§7. The Triad in Physics


407. We are brought, then, to this: conformity to law exists only within a limited range of events and even there is not perfect, for an element of pure spontaneity or lawless originality mingles, or at least must be supposed to mingle, with law everywhere. Moreover, conformity with law is a fact requiring to be explained; and since law in general cannot be explained by any law in particular, the explanation must consist in showing how law is developed out of pure chance, irregularity, and indeterminacy.

408. To this problem we are bound to address ourselves; and it is particularly needful to do so in the present state of science. The theory of the molecular constitution of matter has now been carried as far as there are clear indications to direct us, and we are now in the mists. To develope the mathematical consequences of any hypothesis as to the nature and laws of the minute parts of matter, and then to test it by physical experiment, will take fifty years; and out of the innumerable hypotheses that might be framed, there seems to be nothing to make one more antecedently probable than another. At this rate how long will it take to make any decided advance? We need some hint as to how molecules may be expected to behave; whether, for instance, they would be likely to attract or repel one another inversely as the fifth power of the distance, so that we may be saved from many false suppositions, if we are not at once shown the way to the true one. Tell us how the laws of nature came about, and we may distinguish in some measure between laws that might and laws that could not have resulted from such a process of development.

409. To find that out is our task. I will begin the work with this guess. Uniformities in the modes of action of things have come about by their taking habits. At present, the course of events is approximately determined by law. In the past that approximation was less perfect; in the future it will be more perfect. The tendency to obey laws has always been and always will be growing. We look back toward a point in the infinitely distant past when there was no law but mere indeterminacy; we look forward to a point in the infinitely distant future when there will be no indeterminacy or chance but a complete reign of law. But at any assignable date in the past, however early, there was already some tendency toward uniformity; and at any assignable date in the future there will be some slight aberrancy from law. Moreover, all things have a tendency to take habits. For atoms and their parts, molecules and groups of molecules, and in short every conceivable real object, there is a greater probability of acting as on a former like occasion than otherwise. This tendency itself constitutes a regularity, and is continually on the increase. In looking back into the past we are looking toward periods when it was a less and less decided tendency. But its own essential nature is to grow. It is a generalizing tendency; it causes actions in the future to follow some generalization of past actions; and this tendency is itself something capable of similar generalizations; and thus, it is self-generative. We have therefore only to suppose the smallest spoor of it in the past, and that germ would have been bound to develop into a mighty and over-ruling principle, until it supersedes itself by strengthening habits into absolute laws regulating the action of all things in every respect in the indefinite future.

According to this, three elements are active in the world: first, chance; second, law; and third, habit-taking.

410. Such is our guess of the secret of the sphynx. To raise it from the rank of philosophical speculation to that of a scientific hypothesis, we must show that consequences can be deduced from it with more or less probability which can be compared with observation. We must show that there is some method of deducing the characters of the laws which could result in this way by the action of habit-taking on purely fortuitous occurrences, and a method of ascertaining whether such characters belong to the actual laws of nature.

411. The existence of things consists in their regular behavior. If an atom had no regular attractions and repulsions, if its mass was at one instant nothing, at another a ton, at another a negative quantity, if its motion instead of being continuous, consisted in a series of leaps from one place to another without passing through any intervening places, and if there were no definite relations between its different positions, velocities and directions of displacement, if it were at one time in one place and at another time in a dozen, such a disjointed plurality of phenomena would not make up any existing thing. Not only substances, but events, too, are constituted by regularities. The flow of time, for example, in itself is a regularity. The original chaos, therefore, where there was no regularity, was in effect a state of mere indeterminacy, in which nothing existed or really happened.

412. Our conceptions of the first stages of the development, before time yet existed, must be as vague and figurative as the expressions of the first chapter of Genesis. Out of the womb of indeterminacy we must say that there would have come something, by the principle of Firstness, which we may call a flash. Then by the principle of habit there would have been a second flash. Though time would not yet have been, this second flash was in some sense after the first, because resulting from it. Then there would have come other successions ever more and more closely connected, the habits and the tendency to take them ever strengthening themselves, until the events would have been bound together into something like a continuous flow. We have no reason to think that even now time is quite perfectly continuous and uniform in its flow. The quasi-flow which would result would, however, differ essentially from time in this respect, that it would not necessarily be in a single stream. Different flashes might start different streams, between which there should be no relations of contemporaneity or succession. So one stream might branch into two, or two might coalesce. But the further result of habit would inevitably be to separate utterly those that were long separated, and to make those which presented frequent common points coalesce into perfect union. Those that were completely separated would be so many different worlds which would know nothing of one another; so that the effect would be just what we actually observe.

413. But Secondness is of two types. Consequently besides flashes genuinely second to others, so as to come after them, there will be pairs of flashes, or, since time is now supposed to be developed, we had better say pairs of states, which are reciprocally second, each member of the pair to the other. This is the first germ of spatial extension. These states will undergo changes; and habits will be formed of passing from certain states to certain others, and of not passing from certain states to certain others. Those states to which a state will immediately pass will be adjacent to it; and thus habits will be formed which will constitute a spatial continuum, but differing from our space by being very irregular in its connections, having one number of dimensions in one place and another number in another place, and being different for one moving state from what it is for another.

414. Pairs of states will also begin to take habits, and thus each state having different habits with reference to the different other states will give rise to bundles of habits, which will be substances.•P1 Some of these states will chance to take habits of persistency, and will get to be less and less liable to disappear; while those that fail to take such habits will fall out of existence. Thus, substances will get to be permanent.

415. In fact, habits, from the mode of their formation, necessarily consist in the permanence of some relation, and therefore, on this theory, each law of nature would consist in some permanence, such as the permanence of mass, momentum, and energy. In this respect, the theory suits the facts admirably.

416. The substances carrying their habits with them in their motions through space will tend to render the different parts of space alike. Thus, the dimensionality of space will tend gradually to uniformity; and multiple connections, except at infinity, where substances never go, will be obliterated. At the outset, the connections of space were probably different for one substance and part of a substance from what they were for another; that is to say, points adjacent or near one another for the motions of one body would not be so for another; and this may possibly have contributed to break substances into little pieces or atoms. But the mutual actions of bodies would have tended to reduce their habits to uniformity in this respect; and besides there must have arisen conflicts between the habits of bodies and the habits of parts of space, which would never have ceased till they were brought into conformity.


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