Tyndall vs Stewart-Tait debate

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In debates, Tyndall vs Stewart-Tait debate (TR:5) (LH:4) (TL:9) was a heated debate, lasting from 1863 to 1878, which brewed between the materialist atheism-inclining physicists, namely: John Tyndall and Hermann Helmholtz, on one side, and the closeted spiritual physicists, namely: Balfour Stewart, Peter Tait, William Thomson, on the other, with some agnostic side commentators, such as James Maxwell and Norman Lockyer, in the middle.


In 1863, John 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.[1]

In 1869, Balfour Stewart and Norman Lockyer defined the existence of life as a principle vs materialism as "battle that must be fought".[2]

In 1874, John Tyndall, in his "Atheistic Materialism" BAAS address, brought the battle to full heat, essentially concluding that it was not time for religion to step aside, and to let science take the reigns.[3]

In 1875, Peter Tait and Balfour Stewart, in their The Unseen Universe: or Speculations of a Future State[4], a back-reaction against Tyndall, argued that the universe is spiritual and alive, and crudely attempted to argue for a science-based afterlife theory, in Biblical theme, and attacked Hermann Helmholtz, fictional character Hermann Stoffkraft, aka "Hermann Stuff-Force".[5]

In 1878, James Maxwell, penned his "A Paradoxical Ode: After Shelley", his last dying poem, giving his reflections on the debate, inclining towards an electromagnetic force themed materialistic atheism, in conclusion.[6]

In 1878, Balfour Stewart, in his Paradoxical Philosophy, a solo-sequel to The Unseen Universe, gave his personal reflections on his own rhetoric, and gives an account of debates arisen in the "Paradoxical Society", founded by Isaac Fairbank (1826). The title page quote, however, opens to a Bible quote, about asking god and Jesus for help through the darkness, at which point his former "covert god language" begins to leak out.[7]


The following are related quotes:

“We are thus presented with two hypotheses of the action of life. The first of these is the materialistic hypothesis, which denies the existence of life as a principle apart from matter; while the other allows the existence of an independent principle, but assumes its action to take place through the medium of a machine of infinite delicacy, so that by a primordial impulse of less than any assignable amount a finite and visible outcome is produced. These are the two alternatives, and it is not within our province to attempt to decide between them. The battle must be fought in other pages than ours, and by other weapons than those which we can produce.”
— Norman Lockyer (1868), “The Place of Life in a Universe of Energy” (co-author: Balfour Stewart) (pg. 100)[2]
“We attempt to show that we are absolutely driven by scientific principles to acknowledge the existence of an unseen universe, and by scientific analogy to conclude that it is full of life and intelligence — that it is in fact a spiritual universe and not a dead one.”
— Balfour Stewart (1875), The Unseen Universe (pg. 5) [4]

End matter


  1. (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.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Lockyer, Norman; Stewart, Balfour. (1868). “The Place of Life in a Universe of Energy”, MacMillan’s Magazine, 18: 319-; in: Contributions to Solar Physics (§7, pgs. 85-103). Publisher.
  3. Tyndall, John. (1874). “Atheistic Materialism (txt), Address, British Association for the Advancement of Science, Belfast. Longmans.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Stewart, Balfour; Tait, Peter. (1875). The Unseen Universe: Physical Speculations on a Future State. Macmillan.
  5. Hermann Stoffkraft – Hmolpedia 2020.
  6. A Paradoxical Ode – Hmolpedia 2020.
  7. Stewart, Balfour. (1878). Paradoxical Philosophy: a Sequel to the Unseen Universe. Macmillan.

External links

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