Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VI.: THE PERSISTENCE OF FORCE. ∗ - First Principles
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CHAPTER VI.: THE PERSISTENCE OF FORCE. ∗ - Herbert Spencer, First Principles 
First Principles, 2nd ed. (London: Williams and Norgate, 1867).
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THE PERSISTENCE OF FORCE.∗
§ 58. Before taking a first step in the rational interpretation of phenomena, it is needful to recognize, not only the facts that Matter is indestructible and Motion continuous, but also the fact that Force persists. An attempt to ascertain the laws to which manifestations in general and in detail conform, would be absurd if the agency to which they are due could either come into existence or cease to exist. The succession of phenomena would in such case be altogether arbitrary; and Science, equally with Philosophy, would be impossible.
Here, indeed, the necessity is even more imperative than in the two preceding cases. For the validity of the proofs given that Matter is indestructible and Motion continuous, really depends upon the validity of the proof that Force is persistent. An analysis of the reasoning demonstrated that in both cases, the à posteriori conclusion involves the assumption that unchanged quantities of Matter and Motion are proved by unchanged manifestations of Force; and in the à priori cognition we found this to be the essential constituent. Hence, that the quantity of Force remains always the same, is the fundamental cognition in the absence of which these derivative cognitions must disappear.
§ 59. But now on what grounds do we assert the persistence of Force? Inductively we can allege no evidence except such as is presented to us throughout the world of sensible phenomena. No force however, save that of which we are conscious during our own muscular efforts, is immediately known to us. All other force is mediately known through the changes we attribute to it. Since, then, we cannot infer the persistence of Force from our own sensation of it, which does not persist; we must infer it, if it is inferred at all, from the continuity of Motion, and the undiminished ability of Matter to produce certain effects. But to reason thus is manifestly to reason in a circle. It is absurd to allege the indestructibility of Matter, because we find experimentally that under whatever changes of form a given mass of matter exhibits the same gravitation, and then afterwards to argue that gravitation is constant because a given mass of matter exhibits always the same quantity of it. We cannot prove the continuity of Motion by assuming that Force is persistent, and then prove the persistence of Force by assuming that Motion is continuous.
The data of both objective and subjective science being involved in this question touching the nature of our cognition that Force is persistent, it will be desirable here to examine it more closely. At the risk of trying the reader’s patience, we must reconsider the reasoning through which the indestructibility of Matter and the continuity of Motion are established; that we may see how impossible it is to arrive by parallel reasoning at the persistence of Force. In all three cases the question is one of quantity:—does the Matter, or Motion, or Force, ever diminish in quantity? Quantitative science implies measurement; and measurement implies a unit of measure. The units of measure from which all others of any exactness are derived, are units of linear extension. From these, through the medium of the equal-armed lever or scales, we derive our equal units of weight, or gravitative force. And it is by means of these equal units of extension and equal units of weight, that we make those quantitative comparisons by which the truths of exact science are reached. Throughout the investigations leading the chemist to the conclusion that of the carbon which has disappeared during combustion, no portion has been lost, and that in any compound afterwards formed by the resulting carbonic acid the whole of the original carbon is present, what is his repeatedly assigned proof? That afforded by the scales. In what terms is the verdict of the scales given? In grains—in units of weight—in units of gravitative force. And what is the total content of the verdict? That as many units of gravitative force as the carbon exhibited at first, it exhibits still. The quantity of matter is asserted to be the same, if the number of units of force it counter-balances is the same. The validity of the inference, then, depends entirely upon the constancy of the units of force. If the force with which the portion of metal called a grain-weight, tends towards the Earth, has varied, the inference that Matter is indestructible is vicious. Everything turns on the truth of the assumption that the gravitation of the weights is persistent; and of this no proof is assigned, or can be assigned. In the reasonings of the astronomer there is a like implication; from which we may draw the like conclusion. No problem in celestial physics can be solved without the assumption of some unit of force. This unit need not be, like a pound or a ton, one of which we can take direct cognizance. It is requisite only that the mutual attraction which some two of the bodies concerned exercise at a given distance, should be taken as one; so that the other attractions with which the problem deals, may be expressed in terms of this one. Such unit being assumed, the momenta which the respective masses will generate in each other in a given time, are calculated; and compounding these with the momenta they already have, their places at the end of that time are predicted. The prediction is verified by observation. From this, either of two inferences may be drawn. Assuming the masses to be fixed, the motion may be proved to be undiminished; or assuming the motion to be undiminished, the masses may be proved to be fixed. But the validity of one or other inference, depends wholly on the truth of the assumption that the unit of force is unchanged. Let it be supposed that the gravitation of the two bodies towards each other at the given distance, has varied, and the conclusions drawn are no longer true. Nor is it only in their concrete data that the reasonings of terrestrial and celestial physics assume the persistence of Force. They equally assume it in the abstract principle with which they set out; and which they repeat in justification of every step. The equality of action and reaction is taken for granted from beginning to end of either argument; and to assert that action and reaction are equal and opposite, is to assert that Force is persistent. The allegation really amounts to this, that there cannot be an isolated force beginning and ending in nothing; but that any force manifested, implies an equal antecedent force from which it is derived, and against which it is a reaction. Further, that the force so originating cannot disappear without result; but must expend itself in some other manifestation of force, which, in being produced, becomes its reaction; and so on continually. Clearly then the persistence of Force is an ultimate truth of which no inductive proof is possible.
We might indeed be certain, even in the absence of any such analysis as the foregoing, that there must exist some principle which, as being the basis of science, cannot be established by science. All reasoned-out conclusions whatever, must rest on some postulate. As before shown (§ 23), we cannot go on merging derivative truths in those wider and wider truths from which they are derived, without reaching at last a widest truth which can be merged in no other, or derived from no other. And whoever contemplates the relation in which it stands to the truths of science in general, will see that this truth transcending demonstration is the persistence of Force.
§ 60. But now what is the force of which we predicate persistence? It is not the force we are immediately conscious of in our own muscular efforts; for this does not persist. As soon as an outstretched limb is relaxed, the sense of tension disappears. True, we assert that in the stone thrown or in the weight lifted, is exhibited the effect of this muscular tension; and that the force which has ceased to be present in our consciousness, exists elsewhere. But it does not exist elsewhere under any form cognizable by us. It was proved (§ 18), that though, on raising an object from the ground, we are obliged to think of its downward pull as equal and opposite to our upward pull; and though it is impossible to represent these pulls as equal without representing them as like in kind; yet, since their likeness in kind would imply in the object a sensation of muscular tension, which cannot be ascribed to it, we are compelled to admit that force as it exists out of our consciousness, is not force as we know it. Hence the force of which we assert persistence is that Absolute Force of which we are indefinitely conscious as the necessary correlate of the force we know. Thus, by the persistence of Force, we really mean the persistence of some Power which transcends our knowledge and conception. The manifestations, as occurring either in ourselves or outside of us, do not persist; but that which persists is the Unknown Cause of these manifestations. In other words, asserting the persistence of Force, is but another mode of asserting an Unconditioned Reality, without beginning or end.
Thus, quite unexpectedly, we come down once more to that ultimate truth in which, as we saw, Religion and Science coalesce. On examining the data underlying a rational theory of phenomena, we find them all at last resolvable into that datum without which consciousness was shown to be impossible—the continued existence of an Unknowable as the necessary correlative of the Knowable. Once commenced, the analysis of the truths taken for granted in scientific inquiries, inevitably brings us down to this deepest truth, in which Common Sense and Philosophy are reconciled.
The arguments and conclusion contained in this and the foregoing three chapters, supply, indeed, the complement to the arguments and conclusion set forth in the preceding part of this work. It was there first shown, by an examination of our ultimate religious ideas, that knowledge of Absolute Being is impossible; and the impossibility of knowing Absolute Being, was also shown by an examination of our ultimate scientific ideas. In a succeeding chapter a subjective analysis proved, that while, by the very conditions of thought, we are prevented from knowing anything beyond relative being; yet that by these very same conditions of thought, an indefinite consciousness of Absolute Being is necessitated. And here, by objective analysis, we similarly find that the axiomatic truths of physical science, unavoidably postulate Absolute Being as their common basis.
Thus there is even a more profound agreement between Religion and Science than was before shown. Not only are they wholly at one on the negative proposition that the Non-relative cannot be known; but they are wholly at one on the positive proposition that the Non-relative is an actual existence. Both are obliged by the demonstrated untenability of their supposed cognitions, to confess that the Ultimate Reality is incognizable; and yet both are obliged to assert the existence of an Ultimate Reality. Without this, Religion has no subject-matter; and without this, Science, subjective and objective, lacks its indispensable datum. We cannot construct a theory of internal phenomena without postulating Absolute Being; and unless we postulate Absolute Being, or being which persists, we cannot construct a theory of external phenomena.
§ 61. A few words must be added respecting the nature of this fundamental consciousness. Already it has been looked at from several points of view; and here it seems needful finally to sum up the results.
In Chapter IV. we saw that the Unknown Power of which neither beginning nor end can be conceived, is present to us as that unshaped material of consciousness which is shaped afresh in every thought. Our inability to conceive its limitation, is thus simply the obverse of our inability to put an end to the thinking subject while still continuing to think. In the two foregoing chapters, we contemplated this fundamental truth under another aspect. The indestructibility of Matter and the continuity of Motion, we saw to be really corollaries from the impossibility of establishing in thought a relation between something and nothing. What we call the establishment of a relation in thought, is the passage of the substance of consciousness, from one form into another. To think of something becoming nothing, would involve that this substance of consciousness having just existed under a given form, should next assume no form; or should cease to be consciousness. And thus our inability to conceive Matter and Motion destroyed, is our inability to suppress consciousness itself. What, in these two foregoing chapters, was proved true of Matter and Motion, is, à fortiori, true of the Force out of which our conceptions of Matter and Motion are built. Indeed, as we saw, that which is indestructible in matter and motion, is the force they present. And, as we here see, the truth that Force is indestructible, is the obverse of the truth that the Unknown Cause of the changes going on in consciousness is indestructible. So that the persistence of consciousness, constitutes at once our immediate experience of the persistence of Force, and imposes on us the necessity we are under of asserting its persistence.
§ 62. Thus, in all ways there is forced on us the fact, that here is an ultimate truth given in our mental constitution. It is not only a datum of science, but it is a datum which even the assertion of our nescience involves. Whoever alleges that the inability to conceive a beginning or end of the Universe, is a negative result of our mental structure, cannot deny that our consciousness of the Universe as persistent, is a positive result of our mental structure. And this persistence of the Universe, is the persistence of that Unknown Cause, Power, or Force, which is manifested to us through all phenomena.
Such then is the foundation of any possible system of positive knowledge. Deeper than demonstration—deeper even than definite cognition—deep as the very nature of mind, is the postulate at which we have arrived. Its authority transcends all other whatever; for not only is it given in the constitution of our own consciousness, but it is impossible to imagine a consciousness so constituted as not to give it. Thought, involving simply the establishment of relations, may be readily conceived to go on while yet these relations have not been organized into the abstracts we call Space and Time; and so there is a conceivable kind of consciousness which does not contain the truths, commonly called à priori, involved in the organization of these forms of relations. But thought cannot be conceived to go on without some element between which its relations may be established; and so there is no conceivable kind of consciousness which does not imply continued existence as its datum. Consciousness without this or that particular form is possible; but consciousness without contents is impossible.
The sole truth which transcends experience by underlying it, is thus the persistence of Force. This being the basis of experience, must be the basis of any scientific organization of experiences. To this an ultimate analysis brings us down; and on this a rational synthesis must build up.
[∗]Some two years ago, I expressed to my friend Professor Huxley, my dissatisfaction with the current expression—“Conservation of Force;” assigning as reasons, first, that the word “conservation” implies a conserver and an act of conserving; and, second, that it does not imply the existence of the force before that particular manifestation of it with which we commence. In place of “conservation,” Professor Huxley suggested persistence. This entirely meets the first of the two objections; and though the second may be urged against it, no other word less faulty in this respect can be found. In the absence of a word specially coined for the purpose, it seems the best; and as such I adopt it.