John Tyndall

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In existographies, John Tyndall (135-62 BE) (1820-1893 ACM) (IQ:170|#512) (ID:2.33|73) (PR:9,814|65AE / physicist:227) (FA:153) (CR:68) (LH:56) (TL:128|#88) was an Irish physicist and atheism-inclining materialism philosopher, noted for his "Vitality" (1863) article, wherein he said frankly that what we call "vital energy", is not the "fiat of a supernatural agent" (aka god), but derives from an "inorganic force", which has a proximate "mechanical origin", and also for his “Atheistic Materialism” (1874) BAAS address, wherein he gave a "modern Lucretius" vs "Bishop Butler" dialogue on the topic of atoms, molecules, mind and religion.[1]



In 1845, Tyndall worked as an engineer, at Halifax, with Thomas Hirst, English mathematician and translator, who famously later did the first English translations of Clausius' The Mechanical Theory of Heat (1865).

In 1850, Tyndall did the first German-to-English translations for the thermodynamics papers of and Hermann Helmholtz (1847)[2] and Rudolf Clausius (1850)[3].

In 1863, Tyndall, in his Heat as a Mode of Motion, wherein he gave a basic outline of the "mechanical theory of heat", Bacon to Clausius.[4]

In 1867, Tyndall penned the "Introduction" to the first English translation, translated by Thomas Hirst, of Clausius' The Mechanical Theory of Heat, and also coordinated with Hirst in guiding the translation.


In 1863, Tyndall, in his "Vitality", penned in the summer on the slopes of the Alps, but not published until 1871, argued that what is called "vital" is an inorganic force, and has mechanical origin.[5]

No god | Vital energy = Inorganic force

First, Tyndall says that the source of energy behind origin and growing of plants, animals, and humans is on the fiat or order of a god or supernatural agent, but comes from the sun:

“In tracing the phenomena of origin, growth, and energies of living things, through all their modifications, the most advanced philosophers of the present day declare that they ultimately arrive at a single source of power, from which all ‘vital energy’ is derived; and the disquieting circumstance is that this source is NOT the direct fiat of a supernatural agent [aka god], but a reservoir of what must be regarded as ‘inorganic force’. In short, it is considered as proved that all the energy which we derive from plants and animals is drawn from the sun.”
— John Tyndall (1863), “Vitality” (pg. 94)[5]

He also says there is NO creative energy, whatsoever, in people:

“There is no ‘creative energy’ whatever in the vegetable or animal organism.”
— John Tyndall (1863), “Vitality” (pg. 94)[5]

This is good. It has become a technique, in recent years, for thermodynamics authors, e.g. Robert Hanlon (2020), to make a word salad mixture using the terms "creative" and "energy" in their sentences as a coded way to sell god.

Vital energy | Mechanical origin?

Then, on the conjecture that the sun's heat and light may have been derived from the impact or "fall of meteoric matter upon its surface", he says:

“If, then, solar light and heat can be produced by the impact of ‘dead matter’ [meteors], and if from the light and heat thus produced we can derive the energies which we have been accustomed to call ‘vital’, it indubitably follows that ‘vital energy’ may have a proximately mechanical origin.”
— John Tyndall (1863), “Vitality” (pg. 94)[5]

Tyndall, here, paradoxically, says that the "impact of dead matter produced life (or life energy)" in short, and that what was formerly called "vital energy" can be explained mechanically.

Gravity + Electromagnetic force = One force?

Next, Tyndall alludes to the conclusion that the gravitational force (aka gravity) and the force of chemical affinity (aka electromagnetic force) are one and the same force, and that the so-called "fall of atoms" together, similar to the "fall of water", is behind what we call "vital" phenomena:

“There is no energy generated by the machinery; the work performed by the water in descending is merely the parceling out and distribution of the work expended in raising it. In precisely this sense is all the energy of plants and animals the parceling out and distribution of a power originally exerted by the sun. In the case of the water, the source of the power consists in the forcible separation of a quantity of the liquid from a low level of the earth's surface and its elevation to a higher position, the power thus expended being returned by the water in its descent. In the case of ‘vital’ phenomena, the source of power consists in the forcible separation of the atoms of compound substances by the sun. We name the ‘force’ which draws the water earthward ‘gravity’, and that which draws atoms together ‘chemical affinity’; but these different names must not mislead us regarding the qualitative identity of the two forces. They are both attractions, and, to the intellect, the falling of carbon atoms against oxygen atoms is not more difficult of conception than the falling of water to the earth.”
— John Tyndall (1863), “Vitality” (pg. 95)

In modern terms, not only does he seem to be strongly digging at abioism, but also alluding to the gravito-electromagnetic force?

Life is a wave | Personal identity

A visual of Tyndall's 1863 "life is a wave" motto, which he penned not while surfing, but on the ski slopes of the Alps, while thinking about James Maxwell's 1861 "electromagnetic wave" explanation of light.

The following are quotes surrounding Tyndall's life is a wave ideology:

“How is the sense of ‘personal identity’ maintained across this flight of molecules? To man as we know him, matter is necessary to consciousness, but the matter of any period may be all changed, while consciousness exhibits no solution of continuity. Like changing sentinels[6], the oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon that depart seem to whisper their secret to their comrades that arrive, and thus, while the non-ego shifts the ego remains intact (or the same).”
— John Tyndall (1863), “Vitality” (pg. 96; note: bracket sections are edit changes by Tyndall)
Life is a ‘wave which in no two consecutive moments of its existence is composed of the same particles.”
— John Tyndall (1863), “Vitality” (pg. 96)
“Supposing, then, the molecules of the human body instead of replacing others, and thus renewing a ‘pre-existing form’, to be gathered first hand from nature and put together in the same relative positions as those which they occupy in the body; that they have the self-same forces and distribution of forces, the self-same motions and distribution of motions—would this organized ‘concourse of molecules’[7] stand before us as a sentient thinking being? There seems no valid reason to believe that it would not.”
— John Tyndall (1863), “Vitality” (pg. 96)

The like "changing sentinels" atom reference seem to refer to what is now called "turnover rate" (Aebersold, c.1940), atomically and isotopically speaking. This logic was formerly captured in the "panta rhei"[8] argument (Heraclitus, c.495BC) which is connected to the "Ship of Theseus"[9] paradox.

The "wave" reference, although Tyndall doesn't say this explicitly, seems to have been spurred into existence by the 1861 publications of James Maxwell who showed that light is comprised of "waves", that are electromagnetic in composition, the basis of the electromagnetic force model.


The following are other ripe quotes from Tyndall's "Vitality" article:

“We eat the vegetable, and we breathe the oxygen of the air, and in our bodies the oxygen which had been lifted from the carbon and hydrogen by the action of the sun again falls toward them, producing animal heat and developing animal forms. Through the most complicated phenomena of vitality this law runs: the vegetable is produced while a weight rises, the animal is produced while a weight falls.”
— John Tyndall (1863), “Vitality” (pg. 95)
Molecular forces determine the ‘form’ which the solar energy will assume. In the separation of the carbon and oxygen this energy may be so conditioned as to result in one case in the formation of a cabbage, and in another case in the formation of an oak. So also, as regards the reunion of the carbon and the oxygen, the molecular machinery through which the ‘combining energy acts may, in one case, weave the texture of a frog, while in another it may weave the texture of a man.”
— John Tyndall (1863), “Vitality” (pg. 95)
“Are the forces of organic matter different in kind from those of inorganic matter?”
— John Tyndall (1863), “Vitality” (pg. 95)
“Every portion of every animal body may be reduced to purely inorganic matter. A perfect reversal of this process of reduction would carry us from the inorganic to the organic ; and such a reversal is at least conceivable. The tendency, indeed, of modern science is to break down the wall of partition between organic and inorganic, and to reduce both to the operation of forces which are the same in kind, but whose combinations differ in complexity (or are differently compounded).”
— John Tyndall (1863), “Vitality” (pg. 95-96; note: bracket sections are edit changes by Tyndall)
“Supposing a planet carved from the sun, and set spinning round an axis, and revolving round the sun at a distance from it equal to that of our earth, would one of the consequences of its refrigeration be the development of ‘organic forms’? I lean to the affirmative. Structural forces are certainly in the mass, whether or not those forces reach to the extent of forming a plant or an animal. In an amorphous drop of water lie latent all the marvels of crystalline force; and who will set limits to the possible play of molecules in a cooling planet? If these statements startle, it is because matter has been defined and maligned by philosophers and theologians.”
— John Tyndall (1863), “Vitality” (pg. 96)

Here, we see some sharp intellect, to say the least.

Atheistic materialism | BAAS Address

In 1873, James Maxwell, in his "On Molecules"[10] BAAS talk, outlined the latest principles on molecular science; or as Tyndall put it, Maxwell gave the latest developments on the "pregnant doctrine of atoms and molecules", set forth with "power and clearness".[1]

In Jul 1874, Tyndall, then president[11] of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), moved by Maxwell's previous "On Molecules" talk, while away in the Alps, Switzerland, drafted his "Materialistic Atheism" talk, fortified by some recent Thomas Huxley publications on Darwin and evolution. In Aug, Tyndall forwarded a draft to Darwin, who is cited in his talk, to read and approve; the following is the letter:

“In as much as I have taken the liberty of mentioning you in my ‘Address’ to the British Association to be delivered at Belfast, I thought I might ask you to glance over that portion of the address which relates to you, so that I may be sure that I have stated nothing wrong. I have therefore asked Taylor & Francis to forward you a proof. It is not finally corrected, & some portions of it I have not at all seen; but I think you will be able to see whether any error has crept in. If you would return it to me at the Royal Institution as soon as you possibly can I should feel very much obliged to you.”
— John Tyndall (1874), “Letter to Charles Darwin”, Bel Alp, Aug 5[12]

In Aug or Sep, Tyndall gave his BAAS talk, wherein dialogue between a "modern Lucretius / Bruno" vs "Bishop Butler", which employed talk of "dead atoms" was employed, about materialism, science, and religion, which seemed to advocated "material atheism" as the new flagship of science, as many came to receive his speech, which caused a great stir in the intellectual world.

On 15 Sep 1874, Stewart had absorbed a great amount of heat, but some supportive sympathy and approval, and had his "Materialistic Atheism" talk, reprinted with a four-page "Preface", summarizing the aftermath of his talk.

Material atheism

In the wake of the debate, in which he and Huxley were both accused of being material atheists, but declaring this belief openly, Tyndall printed the following in his preface reprint of the Address:

“I do not know how strong the claims of the doctrine of ‘material atheism’ upon my allegiance might be. Probably they would be very strong. But, as it is, I have noticed during years of self-observation that it is not in hours of clearness and vigor that this doctrine commends itself to my mind; that in the presence of stronger and healthier thought it ever dissolves and disappears, as offering no solution of the mystery in which we dwell, and of which we form a part.”
— John Tyndall (1874), “Preface” to Address (pg. viii), Sep 15

Here, Tyndall says he is basically a "material atheist", but that he sometimes wavers to some type of theistic belief, when it comes to some of the unsolved mysteries, e.g. mind, consciousness, and life arising from "dead atoms", that materialism could not solve, in his day.



Tyndall was influenced by: Democritus, Euripides, Lucretius, Francis Bacon, David Hume, James Spedding[13], Robert Mayer, Rudolf Clausius (translator, teacher), Friedrich Lange, Thomas Huxley.


Tyndall associated and or corresponded with: Hermann Helmholtz (friend, translator, mutual admirers), Charles Darwin.


Quotes | On

The following are quotes by Tyndall:

Tyndall ended a most remarkable and eloquent speech by terming himself a ‘material atheist’.”
— Benjamin Cowie (1874), Source; cited by John Tyndall (15 Sep 1874) in "Preface" to “Address” (pg. vi)[1]
“Again, a certain amount of moisture is necessary to the production of mold. It may be asked: Is it quite certain that the moisture is not the agent of a chemical decomposition, and that the growth of mold is due to the deposit of seed in soil furnished by this decomposition? May it not be that a dry and cold atmosphere prevents or retards chemical decomposition in devitalized organic matter, while heat and moisture cause or facilitate it? Why should we disregard the chemical forces in the decomposition of organic matter deprived of vitality? Or, does Tyndall wish us to regard all organic matter as possessed of ‘vitality’ until it is decomposed? Indeed, he says: ‘cherries, apples, peaches, etc., are composed of cells, each of which is a living unit; and the living cells of fruit can absorb oxygen and breathe out carbonic acid, exactly like the living cells of the leaven of beer.’ We know changes take place between the constituents of the cells and the external air, and that other changes take place when the fruit is excluded from the air? Granting it is, then shall we say that all vegetable products, although long since uprooted but undecomposed, are possessed of life? Are the cells which compose the well-worn oak-beams of the few remaining wooden walls of Old England still endowed with vitality, and constantly engaged in a struggle for life with the low forms of animated nature? Then, if this be conceded, might we not assume that fructification of germs is likewise essential to the decomposition of minerals? If the decay of an old boot is dependent upon the growth of mold, may we not suppose that the rusting of an old axe is due to similar influences ; and that the erosion of rock, which in time forms abundant soil for vegetation, is the work of microscopic germs, although commonly supposed to be due to physical forces?”
— William Canniff (1876), “Correspondence on Tyndall’s Cause of Fermentation” (pg. 742)[14]
“The ‘chief pronouncement of the materialism of the nineteenth century’ (Lodge, 1931) was one hearer’s description of John Tyndall’s presidential address to the Belfast meeting of the British Association of the Advancement of Science in 1874. In line with this interpretation, Tyndall is widely regarded by historians of science and intellectual historians to have been one of the few materialists in Victorian Britain, and the Belfast address is taken as a focus of ‘confrontation between materialism and revealed religion’ (MacLeod, 1971).”
— Ruth Barton (1987), “John Tyndall, Pantheist: a Rereading of the Belfast Address”[15]

Quotes | By

The following are quotes by Tyndall:

Huxley and myself are spoken of as ‘ignoring the existence of god, and advocating pure and simple materialism’.”
— John Tyndall (1874), “Atheistic Materialism”, BAAS Address (§:Preface) (pg. vii)[1]
“As science demands the radical extirpation of caprice and the absolute reliance upon law in nature, there grew with the growth of scientific notions a desire and determination to sweep from the field [this] theory of a mob of gods[16] and demons, and to place natural phenomena on a basis more congruent with themselves.”
— John Tyndall (1874), “Atheistic Materialism”, BAAS Address (pg. 2)
“Not unto Aristotle, not unto subtle hypothesis, not unto church, Bible, or blind tradition, must we turn for a knowledge of the universe, but to the direct investigation of nature by observation and experiment.”
— John Tyndall (1874), “Atheistic Materialism”, BAAS Address (pgs. 18-19)
“In our day grand generalizations have been reached. The theory of the origin of species is but one of them. Another, of still wider grasp and more radical significance, is the doctrine of the conservation of energy, the ultimate philosophical issues of which are as yet but dimly seen — that doctrine which ‘binds nature fast in fate’ to an extent not hitherto recognized, exacting from every antecedent its equivalent consequent, from every consequent its equivalent antecedent, and bringing ‘vital’ as well as ‘physical’ phenomena under the dominion of that ‘law’ of causal connection which, so far as the human understanding has yet pierced, asserts itself everywhere in nature.”
— John Tyndall (1874), “Atheist Materialism”, BAAS Address (pg. #)

End matter

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Tyndall, John. (1874). “Atheistic Materialism (txt), Address, British Association for the Advancement of Science, Belfast. Longmans.
  2. Helmholtz, Hermann. (1847). “On the Development of Force” (“Ueber die Erhaltung der Kraft”), Taylor’s Scientific Memoirs.
  3. Clausius, Rudolf. (1850). “On the Moving Force of Heat and the Laws of Heat which may be Deduced Therefrom” (translator: John Tyndall), Philosophical Magazine.
  4. Tyndall, John. (1863). Heat as a Mode of Motion. Appleton, 1915.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 (a) Tyndall, John. (1863). “Vitality”, Alps, Summer.
    (b) Tyndall, John. (1871). Fragments of Science for Unscientific People (Vitality [with note on Huxley's translation of Descartes], pgs. 410-418). Publisher.
    (c) Tyndall, John. (1893). Lectures and Essays by John Tyndall (pgs. 94-96). Watts, 1903.
  6. See: Turnover rate.
  7. Compare: Fortuitous concourse of atoms.
  8. Panta Rhie – Wikipedia.
  9. Ship of Theseus – Wikipedia.
  10. Maxwell, James. (1873). “Molecules” (txt), BAAS talk, Bradford; in: Nature, 8: 437-41; in: Phil. Mag. (4):453-69; in: Maxwell’s Scientific Papers, Volume Two (pg. 361-78); in: Maxwell on Molecules and Gases (editors: Elizabeth Garber and Stephen Brush) (§:16: “Molecules”, pgs. 137-40). MIT Press, 1986.
  11. BAAS Presidents – Wikipedia.
  12. Tyndall, John. (1874). “Letter to Charles Darwin”, Bel Alp, Aug 5
  13. (a) Bacon, Francis. (1857). The Works of Francis Bacon, Volume One (editors: James Spedding, Robert Ellis, and Douglas Heath). Longman.
    (b) Bacon, Francis. (1859). The Works of Francis Bacon, Volume Two (editors: James Spedding, Robert Ellis, and Douglas Heath). Longman.
  14. (a) Tyndall, John. (1875). “Fermentation and its Bearings upon the Phenomena of Disease”, Lecture, in: Popular Science, Dec.
    (b) Canniff, William. (1876). “Correspondence: The Nature and Cause of Fermentation and Putrefaction”, Apr 12, in: Popular Science (pgs. 742-43), Apr 1877.
  15. Barton, Ruth. (1987). “John Tyndall, Pantheist: a Rereading of the Belfast Address”, (Jst), Osiris, 3:111-34.
  16. See: god theory.


Further reading

  • Ungureanu, James. (2014). “The Agnostic Theology of Huxley and Tyndall” (Ѻ), Blog, Feb 1.
  • Jackson, Roland. (2018). The Ascent of John Tyndall (atheism, 3+ pgs). Oxford.


  • Jackson, Roland. (2020). “Talk on John Tyndall on his 200th birthday” (YT), Carlow County Museum College Street, Oct 12.

External links

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