Before making a name for himself in psychical research, William Barrett (1844-1925) had established himself in the world of physics. After serving as assistant to the famous physicist John Tyndall from 1862 to 1867, Barrett became professor of physics at the Royal College of Science in Dublin. He went on to become a distinguished scientist in his own right, developing a silicon-iron alloy known as stalloy, used in the commercial development of the telephone and transformers, while also doing pioneering research on entopic vision, leading to the invention of the entoptiscope and a new optometer. In 1912, he was knighted for his scientific work and became Sir William. He was a fellow of the Royal Society, the Philosophical Society, the Royal Society of Literature as well as a member of the Institute of Electrical Engineers and the Royal Irish Academy.
This “interview” is based on Sir William’s book On the Threshold of the Unseen, published in 1917, and his 1904 presidential address to the Society for Psychical Research. The questions have been tailored to fit Sir William’s verbatim words.
Sir William, it is well documented that the Society for Psychical Research was your brainchild. Can you tell us how that came about?
“Though it is true I happened to be the chief instrument in the foundation of our Society in 1882 – and of kindred societies in Canada and the United States in 1884 – yet the high position and respect the SPR has won is chiefly due to Sidgwick, Myers, and Gurney, the three great pillars upon which the edifice of our Society was originally built.”
What prompted you to encourage such an organization?
“Upwards of forty years ago, I began the investigation of alleged super-normal phenomena with a perfectly detached and open mind. The urgent need for a society which should preserve continuity of records of investigation and a high standard of experimental work became apparent.”
When and how did you become interested in psychical research?
“In 1874, I made my first acquaintance with the physical phenomena of Spiritualism, and was able to put to the test my preconceived theory of hallucination, which was gradually dispelled, and I became convinced of the objective reality of the phenomena…For us wayfaring men, reason needs some help in climbing the steeps attained by faith. And is not this help afforded by the steps slowly being cut in the upward path by means of psychical research?”
You felt that all of the phenomena you had heard about were the result of hallucination?
“I was at one time disposed to think it was an adequate explanation. In fact, in a paper read before the British Association in 1875 on ‘abnormal conditions of the mind,’ I detailed some experiments I had made, showing that by suggestion it was easy to lead a subject, when in a light hypnotic trance, to hold the most extravagant beliefs, e.g., that he had floated around the room, and this for some days after complete waking. But hallucination cannot account for the permanent records Sir William Crookes obtained, even if it extended to all the numerous witnesses who were sometimes present with him on these occasions. Hence, though admitting that it is of great importance to be on one’s guard against hallucination and mal-observation, as well as fraud, I am fully satisfied that these causes are quite inadequate to explain all the phenomena before us.”
Is it true that Sir William Crookes was responsible for much or your interest?
“Crookes was really the first scientific man to devote his experimental skill, from 1870 to 1874, to the critical investigation of the physical phenomena of spiritualism. It is pitiful to think of the scientific ostracism to which he was subjected and over which his genius eventually triumphed.
Why were so many of your scientific colleagues so opposed to Crookes and then to you?
“The popular habit of thought, whether lay or scientific, regards the whole thing as too contemptible for any inquiry, that it reeks, not of the bottomless pit, but of the dunghill; superstition, fraud, and tomfoolery amply accounting for all of the alleged ‘phenomena.’ Hence, they regard with complacency the many shallow quid-nuncs, ever on the lookout for something new, who find it in fourth-hand stories of ‘spooks’ abundant material for the entertainment of their friends. In a busy world, occupied with other things – where the fierce struggle for material existence, wealth, and position dominates everything – such a state of mind is very natural. But I have failed to find that a single person who ridicules Spiritualism has given to the subject any serious and patient consideration; moreover, I venture to assert that any fair-minded person who devotes to its careful and dispassionate investigation as many days, or even hours, as some of us have given years, will find it impossible to continue sitting in the seat of the scornful, whatever other position he may take up.”
Would you mind summarizing your current belief?
“I am personally convinced that the evidence we have published decidedly demonstrates (1) the existence of a spiritual world, (2) survival after death, and (3) of occasional communication from those who have passed over… It is however hardly possible to convey to others who have not had a similar experience an adequate idea of the strength and cumulative force of the evidence that has compelled [my] belief.”
You’ve expressed a dislike for the word “medium.” Would you explain?
“The word ‘medium’ is certainly an objectionable one. In the public mind it is usually associated with various degrees of rascality, and so long as paid mediums and dark séances are encouraged, and rogues and fools abound, the evil odour which surrounds the name ‘medium’ is likely to remain…I agree, therefore, with my friend the late Frederic Myers, who calls the word medium ‘a barbarous and question begging term,’ and suggests the use of the word ‘automatist.’”
We often hear of fraudulent mediums. Do you think they are as prevalent as the skeptics make out?
“Very often, I think, we are apt to judge the medium too harshly. We must remember the abnormal condition and loss of normal self-control involved in mediumship, and surely it would be as unjust to charge a deeply entranced medium with conscious fraud as to accuse a somnambulist waling on a housetop with consciously jeopardizing his life. It is this weakening of self-control and personal responsibility, on the part of a medium, that constitutes, in my opinion, the chief peril of Spiritualism.”
At your presidential address to the SPR in 1904, you spoke of spirit communication requiring mediums on both sides. I assume you are referring to the so-called “spirit control” as the medium on the other side. Would you mind explaining your theory in that regard?
“It seems to me very probable that a medium, an intermediary of some sort, is not only required on our side in the seen, but is also required on the other side in the unseen. In all communication of thought from one person to another a double translation is necessary. Thought, in some inscrutable way, acts upon the medium of our brain, and becomes expressed in written or spoken words. These words, after passing through space, have again to be translated back to thought through the medium of another brain. That is to say, there is a descent from thought to gross matter on one side, a transmission through space, and an ascent from gross matter to thought on the other side. Now, the so-called medium, or automatist, acts as our brain, translating for us the impressions made upon it and which it receives across space from the unseen. But there must be a corresponding descent of thought on the other side to such a telepathic form that it can act upon the material particles of the brain of our medium. It may be even more difficult to find a spirit medium there than here. No doubt wisely so, for the invasion of our consciousness here might otherwise be so frequent and troublesome as the paralyze the conduct of our life.”
After so many years of seemingly evidential mediumship, the world seems no less skeptical? Do you feel that there is a point at which no further evidence can help us?
“It is probable we shall never be able to see behind the veil with the clearness and assurance that Swedenborg claimed to possess, although he warned others off the ground he trod. There may be, and are, I believe, good reasons for this obscure vision. If everyone were as certain as they are of day following night, that after the momentary darkness of death they would pass into an endless life of brightness and freedom, such as many spiritualists depict, it is possible few would wish to remain on earth. May be multitudes of earth-worn and weary souls would resort to some painless and lethal drug that would enable them to enter a realm where they hoped their troubles would be forever ended. A vain and foolish hope, for the discipline of life on earth is necessary for us all, and none can hope to attain a higher life without the educative experience of trial and conflict.”
So if doubt is a necessity, what is the point of psychical research?
“The paramount importance of psychical research is found in correcting the habit of Western thought – of the average men we meet – that the physical plane is the whole of Nature, or at any rate the only aspect of the universe which really concerns us. Under this false and deadly assumption all wider views and spiritual conceptions wither and die as soon as they are born. Instead of a universe peopled with unseen personalities, the science of today has gone to the other extreme, and as Mr. Myers once eloquently said, we are now taught to believe ‘the Universe to be a soulless interaction of atoms, and life a paltry misery closed in the grave.”
Why not leave it to organized religion to deal with that?
“Surely it is the business of science to extend its domain in these fruitful fields of research, and it is only because the trained scientific investigator has, until quite recently, turned his back on these phenomena, that the humble spiritualists have had to try and do the neglected work of science in this very difficult region of enquiry; and now having done it to the best of their ability, they are scorned and pelted by the educated world and told they are guilty of ‘intellectual whoredom,’ whilst their painstaking effort to enlarge the sum of human knowledge is stigmatized as the ‘recrudescence of superstition,’ and this by the leaders and organs of scientific thought, where one would have expected a welcome even to the humblest seeker after truth.”
Why do you think organized religion has so resisted the findings of psychical research?
“The aversion that undoubtedly still exists among many Christian men and women to the whole scope of these enquiries is based, I believe, party upon the warnings contained in the Scriptures, and partly upon the more general ground that our investigations are an attempt to force an illegitimate entrance into the spiritual realm, a presumptuous effort to draw aside the veil, which both Scripture and our most sacred feelings have closed over the portals of death. The best reply is ‘by their fruits ye shall know them.’ We are told to ‘to believe not every spirit but prove the spirits whether they are of God.’ Most of the anathemas pronounced against Spiritualism by Protestant and Roman ecclesiastics come from the lips of men who know little or nothing of the subject.”
But then the question arises as to who is best qualified to test the spirits and determine whether they are of God.
“I suppose we are all apt to fancy our own power of discernment and of sound judgment to be somewhat better than our neighbors’. But after all, is it not the common-sense, the care, the patience, and the amount of uninterrupted attention we bestow upon any psychical phenomena we are investigating that gives value to the opinion at which we arrive, and not the particular cleverness or skepticism of the observer? The lesson we all need to learn is that what even the humblest of men affirm from their own experience, is always worth listening to, but what even the cleverest of men, in their ignorance, deny is never worth a moment’s attention.”
What is the biggest difference between the teachings of religion and the findings of psychical research?
“[According to most religions] the good are supposed to enter at once into their final state of endless bliss, and the evil, by their transition from earth, into their final state of an endless Hell. One of the immense benefits which Swedenborg has conferred on theology is the shattering of this crude medieval creed – not only among his followers, but in a much wider circle; and today the same may be said of spiritualism, which confutes the popular idea of heaven and hell and teaches us the continuity of our existence hear and hereafter…”
Thank you, Sir William. Any closing comments?
“The most profound change in human thought that has occurred since the Christian era will, in all probability, follow the general recognition by science of the immanence of a spiritual world. Faith will no longer be staggered by trying to conceive of life in the unseen; death will no longer be felt to have so icy a grip over even Christian hearts; miracles will no longer seem to be the superstitious relics of a barbarous age; the ‘prayer of faith’ will no longer find an adequate explanation in the subjective response it evokes, nor the ‘Word of the Lord’ in mere human aspiration.”