Thomas Alva Edison: 1911 Columbian Interview

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Thomas Alva Edison: 1911 Columbian Interview


The Great Inventor Declares Immortality Of The Soul Improbable

American Atheist Press is pleased to be able to reprint this extremely rare "lost interview" with Thomas Alva Edison. A microfilm print of it was discovered by then newly elected American Atheists President Ellen Johnson in our editorial offices in Austin, Texas, after the disappearance of the Murray-O'Hair family and before our relocation to Cranford, New Jersey. The interview originally appeared in the January, 1911, issue (The New Year's Number, Vol. III, No. 4) of the short-lived periodical The Columbian Magazine (not to be confused with the 18th-century magazine of the same name). Apart from a copy of this magazine in the Library of Congress, the only other known copies surviving are in the St. Louis Public Library and the New York Public Library (from which our microfilm print was obtained). A copy at the University of Michigan seems no longer to exist. The Columbian Magazine seems to have published only one more issue after the one containing our controversial article. Whether the magazine folded because of all the controversy following its publication of an interview with a famous Atheist or because of some other reason is unknown.

As readers will see when reading this interview, Edison's Atheism was not quite what we call Atheism today, although the term Atheist describes him better than any other single word except perhaps pantheist. Edison's absolute materialism seems impossible to reconcile with pantheism given its usual, historical meaning of "the worship of all gods of various cults," but the redefinition of the term made by the English Deist J. Toland - making pantheism "the doctrine that 'God' is not a personality, but rather the sum of all laws, forces, and manifestations of the self-existing universe" - arguably would serve as well. Even so, Atheists certainly can argue that such redefinition is simply a misuse of words. Why call the universe 'God' when the word 'universe' is perfectly unambiguous and conveys a clear meaning? Why use the word 'God' for something so utterly un-godlike as the material world?

By Edward Marshall

These are days of bold and startling thought. Each year adds its detail to man's sum of knowledge of the mysteries of our existence, and the discoverers of deep things are generally heroes in their way. Science, through perfected method, is getting closer, closer to the ultimate, but science is non-sentimental; it has no reverence for age; it has no reverence for anything but Truth Which Can Be Proved.

The most sensational announcement made in years by an acknowledged leader of the world's best thought came, a few weeks since, in an interview which Thomas A. Edison granted to me. In this, the famous man - inventor of the phonograph and many other things, greatest of the great among the students of electrical phenomena - denied the immortality of man (as man), denied the possibility that Christendom's conception of the God of hosts could be in the least accurate, denied - oh, many things.

It is my privilege, through The Columbian, to offer to the world for the first time the famous man's elaboration of his views.

At the very start it is necessary that I make one detail clear. Among the celebrated thinkers who took issue with the famous scientist, was Dr. W. H. Thomson, author of The Brain and Personality, which Mr. Edison, himself, declares to be the ablest work yet issued on the subject, and Dr. Thomson, in his arguments, assumed that Mr. Edison denies Supreme Intelligence.

"Dr. Thomson's inference was wrong," Mr. Edison has since told me, "I never have denied Supreme Intelligence. What I have denied and what my reason compels me to deny, is the existence of a Being throned above us as a god, directing our mundane affairs in detail, regarding us as individuals, punishing us, rewarding us as human judges might. I do not wish to have the public think that I deny the merit of the world's great moral teachers - Confucius, Buddha, Christ. They were great men - truly wonderful. Their teachings are summed up in the Golden Rule, and any man who follows that will be far higher and far happier than any man who does not. But the worship of an individual God is not a necessary detail of following the Golden Rule."

Mr. Edison is known from one end of the world to the other as the greatest of inventors, and to be the greatest of inventors means to be among the greatest of thinkers. He has delved deeply into mysteries which at the threshold have completely baffled other men, and this, undoubtedly, has been because his brain is one superior in logic, in intelligent study of the fundamental law of cause and effect. It is this superior ability which, his friends think, has given him the courage of his convictions, the personal certainty that he is right in this tremendously important matter, although his critics cry that his late utterances to the public through my interviews prove him to have finally lost his wits after many years of wonderful achievement. I can personally testify that he was never in better bodily health or finer mental strength, and that what he has to say, below, is the result of careful, able, earnest and entirely sane thought.

The country has been ringing with the pros and cons. Hundreds of columns of newspaper comment have been printed, at least two books have, in the few weeks which have elapsed, been issued in pamphlet form upon the subject, the inventor's mail has reached a magnitude which quite appalls him. Bitter criticism and enthusiastic praise have both been offered to him, the criticism sometimes joined with threats, the praise linked often with excited adulation.

His stand, epitomized, is this:

"A man is not an individual; he is a vast collection of a myriad of individuals, just as a city is. The cell, minute and little known, is the real and only individual. A man is made of many million cells. His intelligence consists of the combined intelligence of them all, as a city's is made up of the combined intelligence of its inhabitants. Not being, in effect, an individual, how could he go to heaven or hell as an individual, be given a reward or any punishment, after death had caused the separation of his cells and the diffusion of their collective intelligence ?"

The great inventor sat, as he discussed these mighty matters, in the library of his world-famous laboratory at Orange, New Jersey. It is a vast and handsome room, lined with massed books on almost all its walls, from floor to ceiling. The few spaces which are not book-filled are occupied by cases full of specimens of strange materials, some of them fabulously rare. His desk, which stands to one side of the center of the room, is littered by a multitude of papers, among which, nowadays, is a mighty correspondence born of his frank expression of his views.

"Divinity?" said he, for The Columbian, "It is the mind which is divine, if we admit the word, at all, and mind, as I have said, consists of the collected intellect of all the cells which form a man. There are two worlds, the world of matter and the world of mind. Darwin has shown us how we have arisen in the world of matter, but it is the smaller world which he developed. Investigation in the other world, the world of mind, will show us more amazing things than Darwin, great man as he was, imagined. His Natural Law dealt with the things we call material. There is every indication that there is a mental law - a law which we may well discover to be based upon the fundamental principles laid down by the great teachers Christ, Confucius, Buddha. The limits of this mental law and of the mental world it governs, I cannot even guess. We are trembling on the brink of wonderful discoveries concerning such things. At present the mental world is bound by limitations imposed upon it by the world of matter, but matter has been partially subdued in many details. May not the telephone and telegraph, the X-ray, and a hundred other things be counted triumphs over matter?

"Remember, I am using these words 'mind' and 'matter' in their ordinary sense, not as they are used by any cultists.

"And in the mental world the fundamental law may well be that of the great teachers I have mentioned. But heaven and hell, reward and punishment for men's sins - no; I cannot see the logic of these theories. When death comes, then the individual disintegrates. To punish or reward the combined 'soul' of the great cell-collection which has been a man would be as utterly unjust as it would be impossible, and Nature is as just as she is merciless. This does not in the least affect my firm belief in the great moral law - the law which is summed up in the tremendous precept of the Golden rule.

"I look for new discoveries in this mental world far greater than have been the greatest of discoveries in the world of matter. But they will not be on the lines of the religions.

"Religions? They are nothing but formalities and side-issues. Christ was one of the greatest men who ever lived, a towering mental giant among the thinkers of his time. He was a wondrous teacher who saw far and straight into the heart of the great laws which govern human life. Confucius and Buddha were great moral teachers, too, who also penetrated deep into the heart of the eternal verities, and all three of these men saw the same things. Moses was tremendous. In the Ten Commandments the Jews devised a fine epitome of the great moral laws which stands, to-day, and will so stand through all the ages, no matter what developments may come, discoveries be made.

"When the churches learn to take this rational view of things, when they become true schools of ethics and stop teaching fables, they will be more effective than they are to-day. Now they are hampered by innumerable isms and formalities - a multitude of side-issues which keep them from the proper emphasis of that one great Truth, the Golden Rule. There are men of vast ability connected with the churches. If they would turn all that ability to teaching this one thing - the fact that honesty is best, that selfishness and lies of any sort must surely fail to produce happiness - they would accomplish actual things. Religious faiths and creeds have greatly hampered our development. They have absorbed and wasted some fine intellects. That creeds are getting to be less and less important to the average mind with every passing year is a good sign, I think, although I do not wish to talk about what is commonly called theology.

"I seriously doubt if Christ, the greatest moral teacher of them all, laid claim to actual divinity. He, like the other mighty moral teachers, arrived at the conclusion summed up in the Commandments, but his conclusions were much clearer, finer than the others' were, less hampered by extravagance and superstition. Indeed, I do not think that these things hampered Christ at all. I am not in the least convinced that He laid claim to any power to perform miracles. Such claims are not in keeping with the fine, strong, simple, truthful character of the great man, and the records which have come to us from those far times are probably imperfect and inaccurate. It may be that, in the past, the fables, mis-conceptions and mis-statements which have from the beginning, infiltrated the creeds, have made it easier for folks to conform to the mighty moral laws which tend toward rightful life, and, therefore, toward true happiness, but if that ever was the case I think it now has ceased to be.

"The criticisms which have been hurled at me have not worried me. A man cannot control his beliefs. If he is honest in his frank expression of them, that is all that can in justice be required of him. Professor Thomson and a thousand others do not in the least agree with me. His criticism of me, as I read it, charged that because I doubted the soul's immortality, or 'personality,' as he called it, my mind must be abnormal, 'pathological,' in other, words, diseased. I greatly admire Thomson. What he said about my mind did not disturb me. I try to say exactly what I honestly believe to be the truth, and more than that no man can do. I honestly believe that creedists have built up a mighty structure of inaccuracy, based, curiously, on those fundamental truths which I, with every honest man, must not alone admit but earnestly acclaim.

"I have been working on the same lines for many years. I have tried to go as far as possible toward the bottom of each subject I have studied. I have not reached my conclusions through study of traditions; I have reached them through the study of hard fact. I cannot see that unproved theories or sentiment should be permitted to have influence in the building of conviction upon matters so important. Science proves its theories or it rejects them. I have never seen the slightest scientific proof of the religious theories of heaven and hell, of future life for individuals, or of a personal God. I earnestly believe that I am right; I cannot help believing as I do. But that does not imply that I am surely right. I work on certain lines - what might be called, perhaps, mechanical lines. A man who worked along another line might disagree with me with perfect honesty, and might be right. But I cannot accept as final any theory which is not provable. The theories of the theologians cannot be proved. Proof, proof! That is what I always have been after; that is what my mind requires before it can accept a theory as fact. Some things are provable, some things disprovable, some things are doubtful. All the problems which perplex us, now, will, soon or late, be solved, and solved beyond a question through scientific investigation. The thing which most impresses me about theology is that it does not seem to be investigating. It seems to be asserting, merely, without actual study.

"It is a pity, too. There are great minds in the pulpits. If they would stop declaring the unprovable, and give their time to finding what is really Truth, the world would move more rapidly. Moral teaching is the thing we need most in this world, and many of these men could be great moral teachers if they would but give their whole time to it, and to scientific search for the rock-bottom truth, instead of wasting it upon expounding theories of theology which are not in the first place firmly based. What we need is search for fundamentals, not reiteration of traditions born in days when men knew even less than we do now.

"We have merely scratched the surface of the store of knowledge which will come to us. I believe that we are now, a-tremble on the verge of vast discoveries - discoveries so wondrously important that they will upset the present trend of human thought and start it along new lines completely.

"Study, along the lines which the theologies have mapped, will never lead us to discovery of the fundamental facts of our existence. That goal must be attained by means of exact science and can only be achieved by such means. The fact that man, for ages, has superstitiously believed in what he calls a God does not prove at all that his theory has been right. There have been many gods - all makeshifts, born of inability to fathom the deep fundamental truth. There must be something at the bottom of existence, and man, in ignorance, being unable to discover what it is through reason, because his reason has been so imperfect, undeveloped, has used, instead, imagination, and created figments, of one kind or another, which, according to the country he was born in, the suggestions of his environment, satisfied him for the time being. Not one of all the gods of all the various theologies has ever really been proved. We accept no ordinary scientific fact without the final proof; why should we, then, be satisfied in this most mighty of all matters, with a mere theory?

"Nor have we been. We have devised a thousand theories, each man according to the dictates of his own imagination, or, at least, each considerable group of men, according to the dictates of their grouped imaginations.

"But now we are becoming more inquisitive, far more insistent in our search for the Real Things. We do not, now, as easily as our forefathers did, accept things upon faith. And our children will be still more skeptical of mere unproved assertion; their children more than they will be. Increasingly the race demands real accuracy, real thoroughness, the fundamental truth. When it demands it earnestly enough, works hard enough to get it, and has had a chance to give the matter time enough, then it will certainly discover it. We are ever searching for the Why, and, now and then, not entirely by accident, for the accidents are nearly always incidents of intelligent search, we gain some further inkling of it. Many things which would have readily passed muster in the past decade are now subjected to suspicious scrutiny - and that is a good thing. More theologians than one admit this, and, finding that the old religions do not lead them to the fundamental truth, are going on beyond, searching, searching, searching for the ultimate. The highest type of mind, when devoted to the moral leadership of other people, must inevitably be willing to cast aside traditions as they are disproved, accept new facts as they may be discovered."

"But would not the destruction of religions which you predict mean, also, destruction of the best in human happiness ?" I asked.

"Destruction of false theories will not decrease the sum of human happiness in future, any more than it has in the past. I think modern man demands things more substantial than in mere theories. The days of miracles have passed. I do not believe, of course, that there was ever any day of actual miracles. I cannot understand that there were ever any miracles at all. My guide must be my reason, and at thought of miracles my reason is rebellious. Personally, I do not believe that Christ laid claim to doing miracles, or asserted that he had miraculous power. He was too wise a man to credit miracles, too good a man to claim things which were not precisely true."

The great inventor sat before his littered desk in the big room, with bowed head, silent for a time. His eyes, when he is thinking deeply, sometimes close, but oftener remain wide open, but entirely unseeing. The abstraction of his really deep reveries is very deep. Ordinary noises do not in the least disturb him, he can, at will, put wholly from him all the multitude of details which from time to time demand attention in the course of scientific investigations, and the management of his great manufacturing enterprises. Now his absorption was complete.

"There is no dodging the plain fact that we are mere machines," said he, at length. "I used the term 'mere meat machines' when we were talking on these lines before. I like the term. It is a good one. We are machines, made up of an infinity of parts, each part made up of an infinity of cells. Life lies within the cells, and the cells are the real individuals. Our intelligence is the aggregate intelligence of the cells which make us up. There is no soul, distinct from mind, and what we speak of as the mind is just the aggregate intelligence of cells. It is fallacious to declare that we have souls apart from animal intelligence, apart from brains. It is the brain that keeps us going. There is nothing beyond that."

"Immortality, then, is not to be considered. Is that your view ?"

"No; not immortality as spoken in the theologies. Life goes on endlessly, but no more in human beings than in other animals, or, for that matter, than in vegetables. Life, collectively, must be immortal, human beings, individually, cannot be, as I see it, for they are not the individuals - they are mere aggregates of cells.

"Spirit? There is no such thing as spirit unless mind is spirit, and mind is merely the manifestation of the brainmachine's activities.

"There are many things remaining for humanity to learn - many mysteries unsolved; but all are manifestations of the natural law. There is no supernatural. We are continually learning new things. There are powers within us which have not yet been developed and they will develop. We shall learn things of ourselves, which will be full of wonders, but none of them will be beyond the natural. We are developing new abilities, developing new senses. Animals have some which we have not, because the emergencies of their environment have demanded them, while ours have not. We have some which animals have not and shall have more because our mode of life is changing and will make more necessary. I will not prophesy except along the lines of purely rational and natural development, but these are wonderful enough. Things which we guess, now, we shall know or utterly disprove; new necessities will bring new powers. Old theories will pass away, having been proved to be untenable, and facts will take their place, while utterly new theories will act as the advance battalion in new assaults upon the citadel of facts to there discover Truths which we at present do not even dream of. Our environment, a century from now, will be so utterly abnormal, when considered in comparison with that we know today, that we shall need new powers - new senses - and, needing them, shall certainly develop them. You were present, recently, at experiments made with an extraordinary man, Professor Bert Reese, a resident, I believe, of New York City. He plainly showed a certain power which cannot be laughed to scorn, cannot be at present satisfactorily explained away. A century ago the man would have been looked upon as a wizard. In the early days of Massachusetts a woman with such powers as his would certainly have been burned for witchcraft, yet Reese, though unexplainable at present, is a mere prodigy. He makes startling claims for his ability and some of these he demonstrates. We all saw him read words which had been written in rooms distant from the one in which he had remained, and read them when the paper upon which they had been written remained folded and refolded. He claims other powers and may have them, for all we can say positively to the contrary. He is a prodigy, and, as a prodigy, is wonderful; but there have been prodigies of many sorts, all wonderful. Blind Tom was wonderful in music, and there have been prodigies in mathematics equally marvelous.

"Most prodigies are merely prodigies, meaning, really, nothing, and this may be the case with Reese; but, on the other hand, he may mean something - something big.

"I cannot, yet, explain his power. Apparently he saw through solids. But - Well, why not? Do not X-rays do that?

"The change in our environment will bring its change in our capabilities. The human mind will rise to meet whatever the new problems may be which appear, confronting it. As they are demanded, new senses will develop."

"What will these senses be ?"

"I don't know. How could I? They will be such as may be required to give the organism reasonable protection against the dangers of its new environment. Men, like him we have just mentioned, may be forerunners of what the normal brain may then accomplish. I am convinced that what Reese did - his reading of closed papers, and all that - was done by sight - by some strange power of sight, which, so long as it exists but in a few, remains abnormal, the possession of a prodigy. But that by no means proves that it will always be considered an abnormal thing. The wonder of today is but to-morrow's commonplace. The present brain-development of man is not the ultimate. We have no reason to believe that it is even near the ultimate. I cannot, yet, explain Reese, but either the man saw through the walls and knew, thus, what was being written on the papers, when the men were writing it, or he saw through the papers, when they were presented to him, and read the writing then. I am inclined to lean toward the first theory, and that may seem a startling thing for me to say. But would it really be more wonderful for him to do that - for the man to see through, walls and watch the process of the writing than it is for the X-ray to pass and photograph through solids? Ten years before Professor Roentgen discovered the X-ray a prophecy of it would have made the few who bothered to take heed of it smile with complacent superiority and say the prophet was a madman.

"But the X-ray and all sorts of other things have come, and the men who have produced them have not been the madmen but more rational than those who decried the possibility of their wonders.

"And not one of these has come through what religionists call soul - all have been achieved through what we call mind. Therefore, I am convinced that our development, which will not stop, will be development of mental power, entirely natural, not a development of so-called spiritual power, abnormal, supernatural. Why should not the mind be changed in evolution as the body has been? It has developed marvelously. Why should it not continue to develop? Darwin showed us how we have arisen in the world of matter, but the world of matter is a little world compared to that of brain. The religionists all talk about the world of spirit. I cannot conceive of more than the two worlds of matter and of mind. There are no miracles in either, but only logical and natural development, with, now and then, the appearance of a prodigy like Reese. He proves nothing, disproves nothing. There have been many mental prodigies before him, and every circus strong man is a physical prodigy. He reads writing hidden by the folds of paper; he may very well have found lost articles as he has claimed to have done. He told you, for instance, where to find your pocketbook, when it had fallen into the inside of a folding bed which was closed tightly when he came into the room. These things would seem to mean abnormal sight, and indicate a general line of progress which we all may follow. Probably this is not true, but we shall inevitably progress, achieving more and more and more."

"Unto perfection?" I inquired. "Religions promise ultimate perfection of mankind?"

"I did not say unto perfection. Can anything be perfect? But we shall progress physically, adapting ourselves constantly to new conditions as they come; develop mentally, producing new abilities as we may need them. And with physical and mental development will come the other - moral betterment, not through any creed, but through a better understanding of the wisdom of, a closer application of, the Golden Rule. It will not be 'soul'-growth, in the old meaning of the word, but mind-growth - rational, impressive, irresistible. If every religion should be wiped away the fact would still remain that the best policy is honesty, and when all men are honest the Golden Rule dominates the world.

"The energy, the money and the time now spent upon the churches will be given to new forms of education, the fine minds which have been wasted on theologies will turn to other and more fruitful labors.

"Why, it is all a phase of human progress toward theā€¦"

The great inventor paused.

"The what?"

"The ultimate, if there is any ultimate. All things progress or retrograde. Humanity progresses."

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