Eddington 1927: Familiar Conceptions and Scientific Symbols


This paper presents Chapter XII (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.

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Familiar Conceptions and Scientific Symbols

We have said in the Introduction that the raw material of the scientific world is not borrowed from the familiar world. It is only recently that the physicist has deliberately cut himself adrift from familiar conceptions. He did not set out to discover a new world but to tinker with the old. Like everyone else he started with the idea that things are more or less what they seem, and that our vivid impression of our environment may be taken as a basis to work from. Gradually it has been found that some of its most obvious features must be rejected. We learn that instead of standing on a firm immovable earth proudly rearing our heads towards the vault of heaven, we are hanging by our feet from a globe careering through space at a great many miles a second. But this new knowledge can still be grasped by a rearrangement of familiar conceptions. I can picture to myself quite vividly the state of affairs just described; if there is any strain, it is on my credulity, not on my powers of conception. Other advances of knowledge can be accommodated by that very useful aid to comprehension—”like this only more so”. For example, if you think of something like a speck of dust only more so you have the atom as it was conceived up to a fairly recent date.

In addition to the familiar entities the physicist had to reckon with mysterious agencies such as gravitation or electric force; but this did not disturb his general outlook. We cannot say what electricity is “like”; but at first its aloofness was not accepted as final. It was taken to be one of the main aims of research to discover how to reduce these agencies to something describable in terms of familiar conceptions—in short to “explain” them. For example, the true nature of electric force might be some kind of displacement of the aether. (Aether was at that time a familiar conception—like some extreme kind of matter only more so.) Thus there grew up a waiting-list of entities which should one day take on their rightful relation to conceptions of the familiar world. Meanwhile physics had to treat them as best it could without knowledge of their nature.

It managed surprisingly well. Ignorance of the nature of these entities was no bar to successful prediction of behaviour. We gradually awoke to the fact that the scheme of treatment of quantities on the waiting-list was becoming more precise and more satisfying than our knowledge of familiar things. Familiar conceptions did not absorb the waiting-list, but the waiting-list began to absorb familiar conceptions. Aether, after being in turn an elastic solid, a jelly, a froth, a conglomeration of gyrostats, was denied a material and substantial nature and put back on the waiting-list. It was found that science could accomplish so much with entities whose nature was left in suspense that it began to be questioned whether there was any advantage in removing the suspense. The crisis came when we began to construct familiar entities such as matter and light out of things on the waiting-list. Then at last it was seen that the linkage to familiar concepts should be through the advanced constructs of physics and not at the beginning of the alphabet. We have suffered, and we still suffer, from expectations that electrons and quanta must be in some fundamental respects like materials or forces familiar in the workshop—that all we have got to do is to imagine the usual kind of thing on an infinitely smaller scale. It must be our aim to avoid such prejudgments, which are surely illogical; and since we must cease to employ familiar concepts, symbols have become the only possible alternative.

We are on familiar territory up till the understanding of the atom. But the moment we enter the atom we find ourselves on unfamiliar territory.

The synthetic method by which we build up from its own symbolic elements a world which will imitate the actual behaviour of the world of familiar experience is adopted almost universally in scientific theories. Any ordinary theoretical paper in the scientific journals tacitly assumes that this approach is adopted. It has proved to be the most successful procedure; and it is the actual procedure underlying the advances set forth in the scientific part of this book. But I would not claim that no other way of working is admissible. We agree that at the end of the synthesis there must be a linkage to the familiar world of consciousness, and we are not necessarily opposed to attempts to reach the physical world from that end. From the point of view of philosophy it is desirable that this entrance should be explored, and it is conceivable that it may be fruitful scientifically. If I have rightly understood Dr. Whitehead’s philosophy, that is the course which he takes. It involves a certain amount of working backwards (as we should ordinarily describe it) ; but his method of “extensive abstraction” is intended to overcome some of the difficulties of such a procedure. I am not qualified to form a critical judgment of this work, but in principle it appears highly interesting. Although this book may in most respects seem diametrically opposed to Dr. Whitehead’s widely read philosophy of Nature, I think it would be truer to regard him as an ally who from the opposite side of the mountain is tunnelling to meet his less philosophically minded colleagues. The important thing is not to confuse the two entrances.


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