Maxwell's Humanity

In his poem called "Molecular Evolution" my favourite scientist and writer J.C. Maxwell writes, "What combination of ideas, Nonsense alone can wisely form! What sage has half the power that she has, To take the towers of Truth by storm?"
Aside from the repeated late 19th century warning that not all bookishness or ostensible learning necessarily leads to truth, Maxwell also wrote "recent developments of Molecular Science seem likely to have a powerful effect on the world of thought." In this later essay on whether physical science favours determinism over free will, he says that the free will is like, "Lucretius' atoms - which at quite uncertain times and places deviate in an uncertain manner from their course. In the course of this our mortal life we more or less frequently find ourselves on a physical or moral watershed, where an imperceptible deviation is sufficient to determine into which of two valleys we shall descend." Do you not feel he knows you?
But the discussion then delineates between free will and Determinism: the former, claiming Ego to determine our course of action; the latter, a previous condition. He explains that if science focuses on the anomalies rather than continuities of things science will become Deterministic: "which seems to arise from assuming that the physical science of the future is a mere magnified image of that of the past." Ironically, isn't that what the Pulitzer-winning The Swerve set out to do?
In another essay, he critiques the attempt to project onto man certain fashionable ideas in science: like seeing society as an organism. (He often compares the British Association to Hobbes' Leviathan.) If man is built of atoms, Maxwell asks, "Have the thoughts of the man any relation to the thoughts of atoms or of one or more of them?" His essay ends with the point that, since, when we say "I am", no two men have the same idea of what this means, there can be no science of man.


The British Association, 1874 
(extract from Maxwell's poem by that name)
IN the very beginnings of science, the parsons, who managed things then,
Being handy with hammer and chisel, made gods in the likeness of men;
Till Commerce arose, and at length some men of exceptional power
Supplanted both demons and gods by the atoms, which last to this hour. (...)
From nothing comes nothing, they told us, nought happens by chance, but by fate;
There is nothing but atoms and void, all else is mere whims out of date!
Then why should a man curry favour with beings who cannot exist,
To compass some petty promotion in nebulous kingdoms of mist?
But not by the rays of the sun, nor the glittering shafts of the day,
Must the fear of the gods be dispelled, but by words, and their wonderful play.
So treading a path all untrod, the poet-philosopher sings
Of the seeds of the mighty world—the first-beginnings of things;
How freely he scatters his atoms before the beginning of years;
How he clothes them with force as a garment, those small incompressible spheres!

Why is it a problem to sentimentally dress up scattered atoms in costume? Because that is what we call Personification, he writes. One is wont to say that such Personification robs us of our own human agency. At times unpredictable, at others, predictable, lauded when painful (and isn't pain, he points out, proof in point against some evolutionary theory) - man is never a science. But since a narrow - or petty? - view of science infiltrated thinking, first, Western Religion was lost, and now.... its Humanities.
It is not so much ideas that are problems - but what people do with them, and there being so few with the tact to say 'the right word at the right time'.

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