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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Materialism and Idealism
By Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895)
 
From ‘Collected Essays,’ Vol. i.

I HOLD with the Materialist that the human body, like all living bodies, is a machine, all the operations of which will sooner or later be explained on physical principles. I believe that we shall sooner or later arrive at a mechanical equivalent of consciousness, just as we have arrived at a mechanical equivalent of heat. If a pound weight falling through a distance of a foot gives rise to a definite amount of heat, which may properly be said to be its equivalent, the same pound weight falling through a foot on a man’s hand gives rise to a definite amount of feeling, which might with equal propriety be said to be its equivalent in consciousness. And as we already know that there is a certain parity between the intensity of a pain and the strength of one’s desire to get rid of that pain, and secondly that there is a certain correspondence between the intensity of the heat or mechanical violence which gives rise to the pain and the pain itself, the possibility of the establishment of a correlation between mechanical force and volition becomes apparent. And the same conclusion is suggested by the fact that within certain limits the intensity of the mechanical force we exert is proportioned to the intensity of our desire to exert it.  1
  Thus I am prepared to go with the Materialists wherever the true pursuit of the path of Descartes may lead them; and I am glad on all occasions to declare my belief that their fearless development of the materialistic aspect of these matters has had an immense, and a most beneficial, influence upon physiology and psychology. Nay, more: when they go farther than I think they are entitled to do,—when they introduce Calvinism into science and declare that man is nothing but a machine,—I do not see any particular harm in their doctrines, so long as they admit that which is a matter of experimental fact; namely, that it is a machine capable of adjusting itself within certain limits.  2
  I protest that if some great Power would agree to make me always think what is true and do what is right, on condition of being turned into a sort of clock and wound up every morning before I got out of bed, I should instantly close with the offer. The only freedom I care about is the freedom to do right: the freedom to do wrong I am ready to part with on the cheapest terms to any one who will take it of me. But when the Materialists stray beyond the borders of their path, and begin to talk about there being nothing else in the universe but Matter and Force and Necessary Laws, and all the rest of their “grenadiers,” I decline to follow them. I go back to the point from which we started, and to the other path of Descartes. I remind you that we have already seen clearly and distinctly, and in a manner which admits of no doubt, that all our knowledge is a knowledge of states of consciousness. “Matter” and “Force” are, as far as we can know, mere names for certain forms of consciousness. “Necessary” means that of which we cannot conceive the contrary. “Law” means a rule which we have always found to hold good, and which we expect always will hold good. Thus it is an indisputable truth that what we call the material world is only known to us under the forms of the ideal world; and as Descartes tells us, our knowledge of the soul is more intimate and certain than our knowledge of the body. If I say that impenetrability is a property of matter, all that I can really mean is that the consciousness I call extension and the consciousness I call resistance constantly accompany one another. Why and how they are thus related is a mystery. And if I say that thought is a property of matter, all that I can mean is that actually or possibly the consciousness of extension and that of resistance accompany all other sorts of consciousness. But as in the former case, why they are thus associated is an insoluble mystery.  3
  From all this it follows that what I may term legitimate Materialism—that is, the extension of the conceptions and of the methods of physical science to the highest as well as the lowest phenomena of vitality—is neither more nor less than a sort of shorthand Idealism; and Descartes’s two paths meet at the summit of the mountain, though they set out on opposite sides of it.  4
 
 
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