Lancelot Law Whyte

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Lancelot Law Whyte (4 November 1896 – 14 September 1972) was a Scottish philosopher, theoretical physicist, historian of science and financier.



Archimedes or the Future of Physics (1927)

  • The idea that time may be an active factor in causation has the mathematical significance that ' t ' (for the system in question) must appear explicitly in the formulation of the law. ...Such law may claim to express the fact of historic, irreversible duration.
  • The question of the reversibility of natural processes provides the key to a great intellectual struggle which is now behind the complexities of philosophic and scientific thought. The issue can be formulated thus: Is there a real temporal process in nature? Is the passage of irreversible time a necessary element in any view of the structure of nature? Or, alternatively, is the subjective experience of time a mere illusion of the mind which cannot be given objective expression? These are not metaphysical questions that can still be neglected with impunity. For just as Einstein made his advance by analysing conceptions such as simultaneity, which had been thought to be adequately understood for the purposes of experimental science, so the next development of physical theory will probably be made by carrying on the analysis of time from the point at which Einstein left it.

The Next Development in Man (1948)

  • Thought is born of failure. When action satisfies there is no residue to hold the attention; to think is to confess a lack of adjustment which we must stop to consider. Only when the human organism fails to achieve an adequate response to its situation is there material for the process of thought, and the greater the failure the more searching they become. (p. 1)
  • The unitary system of thought has three main characteristics which distinguish it from many other systems: it deals with the form of systems rather than with their component parts; it recognizes a process of development as prior to the apparently static aspects of nature; and it is unitary, emphasizing one general form beneath all apparent dualism. (p. 21-22)
  • A unitary method of thought is indispensable to the interpretation of European history. The pervasive dualisms which distort the thought of western man are an element in this general condition, which therefore must be diagnosed in a language which does not take these dualisms for granted. No interpretation of European man in traditional European terms can bring the truth to light, any more than the color-blind can know their deficiency. (p. 25)
  • The internal tendencies of every organism, if isolated, lead to its disintegration. But the processes of the wider system sustain and modify those internal tendencies by "nourishing" them and gradually increasing the mutual conformity of organism and environment. (p. 36)
  • The term dissociation is here used for a condition in which the organizing process in an individual fail to develop one characteristic form, and two or more mutually incompatible systems of behavior compete for control. (p. 62)
  • Throughout history there runs one main trend: a progressive differentiation, or passage from simple to more complex forms in behavior, thought, and social organization. (p. 73)
  • During the metamorphosis from ancient to European man, self-awareness, rationalism, monotheism, and morality all developed in parallel as expressions of the influence of a new form of social tradition on the organization of the individual. […] Europe forced the new mode of life till it produced a definite dissociation, for self-awareness did not then bring with it an adequate understanding of the self; religion could not offer a complete integration; the rational intellect knew nothing of its own origins, limitations or mode of operation; and morality necessarily failed to realize its aim. (p. 114)
  • The dissociation of the typical adult European is a consequence not of any universal human nature, a term that has no meaning, but of the influence of an inadequately organized tradition. (p. 124)
  • In the religious age, the religious hierarchy wields power; in the political age, the ruler, nobles and commoners; in the economic, the hierarchy of wealth. The development of Europe during the last six centuries has consisted in the progressive shifting of the hierarchy of power from one set of functions to another. (p. 132)
  • The capitalist and the quantitative scientist were working out the final consequences of the tendencies that had begun with Plato and Archimedes, borne fruit in Kepler and Galileo, and were reaching their culmination in Carnegie, Ford, and Zaharoff, and – as we shall see – in Heisenberg. Yes, it would be unfair, and perhaps libelous, to accuse recent leaders of the West of a mature consciousness of their own historical significance. (p. 150)
  • More comprehensive process than those of the conscious mind control human destiny. (p. 151)
  • It is impossible today to escape the need for a general awareness of the phasing of the historical process. In the past great cultures could be created unconsciously, the organic processes forming the new patterns without man's attention being drawn to their wider significance. But the unconscious phase of history is now past. The acceleration of social change which has resulted from the attention paid to specialized techniques can only be controlled by paying attention also to the general formative processes which in earlier times were unconscious. Consciousness of specialized technical methods must be balanced by consciousness of general developing forms. (p. 167)
  • Three centuries of increasingly intense application of the quantitative method had exhausted its guarantee of the progressive improvement of thought, because the regions where the method is adequate have already been explored. [...] It is scarcely possible to avoid the conclusion that a new method is now necessary to supplement the method of quantitative analysis. (p. 180)
  • Man abhors the absence of integration. He demands integration, and will create religions, achieve heroic self-sacrifice, pursue mad ambitions, or follow the ecstasy of danger, rather than live without. If society refuses him this satisfaction in a constructive form he will seize a destructive principle to which he can devote himself and will take revenge on the society that thought his only demand was pleasure. (p. 188)
  • Man set out on a two-thousand-year trial of a particular method of differentiation, adapting the structure of his mental processes, conscious and unconscious, to a certain general form. We need to consider only the most general characteristics of this form, and for the purpose of this analysis, there reduce to two. Thought may be either unitary or dualistic (since other pluralistic forms may be neglected), and it may be either process or static. These two pairs produce four combinations or types of thought: unitary-process, unitary-static, dualistic-process and dualistic-static. The first and the last are the most stable and common types; the unitary-static and dualistic-process forms are less frequent and may be regarded as anomalous forms appearing at times of transition. (p. 193-194)
  • In Plato we find the essential form of the European attitude: the intellectual rejection of the phenomenal world of process on account of its sordid ruthlessness and the emancipation of the spirit within its own realm of permanent intellectual clarity and harmony. The ancient, aristocratic, tragic consciousness disappears; man sets out to console his spirit and protect his body by the exploitation of static ideas. (p. 201)
  • In separating consciousness from the material world Plato has to ascribe the formative faculty of the mind to consciousness, whereas the formative processes of the human system are largely unconscious, that is, they operate below the dominant processes of the human hierarchy and only come to attention at special moments. (p. 203)
  • The dualistic-static form of thought which marks the European tradition attains its most radical expression in Descartes. Whatever lip service we pay to other ideas, and however certain we are of its falsity, after three centuries we still behave as if we lived in a Cartesian world. The static clarity of Cartesian thought inevitably fascinated and imposed on beings who were so badly in need of harmony and so ready to deny process in the search for it. The very clarity of the method exposes its own errors, but we are accustomed to them and like them, for they satisfy our vanity. It has been evident for a century that unity is necessary to thought, and that process is inherent in nature, but western man has preferred to perish in his dualism rather than give up the proud autonomy of reason and risk losing his identity in the universal process. (p. 214)
  • Goethe did not propose a return to the undifferentiated condition of Heraclitus. The development of man lead from undifferentiated unity with nature, through a differentiation achieved by separation, to a new organized unity. But this last state would be different from the first; it must contain within its recovered unity all the differentiated knowledge, all the specialized organs and faculties, of two thousands years of development. (p. 224)
  • The human need for unity first created subjective religion, then objective analytical science; now it corrects the partiality of these attitudes by substituting one complete doctrine. (p. 251)
  • The failure of idealistic thought lay partly in the fact that it did not recognize that every ideal is linked to its shadow. [...] Whatever is incomplete is thus always complemented by its contrary; the penalty for any principle which fails to express the whole is the necessity to co-exist with its opposite. Partial love implies partial hate; spirit, sensuality; self-sacrificing compassion, sadism. The denial of any aspect sharpens and preserves it, while its acceptance transforms it by bringing it within the process of the whole. (p. 254)
  • Unitary man escapes these confusions through his recognition that one factor is of supreme importance: the maturity proper to man can only come through the experience of adult unity. This experience may come in many ways, but it means that the individual has, for the moment, outgrown the sense of any division, either within himself of from others, through a mature relations to at least one other person. Tension is inherent in the process, but tension does not become frustrating conflict if the overriding unity is realized. (p. 255)
  • Security is an impostor; little can be achieved while each seeks his own freedom from want, from war, or from fear. The general nature of all fear is the awareness that development is threatened. Fear and its consequences can be eliminated only by action leading to continuous development. Action can bring the assurance of a development which is more welcome than either spiritual or material security. Only through the pursuit of a general development can the species acquire the unity of purpose which may, as one of its secondary consequences, eliminate unemployment and war. In the individual life the same is true: only in unitary development can fear be overcome. Every individual experiences countless shocks from his first breath to his last, and these challenges are necessary to his development. But a unitary tradition can assist the members of each maturing generation to turn these challenges to advantage and to retain their basic integrity. (p. 256)
  • The ideals of truth, beauty, and goodness represent attempts to interpret the process of development as a group of tendencies permanently directed towards certain permanent and universal ends. But human behaviour is not directed towards unchanging ends, not even towards those temporary ideals which each community sets up for itself. The formative tendency is displayed, not in any steady process of definite orientation, but in a rhythmic sequence of transformation which cannot be represented as tending towards any particular final condition. (p. 261-262)
  • The idealist seeks the security of a static harmony, and therefore considers every tension evil. Unitary man recognizes tension as an essential feature of the formative process operating in man. Man creates in resolving tensions, but never brings them to an end. The contrasts of past, present and future forms provide an inexhaustible source of tension. (p. 274)
  • By openly recognizing the inescapable rhythm of harmony and tension which is the form of all human processes unitary man achieves a far-reaching emancipation. Much that was concealed can now stand in the open. The neutrality and objectivity of the quantity symbolism seemed to dissociated man a guarantee of the liberation of the mind from anthropomorphic and subjective illusions. But at deeper level it expressed merely the desire to escape inner conflict in a harmony of static form. This escape was wholly illusory; the superficial neutrality of science left it open to abuse, and the spirit of man has been punished by its attempt to escape struggle in an intellectual harmony. Unitary man renounces such separation and partakes in the development of the whole. Man finds himself in the universal process, by finding the universal process within himself. Tension continues, but henceforward his struggle is with, not against, the process of nature. (p. 276)

Accent on Form: An Anticipation of the Science of Tomorrow (1955)

  • We are indeed a blind race, and the next generation, blind to its own blindness, will be amazed at ours.

Essay on Atomism: From Democritus to 1960 (1961)

  • It is widely believed that only those who can master the latest quantum mathematics can understand anything of what is happening. That is not so, provided one takes the long view, for no one can see far ahead. Against a historical background, the layman can understand what is involved, for example, in the fascinating challenge of continuity and discontinuity expressed in the antithesis of field and particle.
  • A clue to the future must lie in the past... every scientist, and everyone with intellectual curiosity, can learn something useful from a brief study of the history of atomism.
  • No scientist has yet provided an acceptable definition of "mind" or "mental" that reveals the character of "unconscious mental processes," and no physicist a lucid definition of "elementary particles" that shows how they can appear or disappear, and why there are so many.
  • Did ever the history of the intellect so little conceal so much?
  • Physics and psychology are going somewhere, but where they do not know. But... they are traveling from: Democritan permanent particles and the Cartesian mind necessarily aware. ...they are both traveling away from the same point of origin and in the same general direction: from the isolation of supposedly permanent "substances" towards the identification of changing relations potentially affecting everything; briefly, from substance to changing relations and structures.
  • The material particle or the conscious mind—has been discovered not to be sufficiently unchanging to be treated as a thing in isolation... but more often to be the opposite: a changing system in a changing environment.
  • Nothing is more surprising than the surprises of history, and nothing more untrustworthy than the uncritical extrapolation of the tendencies of the recent past.
  • There are good reasons to expect... a return to a concreteness of basic ideas, to simpler fundamentals easily understood, to principles that will bring exact science closer to the human perspective.
  • The most productive novelties often spring, in thought as in biological evolution, from more primitive and simpler forms, rather than from differentiated ones which, through their elaboration, have become too specialized to be adaptable to new tasks.
  • Systematic errors of theory can seldom be discovered by direct attack; it is easier to uncover them by studying how and why physical theory took the path it did. That is why a clue to the future can sometimes be found in the past, and this is my reason for studying the history of atomism.
  • Every scientific generation, measured by its most vocal members, exaggerates the historical importance of its own members. ...there is a perpetual temptation to study the latest and to neglect the past.
  • There is no doubt of the need for an up-to-date, balanced, and comprehensive work on the history of atomism, drawing ideas, mathematics, and experiment together into a single story. When available, it should become required reading for all students of the exact sciences.
  • No one is so brilliant that he can afford to neglect what history can teach him.
  • Discontinuity of its linguistic and logical terms is for the conscious analytical intellect psychologically and logically prior to notions of continuity. ...This functional priority... may not have been reflected in the history of the development of reason in all human communities. ...But it is relevant for the West that the Pythagoreans, with their discrete integers and point patterns, came before Euclid, with his continuous metrical geometry, and that physical atomism as a speculative philosophy preceded by some two thousand years the conception of a continuous physical medium with properties of its own.
  • Atomism originally stood for iconoclasm, impiety, and atheism, because the Greek atomists conceived a universe under the reign of chance.
  • Two extreme interpretations of atomism have persisted through centuries: the näive assumption of objectively real indivisible pieces of matter, and the sophisticated view that "atom" is merely a name given to abstractions which it is convenient to assume in simplifying complex phenomena. The second perhaps stems from Ockham, who wrote in 1330 of "the fiction of abstract nouns"; from John Troland, who in 1704 interpreted material particles as mental fictions; and from countless others down to Ernst Mach, who after starting as a physical atomist came to regard atoms as "mental artifices" or "economical ways of symbolizing experience."
    Both views have advantages...
  • Theory confronts experiment, and both sides are a mixture of obscurity and clarity.
  • Dogmatism in science is usually mistaken, because the conviction of certainty expresses a psychological compulsion, never any truly compelling reasons or facts. When a view attains wide popularity and seems obviously beyond question, its decline has usually begun or will begin very soon.

The Unconscious Before Freud (1967)

  • The idea of the unconscious mental processes was, in many of its aspects, conceivable around 1700, topical around 1800, and became effective around 1900, thanks to the imaginative efforts of a large number of individuals of varied interests in many lands.

Pierre Curie's Principle of One Way-Process (1970)

  • I consider that Curie's Principle has two major consequences:-
    First: It shows that the class of processes which can be isolated for causal representation, not requiring the inference of external causes, is wider than the class of energetically closed systems. One-way processes in which the system loses energy can be isolable, in the sense that they can be given complete representation without taking their environment into account.
    Second: It suggests the possibility of a geometrical physics treating 3D spatial relations , i.e., angles or lengths, as primary. Just as statistical mechanics, the theory of crystal symmetry, and Group theory in quantum mechanics, are useful without assumptions about forces, so Curie's principle, with an appropriate model, can determine the path of a one-way process without such assumptions...

The Universe of Experience: A Worldview Beyond Science and Religion (1974)

  • We are sick today for lack of simple ideas which can help us be what we want to be.
  • The basic challenge to mankind is not population, poverty, war, technology, pollution, religious or racial intolerance, or blind nationalism, but an underlying nihilism promoting violence and frustrating sane policies on these issues. ...the only hope lies in the emergence of a potentially worldwide consensus of heart, mind, and will, appealing to all sane men and women everywhere ...The time has come for the west to speak to the world in universal terms. ...the consensus, if it comes, is likely to surprise by its suddenness, timeliness, and universality.
  • This essay touches bottom for twentieth century man. is one many signals marking the end of "Antiman," with his hopeless relativism, and announcing "Unitary Man," to be more harmonious because he has become aware of the ordering processes at all levels in nature, without and within. at last subject and object are potentially fused in a single insight.
  • We know nothing about the Christian transcendental God except His total indifference both to individual suffering and to the collapse of the pseudo Christian civilization which the Church supported. The pretension to a transcendental authority... was a hypnotic given to children and remaining with them as adults. During one period in history it served a purpose... its early rational opponents... were strangely naive, for they imagined that a half-developed faculty called "reason" should, and could, lead the species. But reason... is not a prime mover.
  • Faced by the dire nihilism of our time, we need a greater honesty... The Western search for unifying truth did not come to an end with Christianity, any more than with the physical theories of forty years ago.
  • The Christian fog of self deception still does its damage: we either deceive ourselves by pretending to believe or overreact into a contempt of all religion. So, away with the fog!
  • God doesn't give a damn.
  • The "divine" in man: creative bliss, the experience of perfection, the surprising joys of love all human, not divine. ...It is time that God was put in his place, that is, in man, and no nonsense about it. But, to prevent misunderstanding, instead of speaking of the "divine" in man I will call it the human sense of perfection or unity. ...Need I add that we may retain the Sermon on the Mount, Saint Paul's poem to charity, and much else, though we discard the Christian God?
  • The author... has known for that for several centuries freethinkers have led mankind. Only recently... new to him though perhaps long understood by others, possibly Kant and certainly Nietzsche, there emerged into his mind a clarity that will remain... the conception of transcendental divinity is damaging to man.
  • Belief in a transcendental divinity arose from a misinterpretation of intimations from the less conscious levels of the mind. ...God is in the unconscious, is the unconscious, perhaps.
  • A naturalistic reinterpretation renders all that is authentic about the Christian doctrine greater not less, for it makes it a part of a new and stronger man, not of some fancied "superman," but simply man as he is but less distorted by a dissociating tradition.
  • To rob man of his noblest faculty, the experience of and aspiration to perfection and unity in himself , we can now see to have been a truly hellish surgery.

Quotes about Whyte

  • L.L. Whyte, in his marvellous account of the way in which the duality of the human nervous system became the conflicting dualism of reason against instinct, writes: "Intellectual man had no choice but to follow the path which facilitated the development of his faculty of thought, and thought could only clarify itself by separating out static concepts which, in becoming static, ceased to conform to their organic matrix or to the forms of nature."
  • L. L. Whyte, in a short but prophetic essay, Archimedes or the Future of Physics, pointed out that in each of the two great new physical theories of this century the fundamental role was played by a particular constant of nature: in Relativity by c, the velocity of light in vacuo, and in Quantum Theory by h, Plank's constant. He suggested that the next great advance in our understanding of nature would be associated with a new fundamental constant, and he prophesied that this would be concerned with the flow of time.
  • Whyte showed how at the core of Newtonian physics lies the assumption that the elementary processes of nature are reversible, or would be if they could be isolated, and hence in the system of Natural Philosophy time would not appear as an explicit factor. ...In the cosmological theories of Einstein, de Sitter and Lamaître new ideas were introduced concerning the character of universal space, but no corresponding advance was made in connection with the idea of time, except in so far as the idea of expansion pointed to a finite rather than an infinite past.
  • Although the anti-causal inclinations of an Eddington (or a Jeans) are most pertinent... they were not characteristic for their milieu. Far more typical for British natural-philosophical thought in this period is that interpretation of the conceptual situation in physics advanced by Lancelot Law Whyte in 1927 in Archimedes, or the Future of Physics, namely that "in order to straighten out its atomic problems physics will have to take a hint from biology." This notion, casually stated in the language of the work-a-day world, had come to Whyte two years before as a most powerful experience, a veritable revelation.
    "...That just as the Solution of Relativity demanded a fundamental reconsideration of the so-called limits of Science & their absorption into Science & reconstruction & a new understanding of them, So the solution of the Relativity-Quantum problem might involve the problem of life in such a way as to throw real light on the relation of Religion, Art & Science."
    ...while Whyte anticipates a revolution in science, indeterminism receives no explicit attention...Whyte is simply unconcerned with that aspect of Weyl's and Eddington's views. And this seems characteristic... [of] how very far the British were from focusing on causality.
    • Paul Forman, "The Reception of an Accausal Quantum Mechanics in Germany and Britain," Weimar Culture and Quantum Mechanics: Selected Papers by Paul Forman and Contemporary Perspectives on the Forman Thesis (2011) ed. Cathryn Carson, Alexei Kojevnikov, Helmuth Trischler
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Essay on Atomism (1961)