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Meditation 570
Views of an Agnostic

by: Ross E. Browne

This is part 10 of Ross E. Browne's 1915 book, Views of an Agnostic.

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Concerning the mortal and immortal parts of man, the following ideas result quite naturally from the most commonplace understanding of the sciences.

All forms assumed by aggregates of matter are unstable or subject to change and complete extinction, while the elements themselves are permanent. Thus the material elements composing our physical bodies are indestructible, but the combinations upon which our bodies depend are subject to disintegration and the body is merely a temporary aggregate.

Man utilizes energies, supplied from without through the medium of food, to sustain his life both physical and mental. The actual cause of this life is a mystery to us, but, so far as we know, it is dependent upon this supply of energy, and apparently ceases altogether when the supply is cut off for a sufficient time. The energy utilized is persistent, or not subject to extinction, but this application of it is ephemeral.

No one questions physical death, but there is a widely prevailing belief in the persistence of the individual soul or mind for all time.

Some physiologist has propounded a theory to the effect that the phenomena of consciousness, variously designated as sensation, desire, thought, etc., are the exhibitions or attributes of a special form of energy occurring in the grey matter of the brain, and derived by some process of conversion from the energy contained in our food supply; that after the exhibition of the phenomena, the special form is reconverted and the energy goes back to mingle with the external supply, just as heat is converted, through mechanical work, into electrical energy, and the latter back again into heat. Huxley ventured to predict that some day there will be established the mechanical equivalent of consciousness, just as there has already been established the mechanical equivalent of heat.

If the above theory is correct, the phenomena of mind naturally cease as soon as the body loses its power of appropriating and converting the outer energy, as it certainly does at the time of physical death. But this theory, so far, is purely speculative. While it has doubtless been shown that the utilization of outer energy is essential in the process, the idea of consciousness as a form; or an attribute of a form of mechanical energy is somewhat obscure. We know of no attribute comparable. There may enter some element of which we have at present no conception whatever.

What experience teaches us is that the capacity and the intelligence of the mind grow and decline with the body and fluctuate with certain mechanical activities of the brain which are dependent upon food-supply.

If individual consciousness is inevitably dependent upon a certain kind of mechanical activity of the brain, then such consciousness ceases when the activity ceases. We need not know the nature of consciousness to reach this conclusion. The question seems to be: Are we sure that this dependence is absolute ? We may only judge by inferences drawn from the established facts. If these inferences are contradictory they lead to no definite opinion ; if insufficient they lead to no positive conviction; if they all point one way, even though not entirely sufficient to establish an absolute conclusion, the rational and unprejudiced mind naturally assumes that way to be the right one, pending further enlightenment. A mind with a strong intuitive conviction in the matter is not “unprejudiced,” and to such the argument will naturally fail to appeal.

Complete unconsciousness for a limited period of time is a common experience. Before undergoing an. operation, I once determined to fasten my attention upon the sequence of sensations I should pass through. I asked how long a time would be required for the anaesthetic to overcome my consciousness, and was told a few deep inhalations would do the work. I was facing a large wall-clock and noted the time just before the gas-hood was placed over my mouth and nostrils. I counted my slow inhalations: one, two, – there was the sound of gently splashing waves on the sea-shore – three, four,– I was leaving the earth in an air-ship, – five, six, – I realized that I was wide-awake, and called to the nurse: “The gas is not strong enough !” She answered promptly : “It is all over, sir !” I opened my eyes and glanced quickly at the clock. Forty minutes had elapsed, of which I had taken absolutely no account, and I was distinctly under the impression that consciousness had been continuous. Considering the effect of the anaesthetic, as explained to me, in reducing the physical activity of the brain, I naturally inferred that consciousness is dependent upon such activity. There are many other evidences which indicate dependence. I have no valid evidence whatever of independence. The only excuse for the bald assumption of an ultimate independence would be a genuine instinctive conviction. I certainly have nothing of the sort, and cannot realize that anyone has an instinct concerning the distant future.

The above is subjective evidence.- The objective is perhaps less persuasive. The mind of another is not a thing which we directly perceive by means of our senses. We infer its existence from positive evidence, but we can only have negative evidence of its non-existence, and the latter, however persuasive, is not conclusive. If we had complete knowledge of the source or character oft mental phenomena, we might deal with the subject more directly; but we must judge by inference. If I should assume that the souls of the dead separate themselves from their bodies and maintain an independent existence, I should have to rely upon the valid testimony of the departed souls to sustain the assumption. No such testimony has ever come to me. On the other hand, if the souls of the dead have ceased to exist, the cessation accounts for this absence of testimony. Dead souls cannot testify to their non-existence.

Man’s claim of immortality for his soul appears somewhat surprising when we consider the enormity of the claim and the smallness of the foundation for it. All men of the past ages have suffered physical death, and no one of the present age has survived physically much longer than a century. Man’s conscious experience, so far as we know, is limited to his period of physical life. A century is but a small fraction of historic time, which is a much smaller fraction of the estimated age of the earth, which again is but a small interval of time reckoned on a still broader basis. We thus know the individual man here on earth only for an infinitesimal interval,– an instant, so to speak – as compared with all time. When we stop to consider the relative minuteness of this period, we cannot avoid being impressed with a certain inadequacy or weakness of all our evidence for application to all time. But we are bound to speculate, so let us make the best use we can of the very limited material at our command. During this minute period we recognize the apparent birth, the growth, the maturity, and the decline of the mental faculties. In many cases where the individual reached what we call extreme old age, and died a natural death, the history of the rise and fall of his intellect forms what certainly appears to be a pretty complete story. He could not well have been a distinct individual, conscious and intelligent, before he was generated. He was imbecile as an infant. His intelligence grew persistently with increasing vitality throughout childhood and early manhood, was strongly maintained during the period of middle age, weakened in old age, and the old man became a child again, approaching imbecility once more. He was unconscious perhaps for a time before final physical death. We have never heard from him since.

Upon the basis of such a record for the individual mind, a history of generation, development and decay, an apparently complete round during a relatively infinitesimal interval of time, how can we justify the claim of a uniform persistence through infinite time ?

From all this what am I to infer? Am I to base my inference upon the knowledge I possess? Or am I to cast reason to the winds and be governed by fairy tales and sentimental inclinations ? The valid evidence, so far as I know it, is entirely against the assumption of a future life, and the doctrine of “immortality of the soul” appears to me unwarranted.

There is some disagreement among authorities in defining “soul,” but those who are concerned for its future will doubtless agree that their definition involves the attributes of individual consciousness and identity,– else why the concern? – and it is particularly the ephemeral character of consciousness which furnishes the most persuasive indication of mortality.

It may be argued that man’s soul, as well as the spark of life, is derived from his ancestors indefinitely backward, and that since we know of no beginning we must not assume an end. But our lives have been derived by propagation, and the inference is only that we may similarly extend them in our off spring. We are not individually conscious of life in our offspring, and in the absence of offspring the inference fails altogether. Neither are we conscious of existence in the past, and without such individual identification, the argument, even if there were any weight attachable to it, would not point to individual identification in the future.

Any one believing that he has a genuine intuitive conviction of future life, will naturally be guided by it. He may rest assured that if he dies with it there cannot come to him the disappointment of contradiction.

The question may be asked: “Is not your skeptical view in this case inconsistent with your attitude in the matter of free will ? You adhere to your assumption of voluntary power, notwithstanding the preponderance of the adverse arguments of reason. At the same time you reject the beliefs in a Personal God and a life hereafter, on the basis of rational arguments which are no whit stronger than those against freewill.”

My answer is : The assumption of voluntary power, involving the notion of so-called free-will, is a real instinct, while the beliefs in a Personal God and a future life are based upon theories of man’s invention which demand justification by reason. There may be many cases where these theories have become more or less intuitive through habitual entertainment from childhood up, but I do not regard them as truly instinctive. If we go to the next lower animal, we shall doubtless find the assumption of voluntary power, but not of Divine guidance, nor of a future life. As indicated in a previous chapter, while undergoing the process of rationalization the sensible thing is to adhere to an instinct until proven fallacious, and to be cautious about adopting a picture of fancy which is not upheld by reason. The burden of proof must rest upon the theory suggested by the imagination. My skeptical attitude is in the one case toward the theory of “automatism,” in the other cases toward the theories of “Personal Providence” and “Immortality.”