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Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Paranormal Phenomena Thomas Huxley Was Afraid to Look At

Thomas Huxley was a nineteenth century writer who is remembered as “Darwin's bulldog.” Not much of an original thinker, Huxley excelled at debate. He was just the type of pushy pitchman that a rather retiring person like Darwin needed to sell his ideas. Nowadays if someone is asked to remember a quote by Huxley, he or she will be most likely to remember the quote below:

Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing. I have only begun to learn content and peace of mind since I have resolved at all risks to do this.”

But it seems that it was hypocritical for Huxley to have made such a statement. For at a very important point in his life, when he was asked to join a committee investigating phenomena contrary to his preconceived notions, Huxley refused to participate. He acted like the church officials of Galileo's time who supposedly refused to look through the telescope of Galileo.

The story of the committee in question is well told in Chapter VIII of the book “Mysterious Psychic Forces” by the famous astronomer Camille Flammarion (a fascinating book that it is well worth reading in its entirety). The committee was formed by the Dialectical Society of London, founded in 1867. In January 1869 the society resolved, “That the Council be requested to appoint a Committee in conformity with Bye-law VII., to investigate the Phenomena alleged to be Spiritual Manifestations, and to report thereon.” The committee formed consisted of twenty-seven persons, most of whom were skeptical of paranormal claims.  

Thomas Huxley was asked to join the committee, but refused. At the time of his refusal, it was quite clear that there was a very substantial and important body of abnormal psychic phenomena worthy of investigation. In the preceding years countless observers in the US and England had participated in an activity called table turning. Very many reliable observers would report that when a small group of people put their hands on a table, the table would sometimes tilt dramatically or levitate. This phenomenon was scientifically investigated at length by Count Agenor de Gasparin, who had published in 1857 a scientific book describing countless paranormal effects (such as table levitation and mysterious rappings) observed under controlled conditions. (Gasparin's research is well-summarized in Chapter VI of Flammarion's book.)   Shockingly, it appeared that the phenomenon of table turning had stood up very well to rigorous scientific experiments.

Moreover, in the years leading up to 1869 there was very widespread discussion in the press of the astonishing events observed at the seances of the medium Daniel Dunglas Home (who had published an account of many such incidents in 1864). A very large number of distinguished witnesses had claimed to have seen all kinds of inexplicable paranormal events occurring around Home, often claiming they had seen him levitate. For example, only the previous year (1868) three very distinguished witnesses in London (the Earl of Dunraven, Lord Lindsay, and Captain C. Wynne) had claimed that on December 16, 1868 they had seen Home float out of a high window and float back into another window. A description of this event (along with many equally amazing testimonies) can be read here on pages 80 to 85 of an 1869 book by one of these people, Windham Thomas Wyndham (the fourth Earl of Dunraven).  Home's fame around 1868-1869 was so great that the next year one of England's foremost scientists (Crookes) began investigating him at length, with results described here. Meanwhile, in many places in England and the United States, between 1847 and 1870 there were very many reports of an inexplicable rapping phenomenon, in which loud, inexplicable noises would be reported coming from tables and walls.

So when the Dialectical Society of London asked Thomas Huxley to participate in their investigation of anomalous phenomena in 1869, there was every reason to believe that there was something worthy of looking into – either to substantiate, or to debunk. But Huxley refused to participate, even though the committee was mainly composed of skeptics. Judging from the committee's report, his mind might have been changed if he had participated.

Excerpts of the report of the committee can be read here, and the entire report can be read here. Below are some quotes from the report (go to this link to see the place in the report from which I quote).

  1. "Thirteen witnesses state that they have seen heavy bodies-in some instances men—rise slowly in the air and remain there for some time without visible or tangible support.
  2. Fourteen witnesses testify to having seen hands or figures, not appertaining to any human being, but life-like in appearance and mobility, which they have sometimes touched or even grasped, and which they are therefore convinced were not the result of imposture or illusion.
  3. Five witnesses state that they have been touched, by some invisible agency, on various parts of the body, and often where requested, when the hands of all present were visible.
  4. Thirteen witnesses declare that they have heard musical pieces well played upon instruments not manipulated by an ascertainable agency.
  5. Five witnesses state that they have seen red-hot coals applied to the hands or heads of several persons without producing pain or scorching; and three witnesses state that they have had the same experiment made upon themselves with the like immunity.
  6. Eight witnesses state that they have received precise information through rappings, writings, and in other ways, the accuracy of which was unknown at the time to themselves or to any persons present, and which, on subsequent inquiry was found to be correct.
  7. One witness declares that he has received a precise and detailed statement which, nevertheless, proved to be entirely erroneous.
  8. Three witnesses state that they have been present when drawings, both in pencil and colours, were produced in so short a time, and under such conditions as to render human agency impossible.
  9. Six witnesses declare that they have received information of future events and that in some cases the hour and minute of their occurrence have been accurately foretold, days and even weeks before."

Flammarion states that the committee included "physicists, chemists, astronomers and naturalists, several of them members of the London Royal Society."  At this place in the report, the committee made the following general conclusions:

"These reports, hereto subjoined, substantially corroborate each other, and would appear to establish the following propositions:—
1. That sounds of a varied character, apparently proceeding from articles of furniture, the floor and walls of the room (the vibrations accompanying which sounds are often distinctly perceptible to the touch) occur, without [Pg 292]being produced by muscular action or mechanical contrivance.
2. That movements of heavy bodies take place without mechanical contrivance of any kind or adequate exertion of muscular force by the persons present, and frequently without contact or connection with any person.
3. That these sounds and movements often occur at the times and in the manner asked for by persons present, and, by means of a simple code of signals, answer questions and spell out coherent communications.
4. That the answers and communications thus obtained are, for the most part, of a commonplace character; but facts are sometimes correctly given which are only known to one of the persons present."

Clearly given this astonishing report by the committee, and all the other reports and observations mentioned above, there was something obviously worthy of investigation at the time Thomas Huxley refused to participate in the committee. And the whole issue of whether humans may have psychic powers or some kind of soul or spirit is one that is extremely relevant to the very thing on which Huxley claimed expertise. For if humans have spiritual abilities beyond current explanation, something that could never be explained by natural selection, that is something very relevant to claims about the explanatory power of natural selection. Indeed, the co-originator of the theory of evolution by natural selection (Alfred Russel Wallace) modified his views on the topic partially because of what he had observed relating to paranormal phenomena.

So it seems that London resident Thomas Huxley could have had no reasonable excuse for refusing to participate in the investigation of the Committee of the London Dialectical Society. What reason did Huxley give for not participating? Other than the perfunctory excuse of being too busy, the only excuse he offered was in saying, “I take no interest in the subject,” and that “supposing the phenomena to be genuine – they do not interest me.” How lame an excuse was that? It was made clear to Huxley that the phenomena to be investigated were things such as mysterious powers of levitation, manifestations of invisible spirits, and paranormal powers of the mind. How could anyone claim that if such phenomena were genuine, that they would not interest him?

We should give a name for the type of intellectual cowardice and lack of candor which Huxley displayed in this matter. I propose the name below.

intellectual cowardice

It seems rather clear that the reason why Huxley refused to participate is that he wanted to avoid being exposed to evidence that would conflict with his assumptions about the way the world worked and his beliefs about the origin and nature of humans. Huxley's "Collected Essays" (which can be read here) is a book that is filled with negative pronouncements about the paranormal and the miraculous, but we see no sign in the book that Huxley ever did anything to investigate or read up about the paranormal, other than to read the ancient gospels. 

Sadly, the Huxley Syndrome is rampant in modern academia.  So, for example, we have a majority of scientists who fail to study any of the vast evidence for paranormal phenomena, and who give very lame excuses for such scholarly indolence -- for example, the claim that the evidence "is not worthy of attention" or "not suitable for study by scientists" or that phenomena so often observed and documented by so many reliable observers (including world-class scientists, as discussed here, here, and here) are "clearly impossible." 


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I don't see any cowardice or hypocrisy from Huxley's part here, or a contradiction with his statement that you quoted. He said that he wasn't interested in the subject. That's a perfectly legitimate stance. I don't understand why you consider it a "lame excuse." He was in his entire right to go or not. If he went to an experiment and consciously changed its result to make it match to his own views on the subject, then you could say that that is very hypocritical and coward from him; otherwise, no way.