Maxwell on Metaphysics and Theology

Jordi Cat
Into the ‘regions of physical and metaphysical chaos’: Maxwell’s scientific metaphysics and natural philosophy of action (agency, determinacy and necessity from theology, moral philosophy and history to mathematics, theory and experiment)
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 43 (2012) 91–104


Maxwell’s writings exhibit an enduring preoccupation with the role of metaphysics in the advancement of science, especially the progress of physics. I examine the question of the distinction and the proper relation between physics and metaphysics and the way in which the question relies on key notions that bring together much of Maxwell’s natural philosophy, theoretical and experimental. Previous discussions of his attention to metaphysics have been confined to specific issues and polemics such as conceptions of matter and the problem of free will. I suggest a unifying pattern based on a generalized philosophical perspective and varying expressions, although never a systematic or articulated philosophical doctrine, but at least a theme of action and active powers, natural and human, intellectual and material, with sources and grounds in theology, moral philosophy and historical argument. While science was developing in the direction of professional specialization and alongside the rise of materialism, Maxwell held on to conservative intellectual outlook, but one that included a rich scientific life and held science as part of a rich intellectual, cultural and material life. His philosophical outlook integrated his science with and captured the new Victorian culture of construction and work, political, economic, artistic and engineering.

Quotes from Maxwell

I would have you remember that the men to whom we owe the greatest discoveries in mathematics and physics were metaphysicians. They thought it a very important thing to determine the evidence on which they built any law. . .

‘It has been asserted that metaphysical speculation is a thing of the past, and that physical science has extirpated it. The discussion of the categories of existence, however, does not appear to be in danger of coming to an end in our time, and the exercise of speculation continues as fascinating to every fresh’ 

The intimate connexion between physical and metaphysical science is indicated even by their names. What are the chief requisites of a physical laboratory? Facilities for measuring space, time, and mass. What is the occupation of a metaphysician? Speculating on the modes of difference of co-existent things, on invariable sequences, and on the existence of matter.’

‘as Physical Science advances we see more and more that the laws of nature are not mere arbitrary and unconnected decisions of Omnipotence, but that they are essential parts of one universal system in which infinite Power serves only to reveal unsearchable Wisdom and eternal Truth.’

While we look down with awe into these unsearchable depths and treasure up with care what with our little line and plummet we can reach, we ought to admire the wisdom of Him who has so arranged these mysteries that we find first that which we can understand at first and the rest in order so that it is possible for us to have an ever increasing stock of known truth concerning things whose nature is absolutely incomprehensible.

[molecules] continue this day as they were created—perfect in number and measure and weight, and from the ineffaceable characters impressed on them we may learn that those aspirations after accuracy in measurement, truth in statement, and justice in action, which we reckon among our noblest attributes as men, are ours because they are’ essential constituents of the image of Him who in the beginning created, not only the heaven and the earth, but the materials of which heaven aid earth consist.’

 ‘The Faculties of the Human Mind are arranged in three classes, the faculties of Cognition, Feeling and Conation or Will.

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 with- holding Attention.’ 

the success of any physical investigation depends on the judicious selection of what is to be observed as of primary importance, combined with a voluntary abstraction of the mind from those features which, however attractive they appear, we are not yet sufficiently advanced in science to investigate with profit.’

Is the soul like the engine-driver, who does not draw the train himself, but, by means of certain valves, directs the course of the steam so as to drive the engine forward or backward, or to stop it?

There is action and reaction between body and soul, but it is not of a kind in which energy passes from the one to the other,—as when a man pulls a trigger it is the gunpowder that projects the bullet, or when a pointsman shunts a train it is the rails that bear the thrust.’

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