SHALL I survive death? Nobody fails, of course, at some period of life to ask that question, but to ask and to answer are, alas, two very different things indeed. Some prefer never to answer, to say that nobody knows or can know. Then perhaps one day life poses the question in a wholly new and very disturbing form - has someone who has recently died, who was dearly loved, truly passed into nothingness? If not, can he or she prove it by unmistakably speaking once again to the bereft? The questioner may begin, for the first time, to investigate for himself.
He will find that to obtain evidence concerning survival of death is at once extremely easy and extraordinarily difficult: that the evidence has in fact produced two quite different answers. The first answer, based on psychical research, carried out in an objective and scientific spirit, can be said to be that survival is not so far a necessary hypothesis to account for the available evidence; that during unusual states of consciousness information is given which purports to come from the minds of dead men and women, but that it is not impossible, and in some cases likely or even certain, that it is derived from the minds of the living; that although there is some of this evidence which is hard to explain, except in extremely intricate ways, by any other hypothesis than that of survival, nevertheless further investigation may eventually find a normal explanation for all the evidence. To those who wish to enter upon an objective study, the Society for Psychical Research, without holding any corporate views, offers its own fifty-odd substantial volumes of Proceedings, and many other volumes have been published, in England and elsewhere, similarly based on scientific observations.
The second, and different answer is primarily based upon private and personal experiences. Many people, some of whom have a vested religious interest in the matter, others not, have come to accept, as a result of their investigations, that abundant, and at times convincing, evidence of survival has reached them, and that other people, if they wish, are likely to be able to obtain similar direct personal evidence for themselves. Their viewpoint also is supported by many volumes of evidence. Their methods are not scientific methods, although in some cases they are orderly methods; the problem is to assess whether or not they have a validity of their own, of a different kind to that of psychical research, and which the present findings of the latter need not necessarily set aside. Is psychical research the only proper canon? If not, by what canons can direct personal experience properly be judged?
Why are these two answers so different? Why, in so momentous an issue, do these two sets of evidence, these two approaches, contradict each other so greatly, or seem to? Can it be that each is really looking at a different set of facts within the same material? Are the differences as real as they seem? Can they partly be reconciled in any way? If so, how far does each set overlap the other? Is there not something in common which they can agree upon? How can the real value in each be eventually determined? Is one so much more valuable as to make the other unnecessary, or does each have an inalienable veracity of its own? Where does the truth rest?
Formal scientific interest can be said to have begun in 1882, when the Society for Psychical Research was set up, led by a small group of Cambridge philosophers and scientists; its object was not primarily directed towards the problem of survival, but towards the study of seemingly unusual human powers, telepathic powers, what is now usually called extra-sensory perception, or ESP, for some of the scientific members of the Society had a private prior expectation that orderly investigation would probably soon sweep away all that passed for evidence of survival. They expected that some of this apparent evidence would be shown as capable of ordinary rational explanation, and most or all of the rest shown up as superstition or plain fraud. Yet, as the work of the Society proceeded upon its orderly, scientific way, this did not happen. The evidence could never wholly be disposed of, nor, on the other hand, though much of it came to point towards survival, has it been accepted as conclusive. From the evidence in the S.P.R. records, or obtained elsewhere by similarly scientific methods, as the years have gone by, some scientists have accepted survival as a working hypothesis, and some have in addition reached personal conviction of survival; others think that the evidence is not strong enough to set up any hypothesis. After examining the same evidence, scientists of equal standing have thus found themselves led into opposite directions. At first sight, it would seem an obvious conclusion that it is best that it shall be left to science to go on working patiently in its own way until sooner or later it settles the matter decisively to the satisfaction of all.
But the matter is far less simple than this. For the evidence, even that part of it directly observed scientifically, is necessarily permeated at times by other factors which cannot be scientifically measured. The scientific part is hard to hive off from these other factors.
Psychical research aims, of course, at being completely objective; its mesh does not trap subjective judgments. It cannot measure, for instance, a person’s memory of a dead friend, nor how it corresponds with the total image of this person presented through a medium. It can count the facts and say how many are stated accurately or inaccurately, can record, to take a brief illustration from the Proceedings of the S.P.R., that the alleged communicator, as presented through the medium’s trance, manages with difficulty to make the medium’s lips say “Orfen” instead of “Of-ten” as the medium normally pronounces it, and that in the person of the entranced medium she inclines her head in a characteristic way continually to the right, both of which she did whilst alive on earth. It can record that she gives correctly the meaning of “goon”, a private word used during her life between her and the investigators, and eventually after considerable difficulty produces its companion word “sporkish”. But there is much in what makes up the whole characteristic picture of this soi-disant communicating personality, which cannot be represented by counting facts, and which rests upon the sitter’s subjective estimate of it. Such material is found both inside and outside psychical research. When the psychical researcher encounters personal evidence of his own, he has to give judgment on it not only as a scientist, but also from a different stand point as a private person, that person within him who looks out from over the shoulder of his other, scientific self. He looks at some parts of it scientifically, and other parts privately. He is dealing with two different sorts of facts.
As a scientist he can only be interested in that part of the evidence which can be equally well assessed by a third party who was never present at that séance, and who has never met either the living or the dead persons involved. The personally assessable parts of the testimony cannot be made scientific fact.
Scientific discipline pays very strict attention to the necessary limitations which its own methods impose upon it, and whilst it cannot eliminate from psychical research those subjective aspects of its evidence which bear directly upon survival, it has to confine itself to judging their factual content. These subjective and factual contents are sometimes so closely interwoven that they are hard to separate out completely from one another.
Now the subjective aspects which psychical research discards because they are not capable of forming part of scientific evidence may be significant by other standards; may fall within other modes of observation with disciplines of their own. These are the factors that independent investigators, as well as those who can be called survivalists, take account of and to which they bring their own independent honesty of judgment.’
Through the mesh of the scientific net, or outside it altogether, swim these other fish which science cannot catch. To describe the sort of fish which escape this scientific net is not altogether easy. It is not a matter of different and lower standards in the sense that proof in the law-court falls far short of the standards of scientific proof. It arises from a different quality of attention on the part of the observer.
Science stands apart from the vested interests involved in human emotions. It stands wholly aside from the urgent need to know for oneself whether one survives. Not all men are content to leave the problem of survival for science to settle at some indefinite future date; they ask if there are other, swifter ways to the truth. They take heart from the fact that if science does finally show it to be true, does finally give its seal of approval, survival will already have been true mean while, when it still remained under scientific doubt. However, such views, if they are to be held, ignore scientific opinion at their peril, for of course they can be the product of mere foolishness, or of a credulity which is unfortunate, vain or sad.
Danger or no danger, the search for the meanings of life and death has to go on being explored through many other temperaments besides that of the man of science. It is not disputed that a poem can never be evaluated in scientific terms, not at least the poetry in it; nor can a historical event or a mystical experience. These have to be under stood and judged by other human faculties. Similarly, non-scientific faculties can also be brought to explore the varying facets of evidence of survival.
For investigation can be more than an enquiry, it can also become an experience. A man’s own experience of communication can be real in a different way from that in which scientific proof is regarded as real. However varying its value, each man can make, through his private experience, his own special contribution to the general pool. However, private experience, unfortunately, is partly incommunicable. What gives it strength to the recipient - the part of the experience which is uniquely his own - is the very thing which gives it weakness as evidence. Such testimony indeed has its shortcomings, but then so have scientific records, which, however complete within themselves, are necessarily confined to their own differently selective set of observations.
This book will not deal with any of the physical happenings investigated by psychical research. It is not concerned with such evidence as is available of the room-room phenomena of apparent movement of objects at a distance from the medium; nor with levitations, with poltergeist disturbances, with the transport of objects from a distance, nor with “materialisation” which are said to speak, and to inhale and exhale; nor with raps and tambourines; nor spirit photographs or writing between slates; it does not deal with substantial loss of weight in a medium during her séance and the return to her normal weight afterwards; nor with the appearance of hands which, when investigators required it of them, allowed wax casts to be made from which the hands then withdrew without breaking the cast. It does not discuss the production of voices through a trumpet in English and in foreign languages.
The reason for not referring to these is two-fold. This sort of evidence is based on sense-observation; some of it has been observed by well-qualified scientists; but because it is not repeatable at will, the correctness of the observations has been criticised, especially after the scientists who made them have died.
Evidence of such kind weakens with time, especially if besides being unrepeatable at the scientist’s will it is not in fact repeated (a quite different thing), or only very seldom repeated. Psychical research has also amply demonstrated by experiment how fallible human observation is, even when it is trained. Future evidence will doubtless be dealt with by apparatus for measurement which had not been developed when most of these phenomena took place, but up to the present physical phenomena have almost always been subsequently questioned and doubted; they are a particularly happy hunting ground for later sceptics who do not suffer from the handicap of having been actually present at the time.
That is the first reason for ignoring purported physical happenings. The second lies in the belief that the future is unlikely to belong to any such physical phenomena, which, considered as a mode of communication, have at best been crude and limited.
Fundamentally they seem incapable of much development in this direction.
The future is much more likely to lie in the mental field, because here the evidence does not depend upon fallible observation, but is based upon written communications or on spoken ones which have been recorded verbatim. Although the real source of this evidence can be extremely hard to establish, its existence, unlike that of physical phenomena, is unchallengeable. This mental field can be and has been examined by scientific methods. It can also be the subject of direct personal experience. It has the advantage that it is capable of being examined by both methods. In this field much work remains to be done, both to obtain further evidence and to try and discover if and how far it is possible to improve the quality, reliability and precision of alleged communications.
Many men and women of integrity and intelligence with time and patience can make contributions of direct value in the personal sector of this fascinating field. Before making the first practical approach, however, an intending worker will find it worth asking what - assuming that it were possible for it to be provided - he would accept as valid evidence of survival. Having done this - and it is indeed no easy task - a further question then needs to be asked immediately. If this evidence were to come to him, would he then find that he would after all feel it necessary to change his ground, and decide he must ask for some further evidence still? And if he were given this further evidence, would he provide still further demands to be met? If so, is it because he is already committed to a view of life in which survival is deemed impossible, and his enquiry is therefore, however subtly, being prejudged? Or is this hesitation only due to a proper caution, or to the strangeness of the notion of there being any possible reality in such an approach? Does it point to a coming battle between the evidence and his present philosophy?
There are many reasons for reluctance towards the seeming evidence for survival. The facts, if there be facts, will have to bear a heavier burden before they can become established than is borne by very many scientifically observed facts which have no important moral or philosophical implications. There must be a process of interaction with the mind and feelings of the enquirer, which at the start may regard the facts, or apparent facts, as alien or impossible. The enquirer may find himself embarked on a long and unexpected journey.
It is a complex field of study where scientific investigations, personal philosophies, and religious concepts meet and overlap. If the evidence comes to improve in quality over the years, it may gradually bring these shifting fields into some sort of closer alignment. It might one day even become a fruitful meeting ground. So far there has been found embedded in the evidence for survival a number of baffling, worthless and disconcerting features which have helped to make it a kind of disreputable poor relation of all, of science, religion and personal philosophy alike, disowned more often than acknowledged.
On the other hand it does also present a number of startling and vivid facts, which, for many people, have pointed significantly towards survival. Difficulties of many kinds lie unresolved in this apparently contradictory field. No easy task lies before any new investigator who, from whatever point of view, decides to approach the challenge, alike fascinating and baffling, which awaits whatever skills he is able to bring to its study.
Publisher: White Crow Books
Published March 2016
Size: 203 x 133 mm