The Mind and the Brain/Book III/Chapter III

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The Mind and the Brain by Alfred Binet
Book III: Chapter III
Materialism and Parallelism
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Materialism is a very ancient doctrine. It is even the most ancient of all, which simply proves that amongst the different explanations given of our double physico-mental nature, this doctrine is the easiest to understand. The origin of materialism is to be found in the beliefs of savage tribes, and is again found, very clearly defined, in the philosophy of those ancient Greeks who philosophized before Plato and Aristotle. A still stranger fact is that the thoughts of a great number of the Fathers of the Church inclined towards the philosophy of matter. Then, in the course of its evolution, there occurred a moment of eclipse, and materialism ceased to attract attention till the contemporary period in which we assist at its re-birth. Nowadays, it constitutes a powerful doctrine, the more so that it has surreptitiously crept into the thoughts of many learned men without their being clearly conscious of it. There are many physicists and physiologists who think and speak as materialists, though they have made up their minds to remain on the battle-ground of observed facts and have a holy horror of metaphysics. In a certain sense, it may be said that materialism is the metaphysics of those who refuse to be metaphysicians.

It is very evident that in the course of its long history, materialism has often changed its skin. Like all knowledge, it has been subject to the law of progress; and, certainly, it would not have been of a nature to satisfy the intellectual wants of contemporary scholars, had it not stripped itself of the rude form under which it first manifested itself in the mind of primitive man. Yet what has enabled the doctrine to keep its unity through all its changes is that it manifests a deeply human tendency to cling by preference to everything visible and tangible.

Whatever strikes the eyes, or can be felt by the hand, seems to us in the highest degree endowed with reality or existence. It is only much later, after an effort of refined thought, that we come to recognise an existence in everything that can be perceived in any way whatever, even in an idea. It is still later that we understand that existence is not only that which is perceived but also that which is linked logically with the rest of our knowledge. A good deal of progress has been necessary to reach this point. As I have not the slightest intention of giving even an abridged history of materialism, let us come at once to the present day, and endeavour to say in what consists the scientific form this doctrine has assumed. Its fundamental basis has not changed. It still rests on our tendency to give chief importance to what can be seen and touched; and it is an effect of the hegemony of three of our senses, the visual, the tactile, and the muscular.

The extraordinary development of the physical sciences has no doubt given an enormous encouragement to materialism, and it may be said that in the philosophy of nature it occupies a principal place, and that it is there in its own domain and unassailable.

It has become the expression of the idea that everything that can be explained scientifically, everything susceptible of being measured, is a material phenomenon. It is the representation of the material explanation pushed to its last limits, and all experiments, all calculations, all inductions resting on the grand principle of the conservation of matter and energy plead in its favour.

We will examine with some precision how far such a doctrine solves the problem of the existence of the intellectual functions.

The doctrine has understood this connection as being purely material, and has sought its image in other phenomena which are entirely so. Thus, it has borrowed from physiology the principle of its explanation, it has transported into the domain of thought the idea of function, and it has supposed that the soul is to the body in the relation of function to organ. Intelligence would thus be a cerebral function. To explain intelligence, materialists link it with matter, turn it into a property of matter, and compare it to a movement of matter, and sometimes even to a secretion. So Karl Vogt, the illustrious Genevan naturalist, one day declared, to the great scandal of every one, that the brain secretes the thought as the kidney does urine. This bold comparison seemed shocking, puerile, and false, for a secretion is a material thing while thought is not. Karl Vogt also employed another comparison: the brain produces the thought as the muscle produces movement, and it at once seems less offensive to compare the thought to a movement than to compare it to a liquid secretion. At the present day, an illustration still more vague would be used, such as that of a transformation of energy: chemical energy disengaged by the nerve centres would be thus looked upon as transformed into psychical energy.

However, it matters little what metaphors are applied to for help in explaining the passage from the physical to the mental. What characterises materialist philosophy is its belief in the possibility of such a passage, and its considering it as the genesis of thought. “One calls materialist,” says Renouvier, with great exactness, “every philosophy which defines thought as the product of a compound whose elements do not imply thought.” A sweeping formula which allows us to foresee all the future avatars of the materialist doctrine, and to class them beforehand in the same category.

The criticisms which have been directed against materialism are all, or nearly all, variations of the principle of heterogeneity. We will not dwell long on this, but simply recollect that, according to this principle, it is impossible to attribute to the brain the capacity of generating consciousness. Physical force can indeed generate physical force under the same or a different form, and it thus produces all the effects which are determined by the laws of nature. But it is impossible to comprehend how physical force can enrich itself at a given moment by a conscious force. Physical force is reduced to movements of bodies and to displacements of atoms; how could a change of position in any inert objects give rise to a judgment, a reasoning, or any phenomenon of the consciousness? It is further said: this idea of function, which materialists here introduce to render more comprehensible the passage from a material body to a spiritual action, contains only an empty explanation, for the function is not essentially distinct by its nature from the organ; it is simply “the organ in activity,” it adds to the organ taken in a state of repose but one change, viz. activity, that is to say movement, and, consequently, the function of an organ is material by the same right as the organ. When a muscle contracts, this contraction, which is the proper function of the muscular fibre, consists in a condensation of the muscular protoplasm, and this condensation is a material fact. When a gland enters into activity, a certain quantity of liquid flows into the channels of the gland, and this liquid is caused by a physical and chemical modification of the cellular protoplasm; it is a melting, or a liquefaction, which likewise is material. The function of the nerve cell is to produce movement, or to preserve it, or to direct it; it is material like the cells. There is therefore nothing in all these functional phenomena which might lead us to understand how a material cause should be capable of engendering a conscious effect.

It seems that all materialists have acknowledged that here is the vulnerable point in their theory, for it is the principle of heterogeneity which they have especially combated. But their defence is wanting in frankness, and principally consists in subterfuges.

In brief, it affirms that we are surrounded with mystery, that we are not sufficiently learned to have the right to impose limits to the power of matter, and to say to it: “Thou shalt not produce this phenomenon.” A materialist theologian declares that he sees no impossibility in stones thinking and arguing, if God, in His infinite power, has decided to unite thought with brute matter. This argument is not really serious; it demands the intervention of so powerful a Deus ex machina, that it can be applied equally to all problems; to solve all is to solve none.

Modern materialists rightly do not bring God into the question. Their mode of argument takes another form; but it remains to be seen if, at bottom, it is not the same as the other. It simply consists in affirming that up till now we know certain properties of matter only, but that science every day discovers new ones; that matter is a reservoir of unknown forces, and that it is not impossible that the origin of psychical forces may yet be discovered in matter. This idea is clearly hinted at by Littré. The physicist Tyndall gave it a definite formula when he uttered at the Belfast Congress this phrase so often quoted: “If I look back on the limits of experimental science, I can discern in the bosom of that matter (which, in our ignorance, while at the same time professing our respect for its Creator, we have, till now, treated with opprobrium) the promise and the power of all forms and qualities of life.”

The opponents of the doctrine have not ceased to answer that the matter of to-morrow, like the matter of to-day, can generate none but material effects, and that a difficulty is not solved by putting off its solution to some indefinite date in our scientific evolution: and it certainly seems that the counter-stroke is decisive, if we admit the principle of heterogeneity with its natural consequence.

We will now criticise the above doctrine by making use of the ideas I have above enunciated. The criticism we have to apply to materialism is not the same as that just summarised. The axis of the discussion changes its position.

In the first place, I reproach materialism with presenting itself as a theory of the generation of the consciousness by the object. We have already reproached idealism with putting itself forward as a theory of the generation of the object by the consciousness. The error of the two systems is produced in a converse direction, but is of the same gravity. The consciousness and its object, we say yet again, constitute the widest division it is possible to effect in the domain of cognition; it is quite as illegitimate to reduce the first term to the second as to reduce the second to the first. To reduce one to the other, by way of affiliation or otherwise, there must first be discovered, then, an identity of nature which does not exist.

In the second place, when one examines closely the explanation materialism has imagined in order to derive thought from an action of matter, it is seen that this representation is rendered completely impossible by all we know of the nature of thought. For the materialist to suppose for one moment that thought is a cerebral function, he must evidently make an illusion for himself as to what thought is, and must juggle with concepts. Perhaps, could we penetrate into his own inmost thought, we should discover that at the moment he supposes a mere cell can manufacture the phenomena of consciousness, some vague image suggests itself to him whereby he identifies these phenomena with a light and subtle principle escaping from the nerve cell, something which resembles an electric effluve, or a will-of-the-wisp, or the flame from a punch-bowl.[1]

I cannot, of course, tell whether my supposition is correct. But what I assert, with the calmness of perfect certitude, is that the materialist has not taken the pains to analyse attentively what he calls the phenomenon of consciousness. Had he made this analysis and kept the elements in his mind, he would have seen that it is almost impossible to hook in any way a phenomenon of consciousness on to a material molecule.

In fact, also, to take this into account, we will not remain within the vagueness of the concept, but will take a particular example to argue upon, viz. that of an external perception. I open my window on a fine day, and I see before me a sunny plain, with, as far as the eye can reach, houses amongst the trees, and again more houses, the most distant of which are outlined against my far-off horizon. This is my mental phenomenon. And while I am at my window, my eyes fixed on the view, the anatomist declares that, starting from my retina, molecular vibrations travel along the optic nerve, cross each other at the chiasma, enter into the fascia, pass through the internal capsule and reach the hemispheres, or rather the occipital regions, of the brain, where, for the moment, we agree to localise the centre of projection of the visual sensations. This is my physical phenomenon. It now becomes the question of passing from this physical phenomena to the mental one. And here we are stopped by a really formidable difficulty. My mental phenomenon is not entirely mental, as is usually supposed from the deceitful brevity of the phrase. It is in great part physical, for it can be decomposed into two elements, a consciousness and its object; and this object of the consciousness, this group of little houses I see in the plain, belongs to sensation—that is to say, to something physical—or, in other words, to matter.

Let us examine in its turn the physical process which is supposed to be discovered in my nervous centres while I am in course of contemplating the landscape. This pretended physical process itself, quite as much as my conscious perception of the landscape, is a physico-psychical phenomenon; for my cerebral movements are perceived, hypothetically at least, by an observer. This is a perception, consequently it can be decomposed into two things, a consciousness and its object. As a further consequence, when we wish, by a metaphysical effort, to attach the consciousness to a material state of the brain and to establish a link between the two events, it will be found that we wrongly hook one physico-mental phenomenon on to another.

But, evidently, this objection is not a refutation. We may if we choose suppose that the so-called cerebral process is capable of subsisting at moments when no one perceives it, and that it exists of itself, is sufficient for itself, and is entirely physical. But can we subject the mental process of perception to the same purification? Can we separate these two elements, the consciousness and its object, retain the element consciousness and reject the element object, which is physical, thus constituting a phenomenon entirely mental, which might then be possibly placed beside the entirely physical phenomenon, so as to study their relation to each other? This is quite impossible, and the impossibility is double, for it exists de facto and de jure.

De jure, because we have already established that a consciousness empty and without object cannot be conceived. De facto, because the existence of the object that consciousness carries with it is very embarrassing for the materialist; for this object is material, and as real and material as the fibres and cells of the brain. It might, indeed, be supposed that by transformation or otherwise there goes forth from the cerebral convolution a purely psychical phenomenon resembling a wave. But how can we conceive the transformation of this convolution into a semi-material phenomenon? How can we comprehend that there should issue from this convolution the material object of a perception—for example, a plain dotted with houses?

An English histologist remarked one day, with some eloquence, how little the most minute study of the brain aided us to understand thought. He was thus answering Auguste Comte, who, in a moment of aberration, claimed that psychology, in order to become a science, ought to reject the testimony of the consciousness, and to use exclusively as its means of study the histology of the nerve centres and the measurement of the cranium. Our histologist, who had passed part of his life examining, under the microscope, fragments of cerebral matter, in following the forms of the cells, the course of the fibres, and the grouping and distribution of the fascia, made the following remark: “It is the fact that the study, however patient, minute, and thorough it might be, of this nerve-skein can never enable us to know what a state of consciousness is, if we do not know it otherwise; for never across the field of the microscope is there seen to pass a memory, an emotion, or an act of volition.” And, he added, “he who confines himself to peering into these material structures remains as ignorant of the phenomena of the mind as the London cabman who, for ever travelling through the streets of the great city, is ignorant of what is said and what is going on in the interior of the houses.” This picturesque comparison, the truth of which has never been questioned, is based on this supposition, that the psychical act is entirely immaterial and invisible, and therefore escapes the piercing eye of the microscope. But a deeper analysis of the mind shows how little exact is this assertion. From the moment each psychical act implies a material object, we can ask ourselves two things: (1) Why is it that the anatomist does not discover these material objects in the interior of the brain? We ought to see them, for they are material, and therefore visible. We ought to see them with their aspect and colour, or be able to explain why they are not seen. In general, all that is described to us in the brain is the molecular vibrations. But we are not conscious of them. Where, then, is that of which we are conscious? (2) It should next be explained to us by what elaboration, transmutation, or metamorphosis a molecular disturbance, which is material, can transform itself into the objects which are equally material.

This is the criticism we have to address to materialism. Until proof to the contrary, I hold it to be irrefutable.


For this exposition to follow the logical order of ideas, the discussion on materialism should be immediately succeeded by that on parallelism. These two doctrines are near akin; they resemble each other as the second edition of a book, revised and corrected, resembles the first. Parallelism is the materialist doctrine of those forewarned folk, who have perceived the errors committed and endeavour to avoid them, while cherishing all that can be saved of the condemned doctrine. That which philosophers criticised in materialism was the misunderstanding of the principle of heterogeneity. The parallelists have seen this mistake, and have taken steps to respect this principle: we shall see in what way. They are especially prudent, and they excel in avoiding being compromised. They put forth their hypothesis as a provisional one, and they vaunt its convenience. It is, say they, a practical method of avoiding many difficulties; it becomes for philosophers an equivalent of that phrase which so many timorous ministers repeat: “Above all, no scrapes!”

Let us study the exact point on which parallelism has amended materialism. We have seen that every materialist doctrine is the expression of this idea, that physical phenomena are the only ones that are determined, measurable, explicable, and scientific. This idea does wonders in the natural sciences, but is at fault when, from the physical, we pass into the moral world, and we have seen how the materialistic doctrine fails when it endeavours to attach the physical to the mental. There are then two great difficulties which the materialistic explanation finds before it; one is a difficulty of mechanism and the other of genesis. By connecting the mind with the brain, like a function to its organ, this doctrine seeks to solve these two problems, and with what little success we have seen.

Parallelism has tried to avoid these two problems; not only does it not solve them, but it arranges so as not to propound them. The expedient adopted consists in avoiding the meeting of the physical and the mental; instead of placing them end to end and welding one to the other, they are placed in parallel fashion side by side. To explain their correlation, which so many observations vaguely demonstrate, the following hypothesis is advanced. Physical and psychical life form two parallel currents, which never mingle their waters; to every state of definite consciousness there corresponds the counterpart of an equally definite state of the nerve centres; the fact of consciousness has its antecedents and its consequences in the consciousness; and the physical fact equally takes its place in a chain of physical facts. The two series are thus evolved, and correspond strictly to each other according to a necessary law; so that the scholar who was perfectly instructed, and to whom one of these states was presented, could describe its fellow. But never does any of the terms of one series influence the terms of the other. Observation and the testimony of the consciousness seem to attest this dual progress; but they are, according to the parallelist hypothesis, illusions. When I move my arm by a voluntary act, it is not my will, qua act of consciousness, which determines the movement of the arm—for this is a material fact. The movement is produced by the coming into play of groups of muscles. Each muscle, composed of a semi-fluid substance, being excited, contracts in the direction of its greatest length. The excitant of the muscles is also a material fact, a material influx which starts from the motor cells of the encephalon, and of which we know the course down through the pyramidal fascium, the anterior roots of the spinal cord, and the nerves of the periphery to its termination in the motor plates of the muscles. It is this excitement which is the physical, direct, and veritable cause of voluntary movements. And it is the same with all acts and signs, all expressions of our conscious states; the trembling of fear, the redness of anger, the movements of walking, down to the words we utter—all these are physical effects produced by physical processes, which act physically, and of which the mental counterpart has in itself no effective action.

Let it be understood that I am here pointing out one of the forms, and that the most usual, of the parallelist theory. Each author varies it according to his fancy; some widen the correspondence between the physical and the moral, others prefer to narrow it. At one time a vague relation is supposed which is only true on a large scale, and is a union rather than an equivalence. At another, it is an exact counterpart, a complete duplicate in which the smallest physical event corresponds to a mental one.

In one of the forms of this theory that has been recently invented, parallelists have gone so far as to assert that there exists no real cohesion in the mental chain, and that no mental phenomenon can have the property of provoking another mental phenomenon by an act of true causality. It is within the nervous tissue, they say, that the nexus of psychic states should be enclosed. These should succeed in time without being directly connected with one another; they should succeed because the physical basis of them is excited in succession. Some of them would be like an air on the piano: the notes follow each other and arrange themselves into melodies, not by any affinity proper to themselves, but because the keys of the instrument are struck in the required order.

I said a little while ago that parallelism was a perfected materialism. The reason of this will be understood. It is a doctrine which preserves the determinism of physical facts while avoiding the compromising of itself in the difficult explanation of the connection between the soul and the body. It remains scientific without raising a metaphysical heresy.

Bain is one of those who have most clearly expressed, not only the advantages, but also the aspirations of this theory (Mind and Body, p. 130):—

“We have every reason for believing,” he says, “that there is in company with all our mental processes, an unbroken material succession. From the ingress of a sensation, to the outgoing responses in action, the mental succession is not for an instant dissevered from a physical succession. A new prospect bursts upon the view; there is mental result of sensation, emotion, thought—terminating in outward displays of speech or gesture. Parallel to this mental series is the physical series of facts, the successive agitation of the physical organs, called the eye, the retina, the optic nerve, optic centres, cerebral hemispheres, outgoing nerves, muscles, &c. While we go the round of the mental circle of sensation, emotion, and thought, there is an unbroken physical circle of effects. It would be incompatible with everything we know of the cerebral action, to suppose that the physical chain ends abruptly in a physical void, occupied by an immaterial substance; which immaterial substance, after working alone, imparts its results to the other edge of the physical break, and determines the active response—two shores of the material with an intervening ocean of the immaterial. There is, in fact, no rupture of nervous continuity. The only tenable supposition is, that mental and physical proceed together, as undivided twins.”

On reading this passage it is easy to see the idea which forms the basis of the doctrine. It is, as I have already said, the fetichism of mechanics: parallelism takes its inspiration from this quite as directly as does materialism, but with more skill, inasmuch as it avoids the most dangerous question, that of the interaction of physics and morals, and replaces it by an hypothesis much resembling Leibnitz’s hypothesis of the pre-established harmony. On the other hand, a second merit of this prudent doctrine is the avoiding the question of genesis. It does not seek for the origin of thought, but places this last in a relation of parallelism with the manifestations of matter; and in the same way that parallel lines prolonged ad infinitum never meet, so the partisans of this doctrine announce their resolution not to inquire how the actual state of things has been formed, nor how it will end if, for example, one of the terms should disappear by the death of the bodily organism.

Notwithstanding so many precautions, criticisms have not been wanting; only they would seem not to have touched the weak part of the doctrine and not to be decisive. We will only run through them briefly.

It has been said: there is no logical necessity which forces us to refuse to the consciousness the privilege of acting in complete independence of the nervous mechanism.

It has also been said: it is by no means certain that any nervous mechanism can be invented which imitates and, if need were, could replace an intellectual act. For instance, what association of nerve cells, what molecular action, can imitate an act of comparison which enables us to see a resemblance between two objects? Let it be supposed, for example, that the resemblance of two impressions come from a partial identity, and that the latter has for material support an identity in the seat or the form of the corresponding nervous influx. But what is identity? How can it be conceived without supposing resemblance, of which it is but a form? How, then, can the one be explained by the other? Thus, for instance, at the bottom of all our intellectual acts, there is a certain degree of belief. Can any material combination be found which corresponds thereto?

There is one last objection, the most serious of all. Parallelism, by establishing a fixed and invariable relation between the physical and the moral, ends by denying the rôle of this last, since the physical mechanism is sufficient to draw to itself all the effects which general belief attributes to the moral. The parallelists on this point go very much further than the materialists; the latter at least concede that the consciousness is of some use, since they compared it to a function or a secretion, and, after all, a secretion is a useful liquid. The parallelists are so strongly convinced that mechanism is alone efficacious that they come to deny any rôle to thought. The consciousness for them has no purpose: yet it keeps company with its object. The metaphors which serve to define it, part of which have been imagined by Huxley, are all of a passive nature. Such is the light, or the whistling noise which accompanies the working of an engine, but does not act on its machinery. Or, the shadow which dogs the steps of the traveller. Or a phosphorescence lighting up the traces of the movements of the brain.

It has also been said that the consciousness is a useless luxury. Some have even gone further, and the fine and significant name of epiphenomenon, that has been given to thought, well translates that conception, according to which semi-realities may exist in nature.

All these objections certainly carry great weight, but they are not capable of killing the doctrine—they only scotch it. I think there is a radical vice in parallelism, which till now has not been sufficiently indicated, and I ask what can really remain of the whole edifice when this vice has been once exposed?

Parallelism implies a false idea, which we have already come across when discussing materialism. It is the idea that a phenomenon of consciousness constitutes one complete whole.

The error proceeds from the use of concepts which cause the reality to be lost sight of. The reality shows that every phenomenon of consciousness consists in a mode of activity, an aggregate of faculties which require an object to fasten on to and so realise themselves, and that this object is furnished by matter. What we always note in intuition is the union, the incarnation of consciousness-matter. Our thoughts, our memories, our reasonings have as object sensations, images—that is to say, things which, strictly speaking, are as material as our own brains. It is therefore rather childish to put all these workings of the spirit on another plane and in another world than the workings of the brain since they are in great part of the same nature as the last named and they contain so many material elements. Now if we re-establish facts as they are, if we admit a parallelism between physical phenomena, on the one hand, and phenomena at once physical and psychical, on the other, the parallelist hypothesis loses every sort of meaning. It ceases to present to us the image of two phenomena of an absolutely different order, which are found coupled together like the two faces of a unity, the front and back of a page, the right and wrong side of a stuff. If there is anything material in the psychical part, the opposition of nature no longer exists between the two terms; they become identical.

Very often, certain parallelists, after thinking they have discovered the duality of nature, endeavour to bring it back to unity by supposing that the two faces of the reality are as two effects of one unique reality, inaccessible to our senses and underlying appearances. Why go so far afield to seek unity? It is trouble in vain: for it is to be found in the phenomenon itself.

  1. I can quote two observations in support of this. M. Brieux, to whom I was relating this part of my argument, stopped me, saying, “You have guessed right; I represent to myself thought issuing from brain in the form of an electric gleam.” Dr. Simon also informed me, during the reading of my manuscript, that he saw “thought floating over the brain like an ignis fatuus.”