Ernst Haeckel was the biologist and philosopher who made Darwin known in Germany. He was one of the first to apply Darwinian ideas to human ‘races’. Nazi ideologues used his writings to support their racist theories and social Darwinism. Haeckel is also the author of the « recapitulation » theory, according to which ontogenesis « recapitulates » phylogenesis.
Haeckel had a monistic view of the world, an acute perception of divine immanence and proposed a quasi-deification of the « laws of nature ». « God is found in the law of nature itself. God’s will acts according to laws, both in the raindrop that falls and in the crystal that grows, as well as in the scent of the rose and in the minds of men. »i
This immanence can be found in the « cell memory » (« Zellgedächtnis ») and in the « soul of crystals » (« Kristallseelen »).
From such a interpenetration of « Nature » and « God », Haeckel deduced the end of « the belief in a personal God, in the personal immortality of the soul and in the freedom of human will.”
The whole metaphysics was to be called into question.
« Alongside the law of evolution and closely related to it, one can consider as the supreme triumph of modern science the almighty law of substance, the law of conservation of matter (Lavoisier, 1789) and of conservation of energy (Robert von Mayer, 1842). These two great laws are in manifest contradiction with the three great central dogmas of metaphysics, which most cultured people still today consider to be the most precious treasures: belief in a personal God, in the personal immortality of the soul, and in the freedom of the human will. (…) These three precious objects of faith will only be removed, as truths, from the realm of pure science. On the other hand they will remain, as a precious product of fantasy, in the realm of poetry. »ii
There are two points to consider, here. On the one hand the question of the validity of the « supreme laws » of modern science, the law of evolution and the law of conservation, and on the other hand the question of the « manifest contradiction » between these laws and the « three central dogmas of metaphysics ».
On the first point, it should be recalled that the purely scientific vision of the conservation and evolution of the world cannot alone account for singular phenomena such as the Big Bang. Where does the initial energy of the universe come from? « It has always been there, by the law of conservation », answer the believers in pure science.
But this very thesis is in itself undemonstrable, and therefore unscientific.
« Pure science » is apparently based on an unprovable axiom. Hence « pure science » does not seem quite scientific.
The second point is the question of the « manifest contradiction », according to Haeckel, between the two laws of conservation and the central dogmas of metaphysics such as freedom of the will or the immortality of the soul.
In 1907, only one year after the publication of Haeckel’s quoted work, the American physician Duncan MacDougall measured the weight of six patients just before and after their death. He found a decrease of 21 grams, which he deduced could be the weight of the soul escaping from the human bodyiii. A heated controversy ensued. The experiment was deemed to be flawed, for many commentators.
In any case, obviously, if an immaterial soul « exists », it cannot have mass. Or, if it has a « mass », then it is a SISO, a Soul In Name Only…
However, assuming the validity of D. MacDougall’s experimental results, one may infer that the 21-gram loss of mass, supposedly observed in some individuals after death, may come from causes other than the alleged soul’s exit from the body.
It would be possible to imagine, for example, a « sublimation », in the chemical sense, of certain components of the human body, which would thus pass directly from the solid state to the gaseous state, without passing through a liquid state. In fact, this « sublimation » would result in an exhalation or evaporation of the matter transformed into a gaseous mass.
The « last sigh » would thus not only consist of the air contained in the lungs of the dying body, but also of a mass of body matter « sublimated » by the metabolic transformations accompanying death itself. Among these transformations, those affecting the brain would be particularly crucial, considering that the brain consumes about a quarter of the body’s metabolic energy.
Death would have a physico-chemical effect on the brain in the form of a « sublimation » of part of its substance.
The « soul » may not have any mass and any weight. But the biological « structure » of a living brain, its « organization », this specific seal of a singular person, could prove to have a weight of several grams. At the time of death, this « structure » would rapidly decompose and « exhale » out of the body.
The « structure » of the brain, or its « systemic » organization, constitutes – from a materialistic point of view – the very essence of the individual. It can also be defined as the very condition of its « freedom », or « spirit », to use metaphysical concepts.
What is certain is that whether one has a materialistic point of view or not, death obviously produces a systemic loss, which also translates into a loss of matter.
How can the laws of « conservation » of substance and energy account for such a « loss »?
Just as every birth adds something to the unique and unheard of in this world, so every death subtracts something unique and unspeakable.
Whether we call this unique, unspeakable something: « soul », « breath », « structure » or « 21-gram mass », has no real importance, from the point of view that interests us here.
In any case, death results in a net, absolute loss, which the scientific laws of « conservation » cannot explain.
The soul, or freedom of the will for that matter, really have no « mass ». When they are « lost », the laws of conservation do not find them in their balance sheets.
It is an important lesson.
The « supreme triumph of modern science, the almighty law of substance » just cannot grasp a spiritual « essence ».
Not just any essence. Particularly the essence of our own personal soul. Once this is well understood, the implications are immense.
iErnst Haeckel. Religion andEvolution. 1906
iiErnst Haeckel. Religion andEvolution. 1906
iii MacDougall, Duncan. “The Soul: Hypothesis Concerning Soul Substance Together with Experimental Evidence of The Existence of Such Substance.” American Medicine. April 1907. Here is a significant excerpt : « The patient’s comfort was looked after in every way, although he was practically moribund when placed upon the bed. He lost weight slowly at the rate of one ounce per hour due to evaporation of moisture in respiration and evaporation of sweat. During all three hours and forty minutes I kept the beam end slightly above balance near the upper limiting bar in order to make the test more decisive if it should come. This loss of weight could not be due to evaporation of respiratory moisture and sweat, because that had already been determined to go on, in his case, at the rate of one sixtieth of an ounce per minute, whereas this loss was sudden and large, three-fourths of an ounce in a few seconds. The bowels did not move; if they had moved the weight would still have remained upon the bed except for a slow loss by the evaporation of moisture depending, of course, upon the fluidity of the feces. The bladder evacuated one or two drams of urine. This remained upon the bed and could only have influenced the weight by slow gradual evaporation and therefore in no way could account for the sudden loss. There remained but one more channel of loss to explore, the expiration of all but the residual air in the lungs. Getting upon the bed myself, my colleague put the beam at actual balance. Inspiration and expiration of air as forcibly as possible by me had no effect upon the beam. My colleague got upon the bed and I placed the beam at balance. Forcible inspiration and expiration of air on his part had no effect. In this case we certainly have an inexplicable loss of weight of three-fourths of an ounce. Is it the soul substance? How other shall we explain it? »