By Charles Matthews

Thursday, May 5, 2011

20. The Modern Tradition, edited by Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson Jr., pp. 424-450

Nature: Mechanical Force (Henry Adams, F.T. Marinetti, D.H. Lawrence); Indeterminancy (William James, John Dewey, Werner Heisenberg)

Henry Adams: The New Multiverse

In 1900, Henry Adams was 62 years old, a nineteenth-century man with, as he says, an "eighteenth-century education," facing the twentieth century and feeling unprepared for it. In these selections from The Education of Henry Adams (1918) he attempts to come to terms with the change he has witnessed during his lifetime -- and the changes to come.
Henry Adams, c. 1875

The first excerpt centers on his reaction to the death in 1870 of his sister Louisa. Writing of himself in third person, as he does throughout the Education, Adams treats Louisa's death as an encounter with nature: "He had never seen Nature -- only her surface -- the sugar-coating that she shows to youth." But Louisa's death from tetanus, "after ten days of fiendish torture," was anything but sugar-coated. "Death took features altogether new to him.... Nature enjoyed it, played with it, the horror added to her charm; she liked the torture, and smothered her victim with charm."

He was shocked by Nature's "attitude toward life" and by "the idea that any personal deity could find pleasure or profit by torturing a poor woman.... For pure blasphemy, it made pure atheism a comfort. God might be, as the Church said, a Substance, but He could not be a Person." It's not a unique reaction to the cruel death of a loved one, but Adams could not assimilate it either emotionally or intellectually:
For the first time in his life, Mont Blanc for a moment looked to him what it was -- a chaos of anarchic and purposeless forces -- and he needed days of repose to see it clothe itself again with the illusions of his senses, the white purity of its snows, the splendor of its light, and the infinity of its heavenly peace.
Notice that Adams acknowledges Mont Blanc as "what it was" materially, but he also acknowledges the mountain as an object perceived by the mind and unified by the imagination -- the characteristic nineteenth-century duality.

Thirty years later, he is at the "Great Exposition of 1900" in Paris. World's fairs of this sort had been, since the one in London at the Crystal Palace in 1851, showcases for "progress," a concept that Adams was not fully willing to accept. He takes as his guide through the "chaos" of the exhibition's scientific and technological marvels his friend Samuel Pierpont Langley, an astronomer, physicist and aviation pioneer. Langley's enthusiasm was hardly able to overcome Adams's skepticism, and his horror at such things as "the automobile, which, since 1893, had become a nightmare at a hundred kilometres an hour." But it was the "great hall of dynamos" that most challenged his imagination: "the dynamo became a symbol of infinity ... he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross."
No more relation could he discover between the steam and the electric current than between the Cross and the cathedral. The forces were interchangeable if not reversible, but he could see only an absolute fiat in electricity as in faith.
Langley himself admits to being puzzled by the recent discovery of radium, which "denied the truths of his Science. The force was wholly new." The discovery of radiation has revealed "a supersensual world, in which he could measure nothing except by chance collisions of movement imperceptible to his senses, perhaps even imperceptible to his instruments, but perceptible to each other." But unlike Adams, "Langley seemed prepared for anything, even for an indeterminable number of universes interfused -- physics stark mad in metaphysics."

The world, to Adams, became a play of forces, even in an area in which he was something of an expert:
Modern politics is, at bottom, a struggle not of men but of forces. The men become every year more and more creatures of force, massed about central power-houses. The conflict is no longer between the men, but between the motors that drive the men, and the men tend to succumb to their own motive forces.
He realizes that he is unprepared for this world, whereas a "child born in 1900 would ... be born into a new world which would not be a unity but a multiple. Adams tried to imagine it, and an education that would fit it.... As a matter of taste, he greatly preferred his eighteenth-century education when God was a father and nature a mother, and all was for the best in a scientific universe." But then he projects still further:
At the rate of progress since 1800, every American who lived into the year 2000 would know how to control unlimited power. He would think in complexities unimaginable to an earlier mind. He would deal with problems altogether beyond the range of earlier society. To him the nineteenth century would stand on the same plane with the fourth -- equally childlike -- and he would wonder how both of them, knowing so little, and so weak in force, should have done so much.
It's a rather remarkably visionary statement, an extrapolation based on the rate of change in the previous century into the next. Did any public intellectual comparable to Adams speculate in 2000 as provocatively about the life of the mind in 2100?  Or has that become merely a game for journalists?  He sees the attempt of his century to educate for the next as "folly."
The teacher of 1900, if foolhardy, might stimulate; if foolish, might resist; if intelligent, might balance, as wise and foolish have often tried to do from the beginning; but the forces would continue to educate, and the mind would continue to react. All the teacher could hope was to teach it reaction.... Evidently the new American would need to think in contradictions, and ... the new universe would know no law that could not be proved by its anti-law.... The movement from unity into multiplicity, between 1200 and 1900, was unbroken in sequence, and rapid in acceleration.
Returning to New York in 1904, and reflecting on the skyline that had changed so radically during his lifetime,
Adams finds himself thrust into chaos. "The two-thousand-years failure of Christianity" -- which had once brought the world into some sort of unity and coherence -- "roared upward from Broadway, and no Constantine the Great was in sight."

F.T. Marinetti: The Joy of Mechanical Force

F.T. Marinetti, date unknown
If the machine age baffled and terrified Henry Adams, it was welcomed vigorously by Marinetti, the founder of the Futurist movement, whose manifesto excerpted here is a kind of rock 'n' roll celebration of anarchy, whose buzzwords are danger, courage, daring, revolt, struggle, and whose emblem is the roaring motorcar controlled (barely) by a ruthless daredevil driver who rolls over everything in his path.

Futurism, as its name implies, rejects everything from the past, especially museums and libraries, and wants "to deliver Italy from its gangrene of professors, of archaeologists, of guides, and of antiquarians." Marinetti concedes of museums that "They can be visited once a year as the dead are visited once a year," but that's enough.

Marinetti's Futurism is also a cult of youth, which once again suggests the rock rebels of the 1960s -- "Don't trust anyone over thirty." Marinetti suggets, "When we are forty, let those younger and more valiant than us kindly throw us into the waste basket like useless manuscripts." As for art, it "can be nothing but violence, cruelty and injustice." But the art that the Futurists actually produced hardly strikes us as violent and cruel. The most significant of the Futurist artists was Umberto Boccioni, who responded primarily to the call for art that would demonstrate movement and dynamism:
Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913
Futurism also had a vogue in Russia before the revolution, as in this work by Natalia Goncharova, again emphasizing the need for speed:
Natalia Goncharova, The Cyclist, 1913

D.H. Lawrence: The Physics of Human Character

One writer you wouldn't expect to respond to Marinetti's manifesto was Lawrence, the worshiper of the great god Pan. But in a letter to his editor, Edward Garnett, in 1914, he speaks of Marinetti approvingly, perhaps because of his anti-intellectualism. Lawrence tells Garnett "that which is physic -- non-human, in humanity, is more interesting to me than the old-fashioned human element." He objects to the "moral scheme" in Turgenev, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as "dull, old, dead," and proclaims "it is the inhuman will, call it physiology, or like Marinetti -- physiology of matter, that fascinates me."

And so, in a famous statement about characterization in fiction, he announces:
You mustn't look in my novel for the old stable ego -- of the character. There is another ego, according to whose action the individual is unrecognisable, and passes through, as it were, allotropic states which it needs a deeper sense than any we've been used to exercise, to discover are states of the same single radically unchanged element.
Both coal and diamond are allotropes of carbon, he says, "and my theme is carbon." Or, in another metaphor, "the characters fall into the form of some other rhythmic form, as when one draws a fiddle bow across a fine tray delicately sanded, the sand takes lines unknown."

William James: Pluralism, Pragmatism, and Instrumental Truth

William James in 1906
Giving up on universal truth, James forces us to recognize that the truth is what works. That, at least, is pragmatism in a nutshell, boiling down these excerpts from James's writing in 1907 and 1909. "The pluralistic world," he explains, "is ... more like a federal republic than like an empire or a kingdom."

Pragmatism recognizes that metaphysics is something like a game involving "magic words." Each word "names the universe's principle, and to possess it is after a fashion to possess the universe itself. 'God,' 'Matter,' 'Reason,' 'the Absolute,' 'Energy,' are so many solving names. You can rest when you have them. You are at the end of your metaphysical quest." But pragmatism treats each word "as a program for more work, and more particularly as an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed." Pragmatism uses all the various metaphysical theories where appropriate:
It agrees with nominalism, for instance, in always appealing to particulars; with utilitarianism in emphasizing practical aspects; with positivism in its disdain for verbal solutions, useless questions and metaphysical abstractions.
In particular it disdains certitude and dogma: "When the first mathematical, logical, and natural uniformities, the first laws, were discovered, men were so carried away by the clearness, beauty and simplification that resulted, that they believed themselves to have deciphered authentically the eternal thoughts of the Almighty." We now know, however, "that most, perhaps all, of our laws are only approximations.... They are only a man-made language, a conceptual shorthand, as some one calls them, in which we write our reports of nature."

The central premise is: "that ideas ... become true just in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience.... Any idea upon which we can ride, so to speak." The best approach to changing ways of looking at the world is flexibility: "The most violent revolutions in an individual's beliefs leave most of his old order standing. Time and space, cause and effect, nature and history, and one's own biography remain untouched. New truth is always a go-between, a smoother-over of transitions." (But did "time and space" really remain "untouched" by Einstein's theory of relativity? Just asking.)

John Dewey: Thought as a Natural Event

John Dewey, date unknown
In this excerpt from the 1925 Experience and Nature, Dewey takes on the question of the act of knowing itself: "uncertainty, ambiguity, alternatives, inquiring, search, selection, experimental reshaping of external conditions," and argues that the phenomenon is of equal importance with "the world of objective nature." It is the nature of things themselves that generates "ignorance and inquiry; doubt and hypothesis; trial and temporal conclusions."
The conjunction of problematic and determinate characters in nature renders every existence, as well as every idea and human act, an experiment in fact, even though not in design. To be intelligently experimental is but to be conscious of this intersection of natural conditions so as to profit by it instead of being at its mercy. The Christian idea of this world and this life as a probation is a kind of distorted recognition of the situation; distorted because it applied wholesale to one stretch of existence in contrast with another, regarded as original and final.
Indeterminacy is a characteristic of things, as "moralists and poets" have discovered when they speak of the fact that "mountains, the emblems of constancy, appear and disappear like the clouds." The atom, once thought of as the fundamental building block of matter "is now reported ... to embody a temporary equilibrium in the economy of nature's compromises and adjustment. Every existence is an event."

Dewey rejects the idea that we should be troubled by impermanence and flux:  "It is something to be noted and used.... The eventful character of all existences is no reason for consigning them to the realm of mere appearance any more than it is a reason for idealizing flux into a deity." Instead, we should recognize "the slower and regular rhythmic events [as] structure, and more rapid and irregular ones [as] process." This is to express "the function of one in respect to the other."
A house has a structure; in comparison with the disintegration and collapse that would occur without its presence, this structure is fixed. Yet it is not something external to which the changes involved in building and using the house have to submit. It is rather an arrangement of changing events.... Structure is constancy of means, of things used for consequences, not of things taken by themselves or absolutely.
"Matter" is not something rigid and fixed, and "both mind and matter [are] different characters of natural events, in which matter expresses their sequential order, and mind the order of their meanings in their logical connections and dependencies." If we forbade the use of "mind, matter, consciousness as nouns," we would find that their adverbial and adjectival forms, "conscious and consciously, mental and mentally, material and physically," expressed the reality much better. The world "is not finished and ... has not consistently made up its mind where it is going and what it is going to do."

Werner Heisenberg: Non-Objective Science and Uncertainty

Werner Heisenberg, date unknown
Both James and Dewey were on to something that Heisenberg finally pinned down as the "uncertainty principle," which demonstrated conclusively that the interaction of mind and matter was real and crucial. In this 1955 excerpt from The Physicist's Conception of Nature, Heisenberg pins down what distinguishes modern science from its nineteenth-century predecessor: "In the nineteenth century nature still appeared as a set of laws in space and time in which man and man's intervention in nature could be ignored in principle, if not in practice." The materialists of the nineteenth century assumed that atoms were "the real and immutable substances [whose] arrangement and motion ... create the colourful phenomena of the world of our senses." But the discovery of radioactivity that troubled Henry Adams and vexed his friend Langley revealed that "the atoms of chemistry could no longer be considered as the ultimate indivisible building-stones of matter."

Still, resolving the atom into an assemblage of protons, neutrons, and electrons kept the idea that these were "building-stones" and that they constituted "the ultimate objective reality" alive for a while longer. But then it was discovered that "in the case of the smallest building particles of matter, every process of observation produces a large disturbance."
We can no longer speak of the behaviour of the particle independently of the process of observation. As a final consequence, the natural laws formulated mathematically in quantum theory no longer deal with the elementary particles themselves but with our knowledge of them.
Science "cannot simply speak of nature 'in itself.' Science always presupposes the existence of man and, as [Niels] Bohr has said, we must become conscious of the fact that we are not merely observers but also actors on the stage of life." Because scientific observation has an effect on the thing observed, "The scientific world-view has ceased to be a scientific view in the true sense of the word."

When we speak of causality, we "refer to our belief that events in nature are uniquely determined, or, in other words, that an exact knowledge of nature or some part of it would suffice, at least in principle, to determine the future," and "that there are immutable natural laws that uniquely determine the future state of any system from its present state." But atomic physics no longer accepts the validity of this premise. Max Planck discovered "that a radiating atom does not deliver up its energy continuously, but discreetly in bundles ... the emission of radiation is a statistical phenomenon." Quantum theory put the kibosh on determinism. And then,
It was discovered that it was impossible to describe simultaneously both the position and the velocity of an atomic particle with any prescribed degree of accuracy. We can either measure the position very accurately -- when the action of the instrument used for the observation obscures our knowledge of the velocity, or we can make accurate measurements of the velocity and forgo knowledge of the position.
Moreover, our very conceptions of the atom are mutually exclusive. We can consider it as like a little planetary system with electrons revolving around a central nucleus. Or we can "imagine that the atomic nucleus is surrounded by a system of stationary waves." Or "we can consider the atom chemically" and "calculate its heat of reaction when it becomes fused with other atoms.... Each picture is legitimate when used in the right place, but the different pictures are contradictory." As a result, "the incomplete knowledge of a system must be an essential part of every formulation in quantum theory."

No comments:

Post a Comment