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In the long story of man's endeavors to understand his own environment and to govern his own fate, there is one gap or omission so singular that its simple statement has the air of a paradox. Yet it is strictly true to say that man has never yet applied the methods of modern science to the problem which most profoundly concerns himwhether or not his personality involves any element which can survive bodily death.
Nor is this strange omission due to any general belief that the problem is incapable of solution by any observation whatever which mankind could make. Although the resolutely agnostic view is no doubt held by many learned minds, it has never been the creed of the human race generally. In most civilized countries there has been for nearly two thousand years a distinct belief that survival has actually been proved by certain phenomena observed at a given date in Palestine. And beyond the Christian palewhether through reason, instinct, or superstitionit has ever been commonly held that ghostly phenomena of one kind or another exist to testify to a life beyond the life we know.
But nevertheless, neither those who believe on vague grounds nor those who believe on definite grounds that the question might possibly be solved by human observation of objective fact have made any serious attempt in this direction. They have not sought for fresh corroborative instances, for analogies, for explanations; rather they have kept their convictions on these fundamental matters in a separate and sealed compartment of theirminds, a compartment consecrated to religion or to superstition, but not to observation of experiment.
It is my object in the present work as it has from the first been the object of the Society for Psychical Research, on whose behalf most of the evidence here set forth has been collectedto do what can be done to break down that artificial wall between science and superstition. My one contention is that in the discussion of the deeper problems of man's nature and destiny there ought to be exactly the same openness of mind, diligence in the search for objective evidence of any kind, and critical analysis of results as is habitually shown, for instance, in the discussion of the nature and destiny of the planet upon which man now moves.
To the phenomenon of the Resurrection it would be illegitimate for me to refer in defense of my argument. I have appealed to Science and to Science I must go. Yet this one great tradition, as we know, has won the adhesion and reverence of the great majority of Western minds. The Christian religion, the Christian Church, became for them the accredited representative and guardian of all phenomena bearing upon the World Unseen. So long as Christianity stood dominant, all phenomena which seemed to transcend experience were absorbed in her realmwere accounted as minor indications of the activity of her angels or of her fiends. And when Christianity was seriously attacked, these minor manifestations passed unconsidered. The priests thought it safest to defend their own traditions without going afield in search of independent evidence of a spiritual world. Their assailants kept their powder and shot for the orthodox ramparts, ignoring any isolated strongholds which formed no part of the main line of defense.
Meantime, indeed, the laws of Nature held their wonted way. As ever, that which the years had once brought they brought again; and every here and there some marvel, liker to the old stories than any one cared to assert, cropped up between superstition on the one hand and contemptuous indifference on the other. Witchcraft, Mesmerism, Sweden-borgianism, Spiritismthese especially, amid many minor phenomena, stood out in turn as precursory of the inevitable wider inquiry.
A large group of persons have founded upon these and similar facts a scheme of belief known as Modern Spiritualism. Later chapters in this book will show how much I owe to certain observations made by members of this grouphow often my own conclusions concur with conclusions at which they have previously arrived. And yet this work of mine is in large measure a critical attack upon the main Spiritist positionthe belief that all or almost all supernormal phenomena are due to the action of spirits of the dead. By far the larger proportion, I hold, are due to the action of the still embodied spirit of the agent or percipient himself. Apart from speculative differences, moreover, I altogether dissent from the conversion into a sectarian creed of what I hold should be a branch of scientific inquiry, growing naturally out of our existing knowledge. It is, I believe, largely to this temper of uncritical acceptance, degenerating often into blind credulity, that we must refer the lack of progress in Spiritualistic literature, and the encouragement which has often been bestowed upon manifest fraudso often, indeed, as to create among scientific men a strong indisposition to the study of phenomena recorded or advocated in a tone so alien from Science.
In about 1873at the crest of perhaps the highest wave of materialism which has ever swept over these shoresit became the conviction of a small group of Cambridge friends (from which the Society for Psychical Research developed) that the deep questions thus at issue must be fought out in a way more thorough than the champions either of religion or of materialism had yet suggested. Our attitudes of mind were in some ways different; but to myself, at least, it seemed that no adequate attempt had yet been made to determine whether anything could be learnt as to an unseen world or no. I felt that if anything were knowable it must be discovered by simple experiment and observation, using precisely the same methods of deliberate, dispassionate, exact inquiry which have built up our actual knowledge about the world which we can touch and see. It must be an inquiry resting primarily upon objective facts actually observable, upon experiments which we can repeat today, and which we may hope to carry further tomorrow. It must be an inquiry based on the presumption that if a spiritual world exists, and if that world has at any epoch been manifest or even discoverable, then it ought to be manifest or discoverable now.
It was from these general considerations that the group with which I have worked approached the subject. In those early days we were more devoid of precedents, of guidance, even of criticism that went beyond mere expressions of contempt, than is now readily conceived. Seeking evidence as best we could, we were at last fortunate enough to discover a convergence of experimental and of spontaneous evidence upon one definite and important point. We were led to believe, that there was truth in a thesis which at least since Swedenborg and the early mesmerists had been repeatedly but cursorily and ineffectually presented to mankindthe thesis that a communication can take place from mind to mind by some agency not that of the recognized organs of sense. We found that this agency, discernible even on trivial occasions by suitable experiment, seemed to connect itself with an agency more intense, or at any rate more recognizable, which operated at moments of crisis or at the hour of death. Edmund Gurneythe invaluable collaborator and friend whose loss in 1888 was our heaviest discouragementset forth this evidence in a large work, Phantasms of the Living, in whose preparation Mr. Frank Podmore and I took a minor part.
In the course of this present work it will be my task to show in many connections how far-reaching are the implications of this direct and supersensory communion of mind with mind. Among those implications none can be more momentous than the light thrown by this discovery upon man's intimate nature and possible survival of death.
We gradually discovered that the accounts of apparitions at the moment of deathtestifying to a supersensory communication between the dying man and the friend who sees himled on without perceptible break to apparitions occurring after the death of the person seen, but while that death was yet unknown to the percipient, and thus apparently due not to mere brooding memory but to a continued action of that departed spirit. The task next incumbent on us therefore seemed plainly to be the collection and analysis of evidence of this and other types, pointing directly to the survival of man's spirit. But after pursuing this task for some years I felt that in reality the step from the action of embodied to the action of disembodied spirits would still seem too sudden if taken in this direct way. So far, indeed, as the evidence from apparitions went, the series seemed continuous from phantasms of the living to phantasms of the dead. But the whole mass of evidence pointing to man's survival was of a much more complex kind. It consisted largely, for example, in written or spoken utterances, coming through the hand or voice of living men, but claiming to proceed from a disembodied source. To these utterances no satisfactory criterion had ever been applied.
In considering cases of this kind, then, it became gradually plain to me that before we could safely mark off any group of manifestations as definitely implying an influence from beyond the grave, there was need of a more searching review of the capacities of man's incarnate personality than psychologists unfamiliar with this new evidence had thought it worth their while to undertake.
Let me then without further preamble embark upon that somewhat detailed survey of human faculty, as manifested during various phases of human personality, which is needful in order to throw fresh light on these unfamiliar themes. My discussion, I may say at once, will avoid metaphysics as carefully as it will avoid theology. For somewhat similar reasons I do not desire to introduce the philosophical opinions which have been held by various thinkers in the past, nor myself to speculate on matters lying beyond the possible field of objective proof. I shall merely for the sake of clearness begin by the briefest possible statement of two views of human personality which cannot be ignored.
The following passage, taken from a work once of much note, Reid's "Essay on the Intellectual Powers of Man," gives the old-fashioned, common sense view of human personality:
§ ... My personal identity ... implies the continued existence of that indivisible thing which I call myself. Whatever this self may be, it is something which thinks, and deliberates, and resolves, and acts, and suffers. I am not thought, I am not action, I am not feeling; I am something that thinks, and acts, and suffers. My thoughts and actions and feelings change every moment: they have no continued, but a successive existence; but that self or I, to which they belong, is permanent, and has the same relation to all succeeding thoughts, actions, and feelings which I call mine.... §
Contrast with this the newer view of experimental psychology in the passage with which M. Ribot concludes his essay on "Les Maladies de la Personnalité."
§ It is the organism, with the brain, its supreme representative, which constitutes the real personality; comprising in itself the remains of all that we have been and the possibilities of all that we shall be. The whole individual character is there inscribed, with its active and passive aptitudes, its sympathies and antipathies, its genius, its talent or its stupidity, its virtues and its vices, its torpor or its activity. The part thereof which emerges into consciousness is little compared with what remains buried, but operative nevertheless. The conscious personality is never more than a small fraction of the psychical personality. The unity of the Ego is not therefore the unity of a single entity diffusing itself among multiple phenomena; it is the co-ordination of a certain number of states perpetually renascent, and having for their sole common basis the vague feeling of our body ... the Self is a co-ordination. It oscillates between two extremes at each of which it ceases to existabsolute unity and absolute incoherence. §
Here, then, we have two dear and definite views, apparently incompatible the one with the other. The supporters of the view that "The Self is a coordination"and this is now the view prevalent among experimental psychologists have frankly given up any notion of an underlying unityof a life independent of the organismin a word, of a human soul. The supporters of the unity of the Ego, on the other hand, if they have not been able to be equally explicit in denying the opposite view, have made up for this by the thorough-going way in which they have ignored it. Yet certain fresh evidence can now be adduced which has the effect of showing the case on each side in a novel light; nay, even of closing the immediate controversy by a judgment more decisively in favor of both parties than either could have expected. On the one side, and in favor of the co-ordinatorsall their analysis of the Self into its constituent elements, all that they urge of positive observation, of objective experiment, mustas I shall maintain on the strength of the new facts which I shall adducebe unreservedly conceded. It is on the negative side that the conclusions of this school need a complete overhauling. Deeper, bolder inquiry along their own line shows that they have erred when they asserted that analysis showed no trace of faculty beyond such as the life of earthas they conceive itcould foster, or the environment of earth employ. For in reality analysis shows traces of faculty which this material or planetary life could not have called into being, and whose exercise even here and now involves and necessitates the existence of a spiritual world.
On the other side, and in favor of the partisans of the unity of the Ego, the effect of the new evidence is to raise their claim to a far higher ground, and to substantiate it for the first time with the strongest presumptive proof which can be imagined for it; a proof, namely, that the Ego can and does survivenot only the minor disintegrations which affect it during earth-lifebut the crowning disintegration of bodily death. In view of this unhoped-for ratification of their highest dream, they may be more than content to surrender as untenable the far narrower conception of the unitary Self which was all that "common-sense philosophies" had ventured to claim. The "conscious Self" of each of usthe empirical, the supraliminal Self, as I should prefer to saydoes not comprise the whole of the consciousness, or of the faculty within us. There exists a more comprehensive consciousness, a profounder faculty, which for the most part remains potential only so far as regards the life of earth, but which reasserts itself in its plenitude after the liberating change of death.
Towards this conclusion, which assumed for me something like its present shape some fourteen years since, a long series of tentative speculations, based on gradually accruing evidence, has slowly conducted me. The conception is one which has hitherto been regarded as purely mystical; and if I endeavor to plant it upon a scientific basis I certainly shall not succeed in stating it in its final terms or in the best arguments which longer experience will suggest. Its validity, indeed, will be impressed upon the reader only by the successive study of the various kinds of evidence which this book will set forth.
The idea of a threshold of consciousnessof a level above which sensation or thought must rise before it can enter into our conscious lifeis a simple and familiar one. The word subliminal, meaning "beneath that threshold," has already been used to define those sensations which are too feeble to be individually recognized. I propose to extend the meaning of the term, so as to make it cover all that takes place beneath the ordinary threshold, or outside the ordinary margin of consciousness. This includes not only those faint stimulations whose very faintness keeps them submerged, but much else which psychology as yet scarcely recognizes; sensations, thoughts, emotions, which may be strong, definite, and independent, but which seldom emerge into that supraliminal current of consciousness which we habitually identify with ourselves. Perceiving that these submerged thoughts and emotions possess the characteristics which we associate with conscious life, I feel bound to speak of a subliminal or ultramarginal consciousness. Perceiving further that this conscious life beneath the threshold or beyond the margin seems to be no discontinuous or intermittent thing; that not only are these isolated subliminal processes comparable with isolated supraliminal processes (as when a problem is solved by some unknown procedure in a dream), but that there also is a continuous subliminal chain of memory (or more chains than one) involving just that kind of individual and persistent revival of old impressions, and response to new ones, which we commonly call a SelfI find it permissible and convenient to speak of subliminal Selves, or more briefly of a subliminal Self. I do not by using this term assume that there are two correlative and parallel selves existing always within each of us. Rather I mean by the subliminal Self that part of the Self which is commonly subliminal; and I conceive that there may be, not only co-operations between these quasi-independent trains of thought, but also upheavals and alternations of personality of many kinds, so that what was once below the surface may for a time, or permanently, rise above it. And I conceive also that no Self of which we can here have cognizance is in reality more than a fragment of a larger Self.
We find that the subliminal uprushesthe impulses or communications which reach our emergent from our submerged selvesare often characteristically different in quality from any element known to our ordinary supraliminal life. They are different in a way which implies faculty of which we have had no previous knowledge, operating in an environment of which hitherto we have been wholly unaware. This broad statement it is of course the purpose of my whole work to justify. Assuming its truth here for argument's sake, we see at once that the problem of the hidden self entirely changes its aspect. Telepathy and clairvoyancethe perception of distant thoughts and of distant scenes without the agency of the recognized organs of sensesuggest either incalculable extension of our own mental powers, or else the influence upon us of minds freer and less trammeled than our own.
Now there are those who would explain this supernormal phenomenon altogether as the agency of discarnate minds, or spirits. And if the subliminal faculties for which I argue are denied to man, some such hypothesis as this, of almost continuous spirit-intervention and spirit-guidance, is at once rendered necessary.
However, I explain this by the action of man's own spirit, without invoking spirits external to himself. Yet the one view still gives support to the other. For these faculties of distant communication exist none the less, even though we should refer them to our own subliminal selves. We can affect each other at a distance, telepathically; and if our incarnate spirits can act thus in at least apparent independence of the fleshly body, the presumption is strong that other spirits may exist independently of the body, and may affect us in similar manner.
It will be my object in this book to lead by transitions as varied and as gradual as possible from phenomena held as normal to phenomena held as supernormal, and it may be useful to conclude this introductory chapter by a brief sketch of the main tracts across which our winding road must lie.
Our inquiry will naturally begin by discussing the subliminal structure, in disease or health, of those two familiar phases of human personality, ordinary waking and ordinary sleep. I shall go on to consider in what way the disintegration of personality by disease is met by its reintegration and purposive modification by hypnotism and self-suggestion. I shall go on then to sensory automatism which is the basis of hallucination. This includes phenomena claiming an origin outside the automatist's own mind. It will be found that that origin is often to be sought in the minds of other living men; and various forms of telepathy will be brought under review. The conception of telepathy is not one that needs be confined to spirits still incarnate; and we shall find evidence that intercourse of similarly direct type can take place between discarnate and incarnate spirits. The remainder of the book will discuss the methods and results of this supernormal intercourse.
My second chapter may at first sight appear to stray somewhat far from my main purport. It is of the evolution of human personality that this work proposes to treat; of faculties newly dawning, and of a destiny greater than we know. Yet I must begin with a detailed discussion of certain modes of that personality's disintegration and decay. Alternations of personality and hysterical phenomena generally are in fact spontaneous experiments of precisely the type most instructive to us. For my own argument, indeed, I urgently need some true conception of the psychological meaning of hysteria, and when that conception has been reached, the support which is given by analogy to my own principal thesis will be found to be of the most striking kind.
Continuing this inquiry in my third chapter, I shall consider what kind of man he is to whom the epithet of normal may be most fitly applied. I shall at least claim that that man shall be regarded as normal who has the fullest grasp of faculties which inhere in the whole race. Among these faculties I shall venture to count subliminal as well as supraliminal powers; the mental processes which take place below the conscious threshold as well as those which take place above it. What class of men, then, can we regard as reaping most advantage from this submerged mentation? Men of genius, I shall reply, describing an "inspiration of genius" as a subliminal uprush, an emergence into ordinary consciousness of ideas matured below the threshold.
In the fourth chapter I shall deal with the alternating phase through which man's personality is constructed habitually to pass. I speak of sleep, which I regard as a phase of personality, adapted to maintain our existence in the spiritual environment, and to draw from thence the vitality of our physical organisms. Those faculties which form man's link with the spiritual worldtelepathy and clairvoyanceare apt (as dreams obscurely show us) to make in sleep their first rudimentary appearance.
For I hold that telepathy and clairvoyance do in fact existtelepathy, a communication between incarnate mind and incarnate mind, and perhaps between incarnate minds and minds unembodied; clairvoyance, a knowledge of things terrene which overpasses the limits of ordinary perception, and which perhaps also achieves an insight into some other than terrene world.
Thus far I shall have been dealing with conditions or phases of personality which, whether for good or evil, appear spontaneously and without artificial induction. We are able to mix therewith an element of experiment which, although yet in its infancy, has already, in my view, given us an insight into much of man's nature which no mere speculation or introspection could ever have reached. First among our experimental methods I must speak of hypnotism. We see here the influence exercised by suggestion and self-suggestion on higher types of faculty; supernormal as well as normal, on character, on personality. It is on this side, indeed, that the outlook is the most deeply interesting. Man is in course of evolution; and the most pregnant hint which these nascent experiments have yet given him is that it may be in his power to hasten his own evolution in ways previously unknown.
Excerpted from Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death by F.W.H. Myers. Copyright © 2001 by Jeffrey Mishlove, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.