Eddington 1927: Dynamic Quality of the External World

All-sky illustration of all Hubble observations as of 27 June 20


This paper presents Chapter V (section 2) 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.


Dynamic Quality of the External World

But for our ulterior conviction of the dynamic quality of time, it would be possible to take the view that ”becoming” is purely subjective—that there is no “becoming” in the external world which lies passively spread out in the time-dimension as Minkowski pictured it. My consciousness then invents its own serial order for the sense impressions belonging to the different view-points along the track in the external world, occupied by the four-dimensional worm who is in some mysterious way Myself; and in focussing the sensations of a particular view-point I get the illusion that the corresponding external events are “taking place”. I suppose that this would be adequate to account for the observed phenomena. The objections to it hinge on the fact that it leaves the external world without any dynamic quality intrinsic to it.

From the “continuum of substance” perspective the UNIVERSE is a single system that is intrinsically continuous, harmonious and consistent. Therefore, the essential criterion of objectivity is consistency, harmony and continuity among all observations.

Subjectivity is the degree to which one fails to observe the consistency, harmony and continuity of the universe. Thus, physical perceptions of the external world that are not consistent with each other are suffering from subjectivity. And mental perceptions that are consistent within themselves and with physical perceptions are objective.

Many believe that if a perception is mental then it must be subjective. This error comes from the “particles in void” perspective. The viewpoint of ‘time’ and ‘becoming’ is not necessarily subjective. It can be objective if it is consistent with surrounding observations.

It is useful to recognise how some of our most elementary reasoning tacitly assumes the existence of this dynamic quality or trend; to eradicate it would almost paralyse our faculties of inference. In the operation of shuffling cards it seems axiomatic that the cards must be in greater disarrangement at a later instant. Can you conceive Nature to be such that this is not obviously true? But what do we here mean by “later”? So far as the axiomatic character of the conclusion is concerned (not its experimental verification) we cannot mean “later” as judged by consciousness; its obviousness is not bound up with any speculations as to the behaviour of consciousness. Do we then mean “later” as judged by the physical criterion of time’s arrow, i.e. corresponding to a greater proportion of the random element? But that would be tautological—the cards are more disarranged when there is more of the random element. We did not mean a tautology; we unwittingly accepted as a basis for our thought about the question an unambiguous trend from past to future in the space-time where the operation of shuffling is performed.

It is an assumption that ‘later’ is always a greater proportion of random element. The random element is subjective because it is being viewed relative to some past condition. The concept of ‘later’ could be understood in terms of sequence of changes, or greater equilibrium.

The crux of the matter is that, although a change described as sorting is the exact opposite to a change described as shuffling we cannot imagine a cause of sorting to be the exact opposite of a cause of shuffling. Thus a reversal of the time-direction which turns shuffling into sorting does not make the appropriate transformation of their causes. Shuffling can have inorganic causes, but sorting is the prerogative of mind or instinct. We cannot believe that it is merely an orientation with respect to the time-direction which differentiates us from inorganic nature. Shuffling is related to sorting (so far as the change of configuration is concerned) as plus is to minus; but to say that the cause of shuffling is related to the cause of sorting in the same way would seem equivalent to saying that the activities of matter and mind are related like plus and minus—which surely is nonsense. Hence if we view the world from future to past so that shuffling and sorting are interchanged, their causes do not follow suit, and the rational connection is broken. To restore coherency we must postulate that by this change of direction something else has been reversed, viz. the trend in world-texture spoken of above; “becoming” has been turned into “unbecoming”. If we like we can now go on to account, not for things becoming unshuffled, but for their unbecoming shuffled—and, if we wish to pursue this aspect further, we must discuss not the causes but the un-causes. But, without tying ourselves into verbal knots, the meaning evidently is that “becoming” gives a texture to the world which it is illegitimate to reverse.

The direction of time is the direction of increasing equilibrium. Each condition has its own equilibrium organization. By changing the condition from A to B, we can trigger a sequence of changes. Then by changing the condition from B to A, we can reverse that sequence of changes. We may call this a reversal of local time per the definition above.

To reverse the universal time we must know the original condition that existed at the beginning of the universe. The universe must then be convinced to be in that original condition to establish the reversal of time.


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