By Alexander Moreira-Almeida
Despite the growing discussion about science-spirituality relationships, there remains many problems in integrating spirituality and scientific knowledge. This debate has often been characterized by radicalism and mutual denial. As another consequence of the contemporary emphasis on rationality and empirically based knowledge, building a strong and acceptable base to support the spiritual aspect of life as well as ethics has remained a huge challenge.
Although the current debate on science and spirituality has discussed several important topics, it usually does not touch the scientific investigation of certain claims about the spirit (its existence, survival after bodily death, reincarnation, etc.). However, this was not always the case. During the 19th century, through the vehicles of spiritualism, spiritism, and psychical research, many researchers tried to use a scientific approach to investigate spiritual experiences. Of special interest among these three related groups was the investigation of evidence that suggested the personality’s survival after death (AubrÈe & Laplantine, 1990; Gauld, 1968; Kardec, 1860; Myers, 1903). The scientific investigation of the existence of a non-physical or spiritual realm, a fundamental claim of many, if not most, spiritual traditions (Hufford & Bucklin, 2006), was a main goal of those investigators.
This effort involved numerous high level scientists and scholars who provided many contributions to topics such as the dialogue between religion and science, between faith and reason and even a new approach to metaphysics. However, these works are virtually unknown by contemporary authors in those fields.
Despite often dealing with the same subject (spiritual/psychic experiences), spiritualism, spiritism and psychical research frequently differed from each other regarding views of science, research methods, and success in formulating a comprehensive theory. Spiritism, developed by Allan Kardec (1804-1869), developed a more inclusive philosophical system based on a research program of spiritual experiences. Stressing a rational and empirical investigation, Spiritism developed a theory of the self, including its survival after death—the concepts of reincarnation and unlimited spiritual evolution that formed the basis for a new empirical foundation of ethics, i.e. the founding of moral precepts on experimentally observed facts. Studies in Spiritism also could contribute to topics such as metaphysics, the science and religion dialogue and the rediscovery of human meaning and purpose. However, these implications of Spiritism have not been the subject of systematic study. The relatively few academic studies of Spiritism usually focus largely on the religious aspect that became prominent in the spiritist movement later in its history. Currently, the principal ideas of Spiritism have led to a developing social movement spawning study groups, healing centers, charity institutions and hospitals utilized by millions of people in dozens of countries, most of them found in Brazil (AubrÈe & Laplantine, 1990; CEI, 2008; Moreira-Almeida & Lotufo Neto, 2005; Stoll, 2003).
Spiritism has become an important social force in Brazil, with a large interest in assisting poor people, health care, and religious issues (AubrÈe & Laplantine, 1990; Sampaio, 2003). However, we will focus our present discussion on the philosophical aspects of Spiritism and its potential contribution to the current academic dialogue on science and spirituality. The purpose of this paper is to introduce into the contemporary debate some contributions of Spiritism to the religion and science dialogue and its relevance to spiritual transformation and a foundation for ethics. To better provide readers with a first hand contact with Kardec’s original ideas, we will base our paper largely on direct quotations form Kardec’s writings on Spiritism1 .
Development of Spiritism
Allan Kardec (1804-1869) was one of the first scholars to propose a scientific investigation of psychic/spiritual phenomena, but his research work is not well known. He was a French scholar who worked mainly as an educator and writer. By the middle of the 19th century, a strong interest in mediumistic phenomena2 began in the United States, quickly spread to Europe and then became worldwide, becoming known as modern spiritualism (Gauld, 1968). In 1855, Kardec started an investigation of mediumistic experiences. His purpose was to submit these experiences to scientific investigation (Kardec, 1890; Moreira-Almeida, 2008).
During his initial investigation, Kardec posed and tested several hypotheses to explain mediumistic phenomena: fraud, hallucinations, a new physical force, somnambulism (including unconscious mental activity and clairvoyance), thought reflection (including telepathy and super-psi), disincarnate spirits and several other theories. He accepted that fraud, hallucination, unconscious cerebration and thought reflection could explain many phenomena regarded as mediumistic. However, when mediumistic phenomena were studied as a whole (taking into account all kinds of observed mediumistic experiences), the best explanation would be the spiritist hypothesis – a spiritual origin for the phenomena (Kardec 1859,1860,1861; Moreira-Almeida, 2008). Evidence produced by mediums convinced Kardec that personalities that had survived death could be the source of mediumistic communications (some of this evidence is listed below).
- Mediums providing accurate information (e.g. personal information about some dead person) unknown to themselves and to any sitter at the mediumistic séance
- Mediums showing unlearned skills such as:
- A) illiterate mediums who produce mediumistic writing;
- B) writing with calligraphy similar to the alleged communicating personality
- C) speaking or writing in a language unknown to the medium (xenoglossy
- Mediumistic communications showing a wide range of personal psychological characteristics (such as character, humor, conciseness, choosing of words, likes, dislikes, etc) related to the alleged communicating personality.
After Kardec became convinced that mediums could put him in touch with spirits (human personalities who survived bodily death), Kardec worked to develop a scientific research program to study this subject and called it Spiritism, defined by him as “a science that deals with the nature, origin, and destiny of spirits, and their relation with the corporeal world” (Kardec, 1859:6):
“Spiritism has not discovered nor invented the spirit, but was the first to demonstrate its existence by undeniable proofs. It has studied it, analyzed it, and made evident its action” (Kardec, 1868:12).
Spirituality and Science: Spirits as components of the natural world
Spiritism does not accept miracles or the supernatural. According to Spiritism, spirits (like matter) are components of the natural world, thus regulated by natural laws and suitable to scientific investigation. Kardec stressed that considering the interaction between both elements of universe (matter and spirits) would make it much easier to understand and accept many phenomena, mainly those described by spiritual traditions:
“Spirit and matter are the two elements, or forces, governing the universe. (…) Spiritism, in demonstrating the existence of the spiritual world and its relations with the material world, provides the key to a multitude of hitherto unknown phenomena, which have been considered as inadmissible by a certain class of thinkers” (Kardec, 1868:3).
According to Kardec, we should be “on guard against the exaggeration from both credulity and skepticism” (Kardec, 1858:2). He stressed that we should be very careful in attributing to spirits all sorts of phenomena that are unusual or that we do not understand:
“I cannot stress this point enough, we need to be aware of the effects of imagination (…). When an extraordinary phenomenon is produced – we insist – the first thought should be about a natural cause, because it is the most frequent and the most probable” (Kardec, 1860:77).
Kardec, despite being a contemporary of positivism, developed epistemological and methodological guidelines for his investigation that are in several aspects in line with later developments in philosophy of science throughout the 20th century. He advocated, and actually used, research methods appropriate to the subject matter he was interested in investigating, namely, the spiritual element. Thus, for instance, he pointed out the relevance of well-attested reports of spontaneous cases, in contrast with a misplaced attempt to mimicking physics, which, in many cases, appeals to quantitative measurements and laboratory experiments. Kardec also stressed that just collecting experimental data is not enough to make a science, for which it is essential to develop a comprehensive, logically consistent theory. In his pioneering exploration of the new field, he succeeded in allying a sense of rigor to a salutary openness to the novel (Kardec 1859; 1860,1861; Chibeni 1999; Moreira-Almeida, 2008).
Kardec often emphasized the need for a comprehensive and diversified empirical basis for spiritual experiences. To enlarge the range of observed phenomena, he asked that reports of mediumistic manifestations of several sorts be sent to him (Kardec, 1858:6). He reported having received “communications from almost a thousand serious spiritist centers scattered over highly diversified areas of the Earth” (Kardec, 1864:8). Fernandes (2004), investigating the amplitude of Kardec’s correspondence, surveyed Kardec’s publications on Spiritism and found published references to contacts related to Spiritism from 268 cities in 37 countries (in Africa, Asia, Europe, and from the three Americas).
“Spiritism proceeds in the same way as the positive sciences3 , by using the experimental method4 . When facts of a new kind are observed, facts that cannot be explained by known laws, it observes, compares and analyzes them. Reasoning then from the effects to the causes, it discovers the laws which govern them. Then it deduces their consequences and seeks for useful applications. Spiritism proposes no preconceived theory (…) Thus, it is rigorously correct to say that Spiritism is an experimental science, not the product of imagination. The sciences have not made real progress before they adopted the experimental method. This method has hitherto been taken as applicable only to matter, but in truth it is equally applicable to metaphysical things.” (Kardec, 1868:10-1).
In his revolutionary approach to spirituality, Kardec frequently compared mediums to microscopes, since both were instruments that revealed and put humankind in contact with an invisible world that, despite being previously ignored, have always had a strong impact on human lives (Kardec,1860:421). Following Kardec`s analogy, the empirical observations provided by mediums and microscopes would allow the investigator to “see” how these invisible worlds are, making possible to formulate and to test hypothesis regarding the natural laws governing them.
Based on his investigations, Kardec developed a comprehensive theoretical framework to account for the whole body of observed phenomena. This resulted in the spiritualist philosophy called Spiritism. As a philosophical system, Spiritism has many concepts that have been proposed by other philosophies and religions. Some of Spiritism’s core concepts are: survival of consciousness after death, communication between incarnate and discarnate minds (mediumship), reincarnation, and unlimited spiritual evolution. According to Kardec, a scientific basis and the coordination of these concepts in a single theory were the main difference between Spiritism and previous philosophies that hold similar notions.
A new ground for ethics
Kardec strongly stressed the ethical implications of his studies. Spiritism neither has any ritual nor claims to be the only way to spiritual evolution and happiness. However, Kardec proposed that Spiritism could provide a much larger perspective to evaluate consequences of a behavior. Through Spiritism, one would be able to evaluate the long-run consequences of our actions, not just during one terrestrial life, but also at postmortem and in future lives.
This represents a crucial reinforcement of an approach to ethics known as “utilitarianism”, whose main exponents were Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill (18th and 19th centuries). In this approach moral norms are not taken on the basis of authority, pure intellection, but as following from a scientific appraisal of the consequences of human actions with regard to the attainment of happiness of the whole of humankind.
“Spiritism has, furthermore, a particularly strong moralizing power, to the extent in which it clearly shows […] the consequences of good and bad actions, which become so to speak palpable” (Kardec, 1868:21).
“What Spiritism adds to the Christian moral is the knowledge of the principles governing the relationships between alive and dead men, thus completing the vague notions he gave of the soul, its past and future. It thereby grounds the Christian doctrine on the very laws of nature. […] Charity and fraternity become thus a social necessity. Heretofore, man does by conviction what he before did by pure sense of duty, and he does it better” (Kardec, 1868:30-1).
A call for spiritual transformation
Kardec stressed that an experimental demonstration of survival after death would have a high impact on humanity:
“The very possibility of communicating with the beings inhabiting the spiritual world has very important, incalculable consequences. […] It represents a complete revolution in our ideas” (Kardec, 1868:13).
“Had Spiritism just eliminated man’s doubt concerning future life, it would already made more in behalf of his moral amelioration than all disciplinary laws, capable of bridling him in certain circumstances, but which does not really transform him to the better” (Kardec, 1868:19-20).
Reincarnation would also have large implications:
“The plurality of existences (…) is one of the most important laws revealed by Spiritism, since it shows the reality of this law and its need for progress. This law explains a lot of apparent anomalies of human life; differences in social position, premature deaths that, without reincarnation, would make useless to the souls such short existences; the inequality of moral and intellectual abilities, by the antiquity of the soul who has progressed and learned more or less, and who, being reborn, brings what has acquired in his previous lives” (Kardec, 1868:19).
The cognitive framework provided by Spiritism would be a strong call to spiritual transformation:
“Communication with the beings of the world beyond the grave enables us to see and to comprehend the life to come, initiates us into the joys and sorrows that await us therein according to our deserts, and thus brings back to spiritualism those who had come to see in man only matter, only an organised machine; we are therefore justified in asserting that the facts of Spiritism have given the death-blow to materialism. Had Spiritism done nothing more than this, it would be entitled to the gratitude of all the friends of social order; but it does much more than this, for it shows the inevitable results of evil, and, consequently, the necessity of goodness. (…) the future is no longer for them a vague imagining, a mere hope, but a fact, the reality of which is felt and understood when they see and hear those who have left us lamenting or rejoicing over what they did when they were upon the earth. Whoever witnesses these communications begins to reflect on the reality thus brought home to him, and to feel the need of self-examination, self-judgment, and self-amendment” (Kardec, 1860:421-2).
Despite being virtually absent from the academic debate on the relationship between spirituality and science, Spiritism has developed several contributions to the field that may provide new insights on the religion and science dialogue. A major aspect of Spiritism is the project of pursuing a fact-grounded scientific investigation of topics previously considered metaphysical.
Most of spiritist ideas discussed here are not new, Kardec did not create them, but they were submitted to experimental investigation and organized into a comprehensive theory through Spiritism. By proposing an investigation of spirituality based on a rational analysis of facts, Spiritism aims to provide a basis for spirituality in the contemporary world, by fostering the pursuit of ongoing spiritual transformation.
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1 Always when available, quotations were extracted from published English versions of Kardec’s works. Otherwise, I translated from the French original. When necessary to improve fidelity to French originals, I amended quotations from published English versions.
2 Mediumship is the alleged human faculty that would allow people called mediums to be in contact with discarnate spirits.
3 “Positive science” means, in the philosophical parlance of that time, inquiry thoroughly based on facts (Kardec, 1864a).
4 “Experimental method” should not be taken as simply laboratory method, but research method based on empirical observations, i.e. on every kind of fact attestable by careful observation