4:15 Wednesday, February 18 RLM 4.102
“The Pointsman or the Steam Whistle: Maxwell’s Demon, T. H. Huxley, and the Nature of Consciousness”
Two of the greatest achievements of Victorian science – energy conservation and atomic theory – also raised deeply unsettling issues regarding human consciousness. Repeated success in explaining the human body as an engine running on thermodynamic principles seemed to question traditional notions of the soul, free will, and moral responsibility. Thomas Henry Huxley (best known as Darwin’s bulldog) led the scientists who embraced this notion that humans were merely complicated machines, and that consciousness had no meaningful role in the world. Many other scientists, however, defended the reality of free will and the soul. This group included James Clerk Maxwell (known for his work in electromagnetism, optics, and thermodynamics) who deployed his technical skills in physics to defend his Christian beliefs. Both sides in the argument built persuasive metaphors, usually drawn from Victorian industrial culture. Maxwell’s central metaphor for free will (the “pointsman”) eventually took on a life of its own as his eponymous “demon.”
Dr. Stanley is Associate Professor at the New York University Gallatin School of Individualized Study. His latest book is Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon: From Theistic Science to Naturalistic Science (Chicago, 2014).