Saturday, January 23, 2016

Materialism According to James Clerk Maxwell

James Clerk Maxwell produced the first actual unification in physics, that of magnetism and electricity. Maxwell's equations are studied by every physics student. But lesser known is his position on Philosophical Materialism, or his ability as a poet. Evolution News has the occasion and Maxwell's response in brilliant verse (read it twice, it's better with each reading):

British Association, Notes of the President's Address
In the very beginnings of science, the parsons, who managed things then,
Being handy with hammer and chisel, made gods in the likeness of men;

Till Commerce arose, and at length some men of exceptional power
Supplanted both demons and gods by the atoms, which last to this hour.

Yet they did not abolish the gods, but they sent them well out of the way,
With the rarest of nectar to drink, and blue fields of nothing to sway.

From nothing comes nothing, they told us, nought happens by chance, but by fate;
There is nothing but atoms and void, all else is mere whims out of date!

Then why should a man curry favour with beings who cannot exist,
To compass some petty promotion in nebulous kingdoms of mist?

But not by the rays of the sun, nor the glittering shafts of the day,
Must the fear of the gods be dispelled, but by words, and their wonderful play.

So treading a path all untrod, the poet-philosopher[1] sings
Of the seeds of the mighty world -- the first-beginnings of things;

How freely he scatters his atoms before the beginning of years;
How he clothes them with force as a garment, those small incompressible spheres!

Nor yet does he leave them hard-hearted -- he dowers them with love and with hate,
Like spherical small British Asses[2] in infinitesimal state;

Till just as that living Plato, whom foreigners nickname Plateau,
Drops oil in his whisky-and-water (for foreigners sweeten it so),

Each drop keeps apart from the other, enclosed in a flexible skin,
Till touched by the gentle emotion evolved by the prick of a pin:

Thus in atoms a simple collision excites a sensational thrill,
Evolved through all sorts of emotion, as sense, understanding, and will;

(For by laying their heads all together, the atoms, as councillors do,
May combine to express an opinion to every one of them new).

There is nobody here, I should say, has felt true indignation at all,
Till an indignation meeting is held in the Ulster Hall;

Then gathers the wave of emotion, then noble feelings arise,
Till you all pass a resolution which takes every man by surprise.

Thus the pure elementary atom, the unit of mass and of thought,
By force of mere juxtaposition to life and sensation is brought;

So, down through untold generations, transmission of structureless germs
Enables our race to inherit the thoughts of beasts, fishes, and worms.

We honour our fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers too;
But how shall we honour the vista of ancestors now in our view?

First, then, let us honour the atom, so lively, so wise, and so small;
The atomists next let us praise, Epicurus, Lucretius, and all;

Let us damn with faint praise Bishop Butler[3], in whom many atoms combined
To form that remarkable structure, it pleased him to call -- his mind.

Last, praise we the noble body to which, for the time, we belong,
Ere yet the swift whirl of the atoms has hurried us, ruthless, along,

The British Association -- like Leviathan worshipped by Hobbes,
The incarnation of wisdom, built up of our witless nobs,

Which will carry on endless discussions, when I, and probably you,
Have melted in infinite azure -- in English, till all is blue.

James Clerk Maxwell


1) Possibly a reference to Tyndall.
2) Insider nickname for members of the British Association.
3) Joseph Butler (1692-1752), influential English bishop, theologian, apologist, and philosopher, a proponent of natural theology.

No comments: