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THE PRIMAL MIND
ONE of my problems is how to reconcile the unity of creation with the fact, or apparent fact, that while the vast mass of the visible universe is governed by purely physical laws, a comparatively small part of it is dominated by laws of another order, and is the abode of life and intelligence. How these two parts or phases of the cosmos are related, how we can ascribe purpose and intelligence to living matter, and deny them to the nonliving, without doing violence to our sense of the oneness of universal nature, is the problem. Are we to believe that the universe is part rational and part irrational? – that mind is operative in the grass, the trees, the animals, and not in the stars and sidereal systems?
"the primal mind
That flows in streams, that breathes in wind."
But unless we identify mind with cosmic or solar energy, Emerson's lines do not seem especially happy. Is it possible to think of mind, or anything like intelligence, as we know it in this world, as active in streams or winds or tides, or in any of the blind mechanical forces? All these things go their appointed ways and their ways are not as our ways; they are void of purpose, void of will, void of any suggestion of a rational principle; they are ruled by irrefragable law.
Mind as we know it, and can only know it, is associated with life. Not the caressing winds, nor the sparkling currents, nor the beauty of crystals and precious stones, nor the glory and the majesty of the heavens, suggest mind; they suggest power and measureless energy. The midnight skies fill us with awe, they overwhelm us with a sense of our own insignificance, but do we see anything akin to ourselves in them? Do we not rather see that which leaves us out of the account entirely? An infinity of celestial bodies ruled by rigidly mechanical laws, going their inevitable rounds at the risk of cosmic collisions and disruptions in which suns and systems are at times shipwrecked, unutterably sublime and awe-inspiring, but lifeless, mindless, unhuman. In all the vast depths of sidereal space, strewn with celestial bodies as a June meadow with clover blossoms, we see but the dance and whirl of dead matter. The heavens declare the glory of a god who hath not one attribute akin to our own. What shall we say, then? What can we say but that this astronomic background of cosmic matter and energy seems but a vast theatre upon which a small fraction of the whole, clothed with new powers and purposes, plays the drama of organic nature? Who can say that it even seems designed for this purpose? On the contrary, from our human point of view, how casual and uncertain the drama appears! Inside of this stupendous carnival of the physicochemical forces – at far removed points, and doubtless at vast intervals of time, flickering here and there in the cosmic darkness like a dim taper – appears this mysterious change, this light which we call life and mind, appears and disappears, like the lamps of , the fireflies of a summer night, confined to a very narrow range of thermal and physical conditions, and, in its higher manifestations on our planet, at least, limited to a very narrow period of time.
In our solar family of nine planets (considering the asteroids as fragments of an exploded body between Mars and Jupiter) only one is unmistakably the abode of life, with a strong probability in favor of Mars. Our earth is the seventh child of the Sun in point of time, and on it life is clearly as yet in the heyday of youth. But what an enormous preponderance of lifeless matter the other planets present! Though the superior planets are ćons older and thousands of times larger, it is evident that they have never been the abode of life, and doubtful if they ever can be. As the planets are all made of one stuff, and the same physical and chemical laws are operative in all, it is evident that the conditions of life must everywhere be essentially the same, and hence that life is not possible on the major and minor planets unless, or until, conditions upon them are similar to those upon the earth. But what astronomic significance would the fact have if life never appeared upon any of the other planets, nor upon any of the bodies that swarm in celestial space? None whatever. The vast celestial mechanism would know it not. Doubtless there are untold worlds where life has never appeared and never will appear, and other untold worlds upon which it has appeared and has run its course, or is now in full career.
The natural philosophers tell us that under a certain size a planet cannot retain an atmosphere; it drifts away to the larger and more powerful bodies. Probably our moon has never had an atmosphere. They also tell us that a world with a very small particle of radium in its rocky interior, – two parts in a million million parts, – like our earth, must inevitably, in the course of time or of eternity, explode. This may be what happened to the body of which the four hundred asteroids are fragments.
What a comfort, a sort of cosmic comfort, it would be to us dwellers upon this astronomic mote, to have positive proof that there were beings like ourselves upon other astronomic motes in the heavens around us, even if we had to know that millions of them were trying desperately to exterminate each other, as they are at this moment upon this war-scarred planet! Astronomy and geology grind away at their everlasting tasks, but biology is as a flower that cometh in a day and on the morrow is cut down. Our greedy anthropomorphism sees the whole universe travailing in pain to bring forth man – sees him as the sum and purpose of it all; but clearly the cosmic gods have taken very little thought about him; if his patrimony is this vast sidereal province, he is likely to come into possession of a very small part of it. He is of secondary importance, as are all forms of life, though he alone can assign each god his rank and sit in judgment in the council-chamber of the Infinite.
I am only trying to see with modern eyes, and in the light of modern science, what the old Hebrew seers and prophets saw so long ago – the littleness of man, and his brief, uncertain foothold in the total scheme of things. His glory is that he is a part, an infinitesimal part, of this total scheme, and that with his finite mind he can to some extent grasp and measure it. The secret of his relation to it, the closeness of his kinship with it, whether he came out of it through the inevitable operation of natural laws, or was grafted upon it by an omnipotent power external to it, is a question that opens up a line of inquiry of which he never tires.
Is it possible to reconcile the revelations of astronomy, of geology, of palćontology, – the waste, the delays, the cosmic cataclysms, the indifference to life, a universe sown with dead worlds and with extinct suns, the mindless depths, the supremacy of mechanical laws, the unconscionable energy, – all this and more, with our ideas of a beneficent, omnipotent being governing all, of whose love and concern for man this universe is the expression?
The universe as the theatre of mechanical laws – the action and interaction of matter and energy is godless; – neither human nor divine attributes are displayed there. It is only as the theatre of biological laws that we can recognize in it the sources of our own lives or get any glimpse of what we call mind. The source and fountain of life in the universe is clearly no more intent upon man than upon any other form of life, even the humblest. All life is cheap in the presence of the material forces. The tempest and the earthquake blot out human communities as unhesitatingly as they blot out communities of ants and mice. Fire, flood, gravity, and chemical affinity respect nothing that lives. The organizing tendency in matter, whatever be its source, works as if it knew what it wanted when not interfered with; it builds up its predetermined forms and hands the secret of the craft down to succeeding generations unerringly, so long as nothing diverts or confuses it, or imposes foreign purpose upon it, as do the many parasites of the animal and vegetable world. An insect stings a leaf or a stalk and thus diverts the life-energies of the plant to its own purpose. In the case of malignant tumors, the life-energy of the body consumes itself. The hostile germs destroy the body by the use of the vital energy which the body furnishes. The body can be made to destroy itself, to eat itself up.
Interfere with the normal currents and course of life in the mother's body, and her womb grows a monstrosity or hideous deformity; the cells go on building blindly; the push of life is not abated, but it has lost its way or forgotten its plan; it wanders aimlessly. Now, what gives it a plan, or guided it through all its vagaries and wanderings in the lowly or monstrous forms of the foreworld, till it built up man from the ape, and the bird from the fish or reptile? Natural selection, the Darwinians say. But there must be a variety to select from, and some scheme or purpose in the selecting agent. Mechanical laws may select the strongest, or the largest, or the smallest, as the case may be, but not the fittest. The fittest implies a scheme, implies progression. The survival of the fittest implies the push of life, the aspiration, as it were, toward higher forms. How could the gift of mind be brought about by mechanical means, unless there was incipient mind – a tendency to mind – in the struggling forms? The physicochemical forces are not creative; they bring about startling changes, but have their cycles; they go their rounds over and over, and can never depart from them. Oxygen and hydrogen unite to form water, sodium and chlorine unite to form salt, but their formulas do not vary, and they lose nothing in the cycle of change; their elements can be separated and reunited any number of times. Not so with any living thing.
Intelligence, then, seems inseparable from life. Wherever we see adaptation as opposed to mere time-induced adjustment, and purposive forms and movements as contrasted with mechanical and accidental forms and movements, we recognize the action of mind; do we not? The use of specific means to specific ends indicates what we have no name for but intelligence. It is obvious that the hairs on plants, the varnish on leaves, the wax on buds, the hooks, wings, balloons, on seeds, all have a specific purpose; that is, these things are true devices, and not merely chance combinations or fortuitous occurrences. The ingenious devices of certain plants to insure cross-fertilization are, to me, just as much an evidence of what we must call mind, though of mind of a vastly different order from our own, as any model or device in our patent offices, while the forms of the rocks, the hills, the shore, the streams, the rivers, are in no sense purposive.
If man, with all his powers and attributes, is a part of nature, – and the naturalist can regard him in no other light, – if the sun is his father and the earth his mother as literally as they are the parents of all other forms of life, then all that he is or can be is latent or potential in nature; then is his humanity, his reverence, his love as much a part of nature as are the instincts and the cunning of animals a part of nature; then is his literature, his philosophy, his art, his religion a part of nature; then is he as amenable to biological laws and as truly a subject for the natural historian as are the animals; then also are all his follies, sins, shortcomings, superstitions, cruelties, ingratitudes, and the rest a part of what we call nature. If not so, then of what are they a part? Man is not separated from nature by his body; he is dependent upon the material elements and forces – upon the air, the water, the soil – to the same extent and by virtue of the same organs and relations as are all other forms of life. He is begotten and nourished like all other animals, and he dies as they do. He differs from all others in his mental and spiritual equipment, but in view of his humble remote ancestry, as seen in the light of palćontology, and the gradations of intelligence and complexity of organization between him and them, can there be any doubt that these gifts also come out of nature? Can there be any doubt that what we must call mind pervades at least all organic matter, and, potentially, all other forms?
Where would you have man's mind come from? The supernatural? Then let us name it the natural-supernatural, as Carlyle did? Let us annex all the territory that adjoins us; let us put a circle around every reality we can conceive of, and regard the universe as one, and not as two or three. Carlyle's idea of the natural-supernatural still permitted him to look upon nature as the "Time-vesture of God, which reveals him to the wise, and hides him from the foolish"; but the notion of vesture or clothes suggests an arbitrary and artificial relation which is more in consonance with theology than with science or with life. Goethe's expression "the living garment of God " is less misleading, but Pope's familiar couplet, –
"All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body Nature is, and God, the soul," –
is the least objectionable of all, as this restores the vital unity which must exist.
If Nature be half God and half demon, it is all the more easy to believe that man arose out of her, since these terms fitly describe him also. We say that the fountain cannot rise above its source, but surely the source is usually above the fountain, and if we choose to conceive of this God-nature as much above man, there is still room for a broad ground of relationship between them. Nature is cruel and blundering and irrational, and does not the present world-war exhibit man as her legitimate off spring? How the gods on Olympus must smile and chuckle and say, "Surely they are our children, bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh"!
A recent critic says that my principal mistake is in considering life and mind as concrete realities when, in fact, they are only abstract terms, indicating conditions of matter. In the act of denying mind do we not affirm mind? What is it but mind that makes that statement denying all reality to mind? Is not the assertion self -destructive? If we affirm that the only concrete reality is matter, what are we going to do about our minds that make this affirmation? Are they unreal or nonentities? Can a nonentity grasp and weigh an entity? We cannot use our eyes to prove that there are no eyes in the universe, nor our reason to dethrone reason. Science cannot cut the ground from under its own feet. Huxley was convinced that there were three realities in the universe – matter, energy, and consciousness. How could he affirm the reality of matter and energy if he denied the reality of that which affirmed it? If we are not sure of our own existence as knowing, reasoning beings, how can we be sure of this uncertainty? Our light is self -extinguished; mind, or consciousness, belongs to a different order of reality than do matter and energy. We know mind only as a subjective reality, whereas we know matter and energy as objective realities. Destroy all life and consciousness in the world of matter, and energy still exists. Of course, this assertion is also self-contradictory, as we postulate ourselves as still being witnesses of the existence of matter and energy. Blot out life and mind, and, so far as we are concerned, there is nothing left. We cannot get rid of ourselves without turning the universe topsy-turvy, and even then we are on hand to bear witness that it is topsy-turvy. In my youth I once heard an old Methodist preacher say that we could not conceive of annihilation without thinking of our unannihilated selves as looking on.
The modern, rigidly scientific mind, in considering this question of life, gets right down to the ground and denies everything we call spirit, mind, soul, creative energy, and the like. Man is a machine and only a machine, it says, run by the physicochemical forces. His brain is only a photochemical mirror, his thoughts only molecular activities.
Mind, or our mental states, is only a name for complex physicochemical processes in the brain-substance. But what is it that understands and names these processes? Can a physicochemical process write a poem, or paint a picture, or weigh the stars?
Modern biophysics sees no more evidence of mind in living processes than in non-living. Intelligence is only a sequence of physical states caused by physical stimuli. The brain is no more creative than is the prism when it divides a ray of light into the component colors of the spectrum. The division of a drop of water into two drops or the union of two drops into one by chemical changes inside them involves the same forces that cell-division involves, and cell-division is a no more mysterious process. Life is nothing but chemistry and physics; mind, soul, consciousness, only a sequence of chemical and physical changes in the brain-substance. But what about the living brain-substance? Do these same changes beget mind or soul when controlled in the laboratory? Does the compound in your retort think, and speculate about itself? Is there not something in living beings that science does not take account of?
Mankind has long believed in a spiritual order of reality, and in so doing it is only affirming the reality of that which distinguishes it from stocks and stones. The psychic world is as much a matter of fact to us as is the world of matter and energy; because the first fact is consciousness of self, it is that which recognizes the world of matter and energy. The I is the pillar that upholds the very heavens; it is the veritable creator of the world and of all the gods that rule over it. But to what extent, if any, it is independent of matter and energy, or has been in the past, or may be in the future, is a question. (How contradictory all these questions are! The only realities to us are our varying states of consciousness. To the dead in their graves there is no death; death is real only to the living.)
All living things know; they know what they want, they know how to multiply, they know how to fit themselves to their environment. We cannot in the same sense ascribe intelligence to any of the motions of inert matter; they are blind, fateful, stereotyped. The cell is an intelligent being; through the chemicophysical forces it builds up a man and fits him with a brain and all his wonderful organs and powers. It builds the flower, the seed, the leaf, the stalk, the root, and through the mystery of inheritance keeps up the succession of its kind. Back of the cell is unorganized protoplasm, back of that must lie still lower conditions of matter, and so down till we come to the inorganic. But what is it that sets the process of organization going and keeps it up and pushes on and on through the biologic ages, from lower to higher till man is reached? Darwin says natural selection. But clearly natural selection is a secondary process; there must be a primeval onward impulse, something that profits by selection, something that knows in a blind way what it wants; that struggles, that gains and loses, and that has a goal. The weak, the unfit, drop out; that is natural rejection. The strong, the fit, press on; that is natural selection. But if there were no plan or purpose, no urge from behind, no end to be achieved, there would be neither selection nor rejection. Live things would progress no more than do the pebbles on the beach. Do we not have to postulate a primal impulse toward development? Is it all pure mechanics?
Of course, in saying all this we are ascribing our intelligence to nature, and we cannot do otherwise. We can think of degrees of intelligence, but not of kinds. Evolution in the inorganic world has been a purely chemicomechanical process, but in the organic there has been a new factor, supermechanical and superchemical. We are forced to think of it in those terms.
Think of the blind, irrational, or, at least, unrational forces that are careering over the earth at this moment, and every moment, – in the winds, the tides, the rains, the storms, the floods, the river and ocean currents, – changing its surface, pulling down, building up, transporting; sleeping here, raging there; one moment fostering life, the next, destroying it; malignant or benevolent according as we place ourselves in relation to them; and all, from our point of view, without intelligent guidance. No engineer has planned the drainage-system of the globe, and yet see how surely the waters find their way to the sea.
I can see nothing in the operations of inorganic nature analogous to human intelligence or human benevolence, or, I may add, analogous to human malevolence. Human intelligence would go more directly to its goal and avoid the waste, the delay, the suffering, the failures, that we see about us. We do not plant our forests or sow our seed or trim our trees, or drain our land, as Nature does; we abbreviate, and select, and take short cuts, and do in a season what Nature takes years to accomplish. Her forests get planted, her trees get trimmed, her canals get dug, but think how modern business methods would improve her processes. We see what we call intelligence in organic nature, – adaptation, selection, the use of means to an end, – but it is all a kind of blind, groping, experimenting intelligence, like that of man in a new and strange field, when he feels his way, tries and tries again, and reaches his end after many delays and failures.
If our minds only knew all that our bodies know, or knew how our bodies come to know the things they seem to know, then we should have the secret of organization, of inheritance, of adaptation, and of many other things. The body knows how to build itself up from single cells, how to preserve its form, how to run itself, how to repair and reproduce itself, and many other things. But it does not know how to combat certain enemies that attack it as well as we know how. We can aid it in many of its functions, and relieve it in many of its obstructions.
What I know, and what my body knows, are two different things. We can separate the mind from the body in this way, and we can and do separate man from physical nature in the same way, but the truth is that the mind and the body are one, and man and the universe are one. Yet the body seems to know things which the mind does not know, as there is a wisdom in the universe that man cannot compass. We separate ourselves in thought from our bodies, on the one hand, and from the universe, on the other, while in reality the unity in both cases is complete.
I think the knowledge the animal seems to possess is of the same kind and degree as the knowledge its body seems to possess, and which enables it to discharge all its functions and build itself up and reproduce itself. But man transcends his body, he knows more than it does, more than outward nature about him does. It is as if he had eyes while they had only the sense of touch. His reason is his mind's eye; man sees, but his dog, as it were, goes by touch.