Popular Science Monthly/Volume 10/April 1877/On the Annihilation of the Mind

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ON THE ANNIHILATION OF THE MIND.
By JOHN TROWBRIDGE,
ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF PHYSICS, HARVARD COLLEGE.

THERE are some subjects which are unapproachable by any of the present methods of scientific investigation, yet the human mind, especially that form of it which is utterly untrained in scientific methods of thought, loves to ponder over the profoundest mysteries, and calls upon Science with an almost imperative tone to solve moral doubts and fears. One of the greatest questions which one finds is perplexing the general reader of popular science, who is also an independent thinker on religious questions, is that of the survival, so to speak, of the human mind and all that betokens the mental and moral power of man after death. The alarming doctrine that the mind and soul are the result of a process of growth in the individual, like physical growth of bone and muscle, and that body and mind increase and decrease together, and are resolved into the elements again at the close of life, is not infrequently put forward by materialists. It is maintained, further, that the belief in immortality is largely a matter of education, notwithstanding the evidence which is brought forward to prove that even uncivilized nations have a belief in deities and a future life. To the materialist, the picture presented by the unwrapping of a Peruvian family burial-sack, with its young and old mummies, and its collection of pottery and bag of grain to help the disembodied spirits on their w r ay to a happier hunting-ground, is pathetic only because it seems a hopeless superstition. What kind of a soul, it is asked, has the Digger Indian who is hardly more intelligent than a wild animal? If he has a mind and soul, so has my dog. No; what we call the soul is a cultivated state or condition which perishes like a highly-disciplined adaptation of the muscles of the body which a gymnast possesses. It is a state of crystallization; it is a reaction or interaction of atoms consequent upon physical growth. When the body dies, the mind and its attributes perish. Such utter disbelief in the great doctrine of the resurrection is hard to combat; for, even among scientific thinkers, the class of men who do not become attached to the cast-iron ways down which thought has traveled to them is small. A logician who sets his mental machinery in motion, and then steps to one side to scrutinize its defects and limitations, is rare. To hint that there may be higher processes of logic than those generally accepted, implies the possession of a scientific mind, to say the least, not of a quantitative cast. It has seemed to the writer that a discussion of the idea of the degradation of spiritual energy, so to speak, would not be an unprofitable or irreverent subject from the purely scientific point of view. A little thought will convince one that no transformation of energy can take place in Nature without degradation or dissipation of it. In order to generate steam we must expend the energy stored up in the coal; and in its turn the steam in doing work passes from a hotter state to a colder one. A fresh supply of energy is needed in order to enable the cold body to do work again. There is a tendency to a uniform diffusion of heat, or to a degradation of energy.

In the process of physical growth and decay, the doctrine of the conservation of force, and the degradation of energy, is clearly exemplified. What the body receives from the sun in the process of growth is given back, transformed, to the earth. At death the physical being undergoes a chemical change; and the earth and air recall to themselves their respective portions. Here there is an equivalent rendering of matter. If the soul and mind have been the result of a process of growth, the entire potential energy of the living unit has not been accounted for in the final dissolution. The song of a bird can be resolved into waves of motion which, although they cease after a moment, and the consequent vibrations of the human ear die away, are still exerting an influence upon matter. Babbage, in his "Bridgewater Treatise," has drawn a powerful picture of the possible permanence of the motion which has been communicated to the ether by the tones of a human voice, and shows that it may not be impossible to believe that the eloquence of Demosthenes still continues in some form of motion. So we can believe that the physical effects of a bird's song can remain forever impressing some form of motion upon matter. Besides the physical vibrations which the song communicated to the human ear, it has so impressed the mind that, after the lapse of years, the repetition of the same notes can call up innumerable memories of deeds and a thousand pictures of the past. In the mind of the poet it may be the one detached note from which he can construct a song of home which can serve to arouse the ardor of the Christian Slav against the Turk, and store up a fearful potential energy which by its fall can destroy entire nations. Here we have, in the transformation of the vibrations of sound to another form of energy, a continual degradation of energy; but we may have by the same means an exaltation of spiritual potential energy which is unexplained by our doctrine of the conservation of force, and seems to require the incoming of another element in our calculations. Where does appear the force of mind, the high courage, which can enable a feeble body to maintain a high potential energy out of the same physical materials which contribute to the formation of the sluggishness of others? It may be answered: What makes the difference between the energy of the blooded hunter and that of the dray-horse? Where does the difference appear in the final dissolution? With this latter question we immediately perceive the difference between the degradation of energy which accompanies that which recalls life, and that which is manifested in the combinations of matter. Gunpowder, fired by the concentrated rays of the sun, leaves only ashes and a rapidly-disappearing veil of smoke. It has impressed upon the ether vibrations which are forever undergoing rapid transformations. In regard to its physical nature it goes from inertness to inertness. A current of electricity is maintained by chemical action which takes place in a voltaic cell. As long as this action continues, the current can exercise its functions. When the potential energy of the chemical activity falls, the current dies away. From the earth the gunpowder can be reconstructed with exactly the same characteristics. From the earth beings endowed with life can be created by a process which is far beyond our ken, yet the new creations are never exact reproductions. We are forced to acknowledge that there must be something which is called the principle of life. If there is such a principle, does it die at the physical death of each individual? If so, we must modify the all-embracing scope of the doctrine of the conservation of force and its non-annihilation. When a body loses its heat, or its electrical charge, we can readily form the equation of transformation. With matter endowed with life we must join, by an additive or subtractive sign, an unknown function which we may term the life-function. In discussing such an equation of transformation of energy, we must refuse to admit such a term depending on the life-function, on the ground that we are dealing with matter and material forces, and that there is no energy distinct from that communicated by chemical processes. Or we must admit it; and make some assumption which can just as well be made in reference to its spiritual or non-physical nature as in regard to the peculiar relations which different organic compounds may maintain toward each other. The first step leaves an hiatus in our expression for the transformation of energy, and the second gives a choice of belief.

It may seem to some that the doctrine of Darwin is capable of being extended to intellectual philosophy; and, as certain animal types fail to flourish and perpetuate themselves because the conditions are not propitious, so we can admit the possibility that the South-Sea cannibal is endowed with a mind or soul germ which could be developed if the right conditions were at hand. In chemistry we find many substances which are apparently identical in composition, but which possess diverse qualities. Certain conditions are requisite to produce different states of the same compound. If these conditions are not fulfilled, the required combination is not made. With the cannibal our equation of the conservation of force would require a small term to represent the mind and soul, but a comparatively large one, it may be, to account for that stress of the particles, so to speak, which manifests itself as life. The source of the physical energy is the sun's heat. Looking, therefore, at the problem of life and mind from a purely scientific point of view, we seem to require a source from which can come the principle of life, and which can create moral and intellectual growth in suitable soil and under fitting conditions. In the case of the energy derived from the sun's heat we have a cycle of operations in which there is no annihilation of force. If we grant that there is a source of life and mind independent of mere chemical change produced by the sun's heat, and if we adhere to the notion of the conservation of force applied to this principle of life and mind, we are led to adopt the idea of a cycle of operations in which there is no annihilation of spiritual force. The doctrine of the existence of the spirit after physical death seems to me not to be foreign to the scientific ideas of the conservation of force, which have now obtained such complete supremacy in the science of physics; or to the doctrines of Darwin, which are accepted by so large a body of eminent naturalists. Without the sun there would be an annihilation of force. When energy is dissipated, we find the sun exalting it again by processes which we cannot completely follow. The idea of a great source of life and mind, the prototype of our physical sun, which sets in motion a vast scheme for the survival of the fittest, and the exaltation of energy in vast cycles, is not inconsistent with the doctrine of the New Testament, and seems to be required in a philosophical theory which shall endeavor to account for the differences in that great spiritual world which are continually suggested to the human mind by the various types of mental growth.

 
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