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Montague’s speech for a debate on Scole, given December 11, 1999

This is the nub of the issue. Some of us — certainly I myself — have tended to regard as a lamentable waste of time and resources the concentration on fraud or non-fraud, even where that issue is dressed up as “adequate or inadequate controls?”: it comes to the same thing. I for one felt that the accumulation of evidence was such as to overwhelm all reasonable doubt. Of course it would not have done had we been invited to attend a demonstration by Paul Daniels or David Copperfield. We would have been perfectly well aware of the years of training, accumulation of skills and the abundance of specialist effects required. But we were going by invitation into someone’s private home to participate in what six ordinary people obviously believed they were privileged to experience, and for which they appeared to have been willing to sacrifice a great deal of their time and energy not to prepare for a public show and rich rewards, but for the enlightenment and satisfaction of themselves and a small group of those who had enjoyed a similar experience.

That being so, ought we not now to get on with the more important and challenging question: from whence do the messages emanate: can we eliminate the role of the mediums’ sub-conscious?

What follows is based on the assumption that we are dealing with something genuine. The issue is whether that evidence points to discarnate intelligence or whether we are entitled to go no further than to argue that it may be attributable only to subliminal activity on the part of human beings. Do our experiences with the Scole Group take us any further into these treacherous waters of speculation and deduction: deeper than we have previously felt justified in venturing from earlier evidence. And how, if at all, does it differ from earlier evidence?

Although this part of our discussion day is billed as “mental mediumship”, it must be apparent from the Report that the mental and physical are interlocked. Those who may in the future have the privilege and opportunity to read through the verbatim transcripts of some of our sittings will see that, once a rapport had been established between sitters and communicators, much of the talk relates to forthcoming, current or recent demonstrations of physical phenomena, if that term can for this purpose be applied equally to the performance of lights and accompanying ethereal forms, and to the breezes and touches, table vibrations, trumpet blasts, drum-beats and occasional bangs and scratchings, as well as to the more spectacular and durable physical effects in the form of films. Likewise much discussion is found to revolve around the production of the films themselves, the conditions relating to their creation, their contents and meaning, our efforts to interpret them or understand the occasional clues etc. So we can’t isolate the oral messages from the physical.

It became apparent quite early on, and especially when there were references to Frederic Myers and the founding fathers of the Society, that the intention of the communicators — and indeed the whole point of the exercise — was to provide better evidence of posthumous communication than had hitherto been obtained. Although what follows must to some extent be deduction, or inference, it was implicit that the communicators acknowledged the failure of what must now be accepted as the principal effort to provide proof of survival in a calculated, organised form rather than through the sporadic, ad hoc messages from individual mediums to individual sitters, impressive though a good deal of that evidence had proved to be.

This may be familiar meat and drink to old SPR hands, but I don’t think the Scole exercise can be intelligently interpreted except by looking at the historic background; because this fits in neatly with so much of what we heard and discussed.

By the beginning of this century, those members of the SPR who had not already drifted off towards the spiritualists’ camp were broadly divided between those who found the evidence from, in particular but not exclusively, Mrs Leonore Piper to be clear enough proof that the information she was transmitting could have come only from beyond the grave; and those who thought that proposition not proved, since all the communications were capable of an alternative explanation, one based on the knowledge that the extra-sensory capacities of the human psyche might well in some exceptional cases, like Mrs Piper’s, be such as to enable her subliminal mind to pick up information not just from similar recesses of the sitter’s mind, but from those of the minds of unknown third parties.

This belief, later to become known under the generic title of the Super-ESP hypothesis, was what the authors of the cross-correspondences clearly set out to falsify. If, from beyond the grave, they could beam intelligible messages in a form which with no imaginative stretch could be attributable to a single human intelligence, that should put paid to the Super-ESP. Unless, that is, one extended it further by postulating an ability on the part of the medium to dip into the everlasting pool of universal knowledge stored up in the Akashic records, and by a careful process of selection pick out the coloured threads which would assemble to form a garment of radiant hue.

It is well known that the start of these cross-correspondences occurred at the beginning of this century, shortly after the death of Frederic Myers. Fragmentary and essentially meaningless messages or words were transmitted to various mediums usually via automatic writing. They made sense only when assembled by independent and usually highly intelligent third parties, as with some complex verbal jigsaw puzzles. Later generations of psychical researchers, dedicated to laboratory-type, statistically-based experiments of the sort that attracts official funding and sometimes even demonstrates a marginally discernible anomaly, have tended to lose sight of this formidable array of evidence. Or else they will dismiss it, as several eminent SPR leaders have done, as so replete with ambiguity and complexity, and demanding of familiarity with classical literature or poetic allusion, as to try the patience of the most dedicated scholar.

Be that as it may, the fact is that these efforts at communication effectively ended over 60 years ago. Great volumes of scripts and learned analyses gather dust today. Those in the celestial realm who appear to have been at such prolonged pains to show that they are still around seem until now to have confined themselves to soliloquies through mediums attended by such authors as Sir Oliver Lodge, Maurice Barbanell, Geraldine Cummins and Paul Beard.

If, as we have reason to suspect, the Scole experience was an effort to present fresh evidence which would be simpler, more direct, and more tangible than even the most ingeniously impressive of the cross-correspondences, then it was far from being a failure. We need not be too fussed about the apparent meaningless of the lights, touches, noises and so on: they could reasonably be regarded as a necessary means to convince sitters to take the communications seriously, and to show they were not the victims of human deception. And the jokes and puns and laughter? Well, they might reasonably be regarded as means both to encourage the right attitude of warmth and participation which, for all we know, may be an important ingredient in the mix of energies required for the production of phenomena; or they may simply indicate that the next world is not all fear and gloom as we prepare for judgement day and accustom ourselves to the sound of dragging chains and wailing voices.

It is not for us to condemn or ignore evidence because the communicators appear to us to be behaving oddly, or choosing what we think are the wrong sorts of evidence, or even because they decline to undertake the experiments we suggest. We have to acknowledge, albeit with some reluctance, that there is a certain logic in their rejection of Arthur Ellison’s proposal that they should read the numbers lodged on the top of his wardrobe at home; or undertake a book test by telling us what was on line five of page 239 of the sixth book on the second shelf in someone’s library. The communicators argued that this was old hat. It had been done before; and it hadn’t got them anywhere. Now this is true, and if, as they said, they were determined to produce something new, using a form of energy which had none of the associations, shortcomings and dangers of old-fashioned ectoplasm, then it did make sense, although I think we would still have liked them to have tried, even though all it might do would be simply to add further support to the super PSI theory that it all derived from human sources.

This does give rise to one of the many little puzzles that bears upon the issue discarnate versus incarnate. At one stage, when a new male personality was struggling to come through as a direct voice from the centre of the table, he suddenly interrupted himself by saying “This gentleman here [MK] is making notes. Is that allowed?” He was assured that it was, and that all was being recorded. So how did he, or it, know that I was making notes? Mrs Bradshaw had earlier commented with some asperity when we were asking for book tests: “We can’t see; we don’t have eyes.” Well, obviously, spirits don’t have physical senses or dimensions. Yet David Fontana never tired of marvelling how they managed to locate our fingers with unerring accuracy in the dark. One can reasonably ask at this point whether this is another characteristic one can pile on to the somewhat overburdened subliminal mind.

It is easy to overlook the fact that these sittings differed fundamentally from the normal sittings with mediums, where the sitter is there primarily either to contact some deceased person or, no less frequently, for advice and guidance on matters troubling them. Although from time to time one or other of us might ask after a particular person, a missing colleague or a former professional associate, for example, this was not the object of our visit; nor did it appear to be the purpose or intention of the communicators. Nevertheless it is noteworthy that Emily, the chief communicator (you will find this at the end of Appendix F), speaking through Diana as ever, and with an almost entirely new audience gathered in a room several thousand miles from home territory, suddenly identified and described a recently dead young man, his driving accident, his blue-coloured car, his occasional pot-smoking and his habit of doodling. Another spirit visitor for whom eight correct identifying features or relationships were provided immediately followed this. However, these seemed to be no more than occasional, and apparently spontaneous, examples of odd appearances in Emily’s presence. There did not seem to be anything premeditated or orderly about them.

They came into the same category as many of the seemingly throwaway remarks by Emily Bradshaw, who appears to have carried on into the next world her earthly role as a society hostess as various deceased members of the SPR’s turn of the century notabilities dropped in for a drink or a cap-doffing. If several references, and the interesting array of clues they gave, which you will find chiefly in Chapters IV and X, were indeed the product of subliminal minds, we will be forced to conclude that the mediums from whom these statements emerged were either deliberately deceiving us by denying ever having read the books from which they appear to have derived their information, or they had done so in the past but had forgotten about it. And now, thanks to the marvels of cryptomnesia, it was all being dragged from the recesses of their forgotten memories. Some support is given to this idea by Alan Gauld’s discovery of the high proportion of such references which appeared in a single book published 90 years ago. But they didn’t all come from that source, and some were pretty obscure, if you can describe early volumes of the SPR Proceedings as obscure in the sense of being not easy to get hold of.

But it is when we come to examples like the Ruth films that the subliminal notion begins to come apart at the seams. It presupposes that both the mediums, because both contributed to the several discussions we had about these two films – had carefully studied the introductory explanation and the reproductions of Dorothy Wordsworth’s handwritten amendments to the poem Ruth, having fortuitously come across a copy of the catalogue of a Christies miscellaneous book sale 30 years earlier, and then forgotten all about it: forgotten that either of them had ever seen it. And yet the conversations we record in Chapter VII show very clearly that, whoever is communicating had a pretty good idea of the origin and history of the amendments which form the subject of the Ruth puzzle. We can ascribe a great deal to the subliminal mind, but hardly something as memorable as this feat.

But before probing further into the sort of messages which were conveyed during our sittings with the Scole Group, and whether they were all platitude and generalisation, let us look more closely at the alternative posed in the title of this session. Does the evidence fit the hypothesis of subliminal origin, no matter whether it emerges from the mind of the medium or from the Group, or the Group plus the collective investigators, or from the whole lot of them plus humanity in general. Is there a necessary extraneous element, something which could not possibly have originated from humankind?

I think the answer which I would give, and I believe this represents the considered view of my colleagues too, is that there is nothing which absolutely proves anything, certainly not survival. But there is a great deal which places what many will consider almost intolerable strains on any form of purely terrestrial interpretation, which I believe to be the only viable alternative to survival.

We can accept, because we do have respectable precedents for doing so, that the human psyche, meeting collectively and generating heaven-knows what energies, can produce intelligent and sometimes unexpected responses from what would appear to be a purely fictitious creation deliberately conjured up by a group of sitters in what is known as the Philip experiment. Mind you, there is an uncomfortable alternative explanation for the strange phenomenon recording by Professor Owen and his patient university students who invented an historic character and then found that he assumed a voice and communication ability of his own. It is that a perceptive, wandering and probably mischievous entity decides to play along and assume the role of the fictional character. He spots a window of opportunity, a séance sitting where messages from the deceased are awaited, and he duly drops in. I may add that one of the greatest authorities on these so-called drop-in communicators is Dr Alan Gauld.

Now this is not the place to evaluate these two conflicting interpretations, but as far as evidence goes, the drop-in spirit explanation is far more likely, and far better sustained by precedent, than the notion that we can collectively generate an independent intelligence, especially one with anything like the attributes we have felt obliged to pile on the Scole psyches.

We must also accept that there is respectable evidence that the human mind can project thought-images onto plates of films. We do not have to rely exclusively on the remarkable and well-known example of the late lamented Ted Serios who, when he hadn’t had too much to drink, appeared able to visualise a scene which would then appear on a photographic film. Even more remarkable accomplishments are recorded of the Japanese psychic Koichi Mita by Japan’s leading pioneer parapsychologist Professor Tomokichi Fukurai from 1910 onwards. Mita managed to impress on a photographic plate, before an audience of thousands, an image of the then unknown hidden side of the moon. That was in 1931 and 1933, but not confirmed until NASA pictures could be analysed nearly forty years later.

If admittedly exceptional human beings can somehow imprint thought-images on films, could we not push it one stage further by suggesting that this is precisely what happened at Scole?

Well we could, but it would have to be an exceptionally vigorous push. Previous thought-images have gone straight on to flat plates: admittedly one of a stack of plates in Mita’s case, but still flat. At Scole we have the phenomenon of a thought-image getting on to a rolled-up film almost invariably in its plastic container, and usually concealed either in a plastic security bag or in a locked box or held in an investigator’s hands. That’s one difference. The second, and more significant one from our viewpoint, is that the earlier examples were all of images of existing scenes projected onto a sensitised plate, as determined by an experimenter or chosen by a psychic. At Scole we had a disparate range of objects which it would be difficult indeed to attribute to the psyche of one of the mediums, or, less still, to the collective thought-wishes of a Group.

We had actually invited the spirit Team to produce a film of something we would think of there and then. But they made it clear that their aim was to get their thoughts, not ours, nor those of the Group, on to films. They had a point. The question is whether the films, taken as a whole, can be regarded as unlikely at the least, or impossible at the best, to have emerged from the human mind.

Well, look at the pictures and judge for yourselves. There can be no definitive conclusion. One can reasonably contend, however, that if these are all from the Group’s sub-conscious, or in the video version from subliminal gropings into the Akashic records, then we have a fresh and formidable new assemblage of attributes to pile on to our subliminal minds, not helped by the absence of any positive evidence. Here we have a number of pictures about which the Group – and we are now assuming honesty on their part - share our bewilderment, and sometimes our excitement. It was members of the Group themselves who eagerly rushed to inform us of how and where they had traced the origin of one of the hermetic references, the Perfectio film seen in Plate 8 in the Proceedings, and more clearly explained in the Exhibition outside. Likewise I was roused around mdnight after Diana had found the Ruth poem of Wordsworth, which was the subject of so much subsequent research and speculation.

If we have reached the stage of accepting that all was not invention and deception, then we have no alternative than to conclude that it is pushing improbability beyond reasonable limits to argue that something as obscure and emotionally charged as was the Ruth amendment, was likely to have originated from the subliminal minds of any or all of the Scole Group. Then take the Schnittger poem. No-one has yet found who wrote it and where it comes from. It’s regarded as pretty good German, and fairly characteristic of the language and style extant about a century and a half ago, although the handwriting is more modern. What extravagant assumptions must we make to attribute this, too, to the Group psyche!

The plain truth is that any theory of subliminal activity, no matter how extensive one assumes the field of that activity to be, simply does not square with the fact that careful research and artistic preparation are required for physical effects like apports or, more relevantly, film strips. It is a theory based entirely on mental evidence, not physical. Let us grant that the phenomenon of psychokinesis has been established. [I note that a paper published in our Journal as long ago as 1945 by our present President considered the case to have already been made out, on statistical grounds, although he and most others have been discussing very marginal movements apparently controlled by the mind operating at a distance.] But since there’s also plenty of evidence that quite massive movements can occur, especially and notoriously in poltergeist cases where heavy pieces of furniture can be moved around, and household articles can be made to disappear and re-appear in different places, then it is possible to argue that the psyche can exercise this powerful force. But one cannot therefore conclude that the force is in no way sponsored or organised by some form of non-human agency. There is ample evidence to show that it is. What sort of purely psychic influence is it that can not only illuminate then dematerialise and then rematerialise crystals, but also dematerialise rolls of virgin film inside plastic tubs, work on them and return them to their capped tubs to await processing.

A few weeks ago in this hall, when we were considering the question of what constitutes evidence of the paranormal acceptable to the scientific mind, I broadly endorsed the dictum of David Hume, that only if the alternative explanation was less plausible than the apparent miracle it purported to explain would he accept the miraculous. If you put the messages and manipulations of discarnate entities in the category of miracles, and then consider the alternative explanations I have explored, you can perhaps see why I am somewhat reluctantly and cagily, on the side of the miraculous.

Mental mediumship: from subconscious or external sources? by Montague Keen
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