Wednesday, August 31, 2016


The success which spirit-rappers and their advocates have met with on both sides of the Atlantic is a remarkable circumstance. It has been often stated that in America, the believers are numbered by millions; and it is well-known that countrymen of our own, who from their education ought to know better, believe, with the most simple satisfaction, that Mr. Hume has relations with ghosts who employ themselves (invariably in darkened rooms) in making tables climb upon ottomans, in carrying Mr. Hume round the ceiling, in conveying the silliest of all remarks through the clumsiest of all machinery, and in doing a variety of other things equally impressive and sensible. It is almost a matter of regret that explanations of many of these juggling tricks should have been published by men who put sleight of hand to its legitimate purposes, as it is to be feared that the credit of spirit-rapping may thus be destroyed, and that the instructive illustrations of human credulity which result from it may be prematurely brought to a close. It is to be regretted that educated men and women should be relieved by indiscreet jugglers from the responsibility of saying whether or no they are prepared to believe the stories told about Mr. Hume and his fellows upon the bare personal authority of those who tell them. There has been hardly any case in modern times in which the issue whether or not the evidence which would prove a murder will prove a miracle has been so neatly raised as in the case of spirit-rapping; and the interposition of persons who, by untimely explanations, enable the public to disbelieve the witnesses without discrediting them, is as unsatisfactory to speculative observers as the compromises which occasionally break out in cases involving curious points of law must always be to lawyers. As, however, a point of law may be argued upon a state of facts altogether imaginary, it may be interesting to consider what ought to have been, and what were in point of fact, the conclusions drawn by persons who read in the newspapers and elsewhere, or heard in private society, a variety of stories about rapping spirits, animated tables, and the like, wonderful enough to justify, upon the supposition of their truth, the use of such words as miraculous and supernatural; who did not hear or read of any natural mode of explaining such occurrences; and who had no other reason than the marvellous nature of the stories themselves for supposing that the persons who related them were not speaking the truth.

The first step which a reasonable person who heard or read such stories would take, would be to decide whether or not he meant to form an opinion about them. If he did not think it worth his while to do so—which would be the case with almost all men of sense who did not happen to be troubled with a very large amount of superfluous leisure—he would simply amuse himself with the grotesqueness of the stories, and pay no further attention to them. For all ordinary purposes, it is safer, and generally wiser, to act the part of the Scribe and Pharisee towards strange stories. If a man is sometimes led by this habit into despising a new invention or remarkable discovery, he gets no harm and does no harm by it. Baron Alderson thought and said that it was absurd to suppose that locomotive engines could ever succeed; and his remark has been quoted by the idolaters of Mr. George Stephenson as an awful example. Yet he rose to be a judge, and sat on the bench for nearly thirty years. If he had believed in railways from the first, he would probably not have done much more. There can be little doubt that the same habit of mind led him to despise many other schemes which turned out ill, and probably, on the whole, it did as little harm to him as to the railways.

If a man desired to go a little deeper into the matter, he would probably consider to what class of subjects the alleged discoveries belonged. A man of reasonably good education, especially if he has ever studied any branch of any scientific subject with-any approach to accuracy, ought to have a fair notion of the kind of certainty attainable in different branches of knowledge, and of the general nature of the proofs by which the propositions which belong to them are supported. He would, for example, see at once that no one could pretend to say with confidence whether or not the stars are inhabited; nor would he pay much attention to any one, however eminent or learned, who pronounced a decisive opinion on the subject; but he would listen respectfully to any man of established scientific reputation who told him that he had discovered a mode of foretelling the general character of next year's weather. The reason of this distinction is, that it is matter of general notoriety that the nature of life is a great riddle, and that no one knows all the conditions under which it may exist, but something is already known about the currents of the air, and the variations of heat and cold, and many discoveries may be expected to be made about them by the careful observation of wellknown phenomena. Applying this principle, it would be reasonable to say, Spirit-rapping belongs to a set of subjects which have always been discredited, and respecting which no discovery has ever been made. It is related to witchcraft, apparitions, and other nests of imposture, and therefore is not to be believed.

These, however, are mere general observations. If a man determined to form as sound an opinion on the subject as could be reached, he would have to examine the evidence itself, and to see what really was proved and what was not, and in this process the first and one of the most important steps would be to separate the facts stated from the inferences drawn from them. The only facts of which there is any evidence at all is that certain people saw and heard certain things. That those appearances and sounds were produced by spirits is an inference not capable of direct proof, and hardly capable of indirect proof. Certain raps are heard, which, when compared with alphabets, spell out the assertion that a dead man is saying such and such things. Suppose the experiment were repeated any number of times and under all varieties of circumstances, would this prove that in fact the dead man was making these assertions? Unless we had some independent knowledge of dead men and their modes of action, it would not prove, or tend to prove, anything of the sort. As we know nothing whatever about dead men, it would be quite as reasonable to found upon the fact, supposing it to be proved, any other inference whatever; for example, that the sounds were produced by an archangel, by the devil, by devils and angels jointly, by a wild beast in the planet Saturn, or by any other cause in heaven, earth, or elsewhere. All that can be inferred from any effect is the antecedence of a cause; our only knowledge of causation is derived from experience: and if rappings and table-twisting form a class of effects altogether peculiar and unrelated to any others, they may, for aught we know to the contrary, be caused by anything, conceivable or inconceivable. We mean by causation nothing more than invariable sequence, and how can we possibly know what is the invariable antecedent of effects which, as far as our powers of tracing go, are by the hypothesis ultimate phenomena?

The course of a person who inquired reasonably, and on true principles, into the subject of rapping spirits would thus be barred at a very early period of his inquiry by an insuperable obstacle. He would never be able to get beyond the facts that certain noises were heard, and certain appearances seen, and that certain motions took place in inanimate matter on occasions when nothing which could account for them on common and recognized principles was present. Unless he had the opportunity of making personal investigations, he would have to be contented with the fact that particular people said that this was so; and it is an extremely curious question whether a wise man would or would not believe them, if, after their stories had been carefully sifted and their means of knowledge had been ascertained to be sufficient, it appeared that they really did say so. It is of course possible to imagine cases in which he would. If the assertion was found to be made by a great many people independently of each other, and under circumstances which made collusion, or even communication, impossible or extremely difficult, the accumulation of evidence might no doubt be sufficient to remove all possibility of doubt; but if upon inquiry the number of first-hand witnesses was reduced to two or three credible persons, unanimously affirming facts otherwise unexampled, a very curious question would arise—the question, namely, as to the absolute value of human testimony. It is impossible to give a complete and definite answer to this question. The effect of the testimony of three sane and credible witnesses, who should unanimously affirm, under the most awful sanctions, and after being subjected to severe tests of accuracy, that they saw the poker and shovel walk arm-in-arm to the middle of a given drawing-room, and there heard them preach a sermon on the ninth commandment, is just as much a question of experience as the question whether a man could be found able to lift a ton and a half.

Experience appears to show that such a story would be believed by many persons. When a single anonymous individual wrote a letter to the Times some years ago to say that he had seen a whole set of murders of the most frightful kind committed in a railway-train in Georgia, people not only believed him, but the Times published a leading article on the atrocity of the event. It so happened that his story was open to contradiction on a number of points, and was, in fact, contradicted and overthrown; but it was not disbelieved on the ground that the event was so extraordinary that the evidence of a single witness must be considered insufficient to prove it. If the scene had been laid in a place where contradiction was out of the question—as, for example, on the deck of a wrecked ship—no one would have doubted it, and the tale would have been received as a striking example of the atrocities into which human nature is capable of being betrayed in its extremities. The common case of criminal trials is perhaps a stronger instance of the extraordinary confidence which people place in each other's uncorroborated assertions. Juries will convict men of crimes of the most fearful kind upon the bare statement of a single witness, of whom they know next to nothing, that he saw the crime committed. A tenth part of the evidence offered in support of the miracles said to be worked by Mr. Hume would have been more than sufficient to stamp men with infamy, and to send them to penal servitude for life. Every one who has had much experience of juries knows the fatal weight of a direct and positive oath. No general considerations will prevail against it; and juries owe their authority, and indeed their very existence, to the fact that they represent common sense and common experience; so that the readiness with which they believe sworn testimony, however serious the consequences of giving credit to it may be, must be considered as a fair specimen of the feelings of mankind at large.

These observations apply to the question of the value which ought to be attached to direct evidence in favour of improbable occurrences given by men of sense, desirous of arriving at the truth, and taking pains to do so; but the eagerness with which people have received the doctrines of spirit-rapping, and the utter neglect which they have shown of the various steps indicated above towards the formation of a sound judgment, throw light on another point of considerable interest. They show that a large proportion even of educated people are altogether destitute of anything approaching to scientific habits of mind or of thought, and that they have not the least notion of the bearings or value of evidence. They never seem to draw the distinction between a fact and an inference; nor do they ever recognize the rule that, if more causes than one may account for a particular state of facts, its existence cannot be said to prove, however, any one of them.

The popularity of spirit-rapping shows something more than the rarity of strict or accurate habits of thought. It shows how wide is the prevalence of gross, downright credulity. The fact that a large number of people believe the assertions of unknown writers that they have seen tables climb upon ottomans, and have heard ghosts playing on the piano, is very memorable. It sets the value of popular belief upon any subject which falls a little out of the common routine in a striking light, and it proves how very little the great majority even of intelligent men and women are in the habit of watching the operations of their own minds, and of regulating the formation of their opinions by anything deserving the name of a principle. Many of the causes of this state of things are constant, and exist in all times and all states of society, but others are peculiar to our own time and country. One of the most curious of them is the spread of mechanical invention. It might have been supposed that a scientific age would be, of all ages, the least superstitious; and if a scientific age meant an age in which all or many minds were scientifically trained, this might, though it is far from certain that it would, be true. In point of fact, the phrase is generally employed to describe an age in which the results and applications of science attain unusual importance; and such a state of things is not only not a hindrance to superstition, but has a direct tendency to promote it. People fall down and worship the work of their neighbours' hands—steam engines, electric telegraphs, and printing presses. They are so impressed by the wonders produced by these and other machines, that they get to look upon science as a sort of god—a blind, arbitrary, capricious deity, who may perform, at any moment, any strange unreasonable prodigy. They are so overcome by electric telegraphs, that they have no objection to urge against rapping spirits. If an American can speak to you from the other side of the Atlantic, why may not a friend speak to you from the other side of the grave? The following anecdote typifies the weaknesses of a higher class of society than that to which its hero belonged:—A Lincolnshire boor was visited, when in extremis, by the vicar of the parish, who administered to him appropriate spiritual advice with more energy than success. After much ineffectual admonition, the dying man replied to the following effect, in a feeble voice, and a dialect which cannot be reproduced on paper:—"What with faith, and what with the earth a-turning round the sun, and what with the railroads a-fuzzing and a-whuzzing, I'm clean stonied, muddled, and beat." These were his last words. They sum up with great emphasis the intellectual results of scientific discovery on a great part of mankind.

Saturday Review, December 22, 1860.

No comments:

Post a Comment