The Perils of Telepathy

The present period is marked by an increasing distrust of science. We are waking up to the fact that some of the fairest provinces of uncertainty are threatened by the invasion of accurate knowledge. The encroachments of scientific exactness upon guesswork are so insidious, that unless we strengthen our defenses in time, we may lose some of our trustiest strongholds. We have been used to view one spot as well nigh impregnable to clear understanding, and that spot is our own self. For a good many æons we have lived along comfortably, each in a sturdy tower, divining each other’s interior only by fallible peepholes, and communicating, when we care to communicate, by means of safe little subterfuges called words. We have been reasonably secure from approach by earth, air, or sea. The whole fabric of society is built on the assumption that we can never get at each other, never really know what our next-door neighbor is up to.

It is about time that some one noticed that science is plotting a descent upon this pleasant privacy. If we flatter ourselves that we are going to be allowed to think our own thoughts in isolation, it is high time that we listened to some of the threatening voices that go unheeded. I quote one such, which advocates introducing to this mortal scene the chief inconvenience incident to post-mundane existence.

‘One could communicate with extraordinary swiftness and ease by imagination alone. Talk soul to soul, as it were. It is a simple trick and can be practiced between human beings while on earth, and is indeed the best form of conversation.’

Do we actually fail to perceive the audacity of the menace implied? The mere indecorousness of naked sincerity is the least of the evils that telepathy will let loose upon us. Courtesy could not exist in a world where people perfectly understood each other. Our manners are none too good as it is, but how the beast and the boor in all of us would break forth if never controlled by the effort to appear more polite than we feel! If the thoughts, for example, of guest and host were utterly undressed, the one before the other, how long would the gentle amenities of hospitality survive? Who would have the courage to go to a dinner if he had to endure the clatter of people’s thoughts about him pounding their way into his brain? Yet in the passage just quoted telepathy is actually advocated as a practice to be encouraged! Fortunately most of us are still so clumsy at it that we are not ready to forego the use of the tongue when we wish to speak; yet at times we are so shortsighted as to deprecate the use of words. Let us, rather, cheerfully continue not to understand each other, mindful how much worse off we should be if we did understand.

Although telepathy has not yet come into popular social usage, we occasionally meet people not ashamed to exhibit it as an accomplishment. Such people are most discouraging to conversation. When a person knows what we are going to say before we say it, the effort of expression seems futile; the racy epithet, the felicitous phrase go unspoken. There would presently be no bons mots to be quoted; life would not be enlivened by the twinkling passage of repartee, that light rebound of thought and word, striking against surfaces they cannot pierce. When there are no walls for talk to knock against, and no gates to be opened or shut to other people’s penetration, the art of conversation will die, and social intercourse be reduced to a fatuous smirking at each other’s faces — or perhaps to a fierce clawing of them, when the thoughts of all hearts shall be revealed.

The universal employment of telepathic communication would do away with another prerogative of society, the right to gossip. In our present imperfect means of knowledge, everybody presents a different aspect to everybody else. To gossip is to bring forward for discussion all the data each observer has gathered; it is a comparison of various angles of misunderstanding tending to diffuse unenlightenment and thus to protect the person under examination from an intrusively accurate analysis. Now, if his soul were presented in the same crystalline fidelity to each of us, he himself would neither enjoy privacy of spirit, nor we our game of guessing.

If telepathy were once established as being what its advocates claim, ‘ the best form of conversation,’ several established arts, several enjoyable diversions, would fall into immediate desuetude. Novels and plays would cease to be written. Romance and drama are constructed on the assumption that we can never really know one another’s thoughts, combined with the illusion that we can if we try. We go to the play, we go to the book, because we delight to observe the infinite permutations and combinations of impact arising from the truth that people cannot read each other’s purposes. If the puppets on the stage — the playhouse stage and the world stage equally — all knew each other’s intentions, there would immediately result, for the actors, the paralysis of the plot, and for the audience, all the boredom of omniscience. It is because none of us can tell where other people want to go that we bump into them. Telepathy would introduce the possibility of precaution and thus deprive life of its chief stimulus, unforeseen contact. What we enjoy in a novel is seeing how the author is going to steer his characters to their goal when they are continually being shoved away from it by collisions. In a wretched Utopia, where everybody understood everybody else, there would be no fun in either reading or writing, and literature would languish and disappear.

What keeps life going is that it keeps us guessing. Our pet vanity is our power to divine character. Human idiosyncracies are a mystery forever alluring and forever eluding. Now telepathy proposes to come in and reform all this, proposes to teach us how to read souls as easily as spelling-books. Science has the effrontery to present the innovation as ushering in a millennium. I have no desire to go marching into a privacy that bewitches me with invitation so long as I merely peep. Suppose I should find only dust and emptiness in rooms now magic with surmise!

I have shown how a system of telepathic communication would disrupt our social life and destroy the literature constructed to reflect that life. There are, however, two darker and deeper dangers incident to letting everybody use the aerial apparatus. If the introduction of telepathy would undermine social intercourse, it would absolutely annul solitude. The wings of the dove could never outdistance the impudent wings of the wireless. Anybody who wished could send his thoughts forth to investigate anybody else’s nest in the wilderness. Privacy would rapidly become a prehistoric privilege. Solitude is the chief support of the affections: it would be impossible to love your fellow man if you knew you could never get away from him.

Last and most painful peril of all: it is not only my own and my neighbor’s retirement that I would preserve impenetrable to mutual invasion: but there are other regions I do not wish to enter with any clear certainty, the skyward chambers of my own high tower of secrecy, where I sometimes entertain a mysterious visitor. If telepathy taught me the language of the spirit, I might inadvertently learn to understand my own. Let not science be so sacrilegious. When I loaf and invite my own soul, I want the guest to come to me without any telepathic eavesdropping on the part of other people, and without any profaning analysis on my own part. Let no telepathy interrupt my communing with that august presence, my own soul.