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Eddington 1927: Conclusion

Eddington 5

Reference: Eddington’s 1927 Book

This paper presents the CONCLUSION from the book THE NATURE OF THE PHYSICAL WORLD by A. S. EDDINGTON. The contents of this book are based on the lectures that Eddington delivered at the University of Edinburgh in January to March 1927.

The paragraphs of original material are accompanied by brief comments in color based on present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below links to the original materials.



A tide of indignation has been surging in the breast of the matter-of-fact scientist and is about to be unloosed upon us. Let us broadly survey the defence we can set up.

Science has been limited in its investigation to material-substance only. Through quantum theory science is being dragged into the investigation of field-substance; but it has still not fully accepted the reality of field-substance, and its quantization into material-substance. Science is nowhere near considering thought as a substance, and its quantization from abstract to concrete.

I suppose the most sweeping charge will be that I have been talking what at the back of my mind I must know is only a well-meaning kind of nonsense. I can assure you that there is a scientific part of me that has often brought that criticism during some of the later chapters. I will not say that I have been half-convinced, but at least I have felt a homesickness for the paths of physical science where there are more or less discernible handrails to keep us from the worst morasses of foolishness. But however much I may have felt inclined to tear up this part of the discussion and confine myself to my proper profession of juggling with pointer readings, I find myself holding to the main principles. Starting from aether, electrons and other physical machinery we cannot reach conscious man and render count of what is apprehended in his consciousness. Conceivably we might reach a human machine interacting by reflexes with its environment; but we cannot reach rational man morally responsible to pursue the truth as to aether and electrons or to religion. Perhaps it may seem unnecessarily portentous to invoke the latest developments of the relativity and quantum theories merely to tell you this; but that is scarcely the point. We have followed these theories because they contain the conceptions of modern science; and it is not a question of asserting a faith that science must ultimately be reconcilable with an idealistic view, but of examining how at the moment it actually stands in regard to it. I might sacrifice the detailed arguments of the last four chapters (perhaps marred by dialectic entanglement) if I could otherwise convey the significance of the recent change which has overtaken scientific ideals. The physicist now regards his own external world in a way which I can only describe as more mystical, though not less exact and practical, than that which prevailed some years ago, when it was taken for granted that nothing could be true unless an engineer could make a model of it. There was a time when the whole combination of self and environment which makes up experience seemed likely to pass under the dominion of a physics much more iron-bound than it is now. That overweening phase, when it was almost necessary to ask the permission of physics to call one’s soul one’s own, is past. The change gives rise to thoughts which ought to be developed. Even if we cannot attain to much clarity of constructive thought we can discern that certain assumptions, expectations or fears are no longer applicable.

The gradient of reasoning from the existence of physical universe (material-substance) back to consciousness (thought-substance) is missing. These missing gradients are as follows:

  1. The thought-substance quantizes from abstract to concrete, ultimately appearing as the field-substance.

  2. The field-substance quantized from wave to particle characteristics, ultimately appearing as material-substance.

The predictability of science has come under question because the above missing gradients.

Is it merely a well-meaning kind of nonsense for a physicist to affirm this necessity for an outlook beyond physics? It is worse nonsense to deny it. Or as that ardent relativist the Red Queen puts it, “You call that nonsense, but I’ve heard nonsense compared with which that would be as sensible as a dictionary”.

For if those who hold that there must be a physical basis for everything hold that these mystical views are nonsense, we may ask—What then is the physical basis of nonsense? The “problem of nonsense” touches the scientist more nearly than any other moral problem. He may regard the distinction of good and evil as too remote to bother about; but the distinction of sense and nonsense, of valid and invalid reasoning, must be accepted at the beginning of every scientific inquiry. Therefore it may well be chosen for examination as a test case.

For some reason science backs off from examining thought. Maybe it is fixated on material being the only substance. It looks at the field-substance as energy, but the concept of energy, in Newtonian mechanics, is associated with material substance.

If the brain contains a physical basis for the nonsense which it thinks, this must be some kind of configuration of the entities of physics—not precisely a chemical secretion, but not essentially different from that kind of product. It is as though when my brain says 7 times 8 are 56 its machinery is manufacturing sugar, but when it says 7 times 8 are 6$ the machinery has gone wrong and produced chalk. But who says the machinery has gone wrong? As a physical machine the brain has acted according to the unbreakable laws of physics; so why stigmatise its action? This discrimination of chemical products as good or evil has no parallel in chemistry. We cannot assimilate laws of thought to natural laws; they are laws which ought to be obeyed, not laws which must be obeyed; and the physicist must  accept laws of thought before he accepts natural law. “Ought” takes us outside chemistry and physics. It concerns something which wants or esteems sugar, not chalk, sense, not nonsense. A physical machine cannot esteem or want anything; whatever is fed into it it will chaw up according to the laws of its physical machinery. That which in the physical world shadows the nonsense in the mind affords no ground for its condemnation. In a world of aether and electrons we might perhaps encounter nonsense; we could not encounter damned nonsense.

The laws of thought may be based on electric potentials much like those in an electronic computer.

The most plausible physical theory of correct reasoning would probably run somewhat as follows. By reasoning we are sometimes able to predict events afterwards confirmed by observation; the mental processes follow a sequence ending in a conception which anticipates a subsequent perception. We may call such a chain of mental states “successful reasoning”— intended as a technical classification without any moral implications involving the awkward word “ought”. We can examine what are the common characteristics of various pieces of successful reasoning. If we apply this analysis to the mental aspects of the reasoning we obtain laws of logic; but presumably the analysis could also be applied to the physical constituents of the brain. It is not unlikely that a distinctive characteristic would be found in the physical processes in the brain-cells which accompany successful reasoning, and this would constitute “the physical basis of success.”

But we do not use reasoning power solely to predict observational events, and the question of success (as above defined) does not always arise. Nevertheless if such reasoning were accompanied by the product which I have called “the physical basis of success” we should naturally assimilate it to successful reasoning.

And so if I persuade my materialist opponent to withdraw the epithet “damned nonsense” as inconsistent with his own principles he is still entitled to allege that my brain in evolving these ideas did not contain the physical basis of success. As there is some danger of our respective points of view becoming mixed up, I must make clear my contention:

(a) If I thought like my opponent I should not worry about the alleged absence of a physical basis of success in my reasoning, since it is not obvious why this should be demanded when we are not dealing with observational predictions.

(b) As I do not think like him, I am deeply perturbed by the allegation; because I should consider it to be the outward sign that the stronger epithet (which is not inconsistent with my principles) is applicable.

I think that the “success” theory of reasoning will not be much appreciated by the pure mathematician. For him reasoning is a heaven-sent faculty to be enjoyed remote from the fuss of external Nature. It is heresy to suggest that the status of his demonstrations depends on the fact that a physicist now and then succeeds in predicting results which accord with observation. Let the external world behave as irrationally as it will, there will remain undisturbed a corner of knowledge where he may happily hunt for the roots of the Riemann- Zeta function. The “success” theory naturally justifies itself to the physicist. He employs this type of activity of the brain because it leads him to what he wants—a verifiable prediction as to the external world—and for that reason he esteems it. Why should not the theologian employ and esteem one of the mental processes of unreason which leads to what he wants—an assurance of future bliss, or a Hell to frighten us into better behaviour? Understand that I do not encourage theologians to despise reason; my point is that they might well do so if it had no better justification than the “success” theory.

Reasoning in physics does require data. It cannot exist without data as assumed by the pure mathematician. Reasoning goes wrong when relevant data is missing or irrelevant data is considered. Given proper data, the reasoning shall take the same precise route. This is the “physical basis of success”.

And so my own concern lest I should have been talking nonsense ends in persuading me that I have to reckon with something that could not possibly be found in the physical world.

Another charge launched against these lectures may be that of admitting some degree of supernaturalism, which in the eyes of many is the same thing as superstition. In so far as supernaturalism is associated with the denial of strict causality (p. 309) I can only answer that that is what the modern scientific development of the quantum theory brings us to. But probably the more provocative part of our scheme is the role allowed to mind and consciousness. Yet I suppose that our

adversary admits consciousness as a fact and he is aware that but for knowledge by consciousness scientific investigation could not begin. Does he regard consciousness as supernatural? Then it is he who is admitting the supernatural. Or does he regard it as part of Nature? So do we. We treat it in what seems to be its obvious position as the avenue of approach to the reality and significance of the world, as it is the avenue of approach to all scientific knowledge of the world. Or does he regard consciousness as something which unfortunately has to be admitted but which it is scarcely polite to mention? Even so we humour him. We have associated consciousness with a background untouched in the physical survey of the world and have given the physicist a domain where he can go round in cycles without ever encountering anything to bring a blush to his cheek. Here a realm of natural law is secured to him covering all that he has ever effectively occupied. And indeed it has been quite as much the purpose of our discussion to secure such a realm where scientific method may work unhindered, as to deal with the nature of that part of our experience which lies beyond it. This defence of scientific method may not be superfluous. The accusation is often made that, by its neglect of aspects of human experience evident to a wider culture, physical science has been overtaken by a kind of madness leading it sadly astray. It is part of our contention that there exists a wide field of research for which the methods of physics suffice, into which the introduction of these other aspects would be entirely mischievous.

It is not true that when quantum theory is completed it would still deny causality. At the moment we are looking at an incomplete quantum theory that is using material-substance as its reference, and does not recognize quantization of field-substance.

Consciousness appears to be supernatural only because we do not understand its nature. But the scientific method can take us deep into understanding the nature of consciousness.

A besetting temptation of the scientific apologist for religion is to take some of its current expressions and after clearing away crudities of thought (which must necessarily be associated with anything adapted to the everyday needs of humanity) to water down the meaning until little is left that could possibly be in opposition to science or to anything else. If the revised interpretation had first been presented no one would have raised vigorous criticism; on the other hand no one would have been stirred to any great spiritual enthusiasm. It is the less easy to steer clear of this temptation because it is necessarily a question of degree. Clearly if we are to extract from the tenets of a hundred different sects any coherent view to be defended some at least of them must be submitted to a watering-down process. I do not know if the reader will acquit me of having succumbed to this temptation in the passages where I have touched upon religion; but I have tried to make a fight against it. Any apparent failure has probably arisen in the following way. We have been concerned with the borderland of the material and spiritual worlds as approached from the side of the former. From this side all that we could assert of the spiritual world would be insufficient to justify even the palest brand of theology that is not too emaciated to have any practical influence on man’s outlook. But the spiritual world as understood in any serious religion is by no means a colourless domain. Thus by calling this hinterland of science a spiritual world I may seem to have begged a vital question, whereas I intended only a provisional identification. To make it more than provisional an approach must be made from the other side. I am unwilling to play the amateur theologian, and examine this approach in detail. I have, however, pointed out that the attribution of religious colour to the domain must rest on inner conviction; and I think we should not deny validity to certain inner convictions, which seem parallel with the unreasoning trust in reason which is at the basis of mathematics, with an innate sense of the fitness of things which is at the basis of the science of the physical world, and with an irresistible sense of incongruity which is at the basis of the justification of humour. Or perhaps it is not so much a question of asserting the validity of these convictions as of recognising their function as an essential part of our nature. We do not defend the validity of seeing beauty in a natural landscape; we accept with gratitude the fact that we are so endowed as to see it that way.

To evaluate religion we need to take a universal viewpoint that is completely unbiased.

It will perhaps be said that the conclusion to be drawn from these arguments from modern science, is that religion first became possible for a reasonable scientific man about the year 1927. If we must consider that tiresome person, the consistently reasonable man, we may point out that not merely religion but most of the ordinary aspects of life first became possible for him in that year. Certain common activities (e.g. falling in love) are, I fancy, still forbidden him. If our expectation should prove well founded that 1927 has seen the final overthrow of strict causality by Heisenberg, Bohr, Born and others, the year will certainly rank as one of the greatest epochs in the development of scientific philosophy. But seeing that before this enlightened era men managed to persuade themselves that they had to mould their own material future notwithstanding the yoke of strict causality, they might well use the same modus vivendi in religion.

We do not have to deny strict causality to become religious. Properly understood, religion could be found to follow strict causality, except for an entrance point.

This brings us to consider the view often pontifically asserted that there can be no conflict between science and religion because they belong to altogether different realms of thought. The implication is that discussions such as we have been pursuing are superfluous. But it seems to me rather that the assertion challenges this kind of discussion—to see how both realms of thought can be associated independently with our existence. Having seen something of the way in which the scientific realm of thought has constituted itself out of a self-closed cyclic scheme we are able to give a guarded assent. The conflict will not be averted unless both sides confine themselves to their proper domain; and a discussion which enables us to reach a better understanding as to the boundary should be a contribution towards a state of peace. There is still plenty of opportunity for frontier difficulties; a particular illustration will show this.

A belief not by any means confined to the more dogmatic adherents of religion is that there is a future non-material existence in store for us. Heaven is nowhere in space, but it is in time. (All the meaning of the belief is bound up with the word future; there is no comfort in an assurance of bliss in some former state of existence.) On the other hand the scientist declares that time and space are a single continuum, and the modern idea of a Heaven in time but not in space is in this respect more at variance with science than the pre- Copernican idea of a Heaven above our heads. The question I am now putting is not whether the theologian or the scientist is right, but which is trespassing on the domain of the other? Cannot theology dispose of the destinies of the human soul in a non-material way without trespassing on the realm of science? Cannot science assert its conclusions as to the geometry of the space-time continuum without trespassing on the realm of theology? According to the assertion above science and theology can make what mistakes they please provided that they make them in their own territory ; they cannot quarrel if they keep to their own realms. But it will require a skilful drawing of the boundary line to frustrate the development of a conflict here.*

*This difficulty is evidently connected with the dual entry of time into our experience to which I have so often referred.

The philosophic trend of modern scientific thought differs markedly from the views of thirty years ago. Can we guarantee that the next thirty years will not see another revolution, perhaps even a complete reaction? We may certainly expect great changes, and by that time many things will appear in a new aspect. That is one of the difficulties in the relations of science and philosophy; that is why the scientist as a rule pays so little heed to the philosophical implications of his own discoveries. By dogged endeavour he is slowly and tortuously advancing to purer and purer truth; but his ideas seem to zigzag in a manner most disconcerting to the onlooker. Scientific discovery is like the fitting together of the pieces of a great jig-saw puzzle; a revolution of science does not mean that the pieces already arranged and interlocked have to be dispersed; it means that in fitting on fresh pieces we have had to revise our impression of what the puzzle-picture is going to be like. One day you ask the scientist how he is getting on; he replies, “Finely. I have very nearly finished this piece of blue sky.” Another day you ask how the sky is progressing and are told, “I have added a lot more, but it was sea, not sky; there’s a boat floating on the top of it”. Perhaps next time it will have turned out to be a parasol upside down ; but our friend is still enthusiastically delighted with the progress he is making. The scientist has his guesses as to how the finished picture will work out; he depends largely on these in his search for other pieces to fit; but his guesses are modified from time to time by unexpected developments as the fitting pro- ceeds. These revolutions of thought as to the final picture do not cause the scientist to lose faith in his handiwork, for he is aware that the completed portion is growing steadily. Those who look over his shoulder and use the present partially developed picture for purposes outside science, do so at their own risk.

The lack of finality of scientific theories would be a very serious limitation of our argument, if we had staked much on their permanence. The religious reader may well be content that I have not offered him a God revealed by the quantum theory, and therefore liable to be swept away in the next scientific revolution. It is not so much the particular form that scientific theories have now taken—the conclusions which we believe we have proved—as the movement of thought behind them that concerns the philosopher. Our eyes once opened, we may pass on to a yet newer outlook on the world, but we can never go back to the old outlook.

The lack of finality must apply to both scientific theories and religion. The God of religion is the Unknown laws of science.

If the scheme of philosophy which we now rear on the scientific advances of Einstein, Bohr, Rutherford and others is doomed to fall in the next thirty years, it is not to be laid to their charge that we have gone astray. Like the systems of Euclid, of Ptolemy, of Newton, which have served their turn, so the systems of Einstein and Heisenberg may give way to some fuller realisation of the world. But in each revolution of scientific thought new words are set to the old music, and that which has gone before is not destroyed but refocussed. Amid all our faulty attempts at expression the kernel of scientific truth steadily grows; and of this truth it may be said— The more it changes, the more it remains the same thing.


Eddington 1927: Mystical Religion


Reference: Eddington’s 1927 Book

This paper presents Chapter XV (section 7) from the book THE NATURE OF THE PHYSICAL WORLD by A. S. EDDINGTON. The contents of this book are based on the lectures that Eddington delivered at the University of Edinburgh in January to March 1927.

The paragraphs of original material are accompanied by brief comments in color, based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below links to the original materials.


Mystical Religion

We have seen that the cyclic scheme of physics presupposes a background outside the scope of its investigations. In this background we must find, first, our own personality, and then perhaps a greater personality. The idea of a universal Mind or Logos would be, I think, a fairly plausible inference from the present state of scientific theory; at least it is in harmony with it. But if so, all that our inquiry justifies us in asserting is a purely colourless pantheism. Science cannot tell whether the world-spirit is good or evil, and its halting argument for the existence of a God might equally well be turned into an argument for the existence of a Devil.

The idea of a universal mind in the form of a universal thought-matrix is quite plausible.

I think that that is an example of the limitation of physical schemes that has troubled us before—namely, that in all such schemes opposites are represented by + and —. Past and future, cause and effect, are represented in this inadequate way. One of the greatest puzzles of science is to discover why protons and electrons are not simply the opposites of one another, although our whole conception of electric charge requires that positive and negative electricity should be related like + and —. The direction of time’s arrow could only be determined by that incongruous mixture of theology and statistics known as the second law of thermodynamics; or, to be more explicit, the direction of the arrow could be determined by statistical rules, but its significance as a governing fact “making sense of the world” could only be deduced on teleological assumptions. If physics cannot determine which way up its own world ought to be regarded, there is not much hope of guidance from it as to ethical orientation. We trust to some inward sense of fitness when we orient the physical world with the future on top, and likewise we must trust to some inner monitor when we orient the spiritual world with the good on top.

The inconsistency that protons and electrons are not simply the opposites of one another, tells us that things missing from our knowledge. Neither proton nor electron is a single particle. The proton represents many quantization levels closer to the center of the atom. Similarly, electron represents many quantization levels farther away from the center. These levels of proton and electron provide nuclear and atomic spectra respectively. Positive and negative charges within the atom must have a different explanation than what is currently available.

The universal mind is neither good nor bad, it processes data through the matrix in a neutral manner. When the matrix is corrupted in some way, the outcome may appear as bad or unethical. The inward sense of fitness comes from the ideal, non-corrupted matrix.

Granted that physical science has limited its scope so as to leave a background which we are at liberty to, or even invited to, fill with a reality of spiritual import, we have yet to face the most difficult criticism from science. “Here”, says science, “I have left a domain in which I shall not interfere. I grant that you have some kind of avenue to it through the self-knowledge of consciousness, so that it is not necessarily a domain of pure agnosticism. But how are you going to deal with this domain? Have you any system of inference from mystic experience comparable to the system by which science develops a knowledge of the outside world? I do not insist on your employing my method, which I acknowledge is inapplicable; but you ought to have some defensible method. The alleged b4sis of experience may possibly be valid; but have I any reason to regard the religious interpretation currently given to it as anything more than muddle-headed romancing?”

The religious domain is not as well-organized as the scientific domain.

The question is almost beyond my scope. I can only acknowledge its pertinency. Although I have chosen the lightest task by considering only mystical religion— and I have no impulse to defend any other—I am not competent to give an answer which shall be anything like complete. It is obvious that the insight of consciousness, although the only avenue to what I have called intimate knowledge of the reality behind the symbols of science, is not to be trusted implicitly without control. In history religious mysticism has often been associated with extravagances that cannot be approved. I suppose too that over-sensitiveness to aesthetic influences may be a sign of a neurotic temperament unhealthy to the individual. We must allow something for the pathological condition of the brain in what appear to be moments of exalted insight. One begins to fear that after all our faults have been detected and removed there will not be any “us” left. But in the study of the physical world we have ultimately to rely on our sense-organs, although they are capable of betraying us by gross illusions; similarly the avenue of consciousness into the spiritual world may be beset with pitfalls, but that does not necessarily imply that no advance is possible.

The laws of thought-substance are closely connected to the functioning of the human mind, where the problem becomes very intimate and solutions become very biased.

A point that must be insisted on is that religion or contact with spiritual power if it has any general importance at all must be a commonplace matter of ordinary life, and it should be treated as such in any discussion. I hope that you have not interpreted my references to mysticism as referring to abnormal experiences and revelations. I am not qualified to discuss what evidential value (if any) may be attached to the stranger forms of experience and insight. But in any case to suppose that mystical religion is mainly concerned with these is like supposing that Einstein’s theory is mainly concerned with the perihelion of Mercury and a few other exceptional observations. For a matter belonging to daily affairs the tone of current discussions often seems quite inappropriately pedantic.

But the consideration of thought-substance is very common place.

As scientists we realise that colour is merely a question of the wave-lengths of aethereal vibrations; but that does not seem to have dispelled the feeling that eyes which reflect light near wave-length 4800 are a subject for rhapsody whilst those which reflect wave-length 5300 are left unsung. We have not yet reached the practice of the Laputans, who, “if they would, for example, praise the beauty of a woman, or any other animal, they describe it by rhombs, circles, parallelograms, ellipses, and other geometrical terms”. The materialist who is convinced that all phenomena arise from electrons and quanta and the like controlled by mathematical formulae, must presumably hold the belief that his wife is a rather elaborate differential equation; but he is probably tactful enough not to obtrude this opinion in domestic life. If this kind of scientific dissection is felt to be inadequate and irrelevant in ordinary personal relationships, it is surely out of place in the most personal relationship of all—that of the human soul to a divine spirit.

The scientific method has not been applied to the study of thought-substance.

We are anxious for perfect truth, but it is hard to say in what form perfect truth is to be found. I cannot quite believe that it has the form typified by an inventory. Somehow as part of its perfection there should be incorporated in it that which we esteem as a “sense of proportion”. The physicist is not conscious of any disloyalty to truth on occasions when his sense of proportion tells him to regard a plank as continuous material, well knowing that it is “really” empty space containing sparsely scattered electric charges. And the deepest philosophical researches as to the nature of the Deity may give a conception equally out of proportion for daily life; so that we should rather employ a conception that was unfolded nearly two thousand years ago.

The perfect truth may start from the perspective of “continuum of substance”. This makes material, field and thought substance consistent, harmonious and continuous with each other. This boundary condition must then be met in the determination of truth. When the anomalies among all knowledge, experiences and realities are resolved then we can say that we are approaching the perfect truth.

I am standing on the threshold about to enter a room. It is a complicated business. In the first place I must shove against an atmosphere pressing with a force of fourteen pounds on every square inch of my body. I must make sure of landing on a plank travelling at twenty miles a second round the sun—a fraction of a second too early or too late, the plank would be miles away. I must do this whilst hanging from a round planet head outward into space, and with a wind of aether blowing at no one knows how many miles a second through every interstice of my body. The plank has no solidity of substance. To step on it is like stepping on a swarm of flies. Shall I not slip through? No, if I make the venture one of the flies hits me and gives a boost up again; I fall again and am knocked upwards by another fly; and so on. I may hope that the net result will be that I remain about steady; but if unfortunately I should slip through the floor or be boosted too violently up to the ceiling, the occurrence would be, not a violation of the laws of Nature, but a rare coincidence. These are some of the minor difficulties. I ought really to look at the problem four-dimensionally as concerning the intersection of my world-line with that of the plank. Then again it is necessary to determine in which direction the entropy of the world is increasing in order to make sure that my passage over the threshold is an entrance, not an exit.

Verily, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a scientific man to pass through a door. And whether the door be barn door or church door it might be wiser that he should consent to be an ordinary man and walk in rather than wait till all the difficulties involved in a really scientific ingress are resolved.


Eddington 1927: Conviction


Reference: Eddington’s 1927 Book

This paper presents Chapter XV (section 6) from the book THE NATURE OF THE PHYSICAL WORLD by A. S. EDDINGTON. The contents of this book are based on the lectures that Eddington delivered at the University of Edinburgh in January to March 1927.

The paragraphs of original material are accompanied by brief comments in color, based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below links to the original materials.



Through fourteen chapters you have followed with me the scientific approach to knowledge. I have given the philosophical reflections as they have naturally arisen from the current scientific conclusions, I hope without distorting them for theological ends. In the present chapter the standpoint has no longer been predominantly scientific; I started from that part of our experience which is not within the scope of a scientific survey, or at least is such that the methods of physical science would miss the significance that we consider it essential to attribute to it. The starting-point of belief in mystical religion is a conviction of significance or, as I have called it earlier, the sanction of a striving in the consciousness. This must be emphasised because appeal to intuitive conviction of this kind has been the foundation of religion through all ages and I do not wish to give the impression that we have now found something new and more scientific to substitute. I repudiate the idea of proving the distinctive beliefs of religion either from the data of physical science or by the methods of physical science. Presupposing a mystical religion based not on science but (rightly or wrongly) on a self-known experience accepted as fundamental, we can proceed to discuss the various criticisms which science might bring against it or the possible conflict with scientific views of the nature of experience equally originating from self-known data.

Religion and science are inconsistent in that religious conviction goes beyond reasoning.

It is necessary to examine further the nature of the conviction from which religion arises; otherwise we may seem to be countenancing a blind rejection of reason as a guide to truth. There is a hiatus in reasoning, we must admit; but it is scarcely to be described as a rejection of reasoning. There is just the same hiatus in reasoning about the physical world if we go back far enough. We can only reason from data and the ultimate data must be given to us by a non-reasoning process—a self-knowledge of that which is in our consciousness. To make a start we must be aware of something. But that is not sufficient; we must be convinced of the significance of that awareness. We are bound to claim for human nature that, either of itself or as inspired by a power beyond, it is capable of making legitimate judgments of significance. Otherwise we cannot even reach a physical world.*

* We can of course solve the problem arising from certain data without being convinced of the significance of the data—the “official” scientific attitude as I have previously called it. But a physical world which has only the status of the solution of a problem, arbitrarily chosen to pass an idle hour, is not what is intended here.

Conviction seems to come from absence of anomalies among physical and mental senses.

Accordingly the conviction which we postulate is that certain states of awareness in consciousness have at least equal significance with those which are called sensations. It is perhaps not irrelevant to note that time by its dual entry into our minds (p. 51) to some extent bridges the gap between sense-impressions and these other states of awareness. Amid the latter must be found the basis of experience from which a spiritual religion arises. The conviction is scarcely a matter to be argued about, it is dependent on the forcefulness of the feeling of awareness.

A fundamental postulate, such as, “emptiness” is derived from absence of anomalies with what follows.

But, it may be said, although we may have such a department of consciousness, may we not have misunderstood altogether the nature of that which we believe we are experiencing? That seems to me to be rather beside the point. In regard to our experience of the physical world we have very much misunderstood the meaning of our sensations. It has been the task of science to discover that things are very different from what they seem. But we do not pluck out our eyes because they persist in deluding us with fanciful colourings instead of giving us the plain truth about wave-length. It is in the midst of such misrepresentations of environment (if you must call them so) that we have to live. It is, however, a very one-sided view of truth which can find in the glorious colouring of our surroundings nothing but misrepresentation—which takes the environment to be all important and the conscious spirit to be inessential. In our scientific chapters we have seen how the mind must be regarded as dictating the course of world-building; without it there is but formless chaos. It is the aim of physical science, so far as its scope extends, to lay bare the fundamental structure underlying the world; but science has also to explain if it can, or else humbly to accept, the fact that from this world have arisen minds capable of transmuting the bare structure into the richness of our experience. It is not misrepresentation but rather achievement—the result perhaps of long ages of biological evolution—that we should have fashioned a familiar world out of the crude basis. It is a fulfilment of the purpose of man’s nature. If likewise the spiritual world has been transmuted by a religious colour beyond anything implied in its bare external qualities, it may be allowable to assert with equal conviction that this is not misrepresentation but the achievement of a divine element in man’s nature.

The starting point must be free of anomalies. If anomalies are discovered later then they must be resolved by even re-examining the starting point as necessary. Sensations being different from reasoning (color versus wavelength of light) may indicate that we need to better understand the nature of physical and mental perceptions.

May I revert again to the analogy of theology with the supposed science of humour which (after consultation with a classical authority) I venture to christen “geloeology”. Analogy is not convincing argument, but it must serve here. Consider the proverbial Scotchman with strong leanings towards philosophy and incapable of seeing a joke. There is no reason why he should not take high honours in geloeology, and for example write an acute analysis of the differences between British and American humour. His comparison of our respective jokes would be particularly unbiased and judicial, seeing that he is quite incapable of seeing the point of either. But it would be useless to consider his views as to which was following the right development; for that he would need a sympathetic understanding—he would (in the phrase appropriate to the other side of my analogy) need to be converted. The kind of help and criticism given by the geloeologist and the philosophical theologian is to secure that there is method in our madness. The former may show that our hilarious reception of a speech is the result of a satisfactory dinner and a good cigar rather than a subtle perception of wit; the latter may show that the ecstatic mysticism of the anchorite is the vagary of a fevered body and not a transcendent revelation. But I do not think we should appeal to either of them to discuss the reality of the sense with which we claim to be endowed, nor the direction of its right development. That is a matter for our inner sense of values which we all believe in to some extent, though it may be a matter of dispute just how far it goes. If we have no such sense then it would seem that not only religion, but the physical world and all faith in reasoning totter in insecurity.

There must be a sense of inner logic to be able to recognize anomalies.

I have sometimes been asked whether science cannot now furnish an argument which ought to convince any reasonable atheist. I could no more ram religious conviction into an atheist than I could ram a joke into the Scotchman. The only hope of “converting” the latter is that through contact with merry-minded companions he may begin to realise that he is missing something in life which is worth attaining. Probably in the recesses of his solemn mind there exists inhibited the seed of humour, awaiting an awakening by such an impulse. The same advice would seem to apply to the propagation of religion; it has, I believe, the merit of being entirely orthodox advice.

An absence of inner logic shall pose a problem related to the mind. That will require a better understanding of mind and the subject of logic.

We cannot pretend to offer proofs. Proof is an idol before whom the pure mathematician tortures himself. In physics we are generally content to sacrifice before the lesser shrine of Plausibility. And even the pure mathematician—that stern logician—reluctantly allows himself some prejudgments; he is never quite convinced that the scheme of mathematics is flawless, and mathematical logic has undergone revolutions as profound as the revolutions of physical theory. We are all alike stumblingly pursuing an ideal beyond our reach. In science we sometimes have convictions as to the right solution of a problem which we cherish but cannot justify; we are influenced by some innate sense of the fitness of things. So too there may come to us convictions in the spiritual sphere which our nature bids us hold to. I have given an example of one such conviction which is rarely if ever disputed—that surrender to the mystic influence of a scene of natural beauty is right and proper for a human spirit, although it would have been deemed an unpardonable eccentricity in the “observer” contemplated in earlier chapters. Religious conviction is often described in somewhat analogous terms as a surrender; it is not to be enforced by argument on those who do not feel its claim in their own nature.

If a sense of logic is missing from the mind, no amount of proof about the state of reality can fix it.

I think it is inevitable that these convictions should emphasise a personal aspect of what we are trying to grasp. We have to build the spiritual world out of symbols taken from our own personality, as we build the scientific world out of the metrical symbols of the mathematician. If not, it can only be left ungraspable— an environment dimly felt in moments of exaltation but lost to us in the sordid routine of life. To turn it into more continuous channels we must be able to approach the World-Spirit in the midst of our cares and duties in that simpler relation of spirit to spirit in which all true religion finds expression.

Whether a conviction is right or wrong can only be determined by the absence or presence of anomalies.


Eddington 1927: Significance and Values



Reference: Eddington’s 1927 Book

This paper presents Chapter XV (section 5) from the book THE NATURE OF THE PHYSICAL WORLD by A. S. EDDINGTON. The contents of this book are based on the lectures that Eddington delivered at the University of Edinburgh in January to March 1927.

The paragraphs of original material are accompanied by brief comments in color, based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below links to the original materials.


Significance and Values

When we think of the sparkling waves as moved with laughter we are evidently attributing a significance to the scene which was not there. The physical elements of the water—the scurrying electric charges—were guiltless of any intention to convey the impression that they were happy. But so also were they guiltless of any intention to convey the impression of substance, of colour, or of geometrical form of the waves. If they can be held to have had any intention at all it was to satisfy certain differential equations—and that was because they are the creatures of the mathematician who has a partiality for differential equations. The physical no less than the mystical significance of the scene is not there; it is here—in the mind.

The physical attributes are much more set compared to the poetical or mystical attributes.

What we make of the world must be largely dependent on the sense-organs that we happen to possess. How the world must have changed since man came to rely on his eyes rather than his nose ! You are alone on the mountains wrapt in a great silence ; but equip yourself with an extra artificial sense-organ and, lo! the aether is hideous with the blare of the Savoy bands. Or—

The isle is full of noises,

Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about mine ears ; and sometimes voices.

So far as broader characteristics are concerned we see in Nature what we look for or are equipped to look for. Of course, I do not mean that we can arrange the details of the scene; but by the light and shade of our values we can bring out things that shall have the broad characteristics we esteem. In this sense the value placed on permanence creates the world of apparent substance; in this sense, perhaps, the God within creates the God in Nature. But no complete view can be obtained so long as we separate our consciousness from the world of which it is a part. We can only speak speculatively of that which I have called the “background of the pointer readings”; but it would at least seem plausible that if the values which give the light and shade of the world are absolute they must belong to the background, unrecognised in physics because they are not in the pointer readings but recognised by consciousness which has its roots in the background. I have no wish to put that forward as a theory; it is only to emphasise that, limited as we are to a knowledge of the physical world and its points of contact with the background in isolated consciousness, we do not quite attain that thought of the unity of the whole which is essential to a complete theory. Presumably human nature has been specialised to a considerable extent by the operation of natural selection; and it might well be debated whether its valuation of permanence and other traits now apparently fundamental are essential properties of consciousness or have been evolved through interplay with the external world. In that case the values given by mind to the external world have originally come to it from the external world-stuff. Such a tossing to and fro of values is, I think, not foreign to our view that the world-stuff behind the pointer readings is of nature continuous with the mind.

The mind does not generate entirely what is out there, but it may modify their view through filters. The mind generates filters also from what is out there.

In viewing the world in a practical way values for normal human consciousness may be taken as standard. But the evident possibility of arbitrariness in this valuation sets us hankering after a standard that could be considered final and absolute. We have two alternatives. Either there are no absolute values, so that the sanctions of the inward monitor in our consciousness are the final court of appeal beyond which it is idle to inquire. Or there are absolute values; then we can only trust optimistically that our values are some pale reflection of those of the Absolute Valuer, or that we have insight into the mind of the Absolute from whence come those strivings and sanctions whose authority we usually forbear to question.

“No absolute values” is the standard of “absolute emptiness”.

I have naturally tried to make the outlook reached in these lectures as coherent as possible, but I should not be greatly concerned if under the shafts of criticism it becomes very ragged. Coherency goes with finality; and the anxious question is whether our arguments have begun right rather than whether they have had the good fortune to end right. The leading points which have seemed to me to deserve philosophic consideration may be summarised as follows:

(1) The symbolic nature of the entities of physics is generally recognised; and the scheme of physics is now formulated in such a way as to make it almost self-evident that it is a partial aspect of something wider.

(2) Strict causality is abandoned in the material world. Our ideas of the controlling laws are in process of reconstruction and it is not possible to predict what kind of form they will ultimately take; but all the indications are that strict causality has dropped out permanently. This relieves the former necessity of supposing that mind is subject to deterministic law or alternatively that it can suspend deterministic law in the material world.

Strict causality applies only to the special case of material-substance. Additional consideration of quantization is needed to apply causality to field-substance. Boundary conditions of “continuum” apply to thought-substance, which provides form to material and field substance.

 (3) Recognising that the physical world is entirely abstract and without “actuality” apart from its linkage to consciousness, we restore consciousness to the fundamental position instead of representing it as an inessential complication occasionally found in the midst of inorganic nature at a late stage of evolutionary history.

The material and field substance are concrete form of thought-substance. The thought-substance goes from concrete to abstract.

 (4) The sanction for correlating a “real” physical world to certain feelings of which we are conscious does not seem to differ in any essential respect from the sanction for correlating a spiritual domain to another side of our personality.

The abstract to concrete forms of thought-substance should all be consistent. In other words, the feelings should be consistent with the situation which evokes them.

It is not suggested that there is anything new in this philosophy. In particular the essence of the first point has been urged by many writers, and has no doubt won individual assent from many scientists before the recent revolutions of physical theory. But it places a somewhat different complexion on the matter when this is not merely a philosophic doctrine to which intellectual assent might be given, but has become part of the scientific attitude of the day, illustrated in detail in the current scheme of physics.


Eddington 1927: Reality and Mysticism



Reference: Eddington’s 1927 Book

This paper presents Chapter XV (section 4) from the book THE NATURE OF THE PHYSICAL WORLD by A. S. EDDINGTON. The contents of this book are based on the lectures that Eddington delivered at the University of Edinburgh in January to March 1927.

The paragraphs of original material are accompanied by brief comments in color, based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below links to the original materials.


Reality and Mysticism

But a defence before the scientists may not be a defence to our own self-questionings. We are haunted by the word reality. I have already tried to deal with the questions which arise as to the meaning of reality; but it presses on us so persistently that, at the risk of repetition, I must consider it once more from the standpoint of religion. A compromise of illusion and reality may be all very well in our attitude towards physical surroundings; but to admit such a compromise into religion would seem to be a trifling with sacred things. Reality seems to concern religious beliefs much more than any others. No one bothers as to whether there is a reality behind humour. The artist who tries to bring out the soul in his picture does not really care whether and in what sense the soul can be said to exist. Even the physicist is unconcerned as to whether atoms or electrons really exist; he usually asserts that they do, but, as we have seen, existence is there used in a domestic sense and no inquiry is made as to whether it is more than a conventional term. In most subjects (perhaps not excluding philosophy) it seems sufficient to agree on the things that we shall call real, and afterwards try to discover what we mean by the word. And so it comes about that religion seems to be the one field of inquiry in which the question of reality and existence is treated as of serious and vital importance.

We generate models to assert the consistency, harmony and continuity that we observe. Such models become our reality. We modify these models as more observations are made. We do this by resolving anomalies. A religion is also a model, but of deeper significances. To modify a religious model is a bit difficult as it requires deeper understanding.

But it is difficult to see how such an inquiry can be profitable. When Dr. Johnson felt himself getting tied up in argument over “Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that everything in the universe is merely ideal”, he answered, “striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it,—’I refute it thus* “. Just what that action assured him of is not very obvious; but apparently he found it comforting. And to-day the matter-of-fact scientist feels the same impulse to recoil from these flights of thought back to something kickable, although he ought to be aware by this time that what Rutherford has left us of the large stone is scarcely worth kicking.

We must seek consistency etc., between thought and matter. It is there to be found.

There is still the tendency to use “reality” as a word of magic comfort like the blessed word “Mesopotamia”. If I were to assert the reality of the soul or of God, I should certainly not intend a comparison with Johnson’s large stone—a patent illusion—or even with the p’s and q’s of the quantum theory—an abstract symbolism. Therefore I have no right to use the word in religion for the purpose of borrowing on its behalf that comfortable feeling which (probably wrongly) has become associated with stones and quantum co-ordinates.

Soul, God, etc., are abstract thought realities and not material realities. But there is some sort of continuity there to be realized. Same goes for quantum realities.

Scientific instincts warn me that any attempt to answer the question “What is real?” in a broader sense than that adopted for domestic purposes in science, is likely to lead to a floundering among vain words and high-sounding epithets. We all know that there are regions of the human spirit untrammelled by the world of physics. In the mystic sense of the creation around us, in the expression of art, in a yearning towards God, the soul grows upward and finds the fulfilment of something implanted in its nature. The sanction for this development is within us, a striving born with our consciousness or an Inner Light proceeding from a greater power than ours. Science can scarcely question this sanction, for the pursuit of science springs from a striving which the mind is impelled to follow, a questioning that will not be suppressed. Whether in the intellectual pursuits of science or in the mystical pursuits of the spirit, the light beckons ahead and the purpose surging in our nature responds. Can we not leave it at that? Is it really necessary to drag in the comfortable word “reality” to be administered like a pat on the back?

Reality consists of material, field and thought substance, which are consistent, harmonious and continuous. This consistency, harmony and continuity need to be understood.

The problem of the scientific world is part of a broader problem—the problem of all experience. Experience may be regarded as a combination of self and environment, it being part of the problem to  disentangle these two interacting components. Life, religion, knowledge, truth are all involved in this problem, some relating to the finding of ourselves, some to the finding of our environment from the experience confronting us. All of us in our lives have to make something of this problem; and it is an important condition that we who have to solve the problem are ourselves part of the problem. Looking at the very beginning, the initial fact is the feeling of purpose in ourselves which urges us to embark on the problem. We are meant to fulfil something by our lives. There are faculties with which we are endowed, or which we ought to attain, which must find a status and an outlet in the solution. It may seem arrogant that we should in this way insist on moulding truth to our own nature; but it is rather that the problem of truth can only spring from a desire for truth which is in our nature.

Science deals with experience of the physical environment. Religion deals with the experience of ‘self’ and how ‘self’ interacts with the environment. Truth is seeing things for what they are.

A rainbow described in the symbolism of physics is a band of aethereal vibrations arranged in systematic order of wave-length from about .000040 cm. to .000072 cm. From one point of view we are paltering with the truth whenever we admire the gorgeous bow of colour, and should strive to reduce our minds to such a state that we receive the same impression from the rainbow as from a table of wave-lengths. But although that is how the rainbow impresses itself on an impersonal spectroscope, we are not giving the whole truth and significance of experience—the starting-point of the problem—if we suppress the factors wherein we ourselves differ from a spectroscope. We cannot say that the rainbow, as part of the world, was meant to convey the vivid effects of colour; but we can perhaps say that the human mind as part of the world was meant to perceive it that way.

The perception of rainbow through spectroscope, and through aesthetic senses, is simply different aspects of what is there.