Popular Science Monthly/Volume 21/June 1882/The Future of Mind



BUT what does science testify as to the probable future of mind in earthly life? Have mind and body attained their supreme development? Is humanity a fixed entity, incapable of essential modifications or improvement? All the evidence goes to show that the improvement of the human race is practically illimitable. This is true both of mind and body, which, as has been shown, advance pari passu, and is made very evident by the fact that the pre-eminence of Europeans over barbarous races, which is so manifest in their intellect, is just as manifest in their anatomy and physiology. There is a diversity of proofs of the advance of the physical man in modern times. No one questions that the average duration of life is being steadily prolonged. Besides a multitude of new arts and new sciences, all the arts and sciences known to the ancients have been so wondrously developed as to seem like new creations of the modern man. Geology, zoölogy, botany, chemistry, geography—physical and political—medicine, painting, politics, theology, etc.—every department, in fact, of human interest—have grown, as it were, into new and marvelous revelations. But to suppose that these immense developments of art and science can have resulted without corresponding improvements in the human intellect, is to ignore very important biological principles. As an advanced science implies an advanced art—the progress of the two being ever conditioned upon each other—so the great advances of the sciences and arts imply a corresponding development of human intelligence. The principle of action and reaction prevails in the world of mind as in the world of matter, and while the human intellect, by cogent applications of its powers, has established multitudinous differentiations in things once inextricably intermingled, a corresponding differentiation and specialization of its own powers has inevitably resulted. But specialization of functions being the direct evidence of its greater perfection, it is incontrovertible that the multiplication of specializations of knowledge by human inquiry has resulted in improvements of the powers of the human mind. The strain now put on human power to keep pace with the advances already made is an assurance that there will be in the future no lack of occasion for continued mental development. Air departments of human enterprise have in truth been already so marvelously developed as to defy the complete grasp of any but specialists of more than ordinary capacity. Croakers may find fault and stigmatize the advance of the age as mainly material. Never did carping criticism have poorer ground for its averments. The material advance is fully matched by the moral advance. Proofs of it are so multiplied as scarcely to deserve enumeration. Liberty to think boldly and to give free utterance to honest convictions is fast becoming a sacred principle of society. Liberty of person, and equal justice—irrespective of rank and wealth—are now almost everywhere recognized as divinest principles of government. The sick and the unfortunate, instead of being left to die without aid or to pine through a miserable existence, are now everywhere provided for at the expense of those whom fortune has subjected to less severe trials. Sumptuary laws are now not only known to be useless but their principle is condemned. Private war has almost ceased to be waged; and the duty of revenge, once sanctioned by religion, has given place to the duty of forbearance and forgiveness. The well-being of one's neighbor is now universally felt to be the good fortune of one's self. Vast accumulations of wealth, instead of being squandered in the purchase of places and useless decorations for elevating one's self above his fellows, are now employed in educational, industrial, and eleemosynary foundations.

Nor is this true of individuals only. Governments, both monarchical and republican, instead of employing their resources in war and destruction, are now rivals in the most beneficent achievements for prolonging and ennobling human life. Slavery has been abolished in nearly every civilized country, and all forms of privileged oppression are rapidly meeting with the same condemnation. In truth, such has been the progress of morals and the general assimilation of the principles of equity, that the most important functions of life and society are now accomplished without the intervention of government, giving promise of a gradual declension of the functions of the central power before the more precise and equitable supervision of society constituted of individuals imbued with ever-present aspirations for justice and advancement. Already this day of a new excellence has dawned, and there are not a few indications that new crystallizations of social forces are destined to supervene. The liberation of woman from her ancient servitude and her rapid advance to every privilege for which her powers adapt her, the emancipation of children from the severe domestic tyrannies and cruelties to which they were time out of mind subjected, are striking evidences of the ameliorations due to general moral advance. Like the animal organism the social organism responds throughout its whole substance to any force brought to bear upon it, and the influence of scientific methods of thought is destined to exert upon society augmenting influences of the most pervading and salutary kinds. Truth and morality are inextricably intermingled, and whatever aids in the discovery of truth is a potential moral adjuvant. As, in Scripture, condemnation and the belief in lies are everywhere conjoined, so moral advance is ever assured by devices that accomplish the enlargement of the realm of truth. To carp at scientific methods is to carp at truth, for scientific methods are only severe procedures for the discovery of truth; and there is, to my mind, little doubt that in no great while the much-desired reconciliation of natural with revealed truth will be successfully achieved. I find in late utterances of scientific men of the highest stamp much that is in conformity with some of the prevalent teachings of religion. Herbert Spencer is unquestionably the most perfect embodiment of advanced scientific thought. While in special departments there are many that go before him, in the power of co-ordinating the various sciences and embodying their myriad diverse facts into a consistent body of philosophy he goes far before all his contemporaries. His writings, indeed, stand apart as a great mountain-range looming far above the lesser heights. It would be easy, from Mr. Spencer's writings, to accumulate declarations that have wondrous congruity with orthodox-doctrine. The worship of humanity, Mr. Spencer declares, can never take the place of the worship of God. He also affirms, with all our orthodox creeds, that precepts of right living do little or no good unless the corresponding emotion can in some way be roused. His standard of right conduct, scientifically deduced, is a perfect law of righteousness which may not be debased below the mark of perfection, however unable men and women may be to fulfill its requirements.

In every aspect, therefore, the prospect of human advancement is very cheering. Individually and collectively man is so steadily progressing to the achievement of the great problem of his life—perfect conformity to the conditions of his being—that no mad enthusiasm is needful to prompt the anticipation of a rapid advance to that condition of things which the ancient seers foresaw and aspired toward, when "they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up the sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."

But, while science is disclosing the methods of mind, and preparing for it on earth a nobler and still more noble rôle, what are its testimonies as to the duration of mind—its immortality? Some of the most devoted adherents of scientific methods have reached conclusions which are unfavorable to mind's immortality. But it is not surprising, in view of the novelty and marvelousness of many lately demonstrated scientific truths, that even men of calm temper should be led to attach undue importance to them—to claim for them reaches and meanings which do not of right belong to them. Close as may be the demonstrated union between mind and body, no philosophy of organization and life satisfactorily accounts for the presence of mind. Mind is indeed unique, peculiar; has its own laws, and overleaps and undermines all mere material phenomena. The study of mind is, therefore, incomplete unless subjectively pursued. The mind must be questioned, must testify of itself, if we would arrive at anything approaching just conclusions with reference to it. This is indisputable from the fact that mind is that mysterious quality in us by which we explore all material phenomena. It is only, therefore, by due attention to mind's subjective contemplation that we gain the right to reason upon the phenomena of material things. A surveyor who should go around determining boundaries, directions, and areas, without having first put to severe tests his compass and chains, would be acting not a whit more absurdly than they who leave out of the study of material and mental phenomena a subjective study of mind. But, if only by questioning mind about itself we can rightly understand its nature, dare we, in conducting the inquiry, ignore a whole host of its most prominent intuitions? Surely not. But mind's testimony of itself is, that there are in it indefeasible principles of individuality, responsibility, and immortality. It would be strange, indeed, if this noble, this intensely royal, thing, which disdains to be classed with any material forces, however sublimated they may be, should be remanded to the companionship and fate of the phenomenal, the sensual, the perishing!

Happily for the theory of evolution, not all nor even the majority of its advocates have given assent to such conclusions. Mr. Darwin has ever conjoined with his marvelous disclosures of the relations of organic facts a spirit of religious reverence. Mr. Herbert Spencer avows that there are unseen, eternal verities which justify religion. Lessing, David Strauss, and Professor Helmholtz, could not reconcile themselves to the thought of a final destruction of the living race, and, with it, all the fruits of all past generations. Others among them, however, assume that, since mind is only known to us as a phenomenon of organism, the death of the organism involves a discontinuance of all its functions—thought, affection, and will, not excepted—and their resolution into the more primitive forces from which they originally sprang But it is clearly a most unwarranted assumption that spiritual individuality—the fundamental principle of which no one pretends to apprehend—can not be prolonged or perpetuated, except under such material circumstances as earth supplies. If it be recollected how ignorant man is of the essences of matter and motion, and that there are in mind or spirit qualities which can not be ranged with material things, or with their almost infinitely subtile forces, we will readily see that the assumption of no conscious life except under such circumstances as material things supply is most unwarrantable.

Even the argument against immortality, based upon the relations of mind to organism, when closely examined, loses much of its seeming fitness. The persistence of force is, indeed, as much an axiom of science as the indestructibility of matter. What appears to be cessation of force is simply its transformation into other forces. But muscular movements provoked by volition are not actuated by mental force. The mind, in voluntary motions, does not supply the force. It only signals the nerve-centers that furnish the force. The centers of motion, which have of late been demonstrated in the brain, do not supply the force for the operation of the muscles, whose contractions they specially control. The brain-centers are properly only intellectual signal-centers—centers whence issue the volitions that liberate the forces of the lower nerve-centers for contracting special muscles. Fatal errors in reference to mind may easily grow from confounding nervous force with mental force. It is impossible to form right conceptions of mind so long as it is regarded as a merely resultant force made up of the organic forces which lead up to it. In any such conception there is left out an important element which it is difficult explicitly to define, but which may be forcibly suggested by a comparison. The beautiful form—symmetry and proportions—of a noble tree may be regarded apart from the organic materials and forces which underlie it. Thus regarded it is, as it were, spiritual, and is capable of arousing conceptions of beauty and grandeur in the soul of the beholder. Mind, in this view, instead of a mere force, becomes a symmetrical and living expression of the relations of the myriad forces which have from the very beginning entered into the life. It is, therefore, in one view, as absolutely immaterial as the form and beauty of a tree. But in still another aspect mind must be considered a higher and vastly more subtile force than any physical forces with which we are acquainted, and in its actions and methods of development is governed by laws peculiarly its own. Mind or mental force is, therefore, unique, and stands apart as a grand exception to the general law of the correlation of forces. But, as all the physical forces are persistent in some form or other, it is eminently unreasonable to suppose that this peculiar force, that immeasurably transcends all others, should alone undergo absolute extinction. It needs must be, therefore, that mind or mental force shall continue to exist after dissolution of the organism with which its manifestations are associated, by passing into a new state, or new conditions of activity, of which science takes no cognizance. Thus considered, mind, in its ultimate analysis, becomes a purely spiritual entity which can never be dissolved and commingled with the heterogeneous forces of the material world.

  1. From a discourse on "Some of the Phenomena of Mind," delivered before the Medical Association of the State of Alabama, April 11, 1882, by Dr. Peter Bryce, Superintendent of the Alabama Insane Hospital, etc.