The Psychic Question as I See It

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
The Case for and Against Psychical Belief (february 1927)
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The Psychic Question as I See It is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle collected as Chapter II in The Case for and Against Psychical Belief published in february 1927 by Clark University.

The editor, Carl Murchison, also added a letter written by Arthur Conan Doyle at the end of the article.

The Psychic Question as I See It




I am sorry not to be present in person at your gathering, for every enquiry into Psychic matters excites my deep sympathy and interest. I consider it to be infinitely the most important thing in the world, and the particular thing which the human race in its present state of development needs more than anything else. Nothing is secure until the religious basis is secure, and that spiritualistic movement with which I am proud to be associated is the first attempt ever made in modern times to support faith by actual provable fact.

I would first state my credentials, since my opinion is only of value in to far as those are valid. In 1886, being at that time a materialist, I was induced to examine psychic phenomena. In 1887 I wrote a signed article in "Light" upon the question. From that time I have never ceased to keep in touch with the matter by reading and occasional experiment. My conversion to the foil meaning of spiritualism was a very gradual one, but by the war time it was complete. In 1916 I gave a lecture upon the subject, and found that it gave strength and comfort to others. I therefore determined to devote all my time to it, and so in the last ten years I have concentrated upon it, testing very many mediums, good and bad, studying the extensive literature, keeping in close touch with current psychic research, and incidentally writing seven books upon the subject. It is not possible that any living man can have had a much larger experience. When I add that I am a Doctor of medicine, specially trained in observation, and that as a public man of affairs I have never shown myself to be wild or unreasonable, I hope I have persuaded you that my opinion should have some weight as compared with those opponents Whose contempt for the subject has been to great that it has prevented them from giving calm consideration to the facts.

When the heavy hand of the mediaeval church had ceased to throttle man's mental activities, there set in a fierce reaction against all that had been taught. In this reaction much that was good was swept away as well as much that was questionable. Not only did many unreasonable dogmas and ceremonies suffer, but the very idea of invisible beings, communicating with or taking an interest in our human life, became a fairy tale. The Reformers wrought more ruin than they had planned, for presently the enfranchised thinkers destroyed all that was left. Hume, Gibbon, Tom Payne, Voltaire, and a line of writers who culminated in the Huxleys and Ingersolls of the Victorian era, cleared the whole universe of psychic power and left it a mere clockwork mechanical wonder swinging in a vast vacuo, with no sign of intelligence outside our own pigmy brains. Such is the conception which a large part of civilized humanity, and especially of the part which labels itself as scientific, still retains.

But meanwhile a separate line of thought and experience had always existed, undisturbed by the waxing flood of materialism. It was the belief in the Unseen, depending not upon faith but upon happenings which were inexplicable save on the supposition of Intelligences, high and low, apart from ourselves. There were the incessant rumours of ghosts and visions, the curious experiences of mystics, the phenomena of mediaeval witchcraft, such definite hauntings as those recorded in the house of John Wesley, the inexplicable miracles of the Saints. All these combined presented a formidable body of evidence radically opposed to the conclusions of the materialists, but they were vague and fluid. Suddenly in the inexplicable way in which Providence works they all concentrated and challenged the attention of the world in the shackhouse of a peasant in the north of New York State. It was strange and rather sordid, but so for that matter was a carpenter's Son in a manger. Divine values are not as ours. The moment had come when religious revelation was to be shifted from the East to the West, from the Jew to the Anglo-Saxon. It is true that America was, and is, unaware of the vital change, but it is also true that Palestine has never been a Christian country.

What occurred is an oft-told tale, and I need not repeat it to you at length. In itself it was trivial. In its results it will rank, according to my belief, amidst the greatest advances of the human race into the darkness which surrounds it. The facts are clear enough for anyone who has a sense of evidence, which is by no means a universal gift. By material signs, directed by invisible intelligence, information was given of a crime which had been, as was afterwards confirmed, actually committed. The little band of villagers, who spent most of the night of March 31st, 1848, in examining the facts, and who promptly published the result of their examination, did the finest bit of psychic research work that has ever been carried through. It was thoroughly satisfying and convincing. From that time the human race had definite proof within their reach that it was really possible to pierce the veil of death and to establish communication between separate planes of existence. If anyone differs from my conclusions, I would only say that it is unlikely that he has read the pamphlet entitled "A Report on the Mysterious Noises heard in the house of Mr. John D. Fox," since it is extremely rare, and that if he does read it he will find that it bears out what I say.

The single fact is, as I have said, trivial, but the inferences are enormous. If indeed it be true that the discarnate can draw a latent power from our human bodies which they can use in order to impress our senses, then why should it stop at the low level of a murdered pedlar? May it not be used to reunite all the bonds which Death may break? More important still, might it not be used to get into touch with higher sources of wisdom from which we may gain light and teaching to aid us in understanding those problems of our being which have become so difficult that many have despaired of a solution? That was the tremendous possibility which had opened up before the human race.

And slowly, gradually, impeded at every step by human obstacles, it is reaching that goal. It has done so completely in the case of tens of thousands. It is doing it partially throughout the community. The main obstacles have been, first, religious obstruction and prejudice aroused by the fear that old standards will be abolished. These fears have seemed to be justified by the wild utterances of some excited brains over-stimulated by the new wine of revelation. But this is now passing away, and it is realized that spiritualism has come not to destroy, but to clarify, regulate and make broader and more reasonable the old conceptions of Christianity by recognizing that cosmic Christ spirit which has descended in various forms and degrees to all the nations of the earth. It is becoming a common platform of knowledge upon which all earnest men can meet. Secondly, there comes the opposition from Science. This arises largely from those scientific men who have not looked into the matter — "it does not interest me," said Huxley, when asked to examine it. Of those who have looked into it the vast majority have found the facts to be unassailable. Among those who have completely admitted both the physical phenomena and the spirit inferences are: Sir Oliver Lodge, the father of wireless; Russel Wallace, the confrere of Darwin; Crookes, the discoverer of six elements; Lombroso, the famous alienist; Sir William Barrett, the physicist; Professor Hare of America, and a host of others. An-other array of names could be given of those who have satisfied themselves as to the phenomena, but refuse to commit themselves entirely to the spirit explanation. This includes such men as Charles Richet, Professor of Physiology at Paris, Dr. Geley, Dr. Schrenck-Notzing, Professor William James, and others. Most of these men are prepared to admit from their own experience that a materialised figure independent of the company, can walk the room, talk and perform intelligent actions. How such a figure can be differentiated from a spirit is a mystery to those who are endowed with less subtle understandings.

The ceases mentioned above are those of scientists, but if we were to inscribe those distinguished people in other ranks of life who have experienced and fully accepted the proofs of this spiritual intercourse, my paper would exceed all bounds. It would include not only a long list of the greatest names in Europe, Thiers, President of the French Republic, Victor Hugo, Sardou and others, but it would especially interest Americans as including the illustrious Abraham Lincoln, who at the very crisis of the American Civil War held counsel with unseen beings who guided him on the road which led to national safety. A well-documented account of the incident is to be found in Mrs. Maynard's book, "Was Lincoln a Spiritualist?". Among other great Americans who have in recent years been affected by the evidence are Professor Hyslop of Columbia University, Luther Burbank, the famous magician of the fruit farm, and finally, through the teaching and example of the latter, the great Edison, who admits that his change of view with regard to future life is due to Burbank's philosophy.

It is as well, perhaps, that advance has been slow, though 78 years is but a trifle in the vast journey of human progression. Every step must be carefully tested. If one false crumbling stone be built into a column, every superimposed stone is in danger of becoming a mere waste of time and energy, erected upon a faulty base. There are, admittedly, some stones in the structure of Spiritualism as it is at present presented which may be rejected, but there are others which are strong and true.

The weaker side of Spiritualism lies in the fact that its adherents have largely been drawn from the less educated part of the community. The responsibility, of course, lies with the educated class who have not played their part. But the result has been to bring about a presentment of the philosophy which has often repelled earnest minds, and in no way represents its true scope and significance. Again, there has been no systematic cultivation of the gift of mediumship — this also being the fault of the community and the law; with the result that it has often fallen into unworthy hands and been exercised for purely utilitarian and worldly motives. This holds good, so far as my experience goes, rather for America than for Britain, but in a degree it applies to both.

Again, a retinue of rogues have been attracted to the Movement by the fact that seances have been largely held in the dark when the object has been to produce physical phenomena. This has served as a screen for villainy, and the effect has been increased occasionally by the systematic use of conjurors' apparatus. When such fraud has been discovered it has naturally come before the police courts and has been reported in the papers, while the successful work of the honest medium gets no public notice. Hence an entirely false view has been built up of the proportion of true to false. But the fault lies, to some extent, with the Spiritualists, as had they insisted upon the use of at least a red light at their seances these would have been less easy for rogues. It is true that this would have been done at the cost of a loss of power, for darkness is conducive to results, but none the less I think that smaller phenomena with security are better than larger ones with a danger of scandal.

It is, however, upon the side of organized Science that the chief fault lies if the general acceptance of the new knowledge has been slow. The reasons for this hesitation are complex. Science has always accustomed itself to think that results can be standardized, and that, given the same apparent conditions and factors, the same effects can always be evolved. It has suddenly been faced by a proposition where this no longer holds good, where there are in-visible factors which we cannot control, and where such mental conditions as harmony and sympathy on one side, or suspicion and aversion on the other, may make or mar the results. Many scientists could never reconcile themselves to the idea that the results are obtained, not by the medium but through the medium, and that simply to seat him in a chair and blame him or the spiritualistic philosophy when results did not follow was to ignore the very essence of the problem which they were examining. These unusual conditions repelled many scientific men at the very outset of their psychic studies, and they prefered to ascribe gross credulity to their brother scientists, or extraordinary conjuring powers to the innocent medium, rather than blame their own want of perception as to the true conditions of such an investigation. It is true that of those who did contrive to probe these matters the vast seniority were persuaded of the validity of the supernormal phenomena, but how-ever distinguished in quality they were never numerous enough to outweigh those who had either judged the question without examination, or had been repelled in the manner described. To this we must add the fact that the prejudice against the question was so strong that an Academic Career might even now be seriously affected by acquiescence in psychic truth. Scientific men are brave and unselfish, but they are human, and such a consideration cannot be altogether ignored. It would not be difficult to mention cases where men of science have joined in an investigation of psychic claims in a light-hearted manner, imagining that an exposure of them would be easy; but upon finding that the evidence presented to them. entailed not an exposure but an acceptance they have hurriedly with-drawn without any attempt to give an explanation of their own experience, save, perhaps, vague innuendoes of fraud against the unfortunate medium, neither sex nor social position being a protection.

At first it would appear as if the separation between strict orthodox science, which allowed of no deviation from established standards of truth, and this new unorthodox development was complete and unbridgeable. Gradually, however, two points have been discovered which make a nexus between them, and these two will probably lead to many more in the future. There is really an immense amount of valid evidence, and it needs only the constructive brain to harmonise, organise and build up working hypotheses. At present I will examine the two different lines of approach.

The first is Telepathy — or the impressions produced by mind upon mind when the one is in some subtle undefined way attuned to the other. Here lie the points where the metals of psychic exploration form a branch line which runs off from the great main trunk of material science. The existence of Telepathy has been so well established, largely through the labours of Myers, Gurney and other members of the Psychic Research Society of England, that it has been accepted by many scientists who still look askance at psychic phenomena. Indeed it is used in very many arguments as being in some vague way an explanation of those phenomena. But in itself it constitutes a complete departure from the materialism of the Victorian era. If it be indeed possible for mind to affect mind at a distance, then clearly the functions of matter are not so circumscribed as we had imagined. I cannot easily forget my own surprise when I found by experiment that I could induce a person sitting with his back turned to me to draw the same simple diagram which I drew my-self. I could not reconcile it with the purely materialistic views which I then held, and I can see as I look back that it was indeed my first step into the unknown. If two incarnate minds, without a visible material connection, can impress each other, then admitting that personality exists after death, it would not seem so utterly unthinkable that a discarnate mind might also have the same power. If this be granted, then we vaguely see a rationale lying behind automatic writing, trance-talking and other psychic phenomena.

The second nexus which science is building up with psychic phenomena lies in the explorations of ectoplasm, which have been largely conducted by scientific observers who were not spiritualists, and who had no preconceptions and no emotional element in their search for truth. It is not within the scope of such a paper as this to detail what the observations and conclusions have been of such men as Charles Richet (who coined the word 'ectoplasm'), Dr. von Schrenck-Notzing, Dr. Geley, Professor Crawford and other observers, of whom Madame Bisson is not the least competent. They have among them fully and finally established the existence of this extraordinary sub-stance, which exactly corresponds to the plastic material evolved from vapour, continually described by the early spiritualists as being the physical basis of their phenomenal seances. If any one doubts that its existence has been clearly established, let me remind him that three years ago Dr. Schrenk-Notzing demonstrated ectoplasm to one hundred picked observers, which included Professors of Jena, Giessen, Heidelberg, Munich, Tubingen, Upsala, Freiburg, Basle and other universities, together with a concourse of famous physicians, neurologists and savants of every sort. This assembly endorsed the fact that they had seen beyond doubt final proofs of the existence of ectoplasm. So also Dr. Geley gave a demonstration in Paris to forty picked observers, editors of papers, members of the Senate and other notables, with the same result. It is now mere obscurantism to pretend that such results can be ignored, and though they still leave much to be explained they do, so far as they go, afford a common ground where the man of science and the spiritualist can meet. It should be remarked that among other points which investigation has established, there is none more certain than that ectoplasm, this half-psychic, half-material product, is dissipated and destroyed by the actinic rays. This completely explains and justifies the procedure of the spiritualists in holding their seances in the dark, though for prudential reasons, as already explained, they might be wiser to insist upon red light which is the luminant most easily borne by this sensitive substance.

What is needed now is a clear definition and consolidation of that which we know, to that we may have a firm base from which to begin our explorations into the unknown. At present every fresh investigator seems to start on the assumption that there has been no investigator before him, and so the alphabet has to be learned over again. No man has a right to be a member of any Committee of Investigation upon so profound a subject until he has put in at least a year of study and a course of reading which should include Craw-ford's three books of his researches, Richet's "Thirty Years of Psychic Investigation", Myers' "Human Personality", Schrenck-Notting's volume on materialization, and Sir William Crookes' "Researches". People must realize that there is to Science, that there are laws, and that it is as absurd to approach it de novo as it would be for a tyro with no chemical knowledge to endeavour to test some chemical problem in a laboratory.

I trust that I have stated the case in a way which has not too violently opposed the opinions of my audience. I have confined my-self chiefly to the scientific aspects. I should, however, be false to my knowledge and my convictions if I did not state in conclusion that I consider all this work of experimental psychic research, though very useful and necessary, to be a sort of super-materialism which may approach, but does not reach the real heart of the subject. That heart is in my opinion a purely religious one. The ultimate aim of she whole movement is to afford earnest minds in this age of doubt and stress some method of gaining a knowledge of our duties and our destiny which shall be disassociated from outworn observances and conflicting faiths, so that by actual contact with intelligences which are above our own we may pick our path more easily amid the morass of Religion. The ultimate result will be the union of Science with Religion, and such an increase of inspired knowledge as will lift humanity on to a higher plane and send it reassured and comforted upon its further journey into the unknown.

15, Buckingham Palace Mansions, S. W.
London, England.


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December 11, 1926.



Professor Jastrow is credited in the papers with two assertions about my views which are inaccurate. The one is that I have shown photographs (psychic) which were not genuine. This is entirely untrue. Of all the photographs I have shown (hundreds in number) the only one I ever showed which was questioned was one I showed with reservations at the time once in New York. Dr. Prince assured me that it was not reliable and as it was from an American source I took his word and withdrew it. I challenge Professor Jastrow to mention any other photograph of mine which has not held its own.

As to his story that the fairy photographs of Cottingley were taken from a magazine what he most mean is that they were reproduced in a magazine. Otherwise his statement has no sense at all. The photographs have met all criticism, the honesty of the young girls has been vindicated, and every expert who has examined the negatives has testified to their reality. It is Dr. Jastrow who shows extraordinary credulity in accepting such stories. As to his attack on Richet — well!

Yours sincerely,

(Signed) A. CONAN DOYLE.