Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER V.: THE CONTINUITY OF MOTION. - First Principles
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CHAPTER V.: THE CONTINUITY OF MOTION. - Herbert Spencer, First Principles 
First Principles, 2nd ed. (London: Williams and Norgate, 1867).
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THE CONTINUITY OF MOTION.
§ 55. Another general truth of the same order with the foregoing, must here be specified—one which, though not so generally recognized, has yet long been familiar among men of science. The continuity of Motion, like the indestructibility of Matter, is clearly a proposition on the truth of which depends the possibility of exact Science, and therefore of a Philosophy which unifies the results of exact Science. Motions of masses and of molecules, exhibited by bodies both organic and inorganic, form the larger half of the phenomena to be interpreted; and if such motions might either proceed from nothing or lapse into nothing, there would be an end to scientific interpretation of them. Each constituent change might as well as not be supposed to begin and end of itself.
The axiomatic character of the truth that Motion is continuous, is recognized only after the discipline of exact science has given precision to the conceptions. Aboriginal men, our uneducated population, and even most of the so-called educated, think in an extremely indefinite manner. From careless observations, they pass by careless reasoning, to conclusions of which they do not contemplate the implications—conclusions which they never develope for the purpose of seeing whether they are consistent. Accepting without criticism the dicta of unaided perception, to the effect that surrounding bodies when put in motion soon return to rest, the great majority tacitly assume that the motion is actually lost. They do not consider whether the phenomenon can be otherwise interpreted; or whether the interpretation they put on it can be mentally realized. They are content with a colligation of mere appearances. But the establishment of certain facts having quite an opposite implication, led to inquiries which have gradually proved such appearances to be illusive. The discovery that the planets revolve round the Sun with undiminishing speed, raised the suspicion that a moving body, when not interfered with, will go on for ever without change of velocity; and suggested the question whether bodies which lose their motion, do not at the same time communicate as much motion to other bodies. It was a familiar fact that a stone would glide further over a smooth surface, such as ice, presenting no small objects to which it could part with its motion by collision, than over a surface strewn with such small objects; and that a projectile would travel a far greater distance through a rare medium like air, than through a dense medium like water. Thus the primitive notion that moving bodies had an inherent tendency gradually to lose their motion and finally stop—a notion of which the Greeks did not get rid, but which lasted till the time of Galileo—began to give way. It was further shaken by such experiments as those of Hooke, which proved that the spinning of a top continued long in proportion as it was prevented from communicating movement to surrounding matter—experiments which, when repeated with the aid of modern appliances, have shown that in vacuo such rotation, retarded only by the friction of the axis, will continue for nearly an hour. Thus have been gradually dispersed, the obstacles to the reception of the first law of motion;—the law, namely, that when not influenced by external forces, a moving body will go on in a straight line with a uniform velocity. And this law is in our day being merged in the more general one, that Motion, like Matter, is indestructible; and that whatever is lost by any one portion of matter is transferred to other portions—a conclusion which, however much at variance it seems with cases of sudden arrest from collision with an immovable object, is yet reconciled with such cases by the discovery that the motion apparently lost continues under new forms, though forms not directly perceptible.
§ 56. And here it may be remarked of Motion, as it was before of Matter, that its indestructibility is not only to be inductively inferred, but that it is a necessity of thought: its destructibility never having been truly conceived at all, but having always been, as it is now, a mere verbal proposition that cannot be realized in consciousness—a pseud-idea. Whether that absolute reality which produces in us the consciousness we call Motion, be or be not an eternal mode of the Unknowable, it is impossible for us to say; but that the relative reality which we call Motion never can come into existence, or cease to exist, is a truth involved in the very nature of our consciousness. To think of Motion as either being created or annihilated—to think of nothing becoming something, or something becoming nothing—is to establish in consciousness a relation between two terms of which one is absent from consciousness, which is impossible. The very nature of intelligence, negatives the supposition that Motion can be conceived (much less known) to either commence or cease.
§ 57. It remains to be pointed out that the continuity of Motion, as well as the indestructibility of Matter, is really known to us in terms of force. That a certain manifestation of force remains for ever undiminished, is the ultimate content of the thought; whether reached à posteriori or à priori.
From terrestrial physics let us take the case of sound propagated to a great distance. Whenever we are directly conscious of the causation of sound (namely, when we produce it ourselves), its invariable antecedent is force. The immediate sequence of this force we know to be motion—first, of our own organs, and then of the body which we set vibrating. The vibrations so generated we can discern both through the fingers and through the ears; and that the sensations received by the ears are the equivalents of mechanical force communicated to the air, and by it impressed on surrounding objects, we have clear proof when objects are fractured: as windows by the report of a cannon; or a glass vessel by a powerful voice. On what, then, rests the reasoning when, as occasionally happens under favourable circumstances, men on board a vessel a hundred miles from shore, hear the ringing of church-bells on placing their ears in the focus of the main sail; and when it is inferred that atmospheric undulations have traversed this immense distance? Manifestly, the assertion that the motion of the clapper, transformed into the vibrations of the bell, and communicated to the surrounding air, has propagated itself thus far on all sides, diminishing in intensity as the mass of air moved became greater, is based solely upon a certain change produced in consciousness through the ears. The listeners are not conscious of motion; they are conscious of an impression produced on them—an impression which implies a force as its necessary correlative. With force they begin, and with force they end: the intermediate motion being simply inferred. Again, where, as in celestial physics, the continuity of motion is quantitatively proved, the proof is not direct but inferential; and forces furnish the data for the inference. A particular planet can be identified only by its constant power to affect our visual organs in a special way—to impress upon the retina a group of forces standing in a particular correlation. Further, such planet has not been seen to move by the astronomical observer; but its motion is inferred from a comparison of its present position with the position it before occupied. If rigorously examined, this comparison proves to be a comparison between the different impressions produced on him by the different adjustments of the observing instruments. Going a step further back, it turns out that this difference is meaningless until shown to correspond with a certain calculated position which the planet must occupy, supposing that no motion has been lost. And if, finally, we examine the implied calculation, we find that it makes allowances for those accelerations and retardations which ellipticity of the orbit involves, as well as those variations of velocity caused by adjacent planets—we find, that is, that the motion is concluded to be indestructible not from the uniform velocity of the planet, but from the constant quantity of motion exhibited when allowance is made for the motion communicated to, or received from, other celestial bodies. And when we ask how this communicated motion is estimated, we discover that the estimate is based upon certain laws of force; which laws, one and all, embody the postulate that force cannot be destroyed. Without the axiom that action and re-action are equal and opposite, astronomy could not make its exact predictions; and we should lack the rigorous inductive proof they furnish that motion can never be lost, but can only be transferred.
Similarly with the à priori conclusion that Motion is continuous. That which defies suppression in thought, is really the force which the motion indicates. The unceasing change of position, considered by itself, may be mentally abolished without difficulty. We can readily imagine retardation and stoppage to result from the action of external bodies. But to imagine this, is not possible without an abstraction of the force implied by the motion. We are obliged to conceive this force as impressed in the shape of re-action on the bodies that cause the arrest. And the motion that is communicated to them, we are compelled to regard, not as directly communicated, but as a product of the communicated force. We can mentally diminish the velocity or space-element of motion, by diffusing the momentum or force-element over a larger mass of matter; but the quantity of this force-element, which we regard as the cause of the motion, is unchangeable in thought.