Popular Science Monthly/Volume 11/June 1877/Matter and Mind

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UNDER cover of the words placed at the head of this paper, it is proposed to call attention to a few only of the more salient points involved in the subject, and especially to those suggested in a recent article in this journal,[1] in which the attempt is made to apply the principle of correlation to certain forces (called indifferently mental and spiritual), without recognizing that highly-important factor in the manifestation of all known force, viz., matter.

In examining any subject from what claims to be a scientific point of view, established facts must not be ignored; and in proportion to the importance of the question which science is called upon to answer, should be the exactness of the solution offered.

It has been conclusively shown, by experimental methods similar to those employed in demonstrating other correlations, that emotion and thought are correlated with heat and electricity;[2] and the correlation between thought and mass motion through the action of nerve and muscle, is constantly exhibited in the human body. It must, then, be admitted that these forces (thought, etc.), like those with which they are correlated, are manifestations of matter.

The scientist knows of no mode of energy manifested in any other way than through matter; and the supposed "cycle of operations in which there is no annihilation of spiritual force" must be regarded, not as a cycle, but rather as a segment of the great cycle which includes all natural phenomena.

The idea of annihilation either of matter or of force is inadmissible to science; but there is a constant shifting—a disappearing and reappearing—of different modes of energy, corresponding to the unceasing mutations of matter; the special force manifested in any given case depending on the kinds and conditions of the matter involved.

The supposition of other kinds of force, differing from those recognized by the physicist, implies either different kinds of matter, or the same kinds differently conditioned.

The relations of the different parts of an organism to each other, and of the entire organism to its environment (the environment including other organisms, as well as inorganic matter), must all be scrutinized when we attempt to trace the source of the power manifested by any organism, A symphony of Beethoven is made up of bars and interludes—of points and rests—of quavers and semiquavers —like any other, even the simplest piece of music. How, then, does it differ from every other musical composition? Among which of its parts shall we look for the grandeur of movement, the rush of harmonies, and the eloquence, more powerful than that of words, which, as it thrills the metallic strings, awakens responsive vibrations among those differently constituted and conditioned strings which form the organ of hearing, and through this organ arouses emotions among the deepest of which our natures are susceptible? It is true, the effects produced are but poorly represented in the symbols of the musical score, or in the strings of the instrument which respond to the performer's touch; these elements are, however, not only important, but absolutely essential to the production of the results, and they must not be ignored in the statement of the problem with which we have to deal. When, however, we attempt to follow the transformations of energy which have taken place between the first and last links of the chain connecting the brain of the composer with that of the listener, we are lost in a maze of hopeless intricacy—hopeless, because we are unable to include in our limited grasp the innumerable threads which together constitute the clew to the labyrinth.

Nevertheless, we are compelled to believe that a clew exists, and that it depends on these twin principles—the correlation of forces, and the inseparableness of force and matter—since each link in this seemingly endless chain, when separately examined, is found to connect with some form of matter and some kind of force, with both of which we are more or less familiar.

Functions of mind cannot be formulated in terms of matter—there is no correlation in the language employed; but this is equally true of other phenomena—as, for example, of combustion. We know that chemical reaction between carbon and oxygen results in heat-production; and we know that certain combinations of vibrations of musical strings, communicated to the membrana tympani of the human ear, result in the production of emotions. It is safe to promise an explanation of the latter phenomenon, whenever an explanation of the former shall be forthcoming.

The phrase "principle of life" is deceptive; the expression "manifestation of life" means something definite, since life maybe regarded as the sum of the forces manifested by certain forms of matter brought into certain relations with each other, and with the environment; but a "principle of life," although it may be talked about, cannot be located nor described; it is a phrase, et præterea nihil.

That which is called the ego—the sum of the various elements which make up the character—cannot, from a scientific point of view, be regarded as an entity, unless the combined forces and powers of any machine may be so regarded.

When a machine is taken to pieces, or falls into decay, what becomes of the forces previously manifested by it? Have they gone off, in some associated way, to manifest themselves elsewhere in manufacturing carpets, impelling railroad-trains, or printing newspapers as determined by the original construction of the machine which they have deserted? This question belongs as legitimately to science as the one discussed in the article previously referred to; for the scientist has no knowledge of mind apart from the brain which manifests it.

The same writer attempts a projection, upon the screen of thought, of "a great source of life and mind, the prototype of our physical sun," which may be supposed to hold the same relation to the world of human thought that the sun holds to our world of matter.

The relations of the sun's heat and light to the energies of our planet (including the forces manifested by the organisms developed from its crust and atmosphere) are correlations, in which the forces concerned are mutually convertible; moreover, the energies displayed by living bodies are of a higher order than are those of the sun (heat, light, etc.) through whose influence these living energies are developed.

Where, then, does such a simile lead? If the forces emanating from this great source of life and mind are convertible into human energies, then—according to the same law—human energies are convertible into those of the prototype. No new principle is introduced by such a conception, and, in order to make the figure good, the forces of the prototype must even be regarded as of a lower order than human energies.

The human brain presents the most complex and highly-organized form of matter known. Its relations and means of communication with the other less complex organs which make up the entire body are most subtile and intimate; through the organs of the special senses it is also brought into communication with an environment limited only by the range of vision, which is extended, by telescope and microscope, to the nebulosities which belong to immensity on the one hand, and to the obscurities of the infinitesimal on the other.

The energies displayed by this remarkable organ hold a rank among known forces comparable, in range and complexity, to its structural superiority over other forms and combinations of matter. These forces, so far as they come within the range of scientific observation, hold the same sort of relation to the material organism that the force called magnetism bears to the magnet, or heat to the body from which it emanates.

Beyond this relation. Science has no testimony to offer.

  1. "On the Annihilation of the Mind," by Prof. John Trowbridge, Popular Science Monthly, April, 1877.
  2. University Series, No. 2, "Correlation of Vital and Physical Forces," by George F. Barker, M.D.