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Chapter 7


We have seen that we can apprehend neither the beginning nor the end of our personality, which comes up out of infinity as an island out of the sea, so gently, that none can say when it is first visible on our mental horizon, and fades away in the case of those who leave offspring, so imperceptibly that none can say when it is out of sight. But, like the island, whether we can see it or no, it is always there. Not only are we infinite as regards time, but we are so also as regards extension, being so linked on to the external world that we cannot say where we either begin or end. If those who so frequently declare that man is a finite creature would point out his boundaries, it might lead to a better understanding.

Nevertheless, we are in the habit of considering that our personality, or soul, no matter where it begins or ends, and no matter what it comprises, is nevertheless a single thing, uncompounded of other souls. Yet there is nothing more certain than that this is not at all the case, but that every individual person is a compound creature, being made up of an infinite number of distinct centres of sensation and will, each one of which is personal, and has a soul and individual existence, a reproductive system, intelligence, and memory of its own, with probably its hopes and fears, its times of scarcity and repletion, and a strong conviction that it is itself the centre of the universe.

True, no one is aware of more than one individuality in his own person at one time. We are, indeed, often greatly influenced by other people, so much so, that we act on many occasions in accordance with their will rather than our own, making our actions answer to their sensations, and register the conclusions of their cerebral action and not our own; for the time being, we become so completely part of them, that we are ready to do things most distasteful and dangerous to us, if they think it for their advantage that we should do so. Thus we sometimes see people become mere processes of their wives or nearest relations. Yet there is a something which blinds us, so that we cannot see how completely we are possessed by the souls which influence us upon these occasions. We still think we are ourselves, and ourselves only, and are as certain as we can be of any fact, that we are single sentient beings, uncompounded of other sentient beings, and that our action is determined by the sole operation of a single will.

But in reality, over and above this possession of our souls by others of our own species, the will of the lower animals often enters into our bodies and possesses them, making us do as they will, and not as we will; as, for example, when people try to drive pigs, or are run away with by a restive horse, or are attacked by a savage animal which masters them. It is absurd to say that a person is a single "ego" when he is in the clutches of a lion. Even when we are alone, and uninfluenced by other people except in so far as we remember their wishes, we yet generally conform to the usages which the current feeling of our peers has taught us to respect; their will having so mastered our original nature, that, do what we may, we can never again separate ourselves and dwell in the isolation of our own single personality. And even though we succeeded in this, and made a clean sweep of every mental influence which had ever been brought to bear upon us, and though at the same time we were alone in some desert where there was neither beast nor bird to attract our attention or in any way influence our action, yet we could not escape the parasites which abound within us; whose action, as every medical man well knows, is often such as to drive men to the commission of grave crimes, or to throw them into convulsions, make lunatics of them, kill them--when but for the existence and course of conduct pursued by these parasites they would have done no wrong to any man.

These parasites--are they part of us or no? Some are plainly not so in any strict sense of the word, yet their action may, in cases which it is unnecessary to detail, affect us so powerfully that we are irresistibly impelled to act in such or such a manner; and yet we are as wholly unconscious of any impulse outside of our own "ego" as though they were part of ourselves; others again are essential to our very existence, as the corpuscles of the blood, which the best authorities concur in supposing to be composed of an infinite number of living souls, on whose welfare the healthy condition of our blood, and hence of our whole bodies, depends. We breathe that they may breathe, not that we may do so; we only care about oxygen in so far as the infinitely small beings which course up and down in our veins care about it: the whole arrangement and mechanism of our lungs may be our doing, but is for their convenience, and they only serve us because it suits their purpose to do so, as long as we serve them. Who shall draw the line between the parasites which are part of us, and the parasites which are not part of us? Or again, between the influence of those parasites which are within us, but are yet not US, and the external influence of other sentient beings and our fellow- men? There is no line possible. Everything melts away into everything else; there are no hard edges; it is only from a little distance that we see the effect as of individual features and existences. When we go close up, there is nothing but a blur and confused mass of apparently meaningless touches, as in a picture by Turner.

The following passage from Mr. Darwin's provisional theory of Pangenesis, will sufficiently show that the above is no strange and paradoxical view put forward wantonly, but that it follows as a matter of course from the conclusions arrived at by those who are acknowledged leaders in the scientific world. Mr. Darwin writes thus:-

"THE FUNCTIONAL INDEPENDENCE OF THE ELEMENTS OR UNITS OF THE BODY.-- Physiologists agree that the whole organism consists of a multitude of elemental parts, which are to a great extent independent of one another. Each organ, says Claude Bernard, has its proper life, its autonomy; it can develop and reproduce itself independently of the adjoining tissues. A great German authority, Virchow, asserts still more emphatically that each system consists of 'an enormous mass of minute centres of action. . . . Every element has its own special action, and even though it derive its stimulus to activity from other parts, yet alone effects the actual performance of duties. . . . Every single epithelial and muscular fibre-cell leads a sort of parasitical existence in relation to the rest of the body. . . . Every single bone corpuscle really possesses conditions of nutrition peculiar to itself.' Each element, as Sir J. Paget remarks, lives its appointed time, and then dies, and is replaced after being cast off and absorbed. I presume that no physiologist doubts that, for instance, each bone corpuscle of the finger differs from the corresponding corpuscle of the corresponding joint of the toe," &c., &c. ("Plants and Animals under Domestication," vol ii. pp. 364, 365, ed. 1875).

In a work on heredity by M. Ribot, I find him saying, "Some recent authors attribute a memory" (and if so, surely every attribute of complete individuality) "to every organic element of the body;" among them Dr. Maudsley, who is quoted by M. Ribot, as saying, "The permanent effects of a particular virus, such as that of the variola, in the constitution, shows that the organic element remembers for the remainder of its life certain modifications it has received. The manner in which a cicatrix in a child's finger grows with the growth of the body, proves, as has been shown by Paget, that the organic element of the part does not forget the impression it has received. What has been said about the different nervous centres of the body demonstrates the existence of a memory in the nerve cells diffused through the heart and intestines; in those of the spinal cord, in the cells of the motor ganglia, and in the cells of the cortical substance of the cerebal hemispheres."

Now, if words have any meaning at all, it must follow from the passages quoted above, that each cell in the human body is a person with an intelligent soul, of a low class, perhaps, but still differing from our own more complex soul in degree, and not in kind; and, like ourselves, being born, living, and dying. So that each single creature, whether man or beast, proves to be as a ray of white light, which, though single, is compounded of the red, blue, and yellow rays. It would appear, then, as though "we," "our souls," or "selves," or "personalities," or by whatever name we may prefer to be called, are but the CONSENSUS and full flowing stream of countless sensations and impulses on the part of our tributary souls or "selves," who probably know no more that we exist, and that they exist as part of us, than a microscopic water-flea knows the results of spectrum analysis, or than an agricultural labourer knows the working of the British constitution: and of whom we know no more, until some misconduct on our part, or some confusion of ideas on theirs, has driven them into insurrection, than we do of the habits and feelings of some class widely separated from our own.

These component souls are of many and very different natures, living in territories which are to them vast continents, and rivers, and seas, but which are yet only the bodies of our other component souls; coral reefs and sponge-beds within us; the animal itself being a kind of mean proportional between its house and its soul, and none being able to say where house ends and animal begins, more than they can say where animal ends and soul begins. For our bones within us are but inside walls and buttresses, that is to say, houses constructed of lime and stone, as it were, by coral insects; and our houses without us are but outside bones, a kind of exterior skeleton or shell, so that we perish of cold if permanently and suddenly deprived of the coverings which warm us and cherish us, as the wing of a hen cherishes her chickens. If we consider the shells of many living creatures, we shall find it hard to say whether they are rather houses, or part of the animal itself, being, as they are, inseparable from the animal, without the destruction of its personality.

Is it possible, then, to avoid imagining that if we have within us so many tributary souls, so utterly different from the soul which they unite to form, that they neither can perceive us, nor we them, though it is in us that they live and move and have their being, and though we are what we are, solely as the result of their co-operation--is it possible to avoid imagining that we may be ourselves atoms, undesignedly combining to form some vaster being, though we are utterly incapable of perceiving that any such being exists, or of realising the scheme or scope of our own combination? And this, too, not a spiritual being, which, without matter, or what we think matter of some sort, is as complete nonsense to us as though men bade us love and lean upon an intelligent vacuum, but a being with what is virtually flesh and blood and bones; with organs, senses, dimensions, in some way analogous to our own, into some other part of which being, at the time of our great change we must infallibly re-enter, starting clean anew, with bygones bygones, and no more ache for ever from either age or antecedents. Truly, sufficient for the life is the evil thereof. Any speculations of ours concerning the nature of such a being, must be as futile and little valuable as those of a blood corpuscle might be expected to be concerning the nature of man; but if I were myself a blood corpuscle, I should be amused at making the discovery that I was not only enjoying life in my own sphere, but was bona fide part of an animal which would not die with myself, and in which I might thus think of myself as continuing to live to all eternity, or to what, as far as my power of thought would carry me, must seem practically eternal. But, after all, the amusement would be of a rather dreary nature.

On the other hand, if I were the being of whom such an introspective blood corpuscle was a component item, I should conceive he served me better by attending to my blood and making himself a successful corpuscle, than by speculating about my nature. He would serve me best by serving himself best, without being over curious. I should expect that my blood might suffer if his brain were to become too active. If, therefore, I could discover the vein in which he was, I should let him out to begin life anew in some other and, qua me, more profitable capacity.

With the units of our bodies it is as with the stars of heaven: there is neither speech nor language, but their voices are heard among them. Our will is the fiat of their collective wisdom, as sanctioned in their parliament, the brain; it is they who make us do whatever we do--it is they who should be rewarded if they have done well, or hanged if they have committed murder. When the balance of power is well preserved among them, when they respect each other's rights and work harmoniously together, then we thrive and are well; if we are ill, it is because they are quarrelling with themselves, or are gone on strike for this or that addition to their environment, and our doctor must pacify or chastise them as best he may. They are we and we are they; and when we die it is but a redistribution of the balance of power among them or a change of dynasty, the result, it may be, of heroic struggle, with more epics and love romances than we could read from now to the Millennium, if they were so written down that we could comprehend them.

It is plain, then, that the more we examine the question of personality the more it baffles us, the only safeguard against utter confusion and idleness of thought being to fall back upon the superficial and common sense view, and refuse to tolerate discussions which seem to hold out little prospect of commercial value, and which would compel us, if logically followed, to be at the inconvenience of altering our opinions upon matters which we have come to consider as settled.

And we observe that this is what is practically done by some of our ablest philosophers, who seem unwilling, if one may say so without presumption, to accept the conclusions to which their own experiments and observations would seem to point.

Dr. Carpenter, for example, quotes the well-known experiments upon headless frogs. If we cut off a frog's head and pinch any part of its skin, the animal at once begins to move away with the same regularity as though the brain had not been removed. Flourens took guinea-pigs, deprived them of the cerebral lobes, and then irritated their skin; the animals immediately walked, leaped, and trotted about, but when the irritation was discontinued they ceased to move. Headless birds, under excitation, can still perform with their wings the rhythmic movements of flying. But here are some facts more curious still, and more difficult of explanation. If we take a frog or a strong and healthy triton, and subject it to various experiments; if we touch, pinch, or burn it with acetic acid, and if then, after decapitating the animal, we subject it to the same experiments, it will be seen that the reactions are exactly the same; it will strive to be free of the pain, and to shake off the acetic acid that is burning it; it will bring its foot up to the part of its body that is irritated, and this movement of the member will follow the irritation wherever it may be produced.

The above is mainly taken from M. Ribot's work on heredity rather than Dr. Carpenter's, because M. Ribot tells us that the head of the frog was actually cut off, a fact which does not appear so plainly in Dr. Carpenter's allusion to the same experiments. But Dr. Carpenter tells us that AFTER THE BRAIN OF A FROG HAS BEEN REMOVED--which would seem to be much the same thing as though its head were cut off--"if acetic acid be applied over the upper and under part of the thigh, the foot of the same side will wipe it away; BUT IF THAT FOOT BE CUT OFF, AFTER SOME INEFFECTUAL EFFORTS AND A SHORT PERIOD OF INACTION," during which it is hard not to surmise that the headless body is considering what it had better do under the circumstances, "THE SAME MOVEMENT WILL BE MADE BY THE FOOT OF THE OPPOSITE SIDE," which, to ordinary people, would convey the impression that the headless body was capable of feeling the impressions it had received, and of reasoning upon them by a psychological act; and this of course involves the possession of a soul of some sort.

Here is a frog whose right thigh you burn with acetic acid. Very naturally it tries to get at the place with its right foot to remove the acid. You then cut off the frog's head, and put more acetic acid on the some place: the headless frog, or rather the body of the late frog, does just what the frog did before its head was cut off--it tries to get at the place with its right foot. You now cut off its right foot: the headless body deliberates, and after a while tries to do with its left foot what it can no longer do with its right. Plain matter-of-fact people will draw their own inference. They will not be seduced from the superficial view of the matter. They will say that the headless body can still, to some extent, feel, think, and act, and if so, that it must have a living soul.

Dr. Carpenter writes as follows:- "Now the performance of these, as well as of many other movements, that show a most remarkable adaptation to a purpose, might be supposed to indicate that sensations are called up by the IMPRESSIONS, and that the animal can not only FEEL, but can voluntarily direct its movements so as to get rid of the irritation which annoys it. But such an inference would be inconsistent with other facts. In the first place, the motions performed under such circumstances are never spontaneous, but are always excited by a stimulus of some kind."

Here we pause to ask ourselves whether any action of any creature under any circumstances is ever excited without "stimulus of some kind," and unless we can answer this question in the affirmative, it is not easy to see how Dr. Carpenter's objection is valid.

"Thus," he continues, "a decapitated frog" (here then we have it that the frog's head was actually cut off) "after the first violent convulsive moments occasioned by the operation have passed away, remains at rest until it is touched; and then the leg, or its whole body may be thrown into sudden action, which suddenly subsides again." (How does this quiescence when it no longer feels anything show that the "leg or whole body" had not perceived something which made it feel when it was not quiescent?)--"Again we find that such movements may be performed not only when the brain has been removed, the spinal cord remaining entire, but also when the spinal cord has been itself cut across, so as to be divided into two or more portions, each of them completely isolated from each other, and from other parts of the nervous centres. Thus, if the head of a frog be cut off, and its spinal cord be divided in the middle of the back, so that its fore legs remain connected with the upper part, and its hind legs with the lower, each pair of members may be excited to movements by stimulants applied to itself; but the two pairs will not exhibit any consentaneous motions, as they will do when the spinal cord is undivided."

This may be put perhaps more plainly thus. If you take a frog and cut it into three pieces--say, the head for one piece, the fore legs and shoulder for another, and the hind legs for a third--and then irritate any one of these pieces, you will find it move much as it would have moved under like irritation if the animal had remained undivided, but you will no longer find any concert between the movements of the three pieces; that is to say, if you irritate the head, the other two pieces will remain quiet, and if you irritate the hind legs, you will excite no action in the fore legs or head.

Dr. Carpenter continues: "Or if the spinal cord be cut across without the removal of the brain, the lower limbs may be EXCITED to movement by an appropriate stimulant, though the animal has clearly no power over them, whilst the upper part remains under its control as completely as before."

Why are the head and shoulders "the animal" more than the hind legs under these circumstances? Neither half can exist long without the other; the two parts, therefore, being equally important to each other, we have surely as good a right to claim the title of "the animal" for the hind legs, and to maintain that they have no power over the head and shoulders, as any one else has to claim the animalship for these last. What we say is, that the animal has ceased to exist as a frog on being cut in half, and that the two halves are no longer, either of them, the frog, but are simply pieces of still living organism, each of which has a soul of its own, being capable of sensation, and of intelligent psychological action as the consequence of sensations, though the one part has probably a much higher and more intelligent soul than the other, and neither part has a soul for a moment comparable in power and durability to that of the original frog.

"Now it is scarcely conceivable," continues Dr Carpenter, "that in this last case sensations should be felt and volition exercised through the instrumentality of that portion of the spinal cord which remains connected with the nerves of the posterior extremities, but which is cut off from the brain. For if it were so, there must be two distinct centres of sensation and will in the same animal, the attributes of the brain not being affected; and by dividing the spinal cord into two or more segments we might thus create in the body of one animal two or more such independent centres in addition to that which holds its proper place in the head."

In the face of the facts before us, it does not seen far-fetched to suppose that there ARE two, or indeed an infinite number of centres of sensation and will in an animal, the attributes of whose brain are not affected but that these centres, while the brain is intact, habitually act in connection with and in subordination to that central authority; as in the ordinary state of the fish trade, fish is caught, we will say, at Yarmouth, sent up to London, and then sent down to Yarmouth again to be eaten, instead of being eaten at Yarmouth when caught. But from the phenomena exhibited by three pieces of an animal, it is impossible to argue that the causes of the phenomena were present in the quondam animal itself; the memory of an infinite series of generations having so habituated the local centres of sensation and will, to act in concert with the central government, that as long as they can get at that government, they are absolutely incapable of acting independently. When thrown on their own resources, they are so demoralised by ages of dependence on the brain, that they die after a few efforts at self-assertion, from sheer unfamiliarity with the position, and inability to recognise themselves when disjointed rudely from their habitual associations.

In conclusion, Dr. Carpenter says, "To say that two or more distinct centres of sensation and will are present in such a case, would really be the same as saying that we have the power of constituting two or more distinct egos in one body, WHICH IS MANIFESTLY ABSURD." One sees the absurdity of maintaining that we can make one frog into two frogs by cutting a frog into two pieces, but there is no absurdity in believing that the two pieces have minor centres of sensation and intelligence within themselves, which, when the animal is entire, act in much concert with the brain, and with each other, that it is not easy to detect their originally autonomous character, but which, when deprived of their power of acting in concert, are thrown back upon earlier habit, now too long forgotten to be capable of permanent resumption.

Illustrations are apt to mislead, nevertheless they may perhaps be sometimes tolerated. Suppose, for example, that London to the extent, say, of a circle with a six-mile radius from Charing Cross, were utterly annihilated in the space of five minutes during the Session of Parliament. Suppose, also, that two entirely impassable barriers, say of five miles in width, half a mile high, and red hot, were thrown across England; one from Gloucester to Harwich, and another from Liverpool to Hull, and at the same time the sea were to become a mass of molten lava, so no water communication should be possible; the political, mercantile, social, and intellectual life of the country would be convulsed in a manner which it is hardly possible to realise. Hundreds of thousands would die through the dislocation of existing arrangements. Nevertheless, each of the three parts into which England was divided would show signs of provincial life for which it would find certain imperfect organisms ready to hand. Bristol, Birmingham, Liverpool, and Manchester, accustomed though they are to act in subordination to London, would probably take up the reins of government in their several sections; they would make their town councils into local governments, appoint judges from the ablest of their magistrates, organise relief committees, and endeavour as well as they could to remove any acetic acid that might be now poured on Wiltshire, Warwickshire, or Northumberland, but no concert between the three divisions of the country would be any longer possible. Should we be justified, under these circumstances, in calling any of the three parts of England, England? Or, again, when we observed the provincial action to be as nearly like that of the original undivided nation as circumstances would allow, should we be justified in saying that the action, such as it was, was not political? And, lastly, should we for a moment think that an admission that the provincial action was of a bona fide political character would involve the supposition that England, undivided, had more than one "ego" as England, no matter how many subordinate "egos" might go to the making of it, each one of which proved, on emergency, to be capable of a feeble autonomy?

M. Ribot would seem to take a juster view of the phenomenon when he says (p. 222 of the English translation) -

"We can hardly say that here the movements are co-ordinated like those of a machine; the acts of the animal are adapted to a special end; we find in them the characters of intelligence and will, a knowledge and choice of means, since they are as variable as the cause which provokes them.

"If these, then, and similar acts, were such that both the impressions which produced them and the acts themselves were perceived by the animal, would they not be called psychological? Is there not in them all that constitutes an intelligent act--adaptation of means to ends; not a general and vague adaptation, but a determinate adaptation to a determinate end? In the reflex action we find all that constitutes in some sort the very groundwork of an intelligent act--that is to say, the same series of stages, in the same order, with the same relations between them. We have thus, in the reflex act, all that constitutes the psychological act except consciousness. The reflex act, which is physiological, differs in nothing from the psychological act, save only in this--that it is without consciousness."

The only remark which suggests itself upon this, is that we have no right to say that the part of the animal which moves does not also perceive its own act of motion, as much as it has perceived the impression which has caused it to move. It is plain "the animal" cannot do so, for the animal cannot be said to be any longer in existence. Half a frog is not a frog; nevertheless, if the hind legs are capable, as M. Ribot appears to admit, of "perceiving the impression" which produces their action, and if in that action there is (and there would certainly appear to be so) "all that constitutes an intelligent act, . . . a determinate adaptation to a determinate end," one fails to see on what ground they should be supposed to be incapable of perceiving their own action, in which case the action of the hind legs becomes distinctly psychological.

Secondly, M. Ribot appears to forget that it is the tendency of all psychological action to become unconscious on being frequently repeated, and that no line can be drawn between psychological acts and those reflex acts which he calls physiological. All we can say is, that there are acts which we do without knowing that we do them; but the analogy of many habits which we have been able to watch in their passage from laborious consciousness to perfect unconsciousness, would suggest that all action is really psychological, only that the soul's action becomes invisible to ourselves after it has been repeated sufficiently often--that there is, in fact, a law as simple as in the case of optics or gravitation, whereby conscious perception of any action shall vary inversely as the square, say, of its being repeated.

It is easy to understand the advantage to the individual of this power of doing things rightly without thinking about them; for were there no such power, the attention would be incapable of following the multitude of matters which would be continually arresting it; those animals which had developed a power of working automatically, and without a recurrence to first principles when they had once mastered any particular process, would, in the common course of events, stand a better chance of continuing their species, and thus of transmitting their new power to their descendants.

M. Ribot declines to pursue the subject further, and has only cursorily alluded to it. He writes, however, that, on the "obscure problem" of the difference between reflex and psychological actions, some say, "when there can be no consciousness, because the brain is wanting, there is, in spite of appearances, only mechanism," whilst others maintain, that "when there is selection, reflection, psychical action, there must also be consciousness in spite of appearances." A little later (p. 223), he says, "It is quite possible that if a headless animal could live a sufficient length of time" (that is to say, if THE HIND LEGS OF AN ANIMAL could live a sufficient length of time without the brain), "there would be found in it" (THEM) "a consciousness like that of the lower species, which would consist merely in the faculty of apprehending the external world." (Why merely? It is more than apprehending the outside world to be able to try to do a thing with one's left foot, when one finds that one cannot do it with one's right.) "It would not be correct to say that the amphioxus, the only one among fishes and vertebrata which has a spinal cord without a brain, has no consciousness because it has no brain; and if it be admitted that the little ganglia of the invertebrata can form a consciousness, the same may hold good for the spinal cord."

We conclude, therefore, that it is within the common scope and meaning of the words "personal identity," not only that one creature can become many as the moth becomes manifold in her eggs, but that each individual may be manifold in the sense of being compounded of a vast number of subordinate individualities which have their separate lives within him, with their hopes, and fears, and intrigues, being born and dying within us, many generations, of them during our single lifetime.

"An organic being," writes Mr. Darwin, "is a microcosm, a little universe, formed of a host of self-propagating organisms, inconceivably minute, and numerous as the stars in heaven."

As these myriads of smaller organisms are parts and processes of us, so are we but parts and processes of life at large.

Samuel Butler

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