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Lecture XXI. The Future Life (Continued)

LECTURE XXI. THE FUTURE LIFE (Continued)

THE argument for immortality which was treated of in the last lecture—the argument, namely, which is based on the disproportion between the greatness of man's spiritual nature and the brief duration and limited needs of the present life—would be deprived of all its force, if the life of the spirit could be shown to be bound up with the physical organism which death disintegrates and dissolves. If thought is a function of matter, or, at any rate, inseparably connected with the activity of the brain and nervous system, no speculations on the inherent grandeur and limitless capabilities of the human mind can overturn the inevitable conclusion which the death of the body involves. But it is just this position which scientific materialism takes up, with regard to the relation between mind and matter, and to the process by which physical movements, changes of nervous and brain tissue, seem to give rise to, or are the inseparable concomitants of, such apparently incommensurable phenomena as sensations, feelings, ideas. What we know, or seem to know, of the conditions of sensation is, that certain vibrations of ether strike on the surface of the retina or other organ of sense, and produce certain movements in the organism “which pass in waves along the in-carrying nerve to the optic or other ganglion of the brain, and that when the impression arrives there, a sensation, say, of light or sound, is experienced.” Within, therefore, the tiny cavity of the human skull there is, it would seem, a mechanism at work, by which material motions, vibrations of ether, irritations, and molecular changes of nervous tissue are transformed into the feeling of shimmering light or ringing sound, and into perceptions of the radiant, coloured, vocal world of our sensible experience. But for this wondrous transforming power with which brain matter is, or seems to be, endowed, nature and natural phenomena would have no relation to our consciousness; from stars and suns rays of light might continually be pouring forth, etheric vibrations might be passing through space, playing on the surface of the body, propagated as motions along its wave-conducting nervous filaments; but, if nothing more took place, they, and the process by which they communicate with us, would be only “congeries of moving masses and vibrating molecules,” an external world of motion and change which yet was unknown and unknowable. For it is only when they reach the brain that they undergo, through its mysterious agency, the marvellous transmutation by which they become for us luminous spheres floating in the distant realms of space. Nor is the process limited to our sensations and perceptions of the outward world; the creative constructive power of the cerebral matter seems to extend over the whole compass of human thought. As there is reason to believe that there is a physical, corresponding to every mental process, a certain cerebral movement which is the condition of every intellectual act; so there is, it would seem, a sense in which it may be said that to mere infinitesimal changes in a white or gray material substance in man's physical organism, not only the thoughts and feelings that make up our ordinary mental life, but all science, all philosophy, all art, all the vast body of our knowledge and speculation concerning things finite and infinite, and also every act of will, and the whole content of our moral life, owe their existence. Nor, as I said in the last lecture, is this process one which goes on only on the positive or constructive side. What the normal action of the brain creates, its morbid or weakened action can dissipate or uncreate. An affection of the conducting nerve or brain-centre brings with it a corresponding loss of sensation. Let one purely physical condition cease to operate, and the waves of ether wake no mental response, and wisdom at one or other entrance is shut out. Let partial exhaustion, decay, injury, affect the organ of thought, and the capacity of intellectual exertion is marred. Let physical disorganization go on, and the lucidity of reason gives place to imbecility; and, finally, with the cessation of the organic or functional activity of the brain, mental activity is completely arrested, and the light of reason is lost in utter intellectual darkness.

What, then, is the inference which modern materialistic speculation would have us draw from such facts as these? The inference is, that thought is but a function of matter—the highest expression it may be, but still the expression—of the same molecular force which has its earliest manifestation in inorganic nature. “All vital action”—these are the wordsof one eminent biologist1—“may be said to be the result of the molecular forces of the protoplasm which displays it. And if so, it must be true in the same sense, and to the same extent, that the thoughts to which I am now giving utterance, and your thoughts regarding them, are the expressions of the molecular changes in that matter of life which is the source of our other vital phenomena.” Again, “Consciousness is an expression of the molecular changes which take place in that nervous matter which is the organ of consciousness.”2 “All states of consciousness are immediately caused by molecular changes of the brain substance.”3 It is true, as is conceded by the writer from whom I have quoted, that there is for our thought “an unbridged gulf” between bodily organization and mind or intelligence. In what way the physical is transformed into the psychical, we know not. But here the now universally accepted doctrine of the conservation of energy comes to our aid. All physical forces, however apparently unlike, are convertible into each other—light into heat, heat into chemical energy, that again into electricity, and so forth; and there is the strongest reason to believe that this generalization extends beyond physical changes to the realm of feeling and thought, and that as vital is but transformed mechanical and chemical energy, it is only another stage or expression of the same process when we seem to find vital energy converted into sensations and ideas. If, therefore, consciousness is only the transformed energy that exists in nervous matter “when that matter has attained to a certain degree of organization,”4 then, with the breaking-up of that form of organization, mind and mental phenomena, which are but a function of it, must of necessity cease to be.

Are we then constrained to accept this materialistic doctrine, with all its destructive bearing on the continuity of our intellectual life? It would delay us too long to enter into a thorough discussion of this question. But besides other objections, there are, as I have elsewhere tried to show, and must here very briefly repeat, two objections, one on the physical, the other on the psychological side, which seem to be absolutely fatal to the materialistic theory of the relation of mind to matter.

In the first place, we might derive a kind of refutation of this theory from that very law of the conservation of energy on which it professes to rest. What that law means is, as we have seen, that the amount of physical energy in the universe is never diminished or increased; that heat, light, electricity, magnetism, are only various forms of energy which are convertible into each other, and that each is the exact quantitative equivalent of that from which it has been converted. But now, if the materialistic theory be true, instead of the amount of physical energy remaining constant, there lies, beyond the region known to science, another and supra-physical region into which drafts of energy are perpetually being made, and from which increments of energy are perpetually being poured forth or restored. The law in question is that in nature there is no rupture of continuity, that physical causes will always be followed by physical effects, and physical effects will always be accounted for, without any non-physical interposition, by physical causes. And, indeed, in point of fact, we know that in the whole process before us there is no room left for the interposition of other than physical phenomena, that “it goes on as if nothing but physical antecedents and consequents were present,” and that “the entire amount of force operating in the antecedents of thought passes into its physical consequents” without the smallest breach of physical continuity.5

But consider what, according to this theory, takes place in every case of sensation, in every case of voluntary action. In the former, a physical movement, a light-wave or sound-wave, is propagated along its proper nerve till it reaches the brain; and then, in the form of a sensation, it vanishes into a region beyond, absorbs, by a new transformation, from the realm of nature a certain quantity of its energy, leaves certain of its physical antecedents without physical consequents, and diminishes for the time the sum of energy in the world. In every voluntary action, on the other hand, an equally arbitrary increase, or, at least, arbitrary restoration, of the sum of energy takes place. From the region of mind or consciousness, energy which had passed away from the physical world, and which had taken for the moment a psychical form, comes back to it in the re-transformed shape of nerve force, producing motion through the muscular apparatus. A physical effect for which there is no physical antecedent, is interposed into the order of nature; and the sum of her energy, actual or potential, is more than it was. The alleged transformation of physical into psychical energy is, therefore, in obvious inconsistency with the law on which it professes to rest.

But, in the second place, the fundamental objection to the materialistic theory is, that it begs the whole question at issue. The matter out of which mind and mental action are to be extracted, is itself the expression of mind; the thought or intelligence that is alleged to be a function of matter is, and must be, already presupposed in that out of which it is said to be educed. Consider what the problem is. Before you could reach thought or mind as a last result, you must needs wholly eliminate it from the data with which you start. The matter out of which mind is to spring, must be matter minus mind, matter into the constitution of which not the faintest ingredient of mind must be permitted to enter. The ingredients of the process out of which consciousness is to emerge, must be wholly outside of consciousness, must be conceived of as existing prior to and apart from the intelligence that thinks them. But one does not need to be a votary of idealism to see that the task which materialism thus sets to itself is an impossible one. Whether there be such a thing as a world of realities, of “things in themselves,” that lies outside of and beyond thought, whether in that world there may be unknown things that might be called atoms, molecules, etherial waves, nervous fibres, etc., existing in themselves before any mind begins to perceive or think them, is not the question. If such things there are, it is not by them, not by matter and motion outside of thought, that you try to explain the origin of thought, but by the matter and motion you think, which are grasped by thought, exist for thought, presuppose, in any and everything you can say about them, the presence and activity of thought. The least and lowest fact as to the material world is not, for you, fact minus any element of thought, and out of which thought might be conceived to emerge; but it is fact as object of thought, fact for an observing mind, and which has mind as an inseparable factor of it. And so you can no more start with bare material facts, to the production of which, to say the least, mind or intelligence does not contribute, than you can outstrip your own shadow or leap off your own shoulders. In the very raw material out of which you profess to work up mind, mind has already been at work.

There is one other objection to the doctrine of immortality to which, in a former lecture, I have incidently referred, but which—as, rightly viewed, it becomes one of the strongest arguments for immortality—I shall, in conclusion, briefly notice. The belief in a future state of rewards and punishments introduces, it has been maintained, a selfish element into the moral and religious life. The “compensation argument,” as often presented, is that which asserts the necessity of a future life in order to redress the unequal or inequitable distribution of outward good and evil in the present life. Ever since man has been capable of reflection on the conditions of his life, he has been impressed by the apparent disproportion between character and happiness, between moral desert and the rewards or penalties allotted to it. Justice seems to demand that goodness and happiness, vice and misery, should be invariably connected; and so deeply seated is this conviction that the primitive moral intelligence—as represented, for example, by the friends of Job—could fall upon no other solution of the problem, no other way of accounting for the misfortunes of seemingly good and pious men, than that of secret or disguised wickedness. In a perfect world, or under an absolutely just system of moral government, we should never witness such a spectacle as that of prosperous vice, successful fraud or knavery, wealth, honour, preferment, power—all the elements of social success and happiness—flowing in on men by no means remarkable for their virtues; or, on the other hand, that of men of blameless integrity or even of heroic and saintly lives, subjected to all sorts of ills and misfortunes, bodily and mental. Nay, the injustice or inequity seems to be still more flagrant, when we see that it is the very goodness of the good to which their extra share of suffering, the very badness of the bad to which their immunity from suffering, is often traceable. On the one hand, the very sensitiveness of conscience which characterizes the former, subjects them to inward pangs of self-reproach, to painful moral conflicts and struggles, to bitter distress for the sorrow and sin of the world, of which the latter know nothing; and on the other hand, against these and other causes of suffering the vicious or morally indifferent are case-hardened by their moral insensibility. And the argument is, that the existence of these and similar anomalies points to the existence of a world to come, in which they shall be redressed and corrected: in which the good shall be compensated for the sufferings of this life, and the bad subjected to penalties which will outweigh all their unmerited happiness.

But to this argument, and to the rough and ready view of moral equity on which it turns, it has been often objected that it introduces a spurious motive into the moral and spiritual life—a charge from which, it is even added, the moral teaching of Christianity is not exempt. Moral action, it is a truism to say, is not the purest, when it needs to be sustained by the hope of reward, either in this world or the next. If that virtue is the highest which is self-sufficing, which finds in moral action its own end and satisfaction, then even Pagan virtue, it has been maintained, had in it a touch of magnanimity of which Christian virtue cannot boast. “It may be said,” writes a well-known author, “that the sacrifice which Christ exacts is no more genuine than that recommended by the Epicurean; for He never fails to promise a full recompense in the world to come. Scarcely once in the Sermon on the Mount does He inculcate self-sacrifice without a reference to the other side of the account to the treasures God has in store for those who despise the gold and silver of the earth. And however much we may admire the Christian martyrs, yet how can we compare their self-devotion with that of the Spartan 300, or the Roman Decius? Those heroes surrendered all, and looked forward to nothing but the joyless asphodel meadow or ‘drear Cocytus with its languid stream.’ But the Christian martyr might well die with exultation, for what he lost was poor in comparison with that which he hoped instantly to gain.”6

Now, it is not, I think, to be questioned, that to the compensation argument, in the crude form in which it has often been presented, the foregoing objection does hold good. And there are two points in which it may be shown to be relevant. In the first place, it may be said that pleasure or happiness is not a thing which can be directly aimed at. We are so constituted that happiness, at least the highest and purest happiness, is not to be got by seeking it, but it is to be got only by ignoring and forgetting it. We frustrate or mar enjoyment by thinking about it, and of set purpose making it an object of pursuit. “Its essential nature,” it has been said, “is corrupted when it is made a business; the highest perfection of it is not among the prizes of exertion, but a bounty of nature, a grace of God. By contrivance and skill only an inferior sort can be attained, to which the keenness, the glee, the racy bitter of the sweet is wanting.” And the obvious reason for this is, that to get pleasure or happiness, we must first desire and attain something that brings pleasure or happiness unsought. The general law of our desires and affections is, not that the pleasure creates the desire for an object, but that the satisfaction of the desire creates the pleasure.7 The desire must be first there, in order to the consciousness of pleasure in gratifying it. The appetite of hunger, for instance, is not created by the pleasure of eating, but must exist prior to there being any pleasure derived from it. And so with other and higher desires, such as the desire of praise, honour, power, wealth, fame. It is not the idea of the delight that will attend the satisfaction of these desires that creates them, but it is because of its being the satisfaction of original wants, that it is followed or accompanied by delight more or less intense.

And so is it with our moral and spiritual desires or affections, and most of all with the highest of them, the devotion of the religious man to the divine object of love and reverence. No anticipated reward, no evils to be averted or pleasure to be gained, can create the feeling where it does not already exist, nor can I by the vision of a future heaven get it to arise in my breast. If there be nothing in the Being I call God to call forth my sympathy, kindle my admiration, touch my heart; if in the contemplation of that ideal goodness and beauty of which all finite goodness and loveliness are but the reflexion, no touch of aspiration, no longing of reverential love arises within me; if, in other words, this desire come not as the expression of a free, unprompted, generous emotion, then no bribe even of everlasting happiness can ever force it to come.

But the second and main objection, in a moral and religious point of view, to any compensation theory of a future life is, that it is not really moral or religious. To induce a man to become moral or religious out of regard to ulterior advantages, would be to base morality or religion on a motive that destroys it. It is true that there is an immense gain which results from a pure and holy life, and from the exercise of elevated principles and affections. But to say this, is not inconsistent with the assertion that the intrusion of the desire for that gain vitiates and stifles the very principle with which it is associated. Knowledge may lead to fame and fortune; scholarly and scientific attainments may bring a man great reputation, a lucrative position, social rank and influence; but the scientific spirit—as all would, I suppose, agree—is never genuine till the pure delight of intellectual pursuits, of thought and research, of the contact of the mind with truth, glows in a man's breast, and, apart from all ulterior results—nay, at the cost of many pains and disadvantages, is its own satisfaction and joy. So, again, with artistic pursuits. Painters, poets, musicians, are often keenly sensitive to reputation, and may be far from indifferent to the material gain which the practice of their art brings. But if there be not in a man's breast some spark at least of a genuine inspiration, something of the creative impulse which makes artistic production its own end and joy, he is not a true artist, but only a hireling in the realm of art. And still more profoundly true is this idea in its application to the spiritual life. If religion means love to God, reverence and devotion to the infinite truth and goodness, it is a principle which needs no prop of external profit to ensure its dominion over the spirit. To minds and hearts touched by it, it is as much its own end and blessedness, as light and beauty are the delight of the eye or sweet melody of the ear. To seek something else by means of it, to cultivate religion for the sake of material or other benefits, is an impossible and self-contradictory notion; for of love divine, still more than of love human, it holds good, that it needs no pleasure or reward to create it, and no compensation for the sacrifices to which it may lead.

But, though the compensation theory, in the crude form in which it has often been presented, is untenable, there is another aspect of it in which it is profoundly true. There are rewards in the spiritual life to which it is no selfishness to aspire—nay, which it is of the very essence of the spiritual life to seek after. There is no selfishness in a desire or aspiration which is in itself pure and noble, when it seeks for rewards in its own kind—in the desire of knowledge, for instance, when it seeks for ever larger and fuller opportunities and means of knowledge; or in the love of art, when it seeks by ever new and fairer creations to attain to an ever-advancing realization of the beautiful. And this holds good in an especial manner of the moral and spiritual desires and affections. To seek the ever richer and fuller satisfaction of this order of desires is free from all taint of selfishness, because it is to seek after a joy which, whilst it is the sweetest of which the soul of man is capable, is in its own nature the death of selfishness—the joy of absolute self-surrender to the will of God, and of self-sacrifice for the good of others. “More life and fuller” than we have ever attained, or can hope on earth to attain, deeper draughts from the eternal springs of thought and joy than here we can ever experience—this, so far from being a sordid aspiration, is only another expression for the most exalted goodness.

And it is here, let me say in conclusion, that the compensation theory passes into the higher argument reviewed in the last lecture—the argument which arises from the infinite capabilities of the human spirit, and their inadequate realization in this life. We know not, indeed, what we shall be. We cannot fill up the details of that ideal of moral and spiritual perfection to which, by its very make and structure, our nature points. But in two ways we can faintly conceive of the heaven of the future. We can think of it, negatively, as a world from which the evil that here mingles with and represses the good in ourselves and others shall have passed away—in which love shall be deeper, fuller, more unmingled than the love that here we know, purity shall no more be darkened by the faintest shadow of defilement, and from hearts at one with themselves and with God, all restlessness of earthly desire or passion shall have vanished away. And we can think of it, positively, by reflecting what life would be, if the rarest and highest spiritual experience of the best and noblest of mankind became the unbroken and continuous experience of all—if, that is, the moral and spiritual attainments, which the best of men reach in their best and highest moments, should become universal. For even here, in this earthly life of ours, there are moments, few and far between, in the experience of such men, when the infinitude of the spiritual nature reveals itself, when the gross vesture of carnality seems to fall away, and a latent splendour of spiritual nobleness, nothing less than divine, to be disclosed. When thought comes with a rush of inspiration on the mind of the man of genius, when in the experience of very holy and saintly men infinite hopes and aspirations flow in upon the soul, raising it above the littleness and narrowness of life, quelling every ignoble thought, silencing every baser passion; or when the call for some great act of self-sacrifice has arisen, and the sense of duty triumphs over all lower impulses, and the deed of heroism and self-devotion is done—in these and like experiences there are premonitions of a larger, diviner life within this nature of ours. Alas! the holiest of men are just those who are most sensible how rare and transient such experiences are, how much their ordinary life falls short of the divine ideal which such visitations disclose. But they point at least to the possibility of a coming time, when every disturbing, conflicting limitation shall have passed away, when nothing shall any longer check the flow of that diviner life which unites us to the unseen and eternal.

But perhaps some one will say, is not the fatal objection to all such speculation this, that it deals only with possibility and not with proof? At most, it indicates in man capabilities of intellectual and spiritual progress, germs of greatness and blessedness in the far futurity, but not that they have come, or will come, to anything real. Have we no experience of such a thing as unfulfilled promise even as regards the present life? Is there not on this side the grave many a blighted life, many a nature instinct with capabilities that after all run to waste? How do I know that it will be otherwise hereafter, that even the nature that seems to grow and expand to the last is not doomed to extinction at the moment of death?

My reply is, that to the man who has no faith in God these questions are absolutely unanswerable. If, underneath all the phenomena of the world in which we live, we can discern no principle of reason and order, no absolute intelligence and love, then, indeed, our hope of immortality may be but an illusion and a dream, then, indeed, the world's course may be the thing of meaningless waste and reckless incongruity which such a supposition involves. But if there be a God, an infinite loving wisdom which has endowed us with the capacity of knowing, loving, and communing with itself, and which has made the order of the world a system of moral education, preparing and disciplining us for a career of never-ending goodness and blessedness hereafter, can it be that all this vast moral system, with all the hopes and aspirations it encourages us to cherish, is but an elaborate and cruel deception? It is impossible to believe it, if there be a God; and if that God be manifested in that which is best and greatest in man, above all, in the man Christ Jesus. It is from this point we begin, and it is to this that all our arguments return. If there be a God, and if, as Scripture teaches and the deepest thought of philosophy seems to prove, He is a Spiritual Being, the Father of all spirits, then we need not fear that this treasure, which now for a time we hold, as it were, in an earthen vessel, will ever be lost. “The world passeth away, and the lust of it; but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.”

  • 1.

    Huxley's Collected Essays, Vol. I., p. 154.

  • 2.

    Huxley's Collected Essays, Vol. II., p. 163.

  • 3.

    Huxley's Collected Essays, Vol. I., p. 244.

  • 4.

    Huxley's Collected Essays, Vol. II., p 162.

  • 5.

    Cf. Clifford's Essay on “Body and Mind.” Lectures and Essays, Vol. II., p. 56.

  • 6.

    Ecce Homo (11th edition), p. 114.

  • 7.

    Ecce Homo (11th edition), p. 58.