Book: "Psychical Research and Survival"

Author: Prof. James Hyslop

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- Chapter Two -



          THE TERM 'materialism' stands for three sets of ideas or points of view about things. The first is a general theory of the world and man; the second concerns the limitations of knowledge; and the third relates to ethics or the moral consequences of the general theory. They might be called materialism, sensationalism, and sensualism, if we desired distinct terms in the discussion. But this is not the place to carry out technical controversies. They will each come under notice in the proper way. All that I desire to impress on the reader is that there is the metaphysical, the psychological, and the ethical aspects of the general theory.

Materialism means that all phenomena are phenomena of matter, whether they are events of the physical or of the mental world. We are so accustomed from tradition to think of mental states, the phenomena of consciousness, as implying a soul, that we seem not to realise how much scepticism has done to discredit this view, Men in practical life have so associated the term materialism with sensuous habits of conduct, and the philosophical idealists have so equivocated with the term, that we think materialism has no standing in court, when the fact is that it was never stronger than it is today, though men protest that they do not believe it. They are talking of the sensuous life as opposed to intellectual and aesthetic behaviour. Though they deny their belief in materialism, they are never ardent in advocating survival from bodily death, and in this betray their equivocations with the terms of the problem. The primary issue with all of them is whether what is called materialism in its metaphysical sense adequately accounts for consciousness. To understand the meaning of its claims we should examine just what the theory in its widest aspect means. It is a theory of the universe that is not confined to modern times. Many of the Buddhists were in reality materialists, and they preceded Greek thinkers. As a well-defined and elaborate doctrine, it did not take form among the Greeks until the decline of their civilisation. It clearly lay in embryo during the whole period of Greek philosophic reflection, but it was only latent until Empedocles, Democritus, and Epicurus developed it.

The main genius of Greek philosophy was shown in the search for the elements of things, 'elements of the world,' as St. Paul called them. It was the 'stuff' out of which things were made that enlisted the main interest of the reflective Greeks. They were less interested in the forces or causes that arranged the order of the world than they were in escaping the beliefs about such causes. The popular beliefs in religion and polytheism had so degraded and irrationalized the causes of phenomena, that the scientific and philosophic mind sought some theory which would account for the stability of things, and so looked in the direction of matter for its explanation of the cosmos. In matter men found the stuff out of which the world was made, and they could seek the explanation of the cosmic order either in causes outside of matter or in its own activities and changes. The materialists thought they had found it in the atomic theory, Anaxagoras and Plato sought it in some sort of divine being, and later Christianity made the divine being the creator of the elements as well as the disposer of the cosmic order.

The difference between the two schools of thinking began with the distinction between efficient and material causes, though this distinction was not definitely and consciously carried out in Greek philosophies. Aristotle recognised the distinction, but did not make it the basis of a distinction between philosophic systems, and it had to work its way out unconsciously in the speculative systems of history. By a material cause I mean the stuff or material out of which things are made, and by an efficient cause I mean the force or agent which puts them together. For instance, in the case of a machine the material cause would be the iron and wood of which it was constituted, the efficient cause would be the man who made the machine. Now it was the former that chiefly interested the Greeks, though the latter crept now and then into their systems. The earliest thinkers tried to find the primitive matter out of which the world and organic life were made. Some made the ultimate element water, some air, some fire or heat, and some what they called the 'infinite,' or some indefinite and supersensible condition of matter which developed in the forms of physical things that we see and touch. Some made the elements four, and then came the atomists who made them innumerable and infinite in number. Besides these elements, Empedocles introduced into them the efficient forces of ' love ' and ' hate,' or what we should call attraction and repulsion; but this idea was not carried out, and the system in its later development supposed that the atoms were eternally falling, and in order to get into combinations swerved from the perpendicular direction in which they were falling by a free act of their own. The Greeks had no such conception of gravitation as we have, in which particles of matter exercise attraction on other particles. Gravity with the Greeks was simply the weight of the object itself, and this was capable of self-motion. With the eternity of the atoms and the power of self-motion, the materialist philosopher thought he could explain the whole order of the world. He denied the action of the gods on nature, though admitting their existence curiously enough. It sufficed to have the atoms and their motion, and hence the cosmos, as we know it, was the result of a fortuitous concourse of these elements. Strangely enough, too, the same system admitted the existence of a soul, but denied its immortality or survival of bodily death. The soul, being a complex organism of ether or finer matter, dissolved, as did all complex things. It was at this point that materialism met opposition on the part of all who were interested in the persistence of consciousness. There would perhaps have been no difficulty with its theory of the physical world, had it not been for this accompaniment of the materialistic theory. It had no direct evidence that the soul perished, but its reason for denying survival or affirming its perishability was the essentially ephemeral nature of all complex things or combinations of atoms. It might have had its way with the explanation of the physical world but for its attack on a belief so tenacious as immortality. But with or without a reason for denying immortality, it got this denial associated with its cosmic ideas, and ever since has fixed that conception of its meaning in history.

Christianity attacked this position in three ways, the first scientific in method, and the other two philosophic. Its first attack was an appeal to a real or alleged fact, the resurrection. It had relied on miracles to establish the divinity of its founder, and this perhaps before it had to meet the fact of his death. But after his death it asserted his resurrection. The story, whether founded on an hallucination, an apparition, or some other more real fact, was believed, and it succeeded in founding a new religion. But the events that centred about the life and death of Christ have such a psychic semblance that we may well imagine that some phenomena, no matter how badly distorted by reporters and the influence of legend, occurred to suggest survival after death; and we must remember here that the doctrine of the resurrection was fully developed in human thought before the story of Christ's was told. The controversy between the Sadducees and Pharisees is evidence of this. The Sadducees were the rationalists, the materialists, and the sceptics of the Hebrew people at this period. The Pharisees were the chief sect of religious people, and we can well imagine that they had answered the Epicurean materialists' denial of immortality by appealing to apparitions as evidence that the ethereal organism did not perish as the materialists affirmed. This was all. that was necessary to set up a doctrine of the resurrection. We must remember that antiquity had no such theory of gravitation as we have. They had no conception of matter attracting matter and thus causing its motion, except in Empedocles, whose idea was not retained. They thought it could move itself by virtue of its weight. Its weight was a property which accounted for its falling, and free will, as we have seen, accounted for its swerving aside to enter into combinations. They might as well have made it fall by free will. Lighter matter, they say, rose upward, and there was no conception of the cause of this which we now know. It was simply the nature of heavy matter to fall or move downward towards the earth, and lighter matter to rise. As spirit was fine matter or ether it rose, and the idea gave rise, even in such men as Aristotle, to the belief that the stars were divine, because they were situated so far from the earth, all heavy matter coming to the earth naturally. Souls attached to their bodies and interested in the carnal life remained, for a time at least, in Sheol or Hades for purification. This idea figured even in the mythical view stated by Plato when discussing immortality. It was the finer spirits that rose to the stars. This idea is found also in ancient hero worship. But for us here we desire only to understand how the idea of a resurrection might arise and obtain currency. If Christ appeared as a phantasm after His death whether or not as an hallucination due to excitement or other causes, makes no difference the common people might be pardoned for their interpretation of the phenomenon, and it would involve a direct denial of the materialistic theory. It would be interpreted as evidence that the ethereal organism or soul did not perish with the grosser physical body. Epicureanism would then have either to concede survival or change its view of the soul. It chose the latter alternative in the course of its development, being more interested in a position that would remove superstition and the fear of death than it was to believe in a soul and its survival. It took time, however, to bring about this change of conception. 

The two philosophic attacks on materialism were as follows:- The first assumed the point of view of Anaxagoras, Plato, and Aristotle. It set up a divine being; Reason as Anaxagoras called it, Demiourgos or World disposer as Plato named it, and Prime Mover, First Cause, as Aristotle termed it. Whatever matter was, it could not move itself, and, whether it was eternal or not, it was supposed to be influenced in all its combinations by this divine intelligence. In this way Christianity obtained a leverage on materialism which enabled it to assert or believe with greater confidence than would otherwise have been the case, that a soul existed to account f or the voluntary activities of living organisms. That once conceded, the presumption was for its survival.

But it went a step further. It refused to admit that matter, the elements even ' could be eternal. It regarded the very atoms as created, and thus it cleared an easy way for the existence of spirit. It sought outside of matter the cause both of the existence of matter and of its cosmic arrangement in systems. Spirit was the eternal background of things, and hence, with this conception, it was easy to have faith in the existence and destiny of a human soul. Spirit being naturally immortal and matter ephemeral or transient, it would appear to be anomalous indeed if a human soul did not survive.

But this philosophic view developed only with time, and after the age of miracles either ceased to exist or became distrusted as legendary. It ruled history until the revival of science. When this came it was with a terribly revolutionary change in the point of view, whose consequences were seen at the outset, but could not be made clear to the common mind, which held to its beliefs without any knowledge of the philosophic point of view. This revolutionary change was initiated by the discovery of the indestructibility of matter and the conservation of energy. The first of these reinstated the atom or elements as the permanent basis of things; and the second, the eternity of motion or energy. The attack on the theistic position was direct, at least in popular conceptions of the problem. Matter became the eternal thing and intelligence the transient function of it. Spirit seemed no longer the basis or cause, but the effect or function of matter. The materialist then gave up the existence of a soul, and maintained that intelligence or consciousness was a functional action of the organism or of the brain. The atomic theory came into its own again, except that the materialist did not return to the Epicurean admission that there was a soul. He kept clear of that position, because his own doctrine of the eternity of matter would have decided, the probabilities for survival on that assumption. He simply gave up the soul and explained mental states by the same means that we explain digestion, circulation, secretion, etc. The development of physiology and physical science, with what we know of chemical action, and all the phenomena of abnormal psychology, especially as connected with disease and accident, as they affect the integrity of consciousness, strengthened the idea that mental states were but activities of the brain or organism. The materialistic point of view became triumphant, and remained so until the organisation of psychic research.

The defence of the spiritualistic point of view, using that term in its older philosophical sense, was based on Cartesian assumptions. These were that matter and mind had no common properties. Consciousness had no qualities that in any way identified it with material properties, and hence it required a soul to be its subject or basis. Matter was the subject, ground, or substance on which weight, density, extension, motion, and all other properties of physical substance rested. Consciousness being irresolvable into anything like physical phenomena, supposedly, could not be explained by a physical substance as its ground. Hence, with this assumption of its absolute difference from matter and material properties, it was easy to suppose a soul, and the permanence of substance and energy would render it more than probable that a soul would survive. In this way Cartesianism, while applying strictly mechanical laws to the behaviour of matter, had no difficulty in setting up a defence for the existence and survival of the soul.

But this view of things had to encounter the difficulties which it set up in the very need of defending the existence of a soul. It implied that matter and mind were so different that they could not act on each other. The most evident fact in the world, however, was that they either did so act on each other or seemed to do so; and philosophies were constructed to overcome this appearance of disconnection implied in the definition of the two substances. With those systems we have nothing to do here, but they represented the natural demand of human thought that things should have a greater unity than this dualism, as Cartesianism was called, offered. Then the spirit of science with its eternity of matter and motion made it easy to give up the soul and obtain that unity without trying to defend the religious conceptions of things. It found in the discoveries of physical science a sufficient relief from the superstitions of the past, and a means of protecting the fundamental demand of philosophy for the unity of things; and finding all the phenomena of human experience coinciding with the hypothesis of an ephemeral existence for consciousness, it rested satisfied with that explanation of it. Physiology gave up the need of a soul for its explanation. Biology did the same, also giving up the supposition that there was any 'vital force,' and psychology became an experimental investigation of reaction time, association me, and various psychophysical phenomena alone. The older psychology was legated to the mortuary, though treated its obsequies with some regard for its poverty and age, just to save its children from the charge of ingratitude.

Such has been the history and nature of human thinking, on the side of science, regarding the soul, whenever it inclined ward the materialistic theory. It is not necessary to enter into any theory of what matter is in order to understand what materialism is and was. Even the atomic theory as not necessary to the materialistic point of view. That theory only happened to get associated with what is called materialism. It's fundamental idea was and is that all organic things are compounds of different substances and are dissolvable into the elements which constitute them. It is not necessary to regard those elements as atoms, term meaning indivisible things. It seemed necessary for ancient philosophers to set these up for their purpose, which was to explain what things were made of, not so much how they were made. If, however, the ancient thinkers had seen the problem rightly they would not have taken the trouble to define their elements as atoms. They were as much interested as the Christians in something eternal, and sought to find this in the 'atoms ' or indivisible matter, as the Christians sought it in spirit, which was also made indivisible. But materialism did not need to complicate its theory of consciousness with an atomic doctrine. It could have rested content with the idea that physical organisms are compounds, and that the functions, manifested as a consequence of the complexity of their organisation, perished with the dissolution of the body. Elements and atoms may only be relatively what they are called; and this seems to have been the view which has finally prevailed in the modification of the atomic theory by the doctrine of ions and electrons, which assumes that the elements or atoms are not simple and indivisible. They are or need be the only things which come together in physical organisms and Live rise, to functional activities that do jot exist in the elements by themselves whether simple or complex, divisible or indivisible.

Now this has become the real position of materialism in the last stage of its development. Whatever it believed about atoms, they did not figure in the construction of its theory of mind. Having abandoned the Cartesian view that the nature of consciousness might protect the existence of a soul, it simply regarded consciousness as a resultant of composition, just as the light in burning gas is the resultant of combining oxygen and carbon, to disappear whenever that combination ceases. It makes no difference whether oxygen and carbon are elements or not. It is their union that is the significant thing. Here it is that materialism gets its strength, whatever view we hold as to the nature of atoms or whether there is anything else in the cosmos or not. The scientific facts of all human experience are that consciousness, as normally known, is always associated with physical structure and organism, and that we have no normal knowledge of its existence apart from this association. The consequence is that it is supposed to have no other connection, and that it is unable to exist when this organism dies. It is supposedly a function like the ordinary bodily functions of digestion ' circulation, secretion, assimilation, etc. These are admittedly bodily functions, and as undoubtedly perish with death. It makes no difference to this point of view what conception you take of consciousness. It may be as different from ordinary physical phenomena as you like. It is not its nature that determines the case, but the evidential problem. We must leave the nature of consciousness to be determined otherwise than by introspection if it can be done at all. It is the one fact that we know it normally as associated with material organism, and we have no normal traces of its continuance after dissolution of the body. All the facts thus evidentially coincide with the hypothesis that it depends f or existence on association with the physical body as do the vital functions. True it is that this view does not prove it perishable. It is not a function that is sensibly known, and it might exist sensibly without sensible knowledge of that existence. But, apart from psychic phenomena, there is no alleged or apparent evidence for this independent existence, and we have only to discredit all the claims for supernormal phenomena to hold on to the materialistic interpretation of mind. The evidence that we have normally, confines its association to the body, and the absence of the body is followed by the absence of evidence for consciousness, if we refuse to consider what psychic research has to say. All the facts, so far as known and recognised normally, exclude evidence of survival, and hence stand as evidence for materialism, in so far as that is convertible with the view that consciousness is a function of the physical organism. If you would overthrow it you must produce evidence that consciousness is not a function of the body, and the only way to do this is to appeal to the fact of its survival, if that can be shown, and not to speculations about its nature. That is, we must find facts in human experience which cannot be explained by supposing that consciousness is a function of the organism. Until this is done the materialist has the right of way. Apart from psychic phenomena, he can say that all the normal evidence favours the view that mental states are like all other bodily functions, if not in nature, certainly in connections; and it becomes a question of fact whether they survive, not one of their nature. I repeat that he cannot prove its destruction. He can only infer it from his theory, which will be a legitimate hypothesis as long as no evidence is produced for isolating human consciousness, that is, finding it existing apart from bodily associations.

Many will tell us that materialism has been refuted or abandoned long ago, especially since the time of Kant. This statement, however, is not true; and I unhesitatingly assert that any man who maintains that materialism has been abandoned is ignorant of both philosophy and of scientific views of the relation between consciousness and the organism. It is sensationalism and sensational realism that have been abandoned. Materialism has never been convertible or synonymous with these ideas except in untutored minds. The philosopher has always based his materialism on the supersensible atoms or upon the relation of consciousness to the organism; and though he appealed primarily to sensation in experience for his data of knowledge, it was never a sensational view of knowledge that he took when he was explaining the relations of mental states to the brain or organism. Hence it is only a piece of equivocation to say that materialism has been refuted and abandoned. The idealists who assert this so constantly are never very forward in asserting and defending immortality, and they never appeal to scientific facts for it. They are quite as saturated with the idea that consciousness is a resultant of composition as any materialist; and as it is not the nature of' matter or even the existence of atoms that affects the question or defines the meaning of materialism as related to this problem, all the essential features of the materialistic theory remain intact and without refutation by idealism.

It is only convenient to throw a sop to the populace by denying materialism, so long as one is careful not to tell them that the idealist's conception of materialism is not theirs. Subterfuge will save a salary where frankness and honesty will not. Common men will not put up with equivocation, and that is known well enough by the philosophers. It is not, however, the best method of meeting the instinct for persecution to deceive it by concessions to its phraseology without making concessions to its views. The proper thing to do is to face the issue and to educate the public. Hence I shall not admit for a moment that materialism is defunct. It was never more alive and powerful than it is today, and that is evident in the stubborn and persistent assaults on psychical research from physical scientists, and the contempt of the general public which is intelligent enough to know that, apart from psychic phenomena, there is no evidence of a scientific sort f or the survival of personality. It is the meaning of materialism as expressed in this view of the evidential situation that defines and preserves it as a theory, not some refined and equivocal conception of matter or the vague theories of idealism which are true for all of us without having any relation whatever to the problem of survival.

I repeat, therefore, that materialism was never stronger than it has been since Kant, though it has begun to weaken partly from the influence of the theories of ether and other supersensible realities which tend to resolve matter into something apparently not material, and partly from the influence of psychic research which has called attention to a vast body of phenomena that are inconsistent with every form of materialism, in so far as it pronounces against the existence and survival of a soul or human consciousness. But apart from these phenomena the physicist and physiologist have all the evidence on their side for at least an agnostic verdict. Those who refuse to recognise psychic phenomena of any supernormal kind are entirely right in questioning survival,' and as long as they make normal experience the standard of evidence the facts will be in their favour. Materialism is simply and only an affirmation of the uniform association of consciousness as a fact with bodily organism and the absence of scientific evidence for its existence apart from that organism. This criterion of the problem has to be accepted and the contention of the materialist met before he can be dislodged from his position.



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