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Moxon’s Master
by [?]

“And all this?”

“Can you miss the significance of it? It shows the consciousness of plants. It proves that they think.”

“Even if it did–what then? We were speaking, not of plants, but of machines. They may be composed partly of wood–wood that has no longer vitality–or wholly of metal. Is thought an attribute also of the mineral kingdom?”

“How else do you explain the phenomena, for example, of crystallization?”

“I do not explain them.”

“Because you cannot without affirming what you wish to deny, namely, intelligent cooperation among the constituent elements of the crystals. When soldiers form lines, or hollow squares, you call it reason. When wild geese in flight take the form of a letter V you say instinct. When the homogeneous atoms of a mineral, moving freely in solution, arrange themselves into shapes mathematically perfect, or particles of frozen moisture into the symmetrical and beautiful forms of snowflakes, you have nothing to say. You have not even invented a name to conceal your heroic unreason.”

Moxon was speaking with unusual animation and earnestness. As he paused I heard in an adjoining room known to me as his “machine- shop,” which no one but himself was permitted to enter, a singular thumping sound, as of some one pounding upon a table with an open hand. Moxon heard it at the same moment and, visibly agitated, rose and hurriedly passed into the room whence it came. I thought it odd that any one else should be in there, and my interest in my friend– with doubtless a touch of unwarrantable curiosity–led me to listen intently, though, I am happy to say, not at the keyhole. There were confused sounds, as of a struggle or scuffle; the floor shook. I distinctly heard hard breathing and a hoarse whisper which said “Damn you!” Then all was silent, and presently Moxon reappeared and said, with a rather sorry smile:

“Pardon me for leaving you so abruptly. I have a machine in there that lost its temper and cut up rough.”

Fixing my eyes steadily upon his left cheek, which was traversed by four parallel excoriations showing blood, I said:

“How would it do to trim its nails?”

I could have spared myself the jest; he gave it no attention, but seated himself in the chair that he had left and resumed the interrupted monologue as if nothing had occurred:

“Doubtless you do not hold with those (I need not name them to a man of your reading) who have taught that all matter is sentient, that every atom is a living, feeling, conscious being. I do. There is no such thing as dead, inert matter: it is all alive; all instinct with force, actual and potential; all sensitive to the same forces in its environment and susceptible to the contagion of higher and subtler ones residing in such superior organisms as it may be brought into relation with, as those of man when he is fashioning it into an instrument of his will. It absorbs something of his intelligence and purpose–more of them in proportion to the complexity of the resulting machine and that of its work.

“Do you happen to recall Herbert Spencer’s definition of ‘Life’? I read it thirty years ago. He may have altered it afterward, for anything I know, but in all that time I have been unable to think of a single word that could profitably be changed or added or removed. It seems to me not only the best definition, but the only possible one.

“‘Life,’ he says, ‘is a definite combination of heterogeneous changes, both simultaneous and successive, in correspondence with external coexistences and sequences.'”

“That defines the phenomenon,” I said, “but gives no hint of its cause.”

“That,” he replied, “is all that any definition can do. As Mill points out, we know nothing of cause except as an antecedent–nothing of effect except as a consequent. Of certain phenomena, one never occurs without another, which is dissimilar: the first in point of time we call cause, the second, effect. One who had many times seen a rabbit pursued by a dog, and had never seen rabbits and dogs otherwise, would think the rabbit the cause of the dog.