§3. Laws: Nominalism

 

63. But it is not in Nominalism alone that modern thought has attributed to the human mind the miraculous power of originating a category of thought that has no counterpart at all in Heaven or Earth. Already in that strangely influential hodge-podge, the salad of Cartesianism, the doctrine stands out very emphatically that the only force is the force of impact, which clearly belongs to the category of Reaction; and ever since Newton's Principia began to affect the general thought of Europe through the sympathetic spirit of Voltaire, there has been a disposition to deny any kind of action except purely mechanical action. The Corpuscular Philosophy of Boyle — although the pious Boyle did not himself recognize its character — was bound to come to that in the last resort; and the idea constantly gained strength throughout the eighteenth century and the nineteenth until the doctrine of the Conservation of Energy, generalized rather loosely by philosophers, led to the theory of psycho-physical parallelism, against which there has, only of recent years, been any very sensible and widespread revolt. Psycho-physical parallelism is merely the doctrine that mechanical action explains all the real facts, except that these facts have an internal aspect which is a little obscure and a little shadowy.

64. To my way of regarding philosophy, all this movement was perfectly good scientific procedure. For the simpler hypothesis which excluded the influence of ideas upon matter had to be tried and persevered in until it was thoroughly exploded. But I believe that now at last, at any time for the last thirty years, it has been apparent, to every man who sufficiently considered the subject, that there is a mode of influence upon external facts which cannot be resolved into mere mechanical action, so that henceforward it will be a grave error of scientific philosophy to overlook the universal presence in the phenomenon of this third category. Indeed, from the moment that the Idea of Evolution took possession of the minds of men the pure Corpuscular Philosophy together with nominalism had had their doom pronounced. I grew up in Cambridge, [Massachusetts] and was about 21 when the Origin of Species appeared. There was then living here a thinker who left no remains from which one could now gather what an educative influence his was upon the minds of all of us who enjoyed his intimacy, Mr. Chauncey Wright.1) He had at first been a Hamiltonian but had early passed over into the warmest advocacy of the nominalism of John Stuart Mill; and being a mathematician at a time when dynamics was regarded as the loftiest branch of mathematics, he was also inclined to regard nature from a strictly mechanical point of view. But his interests were wide and he was also a student of Gray.1) I was away surveying in the wilds of Louisiana when Darwin's great work appeared, and though I learned by letters of the immense sensation it had created, I did not return until early in the following summer when I found Wright all enthusiasm for Darwin, whose doctrines appeared to him as a sort of supplement to those of Mill. I remember well that I then made a remark to him which although he did not assent to it, evidently impressed him enough to perplex him. The remark was that these ideas of development had more vitality by far than any of his other favorite conceptions and that though they might at that moment be in his mind like a little vine clinging to the tree of Associationalism, yet after a time that vine would inevitably kill the tree. He asked me why I said that and I replied that the reason was that Mill's doctrine was nothing but a metaphysical point of view to which Darwin's, which was nourished by positive observation, must be deadly. Ten or fifteen years later, when Agnosticism was all the go, I prognosticated a short life for it, as philosophies run, for a similar reason. What the true definition of Pragmatism may be, I find it very hard to say; but in my nature it is a sort of instinctive attraction for living facts.

65. All nature abounds in proofs of other influences than merely mechanical action, even in the physical world. They crowd in upon us at the rate of several every minute. And my observation of men has led me to this little generalization. Speaking only of men who really think for themselves and not of mere reporters, I have not found that it is the men whose lives are mostly passed within the four walls of a physical laboratory who are most inclined to be satisfied with a purely mechanical metaphysics. On the contrary, the more clearly they understand how physical forces work the more incredible it seems to them that such action should explain what happens out of doors. A larger proportion of materialists and agnostics is to be found among the thinking physiologists and other naturalists, and the largest proportion of all among those who derive their ideas of physical science from reading popular books. These last, the Spencers, the Youmanses, and the like, seem to be possessed with the idea that science has got the universe pretty well ciphered down to a fine point; while the Faradays and Newtons seem to themselves like children who have picked up a few pretty pebbles upon the ocean beach. But most of us seem to find it difficult to recognize the greatness and wonder of things familiar to us. As the prophet is not without honor save [in his own country] so it is also with phenomena. Point out to the ordinary man evidence, however conclusive, of other influence than physical action in things he sees every day, and he will say: »Well, I don't see as that frog has got any points about him that's any different from any other frog.« For that reason we welcome instances perhaps of less real cogency but which have the merit of being rare and strange. Such, for example, are the right-handed and left-handed screw-structures of the molecules of those bodies which are said to be »optically active.« Of every such substance there are two varieties, or as the chemists call them, two modifications, one of which twists a ray of light that passes through it to the right, and the other, by an exactly equal amount, to the left. All the ordinary physical properties of the right-handed and left-handed modifications are identical. Only certain faces of their crystals, often very minute, are differently placed. No chemical process can ever transmute the one modification into the other. And their ordinary chemical behaviour is absolutely the same, so that no strictly chemical process can separate them if they are once mixed. Only the chemical action of one optically active substance upon another is different if they both twist the ray the same way from what it is if they twist the ray different ways. There are certain living organisms which feed on one modification and destroy it while leaving the other one untouched. This is

presumably due to such organisms containing in their substance, possibly in very minute proportion, some optically active body. Now I maintain that the original segregation of levo-molecules, or molecules with a left-handed twist, from dextro-molecules, or molecules with a right-handed twist, is absolutely incapable of mechanical explanation. Of course you may suppose that in the original nebula at the very formation of the world right-handed quartz was collected into one place, while left-handed quartz was collected into another place. But to suppose that, is ipso facto to suppose that that segregation was a phenomenon without any mechanical explanation. The three laws of motion draw no dynamical distinction between right-handed and left-handed screws, and a mechanical explanation is an explanation founded on the three laws of motion. There, then, is a physical phenomenon absolutely inexplicable by mechanical action. This single instance suffices to overthrow the Corpuscular Philosophy.

 


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