Eddington 1927: Nature of Exact Science



This paper presents Chapter XII (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.


Nature of Exact Science

One of the characteristics of physics is that it is an exact science, and I have generally identified the domain of physics with the domain of exact science. Strictly speaking the two are not synonymous. We can imagine a science arising which has no contact with the usual phenomena and laws of physics, which yet admits of the same kind of exact treatment. It is conceivable that the Mendelian theory of heredity may grow into an independent science of this kind, for it would seem to occupy in biology the same position that the atomic theory occupied in chemistry a hundred years ago. The trend of the theory is to analyse complex individuals into “unit characters”. These are like indivisible atoms with affinities and repulsions; their matings are governed by the same laws of chance which play so large a part in chemical thermodynamics; and numerical statistics of the characters of a population are predictable in the same way as the results of a chemical reaction.

Now the effect of such a theory on our philosophical views of the significance of life does not depend on whether the Mendelian atom admits of a strictly physical explanation or not. The unit character may be contained in some configuration of the physical molecules of the carrier, and perhaps even literally correspond to a chemical compound; or it may be something superadded which is peculiar to living matter and is not yet comprised in the schedule of physical entities. That is a side-issue. We are drawing near to the great question whether there is any domain of activity—of life, of consciousness, of deity—which will not be engulfed by the advance of exact science; and our apprehension is not directed against the particular entities of physics but against all entities of the category to which exact science can apply. For exact science invokes, or has seemed to invoke, a type of law inevitable and soulless against which the human spirit rebels. If science finally declares that man is no more than a fortuitous concourse of atoms, the blow will not be softened by the explanation that the atoms in question are the Mendelian unit characters and not the material atoms of the chemist.

It seems that exact science requires less number of variables in a relationship compared to the variables present in reality.

Let us then examine the kind of knowledge which is handled by exact science. If we search the examination papers in physics and natural philosophy for the more intelligible questions we may come across one beginning something like this: “An elephant slides down a grassy hillside. . . .” The experienced candidate knows that he need not pay much attention to this; it is only put in to give an impression of realism. He reads on: “The mass of the elephant is two tons.” Now we are getting down to business; the elephant fades out of the problem and a mass of two tons takes its place. What exactly is this two tons, the real subject-matter of the problem? It refers to some property or condition which we vaguely describe as “ponderosity” occurring in a particular region of the external world. But we shall not get much further that way; the nature of the external world is inscrutable, and we shall only plunge into a quagmire of indescribables. Never mind what two tons refers to; what is it? How has it actually entered in so definite a way into our experience? Two tons is the reading of the pointer when the elephant was placed on a weighing-machine. Let us pass on. “The slope of the hill is 6o°.” Now the hillside fades out of the problem and an angle of 6o° takes its place. What is 6o°? There is no need to struggle with mystical conceptions of direction; 6o° is the reading of a plumb-line against the divisions of a protractor. Similarly for the other data of the problem. The softly yielding turf on which the elephant slid is replaced by a coefficient of friction, which though perhaps not directly a pointer reading is of kindred nature. No doubt there are more roundabout ways used in practice for determining the weights of elephants and the slopes of hills, but these are justified because it is known that they give the same results as direct pointer readings.

And so we see that the poetry fades out of the problem, and by the time the serious application of exact science begins we are left with only pointer readings. If then only pointer readings or their equivalents are put into the machine of scientific calculation, how can we grind out anything but pointer readings? But that is just what we do grind out. The question presumably was to find the time of descent of the elephant, and the answer is a pointer reading on the seconds’ dial of our watch.

The triumph of exact science in the foregoing problem consisted in establishing a numerical connection between the pointer reading of the weighing-machine in one experiment on the elephant and the pointer reading of the watch in another experiment. And when we examine critically other problems of physics we find that this is typical. The whole subject-matter of exact science consists of pointer readings and similar indications. We cannot enter here into the definition of what are to be classed as similar indications. The observation of approximate coincidence of the pointer with a scale-division can generally be extended to include the observation of any kind of coincidence—or, as it is usually expressed in the language of the general relativity theory, an intersection of world-lines. The essential point is that, although we seem to have very definite conceptions of objects in the external world, those conceptions do not enter into exact science and are not in any way confirmed by it. Before exact science can begin to handle the problem they must be replaced by quantities representing the results of physical measurement.

Perhaps you will object that although only the pointer readings enter into the actual calculation it would make nonsense of the problem to leave out all reference to anything else. The problem necessarily involves some kind of connecting background. It was not the pointer reading of the weighing-machine that slid down the hill! And yet from the point of view of exact science the thing that really did descend the hill can only be described as a bundle of pointer readings. (It should be remembered that the hill also has been replaced by pointer readings, and the sliding down is no longer an active adventure but a functional relation of space and time measures.) The word elephant calls up a certain association of mental impressions, but it is clear that mental impressions as such cannot be the subject handled in the physical problem. We have, for example, an impression of bulkiness. To this there is presumably some direct counterpart in the external world, but that counterpart must be of a nature beyond our apprehension, and science can make nothing of it. Bulkiness enters into exact science by yet another substitution; we replace it by a series of readings of a pair of calipers. Similarly the greyish black appearance in our mental impression is replaced in exact science by the readings of a photometer for various wave-lengths of light. And so on until all the characteristics of the elephant are exhausted and it has become reduced to a schedule of measures. There is always the triple correspondence—

(a) a mental image, which is in our minds and not in the external world;

(b) some kind of counterpart in the external world, which is of inscrutable nature;

(c) a set of pointer readings, which exact science can study and connect with other pointer readings.

And so we have our schedule of pointer readings ready to make the descent. And if you still think that this substitution has taken away all reality from the problem, I am not sorry that you should have a foretaste of the difficulty in store for those who hold that exact science is all-sufficient for the description of the universe and that there is nothing in our experience which cannot be brought within its scope.

I should like to make it clear that the limitation of the scope of physics to pointer readings and the like is not a philosophical craze of my own but is essentially the current scientific doctrine. It is the outcome of a tendency discernible far back in the last century but only formulated comprehensively with the advent of the relativity theory. The vocabulary of the physicist comprises a number of words such as length, angle, velocity, force, potential, current, etc., which we call “physical quantities”. It is now recognised as essential that these should be defined according to the way in which we actually recognise them when confronted with them, and not according to the metaphysical significance which we may have anticipated for them. In the old textbooks mass was defined as “quantity of matter”; but when it came to an actual determination of mass, an experimental method was prescribed which had no bearing on this definition. The belief that the quantity determined by the accepted method of measurement represented the quantity of matter in the object was merely a pious opinion. At the present day there is no sense in which the quantity of matter in a pound of lead can be said to be equal to the quantity in a pound of sugar. Einstein’s theory makes a clean sweep of these pious opinions, and insists that each physical quantity should be defined as the result of certain operations of measurement and calculation. You may if you like think of mass as something of inscrutable nature to which the pointer reading has a kind of relevance. But in physics at least there is nothing much to be gained by this mystification, because it is the pointer reading itself which is handled in exact science; and if you embed it in something of a more transcendental nature, you have only the extra trouble of digging it out again.

It is quite true that when we say the mass is two tons we have not specially in mind the reading of the particular machine on which the weighing was carried out. That is because we do not start to tackle the problem of the elephant’s escapade ab initio as though it were the first inquiry we had ever made into the phenomena of the external world. The examiner would have had to be much more explicit if he had not presumed a general acquaintance with the elementary laws of physics, i.e. laws which permit us to deduce the readings of other indicators from the reading of one. It is this connectivity of pointer readings, expressed by physical laws, which supplies the continuous background that any realistic problem demands.

It is obviously one of the conditions of the problem that the same elephant should be concerned in the weighing experiment and in the tobogganing experiment. How can this identity be expressed in a description of the world by pointer readings only? Two readings may be equal, but it is meaningless to inquire if they are identical; if then the elephant is a bundle of pointer readings, how can we ask whether it is continually the identical bundle ? The examiner does not confide to us how the identity of the elephant was ensured; we have only his personal guarantee that there was no substitution. Perhaps the creature answered to its name on both occasions; if so the test of identity is clearly outside the present domain of physics. The only test lying purely in the domain of physics is that of continuity; the elephant must be watched all the way from the scales to the hillside. The elephant, we must remember, is a tube in the four-dimensional world demarcated from the rest of space-time by a more or less abrupt boundary. Using the retina of his eye as an indicator and making frequent readings of the outline of the image, the observer satisfied himself that he was following one continuous and isolated world-tube from beginning to end. If his vigilance was intermittent he took a risk of substitution, and consequently a risk of the observed time of descent failing to agree with the time calculated.* Note that we do not infer that there is any identity of the contents of the isolated world-tube throughout its length; such identity would be meaning- less in physics. We use instead the law of conservation of mass (either as an empirical law or deduced from the law of gravitation) which assures us that, provided the tube is isolated, the pointer reading on the schedule derived from the weighing-machine type of experiment has a constant value along the tube. For the purpose of exact science “the same object” becomes replaced by “isolated world-tube”. The constancy of certain properties of the elephant is not assumed as self-evident from its sameness, but is an inference from experimental and theoretical laws relating to world-tubes which are accepted as well established.

* A good illustration of such substitution is afforded by astronomical observations of a certain double star with two components of equal brightness. After an intermission of observation the two components were inadvertently interchanged, and the substitution was not detected until the increasing discrepancy between the actual and predicted orbits was inquired into.


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