You are here

Lecture 3. Universal Materialism.

Early Hellenic attempts to finally interpret the universe.

IN the infancy of philosophical speculation, as in the early years of each man's life, it is the world of solid and extended things—what can be seen and touched—that is apt to be regarded as the one only reality, and as what alone is entitled to be called a substance. So it was that in the pre-Socratic era, among early Hellenic inquirers, the mystery in which we all find ourselves, when we look before and after, seemed to be relieved as soon as some sort of material could be detected, out of which it might plausibly be conjectured that things and persons originally issued. They were satisfied when they thought that they could answer the final question about the universe and roan, by resolving the whole into some sort of presentable substance,—into one of the crudely conceived elements of matter—water, air, fire, as it might be. The totality of real existence was thus finally identified with matter; but without analysis of what matter as perceived in sense means, or a distinct conception of its outwardness in relation to self-conscious mind. The objects of sense were thus tacitly credited with powers which seemed to supersede the other two factors in the three primary postulates. It was among things that appeal to the senses, so conceived, that Thales, Anaximander, and other contemporaries found satisfaction, when their crude experience of existence gave rise to their philosophic wonder. This pre-Socratic cosmological materialism, latent in the universal flux of Heraclitus, but developed in the atomism of Democritus, was idealised, and may be seen at its best, in the magnificent poem of Lucretius.

Materialism in the nineteenth century.

Our own nineteenth century finds millions trying to get satisfaction in the same sort of way; still turning to what the senses present, for explanation when they are confronted by the mystery of their own existence, or when their desire for intellectual unity rebels against the three traditional postulates, and strives to reduce them to one. Modern materialism, recognising the innumerable useful secrets which the material world holds within it, and which science is disclosing to the increase of our comfort—in gratitude for what matter is now doing for us all—is ready to fall down and worship its benefactor, and to lose human spirit and Divine Purpose in the immensity of outward things, and their eternal evolution. For modern science of outward things, after three centuries of successful experimental intercourse with the ever-changing world that is presented to the senses, has much to say for itself. It is able to say that it has gradually succeeded, with universal consent, in provisionally interpreting many things that surround us in space, solid and extended; one kind of thing that we see being found to explain another kind of thing that can be seen; and to contrast the universal consent in physical interpretation with the perplexities in which metaphysical interpretations of the universe seem to be involved. So trust is generated only in what is outward or can be measured. What can be made good by sight and touch, one is ready to say, is bound in reason to carry it over speculative fancies, which are all that we possess when we pretend to something superior to sense. I find in fact that I am the sport of illusion whenever I forsake this one safe sphere: what I see I can also touch; what I touch I can make experiments upon; I can repeat the experiments in new circumstances, and then compare at my leisure in verification the issues of various well-calculated experiments. In this way I find that I can foresee physical issues, and anticipate the natural behaviour of things. For these and other reasons I am certain that in the data of the senses I have got hold of existence on its only real side. I find that I can use tangible and visible experience as the one undoubted test for interpreting whatever happens in the universe that is certainly interpretable. While I keep on this path I can walk with a firm intellectual step, and can stake my life on the certainty of my inferences. Such is the voice of modern science of external nature, as translated into Universal Materialism. So interpreted, science of natural evolution leads back to what, in naïve and confused fashion, was the assumption of Hellenic cosmologists in the infancy of philosophical questioning. It is supposed to demonstrate the insignificance of man in external nature, and therefore the baselessness and unintelligibility of “the theistic hypothesis,” as the last word about the Whole. For dogmatic atheism, or at least theological agnosticism, is the natural philosophy of those who confine experience to external sense, disallowing any deeper experience than this, or any final principle of harmony other than customary succession of sense appearances, supposed to centre in material substance.

The anthropocentric conception of the universe in Hebrew and Hellenic history.

It was not always thus in the long interval which separates Thales and Democritus from the nineteenth century. A teleological conception of existence that might be called anthropocentric, instead of the earlier or the later cosmological materialism, pervades in a striking fashion ancient Hebrew literature, as we have it in Genesis and other books of the Pentateuch; intensified into a spiritual anthropomorphism in the Jewish psalmists and prophets, with their deep intuition of the moral relations of man to the vividly conceived personal God. Unique in this intense intuition, teleological, if not an anthropocentric, conception is not exclusively Hebraic, even in the ancient world. Among the Greeks there is the faint recognition by Anaxagoras of active reason as the supreme cosmic principle, superior to blind necessities of molecular motion, and apt to suggest a religious conception of the relations of the Whole. By an emphatic recognition of man rather than outward things as the primary object of intellectual interest,—the moral agent, not the starry heavens—according to the Delphic oracular “know thyself,”—Socrates recalled his followers from exaggerated regard for outward things; he also directed reflection to ends latent in experience, connected with man as their final goal. In Greece the Socratic reaction finds articulate expression in the genius of Plato, and more articulately in Aristotle, while among the Romans the natural theology of Cicero, based on a theological idea of the world, with a recognition of man as conscious and spiritual, sometimes expresses itself in language that might be called anthropomorphic.

Above all in Christianity.

But it was the profound personalism of Christianity, in its occasional exaggeration among Christians, reduced material things to relative insignificance, in the highly elaborated theology or philosophy of the ages of faith. The conception of the supremeness of man in the cosmos found a scientific auxiliary in the accepted Ptolemaic astronomy, and its geocentric conception of the material universe, in which all else falls into subordinate relation to a man-inhabited Earth. Man thus came to be regarded as even the final and eternal purpose of the universe; and it was assumed, in harmony with this, that the Supreme Principle of the Whole must be a living Spirit, analogous to the living spirit found incarnate in man.

Signs of a narrow anthropocentric conception.

A narrowly conceived anthropocentric conception of this Supreme Principle of the Universe culminated in the middle ages of European thought. Monastic separation from the visible world; absolute separation between what is held in abstraction as secular and what is held in abstraction as spiritual, or between state and church; antithesis of nature or natural law on the one side, and spiritual or supernatural power on the other, are among its outward symptoms. It induced indifference to order and science of nature; warfare with those who try to rule their lives by the physical idea of natural law; endeavour to live only in consciousness of supernatural environment; man at the centre of space, seeing the infinite eternal economy all directed to his own spiritual government—man's welfare supposed to be marred by acknowledgment of the potential spirituality of sense and secular life. Religion, under this ascetic form of religious thought, in medievalism and later too, took the place that is now claimed for sciences of outward nature. The atomism of Lucretius was exchanged for the curious conceits of the ‘Divina Commedia,’ the mythology of Milton, the elaborated Christian theology of Aquinas, and the familiar human analogies of Puritan divines.

Local insignificance of Man.

Man's imagined place of local supremacy under the Ptolemaic astronomy came in this way to be regarded as necessary to the theological conception of life. A scientific revolution in men's ideas of their own place in the material universe, which reduced human beings to local insignificance, and under which men might form the habit of thinking of themselves as the transitory issue of a natural process, seemed fatal to the supremacy of the religious idea, and an invitation to the atomistic and mechanical one to resume its old place, as the only true interpretation of all that is and happens. The postulate that Reasonable Purpose is at the root of the Whole seemed to be bound up with exploded uniqueness in the local position held by man as an organism in the material world.

Bacon and Spinoza on the teleological conception.

So modern free search for the caused or natural causes that are perceptible by the senses has been changing the long-established anthropocentric idea—under the belief that causes are only material phenomena, which appear in regular sequences, open to experimental detection. This also accustoms the mind to consider only what is adapted to use under a purely physical view of utility, while the teleological conception that pervades polytheism and monotheism seems barren by contrast. The change finds voice in what Bacon and Spinoza say about the fruitfulness of natural causes, as compared with the inutility and inapplicability of final causes. It is as the visible means according to which human purposes in nature may be carried out by men as ministers of nature, but still as means originally established, it may be, by Divine purpose, that Bacon sets a high value on natural or caused causes, and on physical science, which discloses them: in a final cause he found nothing tangible—nothing which man could employ as his instrument, or of which he could be the minister and interpreter: final causes in this respect are unpractical. The inscrutable will and purpose of an external and distant God looks like an asylum for indolent neglect of useful causes; or it is used as a shelter for prejudice, thus withdrawing men from experimental inquiry into the actual texture of the web of nature. So Spinoza urges, in arguing against anthropomorphism. In this he exceeds Bacon, who complains only of the abuse of final causes, when they make us neglect the causes that address our senses, but not denying their value in other aspects. Not so Spinoza, who insists that reason teaches men the futility of the very idea of a final cause in which man is the end; and argues that when once men have satisfied themselves that the laws of nature were not intended for their satisfaction, they would be more likely to see that the reality of things is to be measured only by what is discovered through scientific evidence. Nothing, he says, should be considered true or false because it is or is not in harmony with human interests; and it is a profound mistake to call things or events good or bad, because they happen to be agreeable or repugnant to the insignificance of man. But Bacon, while he presses the need for engaging in the neglected search for the actual causes that may be found by our senses within the visible successions of nature—seeing that with such causes we may more or less co-operate when we discover them—argues also that experimental search among physical phenomena may even confirm and exalt our recognition of divine purpose: he suggests that inductive inquiry into the natural causes that may be found by our senses within the material part of the universe, and which are the established conditions of the changes that go on around us, so far from dissolving faith in dominant providence, should only make those most devoted to scientific investigation see more clearly than others do, that full intellectual satisfaction even is not to be attained without recognition of the invisible providence of God in the natural evolution.

Modern reaction against the anthropocentric conception.

The centuries which have elapsed since Bacon and Spinoza have witnessed a steady reaction against what against what is called anthropomorphism, in the interest of a secularly fruitful search for the natural causes, visible and tangible, under the laws of which our bodily surroundings are scientifically connected, and our bodies themselves become scientifically interpretable—laws which may be used by men experimentally, as means for making this a more comfortable planetary abode for themselves. Thus the vast material world, as the only apparent agent of changes, desirable and undesirable, has come to fill the popular imagination: all besides, including that small portion of matter which is appropriated by each person as his own body, is reduced to insignificance in our imagination. The criterion by which a merely physical interpretation of external nature is regulated, with its tacitly supposed, but all undemonstrated, faith in physical order, is next assumed to be the only legitimate sort of evidence, and to open the only way in which reason can be followed. Appeals to other constituents of the faith out of which reason rises, and into which, in an improved form, it seems obliged to return, are disparaged, as appeals only to emotion, imagination, or dogmatic authority, not to what is reasonable, which must, it seems, be always only physically natural. Shall we, then, surrender ourselves to the influence of this intellectual atmosphere, and adopt this essentially materialistic conception of the Whole, as ultimately only molecules in motion? Much appears to recommend the conception to the disciple of fact and reason who comes with those presuppositions, when he presses the conclusion, that the only available solution of the ultimate problem of existence—the problem which concerns these Gifford Lectures—is to be found at the point of view at which the invisible self-conscious ego, and also the invisible God, disappear as superfluous imaginary postulates, added by imagination to the one solid fact—a universe of molecules in motion. Hence a determination to search only among the visible and tangible things that are presented to the senses, when we want to find the final meaning of things and persons. A revolution in the constitutive conception of the universe is the issue of the adoption of this rule, with its implied supremacy of the customary order of visible sequences, and with the strength which issues from ardent faith exclusively in this.

The reaction sustained by astronomical discovery and speculation.

A change in the astronomical conceptions of men led the way in this modern revolution. Copernican astronomy gradually dissolved the old Ptolemaic idea that man's abode was the centre of the material world—the starry hosts dependent on human interests—made for the service of man. Copernicus consigns man to a place that became relatively more and more insignificant locally with each advance in stellar science. Even under the old assumption about the starry heavens, the Hebrew poet was lost in wonder that the Supreme Purpose should have regard to a being so mean and insignificant as man: “When I consider Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which Thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that Thou visitest him?” But with what deepened emphasis may this question of the unscientific Hebrew be put by the modern astronomer? In the mind of the Jew, the “lights” in the vault of heaven which cheered this solid earth seemed, through a wonderful providence, to have been made because man was made. According to his innocent conception, God had said, “Let there be lights in the firmament of heaven to give light upon the earth.” But how can so grand a spectacle as modern astronomy puts before us be supposed by any reasoning being to have for its final cause the convenience of short-lived animals who find their home on this small planet—transitory in their successive generations, in the Homeric imagination, as the leaves which yearly appear and disappear on the trees of the forest?

The starry heavens and man's relative insignificance in space.

The progress of modern astromony has been a running commentary on the local insignificance of men, when men are thought of only as parts of the illimitable material system now apparently in possession of the immensity of space. What is a human organism, infinitely invisible at the centre of things, in comparison with the infinite material world? The Earth itself, instead of being conceived as the solid centre of all that appears in space, is recognised as only one in a system of planets, more or less like itself, some immensely larger, all at present revolving round a central sun, on which they and all their contents depend. Then this solar system itself is said to be only one among innumerable other solar systems, like itself, all it seems revolving collectively round some undiscovered centre. And even this enlarged material system now appears to be only a subordinate part of an inconceivably greater; which again in its turn may be an appendage to a greater still; and so onwards and onwards in an unending series of enlargements,—for why should any boundary be set to the possible material contents of infinite space?

Astronomy and theology.

All this is the commonplace of astronomical science and astronomical speculation, familiar even to the schoolboy. Our little planet, with its solar system added,—on this supposition of all infinite number of stellar masses suspended in space,—may appear to an intelligence that is able to comprehend the Infinite, as less worthy of regard than the few grains of sand in which a microscope reveals innumerable living beings, each relatively to them more important than the animals of our solar system in relation to the universe. So the human organisms, by which the Earth is occupied, are inferred to be of less value, at the central point of view, than the most insignificant and shortest-lived insects on this planet appear to us. What, indeed, is this human animal—so much made of in the anthropocentric conception—when placed beside innumerable conscious organisms which may occupy the innumerable worlds that are moving through Immensity? What is man that he should be regarded at all in a universal Purpose? Above all, what is man that he should be the supreme object in that Purpose—as in the Christian economy of redemption, according to the medieval interpretation of it, which so long affected the teleological view of the universe.

The insignificance of man as an organism evolved in time.

But if scientific investigation of the contents of space reduces the petty organisms which constitute the race of man, from supremacy in the supposed final purpose, to inconceivable insignificance in the universal material system, this reduction is even more difficult to resist when one turns to what modern inquiry has to tell about the continous course of events in time. Above all, this is so if we accept a modern conception of the causal process, according to which constant phenomenal evolution of the material universe proceeds in what, for aught man can know, may be an unbeginning and un-ending series of changes or metamorphoses of its molecular constituents. If modern astronomy, inaugurated by Copernicus and Newton, has revealed the insignificance of man's planet among the illimitable starry hosts, and the infinite insignificance of each ephemeral human organism, when all these are interpreted in terms of space—what shall be said of the revelations of modern geology, and, much more, of modern biology? They seem to show that all the organised bodies on this planet, as well as the planet itself, are transitory issues, in continuous natural processes of integration and disintegration—without beginning and without end, as far as man can tell. Some of the present laws according to which changes occur seem to be discovered, and those who claim to be discoverers have thus put passing pleasures within the reach of those by whom the discoveries may be applied, or have enabled them to escape passing forms of suffering; but no ultimate account of all this can be given. Nor can we tell whether the physical order—presumed to be permanent within the narrow sphere of men's discoveries of natural causes—is really an expression of divine reason, or only an accident in a brief interval within which chaos, in human experience, assumes the semblance of cosmos.

The alternations of development and dissolution in organised matter.

In the light of geological and biological discovery and speculation, one seems to see animal life gradually evolving, in its relative place in the continuous natural succession, in a process according to which lower forms of living matter on this planet are slowly followed by higher and more complex forms. Each generation in this continuous natural evolution, infinitesimally different from that which preceded it, transmits the infinitesimal difference to its successors; and thus, out of what may have been the common mass of protoplasm at an early stage, animal life becomes gradually differentiated into ever-multiplying species, with the human organism the most notable as yet, among the organisms thus naturally evolved in the history of this planet. The human organisms themselves, at the present stage of the unbeginning and endless procession of changes which the material world presents, are found to be in advance of their remote natural ancestors in intelligence and morality, and with a present prospect, according to the analogies of nature, of continuing to advance with the process of the suns. But human organisms, with their unique characteristic of self-conscious life, are only part of the phenomena mysteriously presented, in the unbeginning and unending evolution, which is taken for the supreme natural process according to which the elements of matter change and grow. They seem to rise into life naturally, when the conditioning material causes occur of which organisms of this sort with their self-conscious lives are the natural sequence. But those physical causes, as well as their consequences, are all passive subjects of the natural rules of universal change. Reasoning by analogy, and under the maxims of common-sense, all-embracing materialism may accordingly anticipate, in the future history of this planet, the final extinction of human organisms, in analogy with preceding extinctions of inferior races, and the extinction too of the planet itself which they inhabit; along with all their works—their scientific discoveries and their whole history—in the general disintegration of the solar system. Later still, the whole material universe may be refunded into the original fire-mist out of which it was once evolved, or it may all be condensed into one stupendous mass of molecules—ready to resume another prolonged course of natural integration, or, as one might call it, natural creation,—an integration of new stellar and planetary systems, it may be; or perhaps of other constructions of matter, unpredictable, because under physical conditions now to us unknown, and even by us inconceivable. In the new material universe of that immeasurably remote future, what room is there in retrospective thought for the petty human organisms of an immeasurably remote past, with their ephemeral records of social institutions and social struggles, scientific discoveries, achievements of mechanical art, humanly admired creations of imagination, religions and philosophies,—all dissolved and buried in the dissolution of the vast molecular economy in which, even while they existed, they were as nothing,—for ever forgotten, in the new heavens and new earth into which a universe, essentially of molecules, has then been transformed, in another of its endless metamorphoses?

Materialistic dreams.

These are only dreams, for of course they are not, through verification, acknowledged discoveries of natural science; but they are dreams which are in analogy with the universally materialistic conception of existence, which I am asking you to try to realise in imagination. They presuppose a universe of molecules in motion; the perceptible history of which must be a history of the motions of the molecules, separately or in aggregation, and of the changes which would be presented in their customary sequences if the dreams were realised.

Indestructibility of matter, and conservation of energy.

Two conditions, which both play an important part in the physical sciences, are presupposed, but not unconditionally demonstrated. The one is the indestructibility of the molecules, or the matter which consists of them; and the other, the conservation of what is ambiguously called energy, which matter is supposed to involve. The indestructibility of Matter, and the conservation of its energy are, as we know, hypotheses which dominate modern inferences about the past and future history of the molecules which, on the materialistic conception of man, and the universe of which human organisms are a part, form the elementary totality of what really exists. Accordingly, as long as the material universe exists, and it is presumed to be indestructible, it must consist of exactly the same quantity of matter—the same number of molecules—as now exists;—this through all the metamorphoses which, in endless duration, these have undergone, or may yet undergo—in the form of stellar systems, and living matter, in the various degrees of life, sentient, intelligent, self-conscious, which, as more or less elaborately formed, organised matter is found to manifest; as well as in remote future visible or other sensible issues which human imagination cannot anticipate. The assumption of the indestructibility of matter as final forbids an inconceivable transformation of nothing suddenly into something, as in the old idea of a special creation, and obliges us always to suppose and seek for physical causes, presentable to sense, although not necessarily perceptible by human senses, when we resolve to account, through its exact material equivalent, for each new metamorphosis. The history of the universe is therefore a history of the natural transformations of what already exists molecularly: the addition of absolutely new molecules, or the absolute extinction of old ones, are unscientific conceptions. Each new appearance in nature implies an equivalent withdrawal of some other appearance, and the whole succession is an endless metamorphosis. Light reappears in equivalent heat: electricity in equivalent magnetism: molecular changes in the living organism, in their equivalent states of conscious life: the births and deaths of men and other living organisms have their resulting compensation: the births and deaths of planets and suns have deaths and births in something else corresponding to them.

May not any sort of change be in reason the effect of any natural antecedent?

If all that has been, and that can be, must thus be thought of at last in terms of material molecules, the final problem should be solved in the discovery and thoroughgoing application of the ultimate law or laws according to which the innumerable molecular metamorphoses proceed. The search for cause is confined to a search for the perceptible conditions which constantly precede, or constantly accompany, each perceptible change. Causation is nothing more than the sort of sequences and coexistences which seem to be customary among material phenomena. It is the sort which is believed to be constant, and which is therefore significant—significant in the perceived causes of their so-called effects, and in the perceived effects of their so-called causes. To explain the universe accordingly would be, to read its endless changes under the, principle of causality, in this its physical or mechanical interpretation. A criticised experience of the special sorts of connection that seem constant, becomes the only criterion for determining the particular causes of particular effects; not any a priori idea of the sufficiency, or insufficiency, of this agent to be the cause of that sort of change. Abstractly, or apart from actually finding that this is always in nature followed by that, man has no right to assume that only this sort of cause can explain that sort of effect; that unorganised atoms can, or that they cannot, account for the self-conscious life that is found on this remote little planet, in connection with human molecular organisms. For, if experience finds organised life rising, first out of certain inorganic conditions, and then the self-conscious sort of life rising out of certain sorts of living organisms, one is bound honestly to accept the facts. One is told to see in the so related molecules and their motions the true and only explanation of the psychical phenomena which appear in certain organisms—especially in the human, and which are vulgarly referred to what are called “human minds,”—the word “mind” a convenient refuge for the ignorance of those who use it. For, a priori, any material thing appears equally fit, or equally unfit, with any other to be the cause, or customary natural antecedent, of any sort of change. Causality is thus only the sort of sequence that is constant, or exemplified in the visible custom of nature; and as any event may follow any other, anything may be its in variable antecedent or natural cause. The falling of a pebble, to take David Hume's examples, may extinguish the sun, for aught we know a priori; or the will of a man may disturb the planets in their orbits. “Were any object presented to us, and were we required to pronounce concerning the effect which will result from it, without consulting past observation, after what manner,” Hume asks, “must the mind proceed? It must imagine some event which it ascribes to the object as its effect; and it is plain that this invention must be entirely arbitrary.” The mind can never without experience find the sort of effect in the cause, or the sort of cause in the effect, by the most accurate scrutiny of either per se. For the effect is totally different from the cause, and consequently can never be discovered in it, nor can the cause in the effect. We fancy that were we brought on a sudden into this world, we could have inferred without trial that one billiard-ball would communicate motion to another upon impulse; and that we needed not have waited to see this event, in order to pronounce with certainty that it would be so. But motion in the second billiard-ball is a distinct event from motion in the first; nor is there anything in the appearance of the one phenomenon to suggest the other. When I see one billiard-ball moving in a straight line towards another, even if motion in the second ball should by accident be suggested to me as the result of their contact, might I not conceive hundreds of other sorts of events as well following from that particular cause. Might not both the balls remain at absolute rest? Might not the first ball return in a straight line, or leap away from the second in any linear direction? All these suppositions are consistent or conceivable. Why then should we give the preference to one of them, which a priori is no more consistent or conceivable than the rest? No a priori reasonings will ever be able to show us any unconditional necessity in reason for this preference. The general conclusion from all this would be, that we must turn, for the ultimate ground of our determination, to the evidence of experience, as presented in those sorts of sequence which seem, after calculated experiments, to be in point of fact invariable in the constant succession, or continuous evolution, of molecular change.

The possible issues of a universe of molecules in motion in the infinite succession of changes.

Under this sensuous and imaginable causality or power as the supreme human conception; with survival of the physically fittest as its highest biological illustration; with the indestructibility of matter and the conservation of energy for working hypotheses; and with the speculative postulate of an un-beginning and unending succession of causal integrations and disintegrations of a universe of molecules in perpetual motion—with all this, abundant opportunity seems to be given, in the form of infinite time, for infinite variety in the relations of the molecules to one another, and for all sorts of resulting molecular aggregations; which when they emerge, as far as man can see before trial, may each be a cause of any sort of effect. So, under this ultimate conception of the universe, what forbids that in the course of time one of the innumerable possible molecular collocations might be that presented by the universe of individual things and persons, as man now finds it, in the transitory economy of which the human organism forms a part, and into which each man so formed has been therefore naturally introduced. The universe of molecules, at this stage of its history, now and here, includes those elaborate molecular organisations which, while they last, are found in experience to be the physical or perceptible causes of different sorts of life; in their more notable elaborations the natural causes of life sentient; and in due time, even of life that is self-conscious or rational. Indeed, the whole universe of molecules in motion may seem fit to be regarded as the universe, or infinite material organism, perpetually in life; life in its lower degrees being identified with molecular motion, and in its higher degrees with those special relations of some of the moving molecules, which form sentient and self-conscious organisms, more or less transitory in their constitution, each subject to growth and decay.

Self-conscious lives a consequence of molecular organisations which naturally occur in the infinite history of molecules in motion.

So conceived, the totality of what exists seems to be emptied of those supposed special examples of a divine adaptation of natural means to human ends, in which, under the anthropocentric conception of things, this visible world of ours once seemed to abound; which impressed ordinary minds, when presented by Cicero or Paley; or, earlier still, by the Hebrew poet, to whom the heavens “declared the glory of God; and the firmament” showed “His handwork.” Under this Hebrew conception of things, “day unto day” was uttering this higher “speech,” and night unto night this higher “knowledge.” As the Jew looked at it, “there was no speech nor language” where this Divine Voice was not heard: “their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” Under the purely molecular final idea of existence, on the contrary, the heavens and the earth, with all their living and intelligent population, declare the supposed potentialities of innumerable material molecules, in the infinity of their possible relations in the constant succession; in any of the sequences, any sort of issue, whether insentient mass or organism, sentient and even self-conscious life, for all we can predict a priori, being able to attain its actual but ephemeral existence as naturally as any other. That the motion of one billiard-ball should be the natural sequence to contact with another billiard-ball in motion, is neither less nor more wonderful in itself, than that an elaborate special organisation of molecules, itself the natural issue of the infinite possibilities of the universal motion, should, while the organism lasts, be the prior term in a sequence in which the consequent term should be a state or act of self-conscious life. The self-conscious life may seem to itself to be continuous in what is called memory, and it may thus seem to last a little longer than the visible motion in the impelled billiard-ball; but the sequence could in neither case be predicted without sufficient experience of its constancy: in each case it is equally credible and certain after experience of what is reckoned sufficient. According to the rules which the molecules are somehow exemplifying in their motions, the particular sort of collocation of molecules of which billiard-balls are made up is the issue of comparatively few and simple natural experiments, while the competitive process of survival of the fittest, for example, in the ease especially of the curious human organism, must have involved innumerable rejections, with all the involved waste of product, before man, with his self-regarding and his benevolent physical dispositions, gradually made his appearance. With this mechanical difference of elaboration only, the two sorts of sequence, as causal, are analogous, if causality contains only sequence. In neither is there any evidence of external contrivance, as in the phenomena we attribute to the design of a human artist; and, moreover, so-called effects of human contrivance are themselves only examples of natural laws, which issued in the natural evolution of the organism of the individual contriver, with its transitory purposes. The watch-maker, when his organism is making watches, is really only an insignificant part of the great process of universe-making and universal metamorphosis that is constantly going on. The blind “power,” which is seen in natural or customary sequence, the particular terms of which are unknown to us till experience reveals what they are,—this—not Purpose, benevolent or malevolent—is the final solvent of the problem of the universe; and of a universe, too, that is found on this planet to evolve examples both of benevolent and malevolent character, in organisms which enjoy or suffer in their transitory lives as long as the needed correlative organisation of molecules lasts. Deeper than this the human line cannot go, in the attempt to sound the infinite abyss, when one has to explain the universe under the postulate which Universal Materialism finds sufficient. The intrepid scientific inquirer, with his universe conceived as ultimately molecules in motion, who can see nothing in experience that is inconsistent with this solution of the final problem, accepts it unappalled, in the true spirit of science. He is ready to say that “things are what they are, and are not other things”—but this with an eye turned exclusively to phenomena of matter, and only in their relations of coexistence and sequence.

The material organism is the Man in Universal Materialism.

Man and his organism are absolutely identified in this final interpretation of the universe, in which man himself becomes one of its most insignificant items: his self-conscious existence is accordingly measured by the continuance of the visible organism which is himself. Self-conscious lives of men, especially those who have entered into actual existence in this era of the universal history, are the most remarkable manifestations of the psychical phenomena that come within man's experience; but even this highest sort is invariably embodied: our only example of self-conscious life is presented in the human organism, in its little more than momentary existence. Given this organism, the self-conscious life mysteriously springs forth, as Professor Huxley puts it, “like the appearance of the genius when Aladdin rubbed his lamp in the Eastern story,” or as any other natural fact which appears in its due season.

Man thus viewed is only a paltry part of physical nature.

It is thus that man is reduced from the fancied height of a moral agent, who must be independent of external physical law to the extent of his moral responsibility: he is identified with those aggregates of atoms in the natural evolution, which differ from the lifeless things of inorganic nature only in the fact of their organic association with pleasurable or painful feeling, and with other automatic states of consciousness, manifested in the course of molecular changes of which the organism and its surroundings are the subjects—invisible states as wholly automatic, and dependent on molecular motions, as the visible changes in the organisms themselves. “Man, physical, intellectual, moral,” according to Professor Huxley, “is as much a part of nature, as purely a product of the cosmic process, as the humblest weed.” Therefore, men at their best present only this ephemeral and automatic consciousness, caused by the always indifferent, and often practically cruel, natural mechanism within which, without their leave, they find themselves inextricably involved. Inconsolatory to the individual as this discovery of what he is, and in what he is, may be, it is inexhaustible in resources of physical explanation: it explains, as physical consequences of relations among molecules which occur in the course of their history, man's illusion that he can be morally free from natural law, and his aversion to the conception of omnipotent physical necessity. For the illusion and the aversion are both found in invariable sequence to certain organic states and their surroundings, which are themselves the present issue of the innumerable molecular collocations and motions that have occurred in the past history of the material universe. The sufferings through which the sentient beings on this planet pass, and the sins with which men are charged, are now seen in their infinite insignificance, as phenomena in the eternal succession of natural changes among the atoms which occupy the immensity of space: they are not more significant ultimately than the pains or pleasures of insects too minute to be seen by the microscope in the summer sunshine now seem to us. Good and evil, right and wrong, merit and demerit, self-satisfaction and remorse, are scientifically discovered to be words which have acquired their misleading meaning at the particular era in this world's history at which it was natural for them to acquire it; through man's natural ignorance then of his own insignificance, as only an item in that unbeginning and unending succession of molecular changes which Universal Materialism assumes to be finally co-extensive with reality.

Deification of matter.

But in another way of reasoning—if anything may be the cause of anything, because it may be its accompaniment and its successor—might one not refer to the molecules into which the universe is resolved all the attributes of man, and even those that in theism are attributed to God? And if all this may be potentially latent in the molecular universe, is it not only a question of names—as between this omnipotent and omniscient Matter, on the one hand, and the God of pantheism, or even theism, on the other. Where is the universal materialist to stop in what he attributes to matter, if we may refer to it the rational acts and moral axioms of which material organism is the present condition in human experience? What, in short, does he mean by Matter? But of this afterwards.

The transitory illusion of what is called morality.

The molecularly constituted deity of Universal Materialism has, it seems, naturally caused at one stage in the conscious life of the human organism what are discovered to be illusions, under the later evolved conceptions to which its natural laws are now automatically conducting scientific men—conceptions, too, which may in their turn be all after this as naturally dissolved. Among those illusory natural products may hereafter come to be included the moral rules which presuppose the importance of the race of man, as compared, say, with a race of invisible animalcules,—presuppositions from which men infer the need for individual self-sacrifice on behalf of their race, as a duty for the sake of a longer survival of the whole. Conscience begins to appear as an artificial device for the prolongation of the race: it was naturally generated at that particular stage in the physical history of the molecules at which men were naturally made to suppose that some unique dignity and importance belonged to them, different in kind from what belongs to the most loathsome reptile. But scientific disinterestedness, itself a physical sequence, on the occasion of certain molecular motions, comes to see that the man and the reptile are virtually alike insignificant, being both the transitory outcome of universal physical law. To call an “agent ” in a distinctive sense “moral” or “spiritual,” is to apply a misleading predicate; for the “agency ” can be only the physical causality in which a certain condition of the human brain is accompanied by the delusion that love and will and conscience are somehow superior to brain, that is, to the molecules on which they all ultimately depend. It is under a natural law that the organism in man becomes apparently ethical, and as such seems to struggle against nature.

The transitory illusion of a rational consciousness.

More than even this dissolution of morality seems to follow from the premisses which yield a merely molecular solution of the problem of existence;—if indeed any conclusion at all about anything can be consistently drawn in such a universe, where reason itself— reason to which one is wont to appeal as the supreme tribunal, or as at the root in the nature of things—is transformed into one of innumerable transitory issues of purposeless organic conditions. For what is called intellect, with its product science, as well as what is called conscience, with morality as its product, come to be conceived as only transitory natural outcomes of certain molecular conditions. The very thinking and observing processes themselves, those processes through which the materialist finds that conscious mind, in all its processes, is virtually molecules in motion, are themselves a part of the molecular process. Human intelligence, as well as human conscience, is only one among the many sorts of ephemeral phenomena to which the molecular universe, in its eternal flux of molecules and aggregates of motions, is supposed to be continually giving birth. Its verified inferences, as well as its unproved hypotheses, are all alike transitory; if we are not allowed to presuppose in the primary data more than molecules, accustomed under certain conditions to manifest self-conscious life. And thus even Materialism, this philosophic Monism, itself disappears, along with the phenomenon of self-conscious intelligence by which it was reasoned out, in the abyss of universal Nescience.

Is reason an accidental issue of the molecular motions going on in this corner of the universe?

Shall we then accept as a solution of the problem of the universe, and of man as a constituent part of it, this, which asks us habitually to think of the whole as finally purposeless molecular motions, of which intelligence and conscience are transitory issues, but which, in the darkness of Universal Materialism, can, while they last, put in no claim to determine the interpretation of the whole? Can Matter claim this final universality or supremacy?

What has rational consciousness in man to say for itself?

In next lecture we shall consider what mind, manifested in man, has to say for itself, when confronted, in this remote corner, by the conception of a universe of molecules and molecular changes, making a claim to finality.

From the book: