Why do apples fall?

My last post explored Dr. Baxter’s ingenious quiz, “How Much of a Modernist Are You?”  I would like to delve deeper into the questions raised by Dr. Baxter (and ultimately Charles Taylor) by attempting my own answer of Question 4:

Why does an apple fall to the ground when it detaches from the stem?

  1. The laws of physics teach us that all objects fall to the ground according to gravity.
  2. Gravity, of course, but behind the working of nature we can perceive the “hand” of God, which I mean metaphorically.
  3. The apple longs to return its native place, because the whole universe is infused with desire. Ultimately, the world longs to imitate, to the extent it can, Eternity.

The fruit of knowledge?

Answer (a) puzzles me.  I took the same high school physics class as did the author of the quiz (we in fact attended the same high school), and we were taught that the “law of gravity” is not an explanation but a description.  When things fall to the earth, they do so with a certain acceleration, and the law of gravity describes that acceleration.  It says nothing about why it happens.

Or are we to conceive of the “laws of physics” or the “law of gravity” as somehow the cause?  Should apples be seen as rational citizens obeying the decrees of legitimate authority?  A medieval would happily describe an apple as desiring its home, like the animals in The Incredible Journey, but to bestow reason on a piece of fruit—this is anthropomorphism gone mad.

No, answer (a) is out of the question.

The fall of man

Answer (b) introduces a new factor that might actually explain:  the “hand” of God.  Can we say that “God’s hand” is the reason apples fall?  Maybe.  But I still don’t like this answer, because the description of God’s “hand” as “behind the working of nature” suggests that God pushes nature from behind, like a hand turning a crank.  We know from experience that God is not “behind” the falling apple in this way.

From what experience?

All of us have had the experience of falling, and we fall just like apples.  We don’t have to speculate about how apples fall as though examining a specimen under a microscope, because we can see the event “falling” from the inside.  Before we study science or philosophize about nature, even as children we grasp the falling of other bodies by sympathy, by identifying imaginatively with the falling object sometimes even to the point of feeling vertigo when we see an object fall from a great height or flinching when we see bodies about to collide.

From this insider’s perspective, we know that there is a big difference between falling and being pushed. When I am pushed, pulled, or thrown, the experience is of having something done to me. But when I roll off a ledge and fall, the sensation is of my own body falling. The falling comes somehow from within; it is my body’s own thing.

But we must attend carefully here: each of us is a house divided.  While the body rushes downward, some inner animal claws and scratches to prevent the fall.  Think of the high dive:  I walk to the edge, look down, and my reason issues an order to my limbs:  “Jump!”  And yet I do not jump, because animal-me cringes away from the dizzying height to cling to the diving board.  This same animal-me resists mightily when I roll off a ledge:  rational-me may judge that everything will be fine; mineral-me falls from within; but animal-me cries out in betrayal.  The desires of the mineral are against the animal, and the desires of the animal are against the mineral.

So when I say that the body falls of itself, this is not to say that everything within me owns the fall.  But beneath my animal outrage at the victory of my lowest nature, I can still see that there is a vital difference between falling and being pushed or pulled.  It’s all the same to animal-me:  push, pull, or fall, animal-me resists with tooth and claw.  But the experience is entirely different for that side of me that I share with the rocks.  At that level, the falling is mine:  I own it.

Thinking closely about experience, then, I can’t go with answer (b).  While I would not want to deny God’s role in nature, experience tells me that there is no hand “behind the working of nature” that pushes the apple down in an extrinsic way.

The love apple

Option (c) explains the apple’s fall in terms of a longing, a desire.  This seems obviously anthropomorphic.

Yet it is difficult to describe the experience of falling without anthropomorphizing.  I could say that my body “seeks” the ground, but that makes it sound as though my body knows all about the ground and heads toward it like a homing pigeon returning to its roost.  I might say that my body has an “inclination” toward the ground, but even that makes it sound as though my body, having considered the options, prefers the option of falling to the others. Perhaps the most neutral way to say it is that my body has its own principle of falling within it: it does not need an exterior principal like a slingshot or a cannon—or a law. Falling is the body’s own thing.

This is the main advantage of the word “desire”:  when we desire something we pursue it of our own accord, without external coercion.  But our experience also tells us that falling is an experience devoid of apprehension and emotion:  our mineral selves do not a crave the earth the way our animal selves crave food.  The word “desire” is on the right track, but it goes too far.

Still, we do need some word to describe the fact that bodies fall to the ground by an interior principle.  And we have not yet resolved the problem left over from option (b), namely that, while we reject an exterior, coercive “hand of God,” we cannot simply dismiss God’s role in nature.

Both problems can be solved by recalling that God gives bodies their very being:  the interior principle by which bodies do their own thing is present in them from the Creator.  As a material thing, the apple is separated from everything outside of its surface, separated from the tree, from the soil, from the farmer, from the worm.  Even the worm that burrows into the apple, while surrounded by the apple, is separate from it.  In fact, the width of the apple holds one part of the apple away from another part of the apple, so that the apple is not entirely with itself, so to speak.  But the one who gives every part of the apple its being cannot be away from any part of the apple; as Augustine might say, God is closer to the apple than the apple is to itself.  Nothing else, nothing else at all, relates to an apple this way.

It takes some effort to see that this is a breakthrough.  Because we always act on things from the outside, we habitually think of God as though he must act in the same way.  But God acts on things from the inside, by giving them their own being.  No man can make a rock fall:  we can remove obstacles to the falling, or we can give the rock some other, non-natural motion like an upwards toss, but we cannot give the rock what it does from within itself.  Only the Creator can make a rock fall.

From this angle, we can bring back the “hand of God” and with it the word “seeks”. Perhaps an apple “seeks” the ground the way we say an arrow “seeks” its target, not because the arrow knows about or chooses the target, but because the archer does, and the archer has imparted a motion to it.  Knowledge and choice are involved, even though they are not the arrow’s knowledge or choice.

Perhaps the apple is like the arrow, with this key difference:  the archer’s hand is an exterior cause that imparts to the arrow a foreign motion toward the target, while the hand of God is an interior cause that gives an apple its very nature as a body.  The arrow does not own its flying the way a falling apple owns its falling. Because of this difference, passive verbs seem more appropriate to the arrow—it is shot toward the target, it is aimed at the target, it is hurled at the target—while the active verb “seeks” is by comparison more appropriate for the falling apple.

The upshot of all this is that option (c) appears closest to the truth.

But my imagination at least cannot escape my high school physics class, where I was taught that gravitation is universal:  all bodies are drawn toward all other bodies, not just toward the earth.  Perhaps option (c) could be redrafted to say that the entire corporeal universe seeks union with itself.  Even the separated sides of the apple pull toward an ultimate union beyond matter’s capability.  This search for union constantly battles the outward and violent thrust of the Big Bang, which scatters all bodies further and further from each other.

Come to think of it, maybe we should replace option (c) with the view of Empedocles, that love and strife are the causes of all things.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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