Rising Above Materialism

Sizing Up Wikipedia’s Put-Down of Levitation

According to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia of the Internet, levitation is a process by which an object is held aloft, without mechanical support, in a stable position. A ping-pong ball can be levitated by a stream of air from a vacuum cleaner, a form of aerodynamic levitation. Much more dynamically, high-speed maglev trains are levitated above the rails by a large number of magnets, while a Hovercraft is levitated by a gas flow. As for “paranormal” levitation, including the levitation of humans, Wikipedia explains that, “the scientific community states there is no evidence that levitation exists and alleged levitation events are explainable by natural causes (such as magic, trickery, illusion, and hallucination).”

Wikipedia goes on to dismiss levitations reported by some very distinguished scientists with Daniel Dunglas Home and Eusapia Palladino, two of the most famous and most studied mediums of yesteryear, as deception of one kind or another. As proof of Home’s deception, the Wikipedia entry cites the theories of fraud advanced by one man who wasn’t born until 24 years after Home’s death in 1886 and another man who was only a toddler when Home’s levitations were being observed and recorded.

No mention is made by Wikipedia of the detailed investigation of Home carried out by Sir William Crookes, a pioneer in x-ray technology and a president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, from 1870 to 1873. “The most striking cases of levitation which I have witnessed have been with Mr. Home,” Crookes wrote. “On three separate occasions have I seen him raised completely from the floor of the room.” Crookes documented 29 “sittings” with Home, observing various other phenomena, including the levitation of tables and other objects.

Nor is there mention by Wikipedia of the many other credible men and women, including Alfred Russel Wallace, co-originator with Charles Darwin of the natural selection theory of evolution, who reportedly observed levitations with Home.

As proof of Palladino’s fraudulent behavior, the Wikipedia entry explains that magician Joseph Rinn was able to sneak into a Palladino séance in the home of Colombia professor Herbert Lord, crawl under the table, and observe Palladino’s left foot lifting the table as her right hand applied pressure on the top of the table. Nothing is mentioned of the countless levitations observed by very credible scientists under strictly controlled conditions, including holding or binding Palladino’s arms and legs.

Wikipedia ignores the reports by Dr. Cesare Lombroso, a world-renowned neuropathologist known for his studies in criminal behavior, and all that he observed during many sittings with Palladino, including one on September 28, 1892, when he was sitting next to Palladino and holding her hand (for control purposes). Professor Charles Richet, later a Nobel Prize winner in medicine, held her hand on the other side. As Lombroso explained it, Palladino was levitated in her chair to the top of the table and after some time, descended to the same position on the floor, still seated in her chair.

The Wikipedia entry further refers to Kathleen Goligher, a teenaged Irish medium, stating merely that physicist E. E. Fournier d’Albe witnessed no levitations in his investigation of her. There is no reference to the extensive research carried out by Dr. William Crawford, a lecturer in mechanical engineering at Queen’s University of Belfast, Ireland, who had 87 sittings with Goligher over two-and-a-half years, beginning in 1914. Crawford went so far as to crawl under the levitated table, photograph table levitations, and record the significant gain of weight by the medium during the levitation, a gain that approximated the weight of the levitated table.

Nor is there mention by Wikipedia of the time when Sir William Barrett, professor of physics at Royal College in Dublin, joined Crawford in one experiment with Goligher and reported observing a table rise 18 inches off the floor and remain suspended long enough for him to go up to the table and fully examine it. “Then I climbed on the table and sat on it, my feet off the floor, when I was swayed to and fro and finally tipped off,” Barrett wrote of the experience. “The table of its own accord now turned upside down, no one touching it, and I tried to lift it off the ground, but it could not be stirred; it appeared screwed down to the floor.”

The recorded evidence of levitations by reputable men of science under lighted and controlled conditions is so overwhelming that only a very closed-minded person can reject it. “To reject the recorded evidence on this subject is to reject all human testimony whatever,” wrote Crookes, “for no fact in sacred or profane history is supported by a stronger array of proofs.”

Crookes admitted that there were times when there was an antagonism in his mind between reason and the reality of his senses, both of touch and sight, but he was certain that he was not the victim of a clever trickster or hypnotist. On the other hand, Sir David Brewster, a renowned Scottish physicist, allowed reason to prevail. Brewster initially admitted to seeing a heavy table rise from the floor in the presence of Home, but later, apparently in the face of criticism from his colleagues in science, he recanted, stating that: “All such beliefs are the result of an imperfect education, of the want of general knowledge. They are the observations of ill-trained faculties, the cravings of morbid and mystic temperaments that have been suckled on the husks and garbage of literature.”

Crookes often referred to “invisibles” and to phantom forms. In one sitting, a phantom form came from a corner of the room, took an accordion in its hand, and glided about the room playing the instrument. “The form was visible to all present for many minutes, Mr. Home also being seen at the same time,” Crookes reported, going on to say that the phantom vanished when it approached one of the sitters, a lady, who screamed. Crookes referred to Home’s ability as “psychic force”—a not yet understood agent that may or may not combine the intelligences of the medium, the sitters, and “invisibles.”

“Spirit is the last thing I will give in to,” said Brewster. Michael Faraday, another esteemed physicist, claimed that all such reports about levitations by Home were by incompetent witnesses, while John Tyndall, still another famous physicist of the day, denounced Mr. Home and urged him to confess to his fraudulent actions.

The Faraday-Tyndall-Brewster mindset prevailed over the more open minds of Crookes, Wallace, Barrett, and others. “In the nineteenth century, materialists believed that physics was able to give a clear definition of matter, leaving minds out of the picture altogether,” explains biologist Rupert Sheldrake in his 2012 book, Science Set Free, “but with the development of quantum theory from the 1920s, this assumption became untenable.”

In spite of the materialistic/mechanistic mindset winning out, the research carried out by Crookes, Wallace, and Barrett inspired the formation of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in London during 1882. With Barrett providing much of the impetus, the organization attracted many reputable scholars and scientists, including physicist Oliver Lodge in England and psychologist William James in the United States. Over the next three to four decades, SPR researchers gathered a preponderance of evidence supporting the reality of extrasensory perception (ESP) and related psychic phenomena. For the most part, physical mediumship, which included levitations, was too spontaneous, too unpredictable, and too rare for scientific study, and so they increasingly steered clear of it while focusing on mental mediumship, which involved communication with deceased humans.

Many of the researchers, Lodge among them, reasoned that the evidence also supported the survival hypothesis, which held that consciousness survived bodily death, and further that communication with departed souls in the spirit world was a reality. Lodge’s 1916 book, Raymond or Life and Death, telling of his communication through mediums with his son, Raymond, a victim of the Great War, became a best seller and converted many people to a belief in survival. At the same time, Lodge, who had served as president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1913 and had been a pioneer in electricity, thermo-electricity, and thermal-conductivity, met with the scorn of many of his colleagues in science.

William James, on the other hand, represented the more cautious psychical researchers, accepting the evidence for psychic phenomena but sitting on the fence as to whether it suggested survival. The non-survival school of thought, in which some were fully entrenched, held that the phenomena somehow originated in the subconscious of the medium’s mind. Mediums supposedly had telepathic abilities and were also able to tap into some cosmic reservoir for information about people. As for levitation, it also originated in the mind of the medium, although the minds of others present may have contributed to it. While not in accord with mechanistic science, this “subconscious school” avoided links with the old superstitions and follies of religion—ideas condemned to the trash heap by mainstream science.

By the 1920s, nearly all of the pioneers of psychical research had died off or had retired from the field, and the research had reached the point of diminishing returns. The new research was just “reinventing the wheel.” There was still much that the researchers could not explain to the satisfaction of science, and indications were that no easy answers would be forthcoming. In effect, it was well beyond science of the day, but science was not prepared to admit that and preferred to call it all fraudulent humbug.

During the 1930s, as a significant segment of science was gradually becoming more open to mind, or consciousness, being a governing factor in the great scheme of things, psychical research gave way to a new field, called parapsychology. In order to gain respectability in the academic area and attract funding, parapsychologists divorced themselves from mediumship and swept the whole idea of spirits and survival under the carpet, thereby focusing on ESP and psychokinetic (PK) phenomena. Research was carried out in laboratories and involved mostly experiments in mind reading and movements of objects by the use of mental powers, as well as clairvoyance, such as identifying the number and suit of a card randomly picked from a deck of cards.

In the years since, many parapsychologists have come to accept the reality of levitation, at least of tables if not humans, based on experiments and observations, but the predominant belief of these parapsychologists seems to be that it is the result of exceptional mental powers of certain living beings and is unrelated to spirits and the survival issue. The case of Philip the Imaginary Ghost is often cited to support this belief. That case involved eight members of the Toronto Society for Psychical Research who, in 1972, created a fictional ghost and got “him” to communicate by table raps, and even to levitate a table. This was accepted as proof that humans have the psychic powers to communicate (with themselves) and to levitate objects. However, pioneering psychical researcher Alan Kardec, a French educator, offered an alternative explanation a hundred years earlier. “Persons who take pleasure in such communications naturally give access to light and deceiving spirits,” Kardec explained, further stating that they take “a roguish pleasure in mystifying those who are weak, and who sometimes presume to believe their word.”

Kardec added: “Just the same, if you invoke a myth or an allegorical personage, it will answer; that is, it will be answered for, and the spirit who would present himself would take its character and appearance. One day, a person took a fancy to invoke Tartuffe [a character in the theatrical comedy by Molière], and Tartuffe came immediately; still more, he talked of Orgon of Elmire, of Damis, and of Valire, of whom he gave news; as to himself, he counterfeited the hypocrite with as much art as if Tartuffe had been a real personage. Afterward, he said he was the spirit of an actor who had played that character.”

But for parapsychologists to acknowledge such an explanation, to even consider the possibility that Kardec knew what he was talking about, would be to invite contempt from their peers and subject the field of parapsychology to more fringe status among “real” scientists than now exists.

Back to that 1892 levitation of Eusapia Palladino as reported by Lombroso, the neuropathologist: “[Palladino] was lifted up in her chair bodily, amid groans and lamentations on her part,” Lombroso recorded. He further reported that Palladino complained of hands grasping her under the arms before her voice changed and said, “Now I lift my medium up on the table.” The voice speaking through Palladino’s vocal cords was said to be that of John King, her spirit guide who reportedly took control of her body during her trance states.

Many of the researchers of the day believed that such spirit guides, common with other mediums, were “secondary personalities” buried in the subconscious of the medium, not spirits of the dead; but the more experienced researchers rejected that idea, asking how and why all these secondary personalities from different countries collaborated in a scheme to dupe the world into thinking that there is a spirit world. Why would such devious personalities want us to believe that? Why give the credit to spirits rather than to the mediums themselves?

“This cumbrous and unintelligible hypothesis finds great favor with those who have always been accustomed to regard the belief in a spirit-world, and more particularly a belief that the spirits of our dead friends can and do sometimes communicate with us, as unscientific, unphilosophical, and superstitious,” offered Alfred Russel Wallace, the Darwinian biologist.

With Home, Crookes did not say he saw Home levitate; rather, he saw him “raised,” (or levitated) while also referring to invisibles and phantoms who seemingly were capable of having done the raising.

It is unlikely that anyone has done more experimentation with levitation than did the engineer Crawford with Goligher. In his 1918 book, The Reality of Psychic Phenomena, he summarized the 87 experiments he carried out with the young Irish girl. “I have seen hundreds of levitations under all conditions,” he wrote, going on to tell how he was guided in his experiments by “operators” on the “other side,” his euphemism for the spirits who communicated with him and guided his experiments through table raps.

Crawford concluded that the “psychic stuff” given off by the medium, called ectoplasm by Professor Richet, resulted in “psychic rods” that were used as cantilevers by the operators to hoist the levitated object. These mostly invisible psychic rods, or psychic arms, extending from the medium outward to about five feet, gripped the table by adhesion to its under surface or legs and thus resulted in the levitation as the operators applied the force.

As Crawford did not observe the levitation of humans, he offered no comments about how that might have been carried out. However, Home recalled a feeling of “electrical fullness” about his feet, and he was usually lifted up perpendicularly with his arms rigid and drawn above his head, as if he were grasping the unseen power raising him from the floor. At times, he would reach the ceiling and then be moved into a reclining position. Some of those levitations lasted four or five minutes.

All that appears a bit too much for both mainstream science and Wikipedia to grasp, so it seems unlikely that we will ever have anything definitive on paranormal levitations.


CAPTION: A Nineteenth Century engraving depicts a levitating Daniel Dunglas Home at a well-attended event.

On November 25, 1898, a table levitates before witnesses at a Eusapia Palladino séance at the French home of astronomer Camille Flammarion.

By Michael E. Tymn