Last Updated on : Saturday, October 11, 2014
From The Bible
IN NOTHING will Christendom appear in the eyes of the Bible student further astray than in the ordinary theological view as to the nature of man. We now ask what the Bible teaches on the subject, and getting the Bible answer, we shall seek to confirm that answer by an appeal to Nature - God's other great witness. Our argument may appear to savour of infidel tendencies, but we are confident this appearance will disappear in the eyes of such as can discriminate between intellectual caprice, and earnest conviction entertained for reasons that can be stated. The proposition we have to maintain (and we bespeak your earnest consideration of the evidence in support of it) will be astounding to you at first. It is that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul is an untrue doctrine, which effectually prevents the believer of it from truly apprehending the truth concerning the work and teaching of Christ.
Consider, first, what the universal theory of the human constitution is. It is that in his proper essential being, a man is a "spiritual" immaterial, and immortal being, living in a material body composed of organs necessary for the manifestation of his invisible and indestructible inner "self" in this external and material world. This organic body is not regarded as essential to man's identity or existence. His proper self is understood to subsist in the immaterial entity or divine spark called the soul or spirit. The organs composing the body are looked upon as things which the man uses as a mechanic uses his tools - the external agencies by which the behests of "the inner man" are carried out. Mental qualities - such as reason. sentiment, disposition, &c., - are set down as the attributes of the spiritual "essence" which is supposed to constitute himself. The body is, of course, admitted to have a material derivation "from the dust of the ground," but the "essence" is believed to have come from God Himself - to be, in fact, a part of the Deity - a spark, or particle, scintillated from the divine nature, having intelligent faculty and existence independently of the substantial organism with which it is associated. In accordance with this view, death is not considered to affect a man's being. It is regarded simply as a demolition of the material organism, which liberates the deathless, intangible man from the bondage of this "mortal coil," which having "shuffled off," he wings his way to spiritual regions, for eternal happiness or misery, according to "deeds done in the body."
Now, in opposition to this view, we shall show that, according to the Scriptures man is destitute of immortality in every sense; that he is a creature of organised substance subsisting in the lifepower of God, which he shares in common with every living thing under the sun; that he only holds this life on the short average tenure of threescore years and ten, at the end of which he gives it up to Him from whom he received it, and returns to the ground, whence he originally came, awl meanwhile ceases to exist. Such a proposition may well be shocking to ordinary religious susceptibility; but it demands investigation. Our business is to look at the proof. Evidence is the main thing with which we have to deal, and that evidence is of two kinds as indicated - 1st, the testimony of existing natural facts; and, 2nd, the declaration of the inspired word of God.
It may seem inappropriate to take natural facts at all into account, in discussing a question in which the Holy Scriptures are allowed to have authority. This impression disappears when we remember that nearly all the arguments by which the popular doctrine is supported, are derived from natural facts. We shall try to show that all the arguments upon which it is founded are fallacious - natural as well as Scriptural. However distasteful to purely sentimental minds such a process may be, it is the only one by which searching minds can be satisfied. We shall endeavour to show - 1st, that the natural facts adduced in support of the immortality of the soul do not in any way constitute proof of the doctrine; and, 2nd, that certain natural facts exist which overturn the doctrine. Then we shall show that the testimony of Scripture is entirely inconsistent with the popular doctrine, and teaches, in fact, as one of the first principles of revealed truth that man is mortal because of sin.
The first argument usually employed by those who set themselves philosophically to demonstrate the doctrine, is like this. They say that matter cannot think, and that as man thinks there must be an immaterial essence in him that performs the thinking, and that, the essence being immaterial, it must be indestructible and, therefore, immortal. This is an old argument, and seemingly strong at first sight. Let us consider: Is it quite correct to assume that matter cannot think? Of course, it is evident that inanimate substances, such as wood, iron, are incapable of thought, but is substance in every form and condition incapable of evolving mental power? To assert this would require the asserter to be able in the first place to define where the empire of what is called "matter" ends, and to prove that he was familiar with every part of this empire. What are the boundaries dividing that department of nature styled "matter," from which the old metaphysicians have distinguished as "mind"? Earth, stones, iron and wood would come into the category of matter without a question, but what about smoke? It may be replied that smoke is matter in diffusion: well, what about light and heat? Light and heat can hardly be brought within any of the ordinary definitions of matter, and yet they manifestly have a most intimate relation to matter in its most tangible form. Nothing can exceed light in its subtlety and imponderability. Is it within or without the empire of matter? It would puzzle the methodical metaphysician to say. And if perplexed with light what would he do with electricity, a power more uncontrollable than any force in nature - a principle existing in everything, yet impalpable to the senses except in its effects - invisible, immaterial, omnipotent in its operations, and essential to the very existence of every form of matter? Is this part of the "matter" from which the argument in question excludes the possibility of mental phenomena? If so, what is that which is not matter? Some say "spirit" is not matter. In truth, it may be found that spirit is the highest form of matter. Certainly "spirit" as exhibited to us in the Scriptures possesses material power. The Spirit came upon the apostles on the day of Pentecost, "like a mighty rushing wind," and made the place where they were assembled shake, showing it to be capable of mechanical momentum. Coming upon Samson, it energised his muscles to the snapping of ropes, like thread (Judges xv, 14), and inhaled by the nostrils of man and beast, it gives physical life (Psalm civ, 30).
It is evident that there would be great difficulty in arriving at such a definition of "matter" as would sustain the argument under consideration. It is, in fact, only an arbitrary and, in modern times, discredited system of thought that has created the distinctions implied in the terms of metaphysics. Nature, that is universal existence, is one; it is the incorporation of one primitive power, it is not made up of two antagonistic and incompatible elements. God is the source of all. In Him everything exists; out of Him everything is evolved. Different elements and substances are but different forms of the same eternal essence or first cause - described in the Bible as "spirit," which God is; and in scientific language, by a diversity of superficial terms. The word "matter" only describes an aspect of creation, as presented to finite sense; it does not touch the essence of the thing, though intended so to do by the shortsighted, because unexperimental and unobservant, system which invented it.
But if difficult to fix the limits of unsentient matter, there is another difficulty which is equally fatal to the argument, viz., the difficulty of defining the process which is expressed by the word "think" It would be necessary to define this process before it would be legitimate to argue that every form of matter is incapable of it; for unless defined, how could we say when and where it was possible or not possible. To say that matter cannot think is virtually to allege that the nature of thought is so and so, and the nature of matter so and so, in consequence of which they have no mutual relation. We have seen the impossibility of taking this ground with regard to "matter." Who shall define the modus operandi of thought? It can only be done in general terms which destroy the argument now under review. Thought, in so far as it relates to human experience, is a power developed by brain organization, and consists of impressions made upon that delicate organ through the medium of the senses, and afterwards classified and arranged by that function pertaining in different degrees to brain in human form, known as reason. This is matter of experience. It cannot be set aside as a fact, whatever reservation may be entertained as to the explanation of the fact. It is a fact that destroys the metaphysical argument, since it shows us what the argument denies, viz., that the matter of the brain electrically energised is capable of evolving thought.
The whole argument in question is based on a fallacy. It assumes a knowledge of "nature's" capabilities impossible to man. Chemists can tell the number and proportion of elementary gases which enter into any compound; but who understands the essential nature of any one of those elements separately? The more truly learned great minds become, the more diffident do they grow on this subject. They hesitate to be certain about almost anything it, which the secrets of nature are involved. The progress of biological investigation during the last century is eloquent on this subject. None but the ignorant or the superficial would be so unwise as to draw the line fixing the limit of the possible. What is nature? The sphere of omnipotence - the arena of God's operations. Shall we say that anything is impossible with God? True, inanimate matter, such as iron or stone, cannot think; but we know, experimentally, that there is such a thing as "living matter," and that living matter is sentient, and thinking by virtue of its organisation, which is only another phrase for its divine endowment. This is a matter of experience, illustrated in degree in every department of the animal kingdom.
It is argued that the possession of "reason" is evidence of the existence of an immortal and immaterial soul in man. The logic of this argument is difficult of discovery. Reason is unquestionably a wonderful attribute and an incomprehensible function of the mental machinery; but how can it be held to prove the existence of a something beyond knowledge, since there can be no known connection between that which is incomprehensible and that which is unknown? To say that we have an indestructible soul, because we have reasonable faculty, is to repeat the mistake of our forefathers of the last generation, who referred the achievements of machinery to Satanic agency, because in their ignorance they were unable to account for them in any other way. We may not be able to understand how it is that reason is evolved by the organisation with which God has endowed us, but we are compelled to recognise the self-evident fact that it is so evolved.
Again, it is argued that the power of the mind to "travel," while the body remains quiescent, is proof of its immaterial and, therefore, immortal nature. Let us see. What is this "travelling "of the mind? Does the mind traverse actual space and witness realities? A man has been in America, has seen many sights, and returns home; occasionally he sees those sights over again, the impressions made on the sensorium of the brain through the organs of sight and hearing, while in America, are revived so distinctly that he can actually fancy himself in the place he has left so many thousands of miles behind. Surely no one will contend that each time this reverie comes upon him, his mind actually goes out of his body, and transfers itself to the place thought of! If this is contended, it ought also to be allowed that the man, when so spiritually transferred, should witness what is actually transpiring in the country at the time of his spiritual presence, and that, therefore, we might dispense with the post and telegraph as clumsy contrivances for getting the compared with the facility and despatch of soulography. But this will not be contended. As well might we say that the places and persons we see in our dreams have a real existence. In both cases, the phenomenon is the result of a process that takes place within the brain. Memory treasures impressions received, and reproduces them as occasion occurs - clear, calm and coherent, if the brain be in a healthy condition; confused, disjointed, and aberrated, if the brain be disordered, whether in sleep or out of it. In no case does reverie involve an actual transit of the mind from one place to another; and hence the "travelling" argument falls to the ground. If a man could go to China, while his body remained in Britain, and see the country and people as they really are, there might be something worthy of consideration, though even then it would not prove the immortality of the soul, but only the wonderful power of the brain while a living instrument, in acting at long distances through an electrical atmosphere.
The power of dreaming is cited as another fact favourable to the popular doctrine; but here again the argument fails; because dreaming is invariably connected with the living brain. Beside, who ever dreams a sensible dream? Dreams, in general, are a confused and illogical jumble of facts which have at one time or other been stowed away in the storehouse of the brain; and if they prove anything concerning a thinking spirit, independent of the body, they prove that that spirit loses its power in exact proportion to its separation from the assistance of the body; and that, therefore, without the body it would presumably be powerless.
It is next contended that the immateriality of man's nature is proved by the fact that though he may be deprived of a limb, he retains a consciousness of that limb, sometimes even feeling pain in it. The argument is, that if the man is conscious of a part of himself when the material organ of that part is wanting, he will be conscious of his entire being when the whole body is wanting. This looks plausible: but let us examine it. Why is a man conscious of an absent member? Because the independent nerves of that member remain in the system from the point of disseverment up to their place in the brain; so that although the hand or foot may be absent, the brain goes on to feel as if they were present, because the nerves that produce the sensation of their presence are still active at the brain centre. But if, when you cut off a leg, you could also remove the entire nerves of the leg from the point of amputation up to their roots in the brain, and still preserve a consciousness of the severed member, the argument would be deserving of consideration.
The most powerful natural argument in favour of the popular doctrine has yet to be noticed. It is the one mainly relied upon by all its great advocates. It is this: It is an ascertained fact in physiology that the substance of our bodies undergoes an entire change every seven years - that is, there is a gradual process of substitution going on, by which the atoms one after another, are expelled from the body as their vital qualities are worn out, and their place filled up by new ones from the blood; so that at the end of the period mentioned, the body is made up of entirely new substance. Yet, notwithstanding this constant mutation of the material atoms of the body, and this periodical change of its entire substance, memory and personal identity remain unaffected to the close of life. An old man at eighty feels he is the same person he was at ten, although at eighty he has not a single particle of the matter which composed his body when a boy, and the argument is that the thinking faculty and power of consciousness must be the attribute of some immaterial principle residing in the body, but undergoing no change. Now this has all the appearance of conclusiveness. However, let us look at it narrowly. The question to be considered is - whether this fact of continuous identity amid atomic change, can be explained in accordance with the view which regards the mind as a property of living brain substance. The question is answered by this well known fact, that the qualities resulting from any organic combination of atoms are transmissible to other atoms which may take their place as organic constituents. An atom as it exists in food has no power of sensation; but let it be assimilated by the blood and incorporated with any of the nerves, and it possesses a sensitive power it formerly did not have. It becomes part of the organisation, and feels whether in man or animal. Why? Because it takes up and perpetuates the organic qualities which its predecessor has left behind. On this principle, we find that the mark of a scar will be continued in the flesh through life; and so also with discolourations of the skin, which exist in some persons from congenital causes. This perpetuation of physical disfigurement could not take place if it were not for the fact of the transmissibility of corporate qualities to migratory corporate constituents. Now, if we apply this principle to the brain, we have a complete solution of the apparent difficulty on which the argument of the question is founded. Mind is the result of impressions on the living brain, and personal identity of the sum of those impressions. This definition may be scouted, but it will quietly commend itself to honest reflection. It will not be questioned by the student of human nature, though it may not be understood. Mental impression is a fact, though a mystery, alike in men and animals; and facts are the things that wise men have to deal with. It is impossible to explain, or even to comprehend, the process by which thought is begotten in the tissues of the brain; but that the process takes place will not be denied. We are conscious of the process, and feel the result in the possession of separate individuality - the power of contemplating all other persons and things objectively. Now, in order to perpetuate this result, all that is necessary is to preserve the integrity of the organ evolving it. This, of course, involves the introduction of fresh material into its structure, but it does not imply an invasion of the process going on in it, which the argument in question supposes; the process conquers the material, and converts it to its own uses, and not the material the process. Who ever heard of a man's bone turning to wheat from the eating of flour? The nutritive apparatus assimilates, which is in fact the answer to the argument. The new material entering the brain is assimilated to its existing condition; and thus, although the atoms come and go for a lifetime, the condition remains substantially unaltered, like a fire kept up by fuel. If, then, we are asked how a man at eighty feels himself to be the same person that he was at ten, though his entire substance is changed, we reply, those brain impressions which enable him to feel that he is himself, have been kept up all along, though modified by the circumstances and conditions through which he has passed. The process of change is so slow that the new atoms take on the organic qualities of the old, as they are gradually incorporated with the brain, and sustain the general result of the brain's action in preserving its continuous function unimpaired. If cases could be cited in which identity survived the destruction of the brain, the case would stand differently; but as a fact, it is only to be found in connection with a perpetuated brain organisation.
These are the main "natural" arguments relied upon for proof of the current theological conception of the immortality of the soul. It will be observed that none of them is really logical. Each of them falls through when thoroughly looked into. The natural argument on the other side of the question will be found to stand in a very different position. At the very outset we are confronted with the difficulty of conceiving how immateriality can inhere in a material organisation. Cohesion and conglomeration require affinity as their first condition, but, in this case, affinity is entirely wanting. What connection can exist between "matter" and the immaterial principle of popular belief? They are not in the nature of things susceptible of combination. Yet in the face of this difficulty, we find that the mind is located in the body. It is not a loose ethereal thing, capable of detachment from the material person. It is inexorably fixed in the bodily framework, and never leaves it while life continues. If we enquire in what portion of the body it is specially located, we instinctively answer that it is not located in the hand, nor in the foot, nor in the stomach, nor in the heart, nor in any part of the trunk. Our consciousness unerringly tells us that it is in the head. We feel as a matter of experience, whatever our theory may be, that the mind cohabits with the substance of the brain.
Extending our observation externally, we never discover mind without a corresponding development of brain. Deficient brain is always found to manifest deficient reason, and vice versa. Master minds in science and literature have larger and deeply convoluted cerebrums. If the popular theory were correct, mind ought to be exhibited independently of either quantity or quality of organisation.
Again, if the mind were immaterial, its functions would be unaffected by the conditions of the body. Thinking and feeling would never abate in vigour or vivacity. We should always be serene and clearheaded - always ready for the "study," whatever might be the state of the bodily machinery; whereas we know that the opposite is the case. Sickness or overwork will exhaust the mental energies, and make the mind a blank. Languor and dullness of spirits are of common experience. We can all testify to days of ennui, in which the mind has refused to perform its office; and we can remember, too, the uneasy pillow when horrible visions have scared us. This never happens in a good state of health, but always when the material organisation is out of order. How is this? Does it not tell against the theory which represents the mind as an immaterial, incorruptible, imperishable thing? The mind is the offspring of the brain, and is therefore affected by all its passing disorders.
Let us carry the process further. Let the brain be injured, and we then perceive a most signal refutation of the popular idea the mind vanishes altogether. The following extract illustrates: -
These cases are not in accordance with the popular theory of the mind. Here is suspension of mental action on the derangement of the material organisation. Obviously, the mind is not the attribute of a principle existing independently of that organisation. The facts show that thinking is dependent upon the action of the brain, and cannot, therefore, be the action of an immaterial principle, which could never be affected by any material condition.
There are other difficulties. If the mind be a spark from God - if it be a part of the Deity himself, transfused into material organisations (and this is the view contended for by believers in the immortality of the soul) our faculties ought to spring forth in full maturity at birth. Instead of that, as everybody knows, a newborn babe has not a spark of intellect or a glimmer of consciousness. According to the popular belief, it ought to possess both in full measure, because of the immaterial thinking principle. No one can carry his memory back to his birth. He can remember when he was three years old, perhaps; only in a few cases can he recall an earlier date. Yet, if the popular belief were correct, memory ought to be contemporaneous with life from its very first moment.
Again; if all men partake alike of this divine thinking essence, they ought to manifest the same degree of intelligence, and show the same disposition. Instead of that, there is infinite diversity among men. One man is shrewd and another dull - one vicious and depraved, and another highsoured and virtuous - one good and gentle, another harsh and inconsiderate, and so on. There ought to be uniformity of manifestation if there be uniformity of power.
These are so many natural obstacles in the way of the doctrine which constitutes the very foundation of all popular religion. They disprove that man is an immaterial entity, capable of disembodied existence. They show him to be a compound - a creature of material organisation - endowed with life from God and ennobled with qualities which constitute him "the image of God"; but nevertheless mortal in constitution. Why so much opposition? All natural evidence is in its favour. If there are mysteries in it, there is nonetheless obviousness. Mystery is no ground of disbelief. This is shown by the universal belief in the immortality of the soul. Surely this is "mysterious" enough. If it comes to that, we are surrounded with mystery. We can only approximate to truth; the how of any organic process is beyond comprehension; we can but note facts, and bow in the presence of undeniable phenomena. Though we are unable to understand the mode in which nerve communicates sensation, muscles generate strength, blood supplies life, &c., we cannot deny that these agencies are the proximate causes of the results developed whether in man or animals. Why should there be an exception in the case of thought? What we know of it, is all connected with physical organization. We have no experience of human mind apart from human brain. In fact, we have no experience of any human faculty apart from its material manifestation, and in ordinary sensible thinking, the various living powers of man are practically acknowledged to be the properties of the numerous organs which collectively compose himself. If he sees, it is recognised as the function of the eye to see; if he hears, that it is with the ear, and that without these organs, he can neither see nor hear. In proportion as these organs are perfectly formed, there is perfect sight or hearing. Why should this principle not be applied to the mind? The parallel is complete. Man thinks, and he has a brain to think with and in proportion as the brain is properly organised and developed, he thinks well. If it be large, there is power and scope of mind; if small, there is mediocrity; if below par, there is intellectual deficiency, and idiocy. These are facts apart from theory of any kind; and they prove the connection of mind with living brain substance, however mysterious that connection may be. Some say "No" to all this; "the brain is simply the medium of the soul's manifestation: deficiency of intellect and other mental irregularities are the result of imperfection in the mediumship;" but this begs the question. It assumes the very point at issue, viz., the existence of a thinking abstraction to manifest itself. But even supposing we accept the explanation, what does it avail for popular theory? If the soul cannot manifest itself - cannot reason, cannot reflect, be conscious, love, hate, etc. - without a material "medium," what is its value as a thinking agent when without that medium; that is, when the body is in the grave? The explanation, however, cannot be accepted. It is the ingenious suggestion of a philosophy which is in straits to preserve itself from confusion. How much wiser to recognise the fact which presents itself to our actual experience, namely, that all our conscious, as well as unconscious, powers as living beings are the result of a conjunction between the lifepower of God and the substance of our organisation, and do not exist apart from that connection in which they are developed.
Continued Next Page --> WHAT THE SCRIPTURES SAY
Human Nature Essentially Mortal,
as Proved By Nature and Revelation