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Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

Notes on the Growth of Opinion as to
Obscure Psychical Phenomena During the
Last Fifty Years (S478: 1893)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A short essay Wallace communicated to the Psychical Congress held in Chicago in August 1893. This paper became one of Wallace's most reprinted works during his own lifetime, and was later integrated into the Preface of the third edition of Miracles and Modern Spiritualism in 1896. The source of the transcription below is the 15 September 1893 issue of The Two Worlds, a Manchester (U.K.) spiritualism magazine. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S478.htm

    [[p. 440]] Having been more or less acquainted with psychical phenomena for half a century it appears to me that a few notes of opinion I have witnessed during that period may not be uninteresting to the Congress. I must apologise for the brief and fragmentary nature of the communication, having neither time nor materials for a more detailed statement.

    It was about the year 1843 that I first became interested in psychical phenomena owing to the violent discussion then going on as to the reality of the painless surgical operations performed by Dr. Elliotson and other English surgeons on patients in the mesmeric trance. The greatest surgical and psychological authorities of the day declared that the patients were either impostors or persons naturally insensible to pain; the operating surgeons were accused of bribing their patients; and Dr. Elliotson was accused of "polluting the temple of science." The Medico Chirurgical Society opposed the reading of a paper describing an amputation during the magnetic trance, while Dr. Elliotson himself was ejected from his professorship in the University of London. It was at this time generally believed that all the now well-known phenomena of hypnotism were the result of imposture.

    It so happened that in the year 1844 I heard an able lecture on mesmerism by Mr. Spencer Hall, and the lecturer assured his audience that most healthy persons could mesmerise some of their friends, and reproduce many of the phenomena he had shown on the platform. This led me to try for myself, and I soon found that I could mesmerise with varying degrees of success, and before long I succeeded in producing in my own room, either alone with my patient or in the presence of friends, most of the usual phenomena. Partial or complete catalepsy, paralysis of the motor nerves, in certain directions, or of any special sense, every kind of delusion produced by suggestion, insensibility to pain, and community of sensation with myself when at a considerable distance from the patient, were all demonstrated, in such a number of patients and under such varied conditions as to satisfy me of the genuiness of the phenomena. I thus learnt my first great lesson in the inquiry into these obscure fields of knowledge, never to accept the disbelief of great men or their accusations of imposture or of imbecility, as of any weight when opposed to the repeated observation of facts by other men, admittedly sane and honest. The whole history of science shows us that whenever the educated and scientific men of any age have denied the facts of other investigators on [[p. 441]] a priori grounds of absurdity or impossibility, the deniers have always been wrong.

    A few years later, and all the more familiar facts of mesmerism were accepted by medical men, and explained more or less satisfactorily to themselves, as not being essentially different from known diseases of the nervous system; and of late years the more remarkable phenomena, including clairvoyance both as to facts known and those unknown to the mesmeriser, have been established as absolute realities.

    Next we come to the researches of Baron von Reichenbach on the action of magnets and crystals upon sensitives. I well remember how these were scouted by the late Dr. W. B. Carpenter and by Professor Tyndall, and how I was pitied for my credulity in accepting them. But many of his results have now been tested by French and English observers and have been found to be correct.

    Then we all remember how the phenomena of the stigmata, which have occurred at many epochs in the Catholic church, were always looked upon by sceptics as gross imposture and the believers in its reality as too far gone in credulity to be seriously reasoned with. Yet when the case of Louise Lateau was thoroughly investigated by sceptical physicians and could be no longer doubted, the facts were admitted, and when, later on, somewhat similar appearances were produced in hypnotic patients by suggestion, the whole matter was held to be explained.

    Second-sight, crystal-seeing, automatic writing, and allied phenomena have been usually treated either as self-delusion or as imposture, but now that they have been carefully studied by Mr. Myers, Mr. Stead, and other enquirers, they have been found to be genuine facts; and it has been further proved that they often give information not known to any one present at the time, and even sometimes predict future events with accuracy.

    Trance mediums who give similar information to that obtained through crystal seeing or automatic writing, have long been held up to scorn as impostors of the grossest kind. They have been the butt of newspaper writers, and have been punished for obtaining money under false pretences; yet when one of these trance mediums, the well-known Mrs. Piper, was subject to a stringent examination by some of the acutest members of the Society for Psychical Research, the unanimous testimony was that there was no imposture in the case, and that, however the knowledge exhibited was acquired, Mrs. Piper herself could never have acquired it through the medium of her ordinary senses.

    Nothing has been more constantly disbelieved and ridiculed than the alleged appearance of phantasms of the living or of the recently dead, whether seen by one person alone, or by several together. Imagination, disease, imposture, or erroneous observation have been again and again put forth as sufficient explanation of these appearances. But when carefully examined they do not prove to be impostures, but stand out with greater distinctness as veridical and sometimes objective phenomena, as is sufficiently proved by the mass of well attested and well sifted evidence published by the Society for Psychical Research. Still more subject to ridicule and contempt are ghosts and haunted houses. It has been said that these disappeared with the advent of gas; but so far from this being the case there is ample testimony at the present day to phenomena which come under these categories.

    In this connection also we have not merely appearances, which may be explained away as collective hallucinations, but actual physical phenomena of such a material character as stone-throwing, bell-ringing, movements of furniture, independent writing and drawing, and many other manifestations of force guided by intelligence which is yet not the force or the intelligence of those present. Records of such phenomena pervade history, and during the last century and especially during the last half century, they have been increasingly prevalent, and have been supported by the same kind and the same amount of cumulative testimony as all the preceding classes of phenomena. Some of these cases are now being investigated, and there is no sign of their being traced to imposture. From personal knowledge and careful experiments I can testify that some of these physical phenomena are realities, and I cannot doubt that the fullest investigation will result, as in all the other cases, in their recognition as facts which any comprehensive theory must recognise and explain.

    What are termed spirit photographs, the appearance on a photographic plate of other figures besides those of the sitters, often those of deceased friends of the sitters, have now been known for more than twenty years. Many competent observers have tried experiments successfully; but the facts seemed too extraordinary to carry conviction to any but the experimenters themselves, and any allusion to the subject has usually been met with a smile of incredulity or a confident assertion of imposture. It mattered not that most of the witnesses were experienced photographers who took precautions which rendered it absolutely impossible that they were imposed upon. The most incredible suppositions were put forth by those who only had ignorance and incredulity to qualify them as judges, in order to show that deception was possible. And now we have another competent witness, Mr. Traill Taylor, for many years editor of the British Journal of Photography, who, taking every precaution that his life-long experience could suggest, yet obtained on his plates figures which, so far as normal photography is concerned, ought not to have been there.

    Lastly, we come to consider the claim of the intelligences who are connected with most of these varied phenomena to be the spirits of deceased men and women, such claim being supported by tests of various kinds, especially by giving accurate information regarding themselves as to facts totally unknown to the medium or to any person present. Records of such tests are numerous in spiritual literature as well as in the publications of the Society for Psychical Research, but at present they are regarded as inconclusive, and various theories of a double or multiple personality, of a subconscious or second self, or of a lower stratum of consciousness are called in to explain them or to attempt to explain them. The stupendous difficulty that, if these phenomena and these tests are to be all attributed to the "second self" of living persons, then that second self is almost always a deceiving and a lying self, however moral and truthful the visible and tangible first self may be, has, so far as I know, never been rationally explained; yet this cumbrous and unintelligible hypothesis finds great favour with those who have always been accustomed to regard the belief in a spirit world, and more particularly a belief that the spirits of our dead friends can and do sometimes communicate with us, as unscientific, unphilosophical, and superstitious. Why it should be unscientific, more than any other hypothesis which alone serves to explain intelligibly a great body of facts, has never been explained. The antagonism which it excites seems to be mainly due to the fact that it is, and has long been in some form or other, the belief of the religious world and of the ignorant and superstitious of all ages, while a total disbelief in spiritual existence has been the distinctive badge of modern scientific scepticism. But we find that the belief of the uneducated and unscientific multitude rested on a broad basis of facts which the scientific world scouted and scoffed at as absurd and impossible. Now, however, we are discovering, as this brief sketch has shown, that the alleged facts are one after another proved to be real facts, and, strange to say, with little or no exaggeration, since almost every one of them, though implying abnormal powers in human being or the agency of a spirit-world around us, has been strictly paralleled in the present day, and has been subjected to the close scrutiny of the scientific and sceptical with little or no modification of their essential nature. Since, then, the scientific world has been proved to have been totally wrong in its denial of the facts, as being contrary to laws of nature and therefore incredible, it seems highly probable, a priori, it may have been equally wrong as to the spirit hypothesis, the dislike of which mainly led to their disbelief in the facts. For myself, I never have been able to see why any one hypothesis should be less scientific than another, except so far as one explains the whole of the facts and the other explains only a part of them. It was this alone that rendered the theory of gravitation more scientific than that of cycles and epicycles, the undulatory theory of light more scientific than the emission theory, and the theory of Darwin more scientific than that of Lamarck. It is often said that we must exhaust known causes before we call in unknown causes to explain phenomena. This may be admitted, but I cannot see how it applies to the present question. The "second" or "sub-conscious self" with its wide stores of knowledge how gained no one knows, its distinct character, its low morality, its constant lies, is as purely a theoretical cause as is the spirit of a deceased person or any other spirit. It can in no sense be termed "a known cause." To call this hypothesis "scientific," and that of spirit agency "unscientific" is to beg the question at issue. That theory is most scientific which best explains the whole series of phenomena; and I therefore claim that the spirit-hypothesis is the most scientific, since even those who oppose it most strenuously often admit that it does explain all the facts, which cannot be said of any other hypothesis. This very brief and very imperfect sketch of the progress of opinion on the questions this Congress has met to discuss leads us, I think, to some valuable and reassuring conclusions. We are taught, first, that human nature is not so wholly and utterly the slave of delusion as has sometimes been alleged, since almost every alleged superstition is now shown to have had a basis of fact. Secondly, those who believe, as I do, that spiritual beings can and do, subject to general laws and for certain purposes, communicate with us, and even produce material effects in the world around us, must see in the steady advance of inquiry and of interest in these questions, the assurance that, so far as their beliefs are logical deductions from the phenomena they have witnessed, those beliefs will at no distant date be accepted by all truth-seeking inquirers.

    Parkstone, Dorset, England.

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