Matter, Spirit, and Karl Marx
Is our Science all wrong?
Startling Claims from a Spiritualist Angle
The Rally of an Expelled Communist
(first published July 1927)
‘The history of each of the sciences is a record of the progressive substitution of matter for spirit and law for sponteneity.’ Encyclopedia Britannica.
Recent achievements of applied physical science – such as the gramophone, wireless, telegraphy, and the promised television, with, above all, the new subdivision of matter called the electron – are supposed to have given the philosophical materialist pause, and on this assumption the Spiritists are inclined to be aggressive. When Shakespeare said there were more things between heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy he was making a wise allowance for the extension of the realm of the knowable. We have been extending that realm, and all the legitimate, real extensions of it have been along the lines of simple naturalism. There was a time when spirits pervaded all things. Animism put kelpies in the pools, furies in the winds, fairies on the green, fauns and satyrs in the woods, and ghosts everywhere. ‘Devils’ were exorcised with priestly abracadabra, witches were burnt after they had been forced to confess impossible deeds by the applications of pincers. Even the astronomer Kepler believed there were spirits of the planets, and similarly biology was not yet got rid of ‘final causes.’
An Arrestive Treatise
These reflections are suggested by a pamphlet of an unusually arrestive, and on its human side valuable, kind. The treatise is an answer to the question ‘Is Materialism the Basis of Communism?’ (Henderson, 66 Charing Cross Road, London ,6d). The author, Mrs. Isabel Kingsley makes out an excellent case against the materialist conception of history; and many who see in Collectivism an ideal or ideals which will change, not only the economic basis of society, but will revolutionise the whole of life and human nature itself, will be glad of this excursion into the more attractive realm which lies beyond the politico-economic wrangle.
There are some of us who grudge having to be politicians at all. Decently-minded people want to cultivate their bodies and minds, and enjoy life peacefully in a society where one part of the population does not live by picking the pockets of the majority; and politics represent, broadly, a mere attempt to suppress pocket0picking and to force men like the Duke of Northumberland and the average idle shareholder to do their fair share of the necessary work of the world.
But Mrs Kingsley is not concerned about the wrangle, the immediate thing, such as fighting the Trade Disputes Bill or the attempt to set the House of Lords over both the Commons and the Monarchy. Still less is she concerned with the gradual extension of Municipal and State Collectivism. One of the advantages of keeping free from legislative and administrative entanglements is that one can project one’s mind into the future and get busy over matters that have nothing to do with current issues.
Mrs. Kingsley apparently rejects the philosophy of gradualness. She says the slow course of organic transformation may be ‘rejected on strictly scientific grounds’ and refers to De Vries having shown by verified experiments the abrupt appearance of new vegetable species without any immediate transitional forms. These changes he calls ‘mutations’ and from his observations it is seriously argued that abrupt transformation may well be the rule in evolution.
This is an immensely convenient theory. I have never seen the blue rose that gardeners have long tried to evolve by stages of crossing. I have read of a blue rose and have heard of a black one. But there is such a thing as colour blindness. There is also a thing called throwing the hatchet. When the loganberry was produced by crossing the bramble with the raspberry, gardeners made some noise about it; but if a new variety sprang up like a weed, without being man-planted, and with no known antecedents, there would surely be some shout about the miraculous apparition. The much canvassed problem of priority touching the hen and the egg would have a kindred conundrum. When Topsy said she was not born, but just growed, she did not know that a scientist was to come along and say that it was possible to grow without being born. We have heard an enthusiastic breeder discussing aloud, on the other side of a hedge, and all alone, how, by selection, he could produce something that would carry everything before it in the showyard, beating all he had done before by the same means. To leave it all to ‘mutations’ would, no doubt, have been easier.
Mrs. Kingsley’s view makes short work of all the sciences, including that of healing. She cites from Myers and Richet the case of a rich Belgian workman who had both legs broken. There was:
‘suppuration and no disposition of the bones to unite; the lower part of the leg could be moved in all directions. He refused to have it amputated, and had been on crutches for eight years, when one day, while at prayer at a shrine, he felt himself cured, stood up, put his feet to the ground, and walked without assistance.’
The suppuration, it seems, stopped, the accretions cleared away, the disjointed bones set painlessly and without manipulative pressure! Does Mrs Kingsley, one wonders, have her meals cooked without fire, without cutting vegetables, without any of the adaptation of means to ends that all processes have heretofore been supposed to require?
When we cannot induce the majority to do the easy and obvious, the thing of proved adequacy, it may be right to suggest something unheard of and unlikely. But as it is, we put on poultices to extract a virus, we reduce inflammations and fevers by ointments, fomentations, quinine and other febrifugres. In politics, when private enterprise breaks down, public effort comes to the rescue, as with housing. Is all this kind of thing a mere tinkering with evils that can be met with a general fiat lux and effort of faith?
This is transcendentalism with a vengeance. Unfortunately it leaves us all awash. Nothing is as it seems. All our knowledge simply misleads us. The only people who do not know about things are the people who have given a lifetime’s study to them. The Belgian workman who would not have his gangrened leg amputated was right, and the doctors were wrong. When your waterpipes burse call in the tailor. When your coat is torn take it to the plumber. Science, like Love, ‘smiles but to deceive.’
There are of course, cases where the scientist and the politicians are wrong. By citing instances here and there you may make all the experts look foolish in turn. But argument based upon exceptions is special pleading. Mrs Kingsley spoils her case against Materialism-ridden-to-death by setting up the Supernatural against it. And that is not only unnecessary, but mischievous.
But I have got ahead unduly, thinking of the treatise as a whole. Let me begin more or less at the beginning, only remarking incidentally that it is ‘signifcant of much’ that Mrs. Kingsley belonged to the Communist Party, and has apparently been expelled for heresy!
Our authoress accepts the dictionary definitions of Materialism:
1. Materialism – The denial of the existence in man of an immaterial substance which alone is conscious, distinct, and separable from the body. The reduction of psychical processes to physical is the special thesis of Materialism.
2. Materialism – He who denies spirit in man or in the universe. In the domain of ethics and practical life, Materialism is a term use to denote the temper of mind which sees in the acquisition of wealth, material comfort, and sensuous pleasure the only reasonable objects of human endeavour.
As the antithesis of this the following definition is given –
Idealism – Any theory which maintains the universe to be throughout the work or the embodiment of reason or mind. Any theory which seeks the explanation or ultimate raison d’être of the cosmic evolution in the realisation of reason, self-consciousness, or spirit.
I have one or two objections to make to these definitions. The reference to an ‘immaterial substance’ is an obvious contradiction in terms. If there is one thing that ‘substance’ cannot be it is ‘immaterial.’ Substance must be substantial in greater or lesser degree. Water is less substantial than wood, and wood than iron; but all three are substances. An immaterial materiality is naturally repudiated by Materialists or anyone who wishes to use language with any degree of accuracy.
The Materialist does not deny ‘spirit in man.’ He does not deny spirit even in horses and dogs. He only denies that spirit is ‘distinct and separable from the body.’ He does not deny music; he only denies that music can be produced without physical means – voice, violin, or organ – while at the same time he denies that the music itself is physical. In the Phaedo Plato gives Socrates most of the talk (in a dialogue at which Plato himself was confessedly not present); but he gives Simmias the best of the argument in the following passage:
Anyone might use the same argument with respect to harmony, and a lyre and its chords – that harmony is something invisible and incorporeal, very beautiful and divine in a well modulated lyre; but the lyre and its chords are bodies and of corporeal form, compounded and earthly, and akin to that which is mortal. When anyone, then, has broken or burst the chords, he might maintain, from the same reasoning as yours, that it is necessary that harmony should still exist and not be destroyed. .. Our body being compacted and held together by heat and cold, dryness and moisture, and other such qualities, our soul is the fusion and harmony of these when they are well and duly combined with each other. If, then, the soul is a kind of harmony, it is evident that when our body is unduly relaxed or strained through diseases or other maladies the soul must of necessity immediately perish, although it is most divine, just as other harmonies which subsist in sounds or in the various works of artizans, but that the remains of the body of each person last a long time till they are without being or decayed. Consider, then, what we shall say… if anyone should maintain that the soul, being a fusion of the several qualities in the body, perishes first in that which is called death.’
After this we read (Phaedo, sec 80) that Socrates, awaiting death, looked ‘steadfastly at us,’ and, smiling said, ‘Simmias indeed speaks justly.’
Those who, like the Swedenborgians and the Spiritualists, conceive of spirit as something which can put on clothes, or be hit with a stick, are more materialistic than the Materialists. The Materialist believes that the spirit is spiritual. The Spiritualist believes it is material, and does not laugh when he sees an imposter or impostress walking about performing senseless tricks while professing to be a spirit. to the Materialist, spirit is mettle, vital force, which he derives from his body nourished with food, air, and sleep. When the Materialist speaks of a person having ‘a poor spirit’ he means simply that the person makes a poor show in energy, hopefulness, courage, or initiative. The dependence of spirit on the material body is shown by the fact that poor health means poor spirits. The same dependence is shown by the fact that the same individual is one person when hungry and a very different person when rested. When the Materialist speaks of a ‘spirited’ horse he means a horse that has plenty of energy and action.
PART TWO WILL BE AVAILABLE IN THE FEBRUARY EDITION OF THE NEW GATEWAY
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