Haunted thoughts of the careful experimentalist: psychical research and the troubles of experimental physics
Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science: Part C History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
This paper analyses the relationship between the ‘elusive’ science of psychical research and experimental physics in the period approximately 1870-1930. Most studies of the relationship between psychical research and better established sciences have examined the ways in which psychical researchers used theories in the established sciences to give greater plausibility to their interpretations of such puzzling phenomena as telepathy, telekinesis and ectoplasm. A smaller literature has examined the use of laboratory instruments in attempts to produce scientific evidence for these effects. This paper argues that the cultures of scientific experiment could matter to psychical research in a different way: by focusing on the British physicists involved in psychical research, it suggests that experience of capricious effects, recalcitrant instruments and other problems of the physical laboratory made them sympathetic towards the difficulties of the spiritualistic séance and other sites of psychical enquiry. In the wake of widely-reported claims that the mediums they had investigated had been exposed as frauds, these physicists were persuaded by some of the merits of an older argument that human psychic subjects could not be treated like laboratory hardware; however, well into the twentieth century, they maintained that experimental physics had important lessons for the psychical researcher.
NOTICE: this is the author’s version of a work that was accepted for publication in Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science: Part C History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences. Changes resulting from the publishing process, such as peer review, editing, corrections, structural formatting, and other quality control mechanisms may not be reflected in this document. Changes may have been made to this work since it was submitted for publication.