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Ludwig Büchner:
Force and Matter--Empirico-Philosophical Studies Intelligibly Rendered, 1855

This is one of the most successful, and early, statements on Materialism stemming from the conclusions of the New Science.

Force and Matter

No force without matter---no matter without force! Neither can be thought of per se; separated, they become empty abstractions. Imagine matter without force, and the minute particles of which a body consists, without that system of mutual attraction and repulsion which holds them together and gives form and shape to the body; imagine the molecular forces of cohesion and affinity removed, what then would be the consequence? The matter must instantly break up into a shapeless nothing. We know in the physical world of no instance of any particle of matter which is not endowed with forces, by means of which it plays its appointed part in some form or another, sometimes in connection with similar or with dissimilar particles. Nor are we in imagination capable of forming a conception of matter without force. . . . Force without matter is equally an idle notion. It being a law admitting of no exception that force can only be manifested in matter, it follows that force can as little possess a separate existence as matter without force....

What are the philosophical consequences of this simple and natural truth? That those who talk of a creative power, which is said to have produced the world out of itself, or out of nothing, are ignorant of the first and most simple principle, founded upon experience and the contemplation of nature. How could a power have existed not manifested in material substance, but governing it arbitrarily according to individual views? Neither could separately existing forces be transferred to chaotic matter and produce the world in this manner; for we have seen that a separate existence of either is an impossibility. It will be shown in the chapter which treats of the imperishability of matter that the world could not have originated out of nothing. A nothing is not merely a logical but also an empirical nonentity. The world, or matter with its properties which we term forces, must have existed from eternity and must last forever---in one word, the world cannot have been created. The notion "eternal" is certainly one which, with our limited faculties, is difficult of conception. The facts, nevertheless, leave no doubt as to the eternity of the world....

Immortality of Matter

Matter is immortal, indestructible. There is not an atom in the universe which can be lost. We cannot, even in thought, remove or add an atom without admitting that the world would thereby be disturbed and the laws of gravitation and the equilibrium of matter interfered with. It is the great merit of modern chemistry to have proved in the most convincing manner that the uninterrupted change of matter which we daily witness, the origin and decay of organic and inorganic forms and tissues, do not arise, as was hitherto believed, from new materials, but that this change consists in nothing else but the constant and continuous metamorphosis of the same elementary principles, the quantity and quality of which ever is, and ever remains, the same. Matter has, by means of the scales, been followed in all its various and complicated transitions, and everywhere has it been found to emerge from any combination in the same quantity as it has entered. The calculations founded upon this law have everywhere proved to be perfectly correct. .. .

How can anyone deny the axiom that out of nothing, nothing can arise? The matter must be in existence, though previously in another form and combination, to produce or to share in any new formation. All atom of oxygen, of nitrogen, or of iron, is everywhere and under all circumstances the same thing, endowed with the same immanent qualities, and can never in all eternity become anything else. Be it wheresoever it will, it must remain the same; from every combination, however heterogeneous, must it emerge the self-same atom. But never can an atom arise anew or disappear: it can only change its combinations. For these reasons is matter immortal: and for this reason is it, as already shown, impossible that the world can have been created. How could anything be created that cannot be annihilated? . . .

There exists a phrase, repeated ad nauseam, of "mortal body and immortal spirit." A closer examination causes us with more truth to reverse the sentence. The body is certainly mortal in its

individual form, but not in its constituents. It changes not merely in death, but, as we have seen, also during life: however, in a higher sense it is immortal, since the smallest particle of which it is composed cannot be destroyed. On the contrary, that which we call "spirit" disappears with the dissolution of the individual material combination; and it must appear to any unprejudiced intellect as if the concurrent action of many particles of matter had produced an effect which ceases with the cause.

Dignity of Matter

To despise matter and our own body, because it is material---to consider nature and the world as dust which we must endeavor to shake off---nay, to torment our own body, can only arise from a confusion of notions, the result of ignorance or fanaticism. Different feelings animate him who has, with the eyes of an observer, followed matter in its recondite gyrations, who has marked its various and manifold phenomena. He has learned that matter is not inferior to but the peer of spirit; that one cannot exist without the other; and that matter is the vehicle of all mental power, of all human and earthly greatness. We may, perhaps, share with one of our greatest naturalists his enthusiasm for matter, "the veneration of which formerly called forth an accusation." Whoever degrades matter, degrades himself; who abuses his body, abuses his mind and injures himself to the same degree as, in his foolish imagination, he believed to have profited his soul. We frequently hear those persons contemptuously called materialists, who do not share the fashionable contempt for matter but endeavor to fathom by its means the powers and laws of existence; who have discerned that spirit could not have built the world out of itself, and that it is impossible to arrive at a just conception of the world without an exact knowledge of matter and its laws. In this sense, the name of materialist can nowadays be only a title of honor. It is to materialists that we owe the conquest over matter and a knowledge of its laws, so that, almost released from the chains of gravitation, we fly with the swiftness of the wind across the plain and are enabled to communicate, with the celerity of thought, with the most distant parts of the globe. Malevolence is silenced by such facts; and the times are past in which a world, produced by a deceitful fancy, was considered of more value than the reality....

Increased knowledge has taught us to have more respect for the matter without and within us. Let us, then, cultivate our body no less than our mind; and let us not forget that they are inseparable, so that which profits the one, profits the other! Mens sana in corpore sano. On the other hand, we must not forget that we are but a vanishing, though necessary, part of the whole, which sooner or later must again be absorbed in the universe. Matter in its totality is the mother, engendering and receiving again all that exists.

Immutability of the Laws of Nature

The laws according to which nature acts, and matter moves, now destroying, now rebuilding, and thus producing the most varied organic and inorganic forms, are eternal and unalterable. An unbending, inexorable necessity governs the mass. "The law of nature," observes Moleschott, "is a stringent expression of necessity." There exists in it neither exception nor limitation, and no imaginable power can disregard this necessity. A stone not supported will in all eternity fall toward the center of the earth; and there never was, and never will be, a command for the sun to stand still. The experience of thousands of years has impressed upon the investigator the firmest conviction of the immutability of the laws of nature, so that there cannot remain the least doubt in respect to this great truth.

Science has gradually taken all the positions of the childish belief of the peoples; it has snatched thunder and lightning from the hands of the gods; the eclipse of the stars, and the stupendous powers of the Titans of the olden time, have been grasped by the fingers of man. That which appeared inexplicable, miraculous, and the work of a supernatural power, has, by the torch of science, proved to be the effect of hitherto unknown natural forces. The power of spirits and gods dissolved in the hands of science. Superstition declined among cultivated nations, and knowledge took its place. We have the fullest right, and are scientifically correct, in asserting there is no such thing as a miracle; everything that happens does so in a natural way---i.e., in a mode determined only by accidental or necessary coalition of existing materials and their immanent natural forces. No revolution on earth or in heaven, however stupendous, could occur in any other manner.

It was no mighty arm reaching down from the ether which raised the mountains, limited the seas, and created man and beast according to pleasure, but it was effected by the same forces which to this day produce hill and dale and living beings; and all this happened according to the strictest necessity....

The fate of man resembles the fate of nature. It is similarly dependent on natural laws, and it obeys without exception the same stringent and inexorable necessity which governs all that exists. It lies in the nature of every living being that it should be born and die; none has ever escaped that law; death is the surest calculation that can be made, and the unavoidable keystone of every individual existence. The supplications of the mother, the tears of the wife, the despair of the husband, cannot stay his hands. "The natural laws," says Vogt, "are rude unbending powers, which have neither morals nor heart." No call can awaken from the sleep of death; no angel can deliver the prisoner from the dungeon; no hand from the clouds reaches bread to the hungry....

Apparent exceptions from the natural order have been called miracles, of which there have been many at all times. Their origin must be ascribed partly to superstition, and partly to that strange longing after what is wonderful and supernatural, peculiar to human nature. It is somewhat difficult for rnan, however evident the facts, to convince himself of the conformity which surrounds him; it creates in him an oppressive feeling, and the desire never leaves him to discover something which runs counter to this conformity. This desire must have had a larger sphere among savage and ignorant tribes. We should only waste words in our endeavor to prove the natural impossibility of a miracle. No educated, much less a scicntific, person, who is convinced of the immutable order of things, can nowadays believe in miracles....

It is not within our province to concern ourselves with those who, in their attempts to explain the secret of existence, turn to faith. We are occupied with the tangible sensible world, and not with that which every individual may imagine to exist.

What this or that man may understand by a governing reason, an absolute power, a universal soul, a personal God, etc., is his own affair. The theologians, with their articles of faith, must be left to themselves; so the naturalists with their science: they both proceed by different routes. The province of faith rests in human dispositions, which are not accessible to science; and even for the conscience of the individual, it does not appear impossible to keep faith and science separate. A respectable naturalist recently gave the ingenuous advice that we should keep two consciences, a scientific and a religious conscience, which for the peace of our mind we should keep perfectly separate, as they cannot be reconciled. This process is now known by the technical expression of "bookkeeping by double entry." We said the advice was ingenuous, because he whose conviction permits him to keep such a conscience by double entry stands in no need of advice.

Periods of the Creation of the Earth

The investigations of geology have thrown a highly interesting and important light on the history of the origin and gradual development of the earth. It was in the rocks and strata of the crust of the earth, and in the organic remains, that geologists read, as in an old chronicle, the history of the earth. In this history they found the plainest indications of several stupendous successive revolutions, now produced by fire, now by water, now by their combined action. These revolutions afforded, by the apparent suddenness and violence of their occurrence, a welcome pretext to orthodoxy to appeal to the existence of supernatural powers, which were to have caused these revolutions in order to render, by gradual transitions, the earth fit for certain purposes. This successive periodical creation is said to have been attended with a successive creation of new organic beings and species. The Bible, then, was right in relating that God had sent a deluge over the world to destroy a sinful generation. God with His own hands is said to have piled up mountains, planed the sea, created organisms, etc.

All these notions concerning a direct influence of supernatural or inexplicable forces have melted away before the age of modern science. Like astronomy, which with mathematical certainty has measured the spaces of the heavens, so does modern geology, by taking a retrospective view of the millions of years which have passed, lift the veil which has so long concealed the history of the earth and has given rise to all kinds of religious and mysterious dreams. It is now known that there can be no discussion about these periodic ereatiorts of the earth of which so much was said, and which to this day an erroneous conception of nature tries to identify with the so-called days of creation of the Bible, but that the whole past of the earth is nothing but an unfolded present.

However probable it may at first sight appear that the changes, the traces of which we find in the crust of the earth, must have resulted from sudden and violent convulsions, closer observation teaches, on the contrary, that the greater portion of these changes is merely the result of a gradual, slow action, continued through immeasurably long periods of time; and that this action may still be observed going on, though on so reduced a scale that the effects do not particularly strike us. "For the earth," says Burmeister, "is solely produced by forces which, with corresponding intensity, are still acting; it has never essentially been subjected to more violent catastrophies; on the other hand, the period of time in which the change was effected is immense, etc. What is really surprising and stupendous in the process of development of the immeasurable time within which it was effected."

We see at present all these slow and local effects, which millions of years have produced in their entirety, and cannot, therefore, divest ourselves of the idea of a direct creative power, whilst we are merely surrounded by the natural effects of natural forces The whole science of the conditions of development of the earth is however, the greatest victory over every kind of faith in an extramundane authority. This science, supported by the knowledge of surrounding nature and its governing forces, is enabled to trace the history of what has happened in infinite periods of time with approximating exactness, frequently with certainty. It has proved that everywhere, and at all times, only those materials and natural forces were in activity by which we are at present surrounded. Nowhere was a point reached, when it was necessary to stop scientific investigation and to substitute the influence of unknown forces. Everywhere it was possible to indicate or to conceive the possibility of visible effects from the combination of natural conditions; everywhere existed the same law and the same matter.

Personal Continuance

A spirit without body is as unimaginable as electricity or magnetism without metallic or other substances on which these forces act. We have equally shown that the animal soul does not come into the world with any innate intuitions, that it does not represent an ens per se, but is a product of external influences, without which it would never have been called into existence. In the face of all these facts, unprejudiced philosophy is compelled to reject the idea of an individual immortality and of a personal continuance after death. With the decay and dissolution of its material substratum, through which alone it has acquired a conscious existence and become a person, and upon which it was dependent, the spirit must cease to exist. All knowledge which this being has acquired relates to earthly things; it has become conscious of itself in, with, and by these things; it has become a person by its being opposed against earthly, limited individualities. How can we imagine it to be possible that, torn away from these necessary conditions, this being should continue to exist with self-consciousness and as the same person? It is not reflection but obstinacy and as the same person? It is not reflection but obstinacy, not science but faith, which supports the idea of a personal continuance....

Free Will

Man is a product of nature in body and mind. Hence not merely what he is but also what he does, wills, feels, and thinks depends upon the same natural necessity as the whole structure of the world Only a superficial observation of human existence could lead to the conclusion that the actions of nations and of individuals were the result of a perfectly free will. A closer inquiry teaches us, on the contrary, that the connection of nature is so essential and necessary, that free will, if it exist, can only have a very limited range; it teaches us to recognize in all these phenomena fixed laws which hitherto were considered as the results of free choice. "Human liberty, of which all boast' says Spinoza, "consists solely in this, that man is conscious of his will, and unconscious of the causes by which it is determined "

That this view is no longer theoretical, but sufficiently established by fact is chiefly owing to that interesting new science of statistics, which exhibts fixed laws in a mass of phenomena that until now were considered to be arbitrary and accidental. The data for this truth are frequently lost in investigating individual phenomena, but taken collectively they exhibit a strict order, inexorably ruling men and humanity. It may, without exaggeration, be stated that at present most physicians and practical psychologists incline to the view in relation to free will that human actions are, in the last instance, dependent upon a fixed necesity, so that in every individual case free choice has only an extremely limited, if any, sphere of action . . .

The conduct and actions of every individual are dependent upon the character, manners, and modes of thought of the nation to which he belongs. These again are, to a certain extent, the necessary product of external circumstances under which they live and have grown up....

If the nations are thus in the aggregate, in regard to character and history, dependent upon external circumstances, the individual is no less the product of external and internal natural actions, not merely in relation to his physical and moral nature but in his actions. These actions depend necessarily, in the first instance, upon his intellectual individuality. But what is this intellectual individuality which determines man and prescribes to him, in every individual case, his mode of action with such force that there remains for him but a minute space for free choice; what else is it but the necessary product of congenital physical and mental dispositions in connection with education, example, rank, property, sex, nationality, climate, soil, and other circumstances? Man is subject to the same laws as plants and animals.....

An unprejudiced study of nature and the world, based upon innumerable facts, shows that the actions of individuals and of men in general are determined by physical necessities which restrict free will within the narrowest limits. Hence it has been concluded that the partisans of this doctrine denied the discernment of crime and that they desired the acquittal of every criminal, by which the state and society would be thrown into a state of anarchy. We shall presently return to the last reproach which has, by the way, thousands of times been made to natural science; as to the first, it is too absurd to deserve any refutation. No scientific system has rendered the necessity of social and political order more evident than that to which natural science owes its progress, nor has any modem naturalist denied to the state the right of legitimate defense against attacks on the well-being of society. What is true is that the partisans of these modern ideas hold different opinions as regards crime and would banish that cowardly and irreconcilable hatred which the state and society have hitherto cherished with so much hypocrisy as regards the malefactor. Penetrated by such ideas, we cannot help a feeling of commiseration for the offender, whilst we not the less abhor every action calculated to disturb society; a humane sentiment, which gives the preference to preventive measures over punishment...

Concluding Observations

We must finally be permitted to leave all questions about morality and utility out of sight. The chief and indeed the sole object which concerned us in these researches is truth. Nature exists neither for religion, for morality, nor for human beings; but it exists for itself. What else can we do but take it as it is? Would it not be ridiculous in us to cry like little children because our bread is not sufficiently buttered?

 


Source:

From: Ludwig Büchner, Force and Matter: Empirico-Philosophical Studies Intelligibly Rendered, trans. J. F. Collingwood, (London, 1870), passim.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.


This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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© Paul Halsall, October 1998
halsall@murray.fordham.edu