Alfred North Whitebread.

The concept of nature online

. (page 12 of 15)
Online LibraryAlfred North WhitebreadThe concept of nature → online text (page 12 of 15)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


the ingression as thus limited. The percipient event is
the relevant bodily state of the observer. The situation
is where he sees the blue, say, behind the mirror. The
active conditioning events are the events whose charac-
ters are particularly relevant for the event (which is the
situation) to be the situation for that percipient event,
namely the coat, the mirror, and the state of the room
as to light and atmosphere. The passive conditioning
events are the events of the rest of nature.



vn] OBJECTS 153

In general the situation is an active conditioning
event; namely the coat itself, when there is no mirror
or other such contrivance to produce abnormal effects.
But the example of the mirror shows us that the situation
may be one of the passive conditioning events. We are
then apt to say that our senses have been cheated,
because we demand as a right that the situation should
be an active condition in the ingression.

This demand is not so baseless as it may seem when
presented as I have put it. All we know of the characters
of the events of nature is based on the analysis of the
relations of situations to percipient events. If situations
were not in general active conditions, this analysis
would tell us nothing. Nature would be an unfathom-
able enigma to us and there could be no science. Ac-
cordingly the incipient discontent when a situation is
found to be a passive condition is in a sense justifiable ;
because if that sort of thing went on too often, the role
of the intellect would be ended.

Furthermore the mirror is itself the situation of other
sense-objects either for the same observer with the
same percipient event, or for other observers with
other percipient events. Thus the fact that an event is a
situation in the ingression of one set of sense-objects
into nature is presumptive evidence that that event is
an active condition in the ingression of other sense-
objects into nature which may have other situations.

This is a fundamental principle of science which it has
derived from common sense.

I now turn to perceptual objects. When we look at
the coat, we do not in general say, There is a patch of
Cambridge blue; what naturally occurs to us is, There
is a coat. Also the judgment that what we have seen is



154 THE CONCEPT OF NATURE [CH

a garment of man's attire is a detail. What we perceive
is an object other than a mere sense-object. It is not a
mere patch of colour, but something more; and it is
that something more which we judge to be a coat. I
will use the word 'coat' as the name for that crude
object which is more than a patch of colour, and without
any allusion to the judgments as to its usefulness as an
article of attire either in the past or the future. The coat
which is perceived in this sense of the word ' coat '-
is what I call a perceptual object. We have to investigate
the general character of these perceptual objects.

It is a law of nature that in general the situation of a
sense-object is not only the situation of that sense-
object for one definite percipient event, but is the
situation of a variety of sense-objects for a variety of
percipient events. For example, for any one percipient
event, the situation of a sense-object of sight is apt also
to be the situations of sense-objects of sight, of touch,
of smell, and of sound. Furthermore this concurrence
in the situations of sense-objects has led to the body
i.e. the percipient event so adapting itself that the
perception of one sense-object in a certain situation
leads to a subconscious sense-awareness of other sense-
objects in the same situation. This interplay is especially
the case between touch and sight. There is a certain
correlation between the ingressions of sense -objects
of touch and sense-objects of sight into nature, and in a
slighter degree between the ingressions of other pairs
of sense-objects. I call this sort of correlation the * con-
veyance' of one sense-object by another. When you
see the blue flannel coat you subconsciously feel yourself
wearing it or otherwise touching it. If you are a
smoker, you may also subconsciously be aware of the



vn] OBJECTS 155

faint aroma of tobacco. The peculiar fact, posited by
this sense-awareness of the concurrence of subconscious
sense-objects along with one or more dominating sense-
objects in the same situation, is the sense-awareness of
the perceptual object. The perceptual object is not |
primarily the issue of a judgment. It is a factor of nature /
directly posited in sense-awareness. The element of -,
judgment comes in when we proceed to classify the^
particular perceptual object. For example, we say, -
That is flannel, and we think of the properties of flannel
and the uses of athletes' coats. But that all takes place
after we have got hold of the perceptual object. Anti-
cipatory judgments affect the perceptual object per-
ceived by focussing and diverting attention.

The perceptual object is the outcome of the habit of
experience. Anything which conflicts with this habit
hinders the sense-awareness of such an object. A sense-
object is not the product of the association of intellectual
ideas ; it is the product of the association of sense-objects
in the same situation. This outcome is not intellectual;
it is an object of peculiar type with its own particular
ingression into nature.

There are two kinds of perceptual objects, namely,
* delusive perceptual objects' and * physical objects.'
The situation of a delusive perceptual object is a
passive condition in the ingression of that object into
nature. Also the event which is the situation will have
the relation of situation to the object only for one
particular percipient event. For example, an observer
sees the image of the blue coat in a mirror. It is a blue
coat that he sees and not a mere patch of colour. This
shows that the active conditions for the conveyance
of a group of subconscious sense-objects by a dominating



5-**



156 THE CONCEPT OF NATURE [CH.

sense-object are to be found in the percipient event.
Namely we are to look for them in the investigations
of medical psychologists. The ingression into nature of
the delusive sense-object is conditioned by the adapta-
tion of bodily events to the more normal occurrence,
which is the ingression of the physical object.

A perceptual object is a physical object when (i) its
situation is an active conditioning event for the in-
gression of any of its component sense-objects, and
(ii) the same event can be the situation of the perceptual
object for an indefinite number of possible percipient
events. Physical objects are the ordinary objects which
we perceive when our senses are not cheated, such as
chairs, tables and trees. In a way physical objects have
more insistent perceptive power than sense-objects.
Attention to the fact of their occurrence in nature is the
first condition for the survival of complex living or-
ganisms. The result of this high perceptive power of
physical objects is the scholastic philosophy of nature
which looks on the sense-objects as mere attributes of
the physical objects. This scholastic point of view is
directly contradicted by the wealth of sense-objects
which enter into our experience as situated in events
without any connexion with physical objects. For
example, stray smells, sounds, colours and more subtle
nameless sense-objects. There is no perception of
physical objects without perception of sense-objects.
But the converse does not hold: namely, there is
abundant perception of sense-objects unaccompanied
by any perception of physical objects. This lack of
reciprocity in the relations between sense-objects and
physical objects is fatal to the scholastic natural philo-
sophy.



vn] OBJECTS 157

There is a great difference in the rdles of the situa-
tions of sense-objects and physical objects. The situa-
tions of a physical object are conditioned by uniqueness
and continuity. The uniqueness is an ideal limit to
which we approximate as we proceed in thought along
an abstractive set of durations, considering smaller
and smaller durations in the approach to the ideal limit
of the moment of time. In other words, when the
duration is small enough, the situation of the physical
object within that duration is practically unique.

The identification of the same physical object as
being situated in distinct events in distinct durations is
effected by the condition of continuity. This condition
of continuity is the condition that a continuity of passage
of events, each event being a situation of the object in
its corresponding duration, can be found from the earlier
to the later of the two given events. So far as the two
events are practically adjacent in one specious present,
this continuity of passage may be directly perceived.
Otherwise it is a matter of judgment and inference.

The situations of a sense-object are not conditioned
by any such conditions either of uniqueness or of con-
tinuity. In any durations however small a sense-object
may have any number of situations separated from each
other. Thus two situations of a sense-object, either in
the same duration or in different durations, are not
necessarily connected by any continuous passage of
events which are also situations of that sense-object.

The characters of the conditioning events involved in
the ingression of a sense-object into nature can be
largely expressed in terms of the physical objects which
are situated in those events. In one respect this is also
a tautology. For the physical object is nothing else than



158 THE CONCEPT OF NATURE [CH.

the habitual concurrence of a certain set of sense-objects
in one situation. Accordingly when we know all about
the physical object, we thereby know its component
sense-objects. But a physical object is a condition for
the occurrence of sense-objects other than those which
are its components. For example, the atmosphere causes
the events which are its situations to be active con-
ditioning events in the transmission of sound. A mirror
which is itself a physical object is an active condition for
the situation of a patch of colour behind it, due to the
reflection of light in it.

Thus the origin of scientific knowledge is the en-
deavour to express in terms of physical objects the
various rdles of events as active conditions in the in-
gression of sense-objects into nature. It is in the progress
of this investigation that scientific objects emerge. They
embody those aspects of the character of the situations
of the physical objects which are most permanent and
are expressible without reference to a multiple relation
including a percipient event. Their relations to each
other are also characterised by a certain simplicity and
uniformity. Finally the characters of the observed
physical objects and sense-objects can be expressed in
terms of these scientific objects. In fact the whole
point of the search for scientific objects is the endeavour
to obtain this simple expression of the characters of
events. These scientific objects are not themselves
merely formulae for calculation ; because formulae must
refer to things in nature, and the scientific objects are
the things in nature to which the formulae refer.

A scientific object such as a definite electron is a
systematic correlation of the characters of all events
throughout all nature. It is an aspect of the systematic



vn] OBJECTS 159

character of nature. The electron is not merely where
its charge is. The charge is the quantitative character
of certain events due to the ingression of the electron
into nature. The electron is its whole field of force.
Namely the electron is the systematic way in which all
events are modified as the expression of its ingression.
The situation of an electron in any small duration may
be defined as that event which has the quantitative
character which is the charge of the electron. We may
if we please term the mere charge the electron. But
then another name is required for the scientific object
which is the full entity which concerns science, and
which I have called the electron.

According to this conception of scientific objects, the
rival theories of action at a distance and action by
transmission through a medium are both incomplete
expressions of the true process of nature. The stream
of events which form the continuous series of situations
of the electron is entirely self-determined, both as
regards having the intrinsic character of being the series
of situations of that electron and as regards the time-
systems with which its various members are cogredient,
and the flux of their positions in their corresponding
durations. This is the foundation of the denial of action
at a distance ; namely the progress of the stream of the
situations of a scientific object can be determined by an
analysis of the stream itself.

On the other hand the ingression of every electron
into nature modifies to some extent the character of
every event. Thus the character of the stream of events
which we are considering bears marks of the existence
of every other electron throughout the universe. If we
like to think of the electrons as being merely what I call



160 THE CONCEPT OF NATURE [CH.

their charges, then the charges act at a distance. But
this action consists in the modification of the situation
of the other electron under consideration. This con-
ception of a charge acting at a distance is a wholly
artificial one. The conception which most fully expresses
the character of nature is that of each event as modified
by the ingression of each electron into nature. The ether
is the expression of this systematic modification of events
throughout space and throughout time. The best expres-
sion of the character of this modification is for physicists
to find out. My theory has nothing to do with that and
is ready to accept any outcome of physical research.

The connexion of objects with space requires eluci-
dation. Objects are situated in events. The relation of
situation is a different relation for each type of object,
and in the case of sense-objects it cannot be expressed
as a two-termed relation. It would perhaps be better
to use a different word for these different types of the
relation of situation. It has not however been necessary
to do so for our purposes in these lectures. It must be
understood however that, when situation is spoken of,
some one definite type is under discussion, and it may
happen that the argument may not apply to situation of
another type. In all cases however I use situation to
express a relation between objects and events and not
between objects and abstractive elements. There is a
derivative relation between objects and spatial elements
which I call the relation of location; and when this
relation holds, I say that the object is located in the
abstractive element. In this sense, an object may be
located in a moment of time, in a volume of space, an
area, a line, or a point. There will be a peculiar type of
location corresponding to each type of situation; and



vn] OBJECTS 161

location is in each case derivative from the corresponding
relation of situation in a way which I will proceed to
explain.

Also location in the timeless space of some time-system
is a relation derivative from location in instantaneous
spaces of the same time-system. Accordingly location
in an instantaneous space is the primary idea which we
have to explain. Great confusion has been occasioned
in natural philosophy by the neglect to distinguish be-
tween the different types of objects, the different types
of situation, the different types of location, and the
difference between location and situation. It is im-
possible to reason accurately in the vague concerning
objects and their positions without keeping these dis-
tinctions in view. An object is located in an abstractive
element, when an abstractive set belonging to that ele-
ment can be found such that each event belonging to
that set is a situation of the object. It will be remem-
bered that an abstractive element is a certain group of
abstractive sets, and that each abstractive set is a set
of events. This definition defines the location of an
element in any type of abstractive element. In this
sense we can talk of the existence of an object at an
instant, meaning thereby its location in some definite
moment. It may also be located in some spatial element
of the instantaneous space of that moment.

A quantity can be said to be located in an abstractive
element when an abstractive set belonging to the element
can be found such that the quantitative expressions of
the corresponding characters of its events converge to
the measure of the given quantity as a limit when we
pass along the abstractive set towards its converging
end.

W.N. II



162 THE CONCEPT OF NATURE [CH.

By these definitions location in elements of instanta-
neous spaces is defined. These elements occupy corre-
sponding elements of timeless spaces. An object located
in an element of an instantaneous space will also be said
to be located at that moment in the timeless element of
the timeless space which is occupied by that instantaneous
element.

It is not every object which can be located in a moment.
An object which can be located in every moment of some
duration will be called a ' uniform' object throughout
that duration. Ordinary physical objects appear to us
to be uniform objects, and we habitually assume that
scientific objects such as electrons are uniform. But
some sense-objects certainly are not uniform. A tune
is an example of a non-uniform object. We have per-
ceived it as a whole in a certain duration ; but the tune
as a tune is not at any moment of that duration though
one of the individual notes may be located there.

It is possible therefore that for the existence of
certain sorts of objects, e.g. electrons, minimum quanta
of time are requisite. Some such postulate is apparently
indicated by the modern quantum theory and it is per-
fectly consistent with the doctrine of objects maintained
in these lectures.

Also the instance of the distinction between the
electron as the mere quantitative electric charge of its
situation and the electron as standing for the ingression
of an object throughout nature illustrates the indefinite
number of types of objects which exist in nature. We
can intellectually distinguish even subtler and subtler
types of objects. Here I reckon subtlety as meaning
seclusion from the immediate apprehension of sense-
awareness. Evolution in the complexity of life means an



vn] OBJECTS 163

increase in the types of objects directly sensed. Deli-
cacy of sense-apprehension means perceptions of objects
as distinct entities which are mere subtle ideas to cruder
sensibilities. The phrasing of music is a mere abstract
subtlety to the unmusical; it is a direct sense-appre-
hension to the initiated. For example, if we could
imagine some lowly type of organic being thinking and
aware of our thoughts, it would wonder at the abstract
subtleties in which we indulge as we think of stones
and bricks and drops of water and plants. It only knows
of vague undifferentiated feelings in nature. It would
consider us as given over to the play of excessively
abstract intellects. But then if it could think, it would
anticipate; and if it anticipated, it would soon per-
ceive for itself.

In these lectures we have been scrutinising the
foundations of natural philosophy. We are stopping at
the very point where a boundless ocean of enquiries
opens out for our questioning.

I agree that the view of Nature which I have main-
tained in these lectures is not a simple one. Nature
appears as a complex system whose factors are dimly
discerned by us. But, as I ask you, Is not this the very
truth ? Should we not distrust the jaunty assurance with
which every age prides itself that it at last has hit upon
the ultimate concepts in which all that happens can be
formulated ? The aim of science is to seek the simplest
explanations of complex facts. We are apt to fall into
the error of thinking that the facts are simple because
simplicity is the goal of our quest. The guiding motto
in the life of every natural philosopher should be,
Seek simplicity^ and distrust jt.



II 2



CHAPTER VIII
SUMMARY

THERE is a general agreement that Einstein's investiga-
tions have one fundamental merit irrespective of any
criticisms which we may feel inclined to pass on them.
They have made us think. But when we have admitted
so far, we are most of us faced with a distressing per-
plexity. What is it that we ought to think about? The
purport of my lecture this afternoon will be to meet this
difficulty and, so far as I am able, to set in a clear light
the changes in the background of our scientific thought
which are necessitated by any acceptance, however
qualified, of Einstein's main positions. I remember that
I am lecturing to the members of a chemical society
who are not for the most part versed in advanced
mathematics. The first point that I would urge upon you
is that what immediately concerns you is not so much
the detailed deductions of the new theory as this general
change in the background of scientific conceptions
which will follow from its acceptance. Of course, the
detailed deductions are important, because unless our
colleagues the astronomers and the physicists find these
predictions to be verified we can neglect the theory
altogether. But we may now take it as granted that in
many striking particulars these deductions have been
found to be in agreement with observation. Accord-
ingly the theory has to be taken seriously and we are
anxious to know what will be the consequences of its
final acceptance. Furthermore during the last few weeks



CH. vin] SUMMARY 165

the scientific journals and the lay press have been filled
with articles as to the nature of the crucial experiments
which have been made and as to some of the more
striking expressions of the outcome of the new theory.
' Space caught bending ' appeared on the news-sheet
of a well-known evening paper. This rendering is a
terse but not inapt translation of Einstein's own way of
interpreting his results. I should say at once that I am
a heretic as to this explanation and that I shall expound
to you another explanation based upon some work of
my own, an explanation which seems to me to be more
in accordance with our scientific ideas and with the
whole body of facts which have to be explained. We
have to remember that a new theory must take account
of the old well-attested facts of science just as much as
of the very latest experimental results which have led
to its production.

To put ourselves in the position to assimilate and to
criticise any change in ultimate scientific conceptions we
must begin at the beginning. So you must bear with me
if I commence by making some simple and obvious
reflections. Let us consider three statements, (i) * Yes-
terday a man was run over on the Chelsea Embankment/
(ii) * Cleopatra's Needle is on the Charing Cross Em-
bankment/ and (iii) 'There are dark lines in the Solar
Spectrum.' The first statement about the accident to
the man is about what we may term an 'occurrence,'
a 'happening,' or an 'event.' I will use the term
' event ' because it is the shortest. In order to specify an
observed event, the place, the time, and character of the
event are necessary. In specifying the place and the time
you are really stating the relation of the assigned event
to the general structure of other observed events. For



i66 THE CONCEPT OF NATURE [CH.

example, the man was run over between your tea and
your dinner and adjacently to a passing barge in the
river and the traffic in the Strand. The point which I
want to make is this: Nature is known to us in our
experience as a complex of passing events. In this
complex we discern definite mutual relations between
component events, which we may call their relative
positions, and these positions we express partly in terms
of space and partly in terms of time. Also in addition
to its mere relative position to other events, each par-
ticular event has its own peculiar character. In other
words, nature is a structure of events and each event
has its position in this structure and its own peculiar
character or quality.

Let us now examine the other two statements in the
light of this general principle as to the meaning of
nature. Take the second statement, 'Cleopatra's
Needle is on the Charing Cross Embankment.' At
first sight we should hardly call this an event. It seems


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 12 14 15

Online LibraryAlfred North WhitebreadThe concept of nature → online text (page 12 of 15)