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Andrew Lang

Science and ’Miracles’

The Making of Religion: Chapter II (1900)

Published on: Saturday 14 October 2006

Keywords :

Andrew Lang, ’Science and ’Miracles’’, The Making of Religion, (Chapter II), Longmans, Green, and C°, London, New York and Bombay, 1900, pp. 14-38.

Historical Sketch

Research in the X region is not a new thing under the sun. When Saul disguised himself before his conference with the Witch of Endor, he made an elementary attempt at a scientific test of the supernormal. Croesus, the king, went much further, when he tested the clairvoyance of the oracles of Greece, by sending an embassy to ask what he was doing at a given hour on a given day, and by then doing something very bizarre. We do not know how the Delphic oracle found out the right answer, but various easy methods of fraud at once occur to the mind. However, the procedure of Croesus, if he took certain precautions, was relatively scientific. Relatively scientific also was the inquiry of Porphyry, with whose position our own is not unlikely to be compared. Unable, or reluctant, to accept Christianity, Porphyry ’sought after a sign’ of an element of supernormal truth in Paganism. But he began at the wrong end, namely at Pagan spiritualistic séances, with the usual accompaniments of darkness and fraud. His perplexed letter to Anebo, with the reply attributed to Iamblichus, reveal Porphyry wandering puzzled among mediums, floating lights, odd noises, queer dubious ’physical phenomena.’ He did not begin with accurate experiments as to the existence of rare, and apparently supernormal human faculties, and he seems to have attained no conclusion except that ’spirits’ are ’deceitful.’ [1]

Something more akin to modern research began about the time of the Reformation, and lasted till about 1680. The fury for burning witches led men of sense, learning, and humanity to ask whether there was any reality in witchcraft, and, generally, in the marvels of popular belief. The inquiries of Thyraeus, Lavaterus, Bodinus, Wierus, Le Loyer, Reginald Scot, and many others, tended on the whole to the negative side as regards the wilder fables about witches, but left the problems of ghosts and haunted houses pretty much where they were before. It may be observed that Lavaterus (circ. 1580) already put forth a form of the hypothesis of telepathy (that ’ghosts’ are hallucinations produced by the direct action of one mind, or brain, upon another), while Thyraeus doubted whether the noises heard in ’haunted houses’ were not mere hallucinations of the sense of hearing. But all these early writers, like Cardan, were very careless of first-hand evidence, and, indeed, preferred ghosts vouched for by classical authority, Pliny, Plutarch, or Suetonius. With the Rev. Joseph Glanvil, F.R.S. (circ. 1666), a more careful examination of evidence came into use. Among the marvels of Glanvil’s and other tracts usually published together in his ’Sadducismus Triumphatus’ will be found letters which show that he and his friends, like Henry More and Boyle, laboured to collect first-hand evidence for second sight, haunted houses, ghosts, and wraiths. The confessed object was to procure a ’Whip for the Droll,’ a reply to the laughing scepticism of the Restoration. The result was to bring on Glanvil a throng of bores—he was ’worse haunted than Mr. Mompesson’s house,’ he says-and Mr. Pepys found his arguments ’not very convincing.’ Mr. Pepys, however, was alarmed by ’our young gib-cat,’ which he mistook for a ’spright.’ With Henry More, Baxter, and Glanvil practically died, for the time, the attempt to investigate these topics scientifically, though an impression of doubt was left on the mind of Addison. Witchcraft ceased to win belief, and was abolished, as a crime, in 1736. Some of the Scottish clergy, and John Wesley, clung fondly to the old faith, but Wodrow, and Cotton Mather (about 1710-1730) were singularly careless and unlucky in producing anything like evidence for their narratives. Ghost stories continued to be told, but not to be investigated.

Then one of the most acute of philosophers decided that investigation ought never to be attempted. This scientific attitude towards X phenomena, that of refusing to examine them, and denying them without examination, was fixed by David Hume in his celebrated essay on ’Miracles.’ Hume derided the observation and study of what he called ’Miracles,’ in the field of experience, and he looked for an a priori argument which would for ever settle the question without examination of facts. In an age of experimental philosophy, which derided a priori methods, this was Hume’s great contribution to knowledge. His famous argument, the joy of many an honest breast, is a tissue of fallacies which might be given for exposure to beginners in logic, as an elementary exercise. In announcing his discovery, Hume amusingly displays the self-complacency and the want of humour with which we Scots are commonly charged by our critics:

’I flatter myself that I have discovered an argument which, if just, will, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds
of superstitious delusions, and consequently will be useful as long as the world endures.’

He does not expect, however, to convince the multitude. Till the end of the world, ’accounts of miracles and prodigies, I suppose, will be found in all histories, sacred and profane.’ Without saying here what he means by a miracle, Hume argues that ’experience is our only guide in reasoning.’ He then defines a miracle as ’a violation of the laws of nature.’ By a ’law of nature’ he means a uniformity, not of all experience, but of each experience as he will deign to admit; while he excludes, without examination, all evidence for experience of the absence of such uniformity. That kind of experience cannot be considered. ’There must be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation.’ If there be any experience in favour of the event, that experience does not count. A miracle is counter to universal experience, no event is counter to universal experience, therefore no event is a miracle. If you produce evidence to what Hume calls a miracle (we shall see examples) he replies that the evidence is not valid, unless its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact. Now no error of human evidence can be more miraculous than a ’miracle.’ Therefore there can be no valid evidence for ’miracles.’ Fortunately, Hume now gives an example of what he means by ’miracles.’ He says:—

’For, first, there is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good sense, education, and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves; of such undoubted integrity, as to place them beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others; of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind, as to have a great deal to lose in case of their being detected in any falsehood; and at the same time attesting facts performed in such a public manner, and in so celebrated a part of the world, as to render the detection unavoidable; all which circumstances are requisite to give us a full assurance in the testimony of men.’ [2]

Hume added a note at the end of his book, in which he contradicted every assertion which he had made in the passage just cited; indeed, be contradicted himself before he had written six pages.

’There surely never was a greater number of miracles ascribed to one person than those which were lately said to have been wrought in France upon the tomb of Abbé Paris, the famous Jansenist, with whose sanctity the people were so long deluded. The curing of the sick, giving hearing to the deaf, and sight to the blind, were everywhere talked of as the usual effects of that holy sepulchre. But what is more extraordinary, many of the miracles were immediately proved upon the spot, before judges of unquestioned integrity, attested by witnesses of credit and distinction, in a learned age, and on the most eminent theatre that is now in the world. Nor is this all. A relation of them was published and dispersed everywhere; nor were the Jesuits, though a learned body, supported by the civil magistrate, and determined enemies to those opinions, in whose favour the miracles were said to have been wrought, ever able distinctly to refute or detect them. Where shall we find such a number of circumstances, agreeing to the corroboration of one fact? And what have we to oppose to such a cloud of witnesses, but the absolute impossibility, or miraculous nature of the events which they relate? And this, surely, in the eyes of all reasonable people, will alone be regarded as a sufficient refutation.’

Thus Hume, first denies the existence of such evidence, given in such circumstances as he demands, and then he produces an example of that very kind of evidence. Having done this, he abandons (as Mr. Wallace observes) his original assertion that the evidence does not exist, and takes refuge in alleging ’the absolute impossibility’ of the events which the evidence supports. Thus Hume poses as a perfect judge of the possible, in a kind of omniscience. He takes his stand on the uniformity of all experience that is not hostile to his idea of the possible, and dismisses all testimony to other experience, even when it reaches his standard of evidence. He is remote indeed from Virchow’s position ’that what we call the laws of nature must vary according to our frequent new experiences.’ [3] In his note, Hume buttresses and confirms his evidence for the Jansenist miracles. They have even a martyr, M. Montgeron, who wrote an account of the events, and, says Hume lightly, ’is now said to be somewhere in a dungeon on account of his book.’ ’Many of the miracles of the Abbé Paris were proved immediately by witnesses before the Bishop’s court at Paris, under the eye of Cardinal Noailles....’ ’His successor was an enemy to the Jansenists, yet twenty-two curés of Paris ... pressed him to examine these miracles ... But he wisely forbore.’ Hume adds his testimony to the character of these curés. Thus it is wisdom, according to Hume, to dismiss the most public and well-attested ’miracles’ without examination. This is experimental science of an odd kind.

The phenomena were cases of healing, many of them surprising, of
cataleptic rigidity, and of insensibility to pain, among visitors to the tomb of the Abbé Paris (1731). Had the cases been judicially examined (all medical evidence was in their favour), and had they been proved false, the cause of Hume would have profited enormously. A strong presumption would have been raised against the miracles of Christianity. But Hume applauds the wisdom of not giving his own theory this chance of a triumph. The cataleptic seizures were of the sort now familiar to science. These have, therefore, emerged from the miraculous. In fact, the phenomena which occurred at the tomb of the AbbÈ Paris have emerged almost too far, and now seem in danger of being too readily and too easily accepted. In 1887 MM. Binet and Féré, of the school of the Salpêtrière, published in English a popular manual styled ’Animal Magnetism.’ These authors write with great caution about such alleged phenomena as the reading, by the hypnotised patient, of the thoughts in the mind of the hypnotiser. But as to the phenomena at the tomb of the Abbé Paris, they say that ’suggestion explains them.’ [4] That is, in the opinion of MM. Binet and Féré the so-called ’miracles’ really occurred, and were worked by ’the imagination,’ by ’self-suggestion.’

The most famous case—that of Mlle. Coirin—has been carefully examined by Dr. Charcot. [5]

Mlle. Coirin had a dangerous fall from her horse, in September 1716, in her thirty-first year. The medical details may be looked for in Dr. Charcot’s essay or in Montgeron. [6] ’Her disease was diagnosed as cancer of the left breast,’ the nipple ’fell off bodily.’ Amputation of the breast was proposed, but Madame Coirin, believing the disease to be radically incurable, refused her consent. Paralysis of the left side set in (1718), the left leg shrivelling up. On August 9, 1731, Mlle. Coirin ’tried the off chance’ of a miracle, put on a shift that had touched the tomb of Paris, and used some earth from the grave. On August 11, Mlle. Coirin could turn herself in bed; on the 12th the horrible wound ’was staunched, and began to close up and heal.’ The paralysed side recovered life and its natural proportions. By September 3, Mlle. Coirin could go out for a drive.

All her malady, says Dr. Charcot, paralysis, ’cancer,’ and all, was ’hysterical;’ ’hysterical oedema,’ for which he quotes many French authorities and one American. ’Under the physical [psychical?] influence brought to bear by the application of the shift ... the oedema, which was due to vaso-motor trouble, disappeared almost instantaneously. The breast regained its normal size.’

Dr. Charcot generously adds that shrines, like Lourdes, have cured patients in whom he could not ’inspire the operation of the faith cure.’ He certainly cannot explain everything which claims to be of supernatural origin in the faith cure. We have to learn the lesson of patience. I am among the first to recognise that Shakespeare’s words hold good to-day:

’There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’

If Dr. Charcot had believed in what the French call suggestion mentale— suggestion by thought-transference (which I think he did not)—he could have explained the healing of the Centurion’s servant, ’Say the word, Lord, and my servant shall be healed,’ by suggestion & distance (telepathy), and by premising that the servant’s palsy was ’hysterical.’ But what do we mean by ’hysterical’? Nobody knows. The ’mind,’ somehow, causes gangrenes, if not cancers, paralysis, shrinking of tissues; the mind, somehow, cures them. And what is the ’mind’? As my object is to give savage parallels to modern instances better vouched for. I quote a singular Red Indian cure by ’suggestion.’ Hearne, travelling in Canada, in 1770, met a native who had ’dead palsy,’ affecting the whole of one side. He was dragged on a sledge, ’reduced to a mere skeleton,’ and so was placed in the magic lodge. The first step in his cure was the public swallowing by a conjurer of a board of wood, ’about the size of a barrel-stave,’ twice as wide across as his mouth. Hearne stood beside the man, ’naked as he was born,’ ’and, notwithstanding I was all attention, I could not detect the deceit.’ Of course, Hearne believes that this was mere legerdemain, and (p. 216) mentions a most suspicious circumstance. The account is amusing, and deserves the attention of Mr. Neville Maskelyne. The same conjurer had previously swallowed a cradle! Now bayonet swallowing, which he also did, is possible, though Hearne denies it (p. 217).

The real object of these preliminary feats, however performed, is, probably, to inspire faith, which Dr. Charcot might have done by
swallowing a cradle. The Indians explain that the barrel staves apparently swallowed are merely dematerialised by ’spirits,’ leaving only the forked end sticking out of the conjurer’s mouth. In fact, Hearne caught the conjurer in the act of making a separate forked end.

Faith being thus inspired, the conjurer, for three entire days, blew, sang, and danced round ’the poor paralytic, fasting.’ ’And it is truly wonderful, though the strictest truth, that when the poor man was taken from the conjuring house ... he was able to move all the fingers and toes of the side that had been so long dead.... At the end of six weeks he went a-hunting for his family’ (p. 219). Hearne kept up his acquaintance, and adds, what is very curious, that he developed almost a secondary personality. ’Before that dreadful paralytic stroke, he had been distinguished for his good nature and benevolent disposition, was entirely free from every appearance of avarice,... but after this event he was the most fractious, quarrelsome, discontented, and covetous wretch alive’ (p. 220).

Dr. Charcot, if he had been acquainted with this case, would probably have said that it ’is of the nature of those which Professor Russell Reynolds has classified under the head of "paralysis dependent on idea."’ [7] Unluckily, Hearne does not tell us how his hunter, an untutored Indian, became ’paralysed by idea.’

Dr. Charcot adds: ’In every case, science is a foe to systematic negation, which the morrow may cause to melt away in the light of its new triumphs.’ The present ’new triumph’ is a mere coincidence with the dicta of our Lord, ’Thy faith hath made thee whole.... I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.’ There are cures, as there are maladies, caused ’by idea.’ So, in fact, we had always understood. But the point is that science, wherever it agrees with David Hume, is not a foe, but a friend to ’systematic negation.’

A parallel case of a ’miracle,’ the stigmata of St. Francis, was, of course, regarded by science as a fable or a fraud. But, now that blisters and other lesions can be produced by suggestion, the fable has become a probable fact, and, therefore, not a miracle at all. [8] Mr. James remarks: ’As so often happens, a fact is denied till a welcome interpretation comes with it. Then it is admitted readily enough, and evidence quite insufficient to back a claim, so long as the Church had an interest in making it, proves to be quite sufficient for modern scientific enlightenment the moment it appears that a reputed saint can thereby be claimed as a case of "hystero-epilepsy."’ [9]

But the Church continues to have an interest in the matter. As the class of facts which Hume declined to examine begins to be gradually admitted by science, the thing becomes clear. The evidence which could safely convey these now admittedly possible facts, say from the time of Christ, is so far proved to be not necessarily mythical—proved to be not incapable of carrying statements probably correct, which once seemed absolutely false. If so, where, precisely, ends its power of carrying facts? Thus considered, the kinds of marvellous events recorded in the Gospels, for example, are no longer to be dismissed on a priori grounds as ’mythical.’ We cannot now discard evidence as necessarily false because it clashes with our present ideas of the possible, when we have to acknowledge that the very same evidence may safely convey to us facts which clashed with our fathers’ notions of what is possible, but which are now accepted. Our notions of the possible cease to be a criterion of truth or falsehood, and our contempt for the Gospels as myths must slowly die, as ’miracle’ after ’miracle’ is brought within the realm of acknowledged law. With each such admission the hypothesis that the Gospel evidence is mythical must grow weaker, and weaker must grow the negative certainty of popular science.

The occurrences which took place at and near the tomb of Paris were attested, as Hume truly avers, by a great body of excellent evidence. But the wisdom which declined to make a judicial examination has deprived us of the best kind of record. Analogous if not exactly similar events now confessedly take place, and are no longer looked upon as miraculous. But as long as they were held to be miraculous, not to examine the evidence, said Hume, was the policy of ’all reasonable people.’ The result was to deprive Science of the best sort of record of facts which she welcomes as soon as she thinks she can explain them. [10] Examples of the folly of a priori negation are common. The British Association refused to hear the essay which Braid, the inventor of the word ’hypnotism,’ had written upon the subject. Braid, Elliotson, and other English inquirers of the mid-century, were subjected to such persecutions as official science could inflict. We read of M. Deslon, a disciple of Mesmer, about 1783, that he was ’condemned by the Faculty of Medicine, without any examination of the facts.’ The Inquisition proceeded more fairly than these scientific obscurantists.

Another curious example may be cited. M. Guyau, in his work ’The Non-Religion of the Future,’ argues that Religion is doomed. ’Poetic genius has withdrawn its services,’ witness Tennyson and Browning! ’Among orthodox Protestant nations miracles do not happen.’ [11] But ’marvellous facts’ do happen. [12] These ’marvellous facts,’ accepted by M. Guyau, are what Hume called ’miracles,’ and advised the ’wise and learned’ to laugh at, without examination. They were not facts, and could not be, he said. Now to M. Guyau’s mind they are facts, and therefore are not miracles. He includes ’mental suggestion taking place even at a distance.’ A man ’can transmit an almost compulsive command, it appears nowadays, by a simple tension of his will.’ If this be so, if ’will’ can affect matter from a distance, obviously the relations of will and matter are not what popular science tells us that they are. Again, if this truth is now established, and won from that region which Hume and popular science forbid us to investigate, who knows what other facts may be redeemed from that limbo, or how far they may affect our views of possibilities? The admission of mental action, operative à distance, is, of course, personal only to M. Guyau, among friends of the new negative tradition.

We return to Hume. He next argues that the pleasures of wonder make all accounts of ’miracles’ worthless. He has just given an example of the equivalent pleasures of dogmatic disbelief. Then Religion is a disturbing force; but so, manifestly, is irreligion. ’The wise and learned are content to deride the absurdity, without informing themselves of the particular facts.’ The wise and learned are applauded for their scientific attitude. Again, miracles destroy each other, for all religions have their miracles, but all religions cannot be true. This argument is no longer of force with people who look on ’miracles’ as = ’X phenomena,’ not as divine evidences to the truth of this or that creed. ’The gazing populace receives, without examination, whatever soothes superstition,’ and Hume’s whole purpose is to make the wise and learned imitate the gazing populace by rejecting alleged facts ’without examination.’ The populace investigated more than did the wise and learned.

Hume has an alternative definition of a miracle—’a miracle is a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.’ We reply that what Hume calls a ’miracle’ may result from the operation of some as yet unascertained law of nature (say self-suggestion), and that our business, at present, is to examine such events, not to account for them.

It may fairly be said that Hume is arguing against men who wished to make so-called ’miracles’ a test of the truth of Jansenism, for example, and that he could not be expected to answer, by anticipation, ideas not current in his day. But he remains guilty of denouncing the investigation of apparent facts. No attitude can be less scientific than his, or more common among many men of science.

According to the humorous wont of things in this world, the whole question of the marvellous had no sooner been settled for ever by David Hume than it was reopened by Emanuel Swedenborg. Now, Kant was familiar with certain of the works of Hume, whether he had read his ’Essay on Miracles’ or not. Far from declining to examine the portentous ’visions’ of Swedenborg, Kant interested himself deeply in the topic. As early as 1758 he wrote his first remarks on the seer, containing some reports of stories or legends about Swedenborg’s ’clairvoyance.’ In the true spirit of psychical research, Kant wrote a letter to Swedenborg, asking for information at first hand. The seer got the letter, but he never answered it. Kant, however, prints one or two examples of Swedenborg’s successes. Madame Harteville, widow of the Dutch envoy in Stockholm, was dunned by a silversmith for a debt of her late husband’s. She believed that it had been paid, but could not find the receipt. She therefore asked Swedenborg to use his renowned gifts. He promised to see what he could do, and, three days later, arrived at the lady’s house while she was giving a tea, or rather a coffee, party. To the assembled society Swedenborg remarked, ’in a cold-blooded way, that he had seen her man, and spoken to him.’ The late M. Harteville declared to Swedenborg that he had paid the bill, seven months before his decease: the receipt was in a cupboard upstairs. Madame Harteville replied that the cupboard had been thoroughly searched to no purpose. Swedenborg answered that, as he learned from the ghost, there was a secret drawer behind the side-plank within the cupboard. The drawer contained diplomatic correspondence, and the missing receipt. The whole company then went upstairs, found the secret drawer, and the receipt among the other papers. Kant adds Swedenborg’s clairvoyant vision, from Gothenburg, of a great fire at Stockholm (dated September 1756). Kant pined to see Swedenborg himself, and waited eagerly for his book, ’Arcana Coelestia.’ At last he obtained this work, at the ransom, ruinous to Kant at that time, of 7£. But he was disappointed with what he read, and in ’Träume eines Geistersehers,’ made a somewhat sarcastic attempt at a metaphysical theory of apparitions.

’Velut aegri somnia vanae
Finguntur species’

is his motto.

Kant’s real position about all these matters is, I venture to say, almost identical with that of Sir Walter Scott. A Scot himself, by descent, Kant may have heard tales of second-sight and bogles. Like Scott, he dearly loved a ghost-story; like Scott he was canny enough to laugh, publicly, at them and at himself for his interest in them. Yet both would take trouble to inquire. As Kant vainly wrote to Swedenborg and others—as he vainly spent 7£. on ’Arcana Coelestia,’ so Sir Walter was anxious to go to Egypt to examine the facts of ink-gazing clairvoyance. Kant confesses that each individual ghost-story found him sceptical, whereas the cumulative mass made a considerable impression. [13]

The first seventy pages of the ’Tribune’ are devoted to a perfectly serious discussion of the metaphysics of ’Spirits.’ On page 73 he pleasantly remarks, ’Now we shall understand that all said hitherto is superfluous,’ and he will not reproach the reader who regards seers not as citizens of two worlds (Plotinus), but as candidates for Bedlam.

Kant’s irony is peculiarly Scottish. He does not himself know how far he is in earnest, and, to save his self-respect and character for canniness, he ’jocks wi’ deeficulty.’ He amuses himself with trying how far he can carry speculations on metaphysics (not yet reformed by himself) into the realm of the ghostly. He makes admissions about his own tendency to think that he has an immaterial soul, and that these points are, or may be, or some day will be, scientifically solved. These admissions are eagerly welcomed by Du Prel in his ’Philosophy of Mysticism;’ but they are only part of Kant’s joke, and how far they are serious, Kant himself does not know. If spiritualists knew their own business, they would translate and publish Kant’s first seventy pages of ’Träume.’ Something like telepathy, action of spirit, even discarnate, on spirit, is alluded to, but the idea is as old as Lavaterus at least (p. 52). Kant has a good deal to say, like Scott in his ’Demonology,’ on the physics of Hallucination, but it is antiquated matter. He thinks the whole topic of spiritual being only important as bearing on hopes of a future life. As speculation, all is ’in the air,’ and as in such matters the learned and unlearned are on a level of ignorance, science will not discuss them. He then repeats the Swedenborg stories, and thinks it would be useful to posterity if some one would investigate them while witnesses are alive and memories are fresh.

In fact, Kant asks for psychical research.

As for Swedenborg’s so costly book, Kant laughs at it. There is in it no evidence, only assertion. Kant ends, having pleased nobody, he says, and as ignorant as when he began, by citing cultivons notre jardin.

Kant returned to the theme in ’Anthropologische Didaktik.’ He discusses the unconscious, or sub-conscious, which, till Sir William Hamilton lectured, seems to have been an absolutely unknown topic to British psychologists. ’So ist das Feld dunkler Vorstellungen das grˆsste in Menschen.’ He has a chapter on ’The Divining Faculty’ (pp. 89-93). He will not hear of presentiments, and, unlike Hegel, he scouts the Highland second-sight. The ’possessed’ of anthropology are epileptic patients. Mystics (Swedenborg) are victims of Schwärmerei.

This reference to Swedenborg is remarked upon by Schubert in his preface to the essay of Kant. He points out that ’it is interesting to compare the circumspection, the almost uncertainty of Kant when he had to deliver a judgment on the phenomena described by himself and as to which he had made inquiry [i.e. in his letter re Swedenborg to Mlle. de Knobloch], and the very decided opinions he expressed forty years later on Swedenborg and his companions’ [in the work cited, sections 35-37. The opinion in paragraph 35 is a general one as to mystics. There is no other mention of Swedenborg].

On the whole Kant is interested, but despairing. He wants facts, and no facts are given to him but the book of the Prophet Emanuel. But, as it happened, a new, or a revived, order of facts was just about to solicit scientific attention. Kant had (1766) heard rumours of healing by magnetism, and of the alleged effect of the magnet on the human frame. The subject was in the air, and had already won the attention of Mesmer, about whom Kant had information. It were superfluous to tell again the familiar story of Mesmer’s performances at Paris. While Mesmer’s theory of ’magnetism’ was denounced by contemporary science, the discovery of the hypnotic sleep was made by his pupil, PuysÈgur. This gentleman was persuaded that instances of ’thought-transference’ (not through known channels of sense) occurred between the patient and the magnetiser, and he also believed that he had witnessed cases of ’clairvoyance,’ ’lucidity,’ vue à distance, in which the patient apparently beheld places and events remote in space. These things would now be explained by ’unconscious suggestion’ in the more sceptical schools of psychological science. The Revolution interrupted scientific study in France to a great degree, but ’somnambulism’ (the hypnotic sleep) and ’magnetism’ were eagerly examined in Germany. Modern manuals, for some reason, are apt to overlook these German researches and speculations. (Compare Mr. Vincent’s ’Elements of Hypnotism,’ p. 34.) The Schellings were interested; Ritter thought he had detected a new force, ’Siderism.’ Mr. Wallace, in his preface to Hegel’s ’Philosophie des Geistes,’ speaks as if Ritter had made experiments in telepathy. He may have done so, but his ’Siderismus’ (T¸bingen, 1808) is a Report undertaken for the Academy of Munich, on the doings of an Italian water-finder, or ’dowser.’ Ritter gives details of seventy-four experiments in ’dowsing’ for water, metals, or coal. He believes in the faculty, but not in ’psychic’ explanations, or the Devil. He talks about ’electricity’ (pp. 170, 190). He describes his precautions to avoid vulgar fraud, but he took no precautions against unconscious thought-transference. He reckoned the faculty ’temperamental’ and useful.

Amoretti, at Milan, examined hundreds of cases of the so-called Divining Rod, and Jung Stilling became an early spiritualist and ’full-welling fountain head’ of ghost stories.

Probably the most important philosophical result of the early German researches into the hypnotic slumber is to be found in the writings of Hegel. Owing to his peculiar use of a terminology, or scientific language, all his own, it is extremely difficult to make Hegel’s meaning even moderately clear. Perhaps we may partly elucidate it by a similitude of Mr. Frederic Myers. Suppose we compare the ordinary everyday consciousness of each of us to a spectrum, whose ends towards each extremity fade out of our view.

Beyond the range of sight there may be imagined a lower or physiological end: for our ordinary consciousness, of course, is unaware of many physiological processes which are eternally going on within us. Digestion, so long as it is healthy, is an obvious example. But hypnotic experiment makes it certain that a patient, in the hypnotic condition, can consciously, or at least purposefully, affect physiological processes to which the ordinary consciousness is blind—for example, by raising a blister, when it is suggested that a blister must be raised. Again (granting the facts hypothetically and merely for the sake of argument), at the upper end of the spectrum, beyond the view of ordinary everyday consciousness, knowledge may be acquired of things which are out of the view of the consciousness of every day. For example (for the sake of argument let us admit it), unknown and remote people and places may be seen and described by clairvoyance, or vue à distance.

Now Hegel accepted as genuine the facts which we here adduce merely for the sake of argument, and by way of illustrations. But he did not regard the clairvoyant consciousness (or whatever we call it) which, ex hypothesi, is untrammelled by space, or even by time, as occupying what we style the upper end of the psychical spectrum. On the contrary, he placed it at the lower end. Hegel’s upper end ’loses itself in light;’ the lower end, qui voit tant de choses, as La Fontaine’s shepherd says, is not ’a sublime mental phase, and capable of conveying general truths.’ Time and space do not thwart the consciousness at Hegel’s lower end, which springs from ’the great soul of nature.’ But that lower end, though it may see for Jeanne d’Arc at Valcouleurs a battle at Rouvray, a hundred leagues away, does not communicate any lofty philosophic truths. [14] The phenomena of clairvoyance, in Hegel’s opinion, merely indicate that the ’material’ is really ’ideal,’ which, perhaps, is as much as we can ask from them. ’The somnambulist and clairvoyant see without eyes, and carry their visions directly into regions where the waiting consciousness of orderly intelligence cannot enter’ (Wallace). Hegel admits, however, that ’in ordinary self-possessed conscious life’ there are traces of the ’magic tie,’ ’especially between female friends of delicate nerves,’ to whom he adds husband and wife, and members of the same family. He gives (without date or source) a case of a girl in Germany who saw her brother lying dead in a hospital at Valladolid. Her brother was at the time in the hospital, but it was another man in the nest bed who was dead. ’It is thus impossible to make out whether what the clairvoyants really see preponderates over what they deceive themselves in.’

As long as the facts which Hegel accepted are not officially welcomed by science, it may seem superfluous to dispute as to whether they are attained by the lower or the higher stratum of our consciousness. But perhaps the question here at issue may be elucidated by some remarks of Dr. Max Dessoir. Psychology, he says, has proved that in every conception and idea an image or group of images must be present. These mental images are the recrudescence or recurrence of perceptions. We see a tree, or a man, or a dog, and whenever we have before our minds the conception or idea of any of these things the original perception of them returns, though of course more faintly. But in Dr. Dessoir’s opinion these revived mental images would reach the height of actual hallucinations (so that the man, dog, or tree would seem visibly present) if other memories and new sensations did not compete with them and check their development.

Suppose, to use Mlle. Ferrand’s metaphor, a human body, living, but with all its channels of sensation hitherto unopened. Open the sense of sight to receive a flash of green colour, and close it again. Apparently, whenever the mind informing this body had the conception of green (and it could have no other) it would also have an hallucination of green, thus

’Annihilating all that’s made,
To a green thought in a green shade.’

Now, in sleep or hypnotic trance the competition of new sensations and other memories is removed or diminished, and therefore the idea of a man, dog, or tree once suggested to the hypnotised patient, does become an actual hallucination. The hypnotised patient sees the absent object which he is told to see, the sleeper sees things not really present.

Our primitive state, before the enormous competition of other memories and new sensations set in, would thus be a state of hallucination. Our normal present condition, in which hallucination is checked by competing memories and new sensations, is a suppression of our original, primitive, natural tendencies. Hallucination represents ’the main trunk of our psychical existence.’ [15] In Dr. Dessoir’s theory this condition of hallucination is man’s original and most primitive condition, but it is not a higher, rather a lower state of spiritual activity than the everyday practical unhallucinated consciousness.

This is also the opinion of Hegel, who supposes our primitive mental condition to be capable of descrying objects remote in space and time. Mr. Myers, as we saw, is of the opposite opinion, as to the relative dignity and relative reality of the present everyday self, and the old original fundamental Self. Dr. Dessoir refrains from pronouncing a decided opinion as to whether the original, primitive, hallucinated self within us does ’preside over powers and actions at a distance,’ such as clairvoyance; but he believes in hypnotisation at a distance. His theory, like Hegel’s, is that of ’atavism,’ or ’throwing back’ to some very remote ancestral
condition. This will prove of interest later.

Hegel, at all events, believed in the fact of clairvoyance (though deeming it of little practical use); he accepted telepathy (’the magic tie’); he accepted interchange of sensations between the hypnotiser and the hypnotised; he believed in the divining rod, and, unlike Kant, even in ’Scottish second-sight.’ ’The intuitive soul oversteps the conditions of time and space; it beholds things remote, things long past, and things to come.’ [16]

The pendulum of thought has swung back a long way from the point whither it was urged by David Hume. Hegel remarks: ’The facts, it might seem, first of all call for verification. But such verification would be superfluous to those on whose account it was called for, since they facilitate the inquiry for themselves by declaring the narratives, infinitely numerous though they be, and accredited by the education and character of the witnesses, to be mere deception and imposture. Their a priori conceptions are so rooted that no testimony can avail against them, and they have even denied what they have seen with their own eyes,’ and reported under their own hands, like Sir David Brewster. Hegel, it will be observed, takes the facts as given, and works them into his general theory of the Sensitive Soul (fählende Seele). He does not try to establish the facts; but to establish, or at least to examine them, is the first business of Psychical Research. Theorising comes later.

The years which have passed between the date of Hegel’s ’Philosophy of Mind’ and our own time have witnessed the long dispute over the existence, the nature, and the causes of the hypnotic condition, and over the reality and limitations of the phenomena. Thus the Academy of Medicine in Paris appointed a Committee to examine the subject in 1825. The Report on ’Animal Magnetism,’ as it was then styled, was presented in 1831. The Academy lacked the courage to publish it, for the Report was favourable even to certain of the still disputed phenomena. At that time, in accordance with a survival of the theory of Mesmer, the agent in hypnotic cases was believed to be a kind of efflux of a cosmic fluid from the ’magnetiser’ to the patient. There was ’a magnetic connection.’

Though no distinction between mesmerism and hypnotism is taken in popular language, ’mesmerism’ is a word implying this theory of ’magnetic’ or other unknown personal influence. ’Hypnotism,’ as will presently be seen, implies no such theory. The Academy’s Report (1831) attested the development, under ’magnetism,’ of ’new faculties,’ such as clairvoyance and intuition, also the production of ’great changes in the physical economy,’ such as insensibility, and sudden increase of strength. The Report declared it to be ’demonstrated’ that sleep could be produced ’without suggestion,’ as we say now, though the term was not then in use. ’Sleep has been produced in circumstances in which the persons could not see or were ignorant of the means employed to produce it.’

The Academy did its best to suppress this Report, which attests the phenomena that Hegel accepted, phenomena still disputed. Six years later (1837), a Committee reported against the pretensions of a certain Berna, a ’magnetiser.’ No person acted on both Committees, and this Report was accepted. Later, a number of people tried to read a letter in a box, and failed. ’This,’ says Mr. Vincent, ’settled the question with regard to clairvoyance;’ though it might be more logical to say that it settled the pretensions of the competitors on that occasion. The Academy now decided that, because certain persons did not satisfy the expectations raised by their preliminary advertisements, therefore the question of magnetism was definitely closed.

We have often to regret that scientific eminence is not always accompanied by scientific logic. Where science neglects a subject, charlatans and dupes take it up. In England ’animal magnetism’ had been abandoned to this class of enthusiasts, till Thackeray’s friend, Dr. Elliotson, devoted himself to the topic. He was persecuted as doctors know how to persecute; but in 1841, Braid, of Manchester, discovered that the so-called ’magnetic sleep’ could be produced without any ’magnetism,’ He made his patients stare fixedly at an object, and encouraged them to expect to go to sleep. He called his method ’Hypnotism,’ a term which begs no question. Seeming to cease to be mysterious, hypnotism became all but respectable, and was being used in surgical operations, till it was superseded by chloroform. In England, the study has been, and remains, rather suspect, while on The Continent hypnotism is used both for healing purposes and in the inquiries of experimental psychology. Wide differences of opinion still exist, as to the nature of the hypnotic sleep, as to its physiological concomitants, and as to the limits of the faculties exercised in or out of the slumber. It is not even absolutely certain that the exercise of the stranger faculties—for instance, that the production of anaesthesia and rigidity—are the results merely of ’suggestion’ and expectancy. A hypnotised patient is told that the middle finger of his left hand will become rigid and incapable of sensation. This occurs, and is explained by ’suggestion,’ though how ’suggestion’ produces the astonishing effect is another problem. The late Mr. Gurney, however, made a number of experiments in which no suggestion was pronounced, nor did the patients know which of their fingers was to become rigid and incapable of pain. The patient’s hands were thrust through a screen; on the other side of which the hypnotist made passes above the finger which was to become rigid. The lookers-on selected the finger, and the insensibility was tested by a strong electric current. The effect was also produced without passes, the operator merely pointing at the selected finger, and ’willing’ the result. If he did not ’will’ it, nothing occurred, nor did anything occur if he willed without pointing. The proximity of the operator’s hand produced no effect if he did not ’will,’ nor was his ’willing’ successful if he did not bring his hand near that of the patient. Other people’s hands, similarly situated, produced no effect.

Experiments in transferring taste, as of salt, sugar, cayenne pepper, from operator to subject, were also successful. Drs. Janet and Gibert also produced sleep in a woman at a distance, by ’willing’ it, at hours which were selected by a system of drawing lots. [17] These facts, of course, rather point to an element of truth in the old mesmeric hypothesis of some specific influence in the operator. They cannot very well be explained by suggestion and expectancy. But these facts and facts of clairvoyance and thought-transference will be rejected as superstitious delusions by people who have not met them in their own experience. This need not prevent us from examining them, because all the facts, including those now universally accepted by Continental and scarcely impeached by British science, have been noisily rejected again and again on Hume’s principles.

The rarer facts, as Mr. Gurney remarks, ’still go through the hollow form of taking place.’ Here is an example of the mode in which these phenomena are treated by popular science. Mr. Vincent says that ’clairvoyance and phrenology were Elliotson’s constant stock in trade.’ (Phrenology was also Braid’s stock in trade.) ’It is a matter of congratulation to have been so soon delivered from what Dr. Lloyd Tuckey has well called "a mass of superincumbent rubbish."’ [18] Clairvoyance is part of a mass of rubbish, on page 57. On page 67, Mr. Vincent says: ’There are many interesting questions, such as telepathy, thought-reading, clairvoyance, upon which it would be perhaps rash to give any decided opinion.... All these strange psychical conditions present problems of great interest,’ and are only omitted because ’they have not a sufficient bearing on the normal states of hypnosis....’ Thus what was ’rubbish’ in one page ’presents problems of great interest’ ten pages later, and, after offering a decided opinion that clairvoyance is rubbish, Mr. Vincent thinks it rash to give any decided opinion. It is rather rash to give a decided opinion, and then to say that it is rash to do so. [19]

This brief sketch shows that science is confronted by certain facts, which, in his time, Hume dismissed as incredible miracles, beneath the contempt of the wise and learned. We also see that the stranger and rarer phenomena which Hegel accepted as facts, and interwove with his general philosophy, are still matters of dispute. Admitted by some men of science, they are doubted by others; by others, again, are denied, while most of the journalists and authors of cheap primers, who inspire popular tradition, regard the phenomena as frauds or fables of superstition. But it is plain that these phenomena, like the more ordinary facts of hypnotism, may finally be admitted by science. The scientific world laughed, not so long ago, at Ogham inscriptions, meteorites, and at palaeolithic weapons as impostures, or freaks of nature. Now nobody has any doubt on these matters, and clairvoyance, thought-transference, and telepathy may, not inconceivably, be as fortunate in the long run as meteorites, or as the more usual phenomena of hypnotism.

It is only Lord Kelvin who now maintains, or lately maintained, that in hypnotism there is nothing at all but fraud and malobservation. In years to come it may be that only some similar belated voice will cry that in thought-transference there is nothing but malobservation and fraud. At present the serious attention and careful experiment needed for the establishment of the facts are more common among French than among English men of science. When published, these experiments, if they contain any affirmative instances, are denounced as ’superstitious,’ or criticized after what we must charitably deem to be a very hasty glance, by the guides of popular opinion. Examples of this method will be later quoted. Meanwhile the disputes as to these alleged facts are noticed here, because of their supposed relation to the Origin of Religion.

View online : Anthropology and Religion (The Making of Religion: Chapter III)


[1See Mr. Myers’s paper on the ’Ancient Oracles,’ in Classical Essays, and the author’s ’Ancient Spiritualism,’ in Cock Lane and Common Sense.

[2The italics here are those of Mr. Alfred Russell Wallace, in his Miracles and Modern Science. Mr. Huxley, in his exposure of Hume’s fallacies (in his Life of Hume), did not examine the Jansenist ’miracles’ which Hume was criticising.

[3Moll, Hypnotism, p. 357.

[4Animal Magnetism, p. 355.

[5A translation of his work was published in the New Review, January 1893. (See online: La foi qui guérit (PSYCHANALYSE-PARIS.COM.)

[6La Vérité des Miracles, Cologne, 1747, Septième Démonstration.

[7See Dr. Russell Reynolds’s paper in British Medical, November 1869.

[8James, Principles of Psychology, ii. 612. Charcot, op. cit.

[9I do not need to be told that Dr. Maudsley denied the fact in 1886. I am prepared with the evidence, if it is asked for by some savant who happens not to know it.

[10I am not responsible, of course, for the scientific validity of Dr. Charcot’s theory of healing ’by idea.’ My point merely is that certain experts of no slight experience or mean reputation do now admit, as important certainties within their personal knowledge, exactly the phenomena which Hume asks the wise and learned to laugh at, indeed, but never to investigate.

[11Pp. 353-356.

[12P. 93.

[13Träume, p. 76.

[14Hegel accepts the clairvoyance of the Pucelle.

[15See Dr. Dessoir, in Das Doppel Ich, as quoted by Mr. Myers, Proceedings, vol. vi. 213.

[16Philosophie des Geistes, Werke, vol. vii. 179. Berlin. 1845. The examples and much of the philosophising are in the Zusätze, not translated in Mr. Wallace’s version, Oxford, 1894.

[17Proceedings, S.P.R., vol. ii. pp. 201-207, 390-392.

[18Elements of Hypnotism, p. 67.

[19Possibly Mr. Vincent only means that Elliotson’s experiments, ’little more than sober footing’ (p. 57), with the sisters Okey, were rubbish. But whether the sisters Okey were or were not honest is a question on which we cannot enter here.

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