Epistemology and Physical Science: A Fatal Parallelism


Lloyd, Alfred H. “Epistemology and Physical Science.” The Philosophical Review 7, no. 4 (1898): 374. https://doi.org/10.2307/2177131


THE theory of knowledge, that prevails even at the present time, and the doctrine of matter and material qualities, to which physical science is still loyal, can be shown not only to be born and bred of a fundamental dualism between mind and matter, but also each one of them quite within its own sphere to have reproduced the very dualism by which the two have been supposed to be completely separated. Of course, any one with the monistic standpoint, or with the scientific instinct for unity and conservation, could expect nothing else. Whatever either of the two sciences expels from one door seems bound to seek and to get admission at another. Physical science needs not only the mind of the scientist but also something fully representative of mind in the phenomena that it studies, and epistemology in its turn cannot do without some substitute for matter.


The dualism in epistemology has been frequently noticed uncriticized, and its parallel in physical science has not escaped attention but so far as I know the parallelism itself and its obviously fatal effect alike upon the separating dualism and upon the reproducing theories have not been very definitely indicated So to this fatal parallelism I would ask attention; and, if at the very outset any one reminds me that to-day no science should be taken too seriously, that the prevailing sciences are all positivistic, or are at best only systems of mutually corrective assumptions or errors, that their assumed dualism is methodological, not metaphysical, then I must answer emphatically that I am myself quite unable to make any such separation of form and substance. Also, if in what follows any one finds my information somewhat behind the times, I must confess, in the first place, that I am well aware that the finding is quite true, but in the second place that in such recent changes of doctrines as I have been able to discover, Icon detect no real departure from the older views. I have, accordingly, felt justified in being a little old-fashioned, and have even imagined an advantage in relying on the conventional or less advanced doctrines. It is no new principle of thought that ignorance is not without its positive opportunity. In short, only with the dualism in the sciences am I now concerned, and with their changes the sciences seem to me still internally dualistic.


Now, as to the present-day theory of knowledge, this has in general taken the standpoint that knowledge, whether as sensation as conception, is a peculiar mental product, due to an independent reaction upon the physical rather than to anything like a living mediation of the physical, or that knowledge, although of the external, is not itself externalizing. The theory of knowledge has refused, and I think is still refusing in any real way to identify the subject with the object, the thinker with his thought. Thus, even in its most recent views, it has found in the sensational fundamental principle of relationship, but, as if blind to its own opportunity, it has kept the sensation's relationship a purely formal thing, and so naturally enough has continued to think of sensation as literally a consciousness of a not-self, and to limit perception to a formal space and time (space and time serving only as the media of the relationship), and conception to a wholly formal or arbitrary or external symbol. The perception has been in space and time, not itself intrinsically spatial and temporal, and the conception has been only abstractly symbolized, not itself the symbol's own organizing activity.


But such a theory as this, familiar enough to all, is obviously as dualistic within itself, as in its assumption about the substantial independence of the object of knowledge ;it both makes the object altogether external to the subject and finds itself under the necessity of asserting a wholly parallel separation quite within the subject. A sensation, for example, that is an element or 'simple idea' or a mere stimulus or an undifferentiated continuum or even finally according to the more recent view already referred to only a formal relation, cannot but be in itself unconscious, and is in consequence nothing more nor less than an epistemological disguise or abstraction for an external matter, being the physical admitted as if by a backdoor into the psychical; so that an isolation of the rational from the sensuous consciousness is inevitable.


And physiological psychology has adopted and adapted this dualism of conception and sensation. Thus, the abstract thinker has been identified with a single so-called 'central' organ, the brain, treated as if acting or 'reacting' more or less arbitrarily and as in so far isolated from the rest of the body, even from the organs of sense ; the sensuous consciousness has been identified with a certain limited number, sometimes only five, sometimes many more than five, of so-called sense-organs ; and, whatever else may be said of this limitation of thought and sense to particular parts of the body, it is plainly natural, or possible, only if sensation be a consciousness of not- self and conception altogether on -sensuous ; or, conversely, admit the dualism of sensation and conception, and physiologically you must localize in the sense of isolate them both. Certainly, mere multiplication of the organs of sense does not make the relational character of sensations any less formal, nor the dualism of sensation and conception any less real, nor the localization of the organs themselves any less arbitrary.


But cross now to the side of the physical sciences and see how they too, as well as psychological and physiological epistemology, have cherished an internal dualism, that is only an adopted and adapted reproduction of the general separation of mind and matter. Thus, in the physical sciences the dualism of mind and matter has been reproduced in the following ways: in chemistry, with a conserved matter and atoms, corresponding to mind and matter respectively; in physics, with matter as medium and moving particles ; and in mathematics, with infinite quantity and finite quantities.


In the first place, the conserved matter of chemistry is an abstraction for mind because it is


(1) only a 'working hypothesis,'


(2) never with reference to recognized nor even to posited elements, and so


(3) to all intents and purposes indivisible,


continuous, and in the sense of matter as atomic or elemental immaterial. Mind is immaterial only as a conserved matter is immaterial; both are one, not many. So, remote a thinker as Anaxagoras described mind, or rather VOLK, in terms applicable to matter as conserved. For him vodka was "equal, “mixed with nothing," "all alike," "continuous," "everywhere," "indivisible," and to translate quite freely "penetrating but at the same time to itself impenetrable;" and Democritus' vacuum, which was the Greek atomist's substitute for vouch, was a vacuum only relatively to the atoms in it, being “as real as plenum.” Furthermore, the conserved matter of today, which is in truth a vacuum relatively to what is found in it, is just that which has given substantiality to the relating, interacting or reacting processes among the atoms, and which accordingly has been the underlying unity, the basis of the intelligibility, of chemical phenomena. In fine, then, the dualism between isolated or only formally related atoms and a conserved matter is parallel in every important respect to that between matter and mind.

In physics, secondly, matter and moving particles, or at least matter and motion, have been two distinct things. Force has-been due to matter in motion, where the motion has been


(1) of an impenetrable matter, and


(2) in an empty time and an empty space.

In other words, the physicist's space, like the epistemologists, has been a merely externally containing space, his time a merely durational, event-containing time, the relations in his world merely formal relations, and his motion has been determined by these conditions of it, being treated as quite apart from the matter to which it is referred. Thus, the motion is of the matter, although the matter itself does not move ; or, put in another way, the matter that is said to move is not material in the same senses as the matter as medium that makes the movement possible. True, the physicist has applied mathematics to his physical world, but he has hardly reached the deeper view of an identity of the physical and the mathematical. He keeps them apart as he keeps matter and space-and-time apart; and, in point of fact, mathematics, as was indicated above, is within itself only a third example of dualism in physical science. So long as mathematics treats the infinite or the infinitesimal as a mere formal quantity, failing clearly to see in it only a quantitative indirection forth relational and dynamic character of any given manifold, and in consequence of this failure being blind to the inseparability of form and content, so long must an applying physics retain its dualism of matter and motion. If infinite and infinitesimal bemire quantities, then it is plainly enough necessary, absolutely necessary, to posit a moving particle, just as in general it is necessary to posit a moving matter if space and time are only the empty containing forms of motion ; but particle and infinity as quantity become one when that for which they are mere abstractions, whether physical or mathematical, is definitely recognized. The recognition, however, I venture to say still lagging.


Who, then, can wonder that, just as chemistry with its atoms and conserved matter has separated substance and quality, so physics with its motion in empty or merely quantitative space and time and its matter as medium, has made the force or physical quality which motion generates external alike to the matter and to the motion, and mathematics with its finite quantities or numbers or its infinity as but another quantity, has divorced quantitative measurement and qualitative evaluation? Still, as of special interest here, in infinity as a quantity and in matter as a mere substantiating medium, just as before in the conserved matter of chemistry, abstractions for the immaterial mind of dualism are evident.


The best evidence, however, of the dualism in physical sciences to be seen in the mathematical-physical Undulatory Theory. In this theory, too, can be found, complete and fatal, the very Kantianism, to which largely even current epistemology owes its character. Leonhard Euler, contemporary with Kant and at the time almost alone in advocating the Undulatory Theory, seems to have had exactly the same idea of space and time that Kant had. His objective space and time were identical with Kant’s a priori space and time and may even be taken as a justification of Kant's claim to an "empirical realism," But, as I shall try to show, in Kant's or in Euler's space and time motion is necessarily vibratory.


Thus Kant, who appears to me to have been at his best in his Antinomies, found space and time to be demonstrably both finite and infinite, or as amounting to the same thing both finitely and infinitely divisible, and from this antinomy of the demonstrating reason he concluded their a priori character as well as the phenomenal nature of all experience and the reality of a non-spatial and non-temporal thing-in-itself. Moreover, as regards the cogency of Kant's reasoning, a formal space, or a formal time, whether a priori in Kant's sense, or objective in Euler's sense, could not possibly escape the antinomy of division. The mere separation of form from content makes the antinomy. But the vibration of the Undulatory Theory is only the antinomy of space and time as at once finitely and infinitely divisible over again. Thus, from the standpoint of the mere vibration, which must have a fixed amplitude and a fixed duration, space and time are finite or finitely divisible, but from the standpoint of the transmission or perpetuation they are infinite or infinitely divisible. And, furthermore, the vibration involves as logically or should say physically? necessary a transmitting, absolutely indivisible medium or thing-in-itself, and a generated quality or phenomenon.


The vibration, then, is a veritable incarnation of Kant’s antinomy; and the Undulatory Theory is, in general, Kantian ins far as it rests on


(1) a medium continuous, homogeneous, impenetrable, indivisible, non-spatial, and non-temporal in the sense of space and time as a priori or objective forms,


(2) a vibratory motion which, being in space and time as formal oar priori or divisible, is as much apart, and in the same way apart from the medium as Kant's a priori from the thing-in-itself, and


(3) a generated force or physical quality which is, to quote

from above, "external alike to the medium and to the motion.” The medium itself does not move, but motion determines its qualities, and in consequence the qualities are only manifestations or emanations? of the medium; and this is sheer Kantianism. The Kantian epistemology, therefore, and the contemporary physics are one science, not two; and the mind and the matter, with which they are concerned, must be one also; and the physicist smatter, or medium, is an abstraction for mind exactly in the sense in which Kant found the thing-in-itself to be noumenal.


So, in the several ways that have now been shown, epistemology and physical science are parallel, and parallel by dint of their peculiar reproductions of the very dualism which has separated them. This, however, I have called a fatal parallelism, fatal to the separation and fatal to the doctrines of the reproducing sciences. But to what does the fatality lead to? What changes have the sciences to make?

I suggest very briefly that they must take the relational character of sensations or atoms or vibrations or units of any kind seriously, substituting actuator substantial relationships for merely formal relationships in their several universes. They must cease to divorce form from content. They must recognize clearly and candidly that the very direct meaning of their persistent dualisms that the real or substantial can be neither the simple, whether as abstract matter or as immaterial mind, nor the composite, whether as material atoms or as given sensations, but must bathe relational or organic as the true unity of the simple and the composite. In the organic, mind and matter are one, and one also are conserved matter and atoms, medium and motion, infinity, and quantity, as well as conception and sensation. And, in conclusion, although I have said that in the more recent developments of the sciences no real change of standpoint was apparent to me, still it does seem as if what might be called precipitation of the organic from the dualism of the simple and the composite were near at hand. The sciences seem to be reducing their own conceits to an ever-clearer absurdity, and the end of such a reduction is inevitable precipitation. What, for example, has a mathematical, evolutional chemistry to do with atoms? Or what has a mathematical physics, whose forces are transmutable, have to do with underlying media or with motion in an empty space and time? Are not both of these special sciences ready to surprise themselves with the discovery that neither the simple nor the composite, but the relational, the organic, is the substantial? Moreover, and this seems to me highly significant biology, as properly the science of the organic, is already appealing to the physical sciences for light upon the central biological problems. Witness among other evidences the resort to chemistry and the rise of an Entwickelungsmechanik; and the widespread interest of psychology and epistemology in biological theory is one of the signs of our time. Of course the appeal of biology is somewhat humorous, grimly humorous, since in the ' vital unit 'biology has itself been trying to think of the organic under a physical guise, but fortunately the ' vital unit 'has not yet been found not even by the all-seeing microscope and perhaps, when the search has been finally abandoned, the physical sciences themselves, as if not unconscious of their own offences, will not only receive, but also fully forgive the appealing prodigal.


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