Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Arthur Stanley Eddington: Science and the Unseen World Parts 8 and 9

Note:  I'm posting the last two sections of Eddington's essay for those who want to finish it.  

I have said that the science of the visible universe starts with a determination to use our eyes; but that does not mean that the primary use of the eye is for advancing science. If in a community of the blind one man suddenly received the gift of sight, he would have much to tell which would not be at all scientific. Can we imagine him attempting to convey to his neighbours the significance of the new revelation by talking about the so-called physical “realities”? We know through science that the differences of colour in the external world – red, green, blue — are simply differences of electromagnetic wave-length; and the existence of colour-blindness shows how subjective the effects of the waves on our senses may be. But to a man who has received the revelation of sight the significant fact is not so much the truth about wave-length as the amazing transformation into a world of colour under the vivifying power of the mind. I need not stress the bearing of this when the eye of the soul is opened to the apprehension of the unseen world. The need of expression will not satisfy itself in preaching a scientific sermon. In the world, seen or unseen, there is place for adventure as well as for triangulation. It is right that we should, as far as may be, systematise and criticise the inferences that may be drawn as to the nature of the spiritual world beyond our consciousness; but whatever its abstract frame may be, it is transformed into different significance when it comes into relation with our consciousness – even as the skeleton frame of scientific truth is transformed into the colour and activity and substance of our familiar environment.

It seems right at this point to say a few words in relation to the question of a Personal God. I suppose every serious thinker is rather afraid of this term which might seem to imply that he pictures the deity on a throne in the sky after the manner of medieval painters. There is a tendency to substitute such terms as “omnipotent force” or even a “fourth dimension.” If the idea is merely to find a wording which shall be sufficiently vague, it is somewhat unsuitable for the scientist to whom the words “force” and “dimension” convey something entirely precise and defined. On the other hand, my impression of psychology suggests that the word “person” might be considered vague enough as it stands. But leaving aside verbal questions, I believe that the thought that lies behind this reaction is unsound. It is, I think, of the very essence of the unseen world that the conception of personality should dominate it. Force, energy, dimensions belong to the world of symbols; it is out of such conceptions that we have built up the external world of physics. What other conceptions have we? After exhausting physical methods we returned to the inmost recesses of consciousness, to the voice that proclaims our personality; and from there we entered on a new outlook. We have to build the spiritual world out of symbols taken from our own personality. As we build the scientific world out of the symbols of the mathematician. I think therefore we are not wrong in embodying the significance of the spiritual world to ourselves in the feeling of a personal relationship, for our whole approach to it is bound up with those aspects of consciousness in which personality is centred. 

It is difficult to adjust the claims of naive impressionism and scientific analysis of the spiritual realm without seeming to disparage one or the other; but I think it only requires the same commonsense that we apply to the affairs of ordinary life. Science has an important part to play in our everyday existence, and there is far too much neglect of science; but its intention is to supplement not to supplant the familiar outlook. The biochemist can teach us about the proteins and carbohydrates that make up a suitable diet, and we may profit by his knowledge; but it is not fitting that a man should be looked upon entirely from the standpoint of absorbing a specified quantity of calories and food-values. It would be still more absurd for a man to refuse food, because he was sceptical as to the certainty of the theories of biochemists. Likewise it is well that there should be some to advise us whether our spiritual bread contains the right kind of vitamins; but for the most part it is the object of our teaching and our meetings to stimulate the spiritual appetite rather than to conduct this kind of research.

If the kind of controversy which so often springs up between modernism and traditionalism in religion were applied to more commonplace affairs of life we might see some strange results. Would it be altogether unfair to imagine something liked the following series of letters in our correspondence columns? It arises, let us say, from a passage in an obituary notice which mentions that the deceased had loved to watch the sunsets from his peaceful country home. A. writes deploring that in this progressive age few of the younger generation ever notice a sunset; perhaps this is due to the pernicious influence of the teaching of Copernicus who maintains that the sun is really stationary. This rouses B* to reply that nowadays every reasonable person accepts Copernicus’s doctrine. C is positive that he has many times seen the sun set, and Copernicus must be wrong. D calls for a restatement of belief, so that we may know just how much modern science has left of the sunset, and appreciated the remnant without disloyalty to truth. E (perhaps significantly my own initial) in a misguided effort for peace points out that on the most modern scientific theory there is no absolute distinction between the heavens revolving around the earth and the earth revolving under the heavens; both parties are (relatively) right. F regards this as a most dangerous sophistry, which insinuates that there is no essential difference between truth and untruth. G thinks that we ought now to admit frankly that the revolution of the heavens is a myth; nevertheless such myths have still a practical teaching for us in the present day. H produces an obscure passage in the Almagest, which he interprets as showing that the philosophy of the ancients was not really opposed to the Copernican view. And so it goes on. And the simple reader feels himself in an age of disquiet, insecurity and dissension, all because it is forgotten that what the deceased man looked out for each evening was an experience and not a creed.


In its early days our Society owed much to a people who called themselves Seekers; they joined us in great numbers and were prominent in the spread of Quakerism. It is a name which must appeal strongly to the scientific temperament. The name has died out, but I think that the spirit of seeking is still the prevailing one in our faith, which for that reason is not embodied in any creed or formula. It is Perhaps difficult sufficiently to emphasise Seeking without disparaging its correlative Finding. But I must risk this, for Finding has a clamorous voice which proclaims its own importance; it is definite and assured, something that we can hold — of that is what we want, or think we want. Yet how transitory it proves. The finding of one generation will not serve for the next. It tarnishes rapidly except it be preserved with an ever-renewed spirit of seeking. It is the same too in science. How easy in a popular lecture to tell of the findings, the new discoveries which will be amended, contradicted, superseded in the next fifty years ! How difficult to convey the scientific spirit of seeking which fulfils itself in the tortuous course of progress towards truth! You will understand the true spirit neither of science nor of religion unless seeking is placed in the forefront.

Religious creeds are a great obstacle to any full sympathy between the outlook of the scientist and the outlook which religion is so often supposed to require. I recognise that the practice of a religious community cannot be regulate solely in the interests of its scientifically-minded members and therefore I would not go so far as to urge that no kind of defence of creeds is possible. But I think it may be said that Quakerism in dispensing with creeds holds out a hand to the scientist. The scientific objection is not merely to particular creed which assert in outworn phraseology beliefs which are either no longer held or no longer convey inspiration to life. The spirit of seeking which animates us refuses to regard any kind of creed as its goal. It would be a shock to come across a university where it was the practice of the students to recite adherence to Newton’s laws of motion, to Maxwell’s equations and to the electromagnetic theory of light. We should not deplore it the less if our own pet theory happened to be included, of if the list were brought up to date every few years. We should say that the students cannot possibly realise the intention of scientific training if they are taught to look on these results as things to be recited and transcribed to. Science may fall short of its ideal, and although the peril scarcely takes this extreme form, it is not always easy, particularly in popular science to maintain our stand against creed and dogma. I would not be sorry to borrow for our scientific pronouncements the passage prefixed to the Advices of the Society of Friends in 1656 and repeated in the current General Advices:

“These things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by; but that all with a measure of the light, which is pure and holy, may be guided; and so in the light walking and abiding, these things may be fulfilled in the Spirit, not in the letter; for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.”

Rejection of creed is not inconsistent with being possessed by a living belief. We have no creed in science, but we are not lukewarm in our beliefs. The belief is not that all the knowledge of the universe that we hold so enthusiastically will survive in the letter; but a sureness that we are on the road. If our so-called facts are changing shadows, there are shadows cast by the light of constant truth. So too in religion we are repelled by that confident theological doctrine which has settled for all generations just how the spiritual world is worked; but we need not turn aside from the measure of light that comes from our experience showing us a Way through the unseen world.

Religion for the conscientious seeker is not all a matter of doubt and self-questionings. There is a kind of sureness which is very different from cocksureness.

* I think the passage might have been a subtle response to a bit of snark in Bertrand Russell's "The Twilight of Science".   "B" is for  Bertrand, afterall.

To begin with classical physics. Newton's law of gravitation, as every one knows, was somewhat modified by Einstein, and the modification was experimentally confirmed. But if Eddington's view is right, this experimental, confirmation does not have the signification that one would naturally attribute to it. After considering three possible views as to what the law of gravitation assert about the motion of the earth round the sun, Eddington plumps for a fourth, to the effect that " the earth goes anyhow it likes," that is to say, that the law of gravitation tells us absolutely nothing about the way the earth moves. He admits that this view is paradoxical, but he says: "The key to the paradox is that we ourselves, our conventions, the kind of thing that attracts our interest, are much more concerned than we realize in any account we give of how the objects of the physical world are behaving. And so an object which, viewed through our frame of conventions, may seem to be behaving in a very special and remarkable way may, viewed according to another set of conventions, be doing nothing to excite particular comment. " I must confess that I find this view a very difficult one; respect for Eddington prevents me from. saying that it is, untrue, but there are various points in his argument which I have difficulty in following. Of course all the practical consequences which we deduce from the abstract theory, as for example that we shall perceive daylight at certain times and not at certain other times, lie outside the scheme of official physics, which never reach our sensations at all. I cannot but suspect, however, that official physics is just a little bit too official in Eddington's hands, and that it would not be impossible to allow it a little more significance than it has in his interpretation. However that may be, it is an important sign of the times that one of the leading exponents of scientific theory should advance so modest an opinion. 

Russell was clearly disappointed with Eddington's "modesty" as compared to the dictatorial confidence that physicists used to assert for them.  You can compare Eddington to someone like Lord Kelvin many of whose definite statements, such as his famous declaration,  "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now, All that remains is more and more precise measurement,"   which sound rather spectacularly over confident, today.

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