Art. XLIX—A Preliminary Note of a Metaphysical Hypothesis.
[Read before the Wellington Philosophical Society, 2nd October, 1907.]
The hypothesis of which this is a preliminary note is a particular form of monism.
It rejects the dualistic view that there are two kinds of being, the spiritual and the material, and adopts the monistic view that there is only one kind of being—namely, the spiritual. It accepts the latest view of physical science in regard to the constitution of the universe, according to which (using for the moment the language of physical science) the whole of the (so-called) material world (including both ponderable matter and the imponderable ether), and the whole of the phenomena of the (so-called) material world, is resolved into the elements of the ether and the transmission of states through the elements (or from element to element) of the ether; and it gives to this view a particular monistic, and therefore spiritualistic, interpretation.
It supposes every single one of the elements of the ether to be in itself a conscious being or spirit. It supposes each of these elements to have a sense of the existence of its neighbour elements, to have feelings and to be affected towards them, and to produce by an effort of will the effects which it produces upon them. It supposes every single element of the ether, therefore, to be conscious in all the three ways of knowing, feeling, and willing.
It supposes the principal seat of consciousness in man to be in certain of the elements of the ether permeating or surrounded by the brain of the man, and occupying a certain position relatively to the brain as a whole, varying probably, more or less, with the particular state of consciousness. And similarly in regard to the principal seats of consciousness in the case of animals and in other cases.
The hypothesis is, in fact, one not only that every single one of the elements of the ether is a conscious being, a seat of consciousness, but, further, that they are the seats of all consciousness, or, at the least, of all finite consciousness, in the universe, whether human, or animal, or other—that they
are the only beings, or at least the only finite beings, in the universe.
It is a necessary part of the hypothesis that what are ordinarily spoken of as the successive states of consciousness of a man are not experienced by a single permanent being, or spirit, or soul, but by a succession of beings, or spirits, or souls—namely, the elements of the ether which from time to time occupy the central position in the brain of the man. The sense of continued personal identity is, according to the hypothesis, created and maintained, notwithstanding this, by the continued corporate identity of the brain and nervous system and body, notwithstanding continual changes of the elements which constitute them, and by the functions of the brain as the organ of memory and anticipation.
Though every single element of the ether has, in the hypothesis, at least an elementary consciousness, the simplicity or complexity of the consciousness of any element must, of course, be supposed to vary immensely, from a very great simplicity when little in the way of change is going on around it and in it (as, for instance, in inter-stellar or ultra-stellar space), to a very great complexity when it is, for instance, surrounded by the brain of a man and subject to the influences of the immensely complex processes going on in the brain of a man.
In the view of physical science the elements of the ether are spatially related, in the sense that each one of them has a certain number of others immediately next or contiguous to it, and acts directly or immediately upon, and is acted upon directly or immediately by, those only which are immediately next or contiguous to it. Action between elements which are not immediately next or contiguous to one another is indirect or mediate only—namely, through the medium of the intervening elements. In the hypothesis here suggested this view takes the following form: The multitude of the elements of the ether is a multitude of conscious beings or spirits. They are spatially related to one another in the sense that each of them is directly and immediately related to a certain number of others, which it directly and immediately knows, and by which it is directly and immediately knows, and by which it is directly and immediately known, or between which and it there is direct and immediate communication; but communication between it and all others than that certain number is indirect or mediate only—namely, through the medium of those with which it is in direct communication, and of others again with which those are in direct communication, and so on.
The transmission of states through the elements (or from element to element) of the ether, into which, in the view of physical science, the whole of the phenomena of the (so-called)
material world is resolved, is interpreted, in the hypothesis, as the communication of states of consciousness from being to being, or spirit to spirit.
It is impossible within the limits of a short note to attempt to work out the application of the hypothesis in further detail, but enough has perhaps been stated to indicate the kind of interpretation which it would give in each case to the detailed results of physical science.
The hypothesis is, it is believed, equally consistent with all the results of mental science or psychology. The manner in which it deals with the subject of personal identity has been already very briefly indicated, and cannot be further gone into in this note. The hypothesis, as a monistic one, in which all the constituent elements of the brain are themselves seats of consciousness and are in themselves beings of precisely the same nature as that which is for the moment the principal seat of consciousness, has, of course, an immense advantage over any form of dualism, in which the substance of the brain is supposed to be of a wholly different order of being from, and wholly incommensurable with, the substance or being of the soul. In the monistic hypothesis here suggested the different elements of consciousness may be supposed to be separately experienced by elements of the ether within the different regions of the cortex, and to be communicated through the intervening elements to the seat for the time being of the principal consciousness, where they are together experienced as a whole. The unity and co-ordination of the different elements of consciousness, and the possibility of their being experienced in the principal seat of consciousness as a coherent whole, would be secured by the communications taking place between the different regions of the cortex through the nervous arcs of the higher levels.
Speaking generally, the hypothesis is a monadology in which the elements of the ether are the monads. They are not, however, cut off from one another as in the monadology of Leibniz. On the contrary, every one of them is in immediate or mediate communication with every other. The hypothesis may also be said to be, in some sort, a unification of idealism and realism: it is idealistic in that it supposes the existence of only one kind of being—namely, conscious being or spirit; it is realistic in that it supposes every single element of the (so-called) material world to be self-subsisting, to the same extent and in the same sense, at all events, as the soul of man is self-subsisting—the soul of man being, indeed, itself an element or elements of the (so-called) material world. To what extent and in what sense any finite being can be said to be self-subsisting is a question which the hypothesis leaves untouched.