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The Living Wave
by [?]


There is another way out of the difficulty that besets our rational faculties in their efforts to solve this question, and that is the audacious way of Henri Bergson in his “Creative Evolution.” It is to deny any validity to the conclusion of our logical faculties upon this subject. Our intellect, Bergson says, cannot grasp the true nature of life, nor the meaning of the evolutionary movement. With the emphasis of italics he repeats that “the intellect is characterized by a natural inability to comprehend life.” He says this in a good many pages and in a good many different ways; the idea is one of the main conclusions of his book. Our intuitions, our spiritual nature, according to this philosopher, are more en rapport with the secrets of the creative energy than are our intellectual faculties; the key to the problem is to be found here, rather than in the mechanics and chemistry of the latter. Our intellectual faculties can grasp the physical order because they are formed by a world of solids and fluids and give us the power to deal with them and act upon them. But they cannot grasp the nature and the meaning of the vital order.

“We treat the living like the lifeless, and think all reality, however fluid, under the form of the sharply defined solid. We are at ease only in the discontinuous, in the immobile, in the dead. Perceiving in an organism only parts external to parts, the understanding has the choice between two systems of explanation only: either to regard the infinitely complex (and thereby infinitely well contrived) organization as a fortuitous concatenation of atoms, or to relate it to the incomprehensible influence of an external force that has grouped its elements together.”

“Everything is obscure in the idea of creation, if we think of things which are created and a thing which creates.” If we follow the lead of our logical, scientific faculties, then, we shall all be mechanists and materialists. Science can make no other solution of the problem because it sees from the outside. But if we look from the inside, with the spirit or “with that faculty of seeing which is immanent in the faculty of acting,” we shall escape from the bondage of the mechanistic view into the freedom of the larger truth of the ceaseless creative view; we shall see the unity of the creative impulse which is immanent in life and which, “passing through generations, links individuals with individuals, species with species, and makes of the whole series of the living one single immense wave flowing over matter.”

I recall that Tyndall, who was as much poet as scientist, speaks of life as a wave “which at no two consecutive moments of its existence is composed of the same particles.” In his more sober scientific mood Tyndall would doubtless have rejected M. Bergson’s view of life, yet his image of the wave is very Bergsonian. But what different meanings the two writers aim to convey: Tyndall is thinking of the fact that a living body is constantly taking up new material on the one side and dropping dead or outworn material on the other. M. Bergson’s mind is occupied with the thought of the primal push or impulsion of matter which travels through it as the force in the wave traverses the water. The wave embodies a force which lifts the water up in opposition to its tendency to seek and keep a level, and travels on, leaving the water behind. So does this something we call life break the deadlock of inert matter and lift it into a thousand curious and beautiful forms, and then, passing on, lets it fall back again into a state of dead equilibrium.

Tyndall was one of the most eloquent exponents of the materialistic theory of the origin of life, and were he living now would probably feel little or no sympathy with the Bergsonian view of a primordial life impulse. He found the key to all life phenomena in the hidden world of molecular attraction and repulsion. He says: “Molecular forces determine the form which the solar energy will assume. [What a world of mystery lies in that determinism of the hidden molecular forces!] In the separation of the carbon and oxygen this energy may be so conditioned as to result in one case in the formation of a cabbage and in another case in the formation of an oak. So also as regards the reunion of the carbon and the oxygen [in the animal organism] the molecular machinery through which the combining energy acts may in one case weave the texture of a frog, while in another it may weave the texture of a man.”