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5: Action at a Distance

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« on: April 10, 2024, 08:10:49 am »

That one body may act upon another at a distance, through a vacuum, without the mediation of anything else by and through which their action may be conveyed from one to another, is to me so great an absurdity that I believe no man, who has in philosophical matters a competent faculty of thinking, can ever fall into it.---NEWTON.

WITH the information of Chapter Four in mind, let us return to the two opposition theses. "A body cannot act where it is not." "Contact does not exist." We now see that there is a sense in which they are both true: we may have occasion to hint that there is another sense in which they are both false. But first let us see in what sense they are both true.

A body cannot act where its influence is not; if we put it in that form it becomes obvious. The whole point then turns on where the influence of the body is and what the influence consists of. If we identify the influence with its field of force, we can say that that field travels about with the body and forms part of it, usually an imperceptible and intangible part. Another and perhaps a better way of putting it is to say that one body can only act on another through a medium, a medium of communication. When a horse pulls a cart it is connected by traces; when the earth pulls the moon it is connected by the ether; when a magnet pulls a bit of iron it is connected by its magnetic field, which is also in the ether; and the same is true when the parts of a body cohere. Always look for the medium of communication: it may be an invisible thread, as in a conjuring trick; it may be the atmosphere, as when you whistle for a dog; it may be the ether, as when you beckon to a friend; or it may be a projectile, as when you shoot an enemy. Or, again, it may be ether ripples, as when you look at a star.

You cannot act at a distance without some means of communication; and yet you can certainly act where you are not, as when by a letter or telegram you bring a friend home from the Antipodes. A railway signalman can stop a train or bring about a collision without ever touching a locomotive. A Board of Directors sitting in London or Edinburgh can permanently span the Forth. A conclave of German politicians could, and did, operate on innumerable families in England and slaughter their most promising members without the direct action of a finger. A breed of mosquitoes for a long time rendered impotent the design of a Panama Canal, without malice and in the ordinary course of their existence, until Sir Ronald Ross and others with their microscopes made the enterprise possible. The interlocking of events is so complicated that actions may spread far beyond the apparent scope of an individual, and entail consequences unintended and unthought of. We may well feel inclined to ask: Is mental action ever anything but "distant"? Does the mind always act on matter through some intermediary, such as an etheric medium?

Now turn to the other assertion: "Contact does not exist." More accurately, Material particles never come into contact; they are cushioned from each other by attractive or repelling forces. They act on each other through the ether, just as essentially as when a magnet acts on a bit of iron, or as the sun acts on a planet. Cohesion does not mean direct contact, but residual electrical attraction or molecular affinity across minute intervening space. The particles of matter are all discontinuous, but are embedded in a continuous ether; and when we say that contact does not exist, we only mean contact of matter with matter.

Hold out your hand, and you feel the fire. What do you feel? Not the fire direct, but the ether ripples excited by it. Something is in contact with your hand, but it is not anything material: the ether connects your hand and the fire. The fire acts on your hand from a distance, and we know how the action takes place. The earth acts on the moon from a distance, and we do not fully know how the action takes place. Attraction is an "as if" mode of expression. Einstein attempts to get behind it and replace action at a distance by a contact effect. A strain in the ether we should wish to say. Einstein does not say as much as that, but he recognizes that it must be something directly in contact with the moon that is curving its path, even if it be only a warp in space. We can adopt the expression and say that a large body like the earth warps the ether all round it, thus making other bodies fall towards it as if they felt its attraction.

So when we take the connecting medium into account, we find nothing but contact---not what is ordinarily called contact, but immediate connexion; there is no gap separating the particle from the ether in which it is immersed ; in the last resort there is absolute continuity. The particles do not act on the ether through a gap; in that sense there is nothing else but contact: the whole cosmos is welded up into a unity, every part connected with every other part. Hence that thesis about contact is both true and false; true if we attend to matter only, false if we attend to the ether also.

Brief statements like that are always liable to this double sense: we cannot really summarize Reality in a phrase: all that we can summarize is one aspect of reality, the one to which we are at the moment calling attention. A phrase is useful for calling attention, for making people think; but we must never use a phrase as a basis of an argument, or set it up in opposition to a fact. Against a fact it is powerless. Phrases may illustrate facts, or may misrepresent them; the only good of a phrase is to focus the human mind.

Now see if the other phrase has any aspect of falsity. "A body cannot act where it is not." Or in other words, every action must take place through a medium. In the material universe this seems to be universally true. But is it true in the vital and mental universe? If we encounter facts which seem to falsify it, we should not deny or ignore those facts on the strength of a phrase; it has no power of confrontation, it forms no basis for an argument, it is a summary of experience, and experience may go beyond any convenient and partial summary: the phrase may have to be extended.

I do not wish to extend it now: I only wish to point out that it may have to be extended or qualified. The question only arises when we seek to generalize the term "body" and apply it also to Mind. Can one mind act on another directly, or otherwise than through a medium? We are now getting into a region of some vagueness. We really do not know how mind acts at all; we know that a thought somehow operates on matter, primarily to all appearance on the matter of the brain, and thus causes physical changes; and we also know that another brain, stimulated into activity by reception of those physical changes through appropriate mechanism, reacts on an associated mind and arouses a corresponding thought; so that indirectly, through a series of physical and physiological processes, one mind can act on another. Even the mind of a dead person can act, if he had left behind a poem or picture or mathematical theorem. It is proverbial that events can be controlled by "a dead hand." Apart from that, the mind of Beethoven or of Newton or Shakespeare is in a real and beneficent sense fully active to-day. But can a mind ever act on another mind directly, without all those intermediate and curious physical methods? The assertion is sometimes made that it can, and the facts responsible for such an assertion are summed up under the head telepathy---mental action at a distance---though what "distance" means in relation to Mind I do not know.

Hitherto we have been denying action at a distance, and saying we must always look for a medium. Are we going to contradict that now and say that mind can act without a medium? That would be rash, and yet it may be true, if by further study we find that facts support such a statement. Our denial of action at a distance has no weight as an argument; it is a precautionary measure of policy. We should be wise to seek for a medium if we can, or until we find that such an hypothesis breaks down. We do not know enough about mental action to dogmatize; we must accumulate and study the facts; they must be our guide; a satisfying theory is not yet. It would be utter folly, however, to deny or ignore facts on the ground of preconceptions, because they do not seem to fit into such scheme of the universe as we have already formed; folly to set up against genuine experience our denial of action at a distance.

We do not know the nature of Mind, nor the laws of mental action: they may be quite different from physical laws. We do not know if an active mind need belong to a living person, that is to a person with brain-nerve-muscle mechanism. We have to make experiments and accumulate experience by aid of this mechanism; but we should not let it dominate or hamper us. We may have to enlarge our conceptions to comprehend much more. The region of Art and Beauty and Love and Aspiration is a region higher and beyond anything apprehended in physical science; it behoves us to walk warily and modestly. And it may help us to remember that the greatest men of science have never set up their extensive though still partial knowledge in opposition to the existence of a spiritual universe and direct religious experience.

The Universe, in its wider sense, is infinitely comprehensive; the stellar spaces and the processes of Nature do not exhaust it. These can rightly be regarded as manifestations of some great Reality beyond.

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