A Plea for Materialism

I AM taking the word with the worst reputation I know, to describe what I mean, because it seems better to err on the side of frankness than to hide radical ideas under the cloak of conservatism. Jacques Loeb uses a better expression in his Mechanistic Conception of Life, but the term is new, despite its frequent use. Materialism is good enough, except for its reputation; and the ideas which arc to follow will not be so precise as to call for great, nicety in name.

We call everything bad, everything low, everything undesirable, ‘material,’ whereas we exalt those things we hold in high esteem as ‘spiritual.’ It is a smug and lazy method, and because the two expressions have never passed through the alembic of slang, they find themselves in gross misuse in high places. As an evidence of that misuse, we are disposed to regard the miser, hoarding his money and his securities, as a material creature; but he is above all things an idealist, having perverted ideals, and cherishing only the potentialities of wealth and property. As an evidence of its correct use, we consider the man of research and vision, who finds in physical reactions the explanation, or at least the indication, of the great processes of life, a materialist. Now a materialist he is, but he is also a true seer, and as his visions are borne out by research, he becomes a prophet.

By materialists I do not mean those Philistines who seek and follow only the peaks of business and pleasure. They are not materialists in the sense here presented, for I am proposing materialism as a philosophical conception, and they are not philosophers at all who are strangers to the delectable valleys where culture abides. The substance of this materialism is a greater faith in the processes of nature, and a greater belief in our ability to understand them. This demands strict integrity of thought. There is no place in it for the foxy trickster of logic, or for the intellectual dodger who takes a conclusion for granted because somebody of repute has reached it before him.

It is remarkably easy to let others do our thinking for us, and in many respects we must. ‘The innate laziness of human nature,’ as Professor Sumner called it, is of great use. We surely cannot begin at the beginning of knowledge and, thanks to nobody, find out everything for ourselves. But when we acknowledge, complacently, those things to be true which we know are not true, it seems to me that we are neither fair nor honest. Of course, we have to compromise all along the line. We live under many laws which we do not believe to be just, and yet we submit. But if we can improve them, it is our business to do so. We maintain social conditions which we know are absurd, but if we can better them we are not dealing righteously if we do not try to do so. We make advances by learning more and then adjusting our affairs to conform to this greater knowledge. The innate laziness of human nature is only one of our many qualities. When it dominates us, we go backward.

The purpose of this paper is to bring forward a few arguments concerning the measure in which human life would be augmented and the social order improved, if we were to welcome materialism, not only into literature, but into our lives, without prejudice. I propose to go even further than this, and to urge the acceptance of as much materialism, as much of the mechanistic view of life, as our philosophy will hold. In other words, my plea is, not to soil the sense of that which is spiritual by loading upon it those things which we can work out for ourselves.

There is no possibility that we shall ever know everything; that any man or woman will have a vision of the whole of life. We have neither the organs of apprehension nor the storage capacity nor yet the sense of coördination. The truth, by which I mean all the facts in their right relation, is and always will be beyond us. Some of us see things only near by, and others are far-sighted and have a better vision of the distance than of that which is near. Some are marvelously gifted, and others of us — God help us! — are very nearly blind. But my plea is against the blindness of volition; against, the resolution not to see that which is before us, because it is easier or more pleasant or more comfortable to look the other way. There will always be room, far over and above all that we can learn and know, to believe in God. Legends may fade away and prophecies of old may crumble like ancient temples, and creeds and dogmas disappear as fog in the sun, but the catholic man will always know that beyond the human knowledge is the greater expanse. There is all that is beyond life, and life is very, very short.

From what we read it would appear that the philosophic world is divided into two camps, those who hold to the mechanistic theory and the vitalists, engaged in battle à l’outranee, with no quarter given. But in point of fact on all sides are earnest men, seeking the truth; and just as we have learned that party government does not assure public welfare, so we should learn that advancement in knowledge and understanding is not to be accomplished by fighting for the one side or the other. Let us get out of our minds the legal fiction that the truth is a verdict or a prize, to be given to the conqueror in a fight. ‘There are two sides to every question,’ is the first peep of the pettifogger. Very often, indeed, there are but two sides, one of which is right and the other wrong. But often again there are more than two sides; a question may be polygonous and have more sides than King Solomon had wives.

While it would seem that every movement, every act, every thought of a man is explained by the mechanics of, and the chemical reaction within, his structure, the fact remains that he is a conscious entity, with grave responsibilities. We may analyze him to the extent of his whole being. Then, in turn, he may synthesize, and we are foolish indeed to quarrel over the nature of the master spirit within him. Foolish, because we do not know, and the most we can get out of our discussion is a quarrel. I may think that the mechanistic theory explains everything, and proceed to insult you for thinking otherwise and rouse you to anger, and then, when all is over, I shall find that I have reached the limitations of my knowledge long before, and have maintained untenable premises, while you will probably have said more than you mean, — and neither of us will be right. Let us seek the knowable and achieve wisdom. The unknowable will always be a greater field, and there a simple faith will help us more than a cantankerous dispute.

There is no easy formula whereby the truth may be achieved, but there are available working hypotheses whereby we may advance toward it. The danger point, the hindrance, the place of stumbling, is where we demand of any one that he acknowledge as the truth that which he does not believe to be so. This seems to me to be fundamentally wrong. The little tricks of apologetics whereby one says one thing and means another, or means anything at all, will not do. It is a poor plan to talk with your tongue in your cheek.

Now let us assume ourselves to be materialists as far as we can be, — not as far as we care to or are willing to be, — and see what might happen.

Nature always seems to be wanting to do something. It is always busy. It seems somet imes to have an all-wise, and sometimes to have a very stupid purpose. Sometimes it seems malicious. The fact is, nature is always busy acting according to its own laws, and a great deal of what is called the divinity in us consists in our ability to make nature serve us and our kind. And the more we know of nature and its ways, and how to control it, and to kill and utterly destroy forms of life that are inimical to human welfare and growth, the better hope we shall have of increasing this divinity and approaching the great light of truth, which is always beyond us, but which may be much nearer to us than it is now.

Let us consider every man and every woman as an apparatus. And instead of attributing their acts to the good or evil spirits which inhabit them, let us consider rather their several structures, and seek our explanations in their reactions. Science has only touched the outer edge of these things, and yet it has gone further than is dreamed of by those who do not know the language. But if we close our minds to the light that is dawning there, because by an unfortunate neglect we did not adjust them to scientific understanding when they were fallow, we are ranging ourselves along with those forces of denial which Goethe recognized and called Mephistopheles.

Now, this is no plea for stupid credulity toward science, but it is a plea for an open mind. So, if we see the most beautiful thing in the world, a mother turning to her child, we shall find our vision enlarged by the knowledge that she is acting in conformance with unerring physical and chemical laws; that definite reactions take place within her; and that, if she is devoid of mother-love, the reason is that a part of her equipment is atrophied and so out of use. The exquisite nicety with which the good mother meets the needs and looks out for the welfare of her child is a development of the ages; innumerable generations of loving mothers have contributed to the type that can do this thing so wonderfully well. Far more beautiful is she than the carved and painted madonnas of an age when men believed in the love of the Mother of God and wrought slat ues and pictures of such marvelous beauty that we go thousands of miles to see them. Now this very beauty is all around us, in our homes, everywhere, and we should have eyes to see it if we did not assume that it is entirely due to a casual spirit, inhabiting a ‘temple of clay,’ with us to-day and gone to-morrow. We pay all sorts of prices for pictures of beauty that show us the phenomenon of mother-love, — and we do well to cherish the ideals that are so clearly shown there. But we have just such human marvels with us, everywhere, with all the wonderful reactions and responses taking place before our eyes, and we should be able to see them if we only had a larger understanding of their nature.

If you and I go into a crowded room to hear a lecture, a room deficient in oxygen, we know why we cannot follow the speaker. We are far enough advanced to know that our thinking apparatus does not work well, for a purely chemical reason. This is materialism.

The modern method of meeting disease is much more material than that of mediæval days. The Holy Inquisition was convinced, because of its closed mind, that disease was a manifestation of a spirit which was called the Devil. The more or less wort hy Fat hers sought with praiseworthy diligence to find some one in league with Satan whom they presumed to be his agent, and they proceeded with rack and wheel to bring about a betterment of conditions. The modern method of driving out this same devil is wholly unpicturesque, and the literary merit of the exorcisms, or orders to clean up, is far inferior to that found in the liturgy. Literary merit is subordinated to the more important features to be found in the determination of what steps shall be taken. This is as it should be; it is a nearer approach to Things in their Right Order, which we have set up as our idea of the truth. It is no argument against literary merit; the point is that literary merit is not the dominant feature in the process of over coming disease.

This is no place to discuss the fertilization of the eggs of animals by chemical means, or the remarkable researches of physiological laboratories, which add so much to the knowledge of the processes of life.1 But if we proceed along this line of thought and look for the physical causes of acts, we shall recognize the bearing of physical conditions upon the human will. We shall greatly enlarge our understanding by it, and prepare the way for better social conditions. In doing this we are not combating spirituality or denying religion; we are seeking a higher plane from which to consider life.

If we were , only informed, for instance, of the whole process of anger, of what poisons are secreted under it, of the nerve-reactions whereby understanding is inhibited and the attention narrowed down to an overpowering lust to destroy, we should pity the poor madman that the man in anger is, but we should not listen to him; we should know that his wrath is a pathological condition, and treat him accordingly.

If our equipment of the mechanism which functions as understanding is superior to our equipment of that mechanism which responds to anger, — no matter in how intimate a manner they may interact, — we are in a position to control ourselves; and if the mechanism which functions as sympathy is in good working order, we do control ourselves.2

So, with the mechanistic conception of life in mind, we should judge with far more discrimination than at present . In sitting in judgment upon a man charged, let us say, with assault, we should by no means have finished the task when we had determined whether he committed the act or not. There should also be established, so far as possible, every reaction within the man which led up to it. By that time a righteous judge would know what to do — but not before.

With more materialism, more knowledge of the mechanics and the reactions of life, the reasons for being angry would decrease. We do not grow angry at a machine. We look for the cause of the trouble, if it will not operate. And in the very measure that we study the processes and reactions which lead men to act, we increase our understanding. On the other hand, if we consider our neighbor solely as a spiritual entity, taking for granted that his spirit does as fancy dictates, we are very likely to Jose patience over him, because we place the entire responsibility for everything he does upon t he poor man’s fancy. ‘How could he be so cruel?' we ask. As materialists we should at most blame his judgment. If he is cruel, we know that his sympathetic mechanism is atrophied, perhaps because of his bad judgment in not forcing it to funct ion; but there is no more occasion to be vindictive toward him than to strike a blind man who has lost his sight through carelessness.

This is the method of materialistic philosophy: to seek the stimulus to each reaction as far as we may. There is no occasion to tangle up the honest search for the causes of phenomena, human and otherwise, with the ancient agony about free will. We know that the faculty of judgment is one of the functions of the human creature, and we also know that an act is a response to a stimulus, and may be justly considered from a mechanistic point of view.

With the development of materialism, good taste will rise to a higher level. It will cease to be a shallow imitation of one another by people in the name of style; a buying of things expensive because scarce. We shall know and confess frankly when our æsthetic responses arc induced, and there will be no occasion to lie about what gives us delight. We shall also be unable, even among the uncultured, to gain a reputation for good taste by declaring everything we see to be ugly. We shall know the value of the æsthetic sense, and cultivate it accordingly. So, if we truly seek beauty we shall find it, and the dawn of a new era of art may be upon us.

And consider how practical its workings will be! With larger understanding, we shall know better how to consider those distressing things which are brought to our attention under such guises as ‘ Realism in Art ’ — from which we fellows of the earlier vintages suffered so sorely in our youth. We shall know, when the next influx of realists is at hand, that they offend against the truth by publishing in a false relation to other things what they desire to set forth, and that they offend against good taste exactly as does the billboard. It is not right to force upon you and me, as we go our quiet way, photo-chemical reactions which cause us distress. We do not, for instance, want to chew Somebody’s Superior Plug Tobacco. In our present unenlightenment we are obliged to receive the impression that we should chew it, thousands of times, because we do not know or think about photochemistry and the injury done to the nervous system by repeated reactions which cause irritability. If we knew, as photo-chemistry would teach us, that the effect of billboards on the health of the nerves of a community is bad, we should soon be rid of a very common nuisance.

In considering plays, it is maintained on good authority that the plot is eighty-five per cent of the play, and the lines not over fifteen. Beautiful expression, exquisite phrases, perfection of style, will not carry a play that is not a real drama. But with a good play the lines may be indifferent: it will carry itself. ‘You cannot kill a good play,’ is another way of putting it. In considering life we are disposed to devote eighty-five per cent, or more of our attention to talk, guesses, idle speculation and miscellaneous wondering, and fifteen per cent or less to a consideration of the nature of vital processes, — which is where we err. If we can get. far enough ahead to recognize as due to physical causes as many of the phenomena of life as we can understand to be of that nature, we shall make headway in understanding. There will be abundant opportunity for metaphysics after that. As soon as we recognize a physical process we may begin to study it with some hope of enlightenment. So long as we bar physics and chemistry in the study of the phenomena of life, we close our minds to enlightenment.

An interesting argument in favor of the mechanistic view of life is the absurd similarity of our emotional reactions; and of these the most monotonously recurrent is our interminable justification of ourselves. Surely this is an automatic reaction! On every hand we see people doing absurd things, each an immediate response to some stimulus, and without any forethought whatever. Then comes the justification, which seldom has any relation to the real cause. If we looked for the true reactions which take place in people we should not be so mediævally credulous when they explain themselves. We should know better. If in an apparatus we want to induce an electric current we proceed to apply the stimulus by mechanical means. If the current does not generate we know that there is something wrong with the machine. Under the right conditions and with the proper stimulus, a current is sure to be generated. There is no reason why, with a better understanding of the human mechanism, the sympathetic reactions should not likewise be developed, be induced to respond more readily than they do at present. In this way human kindness would greatly increase, and the world would be a far better place to live in. Unfortunately, many are developed in remarkable measure except as to their equipment of sympathy, which is woefully inert. Such powerful men are sometimes of great value to their kind,and sometimes their works are a veritable pestilence. But your conscientious materialist would not give way to anger against such a man, and t hus put his own faculties out of operation. He would recognize his abilities and his possible use as a member of society, point out his deficit of sympathy, and seek to find a stimulus that would produce the necessary reaction in him. The powerful man without sympathy would be very loath to admit himself to be such a mental cripple and would, under pressure of intelligent public opinion, try by his acts to prove the contrary.

Under certain conditions certain fish will swim toward the light. This is not curiosity on their part, nor does one of their number influence the others to do as he does. This passion, this urgent drive toward the light, is brought about by adding a chemical reagent to the water in which they swim. They straightway leave everything and swim toward the light, because of certain photo-chemical reactions which take place within their nervous systems.

Somewhat like this is the phenomenon of a nation going to war. Where peace and order reign, something suddenly happens. Newspapers rave, orators shout, brass bands play, and then there is neither peace nor order. The stimulus, whatever it is, has induced a secretion of anger-bodies which cause a condition of wrath which drives to war. Just as the fish are pointed and driven toward the light by a reaction which takes place within them, so do men go forth to kill and destroy. Sympathy and reason become empty phrases, glib upon the tongue, but crowded out of consciousness by the passion for ruin.

Very complex indeed are we, and very difficult to understand, — but so is a sewing machine and so is an electric generator until we understand the mechanical principles under which they operate. Now, men and women are machines, vastly complex, but operating under definite laws; and the golden rule to a better understanding of them is to learn the nature of their reactions.

Let us make a rough examinat ion of the interesting phenemenon of a bad man becoming good. The mechanism of his sympathy is inert, and his responses to the stimulus of any wish or passing fancy are without inhibitions. Then, under the stimulus of a friend whom he trusts, or aroused by a memory, or called to consciousness by a bar of music or a passing smell, the sympathetic mechanism is aroused. This will automatically check the responses to desire which were theretofore without check, and his angle of vision will be changed. Nerves, like muscles, respond more quickly through exercise, and by repeated and diligent exercise he may reach a condition of efficiency to society. Then he will be good.

The burglar who goes out to rob your house is seeking his welfare in his work, just as you and I do in ours. If he cannot consider your welfare in his business he is like a great many of the rest of us; he finds life a little too complicated to lake in other interests than his own. You are his legitimate prey, just as your competitor in business is your legit imate prey. Socially, you and I differ from the burglar in that we play the game according to different rules, and we like to feel that we are of some use to the world at large. The burglar has a narrower view, and his social aspirations and desire for usefulness are restricted to the under-world. Then, too, he is probably undeveloped in sympathy and imagination. His sensitiveness to emotions of sympathy is probably slight. But neither sympathy nor imagination nor sensitiveness to anything except pain may be driven into his soul by making him suffer in order to satisfy your resentment against him. Your resentment may drive fear into him, and through fear he may cease to be a burglar; but statistics do not encourage us much in the hope for this.

We have so tangled up goodness with dogma that the very thought of righteousness has become almost an offense to many because of the assumptions of dogma that righteousness should conform to it. Under the mechanistic view, dogma will cease to offend, and will become an exponent of menial equipment. One of the most persistent of nuisances, the hypocrite, will then find his way of life so difficult that he will be likely to choose another. Thus, if I see you in dire distress, but, being too lazy to save you, I piously clasp my hands and say, ‘It was the will of God, and must be for the best,’ I may claim to be spiritually minded, but you will know better, and so will everybody else who has the mechanistic conception of life. You will know very well that my way is not God’s way; you will know that I am a creature of inertia and that I am trying to call my fault something that it is not. In fact, under this view of life we may shout and declaim about our wonderful qualities and how our hearts are bursting with love and sympathy for our kind, but our appeals will fall upon empty ears, because the scientific way of thinking will have become current, and then all the lawyers in the land will be unable to help us.

Not a thing that has been said in this essay is a denial of the human soul. You are you, and I am I, and within us both is the Mystery. But to attribute a single thought or a single act to it that may be attributed to causes which we can understand is a denial of the belief that the truth shall make us free.

  1. See The Mechanistic Conception of Life. By JACQUES LOEB. Chicago University Press. 1912. — THE AUTHOR.
  2. See The Origin and Growth of the Moral Instinct, by ALEXANDER SUTHERLAND, for the theory that sympathy is the key to advancement in the evolution of mankind. — THE AUTHOR.