The ambiguity of survival according to Saltmarsh




Harold Francis Saltmarsh

Lived from 1881 to 1943, he devoted much of his life to psychical research and was a prominent figure in the SPR. A well-to-do businessman, he withdrew from his activity because of his precarious health conditions, turning his attention to studies of philosophical subject that soon led him to deal with psychical research, to which he made important contributions. In two of his writings (in 1934 and 1938) about the problems of time and causes, he proposed a theory of precognition which in his view was supported by sufficient experimental evidence. He argued that the fact that a person, conditioned by time and space, was able in some circumstances – however rare and exceptional – to acquire knowledge about future events, raised issues of the utmost importance, and represented one of the challenges more enigmatic and mysterious that a researcher could face. Saltmarsh also wrote three important articles on the philosophical problem concerning survival and our personal identity after death. In the first, published in 1929, he described a series of experiments carried out by himself to verify whether the results of some mediumistic séances could be attributed to chance. A second article (1932) dealt with various phenomena concerning survival already investigated by researchers, to see if a positive proof of survival could be found, while the third (1938) examined and explained the results of the complex cross-correspondences related to high literary level contents, in terms also understandable by people without a particular knowledge of ancient languages (especially Latin and Greek). Saltmarsh became a member of the SPR in 1921, and later served on the society's board of directors, taking care of its economic affairs until his death.           

An article on some issues related to survival

An article entitled Ambiguity in the Question of Survival was published in 1941 on the SPR Proceedings (volume n. 46). It is a writing that highlights, in a lucid and well-argued way, all the doubts that can arise about the survival of human personality, when this theme is dealt with according to the intelligent point of view of our life. As we will see, Saltmarsh's observations are neither pointless nor trivial. It should also be kept in mind that he had the utmost respect for the opinions of other scholars, even those who – on the basis of reasonable motivations – considered the hypothesis of survival not only possible, but also sufficiently proven. The work of Saltmarsh, aimed at highlighting all the implications that survival involves in relation to our human personality, has the merit of making us reflect on the human psychic tunings (and the entailed limits) that have always accompanied any consideration on the transit from this life to other dimensions.     

In his article, Saltmarsh started by the debate that for over twenty years took place in the SPR between the supporters of the survival hypothesis (Lodge, Drayton Thomas and others) and those who, at the opposite extreme, were not willing to accept the possibility that the conscious Ego could survive the brain death (like Eric R. Dodds, a professor at Oxford University, who had published an article titled Why I do not Believe in Survival in Volume 42 of the Proceedings). After observing that between Drayton Thomas and Dodds, who represented the extreme positions in the issue's context, a whole range of more nuanced personal positions was present within the SPR, Saltmarsh posed a reasonable question: what do we mean by survival? It was naively assumed, in fact, that all scholars were more or less in agreement about what survival was, while no one had ever bothered to clarify, rather than the meaning of the term, which elements of our human personality were intended to surviving death: therefore, in defending their point of view, SPR members often referred to a not well defined concept of survival, deriving from variously oriented psychic tunings, whose meaning could not be considered unanimously recognized and shared.   

Can a reliable answer be given to the problem of survival?

According to Saltmarsh, it is not certain that the question of whether survival is possible can have a reliable answer. In fact, even without including this question among those that can not be answered because they contain a logical contradiction in their formulation, or because the chances of randomly guessing the answer are trifling, it is not a question that can be answered with the logical rigor of a mathematical theorem or with the evidence of objective ascertainment. Regarding the evidence, Saltmarsh rightly stated that some propositions, declared self-evident by a scholar, are instead questioned by some of his colleagues. As a matter of fact, we once more have the confirmation that the truth or not of certain statements, not directly verifiable and not evaluable according to a predefined and shared logical rule, is of a psychic nature.   

The answers to questions such as those on survival are based on the reliability and acceptance of the provided evidence: they have, so to speak, a circumstantial feature, and therefore exclude any absolute certainty. The proofs in favor of the hypothesis of survival can be accepted by some and considered insufficient by others, without any possibility to be considered one hundred percent conclusive. It should however be reiterated that the same applies to the proofs against survival, which are in no case conclusive and exhaustive. It can be observed that not all proofs have the same weight, but some are more convincing than others, even if we can refer only to a more or less high percentage of convinced people: it is difficult to reach unanimity on something that can not be directly experienced. Saltmarsh observed that survival is held, by those who believe in it, as a truly experiential matter of fact, obviously after death.     

What survives can not be identical to what dies

After eliminating ethical as well as religious arguments from the list of proofs, Saltmarsh believed that the question of survival should be reformulated in a more precise and logically flawless way. So he eliminated all the questions like: «If a man die shall he live again?», «Is there a life after death?», «Will my conscious existence persist after the destruction of my physical body?», because they could not receive a satisfactory and unambiguous answer. Since according to him a human being is not an immutable substance, but rather a behavioral system (behaviour-pattern) destined to change over time, we must ask ourselves whether the salient characteristics of the personality associated with a human being before his/her death can also be found after, in a sufficiently representative way to identify that human being. Although Saltmarsh's formulation is rather complex and also imbued with a certain typically human psychic formalism, it should not be forgotten that in this life the objective physical reference of personal identity is constituted by our body, which is destroyed after our death: as Saltmarsh rightly stated, what eventually survives is not identical to what is subjected to the process of dying. So it must be assumed that all those characteristics of the human behavioral model related to the physical body can not continue to exist after death, even if our physical body was replaced by another instrument of a different nature, whose characteristics we do not know by direct experience.       

The transformations of human personality

The personality of a human being is a complex of physical characteristics and intellectual, volitional, emotional, mnemonic dispositions, that should survive the destruction of the physical body. It is a process in continuous transformation: although the characters of an individual personality, today, can be very similar to those of the same individual yesterday – so as to give us the certainty of a continuity of his personality – however, compared to ten years ago, some characteristics can be substantially different. Moreover, it is not a coincidence that about some persons we say: «He/she became another person», or: «It's not him/her anymore», even without taking into account examples of multiple personalities, which although uncommon are well documented in psychiatric literature. Our physical body changes over time, so my body today is certainly very different from the one I had when I was a small child, but the transformations of the behavioral and psychic personality are so evident in the course of life that our individuality should rather be referred to a personal history – of which we intensely experience only the present moment – than to a present which, however, continuously changes throughout this history. This is the unresolved paradox of human existence, which is experienced as a succession of presents along an arrow of time that flows in one direction only, but as a whole, as a personal history, it is a transformation, a continuous change in which it is not easy to identify a single personality identifying character.      

There is no doubt, therefore, that death represents a decisive interruption og our personal history. We can now emphasize the difference between the death of a two-year-old baby and that of a ninety-year-old elder: the latter has experienced a long and complex personal history, while the former has not even reached the level of conscious life. What is the point, then, to talk about survival? It immediately becomes clear how the concept of survival itself, connected as it is to the human psyche, is in itself ambiguous and can not be resolved by our limited intellectual resources. Saltmarsh explicitly stated that «the obscurity which surrounds physical death is so dense that our historical knowledge is broken off completely», beyond the value we want to attribute to the alleged post-mortem communications of mediumistic entities or more or less materialized apparitions. Thus there is an unbridgeable gap between mediumistic phenomena and our cognitive and intellectual faculties.      

Interpretations on the modalities of survival: the etheric body

I open a brief parenthesis with respect to Saltmarsh's considerations, to point out how certain scholars of mediumistic phenomena, corroborated by the communications of some entities, try to explain the question of survival in an intelligible way. The most comprehensible interpretations, although not logically unassailable, can be summarized in the following two. The first, which we could define of the double body, hypothesizes that each human being is endowed with a second body of an energetic nature (also called etheric or astral body), which is formed and grows alongside the physical one: while the latter dies and suffers the process of decomposition, the etheric body continues to live because it is not subject to the aggressive and deteriorating events of physical reality. Not only does the life of the etheric body continue, albeit in a different dimension from the earthly one, but its aesthetic features can be intentionally shaped, according to the will of the subject to whom that body belongs. Therefore, the etheric body can take a similar appearances to that of the physical body in its prime, even in the case of a century-old dead person, or it can continue to grow on its own in the otherworld, so that the entity of a baby who died after a few months of life can manifest itself not only with the etheric body of an adolescent, but also with the relative personality that – of course – could not develop in this world.   

The spirit

The second interpretation is that of the spirit, an entity endowed with its own individuality, which does not live in the physical dimension of this world, but in another dimension. From time to time, and for reasons not clearly explained, the spirit makes excursions into other dimensions, including the physical one of this Earth, to conduct a cycle of experiences that offer it the possibility to evolve. By its very nature, the spirit would not be able to directly undergo these experiences, but it would need suitable instruments with which to interact in another dimension's space and time: as far as our earthly life is concerned, these instruments are constituted by the physical body and a system of connection to the psyche, sometimes called perispirit, other times soul. As for consciousness, it is not clear whether in the course of human life experience the spirit is conscious or not: according to some communications we get the impression that the spirit is in a state of drowsiness or hibernation, from which it gradually wakes up at the death of the physical body, while according to others the spirit would have its own consciousness – distinct from that of our Ego – which would independently evaluate the experience of life. In either case, at the death of the body the spirit would resume living consciously its true life in its own dimension, distilling the experiences of the human life just lived, in accordance with its evolutionary purposes.      

From the point of view of this interpretation, the events of a traumatic and/or premature interruption of earthly life are nothing but secondary accidents, linked to the inevitable risk that accompanies the incarnation experience. To return to Saltmarsh, however, it is evident – as we have already pointed out in the page on the alien spirit – that the spirit personality can not be interpreted in terms of survival of our human personality and its temporal history. We may try to establish a relationship between the two personalities by using an analogy with the state of drowsiness and awakening that usually follows a very vivid dream: for some time our consciousness continues to focus on the details of the dream and the Ego still identifies itself with its dreamlike counterpart, but then the ordinary waking state progressively prevails and the conscious Ego predisposes itself to face the daily tasks according to his/her usual personal orientation, leaving behind the dream's adventure. In the same way the spirit would behave towards the human personality, considered by it as a dreamlike counterpart.       

Issues related to the correlation between consciousness and brain functioning

After considering the hypothesis of an instrument, different from the physical body, in which our individual consciousness would be transferred at death time, Saltmarsh observed that we, as humans, can not have any certain knowledge about the psychics tunings determined by this new instrument, because all the psychic experiences that we are aware of in this life are acquired through the human brain. At the time of Saltmarsh article, NDEs were still poorly documented, and therefore the extensive literature of testimonies and related research, that we now have, was lacking. As we have seen in the section on NDEs, we are dealing with experiences whose psychic contents – deeply and lucidly conscious – are considered by some scholars not fully compatible with the brain functioning, in the critical conditions in which this organ can be found when a NDE is experienced. So, at least from this point of view, I do not think Saltmarsh's statement is entirely acceptable: it could be possible, although not certain, that some of the psychic experiences we are aware of were not fully determined by our brain.         

Saltmarsh's analysis was then directed to all the conditioning produced by human psyche, which we continously experience in the course of our lives: it is not a mystery to anyone that events such as fatigue, illness, worries, or just the meteorological weather have an impact on our psychophysical system. The reductionist conception states that the physical and the psychical aspect are intimately connected in the human personality, therefore the existence of an adequate psychophysical instrument is indispensable to consciousness to access the psychic tunings. But what is valid in this dimension may not be valid in another dimension: one of the most striking aspects in many NDEs is the sense of immediate and complete liberation from the bond of the body and the sufferings that derive from it. We have the distinct impression that in the course of many NDEs the conscious Ego can experience alternative psychic dimensions without the need to be connected to a psychophysical instrument like the one which so constrains and limits our human experience. Saltmarsh did not support the reductionist theory, and admitted the possibility that, once the physical component of our body has been erased, our mind and personality could be expressed through another substitutive instrument. However, he did not think there were sufficient elements to prove the existence of this instrument (something like an energetic body), to understand its nature or to know if it is already associated with our physical body during our human life. In essence, Saltmarsh concluded, once the possibility of survival is admitted, the surviving Ego is something very different from the Ego that we consider as the center of our personal identity in the course of this lifetime.       

The continuity of the conscious Ego's existence

However, we can consider Saltmarsh's point of view from a different perspective, which may perhaps help us to clarify the condition in which individual consciousness finds itself in the course of such an important transformation, as certainly is the experience of death. Examining the testimonies of many NDEs we note that there is no identity crisis during the experience: no matter how unusual and strange are the environmental situations and circumstances in which the experimenter finds him/herself, the continuity of the existence of the conscious Ego persists as an element of reference and guarantee of the subject's identity. While the psychic contents change, also substantially, in relation to the new tunings accessible in the dimension that characterizes at least some NDEs, the conscious Ego is always the same. To well reflect, this also happens during our earthly life: the psychic contents can change from one age to another, even radically, while the conscious Ego maintains the self-perception of its own identity that does not change over time. Therefore, if I can consider myself as a conscious intelligent being that experiences certain psychic contents, rather than identifying with the psychic contents themselves, the continuity of my existence – even in terms of memories determined by my personal destiny – can be preserved even in the presence of radical transformations such as death.    


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