by Michael E. Tymn|
After ill health forced him to resign his post as professor of logic and ethics at Columbia University in 1902, James Hervey Hyslop (1854-1920) became a full-time psychical researcher. In 1904, he organized the American Institute for Scientific Research, which was to be devoted to the study of abnormal psychology and psychical research. When Dr. Richard Hodgson, who headed the American branch of the Society for Psychical Research (ASPR), died on December 20, 1905, the ASPR became a section of Hyslop’s organization and Hyslop dropped the study of abnormal psychology from his objectives.
Born in Xenia, Ohio, Hyslop earned his B.A. at Wooster College in Ohio, then studied at the University of Leipzig for two years before receiving his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1887 and his LL.D. from University of Wooster. He taught philosophy at Lake Forest University, Smith College, and Bucknell University before joining the faculty of Columbia in 1895. He authored three textbooks,Elements of Logic (1892), Elements of Ethics (1895), and Problems of Philosophy (1905).
Hyslop’s interest in psychical research came as a result of his friendship with Harvard professor William James and a sitting with Leonore Piper, the Boston medium being studied by James and Hodgson. He reported that his father, wife, and other deceased members of his family communicated with him through Piper. He became an active member of the ASPR, working closely with Hodgson. He continued studying Piper after Hodgson’s death while also studying a number of other prominent American mediums.
Hyslop authored Science and a Future Life (1905), Borderland of Psychical Research (1906), Psychic Research and the Resurrection (1908), Psychic Research and Survival (1913), Life After Death (1918), and Contact with the Other World (1919). This “interview” is based on the 1906, 1908, and 1919 books, all now in the public domain. The questions have been tailored to fit passages quoted verbatim from the three books.
Dr. Hyslop, would you mind telling us why you left academia for psychical research?
“The academic world is blind to the needs of the hour and has isolated itself as in aristocratic seclusion from contact with the life of those who are ruling the tendencies of the future. It is left, as it apparently has always been, to the outside world to find leaven for the regeneration, and if any spiritual ideal be discovered it must be in the little beacon lights that shine out from the residual and neglected phenomena of mind which promise as wide an extension in psychological knowledge as the new discoveries in the material world have produced in physical science.”
You have now devoted many years to psychical research, the primary objective, I gather, to determine if consciousness survives bodily death. Have you come to any conclusion on the survival issue?
“Personally I regard the fact of survival after death as scientifically proved. I agree that this opinion is not upheld in scientific quarters. But this is neither our fault nor the fault of the facts. Evolution was not believed until long after it was proved. The fault lay with those who were too ignorant or too stubborn to accept the facts. History shows that every intelligent man who has gone into this investigation, if he gave it adequate examination at all, has come out believing in spirits; this circumstance places the burden or proof on the shoulders of the skeptic.”
A number of other scientists and scholars, including Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace, Sir Oliver Lodge, Frederic W. H. Myers, Dr. Richard Hodgson, and Sir William Barrett have expressed the same conviction as you have, but many others seem to sit on the fence. Do you think it is a matter of them not having done enough or proper investigation?
“In the course of the work, most of the leading members who have conducted personal investigations have become convinced that man survives bodily death; but it has been regarded as not always good policy to avow the conviction with any missionary zeal. Hence, conviction on the point appears to the public to be less strong than it actually is.”
It’s often argued that we should focus more on this world rather than the next world. Do you take issue with that?
“It is easy to be too ‘other-worldly’ as to be too worldly. The truth is beneficial or harmful according to the character of the man who accepts it. There is probably not a single truth which human nature cannot pervert. A belief in a future life is no exception. But the fact that it was abused in the Middle Ages, or that it may be too much stressed by some minds, is no reason for ignoring the doctrine. Some tell us that Nature or Providence does not intend us to know about a future life, but the same type of mind told us that we should not inquire into the process of nature. There is no truth that can be more helpful to man than a belief in survival. Disregarding it leads to the materialism that has nearly wrecked civilization in the greatest war of history. We do not want the belief established in order to concentrate attention again on the hereafter, but to fix a balance in human endeavor.”
Why do you think mainstream science and society in general resist such truths?
“The neglect or hostility which the subject receives is one of the curious problems of psychology. If a new engine for an airplane is announced, the inventor is acclaimed a benefactor of the world. If some new substance to take the place of gasoline is discovered, all the capitalists in the country tumble over themselves to get control of it. A new element in chemistry is announced with all the fervor of a miracle. Anything that will fill the human belly with the husks that swine do eat is considered the greatest thing in the world. But if a man offers some evidence that he has a soul and that he may expect to live after death, he is called insane, though he may prove the prolongation of consciousness which is the one aspiration of every effort a man makes in his life. No better indication of the utter materialism of the age could be adduced.”
Do you have any ideas as to why it is this way?
“Sometimes it is mere prejudice, sometimes it is ignorance both of the problem and the facts; and there is much opposition that is based on neither prejudice nor ignorance, but on mere intellectual obstinacy and pride. It is easy to oppose any belief it you are so disposed. Reasons can always be given, whether rational or not, against a theory, if one chooses to give them. The ‘will to believe’ is quite as prevalent as the ‘will to disbelieve,’ and is no more creditable. Much prejudice and ignorance are excusable when we consider how powerfully environment acts on our beliefs. Unanimity of opinion is essential to any social order. We keep out of perpetual war only by agreeing on something. Our interests are so bound up with the opinion of the community that it is not safe for us to take the part of rebels. The line of least resistance is to follow the ideas of the community. Prejudice is, therefore, more or less unavoidable, at least on matters about which we have little or no opportunity to work out systematic beliefs. Ignorance is but an accompaniment of these influences and is more excusable than prejudice, because the latter has a tendency to include influences from the desire and the will. Hostility, however, based on intellectual pride and obstinacy has no such excuse. It infects all minds sophisticated by knowledge and tending to defend preexisting ideas. It causes sort or obsession which has become fixed partly by personal interests and partly by the extent to which this knowledge represents accepted scientific truth.”
Many of the skeptics point to the trivial nature of much of the spirit communication, seemingly as evidence that it is so much bunk. What do you say to them?
“I shall confidently reply at this point that the best part of our evidence for the spiritistic hypothesis is just this nonsense. What the critic thinks is a fatal objection is our best proof. That is a contention which may surprise many an objector, but it is one that I advance and I am certain that it will put the skeptic to his wits to sustain his assumption that intelligent men would do much better than the evidence seems to indicate.”
Would you mind elaborating on that a little?
“This accusation that the communications are always so trivial and confused is in fact not true. No doubt it appears so from the examples we publish and discuss. On this account I can respect the difficulty on the part of all who have not made a special study of the phenomena. But the fact is that the communications are not always as trivial as is supposed. There are two decided limitations to the accusation. The first is that the question of triviality depends wholly upon the point of view assumed in the problem. If the communicator realizes that he has his identity to prove he will necessarily limit himself to trivial recollections, assuming that he can control his state of consciousness at the time of communications. Those who read the Piper case carefully will discover that the phenomena have all the appearance at least of being organized efforts on the ‘other side.’ to prove the identity of those who have passed away. The triviality thus becomes so important as to lose all the imputations implied by that term and so show a rational effort to solve the problem, an effort adjusted to the very needs of the issue. This is particularly noticeable in the communications from Dr. Hodgson.”
You mentioned two limitations?
“The second limitation to the accusation is the fact that the statements which are not trivial and confused, very often, if not generally, lack evidential character. All communications about the other life, about the first experiences after death, about the laws of life and action on the ‘other side’ are worthless as evidence of the supernormal, and the student of abnormal psychology would consign us to bedlam if we put this sort of thing forward as evidence of spirits.”
I recall reading somewhere that communicating spirits must enter an altered state of consciousness on their side. Could you explain that?
“The general supposition which, to the mind of Dr. Hodgson (before his death) and myself, explains the persistent triviality and confusion of the messages is that the communicating spirit at the time of communicating (not necessarily in the normal state in the spirit world) is in a sort of abnormal mental state, perhaps resembling our dream life or somnambulic conditions…
“I quote some statements communicated at the sitting of February 27, 1906. After a question that I had asked regarding a certain word that would bear on his identity, Dr. Hodgson (then deceased and communicating) alluded to the danger of ‘making a botch’ of his message and broke out with the statement: ‘It is so suffocating here. I can appreciate their difficulties better than ever before.’ Here he was intimating ideas which he held as to the difficulty of communicating before he himself passed away, and he had often compared the influence of the conditions to that of mephitic gases, and we know what effect they have on the integrity of consciousness…We have only to study dreams and deliria in order to under the influences which tend to produce confusion and fragmentary messages.”
In many cases, the communicating entity lacks some of the characteristics or traits of the living person he or she claims to have been. Is that the reason?
“The skeptic who assumes that the lack of characteristic phrase and style is against the spiritistic interpretation does not know his business. The fundamental assumption of the theory is that the discarnate personality is subject to the limitations and modifying influence of the medium through whom he gets expression. And there is more than this. He also is subject to the influence of other minds than that of the psychic. Not only must all messages pass through the mind of the medium and be subjected to the coloring effect of her organic habits of thought and language, but they must also often pass through or be affected by the minds of the control, and in some instances by two or three other minds acting as helpers or intermediaries.”
It sounds really complex.
“The popular mind fails to appreciate the real complexity of the problem. It assumes that, if the medium is honest or unconscious of the communications, the whole material comes from spirit; it does not take into account the subconscious of the psychic, the various processes of the mind going on under the threshold of the consciousness. But when we introduce into the problem the pictographic process, we are able to concentrate attention on a better conception of the problem. It is apparent that the pictographic process introduces into the communications various sources of mistake and confusion, and thus explains much that the ordinary man with his view of the messages cannot understand.”
Would you mind explaining the pictographic process?
“This process means that the communicator manages to elicit in the living subject a sensory phantasm of his thoughts, representing, but not necessarily directly corresponding to, the reality…We do not know in detail all that goes on, but when we can conceive that a mental picture in the mind of the communicator is transmitted, perhaps telepathically, to the psychic or to the control; even though we do not know how this occurs, we can understand why the message takes the form that it does in the mind of the psychic and why the whole process assumes the form of a description of visual, or a report of auditory images. The whole mass of facts is thus systemized as a single process, whose specific form of transmission is determined by the sense through which it is expressed.”
Of course, there are different types of mediumship and you’re talking primarily about the trance type of Mrs. Piper. As I understand it, the discarnate is actually taking over her organism completely. Is that true?
“This is not true, despite the appearances to that effect. Superficial characteristics make it appear as if a spirit simply took hold of the physical organism and used it just as the living personality uses it. On the contrary, the subconscious does not cease its function; and, when the normal consciousness is made the vehicle of communication, no part of living control is lost. The popular misconception leads to the interpretation of massages as if they were not colored by the mind which serves as the medium of transmission, an assumption which is provably false. There is nothing clearer to investigators than the fact that all messages are affected by the mind of the medium, normal or subliminal, according to conditions under which communication takes place. If the messages come through normal consciousness, the form of message will be deeply affected. To some extent the subconscious will affect it in the same way in a trance, when normal consciousness is suspended. Control of the living organism is either indirect or totally wanting when the communications are going on, except possibly in exceptional cases of possession.”
What about raps and taps? Is there anything to that?
“They are not always connected with the motor action of the psychic. No doubt some raps are simply ordinary automatisms like automatic writing and other unconscious actions. But they are often independent of any intervention by the human organism as revealed to sense perception. They are used as signals of answers to questions; and, being foreign to either conscious or unconscious action of the organism, another explanation must be sought for them than for automatic writing. The latter assumes at least the intervention of the physical organism with its powers and habits. But raps may involve no such intermediary; and in this case they must be regarded as independent physical phenomena. They can be used only for answers to questions or for spelling out words in various ways. Their method of communication is crude, in the sense that it takes time and trouble to get intelligible messages, but they signify the possibility of communication with an outside world without the mediation of the subconscious or normal machinery of the human organism.”
Is table-tipping the same thing?
“The methods of table-tipping, the planchette and the ouija board are only modifications of automatic writing…The instrument or means of expression has nothing to do with the result, when the human organism must intervene in the phenomena…The actual evidence for the supernormal lies, not in the action of automatic writing, or the ouija or planchette, or of the table, but in the contents of the message. If the content represents normally acquired information, we explain the message by subconscious action of the writer’s mind. If the content is unmistakably foreign to normal experience, we seek for external stimulus or mind that may account for it. The method of delivery is of secondary importance.”
What about the claim that the medium is simply reading the sitter’s mind?
“I make bold to say that there are conditions under which a spiritistic theory is easier to believe than the telepathic. These conditions are that the contents of what purport to be discarnate communications be appropriate to the proof of personal identity…But now, if telepathy be once granted as a fact, no matter what conception we take of it as a process, we have a phenomenon of the transmission of thought independently of the ordinary impressions of sense, and we should be violating no scientific principles if we supposed that, under favorable conditions, a transcendental consciousness might be able to intromit a message into a living mind. After telepathy is admitted, it is but a question of evidence to settle whether we are probably in communication with a discarnate spirit. If the phenomena alleged to be spirit messages represent what the proof of personal identity demands, a discarnate consciousness is the most natural supposition in the case. This conception of matter is strongly reinforced by the fact that telepathy between the living, so far as we have any right to assume it at all, is limited to the present active state of consciousness, and shows no tendency to select its data with reference to the reproduction of personal identity, with its synthetic character and command of memory. With that limitation, we should have to suppose the continuance of consciousness after death to explain the facts.”
Thank you, Dr. Hyslop. I realize that there is much more that can be discussed here, but I think we’ve touched upon the key points. Do you have any final remarks?
“The public is running off into every imaginable philosophy and religion, because of the trust of believer and skeptic alike in religious and philosophic traditions. Sympathy would have given the skeptic the leadership in a course in which he has been outrun; he now appears as the hindrance to knowledge instead of its supporter. A man should never be required to choose between doubt and belief. He should be able to intermingle both in due proportions. The spirit of open-mindedness and impartiality is to the intellectual world what brotherhood is to the ethical world. Woe betide the man who does not see this elementary truth, for he is sure to fall into one dogmatism or the other.”