Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 21.djvu/107

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

and because matter thus divested of its special properties forms a kind of rock-bed of thought, we conclude that similarly undifferentiated matter must form the rock-bed, or, to vary the figure, the original raw material, of the objective universe. But manifestly, in the scale of reality, the highest place must be given to things as they are, to individual objects with their full complement of properties, and successively lower places to such objects robbed by abstraction of one after another of their essential attributes. When we come to matter, we have just enough left to think about and no more. The logical faculty, however, goes further, and performs the tremendous feat of sundering the elements, mass and force, the conjunction of which alone renders matter a possible object of thought; whence arise endless discussions as to whether motion is a function of matter, or matter a function of motion. The first opinion is known as the mechanical or corpuscular theory of matter, and the latter as the dynamical. The true answer to these intellectual puzzles is that we have no business dealing with the mere elements of thought as if they were elements of things, and that so long as we do we shall only succeed in landing ourselves in in what Mr. Spencer calls "alternative impossibilities of thought."

The notion of the inertia of matter is similarly a product of abstraction, and by no means a representation of fact. Our author's explanation (page 163) is as follows: When a body is considered by itself—conceptually detached from the relations which give rise to its attributes—it is, indeed, inert, and all its action comes from without. But this isolated instance of a body is a pure fiction of the intellect. Bodies exist solely in virtue of their relations; their reality lies in their mutual action. Inert matter, in the sense of the mechanical theory, is as unknown to experience as it is inconceivable in thought. Every particle of matter of which we have any knowledge attracts every other particle in conformity with the laws of gravitation; and every material element exerts chemical, electrical, and other force upon other elements which, in respect of such force, are its correlates. A body can not, indeed, move itself; but this is true for the same reason that it can not exist in and by itself. The very presence of a body in space and time, as well as its motion, implies interaction with other bodies, and therefore, actio in distans; consequently, all attempts to reduce gravitation or chemical action to mere impact are aimless and absurd.

This whole passage is so completely on the lines of the Positive Philosophy, that to us it seems singular that the author could have penned it without making some reference to the precisely similar views of Auguste Comte, views which the scientific world in general has largely disregarded or ignored. "Did the material molecules," says Comte ("Philosophic Positive," vol. i, p. 550), "present to our observation no other property than weight, that would suffice to prevent any physicist from regarding them as essentially passive. It