The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 84
Prize Essay Against Spiritualism
Prize Essay Against Spiritualism.
Many as have been the enthusiasts who have applied Archimedes' saying—" Give me but a spot whereon to fix my lever, and I will move the earth," to the moral as he to the physical world, ignoring with him that in truth motion was superfluous, and the marvel were not to move but to arrest, the list is apparently far from exhausted. Brahma, Buddha, Jahveh, Jesus, Mahomet, with their aides-de-camp, the Joshuas, Pauls, Hildebrands, et id genus omne, have all in turn, by the isms of which such names stand as embodiments or promulgators, paradoxically essayed, and at each failure in what was in reality to "arrest the rolling world," the Galileo spirit of the time has provokingly commented the "e pur si muove" and still it moves.
And now, in an age when the weak enthusiasm, which engendered and sustained all such attempts, is singularly absent—in an age of most critical enquiry—an age wherein the scalpel is as mercilessly applied to abnormal mental operations or characteristics as to the apparent paradoxes of physical nature—a fresh movement—Spiritualism—advances its claims as against the older ism, rejects its evidences, and dares our judgment with the allegation that its own aims are loftier and purer; its motive power more intense; its solution of vital questions, left unsatisfied by Christianism, more assured and unchallengeable; and as being the only faith form which can link society in one harmonious whole, and thoroughty satisfy those vague aspirations, that intense yearning for assured knowledge future state which has haunted man ever since man's brain first conceived the idea.
At an era of philosophic disbelief in the old theological standards—era similar to that which existed at advent of Christianism—one of such page 50 energising in and by science—when every, no matter how stupid, faith expression is treated with magnificent, if semi-contemptuous, generosity of tolerance, and, in its thirst after factual knowledge, grateful for even smallest mercies—we ought not perhaps to repine if the experience of forty to fifty centuries simply teaches uncompromising denial of reality of all miraculous phenomena, and that the sum of our mental gain lies in an extended knowledge of the power of one mind over another. But while no bitterness may attach to our parting with the venerable delusions cherished by our grandsires, we have ever to be on our guard against the rise of similar, and imperatively bound therefore to challenge any such upon its appearance for its raisons d'être. Equally are we bound by that fact, and the necessity of the case, to carefully examine these. But herein we have to discriminate as against a common misconception; we have to examine carefully, candidly, in truth and honour, but still by the methods established by experience, reason, and the laws of mental conditions—the methods of logician and jurist. Examination must be from the examiner's point, as defined by legal procedure, and checked by legal restrictions, and not from that of the advancer. To require us to proceed otherwise were as insane as to demand that in our commodity dealings we should go back by some centuries and decide a contested case of measurement by the yard as fixed temp Henry II. as the length of the sovereign's arm, and one of value by weight of coin, bar, or ingot, as temp Abraham, or constant assay, as temp Richard I. He who advances theory must produce proofs, cannot prescribe conditions; and if he accept not test by conditions of the time, such as he would himself consider just, and apply in other cases, must expect to be ruled out of Court, with judgment against him by default.
Now in some cases, and we find on investigation that Spiritualism urges this very point against Christianism's miracles, there is so great an antecedent improbability as to amount to impossibility in regard to phenomena; in others they prove themselves impossible by the nature of the case, or by the form of expression in which they are stated. But here we would prefer to quote from others, and in the matter of snail telegraphy (prior to electric telegraphy, and a proposal which even Mr. Robert Chambers deemed worth considering) Dr. Carpenter observes—" Did they (his audience) not judge in that case by the inherent impossibility? And if any number of people should tell them that they had seen it, would they believe it? He should not. In the case before them of Spiritualism there was so strong an improbability, he would not say impossibility, for a mind trained in scientific habits of thought as to what are called the higher phenomena, which are not only beyond page 51 ordinary expression but opposed to it, that nothing but an accumulation of the most cogent testimony could fairly justify our reception of them; and that cogent testimony required to be given, not by persons who have already committed themselves to a system, but by persons who are altogether independent. It would be all the better of course if they had been previously hostile, and they ought to be persons experienced in these enquiries." Again, "One must begin by a knowledge of the common tendencies to self deception and intentional deception, and it was only when these two factors were completely eliminated that we need begin to investigate in a scientific mode."
It was the wont of Gibbon, Strafford, and Webster, in examining the title, design, and subject of any new work, to set down the questions which they expected to be answered in it, the difficulties to be solved and the information imparted by it, and in similar mode must be our approach to Spiritualism. What it says, does, and is, must be our enquiry; in other words, we have to seek its origin, to ask its definition, to ascertain its mission, demand its evidences, note its paradoxes, criticise its defence, point out its inconsistencies and dangers, its pains and penalties, and indicate its goal. To do this with that fulness and thoroughness demanded by the importance of the subject, and the pretensions of its advocates, would require an exhaustive treatise, while all that can be attempted here is to outline the principle arguments, leaving the filling in and amplification to the research and reflection of the reader. Nor need our first step—Origin—detain us long; for though claimed by some of its upholders as a new "credal development," it is in reality one of the oldest of phases, as indeed has well seen, and claims Howitt. Though stretching over many centuries of time, the actual list needs no lengthened exposition; and running over the inspired lawgivers, seers, and prophets, from Moses to Malachi; glancing at the Indian Fakirs of the Mahometan Dervish; the African's Obi and medicine men; recalling the Possession cases in the New Testament, and accounts of the Visionaries of the beginning of the Christian era; recalling the Ecstatics of the Middle Ages, the Stigmata marvels, and the rivalling Levitation of holy recluses; shuddering at the Witches' era barbarities, and smiling at the Astrologers with their attendant spirit in glass bottle; and at the Jansenist and Jesuit miracle-mongers, with the profanely witty commentary on the royal decree, "De par le roi, défense a Dieu; defaire miracle en ce lieu; " with passing thought of the constant belief in workings of fairies and ghosts, and in the faculty of second sight";—wecoinenearer to our own time in encountering the St. Simonians, Southcottians, Brothers', Swedenborgians, Shakers, and Animal Mag- page 52 netism with its attendant Mesmerism and Clairvoyance, all claiming to be results of superhuman action, and in deed and word to be the outward visible sign of an inward spiritual working. Grim and ludicrous as is this chapter of human life, it has the one balancing quality of having extended our knowledge of the power of one mind over another: whether that be deemed compensation sufficient for the atrocities perpetrated and the sufferings undergone during the inward spirit era, must be left to the individual reflection.
But although Howitt would appear to esteem the antiquity and universality of this belief as proof of its truth, it is evident, if only by Spiritualist argument against Christianism, that these are no proofs. No one now offers the universality of the belief in the immobility of the earth in proof, nor the universality of belief in the deluge; in fact, universality and antiquity are to be rather cited in proof of errors, as would appear to have made itself apparent to Fontenelle. He, who perhaps showed the strength of his Church's ordinary mode of instruction in telling us that, had he his hands full of truths, he would open but one finger at a time to permit one to escape, displayed no less its weakness and illogicality in assuring us that, given half-a-dozen agents, and sufficient time, he would not despair of making the world receive any faith, however intrinsically absurd, "since, once old, it is already sufficiently proved."
Thus far, then, might Spiritualism rest content if it will be satisfied with being old and derived; its ancestral line is lengthy, and it may even claim, not without reason, to be maintaining a standard held for long by Christianism, and abandoned only under that keen criticism from which Spiritualism itself appeal's to shrink. It should surely be comfort sufficient, that, if it cannot lay claim to consideration on score of its youth, it carries, according to Fontenelle, its proofs in its age, and might therefore well be a little less acutely sensitive to comment, and still more to, as thought, neglect. Its exceeding complaint is now absence of or want of full investigation of its claims and evidences, and we are ever taunted with the "avant de juger il faut essayer de voir." But it is not our fault if either our eyes are not strong enough to pierce the obscurity, or if the science of optics assures us of the absolute necessity of a microscope under the conditions for our test. And for the various modes of argument which we may employ, but to which Spiritualism objects, it is really hard to see how to approach such a subject, or why so keen objection should be made by Spiritualists to the employment in their case of the arguments which they so keenly urge against Christianism. As against this, these proceed page 53 to discuss the antecedent probability and credibility of the alleged miracles, the competency and character of the witnesses, and the consistency of the records; and, as these are the paints which must be investigated in every case of this kind presented to ournotice, it is extremely difficult to understand that excessive susceptibility, that touchiness and testiness manifested so often by Spiritualists when we proceed to our investigation, if they are in reality firmly convinced of the truth of their ism. Such feeling manifestation on their side is useless as it is injurious to them; as we have to try by certain ac acknowledged standards in reasoning, Spiritualists must show the falsity of such standards if the conclusions arrived at be not acceptable to them. If, for example, we try a case by the laws of physics, they are bound to show the general falsity of physical laws, or the peculiar falsity in each particular case; till that is done it is simply idle to demand our attention and good faith, and to challenge our methods.
As we all know, definition is in every branch of man's knowledge the true difficulty, and there is almost a quiet sarcasm in the fact that, even when we know something thoroughly; we are unable to accurately define it. Spiritualism is of course not exempt from the common weakness, and probably in her case too the coming struggle will be less upon the essential points of the belief than upon its definition. It is already a question whether the term should be "Spiritualism" or "Spiritism," and the greater clearness of the French tongue has settled it as the latter, notwithstanding the pathetic assurance of Mr. Peebles that the "al" implies "moral quality, purity of thought, and holiness of life." The general definition given by this lecturer is "the possibility and certainty of a present conscious communion with the inhabitants of the spirit world," and he broadly demands for this belief the startling number of eleven millions of adherents, and the most celebrated men and women in every age of the world down to the present. To this, without spending or wasting time in questioning or refutation, there is but to point out the significative reticence on his part as to these persons (referring here to living celebrities quoted) believing in this in the sense understood and implied by him. Again, in a meeting of the National Association of Spiritualists of Great Britain, the President (Dr. Gully, since so celebrated in connection with the Bravo case) remarked, "Their belief should be founded on facts only, and the recognised facts of Spiritualism were, he thought, reducible to two—first, the existence of the spiritual body after death, and second, the possibility of communication between spirits and the material world. What religion should be based on these facts was a question which every man had to settle for himself." Mr. page 54 Tyerman, again, has told us that upon death the spirit is received and welcomed by a kindred spirit, the good and the bad alike, but the bad had to pay the penalty for his offences in a spiritual house of correction; while Mr. Thomas Walker, descending to yet more minute particulars, has told us that there is no difference in the principle of immortality "between man and mosquitos, rats, mice, or the stinking snake-Mosquitos, like men, are immortal; and if you extinguish them here, you but send them to the spirit world to torment our brothers and sisters there," to which we may echo the former lecturer, "what a pleasing thing is that," and from which it legitimately follows that rats, mice, and mosquitos alike may enjoy conscious communion with their fellow inhabitants of the spirit world.
Perhaps the greatest point, at any rate the prior one, is as to the characters and capacities of the witnesses and recorders of the phenomena of a new belief system; and herein it is certainly peculiar to find the Spiritualist following in a well-known Christian argument, a proof which founds itself upon the lowness of origin, ignorance, and poverty of those witnesses. But, in the latter creed, the argument has no footing, and is based upon an assumption, for the founder, however humble his calling might appear, claimed to be of royal descent, and the practice of the Hebrews, of even the highest rank, in having their sons instructed in some trade deprives it of any value. Whatever their callings, the promulgators of the creed showed themselves far from ignorant, unlettered men. They appear to have been well versed in the current topics and disputations of the day, the past literature of their race. They did not promulgate their faith as something wholly original, but on the contrary argued it against a prevalent, and, in their opinion, erroneous mode of belief; as a sequence and a fulfilment. And since the claim of Spiritualism is that the first substantial good connected with it is a clear and positive demonstration of a future existence, thereby inferring the insufficiency of the Christian affirmation on that point, it will be necessary for the supporters of this last to revise their old procedure and abandon the ignorance ground. And this the more since incapacity may suppose want of veracity. "We are then at times plunged into the dilemma as stated by Arnold—" The question is, does either the belief of these things by a man of signal truthfulness, judgment, and mental power, in St. Paul's circumstances, prove them to have really happened—(writer should add, as he describes them)—or does his belief in them, in spite of their not having happened, prove that he could not have been a man of great truthfulness, judgment, and mental power?" Dr. Middleton would, like ourselves, have made short work, however, with this query; page 55 for he observes in his "Free Enquiry"—" With regard to which we must call to mind that the want of judgment alone may in some cases disqualify a man as effectually from being a good witness as if he wanted veracity too. For instance, Justin expressly affirms that he had seen the cells in which the seventy were shut up to the task of translating the Bible. Now it is certain there never were any such cells." This passage is surely of greatest force in applicability to many of the statements of Spiritualistic testimonies to phenomena. Finally, observes the Saturday Review, "When a traveller pretends to have received information about a strange distant country, our first step is to enquire whether he be sane and trustworthy. If we find him to be otherwise, it is quite unnecessary for us to discuss either the information he brings or objections to that information." There is but to add, to point this, that Spiritualism had obtained in many instances a better consideration had its upholders realised the necessity of scrupulous unchallengeable purity of character in the professing phenomena exponents. The contrary has been the case in the majority of prominent mediums, of which abundant legal evidence exists without necessity of specifying cases here; and when at each fresh case of exposure Spiritists urge that we ought not to condemn all for the fault of some, and that at times the offence has arisen from excess of zeal, it is impossible not to think them fully conscious, as men of the world, of the utter untenability of the pleas advanced.
Passing over consideration of the rather singular tendency of Spiritualism towards Roman Catholicism in relying upon authority-most striking contrast with the assertion of Messrs. Bright and Peebles of claiming "nothing by authority," and "acknowledging no infallible oracle," a few words may suffice upon the main definition of a clear demonstration of a future existence. It is not improbable that Spiritualism has been indirectly a result of the era of the Reformation. Former manifestations of it, with its eccentricities and excesses, had been, prior to that era, repeatedly condemned by the Popes, and it had perchance never have arisen but for the opening afforded by the destination of the soul question being left indeterminate at that period. The leaders of that movement had no wish to add to the already great complication by laying down too many rigid rules and calling upon the public faith, then in a state of transition, for adhesion to too much novelty at once. Roman Catholicism held by the old Egyptian dogma of an intermediate abode for the soul—purgatory—and Spiritualism, teste Mr. Tyerman, approaches to it in this respect. But between the Christian view and the Spiritualist there is the essential difference which may often be pushed to a reductio ad absurdum for the latter. Both page 56 believe in spirits—the one passive, the other active. Christianism formerly, too, believed in active spirits, ghosts, fairies, &c., but gradually abandoned the belief as science advanced; and even so analogy would lead us to think that Spiritual phenomena must pass away, nor survive test by physical science more than table-turning has that by Faraday.
With the commonly-urged objections to, and criticism upon, the phe-nomenalistic evidences of Spiritualism we cannot now occupy ourselves at any length; they have their weight, however, and have been very insufficiently met by the Spiritualist side. It were certainly to be expected that, in cases where the issues involved are momentous to many persons—indeed, awful—replies from spirit world should be befitting the occasion, in lieu of the triviality and levity which have generally characterised them. But the main observation hereon must be that the proof, if proof, and so far as it goes, is simply of the interest of the spirits in this world, and not of any of the conditions in the other. There is no real intercourse with this shown, no real information transmitted from it, and, not impossibly, the mediums might differ from each other so categorically in the descriptions, that the silence is the best course under the conditions. Then almost all manifestations occur under circumstances of great mental excitement, sufficient to lead the sceptic examiner to forego his analysis and inevitable conclusion from pure charity. It must be acknowledged as impossible to try certain occurrences under such abnormal conditions of mind as it would be to treat the insane as responsible agents on those very points whereon they were acknowledgedly not so. Even Mr. Crookes, while telling us that phenomena cannot be produced at will, has also distinctly stated that Home, having introduced certain marvels, he (Mr. C.) devised scientific tests, and the next time, when those tests were applied, the phenomena were not reproduced. This, too, was the experience of Dr. Carpenter. And it is to be remarked that in 1874 Mr. Crookes denied that the occurrences were by or from spirits at all, but by or from occult powers in the medium—a thing which, if granted and true, is sufficient to at once dispose of mediumistic proofs so called. In such case, and in most of the evidences, this is the fact—some peculiar doings and conditions of mortals are held as evidence of another life; a future is evidenced by the present.
As before seen, the argument for Spiritualism in immortality—since spirituality, immateriality, immortality, are in this case convertible terms—has been allowed to extend even beyond the brute down to the insect world. Some similar belief and sentiment akin to that before mentioned of Mr. Walker, may have given rise to the Arab's dislike to the summary extinction of the vermin haunting his person—truest page 57 charity for his brothers in the spirit-land. But the force of reason will not allow us to stop at extension of this principle to insect life, and we must concede it to the clothes we wear, to our utensils, furniture, and to every conceivable thing, in short, which serves for our use or conduces to our pleasure. In every statement of phenomena, every appearance of vision, this is indeed unwittingly assumed and granted; and needs there more than allusion to it to recall the ad absurdum point ? We have next the cases of materialisation, simple visions, either of whole bodies or parts, &c, and these supported by testimony of all ages, according to Mr. Peebles. But there is a wide distinction to be drawn between the older and the modern cases of visions or appearances. In the ancient ones it was invariably the body which was resuscitated, and the argument was held for bodily resurrection; in the modern ones it is a spiritual resurrection. It is perhaps ignored that the majority of the Fathers were opposed to this idea of visions or ghosts, and to that of any spirit communication with earth. The materialisation process, with its explanatory statement that, besides the body, the spirit possesses a covering semi-material (fluid) in use when the bodily garment is laid aside, is utterly incomprehensible under our present knowledge and reason conditions. But when we look further, and push on this argument to its legitimate conclusion—when we perceive that it includes again materialisation (possible) of all that we have employed and destroyed, used and abused—that it entails the supposition of a complete state of spiritual-material society in the other world, with its tools, weapons, manufactories, and the whole physical paraphernalia of man—would it not be an insult to human intelligence to dwell an instant longer upon it.
One of the gentlemen lecturers before quoted has told us that, "on enquiry, we should find there were phenomena, that these phenomena were guided by an intelligence, and that the intelligence was human; " and in expressing our for once cordial concurrence of opinion with the speaker, we wish neither to accuse him of naïvete; nor that ourselves be accused of irony. In sober earnest, the question—Spiritualism—depends upon phenomena for evidence, and those phenomena have assuredly up to the present evidenced a guiding intelligence that has been human, and only human. Now, the first question in regard to phenomena is whether they are dignified and worthy of their end as assurances of immortality, and the answer can but be emphatically in the negative. Passing by the numerous contradictions of statements by mediums as either not fact or gross exaggeration—as, e.g., by Lord Brougham and Sir David Brewster—to Home's assertions, let us ask, what is there possibly of the dignity of the subject, or of human or spirit nature, in tricks which page 58 Indian jugglers can far outshine ? or in such alleged feat as Home's elongation to six feet nine, and following contraction till his waistcoat came quite down to his hips? What proof of spiritdom or immortality in display of a foot or two of a man's linen ? And we are entitled to ask—since Spiritualists are so susceptible as to belief being rendered to their bona fides in intent, their capacity, &c, in investigation and statement—why they never yield the same credence, as they themselves ask, to those who perform precisely similar phenomena, yet distinctly assert themselves not to be believers nor mediums ? If, again, the phenomena be real, they are then miracles, and the Spiritualist is called upon to demonstrate possession by matter of some properties not hitherto deemed to belong to it, and opposed to its general condition. If they reply that they do not suppose these opposing properties displayed by matter through any power of its own, but by the operation (will power) of an external superior force, then they must meet the case of the Christian alleged miracles. It is for the Spiritualists to say why they ascribe effects to insufficient causes (as to spirits so-called, and not to God), and if they hold the alleged causes sufficient and co-efficient, to show why they should not be termed Polytheists. We must bear in mind that by explaining and palliating gross contradictions so oft-occurring in paenomena, they acknowledge human judgment as the standard or arbiter, and the right of a majority, and this is immeasurably against them. Hume's argument tells equally against their procedure, in that no human testimony can establish that which is, as stated, above all human testimony; the testmony must be divine, and thus Spiritualism must run the same career as Christianism to extricate itself from its difficulties, and make its founder a god-man, an incarnation of the Deity. Everything that has yet taken place as phenomena has been explainable on material grounds, and accepted on unsatisfactory evidence or rather testimony. It can be safely judged from a distance; and to ask us to suspend judgment until we have experienced the said phenomena, is an old device—it is, de facto, asking the concession from us that the phenomena occurred in the sense claimed, and requiring us to reason as to the causes. It is another device to excuse one's own want of knowledge by accusing that of adversaries, and hence the stereotyped reply, "we do not know what matter is in its properties :"but we do on the contrary know what that is which we call matter, and the properties which distinguish it. The whole question turns, in fact, upon what we understand by "matter" and "spirit." Are there two such things ? are they essences, substances, or conditions ? are they identical in kind, but differing in degree ? So far as Spiritualism attempts proof, it proves the last alone—that all we know is what page 59 we term matter, and that so-called spirit is this matter. Universal an-cient thought knew nothing of this arbitrary distinction between spirit and matter; it believed but in one universal substance, typified at a later day in its million changes by the name Proteus; but, at any rate, whatever we deem it, however we may describe the vital principle of the visible universe, we shall one day thank Spinoza for recalling the thinking world to the ancient position, and to the daily more perceptible rational idea, as refuge against faith-superstitions of every class—"Quod supra nos nihil ad nos."