Friedrich Engels
on Empiricism, Spiritualism, Science, Mysticism,
and Philosophical Naiveté


The dialectics that has found its way into popular consciousness finds expression in the old saying that extremes meet. In accordance with this we should hardly err in looking for the most extreme degree of fantasy, credulity, and superstition, not in that trend of natural science which, like the German philosophy of nature, tries to force the objective world into the framework of its subjective thought, but rather in the opposite trend, which, relying on mere experience, treats thought with sovereign disdain and really has gone to the furthest extreme in emptiness of thought. This school prevails in England. Its father, the much lauded Francis Bacon, already advanced the demand that his new empirical-inductive method should be pursued to attain by its means, above all, longer life, rejuvenation—to a certain extent, alteration of stature and features, transformation of one body into another, the production of new species, power over the air and the production of storms. He complains that such investigations have been abandoned, and in his natural history he actually gives recipes for making gold and performing various miracles. Similarly Isaac Newton in his old age greatly busied himself with expounding the revelation of St. John. So it is not to be wondered at if in recent years English empiricism in the person of some of its representatives—and not the worst of them—should seem to have fallen a hopeless victim to the spirit-rapping and spirit-seeing imported from America.


Meanwhile the Continent also had its scientific spiritseers. A scientific association at St. Petersburg—I do not know exactly whether the University or even the Academy itself—charged the Councillor of State, Aksakov, and the chemist, Butlerov, to examine the basis of the spiritualistic phenomena, but it does not seem that very much came of this. On the other hand—if the noisy announcements of the spiritualists are to be believed—Germany has now also put forward its man in the person of Professor Zöllner in Leipzig.

For years, as is well known, Herr Zöllner has been hard at work on the “fourth dimension” of space, and has discovered that many things that are impossible in a space of three dimensions, are a simple matter of course in a space of four dimensions. Thus, in the latter kind of space, a closed metal sphere can be turned inside out like a glove, without making a hole in it; similarly a knot can be tied in an endless string or one which has both ends fastened, and two separate closed rings can be interlinked without opening either of them, and many more such feats. According to the recent triumphant reports from the spirit world, it is said now that Professor Zöllner has addressed himself to one or more mediums in order with their aid to determine more details of the locality of the fourth dimension. The success is said to have been surprising. After the session the arm of the chair, on which he rested his arm while his hand never left the table, was found to have become interlocked with his arm, a string that had both ends sealed to the table was found tied into four knots, and so on. In short, all the miracles of the fourth dimension are said to have been performed by the spirits with the utmost ease. It must be borne in mind: relata refero, I do not vouch for the correctness of the spirit bulletin, and if it should contain any inaccuracy, Herr Zöllner ought to be thankful that I am giving him the opportunity to make a correction. If, however, it reproduces the experiences of Herr Zöllner without falsification, then it obviously signifies a new era both in the science of spiritualism and that of mathematics. The spirits prove the existence of the fourth dimension, just as the fourth dimension vouches for the existence of spirits. And this once established, an entirely new, immeasurable field is opened to science. All previous mathematics and natural science will be only a preparatory school for the mathematics of the fourth and still higher dimensions, and for the mechanics, physics, chemistry, and physiology of the spirits dwelling in these higher dimensions. Has not Mr. Crookes scientifically determined how much weight is lost by tables and other articles of furniture on their passage into the fourth dimension—as we may now well be permitted to call it—and does not Mr. Wallace declare it proven that fire there does no harm to the human body?


Enough. Here it becomes palpably evident which is the surest path from natural science to mysticism. It is not the extravagant theorizing of the philosophy of nature, but the shallowest empiricism that spurns all theory and distrusts all thought.


Indeed, dialectics cannot be despised with impunity. However great one's contempt for all theoretical thought, nevertheless one cannot bring two natural facts into relation with each other, or understand the connection existing between them, without theoretical thought. The only question is whether one's thinking is correct or not, and contempt of theory is evidently the surest way to think naturalistically, and therefore incorrectly. But, according to an old and well-known dialectical law, incorrect thinking, carried to its logical conclusion, inevitably arrives at the opposite of its point of departure. Hence, the empirical contempt for dialectics is punished by some of the most sober empiricists being led into the most barren of all superstitions, into modern spiritualism.

It is the same with mathematics. The ordinary metaphysical mathematicians boast with enormous pride of the absolute irrefutability of the results of their science. But these results include also imaginary magnitudes, which thereby acquire a certain reality. When one has once become accustomed to ascribe some kind of reality outside of our minds to √-1, or to the fourth dimension, then it is not a matter of much importance if one goes a step further and also accepts the spirit world of the mediums. It is as Ketteler said about Döllinger: “The man has defended so much nonsense in his life, he really could have accepted [papal] infallibility into the bargain!”

In fact, mere empiricism is incapable of refuting the spiritualists. In the first place, the “higher” phenomena always show themselves only when the “investigator” concerned is already so far in the toils that he now only sees what he is meant to see or wants to see—as Crookes himself describes with such inimitable naivété. In the second place, however, the spiritualist cares nothing that hundreds of alleged facts are exposed as imposture and dozens of alleged mediums as ordinary tricksters. As long as every single alleged miracle has not been explained away, they have still room enough to carry on, as indeed Wallace says clearly enough in connection with the falsified spirit photographs. The existence of falsifications proves the genuineness of the genuine ones.

And so empiricism finds itself compelled to refute the importunate spirit-seers not by means of empirical experiments, but by theoretical considerations, and to say, with Huxley: “The only good that I can see in the demonstration of the truth of ‘spiritualism’ is to furnish an additional argument against suicide. Better live a crossing-sweeper than die and be made to talk twaddle by a ‘medium’ hired at a guinea a séance!”


SOURCE: Engels, Friedrich. Natural Science and the Spirit World, in Dialectics of Nature (First published in Russian and German in the USSR in 1925, except for Part Played by Labour, 1896 and Natural Science and the Spirit World, 1898;), See also quote in: On Religion, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (New York: Schocken Books, 1964), p. 186.


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de Friedrich Engels, elgermanigita de Vilhelmo Lutermano
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Offsite:

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