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N a controversy respecting the rela-
tive merits and capabilities of the
German and French languages, the advocate
for the latter challenged his adversary to
translate * Nature' into pure German. There
was no response. It could not be denied
that the Teutons had borrowed the word
' Natur ' from the Latin, or some Latin
dialect ; and their language, therefore, stood
condemned, as wanting a word to express a
conception of the most ordinary character.

I have since been led to inquire into the
meaning of this word, so frequently employed
both in its original form, as a substantive,
and in its derivatives, ' natural ' and ' super-



natural/ and I have arrived at the conclusion
that a language is not to be hastily convicted
of poverty, because it does not offer a word
of equivalent sense.

The word * Nature ' is sometimes em-
ployed to denote the objects of sense
collectively, as when we speak of the
'beauties of Nature;* and when it receives
this meaning, it may be rendered by the
Teutonic Welt with sufficient accuracy.
But the word we are considering frequently
receives another and a very different signifi-
cation, even from philosophical writers, who
speak of Nature as possessing a generative
or directive and foreseeing, if not a creative,

We sometimes hear it said that the love
of parents for their children is a provision of,
or is implanted by Nature, for the preserva-
tion of the species. Gravitation is said to
be a law of Nature. Such and such things
come ' by nature,' ' are natural.' There is a


power by which they are what they are,
a power, not intelligent, not independent
of material things or energies, but pervad-
ing and directing them. Fire burns 'by
nature/ and so on.

These forms of expression are so common
that we have much difficulty in dispensing
with the use of them ; but I hold them to
involve an erroneous assumption : and it is
for the word Nature when so employed that
we seek in vain for a Teutonic equivalent,
and are forced to employ the Latin ' Natura.'
I propose to inquire whether when so used,
when used as something distinct from Welt,
the word possesses a meaning which deserves
to be expressed.

In the first place, we may safely assert
that Nature, supposing it to be something
other than the objects of sense x exter-
nal things, as they are called cannot

1 I use the expression, believing it to be generally intelli-
gible, not as philosophically accurate.


itself be an object of sense. It would, other-
wise, be an external thing, or a combination
of external things. In order that a belief in
the existence of Nature in the sense we are
considering may be justified, we must show
that the supposition or hypothesis of the
existence of Nature is probable ; or, in other
words, we must show that the supposition,
if adopted, accounts for and explains ob-
served phenomena. But how can the sup-
position that an unintelligent power exists
account for the phenomena which we ob-
serve ? We are led to believe that the
objects of our senses act upon each other,
and upon our senses in modes which, in
many instances, we can define. Why they
so act we do not know.

Admit that there exists an unintelligent
power called Nature, which pervades all
things : how does this supposition help us
to explain observed phenomena ? Bodies
attract each other. Why ? By a law of


Nature. It is Nature which causes their
mutual attraction. Why does Nature cause
attraction ? Nature proposes no end to it-
self, since, by supposition, it is unintelligent.
Nature, then, for no reason that we can
assign, causes bodies to attract each other.
It might equally cause them to repel
each other. Parents love their children by a
provision of Nature. Why do not parents
hate their children by a provision of
Nature, if Nature is unintelligent ? The
supposition that an unintelligent power
called Nature exists explains nothing. We
must, therefore, lay aside the hypothesis that
such an unintelligent power exists.

If we reject the supposition that there
exists an unintelligent power under the
name Nature, then the term ' natural '
loses the signification which is frequently
attached to it. That is considered natural
which exists or occurs by nature, by means
of an unintelligent power, as supernatural is


applied to occurrences referred by us to an
intelligent power, interrupting the course of
events which take place by the unintelligent
power, or Nature. We must, therefore, if
we wish our language to be in accordance
with philosophy, reject the terms ' natural '
and ' supernatural' in their ordinary signi-
fication, as importing a distinction which
cannot be shown to exist.

We may, of course, if we please, employ
the word Nature to denote ordinary exist-
ences and occurrences, but there is this
objection to such employment, that it does
by usage imply not only that the existences
and occurrences to which it is applied are
ordinary, but also that the origin of these
existences and occurrences is in some
way explained by the assumption of an
unintelligent power called Nature. It
seems, therefore, safer to discard this word
in philosophical discussion as productive
of error; and to employ in its stead


the words ' external objects/ and instead of
'natural' to adopt 'usual' or 'ordinary,'
and instead of ' supernatural' to use the
words ' unusual ' or ' excessively unusual.'



F we lay aside, as wholly without
rational foundation, the hypothesis
of an unintelligent power called Nature, then
it appears to me that we are reduced to the
choice between two other suppositions in
order to account for usual existences and
occurrences : namely, the supposition that
they result from intelligence, and the sup-
position that they result without intelligence
or, in other words, from chance. If we
do not admit intelligence as a cause of
these existences and occurrences if we say
that they arise without any intelligence I
see no alternative but chance, the negation
of intelligence.


The theory that all things have their
origin in chance, advanced by Epicurus, is
known to us best by the work of Lucretius
De Rerum Naturd. All that the subtle
intellect of the Grecian master all that the
poetical genius of his Roman disciple could
contribute towards rendering this theory
attractive and plausible, has been lavished
on its development. Yet, in the first place,
the whole theory rests on a very disputable
assumption the eternal existence of par-
ticles of matter, indivisible, perfectly hard,
and constantly coming into collision with
each other; and, in the next place, the
assumption, if accepted, does not explain
the facts supposed to result from it. No
attempt even is made to assign a cause for
the existence of these particles ; they are
assumed to exist and to be put in motion
by Nature ; in other words, without a cause.
For, besides these particles, according to
Epicurus, nothing exists, except indeed the


' Natura Deorum,' which in no degree in-
terferes with the visible world

' Semota a nostris rebus sejunctaque longe.'

And it is scarcely necessary to observe that
even this assumption is wholly insufficient
to explain the most ordinary phenomena.
These phenomena are noted by Lucretius
with much ability the generations of animals
and vegetables succeeding each other, con-
stantly preserving a resemblance to their
predecessors, and differing from them within
certain limits. This is the result of what
he terms the 'semina rerum:' but how these
semina are produced by his atoms he does
not explain. This very constancy in 'the
nature of things,' to which he frequently
alludes, seems entirely out of harmony with
his premises, where chance governs all.
The difficulties of Lucretius are immensely
increased when he attempts to explain the
existence of sensation. How, out of par-


tides possessing, by hypothesis, only hard-
ness and weight, can be constructed a
sentient being ? How is it that particles,
absolutely void of sensation, should, by
being assembled in certain groups (the
result of accident), become endowed with
sensation, an entirely new quality, in no
manner resembling any quality which, by
supposition, the separate particles possess,
differing from those qualities, not in degree,
but in essence and kind ? How all this
comes about remains without even an
attempt at solution.

The only resource of Lucretius is to sup-
pose that the particles of the soul and mind,
1 anima' and ' animus/ are much smaller than
other particles. But it is obvious that this
supposition does not help him to explain
why these very small parti^es, collected in
sufficient numbers, ^^^jy amd/ think. He
would repudiate the nofjpn that the in-
dividual particles possess these^qualities


such a notion would destroy the very basis
of his theory and he does not explain how
their aggregation can give birth to totally
new faculties.

He, in fact, asserts that the 'anima' and
1 animus' must consist of particles, because he
has established to his own satisfaction that
nothing exists besides hard and indestructi-
ble particles ; and then, taking cognisance of
only one phenomenon, that of death, from
the body remaining unaltered at the moment
when death takes place, when the ' anima '
and ' animus* disappear, he concludes that
only very minute particles have been with-
drawn, and that the mind and soul, there-
fore, consist of such particles.

The mode in which Lucretius explains
the existence of free-will is still more re-
markable. The particles of matter fall
through the void, and their collisions give
rise to all the phenomena of Nature ; but
they do not fall quite vertically. If they


UN] t'Y


did, all things would be bound by an iron
and inflexible rule of fate. Therefore, they
must decline a little, a very little, from the
vertical. Why they decline from the ver-
tical is as little explained as why they fall
vertically, and we are left equally in the
dark as to the manner in which freedom of
will is produced by these exceedingly small
deviations. After this we may well ask
whether any faith can exceed the faith
which philosophers place in their own
theories. /



1 n



T is not a very uncommon belief that
modern discoveries have rendered
the materialist theory more probable, that
they have gone far towards demonstrating
that all phenomena are produced by the
combination of material particles acting ac-
cording to certain general laws.

But it may be observed, in the first place,
that the assumptions on which this conclu-
sion is based are much larger than those
of Lucretius. His hypothesis required an
infinite number of perfectly hard particles
existing from eternity to eternity, perpetu-
ally in motion, and constantly coming in
contact with each other. The superstruc-


ture of modern materialism also is built on
the hypothesis of an infinite number of
indivisible particles, self-existing from eter-
nity to eternity.

But these particles are divided into many
classes, each class constituting a simple sub-
stance. And the particles of each class
differ widely from the particles of another
class. They differ in weight, and in their
affinities with other particles. Particles of
different classes combine according to certain
laws, but these laws are various, and dis-
covered only by experience. Moreover, be-
sides the simple substances composed of
particles, there are certain agents or energies
differing from all these classes more widely
than the classes differ among themselves.
The agents called heat, electricity, magne-
tism, light, etc., are also subject to laws, as
they are termed, but to laws by no means
similar to those which govern the action of
the simple substances on each other, and


sometimes interfering greatly with those
actions. Again, I imagine no one at the
present day believes, that the ultimate par-
ticles received by modern science actually
come into collision with each other, or that
if they did come into such contact, the fact
would explain in the smallest degree the
various qualities of the simple substances.
The modern materialist must therefore,
before attempting to explain the phenomena
of matter, require to have granted the self-
existence of an apparatus of particles, far
more complicated than that imagined to be
sufficient for this purpose by the ancient
philosophers. The particles must be sup-
posed to be endowed with various qualities,
to associate with each other according to
various laws, and to be acted upon by those
energies we have mentioned (whether them-
selves consisting of particles or not) accord-
ing to other laws, doubtless certain, but not
yet by any means fully ascertained.


The modern material hypothesis, there-
fore, draws much more largely on the faith
of its professors, than the ancient material-
istic doctrine ; which only demanded the
eternal existence of an infinite number of
perfectly hard particles, of various sizes,
coming constantly into collision with each
other, diverging from the direction of their
motion, only very slightly, in order to
account for free-will.

But if the modern schools of material
philosophy demand wider assumptions than
the ancient, with regard to the self-existing
particles which it requires to have granted,
we must admit that its success in explaining
the phenomena of matter is much more than
proportionately increased. Or, perhaps, we
should speak more correctly by saying that
the ancient philosophy explained nothing, the
modern much. Although the laws by which
small parts of bodies act upon each other
are still unknown, and although the laws of


crystallisation even are still undiscovered,
yet we know with accuracy the results which
will ensue from the close contact of bodies,
whether simple or compound, and from the
application to them of heat and electricity:
and, that the field of discovery will hereafter
be widened, almost indefinitely, can scarcely
be doubted.

An enthusiastic disciple of the modern
materialist school might even find little
difficulty in believing, that the varied pheno-
mena of vegetable life may one day be
deduced from certain qualities of the simple
substances, of which vegetables are composed.
I believe, however, I am correct in saying
that not a single step in this direction has
as yet been made.

But the difficulty, to which all other diffi-
culties appear light, has been as little sur-
mounted by the modern as by the ancient
materialist. The one can as little as the other
pass over the gulf which separates the sentient


being from the non-sentient matter. It is
impossible to deny the existence of sensation,
it is impossible to account for it by any combi-
nation, however complicated, of non-sentient
particles. The combination may produce
many wonderful effects, but they must, as far
as our reason can be trusted, produce effects
not differing in essence from the qualities of
the component parts.

An automaton may be constructed which
shall walk, talk, write ; but is it conceivable
that it can be constructed so as to feel ?
And if this be possible, the fact cannot be
explained on materialist principles : matter is
by hypothesis non-sentient; the properties of
matter, affinity, attraction, repulsion, and so
on. You cannot conceive any combination
of these qualities producing sensation or
capacity for sensation ; and if you admit
sensation as a quality of matter, that sentient
matter is not the matter of the materialist.
Hence even the simple phenomenon of sen- '


sation remains as much unaccounted for by
modern as by ancient materialism.

The other incidents of animal life are still
more inexplicable than those of mere sensation
upon the material hypothesis. The suitable-
ness of the organs of sense to receive the
vibrations of the mediums with which they
are in contact, the fitness of the internal
organs to receive and assimilate air and
food, the suitableness of the sexes to each
other, and of one sex to the nourishment
and rearing of progeny, all these and many
other arrangements, without which the races
of animals, including man, must soon cease to
exist, all these aptitudes which the most
robust believer in materialism would hardly
venture to describe as the results of chance
and accident, seem to call loudly for at least
an attempt at explanation from the advocates
of a theory which professes to be founded
on reason and experience.



HE ' Theory of Development ' would
not, I think, supposing it to be
established by observation, at all assist the
materialists in surmounting these difficulties.
The ' Theory of Development ' assumes the
existence of something to be developed, and
that this something is organised, possessing
a very simple organisation, it may be, but
still possessing some organisation.

No difficulty is avoided by supposing the
' protoplasm ' to be extremely small. Small
and large are merely relative terms, and if a
protoplasm has a definite form, it is conceiv-
able that the protoplasm consists of parts as
much smaller than the protoplasm itself, as
it is smaller than the earth. Again, if we


admit that the organisation of the protoplasm
is the result of chance, how are the develop-
ment of organs of respiration, digestion, or
of sense, to be accounted for ? A living
creature which possesses sight might be
supposed to improve that sight through the
desire of seeing more perfectly, but how can
a being which does not see, and knows
nothing of sight, form a desire to see ?
How and why is the rudimentary organ of
sight formed ? How is the desire of sight
generated ? Does matter in general desire
to see, or only certain kinds of matter, or
certain combinations of matter ?

It is perfectly true that the organ of an
animal is developed, by the animal being
placed in circumstances which call for the
use of that particular organ ; it is true that
the development of the organ may be
transmitted to the posterity of the animal ;
but these facts are powerless to explain the
origin of that which is developed.


Again, the causes that produce the phe-
nomena of development, which are estab-
lished by observation, are in no degree
explained by the theory itself. Why does
the desire to obtain more perfect results, by
the use of a particular organ, improve that
organ ? Why are the peculiarities of the
parent transmitted to the offspring ? Why
does an animal select as its mate one of the
opposite sex distinguished for its beauty ?
To account for the fact as resulting from
the principle of ' natural selection' is merely to
say, in other words, that selection is observed
to take place on this ground. Why it so
takes place is left entirely unaccounted for.

Then with regard to the higher mental
faculties : it is admitted on all hands that
they are susceptible of improvement, through
the desire and attempt to improve them, or
simply by being used ; but how can they
originate in this desire or use ? How can the
desire to improve these faculties or the use of


them precede their existence ? The ' Theory
of Development/ as its name imports, never
can explain the commencement of anything.
When brought forward for this purpose, its
propounders resemble the philosophers who
taught that the earth was supported by an
elephant, and the elephant by a tortoise, and
so on. They merely remove the difficulty
by one step, or by several steps. Supposing
it to be established that the intellect of a
man is only the developed intellect of a
monkey, and that of a monkey the developed
intellect of a dog, you must at length come
to the end of the chain, and be brought face
to face with the question, How did intellect
in its lowest form originate ?

It is clear therefore that while the Theory
of Development may account for the aug-
mentation of that which is, it cannot account
for the generation of that which is not. If
this theory should prevail, it may show how
a simple sentient being is developed into a


more complicated one, but it leaves un-
touched the question, How can non-sentient
particles, in consequence of being arranged
in a particular manner, become sentient ? It
is all very well to talk of * protoplasm/ but
the name does not remove the difficulty.
A protoplasm on the hypothesis contains
the germ of sensation. It is composed of
particles, if the materialist theory be true ;
and if that theory be true, the particles of
which it is composed are non-sentient.
How then does the materialist theory
account for sensation, either in protoplasms
or in the development of protoplasms ?

The conclusion then is that the ma-
terialist theory, the theory that attributes
all phenomena to particles self-existent and
possessing certain properties acting accord-
ing to definite laws, that this theory, while
sufficient to explain many chemical pheno-
mena, and promising to explain many others,
entirely fails to explain the existence of


sensation, and, a multo fortiori, the existence
of higher and more complicated mental

The possibility still remains that certain
particles of matter are endowed with sensa-
tion, and that sentient beings are composed,
in part at least, of such particles. Such a
supposition, however, is entirely fatal to
materialism, which professes to explain
mental phenomena by means of the ordinary
properties of matter. To admit that certain
self-constituted particles, such as, in this
theory, material particles are supposed to
be, possess also sentient properties, is, in
effect, to admit the existence of mind, or
that which is capable of sensation, existing
like matter from all eternity. On this
supposition the materialist theory fades
away, and we again arrive at the ordinary
belief in the existence of two principles
mind and matter.

The theory which would assume that the


higher mental qualities of sentient beings
are composed of very numerous mental
existences, in the same manner that a
tangible body is composed of very numerous
small particles, has, as far as I am aware,
never been brought forward, at least in a
complete shape. I will not therefore at-
tempt to refute that which no one seriously



[AVING considered the hypothesis
which assumes the existence of an
unintelligent power called Nature, and the
theory which is based upon the eternal
existence of matter possessing certain quali-
ties, I proceed now to examine that which
takes for its foundation a self-existent and
intelligent power, proceeding as before with
the inquiry, how far this theory agrees with
observed phenomena. I shall afterwards
consider a modification of this theory, which
involves the supposition of an intelligent \
power, and also the existence of an unin-
telligent power called-^Nature^ the^ two
acting concurrently on most occasions, but


sometimes the former interfering with and
overruling the latter. And I shall also
refer to another modification of the theory
of an intelligent power, which proceeds on
the supposed existence of such an intelligent
power, and also of matter, self-existing from

The supposition of a self-existent in-
telligent power, that is, an intelligent power
existing without a cause, no doubt involves
great difficulties. In the first place, we are
accustomed to see events follow each other
in a certain order; every event having a
predecessor which occasioned the successor ;
and an event without a cause is to us in-
conceivable. The self-existence of an in-
telligent power stands, in this respect, on a


Online LibraryEllis WynneMaterialism ancient and modern → online text (page 1 of 2)