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The Belfast Address - Pt. 8

( Originally Published 1916 )

At the outset of this Address it was stated that physical theories which lie beyond experience are derived by a process of abstraction from experience. It is instructive to note from this point of view the successive introduction of new conceptions. The idea of the attraction of gravitation was preceded by the observation of the attraction of iron by a magnet, and of light bodies by rubbed amber. The polarity of magnetism and electricity also appealed to the senses. It thus became the substratum of the conception that atoms and molecules are endowed with attractive and repellent poles, by the play of which definite forms of crystalline architecture are produced. Thus molecular force becomes structural.' It required no great boldness of thought to extend its play into organic nature, and to recognize in molecular force the agency by which both plants and animals are built up. In this way, out of experience arise conceptions which are wholly ultra-experiential. None of the atomists of antiquity had any notion of this play of molecular polar force, but they had experience of gravity, as manifested by falling bodies. Abstracting from this, they permitted their atoms to fall eternally through empty space. Democritus assumed that the larger atoms moved more rapidly than the smaller ones, which they therefore could overtake, and with which they could combine. Epicurus, holding that empty space could offer no resistance to motion, ascribed to all the atoms the same velocity; but he seems to have overlooked the consequence that under such circumstances the atoms could never combine. Lucretius cut the knot by quitting the domain of physics altogether, and causing the atoms to move together by a kind of volition.

Was the instinct utterly at fault which caused Lucretius thus to swerve from his own principles? Diminishing gradually the number of progenitors, Mr. Darwin comes at length to one "primordial form" ; but he does not say, so far as I remember, how he supposes this form to have been introduced. He quotes with satisfaction the words of a celebrated author and divine who had "gradually learned to see that it was just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe He created a few original forms, capable of self-development into other and needful forms, as to believe He required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the action of His laws." What Mr. Darwin thinks of this view of the introduction of life I do not know. But the anthropomorphism, which it seemed his object to set aside, is as firmly associated with the creation of a few forms as with the creation of a multitude. We need clearness and thoroughness here. Two courses and two only are possible. Either let us open our doors freely to the conception of creative acts, or abandoning them, let us radically change our notions of Matter. If we look at matter as pictured by Democritus, and as defined for generations in our scientific text-books, the notion of conscious life coming out of it cannot be formed by the mind. The argument placed in the mouth of Bishop Butler suffices, in my opinion, to crush all such materialism as this. Those, however, who framed these definitions of matter were but partial students. They were not biologists, but mathematicians, whose labors referred only to such accidents and properties of matter as could be expressed in their formulae. Their science was mechanical science, not the science of life. With matter in its wholeness they never dealt; and, denuded by their imperfect definitions, "the gentle mother of all" became the object of her children's dread. Let us reverently, but honestly, look the question in the face. Divorced from matter, where is life ? Whatever our faith may say, our knowledge shows them to be indissolubly joined. Every meal we eat, and every cup we drink, illustrates the mysterious control of Mind by Matter.

On tracing the line of life backward, we see it approaching more and more to what we call the purely physical condition. We come at length to those organ-isms which I have compared to drops of oil suspended in a mixture of alcohol and water. We reach the protogenes of Haeckel, in which we have "a type distinguish-able from a fragment of albumen only by its finely granular character." Can we pause here ? We break a magnet, and find two poles in each of its fragments. We continue the process of breaking; but, however small the parts, each carries with it, though enfeebled, the polarity of the whole. And when we can break no longer, we prolong the intellectual vision to the polar molecules. Are we not urged to do something similar in the case of life? Is there not a temptation to close to some extent with Lucretius, when he affirms that "Nature is seen to do all things spontaneously of herself without the meddling of the gods?" or with Bruno, when he declares that Matter is not "that mere empty capacity which philosophers have pictured her to be, but the universal mother who brings forth all things as the fruit of her own womb ?" Believing, as I do, in the continuity of nature, I cannot stop abruptly where our microscopes cease to be of use. Here the vision of the mind authoritatively supplements the vision of the eye. By a necessity engendered and justified by science I cross the boundary of the experimental evidence,' and discern in that Matter which we, in our ignorance of its latent powers, and notwithstanding our professed reverence for its Creator, have hitherto covered with opprobrium, the promise and potency of all terrestrial Life.

If you ask me whether there exists the least evidence to prove that any form of life can be developed out of matter, without demonstrable antecedent life, my reply is that evidence considered perfectly conclusive by many has been adduced; and that were some of us who have pondered this question to follow a very common example, and accept testimony because it falls in with our belief, we also should eagerly close with the evidence referred to. But there is in the true man of science a desire stronger than the wish to have his beliefs upheld ; namely, the desire to have them true. And this stronger wish causes him to reject the most plausible support, if he has reason to suspect that it is vitiated by error. Those to whom I refer as having studied this question, believing the evidence offered in favor of "spontaneous generation" to be thus vitiated, cannot accept it. They know full well that the chemist now prepares from inorganic matter a vast array of substances, which were some time ago regarded as the sole products of vitality. They are intimately acquainted with the structural power of matter, as evidenced in the phenomena of crystallization. They can justify scientifically their belief in its potency, under the proper conditions, to produce organisms. But, in reply to your questions, they will frankly admit their inability to point to any satisfactory experimental proof that life can be developed, save from demonstrable antecedent life. As already indicated, they draw the line from the highest organisms through lower ones down to the lowest; and it is the prolongation of this line by the intellect, beyond the range of the senses, that leads them to the conclusion which Bruno so boldly enunciated.

The "materialism" here professed may be vastly different from what you suppose, and I therefore crave your gracious patience to the end. "The question of an external world," says J. S. Mill, "is the great battleground of metaphysics. Mr. Mill himself reduces external phenomena to "possibilities of sensation." Kant, as we have seen, made time and space "forms" of our own intuitions. Fichte, having first by the inexorable logic of his understanding proved himself to be a mere link in that chain of eternal causation which holds so rigidly in nature, violently broke the chain by making nature, and all that it inherits, an apparition of the mind.' And it is by no means easy to combat such notions. For when I say "I see you," and that there is not the least doubt about it, the obvious reply is, that what I am really conscious of is an affection of my own retina. And if I urge that my sight can be checked by touching you, the retort would be that I am equally transgressing the limits of fact; for what I am really conscious of is, not that you are there, but that the nerves of my hand have undergone a change. All we hear, and see, and touch, and taste, and smell, are, it would be urged, mere variations of our own condition, beyond which, even to the extent of a hair-breadth, we cannot go. That anything answering to our impressions exists outside of ourselves is not a fact, but an inference, to which all validity would be denied by an idealist like Berkeley, or by a sceptic like Hume. Mr. Spencer takes another line. With him, as with the uneducated man, there is no doubt or question as to the existence of an external world. But he differs from the uneducated, who think that the world really is what consciousness represents it to be. Our states of consciousness are mere symbols of an outside entity which produces them and determines the order of their succession, but the real nature of which we can never know.' In fact, the whole process of evolution is the manifestation of a Power absolutely inscrutable to the intellect of man. As little in our day as in the days of Job can man by searching find this Power out. Considered fundamentally, then, it is by the operation of an insoluble mystery that life on earth is evolved, species differentiated, and mind unfolded, from their prepotent elements in the immeasurable past.

The strength of the doctrine of Evolution consists, not in an experimental demonstration (for the subject is hardly accessible to this mode of proof), but in its general harmony with scientific thought. From contrast, moreover, it derives enormous relative cogency. On the one side we have a theory (if it could with any propriety be so called) derived, as were the theories referred to at the beginning of this Address, not from the study of nature, but from the observation of men—a theory which converts the Power whose garment is seen in the visible universe into an Artificer, fashioned after the human model, and acting by broken efforts as man is seen to act. On the other side we have the conception that all we see around us, and all we feel within us—the phenomena of physical nature as well as those of the human mind-have their unsearchable roots in a cosmical life, if I dare apply the term, an infinitesimal span of which is offered to the investigation of man. And even this span is only knowable in part. We can trace the development of a nervous system, and correlate with it the parallel phenomena of sensation and thought. We see with undoubting certainty that they go hand in hand. But we try to soar in a vacuum the moment we seek to comprehend the connection between them. An Archimedean fulcrum is here required which the human mind cannot command; and the effort to solve the problem—to borrow a comparison from an illustrious friend of mine—is like that of a man trying to lift himself by his own waistband. All that has been said in this discourse is to be taken in connection with this fundamental truth. When "nascent senses" are spoken of, when "the differentiation of a tissue at first vaguely sensitive all over" is spoken of, and when these possessions and processes are associated with "the modification of an organism by its environment," the same parallelism, without contact, or even approach to contact, is implied. Man the object is separated by an impassable gulf from man the subject. There is no motor energy in the human intellect to carry it, without logical rupture, from the one to the other.



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