Will And Consciousness In Nature

The idea that inorganic nature is not merely informed by reason,

but is also possessed of will and consciousness, will strike many

serious students as bizarre and fanciful. There is an enormous

amount of initial prejudice still to be overcome before it can

secure a fair general hearing. It will therefore be advisable to

pass in review the teachings of certain modern thinkers, of

recognised authority, who have espoused
nd openly advocated

this bizarre idea. And with a view to insuring further

confidence, the _ipsissima verba_ of these authorities will be

freely quoted, where there may be fear of misunderstanding or

misrepresentation. The review will be confined to modern

thinkers, because the views of the ancients in this regard,

though frequently of intense interest, will not carry weight in a

matter which so largely depends upon recent research and


Leibniz profoundly influenced the course of what we may term

"animistic" thought by his doctrine of monads. Whereas

Descartes had defined substance as extension, Leibniz

conceived it as activity, or active force, and as divided up into

an infinite number and variety of individual centres, each with

its own force or life, and, up to a certain point, each with its

own consciousness. All beings are thus essentially akin, but

differ in the grades of consciousness to which they attain. But

since consciousness depends on organisation, and since

organisation is constantly developing, there is continuous

progress. Each individual monad develops from within by

virtue of a spiritual element which it possesses--that is to say,

not mechanically, but from an internal principle, implying

sensation and desire. These monads, when looked at from

without, are grouped together into various extended objects. If

we ask Leibniz how such inwardly developing centres are

combined together into a universe, his reply is that God has so

ordered things that each monad develops in definite relation to

all the rest; they all keep time, like clocks with different works,

springs, pendulums, but regulated to mark simultaneously each

period of time as it passes. This is the famous theory of

pre-established harmony.

This doctrine grants the nature-mystic all he needs, but in an

artificial way which fails to carry conviction. The universe is

split up into isolated units which have no real connection with

each other save through ideas in the mind of God. Communion

with nature, however, should be more direct and more organic

than that effected by a pre-established harmony. Is it possible to

retain the strong points of the theory while securing organic

interpenetration of all modes of existence? Lotze, for one,

deemed it possible. Here is an interesting and typical passage

from his "Philosophy of Religion." "If it is once held

conceivable that a single supreme intelligence may exert an

influence on the reciprocal relations of the elements of the

world, then similar intelligence may also be imagined as

immediately active in all these individual elements themselves;

and instead of conceiving them as controlled merely by blindly

operative forces, they may be imagined as animated spiritual

beings, who strive after certain states, and offer resistance to

certain other states. In such case there may be imagined the

gradual origin of ever more perfect relations, from the

reciprocal action of these elements, almost like the reciprocal

action of a human society; and that too without necessarily

arriving at the assumption to which we are here inclined, of a

single, supreme, intelligent Being. Our reasoning issues rather

in a sort of polytheistic or pantheistic conception, and that too in

quite tolerable agreement with experience."

Lotze, then, conceives the monads to be organically related, and

so combined into one world. He himself inclines to regard them

as all dependent upon one supreme Being. But it is to be

carefully observed that he does not negative the pluralist

hypothesis as inconceivable or impracticable. Indeed, a little

later in the same context, he allows that "a multiplicity of beings

who share with each other in the creation and control of the

world" is more in harmony with the immediate impressions of

experience than "the hasty assumption of one only supreme

wisdom, from which as their source the imperfections of the

world, that in fact are manifest to us, are much more difficult to

comprehend." Lotze may thus be summoned as a supporter of

the contention (urged in an earlier chapter) that the Pluralist

may be a genuine mystic. Interpenetration and co-operation may

supply the place of the metaphysical unity at which the

Absolutists aim. But the main point here is, that Lotze

conceives the universe as organically and spiritually related in

all its parts. It all shares in a common life.

Of a monadistic character, also, are the two closely related

views known as the Mind-Dust theory, and the Mind-Stuff

theory. The former postulates particles or atoms of mind,

distinct from material atoms, but, like them, pervading all

nature, and, under certain conditions, combining to form

conscious mind. The latter does not thus separate mind and

matter, but assumes that primordial units of mind-stuff sum

themselves together and engender higher and more complex

states of mind, and themselves constitute what appears to us as

matter. James in his larger Psychology keenly criticised this

"psychic monadism," and has in his Oxford Lectures on a

"Pluralistic Universe," substantially modified his criticism. It is

not necessary to enter into further detail, but to grasp the fact

that such modern scientists as Clifford inclined to see in the

world, at every point, a manifestation of some grade of

consciousness, and therefore of kinship. The noted French

philosopher, Renouvier, has also resuscitated the monadistic

theory in a form more closely allied to that of Leibniz.

Discussion of the merits and demerits of these various views is

not now in question, but only their value as evidence of the

trend towards a critical animism. The inadequacy of the

mechanical view came home even to a mathematician like


We turn to a very different form of speculation, yet one equally

favourable to the essential contention of the nature-mystic--that

of Schopenhauer, a philosopher whose system is attracting

closer and keener attention as the years pass by. Certain of his

views have been cursorily mentioned in what has preceded, and

will find further mention in what is to follow. But here, the aim

is to focus attention on his fundamental doctrine, that the

Ground of all existence is Will. His line of argument in arriving

at this conclusion is briefly to be stated thus. The nature of

things-in-themselves would remain an eternal secret to us, were

it not that we are able to approach it, not by knowledge of

external phenomena, but by inner experience. Every knowing

being is a part of nature, and it is in his own self-consciousness

that a door stands open for him through which he can approach

nature. That which makes itself most immediately known within

himself is will; and in this will is to be found the _Welt-stoff_.

Let Schopenhauer speak for himself. "Whoever, I say, has

with me gained this conviction . . . will recognise this will

of which we are speaking, not only in those phenomenal

existences which exactly resemble his own, in men and animals,

as their inmost nature, but the course of reflection will lead him

to recognise the force which germinates and vegetates in the

plant, and indeed the force through which the crystal is formed,

that by which the magnet turns to the North Pole, the force

whose shock he experiences from the contact of two different

kinds of metal, the force which appears in the elective affinities

of matter as repulsion and attraction, decomposition and

combination, and, lastly, even gravitation, which acts so

powerfully throughout matter, draws the stone to the earth and

the earth to the sun--all these, I say, he will recognise as

different only in their phenomenal existence, but in their inner

nature as identical, as that which is directly known to him so

intimately and so much better than anything else, and which in

its most distinct manifestation is called will."

Here again we have standing ground for the creed and the

experiences of the nature-mystic. All forms and modes of

existence are akin, and differ only in their phenomenal

conditions. Whether Schopenhauer has not laid too exclusive an

emphasis on will; whether he has not unnecessarily chosen the

lowest types of will as primitive--these are questions to be

discussed elsewhere. Enough that we have in this theory a

definite return to critical animism. He holds the universe to be

throughout of the same "stuff," and that stuff is psychic or

spiritual. Body and soul, matter and spirit, are but different

aspects of the same underlying Reality.

Nevertheless, one question does press upon the nature-mystic.

Is the will to be conscious of its activities? Schopenhauer's

Ground-will is a blindly heaving desire. If his contention be

granted, Nature Mysticism will be shorn of its true glory.

Communion with nature, though it rest on passive intuition,

must somehow be associated with consciousness, if it is to be

that which we best know. That is to say, nature's self-activity

must be analogous to our own throughout--analogous, not

identical. And such a conclusion commends itself to a thinker as

careful and scientific as Stout, who in his "Manual of

Psychology" writes as follows: "The individual consciousness,

as we know it, must be regarded as a payment of a wider whole,

by which its origin and its changes are determined. As the brain

forms only a fragmentary portion of the total system of natural

phenomena, so we must assume the stream of individual

consciousness to be in like manner part of an immaterial

system. We must further assume that this immaterial system in

its totality is related to nervous processes taking place in the

cortex of the brain."

So, too, James, in his "Varieties of Religious Experience,"

declares that "our normal waking consciousness, rational

consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of

consciousness; whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest

of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely

different. We may go through life without suspecting their

existence; but apply the requisite stimulus and at a touch they

are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality

and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be

final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite


A thinker of a very different type, Royce, in his "World and the

Individual," concurs in this idea of a wider, universal

consciousness. "We have no right whatever to speak of really

unconscious Nature, but only of uncommunicative Nature, or of

Nature whose mental processes go on at such different time-rates

from ours that we cannot adjust ourselves to a live appreciation

of their inward fluency, although our consciousness does

make us aware of their presence. . . . Nature is thus a vast

conscious process, whose relation to time varies vastly,

but whose general characteristics are throughout the

same. From this point of view evolution would be a series of

processes suggesting to us various degrees and types of

conscious processes. The processes, in case of so-called

inorganic matter are very remote from us, while in the case of

the processes of our fellows we understand them better." Again

he calls Nature "a vast realm of finite consciousness of which

your own is at once a part and an example."

A thinker of still another type, Paulsen, whose influence in

Germany was so marked, and whose death we so lately

lamented, was whole-heartedly a sympathiser with Fechner's

views. How James also sympathised with them we saw at the

beginning of the last chapter. Paulsen, on his own account,

writes thus: "Is there a higher, more comprehensive psychical

life than that which we experience, just as there is a lower one?

Our body embraces the cells as elementary organisms. We

assume that in the same way our psychical life embraces the

inner life of the elementary forms, embracing in it their

conscious and unconscious elements. Our body again is itself

part of a higher unity, a member of the total life of our planet,

and together with the latter, articulated with a more

comprehensive cosmical system, and ultimately articulated with

the All. Is our psychical life also articulated with a higher unity,

a more comprehensive system of consciousness? Are the

separate heavenly bodies, to start with, bearers of a unified

inner life? Are the stars, is the earth an animated being? The

poets speak of the earth-spirit; is that more than a poetic

metaphor? The Greek philosophers, among them Plato and

Aristotle, speak of astral spirits; is that more than the last

reflection of a dream of childish fancy?"

And thus we have come to the fullness of the nature-mystic's

position. Reason, will, feeling, consciousness, below us and

above us. As Naegeli, the famous botanist puts it, "the human

mind is nothing but the highest development on our earth of the

mental processes which universally animate and move nature."

To this world-view the child of nature and the philosopher

return again and again. Deep calls unto deep. The exaggerated

and dehumanising claims of purely physical and mechanical

concepts may for a time obscure the intuition by their specious

clarity, but the feelings and the wider consciousness in man

reassert themselves. The stars of heaven no longer swing as

masses of mere physical atoms in a dead universe, they shine in

their own right as members in a living whole. Wordsworth

speaks for the forms of life beneath us when he exclaims:

"And 'tis my faith that every flower

Enjoys the air it breathes."

Emerson speaks for the realm of the inorganic when he assures


"The sun himself shines heartily

And shares the joy he brings."

The great world around us is felt to pulse with inner life and

meaning. It is seen, not only as real, not only as informed with

reason, but as sentient. The old speculations of Empedocles that

love and hate are the motive forces in all things gleams out in a

new light. And that sense of oneness with his physical

environment which the nature-mystic so often experiences and

enjoys is recognised as an inevitable outcome of the facts of

existence. Goethe is right:

"Ihr folget falsche Spur;

Denkt nicht, wir scherzon!

Ist nicht der Kern der Natur

Menschen im Herzen."