Materialistic Skepticism



The unbelief of the present day is a stream with many eddies, but its general drift and direction are plain. Twenty years ago, the transcendental idealism of Hegel threatened to sweep away the faith of the world. By a natural and perfectly explicable reaction, this has given place to the mechanical philosophy of Feuerbach and Biichner. Or to put it more accurately, the change from Hegel to Biichner in Germany is but the type of a universal change in the tendency of skeptical thought. It needs no long search to discover occasions and helpers of this change. The growth of material interests in these modern days, the progress of physical research, the inventions that have opened new mines to industry and new lands to trade, have disposed the unreligious to a Sadduceeism which holds this world to be all, and believes in neither angel nor spirit.

Not that materialism is always openly avowed. It constitutes the staple of thought in many a professed description of physical facts, and in many a literary work whose apparent aim is simply to depict life and the development of character. The philosophy of Comte and Bain and Herbert Spencer, the natural researches of Darwin and Tyndall and Huxley, the historical studies of Buckle and Taine, and the romances of Auerbach and George Eliot, alike, though in different degrees, reveal this materialistic spirit and show how widely diffused and how dangerous it is. It not only gives color to a large part of the literature of the day, but it too often tinges the thinking of medical men, and enters as an unconscious element into demands for radical reform in our methods of education. It gets possession even of philanthropists and theologians, leading the latter to make out of Providence and Redemption only one vast system of natural law, and leading the former to confound evangelization with civilization, and to deny the possibility of permanently changing, except by physical means, the innate and persistent types of character in either individuals or nations.

It is this general tendency of modern literature and life which Christianity must now meet and, if possible, correct. The danger is great only so long as it is undefined. We may define the danger, by defining the system which gives rise to it. Materialism is that method of thought which would make all things, even intelligence and volition, to be mere phenomena of matter. It holds that the universe can be explained without bringing in the notion of a designing mind—without bringing in the notion of any immaterial principle at all — explained from the mere natural properties of

♦ Printed In the Examiner, October 2,1873.

the atoms and forces which constitute it. Stripped of the hazy rhetoric in which it is so frequently enveloped, and reduced to a bare definition, materialism loses its novelty as well as its beauty. We descry in it the features of an error long since slain and buried. Five hundred years before Christ it was propounded by Democritus, and two centuries later all its essential principles were elaborately set forth in that Epicurean philosophy which the great apostle met and overthrew on Mars' Hill.

What a history this theory of the universe has had! Rising evermore in periods of national and social declension, it has been the product and the sign of spiritual and moral decay—an ignis fatuus which springs from death, and which lures to death. No nation in its sturdy youth has ever had any other than a spiritualistic philosophy. No age given over to materialism has ever shown creative genins or noble statesmanship. Epicurus marks the time of Greek corruption and debasement, when the deepening darkness was making negative preparation for the rise of Christ's new light upon the world. Condillac and Diderot, D'Alembert and D'Holbach, repeating the Epicurean philosophy in the 18th century, mark in like manner that time of godless passion and sensual idolatry which culminated in the French Revolution.

But every prevalent and plausible falsehood has its grain of verity. Let us give materialism its rights, and allow the small truth which it contains, else we shall not understand it nor its power; much less be able to frame a radical and conclusive answer. Materialism does right in insisting upon the substantive existence of the properties of matter and upon the persistence of natural forces. It utters a useful, though not the most successful, protest against the Idealism which would deny the objective existence of the external world, and the semi-pantheism which would make all force to be the simple volition of God. Let us acknowledge, then, once for all, the existence and the powers of matter — these we cannot deny without denying our senses and intuitions alike. The universe is not a drama whose shifting scenes display only one actor—God; other powers have been ordained and other agents created by him; there are physical powers as well as mental, blind forces as well as intelligent; and the observer of nature, as he looks upon the complicated movements and relations of elements and worlds, need never for a moment fancy them a deceptive show —they are a sublime reality. But then they are not the sublimest of realities. It is the fundamental error of materialism to think them so. To the view of a true philosophy, there lies back of all these a superior energy, an originating cause, a designing intelligence, an upholding power, whose greatness and wisdom they dimly reflect, but can never fully express; in other words, the existence and working of the material elements is not an ultimate fact which furnishes its own explanation; much less can this explain the higher forms of life which appear upon the planet; reason can never be satisfied without postulating an immaterial existence and a personal power in which these inhere, and from which they derive their being—an existence and a power infinitely higher, yet analogous in nature to that which we find in our own minds and wills—the existence and the power which we call God.

Materialism may be refuted by considerations drawn from three different sources, the facts of matter, the facts of organization, the facts of mind. Let us look at these in their order. First, then, matter furnishes no proper •cause for the universe or for any of its phenomena. Think for a moment what is meant by cause. The cause of any given phenomenon is not simply the antecedent of that phenomenon. The night is the antecedent of the day, but darkness is not the cause of light. Nothing is properly a cause which has not power as well as antecedence. Reason is not satisfied without attributing every known change in nature to some power which produced it. The materialist cannot justify his position unless he can show that his philosophy accounts for the existence of the universe. He, with us, is compelled to assign some origin and source to external things, but he finds that origin and source of all things in matter. We urge against this theory .of the universe that the materialist is bound to furnish not simply a cause, but a sufficient cause, for this complicated mechanism and structure which we see without us. Matter is no such sufficient cause for the universe. For what is matter? This we may certainly say, that apart from its sensible qualities and from force, we know it only as existence, extension, permanence. It is plain then that matter, as matter, cannot be shown to have the properties of a cause. Only as some power from without shall possess it and use it, can it become a cause,—and then not matter, but this power from without, is properly the cause in question.

But the later materialism adds to the notion of matter the notion of force. This force is conceived, of course, as a mere property of matter, since to make it a separate and independent existence would be, for the materialist, to give up the theory of matter as a cause, and to make shipwreck of his materialism altogether. But can force be, as the materialist holds, only an inseparable property of matter? It is sufficient to say that the fact of inertia disproves this. No body ever moves of itself. It remains in a state of rest forever until impressed from without. We do not, indeed, know the nature of gravitation. Newton conceived of it as an impulsion ab extra. But whether it be what Newton imagined, or an attraction of every molecule from within, the case is not altered—we get no nearer to an inherent power of motion. Only as one portion of matter is acted upon by another, can it move toward that other. The motion of matter is due, not to matter itself, but to some external cause. In other words, adding to matter the idea of force, does not render matter a sufficient cause for the least motion in the universe, much less a sufficient cause for the universe itself. The motions of matter, and the adjustments of material bodies to each other, so that they draw forth each other's powers and work together harmoniously toward useful ends, can only be accounted for by supposing an immaterial force — a force which is itself no property of matter.

This force must be a mental force. And that, because we find ideas in nature, and ideas are the product solely of mind. Why is the spoken word significant to men 1 Why is it different from the whistling of the wind? Simply because, from the analogy of our own speech, we infer that it has a cause in the mind of another. Vibrations of air do not explain it, because it contains an idea. We cannot explain a beautiful picture by making an inventory of the colors of the canvas. We see an idea in it. We see a mind behind it that once conceived and expressed that idea. So to a right-thinking soul the universe is a spoken word, a harmonious picture. The material elements of which it is composed do not explain it; something more thanmatter is there; there is mind, and the universe is the expression of that mind. Or, to sum up in few words this portion of the argument: Since matter is neither self-existent nor self-acting, whether in the molecule or the world, it can never be regarded as a sufficient cause or explanation of the present system of things; supplementing the idea of matter with that of force does not help the difficulty, since whatever force is inseparable from matter still leaves each portion of matter inert and dependent upon impressions from without; to attribute to this force the properties of a first cause is to make it a force apart from matter and above matter, and such a force can never be conceived as other thau the energy of a conscious spirit, a spirit that can create matter and work upon matter, but which has no necessary connection with matter, and which the facts of matter can never explain. In short, the facts of matter show that matter can never explain its own existence or adjustments; they show the rather, that it evermore points upward to a causative and mighty Mind.

A second argument against materialism is derived from what we may call facts of organization. There are phenomena of organic life which can never be explained except upon the hypothesis of an organizing force superior to matter. Assimilation and reproduction, growth according to definite plan, preservation of form notwithstanding changes of substance, capacity of selfrepair, these characteristics of plant and auimal life are in themselves a. reversal of all laws belonging to matter as such, whether those laws be mechanical or chemical. Effects so special and peculiar demand a special and peculiar cause — and this cause we denominate life. It has indeed been sought to define life as a mere quality of matter. But if life were a property of protoplasm, as aquosity is a property of water, protoplasm and life would be inseparable. We know, however, that in the dead animal protoplasm may exist without life. The mutton which the materialist eats might convince him of his error, for here is protoplasm of which life is not a property. On the other hand, the living protoplasm has a structure and power which chemistry cannot account for, any more than it can account for the peculiar build and the marvelous achievements of a printing-press or a reapingmachine. To account for this structure and this power we must presuppose not only chemical and mechanical forces, but also a force utterly different in its nature, and as superior to these forces as its results are superior to theirs. The force that dominates matter and subdues it to its purposes must be, not a material, but an immaterial energy.

And here again we meet the ever-recurring fact of ideas in nature. The life of the animal and of the plant reveals a rational unity, a tending of all its forces to an end, a working out of a plan, a striving for completeness of organization and use. And as in the life of the individual plant or animal, so in the long history of life upon the earth since the geologic ages began, we discover a unity and harmony which reason refuses to attribute to the blind action of natural forces. The stream cannot rise higher than the fountain. The system whose order so delights the reason must have had for its source a designing intelligence; in other words, must have sprung not from matter but from mind. Even if the materialist could by his chemistry actually produce living plants or animals from inorganic materials, the argument we urge would not be invalidated, since the production of such forms of life as geologic history displays, and their production in such order and relations, demands still a designing and adjusting mind that adapts the elements to each other, and prearranges the course of their development.

But this origin of life from inorganic elements is a pure assumption of which science knows nothing at all. No single attested fact as yet substantiates it. So far as we know, life originates only from preexisting life. It is never the result of organization, but always the cause of organization; never the product of protoplasm, but always something superinduced upon it. Tou may look in vain to mere nature for its parentage. Go back a thousand million years, and matter can furnish the source and explanation of it no more than now. You must either attribute its existence on the globe to some meteoric accession from other planets of the system — and this merely pushes back the problem without solving it,— or you must acknowledge that life sprang originally from an immaterial source, from one who has life in himself — and that is the same thing as to say that materialism is false, since the fundamental superior originating thing in this universe is not matter, but Mind.

Materialism is disproved, finally, by the facts of our own being. Our intellectual nature gives testimony against it. For there is much in this intellectual nature which never could have come from matter. The materialist holds that mental energy is only one of the correlated physical forces, and that thought is but transformed sensation. We might answer that it is essential to the very idea of physical force to be susceptible of measurement by physical tests. Heat is a mode of motion, say the scientists, and therefore the force expended in any given combustion may be expressed in actual pounds-weight. But who shall weigh thought or feeling or volition? Love cannot be measured by bushels, or weight of thought estimated in avoirdupois. But wherein consists the absurdity of this, if mental action is but the product of impressions from without?

The fundamental error in this materialistic reasoning is that of supposing the mind to be a mere tablet on which circumstances and sensations make their marks, whereas the mind is active instead, in all its knowledge, and gives quite as much as it receives. The single fact of attention shows this. It depends wholly upon the consent of the will whether we receive impressions from passing objects or not. A man may have flowing into his ears all the noises of a crowded street, and yet be as unconscious of them as if he were in silence and solitude. Into what sort of mental energy are all these multitudinous sensations transformed? Or if we ask, with a late writer, into what physical force the brain power of the dying Shakespeare was converted, what answer can be returned? The truth is, it is impossible to account for the power of thinking by any combinations or vibrations of material atoms. Thought may in the present state be connected inseparably with such affections of our physical organism — although eveu this is exceedingly difficult to prove — but this connection is not identity. Because the organist produces the fugues of Bach only by touching the keys of his instrument, we do not conclude that instrument and organist are one, and that that one is the organ. Thought and the motions of matter are not mutually convertible. We may not only say with Tyndall that "the passage from the physics of the brain to the corresponding facts of consciousness is unthinkable," but we may also say that to derive the latter from the former is a reversal of all logic.

If the physical could be proved to produce the psychical, the materialist would have proved his doctrine. But the latter produces the former as much as the former the latter. In order to sense-impressions there must previously exist a mind to be impressed. As Professor Gardiner has said: "Most of the properties of matter have no meaning where there is no mind to perceive them. There is no audible world without the ear; there is no visible world without the eye. What is accessible to the senses is not the only reality. Mind gives to matter its chief meaning. Hence matter alone can never explain the universe." And Robert Browning, that "subtlest assertor of the soul in song," says nothing more worthy of himself than when, in " The Ring and the Book," he puts into the Pope's mouth the words: "Mind is not matter, nor from matter, but above."

We are asking whether mind is a sublimated form of matter? What does the mind itself say with regard to this question? This simply, that it is radically and essentially different from matter. Amid all the changes of the material world around it, and amid all the changes of the material organism of which it makes use, the mind is conscious to itself of being one continuous and identical existence. Iu and with every act of sense-perception is bound up the mind's knowledge of itself as an undivided unit, inconceivable as occupying space or as measurable by any material standard. While the mind is conscious of dependence upon the senses for knowledge of the outer world, a large part of its knowledge, and that the noblest part, is its own original and native endowment. The ideas of substance, of space and time of cause, of right, of God, are not the gift or product of experience. Experience may occasion their rise in consciousness, but there is more in them than experience can ever explain. And as with its knowledge, so with its higher activities — these are independent of any known physical conditions. No materialist has ever yet shown that the abstract thought of any great philosopher or the fervid imaginings of any great poet could be accounted for by changes of molecules in the brain. There is such a thing as an originating activity in the human spirit. Affections of the mind, such as love, hope, fear, influence the body more than the sensations of the body influence the mind. The mind knows itself as superior to the body — not its creature and slave. It can resist the body and subdue it. Instead of ceasing to grow when the body ceases to grow, the mind only then enters upon its noblest growth. Instead of becoming weak and helpless as the body fails in strength, the mind not seldom shows then an unflagging brilliance and energy. And when the frail body is near to dissolution, the mind feels most its immeasurable superiority to all material things, and trinmphs in the very article of death. The materialism that would degrade man to a cadaver finds all the voices of our intellectual being uniting in one solemn protest against it.

But the protest grows more loud and plain when we consult the moral nature. If we know anything at all, we know that we are free. We know that we have the power to originate action, and to choose between right and wrong. But matter is incapable of originating action. Upon the materialistic theory, free will is impossible. The materialist is a necessitarian. Huxley shows us the logical outcome of the theory, when he declares that a spontaneous act is an absurdity, since it is an effect without a cause. But mark the result. If the human will be not a cause, then it belongs in the category of things determined wholly from without. Human responsibility ceases, and with this all just foundation for law and morality. Conscience is at once annihilated, for if conscience be a modification of matter, then it is mechanical, not moral, and this is the same as to say that it does not exist. What yet remains of remorse and apprehension in the mind of the transgressor is but a subjective delusion, having no objective rule in the universe of things to justify it, and no future account to render its decisions worthy of the slightest regard. Man is what his nature and his circumstances make him. He may resolve and pray as he will, but the forces of the universe are persistent and they overmaster him. We may look with sympathy upon men laden with tendencies to evil, but there is no power to recreate and save — that is, no power except the distant and slow-working forces of inheritance, climate, and social condition. Why labor for the welfare of creatures of clay, over whose perished bodies "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" will soon be said, but all hope of resurrection be wanting? James Martineau, in the autobiographical preface to his *' Types of Ethical Theory," expresses not only his own experience but the experience of many others, when he says: "It was the irresistible pleading of the moral consciousness which first drove me to rebel against the limits of the merely scientific conception. It became incredible to me that nothing was possible except the actual. * * * Is there then no ought to be, other than what is t"

Materialism gives up and must give up the immortality of the soul as an egoistic reverie, since the mind must die with the body whose movements constitute it. It is said of Robert Hall, that he buried his materialism in his father's grave. As he looked into the gulf that was just about to swallow up forever all that was left to him of that wise mind and tender father's heart, the son shrank back. He felt that the tomb was too narrow to contain so much. He felt that whatever might become of the body, the soul was fashioned in a different mould and must live on forever. But the highest hope of the materialist, as he lays mother or child in the dust, is that the body may manure the soil and pass through endless changes into other forms of conscious or unconscious life. And we little realize how much of this paganism is abroad to-day. The same hopeless spirit of Epicurean fatalism which breathed through all the later age of imperial and decadent Rome is breathing in much of our literature to-day. It finds its fit expression in the maxim of Feuerbach: "Man ist was er iszt — Man is what he eats." Expressed or unexpressed, visible or invisible, it is the subtle spirit of materialism, which declares the human body to be only a weedy outgrowth of the primeval slime, the soul to be only a congeries, of highly developed and subtly connected atoms, and immortality to be only the eternal procession of the body's disintegrated elements around the great circle of chemical change. Such a view as this inevitably reduces philosophy to physiology, ethics to mechanics, and the law of God to a bill of fare.

Does it need to be said that, logically, this is Atheism also? Can there be no such thing as spontaneity? Then there is no freedom for God any more than for man. Must we deny the existence of everything which we cannot weigh in scales and handle with the forceps? Then we must not only grant to the materialist that there is no such thing as mind, because, forsooth, the anatomist cannot lay it bare to sight with his cerebral dissecting-knif e — we must also grant that there can be no such thing as God, because, forsooth, the astronomer cannot see God through his telescope. May we not say* of materialism, as a final aud conclusive indictment, that the facts of our religious nature disprove it? We have in us and with us, as our inmost possession, the knowledge of God. Try to escape it as we may, it underlies all our reasoning aud conditions all our life. In times of awakened conscience, when the tempest rages, or death draws nigh, this inward witness to God's existence and moral character stands out like the handwriting of fire on Belshazzar's palace-walls. To this God our very nature compels us, in spite of ourselves, to look, as the proper rule and end of life, the true rest and portion and reward of a human soul. Materialism, by depriving us of God, would deprive us of all that can make the present tolerable, or the future other than an object of terror. If all things in the universe be only phenomena of matter, then not only is there no spirit in man, but the idea of a supreme Spirit in the universe is the wildest of imaginations. All worship or upward looking of the soul is foreclosed forever. The heavens are deaf to human entreaty. In man's sin and sorrow there is no eye to pity and no arm to save. The highest wisdom is to live upon the maxim, "Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die."

"I trust I have not wasted breath:
I think we are not wholly brain.
Magnetic mockeries; not in vain,
Like Paul with beasts, I fought with Death;

"Not only cunning easts in clay:

Let Science prove we are, and then
What matters Science unto men,
At least to me? I would not stay."

Thus we see how a whole system of thought, originating in a desire after scientific unity, becomes dogmatic and thoroughly unscientific, by attempting to refer two classes of phenomena to the same ground, when it cannot logically resolve one into the other. To honor matter by denying mind is to falsify the facts. To elevate God's ordinance of second causes into the chief place, and make them play the part of the Great First Cause, is logically suicide, since in denying the fundamental and superior fact of spiritual existence man logically denies his own existence, and opens the way to utter skepticism.

Aud yet the logical refutation of materialism is not the only one, nor the most practical. A better refutation is the sense of sin in the soul, inexplicable except there be freedom and God. A better still is the person of Christ, inexplicable except it be a new breaking in upon the sinful history of the world by the power aud grace of Him who first created it. He who well ponders his own nature and his own lack of harmony with the moral law revealed in conscience, will see depths in his own being which a material theory of its origin can never explain, and which only Christ, the Sou of God, the all-sufficient Saviour, can ever fill with light and peace. To Christ then we commend the candid inquirer. Let him go to Christ, to Christ himself, and be "taught in him, even as truth is in Jesus." He who is "able to save even unto the uttermost," will save him, even from these uttermost depths of materialistic skepticism.