Materialism Derives no Support Whatever From Physics
Materialism offers us a philosophy, an explanation of the real world.
It aims at showing the underlying unity of things by demonstrating that everything alike is derived from the one ultimate matter; that everything is one form or another of this same universal principle. Now to explain a thing by reference to a principle implies that the principle itself is clear and needs no explanation: or at least that it needs so little explanation that it is more readily comprehensible than the things which it is called in to explain. If it were no more comprehensible than these, it would not serve to explain them, and the explanation would take us no further.
At first sight, matter does seem to be perfectly simple and easy to conceive. If it is regarded as a homogeneous substance, always divisible into portions which, however small, are still matter—divisible, that is, in imagination, even if not physically separable—we can no doubt imagine such a thing, and its simplicity makes it very well fitted to serve as a metaphysical first principle. And this conception of matter was certainly held at one time by physicists.
According to the ancient atomic theory, matter was in this sense homogeneous and infinitely divisible, in thought if not in fact; that is to say, you could not actually cut an atom in half, but it had halves, and each half was still a piece of matter. But this is not, I believe, held by scientists at the present time.
The whole subject of the composition or structure of matter is one of extreme difficulty; but if, for the sake of argument, we accept the view most widely held, we shall be compelled to say that matter is not, so far as we know, homogeneous, but is differentiated into a large number of distinct elements; that these elements do seem to be made of the same stuff, that is to say, they are all composed of similar electrons arranged in groups of different types; but that the way in which these different arrangements give rise to the different characteristics of the elements is a profound mystery.
Further, the electron does not seem to be itself a minute mass of matter, like the old-fashioned atom; it has none of the properties of matter, which are produced only (if I understand the theory rightly) by the collocation of electrons. Thus matter is a complex of parts which are not in themselves material. If we are pressed to describe these smallest parts, we shall perhaps have to say that they consist of energy. At any rate, they do not consist of matter.
The tendency of modern physics, then, if a layman’s reading of it is to be trusted, seems to lie in the direction of abandoning matter as a first principle and substituting energy. This at least may be said without fear of contradiction: that matter is for physics not a self-evident principle of supreme simplicity, but something itself highly complex and as yet very imperfectly understood.
The simplicity of matter as conceived by ordinary materialism seems to be merely the simplicity of ignorance. Matter was supposed to be the simplest and least puzzling thing in the universe at a time when physics was in its infancy, when the real problems that surround the nature and composition of matter had not yet arisen. To-day, as Mr. Balfour says in a characteristic epigram, we know too much about matter to be materialists.