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22 May 1859, Edinburgh M.D., Kt, KStJ, D.L., LL.D., Sportsman, Writer, Poet, Politician, Justicer, Spiritualist Crowborough, 7 July 1930

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Psychical Research

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Psychical Research is an article written by Sir William F. Barrett, first published in the magazine Light on 11 november 1916.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Psychical Research

Light (11 november 1916, p.365)

Some Reminiscences and Reflections.

I am glad of the opportunity which the Editor of LIGHT has given me of expressing my thanks to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for the brave and timely article he has contributed to the columns pf LIGHT — a journal which is growing in influence and usefulness. Nearly a quarter of a century ago (to be exact, on January 4th, 1893) Sir Arthur — then Dr. — Conan Doyle took the chair at a lecture on "Psychical Research" delivered by me at the Upper Norwood Literary Society, of which he was president. In the full report of my lecture, which appeared in the local paper, and is before me, Dr. Conan Doyle, in moving the vote of thanks, referred to the deep interest he had entertained for many years in the subject of the lecture, and also to some post experiences of his own. The upshot was that I had the honour of proposing him as a member of the Society for Psychical Research, and he was elected the following month, February, 1893, as recorded in the Journal of the Society. Sir Arthur is therefore a very old member of that Society, though not quite "the oldest," as the Society was founded in 1882. Perhaps I may remind readers that Mr. Dawson Rogers, the former Editor of Light, co-operated in the foundation of the Society for Psychical Research; in fact, he first suggested to me the conference which we called that led to the formation of the Society. The lapse of time has, alas, left myself and the Right Hon. A. J. Balfour the sole survivors of the original Council and vice-presidents of the Society. So much for ancient history.

I quite agree with Sir Arthur that the evidence on behalf of spirit communication and spirit-identity has now grown so remarkably that we are driven to one of two alternatives — either that it is a genuine and momentous revelation of survival after death, or that a large number of otherwise sane men and women are the victims of a widespread lunacy. As he remarks:—

It is absolute lunacy, or it is a revolution in religious thought, a revolution which gives us... an immense consolation when those who are dear to us pass behind the veil.

Surely it is a significant and impressive fact when such a conclusion has been reached by one who not only has a high medical degree, and is therefore acquainted with diseases of mind as. well as of body, but who is eminent as a trained observer, and famous for his knowledge of all the methods of detective skill.

In the last paragraph of his article Sir Arthur refers to the question which has troubled many religious minds, whether spirit communion is right. I have discussed this problem fully in my book, "On the Threshold of a New World of Thought," a new and much enlarged edition of which will be published, I hope, before the end of the year; but the whole matter is summed up in the words of Professor Karl Pearson, who is not a sympathiser: "Wherever there is the slightest possibility for the mind of man to know, there is a legitimate problem for science." Yes, for science, and those who have the scientific spirit of calm and critical inquiry. It is just the natural human longing of stricken souls to enter into communion with the loved ones they have lost that renders their dispassionate consideration of the facts and their critical weighing of the evidence so difficult and yet so imperative. Hence there is much to be said against the indiscriminate resort to mediums by the bereaved; mediumship, as Sir Arthur remarks, is a "thing so sacred and sometimes so abused," that the public need to be on their guard, and exert a wholesome scepticism, when they receive messages which purport to come from those who have passed from earth.

One of the great contributions to our knowledge which the Psychical Research Society has made is that much of the information which honest and genuine mediums give as coming from tho spirit world is nothing of the kind, but can be traced to certain definite terrene sources, such as telepathy, clairvoyance, the Subconscious self of the medium, and hidden memory, or cryptomnesia. Albeit, there are some Psychical Researchers, like the late Mr. Podmore, who, with incorrigible perversity, have pushed these known causes of error to absurd and illegitimate lengths, and this with the idea that they would thus conciliate our modem Sadducees. To substitute causes still unaccepted by official science — such as telepathy and clairvoyance — for the spirit hypothesis, affords no solution of the problem to the German type of scientific mind.

In conclusion, if I may venture to differ from Sir Arthur, I do not think that Spiritualism is or ever can be a religion; in fact, it may be inimical to true religion. In LIGHT for October 21st the following passage is quoted from the writings of that well-known and gifted Spiritualist, "M. A. (Oxon)":—

A man is intrinsically no better for an intellectual belief in objective facts... If he be a perfectly good Spiritualist, as the word is unfortunately used, he may be, as a man, morally worse than he was before he became acquainted with the phenomena called, and very wrongly called, spiritual. There is no necessary spirituality in the most pronounced Spiritualist.

Nor does the evidence prove the immortality of the soul, meaning by that eternal life: the deeper consciousness, the higher and imperishable life "which is life indeed!"[1] Obviously no experimental evidence can ever establish such a belief, or that survival after death extends to all. What the evidence does do is to remove the barriers to such a belief and destroy an irrational, materialistic creed. Accordingly psychical research, as I have said elsewhere, may strengthen the foundations but cannot take the place of religion. For it deals with the external, though it be in an unseen world; and its chief value lies in the fulfilment of its work, whereby it reveals to us the inadequacy of the external, either here or hereafter, to satisfy the life and needs of the soul. The psychical order is not the spiritual order, but a stepping-stone in the ascent of the soul to its own self-apprehension, for "the Kingdom of God cometh not with observation."

October 31st.

  1. I have expressed my views on this point long ago in the concluding words of my presidential address to the Society for Psychical Research. Few men had a wider knowledge of, or deeper insight into, Spiritualism than Mr. C. C. Massey, whose contributions to LIGHT should be republished. Writing to me in 1903. Mr. Massey says (see p. 39 of my "Thoughts of a Modern Mystic"): "We may, and I think do, discover survival [by psychical research], but that for no means only a ghostly and memorial prolongation of earthly life and has no religious interest. I want an expansion of life, not a continuance of its present memories and contracted mode. Only through religion can we rightly conceive or demonstrate immortality. The interest of very many in psychical research rests on such a demonstration; this I hold to be an illusion."