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 8 of 23)
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a martyr, and be honoured in the fourth generation.


"Strange difficulties have been raised by some," says Bishop Butler,
"concerning personal identity, or the sameness of living agents as
implied in the notion of our existing now and hereafter, or indeed in any
two consecutive moments." But in truth it is not easy to see the
strangeness of the difficulty, if the words either "personal" or
"identity" are used in any strictness.

Personality is one of those ideas with which we are so familiar that we
have lost sight of the foundations upon which it rests. We regard our
personality as a simple definite whole; as a plain, palpable, individual
thing, which can be seen going about the streets or sitting indoors at
home; as something which lasts us our lifetime, and about the confines of
which no doubt can exist in the minds of reasonable people. But in truth
this "we," which looks so simple and definite, is a nebulous and
indefinable aggregation of many component parts which war not a little
among themselves, our perception of our existence at all being perhaps
due to this very clash of warfare, as our sense of sound and light is due
to the jarring of vibrations. Moreover, as the component parts of our
identity change from moment to moment, our personality becomes a thing
dependent upon time present, which has no logical existence, but lives
only upon the sufferance of times past and future, slipping out of our
hands into the domain of one or other of these two claimants the moment
we try to apprehend it. And not only is our personality as fleeting as
the present moment, but the parts which compose it blend some of them so
imperceptibly into, and are so inextricably linked on to, outside things
which clearly form no part of our personality, that when we try to bring
ourselves to book and determine wherein we consist, or to draw a line as
to where we begin or end, we find ourselves baffled. There is nothing
but fusion and confusion.

Putting theology on one side, and dealing only with the common sense of
mankind, our body is certainly part of our personality. With the
destruction of our bodies, our personality, as far as we can follow it,
comes to a full stop; and with every modification of them it is
correspondingly modified. But what are the limits of our bodies? They
are composed of parts, some of them so unessential as to be hardly
included in personality at all, and to be separable from ourselves
without perceptible effect, as hair, nails, and daily waste of tissue.
Again, other parts are very important, as our hands, feet, arms, legs,
&c., but still are no essential parts of our "self" or "soul," which
continues to exist, though in a modified condition, in spite of their
amputation. Other parts, as the brain, heart, and blood, are so
essential that they cannot be dispensed with, yet it is impossible to say
that personality consists in any one of them.

Each one of these component members of our personality is continually
dying and being born again, supported in this process by the food we eat,
the water we drink, and the air we breathe; which three things link us
on, and fetter us down, to the organic and inorganic world about us. For
our meat and drink, though no part of our personality before we eat and
drink, cannot, after we have done so, be separated entirely from us
without the destruction of our personality altogether, so far as we can
follow it; and who shall say at what precise moment our food has or has
not become part of ourselves? A famished man eats food; after a short
time his whole personality is so palpably affected that we know the food
to have entered into him and taken, as it were, possession of him; but
who can say at what precise moment it did so? Thus we find that we melt
away into outside things and are rooted into them as plants into the soil
in which they grow, nor can any man say he consists absolutely in this or
that, nor define himself so certainly as to include neither more nor less
than himself; many undoubted parts of his personality being more
separable from it, and changing it less when so separated, both to his
own senses and those of other people, than other parts which are strictly
speaking no parts at all.

A man's clothes, for example, as they lie on a chair at night are no part
of him, but when he wears them they would appear to be so, as being a
kind of food which warms him and hatches him, and the loss of which may
kill him of cold. If this be denied, and a man's clothes be considered
as no part of his self, nevertheless they, with his money, and it may
perhaps be added his religious opinions, stamp a man's individuality as
strongly as any natural feature can stamp it. Change in style of dress,
gain or loss of money, make a man feel and appear more changed than
having his chin shaved or his nails cut. In fact, as soon as we leave
common parlance on one side, and try for a scientific definition of
personality, we find that there is none possible, any more than there can
be a demonstration of the fact that we exist at all - a demonstration for
which, as for that of a personal God, many have hunted but which none
have found. The only solid foundation is, as in the case of the earth's
crust, pretty near the surface of things; the deeper we try to go, the
damper, darker, and altogether more uncongenial we find it. There is no
quagmire of superstition into which we may not be easily lured if we once
cut ourselves adrift from those superficial aspects of things, in which
alone our nature permits us to be comforted.

Common parlance, however, settles the difficulty readily enough (as
indeed it settles most others if they show signs of awkwardness) by the
simple process of ignoring it: we decline, and very properly, to go into
the question of where personality begins and ends, but assume it to be
known by every one, and throw the onus of not knowing it upon the over-
curious, who had better think as their neighbours do, right or wrong, or
there is no knowing into what villany they may not presently fall.

Assuming, then, that every one knows what is meant by the word "person"
(and such superstitious bases as this are the foundations upon which all
action, whether of man, beast, or plant, is constructed and rendered
possible; for even the corn in the fields grows upon a superstitious
basis as to its own existence, and only turns the earth and moisture into
wheat through the conceit of its own ability to do so, without which
faith it were powerless; and the lichen only grows upon the granite rock
by first saying to itself, "I think I can do it;" so that it would not be
able to grow unless it thought it could grow, and would not think it
could grow unless it found itself able to grow, and thus spends its life
arguing most virtuously in a most vicious circle - basing action upon
hypothesis, which hypothesis is in turn based upon action) - assuming that
we know what is meant by the word "person," we say that we are one and
the same person from birth till death, so that whatever is done by or
happens to any one between birth and death, is said to happen to or be
done by one individual. This in practice is found sufficient for the law
courts and the purposes of daily life, which, being full of hurry and the
pressure of business, can only tolerate compromise, or conventional
rendering of intricate phenomena. When facts of extreme complexity have
to be daily and hourly dealt with by people whose time is money, they
must be simplified, and treated much as a painter treats them, drawing
them in squarely, seizing the more important features, and neglecting all
that does not assert itself as too essential to be passed over - hence the
slang and cant words of every profession, and indeed all language; for
language at best is but a kind of "patter," the only way, it is true, in
many cases, of expressing our ideas to one another, but still a very bad
way, and not for one moment comparable to the unspoken speech which we
may sometimes have recourse to. The metaphors and _facons de parler_ to
which even in the plainest speech we are perpetually recurring (as, for
example, in this last two lines, "plain," "perpetually," and "recurring,"
are all words based on metaphor, and hence more or less liable to
mislead) often deceive us, as though there were nothing more than what we
see and say, and as though words, instead of being, as they are, the
creatures of our convenience, had some claim to be the actual ideas
themselves concerning which we are conversing.

This is so well expressed in a letter I have recently received from a
friend, now in New Zealand, and certainly not intended by him for
publication, that I shall venture to quote the passage, but should say
that I do so without his knowledge or permission which I should not be
able to receive before this book must be completed.

"Words, words, words," he writes, "are the stumbling-blocks in the way of
truth. Until you think of things as they are, and not of the words that
misrepresent them, you cannot think rightly. Words produce the
appearance of hard and fast lines where there are none. Words divide;
thus we call this a man, that an ape, that a monkey, while they are all
only differentiations of the same thing. To think of a thing they must
be got rid of: they are the clothes that thoughts wear - only the clothes.
I say this over and over again, for there is nothing of more importance.
Other men's words will stop you at the beginning of an investigation. A
man may play with words all his life, arranging them and rearranging them
like dominoes. If I could _think_ to you without words you would
understand me better."

If such remarks as the above hold good at all, they do so with the words
"personal identity." The least reflection will show that personal
identity in any sort of strictness is an impossibility. The expression
is one of the many ways in which we are obliged to scamp our thoughts
through pressure of other business which pays us better. For surely all
reasonable people will feel that an infant an hour before birth, when in
the eye of the law he has no existence, and could not be called a peer
for another sixty minutes, though his father were a peer, and already
dead, - surely such an embryo is more personally identical with the baby
into which he develops within an hour's time than the born baby is so
with itself (if the expression may be pardoned), one, twenty, or it may
be eighty years after birth. There is more sameness of matter; there are
fewer differences of any kind perceptible by a third person; there is
more sense of continuity on the part of the person himself, and far more
of all that goes to make up our sense of sameness of personality between
an embryo an hour before birth and the child on being born, than there is
between the child just born and the man of twenty. Yet there is no
hesitation about admitting sameness of personality between these two

On the other hand, if that hazy contradiction in terms, "personal
identity," be once allowed to retreat behind the threshold of the womb,
it has eluded us once for all. What is true of one hour before birth is
true of two, and so on till we get back to the impregnate ovum, which may
fairly claim to have been personally identical with the man of eighty
into which it ultimately developed, in spite of the fact that there is no
particle of same matter nor sense of continuity between them, nor
recognised community of instinct, nor indeed of anything which on a
_prima facie_ view of the matter goes to the making up of that which we
call identity.

There is far more of all these things common to the impregnate ovum and
the ovum immediately before impregnation, or again between the impregnate
ovum, and both the ovum before impregnation and the spermatozoon which
impregnated it. Nor, if we admit personal identity between the ovum and
the octogenarian, is there any sufficient reason why we should not admit
it between the impregnate ovum and the two factors of which it is
composed, which two factors are but offshoots from two distinct
personalities, of which they are as much part as the apple is of the
apple-tree; so that an impregnate ovum cannot without a violation of
first principles be debarred from claiming personal identity with both
its parents, and hence, by an easy chain of reasoning, _with each of the
impregnate ova from which its parents were developed_.

So that each ovum when impregnate should be considered not as descended
from its ancestors, but as being a continuation of the personality of
every ovum in the chain of its ancestry, every which ovum _it actually
is_ as truly as the octogenarian _is_ the same identity with the ovum
from which he has been developed. The two cases stand or fall together.

This process cannot stop short of the primordial cell, which again will
probably turn out to be but a brief resting-place. We therefore prove
each one of us to _be actually_ the primordial cell which never died nor
dies, but has differentiated itself into the life of the world, all
living beings whatever, being one with it, and members one of another.

To look at the matter for a moment in another light, it will be admitted
that if the primordial cell had been killed before leaving issue, all its
possible descendants would have been killed at one and the same time. It
is hard to see how this single fact does not establish at the point, as
it were, of a logical bayonet, an identity between any creature and all
others that are descended from it.

* * * * *

The fencing (for it does not deserve the name of serious disputation)
with which Bishop Butler meets his opponents is rendered possible by the
laxness with which the words "identical" and "identity" are ordinarily
used. Bishop Butler would not seriously deny that personality undergoes
great changes between infancy and old age, and hence that it must undergo
some change from moment to moment. So universally is this recognised,
that it is common to hear it said of such and such a man that he is not
at all the person he was, or of such and such another that he is twice
the man he used to be - expressions than which none nearer the truth can
well be found. On the other hand, those whom Bishop Butler is intending
to confute would be the first to admit that, though there are many
changes between infancy and old age, yet they come about in any one
individual under such circumstances as we are all agreed in considering
as the factors of personal identity rather than as hindrances
thereto - that is to say that there has been no entire and permanent death
on the part of the individual between any two phases of his existence,
and that any one phase has had a lasting though perhaps imperceptible
effect upon all succeeding ones. So that no one ever seriously argued in
the manner supposed by Bishop Butler, unless with modifications and
saving clauses, to which it does not suit his purpose to call attention.

* * * * *

No doubt it would be more strictly accurate to say "you are the now phase
of the person I met last night," or "you are the being which has been
evolved from the being I met last night," than "you are the person I met
last night." But life is too short for the periphrases which would crowd
upon us from every quarter, if we did not set our face against all that
is under the surface of things, unless, that is to say, the going beneath
the surface is, for some special chance of profit, excusable or capable
of extenuation.

* * * * *

Take again the case of some weeping trees, whose boughs spring up into
fresh trees when they have reached the ground, who shall say at what time
they cease to be members of the parent tree? In the case of cuttings
from plants it is easy to elude the difficulty by making a parade of the
sharp and sudden act of separation from the parent stock, but this is
only a piece of mental sleight of hand; the cutting remains as much part
of its parent plant as though it had never been severed from it; it goes
on profiting by the experience which it had before it was cut off, as
much as though it had never been cut off at all. This will be more
readily seen in the case of worms which have been cut in half. Let a
worm be cut in half, and the two halves will become fresh worms; which of
them is the original worm? Surely both. Perhaps no simpler cage than
this could readily be found of the manner in which personality eludes us,
the moment we try to investigate its real nature. There are few ideas
which on first consideration appear so simple, and none which becomes
more utterly incapable of limitation or definition as soon as it is
examined closely.

It has gone the way of species. It is now generally held that species
blend or have blended into one another; so that any possibility of
arrangement and apparent subdivision into definite groups, is due to the
suppression by death both of individuals and whole genera, which, had
they been now existing, would have linked all living beings by a series
of gradations so subtle that little classification could have been
attempted. What we have failed to see is that the individual is as much
linked onto other individuals as the species is linked on to other
species. How it is that the one great personality of life as a whole,
should have split itself up into so many centres of thought and action,
each one of which is wholly, or at any rate nearly unconscious of its
connection with the other members, instead of having grown up into a huge
polyp, or as it were coral reef or compound animal over the whole world,
which should be conscious but of its own one single existence; how it is
that the daily waste of this creature should be carried on by the
conscious death of its individual members, instead of by the unconscious
waste of tissue which goes on in the bodies of each individual (if indeed
the tissue which we waste daily in our own bodies is so unconscious of
its birth and death as we suppose); how, again, that the daily repair of
this huge creature life should have become decentralised, and be carried
on by conscious reproduction on the part of its component items, instead
of by the unconscious nutrition of the whole from a single centre, as the
nutrition of our own bodies would appear (though perhaps falsely) to be
carried on; these are matters upon which I dare not speculate here, but
on which some reflections may follow in subsequent chapters.


Obviously the memory of a habit or experience will not commonly be
transmitted to offspring in that perfection which is called "instinct,"
till the habit or experience has been repeated in several generations
with more or less uniformity; for otherwise the impression made will not
be strong enough to endure through the busy and difficult task of
reproduction. This of course involves that the habit shall have
attained, as it were, equilibrium with the creature's sense of its own
needs, so that it shall have long seemed the best course possible,
leaving upon the whole and under ordinary circumstances little further to
be desired, and hence that it should have been little varied during many
generations. We should expect that it would be transmitted in a more or
less partial, varying, imperfect, and intelligent condition before
equilibrium had been attained; it would, however, continually tend
towards equilibrium.

When this stage has been reached, as regards any habit, the creature will
cease trying to improve; on which the repetition of the habit will become
stable, and hence capable of more unerring transmission - but at the same
time improvement will cease; the habit will become fixed, and be perhaps
transmitted at an earlier and earlier age, till it has reached that date
of manifestation which shall be found most agreeable to the other habits
of the creature. It will also be manifested, as a matter of course,
without further consciousness or reflection, for people cannot be always
opening up settled questions; if they thought a matter all over yesterday
they cannot think it all over again to-day, what they thought then they
will think now, and will act upon their opinion; and this, too, even in
spite sometimes of misgiving, that if they were to think still further
they could find a still better course. It is not, therefore, to be
expected that "instinct" should show signs of that hesitating and
tentative action which results from knowledge that is still so imperfect
as to be actively self-conscious; nor yet that it should grow or vary
perceptibly unless under such changed conditions as shall baffle memory,
and present the alternative of either invention - that is to say,
variation - or death.

But every instinct must have passed through the laboriously intelligent
stages through which human civilisations _and mechanical inventions_ are
now passing; and he who would study the origin of an instinct with its
development, partial transmission, further growth, further transmission,
approach to more unreflecting stability, and finally, its perfection as
an unerring and unerringly transmitted instinct, must look to laws,
customs, _and machinery_ as his best instructors. Customs and machines
are instincts _and organs_ now in process of development; they will
assuredly one day reach the unconscious state of equilibrium which we
observe in the structures and instincts of bees and ants, and an approach
to which may be found among some savage nations. We may reflect,
however, not without pleasure, that this condition - the true
millennium - is still distant. Nevertheless the ants and bees seem happy;
perhaps more happy than when so many social questions were in as hot
discussion among them as other and not dissimilar ones will one day be
amongst ourselves.

And this, as will be apparent, opens up the whole question of the
stability of species, which we cannot follow further here, than to say,
that according to the balance of testimony, many plants and animals do
appear to have reached a phase of being from which they are hard to
move - that is to say, they will die sooner than be at the pains of
altering their habits - true martyrs to their convictions. Such races
refuse to see changes in their surroundings as long as they can, but when
compelled to recognise them, they throw up the game because they cannot
and will not, or will not and cannot, invent.

This is perfectly intelligible, for a race is nothing but a long-lived
individual, and like any individual, or tribe of men whom we have yet
observed, will have its special capacities and its special limitations,
though, as in the case of the individual, so also with the race, it is
exceedingly hard to say what those limitations are, and why, having been
able to go so far, it should go no further. Every man and every race is
capable of education up to a certain point, but not to the extent of
being made from a sow's ear into a silk purse. The proximate cause of
the limitation seems to lie in the absence of the wish to go further; the
presence or absence of the wish will depend upon the nature and
surroundings of the individual, which is simply a way of saying that one
can get no further, but that as the song (with a slight alteration)
says: -

"Some breeds do, and some breeds don't,
Some breeds will, but this breed won't:
I tried very often to see if it would,
But it said it really couldn't, and I don't think it could."

* * * * *

M. Ribot in his work on Heredity {119} writes (p. 14): - "The duckling
hatched by the hen makes straight for water." In what conceivable way
can we account for this, except on the supposition that the duckling
knows perfectly well what it can and what it cannot do with water, owing
to its recollection of what it did when it was still one individuality
with its parents, and hence, when it was a duckling before?

"The squirrel, before it knows anything of winter, lays up a store of
nuts. A bird when hatched in a cage will, when given its freedom, build
for itself a nest like that of its parents, out of the same materials,
and of the same shape."

If this is not due to memory, "even an imperfect" explanation of what
else it can be due to, "would," to quote from Mr. Darwin, "be

"Intelligence gropes about, tries this way and that, misses its object,
commits mistakes, and corrects them."

Yes. Because intelligence is of consciousness, and consciousness is of
attention, and attention is of uncertainty, and uncertainty is of

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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 8 of 23)