One of the most vexing problems in the study of mediumship is the question of the authenticity of the purported communicators. Are they the actual spirits of the deceased, or are they some sort of artificial patchwork constructions created by the medium's subconscious mind?
Although this question has been endlessly debated, I think it is possible to argue that it is fundamentally misconceived. But before we look at my idea, let's take a closer look at the problem itself. The best brief presentation of it that I know is found in Stephen E. Braude's outstanding book Immortal Remains. Braude writes (on pp, 33-35),
Mediums often work through so-called controls or control-personalities. These are recurrent and self-consistent characters who act as interpreters or intermediaries (or masters-of-ceremony) between sitters and communicators.... Most controls are flagrantly artificial personalities, often claiming to be from locales that would be exotic to the medium, and often claiming to be and acting like children.... Often, controls of English mediums have claimed to be Native Americans, Black Africans, Arabs, or Chinese, and their opinions, behavior, and diction had the "stilted and stylized" appearance of a caricature or cinematic concept (Gauld, 1982, p. 115). Moreover, some controls exhibit extreme astrological confusions. One, claiming to be a Black African child, asked C.D. Broad for the key to his wigwam. Another, who claimed to be a Native American chief, requested the sitters to encourage him by singing "Swanee River" (Broad, 1962, p. 254). ...
Given their obvious artificiality, there can be little doubt that the medium constructed [these control personalities] subconsciously. In fact, as Gauld observed in connection with [the medium] Mrs. Piper,
Even the most life-like and realistic controls, such as GP, show signs of being impersonations (not deliberate ones). They break down at just the point where Mrs. Piper's own stock of knowledge runs out, viz. when they are required to talk coherently of science, philosophy and literature (which the living GP could readily have done). (Gauld, 1982, p. 114) ...
Controls will, generally speaking, not admit their blunders. They will rationalize, explain away, concoct any excuse, however tenuous and childish. All other considerations seem subordinated to an overwhelming urge to keep the drama flowing without pause or hiccup. (Gauld, 1982, p. 115)
Granted, some controls are compellingly lifelike. But as Gauld also notes, it doesn't help that the most convincing communicators adamantly vouch for the authenticity of the least plausible controls. That makes it seem as if "the authenticity of the former is inextricably and disadvantageously tied up with the authenticity of the latter" (p. 115). So it doesn't require much of a leap to suspect that realistic communicators are likewise creative constructs, possibly based on information the medium acquired psychically.
I should add that the communicators themselves are also sometimes clearly fictional, although seldom as extravagantly contrived as the controls who apparently transmit their messages. For example, in 1909 Stanley Hall deceived Mrs. Piper's Hodgson control by asking for, and then receiving, messages from a niece, Bessie Beals, who never existed. When confronted by Hall, the Hodgson-control could only offer lame explanations....
So there we have the problem. Some of the controls and communicators appear to be obviously fictitious, yet even the more "lifelike" controls and communicators claim that the fictitious ones are real. Then are they all mere inventions of the medium's subconscious, assisted by "super-psi"? Or are some real and others fictitious, and if so, how can we tell which is which?
Or is it possible that this whole area of investigation has been undermined by a mistaken assumption?
The premise underlying the entire discussion is that there is some meaningful difference between the personality of a "legitimate" communicator and the personality of an "artificial" communicator. In other words, some personas, such as our own, are "real," while other personas, such as those of fictional characters in literature, are merely "made up."
But what if all personas are made up?
This is hardly a new idea. It's a basic tenet of mysticism both in the East and the West. The idea is that our personality or self, at least in the everyday sense of the term, is in some sense an illusion or, more precisely, an artificial construction. Our real being is the timeless, egoless Witness that observes the myriad dramas of the self. (Another way of looking at this is to distinguish between the small self, a.ka. ego or persona, and the big Self which observes it impersonally.)
If all personas are artificial, then there is no way to distinguish between the "real thing" and an invented character, because even the "real thing" is an invented character.
To put it another way, any persona may be seen as a thought form. This is true whether the persona is our own personal character or a character that we read about in a book.
Of course, one difference is that, unlike a character in a book, we are self-aware. But is there any way for a communicator to establish self-awareness? I doubt it. We don't even know for sure that other living people around us are self-aware. We assume they are, because we ourselves have self-awareness and we implicitly project our state of mind onto others. But we don't actually know. There is a leap of faith involved. If we can't be sure beyond any possible doubt even that our friends and neighbors are self-aware, how can we expect to determine whether or not a purported discarnate communicator is self-aware?
Consider also that we often blur the distinction between real and fictional personalities even in our own minds. For many readers, Hamlet or Sherlock Holmes is more real than some of the people they encounter on a daily basis. Conversely, we may not regard the people around us as fully real. It's all too easy to reduce a person to a symbol or a stereotype -- to say, "He's a vegetarian," or "He's a conservative (or a liberal)," and imagine that we have identified and defined that person.
The truth is, we frequently treat other people as if they were less than fully real - as mere abstractions - and we sometimes treat purely fictional characters as if they were entirely real - as our friends and even loved ones! Readers wept when Little Nell died in Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop. And they were outraged when Conan Doyle sent Holmes plunging over a waterfall to his (apparent) doom.
Even our own introspection can be similarly complicated. We may be aware that we're doing something stupid and irrational, but we go on doing it anyway. It's as if we're acting out a role in a drama and we can't stop. At other times, we are totally immersed in the role but emerge from it later and look back astounded at the things we said and did. "That wasn't me," we say -- and in a sense it's true.
So let's step back and take another look at this whole issue of communicators and controls in mediumship. We are told that some of the communicators appear to be genuine, while others appear to be artificial constructs. But if all personas are artificial constructs by their very nature, then this distinction falls apart. All personas are thought forms. All personas are equally real -- or unreal, depending on how you wish to look at it. All personas are ultimately ideas in the mind of God or thought forms in Cosmic Consciousness. The medium's special ability is to tap into some reservoir of these thought forms, without distinguishing between those that were originally connected with a self-aware consciousness and those that were not. The personas themselves cannot make such distinctions, either. One thought form is just like another.
This may seem like a bizarre notion, but I submit that it may be the best way of understanding the complexities of mediumistic communication. As a final piece of evidence to support my hypothesis, I would point to the famous experiment detailed in the book Conjuring Up Philip, by Iris Owen and Margaret Sparrow (summarized here and here).
A group of sitters made up a historical character named Philip and then spent some months trying to summon him in a séance. They eventually succeeded. Philip produced a variety of well-documented phenomena, including table movements of a very extreme and violent character, and loud raps that intelligently answered questions. Yet Philip was always understood to be a completely fictional character. There never was any such person, even though the Philip who seemingly manifested in the séance room insisted that this was in fact his identity.
Well, according to my hypothesis, it was his identity. The persona of Philip was an artificial construction -- just like my persona or yours. It was a thought form. It was able to manifest itself just as other thought forms are able to manifest themselves in séances. It was no more or less "real" than any other persona channeled by any other medium - no more or less real than any persona we encounter in our everyday lives ... including our own.
Of course, this idea has potential implications for the question of postmortem survival. Does anything really survive, and if so, what? If what survives is only a thought form without the self-awareness that we bought to it in life, then it is no more than what the mystical tradition has called an astral shell.* It may communicate, may answer questions, may even show initiative -- but it is not us.
The real "us" is the Witness, the self-awareness, and there seems to be no way to determine if that is still in play.
*From an 1893 book on Theosophy: "The astral shell ... is devoid of soul, mind, and conscience. It is the "spirit" of the seance rooms... The mass of communications are from the astral shell of man."