Transcendental Physics

THE spiritualists have taken heart to a great degree by the accession to their ranks of several men of considerable scientific repute. These men are William Crookes, F. R. S., the discoverer of the radiometer, and the author of a brilliant paper on Radiant Matter; Johann Carl Friedrich Zöllner, professor of physical astronomy at the University of Leipsic, one of the first scientific men to call attention to the photometry of the stars, for which he invented an ingenious photometer ; William Edward Weber, professor of physics, and one of the first authorities in the subject of electricity and magnetism ; Professor Scheibner, of Leipsic, a mathematician ; Gustave Theodore Fechner, professor of physics at Leipsic; and Lord Lindsay, of astronomical fame. These men are certainly notable converts to spiritualism, and one naturally examines with great interest the evidence they give for the faith that is in them. Professor Zöllner comes forward with a book which is entitled Transcendental Physics,1 and presents this evidence to the world. Not only does it require moral courage to take the step which these men have taken, but it also requires a certain moral courage to touch the subject of spiritualism in literature; for the opponents of spiritualism regard the writer who endeavors even to expose its fallacies as one who shows a want of form; and the followers of spiritualism do not emulate the meekness of the early Christians, although desiring to class themselves with them as martyrs to a faith. The rigors of martyrdom have been much softened in these later times, and perhaps we should expect a corresponding absence of humility. It is true that there is a disinclination among scientific men to examine the subject of spiritualism. There are those, however, who regard it the bounden duty of scientific men to explain its phenomena or to give in their adherence to the faith.

We fear that the conversion of these scientific men to spiritualism is calculated to do considerable harm among those who do not weigh evidence carefully and are not in the habit of thinking for themselves. One opens this work of Zoöllner with great interest, in the expectation of something substantial and more edifying than the dreary accounts of table-tippings, and the insane conversations of great men who, entering into a Nirvana, have apparently forgotten all they learned in this world, and have nothing better to do than to move chamber furniture. One hopes that no reference will be made to materializations of unhealthy and puffy spirit hands, — to the spirit of Colonel Smith, who has a penchant for getting under card-tables, and suddenly trundling them off. Unfortunately, this hope is not realized, and we must relegate this work on Transcendental Physics to the limbo where we have consigned the physico-physiological researches of Baron Reichenbach. One rises from its perusal with a feeling of sorrow. Is there anything in this book which purifies the heart ? No. Is there anything which elevates the mind ? No. Does the intellectual faculty grow keener by reading it ? No. Why, then, should one spend time in discussing it? Simply because it is calculated to do harm from the weight of authority of the scientific men who support the utterances in the book, and because it is an evidence of certain psychological states of mind.

Zöllner’s investigations begin with a coloring of scientific reasoning. He discovers that the habitat of the spirits is the fourth dimension in space. We say to ourselves, “ Come on, this is interesting. In common with the rest of the world, the non-come-at-able has great charms for us too.” In an interesting preamble which leads us to expect more, he explains what might possibly be done by beings who have the sense, so to speak, of the fourth dimension in space ; who are able to conceive of motions in a realm shut to ordinary mortals. Place a string in the form of a circle on a table : a being who had the sense of but one dimension in space, who could move only on a plane like that of the table, could not straighten this string save by movements in the plane of the table, and could not conceive of beings like ourselves who could straighten the string by simply lifting it by one end, perpendicularly to the table. Following the same train of reasoning with respect to a complicated knot, beings like ourselves cannot untie a knot, except by movements in three dimensions, whereas beings with the sense of four dimensions could untie a knot as simply as we straighten the string which lies in a circle on the table.

This is interesting and suggestive, and we look for more, but are woefully disappointed. The scientific gloss has been given, and it is very thin. There may be beings who have this ability to work in four dimensions, or in n dimensions ; perchance there are inhabitants beneath the fiery envelope of the sun ; or gnomes beneath the crust of the earth. These suppositions appeal to an audience of children rather than to full-grown men. The rest of the book is made up of accounts of the usual spiritualistic manifestations, bouleversement of furniture, platitudes upon slates, raps under tables and behind tables, untying knots, appearance of pale, olive-green hands, penetration of wooden rings through wood, and so on, with a jargon of commentary colored by metaphysics. We ask ourselves involuntarily, Why do the lucubrations of spiritualists have such a strange likeness to each other, an unhealthy thinness, a nightmare atmosphere born of indigestion ? Why is it that spiritualism never advances beyond pandering to the wonder element of mankind, and never builds a foundation? The reason for these peculiarities must be sought in the science of psychology.

In a company of ten one can often find one or two who can be carried out of themselves, so to speak, by the emphasis and force of conviction of one man. We know how a person of certain attributes can carry an audience with him even to the point of persuading men to believe what their calmer sense tells them to be untrue. We do not call in spirits to account for this action of man on man. We call it animal magnetism, which means simply that this action is a mystery, but does not imply that there is any resemblance between this impression of man on man and the attraction of two magnets. It is evident that the scientific way of investigating this impression of man on man is by the study of the human mind. This study builds up the science of psychology, and when a peculiar action of the brain is once analyzed and understood, it takes its place among the accumulations of our knowledge, and can be verified at any time. By the addition of fact to fact and experiment to experiment all human knowledge advances. Whenever a new science arises we apply a criterion to it, — the capability of having its facts verified; and if it does not satisfy this criterion we are forced to conclude that it is not a science. Spiritualism makes no addition to our knowledge ; for it does not satisfy the above criterion. It is not logical to call in the aid of spirits to account for phenomena which may be peculiar states of mental action, or the impression of the nerve centres of one person by those of another. The first step is to study mental action. Our ignorance of the functions of our brains alone should make us reject spiritualism for the present: we have yet no bridge across this chasm of mystery, and we need no piers at present in spirit land.

The accession of scientific men to spiritualism counts for nothing, since scientific men can be deluded as well as other men. The faculty of being impressed by a person with certain attributes can reside in them as well as in untrained minds. Eminent jurists have joined the ranks of the spiritualists, and have been foremost in believing what we have set forth as having no criterion of truth. Their acumen while upon the bench is laid aside under the action of different mental states. Therefore the complaint of scientific men that they do not investigate spiritualism is a petulant one. Is a physicist or a chemist necessarily a student of mental phenomena ? What fits a scientific man, who is not a psychologist, for the study of spiritualism ? Certainly nothing but a trained skepticism : and this skepticism exerted in one direction may tend to make him overlook the peculiar mental conditions which have not been brought to his attention during his life-time of study in physics and mathematics. The spiritualist points to Zöllner, Weber, Fechner, and Crookes, and asks, Are these men not brilliant men in science ? Are they not trained observers? Are they not eminently well qualified to judge of the best conditions for experiment ? In the same breath he answers the skeptical scientist thus : “ Scientific men are unfitted to investigate spiritualistic phenomena, for they are unwilling to put themselves into a receptive attitude; they desire to judge of a new class of appearances, which require peculiar treatment, by old so-called scientific methods, which are utterly inadequate to cope with the new facts.” Thus we are asked to respect the authority of scientific men when they believe in spiritualism and do not employ scientific methods, and to discredit it when really scientific methods are applied. Truly this argument is a two-edged sword!

Spiritualism starts with assumption, reasons upon assumptions, and ends with assumptions. Some one has said that a belief in spiritualism adds a new terror to death. Certainly none of us desire to be set at table-tipping, or to be at the beck of ignorant mediums, in an after state. On the other hand, we earnestly desire to be the pioneers in our search for knowledge. If there is any new manifestation of energy, any so-called force between man and man, we wish to be among the first to investigate it. How shall we train ourselves for our new quest? Simply by forgetting the old adage, “ Knowledge is power,” and by reducing the mind to a blank in order that the spirits may play their pranks along paths of no resistance. Here the psychologist must answer the questions, How far can the equilibrium of the mind be shaken, and yet allow of a return to reason ? What corresponds in the mind to the state of elasticity of metals ? How far can we play the imbecile before the permanent set takes place ? You “ do not require any preparation to become the medium of spiritualistic phenomena,” replies the spiritualist; it is an inborn receptivity. It is not true that you bring more to that land of mystery than the land brings to you. Ignorance is better than so-called knowledge ; for the knowledge of the world is misleading when a new order of facts is to be interpreted. To this point thus speaks Mr. Massey, the editor of Transcendental Physics : “ We do not know all the conditions under which anything is said to have occurred ; we cannot properly speak of it is as opposed to our experience. We do not know which of the circumstances attending even the most familiar facts of experience are conditions, and which are entirely irrelevant. Transport yourself to an imagined infancy of experience, and you could not predict from the fact that fire had burned you in one place or time that it would burn you in another.” True, we reply ; but how do we rise from this infancy of experience, this blank of the mind ? We educate ourselves and learn to distinguish between the true and the false by exertion, not by remaining passive in order to allow the indefinite to stream through us.

When the mind of man is better understood, perhaps we shall perceive that what we call spiritualism must necessarily exist. In the progress of development the brutish past forms a superstitious horizon, where we relegate all that strikes us as mysterious in our environment. On that horizon is the shrine of spiritualism, and the love of the supernatural bids us minister there. Man must have a limbo for the unexplained, and the mind, imperfectly comprehending its own phenomena, naturally imputes to outside influences what it is not ready to recognize as its own action.

  1. Transcendental Physics. An Account of Experimental Investigations from the Scientific Treatises of JOHANN CARL FRIEDRICH ZOLLNER. Translated from the German by CHARLES CARLETON MASSEY. London: W. H. Harrison. 1880.