15 million Ukrainian are displaced by Russia's war.
Millions miss a meal or two each day.
Help us change that! Click to donate today!

Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


Additional Links

the doctrine which resolves the thinking principle in man, or the immaterial and immortal soul with which God was pleased to endue Adam at his creation, into mere matter, or into a faculty resulting from its organization. Much has been written of late years against this doctrine, and the different modifications which it has assumed: but in substance nothing new has been said on either side; and the able and condensed argument of Wollaston in his "Religion of Nature Delineated," if well considered, will furnish every one with a most clear and satisfactory refutation of this antiscriptural and irrational error:—The soul cannot be mere matter: for if it is, then either all matter must think; or the difference must arise from the different modification, magnitude, figure, or motion of some parcels of matter in respect of others; or a faculty of thinking must be superadded to some systems of it, which is not superadded to others. But in the first place, that position, which makes all matter to be cogitative, is contrary to all the apprehensions and knowledge we have of the nature of it; nor can it be true, unless our senses and faculties be contrived only to deceive us. We perceive not the least symptom of cogitation or sense in our tables, chairs, &c. Why doth the scene of thinking lie in our heads, and all the ministers of sensation make their reports to something there, if all matter be apprehensive and cogitative? For in that case there would be as much thought and understanding in our heels, and every where else, as in our heads. If all matter be cogitative, then it must be so quatenus [so far forth as] matter, and thinking must be of the essence and definition of it; whereas by matter no more is meant than a substance extended and impenetrable to other matter. And since, for this reason, it cannot be necessary for matter to think, (because it may be matter without this property,) it cannot think as matter only; if it did, we should not only continue to think always, till the matter of which we consist is annihilated, and so the asserter of this doctrine would stumble upon immortality unawares; but we must also have thought always in time past, ever since that matter was in being; nor could there be any the least intermission of actual thinking; which does not appear to be our case. If thinking, self- consciousness, &c, were essential to matter, every part of it must have them; and then no system could have them. For a system of material parts, would be a system of things conscious, every one by itself of its own existence and individuality, and, consequently, thinking by itself; but there could be no one act of self-consciousness or thought common to the whole. Juxtaposition, in this case, could signify nothing; the distinction and individuation of the several particles would be as much retained in their vicinity, as if they were separated by miles.

In the next place, the faculties of thinking, &c, cannot arise from the size, figure, texture, or motion of it; because bodies by the alteration of these only become greater or less, round or square, &c, rare or dense, translated from one place to another with this or that new direction or velocity, or the like; all which ideas are quite different from that of thinking; there can be no relation between them. These modifications and affections of matter are so far from being principles or causes of thinking and acting, that they are themselves but effects, proceeding from the action of some other matter or thing upon it, and are proofs of its passivity, deadness and utter incapacity of becoming cogitative: this is evident to sense. They who place the essence of the soul in a certain motion given to some matter, (if any such men there really be,) should consider, among many other things, that to move the body spontaneously, is one of the faculties of the soul; and that this, which is the same with the power of beginning motion, cannot come from motion already begun, and impressed ab extra. Let the materialist examine well, whether he does not feel something within himself that acts from an internal principle; whether he does not experience some liberty, some power of governing himself, and choosing; whether he does not enjoy a kind of invisible empire in which he commands his own thoughts, sends them to this or that place, employs them about this or that business, forms such and such designs and schemes; and whether there is any thing like this in bare matter, however fashioned or proportioned; which, if nothing should protrude or communicate motion to it, would for ever remain fixed to the place where it happens to be, an eternal monument of its own being dead. Can such an active being as the soul is, the subject of so many powers, be itself nothing but an accident? When I begin to move myself, I do it for some reason, and with respect to some end, the means to effect which I have, if there be occasion for it, concerted within myself; and this does not at all look like motion merely material, or in which matter is only concerned, which is all mechanical. Who can imagine matter to be moved by arguments, or ever placed syllogisms and demonstrations among levers and pullies? We not only move ourselves upon reasons which we find in ourselves, but upon reasons imparted by words or writings from others, or perhaps merely at their desire or bare suggestion: in which case, again, nobody surely can imagine that the words spoken or written, the sound in the air, or the strokes on the paper, can, by any natural or mechanical efficience, cause the reader or hearer to move in any determinate manner, or at all. The reason, request, or friendly admonition, which is the true motive, can make no impression upon matter. It must be some other kind of being that apprehends the force and sense of them. Do not we see in conversation, how a pleasant thing said makes people break out into laughter, a rude thing into passion, and so on? These affections cannot be the physical effects of the words spoken; because then they would have the same effect, whether they were understood or not. And this is farther demonstrable from hence, that though the words do really contain nothing which is either pleasant or rude, or perhaps words are thought to be spoken which are not spoken; yet if they are apprehended to do that, or the sound to be otherwise than it was, the effect will be the same. It is therefore the sense of the words, which is an immaterial thing, that by passing through the understanding, and causing that which is the subject of the intellectual faculties to influence the body, produces these motions in the spirits, blood, and muscles.

They who can fancy that matter may come to live, think, and act spontaneously, by being reduced to a certain magnitude, or having its parts placed after a certain manner, or being invested with such a figure, or excited by such a particular motion; they, I say, would do well to discover to us that degree of fineness, that alteration in the situation of its parts, &c, at which matter may begin to find itself alive and cogitative; and which is the critical minute, that introduces these important properties. If they cannot do this, nor have their eye upon any particular crisis, it is a sign that they have no good reason for what they say. For if they have no reason to charge this change upon any particular degree or difference, one more than another, they have no reason to charge it upon any degree or difference at all: and then they have no reason by which they can prove that such a change is made at all. Beside all which, since magnitude, figure, and motion are but accidents of matter, not matter, and only the substance is truly matter; and since the substance of any one part of matter does not differ from that of another, if any matter can be by nature cogitative, all must be so: but this we have seen cannot be. So then, in conclusion, if there is any such thing as matter that thinks, &c, this must be a particular privilege granted to it; that is, a faculty of thinking must be superadded to certain parts or parcels of it; which, by the way, must infer the existence of some being able to confer this faculty; who, when the ineptness of matter has been well considered, cannot appear to be less than omnipotent, or God. But the truth is, matter seems not to be capable of such improvement, of being made to think. For since it is not the essence of matter, it cannot be made to be so without making matter another kind of substance from what it is. Nor can if be made to arise from any of the modifications or accidents of matter; and in respect of what else can any matter be made to differ from other matter.

The accidents of matter are so far from being made by any power to produce cogitation, that some even of them show it incapable of having a faculty of thinking superadded. The very divisibility of it does this. For that which is made to think must either be one part, or more parts joined together. But we know no such thing as a part of matter, purely one, or indivisible. It may, indeed, have pleased the Author of nature, that there should be atoms, whose parts are actually indiscerptible, and which may be the principles of other bodies; but still they consist of parts, though firmly adhering together. And if the seat of cogitation be in more parts than one, whether they lie close together, or are loose, or in a state of fluidity, it is the same thing, how can it be avoided, but that either there must be so many several minds, or thinking substances, as there are parts, and then the consequence which has been mentioned would return upon us again; or else that there must be something else superadded for them to centre in, to unite their acts, and make their thoughts to be one? And then what can this be but some other substance, which is purely one?

Matter by itself can never entertain abstracted and general ideas, such as many in our minds are. For could it reflect upon what passes within itself, it could possibly find there nothing but material and particular impressions; abstractions and metaphysical ideas could not be printed upon it. How could one abstract from matter who is himself nothing but matter?

If the soul were mere matter, external visible objects could only be perceived within us according to the impressions they make upon matter, and not otherwise. For instance: the image of a cube in my mind, or my idea of a cube, must be always under some particular prospect, and conform to the rules of perspective; nor could I otherwise represent it to myself; whereas now I can form an idea of it as it is in itself, and almost view all its hedrae at once, as it were encompassing it with my mind. I can within myself correct the external appearances and impressions of objects, and advance, upon the reports and hints received by my senses, to form ideas of things that are not extant in matter. By seeing a material circle I may learn to form the idea of a circle, or figure generated by the revolution of a ray about its centre; but then, recollecting what I know of matter upon other occasions, I can conclude there is no exact material circle. So that I have an idea, which perhaps was raised from the hints I received from without, but is not truly to be found there. If I see a tower at a great distance, which, according to the impressions made upon my material organs, seems little and round, I do not therefore conclude it to be either; there is something within that reasons upon the circumstances of the appearance, and as it were commands my sense, and corrects the impression; and this must be something superior to matter, since a material soul is no otherwise impressible itself but as material organs are: instances of this kind are endless. If we know any thing of matter, we know that by itself it is a lifeless thing, inert and passive only; and acts necessarily, or rather is acted, according to the laws of motion and gravitation. This passiveness seems to be essential to it. And if we know any thing of ourselves, we know that we are conscious of our own existence and acts, that is, that we live; that we have a degree of freedom; that we can move ourselves spontaneously; and, in short, that we can, in many instances, take off the effect of gravitation, and impress new motions upon our spirits, or give them new directions, only by a thought. Therefore, to make mere matter do all this is to change the nature of it; to change death into life, incapacity of thinking into cogitativity, necessity into liberty. And to say that God may superadd a faculty of thinking, moving itself, &c, to matter, if by this be meant, that he may make matter to be the suppositum of these faculties, that substance in which they inhere, is the same in effect as to say, that God may superadd a faculty of thinking to incogitativity, of acting freely to necessity, and so on. What sense is there in this? And yet so it must be, while matter continues to be matter.

That faculty of thinking, so much talked of by some as superadded to certain systems of matter, fitly disposed, by virtue of God's omnipotence, though it be so called, must in reality amount to the same thing as another substance with the faculty of thinking. For a faculty of thinking alone will not make up the idea of a human soul, which is endued with many faculties; apprehending, reflecting, comparing, judging, making deductions and reasoning, willing, putting the body in motion, continuing the animal functions by its presence, and giving life; and therefore, whatever it is that is superadded, it must be something which is endued with all those other faculties. And whether that can be a faculty of thinking, and so these other faculties be only faculties of a faculty, or whether they must not all be rather the faculties of some substance, which, being by their own concession, superadded to matter, must be different from it, we leave the unprejudiced to determine. If men would but seriously look into themselves, the soul would not appear to them as a faculty of the body, or a kind of appurtenance to it, but rather as some substance, properly placed in it, not only to use it as an instrument, and act by it, but also to govern it, or the parts of it, as the tongue, hands, feet, &c, according to its own reason. For I think it is plain enough, that the mind, though it acts under great limitations, doth, however, in many instances govern the body arbitrarily; and it is monstrous to suppose this governor to be nothing but some fit disposition or accident, superadded, of that matter which is governed. A ship, it is true, would not be fit for navigation, if it was not built and provided in a proper manner; but then, when it has its proper form, and is become a system of materials fifty disposed, it is not this disposition that governs it: it is the man, that other substance, who sits at the helm, and they who manage the sails and tackle, that do this. So our vessels without a proper organization and conformity of parts would not be capable of being acted as they are; but still it is not the shape, or modification, or any other accident, that can govern them. The capacity of being governed or used can never be the governor, applying and using that capacity. No, there must be at the helm something distinct, that commands the body, and without which the vessel would run adrift or rather sink.

For the foregoing reasons it is plain, that matter cannot think, cannot be made to think. But if a faculty of thinking can be superadded to a system of matter, without uniting an immaterial substance to it; yet a human body is not such a system, being plainly void of thought, and organized in such a manner as to transmit the impressions of sensible objects up to the brain, where the percipient, and that which reflects upon them, certainly resides; and therefore that which there apprehends, thinks, and wills, must be that system of matter to which a faculty of thinking is superadded. All the premises then well considered, judge whether, instead of saying that this inhabitant of our heads (the soul) is a system of matter to which a faculty of thinking is superadded, it might not be more reasonable to say, it is a thinking substance intimately united to some fine material vehicle, which has its residence in the brain. Though I understand not perfectly the manner how a cogitative and spiritual substance can be thus closely united to such a material vehicle, yet I can understand this union as well as how it can be united to the body in general, perhaps as how the particles of the body itself cohere together, and much better than how a thinking faculty can be superadded to matter; and beside, several phenomena may more easily be solved by this hypothesis; which, in short, is this, that the human soul is a cogitative substance united to a material vehicle; that these act in conjunction, that which affects the one affecting the other; that the soul is detained in the body till the habitation is spoiled, and their mutual tendency interrupted, by some hurt or disease, or by the decays and ruins of old age, or the like.

But many a man, says Mr. Rennell, has maintained, that the brain has the power of thought, from the conclusions which his own experience, and, perhaps, his extended knowledge of the human frame, have enabled him to draw. He has observed the action of the brain, has watched the progress of its diseases, and has seen the close connection which exists between many of its afflictions, and the power of thought. But in this, as in most other cases, partial knowledge leads him to a more mistaken view of the matter than total ignorance. Satisfied with the correctness of his observations, he hastily proceeds to form his opinion, forgetting that it is not on the truth only, but on the whole truth, that he should rest his decision. By an accidental blow, the scull is beaten in, the brain is pressed upon, and the patient lies without sense or feeling. No sooner is the pressure removed than the power of thought immediately returns. It is known, again, that the phenomena of fainting arise from a temporary deficiency of blood in the brain; the vessels collapse, and the loss of sense immediately ensues. Restore the circulation, and the sense is as instantly recovered. On the contrary, when the circulation in the brain is too rapid, and inflammation of the organ succeeds, we find that delirium, frenzy, and other disorders of the mind arise in proportion to the inflammatory action, by which they are apparently produced. It is observed, also, that when the stomach is disordered by an excess of wine, or of ardent spirits, the brain is also affected through the strong sympathies of the nervous system, the intellect is disordered, and the man has no longer a rational command over himself or his actions. From these, and other circumstances of a similar nature, it is concluded, that thought is a quality or function of the brain, that it is inseparable from the organ in which it resides, and as Mr. Lawrence, after the French physiologists, represents it, that "medullary matter thinks."

Now it must certainly be referred from all these circumstances, that there is a close connection between the power of thinking and the brain; but it by no means follows, that they are, therefore, one and the same. Allowing, however, for a moment, the justice of the inference, from the premises which have been stated, we must remember, that we have not as yet taken in all the circumstances of the case. We have watched the body rather than the mind, and that only in a diseased state; and from this partial and imperfect view of the subject, our conclusions have been deduced. Let us take a healthy man in a sound sleep. He lies without sense or feeling, yet no part of his frame is diseased, nor is a single power of his life of vegetation suspended. All within his body is as active as ever. The blood circulates as regularly, and almost as rapidly, in the sleeping as in the waking subject. Digestion, secretion, nutrition, and all the functions of the life of vegetation proceed, and yet the understanding is absent. Sleep, therefore, is an affection of the mind, rather than of the body; and the refreshment which the latter receives from it, is from the suspension of its active and agitating principle. Now if thought was identified with the brain, when the former was suspended, the latter would undergo a proportionate change. Memory, imagination, perception, and all the stupendous powers of the human intellect are absent; and yet the brain is precisely the same, the same in every particle of matter, the same in every animal function. Of not a single organ is the action suspended. When, again, the man awakens, and his senses return, no change is produced by the recovery; the brain, the organs of sense, and all the material parts of his frame remain precisely in the same condition. Dreaming may perhaps be adduced as an exception to this statement. But it is first to be remarked, that this affection is by no means general. There are thousands who never dream at all, and thousands who dream only occasionally. Dreaming therefore, even though it were to be allowed as an exception, could not be admitted to invalidate the rule. And if there be a circumstance, which to any philosophic mind will clearly intimate the independency of thought upon matter, it is the phenomenon of dreaming. Perception, that faculty of the soul which unites it with the external world, is then suspended, and the avenues of sense are closed. All communication with outward objects being thus removed, the soul is transported, as it were, into a world of its own creation. There appears to be an activity in the motions, and a perfection in the faculties, of the mind, when disengaged from the body, and disencumbered of its material organs. The slumber of its external perception seems to be but the awakening of every other power. The memory is far more keen, the fancy far more vivid, in the dreaming than in the waking man. Ideas rise in rapid succession, and are varied in endless combination; so that the judgment, which, next to the perception, depends most upon external objects, is unable to follow the imagination in all its wild and unwearied flights. A better notion of the separate and independent existence of the soul cannot be formed, than that which we derive from our observations on the phenomena of dreaming. Again: when the mind is anxiously engaged in any train of thought, whether in company or alone, it frequently neglects the impressions made upon the external organs. When a man is deeply immersed in meditation, or eagerly engaged in a discussion, he often neither hears a third person when he speaks, nor observes what he does, nor even when gently touched does he feel the pressure. Yet there is no defect either in the ear, the eye, or the nervous system; the brain is not disordered, for if his mind were not so fully occupied, he would perceive every one of those impressions which he now neglects. In this case, therefore, as in sleep, the independence of mind upon the external organ is clearly shown.

But let us take the matter in another point of view. We have observed the action of the brain upon thought, and have seen that when the former is unnaturally compressed, the latter is immediately disordered or lost. Let us now turn our attention to the action of thought upon the brain. A letter is brought to a man containing some afflicting intelligence. He casts his eye upon its contents, and drops down without sense or motion. What is the cause of this sudden affection? It may be said that the vessels have collapsed, that the brain is consequently disordered, and that loss of sense is the natural consequence. But let us take one step backward, and inquire what is the cause of the disorder itself, the effects of which are thus visible. It is produced by a sheet of white paper distinguished by a few black marks. But no one would be absurd enough to suppose, that it was the effect of the paper alone, or of the characters inscribed upon it, unless those characters conveyed some meaning to the understanding. It is thought then which so suddenly agitates and disturbs the brain, and makes its vessels to collapse. From this circumstance alone we discover the amazing influence of thought upon the external organ; of that thought which we can neither hear, nor see, nor touch, which yet produces an affection of the brain fully equal to a blow, a pressure, or any other sensible injury. Now this very action of thought upon the brain clearly shows that the brain does not produce it, while the mutual influence which they possess over each other, as clearly shows that there is a strong connection between them. But it is carefully to be remembered, that connection is not identity. While we acknowledge then, on the one side the mutual connection of the understanding and the brain, we must acknowledge, on the other, their mutual independence. The phenomena which we daily observe lead us of necessity to the recognition of these two important principles. If then from the observations which we are enabled to make on the phenomena of the understanding and of the brain, we are led to infer mutual independence, we shall find our conclusions still farther strengthened by a consideration of the substance and composition of the latter. Not only is the brain a material substance, endowed with all those properties of matter which we have before shown to be inconsistent with thought, but it is a substance, which, in common with the rest of our body, is undergoing a perpetual change. Indeed experiments and observation give us abundant reason for concluding that the brain undergoes within itself precisely the same change with the remainder of the body. A man will fall down in a fit of apoplexy, and be recovered; in a few years he will be attacked by another, which will prove fatal. Upon dissection it will be found that there is a cavity formed by the blood effused from the ruptured vessel, and that a certain action had been going on, which gradually absorbed the coagulated blood. If then an absorbent system exists in the brain, and the organ thereby undergoes, in the course of a certain time, a total change, it is impossible that this flux and variable substance can be endowed with consciousness or thought. If the particles of the brain, either separately or in a mass, were capable of consciousness, then after their removal the consciousness which they produced must for ever cease. The consequence of which would be, that personal identity must be destroyed, and that no man could be the same individual being that he was ten years ago. But our common sense informs us, that as far as our understanding and our moral responsibility are involved, we are the same individual beings that we ever were. If the body alone, or any substance subject to the laws of body, were concerned, personal identity might reasonably be doubted: but it is something beyond the brain that makes the man at every period of his life the same: it is consciousness, that, amidst the perpetual change of our material particles, unites every link of successive being in one indissoluble chain. The body may be gradually changed, and yet by the deposition of new particles, similar to those which absorption has removed, it may preserve the appearance of identity. But in consciousness there is real, not an apparent, individuality, admitting of no change or substitution.

So inconsistent with reason is every attempt which has been made to reduce our thoughts to a material origin, and to identify our understanding with any part of our corporeal frame! The more carefully we observe the operation, both of the mind and of the brain, the more clearly we shall distinguish, and the more forcibly shall we feel, the independence of the one upon the other. We know that the brain is the organ or instrument by which the mind operates on matter, and we know that the brain again is the chain of communication between the mind and the material world. That certain disorders therefore in the chain should either prevent or disturb this communication is reasonably to be expected; but nothing more is proved from thence than we knew before, namely, that the link is imperfect. And when that link is again restored, the mind declares its identity, by its memory of things which preceded the injury or the disease; and where the recovery is rapid, the patient awakes as it were from a disturbed dream. How indeed the brain and the thinking principle are connected, and in what manner they mutually affect each other, is beyond the reach of our faculties to discover. We must, for the present, be contented with our ignorance of the cause, while from the effects we are persuaded both of their connection on the one hand, and of their independence on the other.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Materialism'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

Search for…
Enter query in the box below:
Choose a letter to browse:
Prev Entry
Next Entry