Eddington 1927: “Common Sense” Objections


Reference: The Nature of the Physical World

This paper presents Chapter 1 (sections 5 and Summary) 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.


“Common Sense” Objections

Before going further I must answer the critic who objects in the name of common sense. Space—his space—is so vivid to him. “This object is obviously here; that object is just there. I know it; and I am not going to be shaken by any amount of scientific obscurantism about contraction of measuring rods.”

We have certain preconceived ideas (about location in space) which have come down to us from ape-like ancestors. They are deeply rooted in our mode of thought, so that it is very difficult to criticize them impartially and to realise the very insecure foundation on which they rest. We commonly suppose that each of the objects surrounding us has a definite location in space and that we are aware of the right location. The objects in my study are actually in the positions where I am “aware” that they are; and if an observer (on another star) surveying the room with measuring rods, etc., makes out a different arrangement of location, he is merely spinning a scientific paradox which does not shake the real facts of location obvious to any man of common sense. This attitude rejects with contempt the question, “How am I aware of the location?” If the location is determined by scientific measurements with elaborate precautions, we are ready enough to suggest all sorts of ways in which the apparatus might have misbehaved; but if the knowledge of location is obtained with no precautions, if it just comes into our heads unsought, then it is obviously true and to doubt it would be flying in the face of common sense! We have a sort of impression (although we do not like to acknowledge it) that the mind puts out a feeler into space to ascertain directly where each familiar object is. That is nonsense; our common sense knowledge of location is not obtained that way. Strictly it is sense knowledge, not common sense knowledge. It is partly obtained by touch and locomotion; such and such an object is at arm’s length or a few steps away. Is there any essential difference (other than its crudity) between this method and scientific measurements with a scale? It is partly obtained by vision—a crude version of scientific measurement with a theodolite. Our common knowledge of “where things are” is not a miraculous revelation of unquestionable authority; it is inference from observations of the same kind as, but cruder than, those made in a scientific survey. Within its own limits of accuracy the scheme of location of objects that I am instinctively “aware” of is the same as my scientific scheme of location, or frame of space.

The personal viewpoint changes from person to person, but the universal viewpoint is same for all people. Science presents the universal viewpoint.

When we use a carefully made telescope lens and a sensitized plate instead of the crystalline lens and retina of the eye we increase the accuracy but do not alter the character of our survey of space. It is by this increase of refinement that we have become “aware” of certain characteristics of space which were not known to our ape-like ancestor when he instituted the common ideas that have come down to us. His scheme of location works consistently so long as there is no important change in his motion (a few miles a second makes no appreciable difference); but a large change involves a transition to a different system of location which is likewise self-consistent, although it is inconsistent with the original one. Having any number of these systems of location, or frames of space, we can no longer pretend that each of them indicates “just where things are”. Location is not something supernaturally revealed to the mind; it is a kind of conventional summary of those properties or relations of objects which condition certain visual and tactual sensations.

The local motion only influences the personal viewpoint. It does not influence the universal viewpoint, which is also the scientific viewpoint.

Does not this show that “right” location in space cannot be nearly so important and fundamental as it is made out to be in the Newtonian scheme of things? The different observers are able to play fast and loose with it without ill effects.

Suppose that location is, I will not say, entirely a myth, but not quite the definite thing it is made out to be in classical physics; that the Newtonian idea of location contains some truth and some padding, and it is not the truth but the padding that our observers are quarrelling over. That would explain a great deal. It would explain, for instance, why all the forces of Nature seem to have entered into a conspiracy to prevent our discovering the definite location of any object (its position in the “right” frame of space); naturally they cannot reveal it, if it does not exist.

Substance, and therefore, time and space change with quantization. This is more relevant for the field-substance than for the material-substance. Time and space hardly change in the range of inertia applicable to material-substance.

For field-substance a location that is definite at higher quantization may appear to be vague at lower quantization, because the substance has become less-substantial.



This thought will be followed up in the next chapter. Meanwhile let us glance back over the arguments that have led to the present situation. It arises from the failure of our much-trusted measuring scale, a failure which we can infer from strong experimental evidence or more simply as an inevitable consequence of accepting the electrical theory of matter. This unforeseen behaviour is a constant property of all kinds of matter and is even shared by optical and electrical measuring devices. Thus it is not betrayed by any kind of discrepancy in applying the usual methods of measurement. The discrepancy is revealed when we change the standard motion of the measuring appliances, e.g. when we compare lengths and distances as measured by terrestrial observers with those which would be measured by observers on a planet with different velocity. Provisionally we shall call the measured lengths which contain this discrepancy “fictitious lengths”.

There is no problem with the measuring scale when measuring material substance up to atomic and molecular dimensions. The measurement of the field-substance in the sub-atomic region must take into account its low quantization. The material units of measure cannot be used in the sub-atomic region without correction for quantization.

According to the Newtonian scheme length is definite and unique; and each observer should apply corrections (dependent on his motion) to reduce his fictitious lengths to the unique Newtonian length. But to this there are two objections. The corrections to reduce to Newtonian length are indeterminate; we know the corrections necessary to reduce our own fictitious lengths to those measured by an observer with any other prescribed motion, but there is no criterion for deciding which system is the one intended in the Newtonian scheme. Secondly, the whole of present-day physics has been based on lengths measured by terrestrial observers without this correction, so that whilst its assertions ostensibly refer to Newtonian lengths they have actually been proved for fictitious lengths.

Length is definite and unique for material substance. No corrections need to be made with regards to observer’s motion. However, the distance between two material objects needs to take into account the quantization of the field-substance filling that space.

The FitzGerald contraction may seem a little thing to bring the whole structure of classical physics tumbling down. But few indeed are the experiments contributing to our scientific knowledge which would not be invalidated if our methods of measuring lengths were fundamentally unsound. We now find that there is no guarantee that they are not subject to a systematic kind of error. Worse still we do not know if the error occurs or not, and there is every reason to presume that it is impossible to know.

Classical physics remains completely valid for material-substance. However, the physics for field-substance must account its quantization .


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