Supernatural Magazine

Paranormal Review SPR Editorial Issue 77 Winter 2015

Editorial

In an unremarkable house in a quiet suburb filled with rather ordinary, if well-to-do folk, a respected and respectable doctor and his equally respectable wife, and later other members of their respectable family, sat down at a table – their séance table – and conducted the most remarkable series of psychical experiments ever put on record. They are remarkable, not only for their longevity – the experiments ran from 1918 to 1944 – but also for the probity of those involved and, most especially, for the richness of the apparent evidence obtained. Tables levitated and flew through the air. Spirits introduced themselves and conveyed messages from the other world. Mediums produced ectoplasm, sometimes stringy or formless, sometimes bearing images of the deceased and once moulding itself into a human form.

We know all of this because they took scrupulous notes. And photographs. These were not posed ‘spirit photographs’, but images captured by a bank of cameras – full format, wide-angle, stereoscopic – in the midst of the séance. The result is one of the most marvellous archives of psychical research in the world: the Hamilton Family Fonds (‘fonds’, singular, is an archival term for a complete collection of material organically produced by a single source).

The idea for this special issue came about, appositely enough, during the ‘Preserving the Historical Collections of Parapsychology’ conference in Utrecht in 2014 when I had the good fortune to meet Walter Meyer zu Erpen and Dr Shelley Sweeney. The former has devoted much of his life to the study of this unique collection. The latter runs the precious archives where they are kept safe for posterity. Thanks to their unstinting efforts in bringing this project to fruition, sometimes against some serious odds, we have created the definitive statement on the state of research into the Hamilton Family fonds. And thanks to the generosity of the University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections (UMASC), we are particularly fortunate to be able to print some of that photographic evidence in this issue.

We are privileged to have Janice Hamilton write the introduction to this special issue. She is the grand-daughter of Dr Thomas Glendenning Hamilton and Lillian Hamilton, the psychical researchers who led these experiments. Meyer zu Erpen goes deeper into the story with two articles looking at particular aspects of the case: table levitation; teleplasm (ectoplasm); and wax impressions allegedly made by spirits. Having experienced supposedly supernatural table levitation myself at a séance with Kai Mügge in 2015 [see PR75], I was particularly interested in the descriptions and photographic documentation of the Hamilton levitations. Readers will also notice that the Hamilton ‘teleplasm’ shown here generally appears quite different from the Helen Duncan ectoplasm sample that graced the cover of PR74. Meyer zu Erpen’s careful analysis of the authenticity of the phenomena in his third contribution, ‘Fact or Fraud?’, is particularly insightful.

Walter David Falk looks at an aspect of particular interest to the SPR: the alleged communications from Raymond Lodge. We are able to reproduce a comparison of an original photograph of Raymond and his supposed ectoplasmic manifestation. Readers are invited to form their own opinions (and tell me about them).

Shelley Sweeney contributes an account of the fonds itself. Artist Susan MacWilliam shows how it has been used, in her case, to make a film based on some of the material.

The final assessment of the case by two of those with the greatest knowledge of it, Meyer zu Erpen and Sweeney, is an invaluable statement. We should not overlook that there are other lessons to be learned here. Sweeney notes how the Hamilton Family Fonds have become a magnet for other donations. The SPR Archives, already rich and wonderful, could also become a magnet, if only they were better known.

As it has been pointed out to me, after the UMASC published the Register of the Thomas Glendenning Hamilton Collection in 1980, Leslie Price wrote a short review for our Journal. He concluded that ‘The Hamilton circle has been largely ignored by post-Margery researchers […] It deserves reassessment, perhaps by a Canadian worker with access to this collection.’ With this special issue, we now have that reassessment.

WHATS IN ISSUE 77

PRESIDENTS LETTER

The Attitude of Incredulity - John Poynton

There is the feel of new beginnings in the SPR, with the move to our new building, development of the Psi Encyclopaedia, and other initiatives sparked mainly by the Buckmaster legacy. Yet it should also be a time for reflection, a time to look back to the origins of our Society and to take account of unfinished business.

Some unfinished business is suggested in the oft-quoted passage from the Society’ s inaugural presidential address, delivered in 1882 by Henry Sidgwick: ‘ I say it is a scandal that the dispute as to the reality of [psi] phenomena should still be going on, that so many competent witnesses should have declared their belief in them, that so many others should be profoundly interested in having this question determined, and yet the educated world, as a body, should still be simply in the attitude of incredulity.[1]

It could have been written today. The scandal continues.

A man of great philosophical eminence, Sidgwick evidently had enough confidence in human rationality to trust to the mass of evidence for conviction to demolish the attitude of incredulity. In his second address of 1882 he declared that if doubters of telepathy will not yield to half-a-dozen decisive experiments by investigators of trained intelligence and hitherto unquestioned probity, let us try to give them half-a-dozen more recorded by other witnesses; if a dozen will not do, let us try to give them more; if a score will not do, let us make up the tale to fift y. The time and trouble will not be thrown away if only we can attain the end.[2]

The mass of evidence is now enormous and steadily increasing if one considers the books I listed in my first letter,[3] along with the variety of evidence recorded in our Journal, for example. Yet the scandal is still with us; denial, debunking is the ruling fashion of the day, from Wikipedia to sceptical publications. So while not downplaying the importance Sidgwick placed on facts, was there something that he missed?

He recognized that Scientific incredulity has been so long in growing, and has so many and so strong roots, that we shall only kill it […] by burying it alive under a heap of facts.[4] But the many and strong roots appeared to him to be something that objective and rational science could deal with if one just piled fact upon fact at a purely empirical level. He seemed to have missed what Abraham Maslow in 1966 termed cognitive pathologies[5] When a scientist finds himself out of depth or without bearings he will, Maslow wrote, be found desperately and stubbornly hanging on to a generalization, in spite of new information that contradicts it. It is a prime source of scientific incredulity

That the incredulity has many and strong roots could suggest some even deeper cognitive pathology than just the reaction of being faced with something new. It has to do with culture, taste, history, a kind of background dissonance with psi phenomena. One might have expected Sidgwick as a philosopher to tackle this directly, yet I have come across a discussion in only two places. The first is in his second presidential address.[6] He considered a notion that aversion to psi phenomena is hard-wired in the brain (as we would now term it). This notion appeared in an article in the Pall Mall Gazette which urged its readers to abstain from enquiring into ghost stories on account of the dangerous tendency to give them credence which, on the principles of evolution, must be held to exist in our brains

The article declared that we must starve such morbid fibres in the brain by steadily refusing them the slightest nutriment in the way of apparent evidence [...] The scientific attitude can only be maintained by careful abstention from dangerous trains of thought. Sidgwicks comment was that it was: The exact counterpart of the dissuasions which certain unwise defenders of religious orthodoxy, a generation ago, used to urge against the examination of the evidences of Christianity. They told us that owing to the inherited corruption of the human heart we had proneness to wrong belief which could only be resisted by steadily neglecting to develop it; that we must keep clear of the pitch of free-thinking if we would avoid defilement; that, in short, the religious attitude can only be preserved by careful abstention from dangerous trains of thought

He recalled the indignation with which our scientific teachers then repudiated these well-meant warnings, as involving disloyalty to the sacred cause of truth. Yet they themselves were doing exactly the same thing with their own obstinate incredulity regarding psychic research. Sidgwicks comment:

I thought how the whirligig of time brings round his revenges and how the new professor is “but the old priest writ large” in a brand-new scientific jargon.

This cognitive pathology is as relevant to the present as it was a hundred and thirty years ago even to neurological fantasy, which has its present counterparts. But it does bring into question Sidgwicks belief that the attitude of incredulity can be buried alive under a heap of facts. If it is hard-wired, then we have to fall back on the adage that change comes about in science only through the funerals of the old guard. Putting aside neurological fantasies, one still has to askwhy it is that the attitude of incredulity exists and persists. In a second discussion I have come across, Sidgwick touched on the question in a set of posthumously published lectures on the eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant.[7] The most influential of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophers, Kants anti-psi stance has cast a long shadow over psychical research.[8] Sidgwick noted that Kant viewed telepathy as belonging to concepts the possibility of which has nothing to rest on, because it is not founded on experience and its known laws. Sidgwicks comment was that Kant does not exactly say that telepathy, etc., is impossible, but only that its possibility has nothing to rest on and cannot be tested.

Kant could have set up experiments to do some testing, as did our founders. But it seems that in Enlightenment times it was not the fashion to engage in empirical tests of psychic claims; only reason should be applied, not direct experience. This could seem a betrayal of true enlightenment. Kant declared in a document of 1784: All spirits and ghosts, apparitions, dream inter-pretations, precognitions of the future, sympathy of souls are altogether a most objectionable delusion, for it does not allow itself to be explained through any rule or through comparative observations [...] and even if real ghosts exist, a rational person must still not believe in them, because it corrupts all use of reason.[9]

This seems as unenlightened as the Pall Mall Gazettes advice about careful abstention from dangerous trains of thought. Kants idea of a world not visible to us now but hoped for was central to his moral philosophy, yet, far from welcoming any empirical investigation into immortality, he rejected it in keeping with the attitude of the times.

This is shown in his attack on the scientist-turned-seer Emanuel Swedenborg, who described visits to other worlds and conversing with spirits of Dead people. Despite Swedenborg declaring his experiences to be ex auditis et visis, from hearing and seeing, Kant dismissed them as wild and unspeakably silly forms that our enthusiast believes he sees in his daily dealings with spirits. [10] This is covered in an invaluable study of Kants thinking by Gregory Johnson.[11] Apart from the cognitive pathology, Johnson pointed out that Kants attack on Swedenborg can be seen as a smear campaign that suited him. Swedenborgs work could be dismissed either as objectionable medieval occultism or as Christian heresy; for Kant, this attack would help establish his position in academe as a critical thinker by associating himself with the sceptical tenets and attitudes of the times. This debunking strategy is still successfully followed to this day. The attitude of incredulity pays off.

Then what do we do about this scandal? Sidgwick undoubtedly was correct in maintaining that facts are the foundation of psychical research as a science. But a different tactic needs to be used against the powerful Kantian legacy that a rational person must not believe in psi phenomena because it corrupts all use of reason.[12] It was an Enlightenment ideal to glorify human reason, but if reason is placed above raw observation and experience, then what is there to distinguish it from prejudice and dogmatism? It can become a cramping application of the iron rule of the mechanistic regime decried by Smuts, as discussed in my last letter.

It seems that until we study and understand deeply the attitude of incredulity, there is little chance of resolving the dispute as to the reality of [psi] phenomena. In a recent paper in our Journal, Harvey Irwin asked, Why, then, has the study of the origins of paranormal disbelief been so neglected? [13] An intertwined complex of historical, psychological and philosophical factors seems involved; here surely is material for several PhD theses and larger works. Yet in his study of disbelief, Irwin made use of one of the best documented psychological correlates of paranormal belief, which distinguishes an intuitive-experiential mode from a rational-analytic mode of thinking style. But to separate rational-analytic from experiential modes is to recycle the Enlightenment pathology which Kant displayed so prominently. It serves the notion that disbelief in psi is coupled with reason, and belief is coupled with the irrational.

We need to understand precisely how this pernicious notion came about. We need to understand how and why cognitive pathologies insert themselves into a thinking style. The study of the origins of paranormal disbelief is unfinished business that cannot remain so neglected.

NOTES

I am grateful to Andreas Sommer for helpful comment.

[1] Henry Sidgwick, Presidential Address, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 1

(July 1882), pp. 7-12.

[2] Henry Sidgwick, Presidential Address Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 1 (December 1882), pp. 65-69.

[3] John Poynton, Presidents Letter: A Tide in the Affairs of Men Paranormal Review, 75 (Summer 2015), pp. 4-5.

[4] Sidgwick, Presidential (July 1882), pp. 7-12.

[5] Abraham Maslow, The Psychology of Science: A Reconnaissance (New York: Harper & Row, 1966).

[6] Sidgwick, Presidential (December 1882), pp. 65-69.

[7] Henry Sidgwick, Lectures on the Philosophy of Kant and Other Philosophical Lectures and Essays (London: Macmillan & Co., 1905).

[8] John Poynton, Long Shadow over Psychical Research: An Essay Review of Johnsons Kant on Swedenborg: Dreams of a Spirit-Seer, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 68.4 (October 2004), pp. 262-268.

[9] Gregory Johnson (ed.), Kant on Swedenborg: Dreams of a Spirit-Seer and Other Writings (West Chester, Penn.: Swedenborg Foundation, 2002), p. 100.

[10] Johnson, Kant on Swedenborg, p. 54.

[11] Johnson, Kant on Swedenborg, note 7.

[12] Johnson, Kant on Swedenborg, p. 100.

[13] Harvey Irwin, Thinking Style and the Making of a Paranormal Disbelief, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 79.3 (July 2015), pp. 129-139.

‘BRING ON YOUR GHOSTS!’

Janice Hamilton introduces us to the Thomas Glendenning Hamilton family séances, which took place from 1918 to 1944 in Winnipeg, Canada.

DO TABLES FLY?

Walter Meyer zu Erpen begins his assessment with an in-depth look at the Hamiltons’ experiments with ‘psychic force’ from 1921 to 1927. Of Teleplasms and Wax Fingertips Walter Meyer zu Erpen continues with a look at#Dr William Creighton’s role#in authenticating physical phenomena at the Hamilton séances.

RAYMOND COMMUNICATES

Walter David Falk examines the teleplasmic appearance of Raymond Lodge at a Hamilton séance in 1929.

PSYCHIC ATTRACTION

Dr Shelley Sweeney introduces us to the Hamilton Family Fonds at the University of Manitoba and its role in stimulating further research and Spiritualist donations.

THROUGH THE CAMERA

Film-maker Susan MacWilliam discusses the teleplasmic appearances of Flammarion, Stead, Conan Doyle, Lodge and other SPR members, as well as Flammarion’s role in her 2009 film, F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N.

FACT OR FRAUD?

Walter Meyer zu Erpen weighs the evidence for the authenticity of the medium Mary Marshall’s teleplasms, with some challenging conclusions.

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

Walter Meyer zu Erpen and Shelley Sweeney conclude the Hamilton special issue with a consideration of the Hamilton physical phenomena as evidence for life after death.

GHOST IN THE MACHINE

Brandon Hodge searches for London’s lost spirit communication devices.

LETTERS

Prof. Adrian Parker continues discussion of Kai Mügge’s mediumship.

CONTRIBUTORS AND EVENTS

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The Society for Psychical Research

The SPR was the first organisation established to examine allegedly paranormal phenomena using scientific principles. Our aim is to learn more about events and abilities commonly described as ‘psychic’ or ‘paranormal’ by supporting research, sharing information and encouraging debate. The SPR is a Registered Charity, established in 1882.

Leo Ruickbie

Leo Ruickbie

Dr Leo Ruickbie, BA (Hons), MA, PhD, AKC (Associate of King’s College), was awarded a PhD for his thesis on the sociology of contemporary witchcraft. He is the author of four books to date, most recently A Brief Guide to the Supernatural and A Brief Guide to Ghost Hunting. He is a member of the Society for Psychical Research’s Education and Publicity Committee, a member of the Parapsychological Association, and a council member of the Gesellschaft für Anomalistik. He is also the editor of the Paranormal Review, the magazine of the Society for Psychical Research.