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The Story Of Religious Controversy
by Joseph McCabe
The Myth of Immortality
- The Law of Death
- Evolution and the Soul
- Is the Mind a Spirit?
- What Is Personality?
- Modern Theories of Immortality
- The Freedom of the Will
The Law Of Death
IN Chapter II, “The Origin of Religion,” I defined religion as the belief in and worship of gods. If there is any error in that definition, it is that it ignores the belief in immortality. That man’s mind survives the body is, in fact, as we saw, the oldest of all religious beliefs, the germ of all religious thought. Gods were but the princes of the spirit-world. God is its monarch. What if the spirit-world became, like the human world of which it is a fantastic imitation, a republic without aristocracy or princes? Could we have religion without God?
One would expect men to cling more desperately to the belief in immortality than to the belief in God, yet in that universal decay of religion which I have described there is as much indifference to the disappearance of the one as of the other dogma. Did men ever profoundly believe in their immortality?
The logic of theology is nowhere more inexorable than in this section. If we are to live three score years and ten on earth, and an eternity in some other sphere, it matters vitally how we prepare for that larger life. And the majority of men have always behaved as if they did not entirely believe the story. The flesh, and its impulses and pleasures they knew, but that dim far-away crown….
Yet at a time when even the dimmest vision of the crown seems to fade, when the rumor spreads that heaven is an illusion, one would think that the most earnest efforts would be made to save the hope. No. Few but professional theologians concern themselves with it. Hardly one in ten of our more learned men now believes in personal immortality, and the news passes from ear to ear. And not a tear falls: not the thinnest shade clouds the unconquerable gaiety of modern life. The angelic harp is the butt of our comedians. Hell is the text of humorous stories.
And the official reply to all this is remarkably feeble. Every man who believes in God has one or another reason for doing so always present in his mind. God must have made the world, or at least the order and beauty of the world, or must have laid down the moral law. But ask your religious neighbor why he believes that he is immortal. The answer will be a series of gasping exclamations: “Why-er, surely-er.” And so on. I venture to say that not one believer in a thousand has in his mind one single definite reason for thinking that he is immortal.
Most people will candidly reply that they believe because the Bible says so, or the Church says so. Since the Church can say so only on the authority of the Bible, we are reduced to that. And to accept such authority with any confidence in the truth of your belief, you must first be quite convinced, by solid proof, that there is a God to make the promise, and that He actually did inspire the Bible. In the next chapter, “The Futility of Belief in God,” I show how frail is the belief in the very existence of God, and another chapter shows that the claim of revelation in the Bible (whether there is a God or not) is far frailer.
It is strange how people forget that religion is a series of statements of fact, and the boldest and most tremendous statements imaginable. Perhaps the reader will be surprised to know that it is profoundly difficult — many thinkers say impossible — to prove the existence of the material world; of your body and the house you live in. Religion makes the far more formidable statement that there is a Power beyond and greater than the world. But in claiming that man is immortal it makes an even more astounding statement, and one for which we require very clear and cogent proofs.
Death is the law of the universe. In the days when Plato worked out the first rational arguments for immortality, as distinct from mere religious tradition, the claim was not so exorbitant. The stars themselves, the Greeks thought, were immortal. They were small, undying fires set in the firmament. Plants and animals died, of course, but these stars made men familiar with things which never died.
Now we know that the stars — not three thousand of them, as the Greeks thought, but two billion — are born and grow and die just like dogs, except that their life is immeasurably longer. There is a time when each is a shapeless cloud of star-dust. There will be a time when the most brilliant star in the heavens will fade from the eyes of whatever mortals there may then be. They are made of the same material as our bodies: of gas and earth and metal. They fall under the great cosmic law that things which come together shall in the end go asunder — shall die.
A hundred years ago a few religious men of science, trying to help theologians to reconstruct belief, said that, while stars were certainly not immortal, the atoms of matter of which they were composed never changed and never died. An atom of carbon or of oxygen, they said, is an article “manufactured” (or created) once for all. There is no dissolution for it.
They were wrong, as everybody now knows. Atoms are composed of tinier particles called electrons. They break up into these electrons. In the hottest stars very few of our atoms are as yet formed. And now astronomers tell us that the stars may entirely burn themselves out, so to say, and leave not an atom behind. Matter may change into “energy.” I would not here press my own opinion, but I believe that it will eventually be found that matter is evolved out of ether and in the star much of it may return to ether. The electrons, I think, are centers in ether and may dissolve into it.
In that case, you may say, ether is immortal. Probably it is. As I say in Chapter v, “The Futility of Belief in God,” men of science now generally regard the universe as eternal, and it is only the ultimate and fundamental material of it, the ether, which shows no beginning and no end. That does not help the belief in human immortality, however. Man is the most complex thing in the universe, and the law of death is that all complex things return sooner or later into their elements. It is a law of universal dissolution.
If I cared to indulge my imagination, to let my pen weave pretty patterns of words, as Theosophists, Hindu mystics, preachers, and poets do, I could make out a good case for this law of death. Nature, one might say, thus gives a chance to countless myriads of things to enjoy their hour of life. The stuff which made a star of a quadrillion years ago now shines in Arcturus or Aldebaran. The matter of which the brontosaurs and cycads were compacted in the earth’s Middle Ages is now molded into horses and palms. We humans have our chance because the living things of long ago died and left the matter of their bodies to be used in new forms.
But it is precisely the aim of this book to put readers on their guard against such verbiage. Let us reason only with facts. The law of the universe is, death. The day dies, as I write this, and will never return. Spiritualist prattle about the immortal souls of cows and cats is too frivolous to be considered here. The law is death.
You say. that you are an exception to this universal law. Your body will dissolve into its elements, but you claim to be immortal. Your “soul,” you say, is not compacted of different elements, and will not be dissolved into elements.
I am quite prepared to consider it; only, reflect, you must now give stronger proofs than were ever required before. “Why,” you may ask, “must I? Why should I give any proofs at all?” There was a brilliant American (ultimately British) novelist, Henry James, who believed in personal immortality, and he one day told the world why be believed. “Because I choose to,” be said. He knew that he could not prove it.
Possibly many people believe because they choose to, and, since this book is concerned with supposed proofs of religious statements, let us have a word on this point.
When you say that you believe because you choose to, what do you mean by “believe?” The usual meaning is to accept a statement as true. But to accept a statement as true without proof is impossible, unless you take it on the authority of others. All that you can mean is that you will go on repeating the statement because you like to. It may be a pretty statement. It may soothe your mind. You may be indifferent as to whether it is true or not. But it is psychologically impossible for you to believe it to be true without proof or authority, and I am not concerned with people who repeat creeds and care not whether their statements be true or false.
So we are concerned here only with the proofs of the statements they make. The law of the entire universe is death, and you state that one single being in it, man, one amongst myriads of living things on a single globe out of myriads of globes, is a grand exception to the law. I ask proof in proportion to the magnitude of the claim.
But, you will say — and this is the nearest approach to an argument that most people could offer — man is so obviously different from everything else in the universe that the claim really has a plausible ground. Man builds cities, writes poems, measures the universe. Does any other creature in the world even remotely approach him in his powers and his nature?
There is certainly one human power which is remarkable and convenient: the power of generalizing. Remember that in reality there is no such thing as “man.” There are only men. Now which man do you mean? I presume that you do not build cities, write poems, or measure the universe. A few men do these things. But —
But, you say, there is a perfect gradation of power from me to these intellectual aristocrats of the race. It is only a question of degree. I have the same nature as they.
Yes, quite true, and it cuts both ways. The sodden, stupid brute in the gutter has the same nature as you. The laborer, so low in intelligence that he cannot even understand what other men discover, has the same nature. The native in the forests of the Congo has the same nature. The wild Veddah in the forests of Ceylon has the same nature. Are they so mightily different from the other forms of life?
In fact, not so long ago there were no men who could write poems or measure the universe. Consider the whole race as it was a hundred thousand years ago, and we know it well. Men could not even make homes of the rudest description. They had not begun to scratch the outline of an elephant on a bone or a stone. The utmost that any man could do was to chip a piece of flint a little better than his neighbor.
And this is by no means the lowest level of humanity that is known to us. On the contrary, man was then already some millions of years old. We can trace him to half a million years ago. There is no savage in the world so low as the entire race then was. Suppose some glimmer of the philosophic spirit had then arisen in the dull brain of one of these early prehistoric humans. Suppose be had announced to his fellows that they were so vastly superior to all the rest of the living world that they must be immortal. I fancy that these squat, hairy, beetle-browed predecessors of ours would have smiled their first smile.
You see the fallacy. A few men can do wonderful things, and we naturally claim the credit for “man”: which includes ourselves. But even we, though most of us are not very obviously spiritual and immortal beings, are certainly evolved from a lower type, which looked still less spiritual and immortal. From this we go back to a still earlier type of man, so brutal and animal-like that the claim of a spiritual and immortal nature really begins to be grotesque. And, finally, we go back even beyond this type and we see the most primitive semblance of humanity merging into the “lower animal” type from which, you say, we are so glaringly different that you can claim for man the unique privilege of deathlessness.
in other words, the one reason which most people have in their minds for claiming immortality is quite unsound. The ordinary and unanimous teaching of modern science has, I will not say undermined, but annihilated it.
Evolution And The Soul
Scientific men — the few scientific men — who assure you that there is no conflict between science and religion mean between their science and their religion — not yours. And these men generally know as little as the general public does about those branches of science which chiefly concern us when we talk of such a conflict. Professor Pupin, for instance, is a mathematician, and we agree that mathematics does not conflict with theology. Professor Millikan is a physicist, and physics also has no point of contact with religion. They both speak in the name of sciences which they do not know. Sir Oliver Lodge, a physicist, is in the same position.
The case of Professor Osborn, the self-constituted loud speaker of American science, is different. He says that he is a Christian, though not a Christian in the meaning of any Christian Church, of course. Creation of Adam, Eden, Fall, Deluge, Atonement for original sin — he pocsh-poohs the lot of them. What exactly he does believe he is too discreet to say. But, after all, religion is generally understood to include a belief in the immortality of the soul, and, when Professor Osborn, who is an authority on the evolution of man, assures the world that there is no conflict between the statements of science and the statements of the Christian religion, we will assume that he is not ignoring the one branch for which he is entitled to speak.
Let us see. It is the settled and unanimous teaching of many branches of science — anatomy, physiology, psychology, archaeology, anthropology — that man was evolved from a common ancestor with the apes. I am not going to prove this here. This book is for serious people: not for men who imagine that Mr. Bryan or Dr. Riley, or Dr. Straton, or Dr. William A. Sunday, to say nothing of the average Fundamentalist preacher, really knows better, on a point of science, than all the experts in the world. That is a humorous, not a serious, attitude. Science most decidedly teaches, without a single dissenting voice today, officially, that man, body and mind, was evolved.
My point is that on the accepted and unanimous teaching of science man took several million years to evolve from the ape to the ape-man stage. He then took a few hundred thousand years to evolve from the ape-man to the savage-man stage.
A child could see the bearing of this on the belief that man has a spiritual and immortal soul. The ape has no such spiritual principle. Then at what stage in this long and gradual evolution was an immortal soul infused into the developing body? Do you think the Java ape-man had an immortal soul? If so, can you suggest any reason whatever why this transcendent mental principle of his took three or four hundred thousand years to raise the race to the level of the Australian black?
Let us see where we are, then. Evolution has brought us from the common ancestor of ape and man to the ape-like human of a quarter of a million years ago, and I know no one who seriously wonders if these men of a quarter of a million years ago really had an immortal soul. The Fundamentalist attitude is to deny the facts. That sounds easy, when you do not know the evidence, though personally I have never elicited from any Fundamentalist spokesman any plausible reason why all the experts in the world should be wrong and he right.
From this human level of a quarter of a million years ago to the Beethovens and Shakespeares of the race the gradual evolution is so well known that I do not see how anyone can find a stage in which he would claim the infusion of an immortal soul: a soul which never knew its own existence until, long afterwards, it began to speculate childishly on the shadow of the body or its reflection in water.
By this time man had begun to chip flints and give them a rough cutting edge. The first thing be learned to do, when he became intelligent enough, was to brain his neighbor. Anyhow, these stone implements reflect the intelligence of early man as faithfully as if he kept a diary through the ages. And the gradual rise of them during a quarter of a million years is portentously slow and never shows a sudden advance. We should surely expect so tremendous an event as the infusion of an immortal soul to break the monotonously slow advance somewhere and give us an appreciable rise!
There is no such thing. Those stone implements, representing several hundred thousand years of human life — we have millions of them — put the gradual evolution of the human mind beyond question. Alfred Russel Wallace was the last man of science to question it, and he had no knowledge of prehistoric science, and merely acted in the interest of his spiritualist beliefs. Amongst the experts on the subject the evolution of the human mind was settled thirty years ago.
But I am forgetting a rather consoling piece of news which Professor Osborn gives the believer. Many years ago we found certain human bones at Cro-Magnon in France, and the skulls were remarkably large. The brain of these representatives of some lost race of about twenty thousand years ago was larger than that of the average European of today! They were a race of geniuses, says the Professor. If you could put their sons beside yours on the benches at Columbia or Chicago University, they would take all the prizes. And so on.
Well, this sounds promising. Does Professor Osborn draw the conclusion that here a spiritual and immortal soul was infused into man? He does not go so far. For a good Christian he is singularly shy of creations. He merely says that this is a case of “emergent evolution.” What, You ask, is that? and I can only reply that it is a pretty phrase coined by another religious scientist, Principal Lloyd Morgan.
Seriously, we need not go into this emergent evolution because Professor Osborn does not understand the simple facts about this “Cro-Magnon race.” He does not seem to know that they were exceptionally tall men, more than six feet high. The brain generally is the dynamo of the body. It is only the thin film of nervous tissue over the forepart of it that is the organ of intelligence. As a matter of fact, we have the tools, weapons, and decorations of these Cro-Magnon men. They are at about the same level as those of the Eskimo. Moreover, European ethnologists assure us that the Cro-Magnon type of head is still common in northern Spain and southern France: amongst the stupid peasants, not the aristocracy. The Cro-Magnon genius is a clumsy myth.
This is no place to tell all the facts, but the reader may care to know how it is that such a myth could arise. The truth is that twenty or thirty thousand years ago the European race was advancing rather rapidly in comparison with its advance of the previous ten million years. Do not misunderstand. Man’s progress even then was enormously slower than it is today. Moreover, we quite understand the quickening of the pace. Man was in the throes of his struggle with the Great Ice Age. You must read elsewhere all that that meant for man. It led to articulate speech, clothing, social life and a hundred new things.
It would be too ironical to claim that man became gifted with a soul just when he came to disbelieve in it! But we moderns have made more mental progress in a century than the race ever before made in a millennium. Do not be misled by the brilliance of a score of Greeks two thousand years ago. The race has made far more progress in our time. Do not listen to essayists who tell you that the race has made no mental progress since twenty thousand years ago. They are thinking of the myth of the Cro-Magnon race. Ours is the great age of advance — and of Materialism.
But that is another story. For the moment our case is complete. Evolution makes the belief in an immortal soul improbable in the last degree. It does not disprove it. We do not attempt to prove negative statements. But, clearly, we now, in face of the general law of death and man’s continuity with the animals, demand very strong and clear proof of the religious claim.
Is The Mind A Spirit?
Many readers will be impatient of the caution, the reserve, the timidity, with which I draw my conclusions. If man’s mind is but a gradual evolution of the mind of the ape, why not say outright that the myth of the soul has been disproved? If there is no serious evidence for God in nature or in the mind or the heart of man, while there is so much that excludes the idea of a divine ruler, why not declare bluntly that you are an Atheist?
For the following reason: Materialism — which means that matter alone can exist, and therefore that spirit does not exist — and Atheism are dogmatic negations. I do not like dogmatic negations. The old Scottish jury-verdict “Not proven” seems to me the more rational attitude. But on this question of the soul there are strong reasons for hesitating, and we must see these first.
The brain is the organ of the mind. We all admit that. A genius or an idiot is a man with an abnormal brain. The mind, a believer might say, can express itself only according to the quality of its organ or instrument. Paderewski himself could not make perfect music with a hundred-dollar piano. So we may suppose that the spiritual and immortal soul was there all the time, but it could not express itself until the organ was perfectly developed.
A very sound principle — in the abstract. It is conceivable that mind is a spiritual artist using a material instrument. Luther Burbank said somewhere that Mr. Bryan, of whom he was a personal friend, had a “skull which visibly approached the Neanderthal type.” So the many foolish things Mr. Bryan said may have been due only to the imperfectness of his mind’s instrument. The mind may be the same, all the time, in everybody. It may be merely the brain that differs, from age to age, and in different individuals now.
All this is conceivable; in fact, we may find it useful later in this chapter. But the religious person must think clearly what he is saying. When does he suppose that God created the immortal mind of man? He might as well put the great event in the Miocene Age, since there is no other time more suitable. Well, we are to see in the next chapter that there probably is no God to create a soul, but even granting that there is, the whole thing remains a painful mystery. Why create the soul millions of years before it can act? Why go on creating souls — for the only plausible theological theory is that the soul has to be created in each individual human being — during those millions of years of the lowest savagery? Not very plausible, is it?
Moreover, let us reflect for a moment on this musical instrument idea. Sir Oliver Lodge is very fond of using this figure of speech, and it is as superficial as most of his work in the field of religion. Preachers find it most impressive. The brain is merely the organ, the piano, the violin, the harp. The soul is the musician.
A figure of speech is useful only if it helps you to understand something. Now this musical instrument idea only helps you to understand the relation of mind and body by assuming precisely the point which you have to prove. That point is whether the mind is a spirit, and the action of the musician’s mind on the piano does not help us in the least unless we suppose, to begin with, that it is a spirit. If, as many hold, the mind is only a function of the brain, then it is a question of the action of matter (brain and muscle) on matter. It illustrates nothing.
In any case, even on religious principles, the mind does not play on the body. It is one with the body. They make a composite being of the most intimate nature. There is not the least analogy with the musician, who can close his piano and leave it when he likes. The “analogy” is just a slipshod, superficial substitute for accurate thinking.
To return, however, to our point. We all admit that the brain is the organ of the mind. The Materialist says that the mind is merely a function of the brain, and there are quite brilliant scientific men, such as Dr. Chalmers Mitchell or the late Professor Loeb, who say this. The believer in immortality — the Spiritualist in the proper sense of the word — says that mind is a spirit which uses brain as its organ.
It has always been an insoluble problem in religious philosophy how a spirit can act on or through matter. I do not want to press this, but the reader who is inclined to think that “God” and “soul” explain things ought to be reminded of it. No thinker who ever lived has given us the least plausible idea how spirit can act on or with matter. It merely introduces new mysteries instead of “explaining” the mystery of thought.
So again, and for the third time, we have a reason for demanding that the proofs of the spirituality of the soul shall be particularly strong. There is a strong presumption against it: (1) because death is the rule of the universe, (2) because man’s mind is certainly evolved from a mind that is not spiritual and immortal, and (3) because it is unintelligible and creates more mysteries than it solves. And we shall see further reasons later in this chapter.
But a presumption against a statement is not a disproof of it. Let us be open-minded and logical. Practically all philosophers hold that the mind is a spirit. Why?
By the way, it occurs to me that the believer will have a sudden gush of joy on reading the preceding sentence. For once, he will exclaim, I have “practically all” the experts on my side, because philosophers are experts in this matter. But the point is not so important as it may seem. In the first place, half these philosophers say that the natural world does not exist. Do you follow them in that? In the second place, very few of them believe in personal immortality. I am sorry to discourage hope, but philosophy (of which I was once a professor) is a dangerous ally to invoke.
Let us first see what we mean by spirit. I hope I have many religious readers, and I invite them frequently just to reflect on what they mean. What do you mean by spirit? How does it differ from matter? I have had a very large experience in asking this question, and I scarcely ever got a coherent answer to it. Nine-tenths, at least, of the preachers and essayists who tell the world that its future depends entirely on cultivating the spirit and avoiding Materialism could not tell you what spirit is. Spiritual books always forget to define it.
The religious philosophy which I taught thirty years ago was clear enough on the point. Matter, it is said, is extended or quantitative substance. It has dimensions. It consists of parts, and so it can be dissolved. Spirit has no parts, no dimensions, no quantity, no extension. It has only qualities.
I do not think that any better definitions have ever yet been given. Body is quantitative, and can dissolve into its parts. Mind is not quantitative (they say) and so cannot dissolve into parts, or die. So said the learned Aristotle, and we cannot go much further. Modern definitions of “matter” do not improve on his. It is generally said to be “that which occupies space,” which is the same thing. Spirit is like a mathematical point. It has no magnitude.
It may not sound so warm and thrilling to say that your soul is a non-quantitative substance, but on this point depends entirely your hope of immortality. You have to prove that your mind is immaterial or unextended. What are the proofs?
The Roman Catholic philosophy, which prides itself on being the severest and most logical, while it is merely the most medieval, is very confident about the matter. I have ideas of things: pictures of them in my mind. Let us say that I have a mental picture of a beautiful woman; that I see one before me. I am conscious of the picture as a whole. I may fasten my attention on her hands, her feet, or her bosom, but I may also contemplate her as a whole. Now if consciousness is a function of the brain, how can I see such a picture as a whole? Each cell in the brain is composed of innumerable atoms, and each atom is composed of tens or hundreds of protons and electrons, at an appreciable distance from each other. Each atom, nay, each electron, ought to have its own fraction of the brain-picture, on the Materialist hypothesis. The unifying principle at the back of matter must, surely, be a spiritual substance, a soul, which has no atoms or parts.
This seems to me a better argument than most of those one finds in modern or Modernist literature, but the fact only shows how feeble the modern arguments are, for even this one is a tissue of fallacies.
Take a sleep-walker. He has no consciousness. On the spiritual hypothesis, his soul is switched off from his body. One theory of sleep is that the cells of the brain draw in the little branchlets or fibrils by means of which they ordinarily communicate with each other. Something like that happens in the brain. In any case, the soul, the supposed seat of consciousness, is switched off for the time being. The body acts mechanically and automatically. Yet objects are “seen” as a whole, as the conduct of the somnambulist shows. He avoids every obstacle. Put a table in his path, and he goes round it.
The truth is that those who use this and similar arguments are simply building on the temporary ignorance of science, just as they do when they try to prove the existence of God. Candidly, we do not know how we see objects as a whole. For the matter of that, we do not know how we see them at all. That is precisely why many philosophers deny the existence of material objects. There are, they say, only images in the mind, and from these you may more or less riskly infer that there are objects corresponding to them outside the mind.
The whole mental world is still obscure in the last degree. Psychology is largely a matter of verbiage, and it declines entirely to speculate on the nature of mind or consciousness. I have read all the attempts to explain consciousness, and I cannot see anything in them but words. The human brain is immeasurably the most complicated structure in the universe (as far as our knowledge goes). It consists of hundreds of millions of cells put together in a structure which we as yet very imperfectly understand. Each cell consists of millions of molecules, put together in a way we do not understand at all; for molecular structure is below the range of our most powerful microscopes. Each molecule, further, consists of atoms, put together in a structure which we very imperfectly conjecture. And, finally, we now know that each atom is a wonderfully complicated world of protons and electrons.
So who is going to say what the brain can or cannot do? Men who use the argument I have described imagine a brain-image of an object as a miniature picture of it spread over a certain surface. It is not in the least likely. What would the brain-stores of a very learned man be like in that case?
Or take it this way. You see a tree. Some sort of image of it is impressed on your retina by the waves of light. This is no more a picture of it than a phonograph record is a tune. Then this impression on the retina is converted into some kind of movement along your optic nerve. It is now still less like a picture of the tree. The nerve-movement is converted into something else in the optic center of the brain, and finally you see a tree. To say that there is a little picture of a green tree with yellow oranges in your brain is absurd.
We do not know what the machinery of perception is and cannot build any argument on it, We do not know where and how we are conscious of the objects we see. We have not the least idea what it is that is “stored in memory.” We have still less idea how we can fuse together all the particular men we ever saw and get the general abstract idea of “man.” We do not know how we can draw inferences and make arguments. We know very, very little about mind.
Then, you say, it may be a spirit. If people were content to say “may be,” we should not much object, though we have seen strong reason for thinking that it is not. What we object to is the religious assertion that it is a spirit. There is no proof of this whatever. For all we know, it may be merely a function of the brain.
And a hundred things suggest that it is merely a function of the brain. Mind varies with every minute alteration of the brain. A fever or an opiate speeds up the mental activity. A heavy meal or a dose of alcohol benumbs it. During the War the Germans gave their shock-troops a certain drug which made them giants in “spirit” for the time being. It is difficult to understand — impossible, in fact, — how a spirit-mind can act on the brain; but it is the easiest thing in the world for chemicals to act on the mind.
To sum up the whole matter, people generally assume that the mind is a spirit and the reason generally is that mind is “so very different” from matter. I quite understand the force of the impression. At times I reflect on this wonderful thing, that this whole vast universe can be mirrored in the tiny mind of man; that the mind can reconstruct scenes in the story of the earth which passed away millions of years ago or scenes in the interior of atoms which no eye will ever behold.
But it is only the imagination that is impressed. The intellect waits upon the advance of science. Not in our time — not, possibly, for centuries — will science unravel the mysteries of mind and brain. Mind ought to be far more wonderful than anything else in the universe. Its organ, the brain, is the most wonderfully intricate material structure that exists. When we understand that structure, we shall know whether or not consciousness is merely a function of it. Until then there is no logic whatever in pretending to say what can, and what cannot, be a function of the brain. There is no force in saying that something must be a spirit until you know positively that it cannot be material.
What Is Personality?
Until not many years ago the provision of milk in a mother’s breast just when she needed it for the babe was a mystery. But for the delicacy of the subject I suppose that preachers would have chosen it as an impressive proof of the soul or God, and their audiences of women would have been deeply impressed.
Then a London professor set about investigating the mystery, and it is a mystery no longer. A woman’s breasts are stimulated by a certain chemical. This chemical is poured into the blood by the foetus in her womb, and, naturally, the more the foetus grows, the more of the drug it produces, so the stimulation reaches its maximum at a time when the foetus is largest and is ready for birth. We can extract the chemical from the foetus of a rat and inject it into the veins of a rat which is not pregnant, and, although she does not require milk, she gets it.
You might take that as a parable. What science cannot explain today it may explain tomorrow, and the man who builds on its ignorance today will retreat tomorrow. For the last hundred years the theologian has been engaged in retreating: of course, “upon positions which were prepared in advance.”
But I quote this to introduce a new aspect of the question of immortality. What on earth can the rat or the foetus have to do with it? Nothing whatever, but this material secretion which stimulates the milk-glands introduces us to new discoveries in science that do bear on the subject.
If you open a physiological book of the last century, you find many references to the telegraphic system in the human body. The nerves are the wires. The brain is the central station. A fly hits against your eye. A message goes to your brain: an order is flashed back along another nerve: and in a fraction of a second you raise your hand and brush the fly away.
The new discovery is that there is a postal, as well as a telegraphic, system in the body. Letters are posted in the blood, and they travel round the vascular system until they reach their destination. In other words, certain small glands in the interior of the body pour chemicals into the blood, and these are carried round and round until they reach the part which they are to stimulate. I will assume that every reader has heard of the thyroid gland, which is one of them, and I must refrain here from any further account.
The point is that the thyroid and some of the other glands have a most profound effect upon our mental vitality and our personality, The character of an old man can be rejuvenated. A born idiot can be transformed into a sane child. Whole districts in which a large portion of the children have for ages been born idiots (cretins) have been rid of idiots by means of thyroid extract. When we have mastered the chemical nature of the stuff produced and poured into the blood by these glands, when we can make it in the laboratory and sell it in the drug store, it will be time to talk of the musician playing on the piano. For then the chemist will play on the “spirit,” on human nature, as no religion ever did.
Now the point of this is that we have one more illustration of the way in which mind depends upon body. We were, of course, quite familiar with this. In the very early days of science temperaments or characters were divided into four main types: the lymphatic (sluggish), choleric, bilious and sanguineous. This was crude psychology, but it expressed the well-known fact that a very great deal of a man’s personality depends upon his bodily qualities. Nerve and brain, stomach and liver and pancreas, blood and muscular tone, all have their respective influences on what we call character. Drugs still further complicate the character. I spoke once of the “genius” of a certain British author to a man who is the highest living authority on him. “Genius?” he said: “No, simply nicotine.” A man drunk is often not the same man sober. And now we know that the quality of a man’s endocranial glands has an even greater influence on those qualities which make up what we call his personality.
The question therefore naturally arises: What sort of a thing will the soul be even if we suppose it to be immortal? Philosophers, as I said, assume that the mind is a spirit. It is singular how little they think of proving this. The order of ideas and that of material realities seem to them to differ so profoundly that the former is referred to a spirit-world; when, as we saw, we do not know sufficient about the brain to say that ideas cannot be aspects, or functions of material things. However, philosophers rarely believe in personal immortality. Psychologists still more rarely accept it. There are very few real experts on the subject in the world who do.
Now you know why. It was always quite impossible to imagine how the mind could think without a brain. As usual, it was cheerfully said to be a mystery — while the general public imagines that the soul “explains” thought. Now we see that whether the soul could or could not think when it is disembodied, it certainly cannot have anything like the personality it had on earth.
Think of every little trait or feature of the child or the woman you love. The golden curls or fine glossy hair, the soft blue or fine brown eyes, the round limbs and graceful carriage these things, of course, go down into the grave forever. But even the features of character depend entirely on the body. The vitality, the sweetness or quaintness of disposition, the warm affection, the reserve or the spontaneous effusiveness — all depend on bodily organs. What will this disembodied soul of wife or mother, whom you hope to meet again, be like? What will even memory be without the brain? For whatever be its nature, it depends vitally on the brain.
This doctrine of immortality begins to look very far from simple and satisfactory when you examine it. The pagan Romans, whose cold and vague attitude towards a future life was so much derided by the new Christians, were nearer the truth; quite apart from the fact that the view of the future life which Christianity brought was, with its eternal torment for the majority of the race, the most repulsive yet formulated. The Roman, like the Babylonian, believed that the soul survived the grave, but it was a pale, thin “shade” that survived. He had little interest in it.
In psychology, in fact, the idea of soul has long since been surrendered. It became the science of the mind, not of the soul. But the more progress the science made, the less it liked the idea of a substantial something of which ideas and emotions were individual acts. All that we are sure about now is that there are ideas and emotions and volitions. The world of consciousness is a world of atoms of consciousness. But whence comes the unity of conscious life? It may, surely, come from the unity of the nervous system, the most completely centralized structure in the universe.
In other words: religious ideas not only melt into mysteries and unintelligibilities when you analyze them, but they are decidedly in conflict with our new knowledge. And it is not a question of evolution only. The science of psychology itself must have a deadly effect on belief when hardly one in ten of our psychologists believes in personal immortality. But the most deadly solvent of religious belief — let the anti-evolutionists realize this — is the patient examination of the so-called evidence which is offered us in support of it. This makes ten Agnostics for every one that is made by the teaching of science.
I have said that Materialism seems to me too dogmatic an attitude. It might be added that what we commonly call matter is now known to be not the ultimate reality of the universe, so it may be questioned if the term is a good one. Matter is composed of mysterious things which we call electrons and protons. Many physicists say that it is composed of “energy,” and some call themselves Energists. It seems more likely that ether is the ultimate reality, and those who like labels might adopt that of Etherist. Most of us prepare to leave it to a much wiser generation to put a comprehensive label on the universe.
Yet, the Agnostic attitude must not be understood to mean that it is a quite open question whether the mind is or is not a spirit. I mean, we must not in the least suppose that the chances are even. The thinkers of the race have been weighing this question ever since the days of Socrates. In fact, we can clearly enough see that educated men, apart from the clergy, were speculating on these fundamental religious issues in Egypt four or five thousand years ago. In Asia, Buddha and Confucius came to the conclusion that religious speculation was a waste of time several centuries before the great thinkers of Athens appeared, and the earliest Greek thinkers seem to have been of the same opinion.
Now, what has been the general issue of these thousands of years of thinking about God and the soul? Has anything been settled on the religious side? Nothing. We are no wiser than the first thinkers. We rule out the “proofs” of immortality given by Plato and St. Augustine, and we have no better to offer. In the spiritual scale of the balance there are only argument about which there is no agreement whatever.
The whole weight of our new knowledge falls into the material scale, against immortality. Modern philosophy, when it started, at once shattered the older proofs, which Roman Catholics still use. Evolution proved a deadly weight against the belief. Psychology, as it evolved, turned against it. Physiology, as this chapter shows, throws all its weight into the Materialistic scale. Not a single fact has been discovered in the last hundred years that favors the view that the mind is a spirit. We remain open-minded, but with little doubt about the result.
Modern Theories Of Immortality
Ours is the age of reconstruction, not only of all beliefs, but of all arguments for the beliefs. We think of man as profoundly conservative in his nature and anxious, if possible, to cling to his old beliefs in some form. And this is said to be particularly true of religious beliefs. Many imagine the soul of the race in our time as heroically braving the great new waves of thought in an effort to preserve its religious identity.
All this kind of rhetoric is false to the obvious facts of life. It is always a few who do the reconstructing of beliefs and arguments, and these few are nearly always people who have an interest in the survival of the beliefs. This is, surely, a plain reading of the facts of life. The majority of the race are profoundly indifferent to the disappearance of the old traditions. New religions, even of the most liberal character, make little appeal to them. Even the movement for Ethical Culture, which describes itself as religion without the least theology, makes almost no progress either in America or in England.
Let us finish with the “proofs” which modern theologians attempt to give of the immortality of the soul. The more learned of them frankly give it up. Immortality is, they say, a matter of faith. An infinite God can make us immortal, and the Bible says that He will.
This, unfortunately, is to prop up a feeble and tottering belief by means of two other beliefs which are just as feeble and tottering. We may see this about the belief in God. We may see it about the belief in the inspiration of the Bible. I cannot imagine what comfort the argument gives to anybody.
Other religious writers prefer to say that, while they cannot prove the spirituality and immortality of the soul, they can suggest reasons for believing in it. For instance, some of them say, science has discovered that the conservation of energy is a law of the universe. No energy is ever destroyed or annihilated. So the mental energy must persist. The soul must survive.
An extraordinarily feeble argument. Let us admit — with certain reserves about the energy of electrons — the general truth that energy is never annihilated. But it is just as universal a law that energy is constantly changing its form, and when the energy is associated with a complex material structure, and that structure breaks up, it is bound to change its form very materially.
Luther Burbank recently startled California, of which he was one of the greatest citizens, by declaring that be did not believe in the immortality of the soul. It disappears at death, he said, just like the life of the old automobile that is condemned to the scrap-heap. That is a very good figure of speech. The life or soul — the particular function — of the automobile does not continue to exist. It breaks up into the separate energies of the parts of the machine or of the fuel which is no longer used. So says the Materialist of the human mind, and what he says is perfectly consistent with the law of the conservation of energy. The law is not that any particular form of energy shall be preserved or conserved as such. It is rather the reverse.
Sir Oliver Lodge, who uses this argument, helps it out with another which is worse. I am constantly asked why a “great physicist” like Sir Oliver Lodge is found on the side of religion. Well, to begin with, be is not a “great” physicist, and, secondly, his science, physics, is precisely the one which least qualifies him to deal with religious questions. It has nothing to do with the nature of life or mind. But, thirdly, I have shown in my “Religion of Sir Oliver Lodge” that there is not a single doctrine of the Christian religion which he accepts, and, fourthly, he is just one of the survivors of the little scientific group which was duped by mediums in the early uncritical days of Spiritualism.
Sir Oliver has discovered a remarkable principle which helps him to prove the immortality of the soul. Whatever really exists just goes on existing: always existed and always will. The mind really exists, therefore ….
Quite simple, isn’t it? In fact, rather too simple. There is no such principle. Matter and energy go on existing in some form. That is all we can say. So the body goes on existing in some form, but its functions do not. The whole argument assumes what it sets out to prove: that the mind is not a function of the brain.
Then there is a philosophical argument which has of late years gone the round of “advanced” religious literature. It is called the argument from the conservation of values. A man grows up to wisdom and settled character and personality. Can we suppose that all this is to be thrown away by the act of death? What a shocking waste it would be if each individual is to learn laboriously to become wise and to form his character, and then it were all to be annihilated: if the human race were during millions of years to construct its wonderful science and art and idealism and all were to end in the great silence of the death of the race.
So the argument runs: and the answer requires little reflection. — What does the great inanimate universe care about waste? What does it know of values and of conserving them? Quite clearly, the argument has no sense whatever unless you mean that you are appealing to God. It is not very forcible even then, but it has not the least meaning except in so far as it relies on the wisdom or power of God, and we have seen how far you can appeal to that.
Other writers keep recalling from its well-merited rest an argument which was much used in the early days of science. The matter of the human body is always changing. Nerve and muscle wear out. Even the material of the bones is withdrawn and replaced in the course of time. It is commonly said that the entire material of the body changes every seven years. We do not, in fact, know how long it takes. We can put bands on a pigeon’s leg bones, and see how long it takes for them to disappear, but no man can say the time for all the organs of the body, especially the brain. There is, however, no doubt about the fact. Probably I have not now a single atom of the body I had ten years ago. Yet I am the same person, and I vividly remember experiences of ten, and even forty, years ago.
Quite so. But I have already explained that mind is said to be a function of the brain, and, if so, it depends upon the structure of the brain, which does not change. Molecule by molecule the material is renewed, but the structure even of each individual cell remains unaltered. An idea, we saw, is not a miniature picture of an object, spread over a certain area. It is an activity of the brain.
Suppose you regard the beauty or grace or symmetry of an ancient cathedral as a function or aspect of its structure. You may go on for centuries restoring a beam here or a few stones there. It is conceivable that in time you might renew nearly the whole material of it. But the identity remains.
It is conceivable that — if it were worth while — you could in time renew all the parts of your automobile. There might not be left a single bit of the original machine. But its function would be unaltered, and most particularly if, as in the case of the human body, there were some subtle way of replacing atom by atom, without disturbing the structure, the original material of the machine.
Finally, there are those who find an argument in the moral order. In so far as this argument merely appeals to the fact that man has moral perceptions, a criticism which I make in Chapter v, “The Futility of Belief in God,” disposes of it.
Moral law is social law, and it is as easily formulated by the mind itself as what we commonly call law is. Philosophers like the famous Kant or the modern German thinker Eucken write about conscience and the moral law as if they had never taken the trouble to study men in the flesh. There is no such thing as a “categorical imperative,” as Kant said. There is no such thing as an eternal moral order existing apart from the material order, existing before humanity was born and independent of it, as Eucken says. For most of us there is just a moral ideal implanted in us by education and evolved out of the needs of social life.
Nor is there any force whatever in the claim that this commanding law implies that God is prepared to reward the observer of it in another life. You cannot rely on the disputed existence of God to prove a disputed immortality.
The Freedom Of The Will
In several of his works my friend Professor Haeckel, whose fine and vigorously honorable character was personally known to me, gives God, Freedom and Immortality as the three fundamental religious beliefs. They are. And it is unfortunate for the believer that the independent experts on these subjects are overwhelmingly against him. Few philosophers believe in a personal God. Few psychologists believe in free will or personal immortality.
I can imagine a religious reader saying to himself that in this case at least he does not care a rap about the experts. He will quite understand that I am nowhere trying to intimidate him with the authority of experts. I merely ask him to reflect on the significance of the fact that all or the majority of the men who have devoted their lives to a particular study are against him, and that on his side are only preachers with poor training and little knowledge.
But what he will reply here is that the best expert on himself is he himself. He knows whether or not he has free will, he says. When it comes to a question of his summer holiday, he is free to choose between ten different places. He pleases himself whether he wears a straw or a felt hat, whether he is a Republican or a Democrat.
And if man has this pure power of choice between alternatives, his mind is not of the order of material realities. There is no freedom for matter. It goes where it is pushed or pulled. Even the moth which flies round the candle is ruled by a purely mechanical principle. If man is free, if his will can act without compulsion or coercion from any power or motive, then man does stand out from all the rest of the universe, and the law of death may not be for him. His mind must be an indissoluble spirit.
But plain folk must recollect that psychologists have just the same consciousness as they have, and have a far greater ability to analyze it. They have been analyzing and disputing about this apparent consciousness of freedom for a century. And they are now generally agreed that it is an illusion. Surely that has some significance.
Let us take it in our own way. When you say that you are free to choose — say, between the train and the surface car, or between the movies and the theater — you are using rather ambiguous language. All common speech for expressing mental experiences is loose and ambiguous. You have the two alternatives — movies or theater — in your mind. You hover between them. You do not feel any compulsion to choose one or the other. Then you deliberately say to yourself — not realizing that you have thereby proved the spirituality of the soul, which has made apologists perspire for centuries — “I choose Greta Garbo.”
Well, let us examine it patiently. In the ordinary acts of life you behave automatically. You don your clothes and shave and eat and walk, and even work, in a mechanical way. The motive arises, by routine, at the proper moment, and the action follows. It is only in graver things — such as whether you shall go to see Greta Garbo or Bebe Daniels — that you use your freedom. To be quite accurate — am I not right? — it is only when two or more motives seem to have about equal force that you are conscious of your freedom. If one motive, if the reason for doing one action, is palpably stronger than the reason for doing the alternative, you do not hesitate. The “will” follows or acts on the stronger motive.
Why, you ask, do I put “will” in inverted commas? It may shock you to know that psychologists are not sure that there is such a thing. You may be surprised to know that your “will” is only a theory. What you are really conscious of is a series of acts. It is just a theory of yours that there is a thing you call your will behind them.
Well, to come back to the “acts of will.” When you hesitate between two courses, do you for a moment doubt that your will eventually follows the one which seems to you wiser or more profitable? Yes, I know. Just to prove your freedom you may choose the less wise course. But in that case you merely have a new motive thrown into the scale. Your “will” always follows the weightier motive. How, then, is it free? All that you are conscious of is the hesitation of your mind, because for a time one motive balances the other. They may remain so balanced that you do nothing, or leave it to others to decide. But if you do decide, you are merely conscious that the battle of motives is over and the stronger carries your will.
But, you ask, what about moral responsibility? What about praising and blaming people for their conduct? What about crime and its punishment? Is not our whole social and moral system based upon the theory that a man is responsible for his actions?
Again we have a tangle of rhetoric, which we must unravel, and some serious questions which we must seriously discuss,
The reader who is genuinely alarmed about crime and criminals, either on account of sermons be has heard or from his own reflections on the subject, ought to study the statistics of crime. In such matters it is the facts that count. He will find that crime has steadily decreased during the whole modern period when free will and religion have been just as steadily abandoned. The greatest reformers in the treatment of crime, the men who have done more than any others in initiating measures which led to its reduction — Beccoria, Bentham, Lombroso — were Rationalists who did not believe in free will. It is a century and a half since their ideas began to be adopted, and in proportion as they were adopted, crime has diminished.
In the United States crime is abnormally high. But this is no reflection on the normal character of the American, which is finer than it ever was before, and is as fine as any in the world. The very large figures of crime are due to Political conditions. In England and other normal civilizations, where there is at least an equal amount of unbelief, crime has been reduced by fifty per cent and it is now at its lowest level.
So much for the pulpit cry that we are in danger of an orgy of crime and violence. But, you will say, we cannot logically blame the criminal if he has no free will.
What does it matter? The practical point is that you can make unsocial conduct or crime very unattractive to the man who may be disposed to indulge in it. The sentence inflicted today is not so much a punishment. It is not the revenge of society for an injury done to it. The penal system is now an intimidation. We lodge in the mind of the possible criminal a very strong motive to deter him.
The cat which steals your chop or your chicken has no free will. You admit that. Well, do you take it in your arms and say: “Poor dear, you only acted according to your nature?” And are you logical if, on the contrary, you thrash it, to teach it propriety? When you pat on the head the dog or the horse that has done good service, and so encourage it to repeat its performance, are you acting foolishly? You know better. Good feeling as a reward of good conduct is a new motive to the will. The frown or the stroke of society is a deterrent.
So far it is easy. Determinism, or the theory that denies free will, has no social consequences whatever, except good ones. When we grasp the real nature of the criminal, we treat him more wisely. We are, on Determinist principles, slowly eliminating him.
Candidly, it is not so easy to talk about praise and blame and responsibility in other than criminal matters. When you have a social practice founded upon thousands of years of wrong ideas the readjustment is not easy. But it is really only a question of reading a new shade of meaning into the words.
It is clear that we can still imprison or otherwise annoy people who act criminally, though we do not “punish” them in the old sense. It is just as clear that a man is responsible to his fellows for any evil consequences of his acts, and, since the moral law is social law, he has moral responsibility. I mean that society has just as much right to protect itself from breaches of those laws which we call moral — such real moral laws as truthfulness and justice — as it has against breaches of common law, and for this purpose it can quite sensibly use the system of reward and punishment which we call praise and blame. We praise or blame the act, because of its consequences. We know quite well that there was no free will in it.
Did you ever applaud Tetrazzini or some great actor or actress? Did you ever cheer an athlete? There was no free will in the performance. A singer happens to have an exceptionally good larynx; an athlete to have some abnormal muscle or nerve. But what would you say if a man in black rose in the audience and said: “Don’t applaud. These people are not responsible for their gifts.”
Well, tell that to the next man in black who says that we cannot on Determinist principles praise or blame conduct. Until good or social conduct is automatic, as it will be one day, society has every right to smile encouragement or frown its disapproval. The price of a lie shall be an unpleasant quarter of an hour. As long as we have something of the nature of the cat left in us, we may be treated as even a humane person. treats a cat.