Skepticism and Spiritualism

by G.K. Chesterton

(From an essay which originally appeared in the Illustrated London News, April 14, 1906)


Glancing over several papers of late, I see such headings as "Another Medium Exposed," and "Another Spiritualistic Fraud." The easy and conventional comments made upon the matter by the journalists seem to me to be singularly lacking in a logical sense, and there seems to be an underlying assumption in all such comments that the more often you discover a dishonest medium or a fraudulent seance, the more you have diminished the credit or probability of spiritualism. I have never been at a seance in my life, and I never had, and probably never shall have, anything to do with the specific set of people who call themselves spiritualists. But as a mere matter of intellectual justice or mental lucidity, it is desirable to protest against this confused argument which connects the proved falsity of knaves with the probable falsity of psychic phenomena. The two things have no logical connection whatever. No conceivable number of false mediums affects the probability of the existence of real mediums one way or the other. This is surely obvious enough. No conceivable number of forged bank-notes can disprove the existence of the Bank of England. If anything, the argument might as well be turned the other way,; we might say with rather more reason that as all hypocrisies are the evil fruits of public virtue, so in the same way the more real spiritualism there is in the world the more false spiritualism there is likely to be.

In fact, the mere abstract rationality of this problem is very wrongly discussed. For instance, it is always considered ludicrous and a signal for a burst of laughter if the spiritualists say that a seance has been spoiled by the presence of a skeptic, or that an attitude of faith is necessary to encourage the psychic communications. But there is nothing at all unreasonable or unlikely about the idea that doubt might discourage and faith encourage spiritual communications, if there are any. The suggestion does not make spiritualism in abstract logic any more improbable. All that it does make it is more difficult. There is nothing foolish or fantastic about the supposition that a dispassionate person acts as a deterrent to passionate truths. Only it happens to make it much harder for any dispassionate person to find out what is true. There are a thousand practical parallels. An impartial psychologist studying the problem of human nature could, no doubt, learn a great deal from a man and woman making love to each other in his presence. None the less, it is unfortunately the fact that no man and woman would make love to each other in the presence of an impartial psychologist. Students of physiology and surgery might learn something from a man suddenly stabbing another man on a platform in a lecture-theater. But no man would stab another man on a platform in a lecture-theater. A schoolmaster would learn much if the boys would be boys in his presence; but they never are boys in his presence. An educationalist studying infancy might make important discoveries if he could hear the things said by a baby when absolutely alone and at his ease with his mother. But it is quite obvious that the mere entrance of a great ugly educationalist (they are an ugly lot) would set the child screaming with terror.

The problem, then, of skepticism and spiritual ecstacies is a perfectly human and intelligible problem to state, though it may be a difficult problem to solve. It is exactly as if a man pointed at some lady (you can choose the lady out of your own acquaintance at your own discretion) and said with marked emphasis, "Under no circumstance could I address a sonnet to that lady." We might reply, "Oh, yes; if you fell in love with her you might feel inclined to do so." He would be fully justified in replying (with tears in his eyes), "But I cannot fall in love with her by any imaginable process." But he would not be logically justified in replying "Oh, that is all nonsense. You want me to give up my judgment, and become a silly partisan." The whole question under discussion is what would happen if he did become a partisan. In the same way, the skeptic who is expelled with bashed hat and tattered coat-tails from a spiritualistic seance has a perfect right to say (with or without tears in his eyes) "But why blame me for unbelief? I cannot manage to believe in such things by any imaginable process." But he has no logical right to say that it could not have been his skepticism that spoilt the seance, or that there was anything at all unphilosophical in supposing that it was. An impartial person is a good judge of many things, but not of all. He is not (for instance) a good judge of what it feels like to be partial.

For my own part, what little I resent in what little I have seen of spiritualism is altogether the opposite element. I do not mind spiritualism, in so far as it is fierce and credulous. In that it seems to me to be akin to sex, to song, to the great epics and the great religions, to all that has made humanity heroic. I do not object to spiritualism in so far as it is spiritualistic. I do object to it in so far as it is scientific. Conviction and curiosity are both very good things. But they ought to have two different houses. There have been many frantic and blasphemous beliefs in this old barbaric earth of ours; men have served their deities with obscene dances, with cannibalism, and the blood of infants. But no religion was quite so blasphemous as to pretend that it was scientifically investigating its god to see what he was made of. Bacchanals did not say, "Let us discover whether there is a god of wine." They enjoyed wine so much that they cried out naturally to the god of it. Christians did not say, "A few experiments will show us whether there is a god of goodness." They loved good so much that they knew that it was a god. Moreover, all the great religions always loved passionately and poetically the symbols and machinery by which they worked --the temple, the colored robes, the altar, the symbolic flowers, or the sacrificial fire. It made these things beautiful: it laid itself open to the charge of idolatry. And into these great ritual religions there has descended, whatever the meaning of it, the thing of which Sophocles spoke, "The power of the gods, which is mighty and groweth not old." When I hear that the spiritualists have begun to carve great golden wings upon their flying tables, I shall recognize the atmosphere of a faith. When I hear them accused of worshipping a planchet made of ivory and sardonyx (whatever that is) I shall know that they have become a great religion. Meanwhile, I fear I shall remain one of those who believe in spirits much too easily ever to become a spiritualist. Modern people think the supernatural so improbable that they want to see it. I think it so probable that I leave it alone. Spirits are not worth all this fuss; I know that, for I am one myself. . .


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Last modified: 17th June, 1999
Martin Ward, Software Technology Research Lab, De Montfort University, Leicester.
Email: martin@gkc.org.uk