Eddington 1927: Shuffling


This paper presents Chapter IV (section 1) 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.



The modern outlook on the physical world is not composed exclusively of conceptions which have arisen in the last twenty-five years; and we have now to deal with a group of ideas dating far back in the last century which have not essentially altered since the time of Boltzmann. These ideas display great activity and development at the present time. The subject is relevant at this stage because it has a bearing on the deeper aspects of the problem of Time; but it is so fundamental in physical theory that we should be bound to deal with it sooner or later in any comprehensive survey.

The section is about statistical mechanics that was developed by Boltzmann, Maxwell, etc. Statistical mechanics studies physical systems that have a large degree of freedom. The approach is based on statistical methods, probability theory and the microscopic physical laws.

If you take a pack of cards as it comes from the maker and shuffle it for a few minutes, all trace of the original systematic order disappears. The order will never come back however long you shuffle. Something has been done which cannot be undone, namely, the introduction of a random element in place of arrangement.

Illustrations may be useful even when imperfect, and therefore I have slurred over two points, which affect the illustration rather than the application which we are about to make. It was scarcely true to say that the shuffling cannot be undone. You can sort out the cards into their original order if you like. But in considering the shuffling which occurs in the physical world we are not troubled by a deus ex machina like you. I am not prepared to say how far the human mind is bound by the conclusions we shall reach. So I exclude you—at least I exclude that activity of your mind which you employ in sorting the cards. I allow you to shuffle them because you can do that absent-mindedly.

Secondly, it is not quite true that the original order never comes back. There is a ghost of a chance that someday a thoroughly shuffled pack will be found to have come back to the original order. That is because of the comparatively small number of cards in the pack. In our applications the units are so numerous that this kind of contingency can be disregarded.

We shall put forward the contention that—

Whenever anything happens which cannot be undone, it is always reducible to the introduction of a random element analogous to that introduced by shuffling.

Shuffling is the only thing which Nature cannot undo.

When Humpty Dumpty had a great fall—

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men

Cannot put Humpty Dumpty together again.

Something had happened which could not be undone. The fall could have been undone. It is not necessary to invoke the king’s horses and the king’s men; if there had been a perfectly elastic mat underneath, that would have sufficed. At the end of his fall Humpty Dumpty had kinetic energy which, properly directed, was just sufficient to bounce him back on to the wall again. But, the elastic mat being absent, an irrevocable event happened at the end of the fall—namely, the introduction of a random element into Humpty Dumpty.

The introduction of random element destroys any orderly arrangement. The chance that the original order may return, become smaller as the number of elements in the system increases.

But why should we suppose that shuffling is the only process that cannot be undone?

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,

Moves on: nor all thy Piety and Wit

Can lure it back to cancel half a Line.

When there is no shuffling, is the Moving Finger stayed? The answer of physics is unhesitatingly Yes. To judge of this we must examine those operations of Nature in which no increase of the random element can possibly occur. These fall into two groups. Firstly, we can study those laws of Nature which control the behaviour of a single unit. Clearly no shuffling can occur in these problems; you cannot take the King of Spades away from the pack and shuffle him. Secondly, we can study the processes of Nature in a crowd which is already so completely shuffled that there is no room for any further increase of the random element. If our contention is right, everything that occurs in these conditions is capable of being undone. We shall consider the first condition immediately; the second must be deferred until p. 78.

Any change occurring to a body which can be treated as a single unit can be undone. The laws of Nature admit of the undoing as easily as of the doing. The earth describing its orbit is controlled by laws of motion and of gravitation; these admit of the earth’s actual motion, but they also admit of the precisely opposite motion. In the same field of force the earth could retrace its steps; it merely depends on how it was started off. It may be objected that we have no right to dismiss the starting-off as an inessential part of the problem; it may be as much a part of the coherent scheme of Nature as the laws controlling the subsequent motion. Indeed, astronomers have theories explaining why the eight planets all started to move the same way round the sun. But that is a problem of eight planets, not of a single individual—a problem of the pack, not of the isolated card. So long as the earth’s motion is treated as an isolated problem, no one would dream of putting into the laws of Nature a clause requiring that it must go this way round and not the opposite.

There is a similar reversibility of motion in fields of electric and magnetic force. Another illustration can be given from atomic physics. The quantum laws admit of the emission of certain kinds and quantities of light from an atom; these laws also admit of absorption of the same kinds and quantities, i.e. the undoing of the emission. I apologize for an apparent poverty of illustration; it must be remembered that many properties of a body, e.g. temperature, refer to its constitution as a large number of separate atoms, and therefore the laws controlling temperature cannot be regarded as controlling the behaviour of a single individual.

The common property possessed by laws governing the individual can be stated more clearly by a reference to time. A certain sequence of states running from past to future is the doing of an event; the same sequence running from future to past is the undoing of it—because in the latter case we turn round the sequence so as to view it in the accustomed manner from past to future. So if the laws of Nature are indifferent as to the doing and undoing of an event, they must be indifferent as to a direction of time from past to future. That is their common feature, and it is seen at once when (as usual) the laws are formulated mathematically. There is no more distinction between past and future than between right and left. In algebraic symbolism, left is —x, right is +x; past is —t, future is +t. This holds for all laws of Nature governing the behaviour of non-composite individuals—the “primary laws”, as we shall call them. There is only one law of Nature—the second law of thermodynamics—which recognizes a distinction between past and future more profound than the difference of plus and minus. It stands aloof from all the rest. But this law has no application to the behaviour of a single individual, and as we shall see later its subject- matter is the random element in a crowd.

The primary laws that have universal applicability apply to single units only. Such laws deal with precise sequences that work from either direction. Any changes made under such laws may be undone.

Whatever the primary laws of physics may say, it is obvious to ordinary experience that there is a distinction between past and future of a different kind from the distinction of left and right. In The Plattner Story H. G. Wells relates how a man strayed into the fourth dimension and returned with left and right interchanged. But we notice that this interchange is not the theme of the story; it is merely a corroborative detail to give an air of verisimilitude to the adventure. In itself the change is so trivial that even Mr. Wells cannot weave a romance out of it. But if the man had come back with past and future interchanged, then indeed the situation would have been lively. Mr. Wells in The Time-Machine and Lewis Carroll in Sylvie and Bruno give us a glimpse of the absurdities which occur when time runs backwards. If space is “looking-glassed” the world continues to make sense; but looking-glassed time has an inherent absurdity which turns the world-drama into the most nonsensical farce.

Now the primary laws of physics taken one by one all declare that they are entirely indifferent as to which way you consider time to be progressing, just as they are indifferent as to whether you view the world from the right or the left. This is true of the classical laws, the relativity laws, and even of the quantum laws. It is not an accidental property; the reversibility is inherent in the whole conceptual scheme in which these laws find a place. Thus the question whether the world does or does not “make sense” is outside the range of these laws. We have to appeal to the one outstanding law— the second law of thermodynamics—to put some sense into the world. It opens up a new province of knowledge, namely, the study of organization; and it is in connection with organization that a direction of time-flow and a distinction between doing and undoing appears for the first time.

The question whether the world does or does not “make sense” is outside the range of primary laws. The reality involves complex organization among many elements that makes time irreversible. This is addressed by the second law of thermodynamics.


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