The Paradoxes Of Science -- By: G. Frederick Wright
BSac 54:214 (Apr 1897) p. 205
The Paradoxes Of Science1
There is a somewhat general impression abroad in the world, that whatever is scientific is clear and free from doubt and difficulty. But such an opinion is as far as possible from the truth. The mysteries of existence, though seeming to be progressively solved by science, are never more than partially solved. Indeed, in the strict sense of the word, they are never solved at all. The attempted explanations of science, instead of being real solutions of mystery, are merely substitutions of one mystery for another, or, what is more frequently the case, of several mysteries in place of one.
I. The Theory Of Gravitation
The Newtonian theory of gravitation is far from being so simple as it seems, and this its author clearly saw and was free to acknowledge. Newton’s law was merely a mathematical statement of facts established partly by observation, but more largely by inference, since observation is never absolutely exact, and is always limited in its
BSac 54:214 (Apr 1897) p. 206
range. The statement, therefore, that all material objects are attracted toward each other by a force which is directly as the product of the combined masses, and inversely as the square of the distance, is itself a theory incapable of absolute verification; while the acceptance of the theory impales us on one or other horn of a dilemma from which it is not easy to be extricated. We must either believe that bodies act upon each other from a distance through a vacuum, or that matter is continuous in space, so that there is no such thing as a vacuum. In his third letter to Bentley, Newton declared that it was to him inconceivable that inanimate brute matter should, without the mediation of something else which is not material, operate upon and affect other matter, without mutual contact.” And again, “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. Gravity must be caused by an agent acting constantly according to certain laws; but whether this agent be material or immaterial, I have left to the consideration of my readers.”
So keenly were the difficulties of this paradox felt, that many of Newton’s eminent contemporaries, especially upon the Continent, refused to accept the theory of gravitation, thus delaying its final triumph for a century. Huygens declared the theory to be absurd; John Bernoulli, that it was “revolting to minds accustomed to receivin...
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