We ought to seek for truth in entire liberty of mind, freed from all preconceived ideas. - Descartes
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Before seeking to learn if our soul survives the dissolution of our body, it is indispensable to know if our souls truly exist. To discuss the continuance of a thing that did not exist would be to waste our time rather ingenuously. If thought were a product of the brain it would perish with it.
This knowledge can be acquired only by scientific, positive observation, by the experimental method. But until our day psychology has been rather a matter of words, of meditations on theories, of hypotheses. That is a tradition which we shall take good care not to follow here. We shall try to determine the nature of the soul and to learn its faculties by practical observations.
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It is regrettable to have to admit that until the present day these faculties have been almost unknown. The new psychology ought to be founded on science. Let us remember the origin of the word metaphysic, "after the physical," in the classification of its founder, Aristotle.
It has been forgotten too often.
In order to go on living after the destruction of the body, we should have to exist spiritually. Has our soul an individual existence? Have we a soul? Or, to speak more exactly, is man a soul? This is the first question to be answered; this is the first point to be established.
We have seen above that the materialists, the positivists, the atheists, the deniers of spirit in nature are utterly wrong in thinking and teaching that there is nothing in the universe but matter and its properties, and that all the facts of humanity can be explained by this theory, which is at once learned and popular. Here is an incorrect hypothesis. But we must prove the contrary thesis.
What is the soul? Where, by the way, does this word come from? What does it mean?
Up to the present the belief in the soul has been based on metaphysical dissertations and on revelations that claimed to be divine, but were unproved. Religion, faith, sentiment, desire, fear are not proofs.
How did the idea of the soul occur to the minds of men?
The word "soul" and its equivalents in our modern languages ("spirit," for example) or in the ancient languages, such words as anima, animus (a Latin transcription of ANEMOS), spiritus, psyche), pneuma, atma, soul (a Sanskrit word resembling the Greek atmos, vapor), etc., all imply the idea of breath; and there is no doubt that the idea of the soul and the spirit were the primitive expression of this idea of breath, among the psychologists of the earliest epoch. Psyche, even, comes from Psuche, "to breathe."
These early observers who identified the essence of life and thought with the phenomenon of respiration, had to reconcile the patent, undeniable fact of the decomposition of the dead body, of the body deprived of breath, deprived of the soul, with their belief in the apparitions of the dead, that is to say, in the persistent life of those whose bodies lay there inanimate or, what was more, were dissolved and reduced to ashes. They therefore imagined that the breath, the soul was something which abandoned the body at the moment of death to go and live elsewhere its own life.
Even to-day, "the last breath" designates death. If some admitted the persistence of life under an invisible form, others saw in this admission only the expression of the sentiment, the regret, the affection of the survivors, and from the very beginning of the various human groups, we see two distinct and even opposed theories dividing the beliefs of men —spiritualism on one hand, materialism on the other. But the one group as well as the other reasoned superficially.
The meaning of the words "soul" and "spirit" ought to be discussed, examined. There are fundamental distinctions to be established. The properties of the living organism and psychic elements differ essentially.
In general, men think, with complete conviction, that there is only one incontestable reality in the world, the reality of objects, of matter,—that is to say, of what we see and touch and of what comes within the range of the senses. For them everything else is only an abstraction, a chimera, nothing.
The majority of laymen and scholars adhere to this way of thinking. But it is possible for the laymen and the scholars to be mistaken, and that is what has occurred in this case.
I agree with my regretted friend Durand de Gros that physics, physics itself, teaches us that appearances, even when they have all the force of the most irresistible evidence, ought to be held in suspicion and severely examined. What is more evident than the passage of the sun and the entire heavens above our heads? Have not the eyes of all men in all times proclaimed this as evidence? Could there be any more imposing? And yet, it is only an illusion; astronomy has proved it to be so.
How superficial our doctrines appear in their criticism of knowledge, when, reasoning only from apparent observations, they point out to us what appear to be facts of experience, "The sun is a luminous disk which revolves above our heads from the east to the west, from its rising to its setting": there was a truth of observation, it would seem-—if there were such a thing!—-and one that the unanimous testimony of men had proclaimed for thousands of years. How does it happen, then, that science dares to affirm that this "truth established by observation" is undeniably an error? How does it happen that all the world knows to-day that it is an error?
To be best understood,-—that fact which can be accurately and truthfully affirmed, that which is the result of real observation, is not that one which is expressed by saying: "The sun is a disk," etc.; it is the fact which should be expressed thus: "I have the impression of a brilliant disk which I have named the sun, and which is of such a nature that it appears to me to move from east to west."
Those are the words in which the experimenter ought to set forth the statement of his experience, if he wishes to remain within the strict limits of the known facts of his experience; that is to say, if he wishes to express absolute certainty.
And even this disk is a false appearance, as the sun is a globe.
Let us give sensations and perceptions their due and not confound them with reality. The latter has to be proved. I see a flash of lightning, the sound of a cannon shot reaches my ears. To be quite exact, I ought to think: "I have the sensation of having heard a cannon shot, I have the sensation of having seen a flash of lightning." But the physiologists often ignore this essential distinction. The things they offer us as facts of observation are often, if strictly examined, only conjectured facts, not observations at all; they are inductions drawn from observations, where they have failed to take into account this operation of their minds. I have the sensation of a luminous disk, of such or such an apparent diameter, moving across the sky, from sunrise to sunset; that is absolutely true. That is what I have every right to affirm, at least according to the principles laid down by the doctrine of experiment in regard to certainty. But if I say, "A disk moves across the sky," etc., I am stating more than I know and I risk making a mistake; and the proof is that I have, in fact, made a sort of mistake.
It would be superfluous to multiply examples in support of this thesis. We experience such or such a sensation, we have such or such an idea, such or such an emotion; that is the only knowledge which is immediate and certain, that is the only truth that is actually experimental, and worthy of absolute belief.
The idea of an object implies, therefore, a sensation, a perception, a conception. But what are these things? Are they so many attributes of the object itself? No. This sensation, this conception, prove that, face to face with the object felt, perceived, apprehended, there is something that feels, perceives, apprehends.
Speaking exactly, the fact of feeling, perceiving, apprehending constitutes in itself an absolutely fundamental fact, the only one that our immediate observation imposes upon us.
We have made use of this form of reasoning since the discussions of Berkeley (1710), and even since those of Malebranche (1674). It is not a matter of yesterday. We judge the universe, objects, living beings, forces, space, and time only through our sensations, and all that we are able to think about reality exists in our mind, in our brain. But it is a strange form of reasoning to conclude from this that our ideas constitute reality itself. These impressions have a cause, and this cause is external to our eyes, and to our senses. We are mirrors that reflect the images cast upon them.
The pure idealism of Berkeley, of Malebranche, of Kant, of Poincare, goes too far in its skepticism; but let us never lose sight of the principle.
It is true that it is urgently necessary to protest against superficial appearances, and to proclaim that the external world is not what it seems to us. If we were not endowed with our eyes and ears it would seem utterly different to us. The retina might be constructed differently, the optic nerve might be able to register not merely those vibrations of between 380 and 760 trillions a second, that range from the extreme red to the extreme violet, but even those beyond the infra-red and the ultra-violet, or to be replaced by nerves that were sensitive to the electrical vibrations or to the magnetic waves or to the invisible forces that are unknown to us. To those beings who may exist on other planets, the universe would be something quite different from the universe of our scientific systems. We should therefore be in error if we mistook our sensations for realities. Real nature is quite otherwise. We do not know it, but the mind ought to study it.
I feel, I think; this is the only thing of which we are certain, with a present certainty-—a real test, and the only one worthy to be so qualified. From this primary fact, the only one of real observation, of undeniable certainty, there springs, by means of induction, a great secondary fact,—-the cause from which emanates this sensation and this thought.
And this cause resolves itself into two elements: the subject and the object; that is to say, that which feels and thinks, and that which is thought and felt.
Certain philosophers of the idealistic school, such as Berkeley in the eighteenth century, and H. Poincare in the twentieth, have gone so far as to pretend that only the thinking subject exists, that only our sensations are proved for us, and that the object, the exterior world, may very well not exist at all.
That is an exaggeration, exactly contrary to that of the radical materialists, and no less erroneous.
What is true and irrefutable is that we know what we think, and that we are ignorant of the ultimate reality, the essence of things, and of the external world of which we are able to perceive only the appearance.
Suppose we know that reality is anti-scientific. We know that our senses reveal only a part of it and even so after the manner of prisms, which modify reality. If our planet were constantly covered with clouds we should know nothing of the sun, nor the moon, nor the planets, nor the stars, and the world system would remain unknown, with the result that human knowledge would be condemned to an irremediable falsity. But what we know is nothing to what we do not know. And even our optic nerve is only a partial interpreter.
Illusion forms the unstable basis of our ideas, of our sensations, of our sentiments, of our beliefs. The first and most fundamental of these illusions is the immobility of the earth. Man feels himself to be fixed in the center of the universe and has imagined all sorts of things in consequence. Despite the demonstrations of astronomy, we have sought in vain to see, to touch truth; we have not been able to do so. We are, let us suppose, at the close of a beautiful day in summer, the air is calm, the sky clear, and everything about us is utterly peaceful. And yet we are, in fact, on an automobile racing through the depths of the heavens with dizzy speed.
Humanity lives in a state of profound ignorance and does not know that nature's organization does not help us to learn anything of reality. Our senses deceive us in everything. Scientific analysis alone brings some light to our minds.
Thus, for example, we feel nothing of the formidable movements of the planet on which our feet rest. It appears stable, immovable, with fixed positions: a top, a bottom, left side, right side, etc. But it rushes through space, bearing us with it, at a speed of 107,000 kilometers an hour, in its annual course around the sun, which itself moves through space in such a fashion that the earth's course is not a sharp curve but an ever open spiral, and that our wandering earth has not passed twice over the same path since it existed.
At the same time, the globe turns on its axis every twenty-four hours, so that what we call the top at a certain hour, is the bottom twelve hours later. This diurnal movement makes us travel 350 meters a second, in the latitude of Paris, and 465 meters at the equator.
Our planet is the play-thing of fourteen different movements, not one of which do we feel,-—not even those which touch us the most closely; for example, that of the tides on the earth's surface, which twice a day lift the ground beneath our feet as much as 30 centimeters. There is no fixed landmark that can enable us to observe them directly; if there were no shores the ocean tides would not be visible.
Do we even feel the weight of the air which we breathe? The surface of a man's body supports 16,000 kilograms of the air's weight, which is exactly counterbalanced by the pressure from within. Before Galileo, Pascal, and Torricelli, no one suspected that air had weight. Science has proved it; nature did not make us feel it.
The air is crossed by various currents of which we are unaware. Electricity has a continual part in it, the manifestations of which we scarcely ever perceive, except during storms, when there are violent ruptures of equilibrium. The sun sends us constantly magnetic radiations which, at a distance of 150 millions of kilometers, act on the magnetic needle without our senses being able to reveal this action. A few sensitive delicate organisms resemble these electric and magnetic currents.
Our eye perceives what we call light only through the vibrations of ether that are comprised of from 380 trillions (extreme red) to 760 trillions (extreme violet) a second; but the slow vibrations of the infra-red, below 380, exist and bear their part in nature, in the same way as do the rapid vibrations, above 760, of the ultra-violet, which are invisible to our retina.
Our ear perceives what we call sound only from 32 vibrations a second up to 36,000 for the shrillest whistles.
Our sense of smell perceives what we call odors only in very great proximity, and from a certain number of emanations only. The sense of smell in animals differs from that in human beings.
As a matter of fact, in nature, outside of our senses, there is no light, nor sound, nor odor; it is we who have created these words in response to our impressions. Light is a form of motion, like heat, and there is as much "light" in space at night as there is at noon, that is to say, as many vibrations of ether crossing the immensity of the heavens. Sound is another form of motion, and it is a noise only to our auditory nerves. Odors come from particles suspended in the air, which especially affect our olfactory nerves.
These are the only three senses which, in our terrestrial order, put us in touch with the world external to our bodies. The other two, taste and touch, act only through contact, which serves us little; they do not in all cases bring us the knowledge of reality.
There are about us vibrations of ether or of air, forces, invisible things which we do not perceive. That is a statement of our order which is absolutely scientific and incontestably rational.
It is possible that there may exist about us not only invisible things but even invisible, intangible beings, with whom our senses do not put us in touch. I do not say that such do exist, but I say that they may exist, and this statement is the absolutely scientific and rational corollary of the statements which precede it.
As it is granted—-and proved-—that our organs of perception do not reveal things to us as they are, and often give us false or erroneous impressions concerning movements of the earth, the weight of the air, radiations, electricity, magnetism, etc., we are not justified in thinking that what we see represents the only reality; we are even invited to admit the contrary.
Invisible beings may exist about us. Who would have imagined the microbes before they were discovered? But they swarm by millions and play a considerable part in the life of all organisms.
Appearances do not reveal reality to us. There is only one reality directly appreciated by us,—-that is our thought. And what is most undeniably real in man is the spirit. My former works have already led to this conclusion. The present book is destined to prove it even more convincingly. Will my readers pardon me for having repeated here what I published in "Lumen" in 1867, and in "Les Forces naturelles inconnues," 1907? It is absolutely necessary to recall these ideas.
Henri Poincare, of whom we were just speaking, "idealist," not "spiritualist" as he was, despite the skepticism of his conversation, wrote the following page, apropos of the last years of a French scholar, Potier, a professor at the Ecole Polytechnique:
The illness which killed him was long and cruel. For twelve years he was stretched on his bed or on a sofa, deprived of the use of his limbs and often tortured with pain. The encroachment of the disease was slow and prolonged, the crises were more frequent every year. At the end, there was almost nothing left of his body, and in the bed, from which he could no longer rise, one saw only two eyes. His soul was stronger than the blind power of a brutal illness; it did not yield. He had himself carried to the Polytechnic School and the School of Mines. More and more, in the moments that were left him of respite from suffering, he continued to interest himself in all that he had once loved. And in this body, which became more piteous from day to day, the intelligence remained as luminous as ever, like a fortress, the ramparts of which crumble bit by bit under the enemy shells and which is still rendered redoubtable by the energy of its commander. Several weeks before his death, he asked me for some books on mathematics, in order to take up a study that was new to him. To his last day, he showed us that thought is stronger than death.
No, it was not a spiritualist who wrote these lines, it was a professor of skepticism. So true is it that truth triumphs through itself and burns, inextinguishable, like Sirius in the midst of the starry night.
As a matter of fact, Henry Poincare has often assured me personally in our many and lengthy conversations, that as he doubted even the reality of the external world, he believed only in spirit. That was excessive. Let us exaggerate nothing.
After all, we are well aware of what we feel in ourselves. "While I am writing this book, while I conceive the plan, while I lay out the chapters, I feel exactly, strictly, without any parti pris, without any dogma, simply, directly, that it is I who do this work, my mind and not my body. I have a body. It is not my body that has me. This consciousness of ourselves is our immediate impression, and it is on the basis of our impressions that we can and must reason: they are the very foundation of all our reasoning.
How is it possible to pretend that the definition of the human being can be given in these words: "A tissue of flesh about a skeleton"; or in these: "A combination of molecules of oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon"; or in these: "A man consists of six kilos of bones, fifteen of albumen and fibrine, and fifty of water"; or "He is a bundle of nerves"?
Let us prefer the definition of Bonald: "Man is an intelligence served by organs."
Let us declare that man is essentially spirit, whether he knows it or not. Does not each one of us carry in himself the sense of justice? Does not a child who has been justly punished for a fault know that he deserved it? And when he has been unjustly punished does he not revolt against the injustice? From what comes the moral conscience? Man has had for ancestors the animals of the tertiary, secondary, and primary geological periods, which had gradually evolved from reptiles into simians. It is not their brains that have created moral conscience, especially this sense of justice which is innate in children. We can pretend that it comes first from ancestors, then from education. But whence comes this education? This belongs to the world of the spirit. There is no common measure between this intellectual, spiritual, moral world and the physico-chemical operations of the brain substance.
The will is certainly a form of energy belonging to the order of the intelligence. Let us take one example out of a thousand. Napoleon wishes to conquer the world and sacrifices everything to this ambition. Examine all his acts, even the least important, from the campaign in Egypt up to Waterloo. Not physiology, nor chemistry, nor physics, nor the theory of mechanism, will explain this personality, this continuity of ideas, this perserverance, this obstinacy. Cerebral vibrations? That is not enough. In the brain there is another thinking being of which the brain is only the instrument. It is not the eye which sees, it is not the brain which thinks.
The study of a star through the telescope cannot be legitimately attributed to the instrument, nor to the eye, nor to the brain, but only to the spirit of the astronomer which seeks and finds. The human will, in itself alone, would suffice to prove the existence of the psychic world, of the thinking world that differs from the material, visible, tangible world.
The action of the will is revealed in everything. We can take very simple examples of this.
I am sitting in an arm-chair, my hands on my knees.
"With my right hand I amuse myself in lifting, one by one, the fingers of my left hand; they fall back naturally.
But if I will they do not fall back; they will remain in the air.
What is it that is acting upon their muscles? It is simply my will.
Therefore, there is a mental force that acts upon matter. This force is associated with my brain,—-that goes without saying. But, nevertheless, it is an idea, and this idea acts upon matter. The initial cause is not the brain, the vibrations of which are only the effects.
The man who exercises his will is the author of his destiny.
Let us now consider, especially, thought in man.
It is the perpetual demonstration of the existence of the soul. When we reflect, when we say simply, "I think," or "I will," when we calculate a problem, when we exercise our power of abstraction and generalization, we affirm the existence of the soul.
Thought is the most precious, the most personal, and the most independent thing possessed by man. Its liberty cannot be attacked. You can torture the body, imprison it, drive it by material force; you can do nothing against thought. Nothing you do, nothing you say can compel it. It laughs at everything, scorns everything, dominates everything. When it acts a sham part, when worldly or religious hypocrisy causes it to lie, when political or commercial ambition puts a deceptive mask upon it, it remains itself, despite and against everything, and knows what it wishes. Is this not convincing evidence of the existence of a psychic being, independent of the brain?
It is not merely matter, not merely an assemblage of molecules that is able to think. It is just as childish, just as ridiculous to assert that the brain feels and thinks as to attribute the thoughts expressed in a telegram to the galvanic batteries that create the electricity used in the telegraph.
Spirit, thought, the controlling power of the mind, is neither matter nor force. The earth which gravitates about the sun, a falling stone, running water, heat which loosens or tightens the bonds between the atoms, show us, on the one hand, matter, on the other, energy. Thought, reason, the direction of things in accordance with a certain plan, reveals an entirely different principle.
No one has forgotten the classic lines of Vergil, in the magnificent sixth book of the AEneid:
Spiritus intus alit, totamque infusa per artus,
Mens agitat molem, et magno se corpore miscet.
[All that exists in the universe is transfused hy the same principle, Soul animating matter, which mingles with this great body.]
The poet has expressed the truth. The universe is ruled by spirit, and when we study this spirit in man, we ascertain that it is neither physical energy nor matter. It makes use of both and it often governs them according to its will.
The proofs of the existence of the human personality are innumerable: a special volume would be necessary to state them. As a matter of fact, has not each one of us many times apprehended their significance?
We have these proofs before our eyes every day. Stoicism in adversity, the energy displayed in escaping poverty, the devotion to noble causes, the sacrifice of one's own life for the welfare of the country, the will to conquer, the apostle of either religion or science, the martyr for the triumph of what he believes to be true—-are not all these just so many manifestations of the existence of the soul? How is it possible that material cerebral secretions which, as people pretend, resemble those of the kidneys or of the liver, could produce intellectual personalities?
A very original demonstration of "the reality of the soul through a study of the effects of chloroform and curari on the animal economy" was presented a long time ago (in 1868) under this title, by Monsieur Ramon de la Sagra, a corresponding member of the Institute (Academy of Moral and Political Sciences), who died in 1871 on the island of Cuba.
The breathing of the vapors of ether or of chloroform destroys all general sensitiveness, so that persons who have been placed in this extraordinary physiological state can undergo the most serious operations without feeling them. And not only do those under the influence of ether or chloroform feel no pain, while sharp instruments separate, cut, and torture their tissues and nerves; not only do they remain entirely insensible to these lacerations, wounds, and cuts, which in an ordinary state would wring cries of pain and terror from them, but it often happens that agreeable, even exquisite and delirious sensations are experienced by the soul during this astonishing sleep.
Ramon de la Sagra presents this phenomenon as a scientific demonstration of the existence of the soul. The soul and the body are certainly not the same thing, as they are so manifestly separated here; thanks to the influence of ether or chloroform, the soul continues to think as an individual, while the body is tortured by the steel. These two elements of the human whole are separated here by the agent of anaesthesia. This learned Spaniard had been very much struck by the action of the chloroform upon his wife, who, during her moments of unconsciousness, had kept her thought intact and had shown him that her intelligence had been in no way affected. She talked tranquilly with the surgeon, Verneuil, while he was cutting flesh and nerves with his knife. And later she told her husband that her ideas had been rather agreeable.
Let us remember, also, that in the school of Nancy pain has been suppressed by hypnotism.
The distinction between the soul and the body—-nay, more, their separation—has been observed under many conditions, in certain states of hypnosis, of somnambulism, of magnetism, of double personality, etc. The physiological hypotheses that have been imagined to explain these manifestations of the psychic individuality independent of the bodily organism are entirely insufficient. Our present conceptions of life and thought are on the point of collapsing.
Everything proves to us that the human soul is a substance distinct from the body. Despite its etymology, the "soul" is not a breath; it is an intellectual entity. How many words, in fact, have changed their significance! Electricity, for example, which is derived from the word ambre, electron.