Spiritualism and Electromagnetism


The classical theory of electromagnetism, which formed the basis of wireless communication technology, was developed in the latter half of the 19th century, coinciding quite closely with the rise of spiritualism, i.e., the belief in the possibility of communicating with departed souls. Interestingly, there seems to have been some connection between these two fields of thought. Although aspects of what later came to be called spiritualism can be found throughout the 19th century (and indeed throughout history), the modern spiritualist movement is usually considered to have begun in 1848, when the young Fox sisters of upstate New York began to hold séances, during which they mediated messages from deceased persons. The idea spread rapidly, and by 1854 there were thousands of “mediums” throughout the United States and Europe – especially England – all claiming the ability to communicate with the dead. How seriously these claims were taken by the average person is debatable, but it’s remarkable that many well-educated and intelligent people became genuinely convinced by the basic tenet of spiritualism, which is that individual human souls survive death and continue in some mode of existence capable of interacting with the living. One notion was that the souls of the departed are imprinted in an “ethereal medium” that surrounds and permeates all ordinary matter.


The success of Isaac Newton’s inverse-square law of gravitation formulated in 1687 led to a concept of physical forces as some kind of direct “action at a distance”, and this conception was carried over to the study of magnetic and electric forces by scientists such as Ampere and Coulomb. However, beginning in the early 1850’s, James Clerk Maxwell began to conceive of electric and magnetic effects in a completely different way. Building on the earlier suggestions of Faraday, Maxwell conceived of an all-embracing ether as the mechanism and embodiment for the forces of electromagnetism. Moreover, he showed that this ethereal medium was capable of conveying energy in the form of electromagnetic waves propagating at the speed of light. Indeed he surmised that light itself is an electromagnetic wave. Maxwell’s final synthesis was published in 1873, and in the 1880s the reality of electromagnetic waves was shown by Hertz, who succeeded in producing and detecting them directly by means of oscillating electrical circuits.


In an article on “Ether” for the Encyclopedia Britannica Maxwell wrote


Ether or Aether (aiqhr probably from aiqw I burn) a material substance of a more subtle kind than visible bodies, supposed to exist in those parts of space which are apparently empty… Whatever difficulties we may have in forming a consistent idea of the constitution of the aether, there can be no doubt that the interplanetary and interstellar spaces are not empty, but are occupied by a material substance or body, which is certainly the largest, and probably the most uniform body of which we have any knowledge. Whether this vast homogeneous expanse of isotropic matter is fitted not only to be a medium of physical interaction between distant bodies, and to fulfill other physical functions of which, perhaps, we have as yet no conception, but also ... to constitute the material organism of beings exercising functions of life and mind as high or higher than ours are at present - is a question far transcending the limits of physical speculation.


Some of Maxwell’s close friends and followers were less cautious in their ethereal speculations. For example, in 1873 Peter Guthrie Tait, along with Balfour Stewart, wrote a book entitled “The Unseen Universe”, expounding on the probable spiritual functions of the luminiferous ether.


We attempt to show that we are absolutely driven by scientific principles to acknowledge the existence of an Unseen Universe, and by scientific analogy to conclude that it is full of life and intelligence - that it is in fact a spiritual universe and not a dead one.


Tait was enamored of William Thomson’s idea that matter consists of Helmholtzian vortices in a perfect fluid ether. The book (which enjoyed huge popularity in its time) argued that the forms of matter and mind survive eternally as configurations of spirit in the ether.


Lord Rayleigh, who was Maxwell’s successor as head of the Cavendish Laboratories at Cambridge from 1879 to 1884, and President of the Royal Society from 1905 to 1908, also served as President of the Society for Psychical Research. He is well known for his experiment of 1902 which was designed to detect evidence of the luminiferous ether, and for the discovery of the element argon (for which he was awarded the Nobel prize for physics in 1904). His interest in psychical phenomena is less well known, but his obituary in 1919 reported on an address he had given to the Society for Psychical Research, in which


... he recalled some experiments in hypotonic suggestion in which he took part at Cambridge in the sixties of last century, and which convinced him of the possibility of influencing unwilling minds by suggestion. Later he became interested in the doings of [Daniel Dunglas] Home and other so-called mediums, and though he pronounced the results on the whole to be disappointing, he found some of the incidents difficult to explain.


Among those “difficult to explain” incidents were levitations performed by Home. A contemporary of Rayleigh’s, Sir William Crookes, discoverer of the element thallium, and researcher in the field of radioactivity, reported that


On three separate occasions I have seen him raised completely from the floor of the room… On each occasion I had full opportunity of watching the occurrence as it was taking place…


The number of well-attested incidents of levitation led some people to speculate that some kind of mass hypnosis was involved. Hypnotism itself had only recently been recognized as a genuine phenomenon, the word having been coined by the Scottish surgeon James Braid in the 1840s. As an aside, about a century later, another Nobel prize winner, Richard Feynman, one of the founders of modern quantum electrodynamics, was also interested in hypnotism. He wrote about volunteering to be a subject for a demonstration of hypnosis while he was a student at Princeton.


He started to work on me, and soon I got into a position where he said “You can’t open your eyes”.  I said to myself “I bet I could open my eyes, but I don’t want to disturb the situation: Let’s see how much further it goes”. It was an interesting situation. You’re only slightly fogged out, and although you’ve lost a little bit, you’re pretty sure you could open your eyes. But of course you’re not opening your eyes, so in a sense you can’t do it… I found hypnosis to be a very interesting experience. All the time you’re saying to yourself , “I could do that, but I won’t” – which is just another way of saying that you can’t.


Feynman also wrote about a psychiatric exam he was given to see if he was fit to be drafted, and during one of the interviews he admitted that he sometimes talked with his deceased first wife. This admission led to a series of questions about whether he believed in the “supernormal”. Feynman answered “I don’t know what the supernormal is”, and the questioner said “It’s what Sir Oliver Lodge and his school believe in”. Lodge had been a prominent physicist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He invented the coherer in 1887, making possible the first practical wireless communications. He also devoted much effort to a study of the luminiferous ether. He wrote in his book “The Ether of Space”


The universe we are living in is an extraordinary one; and our investigation of it has only just begun. We know that matter has a psychical significance, since it can constitute brain, which links together the physical and the psychical worlds. If any one thinks that the ether, with all its massiveness and energy, has probably no psychical significance, I find myself unable to agree with him.


Like his friend Arthur Conan Doyle, Lodge was a strong supporter of the spiritualist movement (and remained so, even after many of the original founders of the movement had confessed to being frauds), and he ardently believed in the possibility of communicating with the dead. In 1919 he wrote a book called “Raymond” about his attempts to communicate with his son, who had been killed in 1915 during the first world war. It’s interesting that the early development of wireless communication (not to mention modern field theories) seems to have been motivated, at least in part, by efforts to identify a mechanism for immortality and to communicate with departed spirits. In a sense, these efforts succeeded, because they led to the realization that the electromagnetic images of everyone who has ever lived have propagated out into space, and could (in principle) still be seen by sufficiently distant observers (or even by ourselves, taking reflections into account) with sufficiently sensitive detectors. We also have the photographic techniques, developed during the 19th century, recording electromagnetic patterns in a more permanent medium. This technology led to its own set of investigations into supernormal images of spirits and fairies discerned on photographic plates.


By an odd confluence of vocabulary, both spiritualism and the Faraday-Maxwell concept of electromagnetism involve a “medium”, although in the former case this referred to an individual who claimed to facilitate communication with departed spirits, whereas in the latter it referred to the luminiferous ether. It’s been said that the ether was the creation of British physicists who had come to regard a mechanistic ether as essential for any satisfactory explanation of physical (and for some of them, psychic) phenomena. This is ironic, being almost a complete reversal of roles compared with the situation at the beginning of the 18th century, when Voltaire famously wrote that


A Frenchman who arrives in London will find philosophy, like everything else, very much changed there. He left the world a plenum, and now finds it a vacuum. At Paris the universe is seen composed of vortices of subtile matter, but nothing like it is seen in London.


By the middle of the 19th century the roles had been completely reversed. Physicists on the continent had fully persuaded by Newtonian “action at a distance”, which the British had abandoned in favor of something very much like the old Cartesian plenum, a world filled with vortices of subtle matter. They seemed enthralled by Maxwell’s words at the conclusion of his 1873 work on electricity and magnetism:


All these theories lead to the conception of a medium…, and if we admit this medium as an hypothesis, I think it ought to occupy a prominent place in our investigations, and that we ought to endeavor to construct a mental representation of all the details of its actions, and this has been my constant aim in this treatise.


He might almost have said “the medium is the message”. Ironically, Maxwell himself later gave up his focus on “the details of its action”, and began to adopt a more abstract Lagrangian approach, admitting that although literal mechanical representations may have some heuristic value, they could not claim any ontological status. Some later Maxwellians continued this trend toward abstraction, but most – including Lodge, Thomson, and Fitzgerald – continued to romance the ether. In the 1880s Fitzgerald, dissatisfied with the succession of crude mechanical analogies that he and others had been contemplating for decades, proposed the ultimate ether, “a perfect fluid chock full of vortices”, which he called a vortex sponge. It may surprise some latter-day etherists, who tend to regard Maxwellians like Fitzgerald as paragons of good down-to-earth common sense, that Fitzgerald was actually an idealist who espoused the philosophy of Bishop Berkeley (our perceptions are the only reality). According to Fitzgerald


…ultimate explanations of nature lead us closer and closer to the conclusion that these phenomena of our consciousness are all explicable as differences of motion. ... And what is the inner aspect of motion?  In the only place where we can hope to answer this question – in our brains – thought is the internal aspect of motion. Is it not reasonable then to hold, with the great and good Bishop Berkeley, that thought underlies all motion?


This hypothesis [the vortex sponge ether] explains the differences in Nature as differences of motion. If it be true, ether, matter, gold, air, wood, brains, are but different motions. Where alone we can know what motion in itself is – that is, in our own brains – we know nothing but thought. Can we resist the conclusion that all motion is thought? That all Nature is the language of One in whom we live, and move, and have our being.


Clearly Fitzgerald had invested his vortex sponge with a significance that transcended mere mechanistic explanation. It hardly seems an exaggeration to say that he regarded it as comprising the thoughts of God. He wrote to Heaviside that “I feel horribly confident that it is the theory of the ether. I have a sort of feeling in my bones that it must be so. I suppose I am a bit of a crank upon it.” The proponents of the vortex sponge model were greatly encouraged in 1887 when William Thomson presented an argument purporting to show that transverse waves (as electromagnetic waves were known to be) could propagate through a vortex sponge. In retrospect, Thomson’s argument is seen to be little more than muddled wishful thinking. Even the staunch etherist Edmund Whittaker felt it necessary to preface his description of Thomson’s paper with an apology: “The demonstration, which in the circumstances can scarcely be expected to be either very simple or very rigorous, is as follows…” Actually the “demonstration” is fairly simple, but to say it is “not very rigorous” is an understatement. Soon thereafter Thomson himself pointed out fundamental problems with the vortex sponge model, and began poking holes in Fitzgerald’s attempts to salvage it. In 1890, Fitzgerald wrote to Lodge that “I heard from Wm T., and my vortex solution won’t work. I hardly thought it would but I overlooked a rather obvious objection which is not encouraging”. Meanwhile, genuine progress in electrodynamics was being made by investigating the actual primitive phenomena, and attempts to represent those phenomena in terms of the higher level entities of mechanics came to be seen as misguided, since it became clear that mechanical entities are based on primitive electrodynamic interactions, so it would be senseless to expect that primitive electrodynamic interactions are attributable to mechanical entities.


The parallel fortunes of spiritualism and the luminiferous ether continued until the close of the 19th century, as both of them lost popularity. The interferometer experiment of Michelson and Morley in 1887 cast more doubt on the viability of the mechanistic ether models, and Margaret Fox’s public admission of fraud in 1888 greatly discredited the spiritualist movement. (Her confession is fascinating, explaining how she and her little sister Kate began by making strange noises at bedtime to frighten their mother.) By 1905 the spiritualism craze was definitely waning, and Einstein wrote his famous paper on the electrodynamics of moving bodies, arguing that even the highly abstract ether of Lorentz was superfluous for the description of phenomena.


Subsequently, in the aftermath of the first world war, there was a re-emergence of spiritualism, sometimes attributed to the grief over loved ones lost in the war, and the yearning to communicate with them. As mentioned above, Sir Oliver Lodge lost his son Raymond in the war, and devoted much time and effort afterwards to trying to communicate with him. (When Lodge himself died in 1940 he left behind a sealed message, and instructions for researchers to try to get his spirit to reveal the message; the experiment was not successful.) Oddly enough, the ether of scientific field theories also re-emerged during the first world war. Einstein later acknowledged to Lorentz that the general theory of relativity (completed in 1915, the same year Raymond Lodge was killed) is actually more congenial to an ether interpretation than is the special theory of 1905. This is because spacetime in the general theory is endowed with properties (e.g., curvature) that vary from place to place. Of course, as Einstein explained in his Leyden lecture in 1920, the “ether” of general relativity is profoundly different from the old luminiferous aether of the classical theory of electromagnetism, because the latter was conceived to exist within space and time, whereas the former actually is space and time.


In 1920 the magician Houdini began a campaign to debunk the new spiritualism. He knew all the tricks that “mediums” used to rig their séances and fool people into believing they had been contacted by their dead relatives. He wrote books on the subject (such as “A Magician Among the Spirits” in 1924) and toured the country, giving public demonstrations of the techniques of fraudulent spiritualists (levitating tables, eliciting personal information, and so on). Nevertheless, such was the fascination of spiritualism, that Houdini and his wife made an agreement that whichever of them died first would try to communicate with the survivor. His wife survived him by 17 years, but near the end of her life in 1943 she reported that the experiment had failed.


The concept of an ether in the physical sciences remains problematic and ambiguous. The original debate was between those (like Democritus and Newton) who believed in atoms moving in an empty void, and those (like Aristotle and Descartes) who denied the void and believed that substance and extent are identical. According to general relativity these two beliefs almost become one, since the “void” of space and time acquires some of the primitive attributes of a substance, i.e., a dynamical element. On the other hand, quantum mechanics (first formulated in the 1920s) describes phenomena in the context of a pre-existing space and time, rather than treating spacetime as a dynamical element, so in this sense quantum mechanics follows Democritus. But quantum mechanics also lends itself to various forms of neo-spiritualism based on the phenomena of quantum entanglement and particle pair production. Modern efforts to reconcile general relativity with quantum field theory may be partly motivated by the old yearning to apprehend the underlying structure and substance of existence and spirit.


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