Looking back at the leading figures of the Society of Psychical Research (founded in 1882 in England)—and reading the writings of its prominent figures—what strikes me is an interesting contrast between SPR’s main enterprise, to focus research on extrasensory perception in the broadest sense, and the cultural environment in which that research initially took place. That environment was decidedly scientific and its underlying cosmological assumption was progressivist, thus resting on the concept of evolution broadly construed. SPR could, of course, have chosen to call its approach natural philosophy and to have adopted a traditionalist cosmological view—if perhaps festooned with lots of question marks. But such was the atmosphere in England, indeed all over the Western world, then that Science had to be capitalized and the notion of some kind of “emergent” process—in biology this was evolution, a model that soon to spread to other fields—seemed natural, however fundamentally illogical.
I prefer to use the word “philosophy” when talking about matters that transcend the strictly measurable. As for progressivism, that view, I think, ultimately appeals to magic. The notion that life arose from matter, and consciousness from life, appears to me to violate the notion that anything that “comes about” had to have had, at least in potential, that which we now see actualized. Aristotle 101. Progressivism introduces into matter potentials which we can’t discover using reasonable science. If we could, we would have long ago managed to create “life” by starting with ordinary chemicals. Such efforts have failed—but current attempts at achieving artificial intelligence are a continuation in another modality.
The traditional cosmological view is also labeled “magic” because it assumes that—in order to preserve the logic of the potential-actuality sequence—God had to have created the world. Therefore reality is a top down structure. Such magic, however, is much more believable for me because it is more comprehensive. It contains within it, with God’s presence, the very power, writ large, which we detect in ourselves, writ small, namely consciousness. Matter can’t explain it, but God’s presence can.
When I contrast “progressivist” with “traditional” cosmologies, I’m not disputing the facts of evolution—only its interpretation. Thus the Catholic Church accepts evolution as a means that God may have used; but the traditionalist aspect is that in Catholic doctrine God creates each soul; the soul is not a product of evolution.
Choosing the right magic may help a “scientist” or “philosopher” make the right projections about the future—or not. Around about 1896, when he was finishing his monumental Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death, Frederic W.H. Myers, one of the cofounders of the SPR, wrote thus in the epilogue of his book:
I venture now on a bold saying; for I predict that, in consequence of the new evidence, all reasonable men, a century hence, will believe the Resurrection of Christ, whereas, in default of the new evidence, no reasonable men, a century hence, would have believed it. The ground of this forecast is plain enough. Our ever-growing recognition of the continuity, the uniformity of cosmic law has gradually made of the alleged uniqueness of any incident its almost inevitable refutation. Ever more clearly must our age of science realise that any relation between a material and a spiritual world cannot be an ethical or emotional relation alone; that it must needs be a great structural fact of the Universe, involving laws at least as persistent, as identical from age to age, as our known laws of Energy or of Motion.
The evidence Myers presented more than a century ago has become ever better. But his application of a progressivist approach in matters of soul-knowledge was overly optimistic.