Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER III.: SPACE, TIME, MATTER, MOTION, AND FORCE. - First Principles
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CHAPTER III.: SPACE, TIME, MATTER, MOTION, AND FORCE. - Herbert Spencer, First Principles 
First Principles, 2nd ed. (London: Williams and Norgate, 1867).
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SPACE, TIME, MATTER, MOTION, AND FORCE.
§ 46. That sceptical state of mind which the criticisms of Philosophy usually produce, is, in great measure, caused by the misinterpretation of words. A sense of universal illusion ordinarily follows the reading of metaphysics; and is strong in proportion as the argument has appeared conclusive. This sense of universal illusion would probably never have arisen, had the terms used been always rightly construed. Unfortunately, these terms have by association acquired meanings that are quite different from those given to them in philosophical discussions; and the ordinary meanings being unavoidably suggested, there results more or less of that dream-like idealism which is so incongruous with our instinctive convictions. The word phenomenon and its equivalent word appearance, are in great part to blame for this. In ordinary speech, these are uniformly employed in reference to visual perceptions. Habit, almost, if not quite, disables us from thinking of appearance except as something seen; and though phenomenon has a more generalized meaning, yet we cannot rid it of associations with appearance, which is its verbal equivalent. When, therefore, Philosophy proves that our knowledge of the external world can be but phenomenal—when it concludes that the things of which we are conscious are appearances; it inevitably arouses in us the notion of an illusiveness like that to which our visual perceptions are so liable in comparison with our tactual perceptions. Good piotures show us that the aspects of things may be very nearly simulated by colours on canvass. The looking-glass still more distinctly proves how deceptive is sight when unverified by touch. And the frequent cases in which we misinterpret the impressions made on our eyes, and think we see something which we do not see, further shake our faith in vision. So that the implication of uncertainty has infected the very word appearance. Hence, Philosophy, by giving it an extended meaning, leads us to think of all our senses as deceiving us in the same way that the eyes do; and so makes us feel ourselves floating in a world of phantasms. Had phenomenon and appearance no such misleading associations, little, if any, of this mental confusion would result. Or did we in place of them use the term effect, which is equally applicable to all impressions produced on consciousness through any of the senses, and which carries with it in thought the necessary correlative cause, with which it is equally real, we should be in little danger of falling into the insanities of idealism.
Such danger as there might still remain, would disappear on making a further verbal correction. At present, the confusion resulting from the above misinterpretation, is made greater by an antithetical misinterpretation. We increase the seeming unreality of that phenomenal existence which we can alone know, by contrasting it with a noumenal existence which we imagine would, if we could know it, be more truly real to us. But we delude ourselves with a verbal fiction. What is the meaning of the word real? This is the question which underlies every metaphysical inquiry; and the neglect of it is the remaining cause of the chronic antagonisms of metaphysicians. In the interpretation put on the word real, the discussions of philosophy retain one element of the vulgar conception of things, while they reject all its other elements; and create confusion by the inconsistency. The peasant, on contemplating an object, does not regard that which he contemplates as something in himself, but believes the thing of which he is conscious to be the external object—imagines that his consciousness extends to the very place where the object lies: to him the appearance and the reality are one and the same thing. The metaphysician, however, is convinced that consciousness cannot embrace the reality, but only the appearance of it; and so he transfers the appearance into consciousness and leaves the reality outside. This reality left outside of consciousness, he continues to think of much in the same way as the ignorant man thinks of the appearance. Though the reality is asserted to be out of consciousness, yet the realness ascribed to it is constantly spoken of as though it were a knowledge possessed apart from consciousness. It seems to be forgotten that the conception of reality can be nothing more than some mode of consciousness; and that the question to be considered is—What is the relation between this mode and other modes?
By reality we mean persistence in consciousness: a persistence that is either unconditional, as our consciousness of space, or that is conditional, as our consciousness of a body while grasping it. The real, as we conceive it, is distinguished solely by the test of persistence; for by this test we separate it from what we call the unreal. Between a person standing before us, and the idea of such a person, we discriminate by our ability to expel the idea from consciousness, and our inability, while looking at him, to expel the person from consciousness. And when in doubt as to the validity or illusiveness of some impression made upon us in the dusk, we settle the matter by observing whether the impression persists on closer observation; and we predicate reality if the persistence is complete. How truly persistence is what we mean by reality, is shown in the fact that when, after criticism has proved that the real as we are conscious of it is not the objectively real, the indefinite notion which we form of the objectively real, is of something which persists absolutely, under all changes of mode, form, or appearance. And the fact that we cannot form even an indefinite notion of the absolutely real, except as the absolutely persistent, clearly implies that persistence is our ultimate test of the real as present to consciousness.
Reality then, as we think it, being nothing more than persistence in consciousness, the result must be the same to us whether that which we perceive be the Unknowable itself, or an effect invariably wrought on us by the Unknowable. If, under constant conditions furnished by our constitutions, some Power of which the nature is beyond conception, always produces some mode of consciousness—if this mode of consciousness is as persistent as would be this Power were it in consciousness; the reality will be to consciousness as complete in the one case as in the other. Were Unconditioned Being itself present in thought, it could but be persistent; and if, instead, there is present Being conditioned by the forms of thought, but no less persistent, it must be to us no less real.
Hence there may be drawn these conclusions:—First, that we have an indefinite consciousness of an absolute reality transcending relations, which is produced by the absolute persistence in us of something which survives all changes of relation. Second, that we have a definite consciousness of relative reality, which unceasingly persists in us under one or other of its forms, and under each form so long as the conditions of presentation are fulfilled; and that the relative reality, being thus continuously persistent in us, is as real to us as would be the absolute reality could it be immediately known. Third, that thought being possible only under relation, the relative reality can be conceived as such only in connexion with an absolute reality; and the connexion between the two being absolutely persistent in our consciousness, is real in the same sense as the terms it unites are real.
Thus then we may resume, with entire confidence, those realistic conceptions which philosophy at first sight seems to dissipate. Though reality under the forms of our consciousness, is but a conditioned effect of the absolute reality, yet this conditioned effect standing in indissoluble relation with its unconditioned cause, and being equally persistent with it so long as the conditions persist, is, to the consciousness supplying those conditions, equally real. The persistent impressions being the persistent results of a persistent cause, are for practical purposes the same to us as the cause itself; and may be habitually dealt with as its equivalents. Somewhat in the same way that our visual perceptions, though merely symbols found to be the equivalents of tactual perceptions, are yet so identified with those tactual perceptions that we actually appear to see the solidity and hardness which we do but infer, and thus conceive as objects what are only the signs of objects; so, on a higher stage, do we deal with these relative realities as though they were absolutes instead of effects of the absolute. And we may legitimately continue so to deal with them as long as the conclusions to which they help us are understood as relative realities and not absolute ones.
This general conclusion it now remains to interpret specifically, in its application to each of our ultimate scientific ideas.
§ 47.∗ We think in relations. This is truly the form of all thought; and if there are any other forms, they must be derived from this. We have seen (Chap. iii. Part I.) that the several ultimate modes of being cannot be known or conceived as they exist in themselves; that is, out of relation to our consciousness. We have seen, by analyzing the product of thought, (§ 23,) that it always consists of relations; and cannot include anything beyond the most general of these. On analyzing the process of thought, we found that cognition of the Absolute was impossible, because it presented neither relation, nor its elements—difference and likeness. Further, we found that not only Intelligence but Life itself, consists in the establishment of internal relations in correspondence with external relations. And lastly, it was shown that though by the relativity of our thought we are eternally debarred from knowing or conceiving Absolute Being; yet that this very relativity of our thought, necessitates that vague consciousness of Absolute Being which no mental effort can suppress. That relation is the universal form of thought, is thus a truth which all kinds of demonstration unite in proving.
By the transcendentalists, certain other phenomena of consciousness are regarded as forms of thought. Presuming that relation would be admitted by them to be a universal mental form, they would class with it two others as also universal. Were their hypothesis otherwise tenable however, it must still be rejected if such alleged further forms are interpretable as generated by the primary form. If we think in relations, and if relations have certain universal forms, it is manifest that such universal forms of relations will become universal forms of our consciousness. And if these further universal forms are thus explicable, it is superfluous, and therefore unphilosophical, to assign them an independent origin. Now relations are of two orders—relations of sequence, and relations of co-existence; of which the one is original and the other derivative. The relation of sequence is given in every change of consciousness. The relation of co-existence, which cannot be originally given in a consciousness of which the states are serial, becomes distinguished only when it is found that certain relations of sequence have their terms presented in consciousness in either order with equal facility; while the others are presented only in one order. Relations of which the terms are not reversible, become recognized as sequences proper; while relations of which the terms occur indifferently in both directions, become recognized as co-existences. Endless experiences, which from moment to moment present both orders of these relations, render the distinction between them perfectly definite; and at the same time generate an abstract conception of each. The abstract of all sequences is Time. The abstract of all co-existences is Space. From the fact that in thought Time is inseparable from sequence, and Space from co-existence, we do not here infer that Time and Space are original conditions of consciousness under which sequences and co-existences are known; but we infer that our conceptions of Time and Space are generated, as other abstracts are generated from other concretes: the only difference being, that the organization of experiences has, in these cases, been going on throughout the entire evolution of intelligence.
This synthesis is confirmed by analysis. Our consciousness of Space is a consciousness of co-existent positions. Any limited portion of space can be conceived only by representing its limits as co-existing in certain relative positions; and each of its imagined boundaries, be it line or plane, can be thought of in no other way than as made up of co-existent positions in close proximity. And since a position is not an entity—since the congeries of positions which constitute any conceived portion of space, and mark its bounds, are not sensible existences; it follows that the co-existent positions which make up our consciousness of Space, are not co-existences in the full sense of the word (which implies realities as their terms), but are the blank forms of co-existences, left behind when the realities are absent; that is, are the abstracts of co-existences. The experiences out of which, during the evolution of intelligence, this abstract of all co-existences has been generated, are experiences of individual positions as ascertained by touch; and each of such experiences involves the resistance of an object touched, and the muscular tension which measures this resistance. By countless unlike muscular adjustments, involving unlike muscular tensions, different resisting positions are disclosed; and these, as they can be experienced in one order as readily as another, we regard as co-existing. But since, under other circumstances, the same muscular adjustments do not produce contact with resisting positions, there result the same states of consciousness, minus the resistances—blank forms of co-existence from which the co-existent objects before experienced are absent And from a building up of these, too elaborate to be here detailed, results that abstract of all relations of co-existence which we call Space. It remains only to point out, as a thing which we must not forget, that the experiences from which the consciousness of Space arises, are experiences of force. A certain correlation of the muscular forces we ourselves exercise, is the index of each position as originally disclosed to us; and the resistance which makes us aware of something existing in that position, is an equivalent of the pressure we consciously exert. Thus, experiences of forces variously correlated, are those from which our consciousness of Space is abstracted.
That which we know as Space being thus shown, alike by its genesis and definition, to be purely relative, what are we to say of that which causes it? Is there an absolute Space which relative Space in some sort represents? Is Space in itself a form or condition of absolute existence, producing in our minds a corresponding form or condition of relative existence? These are unanswerable questions. Our conception of Space is produced by some mode of the Unknowable; and the complete unchangeableness of our conception of it simply implies a complete uniformity in the effects wrought by this mode of the Unknowable upon us. But therefore to call it a necessary mode of the Unknowable, is illegitimate. All we can assert is, that Space is a relative reality; that our consciousness of this unchanging relative reality implies an absolute reality equally unchanging in so far as we are concerned; and that the relative reality may be unhesitatingly accepted in thought as a valid basis for our reasonings; which, when rightly carried on, will bring us to truths that have a like relative reality—the only truths which concern us or can possibly be known to us.
Concerning Time, relative and absolute, a parallel argument leads to parallel conclusions. These are too obvious to need specifying in detail.
§ 48. Our conception of Matter, reduced to its simplest shape, is that of co-existent positions that offer resistance; as contrasted with our conception of Space, in which the co-existent positions offer no resistance. We think of Body as bounded by surfaces that resist; and as made up throughout of parts that resist. Mentally abstract the co-existent resistances, and the consciousness of Body disappears; leaving behind it the consciousness of Space. And since the group of co-existing resistent positions constituting a portion of matter, is uniformly capable of giving us impressions of resistance in combination with various muscular adjustments, according as we touch its near, its remote, its right, or its left side; it results that as different muscular adjustments habitually indicate different co-existences, we are obliged to conceive every portion of matter as containing more than one resistent position—that is, as occupying Space. Hence the necessity we are under of representing to ourselves the ultimate elements of Matter as being at once extended and resistent : this being the universal form of our sensible experiences of Matter, becomes the form which our conception of it cannot transcend, however minute the fragments which imaginary subdivisions produce. Of these two inseparable elements, the resistance is primary, and the extension secondary. Occupied extension, or Body, being distinguished in consciousness from unoccupied extension, or Space, by its resistance, this attribute must clearly have precedence in the genesis of the idea. Such a conclusion is, indeed, an obvious corollary from that at which we arrived in the foregoing section. If, as was there contended, our consciousness of Space is a product of accumulated experiences, partly our own but chiefly ancestral—if, as was pointed out, the experiences from which our consciousness of Space is abstracted, can be received only through impressions of resistance made upon the organism; the necessary inference is, that experiences of resistance being those from which the conception of Space is generated, the resistance-attribute of Matter must be regarded as primordial and the space-attribute as derivative. Whence it becomes manifest that our experience of force, is that out of which the idea of Matter is built. Matter as opposing our muscular energies, being immediately present to consciousness in terms of force; and its occupancy of Space being known by an abstract of experiences originally given in terms of force; it follows that forces, standing in certain correlations, form the whole content of our idea of Matter.
Such being our cognition of the relative reality, what are we to say of the absolute reality? We can only say that it is some mode of the Unknowable, related to the Matter we know, as cause to effect. The relativity of our cognition of Matter is shown alike by the above analysis, and by the contradictions which are evolved when we deal with the cognition as an absolute one (§ 16). But, as we have lately seen, though known to us only under relation, Matter is as real in the true sense of that word, as it would be could we know it out of relation; and further, the relative reality which we know as Matter, is necessarily represented to the mind as standing in a persistent or real relation to the absolute reality. We may therefore deliver ourselves over without hesitation, to those terms of thought which experience has organized in us. We need not in our physical, chemical, or other researches, refrain from dealing with Matter as made up of extended and resistent atoms; for this conception, necessarily resulting from our experiences of Matter, is not less legitimate than the conception of aggregate masses as extended and resistent. The atomic hypothesis, as well as the kindred hypothesis of an all-pervading ether consisting of molecules, is simply a necessary development of those universal forms which the actions of the Unknowable have wrought in us. The conclusions logically worked out by the aid of these hypotheses, are sure to be in harmony with all others which these same forms involve, and will have a relative truth that is equally complete.
§ 49. The conception of Motion as presented or represented in the developed consciousness, involves the conceptions of Space, of Time, and of Matter. A something that moves; a series of positions occupied in succession; and a group of co-existent positions united in thought with the successive ones—these are the constituents of the idea. And since, as we have seen, these are severally elaborated from experiences of force as given in certain correlations, it follows that from a further synthesis of such experiences, the idea of Motion is also elaborated. A certain other element in the idea, which is in truth its fundamental element, (namely, the necessity which the moving body is under to go on changing its position), results immediately from the earliest experiences of force. Movements of different parts of the organism in relation to each other, are the first presented in consciousness. These, produced by the action of the muscles, necessitate reactions upon consciousness in the shape of sensations of muscular tension. Consequently, each stretching-out or drawing-in of a limb, is originally known as a series of muscular tensions, varying in intensity as the position of the limb changes. And this rudimentary consciousness of Motion, consisting of serial impressions of force, becomes inseparably united with the consciousness of Space and Time as fast as these are abstracted from further impressions of force. Or rather, out of this primitive conception of Motion, the adult conception of it is developed simultaneously with the development of the conceptions of Space and Time: all three being evolved from the more multiplied and varied impressions of muscular tension and objective resistance. Motion, as we know it, is thus traceable, in common with the other ultimate scientific ideas, to experiences of force.
That this relative reality answers to some absolute reality, it is needful only for form’s sake to assert. What has been said above, respecting the Unknown Cause which produces in us the effects called Matter, Space, and Time, will apply, on simply changing the terms, to Motion.
§ 50. We come down then finally to Force, as the ultimate of ultimates. Though Space, Time, Matter, and Motion, are apparently all necessary data of intelligence, yet a psychological analysis (here indicated only in rude outline) shows us that these are either built up of, or abstracted from, experiences of Force. Matter and Motion, as we know them, are differently conditioned manifestations of Force. Space and Time, as we know them, are disclosed along with these different manifestations of Force as the conditions under which they are presented. Matter and Motion are concretes built up from the contents of various mental relations; while Space and Time are abstracts of the forms of these various relations. Deeper down than these, however, are the primordial experiences of Force, which, as occurring in consciousness in different combinations, supply at once the materials whence the forms of relations are generalized, and the related objects built up. A single impression of force is manifestly receivable by a sentient being devoid of mental forms: grant but sensibility, with no established power of thought, and a force producing some nervous change, will still be presentable at the supposed seat of sensation. Though no single impression of force so received, could itself produce consciousness (which implies relations between different states), yet a multiplication of such impressions, differing in kind and degree, would give the materials for the establishment of relations, that is, of thought. And if such relations differed in their forms as well as in their contents, the impressions of such forms would be organized simultaneously with the impressions they contained. Thus all other modes of consciousness are derivable from experiences of Force; but experiences of Force are not derivable from anything else. Indeed, it needs but to remember that consciousness consists of changes, to see that the ultimate datum of consciousness must be that of which change is the manifestation; and that thus the force by which we ourselves produce changes, and which serves to symbolize the cause of changes in general,is the final disclosure of analysis.
It is a truism to say that the nature of this undecomposable element of our knowledge is inscrutable. If, to use an algebraic illustration, we represent Matter, Motion, and Force, by the symbols x, y, and z; then, we may ascertain the values of x and y in terms of z; but the value of z can never be found: z is the unknown quantity which must for ever remain unknown; for the obvious reason that there is nothing in which its value can be expressed. It is within the possible reach of our intelligence to go on simplifying the equations of all phenomena, until the complex symbols which formulate them are reduced to certain functions of this ultimate symbol; but when we have done this, we have reached that limit which eternally divides science from nescience.
That this undecomposable mode of consciousness into which all other modes may be decomposed, cannot be itself the Power manifested to us through phenomena, has been already proved (§ 18). We saw that to assume an identity of nature between the cause of changes as it absolutely exists, and that cause of change of which we are conscious in our own muscular efforts, betrays us into alternative impossibilities of thought. Force, as we know it, can be regarded only as a certain conditioned effect of the Unconditioned Cause—as the relative reality indicating to us an Absolute Reality by which it is immediately produced. And here, indeed, we see even more clearly than before, how inevitable is that transfigured realism to which sceptical criticism finally brings us round. Getting rid of all complications, and contemplating pure Force, we are irresistibly compelled by the relativity of our thought, to vaguely conceive some unknown force as the correlative of the known force. Noumenon and phenomenon are here presented in their primordial relation as two sides of the same change, of which we are obliged to regard the last as no less real than the first.
§ 51. In closing this exposition of the derivative data needed by Philosophy as the unifier of Science, we may properly glance at their relations to the primordial data, set forth in the last chapter.
An Unknown Cause of the known effects which we call phenomena, likenesses and differences among these known effects, and a segregation of the effects into subject and object—these are the postulates without which we cannot think. Within each of the segregated masses of manifestations, there are likenesses and differences involving secondary segregations, which have also become indispensable postulates. The vivid manifestations constituting the non-ego do not simply cohere, but their cohesions have certain invariable modes; and among the faint manifestations constituting the ego, which are products of the vivid, there exist corresponding modes of cohesion. These modes of cohesion under which manifestations are invariably presented, and therefore invariably represented, we call, when contemplated apart, Space and Time, and when contemplated along with the manifestations themselves, Matter and Motion. The ultimate natures of these modes are as unknown as is the ultimate nature of that which is manifested. But just the same warrant which we have for asserting that subject and object coexist, we have for asserting that the vivid manifestations we call objective, exist under certain constant conditions, that are symbolized by these constant conditions among the manifestations we call subjective.
[∗]For the psychological conclusions briefly set forth in this and the three sections following it, the justification will be found in the writer’s Principles of Psychology.