Samuel Butler.

Selections from previous works, with remarks on G. J. Romanes' Mentl evolution in animals, and A psalm of Montreal online

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Online LibrarySamuel ButlerSelections from previous works, with remarks on G. J. Romanes' Mentl evolution in animals, and A psalm of Montreal → online text (page 7 of 23)
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in anything, let him believe in the music of Handel, the painting of
Giovanni Bellini, and in the thirteenth chapter of St. Paul's First
Epistle to the Corinthians.

But to return. Whenever we find people knowing that they know this or
that, we have the same story over and over again. They do not yet know
it perfectly.

We come, therefore, to the conclusion that our knowledge and reasonings
thereupon, only become perfect, assured, unhesitating, when they have
become automatic, and are thus exercised without further conscious effort
of the mind, much in the same way as we cannot walk nor read nor write
perfectly till we can do so automatically.


What is true of knowing is also true of willing. The more intensely we
will, the less is our will deliberate and capable of being recognised as
will at all. So that it is common to hear men declare under certain
circumstances that they had no will, but were forced into their own
action under stress of passion or temptation. But in the more ordinary
actions of life, we observe, as in walking or breathing, that we do not
will anything utterly and without remnant of hesitation, till we have
lost sight of the fact that we are exercising our will.

The question, therefore, is forced upon us, how far this principle
extends, and whether there may not be unheeded examples of its operation
which, if we consider them, will land us in rather unexpected
conclusions. If it be granted that consciousness of knowledge and of
volition vanishes when the knowledge and the volition have become intense
and perfect, may it not be possible that many actions which we do without
knowing how we do them, and without any conscious exercise of the
will - actions which we certainly could not do if we tried to do them, nor
refrain from doing if for any reason we wished to do so - are done so
easily and so unconsciously owing to excess of knowledge or experience
rather than deficiency, we having done them too often, knowing how to do
them too well, and having too little hesitation as to the method of
procedure, to be capable of following our own action, without the
derangement of such action altogether; or, in other cases, because we
have so long settled the question that we have stowed away the whole
apparatus with which we work in corners of our system which we cannot now
conveniently reach?

It may be interesting to see whether we can find any class or classes of
actions which link actions which for some time after birth we could not
do at all, and in which our proficiency has reached the stage of
unconscious performance obviously through repeated effort and failure,
and through this only, with actions which we could do as soon as we were
born, and concerning which it would at first sight appear absurd to say
that they can have been acquired by any process in the least analogous to
what we commonly call experience, inasmuch as the creature itself which
does them has only just begun to exist, and cannot, therefore, in the
very nature of things, have had experience.

Can we see that actions, for the acquisition of which experience is such
an obvious necessity, that whenever we see the acquisition we assume the
experience, gradate away imperceptibly into actions which seem, according
to all reasonable analogy, to necessitate experience - of which, however,
the time and place are so obscure, that they are not now commonly
supposed to have any connection with _bona fide_ experience at all.

Eating and drinking appear to be such actions. The new-born child cannot
eat, and cannot drink, but he can swallow as soon as he is born; and
swallowing appears (as we may remark in passing) to have been an earlier
faculty of animal life than that of eating with teeth. The ease and
unconsciousness with which we eat and drink is clearly attributable to
practice; but a very little practice seems to go a long way - a
suspiciously small amount of practice - as though somewhere or at some
other time there must have been more practice than we can account for. We
can very readily stop eating or drinking, and can follow our own action
without difficulty in either process; but as regards swallowing, which is
the earlier habit, we have less power of self-analysis and control: when
we have once committed ourselves beyond a certain point to swallowing, we
must finish doing so, - that is to say, our control over the operation
ceases. Also, a still smaller experience seems necessary for the
acquisition of the power to swallow than appeared necessary in the case
of eating; and if we get into a difficulty we choke, and are more at a
loss how to become introspective than we are about eating and drinking.

Why should a baby be able to swallow - which one would have said was the
more complicated process of the two - with so much less practice than it
takes him to learn to eat? How comes it that he exhibits in the case of
the more difficult operation all the phenomena which ordinarily accompany
a more complete mastery and longer practice? Analogy points in the
direction of thinking that the necessary experience cannot have been
wanting, and that, too, not in such a quibbling sort as when people talk
about inherited habit or the experience of the race, which, without
explanation, is to plain-speaking persons very much the same, in regard
to the individual, as no experience at all, but _bona fide_ in the
child's own person.

Breathing, again, is an action acquired after birth, generally with some
little hesitation and difficulty, but still acquired in a time seldom
longer, as I am informed, than ten minutes or a quarter of an hour. For
an art which has to be acquired at all, there seems here, as in the case
of eating, to be a disproportion between, on the one hand, the intricacy
of the process performed, and on the other, the shortness of the time
taken to acquire the practice, and the ease and unconsciousness with
which its exercise is continued from the moment of acquisition.

We observe that in later life much less difficult and intricate
operations than breathing require much longer practice before they can be
mastered to the extent of unconscious performance. We observe also that
the phenomena attendant on the learning by an infant to breathe are
extremely like those attendant upon the repetition of some performance by
one who has done it very often before, but who requires just a little
prompting to set him off, on getting which, the whole familiar routine
presents itself before him, and he repeats his task by rote. Surely then
we are justified in suspecting that there must have been more _bona fide_
personal recollection and experience, with more effort and failure on the
part of the infant itself, than meet the eye.

It should be noticed, also that our control over breathing is very
limited. We can hold our breath a little, or breathe a little faster for
a short time, but we cannot do this for long, and after having gone
without air for a certain time we must breathe.

Seeing and hearing require some practice before their free use is
mastered, but not very much. They are so far within our control that we
can see more by looking harder, and hear more by listening
attentively - but they are beyond our control in so far as that we must
see and hear the greater part of what presents itself to us as near, and
at the same time unfamiliar, unless we turn away or shut our eyes, or
stop our ears by a mechanical process; and when we do this it is a sign
that we have already involuntarily seen or heard more than we wished. The
familiar, whether sight or sound, very commonly escapes us.

Take again the processes of digestion, the action of the heart, and the
oxygenisation of the blood - processes of extreme intricacy, done almost
entirely unconsciously, and quite beyond the control of our volition.

Is it possible that our unconsciousness concerning our own performance of
all these processes arises from over-experience?

Is there anything in digestion or the oxygenisation of the blood
different in kind to the rapid unconscious action of a man playing a
difficult piece of music on the piano? There may be in degree, but as a
man who sits down to play what he well knows, plays on when once started,
almost, as we say, mechanically, so, having eaten his dinner, he digests
it as a matter of course, unless it has been in some way unfamiliar to
him or he to it, owing to some derangement or occurrence with which he is
unfamiliar, and under which therefore he is at a loss how to comport
himself, as a player would be at a loss how to play with gloves on, or
with gout in his fingers, or if set to play music upside down.

Can we show that all the acquired actions of childhood and after-life,
which we now do unconsciously, or without conscious exercise of the will,
are familiar acts - acts which we have already done a very great number of

Can we also show that there are no acquired actions which we can perform
in this automatic manner which were not at one time difficult, requiring
attention, and liable to repeated failure, our volition failing to
command obedience from the members which should carry its purposes into

If so, analogy will point in the direction of thinking that other acts
which we do even more unconsciously may only escape our power of self-
examination and control because they are even more familiar - because we
have done them oftener; and we may imagine that if there were a
microscope which could show us the minutest atoms of consciousness and
volition, we should find that even the apparently most automatic actions
were yet done in due course, upon a balance of considerations, and under
the deliberate exercise of the will.

We should also incline to think that even such an action as the
oxygenisation of its blood by an infant of ten minutes' old, can only be
done so well and so unconsciously, after repeated failures on the part of
the infant itself.

True, as has been already implied, we do not immediately see when the
baby could have made the necessary mistakes and acquired that infinite
practice without which it could never go through such complex processes
satisfactorily; we have therefore invented the word "heredity," and
consider it as accounting for the phenomena; but a little reflection will
show that though this word may be a very good way of stating the
difficulty, it does nothing whatever towards removing it. {96}

Why should heredity enable a creature to dispense with the experience
which we see to be necessary in all other cases before difficult
operations can be performed successfully?

What is this talk that is made about the experience _of the race_, as
though the experience of one man could profit another who knows nothing
about him? If a man eats his dinner, it nourishes _him_ and not his
neighbour; if he learns a difficult art, it is _he_ that can do it and
not his neighbour. Yet, practically, we see that the vicarious
experience, which seems so contrary to our common observation, does
nevertheless appear to hold good in the case of creatures and their
descendants. Is there, then, any way of bringing these apparently
conflicting phenomena under the operation of one law? Is there any way
of showing that this experience of the race, of which so much is said
without the least attempt to show in what way it may or does become the
experience of the individual, is in sober seriousness the experience of
one single being only, repeating in a great many different ways certain
performances with which it has become exceedingly familiar?

It comes to this - that we must either suppose the conditions of
experience to differ during the earlier stages of life from those which
we observe them to become during the heyday of any existence - and this
would appear very gratuitous, tolerable only as a suggestion because the
beginnings of life are so obscure, that in such twilight we may do pretty
much whatever we please without fear of being found out - or that we must
suppose continuity of life and sameness between living beings, whether
plants or animals, and their descendants, to be far closer than we have
hitherto believed; so that the experience of one person is not enjoyed by
his successor, so much as that the successor is _bona fide_ an elongation
of the life of his progenitors, imbued with their memories, profiting by
their experiences - which are, in fact, his own until he leaves their
bodies - and only unconscious of the extent of these memories and
experiences owing to their vastness and already infinite repetition.

Certainly it presents itself to us as a singular coincidence -

I. That we are _most conscious of_, _and have most control over_, such
habits as speech, the upright position, the arts and sciences - which are
acquisitions peculiar to the human race, always acquired after birth, and
not common to ourselves and any ancestor who had not become entirely

II. That we are _less conscious of_, _and have less control over_, the
use of teeth, swallowing, breathing, seeing and hearing - which were
acquisitions of our prehuman ancestry, and for which we had provided
ourselves with all the necessary apparatus before we saw light, but which
are still, geologically speaking, recent, or comparatively recent.

ill. That we are _most unconscious of_, _and have least control over_,
our digestion, which we have in common even with our invertebrate
ancestry, and which is a habit of extreme antiquity.

There is something too like method in this for it to be taken as the
result of mere chance - chance again being but another illustration of
Nature's love of a contradiction in terms; for everything is chance, and
nothing is chance. And you may take it that all is chance or nothing
chance, according as you please, but you must not have half chance and
half not chance - which, however, in practice is just what you _must_

Does it not seem as though the older and more confirmed the habit, the
more unquestioning the act of volition, till, in the case of the oldest
habits, the practice of succeeding existences has so formulated the
procedure, that, on being once committed to such and such a line beyond a
certain point, the subsequent course is so clear as to be open to no
further doubt, and admit of no alternative, till the very power of
questioning is gone, and even the consciousness of volition? And this
too upon matters which, in earlier stages of a man's existence, admitted
of passionate argument and anxious deliberation whether to resolve them
thus or thus, with heroic hazard and experiment, which on the losing side
proved to be vice, and on the winning virtue. For there was passionate
argument once what shape a man's teeth should be, nor can the colour of
his hair be considered as even yet settled, or likely to be settled for a
very long time.

It is one against legion when a creature tries to differ from his own
past selves. He must yield or die if he wants to differ widely, so as to
lack natural instincts, such as hunger or thirst, or not to gratify them.
It is more righteous in a man that he should "eat strange food," and that
his cheek should "so much as lank not," than that he should starve if the
strange food be at his command. His past selves are living in unruly
hordes within him at this moment and overmastering him. "Do this, this,
this, which we too have done, and found our profit in it," cry the souls
of his forefathers within him. Faint are the far ones, coming and going
as the sound of bells wafted on to a high mountain; loud and clear are
the near ones, urgent as an alarm of fire. "Withhold," cry some. "Go on
boldly," cry others. "Me, me, me, revert hitherward, my descendant,"
shouts one as it were from some high vantage-ground over the heads of the
clamorous multitude. "Nay, but me, me, me," echoes another; and our
former selves fight within us and wrangle for our possession. Have we
not here what is commonly called an _internal tumult_, when dead
pleasures and pains tug within us hither and thither? Then may the
battle be decided by what people are pleased to call our own experience.
Our own indeed! What is our own save by mere courtesy of speech? A
matter of fashion. Sanction sanctifieth and fashion fashioneth. And so
with death - the most inexorable of all conventions.

However this may be, we may assume it as an axiom with regard to actions
acquired after birth, that we never do them automatically save as the
result of long practice, and after having thus acquired perfect mastery
over the action in question.

But given the practice or experience, and the intricacy of the process to
be performed appears to matter very little. There is hardly anything
conceivable as being done by man, which a certain amount of familiarity
will not enable him to do, unintrospectively, and without conscious
effort. "The most complex and difficult movements," writes Mr. Darwin,
"can in time be performed without the least effort or consciousness." All
the main business of life is done thus unconsciously or
semi-unconsciously. For what is the main business of life? We work that
we may eat and digest, rather than eat and digest that we may work; this,
at any rate, is the normal state of things; the more important business
then is that which is carried on unconsciously. So again, the action of
the brain, which goes on prior to our realising the idea in which it
results, is not perceived by the individual. So also all the deeper
springs of action and conviction. The residuum with which we fret and
worry ourselves is a mere matter of detail, as the higgling and haggling
of the market, which is not over the bulk of the price, but over the last

Shall we say, then, that a baby of a day old sucks (which involves the
whole principle of the pump, and hence a profound practical knowledge of
the laws of pneumatics and hydrostatics), digests, oxygenises its blood
(millions of years before Sir Humphry Davy discovered oxygen), sees and
hears - all most difficult and complicated operations, involving an
unconscious knowledge of the facts concerning optics and acoustics,
compared with which the conscious discoveries of Newton sink into utter
insignificance? Shall we say that a baby can do all these things at
once, doing them so well and so regularly, without being even able to
direct its attention to them, and without mistake, and at the same time
not know how to do them, and never have done them before?

Such an assertion would be a contradiction to the whole experience of
mankind. Surely the _onus probandi_ must rest with him who makes it.

A man may make a lucky hit now and again by what is called a fluke, but
even this must be only a little in advance of his other performances of
the same kind. He may multiply seven by eight by a fluke after a little
study of the multiplication table, but he will not be able to extract the
cube root of 4913 by a fluke, without long training in arithmetic, any
more than an agricultural labourer would be able to operate successfully
for cataract. If, then, a grown man cannot perform so simple an
operation as that, we will say, for cataract, unless he have been long
trained in other similar operations, and until he has done what comes to
the same thing many times over, with what show of reason can we maintain
that one who is so far less capable than a grown man, can perform such
vastly more difficult operations, without knowing how to do them, and
without ever having done them before? There is no sign of "fluke" about
the circulation of a baby's blood. There may perhaps be some little
hesitation about its earliest breathing, but this, as a general rule,
soon passes over, both breathing and circulation, within an hour after
birth, being as regular and easy as at any time during life. Is it
reasonable, then, to say that the baby does these things without knowing
how to do them, and without ever having done them before, and continues
to do them by a series of lifelong flukes?

It would be well if those who feel inclined to hazard such an assertion
would find some other instances of intricate processes gone through by
people who know nothing about them, and who never had any practice
therein. What _is_ to know how to do a thing? Surely to do it. What is
proof that we know how to do a thing? Surely the fact that we can do it.
A man shows that he knows how to throw the boomerang by throwing the
boomerang. No amount of talking or writing can get over this; _ipso
facto_, that a baby breathes and makes its blood circulate, it knows how
to do so; and the fact that it does not know its own knowledge is only
proof of the perfection of that knowledge, and of the vast number of past
occasions on which it must have been exercised already. As has been said
already, it is less obvious when the baby could have gained its
experience, so as to be able so readily to remember exactly what to do;
_but it is more easy to suppose that the necessary occasions cannot have
been wanting_, _than that the power which we observe_, _should have been
obtained without practice and memory_.

If we saw any self-consciousness on the baby's part about its breathing
or circulation, we might suspect that it had had less experience, or had
profited less by its experience, than its neighbours - exactly in the same
manner as we suspect a deficiency of any quality which we see a man
inclined to parade. We all become introspective when we find that we do
not know our business, and whenever we are introspective we may generally
suspect that we are on the verge of unproficiency. Unfortunately, in the
case of sickly children we observe that they sometimes do become
conscious of their breathing and circulation, just as in later life we
become conscious that we have a liver or a digestion. In that case there
is always something wrong. The baby that becomes aware of its breathing
does not know how to breathe and will suffer for his ignorance and
incapacity, exactly in the same way as he will suffer in later life for
ignorance and incapacity in any other respect in which his peers are
commonly knowing and capable. In the case of inability to breathe, the
punishment is corporal, breathing being a matter of fashion, so old and
long settled that nature can admit of no departure from the established
custom, and the procedure in case of failure is as much formulated as the
fashion itself. In the case of the circulation, the whole performance
has become one so utterly of rote, that the mere discovery that we could
do it at all was considered one of the highest flights of human genius.

It has been said a day will come when the Polar ice shall have
accumulated, till it forms vast continents many thousands of feet above
the level of the sea, all of solid ice. The weight of this mass will, it
is believed, cause the world to topple over on its axis, so that the
earth will be upset as an ant-heap overturned by a ploughshare. In that
day the icebergs will come crunching against our proudest cities, razing
them from off the face of the earth as though they were made of rotten
blotting-paper. There is no respect now of Handel nor of Shakespeare;
the works of Rembrandt and Bellini fossilise at the bottom of the sea.
Grace, beauty, and wit, all that is precious in music, literature, and
art - all gone. In the morning there was Europe. In the evening there
are no more populous cities nor busy hum of men, but a sea of jagged ice,
a lurid sunset, and the doom of many ages. Then shall a scared remnant
escape in places, and settle upon the changed continent when the waters
have subsided - a simple people, busy hunting shellfish on the drying
ocean beds, and with little time for introspection; yet they can read and
write and sum, for by that time these accomplishments will have become
universal, and will be acquired as easily as we now learn to talk; but
they do so as a matter of course, and without self-consciousness. Also
they make the simpler kinds of machinery too easily to be able to follow
their own operations - the manner of their own apprenticeship being to
them as a buried city. May we not imagine that, after the lapse of
another ten thousand years or so, some one of them may again become
cursed with lust of introspection, and a second Harvey may astonish the
world by discovering that it can read and write, and that steam-engines
do not grow, but are made? It may be safely prophesied that he will die

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Online LibrarySamuel ButlerSelections from previous works, with remarks on G. J. Romanes' Mentl evolution in animals, and A psalm of Montreal → online text (page 7 of 23)