Sunday 27 August 2000

Some Consequences of Telepathy (1948)

From The Philosopher, Volume XXV, 1948


by Lord Amwell

Lord Amwell introduces the topic thus:

If we are but 'clods of wayward marl, and the stars mock our vanity, as it is the fashion to say they do, the question whether death ends all may not deserve attention on philosophic grounds - though philosophers seem to love life well enough to dodge traffic like the rest of us, and many who are not philosophers put the question on one side only because the.thought of possible extinction is unpleasant. Whatever is the correct philosophical attitude, it remains the fact that every normal instinct of the mind and every healthy function of the body serves life and resists death.

It is a question of both human and scientific interest. I believe there is good reason to think we go on living, and I put forward the following thesis in all the humility required of an inexpert layman. It runs on lines that appear to me to be parallel, one having to do with telepathy and the other with certain materialistic "consequences" said by a well-known scientist to be inevitable, the title of this paper being a variations on a published essay by him I will take them separately.


To me it seems that telepathy alone affords very strong evidence of immortality. Of its existence there is today no question. It is, as we know, appealed to in explanation of phenomena that were once denounced as fraudulent or superstitious by the very persons who at that time placed the idea of telepathy in the second of those categories. The proof collected by the Society for Psychical Research is overwhelming, and I shall take telepathy to be a matter of fact without more ado.

However I wish it to be understood that, in my view, telepathy has little in common with the popular notion of thought-transference. Thoughts are not things, like parcels to be wrapped, sealed, and despatched. Telepathy is not a kind of pigeon post. I agree more with Whateley Carrington of this society that 'telepathy comes about, not by transmission of ideas, but by community of consciousness; not by the transference of a thought, by identity of the thinkers'. It is in this sense that I regard telepathy as evidence of continued existence.

This view carries with it the suggestion, not of full fledged and sharply outlined "thoughts" arriving and departing like passengers at an airport, but of co-dispostion and direction of mind, simultaneity of mental impulse (words are difficult of choice) arising from some kind of psychic correspondence. It is not that thoughts leave one mind for another, but that some identical cause of thinking to that extent identical identity as it were, operates concurrently. How this comes about is the problem. While we must think in terms of common sense because we cannot think otherwise in common language, scientists are the first to tell us that ordinary conceptions of space, time and "stuff" are inadequate.

In so far as it can be done it is 'workable' to think of some kind of continuous medium, taking refuge from mechanical difficulties in the word "mental." After all, there are the physical analogies of the magnetic field, light, or perhaps space-time which has substance.enough to exhibit curvature and seems to have taken the place of the imponderable ether which science has discarded because of its 'monstrous' structure. In the words of a certain philosopher-statesman about matters of empire, "I am a child in these things". But we are all daily witnesses of luminous transmission. We speak of aeroplanes at no more than the speed of sound as 'annihilating distance'. One would think that if we are expected to swallow the fusion of physics and geometry in the relativity theories we might as well add another hyphen and postulate space-time mind to cheat our unfortunate ignorance.

It is probable that mind is an entity of such a character that It physical analogies are quite irrelevant, and I see no reason why it should be considered more rational to 'explain' one ambiguity by another and not the other way round. If it satisfies the intellect let us postulate a "real" medium as physicists do " space-time,, as the promise and potency of the very universe itself logically construed. Let us be as materialistic as a mud pie if it makes thinking easier and lets us assume that what is wrong with materialism is only its ancient metaphysics. I still hold that a future life is likely, and that, as a belief, it does no violence to whatever is the scientific habit of mind.

Now, if we think of any kind of 'medium', call it physical or call it mental, to explain that concurrency of thinking we may agree to label 'telepathy' (both pigeon post and wireless analogies are patently absurd) we have to think of it much as the materialist thinks of brain, that is to say, as the seat or condition of psychic life. This means, as indeed any view of telepathy must imply, that the theory 'we are our experiences' does not hold water. If there is any 'we' at all, if the ego is a persistent fact, persistency being the test of existence always, it is in that which obtains experiences, whether that be a detachable 'soul', a continuous medium, or a brain. To say that I am my experiences is like saying that a slate comes into existence by being written upon and it gives no account of how a first experience came to be experienced by an 'I' which did not yet exist to experience. Even if we fall back on brain The same logical difficulty occurs if we call consciousness a mere 'product' of it, and at the same time admit the necessity of a special thinking substance in order to think.

'Thinking substance' does not get the materialist out of his difficulty. It begs the question. For if brain is a special kind of substance that thinks it is in itself a mental thing, as mental as mind. It is mind. As Emerson reflects: "By as much as man depreciates spirit, by so much does he elevate matter". And, if brain thinks, there is nothing irrational in supposing that, just as brain reaches out through nerve rod and eye stalk to stimuli and beyond, so the. potency.of thought, of which each individual brain is a "node" where it rises into consciousness in its reception and interpretation of experience, is a sub-conscious continuity of 'nexus'. Only in this way, I think, can the facts of telepathy be rationally accounted for.

But what follows? What can follow but the principle of identity in the ultimate account of mind? The conception is by no means new, but what is not generally recognised is that one-ness or identity is another name for immortality. If telepathy means what Carrington calls community of consciousness we are members of one another in a completely literal sense. This throws light upon such problems as those of multiple and receding personality in hypnosis, and upon many allied problems. It explains the moral urge as no animistic or evolutionary theory so far understood does. But, above all, it gives character and meaning to existence to a degree unapproachable in philosophical reasoning otherwise. And this brings me to the second part of my thesis, the part suggested by a theory advanced in an essay on 'Some Consequences of Materialism' by the well-known geneticist, C. B. S. Haldane. This has often been quoted, but not before, I think, in conjunction with the consideration of telepathy.

Consequences of Materialism

Haldane's view may be summed up in a few words. If the materialist is right, and mind comes from atomic "configuration", then it follows that personal identity recurs with every repetition of atomic configuration; this is to say, if matter produces mind it can reproduce mind. I have already said that "thinking substance" either begs the question or is a synonym for mind itself, for the materialist cannot logically associate the term 'substance' with nothing other than this same atomic configuration. An atom of carbon is an atom of carbon and nothing else in, living, or dead matter. A molecule of phosphorous is a molecule of phosphorous, and nothing else. The one difference is the difference of association, not of differentiated psychical virtue. Such is the materialist's case, or the alternative would be to invest individual atoms or groups )f.atoms with something like souls.

But this understanding of materialism (the only one possessing consistency) has the startling logical consequence that if a chemist in his laboratory should succeed in producing a germ plasm corresponding to that of his own he would be in the act of reproducing himself. If that statement is fantastic, the fantasy is the materialist's, not mine, for the consequence is involved in reducing mind to a mode of motion. Reproduce the motion and you reproduce the mind. The materialist cannot be allowed to have it both ways. He cannot be allowed to say that arrangements of atoms alone explain personal consciousness, and at the same time deny personal recurrence under similar conditions of atomic arrangement. I can see no answer to this.

Haldane appears to rely upon some law of finite number to bring about repetition of atomic configuration after vast lapses of time, a sort of Greek Cycle. I do not understand why, unless it is that he himself falls into this very metaphysical shell-hole of private virtue attributed to the individual atom. We know in heredity that similar physical aggregations in chromosome and gene produce similar results - the scientific principle that like produces like. If there is on the psychical plane any true reproduction of personality, and material configuration is its basis, why vast lapses of time? If the electrical theory of matter is correct there no individually labelled atoms we need wait for to "come round" - all is configuration. We might as well talk of the identity of a candle-flame.

Configuration, then, is the secret of mind for the materialist. Therefore it follows that reconfiguration is the secret of recurring mind, just as it is the secret of concurrent mind, my submission, in telepathy. If so, Haldane is wrong, supposing he relies after all upon some king of identifiable atom as well as configuration, for recurrence actually happens in telepathy; simultaneous recurrence unless we accept the unscientific pigeon post theory.

My readers will have realised by this time that I argue for a form of reincarnation. Which is so, but not for the ordinary idea of it in metempsychosis, requiring the detachable soul, or what R. W. Dunne calls the "clinging" variety. Without prejudging religious or spiritualistic theories that may be valid over and above, I do not think the separable but clinging soul necessary to the case, for continuity. But something is necessary, it seems to me, beyond "configuration" - not the individualised psychic atom which does no more than throw the argument back upon itself, but the fundamental identity of all minds.

This fundamental unity is implied surely in telepathy. Arrangements of atoms and molecules seem to be the way in which individuality arises in a process of screening off. It is probably true that brain substance and nervous structure is the machinery; as someone has said, of forgetting, that is of forgetting each other. Whether there is immananent or transcendent personality over all or saturating all is a religious question into which I will not enter, but no one used to the notion of the unconscious will dismiss that of a subconscious but potentially conscious sub-stratum rising to the surface at what may be called 'points of attention'.

Animal colonies exist, for example, in the polypi, in the hive with its spirit of the hive, and in the ant heap with its collective regime. This, analogy is that of budding, and it is particularly appropriate in the first named. We might imagine the blossoms on a tree having some kind of personal existence such as we could hardly be expected to apprehend, withering and rebuilding in season, new, fresh yet intimately part of the total organism. If in a physical, why not in a mental sense, if physical and mental are one?

The difficulty in our limited approach is memory. We link memories with personality so much, and, of course, the "we-are-our-experiences" school deny the possibility of personal existence without recollections, although they do not tell us what it was that had the first cognition. Even so, the subconscious may link up all memories just as these seem to be linked in the form of instincts. Direct local memory may not be necessary to establish identity, as we appear to see in cases of amnesia. We do actually forget the greater number of our experiences; we forget our dreams quickly as a rule, yet we have had them; hypnosis and interchanging personality, not to mention trance-mediumship, all suggest that personal identity is not the thing we think it is. Professor Haldane admits the possibility of continuing consciousness without memory and, therefore, continuing self-consciousness.


To sum up, the argument rests upon two propositions.
1. Telepathic concurrence (if it exists) presupposes a psychic factor in nature equivalent to universal mind.

2. That recurrence of conditions necessary to psychical characteristics leads to revival of the local ego upon which awareness, including self-awareness, depends. We go on living, as we live now, in the stream of life; we recur, as it were, qualitatively, in suitable material conformations, memories remaining intact at only the instinctive level.
The facts of heredity alone almost imply something of the kind, or at least seem to point to the type of machinery involved, remembering in case the family trade should obstruct the larger view that practically every person living fewer than forty generations ago was the ancestor of every person living today. There is a form of recurrence in every repetition of a species. I have no doubt that what happens in what we call physical life happens also in the realm of the mental. If 'identity of the thinkers' is the true expression of telepathy accepted as a fact, then loss of identity cannot occur so long as there is mind to exist.

We return to this debate with an article by Mike Bavidge: Are We Not Telepathic?  (Volume LXXXVI 1998)

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