Monday, January 05, 2015

Archives of Psychical Research: I

William Faulkner famously said, "The past is never dead. It’s not even past." It would be satisfying to believe so concerning the vast collection of research, accounts of personal experience, and theories about psychical phenomena. Unfortunately, most books and articles on psychical research have a brief shelf life. Some deserve to, but others have a claim on our attention.

This series offers brief reviews and discussions of a few explorations of paranormal mental phenomena that have been all but forgotten.

Apparitions and Survival of Death by Raymond Bayless. New Hyde Park: University Books, 1973.

If you don't believe studies of psychical research are writ in water, consider the case of Raymond Bayless, author of seven books about the subject from various angles. They were mainly published in the 1970s, are already out of print and rarely discussed. He lived till 2004.

Bayless called himself a researcher, legitimately I think. But he lacked a string of academic degrees after his name, which won't do these days. Nevertheless, his book reads well although it could stand better organization -- he tends to mention the same subject at scattered locations.

Apparitions and Survival of Death examines one of the key phenomena said to provide evidence that the deceased continue in spirit form after the body is dead and gone. Literally thousands of well-researched cases are on record, plus others that are anecdotal and not fully meeting criteria for acceptance -- but their sheer numbers add a further suggestion that post-mortem survival is real.

It's a complicated and puzzling subject, like everything paranormal. For one thing, apparitions (appearances of someone not physically present) often involve seeing the image of someone alive, and even in slapping good health, at the time. One of the earliest scientific surveys -- possibly the most thorough ever done -- is titled Phantasms of the Living. Another category is so-called "crisis apparitions" of people who are dying, but show up while the ill or injured person is still breathing.

As if that's not enough, apparitions have various degrees of physical solidity, from faint and wispy to others that look like ordinary people and can physically affect objects, such as by turning lights on and off, or making footstep-like sounds as they move around. Some apparitions are seen by several people at the same time, in the proper perspective for each viewer.

Ironically, those most determined to dismiss apparitions as spirits are as likely to be parapsychologists as scientific materialists. The academic instinct is to avoid metaphysical explanations or to be associated with séances and such questionable practices. From the very founding of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882, some of its most prominent researchers including Frederic Myers and Edmund Gurney shied away from the spirit hypothesis.

Most alternative theories up to the present involve some version of telepathy. Bayless says:
In 1888 F.W.H. Myers theorized that phantoms, representing both the living and the dead, were telepathic in origin. Simply put, this theory suggests that a person involved in some type of crisis (the agent) broadcasts a telepathic message to the receiver (the percipient) who in turn casts the impulse into tangible form. That is, his mind turns the original telepathic impulse into a visually perceived but hallucinatory phantasm; or into a sound such as a voice, footsteps, a touch of a hand; or into the form of a significant odor.
Myers's colleague, Edmund Gurney, was troubled by the problem of collectively perceived apparitions. Unwilling to allow any physical reality to an apparition, he tried to rescue the telepathic idea by claiming that "after the original 'broadcast' was received by the primary percipient, this receiver in turn emitted another telepathic transmission, which was then picked up by still another percipient. In the case of multiple percipients the telepathic 'infection,' as Gurney termed it, became quite complex, unwieldy, and very improbable!"

The telepathic-perception hypothesis was shaped into its modern and most famous form by G.N.M. Tyrrell in a lecture and later a book, Apparitions. Bayless:
Professor Hornell Hart briefly defines Tyrrell's supposition by stating that a ghost is the result of a mingling of the subconscious minds of both agent and percipient, and that the actual apparition is a kind of three-dimensional picture in motion. Tyrrell refers to "the stage carpenter" (meaning, I believe, [the percipient's] ability to create illusion) and other subtleties which have provided much bewilderment among parapsychologists. In essence, after trimming away certain verbal foliage, I fail to see that he said anything drastically different from what Edmund Gurney postulated.
Clearly, Bayless isn't having it that all apparitions are generated in one or more living minds. In my view, the different editions of the telepathy explanation are theoretically possible in paranormal appearances of the living. But as a general proposition they fall wide of the mark.

What about apparitions of people who are verifiably deceased? Who is then the "sender" of the impression that the receiver, or receivers collectively, see or hear or both? 

Bayless includes chapters on related phenomena, which he examines with his commonsense approach: poltergeists, out-of-the-body experiences, ectoplasmic figures, &c. Partial materialization of apparitions through ectoplasm is absurd, of course, but casts have been made from ectoplasmic hands pressed into wax. The casts have been photographed. Perhaps they were perceived by the camera's internal stage carpenter.

Considering all the different forms taken by apparitions and the circumstances under which they make themselves known, it's reasonable to suppose that they consist not just of one class of psychical phenomena, but several, or maybe many. Given the cloud under which apparitions remain in an increasingly material-minded world, it will be a long time before the mystery reveals its secrets.

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