Posted by: Lingyu He | December 28, 2020

Arthur Conan Doyle and Spiritualism

What is really not science is the laying down of the law on matters which you have not studied. It is talk of that sort which has brought me to the edge of spiritualism, when I compare this dogmatic ignorance with the earnest search for truth conducted by the great spiritualists. (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1926)

PC: The Many Man of Arthur Conan Doyle. Sir Arthur with the spirit of his son, Kingsley, who was killed in World War I (1914 – 1918). 

Conan Doyle gave his first series of speeches on Spiritualism during October, 1917. He wished to present to the public the facts as he knew, for the betterment of human life. He was aware that his reputation and career would suffer for him being an outspoken advocate for the spiritual movement (“Conan Doyle and Spiritualism”). It was observed that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s public declaration of his belief in Spiritualism has attracted fierce contention and considerable confusion from his readers who couldn’t reconcile between the intelligence of Sherlock Holmes, the character of supreme rationalism, with its creator’s leading position in a doctrine at odds with his education and literary ideals (Homer 97). Those people haven’t realized that Doyle saw no contradiction between his embracement of Spiritualism and Sherlock Holmes’s rationalism. In fact, Doyle believed that his prowess in reasoning had allowed him to pursue the true religion. 

Psychologist and magician Matthew Tompkins in his article “The Two Illusions That Tricked Arthur Conan Doyle” claims that psychic abilities are the product of metacognitive illusions, which happen “when people hold mistaken beliefs about their own cognitive systems” and change blindness, “the phenomenon in which viewers fail to detect – sometimes surprisingly dramatic – changes to a visual scene” (Tompkins). Tompkins explains that the key difference between a magician and an imposturous medium is that the former is an “honest deceiver” who performs illusions for entertainment, and their audience is fully aware of the deceitfulness of their tricks. Honest deceivers have accurate understanding of their cognitive systems and dexterously manipulate visual changes to make them less discernible to the audience. 

PC: Alamy. People sit around a table holding hands together in an automatic writing seance. 

Wondering how Doyle would respond to Tompkins’s idea? In an audio recording that Doyle made in 1930, he had already given a likely answer to the question:

The press unfortunately usually only notices spiritualism when fraud or folly is in question. Fraud and folly do exist, as in everything. But the press does not mention, as a rule, that thousands of cases where consolation and proof have been brought to suffering hearts. We bring important facts, new facts, which will revolutionise the all thought of the human race, both in religion and in science. It is the great question of the future, and it will end by making religion a real living thing so that all doubt of god’s goodness or of the destiny of mankind will be forever banished. Since we shall each be in actual touch with what is higher than ourselves. And the communion of Saints will at last be an established fact. (Doyle)

Doyle emphasized that “fraud and folly” existed in everything, not just in spiritual practices. Tompkins and Doyle define “fraud and folly” in two different dimensions. Tompkins’s argument is based on the premise that everyone’s cognitive systems are the same and it is people’s recognition of the same quality of information truly differs; while Doyle, by referring to experiential success of psychic abilities, suggested that qualified mediums could access to new layers of information through their “expanded” cognitive processes. Doyle also believed that “important, new facts” about Spiritualism would console thousands of wounded hearts and revolutionize the thinking of mankind. Whether or not some people, especially mediums, have “more advanced” cognitive abilities than the majority that bestow them with excess strands of information is still hotly debated and inconclusive in the scientific community today. This unsettlement over cognition makes judging who’s right and who’s wrong particularly difficult for ordinary audiences, if at all possible. 

However, it is clear that Doyle’s spiritual belief has long been misunderstood by many as an escapism from the death of his son Kinsley in 1918, whereas in reality, Doyle’s spiritual inclination originated thirty years earlier in 1886 well before the birth of his son when he read a book written by the US High Courts Judge John Worth Edmonds (1816-1874), one of the most influential early American Spiritualists (Diniejko and “The Many Man”). Michael W. Homer investigates the formation of Doyle’s belief in Spiritualism and suggests that “Spiritualism offered Doyle what he had been seeking since he had lost faith in traditional Christianity and since the materialism of his medical training had eliminated the possibility of proving that there was life after death.” (Homer 105). A Roman Catholic father would say that “Doyle, like Watson, failed to ascertain the conjuror’s tricks and was therefore overly impressed by the medium’s claims.” (Homer 118). Homer agrees with Tompkins that Doyle was tricked by mediums and their judgement is supported by the fact that many spirit photos are fake, forged by overlapping multiple films that respectively portrayed different characters. 

That said, the validity of Doyle’s exploration of extrasensory perceptions continues to be questioned and investigated. As more and more “scientifically rigorous” studies have been conducted, new pieces of evidence might soon be discovered in the future to prove or debunk Doyle’s claim. To conclude, Conan Doyle relied on his personal reasoning, observed subjective “facts”,  psychic channeling, spirit photos, and fulfilled prophecies – and deduced from these factors that an unearthly world existed and he had contact with some of its dwellers. Doyle claimed that he could rely on facts, rather than on the dogmas and superstitions of his former religion, to know that life continued after death.

PC: Alamy. A photo of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with a “spirit”, taken by the medium Ada Deane.

Works Cited

“Conan Doyle and Spiritualism.” Conan Doyle Info, 11 Nov. 2016, http://www.conandoyleinfo.com/life-conan-doyle/conan-doyle-and-spiritualism.

Diniejko, Andrzej. “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Victorian Spiritualism.” The Victorian Web, 14 Nov. 2013, www.victorianweb.org/authors/doyle/spiritualism.html.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. “Conan Doyle Speaking.” The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia, 2019, www.arthur-conan-doyle.com/index.php?title=Conan_Doyle_Speaking#Transcript. Accessed 24 Dec. 2020.

Homer, Michael W. “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Spiritualism and ‘New Religions.’” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, vol. 23, no. 4, 1990, pp. 97–121., http://www.jstor.com/stable/45225937. Accessed 24 Dec. 2020. 

“The Many Men of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Beliefs and Experiences.” The Official Conan Doyle Estate Ltd., 2017, http://www.arthurconandoyle.co.uk/spiritualist. 


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