HENRY SIDGWICK, THEISM AND PSYCHICAL RESEARCH
1. Early Days and Religious Perplexities
Most accounts of Sidgwick’s life and work have relatively little to say about his serious and time-consuming preoccupation through much of his life with the subject which came to be known as “psychical research”. And yet his participation in this field was closely linked to his central philosophical and religious concerns. His interest had begun before 1860, and after the foundation in 1882 of the Society for Psychical Research (the “SPR” – he was President for eight of its first eleven years) his involvement became a considerable drain on his time and energies. Sidgwick was born in 1838. His father, the Rev. William Sidgwick, was a grammar school headmaster possessed of some independent means. Not a lot is recorded about Henry’s childhood and teenage years, but what there is suggests a very bright and imaginative lad, known among his siblings and friends for his inventiveness in the matter of games and stories, and greatly given to miscellaneous reading, including poetry and novels. He was also “keenly interested in the world of things to be known, and gifted with an intense intellectual curiosity” (Arthur and Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, London and New York, Macmillan & Co., 1906, p. 14.). He liked to get to the bottom of things, and before long exhibited a talent for mathematics almost as marked as his classical and literary gifts.
These two sides of his nature, the imaginative-literary and the restlessly intellectual, persisted throughout his life. And between them, pulled now one way and now the other, were the powerful religious sympathies and longings which, though finding their fullest expression perhaps only in correspondence and conversations with his most intimate friends, permeated much of Sidgwick’s private thought and endeavours.
Sidgwick came from a strongly but not oppressively religious family, and our scanty information about his boyhood does not suggest that he was either more or less given to religious interests and enthusiasms than might have been expected from any other bright and imaginative lad in the same circumstances. A gradual change in this situation seems to have begun about 1852 when at the age of 14 he fell under the influence of his late father’s younger cousin, Edward White Benson. Benson became a master at Rugby school shortly after Sidgwick had gone there as a pupil, and when in 1853 Sidgwick’s widowed mother moved her family to Rugby, Benson joined the household. He was a fine classical scholar, and a good mathematician; he was also deeply religious, and a moderate though strong High Churchman of traditionalist tendencies. He took the young Sidgwick, an exceptionally able if rather shy pupil, under his wing. When Sidgwick left Rugby in 1855 for Trinity College, Cambridge (Benson’s College) he had, he later said, “no other ideal except to be a scholar as like him as possible” (A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, p. 11). Benson, already a deacon, was ordained priest in 1856, ultimately becoming Archbishop of Canterbury, and Sidgwick too developed thoughts of an ecclesiastical career. But within a few years other influences had supervened and these thoughts had dissipated.
The first and most important of these influences was the famous (and at some later periods notorious) semi-secret Cambridge discussion society, the “Apostles”. Sidgwick was invited to join in 1857, two years before his graduation, and its spirit and influence remained with him for the rest of his life. In reminiscences which he dictated about a fortnight before his death, he described that spirit as
… the spirit of the pursuit of truth with absolute devotion and unreserve by a group of intimate friends, who were perfectly frank with each other and indulged in any amount of humorous sarcasm and playful banter, and yet each respects the other, and when he discourses tries to learn from him and see what he sees. Absolute candour was the only duty that the tradition of the society enforced… and there were no propositions so well established that an Apostle had not the right to deny or question, if he did so sincerely and not from mere love of paradox. (A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, pp. 34-35.)
Topics of discussion could range from literature, politics and social questions to philosophical and theological issues. It was not that the Apostles turned him away from Christianity. But their readiness to consider any view that could be coherently argued for on any subject had an unsettling effect on beliefs that he had hitherto unquestioningly accepted; and it gradually helped him to realise, as he put it, “that the deepest bent of my nature was towards the life of thought – thought exercised on the central problems of human life”(A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, p. 35). And it did so as he was entering a decade – the 1860s – in which entrenched religious beliefs were coming under more and more pressure from the forces of secularism and science. By the mid-1870s free thought, scepticism and scientific materialism had reached a kind of interim peak. “The time was such”, as Sidgwick’s first biographers remarked, “that even sluggish minds were caught by the current and swept into new regions”(A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, p. 32). The term “agnosticism” was coined by T.H. Huxley in 1869, and a good many of the more educated of the younger generation became, though often reluctantly, agnostics.
Sidgwick’s mind was very far from sluggish and he cared deeply about religious matters. During the 1860s he spent much time and effort in trying to chart a course through these turbulent waters, a course that he hoped might return him at last to some settled religious conviction or at least to some firm grounds for holding that the universe is not without a moral order.
Of the course of these struggles we have only the imperfect record constituted by his letters to his friends and his later brief reminiscences and autobiographical fragments. Soon after graduating he turned to the study of J.S. Mill, and also partly of Comte “as seen through Mill’s spectacles”. Mill was then at the height of his influence, especially on the younger generation, but Sidgwick found that “… the nature of his philosophy – the attitude it took up towards the fundamental questions as to the nature of man and his relation to God and the universe – was not such as to encourage me to expect positive answers to these questions, and I was by no means then disposed to acquiesce in negative or agnostic answers”(A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, p. 36). What was accepted by Sidgwick and all those of his contemporaries who fell under Mill’s influence was “the need to weigh the pros and cons on all religious questions as a duly instructed rational being from another planet – or let us say from China – would naturally weigh them”(A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, p. 40). Accordingly he read further into philosophy and theology and found that “my most vital interest seemed to lie sometimes in the one study, sometimes in the other”(A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, p. 36). In June 1862 he wrote to a friend “At present I am only a Theist; but I have vowed that it shall not be for want of profound and devoted study if I do not become a Christian”(A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, p. 82).
That “devoted study” took for several years the form of studying Arabic and Hebrew in no casual way. He had been inspired to this by the writings of J.E. Renan, and probably also those of D.F. Strauss, both of whom treated the scriptures as historical documents to be assessed like any others, and both of whom rejected the miracles narrated in the Gospels. Sidgwick’s hope apparently was to equip himself for the study of Biblical criticism and the comparative history of religions with a view to “answering the great questions raised by the orthodox Christianity from which my view of the universe had been derived”(A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, p. 89). But by about the end of 1864 he had come to realize that the great questions would not be thus answered, and we find him writing to a friend (Graham Dakyns) on 22nd Dec “I perceive that I am at a turning-point of my life… I have never before freed my innermost conscience from the thraldom of a historical belief. Long after the belief had gone, the impression remained that it was all-important to have a view on the historical question. As if after dying I were likely to meet God and He to say, Well are you a Christian? “No”, I say, “but I have a theory on the origin of the Gospels which is really the best I could form on the evidence; and, please, this ought to do as well”(A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, pp. 123-124).
After this Sidgwick turned more and more to the philosophical and theological studies, which he had indeed never wholly abandoned. He was particularly concerned with ethical issues, partly, perhaps, because, as Schultz puts it, “he was examining morality in the hope of finding some support in it for religious views”(Bart Schultz, edited by, “Introduction” to Essays on Henry Sidgwick, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992, p. 6.) and partly because he feared for the future of a society which lacked religious sanctions for its moral practices. In 1865 he was appointed Examiner in the Moral Sciences Tripos, and in 1867 the authorities of Trinity offered to exchange his assistant tutorship in classics for one in Moral Sciences. In 1869, after prolonged heart-searching, he resigned his College Fellowship and assistant tutorship on the grounds that he could no longer subscribe to those doctrines of the Church of England assent to which had been a condition of his appointment (he was immediately appointed to a College Lectureship in Moral Sciences). None the less the following year he could still write to a friend (F. Myers) “I know also that my true self is a theist”. Ten years later, in 1880, he replied to an old school-fellow who had asked his views, “I do not know whether I believe or merely hope that there is a moral order in this universe that we know, a supreme principle of Wisdom and Benevolence, guiding all things to good ends, and to the happiness of the good… All I can say is that no opposed explanation of the origin of the cosmos… seems to me even plausible, and that I cannot accept life on any other terms, or construct a rational system of my own conduct except on the basis of this faith”(A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, p. 347). He continued in this attitude, with occasional swings in a more optimistic or a more pessimistic direction, for the rest of his life. He confessed to being himself “conscious of hankerings after Optimism”, and believed optimism in some form to be “essential for progressive humanity as a whole”. Of the various possible forms of optimism he regarded the theistic as the most attractive, and “not more unacceptable that any other form of optimism”(A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, p. 508).
To return to the 1860s. These years constituted his most formative decade, and also, consequently, his decade of what he termed Sturm und Drang. Amid his theological and philosophical perplexities, however, the literary and poetic side of his nature was by no means submerged. And the poet to whom he increasingly turned, the poet who, as Schultz puts it, “could serve him in his time of need”(B. Schultz, Henry Sidgwick: Eye of the Universe, Cambridge,Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 119) was an old Rugbeian of the preceding generation, Arthur Hugh Clough (1819-1861). Clough’s religious path had been not unlike Sidgwick’s. He had been for a while devoutly religious, had lost his faith, and had in consequence after long deliberation felt obliged to resign his Oxford Fellowship. There were other similarities. Oliver Elton says of him, in a perceptive passage, “[I]n his quest for a solid faith or mental stay, amidst that changing world of ideas, the complexion of which it is so hard for us to recover… Clough… with his delicate, balancing, over-conscientious temper, somewhat eased by a sense of humour, was distracted at Oxford, and was swept away, though not for long, by the Tractarians. He drifted from Oriel and the Church. It is clear whence he started, but not so clear whither he set sail, except that it was towards the open, which he never quite reached… Clough never went back to the fold, never rested halfway, and yet never adopted, like others, the clear-cut negative position. It is this temper that gives him his interest as a thinker, or at least as an explorer; his explorations are more attractive than other men’s discoveries”(O. Elton, A Survey of English Literature 1830-1880, vol. II, London, Edwin Arnold, 1920, p. 97). Much of this could be applied, mutatis mutandis, to Sidgwick. In a memorable essay on Clough, first published in 1869, Sidgwick cites Walter Bagehot’s remark that Clough “had a way of presenting your own view to you, so that you saw what it came to, and that you did not like it”(H. Sidgwick, Miscellaneous Essays, 1870-1899, edited by A. e E. M. Sidgwick, London, Macmillan & Co., 1904, p. 72), and immediately goes on to quote from his little-known poem, The Shadow:
I dreamed a dream: I dreamed that I espied,
Upon a stone that was not rolled aside,
A Shadow sit upon a grave – a Shade,
As thin, as unsubstantial, as of old
Came, the Greek poet told,
To lick the life-blood in the trench Ulysses made –
As pale, as thin, and said:
“I am the Resurrection of the Dead.
The night is past, the morning is at hand,
And I must in my proper semblance stand,
Appear brief space and vanish, - listen, this is true,
I am that Jesus whom they slew.”
And shadows dim, I dreamed, the dead apostles came,
And bent their heads for sorrow and for shame –
Sorrow for their great loss, and shame
For what they did in that vain name.
And in long ranges far behind there seemed
Pale vapoury forms; or was it cloud? That kept
Strange watch; the women also stood beside and wept.
And Peter spoke this word:
“O my own Lord,
What is it we must do?
Is it then all untrue?
Did we not see, and hear, and handle Thee,
Yes, for whole hours
Upon the Mount in Galilee,
On the lake shore, and here at Bethany,
When thou ascended to thy God and ours?”
And paler still became the distant cloud,
And at the word the women wept aloud.
And the Shade answered, “What ye say I know not;
But it is true
I am that Jesus whom they slew,
Whom ye have preached, but in what way I know not”.
Precisely how far these bleak lines reflected Sidgwick’s “own view” in the 1860s I cannot say; but at the very least they reflected what he feared his views were likely to become.
2. Ethical Theory and Psychical Research
Although by the early to mid-1860s Sidgwick had in effect parted from any orthodox form of Christian belief, and correspondingly from Benson as his guide and mentor in religious matters, another interest to a degree fostered by Benson remained for the rest of his life. I refer to his interest in stories of ghosts and other alleged paranormal phenomena. Sidgwick seems to have developed this interest fairly young, quite possibly while he was still at school, and, curiously, he refers to his own “ghostseeing tendencies”. At Cambridge he joined the “Ghost Society”, and we find him writing to his sister Mary (“Minnie”) in 1858 that he is prosecuting his researches in that sphere “with vigour; meeting with failures and vexatious exaggerations but still getting a good deal of real matter”(B. Schultz, Henry Sidgwick: Eye of the Universe, op. cit., p. 90.).
This Ghost Society had been founded about 1851, and Benson was one of the founders (A. C. Benson, Life of Edward White Benson, sometime Archbishop of Canterbury, 2 vol., London, Macmillan, 1899, vol. I, p. 98). Among the members were J.B. Lightfoot (who acted as secretary), B.F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, and as Benson became an archbishop, Lightfoot and Westcott bishops, and Hort Professor of Divinity it seems reasonable to assume that the purposes of the Society were not wholly frivolous. Sidgwick’s own collecting of ghost stories, and investigations of “spirit-rapping”, mediums, and so forth, during the late 1850s and early to middle 1860s are occasionally mentioned in his letters to family and friends, but with one exception details are lacking. The exception was some experiments with a College friend, J.J. Cowell, in July 1863. Cowell had developed an interest in spiritualism, and had discovered that he himself could produce intelligent automatic writings, punctuated by raps which, Sidgwick said, “were perceived by the sensoria of myself and Cowell, sitting at a small table, certainly not in consequence of any physical force exercised by us on the table”(A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, p. 106; see also F. W. H. Myers, Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death, London, Longmans, Green & Co, 1903, 2, pp. 122-123).
During this period he seems also to have read quite extensively in the growing mid-Victorian literature on spiritualism, ghosts, mesmeric clairvoyance, and so forth – he remarked in a letter to his mother in December 1863 that he is “pretty well-read in Pneumatological Literature” (A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, p. 103) – but details are lacking. He also interested himself in the literature on miracles. This combination raised for him, as C.D. Broad remarks, an awkward dilemma over the standard Protestant argument from the uniqueness of New Testament miracles. For either “the New Testament miracles were unique or they were not. If they were unique, they would, no doubt, provide an unique support for Christianity against its rivals. But, in that case, the whole burden would the New Testament and the untrustworthiness of all the innumerable similar stories told in that connexion with other religions and by contemporary Spiritualists. If they were not unique, it might be much easier to accept them as rare but not unparalleled phenomena. But then they could provide no special evidence of the truth of specifically Christian doctrine”(C. D. Broad, Religion, Philosophy and Psychical Research, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London 1953, p. 108).
From about 1867 to 1873 references to “pneumatological” researches are largely lacking in Sidgwick’s correspondence. Though he had come to feel that his investigations had not progressed as fast as he would have wished (A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, p. 171), the intermission was probably not due to any marked loss of interest. This was the period of his perplexities over resigning his Fellowship, of his consequent pamphlet on The Ethics of Conformity and Subscription (1870), and of the preparation of his masterpiece, The Methods of Ethics. During much of the rest of his life he was again involved in the quest for psychical phenomena.
It has sometimes been suggested or implied that Sidgwick’s involvement in psychical research was principally motivated by a serious hiatus in the argument of The Methods of Ethics. According to Sidgwick a “method of ethics” is “any rational procedure by which we determine what individual human beings “ought” – or what it is “right” for them – to do” (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, 7th ed., reprinted with a foreword by John Rawls, Indianapolis-Cambridge, Hackett Publish Company, 1981, p.1). (There have been differences of opinion as to how this should be interpreted). He discusses three such methods, for each of which rational justification may be offered: egoism (an action is right if it promotes the agent’s own good, defined ultimately in terms of happiness); utilitarianism (an action is right if it promotes the greatest good for all sentient beings); and intuitionism (an action is right if it conforms “to certain precepts or principles of Duty, intuitively known to be unconditionally binding”) (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, p. 3). Sidgwick holds that utilitarianism rests upon certain intuitively known general moral principles, and is therefore compatible with intuitionism. But egoism (egoistic hedonism), while rationally justifiable, may obviously at times conflict with utilitarianism (universalistic hedonism), leading to a seemingly irresolvable problem which Sidgwick terms “the Dualism of the Practical Reason”. A seemingly (but deceptively) simple way out would be to find arguments, moral, theological or empirical, in favour of an afterlife in which the wrongs and injustices of this life might be rectified or compensated for by a watchful and benevolent Deity, if only one could also find arguments in favour of His existence. In such a context Sidgwick’s interest in psychical research can be seen as a quest for empirical arguments supporting the afterlife aspect of this train of thought.
Sidgwick’s highly compressed discussion of this kind of answer at the end of the Methods leaves the matter unresolved, and does not directly mention any empirical or other grounds for believing or not believing in survival. He seems then and thereafter to have felt constrained to tread cautiously in these matters by a desire to avoid unsettling through his philosophic doubts the serene beliefs of the unphilosophical majority. But when among friends, or in correspondence with them, or in private discussion groups, or when confronted with individuals to whom he felt he had a duty of candour, he would reveal his innermost thoughts as they then were. In particular, various passages in his correspondence make it clear how preoccupied he was over a long period with the intractable problem of the dualism of practical reason, and the issues of theism and survival of death associated with his struggles to resolve it. To take two examples: Schultz quotes a letter of Sidgwick’s dated Jan 1870, now in his own possession, which, as he says, presents the dualism of practical reason in unvarnished form “but also the various possible resolutions of it – theistic (or spiritualistic), epistemological and ethical”. In this letter Sidgwick concludes that the only way of avoiding intolerable anarchy in ethics, “apart from the evidence supplied by Spiritualism, and apart from religious grounds”, is by “the Postulate of Immortality” towards which he has an “inherited predisposition”, and which he thinks so widely supported in human history as to have nearly “the authority of a belief of Common Sense” (B. Schultz, Henry Sidgwick: Eye of the Universe, p. 442).
Seventeen years later, Sidgwick, who was liable to periods of depression, was passing through a particularly black phase, triggered by “drifting steadily to the conclusion… that we have not, and are never likely to have, empirical evidence of the existence of the individual after death” (A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, p. 466). He wrote about this “mental crisis” in a journal that he sent in instalments to his friend and regular correspondent J.A. Symonds, who responded sympathetically, saying “What this implies for yourself, in its bearing I mean, upon Moral Philosophy, and its bearing upon the sustained quest of twenty years, I am able to appreciate”. But he added that he himself “never had any confidence in the method [psychical research] you were taking to obtain the proof” (B. Schultz, Henry Sidgwick: Eye of the Universe, p. 460). Sidgwick continued to reflect on his own doubts and Symonds’s answers in further entries. He asks himself “… am I to use my position – and draw my salary – for teaching that Morality is a chaos, from the point of view of Practical Reason; adding cheerfully that, as man is not after all a rational being, there is no real fear that morality won’t be kept up somehow. I do not at present see my way to acquiesce”. And he complains that Symonds is wrong in assuming that he relied on only one kind of proof of survival, the empirical. “I have tried all methods in turn – all that I found pointed out by any of those who have gone before me; and all in turn have failed – revelational, rational, empirical methods –there is no proof in any of them”. Still, he adds, “it is premature to despair, and I am quite prepared to go on seeking while life lasts…”(A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, pp. 472-473).
Go on he did – he always did – and, as we shall see, eventually became marginally less pessimistic (one can put it no more strongly) about theism and psychical research. For the moment it is enough to note that there is adequate evidence that his concern with psychical research was or became closely connected to his concern with ethics and the dualism of practical reason. Still that was not all there was to it, indeed that could not have been all there was to it in a person of such wide reading and such an inquiring mind. As we have seen, his interest in ghosts, and in spiritualistic phenomena, considerably antedated the long processes of abstract thought which brought him to the dualism of practical reason. It may even have antedated his arrival at Cambridge. His case-collecting for the Cambridge Ghost Society, though mentioned with a light touch in his correspondence, had clearly a more serious purpose. In an early diary, he described a dinner party of Apr 15th  at which ghosts and kindred subjects were discussed, and reflected on the discussion as follows: “… he a priori argts… from the paucity of appearances & the absence of cause for them, 1. why should not God be willing to give us a few glimpses of the unseen world wh. we all believe [to] exist; 2. as to the laws of nature, it may be that God governs Spirits not according to rules similar to physical rules & that we can no more expect to find out the laws of these appearances than the law of the action of grace in our own heart; 3. as to cause, the appearance may be… to work effects on the spirits of the seers wh. we cannot expect to know”(In an early diary, Trinity College Library in Cambridge, from May 17th to 26th, 1860.).
What is at stake in these early jottings is not how one might tackle problems in ethical theory, but how (under God) one might justify the very basic human hope that after death one’s life may continue in some world as yet unknown. That Sidgwick, like others of his generation of “reluctant doubters”, had such a hope, indeed a need, an “inherited predisposition” as he put it, which continued alongside and interacted with his much more intellectual struggles with the dualism of practical reason, cannot be doubted. In an obituary of Sidgwick, his Cambridge friend and close associate in psychical research, F. W. H. Myers recalled a star-light walk of 13th Nov 1871 on which he had asked Sidgwick “whether he thought that when Tradition, Intuition, Metaphysic, had failed to solve the riddle of the Universe, there was still a chance that from any actual observable phenomena – ghosts, spirits, whatsoever there might be, – some valid knowledge might be drawn as to a World Unseen. Already, it seemed, he had thought that this was possible; steadily, though in no sanguine fashion, he indicated some last grounds of hope…”(F. W. H. Myers, “In Memory of Henry Sidgwick”, Proceedings of the Society For Psychical Research, London, Trubner & Co., 1900-1901, p. 454). To Symonds he wrote on 16th Mar 1887, “I feel by the limitations of my nature incapable of really comprehending the state of mind of one who does not desire the continuance of his personal being”(A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, p. 471). In his own autobiography (1893/1961), Myers thus characterized Sidgwick’s state of mind during the blackest phase of his 1887 crisis: he “thought it not improbable that this last effort to look beyond the grave would fail; that men would have to content themselves with an agnosticism growing yearly more hopeless, – and had best turn to daily duties and forget the blackness of the end”(F. W. H. Myers, Fragments of Inner Life, London, Society for Psychical Research, 1893, reprinted in 1961, pp. 40-41).
One can be reasonably certain, I think, that Sidgwick’s incomprehension of Symonds, his cautious reply to Myers as to knowledge of a World Unseen, and his gloom 16 years laterabout the “blackness of the end”, alike sprang from beliefs, hopes and doubts which he would have entertained and vacillated over even had his ethical thinking never foundered on the dualism of practical reason. The same underlying hopes and thoughts can be seen in his deeply sympathetic appreciation of the poetry of Tennyson (Henry Sidgwick, “Alfred Tennyson”, in Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 5, 1892, pp. 315-318). If Clough was the poet of Sidgwick’s retreat from Christianity, Tennyson – though he never followed Sidgwick down the road, or blind alley, that led to the dualism - was the poet who best reflected his prolonged endeavour to remain a theist, and a believer in some relatively benign form of after-life. The 1860s and the following decades were not an easy time in which to maintain such beliefs. Advances in evolutionary biology, organic chemistry, neurology, and knowledge of the effects of brain damage on higher menta functions, all conspired to feed a sometimes rather aggressively anti-religious scientific materialism. Tennyson had always had an interest in science, and what Sidgwick perhaps most appreciated about him was that although as early as “In Memoriam” he was well aware of, and recoiled from, the possibly corrosive effect of recent science on religious belief –
I trust I have not wasted breath:
I think we are not wholly brain,
Magnetic mockeries: not in vain
Like Paul with beasts, I fought with Death;
Not only cunning casts in clay:
Let Science prove we are, and then
What matters Science unto men?
– he never attempted to dodge or ignore scientific findings, but continued to be optimistic that they might in the end prove reconcilable with “the profoundest needs and hopes of the human soul” (Henry Sidgwick, “Alfred Tennyson”, in Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, p. 316).
Indeed in his later years Tennyson himself became more and more interested in the findings of psychical research (he became an honorary member of the SPR in 1884), which “appeared to him to point to a wider conception of mind, and to the possibility of obtaining knowledge by the strictest method of empirical investigation, of the life of the Spirit World. All his later poems are full of references to this newer research”(C. F. G. Masterman, Tennyson as a Religious Teacher, London, Methuen, 1900, p. 93). Sidgwick could never quite match this degree of optimism. But one must distinguish between claimed “proofs” of certain putative empirical facts, and the preliminary interpretations that might be offered of some set of phenomena the proper explanation of which was not yet generally agreed upon. The “proofs” always eluded Sidgwick; but he continued to be intrigued and attracted, though never wholly convinced, by certain possible interpretations.
3. The Society for Psychical Research
The Society for Psychical Research was founded in 1882; but to understand why it was founded then, and by whom, and the course it took during its early years, we need briefly to look at various events and developments of the preceding couple of decades. During the 1860s and much of the 1870s spiritualism in Britain spread quite widely and fairly steadily. As it did so it changed in several ways. Home-bred practitioners, professional and private, steadily took over from the visiting American mediums who had originally dominated the scene. The phenomena diversified. In particular, the “physical” phenomena (originally “communicative” rappings and table movements) expanded to include alleged partial or total “materialisations” of the spirits, constituted, it was claimed, of a mysterious light-sensitive substance later called “ectoplasm”; and the “mental” phenomena to reach the sometimes very large audiences that attended meetings at which “inspirational” or trance speakers expounded spiritualist philosophy under the guidance of (it was supposed) the spirits themselves. Spiritualist associations, churches, and periodicals were founded, and both they and the alleged phenomena received occasional notice in the national press. The phenomena provoked a fair amount of curiosity among the public at large; but few savants showed any disposition to investigate them seriously.
One who did was William (later Sir William) Crookes, the distinguished chemist. Between 1870 and 1874 Crookes published a series of papers on his experiments and investigations into the alleged physical phenomena of spiritualism, and in 1874 collected them into a small book, Researches in the Phenomena of Spiritualism. The most interesting of his early experiments involved the celebrated, and in a sense non-professional, medium D.D. Home. In “ample light”, Home managed to produce, while ostensibly held and closely watched, up and down movements of a mahogany board pivoted at one end and suspended from a spring balance at the other, and depressions of a piece of parchment stretched tightly across a hoop of wood. These movements took place while Home was not touching the objects in question, and were recorded on a moving smoked glass drum. Sidgwick was impressed by Crookes’s findings, which had received a fair amount of publicity, and wrote to his mother on July 11th 1874, “If you say anything to the Bishop [Frederick Temple] about Spiritualism please say that no one should pronounce on the primâ facie case for serious investigation – this is really all that I maintain on behalf of Spiritualism – who has not read Crookes’s Researches” (A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, pp. 289-291).
It was probably his reading of that book that led Sidgwick to accede to the enthusiastic proposals of his friend, F.W.H. Myers that they and other interested friends might together set up an informal association to look further into these matters. Those who joined them included Arthur Balfour, later Prime Minister, Lord Rayleigh, the physicist, and his wife Evelyn (Balfour’s sister), another of Balfour’s sisters, Eleanor (Nora), who was before long to marry Sidgwick, Edmund Gurney (of whom more anon), John Hollond (later an M.P.) and his wife, and Walter Leaf, a distinguished classical scholar. It is notable that all of the gentlemen mentioned were Trinity men, and all but one fellows or former fellows of that College; and the ladies were the sisters and wives of Trinity men.
Their investigations began in the summer of 1874. In various permutations and combinations the members of the group had sittings over the next few years with many of the best-known
professional and private mediums in or visiting England. There is no point in going into the details here. The investigators learned a lot about the tedium of inconclusive sittings and a fair
amount about actual or possible methods of fraud; but of phenomena which there was good reason to suppose genuine they saw little or nothing. By the beginning of 1877 the Sidgwicks were thoroughly tired of the proceedings, and even Myers, whose enthusiasm sustained him for another couple of years, wrote to Sidgwick of phenomena labouring “only under the defect wh. seems widely to permeate phenomena, – that of having occurred in the presence of somebody else” (Alan Gauld, The Founders of Psychical Research, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968, p. 129). The most interesting thing about the whole endeavour was that it foreshadowed a considerably larger enterprise in which these persons (call them “the Sidgwick Group)” nearly all participated.
This larger enterprise was helped on its way by some apparently successful experiments in “thought-transference” carried out on child subjects by William (later Sir William) Barrett, Professor of Physics at the Royal College of Science, Dublin. These experiments, described in Nature on July 7th 1881, revived Sidgwick’s interest in such matters, and also that of some of his friends. Barrett’s interest was already well known, and when towards the end of 1881, he and a leading Spiritualist, Edmund Dawson Rogers, proposed the formation of a society in which scholars and scientists might join forces with prominent Spiritualists to investigate phenomena of which the latter
claimed special experience, the idea was taken up by members of
The Society for Psychical Research was founded in Feb 1882. Sidgwick became its first and longest-serving President, and in that role did, perhaps, more than anyone else to establish its reputation for relative sanity. His known intellectual qualities and fair-mindedness made it difficult to suppose that a society over which he presided would be primarily a playground for eccentrics, an assurance doubtless reinforced by his establishment connections– one of his brothers-in law (Benson) was a bishop and became Archbishop of Canterbury, another (A.J. Balfour) was to become Prime Minister, his sister-in-law was married to one of the country’s leading physicists (Lord Rayleigh), and his wife’s uncle (Lord Salisbury) was Prime Minister for 14 of the years between 1885 and 1902. Indeed, Sidgwick had, through his involvement in university issues and in women’s education, himself developed “political” skills helpful in presenting difficult issues and advancing causes widely regarded with suspicion. He supported the SPR both in public roles as President and Chairman of meetings, and as participant in and organizer of international psychological conferences, and by behind the scenes activities, committee work, planning the placement of articles in widely-read periodicals, editing the SPR’s Journal and Proceedings (which he did from 1888 to 1897), and by frequent discussions with leading members, not least among whom were the members of the Sidgwick Group.
His relation to them has been compared to that of the “Companions of Socrates” to Socrates (B. Schultz, Henry Sidgwick: Eye of the Universe, op. cit., p. 281.). Whatever work they were engaged in or ideas that had struck them or plans that they may have had for advancing the subject were certain to be discussed with him. In the course of time other interested persons were in effect more or less co-opted into the Group on account of their abilities and dedication. They included Sir Oliver Lodge, Richard Hodgson, Frank Podmore, Alice Johnson, Frederic Myers’s brother Arthur, and Margaret Verrall.
Sidgwick’s influence on the activities and tone of the SPR was thus pervasive and long outlasted his own lifetime. In what directions was that influence exercized? A convenient approach to this issue is through the first seven of the nine Presidential Addresses which he gave to the SPR.
In his first Address (July 17th, 1882) he raises the question of why one should establish a Society for Psychical Research at all at this time, and answers that “it is a scandal to the enlightened age in which we live” that dispute as to the reality of the alleged phenomena – of which it is quite impossible to exaggerate the scientific importance, if only a tenth part of them could be shown to be true – should still be continuing. “The aim of our Society is to make a sustained and systematic attempt to remove this scandal… without any foregone conclusion as to their nature” (Henry Sidgwick et al., Presidential Addresses to the Society forPsychical Research 1882-1911, London, Society for Psychical Research, 1912, pp. 1-2.; Or: Address by the President at the First General Meeting, Proceedings of the Society of Psychical Research, London, Vol.I, 1882-1883, p.7) (under subsciption, the Proceedings and the Journals of the SPR are available on Lexscien: Library of Exploratory Science).
Almost exactly six years later, in his fifth Address, Sidgwick reveals various more personal aims by which he and the group of inquirers to which he belonged (he means the “Sidgwick Group”, and does not presume to speak in the name of the whole Society) were mainly moved to take up “the obscure and perplexing investigation which we call Psychical Research”. Somewhat surprisingly he picks on “the painful division and conflict” between the still dominant Christian teachings and the materialist deliverances of modern physiology over the nature and destiny of the soul. He and his friends “believed unreservedly in the methods of modern science” but “thought that there was an important body of [relevant] evidence… which modern science had simply left on one side with ignorant contempt”. This body of evidence they “proposed to examine, to the best of [their] ability, according to the rules of scientific method”. And they meant to collect and consider such evidence “without prejudice or prepossession, giving the fullest and most impartial attention to facts that appear to make against the hypothesis that the evidence at first sight suggested”. Only “a rigorous exclusion of… known causes could justify us in regarding as scientifically established the novel agency of mind acting or perceiving apart from the body”. And he thinks that he and his colleagues have introduced the minimum of theory required to cover the facts they regard as established without making “assumptions which we regard as unwarrantable” (Henry Sidgwick et al., Presidential Addresses to the Society for Psychical Research 1882-1911, pp. 35-37; Or: PSPR on Lexscien: Library of Exploratory Science).
It is interesting to note that the motives Sidgwick cites for his interest in psychical phenomena and support of the SPR derive from then current conflicts between religion and science and not from ethical problems involving the dualism of practical reason.
Very probably these statements of aim would have been approved of by a considerable majority of SPR members. If we now ask in what ways Sidgwick influenced attempts to implement these aims, a short answer might be “in ways suggested by common-sense”. He was a great invoker of “common-sense” in philosophical and other contexts. In the context of psychical research the sort of “Common Sense” he invokes seems to be what he elsewhere calls “the Common Sense of educated persons rectified by a general acquaintance with the results and methods of physical science” (Henry Sidgwick et al., Presidential Addresses to the Society for Psychical Research 1882-1911, p. 42; Or: PSPR on Lexscien: Library of Exploratory Science). In his fifth address, (July 16th 1887) his recommended rules of procedure are “the obvious dictates of plain common-sense, assuming our object to be simply that of arriving at the truth” ( Henry Sidgwick et al., Presidential Addresses to the Society for
Psychical Research 1882-1911, p. 36; Or: PSPR on Lexscien : Library of Exploratory Science).
Accordingly he warns those optimists who believe that we already have facts enough and should proceed to theory-building that they are deceiving themselves. For, as he says in his first address “we must not expect any decisive effect in the direction at which we primarily aim, on the common-sense of mankind, from any single piece of evidence, however complete it has been made. Scientific incredulity has been so long in growing, and has so many and so strong roots, that we shall only kill it… by burying it alive under a heap of facts” (Henry Sidgwick et al., Presidential Addresses to the Society for Psychical Research 1882-1911, p. 6.). He returns to this requirement again and again, and remarks in his fifth address that if facts of high quality cease to be obtained, then as time goes on “the absence of such evidence will constitute an argument of continually increasing strength against our conclusions” (Henry Sidgwick et al., Presidential Addresses to the Society for Psychical Research 1882-1911, p. 40; Or: PSPR on Lexscien: Library of Exploratory Science).
Commitment to the requirements of orthodox science as regards accumulating “high quality” facts, giving due weight to criticism, making use of appropriate methods, and confining oneself to minimum hypotheses, does not mean losing sight of common-sense when one is confronted with silly counter-explanations, even when these are put forward by scientists. The fact (for instance) that some weakly evidenced cases of alleged paranormal happenings are susceptible of obvious normal explanations cannot, he says in his fourth address (May 28th 1884), be legitimately used to discredit all cases of that type irrespective of quality of evidence. Those who demand that, to be acceptable, evidence (e.g. for thought-transference) should be repeatable at will forget that, if there is such a function, it will prima facie depend “on the establishment of a certain relation between the nervous systems of the agent and percipient respectively; and as the conditions of this relation are specifically unknown, it is to be expected that they should be sometimes absent, sometimes present, in an inexplicable way; and, in particular, that this peculiar function of the brain should be easily disturbed by mental anxiety or discomfort of any kind” (Henry Sidgwick et al., Presidential Addresses to the Society for Psychical Research 1882-1911, pp. 21-22; Or: PSPR on Lexscien: Library of Exploratory Science).
All this talk about “high quality facts” and overcoming scientific incredulity leads to the obvious further question, what are the principles on which we should assess evidence for the peculiar alleged phenomena under consideration? Sidgwick devoted his seventh Presidential Address (May 10th, 1889) to this question under the title of “The Canons of Evidence in Psychical Research”.
He notes that there are immense divergences between different schools of thought and different individuals as to the right manner of dealing with the evidence, and in that connection makes a very important point that has often been overlooked in the excitement of partisan debate. It is “that in such inquiries as ours it is inevitable that there should be a very wide margin within which neither side can prove, or ought to try to prove, that the other is wrong; because the important considerations, the pros and cons, that have to be weighed against each other, are not capable of being estimated with any exactness. And therefore there is properly a very wide interval between the point – as regards weight of evidence – at which it is reasonable to embark on an inquiry of this kind and the point at which it is reasonable to come to a positive decision” (Henry Sidgwick et al., Presidential Addresses to the Society for Psychical Research 1882-1911, pp. 47-48; Or: PSPR on Lexscien: Library of Exploratory Science). Failure to grasp and come to terms with the existence of this “wide interval” may generate (indeed still does generate) a great deal of tiresome and pointless controversy.
According to Sidgwick the root of the problem is that in handling apparently well-authenticated testimony for a “marvellous fact” we have to weigh opposing improbabilities against each other. “It is improbable that the marvel should have really happened, and it is improbable that the testimony to its happening should be false” (Henry Sidgwick et al., Presidential Addresses to the Society for Psychical Research 1882-1911, p. 48; Or: PSPR on Lexscien: Library of Exploratory Science). All we can do is weigh the improbability of the fact
against the improbability that the testimony should be false. And this can only be done not “in any scales furnished by exact science, but in the rough scales of common-sense”. Everyone agrees that the greater the marvel, the better must be the testimony, “but it is impossible to say precisely what accumulation of testimony is required to balance a given magnitude of marvel” (Henry Sidgwick et al., Presidential Addresses to the Society for Psychical Research 1882-1911, p. 49; Or: PSPR on Lexscien: Library of Exploratory Science). Too many imponderable factors are involved; the probabilities in respect of each of them can only be vaguely estimated; and different people will estimate them differently in accordance with their personal preconceptions and knowledge of the evidence and the witnesses concerned.
Many further questions could be raised at this point. How are the terms “probability” and “improbability” being used here? Does Sidgwick think that the impossibility of assigning precise numerical values to these “probabilities” is simply an empirical difficulty due to the number, complexity and elusiveness of the factors involved, or is there a more fundamental underlying reason? (A similar problem confronted him in his ethical work over the “indefiniteness of all hedonistic calculations” when it came to assessing the distribution of happiness resulting from particular courses of conduct.). Might current Bayesian methods provide (as some have suggested) at least limited solutions to these problems in particular areas? To pursue these matters would take us beyond the scope of this chapter. But as for the
perennial arguments about alleged evidence for paranormal or other off-beat events there can be no doubt that Sidgwick has put his finger on a major source of their general intractability.
He is right too as to the only way out of the difficulties: “What anyone has to do who is convinced himself of the reality of any alleged marvel, is first to try, if he can, to diminish the improbability of the marvel by offering an explanation which harmonises it with other parts of our experience; and secondly, to increase the improbability [of the testimony being in error], by accumulating experiences and varying conditions and witnesses” (Henry Sidgwick et al., Presidential Addresses to the Society for Psychical Research 1882-1911, pp. 50-51; Or: PSPR on Lexscien: Library of Exploratory Science).
4. Practical Work
Sidgwick was somewhat inclined to belittle his suitability for practical work, especially as compared to that of his wife. To an extent, perhaps, he was being too modest, for he became
involved, often alongside his wife, in several lines of practical work, and was certainly not conspicuously inefficient. And, as we have seen, he was continually insistent on the importance of collecting more and still more evidence. To this end six research committees were set up shortly after the SPR’s foundation to gather materials and conduct experiments. As President, Sidgwick was ex officio a member of all these committees.
Most of the committees lasted only a few years, but several of them did a considerable amount of work and some of the lines of work they began continued for many years, indeed down to the present. I will touch here on two of these lines of work, ones in which Sidgwick was to a greater or lesser extent involved, viz. the collection and assessment of certain cases of apparitions (initially undertaken by the “Literary Committee”) and experiments in “thought-transference” (later called by Myers’s term, “telepathy”). Stories of apparitions reached the SPR’s Literary Committee in very considerable numbers as the result of advertisements, strategically placed articles, and circulars sent out to the membership. What was sought were of course not spine-chilling legendary tales but first-hand accounts of personal experiences by reputable individuals prepared to sign statements and submit to interviews. The stories obtained were, on balance, far from spine-chilling – many (though not all) of the figures seen looked and behaved much like ordinary human beings, apart, that is, from their curious tendencies to vanish suddenly and inexplicably, to walk through walls in the traditional way, to be seen to open doors that were afterwards found still closed, to be invisible to some or all of those present, and occasionally to be transparent or incompletely developed. These characteristics rather strongly indicated that the phenomena concerned were subjective, hallucinatory, rather than objective. Mutatis mutandis, similar considerations applied to cases in which other sensory modalities, principally the auditory, were affected.
If the hallucinatory nature of apparitions were accepted, certain puzzles about them none the less remained. A certain percentage of them (what percentage will be touched on shortly) were apparently “veridical”, that is they corresponded with other events in a way that seemed to require some rather unusual kind of explanation. For example (to confine ourselves to visual examples) in so-called “crisis” cases the apparition corresponded quite closely in time with the (distant) death, or other crisis in the affairs, of the individual whom the witness took it to represent or be (“closely” was defined as “occurring within twelve hours either way of”). In “collective” cases two or more persons simultaneously saw apparently the same figure in the same place at the same time. In cases of “haunting” or “recurrent” apparitions the same or a similar figure was seen at the same locality on different occasions. In “arrival cases” someone was seen to arrive at a house some little while before his or her unexpected actual arrival. And so on.
When cases of these and kindred kinds were sent in, the SPR’s practice was to obtain signed witness statements and to ask a member of known reliability to visit the witness or witnesses,
assess them, and obtain as much further relevant testimony and documentation as possible (Sidgwick shared in this work). When sufficient examples of a given kind had been obtained, the materials would be evaluated, written up and published, always with the caveat that much more remained to be done. For example in 1885 Nora Sidgwick, helped by Henry, surveyed some 370 “narratives of phenomena… which believers in ghosts would be apt to refer to the agency of deceased human beings”. She concludes that “there are, in a certain sense, haunted houses”, ones in which similar apparitions have been seen at different times by different individuals “under circumstances which exclude the hypothesisof suggestion or expectation”, but does not find any kind of theory satisfactory, and regards the evidence for the operation in them of any intelligent agency as “absolutely nil” (E. M. Sidgwick, “Notes of the Evidence, Collected by the Society, for Phantasms of the Dead”, in Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. III, 1885, pp. 143, 150; PSPR on Lexscien: Library of Exploratory Science).
Of all the categories of “veridical” hallucination, the most frequently exemplified was that of “crisis” cases. Such cases were a central topic of Gurney, Myers and Podmore’s Phantasms of the Living, a very remarkable two volume book, the main text of which was written by Edmund Gurney, one of the most gifted of the “Sidgwick Group”. The plans for this work were laid at a series of discussions in Sidgwick’s house from 20th to 27th August 1883, and the work itself appeared in October 1886. Sidgwick and his wife had offered a great deal of behind the scenes help and advice and had given “some time and trouble… to the practical work of interviewing informants and obtaining their personal testimony”.
Phantasms covers a wide segment of the evidence for spontaneous and experimental telepathy obtained by the SPR up to that point, together with Gurney’s own discussions of such highly relevant topics as the nature of hallucinations, the possible pitfalls in the evidence for veridical hallucinations, and the theory of chance coincidence as regards crisis apparitions. It is impossible here to convey a proper appreciation of the ability with which Gurney organized his complex materials (702 examples of ostensible spontaneous telepathy) and of the thoroughness of his pioneering discussions of more general issues. All I can do is briefly indicate the reasons he presents for regarding crisis apparitions as telepathically generated hallucinations. Some of the reasons for taking crisis (and other) apparitions to be hallucinatory (rather than objectively present) have already been mentioned. The main reason that led Gurney and others to think of them as caused by the receipt of a telepathic message from a shocked or dying agent was that such cases seemed to fit naturally at the end of a series of which the first terms were experiments in thought-transference involving, say, the transfer of a mental image from a sender or agent to a percipient or recipient, and the last the unfolding to the percipient of a whole hallucinatory scene correctly representing the distant death of someone known to him.
In between could be found, let us say, spontaneous cases in which the percipient’s experience closely matches that of the agent – for example, a lady lying in bed early one morning is shocked by a sudden pain in her mouth at the moment when her husband, out sailing, was struck painfully in the mouth by the tiller of his yacht; cases in which the percipient’s experience almost certainly does not closely match that of the supposed agent – for example in “arrival” cases, the percipient “sees” the agent, looking perfectly normal, as he or she arrives, whereas the agent would not (even if he could) be visualizing himself as he would look from a third person viewpoint but imagining his arrival from his own first person perspective, so that one has to assume the what is “transmitted” is the idea of the arrival, with some or many of the details being supplied from the percipient’s memories. A similar conclusion emerges from crisis apparitions themselves; the agent may at the relevant time have been in uniform on a battlefield or lying in his night-shirt on his death-bed, whereas what the percipient sees may quite often answer simply to his everyday idea of the agent or have symbolical overtones or accompaniments such as a coffin or a religious figure.
Lastly, Gurney tackled perhaps the most obvious difficulty confronted by the telepathic theory of crisis hallucinations, namely that if, as the labours of the Literary Committee had rather suggested, transient hallucinations are commoner among sober and sane persons than is generally supposed, the apparent temporal relationship between hallucinations and deaths (or other crises) might simply be due to chance. Gurney approached this problem by organizing a Census (it ran to 5,705 persons) to determine what might be called the hallucination rate in the population at large, which he could then compare with the known death rate as given in the Registrar General’s tables. But since this census was the prototype for a larger one which I will shortly discuss I shall pass it by.
Sidgwick, who was already impressed by the experimental and other evidence for telepathy, concurred with Gurney’s telepathic theory of crisis hallucinations. But he had decidedly mixed feelings about the implications. For he now felt that far from taking crisis cases, as he had no doubt originally hoped, to be evidence for the operation of disembodied mind, we must instead attribute the causal connection between deaths and crisis apparitions to “some occult [i.e. hidden] action of the embodied mind, until we have obtained adequate evidence that disembodied minds are possible agents; and we do not yet think that we have obtained such evidence” (Henry Sidgwick et al., Presidential Addresses to the Society for Psychical Research 1882-1911, pp. 37-38; also: PSPR on Lexscien: Library of Exploratory Science). In short what had initially seemed one of the most promising lines of work undertaken up to that date by members of the SPR had not merely failed to support, but threatened to end, his hopes that psychical research might yield some intimations of an existence beyond the transient one of which alone we have certain knowledge.
For a good deal of the following year, 1887, he suffered (as we have already noted) from deep depressions that in considerable part originated from this failure. Sidgwick was, however, nothing if not persistent, and despite, or perhaps because of, the tragic early death of Edmund Gurney in June 1888 (a huge loss to the young SPR) he shortly became involved in two extensive investigations of telepathy. One of these, a series of experiments carried on by his wife, himself and Miss Alice Johnson between 1889 and 1892, was mainly on the telepathic transfer of two-figure numbers. The results were positive; but it would not be profitable to discuss them in detail here. A notable outcome was Sidgwick’s remarkably thorough response to the suggestion by A.G..L. Lehmann and F.C.C. Hansen of Copenhagen that the findings could be ascribed to “involuntary whispering”. Sidgwick replied (Henry Sidgwick, “Involuntary Whispering Considered in relation to Experiments in Thought-Transference”, in Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 12, 1996-1997, pp. 298-315; PSPR on Lexscien: Library of Exploratory Science) with an analysis of his critics’ logic and statistics, and experiments of his own to test the viability of his opponents’ hypothesis.
Another, and far more ambitious, project was the repetition on a larger and wider scale of the “Census of Hallucinations” carried out by Edmund Gurney to assess the chance-coincidence hypothesis of crisis hallucinations. Whose idea this repetition was I have not discovered – very possibly it was something Gurney himself had had in mind at the time of his death – but it was first set forth by Sidgwick in the SPR’s Journal in April 1889 along with an appeal for volunteer collectors. In the following August the project was discussed at an International Congress of Experimental Psychology in Paris, which the Sidgwicks and Frederic and Arthur Myers all attended, and the project, under the direction of Sidgwick, was adopted by the Congress (A. T. Myers, “The International Congress of Experimental Psychology”, in Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 6, pp. 171- 182, 1889-1890, p. 173; PSPR on Lexscien: Library of Exploratory Science). Additional data-gathering was arranged in the United States, France, Russia and Brazil, but by far the largest proportion of the total returns came from Britain.
The Census was planned and handled by a committee of six persons, Sidgwick (Chairman), his wife, Alice Johnson, Frederic Myers, Frank Podmore and Arthur Myers (who died before the final report was published). The organization and analysis of the returns was largely carried out and the final report written by Nora Sidgwick and Alice Johnson, with “special assistance” from Sidgwick. He also acted as “front-man” in the presentation of ad interim reports and of a report to the succeeding International Congress, London, 1892 (of which he was President), and did his share of interviewing witnesses. The 410 volunteer collectors obtained answers to the Census Question from 17,000 persons over the age of 21. Collectors were instructed not to seek out persons whom they knew to have experienced an hallucination, but none the less as a control the question was put to whole groups of persons (e.g. all the guests at a function, all the employees in a factory) who could not possibly have been pre-selected in this way. The Census Question was as follows:
Have you ever, when believing yourself to be completely awake, had a vivid impression of seeing or being touched by a living being or inanimate object, or of hearing a voice; which impression, so far as you could discover, was not due to any external physical cause?
To this question, after obvious examples of dream or delirium had been eliminated, 1,684 respondents answered “yes”. Between them they had had 1,942 hallucinations. Follow-up interviews and correspondence with these individuals yielded a great deal of general information about sporadic hallucinations among apparently sane individuals, the senses most commonly affected, conditions of perception (in bed, up, out of doors, etc.), sex differences, national differences, age of percipients, etc. But our present concern is principally with “veridical” hallucinations. The Census Report had substantial chapters on collective hallucinations, recurrent localized apparitions and phantasms of the dead – topics which, interesting though they are, I shall have to pass over. But its prime concern was with the possibility of explaining away crisis hallucinations in terms of “chance-coincidence”.
I cannot here go in detail into the somewhat involved arguments by which Sidgwick’s committee approached the chance coincidence hypothesis, but the gist of them is as follows.
The Census had netted 350 examples of recognized visual hallucinations of living persons known to the percipients and believed by them up to that moment to be still alive (only percipients who had had no other hallucination were included). Of these 80 were death-coincidences in that they coincided within twelve hours either way with the death of the recognized individual. However it was apparent from the distribution of reported cases over time that people were much more likely to forget noncoincidental cases than coincidental ones. The Committee calculated that (after elimination of all cases occurring to percipients under the age of ten, and of all cases which might be regarded as doubtfully hallucinatory or otherwise suspect), the real number of recognised visual hallucinations could be reckoned at about 1,300 and (to be on the safe side) the number of death-coincidences at 30. They then argued that since the Registrar General’s tables showed the chance of any person taken at random dying on a given day was 1 in 19,000, the chance of any given single event, such as someone’s having a one-off hallucination of an individual known to him, coinciding with the death of that individual would also be 1 in 19,000. The actual proportion of such coincident hallucinations was about 30 in 1,300, or 440 times the predicted figure. In most of the residual 30 cases the percipients had been interviewed by members of the committee or their representatives, and the collector had no previous knowledge of the respondent’s experience. In at least 16 cases the percipient either had no reason to suppose that the decedent was unwell or no reason to suppose that his or her illness should occasion anxiety, nor were the figures seen predominantly those of elderly and presumably more vulnerable persons (A. Johnson, Review of Ueber die Trugwahrnehmung, by Edmund Parish, in Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 11, 1895, pp. 170-171; PSPR on Lexscien: Library of Exploratory Science). Occasional errors of memory came to light but were in general not such as to invalidate the basic fact of the correlation in time between hallucination and death. In a sprinkling of cases percipients had made contemporary notes of the experience, or had mentioned it to other persons before learning of the death.
Hoaxing by so many apparently respectable people hardly seemed likely and would have required conspiracy on a considerable scale. When one bears in mind that in an appreciable number of cases the coincidence in time between hallucination and death was a good deal closer than twelve hours and sometimes correct information was conveyed beyond the mere fact of the death, the conclusion reached by Sidgwick’s Committee, and signed by all its members with Sidgwick’s name at their head, seems difficult to dispute:
We have shown that – after making the most ample allowance for all ascertainable sources of error – the number of these experiences remains far greater than the hypothesis of chance-coincidence will account for; thus confirming the conclusions already arrived at by Mr. Gurney [including viability of the telepathic theory of crisis hallucinations]. (H. and E. M. Sidgwick and A. Johnson, “Report on the Census of Hallucinations”, in Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 10, 1894, p. 393; also available on Lexscien: Library of Exploratory Science)
It would, I think, be fair to say that, though the methods of case acquisition and analysis used by the Census Committee would not today be thought satisfactory, the Census Report, with its detailed scrutiny of possible alternative explanations, left the onus very much on critics to find further and more satisfactory counter-arguments. And regardless of the merits or otherwise of the telepathic hypothesis, it could hardly be denied that Gurney, and after him Sidgwick’s Committee, had confirmed the existence of a decidedly curious problem.
5. Final Years
Sidgwick’s interest in “psychical” phenomena extended through forty years of his life, perhaps longer. In considerable part at least it was motivated by moral and religious concerns. It is time to ask how far (if at all) his endeavours in psychical research forwarded or fulfilled the hopes and aims with which he began. This is not an easy question to answer. His views and his moods were subject to ups and downs, and on the whole the downs were more down than the ups were up. But before coming to his later views it is necessary to say something about another long-continued empirical investigation in which members of the Sidgwick Group took a prominent part, though Sidgwick’s own role was largely peripheral.
Until the mid to late 1880s the Sidgwick Group’s dealings with mediums had been mainly with “physical” mediums, i.e. ones through the peculiarities of whose material organisms the spirits could supposedly work physical wonders, e.g. object movements, communicative rappings, “materializations”. The Group’s experiences with such individuals had been mostly unprofitable and strongly suggestive of fraud – indeed a highly critical article published in 1886 by Nora Sidgwick, prompted the resignation of most of the spiritualist contingent on the SPR Council. The first noteworthy “mental” medium (that is a medium whose powers of speech or writing, or of visual or auditory imagery, can supposedly be controlled or influenced by the spirits) to come to the Group’s attention was Mrs Leonora Piper
(1859-1950), of Boston, Massachusetts.
Mrs. Piper’s mediumistic abilities were revealed accidentally in 1884 when she attended a séance, passed into a trance, and wrote a message for one of the other sitters. Next year she was “discovered” for science by William James, then Professor of Psychology at Harvard, whose mother-in-law and sister-in-law had been greatly impressed by a sitting. James “played the esprit fort before his female relations”, but was interested enough to attend a sitting anonymously himself and was impressed in turn. During 1885 he sent some 25 other persons to her under pseudonyms, and next year published a brief report of his findings in the Proceedings of the newly founded American SPR. He personally was “persuaded of the medium’s honesty, and of the genuineness of her trance; and although at first disposed to think that the ‘hits’ she made were either lucky coincidences or the result of knowledge on her part of who the sitter was and of his or her family affairs, I now believe her to be in possession of a power as yet unexplained” (W. James, Essays in Psychical Research, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1986, p. 16).
James was known to certain members of the Sidgwick Group, and the result was that in May 1887 a “co-opted” member of the Group, Richard Hodgson, regarded by them as an expert on conjuring and the detection of fraud, was sent to Boston as Secretary of the American SPR. Hodgson introduced, or regularized, systematic recording, the keeping of records, and the introduction of new sitters under pseudonyms. None the less Mrs Piper before long brought him round to the view of her expressed by James. Hodgson remained in charge of the American SPR and, to a large extent, of work with Mrs Piper, until his premature death in 1905, and she remained a focus of the SPR’s attention for another decade beyond that.
It is impossible here to discuss the ins and outs of the Pipe case. Afew background notes before turning to Sidgwick’s views are all that can be fitted in. Mrs. Piper was, it must be borne in mind, a “trance” medium, meaning that while speaking or writing in the character of or on behalf of a given deceased person, she herself was ostensibly (and as far as could be told actually) unaware of what was going on. Hodgson and others who investigated her came to distinguish between her “controls” and her “communicators”. Controls were (on the face of it) entities who were capable of directly controlling the medium’s speech and writing (presumably through the appropriate brain centres); communicators could not normally do this, and relied on controls to relay their messages. At any given period there were only a few controls. From 1885 to about 1892, the main control was a soi-disant French doctor, named “Phinuit”, an affable character who, on a good day, might display an astonishing knowledge of sitters’ private affairs and deceased relatives, but on a bad one would guess and fish quite blatantly. He was never able to give any verifiable account of his earthly life. He was gradually succeeded by George Pellew, referred to as “G.P.”, a recently deceased young man of literary and philosophical interests and aristocratic forebears, who had been known to Hodgson. Many of Pellew’s still living friends were greatly impressed by Mrs. Piper’s personation of him. Under the regime of G.P. the tone of the sittings improved, and writing replaced speech as the principal mode of communication, which made the keeping of a full record easier.
From about the end of 1896 onwards, G.P. was partially (and most regrettably) edged out by a group of lofty spirits operating under such names as Imperator, Rector, Doctor and Prudens, and claiming (upon no good grounds) identity with the controls of an earlier British medium, W. Stainton Moses. Imperator and Rector, in particular, were prone to write great quantities of vague and pontificatory religious teaching (“hieratic twaddle” to use Broad’s phrase) combined with almost unbelievably nonsensical pseudo-science of a somewhat mystical cast.
Even so, few of those who had extensive experience of Mrs. Piper’s mediumship failed at least to endorse William James’s guardedly positive verdict, and some went a good deal further. It is, indeed, not at all easy to conceive of any explanation, normal, paranormal or supernormal, of the Piper phenomena which will satisfactorily cover all cases. The obvious (and often tried) “normal” explanations of the correct and appropriate information that Mrs. Piper so often conveyed in the persona of or on behalf of deceased communicators are these: 1) She picked up indications from the age, appearance, social class, etc., of her sitters, which, supplemented by “fishing”, enabled her to work out with fair probability of success what sorts of statements she might venture.
2) She had an excellent memory and a large network of gossipy contacts in Boston and vicinity, and despite the fact that those in charge of her sittings introduced sitters under pseudonyms, was able to work out their likely identities and apply the products of her grapevine accordingly.
3) She employed agents.
There are some obvious initial difficulties with all these hypotheses, for instance the expense of employing agents, the fact that with that possibility in mind she was shadowed by private detectives for several weeks, her successes with first-time sitters and when brought to England, the remarkable characterizations or impersonations she sometimes gave of the deceased persons ostensibly communicating through her. But the biggest difficulty of all, and the thing that most impressed sitters and investigators alike, was perhaps the rather frequent combination of the highly specific with the fairly unusual in the correct statements made by her communicators, a combination which time and again made it very difficult to conceive that the information could have been obtained by any of the normal means mentioned above. For example, to take a hitherto unpublished and suitably brief case, during a sitting shortly after Sidgwick’s death a communicator named “Hugh”, unrelated to anyone present, as it were broke in. Hugh was the late husband of a young English lady, Edith Mary Barber – she had had several sittings with Mrs. Piper in Boston at which he purported to communicate, but she had since returned home. Hugh, who had been a medical officer in the British Army in India, now in her absence mentioned a “club house” in India, and a “George Dillon”, who had been a member of the club, and added that Dillon had given him an imitation cigar. Mrs Barber, on being contacted by Hodgson, replied that she knew of the club house and George Dillon (they had however not been mentioned at any of her own sittings, of which full records exist) but not of the cigar. However she wrote to Dillon, still in India, and he confirmed the cigar joke.
At the time of this sitting Mrs. Piper was in the United States, Mrs. Barber, who was known to Mrs Piper and had two of the relevant pieces of information, was in England, and George Dillon, who was known to Mrs. Barber but not to Mrs. Piper, and had the third piece of information, was in India. It was hardly likely that Mrs. Piper had agents or networks of acquaintances in England and India, as well as in Boston, while to explain her performance in terms of telepathy would certainly require some tortuous reasoning and some pretty ad hoc assumptions.
The complications here forced upon the telepathic theory, it may be noted, match those which the telepathic theory of certain sorts of veridical hallucinations seems to require. The Committee in charge of the Census of Hallucinations concluded, from its study of the evidence, and possible pitfalls, in the 95 collective cases netted by the Census, that they did not “think it can reasonably be doubted that collective hallucinations occur, though unmistakable ones are somewhat rare” (Henry Sidgwick, Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick and Alice Johnson, “Report on the Census of Hallucinations”, in Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 10, 1894, p. 320). Gurney’s view was similar. Crisis, repetitive localized and post-mortem apparitions might all in addition be collectively perceived, besides presenting complex problems of their own. It will readily be understood that to give an account on the telepathic hypothesis of how two or more individuals come to perceive apparently the same hallucinatory figure at the same time and in the same spot, and sometimes from appropriately different perspectives, requires some highly imaginative theorising.
This is as far as we can go with these scene-setting matters, which bring us to a convenient point at which to return to Sidgwick and his views about Mrs. Piper and related issues. Although Sidgwick’s own sittings with Mrs Piper in 1889-90 were mediocre, “the experiences of his friends impressed him very strongly”, and he thought they were “on the verge of something important” (A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, pp. 502, 507). He continued (as did his wife) to be intensely interested in the Piper phenomena. But I know of no further published remarks of his about the case until April 1898, when his off-the-cuff comments on Hodgson’s views, following a lecture, were printed in the SPR’s Journal (Henry Sidgwick, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 8, pp. 220-221). Hodgson.had abandoned an earlier adherence to the telepathic theory and for a variety of interesting reasons (R. Hodgson, “A Further Record of Observations of Certain Phenomena of Trance”, in Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 13, 1898, pp. 357-412; also available on Lexscien: Library of Exploratory Science) become a convinced survivalist. Among these reasons (which, however, he based on his own assessment of numerous séance reports rather than on quantitative investigation) were these: (a) The success or otherwise of sittings seemed to depend more on who the alleged communicators were than on the sitters. Some communicators were almost uniformly good, whoever the sitters; others were generally muddled, with those who had died in a confused state particularly afflicted. (b) The information given by a particular communicator was characteristically limited to what might be expected from him or her, even though the minds of the sitters were not similarly limited. (c) Communicators often gave correct information that transcended what was known to the sitters, and on the telepathic hypothesis must have been located in and selected from the minds of distant persons, possibly ones not known to any sitter, and very often ones not known to the medium. (d) Acommunicator who “belonged” to a particular sitter would quite often return and give further correct information at a sitting not attended by the sitter in question. (e) At some sittings copious correct information was given with a rapidity which experiments on telepathy had never come near matching.
Sidgwick remarked of Hodgson’s change of mind that he (Sidgwick) was willing to admit that some of the evidence would (if obtained under varied conditions and far enough increased in quantity to be submitted to statistical treatment) “certainly point to the adoption of some form of “spiritism” as a working hypothesis”. But in the present condition of the evidence, he could not say more than that “a primâ facie case had been established for further investigation, keeping this hypothesis in view”. Previous experiences with Mrs. Piper, while giving no ground for regarding her as fraudulent in her normal state, had cast doubts on the moral quality of her “secondary personality”. Phinuit was a slippery customer, and even G. P. who in life had been keenly interested in philosophy, now failed to show the most elementary grasp of the subject. (Hodgson not unreasonably replied that if Sidgwick “were compelled to discourse philosophy through Mrs. Piper’s organism, the result would be a very different thing from his lectures at Cambridge”). Commenting in January 1890, again off-the-cuff, after another lecture on Mrs Piper, Sidgwick is reported as saying that in his view “it would be necessary, before arriving at a final decision with regard to evidence, to extend the scope of the investigations and obtain phenomena from other persons. At least, he could not himself rest such momentous conclusions as those to which Dr. Hodgson pointed upon evidence obtained from one medium alone. Still, in the meanwhile he thought it was important to make the most we could, by careful and repeated consideration, of the Piper phenomena” (H. Sidgwick, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 9, p. 168). In short Sidgwick, for somewhat unclear reasons, had shifted his position slightly towards the survival hypothesis he would like to have believed in. He could foresee that he might one day have to accept it as a “working hypothesis”, but for the moment was still sticking to his telepathic guns.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was not uncommon to hear it argued that the mere occurrence of telepathic communication would itself suffice to prove the immateriality of mind with all the possibilities that might open up. This position was put most pithily, perhaps, by Lord Rayleigh, who remarked that to his mind “telepathy with the dead would present comparatively little difficulty when it was admitted as regards the living. If the apparatus of the senses is not used in the one, why should it be needed in the other?” (J. W. Strutt, Lord Rayleigh the 3rd, “Presidential Address”, in Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 30, 1920, p. 288; also available on Lexscien: Library of Exploratory Science). Sir William Barrett, who had played a prominent role in the foundation of the SPR (and also in that of the American SPR), argued strongly against the newly popular analogy between telepathy and “wireless telegraphy,” or any physical mode of transmitting telepathy, and concluded that its laws do not belong to the physical plane (W. F. Barrett, Psychical Research, London, Williams & Norgate, 1911, pp. 108-109). Tennyson put it more poetically in “Aylmer’s Field”:
As star to star vibrates light, may soul to soul
Strike thro’ a finer element of her own?
One might naturally suppose that Sidgwick would have been tempted towards such views, which might to an extent have resolved his problems. But so far as I know he never was. Indeed he never offered any proposals as to the nature of telepathy, and it is not easy to work out how he could have fitted it into other aspects of his thinking. He did not need telepathy to disprove materialism of the sort propounded by Clifford or Büchner – the little that he wrote on philosophy of mind tells us that. He agrees that “we have overwhelming – though to a considerable extent highly inferential – grounds for believing that psychical facts such as sensations, emotions, thoughts, volitions, have always corporeal concomitants in movements of nerve-matter”(Henry Sidgwick, Philosophy, Its Scope and Relations: An Introductory Course of Lectures, edited by James Ward, London Macmillan, 1902; p. 52, cf. 144). But he adds that “the prima facie disparateness of mental facts and nervous changes, the apparently total absence of kinship between them, puts in the way of any materialistic synthesis an obstacle difficult to overleap” (Henry Sidgwick, Philosophy, Its Scope and Relations: An Introductory Course of Lectures, p. 54). Even “instructed thinkers of a materialistic tendency” now admit that psychology deals with “double facts”. psychical and physical, whose connection no-one professes to understand. The casus belli between materialists and their opponents is over the causal links between successive double facts, with materialists claiming that the causal nexus lies wholly on the physical side. (It is not difficult to find “instructed thinkers” today who hold analogous views). It seems likely that Sidgwick’s preference for common-sense “natural dualism” would have led him to leave open the possibility of mental causation between successive “double facts” in the same mind (or series of double facts), or even between the mental aspect of a double fact in one mind and a double fact in another mind, thus leaving him with a way of tackling the phenomenon of telepathy. One might well doubt that such an approach to the mind-brain problem and to telepathy could have been adequately squared with Sidgwick’s belief that a “perduring ego” is an object of immediate intuition, or with his view that “no attempt to analyse [cognition] completely into more elementary psychical facts has succeeded… or is likely to succeed” (H. Sidgwick, Philosophy its Scope and Relations, An Introductory Course of Lectures, pp. 86-87; see also, H. Sidgwick, Lectures on the Ethics of T. H. Green, H. Spencer and J Martineau, edited by E. E. Constance Jones, London and New York, Macmillan & Co., 1902, p. 3.). Yet acceptance of telepathy remained central to his way of thinking about psychical research, and an impediment to his hopes of progressing with the question of life after death.
6. The evidence of Theism
In 1898, two years before his death, Sidgwick read before the Synthetic Society a paper on the Nature of the Evidence for Theism, which might have some indirect relevance to these problems (H. Sidgwick, “On the Nature of the Evidence for Theism”, in A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, pp. 600-608; see also A. J. Balfour, edited by Papers Read before the Synthetic Society 1896-1908 and Written Comments thereon Circulated among the Members of the Society, London, Spottiswoode, 1909, pp. 170-179). He tackled the issue on lines which he had occasionally hinted at before. In response to the positivist claim that science can only admit hypotheses that are directly verifiable by senseexperience, he says that
… the more we examine the process of change in what is commonly accepted as knowledge, the more we find that the notion of “verification by experience”… is inadequate to explain or justify it. The criterion that we find really decisive, in case after case, is not any particular new sense-perception, or group of new sense-perceptions, but consistency with an elaborate and complex system of beliefs, in which the results of an indefinite number of perceptions and inferences are combined” (H. Sidgwick, “On the Nature of the Evidence for Theism”, in A. e E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, op. cit., p. 607).
As examples he takes the theory of evolution and the Copernican system of celestial motions. He suggests that the theory of evolution is by no means proved by the numerou assorted observational facts which Darwin produced in support of it; he means, I think, that the individual, disparate facts taken to support it are consistent with the theory but cannot be predicted from it in detail. The Copernican system “prevailed through the greater simplicity and consistency with which it explained phenomena already known” (Ibid).
Turning to theism he remarks:
… it is the primary aim of philosophy to unify completely, bring into clear coherence, all departments of rational thought, and this aim cannot be realised by any philosophy that leaves out of its view the important body of judgements and reasonings which form the subject-matter of Ethics; … It seems to me that if we are led to accept Theism [and the moral government of the world] as being more than any other view of the Universe consistent with… the whole body of what we commonly take for knowledge – including the knowledge of right and wrong – we accept it on grounds analogous to those on which important scientific principles have been accepted; and that… we may still attain a sufficient strength of reasoned conviction to justify us in calling our conclusions a ‘working philosophy’ (A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, pp. 604-605; 607-608.).
Sidgwick is surely correct in supposing that scientific proposals are in practice very often accepted (or rejected) not because or just because of new findings or discoveries which they directly predict, but because of coherence or consistency (or otherwise) with a whole range of further beliefs, factual or theoretical, established or dawning. This is particularly (but not exclusively) true of what one may call “mongrel” sciences (bearing in mind that mongrels are often more interesting than pure-bred strains). I mean sciences like geology, geography, meteorology, climatology, biology, botany, medical sciences, forensics and psychology, which rely extensively (though not completely) on the findings and concepts of more “fundamental” physical and chemical sciences, and on borrowings from each other. Many theories go through a stage, from which they may or may not emerge, in which their acceptance or otherwise depends not on specific predictions which decisively distinguish them from other theories covering the same ground but on the extent of their consistency with a variety of established and new relevant findings. Consider, as more or less random examples, the debates, often prolonged, over such issues as continental drift, the dinosaurian origin of birds, the causes of the cretaceous mass extermination, the causes of ice ages, the pathogen (bubonic or viral?) which unleashed the Black Death.
Now Sidgwick, so far as I know, never introduced the idea of “coherence” as a criterion for deciding between the “telepathic” and the “survivalist” interpretations of those “psychical” phenomena which particularly interested him. He started out, as we have seen, emphasizing the importance of adopting the “minimum” hypothesis with regard to accepting any kind of alleged “psychic” phenomenon. Thus if in apparently successful telepathy experiments the possibilities of cheating or chance coincidence had not been absolutely ruled out, telepathy had not been satisfactorily demonstrated. But if telepathy were thoroughly established it would then itself become a potential “minimum hypothesis”. Thus with crisis apparitions: it is arguably much simpler to adopt, with Sidgwick, the minimalist view that such apparitions are telepathically engendered hallucinations than to go along with the traditional belief that they represent the farewell manifestation of a departing soul to a surviving friend. It was, in fair part at least, this minimalist conclusion that precipitated Sidgwick’s mood of black despair following the publication of Phantasms of the Living.
But when we pass on to yet more puzzling and refractory phenomena the rules of this game change, or perhaps grow progressively more indefinite. The Census Committee under Sidgwick’s chairmanship agreed that they had collected evidence that was at least not negligible for such awkward happenings as collectively perceived apparitions, recurrent localized apparitions, and post-mortem apparitions of various kinds. I cannot here adequately bring out how complex the assessment of these sorts of material can be. But it is abundantly clear that whether we arbitrarily, and some would say unscientifically, dismiss the Committee’s carefully sifted first-hand evidence for such phenomena, or greatly expand and complicate a telepathic theory to accommodate them, or try to develop some form of survivalist theory that bypasses the more obvious difficulties, the various pros and cons will become so numerous and so closely balanced that deciding which is the “minimum” hypothesis will be a pretty difficult task. Could we even agree on the criteria appropriate for making a decision?
And if, finally, we return to the 1898 debate, outlined above, between Sidgwick and Hodgson over the best interpretation of the Piper phenomena, we find that their differences have only in part to do with the putative but in practice unknowable characteristics and limitations of telepathy, and rather more with questions of the consistency or coherence of aspects of the phenomena with two rather different interpretative schemas. Hodgson thinks that the quality of the communications varies with different communicators, conceived as being pretty much as they were in the days of their earthly incarnation, rather than, as a telepathic theory might suppose, with who is or is not present at the sitting. Sidgwick, on the other hand, finds indications that the controls and communicators are roles played by a secondary personality of the entranced Mrs. Piper, and that they show intellectual and moral shortcomings to be expected on this view. Hodgson offers an amusingly expressed but fairly obvious counter- explanation for these shortcomings. No question is raised as to which is the “minimum hypothesis”, though Sidgwick doubtless continued wary of wishfully and prematurely accepting the survivalist interpretation which he himself would have preferred.
The court in which these games are being played (though the point is not spelled out by either player) is not the (supposedly) traditional one in which scientific theories change and develop “because new experiences, really crucial, have proved the new opinion right and the old one wrong” (A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, p. 606.), but the “coherence” one we have seen Sidgwick argue for in which “the new opinion is seen to harmonise better with previously known facts,” and also, of course, with incoming facts (if any) and general knowledge and assumptions. He surely felt happier with this more relaxed and open-ended approach to scientific theorizing than he had with the “minimum hypothesis” restriction that had dominated and darkened his outlook in the later 1880s.
Of course assessing a scientific theory by its “coherence” with established and incoming facts, and with the prevalent “conception of the course of nature” (Ibid.), presents certain obvious difficulties, detailed consideration of which would be outside the scope of this chapter. Most obvious is the difficulty (which also notoriously confronts coherence theories of truth) of what can be meant by terms like “coherence” and “consistency” outside the frameworks
of logical or mathematical systems and in a context where still looser terms, such as “harmonise” or “agree with” might seem to be just as appropriate. Then there is the point that a theory which “coheres” with a certain set of facts may do very well when there are no strong rivals in the offing, but to decide between one such theory and another may take a long time, or turn out to be impossible. One thinks, for example, of the protracted andsometimes bitter arguments of a few decades ago between “sociobiologists” and social scientists. Sidgwick’s own proposal that one might accept a theistic view of the cosmos because it is consistent with the widely disseminated knowledge of right and wrong would doubtless nowadays be attacked by evolutionary psychologists on the grounds that they can give a coherent account of our possession of a moral sense, and indeed of the widespread belief in God, in their own preferred terms.
Lastly there is the problem that interpretations of a certain set of phenomena may also have to be coherent with received interpretations of more or less closely linked or cognate sets of phenomena, lest one or other or both interpretations ignominiously collapse. An obvious example would be the conflict at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries between geologists and astrophysicists proposals as to the respective ages of the earth and the sun – the earth appeared to be considerably the older. An example more relevant for present purposes would be the seemingly absolute lack of coherence between “survivalist” interpretations of (let us say) the Piper phenomena, and neuroscientific views of the relations between mind and brain (brain science was quite sufficiently advanced by the end of the nineteenth century to make it seem highly likely that even “higher” mental functions were dependent on an intact and properly functioning brain). But somewhat surprisingly neither Sidgwick nor his wife (who eventually published a detailed and remarkable analysis of Mrs. Piper’s trance phenomena), both of them with a good general knowledge of modern science, ever discussed this issue in print. Perhaps they thought that brain science would have to accommodate itself to the findings of psychical research.
At the end of his life, Sidgwick was by no means as optimistic about the prospects and possibilities of psychical research as he probably was when young, nor yet as pessimistic as he was in the late 1880s, but still showed signs of certain wavering optimistic tendencies that he never quite managed to repress. Whether he thought that the very considerable amount of time he had given to the subject was well spent I do not know. Certainly it provided him with much interest, some hope, and the many fascinating puzzles raised by a variety of very curious, though now largely forgotten, facts, cases and case histories.
Published with the author's consent
©2008-2009 Hortense Geninet