Maxwell on the soul

amphicheiral knot (Maxwell's soul) 2
James Maxwell's last poem, "A Paradoxical Ode" (1878), opened to the statement that, as per poetry testing views go, he believed that his soul was an amphicheiral knot.
In geniuses on, Maxwell on the soul (Ѻ) refers to the published statements, views, and opinions of James Maxwell on the nature, topic, or subject of the soul and or connected topics of morality and continuity theory.

Moral philosophy | Three laws of right action
On 14 Mar 1850, Maxwell, age 18.8, wrote the following to his classics scholar friend Lewis Campbell, his other best-intellectual buddy, alongside Peter Tait, from Edinburgh Academy; his first seeming transmitted views on the nature of the soul, stimulated by his college course in moral philosophy, at the University of Edinburgh, taught by John Wilson: [1]

Wilson, after having fully explained his own opinions, has proceeded to those of other great men: Plato, Aristotle, Stoics, Epicureans. He shows that Plato's proof of the immortality of the soul, from its immateriality, if it be a proof, proves its preexistence, the immortality of beasts and vegetables, and why not transmigration? (Do you remember how Raphael tells Adam about meats and drinks in Paradise Lost ?) (Greek Iambics, if you please.)

He quarrels with Aristotle's doctrine of the golden mean,—"a virtue is the mean between two vices,"—not properly understanding the saying. He chooses to consider it as a pocket rule to find virtue, which it is not meant to be, but an apophthegm or maxim, or dark saying, signifying that as a hill falls away on both sides of the top, so a virtue at its maximum declines by excess or defect (not of virtue but) of some variable quantity at the disposal of the will. Thus, let it be a virtue to give alms with your own money, then it is a greater virtue to pay one's debts to the full.

Now, a man has so much money: the more alms he gives up to a certain point, the more virtue. As soon as it becomes impossible to pay debts, the virtue of solvency decreases faster than that of almsgiving increases, so that the giving of money to the poor becomes a vice, so that the variable is the sum given away, by excess or defect of which virtue diminishes, say I; so that Wilson garbles Aristotle,—but I bamboozle myself.

I say that some things are virtues, others are virtuous or generally lead to virtue. Substitute goods for virtues, and it will be more general: thus, wisdom, happiness, virtue, are goods, and cannot be in excess; but knowledge, pleasure, and — what ? (please tell me, is it propriety, obedience, or what is it ?) lead to the other three, and are not so much goods as tending to good; whereas particular knowledges, pleasures, and obediences may be in excess and lead to evils. I postpone the rest of my observations to my Collection of the Metaphysical Principles of Moral Philosophy founded on the three laws of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, thus expressed:

1. That which can be done is that which has been done; that is, that the possibility (with respect to the agent) of an action (as simple) depends on the agent having had the sensation of having done it. [N1]
2. That which ought to be done is that which (under the given conditions) produces, implies, or tends to the greatest amount of good (an excess or defect in the variables will lessen the good and make evil).
3. Moral actions can be judged of only by the principle of exchange; that is (1) our own actions must be judged by the laws we have made for others; (2) others must be judged by putting ourselves in their place.

(add discussion)

Moral philosophy | Ten parts
In circa Jun 1850, Maxwell, turning 19, in a letter to Lewis Campbell, expanded on the above three laws right action, as follows: [2]

The only regular college science that I have thought of lately is moral philosophy. Whether it is an Oxford science I know not; but it must be, if not taught, at least interesting; so I purpose to fill up this letter with unuttered thoughts (or crude), which, as they are crammed into words, may appear like men new waked from sleep, who leap in confusion into one another's breeches, hardly fit to be seen of decent men. Then think not my words mad if their clothes fit them not, for they have not had an opportunity of trying them on before.

There are some moral philosophers whose opinions are remarkable for their general truth and good sense, but not for their utility, fixity, or novelty. They tell you that in all your actions you ought to be virtuous, that benevolence is a virtue, that lawful rulers ought to be obeyed, that a man should give ear to his conscience. Others tell you of unalterable laws of right and wrong, of eternal truth and the everlasting fitnesses of things. Others of the duty of following nature, of every virtue between two vices (Aristotle), and of the golden mean. That a man should do what is best on the whole (1) for himself; (2) for other men only, and not himself; (3) for the whole universe, including himself, and so on.

Now, I think that the answers to the following questions should be separate parts of moral philosophy:

1. What is man? This is the introduction, and is called statically or proper metaphysics.

2. What are the laws of human action? Action being all that man does—thought, word, deed.

3. What are the motives of human actions?

4. What actions do men perform in preference to what others, and why?

5. What is the principle by which men judge some actions right, others wrong?

6. What do particular men think of this principle? What are their doctrines?

7. What is the best criticism of right and wrong, or what (to us) is absolute right?

8. What are the best motives of human actions?

9. How are these motives to be implanted without violating the laws of human action?

10. What might, or rather what will, mankind become after this has been effected?

Moral philosophy differs from natural philosophy in this, that the more new things we hear of in natural philosophy the better; but in moral philosophy the old things are best, so that a common objection to moral philosophy is that everybody knows it all before. If a man tells you that tyranny and anarchy are bad things, and that a just and lawful government is a good thing, it sounds very fine, but only means that when men think the government bad from excess or defect they give it the name of tyranny and anarchy. The ancient virtue of Tyrannicide was a man's determination to kill the king whenever he displeased him. Thus it is easy to call a dog a bad name to beat him for. But there are other parts of moral philosophy in which there are differences of opinion, such as the nature of selfishness, self-love, appetites, desires, and affections, disinterestedness (what a word for a rush at!), which belong to the first three questions, and so on. I have told you something (pp. 84-85) of three laws which I had been considering. In all parts of moral philosophy these three laws seem to meet one, and in each system of morals they take a different form. Now, that I might not deceive myself in thinking that I was safe out of the hands of the philosophers who argue these matters, I have been looking into the books of moralists the most opposed to one another, to see what it is that makes them differ, and wherein they agree. The three principles concerning the nature of man are continually changing their shape, so that it is not easy to catch them in their best shape. Nevertheless:

Lemma: Metaphysics.—A man thinks, feels, and wills, and therefore metaphysicians give him the three faculties of cognition, feeling, and conation.

Cognition is what is called understanding,- and is most thought of generally. Feelings are pleasures, pains, appetites, desires, aversions, approval and disapproval, love, hate, and all affections.

Conations are acts of will, whatever they be.

Now to move a man's will it is necessary to move his affections. (How? Wait !) For no convictions of the understanding will do, for a man does what he likes to do, not what he believes to be best for himself or others. The feelings can only be moved by notions coming through the understanding, for cognition is the only inlet of thoughts. Therefore, although it can be proved that self-love leads to all goodness, or, in other words, that goodness is happiness, and self loves happiness, yet it can also be proved that men are not able to act rightly from pure self-love; so that though self-love is a very fine theoretical principle, yet no man can keep it always in view, or act reasonably upon it. Now, most moralists take for granted that the end which men, good or bad, pursue is their own happiness, and that happiness, false or true, is the motive of every action, and that it is the only right motive. Others say that benevolence is the only virtue, and that any action not done expressly for the good of others is entitled to no praise.

Most of the ancients, and Hobbes among the moderns, are of the first opinion. Hutcheson and Brown (I think) are of the second, and call the first selfish philosophers and the selfish school. A few consider benevolence to the whole universe as the proper motive of every action, but they all (says Macintosh) confound men's motives with the criterion of right and wrong, the reason why a thing is right, and that which actually causes a man to do it. In every book on moral philosophy some reference is made to that precept or maxim, which is declared to be the spirit of the law and the prophets (see Matt. vii. 12), and the application of it is a good mark of the uppermost thoughts or mode of thinking of the author.

Hobbes lays down as the first agreement of men to secure their safety, that a man should lay down so much of his natural liberty with respect to others, as he wishes that other men should to him. Hobbes having shown that men, in what the poets and moralists call a state of nature (that is, of equality and liberty, and without government), must be in a state of war, every man against every other, and therefore of danger to every man, deduces the obligation of obeying the powers that be from the necessity of power to prevent universal war. Adam Smith's theory of moral sentiments (which is the most systematic next to Hobbes) is that men desire others to sympathise with them, and therefore do those things which may be sympathised with; that is, as Smith's opponents say, men ought to be guided by the desire of esteem and sympathy. Not so. Smith does not leave us there, but I suppose you have read him, as he is almost the only Scotch moral philosopher.

As it is Saturday night I will not write very much more. I was thinking today of the duties of [the] cognitive faculty. It is universally admitted that duties are voluntary, and that the will governs understanding by giving or withholding attention. They say that understanding ought to work by the rules of right reason. These rules are, or ought to be, contained in logic; but the actual science of logic is conversant at present only with things either certain, impossible, or entirely doubtful, none of which (fortunately) we have to reason on. Therefore the true logic for this world is the calculus of probabilities, which takes account of the magnitude of the probability (which is, or which ought to be in a reasonable man's mind). This branch of math, which is generally thought to favour gambling, dicing, and wagering, and therefore highly immoral, is the only "Mathematics for Practical Men," as we ought to be. Now, as human knowledge comes by the senses in such a way that the existence of things external is only inferred from the harmonious (not similar) testimony of the different senses, understanding, acting by the laws of right reason, will assign to different truths (or facts, or testimonies, or what shall I call them) different degrees of probability. Now, as the senses give new testimonies continually, and as no man ever detected in them any real inconsistency, it follows that the probability and credibility of their testimony is increasing day by day, and the more a man uses them the more he believes them. What is believing? When the probability (there is no better word found) in a man's mind of a certain proposition being true is greater than that of its being false, he believes it with a proportion of faith corresponding to the probability, and this probability may be increased or diminished by new facts. This is faith in general. When a man thinks he has enough of evidence for some notion of his he sometimes refuses to listen to any additional evidence pro or con, saying, "It is a settled question, probatis probata; it needs no evidence; it is certain." This is knowledge as distinguished from faith. He says, "I do not believe; I know." "If any man thinketh that he knoweth, he knoweth yet nothing as he ought to know." This knowledge is a shutting of one's ears to all arguments, and is the same as "Implicit faith" in one of its meanings. "Childlike faith," confounded with it, is not credulity, for children are not credulous, but and out sooner than some think that many men are liars. I must now to bed, so good night; only please to write when you get this, if convenient, and state the probability of your coming here. We perhaps will be in Edinburgh when the wise men are there.

(add discussion)

Maxwell’s great plan
On 7 Mar 1852, Maxwell, age 20.8, in a letter to Lewis Campbell, gave the following draft outline of his so-named “great plan”: [6]

“My great plan, which was conceived of old, and quickens and kicks periodically, and is continually making itself more obtrusive, is a plan of Search and Recovery, or Revision and Correction, or Inquisition and Execution, etc.

The Rule of the Plan is to let nothing be willfully left unexamined. Nothing is to be holy ground consecrated to Stationary Faith, whether positive or negative. All fallow land is to be ploughed up, and a regular system of rotation followed. All creatures as agents or as patients are to be pressed into the service, which is never to be willingly suspended till nothing more remains to be done; i.e. till A.D. + oo.

The part of the rule which respects self-improvement by means of others is: “Never hide anything”, be it weed or no, nor seem to wish it hidden. So shall all men passing by pluck up the weeds and brandish them in your face, or at least display them for your inspection (especially if you make no secret of your intention to do likewise). (I speak not here literally of the case of those who revise each other's faults every night, and quarrel before the month is out, but you did not so misunderstand me.)

Again I assert the Right of Trespass on any plot of Holy Ground which any man has set apart (as the rustics did their Gude-man's Rig) to the power of Darkness. Such places must be exorcised and desecrated till they become fruitful fields. Again, if the holder of such property refuse admission to the exorcist, he ipso facto admits that it is consecrated, and that he fears the power of Darkness. It may be that no such darkness really broods over the place, and that the man has got a habit of shutting his eyes in that field, which makes him think so.

Now I am convinced that no one but a Christian can actually purge his land of these holy spots. Any one may profess that he has none, but something will sooner or later occur to everyone to show him that part of his ground is not open to the public. Intrusions on this are resented, and so its existence is demonstrated. Now, I do not say that no Christians have enclosed places of this sort. Many have a great deal, and everyone has some. No one can be sure of all being open till all has been examined by competent persons, which is the work, as I said before, of eternity. But there are extensive and important tracts in the territory of the scoffer, the Pantheist, the Quietist, Formalist, Dogmatist, Sensualist, and the rest, which are openly and solemnly Tabooed, as the Polynesians say, and are not to be spoken of without sacrilege.

Christianity—that is, the religion of the Bible—is the only scheme or form of belief which disavows any possessions on such a tenure. Here alone all is free. You may fly to the ends of the world and find no God but the Author of Salvation. You may search the Scriptures and not find a text to stop you in your explorations. You may read all History and be compelled to wonder but not to doubt.

Compare the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob with the God of the Prophets and the God of the Apostles, and however the Pantheist may contrast the God of Nature with the "Dark Hebrew God," you will find them much liker each other than either like his.

The Old Testament and the Mosaic Law and Judaism are commonly supposed to be "Tabooed" by the orthodox. Sceptics pretend to have read them, and have found certain witty objections and composed several transcendental arguments against "Hebrew O' Clo'," which too many of the orthodox unread admit, and shut up the subject as haunted. But a Candle is coming to drive out all Ghosts and Bugbears. Let us all follow the Light.”

(add discussion)

Of note, on this quote, creationist (Ѻ) Ian Hutchinson (1998) does battle with materialist Ian Tolstoy (1981), asserting that Tolstoy’s opinions were off, in some way. [7]

Origin of evil | Objective vs subjective evil
On 20 Mar 1852, Maxwell, in a letter to Lewis Campbell, on the subject of “objective evil” (see: objective morality) vs “subjective evil” (see: subjective morality), had the following to say: [5]

“After Chapel I was at Litchfield's, where he, Farrar, Pomeroy, and Blakiston, discussed eternal punishment from 8 to 12. Men fall into absurdity as soon as they have settled for themselves the question of the origin of evil. A man whose mind is "made up" on that subject is contradictory on every other; one day he says that the man that can be happy in such a world is a brute, and the next day that if a man is not happy here he is a moping fool. At last they assert the Cretan dilemma, that if a man says that man is ignorant and foolish, it was ignorant and foolish to say so. Solomon, they say, was used up when he wrote Ecclesiastes, and said "all is vanity" in a relative sense, having himself been so. Solomon describes the search after happiness for its own sake and for the sake of possession. It is as if a strong man should collect into his house all the beauty of the world, and be condemned to look out of the window and marvel that no good thing was to be seen. "No man can eat his cake and have it." I would add that what remains till tomorrow will stink.

As for evil being unripe good, I say nothing with respect to objective evil, except that it is a part of the universe which it may be the business of immortal man to search out forever, and still see more beyond. We cannot understand it because it is relative, and relative to more than we know. But subjective evil is absolute; we are conscious of it as independent of external circumstances; its physical power is bounded by our finitude, bodily and mental, but within these its intensity is without measure. A bullet may be diverted from its course by the medium through which it passes, or it may take a wrong one owing to the unskillfulness of the shooter, or the intended victim may change his place; but all this depends, not on the will of the shooter, but on the ignorance of his mind, the weakness of his body, the resistance of inert matter, or the subsequent act of another agent; the bullet of the murderer may be turned aside to drive a nail, or what not, but his will is independent of all this, and may be judged at once without appeal.”

(add discussion)

In 1856, Maxwell, in his “Analogies in Nature”, (add)

In 1878, Maxwell penned his last poem “A Paradoxical Ode”, wherein he stated that his soul is an amphicheiral knot.

American physical economist Philip Mirowski (1989) asserts that Maxwell, in his “Analogies in Nature”, suggested that moral laws could be modeled by a process of analogy with natural laws, based on his statement concerning “attractions of pleasure or the pressure of constraint activity”, discussed in the context will or the will of beings. [3]

The following are related quotes:

“Activity requires objectivity. If people’s souls are made to go through maneuvers before a mirror, they get hypochondriac. Objectivity alone is favorable to the free circulation of the soul.”
— James Maxwell (1852), “Letter to Lewis Campbell”, Feb 10 [4]

“Have you seen Nageli in Nature? He is of the school which supposes that we think as well as we do is the result of the deliberations of n plastidule souls in every one of the α molecules of us. Now if m Masters of Arts, sleeping within r of Great St Mary constitute the Electoral Roll, the wisdom of the soul of that Roll must be mnα times that of a plastidule soul. The acts of the Roll are on record. Calculate the wisdom 1st of an MA 2nd of a plastidule soul. dp/dt.”
James Maxwell (1877), “Letter to Peter Tait”, Dec 12 (Ѻ)

N1. Maxwell often insisted on this in conversation, with especial reference to our command of the muscles depending on experience of the muscular sense. [1]

1. (a) Maxwell, James. (1850), “Letter to Lewis Campbell”, Mar 14.
(b) Campbell, Lewis and Garnett, William. (1882). The Life of James Clerk Maxwell: with Selections from His Correspondence and Occasional Writings (soul, 20+ pgs; “Letter to Lewis Campbell”, pgs. 83-85). MacMillan and Co, 1884.
2. (a) Maxwell, James. (1850), “Letter to Lewis Campbell”, Jun.
(b) Campbell, Lewis and Garnett, William. (1882). The Life of James Clerk Maxwell: with Selections from His Correspondence and Occasional Writings (pgs. 94-97). MacMillan and Co, 1884.
3. (a) Kruger, Lorentz, Daston, Lorraine, and Heidelberger, Michael. (1987). The Probabilistic Revolution (pg. 79). MIT Press.
(b) Mirowski, Philip. (1989). More Heat than Light: Economics as Social Physics, Physics as Nature’s Economics (pg. 257). Cambridge University Press.
4. (a) Maxwell, James. (1852). “Letter to Lewis Campbell”, Feb 10.
(b) Campbell, Lewis and Garnett, William. (1882). The Life of James Clerk Maxwell: with Selections from His Correspondence and Occasional Writings (pgs. 124-25; "before a mirror", pg. 125). MacMillan and Co, 1884.
5. (a) Maxwell, James. (1852). “Letter to Lewis Campbell”, Mar 20.
(b) Campbell, Lewis and Garnett, William. (1882). The Life of James Clerk Maxwell: with Selections from His Correspondence and Occasional Writings (pgs. 130-31; “origin of evil”, pg. 129). MacMillan and Co, 1884.
6. (a) Maxwell, James. (1852). “Letter to Lewis Campbell”, Mar 7.
(b) Campbell, Lewis and Garnett, William. (1882). The Life of James Clerk Maxwell: with Selections from His Correspondence and Occasional Writings (pgs. 125-27; “nothing is to be holy ground”, pg. 128). MacMillan and Co, 1884.
7. (a) Tolstoy, Ian. (1981). James Clerk Maxwell: a Biography (pg. 59). University of Chicago Press.
(b) Hutchinson, Ian. (1998). “James Clerk Maxwell and the Christian Proposition” (Ѻ), MIT IPA Seminar: the Faith of Great Scientists, Jan.

Further reading
● Campbell, Lewis and Garnett, William. (1882). The Life of James Clerk Maxwell: with Selections from His Correspondence and Occasional Writings (soul, 20+ pgs). MacMillan and Co, 1884.
● Flood, Raymond, McCartney, Mark, and Whitaker, Andrew. (2014). James Clerk Maxwell: Perspectives on His Life and Work (soul, 8+ pgs). Oxford University Press.

TDics icon ns

More pages