Karl Alois Kneller.

Christianity and the leaders of modern science; a contribution to the history of culture in the nineteenth century online

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to despise and ignore everything that cannot be worked
up into algebraic form, and a physiologist is in danger
of becoming so absorbed in purely physiological pro-
cesses as to overlook all facts of another order, including
those which give token of the spirituality of the soul.

Humanity has a profound conviction that its life pro-
ceeds on a plan altogether higher than that of the other
animals. But this conviction is not based on anatomical
or physiological considerations. It rests on obvious
and fundamental differences of activity, achievement,
and progress between man and the lower animals. No
one is in greater danger of overlooking these differences
than the specialist whose mind is constantly occupied,
not with points of difference, but with points of resem-
blance. He falls very easily into the mistaken con-

1 Almanach der Akademie IX, Wien 1859, 39 f.


elusion that man represents simply a higher stage of
evolution, and differs from the other animals not in kind
but only in degree.

The characteristic development of science towards
the middle of the nineteenth century added to this first
error a second no less obvious. The older school of
Physiology was always too ready to ascribe all pro-
cesses of vegetative life to the immediate action of the
soul or "vital force", as it was called. They repre-
sented this mysterious vital force as the direct and
proximate efficient cause of all physico-chemical pro-
cesses. Such a theory was bound to provoke a reaction.
It was shown that the simpler changes that take place
in organisms are due to the operation of the forces in-
vestigated by the chemist in his laboratory. It was
further shown that many processes previously explained
by the hypothesis of vital force could be explained
without recourse to any such hypothesis. Wohler, Liebig,
and Berthelot produced in the laboratory chemical com-
pound after chemical compound which had hitherto
been regarded as producible only in a living orga-
nism. Bernard showed that even after death the liver,
so long as the tissue withstands disintegration , con-
tinues to secrete sugar. Other scientists demonstrated
that the heart can be made to beat after death by
the introduction of fresh blood. The inference drawn
from these facts went , however , quite beyond the
warrant of sound reasoning. Certain processes, said
materialistic scientists, hitherto ascribed to the immediate
action of the soul, have been explained in another
way, consequently we no longer need the hypothesis
of a soul to explain anything, not even sensation or


We have not space to enter more deeply into these
questions *. We can only hope in these cursory remarks
to show that Physiology stands in no more intimate
relation to the cardinal questions of Philosophy than
any other branch of science, and that the leaders of
that science in the nineteenth century were very far
indeed from being hostile to the Christian teaching on
these questions.

The greatest physiologist of the first half of the nine-
teenth century is admitted on all hands to have been
Johannes Miiller (born July 14 th 1801 at Coblenz,
died April 28 th 1858 at Berlin, where he had occupied
the Chair of Anatomy and Physiology). "The first
physiologist not merely of our day but of our century,
indeed one of the greatest of all time", R. Wagner 2 , calls
him; "the Haller of our generation, the Cuvier of Ger-
many", says Du Bois-Reymond 3 . The extent and
variety of his scientific works are simply astounding.
It has been calculated that in 37 years he published

1 Cf. L. Dressel, Der belebte und der unbelebte Stoff, Frei-
burg 1883. H. Malfatti, Uber Lebenskraft, in Natur und Offen-
barung XLVI , Miinster 1900, 727 733. The purely mechanical
theory of the origin of life has found in recent times many opponents
among the scientists. Cf. O. Hertwig, Die Entwicklung der Bio-
logic im 19. Jahrhundert, Jena 1900, 24: "Ebenso unberechtigt wie
der Vitalismus ist das mechanistische Dogma, daO das Leben mit alien
seinen komplizierten Erscheinungen nichts anderes sei als ein chemisch-
physikalisches Problem. . . . Wenn es Aufgabe des Chemikers ist, die
zahllosen Verbindungen der verschiedenartigen Atome zu Molekiilen
zu erforschen, so kann er, streng genommen, iiberhaupi nicht dem
eigentlichen Lebensprobleme naher treten. Denn dieses beginnt ja
iiberhaupt erst da, wo seine Untersuchung aufhort etc."

2 Obituary Notice in the Allgemeine Zeitung, Augsburg 1858, 2029.

3 Reden. Zweite Folge, Leipzig 1887, 143.


papers amounting in all to 950 sheets, i. e. about
3*/2 sheets of hard and original scientific work every
five weeks! And of these publications there is "not a
single one that can be called weak". "The mass of
facts which Miiller's labours brought to light is simply
incalculable, and in all his research work we hardly ever
find an inaccurate or incomplete observation. On the
contrary we find many instances in which his conclusions,
although at first disputed, ultimately forced their way
to acceptance." 1

Miiller was snatched suddenly away in the very full-
ness of his activity. In a brochure published in 1899,
on the occasion of the erection of a memorial to hirn
in his native city, we find the following extract from
the Berlin "Nationalzeitung" of May 2 nd i858 2 :

"The funeral of Dr. Johannes Miiller took place this morning
with full religious service. A great procession of mourners
followed the coffin from the Professor's residence to the
cemetery. The Minister Von Raumer was present together
with many of the leading members of his Council, as also
others of prominence in the official world. The deceased
had been a member of the Hedwig Guild of this city, and
the Episcopal Legate Pelldram, Prior of the Guild, took part
in the service and preached the funeral sermon. He dwelt
on the brilliant and amiable qualities of Dr. Miiller, and
spoke of him as a man of stainless honour, a loyal friend,
a loving and beloved husband and father, a master and
pioneer of science. Unspoiled by the glory and renown
which were his, he never wavered for a moment from the
firm and humble faith of his boyhood; in public and in
private he was the most religious of men, and the deeper
he pierced into the secrets of science, the more ardently he
cried out in praise of the wisdom and greatness of God. . . .

1 Ib. 278 280.

2 Gamgee before the British Association 1882. Report 569.


The funeral proceeded by the Lust- Garten, up the Lin-
den, and Friedrichstrasse, to the Catholic Churchyard in
Liesenstrasse, where all that was mortal of the great scien-
tist was interred with the full ceremony of the Catholic
Church." '

Muller was not merely convinced of the presence of
a spiritual soul in man ; he went further, and like Ber-
zelius and Liebig, postulated for the explanation of life
a principle of an order other than the chemico-physical,
namely, vital force. This hypothesis was however hotly
contested even in his life-time by the younger school
of physiologists. The slightest acquaintance with the
fundamental conceptions of physics, argued his critics,
was sufficient to show the complete inadmissibility of
a force "which resides in no determinate substrate,
acts at no determinate point, actuates billions of mole-
cules of the most varying form and disposition without
losing its absolute unity, attaches to matter and yet
can exist apart from matter, and which can be destroyed
without the intervention of resistance as it can be in-
creased without the consumption of matter" 2 . All vital
processes are, according to these critics, to be referred
to known chemico-physical forces; life itself is to be
explained by a purely mechanical theory. Such a
dark and mystical agency as "vital force" is to be re-
solutely thrust out of the region of science. These
maxims were eagerly put into practice; and scientific
Europe placed before itself the task of elucidating the
chemical and mechanical aspects of organic changes,
and of explaining life without postulating a principle
of Iife 4 .

1 Quoted in the pamphlet: Johannes Muller, Koblenz 1898, 19 20.

2 Du Bois-Reymond, Reden II 218.


We cannot deal in any detail with the controversy.
Most of our readers are aware that science is not so
brusquely contemptuous to-day as it was ten years ago
regarding the hypothesis in question. Reflection showed
that the criticism cited above was effective only as against
one conception of "vital force", the conception, namely,
which regarded it as a force of the chemico-physical
order, the immediate efficient cause of all organic pro-
cesses of a chemico-physical nature. But if we conceive
it as a principle of a higher order, standing to the
agencies investigated by Chemistry and Physics in the
relation of guide and controller, the criticism falls to
the ground. But we are transgressing our limits. The
question we set out to answer is this: Has scientific
study of the processes of the organic life of man brought
to light any facts which render it impossible or un-
necessary to ascribe to him a spiritual soul, endowed
with free-will and of its nature immortal? Let us see
how this question has been answered by some of the
pioneers of Modern Physiology.

According to Du Bois-Reymond 1 , the founder of the
modern school of Physiology was Theodor Schwann
(born at Neuss 1810, Professor at Louvain 1839, at
Liege 1848). It was his discovery of the animal cell
which "banished from the sphere of vegetative life all
conceptions , such as Miiller had entertained , of an
entelechy from which the total life of the organism
was supposed to spring, and which raised the hope
that ultimately all the processes of organic life could
be explained by means of the general properties of

Reden II 219.


Schwann, "the world-renowned discoverer of the cell",
who by this "triumph of Biology" has won a place
among the deathless masters of thought *, was in spite
of his rejection of "vital force", anything but a mate-
rialist. In a letter of December 22 nd 1858 he explains
to Du Bois-Reymond the process of reasoning through
which he reached the theory of organic life, "in which
I rejected all teleological explanations which made appeal
to a purposive vital force, and admitted only in the
case of man (on account of his moral freedom), the pre-
sence of a principle substantially different from matter.
This latter point to which I cling with absolute con-
viction, sets a gulf between my system and that of the
materialists" 2 .

In another passage he criticises with equal sharpness
the vital force of the vitalists and the atheism of the

"I have never been able to understand the idea of a
simple force which is assumed to be capable of altering its
mode of action, although not endowed with the faculty of
reason. I have always preferred to find the source of that
purposiveness, of which the whole course of nature gives
conclusive evidence, not in the thing created, but in the
Creator. . . ." 3

In the same year (1839) in which Schwann published
his epoch-making study of cells "the great discoverer"
in whom we find a rare union of consummate talent

1 Gurlt in the Allgemeine deutsche Biographic XXXIII 188.

2 Du Bois-Reymond ante 305.

3 Toujours j'ai prefere de chercher la cause de la finalite dont
temoigne a 1'evidence la nature entiere, non pas dans la creature
mais dans le Createur . . . (quoted in the Annuaire de 1'Academie
royale des sciences de Belgique LI, Bruxelles 1885, 215).


for research and religious fervour, accepted a call to
the Chair of Anatomy in the Catholic University of
Louvain 1 . Schwann's acceptance of the position shows
pretty clearly his inability to see the "necessarily anti-
Christian" bearing of his discoveries in Physiology. He
died at Cologne on January II th 1882, unwaveringly
loyal to the faith in which he had lived 2 .

In his writings we find an occasional expression which
may, perhaps, lend itself to misinterpretation. "But we
must never forget", remarks Du Bois-Reymond 3 , "that
Schwann, although a strong opponent of vitalism was
just as strong an opponent of materialism. In his con-
ception of the soul of animals he adhered (as I gathered
from a conversation with him at Neuss in Sept. 1849)
to the standpoint of Descartes".

Ten years before his own death Schwann delivered
the memorial address over a distinguished colleague and
countryman, Friedrich Anton Spring (f 1872), Pro-
fessor of Physiology at the University of Liege. Spring
was born in 1814 at Geroldsbach in Upper Bavaria.

1 Gurlt in the Allgemeine deutsche Biographic XXXIII 189.

8 Cf. the paper Germania of 17 th and 2O th January 1882, Nr. 25, I
and 31, i. Allgemeine Zeitung, Miinchen 1882, Nr. 20, Beil., 294.
II a toujours etc profondement religieux et pret a se soumettre aux
decisions de 1'Eglise catholique, meme en matiere de science. Henle
affirme que le manuscrit des recherches microscopiques fut volon-
tairement presente a la censure de 1'archeveque de Malines, qui a
ce moment ne trouva heureusement rien a redire a la theorie cel-
lulaire. Dans la suite Schwann eut plus d'une fois recours aux
lumieres des theologiens lorsqu'il lui venait des scrupules sur 1'ortho-
doxie de ses idees scientifiques, et il ne fut pas toujours aussi heureux
qu'avec la theorie cellulaire (L. Fredericq in the Annuaire de
1'Academie de Belgique LI 227).

3 Reden II 321.


Like Schwann, he obtained a position abroad, and by
his scientific achievements and his lovable character
overcame the natural distrust with which strangers are
greeted, and won universal respect and admiration.
Spring was at one with Schwann in his attitude towards
religion. "If he looked to the future with hope", says
the latter, speaking of Spring's last illness, "it was be-
cause he did not leave God out of his reckonings. For,
gentlemen, I must not and will not pass by the matter
in silence, Spring was a man of a profoundly religious
mind ; he made no ostentatious parade of his faith, but
he would have thought it disgraceful to deny it; and
when occasion demanded he made open declaration of
it. He lived a Christian, and a Christian he died. His
supreme consolation was the certainty he had that he
would meet again in a better world those whom he had
loved in this." 1

The celebrated Danish physiologist Daniel Friedrich
Eschricht (f 1863), was the first to grasp the full
significance of Schwann's discovery. He regarded it
as the death-blow of the hypothesis of "vital force".
"Vital force has", he wrote, "lost its prestige, or -
what is worse for it has gone out of fashion." 2 The
physical conception of life has quite supplanted the teleo-
logical. In this respect, indeed, Eschricht believes that
science has gone a great deal too far.

1 II vivait d'ailleurs en Chretien , et c'est en Chretien qu'il est
mort, emportant avec lui , comme supreme consolation, la certi-
tude de revoir un jour dans un inonde meilleur ceux qu'il avait
avait aimes (Theod. Schwann, Notice sur F.-A. Spring , in the
Annuaire de 1'Academie de Belgique XL, Bruxelles 1874, 261).

2 D. F. Eschricht, Das physische Leben in popularen Vor-
tragen dargestellt, Berlin 1852, 75.


"Vital force as understood by Van Helmold must undoubted-
ly be rejected ; but if we use the words to denote a prin-
ciple plainly operative in the life of every plant and every
animal the case stands otherwise. Every phenomenon of
life, taken by itself, may be explained by the general laws
of nature. But these phenomena taken in their totality can
be understood only as the outward manifestations of such a
principle. The analogy which has been set up between the
cell and the crystal I cannot accept; I believe, not that
plants and animals originate through an arbitrary conjunc-
tion of matter of various kinds, but that on the contrary
the material constituents of organisms, with their blind force,
appear only in complete subordination to this vital principle.
Such an hypothesis (which I call the teleological hypothesis)
seems to me to be the only one in harmony with the ac-
tual facts of life." l

In a subsequent lecture Eschricht enters into a de-
tailed defence of this teleological interpretation of life.
He opens his case with an interesting and effective

He imagines a remote island, the inhabitants of which
have never seen a ship, and are totally ignorant of naviga-
tion. "Suddenly there appears off their coast a sailing vessel,
battling against wind and tide. The natives are plunged in
amazement at the strange sight. 'It is the work of a magi-
cian' they say. 'See how he lords it over wind and tide !
See how the two join forces to cast and shatter him on the
rocks; but his wisdom triumphs over their hostility. He
has at command a power higher than theirs.' Then the sa-
vants arrive on the scene. They naturally begin to determine
the precise circumstances and conditions under which the
strange phenomenon presents itself. 'What! is this colossus
to be exempt from the influence of the great natural forces,
which are admitted to be the powers propelling every other
body driven by wind and wave? You are astonished at

1 Ib. 75-

Kneller, Christianity. 2O


seeing a change in the movement of a vessel without any
corresponding change in wind or tide? But did you not
see the board behind there shifting its position, and those
huge sheets setting themselves into a new formation ? These
changes explain the change of direction.' The people, ob-
serving more closely, notice the rudder and sails, and re-
cognise the truth of what the savants say. None the less
they continue their study of the ship, of the harmony and
singleness of purpose which its movements manifest, and
cling to their intuition some power, individual and com-
pulsive, is at work there!

"Were they so completely mistaken, those primitive minds?
They were certainly wrong in raising the hypothesis of a
magical power . . . and the savants were clearly within their
rights in rejecting such a conception. But the savants went
wide of reality in limiting their vision to the individual
phenomena exhibited by the ship, and declining to recognise
the plain manifestation of mind given by the totality of
these phenomena. For the fundamental question was always
there. Had the forces of nature free play on the ship as
on a piece of drift-wood, or were they guided by some
power of another order to the accomplishment of a single
definite purpose?" 1

Eschricht adds a word on the immortality of the soul.

"It is a fact well known to you that many men of science
declare the idea of a spiritual existence, continuing after
bodily death, to be wholly untenable. How many things
men will be led to pronounce impossible if they insist on
subjecting the unknown to the limits of their imagination !
Only a few years ago it was unimaginable that infusoria and
parasites should originate in the usual way. Who would
credit the possibility of sight and hearing, who would be-
lieve that an individual unit of life would maintain itself
amid the endless changes and recombinations of its material
elements unless these were facts of actual experience? Do
you not agree with me that the body stands to the soul in

1 Eschricht, Das physische Leben 78.


the relation of instrument to worker ? That is how I re-
concile my hope of immortality with the laws of physical
nature." l

To Johannes Muller and Schwann we may add, among
German savants, Rudolf Wagner, A. W. Volkmann, and
Karl Von Vierordt.

RudolfWagner(f 1864), held the Chair of Physio-
logy at Gottingen. The violence with which his writings
were assailed by Vogt is no doubt known to our readers.
Wagner had, at the meeting of the Scientific Association
at Gottingen, raised the question whether physiological
research had made it impossible to conceive a spiritual
principle in man different in kind from the body. In
his own view, he said, Physiology had not made this
conception one iota easier or more difficult of accep-
tance. For the grounds on which it rests are to be
found in the province not of Physiology but of Ethics ;
free-will and immortality, without which there can be
no question of morality, necessarily postulate a spiritual
principle 2 . Wagner ended by declaring himself a loyal
and fervent Christian 3 .

Vogt attempted, as might have been expected, to
belittle and deride the scientific performances of his
opponent. But his abuse went wide of the mark; for
Wagner, if not a man of great speculative depth, was
in his own province thoroughly competent. His writings
on Physiology and Anthropology are sufficient proof

1 Ib. 511.

2 Cf. Wagners Writings: Uber Glauben und Wissen, Gottingen
1854; Menschenschopfung und Seelensubstanz, ib. 1854; Der Kampf
um die Seele vom Standpunkt der Wissenschaft, ib. 1857.

3 E. g. in his philosophical letters in the Allgemeine Zeitung,
Augsburg 1852, Nr. 20, Beilage 313.


of that. He had also some reputation as a pioneer.
He shares with Meissner the credit of having been the
first to investigate the tactile corpuscles of the skin,
and to discover the germinal vesicle.

A. W. Volkmann (t 1877, at Halle), "stands beyond
question in the first rank of the physiologists of the
19 th century" 1 . His works, "all of which bear the stamp
of masterly completeness", relate especially to the move-
ment of the blood, the physiology of the nervous system,
and physiological optics. It is, however, to another
source that we go for his direct utterances on the sub-
jects with which we are concerned - - to a speech de-
livered in 1874 on the then burning question of Dar-
winism 2 .

Volkmann begins by stating his general attitude to-
wards the theory of evolution. He declares that he
has no a priori prejudice or objection against the theory
as such, but he feels compelled to reject that form of
it which is associated with the name of Darwin. Natural
selection cannot of itself explain the origin of species.
The whole of the first part of the speech is devoted
to a vigorous criticism of Darwinism 3 . In the second

1 Pa gel in the Allgemeine deutsche Biographic XL 236.

2 Zur Entwicklung der Organismen, in the Bericht iiber die Sitzungen
der naturforschenden Gesellschaft zu Halle im Jahre 1874, 27 36
(Sitzung zur Feier des Stiftungsfestes am 5. Juli).

3 Volkmann's conclusions are in short as follows: I. The prin-
ciple of heredity and that of constant change are contradictory.

2. An organ is only useful in the fight for existence, when it is
completely formed; minimum additions to it are useless ; consequently
the organ cannot be formed by the addition of minimum changes.

3. Every definite form, which an organ of the body assumes, ne-
cessitates other definite forms for all the organs of the body. The


part he gives his own hypothesis of the uprise and deve-
lopment of species. The process becomes intelligible,
he maintains, only when conceived as the working out
of a purposive idea.

Purpose manifests itself everywhere in all products of
human activity, and plays the part of a true final cause.

body is designed and framed after a certain type. This Darwin is
not able to explain. 4. Still less can Natural Selection explain the
difference between the species. If an individual is in the beginning
capable of reproducing its own species, and, later on, is no longer
so, the fact points to a deterioration and not to an amelioration in
the struggle for existence. 5. For each particular animal that alone
which is serviceable to, and suitable for the organs which have been
given him, is fitting ; therefore, the appearance of a new arrangement
of organs, which would be suitable, depends on the pre-existence
of the animal, according to which the new arrangement is to be
regulated. No one will deny that a strong set of teeth is an ad-
vantage to a beast of prey; nor that in an animal whose whole
bony skeleton, muscles, organs of digestion and sensation, nay,
even the brain itself (the seat of instinct) are those of a beast of prey,
a stronger set of teeth may be developed by natural selection. But
whence comes it that all the organs formed themselves according
to one single plan ? The first beasts of prey must have been pre-
ceded by animals, which were not beasts of prey. It could not have

Online LibraryKarl Alois KnellerChristianity and the leaders of modern science; a contribution to the history of culture in the nineteenth century → online text (page 24 of 32)