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From the September, 2005 issue of Touchstone


Seances & Science by John Mark Reynolds

Séances & Science

The Lessons of the Spiritualist Challenge to Darwinism

by John Mark Reynolds

At the end of the nineteenth century, it was obvious to the informed observer that materialism would triumph in Europe. The fruits of this victory were not hard to imagine: a decline in religious belief, an exaltation of humanity, and a rejection of traditional morals. Many conservative social and political leaders in Great Britain saw this coming destruction of their way of life and attempted to head it off.

Chief among the prophets of this coming cultural apocalypse was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Most famous as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle was a doctor, humanitarian, war hero, and academic polymath. Though he rejected the traditional Catholicism of his childhood, he fully embraced the values of late Victorian and Edwardian England. He was distressed by the rise of feminism, the decline in patriotism, and the crude manners of the machine age. Under the influence of his mother, he longed for a more chivalrous age.

Secular thinkers like Doyle believed that Darwin had delivered the mortal blow to traditional religious faith. Many English clerics and scientists felt that God could somehow be inserted into the evolutionary process. In this way, they hoped to preserve their academic and cultural viability. It would be impossible to think of a more disastrous move. It is possible to accommodate almost any two views with a strong enough motive to do so, but that does not mean that most people will buy into a compromise that they perceive as ad hoc.

Such was the case in England after Darwin. Men of good will would claim that the naturalism in Darwinism was an unnecessary philosophic extrapolation from an innocuous scientific theory. But such good-hearted men were philosophically naive. Darwinism most naturally fits with naturalism. When combined with an overwhelming bias toward methodological naturalism in science, it is no surprise that the culture moved toward naturalism and away from theism.

Tory Evolutionists

Whatever contemporary religious scholars believed they had found in the text of Genesis 1–11, Victorians knew what the historical church had almost universally taught. Adam and Eve were real people. They were the first parents of the human race. There was a man named Noah. He had gotten onto a boat with many animals.

For the Church, in a long, slow, disorganized retreat from these positions, the apologetic result was a disaster. Christians found themselves in the position of crying “just kidding” when time-honored notions were challenged. Evangelical Christianity was in serious trouble.

Doyle and many other cultural leaders were aware of the implosion of the Church. If they had any interest in religious matters, the feminized church would not meet their needs and the “manly” Christianity of the era lacked the intellectual and cultural appeal these men demanded. William Crookes, a leading scientist, Alfred Wallace, the co-discoverer of Darwinism, Doyle, and others at first embraced the new materialist faith but without abandoning their belief in Victorian values. If some religious people argued for theistic evolution, they argued for what can be called “Tory evolution.”

This conservative movement ranged from the cruel social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer to more genteel forms that attempted to provide biological justification for Victorian mores. This compromise, which was actually congenial to agnostics like “Darwin’s Bulldog” T. H. Huxley, failed to win general approval. Doyle and others came to believe that the naturalistic doctrine that human existence ended in death was destructive of societal well-being. Merely utilitarian arguments for the sacrificial pursuit of “social goods” are notoriously difficult to make.

But even if there were utilitarian arguments for the conservative, cultivated life, they were too complex for the dockworker. One might meet an Oxford don capable of living such a life on the basis of naturalism, with no hope for immortality. There are, however, many more dockworkers than dons. If this is the only life there is, the majority of people inevitably begin to eat, drink, and be merry, and in doing so create social disorder. This was what Doyle and many Tory evolutionists came to believe.

How then to save personal immortality and with it civilized society? In the age of science, the answer would have to be verifiable in the laboratory. In Doyle’s language, the spiritual view would have to answer materialism on its own ground. The Resurrection of Christ could not be subjected (in fact) to scientific verification. Doyle wanted something that would not hide when the lab scientist came to investigate.

Fortunately for Doyle, Crookes, and Wallace, a religious movement answered their need. It had received extensive scientific investigation from the first-class American chemist Robert Hare. If true, it promised absolute proof for the existence of life after death. Despite some cases of fraud, it seemed open to potentially endless and fruitful scientific research. More important, perhaps, this new religious-scientific movement had great popular appeal.

It combined robust intellectual research with Victorian sentiment. It was centered, in actual practice, in the nexus of Victorian culture: the middle class.

Weighty Evidence

The religion was Spiritualism. Doyle resisted it for a while, but at last the weight of evidence overwhelmed him. Later personal loss, including the death of his son Kingsley in the First World War, would confirm his decision, but it was the evidence that won over the creator of that arch-rationalist, Sherlock Holmes. Even Holmes, in Doyle’s later stories, begins to soften his rationalism under the weight of the evidence.

The evidence seemed impressive. William Crookes, a scientist with a world-class reputation, spent scores of hours investigating the mediums D. D. Home and Florence Cook. The examination of Home, who was never conclusively caught in a fraud, was particularly impressive. Home could play an accordion with the mere touch of his hand in a device carefully contrived to prevent cheating. He could press his fingers on the end of a testing device and register positive and negative force without any seeming effort.

The investigation of Cook was more controversial. Her phenomena were also more bizarre. She could, according to Crookes, make a spirit named Miss King appear. This spirit was in many ways unlike Cook. Tests on the spirit seemed to show that the appearance had evidential value. Later in life she was caught in fraud.

Spiritualism, and the broader field of psychic research in general, received a huge boost with the formation of the Society for Psychic Research (SPR). This group contained first-rate thinkers like the American psychologist William James. While not all members embraced Spiritualism, and some were even open critics, the Society provided a blue-chip intellectual environment where Spiritualists and psychic claims were taken seriously. (One, of course, could believe in psychic manifestations without accepting the further conclusion that they were the product of life-after-death spirits.)

It is difficult for most of us to realize the seriousness with which groups like the Society for Psychical Research were taken. The present website for the society rightly boasts that its presidents have included:

philosophers Henry Sidgwick, C. D. Broad, Henri Bergson and H. H. Price; Prime Minister A. J. Balfour; psychologists William James and F. W. H. Myers; physicists Sir William Crookes, Sir Oliver Lodge and Lord Rayleigh; physiologist and Nobel Laureate Charles Richet; classicist Gilbert Murray; zoologist Sir Alister Hardy; and parapsychologist J. B. Rhine.

The prominent members cited are almost entirely drawn from academics (Sidgwick held a prestigious professorship at Cambridge University, for example) who reached prominence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. This was the golden age for spiritualist respectability.

Faltering Psychics

By the end of the First World War, Spiritualism had reached a popular zenith. Many clergymen embraced it. The séance became a standard feature of the 1920s’ parlor. Yet in many ways, the movement was already faltering.

Crookes ceased to engage in psychic research, though he remained a believer until the end of his life. Many of the conclusions of the earlier psychic studies were called into question. The second generation of the SPR lacked the intellectual credentials of the earlier generation. The popular movement itself did much to discredit Spiritualism. Mediums multiplied and so did cases of certain fraud. Even “model” psychics like D. D. Hume were found to have owned materials usually associated with cheating.

Doyle and others responded with attempts to “clean up” Spiritualism, but to no avail. The popular forms of the movement became the movement in the minds of both the general public and the academy.

Most important to the decline of Spiritualism were the withering attacks of the naturalistic establishment. Darwinism was the harbinger of a new age, and the social radicals would brook no peace with any form of supernaturalism, no matter how respectable. Even if all the data collected by the Spiritualists were fatally flawed, the reaction of the intellectual mainstream cannot be justified. They had made up their minds before they examined the data. Huxley famously said that even if Spiritualism were true, it would not interest him. Naturalism simply was rationality. To deny this basic fact was to be cut off from rational society.

Doyle became, like all the Spiritualists, ever more desperate for the clinching argument. As he cast about for some bit of convincing data, his critical skills failed him. Though his own personal integrity was beyond question, he was taken in again and again in his closing days by obvious frauds. He wanted so desperately to be right that he allowed his critical faculties to be affected.

Most reflective of his quest for the knockout blow is his championing of the Cottingsly fairy photographs. Two young British girls presented Doyle and a Theosophist friend with pictures they claimed to have taken of fairies. In the early days of photography, people were easily deceived by even simple tricks with a camera, but there is no excusing Doyle in the case of the obviously fraudulent fairy photographs. They were cheats, a fact one of the two girls finally admitted on her deathbed more than fifty years later.

Spiritualist Lessons

All of this must seem like obscure, ancient history. Though interest in the occult has only increased since Doyle died in 1930, the Spiritualist movement has very little cultural power at the moment.

I believe, however, that without showing any sympathy for the cause of Spiritualism, one can be quite sympathetic with some of its goals. It was attacked and annihilated by cultural forces just as wicked in their own way. More importantly, in both the concern to oppose naturalism and the relatively high caliber of its initial leadership, the early psychic research movement resembles the Intelligent Design movement, and the similarities are great enough that I believe the failure of Doyle and his companions can serve as a lesson to the Intelligent Design (ID) movement.

First, the ID movement must not allow popular expressions of its position to become divorced from more responsible ones. The Spiritualists left the public leadership of their movement to the cranks and charlatans. With the exception of the fairly responsible Doyle, none of the intellectual leaders of psychic research did much public speaking or writing. The job of “spreading the word” was more and more left to the cranks and charlatans who rushed to fill the void.

In the ID movement up to this point, Phillip Johnson and others have been willing to carry an intense load of more popular level lectures. Though new members of the movement might be designated to fill this role, the “lions” must remain in the public eye. There are too many would-be spokesmen whose arguments and claims could bring the movement into undeserved disrepute.

In most churches I visit, I am asked about Kent Hovind. He is a very prominent defender of “creationism” and “intelligent design” on the speaking circuit and on the Internet. Most members of conservative Evangelical churches are unaware that Hovind has a diploma-mill “doctorate” or that his engaging presentation is riddled with errors and bad reasoning. In charity, and because they are sensitive to the public ridicule they have received as dissidents, most ID supporters have been unwilling to call incompetent speakers to task.

Ron Wyatt, who claims to have found everything from Noah’s Ark to the Ark of the Covenant, is another case. His false claims to periodic amazing discoveries intrigue laity and get disproportionate attention from the media.

ID spokesmen should not have to repudiate cranks, but have the burden to do so given the daunting task of cultural influence they face. At the risk of offending some laity attracted by such people, the movement, which has a popular front, must repudiate them.

No Bible

Second, psychic research (as seen in the SPR) failed to develop. Proponents of Spiritualism were too content to rely on yesterday’s research. They were unwilling to abandon previous positions when those positions were exposed as erroneous.

The Psychic Book Club reprinted Crookes’s research from the 1870s in 1925 and again in 1953 without any attempt to correct it or respond to arguments against it. Doyle was still referring to the same research in his famous debate with Joseph McCabe in 1919. Spiritualism also became committed to the existence of ectoplasm. When most of the “test cases” were shown to be faulty, Spiritualists persisted in a belief that should have been abandoned.

After the first generation of first-rate books, there was a marked decline in the quality of what was produced. Doyle himself went through the same process, as I’ve described. His last book, in which he suggests that his acquaintance Harry Houdini used psychic powers in his act, is a sad ending to Doyle’s career.

The Intelligent Design movement has produced a fine group of books. These books must not become a bible for the movement. Any healthy movement will generate fierce internal debates about its founding ideas. Intelligent Design must be free to evaluate and re-evaluate its central tenets.

For example, William Dembski is one of the most remarkable thinkers I have ever met, but his particular take on the idea of design and identifying design needs internal criticism. His writing seems to have moved from highly technical to mostly popular, and one hopes that the Discovery Institute or the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, at which he now teaches, would press him to write a technical follow-up to his seminal work.

Third, Intelligent Design as a movement must remain a broad, inclusive philosophic position. Spiritualism hardened into a set of creeds and dogmas too quickly. Psychic ministers like G. Vale Owen produced a picture of the afterlife based on their spirit readings. This picture of the Summer Land and the life of the spirits became an alternative set of religious dogmas.

There is nothing wrong with dogma, but Spiritualism never had anything like the spirited, academic debate that fixed Christian doctrines in Christian councils. Who was the spiritualist Athanasius? Spiritualism did not even produce someone with the long-term doctrinal acumen of an Arius. Instead, it rushed to an overly detailed party line about life after death and shut off the centuries of development that mature doctrines require. These fixed positions did not allow a young movement to reevaluate opinions based on faulty data.

What does the ID movement think about the relationship between religion and science? J. P. Moreland has written a much-overlooked book on the topic, Christianity and the Nature of Science, but there has been too little debate in the Intelligent Design movement on this issue. Phillip Johnson has produced important ideas on this topic as well, but internal criticism, improvements, and alternatives are not often enough in evidence. This is a key mission for the next generation of young Intelligent Design thinkers. This sort of critique should be encouraged and not suppressed.

Fourth, Spiritualism was not careful enough in examining ideas. If conventional science refused to look at new data on the (allegedly) supernatural, Spiritualism and psychic research were too accepting of every odd claim. Everything from ghost stories to the existence of elves was championed by some major Spiritualist or another. This frittered away valuable energy and credibility in useless projects.

Intelligent Design has done well on this front. Though it has not separated itself often enough from the “crazies,” most ID institutions like Biola University and the Discovery Institute have been careful to major on the majors. Phillip Johnson, as the strategist for the movement, should get much of the credit for this strength. In the generation that will eventually not know Johnson, ID groups must be careful to continue in this important direction.

Different Fates

Intelligent Design is the wedge that, driven in correctly, will destroy naturalism. The movement must be careful not to repeat the errors of psychic research. The key difference between the Intelligent Design movement and psychic research is philosophic. I believe that if this difference is maintained, Intelligent Design will not meet Spiritualism’s fate.

What is this difference? Intelligent Design has steadfastly rejected the seductive lure of methodological naturalism. Doyle and company were determined to defeat materialism using its own rules. It is not surprising that they failed. Methodological naturalism, by its very nature, produces results congenial to materialism and naturalism. Psychic research attempted to use protocols and research methodologies that by their very nature might have destroyed possible positive results.

In particular, the ID movement must remain open to the possibility that religion is a knowledge tradition. Without being subsumed by Christianity, it must allow Christians to do research and thinking informed by their religious traditions.

Of course, it must allow for other faith traditions, such as traditional Islam and Judaism, to also develop alternative pictures of science and the natural world based on competing paradigms and interpretations of religious knowledge. In principle, even atheists can embrace design theory and use their “negative theology” to develop teleological accounts of life on earth that do not rely on a God or gods. Design can act as an umbrella to these competing philosophical, theological, and natural theories.

The danger for the movement at the moment is in embracing methodological naturalism in discussing design. Design theorists must not be afraid of responsible religious persons becoming involved in the movement. On the other hand, having been allowed to speak, religious theorists must not expect design to simply become a wing of their own faith tradition. At times design theorists have acted afraid of being “tainted” by any association with religion or religious institutions. On the other hand, some Christian apologists have sounded as if design were merely a part of the defense of the faith.

For the most part, Spiritualism remained simply incoherent about the relationship between religion and science. It embraced methodological naturalism in research, but settled quickly on an overly determined religious point of view.

The Intelligent Design movement was more fortunate in its first generation of leaders. Phillip Johnson, who continues to be the intellectual godfather of the movement, understood these very issues. I personally have witnessed him giving good advice on all these issues. To put it bluntly, I think Johnson more gifted as an intellectual and as a leader of an intellectual movement than any person who sided with Spiritualism.

As the movement grows more diverse and Johnson’s role naturally decreases, its members must remember history’s hard lessons, particularly that intellectual revolutionaries can start well and finish in ignominy.

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. The author of Toward a Unified Platonic Human Psychology (University Press of America), he writes an active weblog on religion and science ( He, his wife Hope, and their four home-schooled children are members of St. Michael Antiochian Orthodox Church.

“Seances & Science” first appeared in the September 2005 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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