William Kingdon Clifford.

Lectures and essays by William Kingdon Clifford (Volume 2) online

. (page 4 of 22)
Online LibraryWilliam Kingdon CliffordLectures and essays by William Kingdon Clifford (Volume 2) → online text (page 4 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

sciouness, at the same time, of all the suggestions that
that picture makes, that each face represents a person
sitting there and listening or not, as the case may be.
And I cannot help combining with them at the same
moment a number of actions which they suggest to me,
and in particular the action of going on speaking. There
are a great number of elements of complexity which I
cannot describe, because I am so faintly conscious of
them that I cannot remember them. Any state of our
consciousness, then, as we are at present constituted, is
an exceedingly complex thing ; but it certainly possesses
this property, that if two feelings have occurred together,
and one of them afterwards occurs again, it is very
likely that the other will be called up by it. That is to


say, two states of consciousness which have taken place
at the same moment produce a link between them, so
that a repetition of the one calls up a repetition of the

Again I find a certain train of facts between my sen-
sations and my exertions. When I see a thing, I may
go through a long process of deliberation as to what I
shall do with it, and then afterwards I may do that
which I have deliberated and decided upon. But, on
the other hand, I may, by seeing a thing, be quite sud-
denly forced into doing something without any chance
of deliberation at all. If I suddenly see a cab coming
upon me from the corner of a street where I did not at
all expect it, I jump out of the way without thinking
that it is a very desirable thing to get out of the way
of the cab. But if I see a cab a little while before, and
have more time to think about it, then it occurs to me
that it will be unpleasant and undesirable to be run over
by that cab, and that I can avoid it by walking out of
the way. You here see that there are in the case of the
mind two distinct trains of facts between sensation and
exertion. There is an involuntary train of facts when
the exertion follows the sensation without asking my
leave, and there is a voluntary train in which it does
ask my leave.

Then, again, there is this fact : that even when
there is no actual sensation and no actual exertion,
there may still be a long train of facts and sensations
which hang together ; there may be faint reproductions
of sensation which are not so vivid as are the sensations
themselves, but which form a series of pictures of sen-
sations which pass continually before my mind ; and


there will be faint beginnings of action. Now the
sense in which those are faint beginnings of action is
very instructive. Any beginning of an action is what
we call a judgment. When you see a thing, you in
the first instance form no judgment about it at all you
are not prepared to assert any proposition you merely
have the feeling of a certain sight or sound presented to
you ; but after a very short space of time, so short that
you cannot perceive it, you begin to frame propositions.
If you consider what a proposition means, you will see
it must correspond to the beginning of some sort of
exertion. When you say that A is B, you mean that
you are going to act as if A were B. If I see water
with a particularly dull surface, and with stones resting
upon the surface of it, then, first of all, I have merely
an impression of a certain sheet of colour, and of certain
objects which interrupt the colour of that sheet. But
the second thing that I do is to come to the conclusion
that the water is frozen, and that therefore I may walk
upon it. The assertion that the water is frozen implies
a bundle of resolves ; which means, given certain other
conditions, I shall go and walk upon it. So, then, an
act of judgment or an assertion of any kind implies
a certain incipient action of the muscles, not actually
carried out at that time and place, but preparing a
certain condition of the mind such as afterwards, when
the occasion comes, will guide the action that we shall
take up.

Now, then, what is it that we mean by the
character of a person? You judge of a person's
character by what he thinks and does under certain
circumstances. Let us see what determines this. We


can only be speaking here of voluntary actions those
actions in which the person is consulted, and which are
not done by his body without his leave. In those
voluntary actions what takes place is that a certain
sensation is communicated to the mind, the sensation is
manipulated by the mind, and conclusions are drawn
from it, and then a message is sent out which causes
certain motions to take place. The character of the
person "is evidently determined by the nature of this
manipulation. If the sensation suggests a wrong thing,
the character of the person will be bad ; if the
sensation suggests in the great majority of cases a right
thing, you will say that the character of the person is
good. So, then, it is the character of the mind which
determines what ' it will do with a given sensation,
and what act will follow from it, which determines
what we call the personality of any person ; and that
character is persistent in the main, although it is
continually changing a little. The vast mass of it is
a thing which lasts through the whole of every in-
dividual's life, although everything which happens to
him makes some small change in it, and that constitutes
the education of the man.

Then the question arises, is there anything else in
your consciousness of a different nature from what we
have here described ? That is a question which every
man has to decide by examining his own consciousness.
I do not find anything else in mine. If you find any-
thing else in yours, it is extremely important that you
should analyse it and find out all that you possibly can
about it, and state it in the clearest form to other people ;
because it is one of the most important problems of



philosophy to account for the whole of consciousness
out of individual feelings. It seems to me that the
account of which I have only given a very rough sketch,
which was begun by Locke and Hume, and has been
carried out by their successors, chiefly in this country,
is in its great general features complete, and leaves
nothing but more detailed explanations to be desired.
It seems to me that I find nothing in myself which is
not accounted for when I describe myself as a stream of
feelings such that each of them is capable of a faint
repetition, and that when two of them have occurred
together the repetition of the one calls up the other,
and that there are rules according to which the
resuscitated feeling calls up its fellows. These are, in
the main, fixed rules which determine and are deter-
mined by my character ; but my character is gradually
'changing in consequence of the education of life. It
seems to me that this is a complete account of all the
kinds of facts which I can find in myself; and, as I said
before, if anybody finds any other kinds of facts in him-
self, it is an exceedingly important thing that he should
describe them as clearly as he possibly can.

We have described two classes of facts ; let us now
I notice the parallelism between them. First, we have
these two parallel facts, that two actions of the brain
which occur together form a link between themselves,
so that the one being called up the other is called up ;
and two states of consciousness which occur together
form a link between them, so that when one is called up
the other is called up. But also we find a train of facts
between the physical fact of the stimulus of light going
into the eye and the physical fact of the motion of the


muscles. Corresponding to a part of that train, we have
found a train of facts between sensation, the mental
fact which corresponds to a message arriving from the
eye, and exertion, the mental fact which corresponds to
the motion of the hand by a message going out along
the nerves. And we have found a correspondence
between the continuous action of the brain and the con-
tinuous existence of consciousness apparently indepen-
dent of sensation and exertion.

But let us look at this correspondence a little more
closely ; we shall find that there are one or two things
which can be established with practical certainty. In
the first place, it is not the whole of the physical train
of facts which corresponds to the mental train of facts.
The beginning of the physical train consists of light
going into the eye and exciting the retina, and then of
that wave of excitation being carried along the optic
nerve to the ganglion. For all we know, and it is a very
probable thing, the mental fact begins here, at the gan-
glion. There is no sensation till the message has got to
the optic ganglion, for this reason, that if you press the
optic nerve behind the eye you can produce the sensa-
tion of light. It is like tapping a telegraph, and sending
a message which has not come from the station from
which it ought to have come ; nobody at the other end
can tell whether it has come from that station or not.
The optic ganglion cannot tell whether this message
which comes along the nerve has come from the eye or
is the result of a tapping of the telegraph, whether it is
produced by light or by pressure upon the nerve. It is
a fact of immense importance that all these nerves are
exactly of the same kind. The only thing which the nerve

E 2


does is to transmit a message which has been given to it ; it
does not transmit a message in any other way than the
telegraph wire transmits a message that is to say, it is
excited at certain intervals, and the succession of these
intervals determines what this message is, not the nature
of the excitation which passes along the wire. So that
if we watched the nerve excited by pressure the mes-
sage going along to the ganglion would be exactly the
same as if it were the actual sight of the eye. We may
draw from this the conclusion that the mental fact does
not begin anywhere before the optic ganglion. Again,
a man who has had one of his legs cut off can try to
move his toes, which he feels as if they were still there ;
and that shows that the consciousness of the motor im-
pulse which is sent out along the nerve does not go to
the end to see whether it is obeyed or not. The only
way in which we know whether our orders, given to any
parts of our body, are obeyed, is by having a message
sent back to say that they are obeyed. If I tell my
hand to press against this black-board the only way in
which I know that it does press is by having a message
sent back by my skin to say that it is pressed. But
supposing there is no skin there, I can have the exertion
that precedes the action without actually performing it,
because I can send out a message, and consciousness
stops with the sending of the message, and does not
know anything further. So that the mental fact is
somewhere or other in the region E C C B of the dia-
gram, and does not include the two ends. That is to
say, it is not the whole of the bodily fact that the mental
fact corresponds to, but only an intermediate part of it.
If it just passes through the points E B, without going


round the loop from C to C, then we merely have the
sensation that something has taken place we have had
no voice in the nature of it and no choice about it. If
it has gone round from C to C, we have a much larger
fact we have that fact which we call choice, or the
exercise of volition. We may conclude, then I am
not able in so short a space as I have to give you the
whole evidence which goes to an assertion of this kind ;
but there is evidence which is sufficient to satisfy
any competent scientific man of this day that every
fact of consciousness is parallel to some disturbance
of nerve matter, although there are some nervous dis-
turbances which have no parallel in consciousness,
properly so called ; that is to say, disturbances of
my nerves may exist which have no parallel in my

We have now observed two classes of facts and the
parallelism between them. Let us next observe what
an enormous gulf there is between these two classes of

The state of a man's brain and the actions which go
along with it are things which every other man can per-
ceive, observe, measure, and tabulate ; but the state of a
man's own consciousness is known to him only, and not
to any other person. Things which appear to us and
which we can observe are called objects or phenomena.
Facts in a man's consciousness are not objects or pheno-
mena to any other man ; they are capable of being ob-
served only by him. We have no possible ground, there-
fore, for speaking of another man's consciousness as in any
sense a part of the physical world of objects or pheno-
mena. It is a thing entirely separate from it ; and all the


evidence that we have goes to show that the physical
world gets along entirely by itself, according to practi-
cally universal rules. That is to say, the laws which
hold good in the physical world hold good everywhere
in it they hold good with practical universality, and
there is no reason to suppose anything else but those
laws in order to account for any physical fact ; there is
no reason to suppose anything but the universal laws of
mechanics in order to account for the motion of organic
bodies. The train of physical facts between the stimu-
lus sent into the eye, or to any one of our senses, and
the exertion which follows it, and the train of physical
facts which goes on in the brain, even when there is no
stimulus and no exertion, these are perfectly complete
physical trains, and every step is fully accounted for by
mechanical conditions. In order to show what is meant
by that, I will endeavour to explain another supposition
which might be made. When a stimulus comes into
the eye there is a certain amount of energy transferred
from the ether, which fills space, to this nerve ; and this
energy travels along into the ganglion, and sets the gan-
glion into a state of disturbance which may use up some
energy previously stored in it. The amount of energy
is the same as before by the law of the conservation
of energy. That energy is spread over a number of
threads which go out to the brain, and it comes back
again and is reflected from there. It may be supposed
that a very small portion of energy is created in that
process, and that while the stimulus is going round this
loop-line it gets a little push somewhere, and then, when
it comes back to the ganglia, it goes away to the muscle
and sets loose a store of energy in the muscle so that it


moves the limb. Now the question is, Is there any crea-
tion of energy anywhere? Is there any part of the
physical progress which cannot be included within
ordinary physical laws ? It has been supposed, I say,
by some people, as it seems to me merely by a confu-
sion of ideas, that there is, at some part or other of this
process, a creation of energy ; but there is no reason
whatever why we should suppose this. The difficulty in
proving a negative in these cases is similar to that in prov-
ing a negative about anything w^hich exists on the other
side of the moon. It is quite true that I am not abso-
lutely certain that the law of the conservation of energy
is exactly true ; but there is no more reason why I
should suppose a particular exception to occur in the
brain than anywhere else. I might just as well assert
that whenever anything passes over the Line, when it
goes from the*iorth side of the Equator to the south, there
is a certain creation of energy, as that there is a creation
of energy in the brain. If I chose to say that the
amount was so small that none of our present measure-
ments could appreciate it, it would be difficult or indeed
impossible for anybody to disprove that assertion ; but
I should have no reason whatever for making it. There
being, then, an absence of positive evidence that the
conditions are exceptional, the reasons which lead us to
assert that there is no loss of energy in organic any more
than in inorganic bodies are absolutely overwhelming.
There is no more reason to assert that there is a creation
of energy in any part of an organic body, because we
are not absolutely sure of the exact nature of the law,
than there is reason, because we do not know what
there is on the other side of the moon, to assert that


there is a sky-blue peacock there with forty-five eyes
in his tail.

Therefore it is not a right thing to say, for example,
that the mind is a force, because if the mind were a force
we should be able to perceive it. I should be able to per-
ceive your mind and to measure it, but I cannot ; I have
absolutely no means of perceiving your mind. I judge
by analogy that it exists, and the instinct which leads
me to come to that conclusion is the social instinct, as
it has been formed in me by generations during which
men have lived together ; and they could not have lived
together unless they had gone upon that supposition.
But I may very well say that among the physical facts
which go along at the same time with mental facts there
are forces at work. That is perfectly true, but the two
things are on two utterly different platforms the phy-
sical facts go along by themselves, and the mental facts
go along by themselves. There is a parallelism between
them, but there is no interference of one with the other.
Again, if anybody says that the will influences matter,
the statement is not untrue, but it is nonsense. The
will is not a material thing, it is not a mode of material
motion. Such an assertion belongs to the crude mate-
rialism of the savage. The only thing which influences
matter is the position of surrounding matter or the
motion of surrounding matter. It may be conceived
that at the same time with every exercise of volition
there is a disturbance of the physical laws ; but this
disturbance, being perceptible to me, would be a physical
fact accompanying the volition, and could not be the
volition itself, which is not perceptible to me. Whether
there is such a disturbance of the physical laws or no


is a question of fact to which we have the best of
reasons for giving a negative answer ; but the assertion
that another man's volition, a feeling in his conscious-
ness which I cannot perceive, is part of the train of
physical facts which I may perceive, this is neither true
nor untrue, but nonsense ; it is a combination of words
whose corresponding ideas will not go together.

Thus we are to regard the body as a physical ma- : ,
chine, which goes by itself according to a physical law,
that is to say, is automatic. An automaton is a thing
which goes by itself when it is wound up, and we go by
ourselves when we have had food. Excepting the fact
that other men are conscious, there is no reason why we
should not regard the human body as merely an exceed-
ingly complicated machine which is wound up by put-
ting food into the mouth. But it is not merely a machine,
because consciousness goes with it. The mind, then, is
to be regarded as a stream of feelings which runs pa-
rallel to, and simultaneous with, a certain part of the
action of the body, that is to say, that particular part
of the action of the brain in which the cerebrum and
the sensory tract are excited.

Then, you say, if we are automata what becomes of
the freedom of the will ? The freedom of the will, ac-
cording to Kant, is that property which enables us to
originate events independently of foreign determining
causes ; which, it seems to me, amounts to saying pre-
cisely that we are automata, that is, that we go by our-
selves, and do not want anybody to push or pull us.
The distinction between an automaton and a puppet is
that the one goes by itself when it is wound up and the
other requires to be pushed or pulled by wires or strings;


We do not want any stimulus from without, but we go
by ourselves when we have had our food, and therefore
so far as that distinction goes we are automata. But we
are more than automata, because we are conscious ;
mental facts go along with the bodily facts. That does
not hinder us from describing the bodily facts by them-
selves, and if we restrict our attention to them we must
describe ourselves as automata.

The objection which many people feel to this doc-
trine is derived, I think, from the conception of such
automata as are made by man. Tn that case there is
somebody outside the automaton who has constructed
it in a certain definite way, with definite intentions, and
has meant it to go in that way ; and the whole action
of the automaton is determined by that person out-
side. If we consider, for example, a machine such as
Frankenstein made, and imagine ourselves to have been
put together as that fearful machine was put together
by a German student, the conception naturally strikes us
with horror ; but if we consider the actual fact, we shall
see that our own case is not an analogous one. For, as
a matter of fact, we were not made by any Frankenstein,
but we made ourselves. L I do not mean that every in-
dividual has made the whole of his own character, but
that the human race as a whole has made itself during
the process of ages. The action of the whole race at
any given time determines what the character of the
race shall be in the future.^ From the continual storing
up of the effects of such actions, graven into the char-
acter of the race, there arises in process of time that
exact human constitution which we now have. By
the process of natural selection all the actions of our


ancestors are built into us and form our character, and
in that sense it may be said that the human race has
made itself. Lin that sense also we are individually
responsible for what the human race will be in the
future, because every one of our actions goes to
determine what the character of the race shall be to-
morrow-l -^ on tne contrary, we suppose that in the
action of the brain there is some point where physical
causes do not apply, and where there is a discontinuity,
then it will follow that some of our actions are not
dependent upon our character. Provided the action
which goes on in my brain is a continuous one, subject
to physical rules, then it will depend upon what the
character of my brain is ; or if I look at it from the
mental side, it will depend upon what my mental
character is; butfif there is a certain point where the
law of causation does not apply, where my action does
not follow by regular physical causes from what I am,
then I am not responsible for it, because it is not I that
do it. So you see the notion that we are not automata
destroys responsibility ; because, if my actions are not
determined by my character in accordance with the
particular circumstances which occur, then I am not
responsible for them, and it is not I that do them.

Moreover, if we once admit that physical causes are ^
not continuous, but that there is some break, then we /
leave the way open for the doctrine of a destiny or a
Providence outside of us, overruling human efforts and
guiding history to a foregone conclusion. Now of
course it is the business of the seeker after truth to find
out whether a proposition is true or no, and not what
are the moral consequences which may be expected to


follow from it. But I do think that if it is right to call
any doctrine immoral, it is right so to call this doctrine,
when we remember how often it has paralysed the
efforts of those who were climbing honestly up the hill-
side towards the light and the right, and how often it
has nerved the sacrilegious arm of the fanatic or the
adventurer who was conspiring against society.

I want now, very briefly indeed, to consider to what
extent these doctrines furnish a bridge between the two
classes of facts. I have said that the series of mental
facts corresponds to only a portion of the action of the
organism. But we have to consider not only ourselves,
but also those animals which are next below us in the
scale of organization, and we cannot help ascribing to
them a consciousness which is analogous to our own.
We find, when we attempt to enter into that, and to
judge by their actions what sort of consciousness they
possess, that it differs from our own in precisely the same
way that their brains differ from our brains. There is
less of the co-ordination which is implied by a message

1 2 4 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryWilliam Kingdon CliffordLectures and essays by William Kingdon Clifford (Volume 2) → online text (page 4 of 22)