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What Are The Laws Of Nature

( Originally Published 1913 )

THE three great initial conceptions of the Positive Philosophy having been set forth in the preceding sections, I will now give some analysis of the six volumes of scientific exposition forming the Cours de Philosophie Positive. But, before finally leaving the subject of Comte's Law of Evolution, I will insert a note ad-dressed to me by a friend, which may help to clear up some obscurities in my own exposition. The importance of the law warrants our dwelling on it :

" The following observations may perhaps prove serviceable to the younger students of the Positive Philosophy. In the Law of Evolution, they must not suppose, as many do, that each of the three periods had a separate and exclusive existence. On the contrary, the Theological, Metaphysical, and Positive elements have always co-existed. But in the first period, Theology has been the predominating element ; in the second, Metaphysical; in the third, Positive conception has predominated. The germ of Positivism will be found even in the Fetichistic stage; nor was man ever absolutely incapable of Abstraction. On the other hand, the Positive period will not entirely exclude the initial and intermediate tendencies of the human mind. It should be observed, too, that these three states are all closely connected ; for the Metaphysical is a transition state, and is partly theological and partly scientific. The chasm between Supernaturalism and Positivism is bridged over by Metaphysics. Without it Humanity would never have arisen ; for natura non agit per saltum. The principle of gradation or continuity, the characteristic of nature, is also the characteristic of the new Philosophy, and will be found to underlie all its logical . and scientific conceptions. As an illustration, I subjoin a passage from Sir John Herschel's Discourse :—' There can be little doubt that the solid, liquid, and aëriform states of bodies are merely stages in a progress of gradual transition from one extreme to the other ; and that, however strongly marked the distinctions between them may appear, they will ultimately turn out to be separated by no sudden or violent line of demarcation, but shade into each other by insensible gradations."

The present is a favourable occasion for bringing forward a criticism on the much-used and much-abused term, " Laws of Nature," which for nearly twenty years I have employed with misgiving. The phrase has two vices : it is inaccurate, and it is misleading; and a severe critic might not unreasonably condemn its employment in Positive Philosophy. The conception implied in, or suggested by, the phrase, " Laws of Nature," is the last and most refined expression of the Metaphysical stage of speculation : in it Law re-places the ancient Principle : in it Law is the delicate abstract Entity superadded to the phenomena. For observe : when you say it is according to a law that bodies gravitate, that fluids ascend to their level, or that the needle points towards the north, you are superadding to the facts an abstract entity (Law), which you believe coerces the facts, makes them to be what they are ; you give a generalized statement of the facts, and out of it you make an entity —a something ab extra. What is this law which produces the phenomena, but a more subtle, a more impersonal substitute for the Supernatural Power which, in the Theological epoch, was believed to superintend all things,

" To guide the whirlwind and direct the storm ?"

If the Savage says it is a Demon who directs the storm, does not the man of science say it is a Law which directs it ? These two conceptions, are they not identical ?

When we consider that a man of the vast attainments and high position of Cuvier could argue as if Law really meant a superimposed regulation, it is time to object to the word. In his celebrated discussion with Geoffroy St. Hilaire, on the Unity of Composition in the Animal Kingdom, Cuvier so completely forgets himself as to ask, Wherefore should Nature always act uniformly ? What necessity could have constrained her only to employ the same organic forms, and always to have employed them ? By whom could this arbitrary rule have been imposed—par qui cette règle arbitraire lui aurait-elle été imposée ?" Thus we see the identity of organic processes is considered by him as an " arbitrary rule f' he prefers a capricious one ! Elsewhere he returns to this argument, and declares that St. Hilaire's "pre-tended identities" would, if true, reduce Nature to a sort of slavery !

Law, then, even in its Metaphysical acceptation, was too rigorous for Cuvier's views; he repudiated the idea of Nature being subject to it ; and he certainly could not have understood by the phrase, " law of nature," the mere " relation of co-existence and succession."

It will be answered, perhaps, that men of science in general do not so conceive Law. They do not believe that the ever-living activities we in our profound ignorance christen " Nature," are moved according to certain celestial Statutes, with "pains and penalties" thereunto attached. But my objection is not the less valid. The current language of men habitually expresses this conception ; and although, when their attention is directed to it, when they begin rigorously to define terms, they call a Law the "expression of the relations of coexistence and succession," yet their language about " breaking the laws of Nature," acting " contrary to the laws of Nature," indicates the misleading suggestions of the term. Much of their reasoning is vitiated by it. Thus, to go no farther than that form of the Development theory which assumes a certain fixed and definite Plan in the Universe—are not the Laws which work out this Plan supposed to be endowed with a mysterious prescience of the end they are to reach ? And what are prescient laws but metaphysical entities ?

Nevertheless, that the Creator has subjected matter to certain immutable laws, is a conception which most men of science loudly proclaim; and however they may refine upon terms, and sublimate the idea of Law, its human element cannot always be eliminated. But this seems to me a mechanical theory of the universe, both sterile and irreligious : it makes God. necessary as a postulate, and there leaves him ! He having legislated for the Universe once for all, the laws are now sufficient to sustain the great life of the universe ! According to the dynamic conception, in which God is Life, and the Universe his Activity, such notions of Law are profoundly erroneous; and I object therefore to the term Laws of Nature, because its direct meaning points to a mechanical conception of Nature, and because, however we may circumscribe its meaning, as expressive simply of the relations of co-existence and succession, the word Law does and must bring with it its human associations, and must therein be delusive. Rather than the popular, and, as one may call it, mechanical theory of the Universe, let us have the primitive spontaneous theory current during the earlier stages of Humanity : I can accommodate myself better with the old Deities—capricious and human as they are—than with the modern Laws; for the Deities at least were living powers. Spinoza and Goethe teach us something better than the mechanical theory, and to them I refer the reader.

Let us suppose it granted that the term Law is objectionable. What shall be the substitute? The difficulty of finding one has been very great. The "mind in the spacious circuit of its musing" alighted on terms all clogged with intrusive and delusive meanings, which unfitted them for replacing the old term. The one upon which I finally settled does not altogether satisfy me, but it fulfils the main requisites.

I propose to call the relations of coexistence and succession, usually named Laws, by the name of Methods. Etymologically, Method is a path leading on-wards, a way of transit. The Methods of Nature would therefore express the paths along which the activities of Nature travelled to results (phenomena). I cannot avoid figurative language, and it is useful, because expressive ; but the conception here expressed is limited to the facts, with nothing superadded. Given the phenomena, we name the process by which they are called forth the Way of Nature—the path Forces take to that particular result. These paths may be intersected by the paths of other Forces. For instance, a spark will ignite dry gunpowder. Here a particular path is opened, along which Forces can travel to a particular issue (explosion) ; but if we throw water on the powder, the particular path is blocked up, and another issue is reached. " Fire raises the temperature of water. Yet, if you pour water into a red-hot crucible containing liquid sulphuric acid, the temperature of the water is not raised; nay, so far from that, it is lowered to the freezing point, and in lieu of steam you have ice ! This is no contradiction to the Laws of Nature ; no law is broken ; all we can say is that the path is intersected by another path, thus : The rapid evaporation of the sulphuric acid produces cold so intense that the water which (the acid absent) would have hissed off in steam, now not only loses in evaporation all the heat given it by the fire, but also loses a portion of that heat which kept it liquid. And this is simply because the Method of Nature—the true path of her activity as regards sulphuric acid subjected to heat —is what we call rapid evaporation.

To understand this conception of Methods, let us place. ourselves at the most abstract point of view : let us consider Nature as the sum of Forces, which, because they are, and are Forces, must act, and must act along some pathway or other—and let us further consider these Forces about to leap into results—we can only consider them as travelling along certain definite paths to reach certain definite results. We thus see that the path of activity is one of the conditions of an act ; and that to the observed actions we superadd nothing not given in the actions themselves, by declaring such and such to be the Methods of Nature.

I try various forms of expression, and various illustrations, to familiarize my meaning. Let me take one from the science of Mechanics. Matter is said to be inert : as a scientific artifice this may be useful in mechanics, but out of that domain to consider matter as incapable of spontaneously modifying the action of forces applied to it, is a remnant of the old Metaphysical notion, that all states of activity and movement are produced from without; a notion in accordance with the phase of mental development when movement was explained by supernatural entities ; a notion in accordance with the mechanical theory of all matter being a "lifeless mass of clay in the potter's hands." I cannot bring myself so to consider it, but desire some considerable rectification of these gross conceptions of matter. I would view it as the phenomena of Force, and say that all matter, animate and inanimate, is everywhere in a state of spontaneous activity—of Life, in short ; a conception to which all modern science is rapidly tending. And having once so conceived it, we should conclude that the movements of matter are not obedient to Laws, but are the spontaneous activities of the Forces ; and what we call Laws are nothing but the paths, or Methods, along which the Forces move.

That there are objections incident to the use of the term Methods, I am aware ; is it possible to avoid objections ? Moreover, I am not Quixotic Neologist enough to expect that the old term will fall out of use, even should a new term, wholly free from objection, be suggested. But I think this digression will not have been superfluous, if it serve to fix the students' attention on the characteristic effect of the conception of Law, and if it cause him, when he meets with the term Law, mentally to correct it into Method. Without at once altering our scientific phraseology, we may at once accustom our thoughts to Methods of Nature, and so familiarize ourselves with the positive spirit of regarding Nature.

We shall now have to treat of the science of Mathematics ; and let me beg the reader to whom the following section may appear dry, because of his feeble interest in mathematics, to go resolutely through it nevertheless, for the sake of its illustration of the true scientific spirit. He needs no preliminary knowledge of mathematics to understand all that Comte will have to say.

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