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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 37

The Fading Polytheism of Science

The Fading Polytheism of Science.

From these two great discoveries, namely, the unity of all natural forces as varying manifestations of one infinite, omnipresent, and eternal Force, and the unity of all natural events as parts of a universal process of cosmical evolution, two great truths are deducible which must powerfully affect the development of the philosophical science of the future. The first of these truths is that science is gradually passing out of the polytheistic into the monotheistic stage.

The main thesis of Materialism is that all phenomena whatsoever, whether in outward Nature or in the page 14 human consciousness, are explicable by the ultimate "properties of matter." These properties are eternal and underived; they exist in and by themselves as inseparable from the various forms of matter; they constitute all that we know of matter, and must be accepted as ultimate facts, explaining everything else, but remaining themselves unexplained. "Nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, sulphur, and phosphorus," says Moleschott, "possess their inherent qualities from eternity." "Matter," says Dubois-Rey-mond, "is not a coach, to which you could fasten or from which you could remove forces as if they were horses. A particle of iron is, and remains, the same, whether it crosses the horizon in the meteoric stone, rushes along in the wheel of the locomotive, or circulates in the blood-globule through the temples of the poet. These qualities are eternal, inalienable, and untransferable. So Prof. Haeckel, of Jena, explains all phenomena as "the necessary consequence of active causes which inhere in the chemical combinations of matter itself and in its physical properties." In a very remarkable lecture [translated in The Index, Nos. 42 and 43], Prof. Hering, of Vienna, includes memory among the inherent properties of organized matter, and refers to it the wonderful phenomena of the reproduction of parental forms; which, considering that memory is a purely intellectual function and cannot be classed among physical properties at all, is a strange begging of the question. His theory reminds me of the Swabhâvika school of Buddhists, one of whose opinions, according to Abel-Rémusat, is that "matter is eternal as well as its properties, which possess not only activity but intelligence." [Melanges Posthumes, p. 156.] This conception of matter as the only substance, and all natural forces as the mere properties or qualities of it, is the essence of Materialism in all its thorough-going forms.

Nor is this conception of ultimate properties of matter confined to consistent adherents of the materialistic school. A semi-materialistic philosophy is indicated in what has been until recently the prevalent opinion among English scientific men, namely, that the "Creator" imparted to matter at the "creation" all its present properties by means of which all natural phenomena are to be explained. Dr. Buckland, for instance, speaks of "the properties adopted by the elements at the moment of their creation;" and the author of "Vestiges of the Natural page 15 History of the Creation" says:—"The Eternal Sovereign arranges a solar or an astral system by dispositions imparted primordially to matter." [p. 104 and 106, eleventh edition.]

Now this reference of all events in Nature to the properties of matter as ultimate causes constitutes what I might call the polytheism of science. It splits up primal Being into a multitude of independent, though unintelligent, powers, and attributes to their blind, hap-hazara conjunctions or collisions the production of the universe as it is. Between these various properties no relationship can be detected, because each is conceived to bean ultimate fact, isolated and unrelated. That carbon happens to have one set of properties, chlorine another, and so forth, cannot be explained on this materialistic hypothesis: but by the properties as they exist must all facts be explained. The only fundamental difference I can discern between this theory of the universe and that, for instance, of the Greek mythology, is that the latter makes the world ruled by a group of semi-intelligent powers, while the former makes the world ruled by a group of wholly unintelligent powers. The contrast seems to be in favor of the Greek mythology. Against materialists as such I have no prejudice-whatsoever; and against philosophical materialism itself I have no objections on moral grounds. But against materialism as a philosophy of Nature I have the strongest objections, since it appears to me not to be a philosophy at all, but rather a degeneration of mythological religion. It is neither more nor less than polytheism in the only form possible in modern times. It renders impossible any high conception of the unity of the universe, any true appreciation of Humboldt's "living Whole," any deep insight into the real drift and tendency of modern scientific thought. I expect to be bitterly assailed for saying this, and absurdly charged with all manner of assaults on materialists as men, although I respect them according to their individual character, and have found them as noble as any other class but none the less is it true that materialism attributing all phenomena to disconnected properties of matter as ultimate causes, and making these the only gods it recognizes, is neither philosophy nor science, but rather a system of polytheism in which the deities have sunk into mere metaphysical entities or abstractions. I object to it only on intellectual grounds, as failing to satisfy the philosophical demand for unity. page 16 Instead of recognizing the One in the Many, it sees the Many alone, and therefore contents itself with purely superficial explanations.