The Path – July 1887

EVIDENCE AND IMPOSSIBILITY — E. D. Fawcett

[THE LOGIC OF A PRIORI NEGATION AND THE RELATIONS OF THE SUBJECTIVE TO THE OBJECTIVE IN THE ESTIMATION OF EVIDENCE.]

It is a not uncommon fact of experience that evidence of apparently great intrinsic weight is rejected on the ground of the improbability or impossibility of the occurrence it attests. As this question as to the reliability of evidence has been re-opened of late years by the imposing body of testimony presented in favour of super-normal phenomena — lifted entirely above the range of ordinary scientific experience — it may not be amiss to consider in as brief a manner as possible, the logical basis of the a priori dismissal of such facts as "impossible," as also to shadow forth the relations of the Subjective and the Objective in the formation of our beliefs and convictions.

According to J. S. Mill, whose words I quote at some length (1), as admirably illustrative of the true scientific attitude towards attestations of abnormal occurrences in general — an attitude unfortunately rarely adopted by our materialistic present-day philosophers "the positive evidence produced in support of an assertion which is nevertheless rejected on the score of impossibility or improbability is never such as to amount to full proof. It is always grounded on some approximate generalization. The fact may have been asserted by a hundred witnesses; but there are many exceptions to the universality of the generalization that what a hundred witnesses affirm is true. (2)... The evidence then in the affirmative being never more than an approximate generalisation all will depend on what the evidence in the negative is. If that also rests on an approximate generalisation it is a case for the comparison of probabilities.... If, however, an alleged fact be in contradiction, not to any number of approximate generalisations, but to a completed generalisation, grounded on a rigorous induction, it is said to be impossible and is to be disbelieved totally."

All this is eminently scientific — common sense formulated in an elaborate terminology.

Whatever is asserted counter to a complete induction is necessarily false. But clearly to be complete the induction must first embrace all the phenomena. And if facts not amenable to inclusion in it, are brought forward supported on credible testimony, are we to declare the induction incomplete and admit the facts or exclude them by asserting its present comprehensive character? Must we not reject the induction in the face of the attested facts? Have we in any way the right to call it already complete? To this Mr. Mill answers: —

"I answer we have that right whenever the scientific canons of induction give it to us; that is whenever the induction can be complete. We have it, for example, in a case of causation in which there has been an experimentum crucis. If an antecedent A, superadded to a set of antecedents in all other respects unaltered, is followed by an effect B which did not exist before. A is in that instance at least, the cause of B, or an indispensable part of its cause; and if A be tried again, with many totally different sets of antecedents and B still follows, then it is the whole cause. If these observations or experiments have been repeated so often as to exclude all supposition of error in the observer, a law of nature is established; and so long as this law is received as such, the assertion that on any particular occasion A took place and yet B did not follow, without any counteracting cause, must be disbelieved."

These remarks of Mill utterly overthrow the position of the pseudo-scientific sceptics who impugn the validity of all abnormal facts on the ground of their being "opposed to the Laws of Nature."

Equally in the case of the phenomena of spiritualism as in that of miracle-evidence, the position of the ultra-'rationalistic' school is only tenable when the assertion is put forward that the laws of nature — i.e. the observed sequence of certain antecedents or sets of antecedents by certain consequents — were temporarily suspended for a special purpose. But every Theosophist, philosophical Spiritualist, in discussing the phenomenal aspect of his belief, admits the presence of "some counteracting cause" and with this admission before him it becomes not only arbitrary, but unscientific, for the sceptic to deny on purely a priori grounds phenomena attested by so many observers of repute and sagacity. This I think is apparent even from the standpoint of so rigid a thinker as Mill. Arm chair Negation is on his declaration clearly shown to be little better than an arrogation of omniscience. It is a reversion to the old scholastic fallacy — before the days of Bacon and the foundation of science on observation and generalisation upon facts — of attempting to settle all philosophical questions on the starveling regime of Deductive Logic. No justification can be offered for such an exhibition of prejudice, unless — and in this lies the real point at issue in the theoretical handling of the question — the existence of any unknown laws of nature and that of beings competent to manipulate them or living men consciously or unconsciously furnishing the conditions requisite for their manifestation is denied in toto. The former plea is one which not even the boldest sceptic would care to urge; the progress and future prospects of science being based on the supposition that next to nothing has been yet ascertained of the secrets this magnificent Universe holds in store for posterity.

The denial of the latter assertion is simply worthless for the reason that in this case Scientists while on the one hand professing their unalterable devotion to the laws of Induction, deliberately give the lie to their protestations by refusing for the most part even to entertain such a possibility, much less to examine the evidence on the validity of which they proceed so presumptuously to dogmatize. Consult Dr. Bain's Logic Part II. This eminent psychologist while admitting in his discussion of the value of Hypotheses, "that it would seem irrational to affirm that we already know all existing causes, and permission must be given to assume, if need be, an entirely new agent (p. 131) and also that natural agencies can never be suspended; they may be counteracted by opposite agencies" (p. 81), has the temerity to remark (p. 149) that all evidence to the effect that a table rose to the ceiling of a room without physical contact is to be totally disbelieved! What! This — the commonest experience of spiritualism, a phenomenon millions of investigators could if necessary vouch for — is to be dismissed with a sneer by the 'scientific' reasoner! And for what reason? Because it conflicts with a complete Induction — the Law of Gravity. We will not stop to consider whether Polarity is not the true explanation of the phenomena of 'gravitation.' We have merely to remember Mr. Mill's remarks and the admissions of Dr. Bain himself. Why postulate a suspension of the law of gravity with a 'counteracting cause' in view. The duty of the Scientists is clear, viz., to investigate and inform us of the nature of this cause, not to sit still in their arm-chairs and attack the veracity or sanity of countless painstaking observers. The foolish statement above commented upon is about as 'scientific,' as would be the assertion that when A lifts a stone from the ground, there is a suspension of law; the necessary explanation clearly being that a new cause has intervened producing a new effect. Prof. Huxley has assured us that the possibilities of Nature are infinite; brags that outside of pure mathematics it is imprudent to make use of the term "impossible." In all such cases, as the one above, where the evidence in favor of a super-normal fact is exceedingly strong, our object should be to accept the attestations of the witnesses and then search for the unknown "counteracting cause." Was not the existence of the planet Neptune first ascertained in this manner? Is it not the scientific Method of Residues — one of the triumphs of Inductive Logic — which Sceptics of the stamp of Professor Bain are deliberately ignoring in the compilation of such sophistries as the specimen "on exhibit" above?

To what absurd lengths, however, some writers, claiming a community of common-sense with their fellow-men, can proceed is to be seen in the following quotation from the well-known materialist, Dr. Ludwig Buchner (3): "There can be no doubt that all pretended cases of clairvoyance rest upon fraud or illusion. Clairvoyance, that is a perception of external objects without the use of the senses is an impossibility.... No one can read an opaque sealed letter, extend his vision to America, see with closed eyes what passes around him, look into the future or guess the thoughts of ethers. These truths rest upon the natural laws, which are irrefutable, and admit, like other natural laws, of no exception. All that we know, we know by the medium of our senses. There exist no super-sensual and super-natural things and capacities; and they never can exist, as the external conformity of the laws of nature would thereby be suspended. As little as a stone can ever fall in any other direction than towards the centre of the earth, so little can a man see without using his eyes. Cases so repugnant to the laws of nature have never been acknowledged by rational unprejudiced individuals. Ghosts and spirits have hitherto only been seen by children or ignorant and superstitious individuals. All that has been narrated of the visits of departed spirits is sheer nonsense."

And this is "Science!" This the boasted freedom of Inductive research — a priori negation and a fatuous bigoted scepticism. The last few observations just quoted in the present intellectual and social status of the witnesses for these unpalatable psychic phenomena are simply folly, empty vapourings of a distorted mind. To-day it is Science that plays the bigot and inquisitor. Better the deposed idols of orthodoxy than the dead-sea fruits of Materialistic blindness! In the words of a celebrated physiologist "The morality which flows from scientific materialism may be comprehended within these few words, 'Let us eat and drink for to-morrow we die.' All noble thoughts are vain dreams, the effusions of automata with two arms running about on two legs, which, being finally decomposed into chemical atoms, combine themselves anew, resembling the dance of lunatics in a mad-house." (4)

The question of the relation of the subjective to the objective in our estimation of evidence is one of very great interest. We must premise our remarks by saying that there is no intention here of discussing that feeble and contemptible receptivity known as credulity, which practically converts the person exhibiting it into a species of intellectual dust-bin into which rumours of all kinds drift pell mell. "Rubbish shot here" is not the mental signboards the erection of which we advocate. But students of history and believers in the theory of cycles are compelled to admit that the progress of beliefs and opinions is one in which objective evidence as such plays a relatively unimportant part — that in short it is the menial pre-dispositions of humanity at large which determine the intrinsic force of external facts considered in their relation to contemporary thought.

This feature of intellectual development is one fully verified by all historical data and indeed a corollary of the theory of cycles. For instance the widespread diffusion of materialistic views at the present day may seem to a superficial observer to be due to the fuller evidence as to the connection of mind and brain possessed by our modern physiologists and physicists. But we find on closer inspection that the arguments of Materialism from Democritus and Lucretius to Buchner, have practically remained the same in their objective entirety — it is the subjective disposition of men in general to assimilate such interpretations of nature, that determines their present cogency. Experience shows us that the objective in all similar cases, only acquires evidential force, when the subjective corresponding to it in the human mind is in the ascendant. Take the problem of Miracle-evidence. Here again it is exceedingly questionable whether the rationalistic contentions against the reality of the gospel phenomena have in any way increased in weight per se through the centuries. Even Strauss admitted that he had only re-stated the arguments which were always at the service of the pioneers of liberal thought. What then has determined the rebellion against Orthodoxy, but the growth of a subjective tendency to reject all such accounts on a priori grounds — the influence of a changed intellectual environment. Given Miracle-Evidence = X, and the original Subjective Receptivity = Y, the rejection of the former has been due not to an intrinsic diminution in the evidential force of N per se, but by a decline in the extent of the latter factor to perhaps Y/2 or Y/4, exemplified in the use of the term a "grouping antecedent improbability." Theosophists, however, who adopt the philosophical plan of admitting the 'miracle'-evidence but the same time of declining to base upon such a foundation the supernatural inferences grouped under the head of orthodox Christianity, are thus shown to be occupying a position impregnable to the assaults of Theologian and Scientist alike. Again it was nothing but the preparedness of public opinion which resulted in the favourable debut of the Darwinian theory of evolution. The startling assumptions, geological, palaeontological and other difficulties, and lavish display of hypotheses, which characterized this celebrated speculation at its outset, would have assuredly involved its rejection, but for the subjective receptivity of the scientific world in general. The subjective pre-disposition to receive such a view being already present, the objective correspondences in nature must — despite of apparent checks and obstacles — be made to dove-tail with the theory. It did not rest on its objective evidences "not on its experimental demonstration" as Tyndall himself admits (Belfast Address) but "in its general harmony with the method of nature as hitherto known." This is therefore a distinct case in which mental conditions absolutely determine the cogency of objective data. As a convincing illustration of the correctness of this contention, we need only turn to the consideration of the relations of physical science and spiritualism. If objective evidence per se was competent to enforce conviction, the acceptance of psychic phenomena as established facts would have now been a thing of the past. It is beyond question that the body of witnesses in favour of these phenomena greatly exceeds in number that on which the assertions of any distinct branch of science rests. These witnesses include some of the most liberal scientists, and literary men, thinkers of the greatest perspicacity and acuteness. — inquirers rescued from the talons of Materialism, as well as former Agnostics, Positivists and Sectarians.

Where in ordinary scientific investigation we have usually only the dictum of the individual experimenter to accept "on faith"; in accounts of psychic occurrences we are almost invariably presented with the collective testimony of numerous observers. How comes it about that Tyndall in his Belfast Address can pay a deserved compliment to that luminary of the Evolution-School, Mr. A. R. Wallace, and in the same materialistic effusion stigmatise spiritualism as "degrading" thus indirectly impugning the powers of observation of the scientist whom he has just eulogized? (5) Darwin quotes or repeats the same author over 50 times in his "Descent of Man:" but it is consistent for those who pin their faith to that work, to avail themselves in this way of the evidence of Mr. Wallace where it suits their purpose and to reject or ignore it wholly where it does not. Science, we have been told by one of its most eminent representatives, is bound to face every problem presented to it. Whether it does so, the treatment experienced by honest inquirers like Crookes, Zollner, Hare and others at the hands of their purblind fellow scientist may be left to show. Well; we have had the Popes of theology, we must now bear, as well as we may, the Popes and Inquisition of science.

Objective facts, therefore, present themselves differently to different minds. The Christian idea of "Faith" is not without its substratum of truth. And in questions such as those of Spiritualism and Theosophy, we maintain that wanting the subjective receptivity of the individual mind objective evidence is valueless. Facts by themselves however well supported by incontrovertible testimony make no appeal to the intellect, if some recess is not already prepared for their reception. And is not this Receptivity innate in many, if not in the majority of our brother-theosophists? Ought we not to regard our capacity to accept the teachings of the Masters as a glorious Karmic Heritage — the outcome of some vague spiritual aspirations in a former existence — a ray from a distant past lighting up the Cimmerian gloom of the materialistic world in which we live? Such at least would seem us be the teaching of the Secret Doctrine.

FOOTNOTES:

1. "System of Logic." People's Edition, p. 408. (return to text)

2. A very questionable statement. The exceptions are extremely rare. There undoubtedly have been cases — as in the celebrated Crystal Palace Fire incident when a vast crowd mistook a fluttering flag for a straggling chimpanzee — when multitudes have been subject to misapprehension, but in all these the error arose from an illusory interpretation only of something really objective. The evidence for the generality of psychic phenomena stands on wholly different grounds — in fact the actuality of the attested facts usually depends on one question — are all the witnesses conspiring to lie? The contrary admitted, the attested facts must also be. (return to text)

3. "Force and matter." p. 152. (Engl. Edit. Trubner & Co.) — A more dogmatic work than which, though based professedly on inductive principles, we may search in vain among the Patristic literature to find. (return to text)

4. Prof. Rudolph Wagner quoted by Buchner "Force and Matter," p. 255. (return to text)

5. The subjective deficiency resulting in this extraordinary inconsistency is curiously exemplified in the following extract from a letter quoted in Crooke's "Phenomena of Spiritualism" (p. 82). It confirms our position as to the intrinsic force of evidence.

"Any intellectual reply to your facts I cannot see. Yet it is a curious fact that even I with all my tendency and desire to believe spiritualistically, and with all my faith in your power of observing and your thorough truthfulness, feel as if I wanted to see for myself: and it is quite painful to me to think how much more proof I want. Painful, I say, because I see that it is not reason which convinces a man, unless a fact is repeated so frequently that the impression becomes a habit of mind." ... In other words the writer, though a liberal critic and even anxious to assimilate the facts, could not because his KARMA had not endowed him with that Subjective Receptivity which alone stamps objective evidence with a lasting cogency. (return to text)


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