The Story Of Religious Controversy
The Triumph of Materialism
- Materialism and Idealism
- What Is Matter?
- The Supposed Vital Principle
- The Human Machine
- The Mystery of Consciousness
- Determinism and Morals
FIFTY years of exceptionally industrious and varied study have emboldened me to form a little mental picture of reality.
I have, despite appearances, a sense of humor which forbids me to say positively that my little mental picture is true: which would mean that it is an exact copy, as far as it goes, of the reality. I have no pride in it, but glance at it occasionally with a cheerful cynicism, knowing that in a few years this labored product of my fifty years of stress and toil will be a whiff of smoke in the furnace of the crematorium down the road. But I have searched the fields of time and space very diligently and have used every kind of guide: the theologian and the philosopher, the scientist and the historian, the poet and the essayist, the utopian and the stern economist. And, if there were some Bank of Eternity in which bets could be registered, I would wager a large share of my heavenly nectar and ambrosia that in a thousand years men will call this the truth about reality.
It is what is commonly called Materialism. To follow the lead of all great thinkers and get as far as possible away from those little bits of reality, those individualities with their individual thrills and throbs about which we make such a coil, let us say that all truth is summed in the two words: Ether exists. Reality is ether. What ether is we do not yet know, except that it curdles into the minute particles or strain-centers which we call electrons and protons, and these form matter, with which our perceptive powers can deal. Stretching to infinity — if there is any real meaning in that word — and running back and forth to eternity — if there is any real meaning in that word — is this mysterious ether; and the matter which is formed from it gathers into great globes which, as they draw in, develop such disturbance in their interior that their substance streams out once more over space, from which it was gathered, until, in the course of billions of years, the equilibrium is restored, and the process begins again. It is a meaningless and monotonous process. It is not a mystery. It is a fact.
Thus I think a God, if there were one “behind the universe” or universes, would see the process with the eternal eye; and he would be very much bored. But there is not one ripple on this material ocean that suggests a spirit breathing upon it, if spirits can breathe upon oceans: there is not one single feature of this reality or of its monotonous processes that compels or persuades us to think of a different reality beyond it.
Before these masses of matter, or stars, melt again into the ether from which they emerge they somehow engender a mind in which the universe becomes conscious of itself and a heart which experiences comedy and tragedy. We have not yet even an elementary understanding of this evolution. Later I will tell why even here I do not admit that we have the least justification in thinking that a different or spiritual reality enters the eternal process. For the moment let me merely affirm — admit — that to me, at least, this consciousness is at present very far beyond our power of explanation, and it gives a dramatic interest to the world-process.
Smaller globes roll round in the vitalizing flood from the stars. On their slimy, steaming surfaces the atoms of matter advance from combination to combination, during millions of years, until the first living specks appear. This starts a new evolution which culminates in the appearance of nerve, and this again an evolution which ends in the appearance of the phosphorescence or fluorescence that we call mind. A new universe, an aggregate of separately conscious beings, appears: is appearing, and is found in every phase of its development, probably on millions of the small globes that dance in the stream of sunshine from the big globes. In time these conscious units get adjusted to each other, and live as harmoniously as do the atoms in the germ of life. In the eye of my imaginary God the total story of life on one of these little globes is a single pulse-beat of the eternal life. From part to part of space the story shifts, running to shorter or greater length as the accidents of time permit. Our human story is one of these monotonous chapters in the unending process of the universe. It is not a mystery, though still full of obscurities for us. It is a mere fact.
That is Materialism. I am not dogmatically affirming it, and do not call myself a Materialist. When one reflects that the study of reality, or science, is only a century old, and has a hundred million years or more to run, it tickles one’s sense of humor to find people dogmatic. Yet I am convinced beyond ever a shadow of doubt that Materialism is true. And the reason is at the same time the explanation of the title of this chapter. The careful study of reality is a hundred years old; and every single discovery we have made in that time has supported Materialism. At the outset two theories of reality, Materialism and Spiritualism, claimed attention. Every one of the millions of discoveries we have made confirms the Materialist and refutes the Spiritualist theory. That is what I call the triumph of Materialism.
There is no other subject which so urgently requires careful and dispassionate consideration. This which I consider the final truth about life and reality is bespattered with mud in all our literature, and even the most learned of the writers who disdain and revile it are guilty of quite elementary confusions of thought. Some fancy, indeed, that I shrink from the epithet Materialist only because it is held in such contempt, but readers of this book will know that I express my sentiments with the candor of a child. I have never the palest doubt that Materialism is true, and how I am supposed to conciliate pious people by preferring to put my frame of mind in these words, rather than use the dogmatic title Materialist, it is difficult to see. But this verbal question will, no doubt, answer itself as we proceed.
For the moment what matters is to glance at the quite absurd zeal of anti-materialists and point out their confusion. The chief cause of the confusion is very simple. When men of science call Materialism absurd, you will generally find that they are masters of physical science, and they have no competence whatever to say whether Materialism is or is not absurd. In their branch of science, the science of matter and energy, Materialism is supreme. The question is whether it is sound in biology, the science of life, and especially in psychology, the science of mind; and on that point your Millikans and Lodges have not an atom of authority. The late Professor Loeb and the living zoologist, Dr. Chalmers Mitchell, know a thousand times more than physicists do on that issue, and they call themselves Materialists. But, of course, when a man is defending religion be need not be as scrupulous as a man who is merely defending Materialism.
The real absurdity is on the other side, and it is a good illustration of what I call the chief fallacy about Materialism. I have noticed some very oracular utterances of Professor Millikan on this subject. It is quite simple, he thinks. First, there must be a Something behind the universe because we have searched for a hundred years and not found anything. I replied to this, with becoming diffidence, that (1) the logical force of the deduction does not seem to me entirely convincing, (2) that it seems to me that our century of search has been in the universe and not behind it. However, I’ve dealt with all that. What concerns us here is Dr. Millikan’s next step: that this Something must be spiritual, because it is the source of “spiritual” realities which unquestionably exist in the universe — love, duty, and beauty. You may think that I am caricaturing the expressions of Dr. Millikan — who is a Doctor of Philosophy (or the art of thinking) as well as a Doctor of Science — so perhaps you would prefer to read his words:
Least of all am I disposed to quarrel with the man who spiritualizes nature and says that God is to him the soul of the universe, for spirit, personality, and all these abstract conceptions which go with it, like love, duty, and beauty, exist for you and for me just as much as do iron, wood, and water. They are in every way as real for us as are the physical things which we handle. … In other words, Materialism, as commonly understood, is an altogether absurd and an utterly irrational philosophy, and is indeed so regarded by most thoughtful men.
When we try to make a consecutive argument out of this unfortunate jumble of words — how, for instance, can abstract conceptions be as real as iron? — it must mean that love, duty, and beauty are “spiritual” realities just as wood and iron are material realities. And that is the root of the fallacy. To assume that they are spiritual, and say that therefore they are aspects of a spiritual soul and affects of a spiritual God, is “altogether absurd and utterly irrational.”
We shall see later why philosophers argue that love, the feeling of duty, and the appreciation of beauty — to express the matter in better English — are spiritual. All that I want to say here is that all this sacred fury against Materialism is based upon the assumption that they are. That is bad enough, but the next step taken by these paragons of clear thinking and austere character is quite childish. Since love and moral feelings and high thoughts and emotions generally are spiritual, it follows, they say, that the Materialist, since he admits matter only, rejects them altogether, and therefore a world won over to Materialism would be a world without love or ideals. One of these brilliant spiritual thinkers, Dr. Warschauer, has drawn out the argument in a way that is almost incredible. He imagines himself sitting next to a Materialist at a concert and, seeing the Materialist enjoy a violin solo, he feels he can, with Christian logic, turn upon the man and say: “There is nothing for you to enjoy — it is only horsehair scraping on catgut!”
That is quite the most bewildering form I have seen given to the argument, but in one form or other it still pervades all our literature. Once we lose our hold on spiritual realities, a woman will have to wear armor and a gun when she goes shopping, our politicians will degenerate, our very professors may lose their delicate sense of responsibility. From California to Maine the beautiful words flow from mellifluous lips and editorial pens, “spiritual realities”; from Palm Beach to Hollywood we are taught to shudder at the prospect of a triumph of Materialism.
And I say that, not only is it a mere assumption that these treasured things are spiritual, but the whole deluge of rhetoric has behind it only one of the most slovenly caricatures of an intellectual process that one can imagine. For this reason: the Materialist does not deny the value of, the need to cultivate, high thoughts and emotions; he merely denies that your theory of their nature is correct. But can the matter really, you ask, be so simple as this? It certainly is. If the whole world concluded tomorrow that thought and emotion are mere functions of the brain, it would not make one iota of practical difference. It is impossible to suggest, in clear English, why it should make a difference, and no one has ever given us a respectable reason for thinking it.
The whole outcry is based upon a fallacy, a double fallacy. One fallacy is that we use the word Materialism in two senses. One is the sense in which I have used it: an intellectual theory of the nature of reality without any practical implications. The other meaning of the word is the opposite to Idealism: the absence of ideals, a gross selfishness. They are two totally different meanings of the word. And the other fallacy is to say that if we come to reject the idea of spirit, we must reject ideals because they are spiritual. It is infantile. There are Materialists, as there are spiritualists, of every type, selfish and unselfish, coarse and refined. Their theory of the nature of mind has, obviously, nothing to do with it. I am, you will say, after the confession I have made, a Materialist; but if any man were to tell me that I cannot on that account prefer temperance and health to drunkenness, cannot ask to have my life warmed with love, cannot think straight and manly action preferable to hypocrisy, cannot feel a keener pleasure in culture and art than in bridge or billiards, I can only retort that he must be the last size in fools. Our age, you will say, or preachers generally say, is Materialistic; and I argue that it is the finest that has yet entered the chronicle of man.
I have already quoted the highest Christian authorities on ancient Greece and Rome to show that their life and idealism were comparable with ours, and that this was due mainly to the Stoics or, in Rome (where the social idealism was greatest), to a blend of Stoicism and Epicureanism. There is, in fact, no other ancient philosophy or religion that the serious theologian studies as a rival to Christianity except Stoicism. But both the Stoics and the Epicureans were dogmatic Materialists. They laughed at the idea of “spirit”! It was a figment of the imagination, they said. And they inspired the world as Christianity utterly failed to do. Next to Zeno and Epicures as practical moralists, as men who really set nations in a higher level of conduct, are Kong-fu-tse and Buddha; and it was the very essence of their teaching that men should cease to concern themselves about souls and gods and spirits. The next great outflame of idealism was in the latter part of the eighteenth century, and it was due to the Materialists of Paris — Diderot, Condorcet, Helvetius, Cabanis, Holbach, etc. Thomas Jefferson, one of the greatest idealists of the early life of the United States, was a dogmatic Materialist. My friend Dr. Loeb was a dogmatic Materialist and an ardent idealist, and every other scholar of modern times who has been described as a Materialist has been an idealist, his manly courage and truthfulness contrasting conspicuously with the conduct of his opponents.
Yet in spite of all the logic and all the teaching of history, this miserable twaddle, this musty piffle, about “the dangers of Materialism,” flows sonorously from every pulpit and is unctuously repeated in dailies, weeklies, and monthlies. It is the classic bunk of our time. It is a clotted mass of fallacies and confusions, a betrayal of complete ignorance of the facts of social history, a piece of verbiage that reflects on the intellectual vitality of every man who repeats it, a crackling of thorns under the pot when one reflects that our age improves in proportion as Materialism advances.
Further fallacies in connection with Materialism — the word seems to have the effect of paralyzing the pious mind — will be noticed as we proceed. We shall see that it is equally absurd and untruthful to say that recent advances in physics have discredited Materialism, or that there has been some mysterious retreat of scientific men from “the Materialism of the last century,” or that Materialism affects conduct by denying the liberty of the will, and so on. The whole subject is as laden with fallacious verbiage as some old post by the sea is with barnacles. I have sufficiently cleared the position for our inquiry. Materialism is neither an inspiration nor the extinction of an inspiration. It has nothing to do with inspiration. It is a theory of the nature of the universe, not a standard for judging the relative values to man of things in the universe. Whether you accept or reject it has no more to do with your esteem of art, culture, and ideals than has your opinion on surplus value or the Einstein theory of gravitation.
The more enthusiastic people are about “spiritual things” the less able you will find them to tell you what spirit is. I invite the reader to try the experiment. Naturally the ordinary believers in spirituality will not be able to give you a definition of spirit, but I predict that if you approach, without giving him time to consult a dictionary, one of those eloquent apostles of, or emphatic writers on, spirituality and ask for a definition of spirit, you will not get one.
Spirit is the opposite of matter and can only be described as such. When mind is said to be spiritual, the only meaning is that it is not material. We have therefore to define matter if we would have a correct idea of the difference between matter and spirit. The most popular definition is that matter is “something which occupies space”; which sounds very satisfactory until you reflect that space is not a sort of empty box into which you put matter — if there were no matter, there would be no space — but an abstract conception. The mathematical definition of a point brings you a little nearer. A point is said in your Euclid to be that which “has parts and no magnitude”; but, unfortunately, it has also no substance. It is an abstract idea. Matter is a substance or reality with parts and magnitude (or “extension” or “quantity”): spirit is a substance or reality with neither parts nor magnitude.
It is worth while reflecting on these definitions and getting a clear idea of them. Even the majority of the men and women who are so zealous about spirituality feel a chill when you bring them down to exact definitions. Can one imagine the vital interests of civilization really depending upon the question whether love and duty are quantitative or non-quantitative realities? You get right to the heart of the tangle of silly confusions in which this whole question of the material and the spiritual is wrapped. You see at once that the only issue of any real importance or interest is, not whether the mind is material or spiritual, but whether it is mortal or immortal, and since the great majority even of the philosophers and psychologists who believe the mind to be spiritual, do not believe it to be immortal, the controversy becomes rather insipid.
But a new source of confusion has been provided by recent advances in physics. Twenty years ago, when radium was discovered and it was found that the atom of matter is composed of electrons, the cry was raised that Materialism was discredited. The “solid atom,” the “indestructible atom,” of “dead matter,” proved to be very much alive, and to be distillable into still tinier particles. Although even university teachers of physics (with a tincture of religion, of course) joined in this cry, it was ridiculous.
If you had asked one of these men to name a couple of Materialists, he would at once have said Professor Haeckel and Dr. Ludwig Buchner. Well, take the two most famous “Materialistic books of these men: Haeckel’s “Riddle of the Universe” and Buchner’s “Force and Matter.” Not only did both men deny that they were Materialists, but both actually predicted that the atom of matter would be found to be composed of tinier particles of something else. Buchner (p. 47) strongly recommends the theory that atoms are compacted, ultimately, of ether, and insists that atoms “consist of units of a higher grade” (p. 49). This was written fifty years before radium was discovered. Haeckel’s “Riddle” was written Just before the discovery of the real nature of atoms, yet he also maintained that the atoms of matter were composed of particles of a simpler substance and that ether is the ultimate reality (p. 77, cheap edition). I may complete this exposure of the absurdity of the spiritual cry of triumph by pointing out that the men who really did call the atom indestructible and final were religious physicists like Clerk-Maxwell and the Christian apologists who built on them; and the reason for it was that in this way they could represent the atom as “a manufactured article” and so prove the existence of a creator! It is one more illustration of the utter superficiality of “spiritual” writers on Materialism.
The discovery that an atom of matter consisted of tinier particles called electrons and protons not only did not cut the ground from under the feet of Materialists, as belated Christian writers still say, but it was precisely part of what I call the triumph of Materialism. Writers who were called Materialists in the nineteenth century — chiefly Buchner, Moleschott, Voyt, and Haeckel expected and hoped for this discovery. The reason is very simple. There is a natural tendency of the mind to seek one ultimate principle, and these writers, seeing that physics spoke of two ultimate substances, matter and ether, were anxious that some closer connection of matter and ether should be established. The discovery of the composition of the atom seemed to be a fulfillment of their hope and prophecy. Many distinguished physicists held that the electrons were centers of condensation or disturbance in ether. Therefore matter was, as I have poetically said, a curdling of either. Ether was the ultimate reality.
Of late years there has been in the sanctuary a fresh cry of triumph that physics has “cut the ground from under the feet of the Materialist.” Scientific men began to say that the electron was a particle of electricity,” and so electricity was the ultimate reality known to us. It was quite absurd to call this, even if it were true, a “death-blow to Materialism.” The electron, whatever it was, had dimensions or quantity. It occupied space. It was measured and was found to have a diameter of five-trillionths of an inch. It weighed eleven octillionths of an ounce. Physicists were quite free, if they wished, to give a new meaning to the word electricity, which had hitherto been spoken of as an “energy,” but quite clearly the electrons were realities or substances which occupied space, or material realities.
But the controversy ran on. In order to explain it I must point out, as I have done at length in my “Marvels of Modern Physics,” that modern physicists are so much engrossed in mathematical reasoning that they are apt to take abstractions for realities. They began to say that there was no proof at all of the existence of ether, and that electrons and protons, the tiny particles which compose the atoms of matter, are “energy.” The ultimate or only reality that they could find, they said, was energy. Some, like Professor Ostwald in Germany, a distinguished Rationalist as well as physicist, wanted us to label ourselves Energists.
To this I objected, and some of my friends in the physical world agree with me that they are entirely changing the meaning of the word “energy.” In every manual of physics “energy” and “force” are still defined as abstract ideas. As Sir Oliver Lodge once said, the only realities known to the physicist are matter and movement; and it would obviously be better to say matter in motion, or moving matter. The physicist sees matter at rest (apparently) or doing work (by movements). Its capacity for doing work is its “energy”; when it is doing work it is displaying “force.” They are defined as abstract ways of regarding the movements of matter.
Physicists may, of course, change the meaning of words in their science when they will, but they did not, and from the philosophical point of view the situation became very peculiar. Some went so far as to say that all they actually perceive in the material world is action”; to which a philosopher, or even a very ordinary person like myself, would justly retort that no one ever saw an action. What you see is an agent, something acting. So, if energy is now to be taken in the sense of something which does work, instead of the abstract capability of something to do work, we are not much disturbed.
This will be clearer if I remind the reader what an atom of matter is now supposed to be. It consists of very minute particles called protons and electrons. Than the very minute diameter of the electron I need say only that the proton is many times smaller. An atom of hydrogen, the lightest matter, consists of one proton and one electron. Heavier atoms have a nucleus or stationary center of protons and electrons, packed together, and a number of electrons at various distances from the nucleus. The easiest way to picture the atom is as a sort of miniature solar system, the nucleus representing the stationary sun in the center, and the electrons revolving at tremendous speed round it. But there is another theory, the Lewis-Langmuir theory, which represents the electrons as gyrating rapidly at fixed distances from the nucleus, not revolving round it. This difference does not concern us.
Now, since both protons and electrons have measurable dimensions, they come under the only acceptable definitions of matter. They are quantitative. They occupy space. You may call them energy or electricity or what you like, but they are the material units of the universe. In recent years the strange discovery has been made that the mass of an electron (the quantity of matter in it) varies with its speed. Even this need not disturb us as, unless it were material, it would obviously not have any mass or quantity to vary. In my own opinion this is one of the strongest proofs that the electron in some way arises out of ether, but this is not the place to discuss the matter. In any case, the proton is a fixed measurable quantity: a material reality. We have so far fulfilled the expectation of the Materialists of the nineteenth century. Atoms are dissolved into more minute and homogeneous particles.
And within the last two years ether has been restored to its position. It would not matter in the least to Materialism if there were no ether. We should just recognize that the universe consisted, in the ultimate analysis, of two different kinds of material units, electrons and protons. In the hottest stars the atoms of matter are broken up into these elements, and they come together again to form atoms as the star cools. Astronomy gives us beautiful illustrations of the evolution of matter itself: and the floods of electrons pour out into distant space, and may some day prove the clue to the origin of the great nebulae from which stars are made. However that may be, Materialism has completely triumphed in astronomy. We have wiped out all traces of that “finger of God” which was formerly supposed to be clearly seen in the heavens.
But the mind has a kind of instinct to seek one fundamental reality, and, moreover, what we call the energies of the universe (light, heat, etc.) could be best explained as ripples or undulations in ether. Physicists and mathematicians had begun to tell us that they needed no ether to understand light and magnetism and electricity, but in point of fact their explanations were not explanations. They were mathematical formulae, and they left a good deal to be desired. If there was nothing except atmosphere (which counts for nothing in this connection) between the antennae of a wireless transmitting station and your receiving wires, no waves in ether or anything of the sort transmitted from the one point to the other, wireless would be a hopeless mystery. If space were entirely empty between the sun and the earth, it would be quite impossible to imagine how the dancing of electrons in the super-heated photosphere of the sun could, as it does, make the face of the earth visible to our eyes and scorch our faces.
We need not pursue this, however. Professor Michelson and Mr. Dayton Miller have, by a most ingenious apparatus, proved that the ether does exist. At the very time when I was venturing to write my complete dissent from the teaching of distinguished physicists and Einsteinians about ether, Mr. Dayton Miller, taking up afresh the apparatus devised by Professor Michelson, was proving the reality of ether. I am, in fact, told by a friend of Professor Michelson’s that that very able American physicist holds that his experiments proved the reality of ether years ago.
It is, at all events, now admitted, and so we have three ultimate realities in the material world: ether, protons, and electrons. All occupy space, or have dimensions or extension. Every single cavil at Materialism in this connection is, therefore, discredited. We have reduced all the infinite variety of matter in the universe to three fundamental types. The chemist reduces all material combinations to ninety-two elements or types of atoms: the physicist shows that these ninety-two different atoms are simply larger or smaller clusters of electrons and protons.
The next step that Materialism would like to see would be the proof that the electrons and protons are specks or condensations or centers of some sort in ether. That would be a grand unification of the material universe, for already we have brought all the so- called energies (light, heat, etc.) into line as electro-magnetic waves set up in ether by vibrating electrons. That would complete the triumph of Materialism in the inorganic world.
That this is the real nature of electrons and protons has been held by many distinguished physicists for years, but it is by no means yet proved. In the picture of the universe with which I opened this chapter I spoke of the science of the future. I said that this will, in my opinion, prove to be the case. The one ultimate reality will prove to be ether, in which arise (and back into which may possibly dissolve) the little centers we call electrons and protons. A prominent physicist suggested long ago that they might be minute vortices or whirlpools in ether, one revolving to the right, the other to the left, thus explaining positive and negative electricity. It is one illustration of the various possibilities. But we must not forget that even if we fail to discover any closer connection between ether and these minute particles — if ether, protons and electrons remain distinct — it makes no difference to Materialism. They are all measurable or quantitative. Materialism has triumphed over every attempt to discredit it on the ground of new discoveries in physics.
Many physicists define matter as that which possesses inertia, or does not move until it is moved. This is not an essential definition. It is simply a description of one aspect of the behavior of what we commonly call matter. A billiard ball will not move until it is pushed. But when we try to work out this in regard to protons, electrons, and ether, we find ourselves checked by the scantiness of our knowledge. This need not disturb us. Ether is obviously, whatever else it may be, something that occupies space, and has parts and magnitude. It is material.
So far we have not been examining attempts to prove that the immaterial or the spiritual exists. No one ever went so far as to claim that matter had been dissolved into spirit or something that was not material. Religious apologists who picked up scraps of physics and represented this did not know what they were talking about. Even if matter had been “resolved into energy,” as some said, or into electricity — which is an absurd statement, as the two billion stars of the universe remain just what they were we should still be in a world of measurable realities. Planck’s quantum theory, which is now generally received in physics, makes energy more material (i.e., more quantitative) than ever.
However, we have cleared up all these misunderstandings, and we have now to consider the arguments of those who hold that the energies or movements of a living thing are due to the presence in it of an immaterial something which they call “the vital principle., We have not to go into all the arguments on this matter, but merely to ask whether the progress of science has favored the Materialist or the opposite theory.
We may simplify the issue by first putting on one side certain controversies which were settled long ago, though many of the “spiritual” writers do not seem to be yet aware of the fact. There is no serious controversy today about the origin of life. Much dust is raised about it by the more ignorant apologetic writers, but it is a legitimate scientific question, and, as the authorities are agreed that the first living things came upon the earth by natural evolution, and the only opposition to this comes from men who rely upon a disputed interpretation of the Babylonian legends in Genesis, we might at once pass on. Some readers may, however, wish to understand precisely what the position is, as they may have Catholic or Fundamentalist friends who still think that there are profound scientific difficulties about the natural origin of life.
Excluding an old suggestion that the germs of life may have come to this globe from other planets, we have only two possible modes of origin: creation or evolution. Seeing that it is now certain that all the higher forms of life were evolved from the lowest, scientific men and all who consult their common sense assume that the earliest living things themselves were evolved from inorganic matter unless there is some intrinsic impossibility. No one has ever shown any. It does not, therefore, matter that we have no direct evidence of the evolution of life or that we cannot make living things in the laboratory today. Scientists can only speculate as to the series of chemical changes by which, in the course of ages, inorganic matter evolved into simple forms of life. Many do speculate on this, and they — chemists like Professor Armstrong or bio-chemists like Professor Benjamin Moore — say that there is no inherent difficulty.
You may simplify the matter in this way. There are two views about the origin of life. One says that the first living things were evolved and on this all the biologists, chemists, and bio- chemists — a formidable body of experts — are agreed. The other view is that the first forms of life were created. The sole ground for saying this is that some theologians hold that the first chapter of Genesis says so. The great majority even of theologians are opposed to them, and we know quite independently that this story of creation is merely an ancient Babylonian guess. Well, your friend may use his common sense and choose. But if his literature tells him that there is any dispute in science about the matter, it is, as usual, lying.
The truth of Materialism here is that, whereas half a century ago scientific men were certainly not agreed upon the subject, and high authorities could be quoted for the creation of life, they are now absolutely agreed upon the evolution of life. Such questions are within the province of the new science of bio-chemistry — the science of the chemistry of living matter — and the effect of its research has been to bring about an agreement.
But this agreement must be properly understood. It does not at all mean that all the experts have become Materialists. Some of them believe that there is in the living organism a directive or controlling principle which is different from ordinary physical or chemical forces. They do not seem to like the word “immaterial” and they often shrink from the phrase “vital principle”; but it comes to the same thing. They believe that there is something in the living organism beyond the gases and earths which compose its body and the chemical and physical properties of those elements.
When you ask what this is, and where it comes from, you get much verbiage and very little satisfaction. Sir Oliver Lodge talks about a sort of “reservoir” of vital energy which may be drawn upon, but it is a mistake to take any notice of what men like Kelvin and Lodge (who are physicists) say on this matter. As to G.B. Shaw, the great popular apostle of the vital principle, which he calls God, you might as well expect clear economic definitions from Billy Sunday or Bebe Daniels as clear statements on such matters from Mr. Shaw. When he tells the world that Vitalism has triumphed, and Materialism been refuted, in the last few years, he is talking nonsense. He really means that a very wordy philosopher in France, Professor Bergson, wrote a popular book, full of errors, on the vital principle a few years ago, which Mr. Shaw approved, but even the philosophers rejected it. What the real scientific authorities say about it Mr. Shaw neither knows nor cares. He hates science.
The position is, then, that a certain number of biologists believe in a vital principle which is not a material force. Where it came from when chemical evolution had prepared the plasm to receive it they barely attempt to explain. No scientific man now believes in creation out of nothing. The idea is justly regarded as childish. In fact, the leading Vitalists of Germany and Britain, and, I suspect, of America (though these are more reticent) do not believe in a personal God. I refer to Professor Driesch and Dr. J. Haldane. The general feeling of the Vitalist scientists is that this vital principle or energy exists in nature just as electricity or magnetism does. It is supposed to control the physical forces of the body, to direct them in the germ when they are building up the body, and so on.
Before we examine this idea, we must notice a statement of Dr. Osborne in “The Earth Speaks to Bryan.” It has been quoted all over America and throughout the English-speaking world as an emphatic assurance on the part of a distinguished man of science that scientific men have in large part abandoned their earlier Materialism and come to believe in an immaterial vital principle. Unfortunately for his credit, Dr. Osborne ventured to give names, and one is amazed at the slovenliness of his statement. His list includes Dr. Millikan (a physicist, who knows next to nothing about Vitalism), Professor Eucken (a German religious philosopher who knows still less), Professor J.B.S. Haldane, author of “Daedalus” (confusing the father, Dr. J. Haldane, a Vitalist, with the son, Dr. J.B.S. Haldane, who wrote “Daedalus,” and is emphatically not a Vitalist), and Dr. Walter Rathenau (a German business man who is entirely innocent of such matters). These are supposed to be proofs that experts on biology are abandoning Materialist views and returning to Vitalism! There is no return. The few experts whom Dr. Osborne could legitimately quote as Vitalists — MacBride, A. Thomson, J.A. Haldane, etc. — were Vitalists twenty years ago, and have never been otherwise.
Religion is always at the back of these strained and inaccurate statements of scientific men. Twenty years ago Lord Kelvin, the eminent British physicist, made the same statement in London. He said that “modern biologists were coming once more to the acceptance of something and that was a vital principle.” He was at once flatly and publicly contradicted by the three leading authorities in Britain at the time, Sir J. Burdon-Sanderson, Sir W.T. Thiselton-Dyer, and Sir E. Ray Lankester. The latter said: “I do not myself know of anyone of admitted leadership among modern biologists who is showing signs of coming to a belief in the existence of a vital principle.” He would say the same today to Professor Osborne. There is no change. A small minority of biologists believe in a vital principle, and have always done so. There is no desertion of Materialism.
In point of fact, if you survey a period of, say seventy years, since the appearance of Darwin, you must admit the triumph of Materialism. In the middle of the last century the overwhelming majority of the biologists and physiologists were Vitalists. The great majority are now Anti-Vitalists. They are not Materialists — they do not pronounce on the nature of the human mind, on which they have no authority — but they reject the idea of a vital principle in plants and animals. This immense change in about half a century from a large majority in favor to a large majority against Vitalism may justly be considered another triumph of Materialism.
One very good reason for the change in the direction of Materialism is that no one can give us an idea of this vital principle which is intellectually satisfactory. You see this plainly in the different names that are given to it by different Vitalist writers; in fact, they now even dislike the word Vitalist, and call themselves Neo-Vitalists. But the “new” theory has just the same difficulties as the old. “Vital Force,” as this immaterial something used to be called, and Mr. Shaw still calls it, is a crude expression. A “force” is not a reality and does not do things. “Vital Principle” is merely an evasion. “Vital Urge” (Bergson’s glan vital) is still worse. Some even go back to Aristotle and dig up the old Greek word “Entelechy.” Others play with “Directive Idea,” and so on. There is obviously something uncomfortable about the whole theory.
There are three very sound general reasons for this uneasiness of the Vitalists. The first is that they are merely building upon our ignorance, which is always unsafe and generally illogical, for what is obscure today may be lit up tomorrow. Whatever Vitalists or Neo-Vitalists say, there is only one valid argument for dragging in a vital principle: that there is something in the life of an organism which the physical and chemical properties of its body cannot explain, so we postulate some other kind of agency to explain it. The weakness of this is clear. What we really mean is, not that physical and chemical qualities will not explain something, but that we with our present knowledge of those qualities cannot explain it. But our knowledge is growing daily. The Materialist can afford to wait. In point of fact, the majority of biologists prefer to wait. When our knowledge of the physical properties of living matter is much more extensive than it is we shall be in a better position to judge. Meantime Vitalism is not an explanation, but an affirmation.
Men like Professor A. Thomson, who have somehow become popular oracles on science, pretend that some of the discoveries we have so far made favor Vitalism and not Materialism, and they give a quite wrong impression. Professor Thomson is a religious man — as I said, you generally find religion at the back of these things — and is not an expert biologist, but a lecturer on natural history (the exterior of animals, so to say, not the interior). All that such men can say is that there are still, in spite of a century of research, scores of things that we do not understand in the living body, How an oak tree or a peacock is built up out of a microscopic germ is an obvious case. In spite of Weismannism and Menderism and all the rest I should candidly admit that we do not in the least understand it. There is a great deal of sheer verbiage in these theories of heredity. And we need not select a big and obvious problem like this. The ultimate processes even in the assimilation of food, the contraction of muscles, or the action of nerves, are still obscure.
But how in the name of all that is wonderful does this discredit Materialism? We have learned how to explain thirty things out of fifty, and the explanation is purely mechanical. The remaining twenty are more complicated and at present evade explanation. Surely the common-sense conclusion is that the mechanical explanation of the thirty is a triumph for Materialism, and it gives us some confidence that we shall yet explain the other twenty. Professor Thomson argues that our research into the activity of almost every tissue in the body has brought us to a point where our mechanical explanation fails. If Vitalists think that they light up these obscurities by saying that a mysterious vital principle causes the movements, they are singularly easy to satisfy. A mere word explains nothing. They are imitating the medieval wise-acres who explained the properties of water by saying that they were due to something called “aquosity,” or thought that the life of a cabbage is all explained when you say that it has a “vegetative soul.” The plain truth is that, as we get near the limits of the range of our microscopes, obscurity is bound to begin in every field of research. Already we are developing a super- microscope, an instrument using ultra-violet rays and quartz lenses, and the line of darkness will be pushed back. What power of magnification will anatomists be using in 3000 A.D., not to speak of 3,000,000 AD.?
Another difficulty is that, as the variety of names for the vital principle suggests, no one has ever been quite comfortable about the substantiality of this deus ex machine. Many try to evade the difficulty by calling it an energy, or force, or urge, or even idea. But we are not children. All these things are abstract conceptions, not realities, but certain aspects of realities. Even the word “principle” is mere poetry. This vital agent is either a substance or an aspect of some substance. It is futile to say that philosophers have discredited the word “substance.” What they have discredited is the old distinction between substance and accidents, which enables, a Catholic to believe that the smell and taste of wine can remain when the wine disappears. It is a substance or nothing; and no one cares to face the problem of how an immaterial substance is mixed up with a body. The whole Vitalist and Neo- Vitalist school evades these difficulties and simply offers us phrases.
Thirdly, even if we do not press the preceding difficulty, the theory, when you work it out patiently, brings in far more serious problems than it pretends to solve. It is, as I said, a mystery how a body is developed out of an impregnated ovum, and I can understand a man impulsively saying that there must be something else. But try to work it out. Has this something else a plan of what it has to build? Does it somehow communicate this to the atoms of matter? Does it direct the atoms into place, in the developing nerve or muscle, and how? Does it push them into place as a bricklayer pushes bricks? And how can an immaterial agent push or direct them? And would not the vital principle of even the lowest microbe, which is supposed to do what all the science of our time cannot do — make a living cell — be a greater thing than the mind of an Edison? And so on. Once again the only reply is: evasion. Don’t press, the Vitalists say. Let us talk vaguely about “directive forces” and “vital urges.”
It is a failure from beginning to end, and that failure means the triumph of Materialism. As the next section will show, every explanation that we have really given of vital processes in the course of the last hundred years is a mechanical or chemical explanation. Every discovery has been thrown into the Materialist scale against the Immaterialist. I am old enough to remember scores of obscurities which were once urged against the Materialist — as a Catholic professor of philosophy I myself urged them thirty years ago — and they have all been cleared up on mechanical lines. The logic is all on the side of the Materialist. Understand his position. It is not that today we can give a mechanical explanation of everything. It is that the mechanical principle has so far made all the discoveries we have made and we have no positive reason for supposing that there are any processes in the living thing that it will not in time explain; but, even if there were, it would not follow that the agent at work in them was not material.
Many of my readers will have read “The Outline of Science” and may remember one of the leading articles in it entitled “The Body Machine”: a summary of the anatomy and physiology of the human body. I wrote that article. Professor A. Thomson, who succeeded me in the editing of the work, and suppressed my name, merely appended to my article, which he used, a note in the interest of his Vitalist views, warning readers not to take the word “machine” literally. But the article remains a most instructive summary of all the wonderful things that have been discovered about the animal body and its life by working on mechanical lines. Nothing was ever discovered by means of Vitalist principles.
Here some reader might remind me that Professor Bergson was supposed by many to have thrown a great deal of light on living nature in his “Creative Evolution” by means of Vitalist principles. Not one single phenomenon in nature was explained by him. He followed the usual Vitalist or mystic procedure. Here is some piece of behavior on the part of an animal which science cannot explain: let us attribute it to a “vital urge” or “impulse,” and then, of course, it is explained. Those are mere words.
An amusing illustration may be given. The remarkable “instincts” of insects especially fascinated Professor Bergson, as they fascinate mystics generally. Ants, bees, and wasps, particularly, are supposed to afford excellent material to the mystic by their interesting habits. One wasp selected by Professor Bergson was the Sphex, or “wasp-anatomist,” which is popularly described (following the ancient observer of insects, Fabre) as having quite an uncanny knowledge. In order to provide fresh meat for the offspring which it will never see, it is supposed to grasp insects and sting them in their nervous ganglia in such a way as to paralyze their struggles without killing them, and then lay them in the nest with the eggs. How does a wasp come to have this knowledge of the position of the nervous ganglia? The “vital urge,” said Bergson; although, curiously enough, he does not seem to give this vital principle itself any intelligence. However, the point is that some years before Bergson wrote this book, the old story had been corrected. More patient and extensive research on the part of two American observers had shown that the wasp merely jabbed its sting anywhere into its struggling prey; in most cases it did not touch the ganglia.
There are, however, a great many “instincts” of animals, especially of insects, that we cannot explain. I put the word instincts in inverted commas because it is now hardly ever used by scientific men. The idea that there is a “faculty” or something in the bird which “tells” it to build its nest, or in the ant which “tells” it to store food and assign nurses for the eggs, is now abandoned. Instinctive behavior is as automatic as the lifting of your hand when a speck of dust brushes against your eye, or the budding of trees in the spring: the animal receives a certain stimulation, and it reacts to this by movements of its muscles as automatically as a plant grows round an obstacle. In simpler cases we trace the mechanical course of the action quite easily, and we have no reason to suppose that it is other than mechanical even in the case of the ant, the bee, the wasp, or the beaver.
I will give a case which is not wholly simple. A moth enters your room on a summer’s night, sails round and round the room, and finally dashes against the lamp or commits suicide in the candle. The “vital urge” is hard put to explain these things. But it is a simple mechanical action. The moth is a flying machine with motors for both sides of the body and an eye for each side. The light falling on one eye stimulates the motor for one side, and it sails round the room, just as a boat would with only one of its two screws going. Let the moth, however, chance to face the candle in its erratic movements. The light then falls equally on both eyes, stimulates both motors, and the moth heads straight for the light.
We have explored and explained a very large amount of animal and plant behavior on these mechanical lines, for light is only one of a number of different stimulations. Hundreds of thousands of experiments along these lines have been tried, and a vast amount of animal “psychology” has been explained. Some of the highest authorities now question whether insects have any consciousness whatever. That they have no “intelligence” was settled by experiment long ago. They seem to be, in the language of modern physiology, simply chemical machines.
The human body is full of mechanisms like any other body, though in our case intelligence has generally superseded instinct. From the moment, for instance, that food enters the mouth — indeed from the moment when appetizing food meets the eye or tickles the nostrils — until the moment when the nutritious particles are assimilated and the refuse ejected, a long series of most intricate and ingenious mechanisms is called into play. From the moment when light falls on the eye, or waves of sound break upon the ear-drum, or particles of odorous matter enter the nostrils, until the hand is raised for appropriate action, there is another series of mechanisms at work. But nerve is much more difficult to understand than muscle or gland, and the nerve-stuff in the brain, which is the most complicated matter in the universe, is even more difficult to explain. Significant, isn’t it, that the Vitalist finds his phenomena just where the material structure is most obscure?
But even here all progress is in the Materialist direction. Take the problem of embryology. From a fertilized ovum (or egg- cell) in a woman’s womb there is developed in the course of nine months that most amazingly complex structure, the human body. Although Mendelist science has certainly helped us in some ways in discovering that there are special particles in the germ for each section of the body that is to be constructed, it is futile to say that we are appreciably nearer understanding how a germ creates a body. But some very remarkable work has been done in what is called “experimental embryology,” and it does not in the least favor the idea that there is an immaterial principle in the germ which directs the physical and chemical forces.
One striking result of experiment is the discovery that we can dispense entirely with the male germ, or spermatozoon. The reader will know that a female ovum does not begin to split up and begin to form a body until a male cell enters and blends with it. This was naturally thought to be the explanation of the fact that the young inherits from the father as well as the mother. Both germs were thought to be of equal importance. But scientists were astonished when they discovered that if the ovum is pricked with a needle — other mechanical or chemical stimulations have the same effect — it begins to divide just as if it had been fertilized by a male, and it goes on to form a complete normal body. Star-fish and sea-urchins are the animals most commonly used in these experiments, as it is easy to control the sperm, but Professor Loeb found that frogs’ eggs could be “fertilized” in the same way, and he sent me a photograph of a two-year-old frog, normal in every respect, which he had produced from an egg without a father. Up to what level in the animal world we can produce this result we do not yet know. The imagination reels at the conjecture that we may yet accomplish it with the human ovum.
In many other ways experimental embryologists have brought out the essentially mechanical nature of the construction of a body from a germ. Dual animals, half animals, and all kinds of perversions and distortions of the embryonic process, have been caused. It is not simply that the experimenter is interfering with the attempt of some immaterial force in the germ to realize a plan. He is interfering rather with mechanical forces and so misdirecting their play that they cause all kinds of monstrosities. Experimental physiology — experiments on the living body of adult animals of the lower (and unconscious) types such as sea-anemones, worms, etc. — has led to similar results. The working of the forces inherent in the organism is altered just as mechanically as we can alter the combination of chemicals.
This mass of research and experiment, which in every particular confirms the Materialist view of the animal organism, has been strongly reinforced in recent years by the discovery of the ductless glands. There has been such an extensive public interest in one pair of these glands, the thyroid glands, that the reader will have some idea of what we mean by these ductless or endocranial glands. They are very small glands in the interior of the body which secrete from the blood minute quantities of certain substances, or manufacture these substances from the chemicals they extract from the blood, and they then pour the result directly into the blood-stream. The circulation of the blood carries these precious essences through the system until they reach the organs for which they are intended. The tissues of these organs extract them from the blood as it flows through, and are stimulated. As a scientific writer said, it is a kind of postal service in the body. We have long known that in our nerves we have a telegraphic system. Now we know that in these hormones (as the mysterious essences produced by the glands are called) we have also a postal system.
These glands have turned out to possess an importance which, in view of their size, scientific men had never suspected. It has been known for decades that the thyroid glands, in the neck, have a surprising influence on mental vitality, and thyroid extract (generally from sheep) has been used from the beginning of the century in converting cretins (congenital idiots, or children born with abnormally feeble thyroid glands) into normal children. It is an extension of this discovery in recent times which has led to all the popular interest in the glands as a possible means of renewing the vitality of the aged. But it is only in recent years that we have discovered that the thyroids are only one of a number of pairs of small glands, or single glands, which have a remarkable importance. There are the thymus glands (which regulate nutrition and blood-pressure in the young), the parathyroid glands (which help to keep the balance of nerve and muscle, and are essential to life), and the adrenal glands (which control the blood and help to resist poison, and also are essential to life). Then, in the brain, are the pituitary body, which seems to control growth (especially of the bones), and the pineal body, which seems to have an influence on bodily and mental development. Some of these minute organs are probably what we call vestigial organs,” or vestiges of organs which were useful in a different way in a remote animal ancestor. Their evolutionary significance as such remains just the same, although they have taken on new functions.
Corresponding to these glands are the minute quantities of chemicals in our food which we call vitamins. Some of them are a kind of special diet of the glands, and are correspondingly important. When we have mastered the chemical constitution of vitamins and hormones — when we can produce either the vitamins or the gland-products in the chemical laboratory — we shall be able to work wonders. The moron can be doctored out of existence, and it may transpire that we can raise everybody’s mental level. All that I am concerned with for the moment, however, is that this discovery merely crowns a long series of discoveries which tell in favor of Materialism. We are extending the mechanical explanation of the life of the body every decade. We are discovering new mechanisms which explain what were thought to be mysterious vital functions. We have found that the milk appears in a mother’s breast just when it is needed because the foetus secretes and passes into the mother’s blood a certain chemical which stimulates her milk-glands. In every department of the body we are finding such mechanisms, and there are few physiologists in the world who will now admit that a “vital principle” is needed or would explain anything if we admitted it. The whole progress of physiology has been a triumph of Materialism. Science is still young, and plenty of obscurities remain, but all that we have actually discovered is mechanical. The Materialist has thousands of facts to support him. The Vitalist builds only on obscurities, or on things not yet discovered.
Physiologists prefer to say that they give a “mechanical” rather than a “Materialist” explanation of life, because Materialism means a comprehensive philosophy of the universe. It means that spirit does not exist anywhere. With that the physiologist is not concerned. The mental life of man does not fall within his province. It is the subject of psychology. What the physiologist says is that by his research he has explained the greater part of the life of the body as the functioning of a system of mechanisms: he has never made any discovery or explained anything on Vitalist lines: and he has every logical reason to believe that the remaining obscurities will be cleared up on mechanical lines. It is quite absurd to allege that there is a revival of Vitalism amongst biologists or physiologists just at the time when we have discovered a new and more remarkable set of mechanisms, the ductless glands, in the body. That discovery is the strongest of all encouragements to Materialism.
When we thus speak of the body as a machine or mechanism of which life is the function, the inexpert reader is apt to be misled. He thinks of the metallic machines with which he is familiar. In fact, even the apologetic writers, who know hardly more of these matters than the general public does, make the same mistake and say very foolish things. How, they scornfully ask, can a machine reproduce itself, or even repair itself? It is a very superficial jibe. They are thinking of a steel or aluminum or copper machine. By machine in biology we mean a coordinated material structure, its various parts working in harmony, but of such very different material from rigid metals that its action depends essentially on the chemical changes in its elements. We mean a chemical machine. How even this can reproduce itself we do not yet know, but, as I said, to suppose that there is an immaterial principle in it does not help us in the least, and all experiment goes to show that the building of the new body is a mechanical process.
The Materialist has, therefore, every reason to believe that the world of life is as material as what we call the physical or inorganic world. No sound reason has ever been given to suppose that life is due to an immaterial principle. The serious outstanding question is the nature of mind. For the Materialist mind or consciousness is a function of the brain. Even writers who ought to know better sometimes disdainfully speak of this theory as a bit of the discarded Materialism of the last century, or even the eighteenth century. It is, on the contrary, the express conviction of more distinguished men of science in our time than it was in the last century. I have already cited Dr. Loeb and Dr. Chalmers Mitchell.
My own attitude is clear from what I have said. It seems to me that we have not, as Loeb pressed me to admit, proved that mind is a function of the brain or explained consciousness as such; but our progress in the explanation of mind all tends in that direction, and I have not the least doubt but what Dr. Chalmers Mitchell (following an older writer) says today — that the brain produces thought as surely as the liver produces bile — will be amply proved in time. Here I can give only a few general considerations which will help the reader to think clearly on the subject.
The chief enemy of Materialism here is philosophy. Metaphysicians or philosophers are always anti-Materialistic, and, as they are supposed to be our “thinkers” in the highest sense of the word, the reader may be much impressed by their general opposition to Materialism. The man of science, of course, does not care two pins about their opposition. He (as Sir E. Ray Lankester did) defines philosophy as equal to the effort of a blind man in a dark room to hit a black cat which isn’t there. As an old professor of philosophy I am better aware of its value as a mental training, but the fact is that it makes no discoveries. It is a collection of antagonistic theories. I once invited a philosopher with whom I was engaged in controversy to fill a single sheet of note-paper with truths on which all philosophers are agreed. He declined to attempt it. Science, on the other hand, could fill a library with discoveries or truths on which all the experts are agreed.
But if the philosophers are at least agreed that the mind is a spirit, we must surely pay serious attention to them on that point. This is not at all so obvious as it seems. What is spirit? As I said in the first section, spirit can only be defined as something that is not material, and therefore what the philosophers unanimously assert is really this: that thought is not a product or function of the material brain. Well, what do they know about the brain? There is not a single living philosopher who has a respectable command of our actual scientific knowledge of the brain. They disdain science just as science disdains philosophy.
Now if I am right in my way of putting the issue, this physiological ignorance on the part of the philosophers means that half the dogmatic talk about the mind as a spirit rests on a very unsafe basis. Mind is either a function of the brain or it is the activity of something which, though bound up with the brain, is not material. By all the rules of logic and common sense we are bound to assume that it is a function of the brain until proof is given that it cannot be such. Let me emphasize the fact that the Spiritualist is really making a dogmatic negative statement. In fact, both sides are: and that is why I prefer Agnosticism in such matters. The Materialist says that spirit does not exist: and at least he has this in his favor that philosophers and theologians have been trying for two thousand years to prove its existence and have not succeeded. The Spiritualist makes the dogmatic statement that the brain could not produce thought and therefore we must introduce spirit.
This is, of course, not the actual way in which philosophers argue; that is to say, when they do condescend to argue on this point, for as a rule they just assume that the mind is a spirit. We might take Professor Eucken as a good illustration. He teaches at Jena, where Professor Haeckel was the most respected personality, and consequently Eucken was compelled by Haeckel’s influence to attempt to prove, instead of assuming, that mind is a spirit. What is the proof? It is a vague claim that the world of ideas and emotions which we perceive through our consciousness is of a “different order,” or on a “different plane,” from the world of material realities. One set of realities is “qualitative” and the other “quantitative.” Arguments of this vague kind would not be admitted in science. They are no better for attaining truth than they would be in the detection of crime or the promotion of business. We always come back to the same point. Thoughts and emotions are of a different or a qualitative order only in the sense that we have not yet proved them to be quantitative.
Here we are at the heart of the real mystery or obscurity of consciousness. We look outward upon a world of moving masses of matter which can be weighed and measured. Then we look inward, or reflect, and we find a world of mental acts to which no material standard seems to apply. They are two different orders of reality, say the philosophers. The basis of one is material reality and of the other spiritual reality. That is really the only argument for spirit. But it begins to weaken the moment you press it. The Materialist suggests that thought is a function of the brain, and here you at once get a difference. To return to Professor Millikan’s arrogant language about Materialism, when he says that love and duty and beauty are as real as iron and wood, you see the fallacy at once. Iron and wood are realities or substances: thoughts and emotions are functions of a reality (whether material or spiritual) or substance. Naturally we will find a difference.
This is well illustrated by the developments of modern psychology. My readers will have noticed that I have not all the respect for that science which it at present enjoys. In taking mind for its object it has taken the most obscure phenomenon in the universe, and it gets out of the difficulty at many points by giving verbal instead of real explanations. There is a very great deal of empty verbiage in what is called psychology. It is as yet only half scientific: the other half is metaphysical. But the serious and substantial progress of psychology is significant. It began as the science of mind, and mind was a spirit. Before the end of the nineteenth century it was no longer the science of mind, but of mental phenomena or states of consciousness. It ceased to talk about an underlying something, a mind or spirit of which these ideas and emotions were acts. Now it barely notices even consciousness. It deals with a world of psychic units and has no interest in such old questions as the nature of mind or the spirituality or immortality of mind.
I regard this as a triumph of Materialism. The very science which set out to apply our modern exact methods of research to the mind has failed to see any evidence of spirit. It refuses to discuss the nature of the acts which it describes and classifies and correlates. It thus leaves them as quite possibly what the Materialist supposes: not realities, but functions of a material reality. Sooner or later psychology will be forced, because it is a science, to take some notice once more of those questions. We do, after all, want to know what mind is. We want to know what is the relation of mental phenomena to other things in the universe. We want to know why all these atoms of psychic life, these ideas and emotions, are so very intimately connected that each of us is convinced that they are acts or possessions of his own single personality. Our consciousness tells us this as clearly as it tells us that they exist. We want to know why each particular collection of ideas and emotions — mine and yours — began twenty or fifty years ago, and just when, as witnesses tell us, the brain began, and made progress in clearness and efficiency just as it did.
All these inquiries so strongly suggest that the brain is the only basis of mental life, that some philosophers take refuge in what is called idealism. Mind alone exists, they say: matter is only an idea in the mind. No group of philosophers is more supercilious about Materialism than these Idealists, but their position is really absurd. It is humorous to find such thinkers imagining themselves “profound” and saying that Materialists are “superficial.” Such a science as astronomy is a fairy-tale for children, and all astronomical research is a waste of time, if the universe exists only in the mind. History is merely another dream on which time is wasted. Literature and art are colossal illusions. If I cannot get beyond my own mental world, then I composed “Hamlet” or the “Iliad” or Kant’s “Critique” or the “Kreutzer Sonata.” And it is no use thinking that some modified version of this Idealism must or may be held. The very essence of science is precise measurement and perfectly definite description of objective reality. Unless our study of electrons and protons in an atom is a study of external reality in every detail it is a waste of time.
We have, therefore, on the spiritual side only the complete failure of psychologists to find any other basis than the brain for the unity and connectedness of each individual’s mental life, and the complete failure of philosophers to prove that the mind is something more than a function of the brain. On the Materialist side we have hundreds of things which suggest that mind is only a function of the brain. More than half a century ago Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing as a medical man, published a most effective little work (“Mechanism in Thought and Morals,” 1871) on these lines, showing how mind varied with the brain as faithfully as the shadow varies with the body that casts it. This evidence could be doubled or trebled today. Haldane says in his “Daedalus” (p. 34) that during the war the German scientists discovered that a dose of acid sodium phosphate enormously increased a man’s vitality, and it is now taken habitually by thousands of people. Cocaine is another example. But more important even than these are the thyroid and pineal glands which I mentioned in the last section. And still more important is the fact of the evolution of mind which I discuss in other books. From the microbe to Shakespeare there has been a quite continuous evolution of mind. There is no sudden advance anywhere to suggest that a “spirit” has at that point been introduced into the universe. Evolution, like all great discoveries, is entirely on the side of the Materialist.
If it is said that these things only prove the dependence of mind on brain, which everyone admits, we may again contrast the Materialist and the Spiritualist positions. The Materialist position is clear and free from verbiage, Mind is a function of brain, so this intimate correspondence is natural. But on the Spiritualist side no one has ever been able to give even an elementary explanation of it. All that we get are figures of speech, and every one even of these is inept. We are told usually that the relation of mind and brain is like that of musician and his instrument. There is, even in the Spiritualist hypothesis, not the slightest analogy. The musician is distinct from the instrument and works it by physical contact. If you say that it is the mind of the musician which works it, you simply come back to the starting point: is mind a spiritual reality, or do you really mean that the musician’s brain plays the instrument? No one has the least idea what a spirit is, how it can be bound up with matter, how it can possibly move matter, why a spirit should be more capable of thinking than a brain is, what the function of the brain really is if it is not thought, and so on, and so on. The spirit-hypothesis explains nothing and creates scores of problems.
These “profound” people make me smile. They are playing with mere words half their time. The Materialist sticks to realities. Where the realities are still obscure he can afford to wait. All progress is in his favor. If a logician dealt with the question in the abstract, and summed up all the discoveries which suggest that mind is a function of brain, be would say that the chances are a thousand to one in favor of the Materialist. That is where I prefer to leave the matter. Is it necessary to have any ‘ism? If you think so, it seems much safer to choose Materialism. It has triumphed in every discovery we have made. But many will prefer, like myself, to say just that, and leave the job of putting a definite label on the entire universe to the scientific men of the year 3000 A.D. or even 30,000 A.D. The race will still then be in its infancy.
A few reflections must be made on the question whether Materialism would not lead to demoralization because it implies Determinism or the denial of free will.
Most of us are unmoved by these attempts to prove that this or that will lead to demoralization. The Individualist is sure that Socialism means ruin, and the Socialist that it is the only means of social salvation. The Protestant despairs of the future of society if Catholicism makes any progress, and the Catholic is supremely confident that his faith is beneficent. And so on. You have the same flat contradiction between the opponents and the defenders of nearly every creed or theory. A hundred years ago conservatives predicted ruin from democracy and every one of the things that has actually improved the world. And against these scores of different prophets of demoralization rises the sufficient fact: there is no demoralization.
We must, however, devote a few pages to this question of free will, though most of the anxiety about it which apologists profess is entirely insincere. And the first point is that the proper experts on this supposed liberty of the will are our psychologists, and it would be difficult to quote a modern psychologist who believes in it. They have come to this conclusion, not in virtue of any general theory of the nature of the mind such as Materialism, but because modern psychology analyzes mental processes more deeply than philosophers ever did. They are men of science. They realize that the witness to our freedom which consciousness is supposed to give us is not at all a clear and unambiguous testimony; that the words “free will” are found on analysis to be loose in their meaning; and that the claim of free will means in the last resort something which is impossible.
What do I mean when I say that my mind assures me that I have “free will”? Let me say first that “will” in the old sense is not recognized in modern psychology. The mind has no such “faculties” as the older psychologists used to describe. As I have already said, modern psychology goes, perhaps, a little too far when it sweeps aside the mind as well as the faculties, and recognizes only acts. An act implies an agent. However, we need not discuss that point here. What I mean when I say that I have free will is that I can go to town by train, street-car, or automobile, as I choose; that I can spend my vacation at any one of a hundred places the names of which lie before me; that I can buy a bottle of wine or some other illicit pleasure if I choose, and avoid it if I choose. There is, I say, no compulsion.
That is just the point. There is no compulsion of which you are directly conscious, yet the moment you begin to analyze the testimony of your own mind you see that the matter is not so simple. You have five dollars to spare, let us say, and you reflect that you may (1) go to a good show, (2) visit a young lady, or (3) buy something for your wife. You are free to choose, and, when you act, it is on your uncompelled decision. But in this you go beyond the real witness of your consciousness. All that it tells is that your mind hesitates between the three, and that eventually one is accepted. Most of our actions are automatic. Even where there is a slight hesitation — between the street-car and the train — the action is plainly automatic. In your mind, possibly subconscious mind, the motives or inducements are fairly equal, but one prevails. And, no matter how long you hesitate, feeling a sort of lordly dominion over your actions (just because none of the alternatives is so definitely more attractive than the others as to issue at once in action), the end is the same. There was a motive for your action. It was no more “free” than when you rubbed your knee after knocking it against a chair. The only difference is that in the latter case there is no alternative course of action to check your impulsive movement. But your act, even if you deliberate for hours, has a motive. The brain-process which initiates your action has an antecedent brain-process which is the motive or cause of it; and this much would have to be recognized even if you believed the mind to be a spirit.
The strongest motive wins in a struggle. You may say that, just to prove your freedom, you will choose the alternative which seems to you less attractive; but you have merely thrown into the scale a new motive. A free act in the sense in which theologians use the word would be an uncaused act. They are not even consistent with their own principles. They evade the very difficult question, how spirit can act on matter, by pleading that spirit does not act on matter, but with matter, as soul and body are substantially united; then, when they come to free will, they want us to admit a series of nerve-processes (leading to the muscular movement or act) initiated by the soul alone! It is not only inconceivable, but false. The nerve-process which represents the victorious motive initiates the executive nerve-processes; and the testimony of our consciousness is quite consistent with that scientific interpretation of what takes place.
Equally futile is the contention that we cannot punish criminals or children unless we grant them liberty of will. As regards children, the age-old practice of punishment is a relic of barbarism. I have raised four fine children and never punished one, even with my tongue. Others tell me that there are children who need punishment. I wonder. In some of the special schools of America for such children marvels have been done by intelligent treatment where years of punishment were merely making a criminal. The whole practice is dying. Even if there are cases, which I doubt, in which a child cannot be deterred from wrong-doing except by punishment, to administer such punishment would not in the least be inconsistent with Determinism, as I will show presently. But probably there is no real need. Not so very long ago it was generally thought that a wife must be beaten occasionally. Our modern sentiment is that the man who lays a finger on his wife is a beast. We are beginning to think the same about children.
Children’s acts are, in any case, automatic, and it may be thought that the adult criminal offers a more serious problem. Not at all. The whole tendency of modern penology is to soften the rigor of punishment for crime, and everywhere, except where special political conditions give rise to abnormal circumstances in America, crime is rapidly decreasing. This problem of crime and religion I consider in another book, and all that I need note here is that, even if we decide that severe punishment is necessary for the repression of crime, the matter has nothing to do with Determinism. The punishment is no longer regarded in any civilization as vindictive. It is deterrent — or else it is unjust. When all men believed that God inflicted punishment for sin, obviously not as a deterrent, but as vindictive punishment for “wounded majesty,” society naturally dealt with its rebels in the same way. We do so no longer. The only question with us is whether the attaching of a certain penalty to theft or violence is not a good means of deterring men from crime who might otherwise be disposed to commit it.
Of rewards we say the same thing; though here again the idea itself conflicts with modern sentiment. In any case the reward is meant to provoke effort. Even in the case of prizes to girls for remaining virtuous, as there are in France, the idea is that the prospect of a hundred dollars or so will be an additional motive in the mental scale, counterbalancing the attractions of a year of liberty. The mind of the pious maid is often so delicately balanced between heaven and the embraces of a lover that a hundred dollars turns the scale: to say nothing of the prestige of having one’s virtue broadcast through the press.
Praise and blame must be regarded in the same light, if any man feels that he must indulge in those moral luxuries. We are growing out of these things, except in the exalted atmosphere of complimentary banquets. To blame an employe has nothing to do with Determinism. It is sound psychological business. To blame one’s husband or wife, or even the husband or wife of a friend, is just as obviously in the nature of a deterrent. Your expostulation becomes an additional motive in his mental balance and may turn the scale on the right side. All such things are, if anything, actions taken strictly on Determinist principles.
But I do not want the reader to imagine that all is clear as noonday in this matter of free will. Every man of strong vitality is conscious of what a modern psychologist has called a “power of self-orientation.” Henley’s lines:
I am the captain of my soul,
or Shakespeare’s “I’ll take up arms against a sea of troubles,” express something that is within our experience. It does not imply free will, in the old sense, for that would mean an uncaused act. What precisely it does mean, and how this seeming power of self- determination has been evolved in an automatic world, are questions of the psychology of the future. The last thing in the universe which the mind will understand is itself. If the mind were a spirit, that would be a paradox. On Materialist principles it is a platitude. For the mind is the function of a structure which is so enormously more complex than anything else in the universe that it will necessarily take longer than anything else to understand. The very obscurity of mental phenomena is a triumph of Materialism. It is just what the Materialist expects.
Finally a word must be said about what is called the Materialist determination of history. In so far as this is a Marxian economic theory — in so far as it traces all the features of an age or a society to its economic arrangements in the stricter sense of that word — it obviously cannot be discussed here. But in the broader sense it concerns us, and it is one more triumph of Materialism.
Modern history is a massive application of the Materialist principle. Environment is used on every page as the clue to historical developments. I have in other books, and especially in “The Evolution of Civilization,” etc., shown what a flood of light the study of material surroundings has thrown on history. The last Ice Age and the material conditions of Egypt, Babylon, and Crete, of China, and India, explain the beginning of history in each case. Earlier still the prehistory of man is mainly interpreted in terms of changes in his environment and habits. I have shown the same in regard to the rise of Athens and of Rome, the development of the Moorish civilization in Spain, the triumph of the Teutons over the Romans, of the Arabs over the Greeks, of the Turks over the Arabs. Geographical position, climate, soil, minerals, rivers — these are the clues we follow now in interpreting the history of cities or nations.
Whether we can say, as is often done, that the Materialist factor explains everything in history depends, not upon the facts, but upon one’s theory. For the convinced Materialist everything is material, so the question is closed. For the Spiritualist mind is a spirit, and mind is certainly a factor in history. The ideas of Franklin, Paine, Washington, and Jefferson, for instance, were very important factors in the history of America. The ideas of Marx were very important factors in the history of Russia: the ideas of Mussolini in the history of Italy, and so on. It is plain that if one is asked to decide whether every historical factor is Materialistic, one must first say whether or not ideas and plans are material realities. I think they are, but I leave the dogmatic answer to such questions to a generation that will know ten times as much as we do.
It is at least clear that the modern Materialistic emphasis on environment has been a splendid social factor. It is the last triumph of Materialism that I have to record. Old Robert Owen begged Europe and America a hundred years ago to see that “man’s character is made for him, and not by him”; and made by his domestic and economic conditions. How Materialistic, said the clergy! But the world was in a sorry mess after they had been guiding it for fourteen hundred years on the theory that man has a soul and free will, and you have simply to present your moral ideal to him. We have, instead, tried the improvement of his environment — his home, workshop, purse, recreations, schools, baths, clothes, etc. — and we have done more in a hundred years’ application of this Materialist philosophy than parsons had done in a thousand years. Yet, Sunday after Sunday, they still drone about the horrid dangers of Materialism!