The Belfast Address - Pt. 4
( Originally Published 1916 )
In the seventeenth century Bacon and Descartes, the restorers of philosophy, appeared in succession. Differently educated and endowed, their philosophic tendencies were different. Bacon held fast to Induction, believing firmly in the existence of an external world, and making collected experiences the basis of all knowledge. The mathematical studies of Descartes gave him a bias toward Deduction; and his fundamental principle was much the same as that of Protagoras, who made the individual man the measure of all things. "I think, therefore I am," said Descartes. Only his own identity was sure to him; and the full development of this system would have led to an idealism, in which the outer world would have been re-solved into a mere phenomenon of consciousness. Gassendi, one of Descartes's contemporaries, of whom we shall hear more presently, quickly pointed out that the fact of personal existence would be proved as well by reference to any other act, as to the act of thinking. I eat, therefore I am, or I love, therefore I am, would be quite as conclusive. Lichtenberg, indeed, showed that the very thing to be proved was inevitably postulated in the first two words, "I think" ; and it is plain that no inference from the postulate could, by any possibility, be stronger than the postulate itself.
But Descartes deviated strangely from the idealism implied in his fundamental principle. He was the first to reduce, in a manner eminently capable of bearing the test of mental presentation, vital phenomena to purely mechanical principles. Through fear or love, Descartes was a good churchman; he accordingly rejected the notion of an atom, because it was absurd to suppose that God, if He so pleased, could not divide an atom; he puts in the place of the atoms small round particles, and light splinters, out of which he builds the organism. He sketches with marvellous physical insight a machine, with water for its motive power, which shall illustrate vital actions. He has made clear to his mind that such a machine would be competent to carry on the processes of digestion, nutrition, growth, respiration, and the beating of the heart. It would be competent to accept impressions from the external sense, to store them up in imagination and memory, to go through the internal movements of the appetites and passions, and the external movements of the limbs. He deduces these functions of his machine from the mere arrangements of its organs, as the movement of a clock, or other automaton, is deduced from its weights and wheels. "As far as these functions are concerned," he says, "it is not necessary to conceive any other vegetative or sensitive soul, nor any other principle of motion or of life, than the blood and the spirits agitated by the fire which burns continually in the heart, and which is in nowise different from the fires existing in inanimate bodies." Had Descartes been acquainted with the steam-engine, he would have taken it, instead of a fall of water, as his motive power. He would have shown the perfect analogy which exists between the oxidation of the food in he body, and that of the coal in the furnace. He would assuredly have anticipated Mayer in calling the blood which the heart diffuses "the oil of the lamp of life," deducing all animal motions from the combustion of this oil, as the motions of a steam-engine are deduced from the combustion of its coal. As the matter stands, how-ever, and considering the circumstances of the time, the boldness, clearness, and precision, with which Descartes grasped the problem of vital dynamics constitute a marvellous illustration of intellectual power.'
During the Middle Ages the doctrine of atoms had to all appearance vanished from discussion. It probably held its ground among sober-minded and thoughtful men, though neither the church nor the world was prepared to hear of it with tolerance. Once, in the year 1348, it received distinct expression. But retractation by compulsion immediately followed; and, thus discouraged, it slumbered till the seventeenth century, when it was revived by a con-temporary and friend of Hobbes of Malmesbury, the orthodox Catholic provost of Digne, Gassendi. But, before stating his relation to the Epicurean doctrine, it will be well to say a few words on the effect, as regards science, of the general introduction of monotheism among European nations.
"Were men," says Hume, "led into the apprehension of invisible intelligent power by contemplation of the works of Nature, they could never possibly entertain any conception but of one single Being, who bestowed existence and order on this vast machine, and adjusted all its parts to one regular system." Referring to the condition of the heathen, who sees a god behind every natural event, thus peopling the world with thousands of beings whose caprices are incalculable, Lange shows the impossibility of any compromise between such notions and those of science, which proceeds on the assumption of never-changing law and causality. "Put," he continues, with characteristic penetration, "when the great thought of one God, acting as a unit upon the universe, has been seized, the connection of things in accordance with the law of cause and effect is not only thinkable, but it is a necessary con-sequence of the assumption. For when I see ten thou-sand wheels in motion, and know, or believe, that they are all driven by one motive power, then I know that I have before me a mechanism, the action of every part of which is determined by the plan of the whole. So much being assumed, it follows that I may investigate the structure of that machine, and the various motions of its parts. For the time being, therefore, this conception renders scientific action free." In other words, were a capricious God at the circumference of every wheel and at the end of every lever, the action of the machine would be incalculable by the methods of science. But the actions of all its parts being rigidly determined by their connections and relations, and these being brought into play by a single motive power, then, though this last prime mover may elude me, I am still able to comprehend the machinery which it sets in motion. We have here a conception of the relation of Nature to its Author, which seems perfectly acceptable to some minds, but perfectly intolerable to others. Newton and Bayle lived' and worked happily under the influence of this conception; Goethe rejected it with vehemence, and the same repugnance to accepting it is manifest in Carlyle.
The analytic and synthetic tendencies of the human mind are traceable throughout history, great writers ranging themselves sometimes on the one side, sometimes on the other. Men of warm feelings, and minds open to the elevating impressions produced by nature as a whole, whose satisfaction, therefore, is rather ethical than logical, lean to the synthetic side; while the analytic harmonizes best with the more precise and more mechanical bias which seeks the satisfaction of the understanding. Some form of pantheism was usually adopted by the one, while a detached Creator, working more or less after the manner of men, was often assumed by the other. Gassendi, as sketched by Lange, is hardly to be ranked with either. Having formally acknowledged God as the great first cause, he immediately dropped the idea, applied the known laws of mechanics to the atoms, and deduced from them all vital phenomena. He defended Epicurus, and dwelt upon his purity, both of doctrine and of life. True he was a heathen, but so was Aristotle. Epicurus assailed superstition and religion, and rightly, because he did not know the true religion. He thought that the gods neither rewarded nor punished, and he adored them purely in consequence of their completeness: here we see, says Gassendi, the reverence of the child, instead of the fear of the slave. The errors of Epicurus shall be corrected, and the body of his truth retained. Gassendi then proceeds, as any heathen might have done, to build up the world, and all that therein is, of atoms and molecules. God, who created earth and water,, plants and animals, produced in the first place a definite number of atoms, which constituted the seed of all things. Then began that series of combinations and decompositions which now goes on, and which will continue in future. The principle of every change resides in matter. In artificial productions the moving principle is different from the material worked upon; but in nature the agent works within, being the most active and mobile part of the material itself. Thus this bold ecclesiastic, without incurring the censure of the church or the world, contrives to outstrip Mr. Darwin. The same cast of mind which caused him to detach the Creator from his universe, led him also to detach the soul from the body, though to the body he ascribes an influence so large as to render the soul almost unnecessary. The aberrations of reason were, in his view, an affair of the material brain. Mental disease is brain-disease; but then the immortal reason sits apart, and cannot be touched by the disease. The errors of madness are those of the instrument, not of the performer.
It may be more than a mere result of education, connecting itself, probably, with the deeper mental structure of the two men, that the idea of Gassendi, above enunciated, is substantially the same as that expressed by Professor Clerk Maxwell, at the close of the very able lecture delivered by him at Bradford in 1873. According to both philosophers, the atoms, if I understand aright, are prepared materials, which, formed once for all by the
Eternal, produce by their subsequent interaction all the phenomena of the material world. There seems to be this difference, however, between Gassendi and Maxwell. The one postulates, the other infers his first cause. In his "manufactured articles," as he calls the atoms, Professor Maxwell finds the basis of an induction, which enables him to scale philosophic heights considered inaccessible by Kant, and to take the logical step from the atoms to their Maker.
Accepting here the leadership of Kant, I doubt the legitimacy of Maxwell's logic; but it is impossible not to feel the ethic glow with which his lecture concludes. There is, moreover, a very noble strain of eloquence in his description of the steadfastness of the atoms : "Natural causes, as we know, are at work, which tend to modify, if they do not at length destroy, all the arrangements and dimensions of the earth and the whole solar system. But though in the course of ages catastrophes have occurred and may yet occur in the heavens, though ancient systems may be dissolved and new systems evolved out of their ruins, the molecules out of which these systems are built —the foundation stones of the material universe—remain unbroken and unworn."
The atomic doctrine, in whole or in part, was entertained by Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Newton, Boyle, and their successors, until the chemical law of multiple proportions enabled Dalton to confer upon it an entirely new significance. In our day there are secessions from the theory, but it still stands firm. Loschmidt, Stoney, and Sir William Thomson have sought to deter-mine the sizes of the atoms, or rather to fix the limits between which their sizes lie; while the discourses of Williamson and Maxwell delivered in Bradford in 1873 illustrate the present hold of the doctrine upon the foremost scientific minds. In fact, it may be doubted whether, wanting this fundamental conception, a theory of the material universe is capable of scientific statement.