On Descartes’ “Discourse Touching the Method of Using One’s Reason Rightly and of Seeking Scientific Truth” (1870)
T.H. Huxley, Collected Essays I
It has been well said that “all the thoughts of men, from the beginning of the world until now, are linked together into one great chain;” but the conception of the intellectual filiation of mankind which is expressed in these words may, perhaps, be more fitting metaphor. The thoughts of men seem rather to be comparable to the leaves, flowers, and fruit upon the innumerable branches of a few great stems, fed by commingled and hidden roots. These stems bear the names of the half-a-dozen men, endowed with intellects of heroic force and clearness, to whom we are led, at whatever point of the world of thought the attempt to trace its history commences, just as certainly as the following up the small twigs of a tree to the branchlets which bear them, and tracing the branchlets to their supporting branches, brings us, sooner or later, to the bole.
It seems to me that the thinker who, more than any other, stands in the relation of such a stem towards the philosophy and the science of the modern world is Réné Descartes. I mean, that if you lay hold of any characteristic product of modern ways of thinking, either in the region of philosophy, or in that of science, you find the spirit of that thought, if not its form, to have been present in the mind of the great Frenchman.
There are some men who are counted great because they represent the actuality of their own age, and mirror it as it is. Such an one was Voltaire, of whom it was epigrammatically said, “he expressed everybody’s thoughts better than anybody.”
But there are other men who attain greatness because they embody the potentiality of their own day, and magically reflect the future. They express the thoughts which will be everybody’s two or three centuries after them. Such an one was Descartes.
Born in 1596, nearly three hundred years ago, of a noble family in Touraine, Réné Descartes grew up into a sickly and diminutive child, whose keen wit soon gained him that title of “the Philosopher,” which, in the mouths of his noble kinsmen, was more than half a reproach. The best schoolmasters of the day, the Jesuits, educated him as well as a French boy of the seventeenth century could be educated. And they must have done their work honestly and well, for, before his schoolboy days were over, he had discovered that the most of what he had learned, except in mathematics, was devoid of solid and real value.
“Therefore,” says he, in that ‘Discourse’
which I have taken for my text, “as soon as I was old enough to be set free from the government of my teachers, I entirely forsook the study of letters; and determining to seek no other knowledge than that which I could discover within myself, or in the great book of the world, I spent the remainder of my youth in travelling; in seeing courts and armies; in the society of people of different humours and conditions; in gathering varied experience; in testing myself by the chances of fortune; and in always trying to profit by my reflections on what happened. . . . And I always had an intense desire to learn how to distinguish truth from falsehood, in order to be clear about my actions, and to walk surefootedly in this life.”
But “learn what is true, in order to do what is right,” is the summing up of the whole duty of man, for all who are unable to satisfy their mental hunger with the east wind of authority; and to those of us moderns who are in this position, it is one of Descartes’ great claims to our reverence as a spiritual ancestor, that, at three-and-twenty, he saw clearly that this was his duty, and acted up to his conviction. At two-and-thirty, in fact, finding all other occupations incompatible with the search after the knowledge which leads to action, and being possessed of a modest competence, he withdrew into Holland; where he spent nine years in learning and thinking, in such retirement that only one or two trusted friends knew of his whereabouts.
In 1637 the first-fruits of these long meditations were given to the world in the famous “Discourse touching the Method of using Reason rightly and of seeking Scientific Truth,” which, at once an autobiography and a philosophy, clothes the deepest thought in language of exquisite harmony, simplicity, and clearness.
The central propositions of the whole “Discourse” are these. There is a path that leads to truth so surely, that any one who will follow it must needs reach the goal, whether his capacity be great or small. And there is one guiding rule by which a man may always find this path, and keep himself from straying when he has found it. This golden rule is–give unqualified assent to no propositions but those the truth of which is so clear and distinct that they cannot be doubted.
The enunciation of this great first commandment of science consecrated Doubt. It removed Doubt from the seat of penance among the grievous sins to which it had long been condemned, and enthroned it in that high place among the primary duties, which is assigned to it by the scientific conscience of these latter days. Descartes was the first among the moderns to obey this commandment deliberately; and, as a matter of religious duty, to strip off all his beliefs and reduce himself to a state of intellectual nakedness, until such time as he could satisfy himself which were fit to be worn. He thought a bare skin healthier than the most respectable and well-cut clothing of what might, possibly, be mere shoddy.
When I say that Descartes consecrated doubt, you must remember that it was that sort of doubt which Goethe has called “the active scepticism, whose whole aim is to conquer itself; “ and not that other sort which is born of flippancy and ignorance, and whose aim is only to perpetuate itself, as an excuse for idleness and indifference.
But it is impossible to define what is meant by scientific doubt better than in Descartes’ own words. After describing the gradual progress of his negative criticism, he tells us:–
“For all that, I did not imitate the sceptics, who doubt only for doubting’s sake, and pretend to be always undecided; on the contrary, my whole intention was to arrive at a certainty, and to dig away the drift and the sand until I reached the rock or the clay beneath.”
And further, since no man of common sense when he pulls down his house for the purpose of rebuilding it, fails to provide himself with some shelter while the work is in progress; so, before demolishing the spacious, if not commodious, mansion of his old beliefs, Descartes thought it wise to equip himself with what he calls “une morale par provision,” by which he resolved to govern his practical life until such time as he should be better instructed. The laws of this “provisional self-government” are embodied in four maxims, of which one binds our philosopher to submit himself to the laws and religion in which he was brought up; another, to act, on all those occasions which call for action, promptly and according to the best of his judgment, and to abide, without repining, by the result: a third rule is to seek happiness in limiting his desires, rather than in attempting to satisfy them; while the last is to make the search after truth the business of his life.
Thus prepared to go on living while he doubted, Descartes proceeded to face his doubts like a man. One thing was clear to him, he would not lie to himself–would, under no penalties, say, “I am sure” of that of which he was not sure; but would go on digging and delving until he came to the solid adamant or, at worst, made sure there was no adamant. As the record of his progress tells us, he was obliged to confess that life is full of delusions; that authority may err; that testimony may be false or mistaken; that reason lands us in endless fallacies; that memory is often as little trustworthy as hope; that the evidence of the very senses may be misunderstood; that dreams are real as long as they last, and that what we call reality may be a long and restless dream. Nay, it is conceivable that some powerful and malicious being may find his pleasure in deluding us, and in making us believe the thing which is not, every moment of our lives. What, then, is certain? What even, if such a being exists, is beyond the reach of his powers of delusion? Why, the fact that the thought, the present consciousness, exists. Our thoughts may be delusive, but they cannot be fictitious. As thoughts, they are real and existent, and the cleverest deceiver cannot make them otherwise.
Thus, thought is existence. More than that, so far as we are concerned, existence is thought, all our conceptions of existence being some kind or other of thought. Do not for a moment suppose that these are mere paradoxes or subtleties. A little reflection upon the commonest facts proves them to be irrefragable truths. For example, I take up a marble, and I find it to be a red, round, hard, single body. We call the redness, the roundness, the hardness, and the singleness, “qualities” of the marble; and it sounds, at first, the height of absurdity to say that all these qualities are modes of our own consciousness, which cannot even be conceived to exist in the marble. But consider the redness, to begin with. How does the sensation of redness arise? The waves of a certain very attenuated matter, the particles of which are vibrating with vast rapidity, but with very different velocities, strike upon the marble, and those which vibrate with one particular velocity are thrown off from its surface in all directions. The optical apparatus of the eye gathers some of these together, and gives them such a course that they impinge upon the surface of the retina, which is a singularly delicate apparatus connected with the termination of the fibres of the optic nerve. The impulses of the attenuated matter, or ether, affect this apparatus and the fibres of the optic nerve in a certain way; and the change in the fibres of the optic nerve produces yet other changes in the brain; and these, in some fashion unknown to us, give rise to the feeling, or consciousness of redness. If the marble could remain unchanged, and either the rate of vibration of the ether, or the nature of the retina, could be altered, the marble would seem not red, but some other colour. There are many people who are what are called colour-blind, being unable to distinguish one colour from another. Such an one might declare our marble to be green; and he would be quite as right in saying that it is green, as we are in declaring it to be red. But then, as the marble cannot, in itself, be both green and red, at the same time, this shows that the quality “redness” must be in our consciousness and not in the marble.
In like manner, it is easy to see that the roundness and the hardness are forms of our consciousness, belonging to the groups which we call sensations of sight and touch. If the surface of the cornea were cylindrical, we should have a very different notion of a round body from that which we possess now; and if the strength of the fabric, and the force of the muscles, of the body were increased a hundredfold, our marble would seem to be as soft as a pellet of bread crumbs.
Not only is it obvious that all these qualities are in us, but, if you will make the attempt, you will find it quite impossible to conceive of “blueness,” “roundness,” and “hardness” as existing without reference to some such consciousness as our own. It may seem strange to say that even the “singleness” of the marble is relative to us; but extremely simple experiments will show that such is veritably the case, and that our two most trustworthy senses may be made to contradict one another on this very point. Hold the marble between the finger and thumb, and look at it in the ordinary way. Sight and touch agree that it is single. Now squint, and sight tells you that there are two marbles, while touch asserts that there is only one. Next, return the eyes to their natural position, and, having crossed the forefinger and the middle finger, put the marble between their tips. Then touch will declare that there are two marbles, while sight says that there is only one; and touch claims our belief, when we attend to it, just as imperatively as sight does.
But it may be said, the marble takes up a certain space which could not be occupied, at the same time, by anything else. In other words, the marble has the primary quality of matter, extension. Surely this quality must be in the thing and not in our minds? But the reply must still be; whatever may, or may not, exist in the thing, all that we can know of these qualities is a state of consciousness. What we call extension is a consciousness of a relation between two, or more, affections of the sense of sight, or of touch. And it is wholly inconceivable that what we call extension should exist independently of such consciousness as our own. Whether, notwithstanding this inconceivability, it does so exist, or not, is a point on which I offer no opinion. Thus, whatever our marble may be in itself, all that we can know of it is under the shape of a bundle of our own consciousnesses.
Nor is our knowledge of anything we know or feel more, or less, than a knowledge of states of consciousness. And our whole life is made up of such states. Some of these states we refer to a cause we call “self;” others to a cause or causes which may be comprehended under the title of “not-self.” But neither of the existence of “self,” nor of that of “not-self,” have we, or can we by any possibility have, any such unquestionable and immediate certainty as we have of the states of consciousness which we consider to be their effects. They are not immediately observed facts, but results of the application of the law of causation to those facts. Strictly speaking, the existence of a “self” and of a “not-self” are hypotheses by which we account for the facts of consciousness. They stand upon the same footing as the belief in the general trustworthiness of memory, and in the general constancy of the order of Nature–as hypothetical assumptions which cannot be proved, or known with that highest degree of certainty which is given by immediate consciousness; but which, nevertheless, are of the highest practical value, inasmuch as the conclusions logically drawn from them are always verified by experience.
This, in my judgment, is the ultimate issue of Descartes’ argument; but it is proper for me to point out that we have left Descartes himself some way behind us. He stopped at the famous formula, “I think, therefore I am.” Yet a little consideration will show this formula to be full of snares and verbal entanglements. In the first place, the “therefore” has no business there. The “I am” is assumed in the “I think,” which is simply another way of saying “I am thinking.” And, in the second place, “I think” is not one simple proposition, but three distinct assertions rolled into one. The first of these is, “something called I exists;” the second is, “something called thought exists;” and the third is, “the thought is the result of the action of the I.”
Now, it will be obvious to you, that the only one of these three propositions which can stand the Cartesian test of certainty is the second. It cannot be doubted, for the very doubt is an existent thought. But the first and third, whether true or not, may be doubted, and have been doubted. For the assertor may be asked, How do you know that thought is not self-existent; or that a given thought is not the effect of its antecedent thought, or of some external power? And a diversity of other questions, much more easily put than answered. Descartes, determined as he was to strip off all the garments which the intellect weaves for itself, forgot this gossamer shirt of the “self”; to the great detriment, and indeed ruin of his toilet when he began to clothe himself again.
But it is beside my purpose to dwell upon the minor peculiarities of the Cartesian philosophy. All I wish to put clearly before your minds thus far, is that Descartes, having commenced by declaring doubt to be a duty, found certainty in consciousness alone; and that the necessary outcome of his views is what may properly be termed Idealism; namely, the doctrine that, whatever the universe may be, all we can know of it is the picture presented to us by consciousness. This picture may be a true likeness–though how this can be is inconceivable; or it may have no more resemblance to its cause than one of Bach’s fugues has to the person who is playing it; or than a piece of poetry has to the mouth and lips of a reciter. It is enough for all the practical purposes of human existence if we find that our trust in the representations of consciousness is verified by results; and that, by their help, we are enabled “to walk surefootedly in this life.”
Thus the method, or path which leads to truth, indicated by Descartes, takes us straight to the Critical Idealism of his great successor Kant. It is that Idealism which declares the ultimate fact of all knowledge to be consciousness, or, in other words, a mental phænomenon; and therefore affirms the highest of all certainties, and indeed the only absolute certainty, to be the existence of mind. But it is also that Idealism which refuses to make any assertions, either positive or negative, as to what lies beyond consciousness. It accuses the subtle Berkeley of stepping beyond the limits of knowledge when he declared that a substance of matter does not exist; and of illogicality, for not seeing that the arguments which he supposed demolished the existence of matter were equally destructive to the existence of soul. And it refuses to listen to the jargon of more recent days about the “Absolute” and all the other hypostatised adjectives, the initial letters of the names of which are generally printed in capital letters; just as you give a Grenadier a bearskin cap, to make him look more formidable than he is by nature.
I repeat, the path indicated and followed by Descartes, which we have hitherto been treading, leads through doubt to that critical Idealism which lies at the heart of modern metaphysical thought. But the “Discourse” shows us another, and apparently very different, path, which leads, quite as definitely, to that correlation of all the phænomena of the universe with matter and motion, which lies at the heart of modern physical thought, and which most people call Materialism.
The early part of the seventeenth century, when Descartes reached manhood, is one of the great epochs of the intellectual life of mankind. At that time, physical science suddenly strode into the arena of public and familiar thought, and openly challenged not only Philosophy and the Church, but that common ignorance which often passes by the name of Common Sense. The assertion of the motion of the earth was a defiance to all three, and Physical Science threw down her glove by the hand of Galileo.
It is not pleasant to think of the immediate result of the combat; to see the champion of science, old, worn, and on his knees before the Cardinal Inquisitor, signing his name to what he knew to be a lie. And, no doubt, the Cardinals rubbed their hands as they thought how well they had silenced and discredited their adversary. But two hundred years have passed, and however feeble or faulty her soldiers, Physical Science sits crowned and enthroned as one of the legitimate rulers of the world of thought. Charity children would be ashamed not to know that the earth moves; while the Schoolmen are forgotten; and the Cardinals–well, the Cardinals are at the Œcumenical Council, still at their old business of trying to stop the movement of the world.
As a ship, which having lain becalmed with every stitch of canvas set, bounds away before the breeze which springs up astern, so the mind of Descartes, poised in equilibrium of doubt, not only yielded to the full force of the impulse towards physical science and physical ways of thought, given by his great contemporaries, Galileo and Harvey, but shot beyond them; and anticipated, by bold speculation, the conclusions, which could only be placed upon a secure foundation by the labours of generations of workers.
Descartes saw that the discoveries of Galileo meant that the remotest parts of the universe were governed by mechanical laws; while those of Harvey meant that the same laws presided over the operations of that portion of the world which is nearest to us, namely, our own bodily frame. And crossing the interval between the centre and its vast circumference by one of the great strides of genius, Descartes sought to resolve all the phænomena of the universe into matter and motion, or forces operating according to law.
This grand conception, which is sketched in the “Discours,” and more fully developed in the “Principes” and in the “Traite de l’Homme,” he worked out with extraordinary power and knowledge; and with the effect of arriving, in the last-named essay, at that purely mechanical view of vital phænomena towards which modern physiology is striving.
Let us try to understand how Descartes got into this path, and why it led him where it did. The mechanism of the circulation of the blood had evidently taken a great hold of his mind, as he describes it several times, at much length. After giving a full account of it in the “Discourse,” and erroneously ascribing the motion of the blood, not to the contraction of the walls of the heart, but to the heat which he supposes to be generated there, he adds:–
“This motion, which I have just explained, is as much the necessary result of the structure of the parts which one can see in the heart, and of the heat which one may feel there with one’s fingers, and of the nature of the blood, which may be experimentally ascertained; as is that of a clock of the force, the situation, and the figure, of its weight, and of its wheels.”
But if this apparently vital operation were explicable as a simple mechanism, might not other vital operations be reducible to the same category? Descartes replies without hesitation in the affirmative.
“The animal spirits,” says he, “resemble a very subtle fluid, or a very pure and vivid flame, and are continually generated in the heart, and ascend to the brain as to a sort of reservoir. Hence they pass into the nerves and are distributed to the muscles, causing contraction, or relaxation, according to their quantity.”
Thus, according to Descartes, the animal body is an automaton, which is competent to perform all the animal functions in exactly the same way as a clock or any other piece of mechanism. As he puts the case himself:–
“In proportion as these spirits [the animal spirits] enter the cavities of the brain, they pass thence into the pores of its substance, and from these pores into the nerves; where, according as they enter, or even only tend to enter, more or less, into one than into another, they have the power of altering the figure of the muscles into which the nerves are inserted, and by this means of causing all the limbs to move. Thus, as you may have seen in the grottoes and the fountains in royal gardens, the force with which the water issues from its reservoir is sufficient to move various machines, and even to make them play instruments, or pronounce words according to the different disposition of the pipes which lead the water.
“And, in truth, the nerves of the machine which I am describing may very well be compared to the pipes of these waterworks; its muscles and its tendons to the other various engines and springs which seem to move them; its animal spirits to the water which impels them, of which the heart is the fountain; while the cavities of the brain are the central office. Moreover, respiration and other such actions as are natural and usual in the body, and which depend on the course of the spirits, are like the movements of a clock, or of a mill, which may be kept up by the ordinary flow of the water.
“The external objects which, by their mere presence, act upon the organs of the senses; and which, by this means, determine the corporal machine to move in many different ways, according as the parts of the brain are arranged, are like the strangers who, entering into some of the grottoes of these waterworks, unconsciously cause the movements which take place in their presence. For they cannot enter without treading upon certain planks so arranged that, for example, if they approach a bathing Diana, they cause her to hide among the reeds; and if they attempt to follow her, they see approaching a Neptune, who threatens them with his trident: or if they try some other way, they cause some other monster, who vomits water into their faces, to dart out; or like contrivances, according to the fancy of the engineers who have made them. And lastly, when the rational soul
is lodged in this machine, it will have its principal seat in the brain, and will take the place of the engineer, who ought to be in that part of the works with which all the pipes are connected, when he wishes to increase, or to slacken, or in some way to alter their movements.”
And again still more strongly:–
“All the functions which I have attributed to this machine (the body), as the digestion of food, the pulsation of the heart and of the arteries; the nutrition and the growth of the limbs; respiration, wakefulness, and sleep; the reception of light, sounds, colours, flavours, heat, and such like qualities, in the organs of the external senses; the impression of the ideas of these in the organ of common sense and in the imagination; the retention, or the impression, of these ideas on the memory; the internal movements of the appetites and the passions; and lastly, the external movements of all the limbs, which follow so aptly, as well the action of the objects which are presented to the senses, as the impressions which meet in the memory, that they imitate as nearly as possible those of a real man:
I desire, I say, that you should consider that these functions in the machine naturally proceed from the mere arrangement of its organs, neither more nor less than do the movements of a clock, or other automation, from that of its weights and its wheels; so that, so far as these are concerned, it is not necessary to conceive any other vegetative or sensitive soul, nor any other principle of motion, or of life, than the blood and the spirits agitated by the fire which burns continually in the heart, and which is no wise essentially different from all the fires which exist in inanimate bodies.”
The spirit of these passages is exactly that of the most advanced physiology of the present day; all that is necessary to make them coincide with our present physiology in form, is to represent the details of the working of the animal machinery in modern language, and by the aid of modern conceptions.
Most undoubtedly, the digestion of food in the human body is a purely chemical process; and the passage of the nutritive parts of that food into the blood, a physical operation. Beyond all question, the circulation of the blood is simply a matter of mechanism, and results from the structure and arrangement of the parts of the heart and vessels, from the contractility of those organs, and from the regulation of that contractility by an automatically acting nervous apparatus. The progress of physiology has further shown, that the contractility of the muscles and irritability of the nerves are purely the results of the molecular mechanism of those organs; and that the regular movements of the respiratory, alimentary, and other internal organs are governed and guided, as mechanically, by their appropriate nervous centres. The even rhythm of the breathing of every one of us depends upon the structural integrity of a particular region of the medulla oblongata, as much as the ticking of a clock depends upon the integrity of the escapement. You may take away the hands of a clock and break up its striking machinery, but it will still tick; and a man may be unable to feel, speak, or move, and yet he will breathe.
Again, in entire accordance with Descartes’ affirmation, it is certain that the modes of motion which constitute the physical basis of light, sound, and heat, are transmuted into affections of nervous matter by the sensory organs. These affections are, so to speak, a kind of physical ideas, which are retained in the central organs, constituting what might be called physical memory, and may be combined in a manner which answers to association and imagination, or may give rise to muscular contractions, in those “reflex actions” which are the mechanical representatives of volition.
Consider what happens when a blow is aimed at the eye.
Instantly, and without our knowledge or will, and even against the will, the eyelids close. What is it that happens? A picture of the rapidly advancing fist is made upon the retina at the back of the eye. The retina changes this picture into an affection of a number of the fibres of the optic nerve; the fibres of the optic nerve affect certain parts of the brain; the brain, in consequence, affects those particular fibres of the seventh nerve which go to the orbicular muscle of the eyelids; the change in these nerve-fibres causes the muscular fibres to alter their dimensions, so as to become shorter and broader; and the result is the closing of the slit between the two lids, round which these fibres are disposed. Here is a pure mechanism, giving rise to a purposive action, and strictly comparable to that by which Descartes supposes his waterwork Diana to be moved. But we may go further, and inquire whether our volition, in what we term voluntary action, ever plays any other part than that of Descartes’ engineer, sitting in his office, and turning this tap or the other, as he wishes to set one or another machine in motion, but exercising no direct influence upon the movements of the whole.
Our voluntary acts consist of two parts: firstly, we desire to perform a certain action; and, secondly, we somehow set a-going a machinery which does what we desire. But so little do we directly influence that machinery, that nine-tenths of us do not even know of its existence. Suppose one wills to raise one’s arm and whirl it round. Nothing is easier. But the majority of us do not know that nerves and muscles are concerned in this process; and the best anatomist among us would be amazingly perplexed, if he were called upon to direct the succession, and the relative strength, of the multitudinous nerve-changes, which are the actual causes of this very simple operation. So again in speaking. How many of us know that the voice is produced in the larynx, and modified by the mouth? How many among these instructed persons understand how the voice is produced and modified? And what living man, if he had unlimited control over all the nerves supplying the mouth and larynx of another person, could make him pronounce a sentence? Yet, if one has anything to say, what is easier than to say it? We desire the utterance of certain words: we touch the spring of the word-machine, and they are spoken. Just as Descartes’ engineer, when he wanted a particular hydraulic machine to play, had only to turn a tap, and what he wished was done. It is because the body is a machine that education is possible. Education is the formation of habits, a superinducing of an artificial organisation upon the natural organisation of the body; so that acts, which at first required a conscious effort, eventually became unconscious and mechanical. If the act which primarily requires a distinct consciousness and volition of its details, always needed the same effort, education would be an impossibility.
According to Descartes, then, all the functions which are common to man and animals are performed by the body as a mere mechanism, and he looks upon consciousness as the peculiar distinction of the “chose pensante,
” of the “rational soul,” which in man (and in man only, in Descartes’ opinion) is superadded to the body. This rational soul he conceived to be lodged in the pineal gland, as in a sort of central office; and here, by the intermediation of the animal spirits, it became aware of what was going on in the body, or influenced the operations of the body. Modern physiologists do not ascribe so exalted a function to the little pineal gland, but, in a vague sort of way, they adopt Descartes’ principle, and suppose that the soul is lodged in the cortical part of the brain–at least this is commonly regarded as the seat an instrument of consciousness.
Descartes has clearly stated what he conceived to be the difference between spirit and matter. Matter is substance which has extension, but does not think; spirit is substance which thinks, but has no extension. It is very hard to form a definite notion of what this phraseology means, when it is taken in connection with the location of the soul in the pineal gland; and I can only represent it to myself as signifying that the soul is a mathematical point, having place but not extension, within the limits of the pineal body. Not only has it place, but it must exert force; for, according to this hypothesis, it is competent, when it wills, to change the course of the animal spirits, which consist of matter in motion. Thus the soul becomes a centre of force. But, at the same time, the distinction between spirit and matter vanishes; inasmuch as matter, according to a tenable hypothesis, may be nothing but a multitude of centres of force. The case is worse if we adopt the modern vague notion that consciousness is seated in the grey matter of the cerebrum, generally; for, as the grey matter has extension, that which is lodged in it must also have extension. And thus we are led, in another way, to lose spirit in matter.
In truth, Descartes’ physiology, like the modern physiology of which it anticipates the spirit, leads straight to Materialism, so far as that title is rightly applicable to the doctrine that we have no knowledge of any thinking substance, apart from extended substance; and that thought is as much a function of matter as motion is. Thus we arrive at the singular result that, of the two paths opened up to us in the “Discourse upon Method,” the one leads, by way of Berkeley and Hume, to Kant and Idealism; while the other leads, by way of De La Mettrie and Priestley, to modern physiology and Materialism.
Our stem divides into two main branches, which grow in opposite ways, and bear flowers which look as different as they can well be. But each branch is sound and healthy and has as much life and vigour as the other.
If a botanist found this state of things in a new plant, I imagine that he might be inclined to think that his tree was monœcious–that the flowers were of different sexes, and that, so far from setting up a barrier between the two branches of the tree, the only hope of fertility lay in bringing them together. I may be taking too much of a naturalist’s view of the case, but I must confess that this is exactly my notion of what is to be done with metaphysics and physics. Their differences are complementary, not antagonistic; and thought will never be completely fruitful until the one unites with the other. Let me try to explain what I mean. I hold, with the Materialist, that the human body, like all living bodies, is a machine, all the operations of which will, sooner or later, be explained on physical principles. I believe that we shall, sooner or later, arrive at a mechanical equivalent of consciousness, just as we have arrived at a mechanical equivalent of heat. If a pound weight falling through a distance of a foot gives rise to a definite amount of heat, which may properly be said to be its equivalent; the same pound weight falling through a foot on a man’s hand gives rise to a definite amount of feeling, which might with equal propriety be said to be its equivalent in consciousness.
And as we already know that there is a certain parity between the intensity of a pain and the strength of one’s desire to get rid of that pain; and, secondly, that there is a certain correspondence between the intensity of the heat, or mechanical violence, which gives rise to the pain, and the pain itself; the possibility of the establishment of a correlation between mechanical force and volition becomes apparent. And the same conclusion is suggested by the fact that, within certain limits, the intensity of the mechanical force we exert is proportioned to the intensity of our desire to exert it.
Thus I am prepared to go with the Materialists wherever the true pursuit of the path of Descartes may lead them; and I am glad, on all occasions, to declare my belief that their fearless development of the materialistic aspect of these matters has had an immense, and a most beneficial, influence upon physiology and psychology. Nay, more, when they go farther than I think they are entitled to do–when they introduce Calvinism into science and declare that man is nothing but a machine, I do not see any particular harm in their doctrines, so long as they admit that which is a matter of experimental fact–namely, that it is a machine capable of adjusting itself within certain limits.
I protest that if some great Power would agree to make me always think what is true and do what is right, on condition of being turned into a sort of clock and wound up every morning before I got out of bed, I should instantly close with the offer. The only freedom I care about is the freedom to do right; the freedom to do wrong I am ready to part with on the cheapest terms to any one who will take it of me. But when the Materialists stray beyond the borders of their path and begin to talk about there being nothing else in the universe but Matter and Force and Necessary Laws, and all the rest of their
“grenadiers,” I decline to follow them. I go back to the point from which we started, and to the other path of Descartes. I remind you that we have already seen clearly and distinctly, and in a manner which admits of no doubt, that all our knowledge is a knowledge of states of consciousness. “Matter” and “Force” are, as far as we can know, mere names for certain forms of consciousness.
“Necessary” means that of which we cannot conceive the contrary. “Law” means a rule which we have always found to hold good, and which we expect always will hold good. Thus it is an indisputable truth that what we call the material world is only known to us under the forms of the ideal world; and, as Descartes tells us, our knowledge of the soul
is more intimate and certain than our knowledge of the body. If I say that impenetrability is a property of matter, all that I can really mean is that the consciousness I call extension, and the consciousness I call resistance, constantly accompany one another. Why and how they are thus related is a mystery. And if I say that thought is a property of matter, all that I can mean is that actually or possibly, the consciousness of extension and that of resistance accompany all other sorts of consciousness. But, as in the former case, why they are thus associated is an insoluble mystery.
From all this it follows that what I may term legitimate materialism, that is, the extension of the conceptions and of the methods of physical science to the highest as well as the lowest phænomena of vitality, is neither more nor less than a sort of shorthand Idealism; and Descartes’ two paths meet at the summit of the mountain, though they set out on opposite sides of it.
The reconciliation of physics and metaphysics lies in the acknowledgment of faults upon both sides; in the confession by physics that all the phænomena of Nature are, in their ultimate analysis, known to us only as facts of consciousness; in the admission by metaphysics, that the facts of consciousness are, practically, interpretable only by the methods and the formulæ of physics: and, finally, in the observance by both metaphysical and physical thinkers of Descartes’ maxim–assent to no proposition the matter of which is not so clear and distinct that it cannot be doubted.
When you did me the honour to ask me to deliver this address, I confess I was perplexed what topic to select. For you are emphatically and distinctly a Christian body; while science and philosophy, within the range of which lie all the topics on which I could venture to speak, are neither Christian, nor Unchristian, but are Extra-christian, and have a world of their own, which to use language which will be very familiar to your ears just now, is not only “unsectarian,” but is altogether “secular.” The arguments which I have put before you tonight, for example, are not inconsistent, so far as I know, with any form of theology.
After much consideration, I thought that I might be most useful to you, if I attempted to give you some vision of this Extra-christian world, as it appears to a person who lives a good deal in it; and if I tried to show you by what methods the dwellers therein try to distinguish truth from falsehood, in regard to some of the deepest and most difficult problems that beset humanity, “in order to be clear about their actions, and to walk surefootedly in this life,” as Descartes says.
It struck me that if the execution of my project came anywhere near the conception of it, you would become aware that the philosophers and the men of science are not exactly what they are sometimes represented to you to be; and that their methods and paths do not lead so perpendicularly downwards as you are occasionally told they do. And I must admit, also, that a particular and personal motive weighed with me,–namely, the desire to show that a certain discourse,
which brought a great storm about my head some time ago, contained nothing but the ultimate development of the views of the father of modern philosophy. I do not know if I have been quite wise in allowing this last motive to weigh with me. They say that the most dangerous thing one can do in a thunderstorm is to shelter oneself under a great tree, and the history of Descartes’ life shows how narrowly he escaped being riven by the lightnings, which were more destructive in his time than in ours.
Descartes lived and died a good Catholic, and prided himself upon having demonstrated the existence of God and of the soul of man. As a reward for his exertions, his old friends the Jesuits put his works upon the “Index,” and called him an Atheist; while the Protestant divines of Holland declared him to be both a Jesuit and an Atheist. His books narrowly escaped being burned by the hangman; the fate of Vanini was dangled before his eyes; and the misfortunes of Galileo so alarmed him, that he well-nigh renounced the pursuits by which the world has so greatly benefited, and was driven into subterfuges and evasions which were not worthy of him.
“Very cowardly,” you may say; and so it was. But you must make allowance for the fact that, in the seventeenth century, not only did heresy mean possible burning, or imprisonment, but the very suspicion of it destroyed a man’s peace, and rendered the calm pursuit of truth difficult or impossible. I fancy that Descartes was a man to care more about being worried and disturbed, than about being burned outright; and, like many other men, sacrificed for the sake of peace and quietness, what he would have stubbornly maintained against downright violence. However this may be, let those who are sure they would have done better throw stones at him. I have no feelings but those of gratitude and reverence for the man who did what he did, when he did; and a sort of shame that any one should repine against taking a fair share of such treatment as the world thought good enough for him.
Finally, it occurs to me that, such being my feeling about the matter, it may be useful to all of us if I ask you, “What is yours? Do you think that the Christianity of the seventeenth century looks nobler and more attractive for such treatment of such a man?” You will hardly reply that it does. But if it does not, may it not be well if all of you do what lies within your power to prevent the Christianity of the nineteenth century from repeating the scandal?
There are one or two living men, who, a couple of centuries hence, will be remembered as Descartes is now, because they have produced great thoughts which will live and grow as long as mankind lasts.
If the twenty-first century studies their history, it will find that the Christianity of the middle of the nineteenth century recognised them only as objects of vilification. It is for you and such as you, Christian young men, to say whether this shall be as true of the Christianity of the future as it is of that of the present. I appeal to you to say “No,” in your own interest, and in that of the Christianity you profess.
In the interest of Science, no appeal is needful; as Dante sings of Fortune–
“Quest’ è colei, ch’è tanto posta in croce
Pur da color, cho le dovrian dar lode
Dandole biasmo a torto e mala voce.
Ma ella s’ è beata, e ciò non ode:
Con l’ altre prime creature lieta
Volve sua spera, e beata si gode:”*
so, whatever evil voices may rage, Science, secure among the powers that are eternal, will do her work and be blessed.
* “And this is she who’s put on cross so much
Even by them who ought to give her praise,
Giving her wrongly ill repute and blame.
But she is blessed, and she hears not this:
She, with the other primal creatures, glad
Revolves her sphere, and blessed joys herself.”
Inferno, vii. 90–96 (W. M. Rossetti’s Translation).
[I highly recommend the online, annotated version of this essay found at The Huxley File website. Here is a direct link to this particular piece by Huxley at that site: http://aleph0.clarku.edu/huxley/CE1/DesDis.html]