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Scientific Materialism 1868

( Originally Published 1916 )

THE celebrated Fichte, in his lectures on the "Vocation of the Scholar," insisted on a culture which should be not one-sided, but all-sided. The scholar's intellect was to expand spherically, and not in a single direction only. In one direction, however, Fichte required that the scholar should apply himself directly to nature, become a creator of knowledge, and thus re-pay, by original labors of his own, the immense debt he owed to the labors of others. It was these which enabled him to supplement the knowledge derived from his own researches, so as to render his culture rounded and not one-sided.

As regards science, Fichte's idea is to some extent illustrated by the constitution and labors of the British Association. We have here a body of men engaged in the pursuit of Natural Knowledge, but variously engaged.

While sympathizing with each of its departments, and supplementing his culture by knowledge drawn from all of them, each student among us selects one subject for the exercise of his own original faculty—one line, along which he may carry the light of his private intelligence a little way into the darkness by which all knowledge is surrounded. Thus, the geologist deals with the rocks; the biologist with the conditions and phenomena of life; the astronomer with stellar masses and motions; the mathematician with the relations of space and number; the chemist pursues his atoms; while the physical investigator has his own large field in optical, thermal, electrical, acoustical, and other phenomena. The British Association then, as a whole, faces physical nature on all sides, and pushes knowledge centrifugally outward, the sum of its labors constituting what Fichte might call the sphere of natural knowledge. In the meetings of the Association it is found necessary to resolve this sphere into its component parts, which take concrete form under the respective letters of our Sections.

Mathematics and Physics have been long accustomed to coalesce, and here they form a single section. No matter how subtle a natural phenomenon may be, whether we observe it in the region of sense, or follow it into that of imagination, it is in the long run reducible to mechanical laws. But the mechanical data once guessed or given, mathematics are all-powerful as an instrument of deduction. The command of Geometry over the relations of space, and the far-reaching power which Analysis confers, are potent both as means of physical discovery, and of reaping the entire fruits of discovery. Indeed, without mathematics, expressed or implied, our nowledge of physical science would be both friable and incomplete.

Side by side with the mathematical method we have the method of experiment. Here from a starting-point furnished by his own researches or those of others, the investigator proceeds by combining intuition and verification. He ponders the knowledge he possesses, and tries to push it further; he guesses, and checks his guess; he conjectures, and confirms or explodes his conjecture. These guesses and conjectures are by no means leaps in the dark; for knowledge once gained casts a faint light beyond its own immediate boundaries. There is no discovery so limited as not to illuminate something beyond itself. The force of intellectual penetration into this penumbral region which surrounds actual knowledge is not, as some seem to think, dependent upon method, but upon the genius of the investigator. There is, however, no genius so gifted as not to need control and verification. The profoundest minds know best that Nature's ways are not at all times their ways, and that the brightest flashes in the world of thought are incomplete until they have been proved to have their counterparts in the world of fact. Thus the vocation of the true experimentalist may be defined as the continued exercise of spiritual insight, and its incessant correction and realization. His experiments constitute a body, of which his purified intuitions are, as it were, the soul.

Partly through mathematical and partly through experimental research, physical science has, of late years, assumed a momentous position in the world. Both in a material and in an intellectual point of view it has produced, and it is destined to produce, immense changes—vast social ameliorations, and vast alterations in the popular conception of the origin, rule, and governance of natural things. By science, in the physical world, miracles are wrought, while philosophy is forsaking its ancient metaphysical channels, and pursuing others which have been opened, or indicated by, scientific research. This must become more and more the case as philosophical writers become more deeply imbued with the methods of science, better acquainted with the facts which scientific men have established, and with the great theories which they have elaborated.

If you look at the face of a watch, you see the hour and minute hands, and possibly also a second hand, moving over the graduated dial. Why do these hands move? and why are their relative motions such as they are observed to be ? These questions cannot be answered with-out opening the watch, mastering its various parts, and ascertaining their relationship to each other. When this is done, we find that the observed motion of the hands follows of necessity from the inner mechanism of the watch when acted upon by the force invested in the spring. The motion of the hands may be called a phenomenon of art, but the case is similar with the phenomena of nature. These also have their inner mechanism and their store of force to set that mechanism going. The ultimate problem of physical science is to reveal this mechanism, to discern this store, and to show that, from the combined action of both, the phenomena of which they constitute the basis, must, of necessity, flow.

I thought an attempt to give you even a brief and sketchy illustration of the manner in which scientific thinkers regard this problem would not be uninteresting to you on the present occasion; more especially as it will give me occasion to say a word or two on the tendencies and limits of modern science; to point out the region which men of science claim as their own, and where it is futile to oppose their advance; and also to define, if possible, the bourne between this and that other region, to which the questionings and yearnings of the scientific intellect are directed in vain.

But here your tolerance will be needed. It was the American Emerson, I think, who said that it is hardly possible to state any truth strongly, without apparent in-justice to some other truth. Truth is often of a dual character, taking the form of a magnet with two poles; and many of the differences which agitate the thinking part of mankind are to be traced to the exclusiveness with which partisan reasoners dwell upon one half of the duality in forgetfulness of the other. The proper course appears to be to state both halves strongly, and allow each its fair share in the formation of the resultant conviction. But this waiting for the statement of the two sides of a question implies patience. It implies a resolution to suppress indignation, if the statement of the one half should clash with our convictions; and to repress equally undue elation, if the half-statement should hap-pen to chime in with our views. It implies a determination to wait calmly for the statement of the whole, before we pronounce judgment in the form of either acquiescence or dissent.

This premised, and I trust accepted, let us enter upon our task. There have been writers who affirmed that the Pyramids of Egypt were natural productions; and in his early youth Alexander von Humboldt wrote a learned essay with the express object of refuting this notion. We now regard the Pyramids as the work of men's hands, aided probably by machinery of which no record remains. We picture to ourselves the swarming workers toiling at those vast erections, lifting the inert stones, and, guided by the volition, the skill, and possibly at times by the whip of the architect, placing them in their proper positions. The blocks, in this case, were moved and posited by a power external to themselves, and the final form of the pyramid expressed the thought of its human builder.

Let us pass from this illustration of constructive power to another of a different kind. When a solution of common salt is slowly evaporated, the water which holds the salt in solution disappears, but the salt itself remains behind. At a certain stage of concentration the salt can no longer retain the liquid form; its particles, or molecules, as they are called, begin to deposit themselves as minute solids—so minute, indeed, as to defy all microscopic power. As evaporation continues, solidification goes on, and we finally obtain, through the clustering together of innumerable molecules, a finite crystalline mass of a definite form. What is this form? It some-times seems a mimicry of the architecture of Egypt. We have little pyramids built by the salt, terrace above terrace from base to apex, forming a series of steps resembling those up which the traveller in Egypt is dragged by his guides. The human mind is as little disposed to look without questioning at these pyramidal salt-crystals, as to look at the Pyramids of Egypt, without inquiring whence they came. How, then, are those salt-pyramids built up ?

Guided by analogy, you may, if you like, suppose that, swarming among the constituent molecules of the salt, there is an invisible population, controlled and coerced by some invisible master, placing the atomic blocks in their positions. This, however, is not the scientific idea, nor do I think your good sense will accept it as a likely one. The scientific idea is that the molecules act upon each other without the intervention of slave labor; that they attract each other, and repel each other, at certain definite points, or poles, and in certain definite directions; and that the pyramidal form is the result of this play of attraction and repulsion. While, then, the blocks of Egypt were laid down by a power external to themselves, these molecular blocks of salt are self-posited, being fixed in their places by the inherent forces with which they act upon each other.

I take common salt as an illustration, because it is so familiar to us all; but any other crystalline substance would answer my purpose equally well. Everywhere, in fact, throughout inorganic nature, we have this formative power, as Fichte would call it—this structural energy ready to come into play, and build the ultimate particles of matter into definite shapes. The ice of our winters, and of our polar regions, is its handiwork, and so also are the quartz, felspar, and mica of our rocks. Our chalk-beds are for the most part composed of minute shells, which are also the product of structural energy; but behind the shell, as a whole, lies a more remote and subtle formative act. These shells are built up of little crystals of cale-spar, and, to form these crystals, the structural force had to deal with the intangible molecules of carbonate of lime. This tendency on the part of matter to organize itself, to grow into shape, to assume definite forms in obedience to the definite action of force, is, as I have said, all-pervading. It is in the ground on which you tread, in the water you drink, in the air you breathe. Incipient life, as it were, manifests itself throughout the whole of what we call inorganic nature.

The forms of the minerals resulting from this play of polar forces are various, and exhibit different degrees of complexity. Men of science avail themselves of all possible means of exploring their molecular architecture. For this purpose they employ in turn, as agents of exploration, light, heat, magnetism, electricity, and sound. Polarized light is especially useful and powerful here. A beam of such light, when sent in among the molecules of a crystal, is acted on by them, and from this action we infer with more or less clearness the manner in which the molecules are arranged. That differences, for example, exist between the inner structure of rock-salt and that of crystallized sugar or sugar-candy is thus strikingly revealed. These actions often display them-selves in chromatic phenomena of great splendor, the play of molecular force being so regulated as to cause the removal of some of the colored constituents of white light, while others are left with increased intensity behind.

And now let us pass from what we are accustomed to regard as a dead mineral, to a living grain of corn. When this is examined by polarized light, chromatic phenomena similar to those noticed in crystals are observed. And why? Because the architecture of the grain resembles that of the crystal. In the grain also molecules are set in definite positions, and in accordance with their arrangement they act upon the light. But what has built together the molecules of the corn? Regarding crystalline architecture, I have already said that you may, if you please, consider the atoms and molecules to be placed in position by a Power external to themselves. The same hypothesis is open to you now. But if in the case of crystals you have rejected this notion of an external architect, I think you are bound to reject it in the case of the grain, and to conclude that the molecules of the corn, also, are posited by the forces with which they act upon each other. It would be poor philosophy to invoke an external agent in the one case, and to reject it in the other.

Instead of cutting our grain of corn into slices and subjecting it to the action of polarized light, let us place it in the earth, and subject it to a certain degree of warmth. In other words, let the molecules, both of the corn and of the surrounding earth, be kept in that state of agitation which we call heat. Under these circumstances, the grain and the substances which surround it interact, and a definite molecular architecture is the result. A bud is formed; this bud reaches the surface, where it is exposed to the sun's rays, which are also to be regarded as a kind of vibratory motion. And as the motion of common heat, with which the grain and the substances surrounding it were first endowed, enabled the grain and these substances to exercise their mutual attractions and repulsions, and thus to coalesce in definite forms, so the specific motion of the sun's rays now enables the green bud to feed upon the carbonic acid and the aqueous vapor of the air. The bud appropriates those constituents of both for which it has an elective attraction, and permits the other constituent to return to the atmosphere. Thus the architecture is carried on. Forces are active at the root, forces are active in the blade, the matter of the air and the matter of the atmosphere are drawn upon, and the plant augments in size. We have in succession the stalk, the ear, the full corn in the ear; the cycle of molecular action being completed by the production of grains, similar to that with which the process began.

Now there is nothing in this process which necessarily eludes the conceptive or imagining power of the human mind. An intellect the same in kind as our own would, if only sufficiently expanded, be able to follow the whole process from beginning to end. It would see every mole-cule placed in its position by the specific attractions and repulsions exerted between it and other molecules, the whole process, and its consummation, being an instance of the play of molecular force. Given the grain and its environment, with their respective forces, the purely human intellect might, if sufficiently expanded, trace out d priori every step of the process of growth, and, by the application of purely mechanical principles, demonstrate that the cycle must end, as it is seen to end, in the reproduction of forms like that with which it began. A necessity rules here, similar to that which rules the planets in their circuits round the sun.

You will notice that I am stating the truth strongly, as at the beginning we agreed it should be stated. But I must go still further, and affirm that in the eye of science the animal body is just as much the product of molecular force as the chalk and the ear of corn, or as the crystal of salt or sugar. Many of the parts of the body are obviously mechanical, Take the human heart, for example, with its system of valves, or take the exquisite mechanism of the eye or hand, Animal heat, moreover, is the same in kind as the heat of a fire, being produced by the same chemical process. Animal motion, too, is as certainly derived from the food of the animal as the motion of Trevethyck's walking-engine from the fuel in its furnace. As regards matter, the animal body creates nothing; as regards force, it creates nothing. Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit to his stature? All that has been said, then, regarding the plant, may be restated with regard to the animal. Every particle that enters into the composition of a nerve, a muscle, or a bone has been placed in its position by molecular force. And, unless the existence of law in these matters be denied, and the element of caprice introduced, we must conclude that, given the relation of any molecule of the body to its environment, its position in the body might be determined mathematically. Our difficulty is not with the quality of the problem, but with its complexity; and this difficulty might be met by the simple expansion of the faculties we now possess. Given this expansion, with the necessary molecular data, and the chick might be deduced as rigorously and as logically from the egg as the existence of Neptune from the disturbances of Uranus, or as conical refraction from the undulatory theory of light.

You see I am not mincing matters, but avowing nakedly what many scientific thinkers more or less distinctly believe. The formation of a crystal, a plant, or an animal, is, in their eyes, a purely mechanical problem, which differs from the problems of ordinary mechanics, in the smallness of the masses, and the complexity of the processes involved. Here you have one half of our dual truth; let us now glance at the other half. Associated with this wonderful mechanism of the animal body we have phenomena no less certain than those of physics, but between which and the mechanism we discern no necessary connection. A man, for example, can say, "I feel," "I think," "I love"; but how does consciousness infuse itself into the problem? The human brain is said to be the organ of thought and feeling: when we are hurt, the brain feels it; when we ponder, or when our passions or affections are excited, it is through the instrumentality of the brain. Let us endeavor to be a little more precise here. I hardly imagine there exists a profound scientific thinker, who has reflected upon the subject, unwilling to admit the extreme probability of the hypothesis, that for every fact of consciousness, whether in the domain of sense, thought, or emotion, a definite molecular condition, of motion or structure, is set up in the brain; or who would be disposed even to deny that if the motion, or structure, be induced by internal causes instead of external, the effect on consciousness will be the same ? Let any nerve, for example, be thrown by morbid action into the precise state of motion which would be communicated to it by the pulses of a heated body, surely that nerve will declare itself hot—the mind will accept the subjective intimation exactly as if it were objective. The retina may be excited by purely mechanical means. A blow on the eye causes a luminous flash, and the mere pressure of the - finger on the external ball produces a star of light, which Newton compared to the circles on a peacock's tail. Disease makes people see visions and dream dreams; but, in all such cases, could we examine the organs implicated, we should, on philosophical grounds, expect to find them in that precise molecular condition which the real objects, if present, would superinduce.

The relation of physics to consciousness being thus invariable, it follows that, given the state of the brain, the corresponding thought or feeling might be inferred; or, given the thought or feeling, the corresponding state of the brain might be inferred. But how inferred? It would be at bottom not a case of logical inference at all, but of empirical association. You may reply that many of the inferences of science are of this character—the inference, for example, that an electric current, of a given direction, will deflect a magnetic needle in a definite way. But the cases differ in this, that the passage from the current to the needle, if not demonstrable, is conceivable, and that we entertain no doubt as to the final mechanical solution of the problem. But the passage from the physics of the brain to the corresponding facts of consciousness is inconceivable as a result of mechanics. Granted that a definite thought, and a definite molecular action in the brain, occur simultaneously; we do not possess the. intellectual organ, nor apparently any rudiment of the organ, which would enable us to pass, by a process of reasoning, from the one to the other. They appear together, but we do not know why. Were our minds and senses so expanded, strengthened, and illuminated, as to enable us to see and feel the very molecules of the brain; were we capable of following all their motions, all their groupings, all their electric discharges, if such there be; and were we intimately acquainted with the corresponding states of thought and feeling, we should be as far as ever from the solution of the problem, "How are these physical processes connected with the facts of consciousness?" The chasm between the two classes of phenomena would still remain intellectually impassable. Let the consciousness of love, for example, be associated with a right-handed spiral motion of the molecules of the brain, and the consciousness of hate with a left-handed spiral motion. We should then know, when we love, that the motion is in one direction, and, when we hate, that the motion is in the other; but the "Why ?" would remain as unanswerable as before.

In affirming that the growth of the body is mechanical, and that thought, as exercised by us, has its correlative in the physics of the brain, I think the position of the "Materialist" is stated, as far as that position is a tenable one. I think the materialist will be able finally to maintain this position against all attacks; but I do not think, in the present condition of the human mind, that he can pass beyond this position. I do not think he is entitled to say that his molecular groupings, and motions, explain everything. In reality they explain nothing. The utmost he can affirm is the association of two classes of phenomena, of whose real bond of union he is in absolute ignorance. The problem of the connection of body and soul is as insoluble, in its modern form, as it was in the pre-scientific ages. Phosphorus is known to enter into the composition of the human brain, and a trench-ant German writer has exclaimed, "Ohne Phosphor, kein Gedanke !" That may or may not be the case; but even if we knew it to be the case, the knowledge would not lighten our darkness. On both sides of the zone here assigned to the materialist he is equally helpless. If you ask him whence is this "Matter" of which we have been discoursing—who or what divided it into molecules, who or what impressed upon them this necessity of running into organic forms—he has no answer. Science is mute in reply to these questions. But if the materialist is con-founded and science rendered dumb, who else is prepared with a solution? To whom has this arm of the Lord been revealed? Let us lower our heads, and acknowledge our ignorance, priest and philosopher, one and all.

Perhaps the mystery may resolve itself into knowledge at some future day. The process of things upon this earth has been one of amelioration. It is a long way from the Iguanodon and his contemporaries to the President and Members of the British Association. And whether we regard the improvement from the scientific or from the theological point of view-as the result of progressive development, or of successive exhibitions of creative energy—neither view entitles us to assume that man's present faculties end the series, that the process of amelioration ends with him. A time may therefore come when this ultra-scientific region, by which we are now enfolded, may offer itself to terrestrial, if not to human, investigation. Two-thirds of the rays emitted by the sun fail to arouse the sense of vision. The rays exist, but the visual organ requisite for their translation into light does not exist. And so from this region of darkness and mystery which surrounds us, rays may now be darting which require but the development of the proper intellectual organs to translate them into knowledge as far surpassing ours, as ours surpasses that of the wallowing reptiles which once held possession of this planet. Mean-while the mystery is not without its uses. It certainly may be made a power in the human soul; but it is a power which has feeling, not knowledge, for its base. It may be, will be, and I hope is turned to account, both in steadying and strengthening the intellect, and in rescuing man from that littleness to which, in the struggle for existence, or for precedence in the world, he is continually prone.

Musings on the Matterhorn, July 27, 1868

Hacked and hurt by time, the aspect of the mountain from its higher crags saddened me. Hitherto the impression it made was that of savage strength; here we had inexorable decay. But this notion of decay implied a reference to a period when the Matterhorn was in the full strength of mountainhood. Thought naturally ran back to its remoter origin and sculpture. Nor did thought halt there, but wandered on through molten worlds to that nebulous haze which philosophers have regarded, and with good reason, as the proximate source of all material things. I tried to look at this universal cloud, containing within itself the prediction of all that has since occurred; I tried to imagine it as the seat of those forces whose action was to issue in solar and stellar systems, and all that they involve. Did that formless fog contain potentially the sadness with which I regarded the Matterhorn? Did the thought which now ran back to it simply return to its primeval home? If so, had we not better recast our definitions of matter and force; for, if life and thought be the very flower of both, any definition which omits life and thought must be inadequate, if not untrue. Are questions like these warranted? Why not? If the final goal of man has not been yet attained; if his development has not been yet arrested, who can say that such yearnings and questionings are not necessary to the opening of a finer vision, to the budding and the growth of diviner powers? When I look at the heavens and the earth, at my own body, at my strength and weakness, even at these ponderings, and ask myself, Is there no being or thing in the universe that knows more about these matters than I do; what is my answer? Supposing our theologic schemes of creation, condemnation, and redemption to be dissipated; and the warmth of denial which they excite, and which, as a motive force, can match the warmth of affirmation, dissipated at the same time; would the undeflected human mind return to the meridian of absolute neutrality as regards these ultra-physical questions? Is such a position one of stable equilibrium? The channels of thought being already formed, such are the questions, without replies, which could run athwart consciousness during a ten minutes' halt upon the weathered crest of the Matterhorn.

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