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Occultism and Common-Sense

Beckles Willson

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Chapters include: Science's Attitude towards the Supernatural; The Hypnotic State; Phantasms of the Living; Dreams; Hallucinations; Phantasms of the Dead; On Hauntings and Kindred Phenomena; The Dowsing or Divining Rod; Mediumistic Phenomena; More Physical Phenomena; The Materialisation of Ghosts; Spirit-Photography; Clairvoyance; and, Mrs Piper's Trance Utterances.

This book has 141 pages in the PDF version.

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Excerpt from 'Occultism and Common-Sense'

When I first ventured into the wide and misty domain of Occultism, with a light heart I set forth and an open mind. My sole aim was to ascertain, as far as the means at the disposal of an ordinary man with little of the mystic in his composition would allow, what degree of probability attached to published phenomena, which the ordinary laws of Nature, as most of us understand them, could not satisfactorily explain.

At the threshold of my inquiry, one prominent and, as it seemed to me, disconcerting fact confronted me—namely, that although for a couple of generations "supernatural" manifestations had been promiscuously exhibited before the public, challenging full investigation and inviting belief; although almost every day the newspapers report some striking case of spirit apparition or materialisation, coincident dreams, clairvoyance, trance utterances, or possession, often seemingly well attested; yet in spite of all this testimony academic science continued to dispute the very basis of such phenomena. Any investigator must needs recognise here a very anomalous situation. On the one hand are, let us say, half-a-million people, often highly intelligent, cultured, sane people, firmly protesting that they have witnessed certain astonishing occult manifestations, and on the other hand the Royal Society and the British Association, and other organised scientific bodies established for the investigation of truth, absolutely refusing to admit such evidence or to regard it seriously. Forty years ago Faraday, besought to give his opinion, in this wise wrote: "They who say they see these things are not competent witnesses of facts. It would be condescension on my part to pay any more attention to them." Faraday's attitude was that of Huxley, Spencer, Tyndall, and Agassiz. The first-named, however, rather gave away his prejudice by saying: "Supposing the phenomena to be genuine, they do not interest me." Tyndall's utterance also deserves to be recalled: "There are people amongst us who, it is alleged, can produce effects before which the discoveries of Newton pale. There are men of science who would sell all that they have, and give the proceeds to the poor, for a glimpse of phenomena which are mere trifles to the spiritualist." He added: "The world will have religion of some kind, even though it should fly for it to the intellectual whoredom of spiritualism." Spencer's words were: "I have settled the question in my own mind on à priori grounds." Professor Carpenter called spiritualism "a most mischievous epidemic delusion, comparable to the witchcraft delusion of the seventeenth century."

What, then, has happened to strengthen the case of the believers in ghosts, clairvoyance, thought-transference, sensory automatism, in, say, the last quarter of a century? What new evidence exists which would make the mid-Victorian scientific men reconsider their position? Suppose Faraday and Huxley, Spencer and Tyndall, were alive to-day, would they see reason to alter their opinions?

I remember once—and I now give it as typical—overhearing a psychical experience. It was in a first-class compartment on a train coming from Wimbledon. One of my fellow-passengers, an intelligent, well-spoken man of about thirty-five, was relating to three friends the following extraordinary story. As nearly as I can recollect, I give the narrator's own words:—

"One week ago last Tuesday, at eleven o'clock at night, my wife, who had just retired to bed upstairs, called out to me: 'Arthur! Arthur!' in a tone of alarm. I sprang up and ran upstairs to see what was the matter. The servants had all gone to bed. 'Arthur,' said my wife, 'I've just seen mother,' and she began to cry. 'Why,' I said, 'your mother's at Scarborough.' 'I know,' she said; 'but she appeared before me just there' (pointing to the foot of the bed) 'two minutes ago as plainly as you do.' Well, the next morning there was a telegram on the breakfast-table: 'Mother, died at eleven last night.' Now, how do you account for it?"

There was silence for a full minute.

"A wonderful coincidence. Your wife's hallucination coincided with her mother's death!"

Another occupant of the carriage caught up the word:

"Yes, coincidence. A thing which mightn't happen once in a million years."

Nobody else ventured a remark. Yet they seemed unconvinced. There was no one to tell them—even I did not know then—that these "coincidences" were constantly happening, every year, perhaps every month; that an intelligent body of men—the Society for Psychical Research—has made a census of such hallucinations, all apparently well attested; that newspapers devoted to occult matters constantly record these things; that volumes—monthly, weekly, almost—fairly pour from the press detailing, expounding, dissecting, elaborating such evidence; that the theory of coincidence has already been rejected by many men of the first rank of science; and that official science itself is reluctantly reconsidering its position in more than one direction.

Yet so slowly do the masses move in intellectual life, so tardily do truths, concerning not merely occult but physical and material investigation, percolate through to the workaday world, that the researches, the activities, the ascertained truths of students of psychical phenomena are as a closed book. Perhaps the attitude of apathy with which occult phenomena and occult science are regarded by the average man is not unnatural. To him all miracles that are not Scriptural and ancient and, as it were, institutional are highly improbable, if not impossible. All super-naturalism, he will tell you, is morbid. "There may be something in these things," he says, "but it is not proved. As for spiritualism, my belief is that mediums are impostors. Most of the spiritualists I have seen are 'cranks'—they are certainly dupes—and I have no doubt that if I interested myself in these matters I should end by becoming also a 'crank.'"

This I maintain is the position of the ordinarily educated normal man.

"The moment," wrote Lord Lytton, "one deals with things beyond our comprehension, and in which our own senses are appealed to and baffled, we revolt from the probable, as it appears to the senses of those who have not experienced what we have." Now, that is just what the candid inquirer must avoid throughout his inquiry. It is often difficult to resist employing supernormal hypotheses; but, until normal hypotheses are exhausted, the resistance must be made. On the other hand, it is well to bear in mind Mr Andrew Lang's timely remark, "there is a point at which the explanations of common-sense arouse scepticism."

At all events, not even the most materialistic man-in-the-music-hall, with two eyes in his head, can deny that the great wave of occultism, which twenty years ago seemed to be receding, is again returning with greater force and volume, submerging many of the old sceptical theories and wetting even the utterly callous and ignorant with its spray. It is not so long ago that the very fact of hypnotism was doubted—Mesmer was long regarded as a mere quack—but to-day the induced trance is universally credited. To hypnotism must the miracle of telepathy now be added? Has it really been ascertained, after a thousand experiments and beyond the possibility of error, that a mode of apprehension exists which has no connection with the five senses? For twenty-five years the members of the Society of Psychical Research have carried on their investigations of both sleeping and waking subjects, under every conceivable condition, and are at last fain to announce that such a mystic faculty does exist by which brain can communicate with brain without any known sensory agency.

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