A FORMER STUDENT REMEMBERS THE MAN
AND OFFERS SOME OBSERVATIONS ON THE
SCIENTIFIC ORIENTATION OF HIS WORK
Alvin Lowi, Jr.
Spencer Heath (1876-1963) is remembered for his work to establish a more realistic basis for science. His theory of reality upholding observable events per-se as the foundation of natural science suggests a reformulation of physics in terms of action (instead of the more abstract energy) and has far-reaching implications. A rational measure of quality, or value, in human terms is found in the dimensions of action. Heath's reasoning is followed into the domain of social phenomena where an action concept of population provides a quantitative measure of social performance and a humane rationale for human progress.
It was very late in his life when I met Spencer Heath. My first impression of him was as a dignified and cultivated southern gentleman, a reserved but at the same time intensely self-assured man who was deeply absorbed in thought regarding some new ideas. At the time, 1961, I was traveling in some strident libertarian company that was driven to doing something about mankind's ominous collectivist predicament.
Mr. Heath appeared curiously tranquil vis-a-vis our burning concerns. At the same time, he was ambitious out of all proportion to his age to put forth a message concerning what he called, simply, "physics." He was especially eager to reach professionally qualified and academically recognized physicists in the hope that they would want to carry what he considered the real merit of his life's work into the mainstream of physics. Although such subjects seemed superfluous to the ideological contest in progress, it was largely on this basis that I was privileged to enjoy Heath's companionship. Sadly, I did not fully realize the significance of this privilege until after his passing.1
In 1932, at 56 years of age, Heath had retired from an active business career to devote himself to subject-matter he had long dreamed of making his life's work.2 He wanted to master the epistemology of the successful sciences (i.e. those that have given rise to dependable technologies) to find a means of constructing a foundation for a natural science of society. To appreciate how he went about accomplishing this task, one need only consider what were some of his most important readings during this time. As determined by the wear on bindings and the marginal notations on the pages of the many books in his library, a representative selection would include:
Percy W. Bridgman, The Nature of Physical Theory
Arthur Stanley Eddington, The Philosophy of Physical Science
Arthur Stanley Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World
Henry George, Progress and Poverty
Robert A. Millikan, Science and life
Max Planck, A Survey of Physical Theory
Hans Reichenbach, The Rise of Scientific Philosophy
Twenty-eight years elapsed before he published his findings in his major work, Citadel, Market and Altar, which he liked to call his "engineer's report." In it he described what by then had become for him an all-encompassing philosophy of human knowledge and experience with which he proceeded to outline a natural science of society. He named his approach to the subject "socionomy," reviving an obscure but precise term of art from the lexicon of science that had fallen into disuse but was appropriate for his purpose. Webster defines "socionomy" as "the theory or formulation of the organic laws exemplified in the organization and development of society.".
Although well satisfied with his outline of "socionomy," in the perspective of his later years he believed that if he were destined to be remembered for any single accomplishment, it would more likely be for his broadly philosophical generalizations about science. While I understood and appreciated this achievement as a contribution to epistemology, the study of the limits and validity of knowing, Heath disdained that term, preferring to characterize his kind of thinking as "science of science" or just "philosophy of science."
In any case, these insights had already provided the foundation if not also the scaffolding for his work on social science, and now he believed they would be fruitful in making further advances in the physical sciences. It finally dawned on me after some years that the message he had been anxious to convey and to test against other minds dealt with nothing less than the possibility of a new integration of the physical sciences. The proposed integration would be in terms of action, rather than energy, thus reviving a most promising but neglected line of development undertaken in physics during the latter half of the nineteenth century.
At the beginning of our brief personal acquaintanceship, I was unaware of this enlarged scope of his thinking. Because of the circumstances surrounding our initial meeting, I had presumed that Mr. Heath would like nothing more than to discuss the conclusions of his book, Citadel, Market and Altar, as they related to contemporary social problems. Such discussions he seemed to enjoy as compliments to tolerate for brief interludes, but he always pursued his philosophically antecedent and intellectually unsatisfied interest in "physics" the instant the opportunity arose.
He had less patience still for those who wanted to discuss his landmark accomplishments in engineering and manufacturing in the fledging aviation industry before and after World War I. Never nostalgic, his interest was always on the pioneering edge. For him the technical problems of engine-powered, heavier-than-air flight had long since been resolved, and in principle at least the possibility of a natural science of society was established to his satisfaction. His new frontier was the simplification of "physics," and this he was eager to discuss.
Mr. Heath's speech was little more than a whisper, and he had an aversion for using forceful or authoritative expressions or gestures. A frail physique indicated his advancing years. (He celebrated his 86th birthday with my family at our home in Torrance, California on January 3, 1962.) These difficulties notwithstanding, accepting them as trifling deceptions of appearance, he was constantly making his opportunity for disclosure, even among presumptuous, impatient and loquacious conversationalists such as myself.
Although it was obscure to me at the time, Spencer Heath's interest in epistemology and physics was not merely incidental to his social inquiries. Now, reflecting on the remarkable social insights contained in Citadel, Market and Altar, it is clear that his antecedent but parallel study of the philosophy of science was the sine-qua-non of his achievement. This I discovered sometime later and then only after a re-reading of the "Prefatory Brief," "General Premises" and other material presented in the opening chapters of the book.
As a life-long devotee of the scientific method and an advocate of its universal applicability in all areas of human experience, I should have come around more quickly to appreciate the revolutionary and cosmic nature of Heath's inquiries and to see the merit of his achievements, as much for his method as for his particular discoveries, insights and deductions. Most significant perhaps, for me, his work demonstrated how scientific philosophy forged in the discipline of mature sciences such as physics can be so instructive in developing an understanding of the seemingly more complex field of social phenomena.
Heath's sweeping generalizations regarding mankind had to be revolutionary to avoid the reductionistic trap into which many competent physicists have fallen. But the implications of his conclusions are not revolutionary at all. Rather, they are evolutionary in nature. Although this may seem a subtle distinction, it was a memorable and lasting discovery for me.
Under the influence of Heath's intellectual and expository accomplishments and after more than thirty five years of gestation (wow!--that's half a lifetime), my early passion for libertarian ideology has been tempered by his more sober and fundamental scientific and technological persuasions. Admittedly, my intellectual development along these lines might not have occurred had I not first acquired an ideological attraction to the natural beauty of a laissez-faire world. Without this vision, it is doubtful I could have been sufficiently motivated to undertake the arduous studies required to understand how such a world works in practice. Now, instead of assuming society to be an institution that is somehow imposed on humanity for its own good, I see society as a natural manifestation of humanity, the development and operation of which I would seek to comprehend.
But the ideological distractions were costly and now, to my great chagrin, I realize the intellectual opportunities that were lost for many of us ideologues who were privileged to learn about this work directly from its author. There is a lesson here for the would-be revolutionary, whose ideology is like the cart before the horse. If society is a cart that can be drawn forward only by a horse consisting of dependable knowledge, that horse must first be born and bred of a science of human social behavior.
Heath's Theory of Reality
Spencer Heath hypothesized that human consciousness begins with the development of an awareness of self as distinct from not-self. The self lives in a subjective world that is not limited to experiencing contact with the not-self, the objective world outside of self. In his subjective world, man can entertain dreams and "phantasmagoria" without end. But when the outside world is the object of his speculations, he finds his subjective faculties offer him only limited means of dealing with the unlimited and unyielding objective world he faces. In his search for reality, he finds himself a captive of his subjective consciousness albeit informed to some extent by the short and narrow glimpses of the world outside as provided by his senses.
Consciousness denotes the human faculty for learning about the surrounding world--nature--if only in a comparatively small way. Science is the practice and method of learning. It refers especially to man's systematic efforts to learn and to develop his knowledge of how to survive his inescapable experience with that intractable and immutable nature. In this campaign, man eventually learns that he can never succeed in completely verifying his knowledge because he cannot experience all possible circumstances. He finds he can only eliminate what is false. Consequently, while his knowledge may grow in scope and depth, it remains tentative and uncertain. This exercise of his faculties teaches self-confidence tempered by humility. He soon learns he has within himself the power to know but he eventually discovers that the more he knows, the more he knows he does not know.
Knowledge is acquired only through science. While all knowledge is subjective, it is nonetheless rational. Heath observed that the process of thinking that resides in consciousness is ratio-nal only when and to the degree it involves comparisons under quantitative appraisal--fundamentally like forming ratios of numbers. In forming ratios, man finds and resolves various kinds of order or relationship such as weight and balance; stress and strain; action and reaction, quantity and quality; force and acceleration; equivalence and correspondence; attraction and repulsion; addition and subtraction; multiplication and division; differentiation and integration; form and function; melody, harmony and rhythm; tolerance and reciprocity; earning, spending and saving; peace and prosperity.
Perfect objectivity, i.e. complete congruence with nature, is an ideal never fully realized in science. Nevertheless, science is a universal human practice based on the common human faculties of perception, conception and curiosity. It is not merely an esoteric ritual reserved for the elite few residing in the ivory towers of academia. Whatever is truly known through science by whomever, however limited, is equally valid. Individual human survival on a day-to-day basis is prima-facie evidence of the universal practice of scientific method.
Spencer Heath abided by the principle that science deals not so much with abstractions as with events. Following Francis Bacon, all thoughtful scientists have realized that observable experience is the defining subject-matter of science. But Heath was more specific when he suggested that human experience consists of events. Heath made it plain that anything less than a whole, discrete event is an abstraction, a plaything of the human mind. He believed that every person's mind plays with his or her thoughts and abstractions, perceptions and emotions, but encounters with events introduces evidence of nature's play. Thereupon, contemplation is provoked.
In the absence of rational contemplation, experience remains blind and purposeless empiricism, aimless cutting and trying. However, without cutting and trying there is no experience for the mind to contemplate, whereupon mental exercise becomes mere musing and reverie. Thus, science involves a balance between experience, contemplation, analysis and experience, in roughly that order, practiced over and over ad infinitum. That is its method.
Heath suggested that when mind's play contemplates nature's play, we humans find evidence of a universal order in the world about us. Then we may experience a congruence, a oneness with nature, as Heath was fond of saying.
Heath would have recognized that a similar concept is commemorated by observant Jews who, anticipating the coming of their new year, celebrate Yom Kippur as a day of atonement ("at-one-ment"). On that day each year, as "Children of Israel," they grapple with nature (or the God of Nature for some) in the manner attributed to Jacob in The Book of Genesis. Rather than an annual ritual, however, Heath viewed the at-one-ment phenomenon as a continual process of contemplation.
Although he did not suggest it, Heath's regard for whole events is congenial to the Gestalt school of psychological studies. Instead of using that language, however, he embraced the traditional usage of physics in which the term "action" denotes the overall magnitude of an event. Thus a bigger event contains a larger measure of action, a smaller event a lesser value of this property or attribute.
The quantity or physical property action is defined in physics as the mathematical product of the energy content of an event and the time during which this quantity of energy is manifested. Consequently, a unit of action is expressed in such terms as erg-seconds.
An erg is a small metric unit of energy approximately equivalent to the amount of work expended in lifting a one-milligram weight to a height of one centimeter above the earth's surface at sea level--roughly comparable to picking up a grain of salt from the kitchen counter. The act of lifting (motion) such a weight (mass) to such a height in a one-second interval by the clock (time) represents an event containing one erg-second of action. While seemingly tedious, the precision of this operational definition, traceable as it is to observational procedures, illustrates the discipline of scientific method. Although beauty is in the eye of the beholder, a durable consensus requires dispassionate measures--not always or necessarily poetic but essentially precise and unambiguous.
Action is the least abstract quantity in physics, integrating as it does all the fundamental but abstract dimensions of experience. Anything less than the appropriate number of fundamental dimensions fails to combine into a unit of action descriptive of a whole experience while anything more than the minimum is superfluous and redundant, i.e. excess intellectual baggage.
Heath found that he could gain greater insight into the nature of experience by breaking down the usual definition of action (energy times time) into a threefold constituency. He saw that the fundamental dimensions of action imply no more nor less than three essential conceptions of reality--mass, motion and time--which can be expressed respectively in units of grams, centimeters and seconds. In combining these three abstract dimensions into the one quantity, action, Heath not only apprehended evidence of discrete, whole human experience--a Gestalt so to speak--but he could discern qualitative variations in that experience.
This usage of Heath's has been criticized as inaccurate by some physicists and engineers. Such criticism prompted the author to examine the consistency of Heaths usage with that of conventional physics by resort to elementary definitions and first principles.3 The resulting derivations make it readily apparent that, from the viewpoint of classical physics, Heath's simplified usage is justified notwithstanding that he is more precise when he refers to his abstract substantive component of action as "weight" in grams (force) rather than as "mass" in grams (mass). Since the distinction between weight and mass as concerns the hypothetically substantive constituent of action does not appear to be critical in Heath's development, no qualitative error in his inquiries can be attributed to such usage. If anything, Heath could have made even more extensive projections of his physical analogies had he used the weight/mass distinction with greater precision.
On the other hand, Heath was critical of those physicists who overlook the difference in meaning between "time" in its durational sense and "time" as the cadence of change. The author's dimensional analysis just referred to supports Heath's contention, for it shows that time has utterly different significance in physics according to how it is factored into an argument. For example, when energy is multiplied by "time" as a duration, the quantity "action" is obtained. Here "time" conveys the sense of persistence or endurance. However, when energy is divided by "time," time assumes the role of a cadence and the quantity known as "power" is obtained. As Heath points out, the former quantity (action) is actually experienced as both the quality and quantity of an event. By contrast, the latter (power) is merely an abstract conception of the rate at which energy may be expended with respect to the passage of time. Obviously, the sense of "time" makes all the difference in the world--reality versus abstraction.
The bulk of modern physics is formulated in terms of energy, notwithstanding the fact that it takes no account of the durational aspect of reality and is therefore a totally abstract concept. Strictly speaking, energy is not directly observable. As Heath points out, the durational property it neglects is an intrinsic attribute of all experience, which is essentially and fundamentally "event-ual." Heath found this oversight to be a significant defect in physics, inasmuch as it obliges physicists and engineers to submit to a separate "reality check."
The consequences of this reality defect in the energy formulation of physical theory are readily illustrated. Classical thermodynamics provides engineers a criterion for attaining the maximum possible conversion of heat energy to work. If time were forever, such a feat might be accomplished with a thermodynamically ideal Carnot-Cycle engine. However, time is always at a premium for engineers and their human clients. Consequently, engineers account for precious time by resort to separate, tedious consideration of various external factors affecting the time-rate of energy transport, namely, friction, inertia, strength of materials, heat and fluid flow resistance, heat capacity, etc. In the end, actual engines, although obedient to Carnot's principles, must effect vastly different physical processes in order to be practical and useful. This situation is analogous to that faced by the Chinese chef who must cook some of his dishes twice to obtain the proper result.
Though ever mindful of the eternal ideal, engineers nevertheless manage to settle for less than perfection in order to make creative history in the real world of human experience. Abiding by the principles of thermodynamics, they not only accept their fate that "you can't get something for nothing" (the First Law), but they know they must give back to nature part of what they receive from nature in order to continue in nature (the Second Law). In this encounter, there can be bargains with but no conquest of nature. Harmony is the most one can achieve.
Heath conceived of the possibility of literally reformulating modern physics in terms of action instead of the more abstract energy, thereby making observable events per-se the foundation of physical science. Although physics took a turn in this direction in the late nineteenth century, the more familiar energy viewpoint still predominates even though the revolutionary quantum physics is based upon an action-formulated hypothesis. Energy formulations, derived from the conservation principle, preoccupy physicists everywhere else but in quantum physics while the principle of least action languishes--notwithstanding its recognized supremacy as a universality in physical theory. The supremacy of the least-action principle is readily demonstrated by the fact that the energy-conservation principle can be derived from it and is, therefore, a consequence of it ,whereas the converse has never been accomplished.
Modern physics, to which Heath was devoted, reckons there to be a discrete lower limit to the size of an event that can be observed in nature without being corrupted by the observer. That is to say, an event having a magnitude smaller than Planck's quantum cannot be experienced by man independent of his manipulations, even with instruments. Therefore, below this level of experience, knowledge becomes indeterminate and the uncertainties that are inherent in scientific work increase to the point where, regardless of diligence, no confidence can be gained in knowing the abstract details underlying the phenomena.
Whatever may lie beyond the pale of reproducible observation remains a speculation. But scientists like Heath do not deny that anything conceivable may exist in the domain of some ultimate objective reality that is presumed to exist but may forever remain outside the scope of scientific treatment and, thus, the sphere of human knowledge.
Consequently, all men are obliged to live with a degree of uncertainty in their lives and to maintain an appropriate level of humility and sobriety to go with it. This apparent limitation on the validity of human knowledge seems to ordain an awareness of ignorance that grows faster than the knowledge acquired. Surprisingly, such a limitation is not so oppressive as to discourage learning.
To the contrary, mans' capacity for learning about nature is truly remarkable. For example, consider the quantum of Planck, a vanishingly small event which contains a quantity of action called "Planck's Constant," also known in physics as "Planck's Quantum of Action." Physicists have determined Planck's constant with amazing precision to be about 0.00000000000000000000000000663 erg-seconds of action (6.63 x 10-27 erg-seconds). If an erg-second represents an almost unnoticeable chunk of history in human terms, then a quantum-sized event must be infinitesimal--a billionth-of-a-billionth-of-a-billionth of an erg-second. But it is not a "nothing." It is a finite "something." It is the fundamental unit of all observable phenomena, the indivisible event comprising all memorable experience.
Heath noticed that quantum physics bears a marked resemblance to early Greek atomistic philosophy. The ancient Greeks had been handicapped, however, by their belief that their ultimate building blocks, atoms, had to be all alike, and by the fact that they were never able to explain how to observe one. Quantum physics represented to Heath a powerful refinement and advance in the Greek tradition by virtue of its reliance on the concept of action. This concept enabled him to relate directly to experience and to bring into account its constituent and quantifiable dimensions, whereby he could visualize infinite qualitative variation in the quanta of experience in terms of the proportions of those dimensions.
Heath was intrigued with three particular events which, regardless of the magnitude of action involved in them, vary so extremely in the proportions of their attributes of mass, motion and time as to manifest variously (1) the speed of light (least mass), (2) absolute minimum temperature (least motion) and (3) nuclear fission (least time). The term "least" is used here not to denote an absolute quantity but as a figure of speech suggesting an extreme qualitative distinction.
The photon of Einstein represents another example of this intriguing qualitative aspect of events. Although Einstein preferred to think of a photon of light in terms of continuous electromagnetic waves and fields, a photon can also be depicted as a quantum of action manifesting qualitative variation in terms of its constituent units. A given photon can display the various colors in visible light, attain remarkable penetrating power as "x-rays," and travel long distances through clouds, around the curvature of the Earth and throughout space as "radio waves," all according to its wavelength or period of vibration.
To illustrate still further the "qualitative" nature of events, we can easily construct in our imagination pairs of events of equal magnitude--that is, containing equal quantities of action--that evoke sharply contrasting human perceptions. For example, a Thanksgiving roast turkey dinner represents a physical event containing about the same magnitude of action as a lightning bolt. However, contrast the human responses to these "equal" events --gratification on the one hand and trauma on the other.
Classical, as opposed to quantum, physics has developed wherever nature "appears" to be continuous. Under such conditions, scientists can safely concentrate on processes or mechanical relationships while ignoring discrete events. Continuum physicists have been successful--even spectacularly so--when dealing with macrocosmic phenomena, where mechanical models of the universe suffice for most engineering applications and analysis. However, in the realm of radiation, chemistry, thermodynamics and other studies where physicists are pressed to deal with "micro" physical phenomena, the notion of action has become indispensable.
At the micro-scale of experience, the newer quantum physics, notwithstanding or perhaps because of its concern for indeterminacy, has proven its great explanatory power, succeeding in areas where the classical approach has utterly failed to produce agreement with observation. The mechanistic determinism of renaissance science, although alluring in its structural but abstract simplicity, is now seen to be inadequate for resolving nature's order in such seemingly more complex phenomena as human society.
The discretely eventual or corpuscular view of the world has challenged and discomforted many thoughtful people throughout the ages. No less a person than Albert Einstein was one. Spencer Heath was not. Heath found ample evidence of processes or fields of influence connecting events to explain the flow of history, and he had no problem conceding the concept of continuity in nature to an "ultimate reality." Thus the idea of everything being connected to everything else was entirely plausible to him notwithstanding his belief that humans experience reality only in discrete events--and then from an egocentric frame of reference.
[Here ends the first of three transmissions into which this paper has been divided. The second segment begins with the subheading, "Spencer Heath's Personal Trinity."]
Spencer H. MacCallum
PO Box 180
Tonopah NV 89049