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The ‘Attitude of Incredulity’

There is the feel of new beginnings in the SPR, with the move to our new building, development of the Psi Encyclopedia, 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 fifty. 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 ‘skeptical’ 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’. Sidgwick’s 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. Sidgwick’s 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 Sidgwick’s 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 ask why 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, Kant’s 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’. Sidgwick’s 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 Gazette’s advice about ‘careful abstention from dangerous trains of thought’. Kant’s 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 Kant’s thinking by Gregory Johnson.[11] Apart from the cognitive pathology, Johnson pointed out that Kant’s attack on Swedenborg can be seen as a smear campaign that suited him. Swedenborg’s 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.


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, ‘President’s 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 Johnson’s 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.