Thursday, 4 May 2017


We have not yet heard the last of Dr. Tyndall and his views about the origin of the universe. It was currently believed by the more orthodox party in science that he had so far explained or modified the celebrated sentence occurring in his British Association address as to come within the category of Pyrrhonists or doubters. But it seems from an article in the Fortnightly for November that he is no doubter, but a strong and an ardent believer in the potentiality of matter to produce, by its own inherent activity, every possible form of life. Still further has he stretched his view, backward and forward — backward into the " infinite-azure" of the past, and forward into the infinite development of the future, and he sees only matter advancing by successive creations, or rather by a sequential progress, throughout the unending eternity. Possibly his opponents, and especially his clerical opponents, have said quite enough in defence of faith, and, too little in the way of philosophical reasoning, but to herd them all together, under the contemptuous phrase of  "his more noisy and unreasonable assailants" is certainly not to argue with the spirit of Plato, nor according  to the canons of Aristotle. Calm and settled conviction is wont to be courteous, and even to treat the most antagonistic views as springing from a love of truth, however much they may pass beside it. There is a dogmatism in science as well as in religion. The true thinker of our age, as of all the ages, recognises the limitations of the human vision and the fallibility of the human mind, and is prepared to concede both earnestness and fairness to all truth seekers, and the possibility of very wide divergences in opinion and belief. In the Tusculan disputations of Cicero there occurs a sentence which is worthy of heed by all who would dogmatise on matters that are evidently beyond human ken, and has a special application to the theories of Mr. Tyndall: —"If I have not forgotten, these are all the opinions concerning the soul. I have omitted Democritus, a very great man indeed, but who deduces the soul from the fortuitous concourse of light and round corpuscles, as with them the crowd of atoms can effect everything. Which of these opinions is true some god must determine ; the great question with us is which has most the appearance of truth.
 The controversy between Tyndall and his opponents centres upon the origin of being. There was a time when things that are now, were not, when all that vast succession of beings that people the air, the earth, and water, had not begun to be. How are we to conceive of creation? Abandoning the merciless paradox of Hegel —"Das seyn ist das nichts?" we want to form some idea more or less definite of the beginning of things, and of the power or force by which they were created. The ordinary doctrine of development, as expounded by a living and yet more illustrious philosopher than Tyndall, will not serve us here. A mode of development no more explains the commencement of being, than a knowledge of the gyrations of a top explains the act of spinning. Creation cannot be eternal. Far back in the illimitable past there must have been a time when creatures began to be. It matters not how great the period of actual existence. The beginning may have been six thousand years ago, or six thousand ages ago, or six thousand millions of ages ago— at a time so remote as to transcend the arithmetic of men or angels. But the beginning must have been ; and how ? Mr. Tyndall says— " Matter I define as the mysterious thing by which all this is accomplished." In matter, then, visible or invisible, in the elementary atoms ever changing, but all enduring, of which the universe is composed, there is inherent, there always has been inherent, the power, or force, or potentiality of all existing forms of being and life. All the elementary substances and the endless variety of forms in the inorganic world, all the untold species of vegetable organisms, from the minute diatom of our running streams to the gigantic gum tree of our forests, and all the innumerable kinds of animate life, from the monad up to man, have been successively produced by the inherent and active force of matter. Even the soul —there is no escape from the conclusion —is a product of mere matter. The genius of Shakspeare was evolved out of existing atoms. All things that we can see or hear or feel, in the heavens above or on the earth beneath, have had a merely material origin. Matter they are, and unto matter they will return.
 This is no exaggerated view of the opinions held by Tyndall touching the origin of the universe. They are opposed by nearly all teachers of science, both in the past and present. The eternity of matter has indeed been held by many of the greatest and most reverent minds, but this is altogether different from believing that matter itself is possessed of potency equal to all the demands made upon it by the ages of duration. The majority of men believe, and we confess ourselves to be among them, that as mind, even within the sphere of human life, is infinitely above matter, so must we conceive mind to have exercised itself upon matter before the simplest phenomenon of the visible universe could be brought about. The Professor himself would seem to be scarcely content with his position, although he vehemently defends it. One needs to have one's system conceivably possible in its earliest as well as its latest stages, and yet thus it is he has written in one of his works — endorsing his, statement in the recent article : — " You cannot satisfy the human understanding in its demand for logical continuity between molecular processes and the phenomena of the human mind. This is a rock on which materialism must inevitably split, whenever it pretends to be a complete philosophy of the human mind." Now, what we hold is that, although a teacher of science is not bound to explain all the processes of nature, and specially those hidden processes which link the universe of matter with the universe of mind, he is bound to adopt a theory which does not render them absolutely inconceivable. Mr. Tyndall's materialism differ in some of its phases from the vulgar materialistic philosophies, but it seems to us more absolutely and utterly materialistic than any. In refusing to admit the idea of a First Cause, a Supreme Mind, a Creator, and confining all potency to material atoms, he has gone further than any philosopher of note since the days of Democritus. Cicero tells us of one Aristoxenus, a musician, who taught that a "certain intension of the body, like what is called harmony in music," was the soul. He adds, after declaring that, he could not understand him, "he had better, learned as he is, leave this to his master, Aristotle, and follow his trade as a musician." Similar advice might be given to Professor Tyndall. As an original investigator into natural phenomena and as a master of applied physics, he stands almost without a rival in Britain. Let him cleave to experimental and practical science, and leave to others the task of constructing a philosophy of the universe.

South Australian Chronicle and Weekly Mail (Adelaide, SA : 1868 - 1881), Saturday 29 January 1876, page 6

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