occurring in some of numerous figures employed. He therefore gave the problem to ten of his pupils. The narrator worked at it unsuccessfully for three evenings, but always without effect; and after sitting up till one in the morning on the third trial, went to bed much disappointed at not having been able to do the work correctly, as it was particularly required the next day. On getting up in the morning he found to his astonishment on his writing table the problem correctly solved in his own handwriting, not a single figure being wrong. But the important fact is, that the work was done by a shorter and better method than the student had attempted during his three evenings' work. The work he had already done and with which his mind must have been imbued was not done over again without error, but an altogether new and better class of work was performed; and the Professor himself was astonished at it, and declared that he "had never once thought of a solution so simple and concise."
Now here is evidently a case in which the ordinary rules of unconscious cerebration do not apply. For something is done in a way the doer had never thought of when awake. The student had been trying over and over again to find out the numerical error in his calculation, not to perform the calculation itself by any other method. When asleep he does not find out this error —which, if done, might have been imputed to the repetition of the former cerebral action, uninfluenced by the disturbing causes which had led to error—but he begins, de novo, in a way he had never attempted when awake, and solves the problem by a process which even his mathematical tutor had not thought of! This is exactly analogous to those cases of trance mediums who do in trance what they cannot do when awake—speak languages they have never learnt, for example ; and to impute such actions to "unconscious cerebration" is not to explain them, but merely to give a name, and, like a child or a savage, accept the name as a sufficient explanation. It is exactly an analogous case to that of Mr. Lewes (given at page 196), in which preconceived ideas completely shut out the plainest logical consequences of the facts adduced.
I have been informed by some of my correspondents that, because I have not referred to any cases of new information of practical utility having been derived from spiritual communications, I am supposed to admit that such do not exist. This is an error. I believe there are many such instances, but as bearing on the question whether Spiritualism is a reality or a delusion, I did not think them of much importance, and they could not have been introduced, with the necessary evidence, without altering the plan and much increasing the length of my article. If Spiritualism is a delusion—that is, if it is a product of known or unknown natural forces plus the minds of the assistants—then no new information of the kind referred to can possibly be derived from it. If, on the other hand, it is a reality —that is, if it proves that intelligent beings of another order of existence than our own can and do communicate with us (whether those beings are the spirits of deceased men or no)—this fact alone is of such vast and overwhelming importance, and involves such tremendous issues, scientific, philosophical, and religious, that the question whether these beings can and will improve our telegraphs or our steam-engines, is an altogether subordinate one. Since the question of what is called practical results, implies the truth and reality of the spiritual theory, it appears to me to be out of place to bring up that question while the primary question remains unsettled; for I can no more imagine a rational man being influenced in his acceptance of Spiritualism by the probability of his getting out of it such practical results, than I can imagine an earnest enquirer after religious truth being influenced in his acceptance of Christianity by the probability of its ministers being able to affect the weather by their prayers. When once a man is satisfied of the reality of spiritual communications, he will meet with abundant practical results. So long as he is not satisfied, such results, like all the other evidence, will be ignored or explained away.
The Spectator, the Academy, and Pall Mall Gazette thought my paper in the Fortnightly Review worthy of more or less lengthy notice, but they have all declined to discuss the nature and bearing of the evidence I have adduced and referred to for the reality of the phenomena, while they take various objections to the moral and historical teachings deduced therefrom. Here I must decline to join issue with them. I hold that spiritualists alone are as yet competent to decide what theory best explains the facts, and what are the teachings which arise out of them, for the sufficient reason that they alone know these facts in their wide range and countless details. I could only sketch generally the nature of the phenomena, and was obliged to omit all the infinitude of characteristic mental details which constitute their chief value. My critics also express their views as to the contemptible and unsatisfactory nature of the phenomena and of the communications, even if true; but here again they are evidently too ignorant of what they criticise to be enabled to form an opinion. I felt it my duty to give some idea of the teachings which are satisfying to most spiritualists, whatever may have been their previous opinions. Whether those teachings are agreeable to sceptics or no, is of little importance; the facts of Spiritualism remain, and must be dealt with before the critics are in a position to give any opinion worth listening to as to the truth of the theory.
I here give a few extracts strikingly illustrative of our subject. In the following passage from Jamblichus on Divination, quoted in Maurice's "Moral and Metaphysical Philosophy," we find mention in a short space of a number of the most startling phenomena of modern Spiritualism:—
"Often at the moment of inspiration, or when the afflatus has subsided, a fiery appearance is seen—the entering or departing power. Those who are skilled in this wisdom can tell by the character of this glory the rank of the divinity who has seized for the time the reins of the mystic's soul, and guides it as he will. Sometimes the body of the man is violently agitated, sometimes it is rigid and motionless. In some instances sweet music is heard, in others discordant and fearful sounds. The person of the subject has been known to dilate and tower to a superhuman height, in other cases it has been lifted into the air. Frequently not merely the ordinary exercise of reason, but sensation and animal life would appear to have been suspended; and the subject of the afflatus has not felt the application of fire, has been pierced with spits, cut with knives, and not been sensible to pain."
The next passage throws much light on what is so often a stumbling-block to sceptics—the action of suspicion, or too rigid inquiry in checking the manifestations. Dr. Frederick L. H. Willis, professor of Materia Medico in the New York Medical College, thus describes his experience with a musical medium (Spiritual Magazine, 1867, p. 209):—
"One evening the medium went into the dark room alone, and took her seat at the piano. I was in the sitting-room adjoining
From the numerous cases referred to at pages 77 and 211, which have been investigated by the police authorities, I adduce the following taken from La Gazette des Tribunaux (the official organ of the French Police), of February 2, 1849, because in this case a friend of mine, a literary man, has verified the extract at the British Museum, and assures me that the translation is exact:—
"A fact most extraordinary, and which has been repeated every evening, every night, for the last three weeks, without the most active researches, the most extended and persevering surveillance, having been able to discover the cause, has thrown into commotion all the populous quarter of La Montagne-Sainte-Genevieve, the Sorbonne, and Place Saint-Michel. This is what has taken place, in accordance with the public clamorous demand, and a double inquiry, judicial and administrative, which has been going on many days, without throwing any light on the mystery.
"In the work of demolition going on to open a new street, which shall join the Sorbonne to the Pantheon and 1'Ecole de Droit, in traversing the Rue de Ores up to the old church, they came to a wood and coal yard, with an inhabited house connected with it, of only one storey and an attic. This house, at some distance from the street, and separated from the houses in course of destruction by large excavations, has been assailed every evening, and through the whole night, by a hail of projectiles, which, from their bulk, and the violence with which they have been thrown, have done such destruction, that it has been
"Whence came these projectiles, which are paving stones, fragments of the demolished walls near, and ashlar stones entire, which from their weight, and the distance they are hurled, are clearly from no mortal hand ? This is just what, up to this moment, it has been impossible to discover. In vain has a surveillance been exercised, day and night, under the personal direction of the Commissary of Police, and able assistants. In vain has the head of the Service of Safety been continually on the spot. In yain have they let loose every night watchdogs in the adjoining enclosures. Nothing has been able to explain the phenomena, which, in its credulity, the people has attributed to mysterious means. The projectiles have continued to rain down with great noise on the house, launched forth at a great height above the heads of those who have placed themselves in observation on the roofs of the small surrounding houses, and, seeming to come from a great distance, reaching their aim, with a precision, as it were, mathematical, and without deviating from the parabolic evidently designed for them.
"We shall not enter into the ample details of these facts, which will, without doubt, receive a speedy explanation; thanks to the solicitude which they have awakened. Nevertheless, we will remark that, in circumstances somewhat analogous, and which equally excited a certain sensation in Paris, where, for example, a rain of pieces of small money drew together the loungers of Paris every evening, in the Rue de Montesquieu, or when all the bells were rung in a house in the Rue de Malte, by an invisible hand, it was found impossible to make any discovery, to find any palpable cause for the phenomena. Let us hope that this time we shall arrive at a result more precise."
My friend informs me, that he found a later short notice saying that "the phenomena remain inexplicable," and then the matter seems to have been no further noticed; so we may conclude that, as in the other cases referred to, "it was found impossible to make any discovery."
The sneer of the writer at the people's "credulity," in attributing the phenomena to "mysterious means," is quite amusing, in face of the statement just made that they "are clearly from no mortal hand," and the undoubted fact that they were "mysteries," since it was found "impossible" to discover them in a month's close examination, by the police force of Paris. If we read the narrative carefully, giving due weight to all the facts that occurred and the completeness of the investigation into them, we shall be driven to the conclusion, that had any human beings with the necessary machinery been engaged they must have been discovered. It is a case strictly analogous to that of Bealing's Bells (see p. 211) and others there referred to, and it by no means stands alone, for Mr. Howitt has published a remarkable collection of cases of "stone-throwing," most of them strictly investigated at the time, without any human agents being in any case discovered.