Eddington 1927: Preface

Eddington 2

This paper presents the preface 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.



This book is substantially the course of Gifford Lectures which I delivered in the University of Edinburgh in January to March 1927. It treats of the philosophical outcome of the great changes of scientific thought which have recently come about. The theory of relativity and the quantum theory have led to strange new conceptions of the physical world; the progress of the principles of thermodynamics has wrought more gradual but no less profound change. The first eleven chapters are for the most part occupied with the new physical theories, with the reasons which have led to their adoption, and especially with the conceptions which seem to underlie them. The aim is to make clear the scientific view of the world as it stands at the present day, and, where it is incomplete, to judge the direction in which modern ideas appear to be tending. In the last four chapters I consider the position which this scientific view should occupy in relation to the wider aspects of human experience, including religion. The general spirit of the inquiry followed in the lectures is stated in the concluding paragraph of the Introduction (p. xviii).

The contents of this book deal with the physical theories of relativity and quantum phenomena as they were understood in early 1927. It would be interesting to evaluate the views presented in this book from the vantage point of 2018.

I hope that the scientific chapters may be read with interest apart from the later applications in the book; but they are not written quite on the lines that would have been adopted had they been wholly independent. It would not serve my purpose to give an easy introduction to the rudiments of the relativity and quantum theories; it was essential to reach the later and more recondite developments in which the conceptions of greatest philosophical significance are to be found. Whilst much of the book should prove fairly easy reading, arguments of considerable difficulty have to be taken in their turn.

My principal aim has been to show that these scientific developments provide new material for the philosopher. I have, however, gone beyond this and indicated how I myself think the material might be used. I realise that the philosophical views here put forward can only claim attention in so far as they are the direct outcome of a study and apprehension of modern scientific work. General ideas of the nature of things which I may have formed apart from this particular stimulus from science are of little moment to anyone but myself. But although the two sources of ideas were fairly distinct in my mind when I began to prepare these lectures they have become inextricably combined in the effort to reach a coherent outlook and to defend it from probable criticism. For that reason I would like to recall that the idealistic tinge in my conception of the physical world arose out of mathematical researches on the relativity theory. In so far as I had any earlier philosophical views, they were of an entirely different complexion.

One of my aims as a commentator is to see how the development of science comes about. The theories of relativity and quantum mechanics were quite new and exciting in 1927. They contained hypotheses that were yet to be sorted out fully. Thus, it shows how scientific theories may contain subjective ideas.

From the beginning I have been doubtful whether it was desirable for a scientist to venture so far into extra-scientific territory. The primary justification for such an expedition is that it may afford a better view of his own scientific domain. In the oral lectures it did not seem a grave indiscretion to speak freely of the various suggestions I had to offer. But whether they should be recorded permanently and given a more finished appearance has been difficult to decide. I have much to fear from the expert philosophical critic, but I am filled with even more apprehension at the thought of readers who may look to see whether the book is “on the side of the angels” and judge its trustworthiness accordingly. During the year which has elapsed since the delivery of the lectures I have made many efforts to shape this and other parts of the book into something with which I might feel better content. I release it now with more diffidence than I have felt with regard to former books.

The author, who was a brilliant scientist, has expressed his scientific understanding freely in this book along with further suggestions. This provides an excellent backdrop against which to express alternate ideas to tackle currently existing inconsistencies in scientific thought.

The conversational style of the lecture-room is generally considered rather unsuitable for a long book, but I decided not to modify it. A scientific writer, in forgoing the mathematical formulae which are his natural and clearest medium of expression, may perhaps claim some concession from the reader in return. Many parts of the subject are intrinsically so difficult that my only hope of being understood is to explain the points as I would were I face to face with an inquirer.

The present science has become too mathematical and very difficult to relate to reality. This book, though it deals with pretty sophisticated scientific ideas, avoids mathematics and relates much better to reality. Therefore, it provides an excellent backdrop for the expression of new alternate ideas.

It may be necessary to remind the American reader that our nomenclature for large numbers differs from his, so that a billion here means a million million.

A. S. E., August 1928


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