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Matters of Death and Life

Geoffrey Read
Year: 2008
Keywords: Life, Death
In one of the earliest, and arguably the most eloquent, of the great texts advocating the systematic application of the empirical method, we find these wise words: ?Nor shall we be led to the doctrine of atoms, which implies the hypothesis of a vacuum and that of the unchangeableness of matter (both false assumptions) ...." It is only fitting that at the very outset of the scientific venture the wisest of mankind should have put his finger on what was to prove the most stubborn obstacle (I call it The Fatal Trap) to obtaining a rationally coherent, empirically grounded conception of the world. It is immediately obvious that it presents us with two baffling problems. The first is that it is wholly unable to account for change: the atoms, by definition, are unchanging, and change is totally inapplicable to a vacuum ? itself, as spatially extended nothing, an absurdity, as many of the Greeks, Aristotle among them, saw. The second is that there can exist no causal ground for attractions and repulsions between the atoms across empty space. And the attempt to resolve this by postulating a plenum merely creates further insoluble problems. Fewer than seventy years on saw the publication of Newton's ?Principia' the magnum opus which undoubtedly was to have the greatest single effect on the future course of science. Later, in his ?Opticks? of 1704, Newton left us in no doubt as to his advocacy of the reality of the undifferentiatedly enduring ?billiard ball' atom; but though he saw no objections attaching to the transmission of momentum by impact among atoms, he emphatically rejected action-at-a-distance through a void, such as was inescapably implied by his empirically substantiated theory of gravitation. It is worth noting here that one great physical thinker, Newton's contemporary Gottfried Leibniz, never accepted Newtonian ontological theory, describing space considered as an ontological ultimate, as ?a fancy?. He proposed instead a world-ground composed of ones and zeros, but was never able to develop this idea into a coherent theory.