NOTE: This essay, “Science and a Future Life,” by F.W.H. Myers, noted psychical researcher and a founder of the Society of Psychical Research (SPR), is reprinted in its entirety. This essay was one of a series of essays published by Myers in 1893 in the book “Science and a Future Life with other Essays.” Although long, this essay is well worth reading for it calls into examination how science viewed the potential of life after death (future life) back in the late 19th century when this was published. Startlingly, most of Myers observations are still happening today.
To the question, “What has science to say as to man’s survival of death?” the chief spokesmen of modern science are inclined to answer, “Nothing at all.” The affirmative answer she holds as unproved, and the negative answer as unprovable.
Nevertheless, in spite of, and by reason of her studied neutrality, the influence of science is every year telling more strongly against a belief in a future life.
Inevitably so; since whatever science does not tend to prove, she in some sort tends to disprove; beliefs die out, without formal refutation, if they find no place among the copious store of verified facts and inferences which are supplanting the traditions and speculations of pre scientific days as the main mental pabulum of mankind.
And the very magnitude of the special belief in question renders it, in one sense, the more easily starved.
Men feel that, if it were true, there would surely be far more to be said for it than they have ever heard.
The silence which surrounds the topic is almost more discouraging than overt attack.
At first, indeed, in the early days of the scientific dominion, savants were wont to make some sort of apology, or disclaimer of competence, when their doctrines seemed too obviously to ignore man’s hope of a future.
Then came open assaults from audacious and confident savants – to whom the apologetic and optimistic savants seemed to have nothing particular to reply.
And gradually the educated world – that part of it, at least, which science leads is waking up to find that no mere trifles or traditions only, but the great hope which inspired their fathers aforetime, is insensibly vanishing away.
Now it is important that a question so momentous should not thus be suffered to go by default.
There should be an occasional stocktaking of evidence, an occasional inquiry whether, among the multifarious advances of science, any evidence has been discovered bearing on a question which, after all, is to science a question of evidence alone.
It seems to me that, even during this generation – even during the last few years – discoveries have, in fact, been made which must gradually revolutionize our whole attitude towards the question of an unseen world, and of our own past, present, or future existence therein.
Some of the discoveries of which I speak in the realm of automatism and of human personality have already commanded wide scientific assent, although their drift and meaning have, as I hold, been as yet very imperfectly understood.
Other discoveries, which I regard as equally valid, are as yet disputed or ignored; but they are, in fact, so closely linked with what is already admitted, that all analogy (I think) leads us to suppose that, in some form or other, these newer views also are destined profoundly to modify scientific thought.
The discoveries of which I speak are not the result of any startling novelties of method.
Rather, they are examples of the fruitful results which will often follow from the simple application of well-known methods of research to a group of phenomena which, for some special historical reason, has hitherto been left out side the steady current of experiment and observation.
Now, the whole inquiry into man’s survival has thus far, if I may so say, fallen between two stools.
Neither those who support the thesis, nor those who impugn it, have thus far made any serious attempt to approach it by scientific method.
On the one hand, materialistic science has, naturally enough, preferred to treat the subject as hardly capable of argument.
There is the obvious fact that, when a man dies, you hear nothing more from him.
And there is the fact less obvious, indeed, but more and more fully established that to every mental change some cerebral change corresponds, with the inference that, when the brain decays, the mind is extinct as well.
This strong negative argument forms the basis of the popular treatises Büchner’s Kraft imd Staff und Das künftige Leben may serve as examples which urge mankind definitely to set aside all thought of a life to come.
The argument is, necessarily, a purely negative one; it rests on the absence of positive testimony to any mental energy with which some cerebral change is not directly concomitant.
The negative presumption will, therefore, be shaken if accepted notions as to man’s personality are shown to be gravely defective, while it will be at once overthrown if positive evidence to man’s survival of bodily death can in any way be acquired.
To the arguments of Materialism, Philosophy and Religion have replied in ways of their own.
As regards the nature of human personality, philosophy has had much to say; and man’s immortality has been the very corner stone of the Christian faith.
But, with rare exceptions, neither philosophy nor religion has discovered, or even sought for, facts and arguments which could meet materialistic science on its own ground.
The spokesmen of religion, indeed, have generally preferred, for ecclesiastical or for moral reasons, to leave the question of man’s survival, or, as they have termed it, man’s immortality, to the domain of faith.
On ecclesiastical grounds, they have naturally desired to retain the monopoly of spiritual teaching; they have been less concerned to prove by carnal methods that an unseen world exists, than to impress their own crowning message or revelation upon men who already believed in that world as a reality.
On moral grounds, also, they have felt it dangerous to allow a dogma so essential as man’s future life to be thrown into the caldron of speculation.
So long, indeed, as the earthly prosperity of the righteous was held sufficient to prove the moral government of the world, man’s destiny after death might remain an open field for primitive questionings.
But when earthly justice was too plainly seen to fail, then the doctrine of future reward and punishment became necessary in order to justify the ways of God to men.
Since, then, the thesis of man’s survival has been far oftener defended with an ethical than with a merely scientific interest, it is no wonder that the moral and emotional arguments should have assumed almost complete predominance.
With those arguments I have in this essay nothing to do.
I am expressly laying aside all support which the belief in a future life receives either from “natural religion,” from philosophy, or from revelation.
I wish to debate the matter on the ground of experiments and observations such as are appealed to in other inquiries for definite objective proof yet there is one argument which, since it is historical as well as religious, I must not avoid altogether.
It will be urged by many readers that the Resurrection of Christ is “a fact as well attested as any in history” – better attested, they will say, than many of the recent observations on which I rely.
And although on that historical question my opinion has no special value, I must not shirk this appeal.
I will say, then, that I still adhere to Paley’s view; that I cannot explain that testimony given by the “twelve men of probity,” in face of bonds and stripes and death, except on the supposition that Christ did in fact in some way manifest Himself to His disciples after bodily life was extinct.
But I personally could not press this argument upon other minds.
I recognise that, were I not convinced also of those facts of modern occurrence which are actually in dispute, then although I might have a moral right, I should hardly have a scientific right to pin my faith to an event so marvellous and so isolated, and dating back to a time and country with standards of historical accuracy so different from our own.
And I observe that, among the newer school of theologians, there is less and less disposition to press the argument on purely historical grounds.
Preachers do not often say, “Apart from all question of what Christ was or did, we have absolute proof that He rose from the dead, and, consequently, that all men are so constituted that they will rise also.”
Rather they say, “Christ sealed a divine life with this great manifestation of divinity; therefore, we must believe Him when He tells us that we shall rise again.” It is natural enough to mix historical with moral proof where the purely moral elements in the demonstration have so often been found convincing.
Yet it would be a grave mistake to suppose that, however cogent the moral proof of any proposition as to matter of fact may be, a scientific proof is thereby rendered superfluous.
A belief which a man cannot connect and correlate with other beliefs relating to similar matters cannot long maintain an in dependent vitality.
As I have already said, the habit of belief on definite scientific grounds tends to the atrophy of all beliefs on matters of fact which cannot be verified by rigorous historical methods, or by modern experiment and observation.
Physical science is in this way far more skeptical or rather, far more agnostic than Law.
Law has to act on probabilities; it gives weight to moral considerations when definite proof cannot be had.
But science, if definite proof is unattainable, puts the matter aside altogether.
The result is, as we all know, that the great majority of Continental savants and disciples of science have practically ceased to regard a future life as a possibility worth discussing.
In England and America the case is different; but even here the belief in survival seems now to rest, not so much on any definite creed, as on a temper of mind which in energetic Western races survives for some time the decay of definite dogma.
I mean that view of the universe loosely styled optimism, but which some now term bonism, with no greater barbarism in the form of the word, and more accuracy in its meaning.
These sanguine races, I say, still maintain their trust that the Cosmos, as a whole, is good, even when the definite beliefs on which this trust anciently rested have one by one been cut away.
“We cannot believe,” they say, “that God or Nature will put us to permanent intellectual confusion.”
“We must hold that life has a meaning, and that man’s highest instincts are in accordance with the truth of things.”
One must needs feel sympathy for the various groups, semi-Christian, Theistic, or Pantheistic, who are thus striving to support, on less and less of substantive aliment, the spiritual life within.
But, alas! No sooner have the Positivist school succeeded in reducing that aliment to a large H in Humanity, the spiritual equivalent of a straw per diem than the optimistic temper is found to be starved out, and the Western world to be gravitating towards the immemorial melancholy of the East.
It is the pessimists who contribute the most characteristic note to the philosophy of our generation.
They tell us that the young vigour of Western races has thus far accepted without question the illusive brightness which Nature’s witchery casts upon human fates.
But, as these races attain maturity of meditation, they will pass from under the magic spell; their restless energy will die down as it recognises that all energies in the end are vain.
Yet it is not in philosophical utterance, but in practical life, that this disillusioned view of the universe is most pervading and potent.
The determined egoist has in all ages been hard for the moralist to handle.
And now he can turn round on the moralist and invoke the universe to back him.
The “struggle-for-life” can plausibly maintain that it is he who in reality conforms to the fundamental law of all existence that law being the self-preservation of each separate entity; and all alliances with other entities being mere temporary aids to self-preservation.
“My ancestors,” he may say, instinctively practised tribal virtues, or they would not have survived.
I can survive without practising those virtues; and if others imitate me, and my tribe decays, I shall merely infer that a nation containing many persons above a certain pitch of intelligence must necessarily lose the tribal instinct, the self-sacrificing naïveté, which are essential to what you call private virtue, or national greatness.
“We may threaten to hold aloof from such a man as this; but he will reply that the society of dupes or prigs is not the form of enjoyment at which he particularly aims.
To all this, of course, the upright man has for his own part an unshaken answer.
He refuses to believe that the universe can be an evil thing.
Whatever his personal destiny may be — he is ready to throw himself into the des tiny of the whole.
No disenchantment can dislodge him from the august self-surrender of Cleanthes’ prayer:
Lead, lead Cleanthes, Zeus and holy Fate,
Where’er ye place my post, to serve or wait:
Willing I follow; if against my will,
A baffled rebel I must follow still.
To this temper the best men come nearest; this temper we should wish to be ours.
And yet we have no proof that it may not in very truth be entirely irrational.
The universe may not expect anything of this kind, nor be prepared to meet our self-devotion in any way whatever.
All the moral grandeur which we feel in the Cosmos may be the mere figment of our own imaginations.
This may be the last form of man’s ineradicable anthropomorphism; the ascription to the Sum of Things of that merger of individual interests in a vaster well being which was necessary to our struggling ancestors in order that their tribe might survive.
The universe has no need to struggle for existence; it exists, and there is no more to say.
For aught we know, it may consist of countless units of sensation, with no ultimate end beyond their own individual and moment and pleasure, or surcease of pain, and only linked into a semblance of community by the exigencies of lust or war.
So profound is the atheism of these reflections, that there is something repugnant even in the admission that they need an answer. And yet when, sometimes, an answer is hinted at by some philosopher cognisant of the weakness of the habitual positions, there is apt to be a sinister tone in his reserve.
It is suggested that it need not always be deemed incumbent on the moral teacher to proclaim that at all hazards we must seek the truth.
If the wisest men have decided that it is impossible to “maintain Eternal Providence,” it will be well to say and think as little as possible about the destiny of man.
Nay, it may be a duty to preach to the young a lying gospel, to hide from them as long as may be the vanity of human hope.
Science, it is urged, would thus be only doing what religion has often done before – setting a bar to inquiries which would I lead to demoralisation and despair.
Nor can one say which would be the better justification: the plea of religion, that she did but restrain the soul from a risk of wilful and fatal error; or the plea which science would have to urge, that she was but hiding the Medusa’s head under her robe, and keeping from men innocent and unfortunate the inevitable and paralysing truth.
For my own part, I am opposed to either plea.
There seems to me to be something even absurdly premature in this despair of the human republic.
And, meantime, it is to the simple, dispassionate love of truth, and to this alone, that I can appeal in urging a line of inquiry on which neither scientific nor religious orthodoxy has thus far bestowed active support.
I maintain, then, that to suppose for a moment that mankind could have already arrived at any valid scientific conclusion negating our possible survival of death, is to show that the very idea that the subject can be treated scientifically has hardly yet entered men’s minds.
We sometimes see it said that “the highest intellects have grappled with the problem in vain for many an age.
But what does this really mean? What materials have the highest intellects had to work upon? What observations have they made? What line of experiment have they pursued and found to be fruitless? And what fraction of the probable duration on earth of the race of civilised men do such reasoners suppose to have already elapsed? Was there any abstract speculation worth speaking of five thousand years ago? And what proportion do five thousand years bear to the millions of years place the number of millions as low as you will during’ which, bar ring accidents, we may suppose that the slowly cooling sun will still be keeping our descendants alive? Assuredly “we are ancients of the earth and in the morning of the times,” in a sense far deeper than our habitual modes of thought, our contrasts between “antiquity” and the modern world, permit us to realise.
We are still in the first moment of man’s awakening intelligence; we are merely opening our eyes upon the universe around us.
But even if we choose to speak of the past duration of human thought as long, and of the thinkers who have pondered on man’s survival as many in number, we may yet well ask whether a failure thus far to solve any particular problem need be taken as indicating that men better equipped for the research will not solve it in due time.
In dealing with any ordinary branch of science such a question could have but one answer.
The only reason why it is needful here to press it is, that the existence or nature of an unseen world around us has scarcely, thus far, been treated as a scientific question at all.
And yet, if an unseen world exists – and supposing it to exist, we must in some sense be in it – that world cannot consist only of ideas and emotions, of theology and metaphysics.
It must be a world of science too, a world governed by laws which cannot be moral laws alone, but which must regulate all that goes on in that world, and all communications (if any there be) which pass between that world and this.
The question, then, whether such communications can ever be received or understood, is in reality a question as to the possible extension of our terrestrial science so as to embrace possible indications of a life lying beyond, yet conceivably touching the life and the conditions of earth.
Now, the whole history of science is a history of the recognition and interpretation of continually slighter indications of forces or entities continually more subtle and remote.
At each stage of progress there have been savants who have declared that the extreme limit of human perception had now been reached.
At each stage observers accustomed to one set of inquiries, already easy and fruitful, have protested against new kinds of inquiry as chimerical and useless.
It happens thus, that an inquiry by positive methods into the survival of men, although, of course, like other inquiries, it may be doomed to ultimate failure, is, nevertheless, both an almost new and a by no means hopeless thing.
So novel is it, that the very observations which are urged most strongly against survival are scarcely a generation old, while the observations which tell in favour of survival have only been systematically recorded within the last decade.
Nor, in fact, need it surprise us that the problem should have remained thus practically almost untouched.
The mere fact that a problem is important to us is no reason why we should expect that our ancestors should have solved it.
The priest or the philosopher, indeed, may give us answers on those matters’ first which it most behoves us to know.
But the savant, the actual observer and experimenter, gives us answers first, not on the most important problems, but on those which it is easiest to solve.
We must discover the proper methods to search before we can get at any given result.
Now, the proper methods in question touching the intimate constitution of man, on which constitution his survival or non-survival of death must depend, are partly those of physiology and partly those of psychology.
The methods of physiology are new and imperfect; the methods of experimental psychology are newer and more imperfect still.
As has been already implied, the scientific arguments against survival are themselves very recent.
After that first obvious inference from the impenetrable silence of death, no further precision was given to the discussion until the middle of the present century.
At about that date men began to realise the fact which John Stuart Mill could still treat as unproved, namely, that to every observable thought or emotion of man there probably corresponds some change or movement in the material sub stance of the brain.
The exactness and delicacy with which these correspondences can now be established have made a deep impression on the public mind.
We seem to have tracked mental life to its inmost recesses, and to have found it everywhere enwound with an organism which tells us nothing of our spiritual future.
The very pineal gland which Descartes suggested as the seat of the soul is now regarded as a degenerate vestige of the eye of an invertebrate ancestor.
And yet, however exactly the parallelism between psychical and cerebral energies may be established, the exacter correlation can tell us little more than the vaguer told us, little more than we had always known when noting the abeyance of the spiritual life in infancy, its distortion in madness, its decay in age.
No one, indeed, can now claim that the soul can sway and dominate the brain as it will, and express itself in its entirety through how ever defective an instrument.
Going back to a metaphor as old as Plato, we know, even more surely than he did, that the musician cannot play sweetly on the lyre if it is strained or broken.
But as to the origin or essential significance of this close connection of “psychosis and neurosis” we avowedly know nothing at all.
We do not know whether the mental energy precedes or follows on the cerebral change, nor whether the two are, somehow, but different aspects of the same fact.
Thus far we are most of us agreed.
We come now to a point of greater novelty.