Popular Science Monthly/Volume 49/May 1896/Correspondence
PROFESSOR OSTWALD ON THE MECHANICAL THEORY.
Editor Popular Science Monthly:
SIR: In the last number of your valuable publication appeared an address by Prof. W. Ostwald, of Leipsic, on The Failure of Scientific Materialism, the reading of which suggested the following considerations:
Leaving aside the intrinsic value of his statements, I wish to call attention to the sensational manner in which they are announced, and to the implied claims on them as original thoughts, or, indeed, as the author himself says, as indisputable, though startling, scientific discoveries. He tells us that the atomo-mechanical theory, which he styles "scientific materialism," has proved an absolute failure; that he proposes to deal it its deathblow, and lay the foundations of a new and truly scientific doctrine—the "energistic theory"; that, whatever effects his discovery may have on the ethical and religious systems of the world, he is under moral obligation to make known what he has found in Nature; that he is like a sailor who, having discerned "breakers ahead," must warn his fellows of the impending danger; that he has "a duty to discharge," and "should consider it wrong if he failed to speak of what he has seen." Further on he says that, although he is not exactly the discoverer of the new truth "which the departing century can offer the dawning one," he is the first one to see that "we have been in possession of the truth for half a century without knowing it."
Without intending any disrespect to Prof. Ostwald, I must say that the body of his article greatly disappoints the expectations naturally aroused by this solemn preface. While we prepare to see it demonstrated that Newton's law of gravitation is a metaphysical superstition; that the human species is doomed to disappear within the next generation, or some other wonderful and awful novelty, we find nothing but very common theories and hypotheses, which, however important and interesting in themselves, are topics with which we have been acquainted for a long time. His main contention is, that we do not know of matter apart from its "properties"; that these properties are nothing but manifestations of energy; and that, therefore, energy is the only reality of which we can speak with certainty, the belief in a "substratum" or "bearer" of this energy not being warranted by observation or experiment. But whatever the validity of these propositions may be, they are certainly as old as Aristotle, have been repeated by Boscovich, Faraday, and others, and adopted as an ultimate truth, as the fundamental principle of all science and philosophy, by Mr. Herbert Spencer; while among metaphysicians it has been a common doctrine that energy, or resistance, is the final criterion of reality. (See J. B. Stallo, Concepts and Theories of Modern Physics, second edition, chap, x; Spencer's First Principles, sees. 63, 68, 71, 73, 74, etc.; Mansel's Metaphysics, third edition, pp. 346-348, 328, 329.) And if, pushing these speculations to their logical consequences, we say that nothing is known to us except as a mental impression, or that, in ultimate analysis, the only reality, or at least the only certainty, is our consciousness, or the aggregate of our mental states, and that we have no knowledge of things in themselves, we shall only be repeating the theories of Berkeley, Hume, Tracy, Kant, Bain, Mill, and almost all modern thinkers, as well as of the old Skeptics, (See Bain's Mental Science, book ii, chap, viii; Kant's Pure Reason, "Esthetic"; Tracy, Idéologie, tome iv; Hume's Human Nature, etc. Tracy is one of the ablest expounders of this doctrine. Some of his views are quoted and approved by Bain in Emotions and Will, fin.)
We look in vain for any new facts in Prof. Ostwald's article; and apart from a few hints, as a passing notice of electrical phenomena, his real scientific argument against the mechanical theory is the irreversibility of the phenomenal world, in contrast with the reversibility of the mathematico-mechanical formulas purporting to represent the former (page 595). Without stopping to show that his interpretation of mathematical formulas is entirely inadequate, that there is nothing intrinsically impossible in the reversibility of natural phenomena, and that his argument applies to "energistics" as well as to the mechanical theory, since the mechanical formulas have nothing to do with "matter," but with energy (mass being defined in terms of force—Rankine's Applied Mechanics, sec. 521), I shall again have to say that the professor is here repeating the law of the Dissipation of Energy, deduced by Sir William Thomson from thermodynamical principles; a consequence of said law being a constant loss of the availability of energy and a tendency to universal equilibrium. This law has been further generalized by Prof. Delbœuf into "the law of the fixation of force," according to which no force, after being transmuted into another, can restore itself to its original form. Here are some of his statements: "Tout changement a pour effet de faire passer la force de l'état transformable à l'état intransformable; il consomme done de la transformabilité. . . . La fixation d'une force libre n'est autre chose que sa combinaison avec une autre force qui par là aliène comme elle une partie de sa liberté." Although there is a tendency toward equilibrium, equilibrium will never be reached, "parce que la vitesse avec laquelle se fait le nivellement est une fonction directe de la difference même des niveaux." He also insists on the absurdity of a tree retrograding into a seed, an old man into a child, etc. (See Revue philosophique, 1880, 1882.)