You are here

Chapter XI: The Same Subject Continued

§ 1

Let us, then, consider materialism in its more moderate form, the form which for many generations has, without important variations, commended itself as a working hypothesis not only to the majority of physiologists, but to thinkers of all schools who seek the explanation of the universe in terms of matter, motion, and energy. This theory, in its simple integrity, teaches that all mental events, whatever their character, are the result of physical events, while physical events are never the result of mental events. Mind may know matter, but cannot move it. Matter produces mind, but cannot know it.1

Now no one is likely to deny the superficial plausibility of this theory from the point of view adopted by the natural sciences. As we saw in an earlier lecture, perceptions are regarded—I think inevitably regarded—as mental effects produced by physical causes, among which are always to be found not only the object perceived but the perceiver's organism. In addition to this the whole trend of physiology requires us to admit a minute correspondence between changes in the nervous system and changes in our emotional and intellectual condition. Character, it seems, is intimately affected by the chemistry of the ductless glands. By drugs pain can be largely controlled, and consciousness temporarily suspended. Mental power grows with the growth of the body, and decays with its decay. In short, the action of matter on mind is a commonplace of science, as well as the familiar assumption of common sense.

Yet it cannot be said that common sense is materialistic, for it firmly refuses to press these doctrines to their natural conclusion. It admits that matter acts on mind; that mental effects are closely connected with physical causes; but it would never deny that mind acts on matter, and that physical effects are often due to mental causes. It is an unshakable conviction of every “I,” at least in his unphilosophical moments, that he can, of his own free will, lift his arm, use his legs, move his furniture, cultivate his garden. Such beliefs are universal. But if they be true, then must we abandon the idea that the physical world is a self-contained system, governed only by dynamical and mechanical laws. On the contrary, the course of material nature is plainly modified by the purposeful intervention of mental influences. And as this is what most people mean by a miracle, it would seem to follow, not merely that miracles are of constant occurrence, but that man's main occupation is to perform them!

There is here a profound divergence between the instinctive beliefs about voluntary action entertained by all mankind, and certain theories inevitably suggested by the progress of physiology and physics. The two ways of looking at the relation of man to his environment, though sometimes entertained by the same person in different moods, cannot really be reconciled. Take a simple case. I suppose myself to be winding up my watch. It is admitted on all hands that when this operation is concluded a certain redistribution of matter and energy will have been effected. In particular the mainspring will have changed its shape, and will again have become a reservoir of useful power. By what agency will all this have been accomplished? I, at least, who am, by supposition, the hero of this domestic episode, have no doubts on the subject. I know that I purposed winding the watch; I know that I am freely carrying out my intentions. I know, in other words, that a continuing mental entity is occupied in deliberately modifying the course of nature, and that this entity is myself.

§ 2

Thus do all men think when they are not engaged in explaining the universe. But when they take to speculation, a new preoccupation is apt to seize them. They become acutely aware how difficult it is to reconcile our natural instincts about the action of mind on matter with certain views concerning the relation of matter to mind, born of the desire to extend to the utmost our scientific generalisations about the physical universe.

With this desire, and with the theories to which it has given rise, many of us may sympathise even when we differ. With all their defects they make for continuity; they simplify our conception of the world of matter, life, and mind; and they relieve us of the necessity of supposing that late in time—i.e. long ages after the earth was formed—our corner of the cosmos was suddenly invaded by influences, new in kind and incalculable in direction. These various claims, or, if you prefer it, these three aspects of a single claim, are in themselves attractive, and I do not wonder that some thinkers refuse, almost with passion, to acquiesce in their abandonment. But consider for a moment the cost of their retention. It is not merely that with the growth of biological knowledge the difficulty of explaining mechanically the infinitely complex adjustments of organic life seems to increase; that the facts of maintenance, repair, and reproduction, the appearance of purpose at every turn in the history of living beings, take us into regions far beyond the limits of physics and chemistry. The problem of personality lies deeper even than these, and the implications of materialism are more destructive. For the materialistic solution involves the abandonment of all effective belief in ourselves. It treats the conviction that “I act” as a delusion; not because what “I” do is predestined, but because, so far as the external world is concerned, “I” in truth do nothing. Mind is still permitted to exist—but only as the impotent shadow of matter. Always effect and never cause, it reflects, imperfectly enough, a world whose lightest atom it is powerless to direct. Not by a hair's breadth does the universe change its course for all the struggles of deluded men. They may feel and they may know; that is to say, among the successive epiphenomena of which (according to this type of materialism) their minds consist, may be states of feeling and states of knowing. But all doing is performed for them by matter, and solely according to the physical laws which matter obeys.

But can they even know? Is knowledge possible for such ill-compacted collections of mental events as on this theory constitute “thee” and “me”? Granting that within each collection many particular states of knowing are to be found, can any quality of knowing be thereby infused into other members of the group? “Thou” and “I,” mere nouns of multitude as we are, have no true unitary character; neither can we be converted by a nervous system, however admirable, into self-conscious personal “selves.”

§ 3

Before leaving this materialistic theory of “I's” and “thou's” let us apply to it the test which plays so important a part in our general argument—the test, I mean, of comparing the causes by which beliefs are supposed to be produced with the reasons for which they are supposed to be entertained. In the earlier chapters this test was employed, in connection with sense perception and our beliefs about the external world. The question I then put was to this general effect—given the web of causes and effects which, according to modern science, begins in the world of electrons2 and ends in our perceptions of “gross” matter, how (I asked) can this be made to harmonise with the web of premises and conclusions which starts with our common-sense perceptions of “gross” matter and ends with our beliefs about imperceptible electrons? How are we to reconcile the results of two procedures, neither of which we can afford wholly to abandon?

Our present case is somewhat different. The causal process with which we are now concerned, though complicated, is brief. It has its beginning in the nervous system and its end in mental events, which, on this theory, the nervous system somehow throws off without any expenditure of energy as an unexplained by-product.

On the other hand, among these mental events are, or may be, beliefs about their own origin—say, in the grey matter of the brain. Thus, according to materialism, neurons blindly make mind, while mind, thus unintelligently created, may, and sometimes does, investigate neurons. Surely a very singular example of the division of labour!

Let us, now, bring these two operations, the operation of making knowledge and the operation of knowing, a little closer together, and see how far, if at all, they can be fitted into a coherent scheme.

Observe, to begin with, that the philosophic situation I have just described is beset with every difficulty which we found in the theory of sense perception, and with difficulties in addition which are all its own. When dealing with perception we assumed a perceiving person, an active, intelligent, self-conscious unity, one of a world of “I's” and “thou's,” an entity which might believe and doubt about many things, but was not called upon to doubt about itself. The causal process we were then considering had to do with the production of beliefs, not with the production of believers, with knowledge, not with knowers. The “I” was not treated as a psychical effect, but as an entity for whom psychical effects (such as perceiving and feeling) might be said to exist. Not so in the case of the causal process now under discussion. This has a different origin and runs a different course. It begins in the nervous system; but the end product (which happens also to be the immediate product) consists of psychical effects which leave no room for an “I,” even if an “I” was not, by hypothesis, eliminated.

§ 4

When, therefore, we turn from the causal to the cognitive process, from making to knowing, the entity which is supposed to know is not an “I,” but certain loosely connected elements in a mental group; and among the things they know about is the part played in their own production by physiological action within the brain. To be sure, this knowledge is at present of the slightest and most schematic description. But this, after all, does not affect the argument. Were our knowledge a thou-sand fold greater than it is, could we trace every minutest chemical or physical change that takes place in the nervous system of the living subject, the general problem would be no nearer a solution than it is at present. For the difficulty is due to the fact that, on the theory we are discussing, the physical and chemical changes which produce intelligence are not themselves intelligently guided. We are required to deny that matter at any stage of evolution is moved by reason or influenced by purpose. The causes of our beliefs must, therefore, be regarded as non-rational, whether they be remote or whether they be proximate. With the remote causes, indeed, we are not now concerned. They must first have come into operation when the world was young, before matter gave birth to life, or life flowered into reason. But it has to be noted that reason since then has, on the materialistic hypothesis, run no independent course. None of our beliefs are due to it. They are, by supposition, mere epiphenomena; the product of nervous changes, which themselves obey only the laws of matter. And since there is no ground for supposing that purely non-rational causes will issue, except by accident, in anything but non-rational effects, and since the materialistic dogma we are discussing is itself one of these effects, materialism is a creed which by its essential nature destroys its own supports. The more convinced we become of its sufficiency, the weaker are our reasons for believing it.

§ 5

But because the theory of materialism is wrong, dare we believe that any of its rivals have as yet shown themselves to be right? These rival theories are many—contrived by men of infinite ingenuity and speculative courage. They have approached the subject from every quarter, and have drawn inspiration from every source. Among them they have laid under contribution the teaching of physiology, psychology (experimental, introspective, and social), “psychical research,” mental pathology, epistemology, metaphysics, and mysticism. Their efforts have not been lacking in boldness, nor their results in variety. Some, as we have seen, think the “I” is an illusion, others that it is indestructible and immortal. Some think it is simple and unitary; others that it is a molecular structure formed from atoms of mind-stuff. Some think mind no more than the shadow of matter; others treat matter as no more than a construction of mind; while yet a third party regard them both as parallel appearances of some profounder reality, simultaneous shoots from one deep hidden root. By theories like these, and by others not less subtle, philosophers have established the difficulty of the subject, even if they have established nothing else. None of them, I have to admit, leave me satisfied; none of them supply what is required by a “philosophy of the familiar,” or give us that of which we are in search.

§ 6

I cannot say how the gap should be filled, but I can mention some doctrines, besides materialism, which seem to me quite unfitted to fill it. Among these I should include, as you already know, all theories which deny that we are personal and that personality involves the existence of a psychical element, which is unitary and enduring. I do not, of course, mean to suggest that because it is psychical it must therefore be independent of the body, nor that because it is enduring it must therefore be immortal. I merely mean that an “I” stands for something more than a series of events, be they mental or physical or both.

But for what more? Are we, for example, to be content with the “Subject” which philosophers of importance regard as essential to any tolerable theory of knowledge? There must be a Subject (it is said) which knows if knowledge is to be possible. There must be a “centre” of feeling if feelings are to be my feelings or yours. There must be a thread binding experiences together if experiences are to form a connected whole. I myself regard general statements of this type as implicitly contained in our familiar creed. They are acceptable as far as they go. But how far is that? “Subject” is a technical term which in one of its senses is applied to an entity of which scarce anything can be said except that it is the correlative of “object.” “Centre” and “thread” are geometrical or physical metaphors intended to suggest a principle which supplies cohesion and continuity, though nothing more. But is an “I” to be regarded merely as glue? Has it no function but to hold together a succession of psychical events which could crystallise as naturally round any other centre, or be strung as suitably on any other thread? If so, it would seem that the enduring element in “Selves” has neither individuality nor character. “I's” are as indistinguishable as bottles made of the same material and cast in the same mould, differing only in respect of the liquor which, as chance determines, they happen to contain.

This is plainly insufficient. But it will perhaps be replied that the “I's” of ordinary discourse should be likened to the full, not the empty bottles. We are not merely “subjects,” “centres of consciousness,” “threads of continuity”; we are subjects plus objects, centres of consciousness and the consciousness of which we are the centre, threads connecting mental events and the mental events connected. As my philosophical readers will easily perceive, we are here on the very edge of the venerable controversy which has long raged, and rages still, round the metaphysical notion of “substance.” I do not propose to venture further into it than I can help. For my concern is with familiar beliefs, and speculations about the metaphysic of substance are apt to leave familiar beliefs very far behind. I may, however, be permitted to hazard one or two observations which keep well within the limits of the present argument, while closely touching its most important issues.

§ 7

The point, as I see it, is this:—having rejected the idea that an “I” can be successfully-treated as merely a succession of mental events; having convinced ourselves that we cannot find in the nervous system either a substitute for a unitary mind or a mechanism adequate to the task of welding mental events into a self-conscious person; are we satisfied that this operation can be accomplished by a “Subject” which, in itself, appears to have no qualities or characteristics except that of unity, and (if it be not, as many think, above and beyond Time) of continuity also?

My own view is that it cannot. In order to constitute a person we require, it seems to me, something more than a unifying principle relating mental events to each other and to itself. An “I” must have character quite apart from the experiences, active and passive, which fill his conscious life. He must have (or be) a soul—a soul which is something more than an organized collection of capacities, or a procession of psychical states—a soul which is not merely substance, but has an individuality which is unique and indescribable.

It is to this “soul” we refer when we say that we are certain of our own existence. It is this “soul” that remembers the past and expects the future. It is this soul that hopes, and this soul that fears. What are hopes and fears to what is no more than a “Pure Ego of Apperception”? How, on the other hand, can a feeling which perishes with the passing moment be rationally and significantly said to anticipate pleasure or pain? No doubt feelings of anticipation are most familiar emotions. But it is anticipation of what is going to befall the Self, not of what is going to befall the anticipation, or even the pure ego! Hope, for example (if I may repeat and emphasis the same thought), is doubtless a present pleasure; but its whole meaning depends on its reference not to present but to future satisfaction. Whose future? Whose satisfaction? That of the Subject as Substance? of the (perhaps) timeless entity which is the bare correlative of all our experiences? Obviously not. Then is it a satisfaction felt by one of those experiences? Again obviously not. An experience may give satisfaction, but cannot enjoy it. Here, therefore, we have to do with some third thing—perhaps with what certain philosophers have chosen to call the “Empirical Ego,”—but, in any case, with a soul, a Self, an “I,” whose fate concerns each one of us, which is each one of us, but is neither a metaphysical abstraction, nor a series of mental events, nor yet the simulacrum of a concrete unity obtained by riveting the events to the abstraction, and calling the product a person.

§ 8

This statement, I admit, leaves us face to face with ourselves, unexplained and undescribed. Though every “I” is for himself the most certain, the most central, the most obvious of beings, yet is he withal the most shadowy. Self-knowing though he be, his essence ever escapes him, and his limits are lost in twilight. He can neither lay down with precision the frontier which divides consciousness from sub-consciousness, nor that which divides self from not-self. The most familiar subject of belief remains, after all is said, among the most mysterious.

But if man be a mystery to himself, does no mystery hang over his relation with others? I insisted in a previous lecture upon the individualist character of all speculations of the kind with which we have been occupied. The doubts (I said) which we desire to resolve must always be somebody's doubts—mine, perhaps, or yours. The beliefs we desire to establish must always be somebody's beliefs, not belief in general. But while this seems to me obviously true, I must not be supposed to picture the world of “I's” and “thou's” as a collection of Leibnitzian monads eternally debarred from influencing each other, or as units limited in their methods of intercommunication to the employment and interpretation of ordinary sense data. There is surely more in human intercourse than this—though what that more may be, is a matter of doubtful conjecture.

§ 9

Yet in this connection it may be permissible to call attention to a speculation of Mr. Gerald Balfour,3 partly suggested, I believe, by experiments in thought transference. Assuming, I think rightly, that for certain people and in certain circumstances, what passes in one mind becomes intuitively known to another by methods of which all we can say is that they are certainly not the methods through which we normally infer the thoughts and feelings of our neighbours, he suggests a generalization of far-reaching interest. He supposes that telepathy—far from being a rare and almost incredible exception to ordinary laws—is as common as life. Consciously or unconsciously we are all, he thinks, capable of telepathically affecting others. On the plane of ordinary knowledge this explains much in human intercourse that is mysterious. With every extension of the principle to different levels of being, it inevitably gains in importance. If we hold that a single human body may be the home and instrument of other “psychic centres” besides the unitary soul in which both Mr. Gerald Balfour and I believe, we should expect that in normal conditions there would be telepathic co-operation between these different elements. If, with the pan-psychists, we regard matter as no more than the appearance of mind, then sense perception itself becomes a case of telepathy—an example of intercommunication between the living soul and the living atom. And, lastly, if instead of studying only the inferior grades in the hierarchy of being we look upwards rather than downwards, then telepathy may take on every degree of dignity and value, culminating at its highest in the mysteries of religious inspiration.

Whatever may be thought of this speculation4 on its merits it is far removed, I must admit, from the level of our familiar beliefs. But, as I have so often insisted, the level of these beliefs is one on which we cannot finally remain—and it is in developing this conclusion and recapitulating the arguments leading up to it, that I propose to occupy the concluding portion of the present Course.

  • 1.

    This is sometimes called epiphenominalism. It is the only one of the familiar theories dealing with the relation of mind and body (as body is understood in physics and physiology) to which I need refer. The doctrines of “pre-established harmony,” “occasionalism,” “automatism,” “psycho-physical idealism,” etc., belong rather to the history of philosophy; and though perhaps more interesting, and due to men of greater speculative genius, are less relevant to our immediate purpose. They have at least little relation to common sense.

  • 2.

    Cf. note, Ch. VI, p. 116.

  • 3.

    Hibbert Journal, April 1913, and Address to the Society of Psychical Research delivered six years earlier.

  • 4.

    I refer to it again in the Epilogue.

From the book: