Ultimate Questions

A MEMORY of long ago. ... I am walking upon a granite pavement that rings like iron, between buildings of granite bathed in the light of a cloudless noon. Shadows are short and sharp: there is no stir in the hot bright air; and the sound of my footsteps, strangely loud, is the only sound in the street. . . . Suddenly an odd feeling comes to me, with a sort of tingling shock, — a feeling, or suspicion, of universal illusion. The pavement, the bulks of hewn stone, the iron rails, and all things visible, are dreams! Light, color, form, weight, solidity — all sensed existences—are but phantoms of being, manifestations only of one infinite ghostliness for which the language of man has not any word. . . .

This experience had been produced by study of the first volume of the Synthetic Philosophy, which an American friend had taught me how to read. I did not find it easy reading; partly because I am a slow thinker, but chiefly because my mind had never been trained to sustained effort in such directions. To learn the First Principles occupied me many months: no other volume of the series gave me equal trouble. I would read one section at a time, — rarely two, — never venturing upon a fresh section until I thought that I had made sure of the preceding. Very cautious and slow my progress was, like that of a man mounting, for the first time, a long series of ladders in darkness. Reaching the light at last, I caught a sudden new vision of things, — a momentary perception of the illusion of surfaces, — and from that time the world never again appeared to me quite the same as it had appeared before. . . .

This memory of more than twenty years ago, and the extraordinary thrill of the moment, were recently revived for me by the reading of the essay “Ultimate Questions,”in the last and not least precious volume bequeathed us by the world’s greatest thinker. The essay contains his final utterance about the riddle of life and death, as that riddle presented itself to his vast mind in the dusk of a lifetime of intellectual toil. Certainly the substance of what he had to tell us might have been inferred from the Synthetic Philosophy; but the particular interest of this last essay is made by the writer’s expression of personal sentiment regarding the problem that troubles all deep thinkers. Perhaps few of us could have remained satisfied with his purely scientific position. Even while fully accepting his declaration of the identity of the power that “wells up in us under the form of consciousness” with that Power Unknowable which shapes all things, most disciples of the master must have longed for some chance to ask him directly, “But how do you feel in regard to the prospect of personal dissolution ?” And this merely emotional question he has answered as frankly and as fully as any of us could have desired, — perhaps even more frankly. “Old people,” he remarks apologetically,

“must have many reflections in common. Doubtless one which I have now in mind is very familiar. For years past, when watching the unfolding buds in the Spring, there has arisen the thought, ‘Shall I ever again see the buds unfold? Shall I ever again be awakened at dawn by the song of the thrush ? ’ Now that the end is not likely to be long postponed, there results an increasing tendency to meditate upon ultimate questions.” . . . Then he tells us that these ultimate questions — “ of the How and the Why, of the Whence and the Whither” — occupy much more space in the minds of those who cannot accept the creed of Christendom than the current conception fills in the minds of the majority of men. The enormity of the problem of existence becomes manifest only to those who have permitted themselves to think freely and widely and deeply, with all such aids to thought as exact science can furnish; and the larger the knowledge of the thinker, the more pressing and tremendous the problem appears, and the more hopelessly unanswerable. To Herbert Spencer himself it must have assumed a vastness beyond the apprehension of the average mind; and it weighed upon him more and more inexorably the nearer he approached to death. He could not avoid the conviction — plainly suggested in his magnificent Psychology and in other volumes of his great work — that there exists no rational evidence for any belief in the continuance of conscious personality after death.

“After studying primitive beliefs, and finding that there is no origin for the idea of an after-life, save the conclusion which the savage draws, from the notion suggested by dreams, of a wandering double which comes back on awaking, and which goes away for an indefinite time at death; — and after contemplating the inscrutable relation between brain and consciousness, and finding that we can get no evidence of the existence of the last without the activity of the first, — we seem obliged to relinquish the thought that consciousness continues after physical organization has become inactive.”

In this measured utterance there is no word of hope; but there is at least a carefully stated doubt, which those who will may try to develop int o the germ of a hope. The guarded phrase, “we seem, obliged to relinquish,” certainly suggests that, although in the present state of human knowledge we have no reason to believe in the perpetuity of consciousness, some larger future knowledge might help us to a less forlorn prospect. From the prospect as it now appears even this mightiest of thinkers recoiled : —

. . . “But it seems a strange and repugnant conclusion that with the cessat ion of consciousness at death, there ceases to be any knowledge of having existed. With his last breath it becomes to each the same thing as though he had never lived.

“And then the consciousness itself — what is it during the time that it continues? And what becomes of it when it ends? We can only infer that it is a specialized and individualized form of that Infinite and Eternal Energy which transcends both our knowledge and our imagination; and that at death its elements lapse into that Infinite and Eternal Energy, whence they were derived.”

With his last breath it becomes to each the same thing as though he had never lived? To the individual, perhaps — surely not to the humanity made wiser and better by his labors. But the world must pass away: will it thereafter be the same for the universe as if humanity had never existed ? That might depend upon the possibilities of future interplanetary communication. But the whole universe of suns and planets must also perish: thereafter will it be the same as if no intelligent life had ever toiled and suffered upon those countless worlds? We have at least the certainty that the energies of life cannot be destroyed, and the strong probability that they will help to form another life and thought in universes yet to be evolved. . . . Nevertheless, allowing for all imagined possibilities, — granting even the likelihood of some inapprehensible relation between all past and all future conditioned-being, — the tremendous question remains: What signifies the whole of apparitional existence to the Unconditioned ? As flickers of sheet - lightning leave no record in the night, so in that Darkness a million billion trillion universes might come and go, and leave no trace of their having been.

To every aspect of the problem Herbert Spencer must have given thought; but he has plainly declared that the human intellect, as at present constituted, can offer no solution. The greatest mind that this world has yet produced, — the mind that systematized all human knowledge, that revolutionized modern science, that dissipated materialism forever, that revealed to us the ghostly unity of all existence, that reestablished all ethics upon an immutable and eternal foundation, — the mind that could expound with equal lucidity, and by the same universal formula, the history of a gnat or the history of a sun, — confessed itself, before the Riddle of Existence, scarcely less helpless than the mind of a child.

But for me the supreme value of this last essay is made by the fact that in its pathetic statement of uncertainties and probabilities one can discern something very much resembling a declaration of faith. Though assured that we have yet no foundation for any belief in the persistence of consciousness after the death of the brain, we are bidden to remember that the ultimate nature of consciousness remains inscrutable. Though we cannot surmise the relation of consciousness to the unseen, we are reminded that it must, be considered as a manifestation of the Infinite Energy, and that its elements, if dissociated by death, will return to the timeless and measureless Source of Life. . . . Science to-day also assures us that whatever existence has been,— all individual life that ever moved in animal or plant, — all feeling and thought that ever stirred in human consciousness, — must have flashed self-record beyond the sphere of sentiency; and though we cannot know, we cannot help imagining that the best of such registration may be destined to perpetuity. On this latter subject, for obvious reasons, Herbert Spencer has remained silent; but the reader may ponder a remarkable paragraph in the final sixth edition of the First Principles, — a paragraph dealing with the hypothesi that consciousness may belong to the cosmic ether. This hypothesis has not been lightly dismissed by him; and even while proving its inadequacy, he seems to intimate that it may represent imperfectly some truth yet inapprehensible by the human mind: —

“The only supposition having consistency is that that in which consciousness inheres is the all-pervading ether. This we know can be affected by molecules of matter in motion, and conversely can affect the motions of molecules; — as witness the action of light on the retina. In pursuance of this supposition we may assume that the ether, which pervades not only all space but all matter, is,under special conditions in certain parts of the nervous system, capable of being affected by the nervous changes in such way as to result in feeling, and is reciprocally capable under these conditions of affecting the nervous changes. But if we accept this explanation, we must assume that the potentiality of feeling is universal, and that the evolution of feeling in the ether takes place only under the extremely complex conditions occurring in certain nervous centres. This, however, is but a semblance of an explanation, since we know not what the ether is, and since, by confession of those most capable of judging, no hypothesis that has been framed accounts for all its powers. Such an explanation may be said to do no more than symbolize the phenomena by symbols of unknown natures.”1

— “Inscrutable is this complex consciousness which has slowly evolved out of infantine vacuity — consciousness which, in other shapes, is manifested by animate beings at large — consciousness which, during the development of every creature, makes its appearance out of what seems unconscious matter; suggesting the thought that consciousness, in some rudimentary form, is omnipresent.”2

— Of all modern thinkers, Spencer was perhaps the most careful to avoid giving encouragement to any hypothesis unsupported by powerful evidence. Even the simple sum of his own creed is uttered only, with due reservation, as a statement of three probabilities: that consciousness represents a specialized and individualized form of the infinite Energy; that it is dissolved by death; and that its elements then return to the source of all being. As for our mental attitude toward the infinite Mystery, his advice is plain. We must resign ourselves to the eternal law, and endeavor to vanquish our ancient inheritance of superstitious terrors, remembering that, “merciless as is the Cosmic process worked out by an Unknown Power, yet vengeance is nowhere to be found in it.” 3

In the same brief essay there is another confession of singular interest, — an acknowledgment of the terror of Space. To even the ordinary mind, the notion of infinite Space, as forced upon us by those monstrous facts of astronomy which require no serious study to apprehend, is terrifying; — I mean the mere vague idea of that everlasting Night into which the blazing of millions of suns can bring neither light nor warmth. But to the intellect of Herbert Spencer the idea of Space must have presented itself after a manner incomparably more mysterious and stupendous. The mathematician alone will comprehend the full significance of the paragraph dealing with the Geometry of Position and the mystery of space-relations, — or the startling declaration that “even could we penetrate the mysteries of existence, there would remain still more transcendent mysteries.” But Herbert Spencer tells us that, apart from the conception of these geometrical mysteries, the problem of naked Space itself became for him, in the twilight of his age, an obsession and a dismay: —

. . . “And then comes the thought of this universal matrix itself, anteceding alike creation or evolution, whichever be assumed, and infinitely transcending both, alike in extent and duration; since both, if conceived at all, must be conceived as having had beginnings, while Space had no beginning. The thought of this blank form of existence which, explored in all directions as far as imagination can reach, has, beyond that, an unexplored region compared with which the part which imagination has traversed is but infinitesimal, — the thought of a Space compared with which our immeasurable sidereal system dwindles to a point, is a thought too overwhelming to be dwelt upon. Of late years the consciousness that without origin or cause infinite Space has ever existed and must ever exist, produces in me a feeling from which I shrink.”

How the idea of infinite Space may affect a mind incomparably more powerful than my own, I cannot know; — neither can I divine the nature of certain problems which the laws of space-relation present to the geometrician. But when I try to determine the cause of the horror which that idea evokes within my own feeble imagination, I am able to distinguish different elements of the emotion, — particular forms of terror responding to particular ideas (rational and irrational) suggested by the revelations of science. One feeling — perhaps the main element of the horror — is made by the thought of being prisoned forever and ever within that unutterable Viewlessness which occupies infinite Space.

Behind this feeling there is more than the thought of eternal circumscription, — there is also the idea of being perpetually penetrated, traversed, thrilled by the Nameless; — there is likewise the certainty that no least particle of innermost secret Self could shun the eternal touch of It; — there is furthermore the tremendous conviction that could the Self of me rush with the swiftness of light, — with more than the swiftness of light, — beyond all galaxies, beyond durations of time so vast that Science knows no sign by which their magnitudes might be indicated, — and still flee onward, onward, downward, upward, — always, always, — never could that Self of me reach nearer to any verge, never speed farther from any centre. For, in that Silence, all vastitude and height and depth and time and direction are swallowed up: relation therein could have no meaning but for the speck of my fleeting consciousness, — atom of terror pulsating alone through atomless, soundless, nameless, illimitable potentiality.

And the idea of that potentiality awakens another quality of horror, — the horror of infinite Possibility. For this Inscrutable that pulses through substance as if substance were not at all so subtly that none can feel the flowing of its tides, yet so swiftly that no lifetime would suffice to count the number of the oscillations which it makes within the fraction of one second — thrills to us out of endlessness; — and the force of infinity dwells in its lightest tremor; the weight of eternity presses behind its faintest shudder. To that phantom-Touch, the tinting of a blossom or the dissipation of a universe were equally facile: here it caresses the eye with the charm and illusion of color; there it bestirs into being a cluster of giant suns. All that human mind is capable of conceiving as possible — and how much also that human mind must forever remain incapable of conceiving? — may be wrought anywhere, everywhere, by a single tremor of that Abyss. . . .

Is it true, as some would have us believe, that the fear of the extinction of self is the terror supreme? . . . For the thought of personal perpetuity in the infinite vortex is enough to evoke sudden trepidations that no tongue can utter, — fugitive instants of a horror too vast to enter wholly into consciousness: a horror that can be endured in swift black glimpsings only. And the trust that we are one with the Absolute — dim points of thrilling in the abyss of It — can prove a consoling faith only to those who find themselves obliged to think that consciousness dissolves with the crumbling of the brain. ... It seems to me that few (or none) dare to utter frankly those stupendous doubts and fears which force mortal intelligence to recoil upon itself at every fresh attempt to pass the barrier of the Knowable. Were that barrier unexpectedly pushed back, — were knowledge to be suddenly and vastly expanded beyond its present limits, — perhaps we should find ourselves unable to endure the revelation. . . .

Mr. Percival Lowell’s astonishing book Mars sets one to thinking about the results of being able to hold communication with the habitants of an older and a wiser world, — some race of beings more highly evolved than we, both intellectually and morally, and able to interpret a thousand mysteries that still baffle our science. Perhaps, in such event, we should not find ourselves able to comprehend the methods, even could we borrow the results, of wisdom older than all our civilization by myriads or hundreds of myriads of years. But would not the sudden advent of larger knowledge from some elder planet prove for us, by reason of the present moral condition of mankind, nothing less than a catastrophe ? — might it not even result in the extinction of the human species?

The rule seems to be that the dissemination of dangerous higher knowledge, before the masses of a people are ethically prepared to receive it, will always be prevented by the conservative instinct; and we have reason to suppose (allowing for individual exceptions) that the power to gain higher knowledge is developed only as the moral ability to profit by such knowledge is evolved. I fancy that if the power of holding intellectual converse with other worlds could now serve us, we should presently obtain it. But if, by some astonishing chance — as by the discovery, let us suppose, of some method of ether-telegraphy — this power were prematurely acquired, its exercise would in all probability be prohibited. Imagine, for example, what would have happened during the Middle Ages to the person guilty of discovering means to communicate with the people of a neighboring planet! Assuredly that inventor and his apparatus and his records would have been burnt; every trace and memory of his labors would have been extirpated. Even to-day the sudden discovery of truths unsupported by human experience, the sudden revelation of facts opposed to existing convictions, might evoke some frantic revival of superstitious terrors, — some religious panic-fury that would strangle science, and replunge the world in mental darkness for a thousand years.

  1. First Principles, § 71 c, definitive edition of 1900.
  2. Autobiography, vol. ii. p. 470.
  3. Facts and Comments, p. 201.