Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER IV.: THE INDESTRUCTIBILITY OF MATTER. - First Principles
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CHAPTER IV.: THE INDESTRUCTIBILITY OF MATTER. - Herbert Spencer, First Principles 
First Principles, 2nd ed. (London: Williams and Norgate, 1867).
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THE INDESTRUCTIBILITY OF MATTER.
§ 52. Not because the truth is unfamiliar, is it needful here to say something concerning the indestructibility of Matter; but partly because the symmetry of our argument demands the enunciation of this truth, and partly because the evidence on which it is accepted requires examination. Could it be shown, or could it with any rationality be even supposed, that Matter, either in its aggregates or in its units, ever became non-existent, there would be need either to ascertain under what conditions it became non-existent, or else to confess that Science and Philosophy are impossible. For if, instead of having to deal with fixed quantities and weights, we had to deal with quantities and weights which were apt, wholly or in part, to be annihilated, there would be introduced an incalculable element, fatal to all positive conclusions. Clearly, therefore, the proposition that matter is indestructible must be deliberately considered.
So far from being admitted as a self-evident truth, this would, in primitive times, have been rejected as a self-evident error. There was once universally current, a notion that things could vanish into absolute nothing, or arise out of absolute nothing. If we analyze early superstitions, or that faith in magic which was general in later times and even still survives among the uncultured, we find one of its postulates to be, that by some potent spell Matter can be called out of non-entity, and can be made non-existent. If men did not believe this in the strict sense of the word (which would imply that the process of creation or annihilation was clearly represented in consciousness), they still believed that they believed it; and how nearly, in their confused thoughts, the one was equivalent to the other, is shown by their conduct. Nor, indeed, have dark ages and inferior minds alone betrayed this belief. The current theology, in its teachings respecting the beginning and end of the world, is clearly pervaded by it; and it may be even questioned whether Shakespeare, in his poetical anticipation of a time when all things should disappear and “leave not a wrack behind,” was not under its influence. The gradual accumulation of experiences however, and still more the organization of experiences, has tended slowly to reverse this conviction; until now, the doctrine that Matter is indestructible has become a common-place. Whatever may be true of it absolutely, we have learnt that relatively to our consciousness, Matter never either comes into existence or ceases to exist. Cases which once gave an apparent support to the illusion that something could come out of nothing, a wider knowledge has one by one cancelled. The comet that is all at once discovered in the heavens and nightly waxes larger, is proved not to be a newly-created body, but a body that was until lately beyond the range of vision. The cloud which in the course of a few minutes forms in the sky, consists not of substance that has just begun to be, but of substance that previously existed in a more diffused and transparent form. And similarly with a crystal or precipitate in relation to the fluid depositing it. Conversely, the seeming annihilations of Matter turn out, on closer observation, to be only changes of state. It is found that the evaporated water, though it has become invisible, may be brought by condensation to its original shape. The discharged fowling-piece gives evidence that though the gunpowder has disappeared, there have appeared in place of it certain gases, which, in assuming a larger volume, have caused the explosion. Not, however, until the rise of quantitative chemistry, could the conclusion suggested by such experiences be reduced to a certainty. When, having ascertained not only the combinations into which various substances enter, but also the proportions in which they combine, chemists were enabled to account for the matter that had made its appearance or become invisible, the proof was rendered complete. When, in place of the candle that had slowly burnt away, it was shown that certain calculable quantities of carbonic acid and water had resulted—when it was demonstrated that the joint weight of the carbonic acid and water thus produced, was equal to the weight of the candle plus that of the oxygen uniting with its constituents during combustion; it was put beyond doubt that the carbon and hydrogen forming the candle, were still in existence, and had simply changed their state. And of the general conclusion thus exemplified, the exact analyses daily made, in which the same portion of matter is pursued through numerous transformations and finally separated, furnish never-ceasing confirmations.
Such has become the effect of this specific evidence, joined to that general evidence which the continued existence of familiar objects unceasingly gives us; that the indestructibility of Matter is now recognized by many as a truth of which the negation is inconceivable. Habitual experiences being no longer met by any counter-experiences, as they once seemed to be; but these apparent counter-experiences furnishing new proof that Matter exists permanently, even where the senses fail to detect it; it has grown into an axiom of science, that what ever metamorphoses Matter undergoes, its quantity is fixed The chemist, the physicist, and the physiologist, not only one and all take this for granted, but would severally profess themselves unable to realize any supposition to the contrary.
§ 53. This last fact naturally raises the question, whether we have any higher warrant for this fundamental belief, than the warrant of conscious induction. The indestructibility of Matter is proved experimentally to be an absolute uniformity within the range of our experience. But absolute uniformities of experience, generate absolute uniformities of thought. Does it not follow, then, that this ultimate truth must be a cognition involved in our mental organization? An affirmative answer we shall find unavoidable.
What is termed the ultimate incompressibility of Matter, is an admitted law of thought. Though it is possible to imagine a piece of matter to be compressed without limit, yet however small the bulk to which we conceive it reduced, it is impossible to conceive it reduced into nothing. While we can represent to ourselves the parts of the matter as indefinitely approximated, and the space occupied as indefinitely decreased, we cannot represent to ourselves the quantity of matter as made less. To do this would imply an imagined disappearance of some of the constituent parts—would imply that some of the constituent parts were in thought compressed into nothing; which is no more possible than the compression of the whole into nothing. Whence it is an obvious corollary, that the total quantity of matter in the Universe, cannot really be conceived as diminished, any more than it can be conceived as increased. Our inability to conceive Matter becoming non-existent, is immediately consequent on the very nature of thought. Thought consists in the establishment of relations. There can be no relation established, and therefore no thought framed, when one of the related terms is absent from consciousness. Hence it is impossible to think of something becoming nothing, for the same reason that it is impossible to think of nothing becoming something—the reason, namely, that nothing cannot become an object of consciousness. The annihilation of Matter is unthinkable for the same reason that the creation of Matter is unthinkable; and its indestructibility thus becomes an à priori cognition of the highest order—not one that results from a long continued registry of experiences gradually organized into an irreversible mode of thought; but one that is given in the form of all experiences whatever.
Doubtless it will be considered strange that a truth only in modern times accepted as unquestionable, and then only by men of science, should be classed as an à priori truth; not only of equal certainty with those commonly so classed, but of even higher certainty. To set down as a proposition which cannot be thought, one which mankind once universally professed to think, and which the great majority profess to think even now, seems absurd. The explanation is, that in this, as in countless other cases, men have supposed themselves to think what they did not think. As was shown at the outset, the greater part of our conceptions are symbolic. Many of these symbolic conceptions, though rarely developed into real ones, admit of being so developed; and, being directly or indirectly proved to correspond with actualities, are valid. But along with these there pass current others which cannot be developed—cannot by any direct or indirect process be realized in thought; much less proved to correspond with actualities. Not being habitually tested, however, the legitimate and illegitimate symbolic conceptions are confounded together; and supposing themselves to have literally thought, that which they have thought only symbolically, men say they believe propositions of which the terms cannot even be put together in consciousness. Hence the ready acceptance given to sundry hypotheses respecting the origin of the Universe, which yet are absolutely unthinkable. And as before we found the commonly asserted doctrine that Matter was created out of nothing, to have been never really conceived at all, but to have been conceived only symbolically; so here we find the annihilation of Matter to have been conceived only symbolically, and the symbolic conception mistaken for a real one. Possibly it will be objected that the words thought, and belief, and conception, are here employed in new senses; and that it is a misuse of language to say that men did not really think that which has nevertheless so profoundly influenced their conduct. It must be confessed that there is an inconvenience in so restricting the meanings of these words. There is no remedy however. Definite conclusions can be reached, only by the use of well-defined terms. Questions touching the validity of any portion of our knowledge, cannot be profitably discussed unless the words knowing, and thinking, have specific interpretations. We must not include under them whatever confused processes of consciousness the popular speech applies them to; but only the distinct processes of consciousness. And if this obliges us to reject a large part of human thinking as not thinking at all, but merely pseudo-thinking, there is no help for it.
Returning to the general question, we find the results to be:—that we have positive experience of the continued existence of Matter; that the form of our thought renders it impossible for us to have experience of Matter passing into non-existence, since such experience would involve cognition of a relation having one of its terms not representable in consciousness; that hence the indestructibility of Matter is in strictness an à priori truth; that nevertheless, certain illusive experiences, suggesting the notion of its annihilation, have produced in undisciplined minds not only the supposition that Matter could be conceived to become non-existent, but the notion that it did so; but that careful observation, showing the supposed annihilations to have never taken place, has confirmed, à posteriori, the à priori cognition which Psychology shows to result from a uniformity of experience that can never be met by counter-experience.
§ 54. The fact, however, which it most concerns us here to observe, is, the nature of the perceptions by which the permanence of Matter is perpetually illustrated to us, and from which Science draws the inference that Matter is indestructible. These perceptions, under all their forms, amount simply to this—that the force which a given quantity of matter exercises, remains always the same. This is the proof on which common sense and exact science alike rely. When, for example, somebody known to have existed a few years since is said to exist still, by one who yesterday saw him, his assertion amounts to this—that an object which in past time wrought on his consciousness a certain group of changes, still exists because a like group of changes has been again wrought on his consciousness: the continuance of the power thus to impress him, he holds to prove the continuance of the object. Should some auditor allege a mistake in identity, the witness is admitted to give conclusive proof when he says that he not only saw, but shook hands with this person, and remarked while grasping his hand, that absence of the index finger which was his known peculiarity: the implication being, that an object which through a special combination of forces, produces special tactual impressions, is concluded still to exist while it continues still to do this. Even more clearly do we see that force is our ultimate measure of Matter, in those cases where the shape of the matter has been changed. A piece of gold given to an artizan to be worked into an ornament, and which when brought back appears to be less, is placed in the scales; and if it balances a much smaller weight than it did in its rough state, we infer that much has been lost either in manipulation or by direct abstraction. Here the obvious postulate is, that the quantity of Matter is finally determinable by the quantity of gravitative force it manifests. And this is the kind of evidence on which Science bases its experimentally-established induction that Matter is indestructible. Whenever a piece of substance lately visible and tangible, has been reduced to an invisible, intangible shape, but is proved by the weight of the gas into which it has been transformed to be still existing; the assumption is, that though otherwise insensible to us, the amount of matter is the same, if it still tends towards the Earth with the same force. Similarly, every case in which the weight of an element present in combination, is inferred from the known weight of another element which it neutralizes, is a case in which the quantity of matter is expressed in terms of the quantity of chemical force it exerts; and in which this specific chemical force is assumed to be the necessary correlative of a specific gravitative force.
Thus then by the indestructibility of Matter, we really mean the indestructibility of the force with which Matter affects us. As we become conscious of Matter only through that resistance which it opposes to our muscular energy, so do we become conscious of the permanence of Matter only through the permanence of this resistance; as either immediately or mediately proved to us. And this truth is made manifest not only by analysis of the à posteriori cognition, but equally so by analysis of the à priori one. For that which we cannot conceive to be diminished by the continued compression of Matter, is not its occupancy of space, but its ability to resist.