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Thursday, November 7, 2019

He Gets "Victorians and the Paranormal" All Wrong

The Victorian Era was the era when Queen Victoria was queen of the British, between 1837 and 1901. The second half of the nineteenth century was an astonishing period in which inexplicable events repeatedly occurred before a host of witnesses, which included ordinary people and countless distinguished experts. When those skeptical of the paranormal write about such events, they sometimes produce travesties of history that are full of gigantic omissions and glaring distortions. An example is an article by Karl Bell that appeared online on October 31. The article was entitled “Victorian scientists thought they’d found an explanation for ghosts – but the public didn’t want to hear it.”

Distorting the historical reality, Bell tries to create in the reader's mind two ideas:
  1. That the Spiritualism movement (beginning in 1848) and the seances of the following decades were merely caused by people misidentifying furniture movements that occurred because of muscular movements when people put their hands on furniture such as tables.
  2. That the scientist Michael Faraday debunked such things by showing an “ideomotor effect” by which people can unconsciously move furniture that they are touching.
The Spiritualist movement that began in 1848 did not originate in any accounts of furniture moving when people touched furniture. The movement began with reports in Hydesville, New York of an abundance of mysterious unexplained noises, including mysterious rappings, and many other loud unexplained noises. Many witnesses claimed that the noises responded in a seemingly intelligent manner to human speech, as if they were caused by some invisible power. A very full account can be found on pages 284 to 299 of Robert Dale Owen's fascinating 1860 book Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World. You can read such an account here. Interestingly, on page 272 to page 283 of the same book we read about a similar case that occurred in 1850 in France, a case in which there were two solid months of inexplicable noises and inexplicable physical disturbances resembling poltergeist activity and an intelligent invisible force. Many witnesses attested to the phenomenon at a place that had not yet heard of the Hydesville incidents. Referring to this French phenomenon, Owen states on page 283, “It would be difficult to find a case more explicit or better authenticated than the foregoing.”

In the early 1850's many people engaged in what was called table turning. This involved a group of people placing their hands on a table. Very often the table would seem to make mysterious movements. The reported effects included the following:
  1. a simple tilting or turning of the table when people put their fingers on top of it;
  2. cases of a table rising up into the air when people put their fingers on top of it;
  3. cases in which a table would rise up into the air or move when no one touched the table.

Because items (2) and (3) were widely reported, it is clear that Faraday did not at all explain the better cases of the reported phenomena. There is no amount of manual force with the fingers that can cause a table to rise up into the air when people place their fingers on top of it, even if they are intentionally trying to do such a thing. Nor can any theory of unconscious force explain cases of tables moving or rising when no one touched them.

The rituals called seances might involve table turning, but often involved many other types of seemingly paranormal activity. Reported events at seances included the mysterious levitation of furniture or chairs (sometimes when no one was touching them), the levitation of a human being, the arising of mysterious inexplicable noises, voices appearing from out of nowhere, musical instruments playing when no one touched them, the appearance of mysterious lights, curtains or other objects shaking or fluttering when no one was touching them, or objects seeming to appear from out of nowhere (what are called apports).

It is therefore a misleading distortion to suggest that the activity at seances was merely table turning. Clearly table turning was only a small fraction of the reported paranormal activity at seances.

This phenomenon of table turning (and related anomalous phenomena) were scientifically investigated by a distinguished scientist, Harvard chemistry professor emeritus Robert Hare. Hare started out completely believing in Faraday's idea that table turning was caused purely by muscular force. But his investigations led him to reject such an idea. In 1855 he published a long book reaching the conclusion that the phenomenon involved an inexplicable paranormal reality. For example, on page 46 he states, “I first saw a table continue in motion when every person had withdrawn to about the distance of a foot; so that no one touched it; and while thus agitated on our host saying, 'Move the table toward Dr. Hare,' it moved toward me and back again.” This is only one of countless paranormal incidents described in the book, which Hare mainly regarded as proof of some mysterious paranormal reality. He devised numerous scientific instruments to test paranormal effects, and frequently found them to give dramatic inexplicable results. 

This phenomenon of table turning was also scientifically investigated at length by Count Agenor de Gasparin, who published in 1857 a two-volume 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 the book Mysterious Psychic Forces by the astronomer Camille Flammarion.  For example, Gasparin described this happening on September 3, 1853:

Some one proposed the experiment which consists in causing a table to rotate and give raps while it has on it a man weighing say a hundred and ninety pounds. We accordingly placed such a man on the table, and the twelve experimenters, in chain, applied their fingers to it. The success was complete: the table turned, and rapped several strokes. Then it rose up entirely off the floor in such a way as to upset the person who was upon it.”

Such a result is inexplicable through any result of subconscious muscle movement. Gasparin reported the following occuring on October 7, 1853:

Let us turn again to the finest of all demonstrations, that of levitation without contact. We began by performing it three times. Then, since it was thought by some that the inspection of the witnesses could be carried on in a surer way in the case of a small table than in that of a large one, and with five operators more certainly than with ten, we had a plain deal centre-table brought which the chain, reduced by half, sufficed to put in rotation. Then the hands were lifted, and, contact with the table being entirely broken, it rose seven times into the air at our command.”

Since this was a report of levitation of a table without contact, it obviously cannot be explained through Faraday's “ideomotor effect” of subconscious muscle movement. Shockingly, the phenomenon of table turning had stood up well to rigorous scientific experiments, with the investigators finding it to be a mysterious paranormal reality rather than something they could debunk.

Something similar was reported in 1855 by Eliab Wilkinson Capron, who reported that a “table moved on the floor with nobody touching it – moved to the distance of a foot or more and back, in various directions.” In 1869 the London Dialectical Society (a rationalist organization) launched a major scientific investigation of phenomena such as table turning. It concluded 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.” 

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."

Perhaps the most famous scientific investigations into the paranormal in the Victorian Era were the investigations of the eminent scientist William Crookes. Bell conveniently ignores making any mention of Crookes, and it is easy to figure out why. The case is one that is entirely inconsistent with what Bell tries to insinuate.

Crookes was the co-discover of the element thallium, and the inventor of the Crookes tube, a kind of vacuum tube that was the earliest ancestor of all television sets and computer monitors. Crookes made two important investigations into the paranormal. The first was to investigate the famous medium Daniel Dunglas Home. Many distinguished observers had reported the most astonishing paranormal phenomena in the presence of Home, such as levitations of furniture and levitations of Home himself. Home passed Crookes' scientific tests with flying colors. Crookes reported that when Home merely touched the top of an accordion that Crookes had recently bought, while the accordion was inside a cage, the musical instrument played by itself; and that when Home removed his hand entirely, so no one was touching the instrument, it also played by itself. "The instrument then continued to play, no person touching it, and no hand being near it," Crookes reported (Researches in the Phenomena of Spiritualism, page 13). 

 On page 10 Crookes writes the following:

"Among the remarkable phenomena which occur under Mr. Home's influence, the most striking, as well as the most easily tested with scientific accuracy, are –(1) the alteration in the weight of bodies, and (2) the playing of tunes upon musical instruments (generally an accordion, for purposes of portability) without direct human intervention, under conditions rendering contact or connection with the keys impossible. Not until I had witnessed these facts some half-dozen times, and scrutinised them with all the critical acumen that I possess, did I become convinced of their objective reality."

Crookes also investigated the medium Florence Cook. He reported the most astonishing phenomenon: that a ghostly “full form materialization” would repeatedly appear next to the body of Florence Cook. This could not have been Florence in disguise, for Crookes reported seeing both at the same time. A fuller discussion of Crookes'  account of these investigations (with quotations of his exact statements) can be found here.

Besides not saying a word about Crookes, and not saying a word about the investigation of the London Dialectical Society, Bell fails to say a word about perhaps the other most famous case of the Victorian era, the case of Leonora Piper. Unlike mediums such as Home and Cook, Piper was what is called a mental medium. Except for one time, she produced no anomalous physical phenomena. But upon going into a trance, Piper seemed to speak under the control of some external spirit. Very many times, in such trances Piper would seem to know things that were impossible for her to know, such as intimate details of the lives of the people in the same room.

For eighteen months, Piper was investigated by William James, a psychologist so eminent that he is sometimes called “the father of American psychology.” On page 268 of this link, in the article on Piper, we read that in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, James concluded the following: “And I repeat again what I said before, that, taking everything that I know of Mrs. Piper into account, the result is to make me feel as absolutely certain as I am of any personal fact in the world that she knows things in her trances which she cannot possibly have heard in her waking state, and that the definite philosophy of her trances is yet to be found.’’ An arch-skeptic (Richard Hodgson) was brought in to investigate, and even resorted to hiring private investigators to search for evidence of fraud. None was found, and Hodgson ended up avowing to the authenticity of Piper.

Bell also completely fails to mention the Society's work documenting reports of apparitions seen by credible witnesses. The culmination of that work was a 1000-page two-volume work by three members of the Society (psychologist Edmund Gurney, Frederic Myers and Frank Podmore), entitled Phantasms of the Living, which can be read online here and here

The very careful scholarly work Phantasms of the Living provided many hundreds of well-documented cases of people seeing apparitions or ghosts. You can read summaries of many of the accounts here and here and here and here  and here and here. A type of case very commonly reported was when someone would unexpectedly see an apparition of someone he did not know was dead, only to find out later that such a person had recently died. Very many such accounts can be read using the links I just gave.

Far from providing some natural explanation for ghosts, the massive scholarly work Phantasms of the Living failed to do any such thing, and made it look more likely than ever that there is no natural explanation for ghosts and apparitions. Again and again, the accounts in the book were just the type of thing we would expect if a human soul survives death and leaves the body after death.

What do we hear about Leonora Piper in Bell's account? Not a word, nor does he mention the equally dramatic Victorian case of Eusapia Palladino. What do we hear about Phantasms of the Living in Bell's account? Not a word. He mentions the physicist William Barrett, failing to tell us that Barrett authored the book Deathbed Visions giving many accounts of people seeing apparitions, without  offering any natural explanation for such sightings. Under a misleading heading “Debunking the bump in the night,” Bell merely says the following, trying to make it sound as if the Society for Psychical Research had somehow debunked the paranormal:

Various subcommittees investigated hypnotism, telepathy, seances and hauntings). Their work helped expose frauds and they were careful to apply scientific controls to their investigations.”

Not one word is mentioned by Bell about all the evidence for the paranormal gathered by the Society for Psychical Research. Bell ends by approvingly quoting some person in 1882 who made the stupid statement that scientists must engage in “careful abstention from dangerous trains of thought,” which sounds like something we would hear not from a scientist but from a dogmatic religionist. 

The title of Bell's article is very misleading. His title claims “Victorian scientists thought they'd found an explanation for ghosts,” but he mentions only one such scientist (who did not actually claim to have an explanation for ghosts, but only for turning tables). A more accurate title to describe a full discussion of Victorian scientists and the paranormal would be “Victorian scientists found good evidence for the paranormal all over the place.”

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