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Observations placeholder

Tyndall, John – Science and the Spirits – 01 Background to the experiment



Type of Spiritual Experience


It is worth noting the air of sarcasm with which this so called paper is introduced.  Tyndall had no intention of approaching this with an open mind, his intention was to destroy any opposition that might be presented by Spiritualism, when he was trying to promote Science as the religion.

The wording is especially interesting – he uses words such as ‘sketch’ meaning the subject was really not worth wasting any more of his time and did not merit a paper.  He also uses phrases such as “already made their acquaintance, and did not wish to renew it”.  This was incidentally not true.

Then we have the expression “The spirits themselves named the time of meeting” – also not true, the medium set up the date and time.  As such right from the start Tyndall’s aim and tone are not just unscientific, they are downright confrontational – a politician’s or street preacher’s language certainly not the language of science.

John Ellicott (London, 1706–1772), mentioned in the text was an eminent English clock and watchmaker of the 18th century. In 1738 was elected Fellow of the Royal Society and showed a keen interest in scientific matters and maintained an observatory at his home in Hackney. He was best known for his work on temperature compensated pendulums and his use of the cylinder escapement. Tyndall’s mention of Ellicott’s experiments is intended to prepare the reader for the idea Tyndall wishes to promote that it is all physical and controlled by trickery.  To do this, he completely misrepresents Ellicott’s experiments, although one suspects that the average reader would not realise this.

Of exceptional importance is that he was allowed to inspect the furniture without hindrance for 'trickery' and as he says 'This was done'.  Here he says nothing, and one can safely assume that there was no trickery in the furniture, otherwise he would have mentionned it.  Thus he implies trickery existed by the use of the first sentences, but then carefully ignores the fact there was none.

It is also worth noting the nastiness of the man in respect of his host’s generous hospitality.  His host had combined the séance with dinner and wine.  At dinner, given that this was a gathering of people who were interested in spiritualism, the conversation was naturally about the things they had seen, much as one might talk about a holiday or a TV programme.  To this Tyndall says “Facts were absent for a considerable time, a series of very wonderful narratives supplying their place”.  And this is important because from the word go he has as much as said – these people are liars.  Note that he was a guest and in no positon to know whether the banter included facts or not.

All Tyndall is then able to say about dinner being included is that “This was to me an unusual form of investigation; but I accepted it as one of the accidents of the occasion”.  Such condescension, such arrogance, how very very rude and unpleasant he was.

It is to the credit of the people in the seance that throughout this charade on Tyndall's part, they were gracious, polite and showed great patience with his rudeness and weird behaviour - and as we will see his behaviour was truly weird.

A description of the experience


THEIR refusal to investigate "spiritual phenomena" is often urged as a reproach against scientific men.  I here propose to give a sketch of an attempt to apply to the "phenomena" those methods of inquiry which are found available in dealing with natural truth.

Some years ago, when the spirits were particularly active in this country, Faraday was invited, or rather entreated, by one of his friends to meet and question them. He had, however, already made their acquaintance, and did not wish to renew it. I had not been so privileged, and he therefore kindly arranged a transfer of the invitation to me. The spirits themselves named the time of meeting, and I was conducted to the place at the day and hour appointed.

Absolute unbelief in the facts was by no means my condition of mind. On the contrary, I thought it probable that some physical principle, not evident to the spiritualists themselves, might underlie their manifestations.  Extraordinary effects are produced by the accumulation of small impulses. Galileo set a heavy pendulum in motion by the well-timed puffs of his breath. Ellicott set one clock going by the ticks of another, even when the two clocks were separated by a wall. Preconceived notions can, moreover, vitiate, to an extraordinary degree, the testimony of even veracious persons. Hence my desire to witness those extraordinary phenomena, the existence of which seemed placed beyond a doubt by the known veracity of those who had witnessed and described them.

The meeting took place at a private residence in the neighbourhood of London. My host, his intelligent wife, and a gentleman who may be called X., were in the house when I arrived. I was informed that the “medium" had not yet made her appearance; that she was sensitive, and might resent suspicion. It was therefore requested that the tables and chairs should be examined before her arrival, in order to be assured that there was no trickery in the furniture. This was done; and I then first learned that my hospitable host had arranged that the séance should be a dinner-party. This was to me an unusual form of investigation; but I accepted it as one of the accidents of the occasion.

The “medium" arrived—a delicate-looking young lady, who appeared to have suffered much from ill-health. I took her to dinner and sat close beside her. Facts were absent for a considerable time, a series of very wonderful narratives supplying their place. The duty of belief on the testimony of witnesses was frequently insisted on.

The source of the experience

Tyndall, John

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Science Items

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