26 Jan 2010

Astronomical Atoms. Neural Atomic Mechanism in Lange's History of Materialism

by Corry Shores
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Astronomical Atoms
Neural Atomic Mechanism
in Lange's History of Materialism

In §88 of Time and Free Will, Bergson refers to Lange's History of Materialism, Vol. 2, Part 2. We will examine a part of that text that corresponds to Bergson's description. Bergson writes:

As, moreover, the principle of the conservation of energy has been assumed to admit of no exception, there is not an atom, either in the nervous system or in the whole of the universe, whose position is not determined by the sum of the mechanical actions which the other atoms exert upon it. And the mathematician who knew the position of the molecules or atoms of a human organism at a given moment, as well as the position and motion of all the atoms in the universe capable of influencing it, could calculate with unfailing certainty the past, present and future actions of the person to whom this organism belongs, just as one predicts an astronomical phenomenon. [ft1: On this point see Lange, History of Materialism, Vol. ii, Part ii.] (Bergson 144b.c/d, emphasis mine)

Comme d'ailleurs le principe de la conservation de l'énergie a été supposé inflexible, il n'y a point d'atome, ni dans le système nerveux ni dans l'immensité de l'univers, dont la position ne soit déterminée par la somme des actions mécaniques que les autres atomes exercent sur lui. Et le mathématicien qui connaîtrait la position des molécules ou atomes d'un organisme humain à un moment donné, ainsi que la position et le mouvement de tous les atomes de l'univers capables de l'influencer, calculerait avec une précision infaillible les actions passées, présentes et futures de la personne à qui cet organisme appartient, comme on prédit un phénomène astronomique. [ftI: Voir à ce propos Lange, Histoire du matérialisme, trad. française, tome II, 2e partie.] (110c.d/d, emphasis mine)

Lange will discuss Du Bois-Reymond's 'On the limits of the Knowledge of Nature,' which he 'delivered at the meeting of the German Scientific and Medical Association at Leipzig in 1872' (Lange, Book 2, Section 2, Chapter 1, 308a).

In this text, it seems Du Bois-Reymond will demonstrate that we cannot apply a mechanistic approach to completely predict the future. He begins by assuming for argument's sake the hypothesis that 'All knowledge of nature has its ultimate aim in the mechanism of atoms' (Lange 308ab). In accordance with this assumption, Du Bois-Reymond proposes the seemingly impossible goal of obtaining complete knowledge of the atomic mechanisms (308b).

Lange quotes Du Bois-Reymond as describing a sort of Laplace's demon situation:

a mind which should know for a given very small period of time the position and movement of all the atoms in the universe, would also necessarily be in a position to derive from these, in accordance with the laws of mechanics, the whole past and future. It could, by an appropriate treatment of its world-formula, tell us who was the Iron Mask, or how the 'President' came to grief. As the astronomer predicts the day on which, after many years, a comet again appears in the vault of heaven from the depths of space, so this 'mind' would read in its equations the day when the Greek cross will glitter from the mosque of Sophia or when England will burn its last lump of coal. (Du Bois-Reymond, qtd in Lange 308b.c, emphasis mine)

This mechanistic world is "dumb and dark," devoid of qualities. It is only when sentient beings sense qualities that they appear: 'Light first was when the first red eye-point of an infusorium for the first time distinguished between light and dark.' Outside sensations, the objective world can only be measured and quantified.

Du Bois-Reymond then notes two problems with this Laplacean outcome. In the first place, our minds are not capable of grasping the motions of the countless particles even in the smallest objects. And secondly, we could never explain consciousness on the basis of molecular motion.

Note also that we cannot conceive of physical behavior without the use of sense qualities. So we always must convert our sense qualities into quantities. In a sense, our knowledge of nature is really a substitute for a complete and unmediated understanding.

Du Bois-Reymond then addresses the viewpoint that regards life forms in mechanistic terms. Lange writes:

Crystal and organism differ from each other as a mere building differs from a factory with its engines and machinery, into which raw material pours, and from which manufactures, waste materials, and refuse pour out again. We have here nothing more than an "extremely difficult mechanical problem." The richest nature-picture of a tropical forest offers to analysing science nothing but matter in motion. (310a)

Moreover, says Du Bois-Reymond, we cannot begin to understand the atomic mechanisms of our body's functioning. They are all insuperably obscure, consciousness included. Du Bois-Reymond will now explain this.

We begin by assuming that we have a "complete ('astronomical') knowledge of the processes in the brain" (310cd, emphasis mine). We would then be able to say that "in a particular intellectual process a particular movement of particular atoms took place in particular ganglionic centres and nervous tubes" (Du Bois-Reymond qtd in Lange 310d, emphasis mine).

Yet the problem is that knowing the motion of atoms will tell us nothing about how consciousness results from those motions. It can only describe and predict the movements. But how the motions translate into consciousness will remain a mystery.

"The astronomical knowledge of the brain, the highest knowledge we can attain, reveals to us nothing but matter in motion." But if we suppose that from this knowledge certain intellectual processes or dispositions, as memory, the association of ideas, and so on, might become intelligible, that too is delusion; we only learn certain conditions of intellectual life, but do not learn how the intellectual life is itself developed from these conditions. "What conceivable connection exists between, certain movements of certain atoms in my brain on the one hand, and on the other the to me original and not further definable but undeniable facts, 'I feel pain, feel pleasure; I take something sweet, smell roses, hear organ-sounds, see something red,' and the just as immediately resulting certainty, 'therefore I am'? . . . It is impossible to see how from the co-operation of the atoms consciousness can result. Even if I were to attribute consciousness to the atoms, that would neither explain consciousness in general, nor would that in any way help us to understand the unitary consciousness of the individual." (Du Bois-Reymond qtd in Lange 311a-d, emphasis mine).

So when speaking of mechanism, Du Bois-Reymond 'amongst the atoms includes also the brain-atoms of man, and that for him man' (315a). [Now, in this mechanistic scheme, a fixed amount of energy is being exchanged in a system. In order for an atom to move voluntarily, it would need extra energy in order to break from the forces already determining its motion. If we were to consider our thoughts to be spontaneous, while also being reducible to atoms, we would need to keep adding energy to our brain system in order for the atoms to move freely (against the determined forces influencing them). So] according to this mechanistic view, thoughts would not be able to influence the material events of the brain (315b). 'Were it possible for a single cerebral atom to be moved by 'thought' only so much as the millionth of a millimetre out of the path assigned to it by the laws of mechanics, the whole 'world-formula' would become inapplicable and unmeaning' (315b). [But the mechanistic view regards humans objectively. It only sees their actions. So from this view,] no human actions result from thoughts but rather from muscular movements, 'whether these serve to make a march, to draw a sword or guide a pen, to give utterance to the word of command, or to fix the eye upon a point of attack' (315c). And, we may reduce these movements back to the determined motions of the atoms.

The muscular movements are set free by nervous activity; this arises from the functions of the brain, and these are entirely determined by the structure of the brain, by the sensory conductors and by the atomic movements of molecular changes and so on, under the influence of the centripetal nervous activity. (315cd)

[Spontaneous, action-inducing thoughts would require extra energy introduced into the motions of the brain's atoms. Hence:]

We must quite realise that the law of the conservation of energy can undergo no exception in the interior of the brain without becoming wholly meaningless, and we must rise to the conclusion therefore that the whole activity of man, individuals as well as peoples, might go on, as it actually does go on, without the occurring in any single individual of anything resembling a thought or a sensation. (315-316, emphasis mine)

In the next section he writes:

But as to this material and its elements sensation and the consciousness of motor impulses we must carry out, in the strictest sense of the word, the law of the conservation of energy. (154c, Book 2, Section 3, Chapter 2, emphasis mine)

Later he speaks of how we cannot consider our thoughts as being free and independent from causal mechanistic series [our brain's atoms cannot add new energy, hence no spontaneity of our mind].

we cannot regard the 'thought' as a separate product in addition to the material phenomena, but that the subjective state of the sentient individual is' at the same time to external observation an objective one, a molecular movement. This objective state must, on the law of the conservation of energy, fit into the unbroken causal series. (160a, emphasis mine)

Images from relevant pages of the text. Click to enlarge.

Book 2, Section 2, Chapter 1:

Book 2, Section 3, Chapter 2:

Lange, Frederick. History of Materialism and Criticism of its Present Importance. Transl. Ernest Thomas. The Humanities Press, 1950. Available online at: http://www.archive.org/details/historyofmateria011510mbp

Bergson, Henri. Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness. Transl. F.L. Pogson. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2001. Available online at:http://www.archive.org/details/timeandfreewill00pogsgoog

Bergson, Henri. Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience. Originally published, Paris: Les Presses universitaires de France, 1888. Available online at:http://www.archive.org/details/essaisurlesdonn00berguoft

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