Edison on the soul

NY Times 1910 Edison (Oct 2)
Top section from the 1910 New York Times interview of Thomas Edison on the soul and his views about religious matters and life and death, following the recent passing of William James and supposed whereabouts of his soul. [1]
In hmolscience, Edison on the soul refers to American inventor Thomas Edison’s statements, opinions, and or dialogues on the concept of the soul and or its residual theories.

1910 interview
On 26 Aug 1910, noted reserve energy theorist and The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) author Harvard psychologist William James met his reaction end (died). Shortly thereafter, following alleged reports of the reappearance or ‘manifestation’ of James’ soul on earth, New York Times journalist Edward Marshall sought out Edison, then aged 63, to clarify the matter, the aim of which he explains as follows: “The newspapers have been teaming with the subject. The psychic researchers are even now quarreling bitterly over it. The public is puzzled. Therefore, I turned to Edison, who has solved for us so many puzzling problems. The existence of the soul, of life after death, has lately become largely a scientific question. Professor James, who, if not a confessed spiritualist, was very close to the boarder, worked wholly along scientific lines. No one has studied the minutiae of science with greater care than Edison. I determined, therefore, to find out what were his conclusions. And the result , as I have said, was amazing, fascinating.”

On 2 Oct 1910, the New York Times published the interview dialogue, between journalist Edward Marshall and Edison; the noted segments of the queries and comments are as follows:

Edison: “I cannot believe in the immortality of the soul. Heaven? Shall I, if I am good and earn reward, go to heaven when I die? No – no. I am not ‘I’ – I am not an individual – I am an aggregate of cells.”

Edison: “No, all this talk of an existence for us, as individuals, beyond the grave is wrong. It is born of our tenacity of life—our desire to go on living—our dread of coming to an end as individuals. I do not dread it, though. Personally I cannot see any use of a future life.”

Marshall: “But the soul!” [I protested] “The soul—.”

Edison: “Soul? Soul? What do you mean by soul? The brain?”

Marshall: “Well, for the sake of argument, call it the brain, or what is in the brain. Is there not something immortal of or in the human brain—the human mind?”

Edison: “Absolutely no! There is no more reason to believe that any human brain will be immortal than there is to think that one of my phonographic cylinders—mere records of sounds which have been impressed upon them—will be immortal.”

Edison: “No one thinks of claiming immortality for the cylinders or the phonograph. Then why claim it for the brain mechanism or the power that drives it? Because we do not know what this power is, shall we call it immortal? As we call electricity immortal because we do not know what it is.

Edison: “The brain, like the phonographic cylinder, is a mere record, not of sounds alone, but of other things which have been impressed upon it by the mysterious power which actuates it. Perhaps it would be better to call a recording office, where records are made and stored. But no matter what you call it, it is a mere machine, and even the most enthusiastic soul theorist will concede that machines are not immortal.”

Edison: “If a man has a strong will he can force his brain to do this thing or that—make this effort, abstain from making that one. Is the will a part of the brain? I do not know. It may or it may not be. The will may be a form of electricity, or it may be a form of some other power of which we as yet know nothing. But whatever it is, it is material; on that we may depend.

Edison: “After death the force, or power, we call ‘will’ undoubtedly endures; but it endures in this world, not in the next. And so with the thing we call life, or the soul—mere speculative terms for a material thing which, under given conditions, drives this way or that. It too endures in this world, not the other.”

Edison: “Because we are as yet unable to understand it, we call it immortal. It is the ignorant, lazy man’s refute. There are plenty of savages, you know, who still call fire immortal. That is because they are underdeveloped, and are too lazy and ignorant to change their present state. This speculative idea of immortality needs but to be analyzed to fall whole to the ground.”

Mendeleev is dead”, looking at a personal signed photograph of the chemist, “Now where is his will? He was a very great man. His will has the greatest part of him. What has become of that will? I don’t know.”

Toward the end of the interview—following a rather interesting story, concerning the possible future development of "extra senses", e.g. like homing pigeons have, about a wandering Jew like mindreading visitor (though this may have been billet reading trickster Bert Reese (Ѻ), see: second interview) who came to his laboratory, answering Edison’s secretly written question on paper: “Is there anything better for a storage battery than nickel-hydroxide?”, with the response: “No, there is nothing better”, and abruptly leaves—we find:

Marshall: “Shall we, in the course of time, discover life’s actual source?”

Edison: “Oh, I don’t know. Those things are pretty small. Too small to find , perhaps. The world, you know, and the universe, are full of the infinitely small as well as the infinitely great. We are, as I said early in this talk, all aggregates. To get us down to the ultimate division—to trace life down to its ultimate source—well—I don’t know—.”

Edison then mentions the “ultra-microscope”, Brownian motion, and how someday we might or might not see an actual molecule.

On 15 Oct 1910, in communication to H. Toyer, in a followup defense of this interview article, Edison stated: [2]

“You have misunderstood the whole article, because you jumped to the conclusion that it denies the existence of God. There is no such denial, what you call God I call Nature, the Supreme intelligence that rules matter. All the article states is that it is doubtful in my opinion if our intelligence or soul or whatever one may call it lives hereafter as an entity or disperses back again from whence it came … scattered among the cells of which we are made.”

Likewise, in a Nov 9 communication to Joseph P. Smithers, Edison stated:

“As far as my observations extend I am compelled to believe in the existence of a supreme intelligence and that while man is immortal through propagation of the species if not interfered with by a catastrophe I cannot see that his personality is immortal.”

Thomson rebuttal | Response | 1911
In Jan 1911, a followup clarification interview, with Edward Marshall, published in The Columbian Magazine, following attacks by American physician and Christianity scholar William H. Thomson, along with those found in the statement that "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", Edison stated: [3]

Edison: “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.”

Edison does aver, to note, that he concedes his belief that Jesus Christ was a real person

(add discussion)

The following are other related quotes:

“My mind is incapable of conceiving such a thing as a soul. I may be in error, and man may have a soul; but I simply do not believe it.”
Thomas Edison (1924), “Do We Live Again”? [4]

Religion is all bunk.”
Thomas Edison (date) [4]

See also
Do atoms have souls?
Goethe on the soul
Einstein on the soul
● Heisenberg on the soul | Heisenberg-Pauli dialogue

1. Marshall, Edward. (1910). “No Immortality of the Soul Says Thomas A. Edison” (Ѻ) (pdf), Interview, The New York Times, Oct 2.
2. (a) Edison, Thomas. (1910). “Letter to H. Toyer”, Oct 15.
(b) Israel, Paul. (2000). Edison: A Life of Invention (pg. 475). Wiley & Sons.
3. (a) Edison, Thomas. (1911). “Thomas A. Edison on Immortality: the Great Inventor Declares Immortality of the Soul Improbable” (doc) (Interview by Edward Marshall), The Columbian Magazine, 3(4), Jan.
(b) Curtis, Ian. (2006). Jesus: Myth or Reality? (pg. 289). iUniverse.
4. Azbell, Frederick J. (2010). Organized Religion is Blind Leading the Blind (pg. 116). Author House.
4. Edison, Thomas. (1924). “Do We Live Again?” (Ѻ), The Illustrated London News, May 3.

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