Alan Gauld


A century of investigations

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (1999).

Genuine scepticism involves maintaining a degree of scepticism about scepticism itself, which can be difficult to achieve, for the mind seems to have a natural tendency to adopt fixed attitudes about things. Alan Gauld's books are always an antidote to this weakness. Gauld is an academic psychologist who has written several excellent books about the paranormal; this one is a critical examination of the evidence that exists for post-mortem survival, based largely though not exclusively on material held by the (British) Society for Psychical Research and the American Society for Psychical Research. There is a huge amount of this material, some of it of very high quality. Ultra-sceptics, of course, will say that no such evidence could ever be strong enough to establish the reality of something as unlikely as survival, but Gauld's reply is that good evidence does not become bad evidence just because the phenomena it supports appear improbable. He acknowledges, nevertheless, that there are potential sources of error (hoaxing and fraud, mistaken testimony, chance coincidence or "super-ESP"), which have to be taken seriously.

Much of the cited evidence relates to mediumship. This entails a detailed account of two well-known nineteenth-century mediums, Mrs Piper and Mrs Leonard. Mrs Piper was "discovered" for psychical research by William James, brother of the novelist Henry James and probably the foremost psychologist of his time (his influence is still felt even today). She was extensively investigated by Richard Hodgson of the SPR, an acknowledged expert in fraud. Gauld concludes that fraud and chance coincidence are not sufficient to explain the apparent accuracy of some of the information these ladies produced. Super-ESP is more plausible, although of course ESP itself, let alone super-ESP, is abhorrent to ultra-sceptics. However, Gauld makes the important point that, if ESP does not exist, the case for survival becomes stronger, not weaker.

A frequently voiced criticism of alleged survival evidence is that it does little to suggest any kind of continuing purpose in the survivors. A notable exception is provided by the celebrated "cross-correspondences" case. A cross-correspondence occurs when the material produced by one medium or automatist (someone who does automatic writing) relates to material produced independently by another such. Between 1901 and 1932 a group of amateur automatists, all members of the SPR, produced a huge amount of such material, purportedly emanating from deceased founders or members of the SPR. These "individuals" claimed to be trying to provide evidence that they had survived. To do this, they dictated messages in a deliberately obscure or garbled form, often using classical allusions that would be unknown to the person who transmitted them, and which only made sense when correlated with material obtained by other members of the group. The messages, that is, were something like sophisticated and very complex crossword puzzle clues.

On the basis of a detailed and critical consideration of this and other evidence, Gauld concludes that there is evidence for survival that is difficult to explain on any other hypothesis. However, survival is also difficult to accept, given the apparent total dependence of mental events, and especially memory, on the brain. To answer this objection, Gauld has a chapter in which he points out that the currently accepted view of memory as somehow coded and stored in the brain as "memory traces" also encounters serious logical difficulties in relation to the retrieval of said memory traces. He suggests that we need to think in terms of "supervenient" laws or principles, which can override or overrule the way in which the brain elements function. (The contemporary philosopher David Chalmers puts forward something rather similar in relation to what he has famously called the Hard Question of consciousness.)

Although the book is largely concerned with mediumistic evidence for survival it also deals, fairly briefly, with apparitions, out-of-the-body experiences, and near-death experiences. It may seem a little dated in relation to the last of these, since they have come more to public attention since it was written. Reincarnation gets a chapter to itself, but this, too, is more talked of in the West today than it was in the 1980s. Gauld's attitude to it is, as he remarks, coloured by his distaste for the notion, a consequence of his pessimism about the future. He quotes the late Professor C.D. Broad: "'Having had the luck… to draw an eel from a sack full of adders, I do not wish to risk putting my hand into the sack again.'" And he adds his own comment to this: "Eels, it seems to me, rare enough now, are likely in the future to be an endangered species." Neverthless, he finds it difficult to dismiss the possibility of reincarnation.

Although the book will probably annoy ultra-sceptics, it won't please firm believers in survival either. This isn't only because it is so commendably cautious and circumspect, but also because Gauld's general approach doesn't provide any notable degree of emotional consolation or reassurance. On the contrary, his tone is rather sombre. He points out that the choice is not necessarily just between survival and extinction; there might also be degrees of survival, possibly in a zombie-like state, which would be worse than mere extinction: not a reassuring thought. Even if we do survive death in the short term, we may fade away gradually as time goes by. One is left with the impression that, if survival does occur in any shape or form, it is within the phenomenal universe, though no doubt a universe whose conceptual bounds must be greatly enlarged to accommodate it.

The possibility that there may be no survival at all, however, is always present in Gauld's mind. As readers we are left to make up our own mind, and Gauld doesn't try to push us in either direction; he doesn't know either.

"Certainty is not to be had, nor even a strong conviction that the area of one's uncertainty has been narrowed to a manageable compass… To those hot for certainty—whether it be certainty of survival or of extinction—this answer may seem dusty enough. However, it will not seem dusty to everyone. For, as I have tried to show, it is possible from a properly informed consideration of the evidence to build up a rational case for belief in some kind of survival, and also a rational case against it. And a rational case, of either tendency, built on evidence, however difficult to interpret, is to be preferred to any amount of blind belief or blind disbelief."

This is probably the best examination of the survival question to have appeared in the twentieth century.

%T Mediumship and Survival
%S A century of investigations
%A Gauld, Alan
%I Heinemann
%C London
%D 1982
%G SBN 434 28320 7
%P xiv + 287 pp
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