Maxwell Letter to R. B. Litchfield
5 February 1858, from The Life of James Clerk Maxwell, Campbell and Garnett, pp.306-6
With respect to the " material sciences," they appear to me to be the appointed road to all scientific truth, whether metaphysical, mental, or social. The knowledge which exists in these subjects derives a great part of its value from ideas suggested by analogies from the material sciences, and the remaining part, though valuable and important to mankind, is not scientific but aphoristic. The chief philosophical value of physics is that it gives the mind something distinct to lay hold of, which, if you don't, Nature at once tells you you are wrong. Now, every stage of this conquest of truth leaves a more or less presentable trace on the memory, so that materials are furnished here more than anywhere else for investigation of the great question, "How does Knowledge come?" I have observed that the practical cultivators of science (e.g., Sir J. Herschel, Faraday, Ampere, Oersted, Newton, Young), although differing excessively in turn of mind, have all a distinctness and a freedom from the tyranny of words in dealing with questions of Order, Law, etc., which pure speculators and literary men never attain. Now, I am going to put down something on my own authority, which you must not take for more than it is worth. There are certain men who write books, who assume that, whatever things are orderly, certain, and capable of being accurately predicted by men of experience, belong to one category; and whatever things are the result of conscious action, whatever are capricious, contingent, and cannot be foreseen, belong to another category. All the time I have lived and thought, I have seen more and more reason to disagree with this opinion, and to hold that all want of order, caprice, and unaccountableness results from interference with liberty, which would, if unimpeded, result in order, certainty, and trustworthiness (certainty of success of predicting). Remember I do not say that caprice and order are not the result of free will (so called), only I say that there is a liberty which is not disorder, and that this is by no means less free than the other, but more. In the next place, there are various states of mind, and schools of philosophy corresponding to various stages in the evolution of the idea of liberty. In one phase, human actions are the resultant (by parallelogram of forces) of the various attractions of surrounding things, modified in some degree by internal states, regarding which all that is to be said is that they are subjectively capricious, objectively the "RESULT OF LAW," — that is, the wilfulness of our wills feels to us like liberty, being in reality necessity. In another phase, the wilfulness is seen to be anything but free will, since it is merely a submission to the strongest attraction, after the fashion of material things. So some say that a man's will is the root of all evil in him, and that he should mortify it out till nothing of himself remains, and the man and his selfishness disappear together. So said Buddha (see Max Muller), and many Christians have and thought nearly the same thing. Nevertheless there is another phase still, in which appears a possibility of the exact contrary to the first state, namely, an abandonment of wilfulness without extinction of will, but rather by means of a great development of will, whereby, instead of being consciously free and really in subjection to unknown laws, it becomes consciously acting by law, and really free from the interference of unrecognised laws. There is a screed of metaphysics. I don't suppose that is what you wanted. I have no nostrum that is exactly what you want. Every man must brew his own, or at least fill his own glass for himself, but I greatly desire to hear some more from you, just to get into rapport.
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