Tuesday, 14 July 2015


" The Soul: a Study and an Argument." By David Syme (London: Macmillan & Co.)

There is no end to the supply of books dealing with matters of the most abstract philosophy. It is a little curious that it should be so, because the discoveries and theories of science and the growing disposition to believe only what can be demonstrated to the reason were supposed to have banished to the region of the Unknown and Unknowable speculations concerning the nature of the soul, the relation of mind to matter; Creation, the First Cause, the question of a Hereafter, and other cognate problems. But while, according to writers like Fitzjames Stephen, in a world whose claims upon our attention increase, as civilisation advances and human interests and activities expand and multiply, it is easier than it was in barbarous times to get along without any religious belief at all, and while, as Bagehot maintained, there are people who are constitutionally incapable, of such belief, there are very few minds which have not at one period or other bestowed some thought, however fleeting, on the vast problems suggested by their own existence and by the system of things of which they form a part. The human mind will never rest under the Spencerian fiat, which declares that there are matters concerning which no intellectual satisfaction is possible; rather the expansion of physical science, which it was once supposed would altogether extinguish, has really served to stimulate the spirit of enquiry as to what lies behind the veil. It is not in the way of a reaction against science (whose conclusions in some directions he nevertheless challenges), but rather of completion and continuation of it, that Mr. Syme has written this very able and suggestive work, which may be described in a word as an argument, based on observation and reason for the existence of the soul and for future state. He is constrained, in his introduction to apologise for the abstruse character of some of his pages which he explains by the too technical treatment the problems he discusses have received from the authorities whose views he has found it necessary to explain. But when he is speaking for himself Mr. Syme's language is faultless in lucidity, and whatever the value of his argument the least intelligent reader can be in no doubt as to his conclusions or as to the reasons by which they are sustained. The problem he has set himself to solve is one that in all ages has perplexed philosophers and theologians—how evil in the moral and material worlds, can be reconciled with the existence of a Creator at once All-Wise, All-Beneficent, and All-Powerful. The problem, so far as it affects the human race was stated by Newman, in the well known passage:—

To consider the world in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts, and then their ways, habits, governments, forms of worship; their enterprises, their aimless courses, their random achievements and acquirements, the impotent conclusion of long standing facts, the tokens so faint and broken of a superintending design, the divine evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things as if from unreasoning elements, not towards final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish; the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary, hopeless irreligion, that condition of the whole race, so fearfully yet exactly described in the apostle's words, "Having no hope and without God in the world"—all this is a vision to dizzy and appal, and inflicts upon the mind the sense of a profound mystery, which is absolutely beyond human solution.

Everyone knows the state of mind in which long and painful musing over the problem left Newman; how "heeding only the voice speaking so clearly in my conscience and my heart," he deliberately closed his mind to all, external suggestions of a clue to the great riddle; how unable even to derive confirmation of his belief in a God from arguments drawn from the facts of human society or history, he made at last the final and stupendous sacrifice of the right of private judgment, and renounced for ever the sway of reason. John Stuart Mill suggested a clue to the mystery which baffled Newman in the hypothesis of a beneficent but not omnipotent Deity, working with refractory materials, and requiring for the fulfilment of His moral purpose the aid of the creatures to whom He had given life and volition. The noble minds who in all ages have constituted the salt of the earth, whatever their creed or whether they have no creed at all, thus become the conscious or unconscious auxiliaries of, and fighters for, God. Like Mill, Mr. Syme can see no evidence of God's beneficence or wisdom in that design from which Paley and the writers of the Bridgwater treatises drew their chief argument for His existence. Not that Deific design is absent from the universe; Mr. Syme believes that without it the universe would not have existed at all. But be does not find it in the admittedly exquisite adaptation of means to ends presented by the structures and processes of, say, the human organism, which made so strong an appeal to the old theologians. If, for example, the wonderful sanguiferous and excretory systems included in the human economy had existed through all known creation they might then be accepted as proof of an Omnipotent Intelligence. But biological science proves that in the process of evolution these systems were elaborated, with infinite pains and after many blunders, from the ruder systems, still visible in the lower animals. The innumerable evidences of rudimentary, atrophied, and imperfect organs show an absence of unity of plan inconsistent with a belief in an All-wise Architect. That blunders have been made is evident from the fact that they have been rectified as new forms of life have been evolved, and it is hard to believe that an All-Wise and Omnipotent Deity would betray so much evidence of bungling and failure as biological science reveals. As a case in point let us consider the system by which the blood is distributed.

If the elaborate sanguiferous system of the human organism, with its pump arteries and valves, indicates a high order of mind, what are we to think of the mental capacity which devised the systems in the lower animals, in which the blood, if it is distributed at all, circulates in channels which are mere excavations in the tissues, and along which the fluid is propelled by the movements of the body? The heart also which now serves the purpose of propelling the blood to all parts of the organism, has but one cavity in the lower class of animals, but it has four cavities in the higher, with corresponding efficiency. So with the lungs. In the lower animals the blood is imperfectly aerated, owing to the fact that the lungs are supplied with blood from a branch of the great arterial system, instead of from the main trunk, and in consequence of this only a portion of the blood is properly aerated; but in the higher organisms this defect has been remedied, and the lungs are supplied from the main trunk, and therefore all the blood passes through them before returning to the heart. Are we to suppose that the Supreme Being did hot know at once how to make a proper channel for the passage of the blood, or how to provide a suitable pumping apparatus, or that the heart should have four cavities instead of only one, or that He was so ignorant that He connected the lungs with the arteries in such a blundering fashion in the first instance that the blood could not be properly aerated, although we must suppose that it was His intention that it should be so? These evidences of imperfection are quite consistent with the theory that the organism was the work of an artificer of finite knowledge and capacity.

But where, if not in structures and processes, is evidence of Deific design to be found? Mr. Syme bids us look for it in the original principle from which they emanated, the principle which he describes as Mind, which antedates life, and from which life itself sprang. Life has been tracked to what is at present believed to be its ultimate abode in the cell, but of the nature of life, and of what it consists, science can form no conception. Virchow defined it as a state of irritability, Lewes as one of sensibility, but apart from the ambiguity of the definition a state, not being a force, can effect nothing. To Herbert Spencer it appears as "the definite combinations of heterogeneous changes, both simultaneous and successive, in correspondence with external co-existences and sequences"—but this definition, as Mr. Syme contends, if more elaborate, is not a whit more satisfactory. Life, as defined by Mr. Syme himself, is the resultant of two processes, one of which makes for decay and the other for resistance to decay. The processes are known respectively as oxidation and nutrition. Exposure to the oxygen of the atmosphere will disintegrate any organism, living or dead; the living organism, by means of nutrition which repairs waste, resists disintegration, and the dead organism offers no resistance. Ante-dating life, or at all events at the back of life, we may conceive of a mind of a low order, semi-conscious, perhaps, certainly without perception, imbued only with the attributes of Appetency (desire) and Will. Of this primoidial mind, which belongs to the lowest order of the vegetative as to the highest order of the animal world (though as the scale of existence rises the mind undergoes special developments till consciousness and reason emerge), life is but a function. The primoidial mind which resides in the cell of the plant as of the animal, has consciousness enough to see that if it would escape disintregration it must exert some force, some energy, some impulse, and it is this force, by whatever name it may be called, that produces the phenomena we call life, that shows itself in an eternal "struggle for existence." It is in imbuing the cell—assuming the cell to be the ultimate element of life—with the impulse to live that Deific design is apparent, rather than in the processes which organic life undergoes in order to achieve its end. On this hypothesis the human being, the highest manifestation of organic life, is the direct product not of one supreme mind, but of many minds the minds of the cells which make up the entire human structure. In this way it is possible, in Mr. Syme's view, to account for the infinite blunders which have attended the fashioning of our species.

In the whole world of nature there is nothing so wonderful as the cell. It alone possesses life. A compound or multicellular organism, is only an aggregation of living cells. A monad, which is a unicellular organism, has no visible structure, no organs of sense, of locomotion, not even an organ of digestion. It throws out processes from its body to seize its food, and having secured it, forthwith wraps its body around it, and digests it. But other cells have improved on the method of the monad, for they have associated themselves into compound organisms, and have constructed separate organs for the discharge or separate functions; they have in fact, established a system of division of labor whereby the work is more efficiently executed, and at less expense than if each cell performed the whole for itself. If an elementary body like a monad possess intelligence, we may assume that this attribute will not be absent from these other cells, which have been proved to lay out their work in such a business-like manner. Are we to suppose that the cell has no share in the building up of its own organism. That is the common belief. Those close observers of plant life, Kerner and Oliver, however, have no hesitation in stating that "the walls of plant cells themselves are the work of the protoplasts, and that it is not a mere phrase, but a literal fact, that the protoplasts build their abodes themselves, divide and adapt the interiors according to their requirements, store up the necessary supplies within them, and most important of all, provide the wherewithal needful tor nutrition, for maintenance, and for reproduction." If we reject the physical theories of life, are we to fly to the other extreme,  and maintain that every step in the formation of this organism is due to an omnipotent power, or to what Lotze calls the "interaction of the Absolute?" Is it not more rational to assume that the cell has been endowed with the power to form its own organism?

Mr. Syme, it will be seen, adopts as the basis of his argument Lamarack's theory, according to which new wants in animals give rise to new movements, producing the organs that differentiate one species from another. It is the doctrine which Edward Carpenter in "The Cause and Cure of Civilisation" expounded as the Law of Exfoliation. Mr. Syme is with the evolutionists in their belief that organic changes are explicable without the direct intervention of an over-ruling Deity, but he cannot agree that a sufficient explanation is furnished by the Darwinian theory of natural selection which he assails with a wealth of argument and illustration. Changes, physical and mental, he believes, are sufficiently accounted for if we imagine a world peopled by organisms in every stage of development, struggling to maintain and improve their chances of existence, having no pre-conceived plan or clear idea or a purpose, but with a dim notion that, something is wrong, and striving in a more or less conscious way to put it right. As with the physical, so with the psychical. There have been successive stages of development, the merely vital, the instinctive, and the purely mental, in the last-named of which the soul, as we know it, has been evolved. The soul is conscious of wider aspirations than the primordial mind, which is content with self-preservation. It looks before and after; its care is for the race even more than itself. It subjects its individual longings to restraints, which are for the good of all; and above all it is conscious of a future destiny. Neither of the nature nor of the locality of the soul have we any knowledge. It is generally supposed to have its seat in the brain. Descartes was sure that it was in the pineal gland. As to its nature, the metaphysicians have denied it the quality of extension; that, is to say, the quality (the only one common to every form of matter) of occupying a certain space. How a non-spacial entity can be related to a spacial substance, as all agree that the mind is related to the body, Mr. Syme confesses his utter inability, to conceive. He declines to assign to any one organ the credit of being the soul's place of abode. He believes consciousness to be present in other nerve centres, as well as in the cerebral hemispheres, which accounts, he thinks, for the consciousness shown by experiment to linger in the lower forms of life when the brain has been removed. If the foot of a decapitated frog be pinched the frog will withdraw its foot, which indicates some local consciousness. That the brain is only the last of a long series of structural developments in animal life, in which consciousness has played a not unimportant part, renders untenable Maudsley's "assured conviction" that mind does not exist apart from the brain, unless we are to suppose that the seat of consciousness shifts with the development of each new organ. The supreme consciousness which we call the ego, we are asked by Mr. Syme to regard as the sum total of the consciousness which resides in each of the nerve centres. If mind existed, as Mr. Syme assumes, before structure was formed, it is reasonable to suppose that it is not dependent on that structure, and can (as telepathy, clairvoyance, and kindred phenomena suggest) act and be reacted upon without its intervention. "The monad can see without eyes, hear without ears, feel without nerves; why, then, may it seem absurd to suppose that a higher organism than the monad may acquire the means of more direct communication with the outer world than through the five senses?" Since mind is responsible for all the organic changes witnessed in the biological world, and since the will to live becomes even more clamorous in the highest of all forms of life, it is a fair presumption that the mind does not die with the body. Mill doubted whether the desire for a boundless extent of life is as universal as supposed, and we know that Harriet Martineau was not only without such a craving, but found it unintelligible. But with the mass of people the instinct of self-preservation has "projected itself beyond the present into a new world," and if, as appears to be the case, there is a relation between biological wants and biological modifications, the latter being the direct result of the former, it is not illogical to suppose that the spiritual desire may evoke the means for its own gratification.

The Advertiser 9 May 1903

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