C.D. Broad


Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2000).

C.D. Broad, together with C.J. Ducasse and H.H.Price, was one of the philosophers who, in the 1950s and 1960s, took seriously the question of parapsychology, or psychical research as it was then known. This book is based on a series of twelve lectures which Broad gave at Cambridge in 1959 and 1960 but also includes a good deal of other material. Broad was one of the best known and most respected philosophers of mind of his generation and therefore his views on the paranormal cannot be dismissed as the product of loose thinking or foolish speculation. Moreover, he is interesting because, although he was prepared to consider the possibility of postmortem survival, he was not at all sympathetic to religion, and he tells us that he is not enthusiastic about the prospect of survival for himself. Thus, whether he was right or wrong, at least he was not biased by the hope of immortality.

Broad considers both the evidence for the paranormal, so far as it was available at the time, and the theoretical implications of this evidence for our view of human nature. These implications are considerable but obviously they depend critically on the validity of the evidence, since if there is no good reason to think that any paranormal events have ever occurred there is no point in debating their significance for us. As regards evidence, Broad considers two types of events: sporadic cases, such as hallucinations, hauntings, out-of-the-body experiences and the like, and laboratory research, which at the time was largely concerned with card-guessing experiments of the kind pioneered by J.B. Rhine at Duke University. Here, unfortunately, a part of the case for the paranormal falls flat on its face, for the experiments conducted by S.G. Soal, which Broad discusses at some length, are now known to have been fraudulent.

The greater part of the book, however, is concerned with the sporadic cases. There is no doubt that there are some well-attested phenomena on record that are difficult to explain in a conventional rationalistic framework. Broad offers a thoughtful, detailed, and critical account of the material collected by the Society for Psychical Research in the nineteenth century in their Census of Hallucinations. The collective hallucinations, in which the figure was perceived simultaneously by more than one witness, are particularly intriguing. Next he looks at trance mediumship, again drawing on fairly old material, from the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. While certainly unwilling to take all this at face value, he thinks that there is at least prima facie evidence to suggest that some part of a human being may at times survive physical death.

But what sort of survival? Broad takes a rather pessimistic view of this. He thinks there is little to suggest that what survives, if anything does, is a full-blown personality, or that survival is likely to endow us with all kinds of supernormal abilities. The picture he paints is a good deal darker than this. We could, for example, 'conceive of the possibility of partial coalescence, partial mutual anulment or reinforcement, interference, etc. between … several human beings, in conjunction perhaps with non-human psychic flotsam and jetsam which may exist around us.' There are, he believes. 'mediumistic phenomena and pathological mental cases not ostensibly involving mediumship, which would suggest that some of these disturbing possibilities may sometimes be realized. It is worth remembering (though there is nothing that we can do about it) that the world as it really is may easily be a far nastier place than it would be if scientific materialism were the whole truth and nothing but the truth about it.'

This book is a landmark in the history of parapsychology but it has dated to some extent. This applies to the Soal material, already noted, but also to the discussion of out-of-the-body experiences, for the last few decades have seen an astonishing outpouring of cases of this kind together with much critical discussion of their significance. On a rather different note, there are now few mediumistic communications of the kind that occurred in the early years of the twentieth century, the nearest equivalent being the enthusiasm for 'channelling' that is now so prevalent in the USA. But these considerations don't negate the importance of Broad's book, which is that it is a model for the critical discussion of alleged paranormal phenomena of all kinds. As such, it is required reading for anyone who wishes to get to grips with the subject in a serious way.

%T Lectures on Psychical Research
%A Broad, C.D.
%I Routledge and Kegan Paul
%C London
%D 1962, 1966
%P 449 pp
%O Incorporating the Perrott Lectures given in Cambridge University in 1959 and 1960.
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