Frederick Soddy.

Science and life: Aberdeen addresses online

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1 Lecture to the Aberdeen University Christian Union, Marischal
College, 25th April 1919.

149 X


application to the material and utilitarian interests
of men, that its revelation is both clear and inspir-
ing, "a source not merely of material convenience
but of spiritual elevation," as Mr Arthur Balfour
has said, is, however, now being more generally

Science has wrecked beyond repair certain
dogmas and beliefs generally current prior to the
development of the doctrine of evolution on the
biological side. That doctrine has completely
reversed the traditional outlook of men and turned
their highest interest from the contemplation of
the past to the problems of the future. But physical
science, the science, in the first instance, of the
inanimate world, contemporaneously with these
great developments of biology, has contributed in its
doctrine of energy an advance of direct and living
human interest certainly not less, and possibly even
of greater fundamental importance than the con-
ception of evolution. It, therefore, is almost a
duty of the scientific man, however little he may
desire or feel himself competent for the task, to
attempt to rebuild as well as destroy, and to state,
so far as he can, what is his view of the matters
in which hitherto the priest and the philosopher
have, with insufficient knowledge of external nature,
been left to themselves. Such a synthesis has been
hitherto attempted, if at all, from the standpoint
of biological science, with which, I need scarcely
say, I am totally unfitted to deal. In approaching
it from the purely physical standpoint, one has the
very great advantage that one starts from a basis
which now may be considered beyond controversy
or cavil, and which even the phenomena of life cannot
complicate or make obscure. On the other hand,
the corresponding disadvantage is that one starts
farther off from and has a greater distance to go


to reach the domain that has to be brought into
reconciliation with external nature. The biologist
dealing with life from the scientific standpoint has
the more central position. The ultimate problems
of matter and energy, on the one hand, and con-
sciousness and spirit, on the other, lie equally out-
side his true domain, and are apt to appear, perhaps,
equally inaccessible and mysterious. The physicist
from his more extreme standpoint, completely out-
side of the realm of life, may not be able to see
very far, but what he can see is seen with all the
certainty and definiteness that distinguish and
characterise the explanation of the phenomena with
which he deals. Do not draw the hasty conclusion
that, because the clarity and unanimity reached in
the study of inanimate nature have not been
approached in the study of life, they have there-
fore no application whatever to the higher aspects
of life. On the contrary, I hope to show that,
as regards what it is impossible to believe at least,
they effect a not inconsiderable simplification, and
so pave the way at least for a more definite and
truer human philosophy to replace the old.


Life, so far as our direct experience is concerned,
is lived in an intimate relation with the external
physical universe, and the breaking of that connec-
tion is death. Almost before men could count or
reason correctly about the simplest phenomena,
they have contended that life transcends the break-
ing of the bond between it and the external world
and persists after it has departed from this world.
The attitude of mind is very familiar in science,
as in other fields. Amid a world of appearance and


change, science seeks the fundamental and abiding
realities, and the test it applies is the test of
"conservation." Whatever is conserved unchanged
during all possible changes is regarded as real.
We speak of the conservation of matter, because
though, to casual observation, matter is anything
but conserved, for example, fuel is "consumed"
by fire, and the acorn grows into the oak, yet the
appearances are false, and the total amount of
matter remains constant in these as in all other

Nor is it necessary that what is conserved should
be material and tangible. We speak of the con-
servation of energy, meaning that in the variegated
interplay of matter, motion and force, whatever
happens, however complicated the mechanism or
however violent and catastrophic the events, some-
thing is unchanged and remains the same before
and after, and that something is termed energy. It
is a complex conception capable of being illustrated
in simple cases by reference to actual phenomena, but
to be accurately defined needs to be expressed as a
mathematical relation between the matter, forces
and motions involved. But nothing, not even
money, has a more real existence.

In modern science, matter and energy are the
unchangeable realities that can neither be created
nor destroyed. If they appear they must come from
somewhere, and if they disappear they must go some-
where. So whatever extraordinary events may occur,
behind the changing appearances there is a definite
basis of unalterable reality in the physical world.

The doctrine of the immortality of the spirit or
conservation of personality may be regarded as the
inverse form of the scientific argument above. The
real part of a man is not his bodily organism, which
is continually wasting away and being as continually


renewed, nor the physical energy at its command,
which is derived entirely from the inanimate world,
but is the personality resident in the body and in
control of it. There is no other interpretation of the
difference between a man alive one moment and dead
the next, which, in spite of the great advances in the
interpretation of the mechanism of life made by
biology, altogether eludes apprehension in terms
of the other fundamental conceptions to which
our inquiries into ourselves and our environment
have led.

In science we regard that which is indestructible
as having real existence. In philosophy and religion
that which has a real existence has been from time
immemorial regarded as immortal, and it seems to be
truly in accordance with the laws of thought, which
in science has led to some of the grandest and most
fruitful generalisations, to find the idea of personal
immortality running like a thread through religious
beliefs, even down to the most primitive. I make no
pretence to using, in their correct technical philo-
sophical meaning, such terms as consciousness,
personality and spirit. All I am concerned, for my
argument, to state is that in passing from the
phenomena of the inanimate world to those of life in
general we have to admit at least one fundamental
conception which cannot be connected with the
conceptions of the inanimate world, and which it
now seems most unlikely ever will be.

I have already warned you that from physical
premises it is not possible or easy to proceed very
far, and I make no pretence of discussing whether
the personality, conscience and soul of a man is or is
not, without any entirely new fundamental conception,
capable of being regarded as the further development
of the simple consciousness, or awareness, of its
existence as a separate creature, possessed by the


lowly organism. I accept the, to my mind, complete
break of continuity between the animate and in-
animate worlds, as being all that is really demanded
by our present knowledge. If I am told that unless
I make another such break between man and the
animals, I weaken the argument I have suggested
in accounting for the origin of the belief in the
immortality of the soul, by including therein all living
creatures, however humble, it is only necessary to
say that the general doctrine of evolution of man
from the lower animals seems to point unmistakably
in this direction.


It is a nice question whether it is easier for the
religious man to connect his system of thought with
that of science, or for a scientific man to find the due
relationship between his conclusions and the common
current outlook upon ethical and spiritual, if not
specifically theological, beliefs. I would have thought
that just as it is easier for a coachman to learn to
drive a motor-car than for a chauffeur to learn to
handle horses, so it ought to be easier for those
whose concern has always been with human person-
ality rather than its mechanism to master the
essential principles that have led to the mechanistic
philosophy of science. But that is probably mere
personal bias. The two studies belong to different
worlds, as the poles apart, so far as they concern
humanity, but men can afford to neglect neither.
It is the priests, not religion, it is difficult for
scientific men to live with, and science cannot co-
exist with priest-craft. The scientific man seeks
truth as a continually developing revelation, and he
changes his outlook on the world according as it
unfolds itself before his eyes. The priest teaches


that in some remote period of the world God Himself
revealed Truth once and for all time, and his profession
is to guard it against all comers. I do not believe
that the soul any more than the mind can stagnate.
It must grow or decay. Christianity cannot be
crystallised into a creed binding for all time and,
least of all, into a creed dating back to the century
that preceded the relapse of Europe into intellectual
barbarism. The world changes and has changed in
the last hundred years out of all recognition, not on
account of anything contained in the Mosaic or
Christian revelations, but on account of the new
revelations of science. Though these have come
about by a process the reverse of supernatural, by
laborious experiment and measurement, by slow ac-
cumulation of knowledge and honest and unbiassed
weighing of the evidence, they constitute an essential
part of the whole truth, be our religious convictions
what they may.

There is another important difference between
what is understood by truth in the realms of science
and religion respectively. A truth that claims to
be a divine revelation must necessarily be supposed
to be the absolute or ultimate truth, which, by
common consent, is unattainable by any of the
methods of human inquiry. What a scientific man
conceives to be the truth is, in reality, something
quite distinct. He is not concerned, and, indeed, it
is hardly too much to say that he is not even greatly
interested, in ultimate, absolute and unattainable
truth. He frames a hypothesis and tests it in every
possible way. So long as every known or to be
discovered fact is in accord with the hypothesis, and
no other hypothesis is in accord with them, it is all
he seeks to know. If, in the external universe, every
event and phenomenon occurs in the precise and
often predicable way it would occur if the hypothesis


were true, that hypothesis is regarded as the truth,
until something occurs which proves it to be in error.
There is sometimes loose talk even among scientific
men attempting- to generalise concerning other sub-
jects than those in which they have won their
position that the scientific hypotheses of one age
become the laughing stock of the next, but such
talkers are often the laughing stock of their own age
to those best qualified to form an opinion. As a
matter of fact, there is a steady and increasingly
rapid advance being made into the foundations of
knowledge, which is impressive in no way more than
in the continuous evidence it affords that these
foundations have been well and truly laid.

The methods of science in winning knowledge are
of course its own. No one desires to suppose that
they are the only methods by which Truth is to be
sought or found. But when it comes to the modes
of imparting knowledge already won, to educating
the growing citizen to a knowledge of himself and
his environment, we find differences as great.

In matters of science we do not start a child upon
fundamentals. We do not say that in all the varied
happenings of the universe the sum of half the
product of the mass into the square of the velocity
and of the product of the distance into the force
remains constant. We do not start with the concep-
tion of energy and from it deduce mechanical,
thermal, electrical and chemical phenomena. The
conception of energy belongs to the generalised
philosophy of physical science and is the end result
of generations of scientific thinkers. But the priests,
of sections at least of the Christian religion, get hold
of the child and confront it with all the end products
of the philosophy of the childhood of the world, God
and the soul, heaven and hell, angels, spirits, and the
mysteries of the Trinity, almost before it can walk.


Philosophies, whether scientific or humane, are
the end and not the beginning- of wisdom. They are
the epitomised expressions of the understanding of
the age in which they originated, and, in themselves,
or at any other age, they are as little intelligible as
shorthand would be to one who has not learnt long-
hand. They are in no sense the stepping-stones
from which a totally immature or uneducated mind
can leap to the inheritance of the ages. It leaps
rather into chaos and absurdity. Especially when
there occurs, as did occur with the triumph of
barbarism at the close of the fourth century, an
almost total break of intellectual continuity between
the age they served and that to which they survive,
they are apt to convey meanings as remote from the
original as the conception of energy is from that of
the Deity.


Science and religion could afford to ignore one
another entirely, if sought entirely for their own sake
and if the ordinary man was not the link between
them. A Hindu mystic or a monk in one of the
ascetic orders of the Roman Catholic Church, who
has withdrawn himself from the world and practised
starvation, celibacy and general mortification of the
body, aspires to reach a spiritual plane from which
the world, either in its mechanical or its vital aspect,
can be left behind and forgotten as a distraction and
a curse. Far be it from me to libel a calling I do not
profess to understand. My criticism merely is
concerned with the value to humanity of the results
attained. For whatever pinnacle of pure contempla-
tive philosophy that may thus ultimately be reached,
little that is communicable or of general value to the
life or thought of the world seems to have been the



His scientific analogue is, no doubt, equally
selfish. He too must utterly immerse himself in
his own plane of thought, and must investigate the
mechanism of nature without giving consideration
even to the existence of any other plane, or to
whether his work be of good or evil import, valuable
or useless to humanity. But such a man, uncon-
sciously no doubt at first, but, as is now well
understood, infallibly, has taken the one and only
real method of discovery in science, and his work in
other hands has been such as to change the mode of
living and mental outlook of his kind.

But the interest of the average man will lie and
must continue to rest in a just appreciation of the
relations of these several worlds, the spiritual and
the mechanical, to his own life. Not so much
antagonistic as out of all direct connection, the one
with the other, they do meet on common ground in
him. His is the unfortunate body from which, during
life, neither the aspiring soul can altogether soar, nor
the wheels of scientific materialism can be unmeshed.
He has to make his peace with both, as he is the
sufferer if his soul gets caught in the gear.

Neither the spiritual nor mechanical worlds contain
him. First and foremost, neither spirit nor machine,
he is an animal, born as animals are born, his normal
healthy life largely occupied with the affairs of sex,
with parents, mate and offspring and the domestic
hearth, in later phases with the social, communal and
national life.

Thus we have three distinct worlds, linked each
to each, as the links of a chain, the middle link only
being in direct relationship to the whole. The cold,
soulless mechanism of the cosmos invades the living
organism, and the principles of energy and matter
which we encounter in the inanimate world govern
man no less than mechanism. All that we can learn


by science of the purely physico-chemical processes
or mechanism of the living- body has been learned in
those deep foundations of knowledge appertaining to
the simplest state of things, wherein phenomena and
events are unobscured by the intervention of life.
Mechanics, the science of moving masses of matter,
has been extended to include masses that are not
individually capable of being apprehended, to the
individual molecules and atoms of which matter is
built, the mechanics of which constitute chemistry
and physics.


Naturally it is with this world that I am most
concerned, for it is from here that any contribution
that physical science can make to the common stock
of philosophy must come, /and, indeed, the clarifica-
tion of thought that has resulted from the occupation
and interpretation of the mechanical world, whether
of cosmical systems or of the body of a man, is
unique. For from this world mystery in any real
sense has been banished.

I have to make this more clear. Our knowledge
of matter and energy is not complete and in many
respects is far from complete. But in this field we
can move with an assurance, and a power of
predicting events before they occur, which is true of
no other realm of study. It is true also that Absolute
or Ultimate Truth here, as elsewhere, may be for
ever unattainable, that the fundamentals of to-day
matter electricity, the ether and energy may in the
fulness of time be displaced by still more fundamental
conceptions. But do not believe that future advances
in this field are going to invalidate and overthrow the
conclusions already reached, so far as they concern
life. We have lived long enough in this world to


have acquired the sense of direction, though whole
territories may await exploration. Though the road
to the absolute truth stretches, as always, into a
distance that may be approached but for ever
recedes, we know the direction that the road takes.
This is the crux of the whole matter. Its direc-
tion is definitely away from and not towards the
mysteries of life and spirit. The path hewn by
knowledge through ignorance points two ways in
the direction of the absolute unattainable truth.
Man has always tended to confound these two
classes of the ultimately unknowable. Heaven is
at once the abode of the constellations, which obey
the laws of mechanics with undeviating precision,
and where events and consequences are predicted
before they occur to the fraction of a second, and also
the abode of God, and the heavenly host of dis-
embodied spirits. Magnetism is in a different world
from the "animal magnetism" of Mesmer, and the
wireless telegraphy that transmits messages through
space affords no justification for believing, or other-
wise, in telepathy. I have been struck with one
curious point in the interest aroused by the recent
advances in physics in the minds of the general
public. I believe it is largely due to the underlying,
if unexpressed, belief that, in thus laying bare the
deeper secrets of external nature, we are approaching
the nearer to the solution of the problems of life and
the soul. One's scientific sense of direction tells
that the further one advances towards the ultimate
insoluble problems of physics, the more completely
one leaves behind the phenomenon of life and all its
mysteries. The advance in this direction has been
from life and not towards it, and the clouded horizons
towards which we move, whatever they may contain
of wonder and revelation, are likely to afford little of
moment to the real mystery of life.


The measure of the exactness and extent of our
knowledge of the inanimate universe is shown by
our powers of controlling it and guiding it to serve
our ends. In the inaccessible regions of space the
test is prediction, but, with regard to the phenomena
around us, in addition to this, imitation and control
follow understanding and are the signs that we are
on safe ground.

Here, again, knowledge may only be beginning,
but the success achieved is a justification for the view
that mystery in any real sense has been banished
from the inanimate universe. In engineering we
draw upon the chemical energy of fuel, and by com-
bustion convert it into heat the chaotic rush of
molecules in every direction at once and from this
chaos, by the steam-engine or other prime-mover, we
produce the orderly motion of masses of matter
which is mechanical energy, and this is used to
lighten the heavy labour of the world and perform
tasks which before would have been done by draught
cattle or slaves.

The terms "vital energy" or "vital force" have
disappeared. Energy, like money, has many denomi-
nations, but these are honoured at fixed exchange
ratios throughout the universe, whether in the living
organism or in the non-living world. The power by
which we live and move and have our being is none
other than that which drives on the stars in their
courses and maintains their splendours over the long
epochs of cosmical time. Science now takes it where
it is to be found, whether in fuel, waterfall or sun-
shine it is all one and uses it to do the labour of
men. Science can even transfer energy from its
inanimate originals and direct it into living bodies,
so that now two may live where before one would
have struggled miserably for an existence.

A simple people, who confused power with deity,


like the ancient Greeks or primitive Vikings, would
have seen, in this control of the powers of Nature,
the act of a god, and from their point of view it,
truly, is the most god-like achievement man has
ever accomplished. But it would be an unsophisti-
cated person who to-day would regard physical
power as an attribute of the deity. On the view I
have expressed the only connection between will and
power is through the agency of life, animal or


The principles of energy and matter, with which
we are confronted in the inanimate world, govern
man no less than mechanism. The physics and
chemistry, the mechanism of molecules rather than
masses, of a living organism, differ from the physics
and chemistry of non - living matter notably in
character, but, so far as we can ascertain, not in
any fundamental way. That is to say, the physico-
chemical processes of the living body conform to all
the laws which apply when life is absent.

As is well known, many of the peculiar products
of life can be artificially or "synthetically" prepared
without the aid of the organism. Cane-sugar has
been made identical with that produced by the cane
or beet, and so with camphor, the familiar flavouring
essences derived from plants and fruits vanilla,
pineapple, and so on dyes, like alizarine and indigo,
so that the cultivation of madder-root has ceased,
and that of the indigo plant, th$ woad of our
ancestors, is dying out.

It is quite true that the methods employed are,
almost without exception, entirely different from
those that take place in the plant, and are of such
a character that they would instantly destroy life of
any sort. But we do not think, for all that, that


there is a "vital chemistry" different from ordinary
chemistry. Some of the most peculiarly vital
chemical processes have lately been found to be
precisely similar to those that occur in mineral
and inorganic chemistry. Thus fermentation, once
thought to depend upon living organisms, is now
known to do so only indirectly. Directly, fermenta-
tion processes are due to unorganised "enzymes,"
secreted by the organism, and these enzymes are
analogous to the "catalysts" of inorganic chemistry.
A suggestive point is that such catalysts finely
divided platinum metal is one of the commonest
used are "poisoned" by the same poisons arsenic,

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Online LibraryFrederick SoddyScience and life: Aberdeen addresses → online text (page 12 of 18)