We quote at some length, in this Scarriet piece, the last major work of America’s major author, Edgar Poe; like the Commedia of Dante or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Poe’s Eureka presents genius on a scale that cannot be glimpsed at once, but reveals itself to patient wonder. But the wonder is that even in glimpses the genius is apparent.
Poe, the inventor of science fiction, detective fiction and code-breaking that helped the allies win World War Two, gives us, in Eureka, a work of science: the universe of stars explained. The author of Eureka reasons in a manner admirable for its unprecedented resourcefulness: the lock will come undone, no matter what, is the chief dynamic on display.
We present this portion of Poe’s Eureka not as a piece for passive admiration (even though our admiration is extreme) but as an exercise for the mind, and as a question: regarding the universe, does Poe get away with too much, or as he solved the secret?
Poe bumps up against three absolutes, which few would dare to touch, and destroys them all—and only because, as his poetic sense recognizes, he is talking about the origin and behavior of the universe.
2. Newton’s First Law of Motion
3. Axiomatic principle
To most, simply reading the excerpt of Poe’s Eureka below will be sufficient to comprehend the profundity of Poe’s extraordinary gambit in dealing with 1, 2, and 3 above.
We shall briefly explain for others the inevitable path Poe takes in his remarkably simple, yet profound thesis, so that the powerful force of his genius, applied to the problem of understanding the universe, may be truly felt.
For Poe, the universe is finite, and begins as one particle, and because it is one, it has no relation.
When this one universe splits as the ‘big bang,’ it creates matter (relation) and all the subsequent “principles,” the chief and overriding principle the law of gravity, the force of all matter attempting to return to its original perfection (with light, the resistant friction of this return).
The universe, in its original perfect state, features no relation, therefore all principles and axioms at this point are in abeyance.
As Poe points out, an axiom is nothing more than “obviousness of relation” and so here Poe’s original unparticled particle trumps, in its true unity of existence, all principles and axioms—which are subsequent realities growing out of the one axiomatic principle, superior to all others—the ultimate beginning, the one particle with no relation. Does this allow Poe ‘to get away with shit,’ or, as Poe himself argues, does this guide him, inductively and deductively, to the secret of the universe?
Poe was not the first to posit the universe as “one,” but in Eureka, Poe scrutinized the idea of one universe intensely and radically, so that one, in a material, and not merely an abstract sense, really is one, that is, blind to all axiomatic thought (and incapable of being infinite) so that the scientist, if not the poet, is absolutely startled as Poe’s actual, finite universe emerges into the light of day as a product of an inevitable ‘big bang,’ Poe having, in fact, discovered the ‘big bang.” Since Einstein admitted to having read and admired Eureka, we may possibly infer that Edgar Allan Poe, the poet, (a few copies of Eureka having quietly fallen into the right hands) invented modern physics itself.
Now we present Poe in his own words, from the middle portion of Eureka. The force and clarity of his rhetoric will be felt at once by all:
Now, Rëaction, as far as we know anything of it, is Action conversed. The general principle of Gravity being, in the first place, understood as the rëaction of an act — as the expression of a desire on the part of Matter, while existing in a state of diffusion, to return into the Unity whence it was diffused; and, in the second place, the mind being called on to determine the character of the desire — the manner in which it would, naturally, be manifested; in other words, being called on to conceive a probable law, or modus operandi, for the return; could not well help arriving at the conclusion that this law of return would be precisely the converse of the law of departure. That such would be the case, any one, at least, would be abundantly justified in taking for granted, until such time as some person should suggest something like a plausible reason why it should not be the case — until such period as a law of return shall be imagined which the intellect can consider as preferable.
Matter, then, radiated into space with a force varying as the squares of the distances, might, à priori, be supposed to return towards its centre of radiation with a force varying inversely as the squares of the distances: and I have already shown* that any principle which will explain why the atoms should tend, according to any law, to the general centre, must be admitted as satisfactorily explaining, at the same time, why, according to the same law, they should tend each to each. For, in fact, the tendency to the general centre is not to a centre as such, but because of its being a point in tending towards which each atom tends most directly to its real and essential centre, Unity — the absolute and final Union of all.
The consideration here involved presents to my own mind no embarrassment whatever — but this fact does not blind me to the possibility of its being obscure to those who may have been less in the habit of dealing with abstractions: — and, on the whole, it may be as well to look at the matter from one or two other points of view.
The absolute, irrelative particle primarily created by the Volition of God, must have been in a condition of positive normality, or rightfulness — for wrongfulness implies relation. Right is positive; wrong is negative — is merely the negation of right; as cold is the negation of heat — darkness of light. That a thing may be wrong, it is necessary that there be some other thing in relation to which it is wrong — some condition which it fails to satisfy; some law which it violates; some being whom it aggrieves. If there be no such being, law, or condition, in respect to which the thing is wrong — and, still more especially, if no beings, laws, or conditions exist at all — then the thing cannot be wrong and consequently must be right.
Any deviation from normality involves a tendency to return into it. A difference from the normal — from the right — from the just — can be understood as effected only by the overcoming a difficulty; and if the force which overcomes the difficulty be not infinitely continued, the ineradicable tendency to return will at length be permitted to act for its own satisfaction. On withdrawal of the force, the tendency acts. This is the principle of rëaction as the inevitable consequence of finite action. Employing a phraseology of which the seeming affectation will be pardoned for its expressiveness, we may say that Rëaction is the return from the condition of as it is and ought not to be into the condition of as it was, originally, and therefore ought to be; — and let me add here that the absolute force of Rëaction would no doubt be always found in direct proportion with the reality — the truth — the absoluteness — of the originality — if ever it were possible to measure this latter: — and, consequently, the greatest of all conceivable rëactions must be that manifested in the tendency which we now discuss — the tendency to return into the absolutely original — into the supremely primitive. Gravity, then, must be the strongest of forces — an idea reached à priori and abundantly confirmed by induction. What use I make of the idea, will be seen in the sequel.
The atoms, now, having been diffused from their normal condition of Unity, seek to return to — what? Not to any particular point, certainly; for it is clear that if, on the diffusion, the whole Universe of matter had been projected, collectively, to a distance from the point of radiation, the atomic tendency to the general centre of the sphere would not have been disturbed in the least; the atoms would not have sought the point in absolute space from which they were originally impelled. It is merely the condition, and not the point or locality at which this condition took its rise, that these atoms seek to re-establish; — it is merely that condition which is their normality, that they desire. “But they seek a centre,” it will be said, “and a centre is a point.” True; but they seek this point not in its character of point — (for, were the whole sphere moved from its position, they would seek, equally, the centre; and the centre then would be a new point) — but because it so happens, on account of the form in which they collectively exist — (that of the sphere) — that only through the point in question — the sphere’s centre — they can attain their true object, Unity. In the direction of the centre each atom perceives more atoms than in any other direction. Each atom is impelled towards the centre because along the straight line joining it and the centre and passing on to the surface beyond, there lie a greater number of atoms than along any other straight line joining it, the atom, with any point of the sphere — a greater number of objects that seek it, the individual atom — a greater number of tendencies to Unity — a greater number of satisfactions for its own tendency to Unity — in a word, because in the direction of the centre lies the utmost possibility of satisfaction, generally, for its own individual appetite. To be brief, the condition, Unity, is all that is really sought; and if the atoms seem to seek the centre of the sphere, it is only impliedly — through implication — because such centre happens to imply, to include, or to involve, the only essential centre, Unity. But on account of this implication or involution, there is no possibility of practically separating the tendency to Unity in the abstract, from the tendency to the concrete centre. Thus the tendency of the atoms to the general centre is, to all practical intents and for all logical purposes, the tendency each to each; and the tendency each to each is the tendency to the centre; and the one tendency may be assumed as the other; whatever will apply to the one must be thoroughly applicable to the other; and, in conclusion, whatever principle will satisfactorily explain the one, cannot be questioned as an explanation of the other.
In looking carefully around me for rational objection to what I have advanced, I am able to discover nothing; — but of that class of objections usually urged by the doubters for Doubt’s sake, I very readily perceive three; and proceed to dispose of them in order.
It may be said, first: “That the proof that the force of radiation (in the case described) is directly proportional with the squares of the distances, depends on an unwarranted assumption — that of the number of atoms in each stratum being the measure of the force with which they are emitted.”
I reply, not only that I am warranted in such assumption, but that I should be utterly unwarranted in any other. What I assume is, simply, that an effect is the measure of its cause — that every exercise of the Divine Will will be proportional with that which demands the exertion — that the means of Omnipotence, or of Omniscience, will be exactly adapted to its purposes. Neither can a deficiency nor an excess of cause bring to pass any effect. Had the force which radiated any stratum to its position, been either more or less than was needed for the purpose — that is to say, not directly proportional with the purpose — then to its position that stratum could not have been radiated. Had the force which, with a view to general equability of distribution, emitted the proper number of atoms for each stratum, been not directly proportional with the number, then the number would not have been the number demanded for the equable distribution.
It is an admitted principle in Dynamics that every body, on receiving an impulse, or disposition to move, will move onward in a straight line, in the direction imparted by the impelling force, until deflected, or stopped, by some other force. How then, it may be asked, is my first or external stratum of atoms to be understood as discontinuing their movement at the surface of the imaginary glass sphere, when no second force, of more than an imaginary character, appears, to account for the discontinuance?
I reply that the objection, in this case, actually does arise out of “an unwarranted assumption” — on the part of the objector — the assumption of a principle, in Dynamics, at an epoch when no “principles,” in anything, exist: — I use the word “principle,” of course, in the objector’s understanding of the word.
“In the beginning” we can admit — indeed we can comprehend — but one First Cause — the truly ultimate Principle — the Volition of God. The primary act — that of Radiation from Unity — must have been independent of all that which the world now calls “principle” — because all that we so designate is but a consequence of the rëaction of that primary act: — I say “primary” act; for the creation of the absolute material Particle is more properly to be regarded as a conception than as an “act” in the ordinary meaning of the term. Thus, we must regard the primary act as an act for the establishment of what we now call “principles.” But this primary act itself is to be considered as continuous Volition. The Thought of God is to be understood as originating the Diffusion — as proceeding with it — as regulating it — and, finally, as being withdrawn from it on its completion. Then commences Rëaction, and through Rëaction, “Principle,” as we employ the word. It will be advisable, however, to limit the application of this word to the two immediate results of the discontinuance of the Divine Volition — that is, to the two agents, Attraction and Repulsion. Every other Natural agent depends, either more or less immediately, on these two, and therefore would be more conveniently designated as sub-principle.
It may be objected, thirdly, that, in general, the peculiar mode of distribution which I have suggested for the atoms, is “an hypothesis and nothing more.”
Now, I am aware that the word “hypothesis” is a ponderous sledge-hammer, grasped immediately, if not lifted, by all very diminutive thinkers, on the first appearance of any proposition wearing, in any particular, the garb of a theory. But “hypothesis” cannot be wielded here to any good purpose, even by those who succeed in lifting it — little men or great.
I maintain, first, that only in the mode described is it conceivable that Matter could have been diffused so as to fulfil at once the conditions of radiation and of generally equable distribution. I maintain, secondly, that these conditions themselves have been imposed upon me, as necessities, in a train of ratiocination as rigorously logical as that which establishes any demonstration in Euclid; and I maintain, thirdly, that even if the charge of “hypothesis” were as fully sustained as it is, in fact, unsustained and untenable, still the validity and indisputability of my result would not, even in the slightest particular, be disturbed.
To explain: — The Newtonian Gravity — a law of Nature — a law whose existence as such no one out of Bedlam questions — a law whose admission as such enables us to account for nine-tenths of the Universal phænomena — a law which, merely because it does so enable us to account for these phænomena, we are perfectly willing, without reference to any other considerations, to admit, and cannot help admitting, as a law — a law, nevertheless, of which neither the principle nor the modus operandi of the principle, has ever yet been traced by the human analysis — a law, in short, which, neither in its detail nor in its generality, has been found susceptible of explanation at all — is at length seen to be at every point thoroughly explicable, provided we only yield our assent to —— what? To an hypothesis? Why, if an hypothesis — if the merest hypothesis — if an hypothesis for whose assumption — as in the case of that pure hypothesis the Newtonian law itself — no shadow of à priori reason could be assigned — if an hypothesis, even so absolute as all this implies, would enable us to perceive a principle for the Newtonian law — would enable us to understand as satisfied, conditions so miraculously — so ineffably complex and seemingly irreconcileable as those involved in the relations of which Gravity tells us, — what rational being could so expose his fatuity as to call even this absolute hypothesis an hypothesis any longer — unless, indeed, he were to persist in so calling it, with the understanding that he did so, simply for the sake of consistency in words?
But what is the true state of our present case? What is the fact? Not only that it is not an hypothesis which we are required to adopt, in order to admit the principle at issue explained, but that it is a logical conclusion which we are requested not to adopt if we can avoid it — which we are simply invited to deny if we can: — a conclusion of so accurate a logicality that to dispute it would be the effort — to doubt its validity beyond our power: — a conclusion from which we see no mode of escape, turn as we will; a result which confronts us either at the end of an inductive journey from the phænomena of the very Law discussed, or at the close of a deductive career from the most rigorously simple of all conceivable assumptions — the assumption, in a word, of Simplicity itself.
And if here, it be urged, that although my starting-point is, as I assert, the assumption of absolute Simplicity, yet Simplicity, considered merely in itself, is no axiom; and that only deductions from axioms are indisputable — it is thus that I reply:
Every other science than Logic is the science of certain concrete relations. Arithmetic, for example, is the science of the relations of number — Geometry, of the relations of form — Mathematics in general, of the relations of quantity in general — of whatever can be increased or diminished. Logic, however, is the science of Relation in the abstract — of absolute Relation — of Relation considered solely in itself. An axiom in any particular science other than Logic is, thus, merely a proposition announcing certain concrete relations which seem to be too obvious for dispute — as when we say, for instance, that the whole is greater than its part: — and, thus again, the principle of the Logical axiom — in other words, of an axiom in the abstract — is, simply, obviousness of relation. Now, it is clear, not only that what is obvious to one mind may not be obvious to another, but that what is obvious to one mind at one epoch, may be anything but obvious, at another epoch, to the same mind. It is clear, moreover, that what, to-day, is obvious even to the majority of mankind, or to the majority of the best intellects of mankind, may to-morrow be, to either majority, more or less obvious, or in no respect obvious at all. It is seen, then, that the axiomatic principle itself is susceptible of variation, and of course that axioms are susceptible of similar change. Being mutable, the “truths” which grow out of them are necessarily mutable too; or, in other words, are never to be positively depended on as truths at all — since Truth and Immutability are one.
It will now be readily understood that no axiomatic idea — no idea founded in the fluctuating principle, obviousness of relation — can possibly be so secure — so reliable a basis for any structure erected by the Reason, as that idea — (whatever it is, wherever we can find it, or if it be practicable to find it anywhere) — which is irrelative altogether — which not only presents to the understanding no obviousness of relation, either greater or less, to be considered, but subjects the intellect, not in the slightest degree, to the necessity of even looking at any relation at all. If such an idea be not what we too heedlessly term “an axiom,” it is at least preferable, as a logical basis, to any axiom ever propounded, or to all imaginable axioms combined: — and such, precisely, is the idea with which my deductive process, so thoroughly corroborated by induction, commences. My Particle Proper is but Absolute Irrelation.
To sum up what has been here advanced: — As a starting point I have taken it for granted, simply, that the Beginning had nothing behind it or before it — that it was a Beginning in fact — that it was a Beginning and nothing different from a Beginning — in short that this Beginning was —— that which it was. If this be a “mere assumption,” then a “mere assumption” let it be.
To conclude this branch of the subject: — I am fully warranted in announcing that the Law which call Gravity exists on account of Matter’s having been irradiated, at its origin, atomically, into a limited* sphere of Space, from one, individual, unconditional, irrelative, and absolute Particle Proper, by the sole process in which it was possible to satisfy, at the same time, the two conditions, radiation and equable distribution throughout the sphere — that is to say, by a force varying in direct proportion with the squares of the distances between the Radiated atoms, respectively, and the Particular centre of Radiation.
I have already given my reasons for presuming Matter to have been diffused by a determinate rather than by a continuous or infinitely continued force. Supposing a continuous force, we should be unable, in the first place, to comprehend a rëaction at all; and we should be required, in the second place, to entertain the impossible conception of an infinite extension of Matter. Not to dwell upon the impossibility of the conception, the infinite extension of Matter is an idea which, if not positively disproved, is at least not in any respect warranted by telescopic observation of the stars — a point to be explained more fully hereafter; and this empirical reason for believing in the original finity of Matter is unempirically confirmed. For example: — Admitting, for the moment, the possibility of understanding Space as filled with the radiated atoms — that is to say, admitting, as well as we can, for argument’s sake, that the succession of the atoms had absolutely no end — then it is clear, that, even when the Volition of God had been withdrawn from them, and thus the tendency to return into Unity permitted (abstractly) to be satisfied, this permission would have been nugatory and invalid — practically valueless and of no effect whatever. No Rëaction could have taken place; no movement toward Unity could have been made; no Law of Gravity could have obtained.
To explain: — Grant the abstract tendency of any one atom to any one other as the inevitable result of diffusion from the normal Unity: — or, what is the same thing, admit any given atom as proposing to move in any given direction — it is clear that, since there is an infinity of atoms on all sides of the atom proposing to move, it never can actually move toward the satisfaction of its tendency in the direction given, on account of a precisely equal and counter-balancing tendency in the direction diametrically opposite. In other words, exactly as many tendencies to Unity are behind the hesitating atom as before it; for it is mere folly to say that one infinite line is longer or shorter than another infinite line, or that one infinite number is greater or less than another number that is infinite. Thus the atom in question must remain stationary forever. Under the impossible circumstances which we have been merely endeavoring to conceive for argument’s sake, there could have been no aggregation of Matter — no stars — no worlds — nothing but a perpetually atomic and inconsequential Universe. In fact, view it as we will, the whole idea of unlimited Matter is not only untenable, but impossible and preposterous.
With the understanding of a sphere of atoms, however, we perceive, at once, a satisfiable tendency to union. The general result of the tendency each to each, being a tendency of all to the centre, the general process of condensation, or approximation, commences immediately, by a common and simultaneous movement, on withdrawal of the Divine Volition; the individual approximations, or cöalescences — of atom with atom, being subject to almost infinite variations of time, degree, and condition, on account of the excessive multiplicity of relation, arising from the differences of form assumed as characterizing the atoms at the moment of their quitting the Particle Proper; as well as from the subsequent particular inequidistance, each from each.
What I wish to impress upon the reader is the certainty of there arising, at once, (on withdrawal of the diffusive force, or Divine Volition,) out of the condition of the atoms as described, at innumerable points throughout the Universal sphere, innumerable agglomerations, characterized by innumerable specific differences of form, size, essential nature, and distance each from each. The development of Repulsion (Electricity) must have commenced, of course, with the very earliest particular efforts at Unity, and must have proceeded constantly in the ratio of Cöalescence — that is to say, in that of Condensation, or, again, of Heterogeneity.
Thus the two Principles Proper, Attraction and Repulsion — the Material and the Spiritual — accompany each other, in the strictest fellowship, forever. Thus The Body and The Soul walk hand in hand.