The investigations and hypotheses of Frederik van Eeden
Frederik van Eeden's opinion
A detailed and well documented report of a series of sittings with medium Rosalie Thompson was written by Frederik van Eeden, the Dutch doctor and researcher – who dealt with various aspects related to psychology and psychical research – whom I have already mentioned for his A Study of Dreams, in the section on non-ordinary states of consciousness. Van Eeden (1860-1932), after graduating in medicine, while working as a doctor actively participated in the cultural life of Holland: he founded a political-literary journal and was (and still is) highly regarded as a poet and novelist. He also became interested in the development of psychotherapy: he himself coined the term psychotherapy, which he defined as the healing of the body through the mind, assisted by the influence of one mind on another. In 1887 he opened the first Dutch psychotherapeutic institute, in which he conducted experiments with hypnosis, publishing several articles in specialized European magazines, about the methods used and the results obtained. He also dealt with social problems, such as the conditions of the workers in his country, and participated in the SPR research, publishing a long report on his sittings with Mrs. Thompson. The report opens with a classification of psychic phenomena researchers into three main categories: total skeptics, spiritualists and non-spiritualists. This division was already widespread in the literature on mediumistic phenomena of the late nineteenth century, and in principle can be confirmed even today. Van Eeden added that among the scientists who had taken the trouble to examine the facts and experiment patiently and without prejudice, total skeptics were increasingly scarce: according to him, total skeptics' opinions did not even deserve to be taken into account.
Spiritualism and psychism
More interesting is his division into two groups of those who had no doubts about the reality of mediumistic phenomena: the first group included those who believed in the influence of the spirits (impalpable entities, imperceptible to our ordinary senses) on the mind and body of living human beings, while the second group recognized that the facts were extraordinary and inexplicable according to physical laws and their known causes, but was not willing to admit that such discoveries could lead one to consider the existence of spirits as certain. Van Eeden ascribed to the first group of researchers Alfred Russel Wallace, William Crookes and Frederic Myers, while to the second group Sidgwick, Podmore, Hodgson and others. According to him, the spirit theory was the simplest: once assumed that some beings – whose conditions of existence are imperceptible and unverifiable to us – can exert an influence on us, everything else could be easily explained. From a philosophical point of view this position has nothing in itself absurd or impossible. Indeed, in terms of probability, it is certainly easier to think that there is an amount of imperceptible spirits all around us, rather than to believe that ours is the only possible form of existence, able to have a power of perception so complete as to recognize or visualize any other form of existence. And this is all the more true the more we are aware of the limits of our senses within the very sphere of physical energies. As van Eeden said, to believe that every form of life and existence must fall under our power of observation is equally absurd as to assume that there are no other celestial bodies beyond those that our eye can see.
The second group of scholars, however, while not rejecting the philosophical possibility (or even the probability) of the existence of other entities (called with names such as angels, demons or spirits) which can stay beside us and influence us, thought that it was scientifically more correct to oppose, as far as possible, the theory of spirit intervention to explain mediumistic phenomena, since the scientific method prescribes strict adherence to already known causes, avoiding recourse to ultimate causes and paying the utmost attention not to move reckless steps towards the unknown. In other words, at the beginning of the twentieth century faculties such as telepathy and clairvoyance were recognized as real, and it was assumed that the subconscious and the subliminal mind were endowed with extraordinary powers, usually not active: therefore it was not necessary to resort to a spirit interpretation unless it was absolutely indispensable.
The first sittings with Thompson
To van Eeden it was very difficult, if not impossible, to attack the positions of the second group from a theoretical point of view, once admitted faculties such as clairvoyance, unconscious memory, telepathy or telekinesis. To exemplify the difficulties of interpretation, van Eeden resorted precisely to the example of his first sittings with Rosalie Thompson (who communicated by voice in a trance or semitrance, having as main control Nelly, one of her daughters, died at the age of three months). At his first ssitting (November 30, 1899) van Eeden participated incognito: all precautions had been taken so that the medium knew nothing either of his name or his nationality. He almost always remained silent, and yet his name was communicated, Frederik, and some attempt was made to pronounce his surname (fon ...fondalin). In the second sitting, held two days later always with the same precautions, the name van Eeden was communicated in full (even if pronounced in English) and his country of origin (Netherlands), and the name of his wife and one of his sons were also given, while in the third sitting the name of the city in which van Eeden lived (Bossum) was communicated. Although these names were communicated in bulk and not always appropriately (for example, the medium's control could turn to van Eeden calling him Mr. Bossum), the researcher began to question the possibility that these significant data, which actually referred to his person, could be guessed by pure chance. He also found that at each subsequent sitting the references became more and more precise and abundant. He then formulated four hypotheses to explain these coincidences.
The first hypothesis was that of conscious fraud by the medium, who should have used an efficient information system through private eyes. Van Eeden ruled out this hypothesis by saying that he considered it out of the question on the basis of his knowledge of the medium, knowledge that had deepened in the course of all subsequent visits, as well as for other reasons that we will see shortly. It is true that everyone regarded Mrs. Thompson as a person of impeccable loyalty and honesty, however if van Eeden did not personally know the medium from the beginning of the séances (as it seems obvious, since otherwise she too would have recognized him), perhaps it would have been advisable to take some extra precautions. The second hypothesis concerned unconscious fraud, according to which the medium's unconscious had to be recognized an extraordinary ability to know how to perceive, read and decipher even minimal clues on the sitter's personality, so as to be able to deduce the indications given during the sittings. The third hypothesis was based on the spirit nature of information obtained. This was the explanation given by the medium herself, who claimed that spirits spoke through her mouth while she, in a trance state, was dreaming quite different dreams, and every now and then, when she woke up, she also told the dreams she had. The fourth hypothesis involved clairvoyance and telepathy. In this case the medium's mind would be able to unconsciously receive information from van Eeden's own mind, building at the same time the dramatic and imaginary figure of a communicator spirit.
Before examining the criticisms made by van Eeden in relation to these different hypotheses, it should be noted that their very foundation was based on the fact that the medium communicated through her own voice, or anyway through a voice that was not so different from her own and seemed to come to all effects from her vocal cords: this at least is what also affirmed Mrs. Verrall, another SPR researcher who carried out successful experiments with Mrs. Thompson during several sittings. The case would have been different if the communications were made by direct voice, because then the hypothesis of clairvoyance, telepathy and fraud should have also attributed to the medium's unconscious mind the unusual power to produce this phenomenon. From this point of view, we can only regret the attitude taken by Myers, who – as we have already observed – made every effort to dissuade the medium from producing physical phenomena (including the direct voice), which instead occurred frequently in the Delphic Circle séances.
Inconsistency of the first hypothesis (conscious fraud)
Van Eeden, however, considered the hypothesis of conscious fraud to be unsustainable, also because he had received from the medium's control some information on objects whose origin was known to himself only. For example, having brought with him a lock of hair that belonged to a man who lived and died in Utrecht, the control of the medium referred to it by calling them Utrecht's hair. On another occasion he brought a piece of cloth belonging to a young man who had committed suicide, without anyone else knowing whom that fabric had belonged to, and again the control gave an exact description of the young man (whose first name she also indicated), and the way in which he committed suicide.
The premises of the (never proven) super-ESP theory
Regarding the telepathic hypothesis, van Eeden rightly observed that, once we accept this faculty without any further knowledge of the ways in which it can manifest itself, we must also rule out the possibility of considering of sure spiritual origin (as Myers had proposed) that information of mediumistic origin of which the sitters have no conscious knowledge. In fact, telepathy – without limits of space and time – would imply the extraordinary ability, by the medium, to access any kind of information (even past or future) present in any form on this planet. But the existence of this faculty has never been demonstrated in these terms. Even more vague and indefinite was and is our knowledge of clairvoyance, so nothing can be proved on the basis of these hypotheses, which show to be even more inconclusive than spiritual ones, as they lack any experimental validation. All we can say, stated van Eeden, is that our subliminal mind is able to produce dramatizations in great style, able to involve our consciousness and make it fascinated and amazed: this, for example, is what happens in hypnosis phenomena, in lucid or conscious dreams, in hallucinations and other non-ordinary states of consciousness. At the same time, we know nothing about the conditions under which spirits (considered as entities imperceptible with ordinary senses) can eventually influence human brain and mind.
Modern labels for ancient enigmas
From a cognitive and philosophical point of view, van Eeden advanced a not unfounded critique, which was also repeated several years later by Jung: terms such as unconscious, subliminal consciousness, secondary personality, are actually more adequate and more scientific than terms such as demon, spirit or entity? Or do they represent nothing more than new labels applied by the socio-cultural trend of our age on jars whose content continues to remain an enigma? Basing on his practice as an hypnotist, van Eeden knew that he was able to arouse a secondary or even tertiary personality in hypnotized subjects, but he openly acknowledged that he did not know how the phenomenon could occur. Therefore, he did not reject the hypothesis that the hypnotist acted on the subject in the same way as the spirits acted on the medium during the mediumistic trance.
The facts observed and van Eeden's evaluations
Van Eeden reported a detail that struck him: the young man whom the piece of cloth given to the medium had belonged to, had made a first attempt to suicide, cutting his throat. He had survived, but his voice had remained hoarse due to the wound in his throat, and while he was talking he was subjected to very peculiar coughs. When van Eeden first showed the piece of cloth to Mrs. Thopson, the medium's voice began to grow hoarser and from time to time she had coughs identical to those of his suicidal friend. This phenomenon increased during subsequent sittings, until it occurred regularly and continuously, and did not cease until van Eeden left England, taking the flannel piece with him. In a sense, at least in this case, it seems that distance could have an effect on the phenomenon occurrence.
Being an attentive and scrupulous observer, endowed with a critical spirit, van Eeden not only investigated and noted precisely what happened and was communicated during the sittings, but did not fail to record the variations in his psychological orientation resulting from the observed facts. This detached critical attitude is very important, because usually humans are completely involved and immersed in their own psychic reactions, with which they identify. During a first series of sittings with Mrs. Thompson, in November and December 1899, van Eeden had become convinced that his friend, who had committed suicide fifteen years earlier, and of whom he had brought the relic he had given to the medium (a piece of cloth from the suicide's jacket), really continued to live as a spirit and was able to communicate with him through the medium's control. This conviction derived from a certain number of small details which, taken together, gave the impression of evident proof. According to van Eeden, the hypothesis that these details had been guessed by chance was simply absurd, while the telepathy hypothesis seemed to him forced and unsatisfactory.
However, once back home, on reviewing the material of the sittings he realized that the communications also contained shortcomings and inaccuracies that would be inexplicable if he had really talked with his dead friend, who in his life would never have made such mistakes. What struck Van Eeden most was the fact that the errors concerned precisely those details of which he himself was not aware, and therefore had not been able to detect at the time. As a result his opinion changed: although he always recognized the extraordinary and supernormal character of the facts, and continued to reject the hypotheses of fraud or coincidence, he began to doubt his first impression of having really had to do with his friend's spirit, and came to the conclusion to have interacted only with the medium, who – gifted with an unconscious power of acquiring information beyond our reach – had embodied the spirit of the deceased in perfect good faith. According to van Eeden, the medium's subconscious psyche had to be able to capture and interpret some minimum clues provided by the sitter: how else could otherwise be explained the correct information given on so many small details of which he was aware, and the errors on those details which he was not aware of?
But during a second series of sittings in June 1900 van Eeden returned, and with greater conviction, to his first opinion. This time he was well prepared, was on guard, and knowingly provided real or misleading clues to record the influence they could have on communications. Until the sitting of June 7th information about his suicide friend – always rather precise and appropriate – were given by Nelly (the medium's control), but on that day the entity of his friend managed to take control directly, and for a few minutes van Eeden was absolutely certain, as he himself claimed, to speak in person with the spirit of his friend. While speaking in Dutch, he received in the same language answers containing information on facts that were completely outside his consciousness or on people he had never known, information whose correctness he could verify only after subsequent investigations. But above all he was struck by the medium's mimic and gestural expressions, which faithfully reproduced those that his friend had when alive, too realistic and faithful to let him suppose that the medium interpreted them with the skill of a consummate actress.
The role of psyche in mediumistic phenomena
However, van Eeden maintained his critical spirit and, paying close attention to every detail, realized that at certain times some gaps occurred, during which the genuine phenomena were replaced by a role of identification by the medium's unconscious, through her control entity. In a gradual and almost imperceptible way, the latter assumed the role of the communicating spirit, trying to complete the answers or to give the missing information. In these circumstances the information given was almost always irrelevant, wrong or unverifiable. In particular, according to van Eeden, Nelly intervened spontaneously and inappropriately, giving explanations on matters of which she had clearly understood nothing. And if this attitude was encouraged by the sitter, for example by enthusiastically welcoming or confirming the control's statements, she went on adding more and more details and particulars (fully inconsistent) until nothing remained true or reliable with respect to the original communication by his friend's entity.
Without wishing to reach any definitive conclusion – as to him the first duty of any scientist or philosopher was to refrain from making certain statements on such uncertain matters – van Eeden declared he had to publicly acknowledge his conviction of having been witness, even for a few minutes, of the voluntary manifestation of the spirit of a passed away person. At the same time, he declared to think that the direct and genuine information coming from entities was much more rare and limited than the medium herself did believe, or assumed in good faith that the sitters should believe. To van Eeden a certain measure of unconscious staging is almost always present in any sitting and with any medium: even particularly scrupulous and careful investigators, such as Myers or Hodgson, were in his opinion misled for not having realized this fact. However, it should also be noted that van Eeden recognized that he had, during these experiments, the vivid impression that the medium was simply a tool temporarily in the power of entities existing in regions beyond space and time, beings also capable of making fun of us and cheating us. Van Eeden finally gave credit to Mrs. Thompson for having always shown, during the séances and in relation to the results obtained, the most complete self-control and the most scrupulous neutrality. The medium's remarkable cultural level was considered, both by van Eeden and by other researchers who experimented with her, a significant step forward, compared to the conditions which they had to confront, when other mediums were tested.
A still open problem
I think that van Eeden's observations are certainly valid with regard to the information and communications received during the sittings (the detailed report of which fills 150 pages of the Proceedings). Moreover, in principle they can be extended to all mediumistic communications, within which we can almost always find a component of a typically human psychic nature (fantastic, imaginary or speculative) that mixes with material of probable alien origin. A point that has not been well clarified by van Eeden is whether even unreliable material should be considered, at least partly, of spiritual origin, or not. In fact, van Eeden was unable to disengage from a theoretical conflict (which he himself seemed to realize when he highlighted the limits of the position of those who would explain everything through the unconscious' powers), as on the one hand he referred to dramatizations and role identifications played by the medium's unconscious, and on the other he recognized that he had the impression that the medium was only an instrument in the power of alien entities, also capable of joking, deceiving or lying.
So not even the hypotheses put forward by van Eeden can offer us a coherent and convincing theoretical scheme to explain the manifestations of mediumistic phenomena, nor until now, after more than a century, significant steps forward have been made. If we recognize the reality of paranormal phenomena, some hypotheses have been proposed that imply the existence of unconscious psychic powers of energetic type (not directly detectable in the physical dimension), that in particular conditions could interact with the experience induced by the ordinary functioning of the brain. In this way the elaboration of autonomous and alternative psychic contents, with respect to the ordinary ones of the waking state, would be obtained. This unconscious mental activity (which someone could also call, in a traditional way, soul) is usually inhibited or blocked by the high quantity of stimuli coming from the external world, and by the operative programs that involve (and often overwhelm) our psychophysical organism. However, in certain rare circumstances, besides being able to have a synergy between thsee two psychic activities, the unconscious mental activity could act as an intermediary towards entities existing in a dimension distinct from the physical one, allowing them to interact in some way with our dimension. This is what would happen with particularly gifted mediums.
On the following page, dedicated to the sometimes conflicting debate between the party of the so-called spiritists or spiritualists, and that of those who in the past were called animists and today could be better defined as psychists or mentalists, we will see how the human psyche is constantly in tension, not being able to give a satisfactory solution to the contradictions present within it. The very fact that our mental functioning involves the activation of psychic contents is in fact unavoidably destined to pollute any observation or experiment on paranormal phenomena.