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object:1.09 - Stead and Maskelyne
book class:Essays In Philosophy And Yoga
author class:Sri Aurobindo
subject class:Integral Yoga
class:chapter

The vexed question of spirit communication has become a subject of permanent public controversy in England. So much that is of the utmost importance to our views of the world, religion, science, life, philosophy, is crucially interested in the decision of this question, that no fresh proof or disproof, establishment or refutation of the genuineness and significance of spirit communications can go disregarded. But no discussion of the question which proceeds merely on first principles can be of any value. It is a matter of evidence, of the value of the evidence and of the meaning of the evidence. If the ascertained facts are in favour of spiritualism, it is no argument against the facts that they contradict the received dogmas of science or excite the ridicule alike of the enlightened sceptic and of the matter-of-fact citizen. If they are against spiritualism, it does not help the latter that it supports religion or pleases the imagination and flatters the emotions of mankind. Facts are what we desire, not enthusiasm or ridicule; evidence is what we have to weigh, not unsupported arguments or questions of fitness or probability. The improbable may be true, the probable entirely false.

In judging the evidence, we must attach especial importance to the opinion of men who have dealt with the facts at first hand. Recently, two such men have put succinctly their arguments for and against the truth of spiritualism, Mr. W. T. Stead and the famous conjurer, Mr. Maskelyne. We will deal with Mr. Maskelyne first, who totally denies the value of the facts on which spiritualism is based. Mr. Maskelyne puts forward two absolutely inconsistent theories, first, that spiritualism is all fraud and humbug, the second, that it is all subconscious mentality. The first was the theory which has hitherto been held by the opponents of the new phenomena, the second the theory to which they are being driven by an accumulation of indisputable evidence. Mr. Maskelyne, himself a professed master of jugglery and illusion, is naturally disposed to put down all mediums as irregular competitors in his own art; but the fact that a conjuror can produce an illusory phenomenon, is no proof that all phenomena are conjuring. He farther argues that no spiritualistic phenomena have been produced when he could persuade Mr. Stead to adopt conditions which precluded fraud. We must know Mr. Maskelynes conditions and have Mr. Steads corroboration of this statement before we can be sure of the value we must attach to this kind of refutation. In any case we have the indisputable fact that Mr Stead himself has been the medium in some of the most important and best ascertained of the phenomena. Mr. Maskelyne knows that Mr. Stead is an honourable man incapable of a huge and impudent fabrication of this kind and he is therefore compelled to fall back on the wholly unproved theory of the subconscious mind. His arguments do not strike us as very convincing. Because we often write without noticing what we are writing, mechanically, therefore, says this profound thinker, automatic writing must be the same kind of mental process. The one little objection to this sublimely felicitous argument is that automatic writing has no resemblance whatever to mechanical writing. When a an writes mechanically, he does not notice what he is writing; when he writes automatically, he notices it carefully and has his whole attention fixed on it. When he writes mechanically, his hand records something that it is in his mind to write; when he writes automatically, his hand transcribes something which it is not in his mind to write and which is often the reverse of what his mind would tell him to write. Mr. Maskelyne farther gives the instance of a lady writing a letter and unconsciously putting an old address which, when afterwards questioned, she could not remember. This amounts to no more than a fit of absent-mindedness in which an old forgotten fact rose to the surface of the mind and by the revival of old habit was reproduced on the paper, but again sank out of immediate consciousness as soon as the mind returned to the present. This is a mental phenomenon essentially of the same class as our continuing unintentionally to write the date of the last year even in this years letters. In one case it is the revival, in the other the persistence of an old habit. What has this to do with the phenomena of automatic writing which are of an entirely different class and not attended by absent-mindedness at all? Mr. Maskelyne makes no attempt to explain the writing of facts in their nature unknowable to the medium, or of repeated predictions of the future, which are common in automatic communications.

On the other side Mr. Steads arguments are hardly more convincing. He bases his belief, first, on the nature of the communications from his son and others in which he could not be deceived by his own mind and, secondly, on the fact that not only statements of the past, but predictions of the future occur freely. The first argument is of no value unless we know the nature of the communication and the possibility or impossibility of the facts stated having been previously known to Mr. Stead. The second is also not conclusive in itself. There are some predictions which a keen mind can make by inference or guess, but, if we notice the hits and forget the misses, we shall believe them to be prophecies and not ordinary previsions. The real value of Mr. Steads defence of the phenomena lies in the remarkable concrete instance he gives of a prediction from which this possibility is entirely excluded. The spirit of Julia, he states, predicted the death within the year of an acquaintance who, within the time stated, suffered from two illnesses, in one of which the doctors despaired of her recovery. On each occasion the predicting spirit was naturally asked whether the illness was not to end in the death predicted, and on each she gave an unexpected negative answer and finally predicted a death by other than natural means. As a matter of fact, the lady in question, before the year was out, leaped out of a window and was killed. This remarkable prophecy was obviously neither a successful inference nor a fortunate guess, nor even a surprising coincidence. It is a convincing and indisputable prophecy. Its appearance in the automatic writing can only be explained either by the assumption that Mr. Stead has a subliminal self, calling itself Julia, gifted with an absolute and exact power of prophecy denied to the man as we know him,a violent, bizarre and unproved assumption,or by the admission that there was a communicant with superior powers to ordinary humanity using the hand of the writer. Who that was, Julia or another, ghost, spirit or other being, is a question that lies beyond. This controversy, with the worthlessness of the arguments on either side and the supreme worth of the one concrete and precise fact given, is a signal proof of our contention that, in deciding this question, it is not a priori arguments, but facts used for their evidential value as an impartial lawyer would use them, that will eventually prevail.
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1.09_-_Stead_and_Maskelyne, #Essays In Philosophy And Yoga, #Sri Aurobindo, #Integral Yoga
  object:1.09 - Stead and Maskelyne
  author class:Sri Aurobindo

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