In illustration of this matter Ave propose to consider in the present paper, what opinion a person of ordinary common sense would form of Spiritualism, a subject to which public attention has just been pointed in a somewhat marked manner by the publication of two or three works on the subject. The most pretentious, and the least satisfactory of these, is Mr. Howitt's History of the Supernatural. Mr. Home's Autobiography is, as far as it goes, more important, because it is first-hand testimony; and Mr. Robert Dale Owen's Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World, published two years ago, is certainly cautious and as moderate as a book can be which is one mass of marvels utterly incredible to the average human mind.
It may be convenient for the purposes of this paper to invert the usual order, and to begin by stating the conclusion which the writer personally draws from a pretty careful perusal of these books and other publications of the same kind. He does not believe a single word of them from one end to the other. The stories which they contain run off his mind like water off a duck's back, and appear to him altogether unworthy of credit.
The case of the spiritualists is that, a priori, there is no reason why spirits should not appear, and that there is abundance of specific evidence to show that they do, of the same sort that would be considered decisive on other important occasions, for instance in the administration of justice. It is the object of the books mentioned above to enforce these points. The work of Mr. Howitt is addressed principally to the general, and that of Mr. Owen to the particular, question. Mr. Howitt declares not only that on a priori grounds, there is no reason to suppose that spirits will not appear, but that the general inference to be derived from the history of mankind is that they will. He has industriously put together every supernatural history on which he has been able to lay his hands in any part of the world, and from the whole of them, collectively, he infers that the belief in supernatural appearances is justified not by this or that particular occurrence, but by the general and permanent convictions of the human race.
No kind of argument is either more popular than this or less deserving of attention. It is popular because it may always be alleged in favour of any common opinion, true or false. It is always probable that the reasons, whatever they may be, which have led one person to form an opinion, have had the same effect upon others, and hence, unless the mere fact that an opinion is held by A is proof that it is true, the fact that it is held by B, C, D, and so on up to Z, is no proof that it is true. If one person is mistaken a thousand may be, especially if the mistake of the one arises from any cause likely to act on very many. Who supposes that Buddhism is true because, perhaps, 300,000,000 people believe it, and because all their ancestors, for many centuries, have believed it? Even if the consent of a vast number of people had any tendency to prove the truth of the opinion held by them, it would be practically impossible to apply the test to any given instance; for in order to do so, it would be necessary to show that the persons cited as authorities all held identically the same opinion upon the point in question; and how is it possible to show this? What is the specific opinion which Mr. Howitt says has universally obtained with respect to supernatural appearances?
Apart, however, from this, it would be necessary to Mr. Howitt's argument to show, not only that there always have been people who believed in ghosts, but that there was never anybody who after argument disbelieved. It is scepticism, and not faith, which gives its value to a common opinion. Show that nobody ever tried to confute a common opinion, and you prove not that those who held it believed it on good grounds, but that no one can tell what grounds they had for believing it. The belief of hundreds of millions in a fact, of which the evidence has not been properly sifted, has no tendency to prove its truth. Is it any the more likely that there were seven kings of Rome, because for many centuries it was universally believed to be a fact that there were? A great majority of the population of Europe, at the present day, think that spirit-rapping, and all that relates to it, is absurd nonsense. Would Mr. Howitt accept their belief as evidence of the truth of their opinion?
Common opinion can, in practice, be used for testimonial purposes only by those who are willing to discredit their own witness. Mr. Howitt himself would not affirm the truth of the superstitions to which he appeals in support of his own thesis. In classical times, he tells us, people believed in omens, prodigies, oracles, witchcraft, and the like. Does he believe not only in the general inference, which he presses on his readers, but in the specific facts from which the inferences are drawn? Does he believe, for instance, in Ovid's Metamorphoses, or in the dreadful feats which Horace ascribes to Canidia? Did she really pull the moon out of the sky? To let in the oracles and keep out Canidia and the Arabian Nights is to blow hot and cold.
For these reasons, it would seem that no weight at all ought to be attached to the strange array of quotations from histories of ancient times and remote places which Mr. Howitt's industry has brought together. All that can be said is, that there always have been ghost stories, and that they have generally been received with an amount of scepticism proportioned to the cultivation of the age.
The real interest of the question, and the gist of the whole discussion, lies in the offer made by men like Mr. Owen, to produce specific evidence of actual occurrences of the kind in question. They say we proffer to you evidence of apparitions and of cases of supernatural agency, such as would be sufficient to convict a man of murder, and we claim that you shall either believe what we say, or give a reason for not believing it. Our space confines us to some general observations, and a few specific illustrations. Neither Mr. Howitt nor Mr. Owen appear to give sufficient weight to the amount of simple lying that there is in the world. Happily, many people find it difficult to believe in downright wilful falsehood. To Mr. Owen, quietly speculating in his own study on these things, there is very probably something so repulsive and disgusting in the notion of a downright lie, that he feels great difficulty in imputing it to any apparently respectable and well-bred person. Still wilful lies are undoubtedly told, and apart from general considerations on the comparative weight of human testimony on the one side, and improbabilities on the other, some cases may be mentioned in which the facts relied upon by the advocates of spiritualism appear to fall under that category.
A whole chapter of Mr. Howitt's book is devoted to the subject of the Cevenol prophets. His account of the subject is derived principally from M. Peyrat's Pasteurs du Desert, an instructive and interesting work. In a few words, the story is that the inhabitants of the Cevennes—a range of mountains lying between Auvergne on the north, and the plain of Languedoc on the south—driven to desperation by the cruelties of Louis XIV. and Baville, the intendant of the province, broke out into insurrection. They carried on a desperate civil war for two or three years, and were finally subdued by Marshal Villars as much by negotiation as by force. Their principal leaders were Cavallier, a baker's apprentice, and Roland Laporte, a peasant. These are unquestioned historical facts. The miraculous part of the story is, that the Cevenols were animated in their resistance, and were, indeed, enabled to carry it on, principally by the exhortations and miracles of prophets and seers, who foretold future events, and performed various prodigies. One man in particular, Clary by name, was said at a given time and place to have stood unharmed in the midst of a large fire. These stories rest on the authority of a book called Théâtre Sacré des Cevennes, published in English under the title of A Cry from the Desert, and written by two men, named Fage and Marion, who described themselves as eye-witnesses of the miracles in question. Mr. Howitt is apparently not aware of the fact that other eye-witnesses denied upon oath the truth of their statements, and in particular that Cavallier himself did so in the most unqualified manner, especially as to the miracle of Clary. The documents on the subject are rare, but they may be seen at the British Museum, in a book called Nouveaux Memoires pour servir a l’Histoire des trois Camisardes, ou l’on voit les Declarations du Colonel Cavallier. It was published in London in 1708. This case shows that the most explicit, circumstantial, and direct affirmation of the truth of a fact may be a simple falsehood, and throws considerable doubt on so much of the stories of Mr. Owen and Mr. Howitt as rest on the credit of particular persons who say we saw this or that. They also might be contradicted as well as Fage and Marion, if the proper trouble were taken, and if the eyewitnesses were still alive.
A single illustration shows how we are at the mercy of unknown people. One of Mr. Owen's best stories is as follows:—In October, 1857, a lady, Mrs. R (whose name Mr. Owen offers to give if necessary), was living at Ramhurst House, in Kent. The usual ghostly sounds were heard, rustling of silk dresses, knocks, footsteps, and voices at night, &c. About the middle of the month a Miss S came to stay at Ramhurst. Miss S "had been in the habit of seeing apparitions at times from early childhood." As she drove up to the house she saw on the threshold the appearance of two figures, apparently an elderly couple, in an old-fashioned dress. Miss S saw the same apparition several times, and on one occasion the ghosts said they had been husband and wife, and were named Children. The husband's Christian name was Richard, and he died in 1753. On one occasion Mrs. R as she was coming down to dinner saw and walked through a female figure, over which was written in phosphoric letters, "Dame Children." The name of Children was altogether unknown, but on inquiry in the village it appeared that an old woman of seventy had known an old man fifty years before who had said he had kept the hounds of the Children family. In 1858 Mr. Owen heard this story and inquired into it further, and after much search found papers in the British Museum showing that a Mr. Richard Children settled at Ramhurst in 1718. These papers were in a collection called the Hasted Papers, and as Hasted had written a history of Kent Mr. Owen examined it, and there found, in an account of the parish of Leigh, that Mr. Richard Children of Ramhurst Manor House died in 1753. From all this Mr. Owen argues that Mrs. R and Miss S must have seen a ghost. In the absence of all information about Miss S, except that she told this story, it is right to point out that if she happened to see Hasted's History of Kent before going on her visit, and looked, as she naturally might, to see what was said of the house to which she was going, she would at once get the opportunity of making up the story about Richard Children's ghost. Is it more likely that a ghost should appear, or that a lady should tell a falsehood, which to many minds might appear a harmless trick? Take out Richard Children and the date, and there is nothing very remarkable in the story.
Apart from questions as to the credit of particular witnesses, it must be added that neither Mr. Owen nor Mr. Howitt write in such a way as to give a very high impression of their accuracy. Mr. Owen has a trick which he ought carefully to unlearn if he wishes to make his statements of the effect of evidence really impartial. The following are instances of it:—A Mdlle. Clairon wrote an autobiography, in which she tells a story of the persecutions she underwent from a deceased lover, who used, amongst other things, to fire muskets at her window. The police, she says, tried to detect the trick, but in vain, and "the fact is attested by the official record on the registers of the police." She also says that various other persons saw what happened. On this, Mr. Owen observes —"The phenomena were observed not by Mdlle. Clairon only, but by numerous other witnesses, including the . . . . police officers of Paris. The record of them is still to be found in the archives of that police," &c. So, no doubt, she said; but it does not appear that Mr. Owen saw the archives for himself, or that they are still to be seen; nor does it appear that the other persons mentioned corroborated her story. The whole, therefore, rests on Mdlle. Clairon alone. Mr. Owen constantly repeats this fallacy.
As for Mr. Howitt, he is so set upon his ghosts that he seems to feel that a ghost gives probability to a story, instead of taking it away. He actually goes so far as to argue in favour of the truth of the claims of modern Egyptian magicians from the magical stories in the Arabian Nights, which, he says, represent the state of belief amongst the people. When a man presents himself who is ready to believe in the roc's egg and Aladdin's palace, if any respectable witness will swear to them, there is very little good in arguing. How is anything whatever to be disproved?
After making every fair deduction on the scores of wilful falsehood, inaccuracy, and other analogous grounds, it must in honesty be admitted that a considerable number of the stories told by these gentlemen, especially by or about Mr. Home, do reduce the reader to the question whether he will reject the story simply on account of its inherent improbability. There are many of them which cannot be explained away to any purpose. They must be accepted, or rejected on the broad ground of their inherent incredibility. It may be interesting to mention some of these stories.
In September, 1857, Captain Wheatcroft (the name is given by Mr. Howitt, the initials only by Mr. Owen), of the 6th Dragoon Guards, went to India, leaving his wife at Cambridge. On the night between the (14th and 15th of November she dreamed that she saw her husband looking ill, on which she awoke, and saw his figure standing by her bedside. She assured herself that she was awake by rubbing the sheet, &c., and the figure remained distinctly visible for about a minute. Sometime after news came of Captain Wheatcroft's death before Lucknow. Mr. Wilkinson, his solicitor, obtained a certificate of his death from the War Office. It dated his death on the 15th November. His widow declared that there must be a mistake as she saw the ghost on the 14th. Mr. Wilkinson happened to call on a lady who was in the habit of seeing visions, and told her this story as a wonderful thing. The lady said to her husband, "That must be the person I saw the evening we were talking about India, and you drew an elephant with a howdah on his back." She added, that the spirit told her husband he had been killed in India that afternoon. On being questioned as to the date, the lady said that she could not exactly remember it, but that just before the ghost came she had paid a bill for some German vinegar. The receipt was brought, and was dated November 14. In March, 1858, further news arrived to show that Captain Wheatcroft was killed on the 14th, and the War Office subsequently certified to that effect.
In this case the first appearance to the wife may be accounted for as a dream, natural enough under the circumstances, and there is not much in the continuance of the impression on the senses after waking; but if Mr. Wilkinson's account of his interview with the other lady is true, the evidence becomes very strong. That a person who professed to see ghosts should, when she heard of the appearance of one to somebody else, put in a claim to have seen it too, is not the point; but that she should forget the date, fix it by the receipt, and then be confirmed by the receipt, and that that date should turn out to be the true one, the official return being incorrect, is just the sort of confirmation which would weigh very heavily with a jury in any trial, civil or criminal.
Another of Mr. Owen's stories is more curious, and might have been better attested if it had been investigated at the time. A merchant captain named Clarke told Mr. Owen in 1859, that in 1836 or '37 he had heard the following story from a man named Bruce, "as truthful and straightforward a man as ever I met in all my life." In 1828 Bruce was mate of a trading vessel. He went down into the cabin with the captain to calculate the day's work. When he had done, being surprised at the result of his calculation, he asked the captain what he made it. Getting no answer, he looked up and saw a figure, which he supposed to be the captain's, writing on the captain's slate. He spoke again twice, and the figure, looking up, appeared to be a perfect stranger. Bruce went upon deck and told the captain. After some conversation, they went down and found the slate with these words on it, "Steer to the Nor' West." The captain, suspecting the mate of having written it, made him and every other man on board who could write, write those words on the other side of the slate. The writing was quite different. They then determined to steer as directed, and in a short time fell in with a ship frozen to the ice of an iceberg (not, by the way, a very probable situation for a ship to be in). They took off the passengers. One of them the mate declared to be the man whom he had seen, and when he wrote "Steer to the NorthWest" on the slate, the handwriting corresponded exactly. The captain of the second ship said that about noon the passenger had fallen into a deep sleep for about an hour, and on waking said, "Captain, we shall be relieved this very day." He added, that he had dreamed he was on board a barque, which he accurately described, and that the barque was coming to their rescue. This case rests on Clarke's account of what Bruce said twenty years before Clarke reported it, about an event which, when Bruce first told the story, was eight or nine years old. Suppose Bruce's account to be corroborated by the production of the slate, by the two captains, the mysterious passenger, the men who had to write their names, and the logbooks of the two vessels, and the evidence would be good enough to hang twenty men upon. As it is, the story goes for next to nothing.
The evidence of spirit-rappers, like Mr. Home, is, no doubt, the strongest case. A considerable number of the phenomena to which they testify must unquestionably be allowed to rest on good evidence, whether or not that evidence is to be believed. Take the case of our own contributor. He says, I went to such a place at such a time, and there I saw a table rise up till the top formed a plane inclined at an angle of 45°; "finally the whole structure stands on the extreme tip of a single claw." He also says that he saw Mr. Home rise off the ground to a height of four or five feet, and float about in the air. This does not rest on the evidence of our contributor alone. Dr. Gully, of Malvern, wrote a letter to the Morning Star, saying that he was present on the occasion, that the record made in the article was "in every particular correct," and that he and our contributor "were neither asleep nor intoxicated, nor even excited." As to Mr. Home's moving about in the air, Dr. Gully says, "Only consider that here is a man between ten and eleven stone in weight floating about the room for many minutes in the tomblike silence which prevailed, broken only by his voice coming from different quarters of the room; is it probable, is it possible, that any machinery could be devised, not to speak of its being set up and previously made ready, in a room which was fixed upon as the place of meeting only five minutes before we entered it, capable of carrying such a weight about without the slightest sound of any description?" Here is direct evidence of the most positive kind to plain matters of fact. I saw a table in a certain position; I saw a human body more through the air; I had the opportunity of seeing machinery, &c.; I looked for it, and it was not there. This sort of evidence leaves no escape. It can be disbelieved only on the broad ground of the balance of improbabilities, and it is but a small sample of the amount of evidence tendered by spirit-rappers and their adherents. One consideration as to its force is conclusive. Concede, for the sake of argument, that the statements of our correspondent and Dr. Gully were true, what stronger evidence of their truth could be given?
Here, then, arises in the neatest form the question as to a conflict between evidence and probability. Two credible witnesses affirm that they saw a man float in the air under the circumstances stated. Do you believe it or not? The question must be put and answered by each person for himself. The writer of the present article has no hesitation in saying, No, I do not believe it. To explain and justify this answer, it is necessary to depart from the common form of composition. The reasons for belief are not the same in every case. One man may credit evidence which another person would disbelieve; one may take views as to the nature of belief which another would repudiate. It is therefore impossible to state the reasons for disbelief generally. They must have reference to the particular person disbelieving. Hence, if the question is to be really considered, the author, however unwillingly, must drop the impersonal tone. He must get into the witness-box and cross-examine himself. Q. Pray, sir, who and what are you?—A. It is no matter who or what I am, except that I am what you would call an educated person, and I view the subject merely as one of general curiosity. Q. Do you know anything of Dr. Gully?—A. I have had the pleasure of meeting him, and know him well by reputation. Q. Do you believe him to be a man of honour and veracity?—A. Unquestionably. Q. Do you believe he was present on the occasion to which he refers?—A. Yes. Q. And that he could see what passed, and was sober and unexcited.—A. Yes. Q. Do you believe that he publicly told a wilful lie about it ?—A. No. Q. Yet you do not believe his statement?—A. No, I do not. Q. Then, how do you avoid the inference that he lied?—A. By not drawing any inference about it. Q. But are you not bound to draw it?—A. No; I am not sitting on a jury. Q. Suppose you were?—A. That would alter the case entirely. Q. How so?—A. Because I should be forced by my oath to give a true verdict according to the evidence. Q. Then if you were on a jury, should you believe that Dr. Gully had told a lie?—A. In some cases I might have to act as if I thought so, but it would depend on the issue to be tried. Except for the purposes of the trial, my belief that Dr. Gully is a man of honour would be unaffected. Q. I do not understand how that can be. Is not a statement either true or false for all purposes whatever?—A. No doubt; but it does not follow that we must form the same opinion as to its truth or falsehood for all purposes whatever. I will put some cases.
An action is brought by Mr. Home for libel against some one who uses language which enables Mr. Home to give evidence of the truth of the statement that he floated in the air as alleged. He calls Dr. Gully, who swears to what he wrote. I should disbelieve the evidence and give a verdict for the defendant. It is for the plaintiff to prove his case, and no man's oath to such a fact would satisfy me of its truth.
At the sitting in question, while the room was darkened, a man was murdered. One of the party is charged by the rest with the crime. There is evidence of an alibi which, in ordinary cases, I should not trust. In cross-examination the persons present testify to the alleged wonders. This would shake their credit, and I should acquit the prisoner. He is entitled to the benefit of a doubt.
On the day and time of the sitting a murder is committed at York. The prisoner says, "I was then at Mr. Home's sitting in London." On cross-examining the witnesses for the prisoner they all assert that the alleged wonders took place. Here I should believe the alibi and acquit the prisoner, for the same reason as in the last case.
Dr. Gully is called as a witness on a trial, civil or criminal. When he is cross-examined to his credit it appears that he made the statements in question. I should not disbelieve him for that reason; for though I do not myself believe the statements to be true, I know that many respectable persons have made such statements.
Q. You think, then, that belief or disbelief is a matter of expediency? —A. I do. Q. Do you believe the multiplication table on that ground? —A. Yes. Q. Do you find it expedient to believe that twice two make five when you receive money, and that they make three when you pay bills ?—A. In the long run I find it expedient to believe the truth, even when the apparent advantage is most strongly the other way. In regard to general rules like the multiplication table the evidence as to what is true is so strong that the consideration of expediency does not make itself sensibly felt, though I think I could show that it exists; [See an Article on "Superstition" in the Cornhill Magazine for May, 1863.] but human testimony as to isolated transactions is so weak that in almost every case the question of consequences has much to do with one's conclusion. Q. Viewing the matter as one of expediency, how do you make it out to be inexpedient that you personally should believe these statements? How would they hurt you if they were true?—A. Because they would tend to disturb all the assumptions on which I conduct my ordinary affairs, I always act on the assumption that we do not float in the air, but walk on the earth; that chairs and tables stand still where they are put, and do not climb on sofas, and that if my watch gets into your pocket it is because you put it there. I should like to see my servant tell me, "Please, sir, it was the spirits who broke the china, and it was my abandoned double who got drunk." Besides, in common with all educated men, I have an interest in physical science. That, at all events, has performed solid services. It has explained, and is explaining, the order of the universe. It has not only made life more comfortable, but, which is far more, has ennobled and purified the understanding, and freed it from every sort of degrading superstition. I don't like to be dragged down to the level of the believers in witchcraft and obi-men.
Q. Then you would not believe these things if ten people swore to them?—A. No. Q. If fifty did?—A. No. Q. Suppose you saw them yourself?—A. No one can answer for his own strength of mind and nerve; but I hope and believe that when the sharpness of the impression had worn off I should cease to think of it, and so, by degrees, come to doubt whether it had happened, and at last to disbelieve it. Q. Is there, then, no evidence whatever on which you would believe them?—A. Yes. Let them be explained, let them be brought into connection with the ordinary pursuits of life, and become a recognized part of its working apparatus, and then I will believe. If a spiritual telegraph is established which habitually anticipates electricity; if the detective police are replaced by immortal spies; if, in short, the spirits are harnessed to the wheels of life and become part of its recognized machinery, then I shall believe, but not otherwise.
Q. You profess a great respect for science, but I don't understand where you get your science if you are prepared to discredit your senses when they testify to anything unusual. Surely science is founded on the evidence of the senses?—A. My respect for science is founded on experience of its truth, and, to use a common phrase, of its fruitfulness. In deference to an established scientific rule I am quite ready to distrust my senses, if by that you mean the natural inferences from my senses. For instance, I should naturally infer from them that the sun moved and the earth stood still, but I believe the reverse. My faith in the general proposition is always stronger than my faith in propositions as to specific facts, so is that of every reasonable creature, as appears from this, that you cannot comprehend any specific proposition without some generality to which it is referred. The proposition "that is a tree" is unmeaning, unless you have a general notion corresponding to the word tree. How you get your general notions in the first instance is, perhaps, the most obscure of all metaphysical questions; but when you have got them they deserve far more authority than any assertion as to an isolated fact. If you suppose them to be derived from experience, the basis of experience on which they rest is wider than that on which any specific proposition rests. If they are derived from the constitution of the mind itself, the evidence for them is higher in kind. Q. Yet all great scientific discoveries have been based on the observation of specific facts. What do you say to Franklin and the lightning, or Galvani and the frog's leg? Would you have denied that the frog's leg jerked?—A. No doubt the examination of specific facts is the first step towards discovery, and I freely admit that I think the spirit-rappers have made out a case for scientific inquiry. I have been considering how I and others like me—the unscientific world—ought to believe in the meantime. As to the frog's leg, if anything depended on it I might very probably have disbelieved it wrongly, but that does not show that I should have been wrong in disbelieving. Q. Why not?— A. Because by the application of the same rule I should generally have been right, and every rule leads you wrong at times. Q. You may, then, be wrong on this?—A. No doubt; but till spiritualism is as much recognized as galvanism I am not shown to be so. Q. Then your state of mind is one of provisional unbelief, but that provisional unbelief goes so far that you would not give it up even in obedience to your own senses ?— A. Just so. I do not say that nobody ever will or can have good grounds to believe in these things, but I have not; and I would add that, if it is true that 3,000,000 people in America believe in them, I think it likely that 2,999,900 believe unwisely. Perhaps 100 may have earned a prima facie right to believe. I don't admit that their opinion is true, but only that they may be able to put it on grounds which I could not refute if they were stated to me. Q. Your view would have some curious consequences in practice. What do you say that ordinary people ought to think on hearing that a man at York can speak to a man in London in a second?—A. Disbelieve it. Q. Yet it is true.—A. Yes; but as you put it it is not put in a credible form. You state only a bare result. If you stated in substance the means by which the result is obtained, you would make your statement probable, and the statement might then be provisionally believed. Q. Then you say the King of Siam was right in not believing in ice?—A. Yes; but the Dutch ambassador was a foolish fellow for not putting a porous earthen vessel, with a wet cloth round it, in a draught of air, and showing the king the frozen surface in the morning. If he had done so, and had pointed out to the king the fact that there were differences of temperature in his own country, &c., he might have put him in the wrong in not believing. Surely he would have been right in refusing, on the ambassador's authority, to believe in dragons.
Q. Do you believe in Julius Caesar?—A. Yes. Q. Why?—A. Not on the strength of the veracity of any particular person, but because Julius Caesar's life fits in with, and forms part of, a long continuous history, which is incidentally corroborated by laws, institutions, languages, &c., still existing and open to inspection. If some one spelt out an inscription on a pyramid saying that ten thousand years ago such a man reigned, and fought battles, and made laws in the valley of the Nile, I should neither believe nor disbelieve it. The presumption that the fact was so would be the lightest possible. It would be little more than a guess. So if a single man told me anything about the state of affairs in the interior of Madagascar, I should pay little attention to what he said, especially if the story was an odd one.
Q. But what would you say to the Christian miracles? Does not the whole future of Christianity rest on the veracity of certain witnesses to isolated and transient facts?—A. I should be very sorry to think so; for if it did I am quite sure it would come to the ground. How it may have been with the first believers is another question, but in the present day the religion carries the miracles, and not the miracles the religion. People are Christians because the Christian account of life in general, and of the relations between God and man, appears to them, on the whole, the one which best suits the facts of life, and is thus, on the whole, the most probable. This renders it probable that God may have seen fit to set the system going by miraculous interpositions. Q. Then you think that it is possible that two thousand years hence people may believe in Joe Smith as an inspired prophet?—A. If Mormonism becomes the religion of the world, I have no doubt they will, but not otherwise; and I do not think that event very probable at present. Do you, or can any man, suppose that if the Christian religion were a mass of wickedness, if it enjoined impurity, dishonesty, and falsehood, the dead weight of the evidence would force mankind to believe it?
Q. Your general conclusion appears to be that the probability of an assertion, all things considered, is the great reason for believing it or not, and that a story primâ facie improbable ought not to be believed in general till some explanation is offered which brings it into harmony with the common course of events?—A. Yes. Q. You admit the fact that Mr. Home floated in the air to be sufficiently well attested to let in explanations, so that you would believe it if it were put into any assignable relation with a known agent, such as electricity or galvanism?— A. Yes. Give a reasonable explanation, and I should admit it instantly. Q. Why is not the theory that a spirit or spirits carried him a reasonable explanation?—A. Because, apart from these alleged facts, the truth of which is in dispute, there is no evidence that there are such things as spirits. Q. Do you not believe in the human soul?—A. Yes. Q. Then is not every instance in which a nurse carries a child about the room as much a case of a spirit carrying a body as Mr. Home's elevation could be ?—A. No doubt. Q. Then why should not the spirits carry Mr. Home? —A. Because conclusions cannot carry premisses. Our notions about spirits are derived entirely from observations on matter,—matter is the hidden external cause to which we refer our sensations, and mind or spirit the hidden something which receives or perceives those sensations; but I know of no evidence, except the very stories in dispute, to show that there are things called ghosts flying about in the air; and, allowing these stories to be true, they appear to me insufficient to prove it. Believers in ghosts affect to derive their belief from experience. In truth their belief is antecedent to their experience. They begin by believing in shadowy things in human shape, which they call spirits, and then, when they hear rapping, they say it must be a spirit that made it. In just the same way the pagans believed that there was a god called Apollo who presided over prophecies and oracles, and if any one doubted Apollo's existence they appealed to the prophecies and oracles to prove it. Q. Then do I understand you to say that you do not believe in a future state at all?—A. I think, on the contrary, that that belief is the most reasonable and most important of all human beliefs—as reasonable and important as a belief in a God. It is, however, a formless belief. That in some way or other conscious existence will continue after death, I firmly believe; but the conditions of it are matter of conjecture. We are altogether ignorant on the subject. We have no more reason to believe that a man on dying turns into what you call a spirit—that is, a thing like his former self, only thinner—than that he turns into a haystack. Q. Surely there are analogies which might lead to such a conclusion. There is the analogy of birth, there is also the chrysalis and the butterfly, and other things of the same kind?—A. If you positively will have some food for your imagination, that is as good as any other; only do not call a conjecture proof, and do not suppose that your conjecture is proved by a fact to which your conjecture gives form. You see these raps and table-turnings in the light of your previous theory, and jump at the conclusion which you wished to establish. If these things are to be treated as scientific proof of a future state, you must begin by discarding all your existing notions on the subject, and making your mind tabula rasa with respect to it. I fancy if you did you would look with less satisfaction both on the evidence and on the conclusion to which it points. Q. How so?—A. Because, assuming your stories to be true, and assuming them to furnish the grounds on which, as Mr. Howitt maintains from one end of his book to the other, atheism and materialism are to be rejected, you set up something instead which is, to my mind, far more dreary and repulsive than blank unbelief. Men, when they die, become, it appears, miserable things endowed with no one property worth having except the power of flying about like gnats. They are so stupid, that though they can go where they please, and do in some respects what they like, they never hit even upon the clumsy plan of the raps and the alphabet till a Yankee Quaker suggested it. This notable difficulty prevented them from communicating with the world for some centuries, and even now restrains their communications to a few people, most of whom are sickly or enthusiastic. Having arrived at the great discovery, they have nothing whatever to say which it is worth any human creature's while to learn. Mr. Home or his editor, indeed, expects "results in the highest style of sanctitude;" and to judge both from that particular phrase and also from general experience, they would be conveyed in the style of English which, in this lower sphere, is consecrated to the Eureka shirts and the Idoneous trowsers. They have not even the poor ingenuity which would enable them to give proofs of the fact of their existence. When they are asked to tell something which would otherwise remain secret, they say no, we will tell what we choose. When they are called upon to show themselves to sceptics, or to stand forth in a tangible, permanent form, they have always an excuse. The eye of faith is necessary to discern them, or their spectators would be frightened if they did too much. They have had the awful experience of passing from one world to another, and. they can tell us nothing about the world to which "they have been removed. I once asked a friend who had had much to do with them if he could tell me anything about their habits and ways of life; had they professions, had they families, had they politics, had they literature? how did they pass their time, how did they employ their thoughts? Well, he answered, all I can say is, that one of them told me that they had no currency. This is the next world which you are trying to prove; these are our future prospects. It is dreary to believe that what we see and hear, and weigh and measure, is all that we have to look to. It is melancholy to think that when a man dies he is done with for ever; but at all events those who hold this belief do believe something solid. As far as they go their feet are on a rock. Whether death ends all or not, we can see, and hear, and feel, and count, and I believe that we can do more; that we can look forward to a future life, and look up to a greater Being than ourselves, and that we are entitled to do this on sound and reasonable grounds, such as we should act upon in other matters. But when, for these reasonable grounds, you substitute what you call your evidence; when you put aside the arguments of some of the greatest and wisest of our race and substitute for them the idiots who rap to those who are idle enough to listen—Mr. Home floating about the ceiling, with the ghosts holding up his coat-tails, tables climbing on to ottomans, and armchairs cracking their joints at their masters—I feel irresistibly impelled to say that, even if true, the whole affair is at most a witches' sabbath—that my only hope about it is that the proprietor of such exhibitions may soon claim his own, and that I, for one, in the meantime, shall simply dismiss from my mind the whole subject as a mass of rubbish which may be sifted by men who have a turn for picking stray valuables out of dust-bins, but is undeserving of the attention of any one who has any other way of employing his time.
Cornhill Magazine, June 1863.