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Vital Dynamics : Materialism Or Immaterialism ?

( Originally Published 1913 )

IN passing from the study of the functions of Organic Life, to the more complex phenomena of results, we enter a new, a more difficult field ; and one in which the present state of the science is necessarily less perfect. For to take the most immediate result, that, namely, which consists in the state of simultaneous and continuous composition and decomposition, characteristic of Vegetative Life, how can it be thoroughly analyzed, while assimilation on the one hand, and the secretions on the other, are so imperfectly studied ? Or, passing to the question of animal heat, which may be considered as a second result of the spontaneous action of bodies to maintain, within certain limits, their necessary temperature, in spite of the thermometric variations of the ambient medium ;—this, also, has to be correctly analyzed. Considered under their most general aspect, the production and preservation of animal heat result from the ensemble of the physico-chemical acts which characterize organic life ; so that every living body presents a real chemical laboratory, capable of spontaneously maintaining its temperature, as a consequence of the phenomena of composition and decomposition, without regard to external temperature. And what is said of Heat applies equally to Electricity the undoubted presence and participation of which in the organism has led to so many chimerical hypotheses on the supposed identity of electricity with the Vital Force, with nervous action, &c.

From the study of Organic Life, we pass to that more complex and special class of phenomena called Relative or Animal Life. And in conformity with the philosophie rules already laid down, our first object must be to ascertain what are its fundamental and distinctive phenomena : they are locomotion and sensation, dependent upon two fundamental properties, contractility and sensibility, belonging to two peculiar tissues, the muscular and the nervous. In those few words the whole subject is resumed.' The positive biologist recognizes in contractility and sensibility two special and distinctive properties, which must be accepted—at any rate provisionally—as ultimate facts, no more admitting of question or of explanation than the ultimate facts of gravity, heat, &c. The value of this distinction I cannot hope will be appreciated without some further elucidation; and its capital importance induces me to dwell on it awhile.

Comte remarks—and the remark is immensely significant—that the discovery of gravitation, the first great acquisition of positive Physics, was contemporaneous with the discovery of the circulation of the blood—the first fact which rendered positive Biology possible ; and yet what immense inequality in the progress of the two sciences since that day when the starting-point of both was reached ! Nor is this inequality solely and directly owing to the greater complexity of Biology ; but also to the philosophic Method which presided over the evolution of Physics, compared with the vague metaphysical Method which has not yet ceased in Biology—a consequence, let me add, of that very complexity. No one inquires into the nature of gravitation, or into its cause ; to detect its law is deemed sufficient ; but physiologists are incessantly inquiring into the nature and cause of contractility and sensibility, unable as they are to conceive these phenomena as two ultimate facts—properties of two special tissues. The only distinction to be drawn between these vital properties and the general physical properties is, that they are more special ; but this speciality does not make them more explicable, for it is always in exact harmony with the corresponding speciality of the structure : it is only muscular tissue (or, more rigorously stated, it is only Fibrine) which presents the phenomenon of contractility; it is only nervous tissue which presents the phenomenon of sensibility. All those physical and chemical hypotheses which have been invented to explain contractility and sensibility, have been as unphilosophic as the ancient efforts to explain gravitation and chemical affinity. For, as Comte truly says, after all they only represent vaguely the mechanical transmission of impressions produced on the nervous extremities, but do not in any degree explain perception, which thus remains evidently untouched, although it is really the most essential element of sensation.

A certain vague sense of the vanity of these attempts to explain the phenomena of sensation has caused an indignant reaction on the part of metaphysicians, and by enlisting the prejudices of the majority against what is styled Materialism, has very seriously obstructed the tranquil path of inquiry. Every one feels an intense conviction that sensation and thought are not electricity, are not mere vibrations, are not " secreted by the brain as bile is secreted by the liver." He knows that sensation is unlike all other things. He needs no revelation of Science to tell him that it is different from electricity ; and intimately persuaded of its speciality, he lends a willing ear to any harmoniously-worded explanation offered by the metaphysician as to its being an "immaterial principle," an " o'er-informing spirit," a mysterious some-thing which, whatever it may be, is assuredly not " blind unconscious matter."

Positive philosophers have often called the quarrel been Materialism and Immaterialism a frivolous and 'vexatious dispute about words. But it is more than that. Though men squabbled about words, there were fundamental ideas working under them antagonistically ; and, on the whole, I think the metaphysicians had more reason on their side than we on the other gave them credit for. Absurd as their " immaterial principle superadded to the brain" must be pronounced, .it had this merit, that it kept the distinctive speciality of the phenomena of sensation in view, and preserved it from the unscientific hypotheses of some materialists.

That " blind unconscious matter could not think," was held as a victorious argument, in spite of the assumption implied in the epithets (for the aphorism amounts to this,—blind matter cannot see, unconscious matter cannot be conscious.) To any one who looks steadily at the question, however, it may be shown that, as a matter of fact, the nervous tissue, and that only, being sensitive, the biological proposition simply is : "sensitive matter can be sensitive" To claim for this nervous tissue any superadded entity named Thought, is to desert the plain path of observation for capricious conjecture. As well call Strength an immaterial prin. ciple superadded to muscular tissue. The muscular action and the nervous action are two special phenomena belonging to special tissues. Science can tell you no more. If your mind is dissatisfied therewith, and demands more recondite explanation, invent one to please yourself, and then invent one for heat, for attraction, for every phenomenon you conceive ; the field is open ; imagination has wide-sweeping wings ; but do not palm off your imagination as Science !

What the metaphysician says in respect of the essential speciality of the phenomena of thought and sensation—their complete distinction from other physical phenomena—is therefore to be admitted as true. He builds on this basis an absurd superstructure ; but the basis we cannot destroy. On the other hand, what the physiologist says respecting the identity of thought and nervous action is equally indestructible. That is. his basis. Combine the two schools into one, and you have the Positive Philosopher who says, " Sensibility is an ultimate fact, not explicable, not to be assigned to a knowable cause, but to be recognized as the property of a special tissue—the nervous."

Physiological writers on this subject are in a strange dilemma. Their facts and conclusions all tend to show the dependence of thought upon the nervous system ; while their old prejudices, fortified by the absurd hypo-theses and confusions of Materialists, forbid their adopting such a proposition in its naked rigour. Thus Todd and Bowman in their excellent work speak plainly enough : ---

" From these premises it may be laid down as a just conclusion, that the convolutions of the brain are the centre of intellectual action, or, more strictly, that this centre consists in that vast sheet of vesicular matter which crowns the convoluted surface of the hemispheres. This surface is connected with the centres of volition and sensation (corpora striata and optic thalami), and is capable at once of being excited by, or of exciting them. Every idea of the mind is associated with a corresponding change in some part or parts of this vesicular surface ; and, as local changes of nutrition in the expansions of the nerves of pure sense may give rise to subjective sensations of vision or hearing, so `derangements of nutrition in the vesicular matter of this surface may occasion analogous phenomena of thought, the lipid development of ideas, which, being ill-regulated or not at all directed by the will, assume the form of delirious raving."

Elsewhere they say :

" Although the workings of the mind are doubtless independent of the body (?), experience convinces us that in those combinations of thought which take place in the exercise of the intellect, the nervous force is called into play in many a devious track throughout the intricate structure of the brain. How else can we explain the bodily exhaustion which mental labour induces ?

The brain often gives way, like an overwrought machine, under the long-sustained exercise of a vigorous intellectual effort; and many a master mind of the present or a former age has, from this cause, ended his days ` a driveller and a show.' A frequent indication of commencing disease in the brain is the difficulty which the individual feels in ` collecting his thoughts,' the loss of the power of combining his ideas, or impairment of memory. How many might have been saved from an early grave or the madhouse, had they taken in good time the warning of impending danger which such symptoms afford ! The delicate mechanism of the brain cannot bear up long against the incessant wear and tear to which men of great intellectual powers expose it, without frequent and prolonged periods of repose. The precocious exercise of the intellect in childhood is frequently prejudicial to its acquiring vigour in manhood, for the too early employment of the brain impairs its organization, and favours the development of disease. Emotion, when suddenly or strongly excited, or unduly prolonged, is most destructive to the proper texture of the brain, and to the operations of the mind."

Yet having thus explicitly stated what are the plain results of Science, these writers, alarmed by the bugbear Materialism, contradict themselves, and declare the in-dependence of the mind. They say :

"The nature of the connexion between the mind and nervous matter has ever been, and must continue to be, the deepest mystery in physiology ; and they who study the laws of Nature, as ordinances of God, will regard it as one of those secrets of His counsels ` which angels desire to look into.' The individual experience of every thoughtful person, in addition to the inferences deducible from revealed Truth, affords convincing evidence that the mind can work apart from matter, and we have many proofs to show that the neglect of mental cultivation may lead to an impaired state of cerebral nutrition ; or, on the other hand, that diseased action of the brain may injure or destroy the powers of the mind. These are fundamental truths of vast importance to the student of mental pathology as well as of physiology. It may be readily understood that mental and physical development should go hand in hand together, and mutually assist each other but we are not, therefore, authorized to conclude that mental action results from the physical working of the brain. The strings of the harp, set in motion by a skilful performer, will produce harmonious music if they have been previously duly attuned. But if the instrument be out of order, although the player strike the same notes, and evince equal skill in the movements of his fingers, nothing but the harshest discord will ensue. As, then, sweet melody results from skilful playing on a well-tuned instrument of good construction, so a sound mind, and a brain of good development and quality, are the necessary conditions of healthy and vigorous mental action."

They here take the fact that neglect of mental cultivation may lead to an impaired state of cerebral nutrition —that idleness of mind may lead to weakness of brain —as a proof of the independence of mind and its co-operation with the brain ! To show how complete a fallacy this is, we have only to consider a case precisely parallel. Sensibility is a property of the nervous tissue, a special property depending on the speciality of the tissue, in precisely the same sense as Contractility is \a property of the muscular tissue. We call the collective manifestations of the one, Mind ; we call some of the other, Strength. Now let the passage just quoted be brought in juxtaposition with the following :

That Strength has an existence independent of mere blind weak Matter, will be evident to the experience of every thoughtful person. Strength, therefore, must be accepted as an " immaterial principle," using the muscles as its instruments. Strength plays upon the muscles as a musician on the harpsichord. We have innumerable proofs that neglect of the exercise of this Strength leads to an impaired state of muscular nutrition, so that a man who does not employ his Strength will be found to have small and flaccid muscles ; while on the other hand—as a further proof that Strength is independent of muscular fibre—any disease of the fibre will dérange or totally destroy the powers of the muscle—as snapping the strings of a harpsichord will destroy its musical capacity ! True indeed it is that physical Strength and muscular development go hand in hand, but we are not to conclude therefrom that Strength is dependent on the physical condition of the muscles !

Instead of such absurdity and. confusion, let us calmly recognize what observation tells us, viz., that Sensibility is the special property of a special tissue, a mystery as inscrutable as that of gravitation or chemical affinity.* We shall thus escape the coarse hypotheses of Materialists and the absurd logic of Immaterialists.

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