James Clerk Maxwell, essay on Determinism and Free Will (1873),
Summary: Maxwell's essay contains the essential ideas of modern
chaos theory such as "sensitive dependence to initial conditions". He goes
on to argue that this favors a world-view which includes free will. [An
article by Brian R. Hunt and James A. Yorke, "Maxwell on Chaos", in
Nonlinear Science Today 3 , 1 (1993), first alerted me to Maxwell's
views on these issues.]
Below are excerpts from his essay recorded on p.362-366 of
The Life of James Clerk Maxwell, with selections from his
correspondence and occasional writings, by Lewis Campbell and William
Garnett (MacMillan and Co., London, 1884).
Does the progress of Physical Science tend to give any advantage to the
opinion of Necessity (or Determinism) over that of the Contingency of
Events and the Freedom of the Will?
Delivered in Cambridge, 11th February 1873.
...Much light may be thrown on some of these questions by consideration of
stability and instability. When the state of things is such that an
infinitely small variation of the present state will alter only by an
infinitely small quantity the state at some future rime, the condition of
the system, whether it is at rest or in motion, is said to be stable; but
when an infinitely small variation in the present state may bring about a
finite difference in the state of the system in a finite time, the
condition of the system is said to be unstable.
It is manifest that the existence of unstable conditions renders impossible
the prediction of future events, if our knowledge of the present state is
only approximate and not accurate..
It has been well pointed out by Professor Balfour Stewart that physical
stability is the characteristic of those systems from the contemplation of
which determinists draw their arguments, and physical instability that of
those living bodies, and moral instability that of those developable souls,
which furnish to consciousness the conviction of free will.
Having thus pointed out some of the relations of physical science to the
question, we are the better prepared to inquire what is meant by
determination and what by free will.
No one, I suppose, would assign to free will a more than infinitesimal
range. No leopard can change his spots, nor can any one by merely wishing
it, or, as some say, willing it, introduce discontinuity into his
course of existence. Our free will at the best is like that of Lucretius's
atoms,---which at quite uncertain times and places deviate in an uncertain
manner from their course. In the course of this our moral 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. The doctrine of free will asserts that in some
such cases the Ego alone is the determining cause. The doctrine of
Determinism asserts that in every case, without exception, the result is
determined by the previous conditions of the subject, whether bodily or
mental, and that Ego is mistaken in supposing himself in any way the cause
of the actual result, as both what he is pleased to call decisions and the
resultant action are corresponding events due to the same fixed
The subject of the essay is the relation to determinism, not of theology,
metaphysics, or mathematics, but of physical science,---the science which
depends for its material on the observation and measurement of visible
things, but which aims at the development of doctrines whose consistency
with each other shall be apparent to our reason...
For example, the rock loosed by frost and balanced on a singular point of
the mountain-side, the little spark which kindles the great forest, the
little word which sets the world a fighting, the little scruple which
prevents a man from doing his will, the little spore which blights all the
potatoes, the little gemmule which makes us philosophers or idiots. Every
existence above a certain rank has its singular points: the higher the rank
the more of them. At these points, influences whose physical magnitude is
too small to be taken account of by a finite being, may produce results of
the greatest importance. All great results produced by human endeavor
depend on taking advantage of these singular states when they occur.
Other excerpts could eventually include his essay on "What is the
Nature of Evidence of Design?", a hymn he wrote, the sermon preached at
his funeral, or his cautions about theological speculations from science.
The man of tact says "the right word at the right time," and, "a word
spoken in due season how good is it!" The man of no tact is like vinegar
upon nitre when he sings his songs to a heavy heart. The ill-timed
admonition hardens the heart, and the good resolution, taken when it is
sure to be broken, becomes macadamised into pavement for the abyss.
It appears then that in our own nature there are more singular
points,---where prediction, except from absolutely perfect data, and guided
by the omniscience of contingency, becomes impossible,---than there are in
any lower organisation. But singular points are by their very nature
isolated, and form no appreciable fraction of the continuous course of our
existence. Hence predictions of human conduct may be made in many cases.
First, with respect to those who have no character at all, especially when
considered in crowds, after the statistical method. Second with respect to
individuals of confirmed character, with respect to actions of the kind
for which their character is confirmed.
If, therefore, those cultivators of physical science from whom the
intelligent public deduce their conception of the physicist, and whose style
is recognised marking with a scientific stamp the doctrines they promulgate,
are led in pursuit of the arcana of science to the study of the
singularities and instabilities, rather than the continuities and
stabilities of things, the promotion of natural knowledge may tend to
remove that prejudice in favour of determinism which seems to arise from
assuming that the physical science of the future is a mere magnified image
of that of the past.
- There is a tide in the affairs of men
- Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.