RECORD: S118.7. Wallace, A. R. 1866. The scientific aspect of the supernatural, VII. English Leader 2 (10): 156-157

REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed by Kees Rookmaaker and John van Wyhe. RN1

NOTE: See the further parts here.

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Many of my readers will, no doubt, feel oppressed by the strange and apparently supernatural phenomena here brought before their notice. They will demand, that if indeed they are to accept them as facts, it must be shown that they form a part of the system of the universe, or at least range themselves under some plausible hypothesis.

There is such an hypothesis—old in its fundamental principle, new in many of its details—which links together all these phenomena, as a department of nature hitherto entirely ignored by science and but vaguely speculated on by philosophy; and it does so without in any way conflicting with the most advanced science or the highest philosophy. According to this hypothesis, that, which for want of a better name, we shall term "spirit," is the essential part of all sensitive beings, whose bodies form but the machinery and instruments by means of which they perceive and act upon other beings and on matter. It is "spirit" that alone feels, and perceives, and thinks—that acquires knowledge, and reasons, and aspires—though it can only do so by means of, and in exact proportion to, the organisation it is bound up with. It is the "spirit" of man that is man. Spirit is mind; the brain and nerves are but the magnetic battery and telegraph, by means of which spirit communicates with the outer world.

Though the spirit is in general inseparable from the living body to which it gives animal and intellectual life (for the vegetative functions of the organism could go on without spirit), there not unfrequently occur individuals so constituted that the spirit can wholly or partially quit the body for a time and return to it again. At death it quits the body for ever. The spirit like the body has its laws, and definite limits to its powers. It communicates with spirit easier than with matter, and in most cases can only perceive and act on matter through the medium of embodied spirit. The spirit which has lived and developed its powers clothed with a human body, will, when it leaves that body, still retain its former modes of thought, its former tastes, feelings, and affections. The new state of existence is a natural continuation of the old one. There is no sudden acquisition of new mental proclivities, no revolution of the moral nature. Just what the embodied spirit had made itself, or had become—that, is the disembodied spirit when it begins its life under new conditions. It is the same in character as before, but it has acquired new physical and mental powers, new modes of manifesting the moral sentiments, wider capacity for acquiring physical and spiritual knowledge. The great law of "continuity," so ably shown by Sir William Grove in his recent address to the British Association at Nottingham, to pervade the whole realm of nature, is thus, according to the Spiritual theory, fully applicable to our passage into, and progress through a more advanced state of existence—a view which should recommend itself to men of science as being in itself probable, and in striking contrast with the doctrines of theologians, which place a wide gulf between the mental and moral nature of man, in his present, and in his future state of existence.

Now this hypothesis, taken as a mere speculation, is as coherent and intelligible as any speculation on such a subject can be. But it claims to be more than a speculation, since it serves to explain and interpret that vast accumulation of facts of which a few examples only have been here given, and to furnish a more intelligible, consistent, and harmonious theory of the future state of man, than either religion or philosophy has yet put forth.

And first; as to the interpretation of facts. In the simplest phenomena of Animal Magnetism, when the muscles, the senses, and the ideas of the patient, are subject to the will of the operator; spirit acts upon spirit, through the intermediation of a peculiar relation between the magnetic or life power of the two organisms; and thus the magnetiser is enabled by his will, to create for the patient an ideal world. In the higher phenomenon of "simple clairvoyance," the spirit is to some extent released from the trammels of body, and perceives by some other processes than those of the ordinary senses. In the still higher clairvoyant state termed "mental travelling" the spirit quits the body (still connected with it however by an etherial link), traverses the earth to any distance, communicates with persons in remote countries, if it has any clue by which to distinguish them, and (perhaps through the mediation of their organisations) can perceive and describe events occurring around them.

Under certain conditions disembodied spirit is able to form for itself a visible body out of the emanations from living bodies in a proper magnetic relation to itself; and, under certain still more favourable conditions, this body can be made tangible. Thus all the phenomena of "mediumship" take place. Gravity is overcome by a form of life-magnetism, induced between the spirit and the medium; visible hands or visible bodies are produced, which sometimes write, or draw, or even speak. Thus departed friends come to communicate with those still living, or at the moment of death, the spirit appears visibly, and sometimes, tangibly to the loved ones in a distant land. All these phenomena would take place far more frequently, were the conditions that alone render communication possible, more general, or more cultivated.

It appears then, that all the strange facts, denied by so many because they suppose them "supernatural," may be due to the agency of beings of a like mental nature to ourselves—who are, in fact, ourselves—but one step advanced on the long journey through eternity. The trivial and fantastic nature of the acts of some of these disembodied spirits, is not to be wondered at, when we consider the myriads of trivial and fantastic human beings who are daily becoming spirits, and who retain, for a time at least, their human natures in their new condition. But the generally trivial nature of the acts and communications of spirits (admitting them to be such) may be totally denied. If we saw two or three persons making strange gestures in perfect silence, we might probably think they were idiots; but if we found that two of them were deaf and dumb, and the three were conversing in the language of signs, we should become aware that the gesticulations of their bodies were no more intrinsically absurd than the movements of our lips and features during speech. So, if we realise to ourselves the fact, that spirits can in most cases only communicate with us in certain very limited modes, we shall see, that the true "triviality" consists in objecting to any mode of mental converse as being trivial or undignified. Then again, as to the matter of the communications, said to be generally "unworthy of a spirit;" the real question is, are they generally such as would have been unworthy of the same spirit when in the body? We should remember too that, in most cases the spirit has first to satisfy the inquirer of its existence, and in many cases, to do so in the face of a strong prejudice against the very possibility of spirit communication, or even of the very existence of spirit. And the undoubted fact that hundreds and thousands of persons have been so convinced by the phenomena they have witnessed in the presence of mediums, shows, that trivial though they may be, these phenomena are well adapted to satisfy many minds, and thus lead them to receive and inquire into the higher phenomena, which they could otherwise never have been induced to examine.

This hypothesis of the existence of spirit, both in man and out of man, and their possible and actual inter-communications, must be judged, exactly in the same way as we judge any other hypothesis—by the nature and variety of the facts it includes and accounts for, and by the absence of any other mode of explaining so wide a range of facts. The truth and reality of the facts however is one thing—the goodness of the hypothesis is another, and to find a flaw in the hypothesis is not to disprove the facts. I maintain that the facts have now been proved, in the only way in which facts are capable of being proved—viz., by the concurrent testimony of honest, impartial, and careful observers. Most of the

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facts are capable of being tested by any earnest inquirer. They have withstood the ordeal of eighteen years of ridicule, and of rigid scrutiny, during which their adherents have year by year steadily increased, including men of every rank and station, of every class of mind, and of every degree of talent; while not a single individual who has yet devoted himself to a detailed examination of these facts, has denied their reality. These are characteristics of a new truth, not of a delusion or imposture. The facts therefore are proved.

Before proceeding to consider the nature of the doctrine which Spiritualism unfolds, I would wish to say a few words on a recent work by a well known philosophic author, in which the facts of Spiritualism are for the most part admitted, but are accounted for by a different hypothesis from that which I have here briefly explained. Mr. Charles Bray, author of the "Philosophy of Necessity," "Education of the Feelings," &c., has just published a small volume whose title is—"On Force, its mental and moral correlates; and on that which is supposed to underlie all phenomena: with speculations on Spiritualism, and other abnormal conditions of mind." The latter half of the work is entirely devoted to a consideration of the facts of modern spiritualism, and to an attempt to account for them on philosophical principles. Mr. Bray tells us that he has himself witnessed but few of the phenomena, yet enough to satisfy him that they may be true. He seems to rely more on the overwhelming testimony to the facts by men of admitted intelligence, and to the facts themselves being often of such a nature that they cannot be explained away. He has doubtless been led to this less sceptical frame of mind than is usual in philosophic writers, by his acquaintance with cases of clairvoyance, of one of which he states his experience as follows: "I have heard a young girl in the mesmeric state, minutely describe all that was seen by a person with whom she was en rapport, and in some cases more than was seen or could be seen, such as the initials in a watch which had not been opened, and also describe persons and scenes at a distance, which I afterwards discovered were correctly described, beyond a possibility of doubt." The italics in this sentence are his own.

Judging from the works mentioned in his book, Mr. Bray seems to have but a limited acquaintance with the literature of Spiritualism, which is the more to be regretted as he has so little personal experience of the phenomena, and is therefore hardly in a position to form a satisfactory hypothesis. He considers, however, that he has formed one which "will account for such facts as are genuine," although he admits that he has not made that searching examination which would alone entitle him to decide which facts were genuine, and which were due to fraud or self-delusion. The theory which he propounds is not at all easy to exhibit in a few words. He says that the force which produces the phenomena of Spiritualism "is an emanation from all brains, the medium increasing its density so as to allow others present to come into communion with it, and the intelligence new to every person present, is that of some brain in the distance acting through this source upon the mind of the medium, or others of the circle." p. 107. Again, he speaks of "a mental or thought atmosphere the result of cerebration, but devoid of consciousness till it becomes reflected in our own organisations," p. 98. It seems to me that this theory labours under the great objection of being unintelligible. How are we to understand an "emanation from all brains," a "thought atmosphere," producing force and motion, visible and tangible forms, intelligent communications by sounds or motions, and all the other varied phenomena imperfectly sketched in these pages? How does this "unconscious thought atmosphere" form a visible, tangible, force-exerting hand, which can carry flowers, write, or play complete tunes on an instrument? Does it even account for the simpler, yet still marvellous phenomena of clairvoyance? Let us take one of the best authenticated cases observed by Dr. Gregory. Mottoes enclosed in nutshells are purchased at a shop and the clairvoyant reads them accurately. Now we may safely assume, that in this case no human mind knows the particular nutshell, in which each motto is enclosed. How then does the theory of an "emanation from all brains," or that the clairvoyant is through this emanation acted on "by some mind in the distance," explain the reading of these mottoes? If this "emanation" has the power of reading them itself, and communicates them to the clairvoyant, how can we deny it personality, and in what does it differ from that which we term spirit? If the theory of "spirit" is, as Professor De Morgan says, "ponderously difficult," is not this theory of "brain emanation" still more so? I submit, therefore, that Mr. Bray's hypothesis is not tenable, and that nothing but the supposition of personal minds, existing without, as well as with a human body, and capable, under certain conditions only, of acting on us and on matter, is able to account for the whole range of the phenomena. And this supposition has, I maintain, the advantage of being both intelligible and philosophically probable.

It is however very satisfactory to find a writer of Mr. Bray's standing recognising the subject at all, as one which possesses so much truth in it as to require an elaborate theory to account for the phenomena. This alone is a proof of the convincing nature of the evidence for those facts which our men of science neglect to investigate as a priori absurd and impossible. The appearance of Mr. Bray's book may perhaps indicate that a change is taking place in public opinion on the subject of clairvoyance and spiritualism, and it will certainly do good service in drawing the attention of thinkers to a class of phenomena which, above all others, seem calculated to lead to the partial solution of the most difficult of all problems—the origin of consciousness, and the nature of mind.

(To be continued.)

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Citation: John van Wyhe, ed. 2012-. Wallace Online. (

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