A Modern Symposium II

The Soul and Future Life
The Nineteenth Century (September 1877)

[334] Mr. Harrison's striking discourse on the soul and future life has a certain resemblance to the famous essay on the snakes of Ireland. For its purport is to show that there is no soul, nor any future life in the ordinary sense of the terms. With death, the personal activity of which the soul is the popular hypostasis is put into commission among posterity, and the future life is an immortality by deputy.

Neither in these views, nor in the arguments by which they are supported, is there much novelty. But that which appears both novel and interesting to me is the author's evidently sincere and heartfelt conviction that his powerful advocacy of soulless spirituality and mortal immortality is consistent with the intellectual scorn and moral reprobation which he freely pours forth upon the 'irrational and debasing physicism' of materialism and materialists, and with the wrath with which he visits what he is pleased to call the intrusion of physical science, especially of biology, into the domain of social phenomena.

Listen to the storm:–

"We certainly do reject, as earnestly as any school can, that which is most fairly [335] called Materialism, and we will second every word of those who cry out that civilisation is in danger if the workings of the human spirit are to become questions of physiology, and if death is the end of a man, as it is the end of a sparrow. We not only assent to such protests, but we see very pressing need for making them. It is a corrupting doctrine to open a brain, and to tell us that devotion is a definite molecular change in this and that convolution of grey pulp, and that if man is the first of living animals, he passes away after a short space like the beasts that perish. And all doctrines, more or less, do tend to this, which offer physical theories as explaining moral phenomena, which deny man a spiritual in addition to a moral nature, which limit his moral life to the span of his bodily organism, and which have no place for 'religion' in the proper sense of the word. "[P. 630.]

Now Mr. Harrison can hardly think it worth while to attack imaginary opponents, so that I am led to believe that there must be somebody who holds the 'corrupting doctrine' 'that devotion is a definite molecular change in this and that convolution of grey pulp.' Nevertheless, my conviction is shaken by a passage which occurs at p. 627: 'No rational thinker now pretends that imagination is simply the vibration of a particular fibre.' If no rational thinker pretends this of imagination, why should any pretend it of devotion? And yet I cannot bring myself to think that all Mr. Harrison's passionate rhetoric is hurled at irrational thinkers; surely he might leave such to the soft influences of time and due medical treatment of their 'grey pulp' in Colney Hatch or elsewhere.

On the other hand, Mr. Harrison cannot possibly be attacking those who hold that the feeling of devotion is the concomitant, or even the consequent, of a molecular change in the brain; for he tells us, in language the explicitness of which leaves nothing to be desired, that

"To positive methods, every fact of thinking reveals itself as having functional relation with molecular change. Every fact of will or of feeling is in similar relation with kindred molecular facts." [p. 627]

On mature consideration I feel shut up to one of two alternative hypotheses. Either the 'corrupting doctrine' to which Mr. Harrison refers is held by no rational thinker–in which case, surely neither he nor I need trouble ourselves about it–or the phrase, 'Devotion is a definite molecular change in this and that convolution of grey pulp,' means that devotion has a functional relation with such molecular change; in which case, it is Mr. Harrison's own view, and therefore, let us hope, cannot be a 'corrupting doctrine.'

I am not helped out of the difficulty I have thus candidly stated, when I try to get at the meaning of another hard saying of Mr. Harrison's, which follows after the 'corrupting doctrine' paragraph: 'And all doctrines, more or less, to tend to this [corrupting doctrine], which offer physical theories as explaining moral phenomena.'

[336] Nevertheless, on pp. 626-7, Mr. Harrison says with great force and tolerable accuracy:

"Man is one, however compound. Fire his conscience, and he blushes. Check his circulation, and he thinks wildly, or thinks not at all. Impair his secretions, and moral sense is dulled, discoloured, or depraved; his aspirations flag, his hope, love, faith reel. Impair them still more, and he becomes a brute. A cup of drink degrades his moral nature below that of a swine. Again, a violent emotion of pity or horror makes him vomit. A lancet will restore him from delirium to clear thought. Excess of thought will waste his sinews. Excess of muscular exercise will deaden thought. An emotion will double the strength of his muscles. And at last the prick of a needle or a grain of mineral will in an instant lay to rest for ever his body and its unity, and all the spontaneous activities of intelligence, feeling, and action, with which that compound organism was charged.

"These are the obvious and ancient observations about the human organism. But modern philosophy and science have carried these hints into complete explanations. By a vast accumulation of proof positive thought at last has established a distinct correspondence between every process of thought or of feeling and some corporeal phenomenon."

I cry with Shylock:

'Tis very true, O wise and upright judge.

But if the establishment of the correspondence between physical phenomena on the one side, and moral and intellectual phenomena on the other, is properly to be called an explanation (let alone a complete explanation) of the human organism, surely Mr. Harrison's teachings come dangerously near that tender of physical theories in explanation of moral phenomena which he warns us leads straight to corruption.

But perhaps I have misinterpreted Mr. Harrison. For a few lines further on we are told, with due italic emphasis, that 'no man can explain volition by purely anatomical study.' [p. 627] I should have thought that Mr. Harrison might have gone much further than this. No man ever explained any physiological fact by purely anatomical study. Digestion cannot be so explained, nor respiration, nor reflex action. It would have been as relevant to affirm that volition could not be explained by measuring an arc of the meridian.

I am obliged to note the fact that Mr. Harrison's biological studies have not proceeded so far as to enable him to discriminate between the province of anatomy and that of physiology, because it furnishes the key to an otherwise mysterious utterance which occurs at p. 631:–

"A man whose whole thoughts are absorbed in cutting up dead monkeys and live frogs has no more business to dogmatise about religion than a mere chemist to improvise a zoology."

Quis negavit? But if, as, on Mr. Harrison's own showing, is the case, the progress of science (not anatomical, but physiological) has [337] 'established a distinct correspondence between every process of thought or of feeling and some corporeal phenomenon,' and if it is true that 'impaired secretions' deprave the moral sense, and make 'hope, love, and faith reel,' surely the religious feelings are brought within the range of physiological inquiry. If 'impaired secretions' deprave the moral sense, it becomes an interesting and important problem to ascertain what diseased viscus may have been responsible for the Priest in Absolution; and what condition of the grey pulp may have conferred on it such a pathological steadiness of faith as to create the hope of personal immortality, which Mr. Harrison stigmatises as so selfishly immoral.

I should not like to undertake the responsibility of advising anybody to dogmatise about anything; but surely if, as Mr. Harrison so strongly urges, [p. 627] 'the whole range of man's powers, from the finest spiritual sensibility down to a mere automatic contraction, falls into one coherent scheme, being all the multiform functions of a living organism in presence of its encircling conditions;' then the man who endeavours to ascertain the exact nature of these functions, and to determine the influence of conditions upon them, is more likely to be in a position to tell us something worth hearing about them, than one who is turned from such study by cheap pulpit thunder touching the presumption of 'biological reasoning about spiritual things.'

Mr. Harrison, as we have seen, is not quite so clear as is desirable respecting the limits of the provinces of anatomy and physiology. Perhaps he will permit me to inform him that physiology is the science which treats of the functions of the living organism, ascertains their coordinations and their correlations in the general chain of causes and effects, and traces out their dependence upon the physical states of the organs by which these functions are exercised. The explanation of a physiological function is the demonstration of the connection of that function with the molecular state of the organ which exerts the function. Thus the function of motion is explained when the movements of the living body are found to have certain molecular changes for their invariable antecedents; the function of sensation is explained when the molecular changes, which are the invariable antecedents of sensations, are discovered.

The fact that it is impossible to comprehend how it is that a physical state gives rise to a mental state, no more lessens the value of the explanation in the latter case, than the fact that it is utterly impossible to comprehend how motion is communicated from one body to another, weakens the force of the explanation of the motion of one billiard ball by showing that another has hit it.

The finest spiritual sensibility, says Mr. Harrison (and I think that there is a fair presumption that he is right), is a function of a living organism–is in relation with molecular facts. In that case, the [338] physiologist may reply, 'It is my business to find out what these molecular facts are, and whether the relation between them and the said spiritual sensibility is one of antecedence in the molecular fact, and sequence in the spiritual fact, or vice versâ. If the latter result comes out of my inquiries, I shall have made a contribution towards a moral theory of physical phenomena; if the former, I shall have done somewhat towards building up a physical theory of moral phenomena. But in any case I am not outstepping the limits of my proper province: my business is to get at the truth respecting such questions at all risks; and if you tell me that one of these two results is a corrupting doctrine, I can only say that I perceive the intended reproach conveyed by the observation, but that I fail to recognise its relevance. If the doctrine is true, its social septic or antiseptic properties are not my affair. My business as a biologist is with physiology, not with morals.'

This plea of justification strikes me as complete; whence, then, the following outbreak of angry eloquence?–

"The arrogant attempt to dispose of the deepest moral truths of human nature on a bare physical or physiological basis is almost enough to justify the insurrection of some impatient theologians against science itself."[p. 631]

'That strain again: it has a dying fall;' nowise similar to the sweet south upon a bank of violets, however, but like the death-wail of innumerable 'impatient theologians' as from the high 'drum ecclesiastic' they view the waters of science flooding the Church on all hands. The beadles have long been washed away; escape by pulpit stairs is even becoming doubtful, without kirtling those outward investments which distinguish the priest from the man so high that no one will see there is anything but the man left. But Mr. Harrison is not an impatient theologian–indeed, no theologian at all, unless, as he speaks of 'Soul' when he means certain bodily functions, and of 'Future life' when he means personal annihilation, he may make his master's Grand être suprême the subject of a theology; and one stumbles upon this well-worn fragment of too familiar declamation amongst his vigorous periods, with the unpleasant surprise of one who finds a fly in a precious ointment.

There are people from whom one does not expect well-founded statement and thoughtful, however keen, argumentation, embodied in precise language. From Mr. Harrison one does. But I think he will be at a loss to answer the question, if I pray him to tell me of any representative of physical science who, either arrogantly or otherwise, has ever attempted to dispose of moral truths on a physical or physiological basis. If I am to take the sense of the words literally, I shall not dispute the arrogance of the attempt to dispose of a moral truth on a bare, or even on a covered, physical or physiological basis; [339] for, whether the truth is deep or shallow, I cannot conceive how the feat is to be performed. Columbus' difficulty with the egg is as nothing to it. But I suppose what is meant is, that some arrogant people have tried to upset morality by the help of physics and physiology. I am sorry if such people exist, because I shall have to be much ruder to them than Mr. Harrison is. I should not call them arrogant, any more than I should apply that epithet to a person who attempted to upset Euclid by the help of the Rigveda. Accuracy might be satisfied, if not propriety, by calling such a person a fool; but it appears to me that it would be the height of injustice to term him arrogant.

Whatever else they may be, the laws of morality, under their scientific aspect, are generalisations based upon the observed phenomena of society; and, whatever may be the nature of moral approbation and disapprobation, these feelings are, as a matter of experience, associated with certain acts.

The consequences of men's actions will remain the same, however far our analysis of the causes which lead to them may be pushed: theft and murder would be none the less objectionable if it were possible to prove that they were the result of the activity of special theft and murder cells in that 'grey pulp' of which Mr. Harrison speaks so scornfully. Does any sane man imagine that any quantity of physiological analysis will lead people to think breaking their legs or putting their hands into the fire desirable? And when men really believe that breaches of the moral law involve their penalties as surely as do breaches of the physical law, is it to be supposed that even the very firmest disposal of their moral truths upon 'a bare physical or physiological basis' will tempt them to incur those penalties?

I would gladly learn from Mr. Harrison where, in the course of his studies, he has found anything inconsistent with what I have just said in the writings of physicists or biologists. I would entreat him to tell us who are the true materialists, 'the scientific specialists' who 'neglect all philosophical and religious synthesis,' and who 'submit religion to the test of the scalpel or the electric battery;' where the materialism which is 'marked by the ignoring of religion, the passing by on the other side and shutting the eyes to the spiritual history of mankind,' is to be found.

I will not believe that these phrases are meant to apply to any scientific men of whom I have cognisance, or to any recognised system of scientific thought–they would be too absurdly inappropriate–and I cannot believe that Mr. Harrison indulges in empty rhetoric. But I am disposed to think that they would not have been used at all, except for that deep-seated sympathy with the 'impatient theologian' which characterises the Positivist school, and crops out, characteristically enough, in more than one part of Mr. Harrison's essay.

[340] Mr. Harrison tells us that 'Positivism is prepared to meet the theologians.' [p. 631] I agree with him, though not exactly in his sense of the words–indeed, I have formerly expressed the opinion that the meeting took place long ago, and that the faithful lovers, impelled by the instinct of a true affinity of nature, have met to part no more. Ecclesiastical to the core from the beginning, Positivism is now exemplifying the law that the outward garment adjusts itself, sooner or later, to the inward man. From its founder onwards, stricken with metaphysical incompetence, and equally incapable of appreciating the true spirit of scientific method, it is now essaying to cover the nakedness of its philosophical materialism with the rags of a spiritualistic phraseology out of which the original sense has wholly departed. I understand and I respect the meaning of the word 'soul,' as used by Pagan and Christian philosophers for what they believe to be the imperishable seat of human personality, bearing throughout eternity its burden of woe, or its capacity for adoration and love. I confess that my dull moral sense does not enable me to see anything base or selfish in the desire for a future life among the spirits of the just made perfect; or even among a few such poor fallible souls as one has known here below.

And if I am not satisfied with the evidence that is offered me that such a soul and such a future life exist, I am content to take what is to be had and to make the best of the brief span of existence that is within my reach, without reviling those whose faith is more robust and whose hopes are richer and fuller. But in the interests of scientific clearness, I object to say that I have a soul, when I mean, all the while, that my organism has certain mental functions which, like the rest, are dependent upon its molecular composition, and come to an end when I die; and I object still more to affirm that I look to a future life, when all that I mean is, that the influence of my sayings and doings will be more or less felt by a number of people after the physical components of that organism are so altered to the four winds.

Throw a stone into the sea, and there is a sense in which it is true that the wavelets which spread around it have an effect through all space and all time. Shall we say that the stone has a future life?

It is not worth while to have broken away, not without pain and grief, from beliefs which, true or false, embody great and fruitful conceptions, to fall back into the arms of a half-breed between science and theology, endowed like most half-breeds, with the faults of both parents and the virtues of neither. And it is unwise by such a lapse to expose oneself to the temptation of holding with the hare and hunting with the hounds–of using the weapons of one progenitor to damage the other. I cannot but think that the members of the Positivist school in this country stand in some danger of falling into [341] that fatal error; and I put it to them to consider whether it is either consistent or becoming for those who hold that 'the finest spiritual sensibility' is a mere bodily function, to join in the view-halloo, when the hunt is up against biological science–to use their voices in swelling the senseless cry that 'civilisation is in danger if the workings of the human spirit are to become questions of physiology.'


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University