Eddington 1927: Limitations of Physical Knowledge

knowledge paradigm

This paper presents Chapter XII (section 3) 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.


Limitations of Physical Knowledge

Whenever we state the properties of a body in terms of physical quantities we are imparting knowledge as to the response of various metrical indicators to its presence, and nothing more. After all, knowledge of this kind is fairly comprehensive. A knowledge of the response of all kinds of objects—weighing-machines and other indicators— would determine completely its relation to its environment, leaving only its inner un-get-atable nature undetermined. In the relativity theory we accept this as full knowledge, the nature of an object in so far as it is ascertainable by scientific inquiry being the abstraction of its relations to all surrounding objects. The progress of the relativity theory has been largely due to the development of a powerful mathematical calculus for dealing compendiously with an infinite scheme of pointer readings, and the technical term tensor used so largely in treatises on Einstein’s theory may be translated schedule of pointer readings. It is part of the aesthetic appeal of the mathematical theory of relativity that the mathematics is so closely adapted to the physical conceptions. It is not so in all subjects. For example, we may admire the triumph of patience of the mathematician in predicting so closely the positions of the moon, but aesthetically the lunar theory is atrocious; it is obvious that the moon and the mathematician use different methods of finding the lunar orbit. But by the use of tensors the mathematical physicist precisely describes the nature of his subject-matter as a schedule of indicator readings; and those accretions of images and conceptions which have no place in physical science are automatically dismissed.

The theory of relativity resorts so deeply to mathematics that its real explanation is lost.

The recognition that our knowledge of the objects treated in physics consists solely of readings of pointers and other indicators transforms our view of the status of physical knowledge in a fundamental way. Until recently it was taken for granted that we had knowledge of a much more intimate kind of the entities of the external world. Let me give an illustration which takes us to the root of the great problem of the relations of matter and spirit. Take the living human brain endowed with mind and thought. Thought is one of the indisputable facts of the world. I know that I think, with a certainty which I cannot attribute to any of my physical knowledge of the world. More hypothetically, but on fairly plausible evidence, I am convinced that you have minds which think. Here then is a world fact to be investigated. The physicist brings his tools and commences systematic exploration. All that he discovers is a collection of atoms and electrons and fields of force arranged in space and time, apparently similar to those found in inorganic objects. He may trace other physical characteristics, energy, temperature, entropy. None of these is identical with thought. He might set down thought as an illusion—some perverse interpretation of the interplay of the physical entities that he has found. Or if he sees the folly of calling the most undoubted element of our experience an illusion, he will have to face the tremendous question, How can this collection of ordinary atoms be a thinking machine? But what knowledge have we of the nature of atoms which renders it at all incongruous that they should constitute a thinking object? The Victorian physicist felt that he knew just what he was talking about when he used such terms as matter and atoms. Atoms were tiny billiard balls, a crisp statement that was supposed to tell you all about their nature in a way which could never be achieved for transcendental things like consciousness, beauty or humour. But now we realise that science has nothing to say as to the intrinsic nature of the atom. The physical atom is, like everything else in physics, a schedule of pointer readings. The schedule is, we agree, attached to some unknown background. Why not then attach it to something of spiritual nature of which a prominent characteristic is thought. It seems rather silly to prefer to attach it to something of a so-called “concrete” nature inconsistent with thought, and then to wonder where the thought comes from. We have dismissed all preconception as to the background of our pointer readings, and for the most part we can discover nothing as to its nature. But in one case—namely, for the pointer readings of my own brain—I have an insight which is not limited to the evidence of the pointer readings. That insight shows that they are attached to a background of consciousness. Although I may expect that the background of other pointer readings in physics is of a nature continuous with that revealed to me in this particular case, I do not suppose that it always has the more specialised attributes of consciousness.* But in regard to my one piece of insight into the background no problem of irreconcilability arises; I have no other knowledge of the background with which to reconcile it.

* For example, we should most of us assume (hypothetically) that the dynamical quality of the world referred to in chapter V is characteristic of the whole background. Apparently it is not to be found in the pointer readings, and our only insight into it is in the feeling of “becoming” in our consciousness. “Becoming” like “reasoning” is known to us only through its occurrence in our own minds; but whereas it would be absurd to suppose that the latter extends to inorganic aggregations of atoms, the former may be (and commonly is) extended to the inorganic world, so that it is not a matter of indifference whether the progress of the inorganic world is viewed from past to future or from future to past.

Thought is a fact. Thought has substance. Thought is part of the system of Nature. Today we have computers that produce thoughts. Atoms and molecules are capable of acting as microcomputers on a natural basis as evidenced by DNA. It is, therefore, possible that there are laws to consciousness, which are yet to be discovered. Such laws shall be much more sophisticated than mathematical procedures.

In science we study the linkage of pointer readings with pointer readings. The terms link together in endless cycle with the same inscrutable nature running through the whole. There is nothing to prevent the assemblage of atoms constituting a brain from being of itself a thinking object in virtue of that nature which physics leaves undetermined and undeterminable. If we must embed our schedule of indicator readings in some kind of background, at least let us accept the only hint we have received as to the significance of the background— namely that it has a nature capable of manifesting itself as mental activity.


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