The Net Advance of Physics RETRO:

2016 March 14

Károly Markó, Árkádiában, 1830. [Hungarian National Gallery]


Do atoms have free will? Are they in some sense alive or conscious? If not, how do they "know" how to behave? If we say they "obey the laws" of physics, are we not applying to chunks of matter motivations proper only to persons?

Post-Renaissance scientific thought generally ignores these questions as absurd, the results of conflating metaphors with fact. Even the rise of quantum mechanics in the 1900s did not change this dismissal, despite the intimations of Eugene Wigner and David Bohm. Perhaps the influence of Galen Strawson on Twenty-First Century philosophers will make a difference. But back in the 1860s, the Olympian Herschels were already troubled, and their unease sent a cloud over the sun that shines on the Arcadian grove where Hermogenes and Hermione watch the playful lambs ...

Herschel's essay-collection Familiar Lectures on Scientific Subjects was reviewed in the Athenæum, (1867 January 5). The reviewer commented: "The old Duke [Wellington] said that great powers cannot engage in little wars ... Sir J. Herschel cannot make a little expedition against the enormous subjects which have occupied his scientific life ... But he has organised many comparatively small attempts against smaller things ... he has a certain sly humour when he chooses, and a rapping power which the chemical assailants of free thought were made to feel a little while ago ... These little wars together make a great war ... Hermogenes and Hermione we take to be both Herschels."

ON ATOMS: A Dialogue

By Sir John F. W. Herschel, Bart.
[From Familiar Lectures on Scientific Subjects, (London: Strahan, 1867)].
Herschel's words are in bold

"I sing of atoms." --- Rejected Addresses

DIALOGUE --- Hermogenes et Hermione interloquuntur.

H E R M I O N E.
What strange people those Greeks were! I was reading this morning about Democritus, "who first taught the doctrine of atoms and a vacuum." I suppose he must have meant that there is such a thing as utterly empty space, and that here and there, scattered through it, are things called atoms, like dust in the air. But then I thought, "What are these atoms'?" for if this be true, then, these are all the world, and the rest is --- nothing!

H E R M O G E N E S.
Yes. That is the natural conclusion: unless there be something that does not need space to exist in ; or unless there be things that are not material substances ; or unless space itself be a thing: all which is deep metaphysic, such as I am just now rather inclined to eschew.

But, dear Hermione, how am I to answer such a host of questions as you seem to have raised all in a breath?

The Greeks! Yes; they were a strange people so ingenious, so excursive, yet so self-fettered ; so vague in their notions of things, yet so rigidly definite in their forms of expressing them. Extremes met in them. In their philosophy they grovelled in the dust of words and phrases, till, suddenly, out of their utter confusion, a bound launched them into a new sphere. There is a creature, a very humble and a very troublesome one, which reminds me of the Greek mind. You might know it for a good while as only a fidgety, restless, and rather aggressive companion, when, behold, hop! and it is away far off, having realized at one spring a new arena and a new experience.

H E R M I O N E.
Don't! But a truce to the Greek mind with its narrow pedantry and its boundless excursiveness. The excursiveness was innate, the pedantry superinduced --- the result of their perpetual rhetorical conflicts and literary competitions. I have read the fifth book of Euclid and something of Aristotle; so you need not talk to me on that theme. Do tell me something about these atoms. I declare it has quite excited me; 'specially because it seems to have something to do with the atomic theory of Dalton.

H E R M O G E N E S.
Higgins, if you please. But the thing, as you say, is as old as Democritus, or perhaps older; for Leucippus, Democritus's master, is said to have taught it to him. Nay, there is an older authority still, in the personage (as near to an abstraction as a traditional human being can be) Moschus (not he of the Idyls).

But the fact is that the notion of THE ATOM --- the indivisible, the thing that has place, being, and power --- is an absolute necessity of the human thinking mind, and is of all ages and nations. It underlies all our notions of being, and starts up, per se, whenever we come to look closely at the intimate objective nature of things, as much as space and time do in the subjective. You have dabbled in German metaphysics, and know the distinction I refer to.

H E R M I O N E.
You don't mean to say that we are nothing but ATOMS? --- Place! being! power! Why, that is I, it is you, it is all of us. Nay, nay. This is going too fast.

H E R M O G E N E S.
Perhaps it is. --- (You have forgot thought, by-the-by, and will.) --- But I. am not going to make a single hop quite so far. We shall divide that into two or three jumps, and loiter a little in the intermediate resting-places. But, to go back to your atoms and a vacuum. What does a vacuum mean?

H E R M I O N E.
Vacuum? Why, emptiness, to be sure! I mean empty space. Space where no thing is. I am not so very sure that I can realize that notion. It is like the abstract idea of a lord mayor that Pope and Atterbury talk about ; and in getting rid of the man, the gold chain and the custard are apt to start up and vindicate their claim to a place in the world of ideas.

And yet I do mean something by empty space. I mean distance --- I mean direction: that steeple is a mile off, and not here where we sit ; and it lies south-east of us, and not north or west --- And if the steeple were away, I should have just as clear a notion of its place as if I saw it there.

Gainsborough, Wooded Landscape. [Tate Britain]

There now !

But then distance and direction imply two places. So there are three things anyhow that belong to a vacuum ; and let me tell you, it is not everything that three things positively intelligible can be "predicated" of (to speak your jargon).

H E R M O G E N E S.
Dear me, Hermione ! how can you twit me so? Jargon ! Every speciality has its "jargon." Even the Law, that system of dreams, has its "jargon" --- the more so, to be sure, because it is a system of dreams, or rather of nightmares (God forgive me for saying so!).

Well, then, you seem to have tolerably clear notions about a vacuum --- at least, I cannot make them clearer. Much clearer, anyhow, than Des Cartes had, who maintained that if it were not for the foot-rule between them, the two ends of it would be in the same place!

Still, there is much to be said about that same Vacuum, especially when contrasted with a Plenum, which means (if it mean anything) the exact opposite of a vacuum. In other words, a "jam," a "block," a "fix."

But, on the whole, I lean to a vacuum. The other idea is oppressive. It does not allow one to breathe. There is no elbow-room. It seems to realize the notion of that great human squeeze in which we should be landed after a hundred generations of unrestrained propagation. One does not understand how anything could get out of the way of anything else.

For the benefit of those who discuss the subjects of Population, War, Pestilence, Famine, &c., it may be as well to mention that the number of human beings living at the end of the hundredth generation, commencing from a single pair, doubling at each generation (say in thirty years), and allowing for each man, woman, and child an average space of four feet in height, and one foot square, would form a vertical column, having for its base the whole surface of the earth and sea spread out into a plane, and for its height 3674 times the sun's distance from the earth ! The number of human strata thus piled one on the other would amount to 460,790,000,000,000.

Come unto These Yellow Sands by Richard Dadd, 1842.

H E R M I O N E.
Do come back to our dear atoms. I love these atoms: the delicate little creatures! There is something so fanciful, so fairy-like about them.

H E R M O G E N E S.
Well, they have their idiosyncrasies. I mean, they obey the laws of their being. They comport themselves according to their primary constitution. They conform to the fixed rule implanted in them in the instant of their creation. They act and react on each other according to the rigorously exact, mathematically determinate relations laid down for them ab initio. They work out the preconceived scheme of the universe by their ... their ... col ...

H E R M I O N E.
Their? Stop, stop ! my dear Hermogenes. Where will you land us? Obey laws! Do they know them? Can they remember them? How else can they obey them?

"Comport themselves according to their primary constitution!" Well, that is so far intelligible : they are as they are, and not as they are not. "Conform to a fixed rule!" But then they must be able to apply the rule as the case arises. "Act and react according to determinate relations!" I suppose you mean relations with each other. But how are they to know those re- lations?

Here is your atom A, there is your atom B (I speak as you have taught me to speak), and a long interval between them, and no link of connexion. How is A to know where B is ; or in what relation it stands to B?

Poor dear atoms ! I pity them.

H E R M O G E N E S.
You may spare your sympathy. They are absolutely blind and passive.

H E R M I O N E.
Blind and passive! The more the wonder how they come to perceive those same relations you talk about, and how they "comport themselves," as you call it (act, as I should say), on that perception. I have a better theory of the universe.

H E R M O G E N E S.
Tell it me.

H E R M I O N E.
In the beginning was the nebulous matter, or Akasch. Its boundless and tumultuous waves heaved in chaotic wildness, and all was oxygen, and hydrogen, and electricity. Such a state of things could not possibly continue; and as it could not possibly be worse, alteration was here synonymous with improvement. Then came ...

H E R M O G E N E S.
Now it is my turn to say, "Stop! stop!" Solvuntur risu tabulæ. Do let us be serious.

Remember, it was you who began the conversation. Je me suis seulement laissé entrainer. The fact is, I have only so far been trying you, and I see you are apt.

There lies the real difficulty about these atoms. These same "relations" in which they stand to one another are anything but simple ones. They involve all the "ologies" and all the "ometries," and in these days we know something of what that implies.

Their movements, their interchanges, their "hates and loves," their "attractions and repulsions," their "correlations," their what not, are all determined on the very instant. There is no hesitation, no blundering, no trial and error.

A problem of dynamics which would drive Lagrange mad, is solved instanter, "Solvitur ambulando." A differential equation which, algebraically written out, would belt the earth, is integrated in an eye-twinkle ; and all the numerical calculation worked out in a way to frighten Zerah Colburn, George Bidder, or Jedediah Buxton. In short, these atoms are most wonderful little creatures.

H E R M I O N E.
Wonderful indeed ! Anyhow, they must have not only good memories, but astonishing presence of mind, to be always ready to act, and always to act without mistake, according to "the primary laws of their being," in every complication that occurs.

H E R M O G E N E S.
Thou hast said it ! This is just the point I knew you must come to. The presence of MIND is what solves the whole difficulty; so far, at least, as it brings it within the sphere of our own consciousness, and into conformity with our own experience of what action is.

We know nothing but as it is conceivable to us from our own mental and bodily experience and consciousness. When we know we act, we are also conscious of will and effort ; and action without will and effort is to us, constituted as we are, unrealizable, unknowable, inconceivable.

H E R M I O N E.
That will do. My head begins to turn round. But I hardly fancied we had got on such an interesting train. We will talk of this again. More to-morrow. Now to the feast of flowers the children are preparing ...

COLLINGWOOD, Aug. 10, 1860.

Konstantin Makovsky, Happy Arcadia.