Psychical research is concerned primarily with survival as a
matter of inference from intelligently observed and interpreted
psychic phenomena. It does not attempt to answer the question
whether survival means continued existence for a only a limited
period or for a longer time, or even forever. With few exceptions,
psychical researchers have been concerned with the authenticity
of claimed phenomena and with the question of
whether there is really evidence for survival of personality after
The issues of the continued existence of a soul or spirit and
the possible perfection of that soul through evolution or reincarnation
move from science into the realm of religion. Many
religions proclaim the immortality of the soul. Christianity
speaks of a continued existence in heaven with an eternity for
progress and perfection (though different denominations have
quite different ideas about the exact details of the afterlife).
Eastern religions also offer elaborate descriptions of the existence
beyond this earthly life, although, again, details vary considerably
on the relationship between the human soul and God.
In advaita Vedanta, for example, the individual soul is perfected
by infinite reincarnations to reassert its true reality as a
group soul, then as the infinite Divine itself; in vishadvaita Vedanta,
however, there remains some distinction between Divinity
and the perfected human souls. In general Vedanta does not
view immortality in terms of an achievement of individual souls
in a period of time, but rather as the reassertion of an infinite
divine reality when the illusions of individual ego, body, mind,
time, space, and causality have disappeared. This postulates
the infinite Divine as the eternal reality that is veiled by illusions
of individual consciousness and the world of matter.
At its beginning Spiritualism offered itself as a new religion,
necessarily rooted in Christianity. The question of immortality
and perfectibility of the soul has been more than just another
doctrine; it has been a keystone of the Spiritualist position. As
the movement developed, it developed a split over the doctrine
of reincarnation. Most Spiritualists now accept reincarnation.
Most of the pioneers of psychical research in the nineteenth
century were religious people who had experienced a crisis of
faith, largely because of the attacks of nineteenth-century science
on traditional Christian doctrine. Spiritualism claimed
the ability to demonstrate scientifically the reality of life after
death. It thus offered a means, many hoped, to recover not only
an affirmation of mere survival (the primary issue open to psychical
research) but a firm base from which a faith in a meaningful
afterlife could be reaffirmed as a religious hope.
The religious quest so evident in the life of most of the pioneer
psychical researchers suggests that a will to believe was operative
in their research and was a causative element in their
frequently falling victim to fraud.
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