Sir Oliver Lodge

Sir Oliver Lodge FRS

President of the Radio Society, Physical Society, British Society, Society for Psychical Research and Rontgen Society. Professor of Physics in the University of Liverpool, Principal of the University of Birmingham. Knighted. Sent a radio message one year before Marconi.

Problems Raised by the Idea of Survival

 - Sir Oliver Lodge -

          SUPPOSE WE let it be granted that accumulated evidence shows that human beings survive, a number of problems clamour for solution. What does survival mean in general? Why should it be limited to human beings? What line can be drawn differentiating one part of existence from another? It seems likely that all existence is perpetual. We certainly find that energy, for instance, continues without loss, changing form but always constant in amount; that death is not the characteristic and fundamental thing in the universe, but continued life. Energy need not always be associated with matter; it may pass into the ether, and indeed is constantly so doing. Not only from every star and every fire, but from all objects without exception, there is a constant interchange of energy between ether and matter. Sometimes matter gains more than it loses, sometimes it loses more than it gains. This interchange constitutes the whole activity of what we observe; and the energy is never destroyed.

Is it the same with life? Not human life alone, but all life, animal and vegetable together? We do not know for certain, but it is a natural working hypothesis that the interaction between life and matter is temporary, while the interaction of life with the greater physical universe is permanent. In that sense survival is the law to which there need be no exception. But when we talk of human survival we mean more than that. We mean individual survival, the survival of personality and character.

Now survival only applies to things which really exist. If there is no individuality, then there is nothing to persist. Whether all human beings have sufficient personality to make their individual persistence likely, is a question that may be argued. Whether some of the higher animals have acquired a kind of individuality, a character and wealth of affection which seem worthy of continued existence, may also be argued. There may be many grades of existence, many grades of personality, and accordingly there may be many grades of survival.

To illustrate this, and to get into closer touch with the subject, we may take some examples. The human body is composed of cells, and some of those cells have a life or vitality of their own. Some indeed, such as the white corpuscles in the blood, have an independent motivity, analogous to that of the amoeba. They move with apparent spontaneity, they assimilate and digest and excrete; they subdivide and thereby increase in number: in other words, they have many of the attributes of independent existence. Yet they are essentially parts of a community: the communal life is the important thing, and by their activity they serve that communal life. They help to keep the whole body in health, and their individual life is often sacrificed to that end. In so far as they are individuals, their individuality seems unimportant; it cannot be supposed to persist.

Many examples of communal life may be adduced. For instance in a hive of bees it would seem to be the communal life that is the important thing. The individuals go about their business in an instinctive manner, and willingly sacrifice themselves for the good of the community. Their individual existence is short and strenuous: they speedily succumb to overwork or to the dangers encountered, but the community goes on. Moreover it is instructive to realise that their specific activity depends not only on themselves but on their surroundings. They carry on whatever work is necessary in the particular place they find themselves. If wax is needed, they proceed to make it: if wax is provided, they proceed to shape it: if they find it already shaped, they fill it with honey. Any one bee does what is wanted at that particular place, adding to the labours of his predecessors the quota demanded. The guiding influence seems represented by a communal instinct which does not belong to the individual but to the whole community.

It appears to be much the same with the cells of the body. Where a hair is required, there it is built up by the cells which find themselves in that position: where a nerve needs renewal it is renewed. And so the parts of the body are constructed and maintained; and the waste products are cleared away automatically and instinctively, without any attention from consciousness, so long as the body is in a state of health. The cells can be diverted from their proper work by abnormal secretions and poisons, and then abnormal structures are produced, with resulting pain and perhaps death to the organism as a whole. The organism may have in individual identity, but the cells composing it apparently have not. The ingredients in food are sorted out and planted automatically in the place required by the whole organism, the identity of which does not depend on the identity of the particles, for they are in a constant state of flux.

At a lower grade we find something of the same sort even in inorganic nature. What constitutes for instance the identity of a river, the Tiber, or the Ganges, or the Nile? We recognise that the river has a sort of identity but it cannot depend on the particles of water which constitute it. It may be said that the identity of a river is determined by the shape and locality of the channel along which the particles move; but even that is liable to change from time to time; yet we recognise it as the same river. The river therefore has a certain individuality, displayed by the stream of particles, and occasionally it has been personified as Father Tiber, Mother Ganges, and the like. But this is obviously a fanciful personification. There is no real soul or personality, or anything which calls for persistence beyond. its terrestrial and temporary manifestation.

An identity of this general kind seems to belong to all vegetables and to the lower animals. There is no need to postulate permanent personal existence in their case. The question only arises when the life of an organism has reached a stage at which the elements of mind and consciousness appear, when the action becomes more than mechanical, when it shows signs, not only of accumulated memory, but of incipient reasoning power, leading to purposive action, based on accumulated or inherited experience. Purposive action is indeed often based not upon the laws of heredity alone, but upon experience acquired by the individual, so that in some sense it knows what it is doing, and spontaneously and individually tries for some end, or acts with some apprehension of the future. An intelligent creature is guided, not merely by the present, but by anticipation and hope.

It is not easy to say where this element of consciousness, conscious striving for an as yet unrealised end, first began to enter into the animal kingdom; but we see signs of it in the higher animals, at any rate in those that have become domesticated; and we are well aware of these faculties in ourselves. At some stage or other, conscious planning, or what Aristotle called "entelechy," entered into the scheme; and this element we may well call the germ of the soul. As a working hypothesis we may conjecture that where a soul exists it means the emergent evolution of something higher than ordinary life, of something which has a personal aspect, and of something which, if real, is likely to persist. If it is a very minute fragment of personality, then its survival will also be minute and fragmentary. Only when it becomes considerable and dominant will it have a considerable and dominant survival. In so far as a thing is real, it will not go out of existence; it will survive for whatever it may be worth.

Clearly there are grades of existence or grades of value; so in a sense there may be grades of survival. Surely not, it may be objected, there is either survival or there is not; there cannot be partial survival. No, but a small and trivial thing may survive in a small and trivial way. A great love endures; but a little bit of affection may still survive. The problem is one of reality. Only reality persists. But then, on the other band, all reality persists. A cloud or a crowd is dispersed and scattered and ceases to be. But that was not a reality, it was a mere aggregate of atoms or of people: when it was dispersed the individual components continue. The reality belonged, not to the assemblage, but to that which gathered them together. The emotion, or the guiding principle, which convened a League, a Parliament or an army, may continue and may alter the course of history. A written document may have an effect long after the document has been destroyed. The soul of a poem, or of a Treaty, is not in the black marks on a scrap of paper; nor is its reality dependent on the physical vehicle by which it was conveyed to others. It is the soul of such things that is real, and it is that which persists.

So it may be with our bodily organism. Each organism is an assemblage of particles in a state of flux and change. The cells have a communal existence, but the permanent thing which put them together, and which by their aid has accumulated experience and developed a personal character is not dependent on them for its identity; and it can endure long after they have been dispersed and scattered.

These being the possibilities, the remaining question is one of fact. The evidence for human survival does not depend on argument but on experience. There is a growing amount of evidence that human personality does really persist, that individual people have not gone out of existence. That evidence must be critically examined and subjected to scientific enquiry, and if it stands the test, it must be admitted: it must be accepted as one of the facts ascertained in the process of scientific discovery, whether we understand it or not. All that the argument has done is to show that there is nothing irrational in the idea, that we need not turn our backs on the evidence because it appears to be demonstrating something impossible. The thing is possible enough: no one has a right to say that it is impossible. Our business is to find out what is true. If there is trustworthy evidence tending to show that humanity has attained a grade at which a real and permanent personality has developed, then that evidence can be accepted. If the evidence goes further, and shows that some of the higher animals have reached such a grade, then that evidence can be accepted too. We have no right to draw an artificial line and say, Thus far and no further. Nor have we any right to turn down actual evidence because of our irrational and perhaps superstitious preconceptions. We have no more right to do that than we have to accept or invent faulty evidence and imaginary facts, on the ground of our preconceptions or superstitions or human longings. The emotions must be kept in their place. Things are not true because we want them to be true; but neither are they false because we feel they ought to be false. Human instincts and intuitions are not to be despised. The intuitions of genius are part of the facts, and have a weight and value of their own.

Fortunately in this vital matter we are not left to inspirations and intuitions. Cold-blooded direct evidence is vouched for, and this it is which must be examined without prejudice either way. And this it is which will ultimately convince all humanity of the truth of survival, and incidentally will in the long run enable us to realise more clearly what survival means, what physical mechanism is associated with it, what is its scope and how far it extends, and what bearing it has on the ultimate problems of reality.

Meanwhile Teachers and Clerics are faced with practical problems, and the next chapter is intended as an interim help. 


Other articles by Oliver Lodge

In Memory of Prof. Frederic W. H. Myers

Psychic Science

The Mode of Future Existence

What Science Means For Man

The Possibility of Survival from a Scientific Point of View

The Mechanism of Survival

On the Asserted Difficulty of the Spiritualistic Hypothesis from a Scientific Point of View
Do We Survive?

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Some parts 2003