Simon Newcomb (1835-1909) was the first president of the American Society for Psychical Research, founded in 1885. One of the most distinguished astronomers of his day, Newcomb was a skeptic who spent many decades investigating psychical research. The following paper was published in the journal Nineteenth Century, in January 1909, and expresses his conclusions about the field after a lifetime of study.—ED.
When eminent men of science announce discoveries of great interest it is an obvious general rule that their conclusions receive respectful consideration and, in the absence of strong reasons to the contrary, are accepted without serious question. But there is an exception to this rule so curious that it may well deserve our attention. Among the most important questions with which thought has been engaged are those of the possible modes of interaction between mind and mind. Coupled with this is the question of the direct action of mind upon matter, or of matter upon mind without physical agency. Ideas of this subject are older than civilization and arise so naturally that nothing but suggestion is necessary to implant them in the mind of the child. Discredited by the general trend of modern thought, the affirmative view has very generally been classed with superstition as belonging to a stage of intellectual development that the world has now left behind it. Belief in witchcraft vanished from the minds of civilized men more than two centuries ago, and with it disappeared the belief in every form of mental interaction otherwise than through the known organs of sense. But now men of eminence, whose opinion is entitled to the greatest respect, are informing us that the instincts of our ancestors did not err so greatly as we have supposed and that beliefs that our fathers called superstitious are well grounded in the regular order of nature. At least three scientific philosophers of the highest standing have placed themselves on record as accepting this view. Two of them, Sir Oliver Lodge and Professor William Barrett, have, during the past year, informed us that, not only is the direct transference of impressions from one mind to another a fact, but the spiritual world, which the thought of our time has been removing further and further from our everyday experience until it seemed likely to vanish from intellectual sight, is a reality