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Psychical Research and the Scientific Revolution

In my last letter, I wrote of the need to understand how paranormal disbelief has come about; why cognitive pathologies insert themselves in a thinking style. The later seventeenth century provides a fascinating time when we seem to see this happening.

New ways of thinking and enquiry developed at this time of ‘experimental philosophy’. Often called the ‘scientific revolution’, it is not generally realized that some leading scholars at this time actively studied psychic phenomena. Among them were several Fellows of the newly-founded Royal Society. A paper recently published by the Royal Society closely examines the Society’s connections with these early researchers. Written by Michael Hunter of Birkbeck, University of London, it shows that in the early days of the Royal Society, founded in 1660, some Fellows were not only interested in ideas to do with psychical research, as we now know it, but were actively engaged in careful investigation. This empirical work can properly be included as part of the scientific revolution. While it drew adverse comment from some Fellows, the criticism was largely ineffective on account of ‘an overwhelming eclecticism’ present in the new Society.[1]

My previous letter discussed the anti-psi attitude of the eighteenth century ‘Enlightenment’, personified by Immanuel Kant, whose views cast a long shadow over psychical research. This shadow passed through the nineteenth century, to Henry Sidgwick’s gloom about the pervasive ‘attitude of incredulity’,[2] and on through the twentieth century with Jan Smuts’s dismay about the ‘iron rule of the mechanistic regime’.[3] Yet in the seventeenth century, when the Royal Society was founded, attitudes to psychic matters were adventurous and widely supported.

Researchers had a prominent forerunner in Francis Bacon, author of Novum Organum (1620) which pioneered scientific method. In his posthumously published miscellany, Sylva Sylvarum (1627), he ‘maintained a dualism of tangible, inert matter and active, intangible spirits’,[4] which accommodated direct mind-to-mind contact, precognition and other phenomena we would call psychic.

The Society for Psychical Reearch’s new online Psi Encyclopedia carries an article by John Newton on Joseph Glanvill, a Fellow of the young Royal Society.[5] The article describes his investigations into what can fairly be called psychical research. Along with Glanvill, other Fellows of the Society who were notably interested or active in this research included the experimentalist Robert Boyle (of Boyle’s Law), philosopher Henry More, archaeologist John Aubrey, geologist John Beaumont (author of a Treatise of Spirits),[6] and Isaac Newton. Another investigator was Richard Baxter, a prominent churchman and author of The Certainty of the Worlds of Spirits. All were leading intellectual figures.

A belief in God was of major importance to most thinkers of that time, and an interest in psychical phenomena was approved as a counter to materialism, as well as being seen to support theological beliefs: ‘no spirit, no God,’ as More declared.[7] On the grounds that preternatural phenomena vindicated the reality of God’s power in the world, Boyle was fascinated by authenticated reports of these phenomena.[8]

Glanvill, whose ‘public life was one of untiring controversy’, in particular attempted to refute perceived atheism and materialism through collecting and compiling reports of supernatural phenomena.[9] To seem credible, he took care to cite witnesses and to report his own investigations according to the scientific requirements of the time. Perhaps his most famous case was a phantom drummer at a house in Tedworth. This appears to have been a poltergeist outbreak initiated by a living person. After a Tedworth house-owner had 'a wandering drummer arrested and his instrument confiscated, his house was regularly shaken by the beating of a phantom drum and he, his family, and visitors were subjected to poltergeist-type phenomena such as throwing of furniture'.[10]

Glanvill was in no doubt about the reality of spirits and their interaction with the material world. In a letter of 1668, he wrote to another Fellow urging that the Royal Society ‘direct some of its wary, and luciferous enquiries towards the World of Spirits’.[11] His uncompleted magnum opus, Saducismus Triumphatus, was a compilation of data intended to demonstrate the reality of supernatural phenomena. It was edited by More, who saw no incompatibilities with philosophical rationality.

Newton was the most famous, and perhaps the most misunderstood, member of this group. His interest in alchemy was shared by many leading Fellows of the Society in its early years. In alchemy Newton found ‘a natural philosophy that spoke in terms of life and spirit rather than inert particles in motion’.[12] His alchemical work ran in tandem with theology, about which he held deeply learnéd but heretical views.

It seems that there could have been enough people of high standing and in sufficient communication to have formed a society something like the Society for Psychical Research. There were of course, as in the 1880s, notable sceptics. In the Royal Society there was Robert Hooke, who had a negative influence even though he had worked with Boyle on the construction of his air pump, and held a close friendship with Aubrey. Yet this negativity did not become Society policy. As Hunter points out, since other ‘grandees’ of the Society had outspoken enthusiasm for ‘the world of spirits’:

There was clearly something to be said for avoiding the topic, on the grounds that it was one likely to lead to disagreement that a focus in ‘safe’ science would avoid.[13]

A preference for ‘safe science’ was probably linked to the growing influence of an intelligentsia impatient with older lines of thinking. This influence was not based on careful evaluation of empirical data. The ‘wits’ of the play-houses and coffee-houses

seem to have been in the forefront in rejecting magic at this time, when more serious-minded figures such as the clerics and professionals who made up the Royal Society were more divided in their views.[14]

Hunter reports one Restoration wit as saying, ‘speak of spirits, and he tells you, he knows none better than those of wine’. The satirical debunking of psi was essentially the activity not of practising scientists but of non-scientists. A Fellow declared of the wits, ‘I acknowledge that we ought to have great dread of their power’. Their influence raised concerns among psychic investigators about personal reputation; Boyle suppressed some of his work and it is now lost.[15]

Beyond the wits, there was a growing materialistic current, channelled notably by Thomas Hobbes, who saw the world as a mechanical system. With few scientific credentials, he was not favoured by the Royal Society, even though he may now be seen as ‘one of the true founders of modernity in Western culture’.[16] Which is to say that he took part in developing a restrictive worldview no longer able to accommodate ‘worlds of spirits’. So while in the seventeenth century there was a fascination with the supernatural and the occult, with roots in the past, the period is also characterized by the development of newer attitudes that were displacing the former.

The ‘attitude of incredulity’ cannot be attributed to the growth of scientific thinking and practice that developed during the seventeenth century. The Royal Society kept its corporate distance from the confrontation between Baconian–Boylean acceptance and a new critical view which took little notice of scientific data. Hunter comments, ‘phenomena that Glanvill and others considered crucial and worthy of serious investigation were simply sidelined by the Society as a corporate body’.[17] It seems that the ‘great dread’ of revolutionary intellectualism compromised an open-minded adherence to scientific research. John Newton records Harry Price’s opinion that Glanvill was the ‘father of psychical research’.[18] Regrettably, this is hardly so, because a line of descent effectively disappeared in the following two centuries until the period around the founding of the SPR.

That the sceptical attitude became consolidated is illustrated by Hunter in the study of Scottish second-sight. It fascinated Boyle, among others, and was discussed at a meeting of the Royal Society in 1698. Yet a Fellow deeply interested in the subject in the mid-eighteenth century believed it could not be ‘brought before us as a Society not coming within the Design of our Institution’.

In line with this came a virtual re-writing of history, with sceptics asserting that the Royal Society had discredited psychic investigation. But as Hunter points out:

This is precisely what did not happen. The Society did not inquire into these phenomena and discredit them: it simply avoided them – even if […] this very avoidance was influential in itself.[19]

From the alehouse wits and intellectuals of the seventeenth century to eighteenth-century self-declared rationality, one can detect symptoms of the cognitive dissonance discussed in my last letter. With the tide of truly rational interest in psychical phenomena ebbing, one may ask what were the underlying causes of this pathology that binned perfectly good data that we associate with psychical research?

The ‘dispute as to the reality of [psi] phenomena’ which worried Sidgwick is a complex philosophical, psychological and historical issue, not simply a scientific one, as I noted in my last letter.[20] Was the disparagement the product of an upheaval in thinking, in which aspects of the medieval world were closed by the confident, free-thinking style that followed? Art, music and society went on to display tremendous self-confidence, a self-confidence that led Linnaeus in 1758 to name our less-than-sapient species Homo sapiens. With high satisfaction in the worldly state, perhaps interest in the ‘supernatural’ looked ridiculously out of date. The matter deserves extensive study. If some kind of psychical research society had formed in the seventeenth century, one may question whether it would have survived the eighteenth-century reactionary brand of confidently claimed rationality.

No doubt such a society in the eighteenth century would have interested the likes of Emanuel Swedenborg during his London sojourns, although that could merely have sharpened Kant’s attack on him. Swedenborg’s empirical approach to the spirit world came up against vehement opposition; it encountered a cultural dissonance that was perhaps even stronger than the one we face today, but hardly different. Surely it is time to sweep away this false rationality in the new tide noted in my first letter.[21]