Mezzotint portrait of Christopher Morcom by Norman Hirst, 1930.

When Alan Turing’s school friend Christopher Morcom died in February 1930, aged just 18, Alan wrote to his mother saying, ‘I feel sure that I shall meet Morcom again somewhere & that there will be some work for us to do together, as I believed there was for us to do here.’

Two years after Christopher Morcom’s death, Alan went to stay at the Morcom family home at Clock House in Bromsgrove.  During his visit, he wrote ‘Nature of Spirit’ in which he stated his beliefs about the relationship between the spirit and the body:

[undated, c.April 1932]

Nature of Spirit
It used to be supposed in Science that if everything was known about the universe at any particular moment then we can predict what it will be through all the future.  This idea was really due to the great success of astronomical prediction. More modern science, however, has come to the conclusion that when we are dealing with atoms & electrons we are quite unable to know the exact state of them; our instruments being made of atoms & electrons themselves.  The conception then of being able to know the exact state of the universe then really must break down on the small scale.  This means then that the theory which held that as eclipses etc. were predestined so were all our actions, breaks down too.  We have a will which is able to determine the action of the atoms probably in a small portion of the brain, or possibly all over it.  The rest of the body acts so as to amplify this.  There is now the question which must be answered as to how the action of the other atoms of the universe are regulated.  Probably by the same law and simply by the remote effects of spirit but since they have no amplifying apparatus they seem to be regulated by pure chance.  The apparent iron predestination of physics is almost a combination of chances.

As McTaggart shews matter is meaningless in the absence of spirit (throughout I do not mean by matter that which can be a solid a liquid or a gas so much as that which is dealt with by physics e.g. light & gravitation as well, i.e. that which forms the universe).  Personally, I think that spirit is really eternally connected with matter but certainly not always by the same kind of body.  I did believe it possible for a spirit at death to go to a universe entirely separate from our own, but I now consider that matter & spirit are so connected that this would be a contradiction in terms.  It is possible however but unlikely that such universes may exist.

Then as regards the actual connection between spirit & body I consider that the body by reason of being a living body can “attract” & hold on to a “spirit” whilst the body is alive & awake the two are firmly connected & when the body is asleep I cannot guess what happens but when the body dies the “mechanism” of the body, holding the spirit is gone & the spirit finds a new body sooner or later perhaps immediately.

As regards the question of why we have bodies at all; why we do not or cannot live free as spirits & communicate as such, we probably could do so but there would be nothing whatsoever to do.  The body provides something for the spirit to look after & use.’

[The original of this essay is held at the Turing Archive, King’s College, Cambridge, ref. AMT/C/29]

Christopher Morcom is still remembered at Sherborne School by the Christopher Morcom Prize for Science (established in 1930) and also by no.57 memorial pew in the School Chapel.

Find out more about Alan Turing’s time at Sherborne School.

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Posted 25 October 2017 by Sherborne School Archives.

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