Eddington 1927: Three Types of Law

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This paper presents Chapter XI (section 4) 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.


Three Types of Law

So far as we are able to judge, the laws of Nature divide themselves into three classes: (1) identical laws, (2) statistical laws, (3) transcendental laws. We have just been considering the identical laws, i.e. the laws obeyed as mathematical identities in virtue of the way in which the quantities obeying them are built. They cannot be regarded as genuine laws of control of the basal material of the world. Statistical laws relate to the behaviour of crowds, and depend on the fact that although the behaviour of each individual may be extremely uncertain average results can be predicted with confidence. Much of the apparent uniformity of Nature is a uniformity of averages. Our gross senses only take cognisance of the average effect of vast numbers of individual particles and processes; and the regularity of the average might well be compatible with a great degree of lawlessness of the individual. I do not think it is possible to dismiss statistical laws (such as the second law of thermodynamics) as merely mathematical adaptations of the other classes of law to certain practical problems. They involve a peculiar element of their own connected with the notion of a priori probability; but we do not yet seem able to find a place for this in any of the current conceptions of the world substratum.

If there are any genuine laws of control of the physical world they must be sought in the third group—the transcendental laws. The transcendental laws comprise all those which have not become obvious identities implied in the scheme of world-building. They are concerned with the particular behaviour of atoms, electrons and quanta—that is to say, the laws of atomicity of matter, electricity and action. We seem to be making some progress towards formulating them, but it is clear that the mind is having a much harder struggle to gain a rational conception of them than it had with the classical field-laws. We have seen that the field-laws, especially the laws of conservation, are indirectly imposed by the mind which has, so to speak, commanded a plan of world-building to satisfy them. It is a natural suggestion that the greater difficulty in elucidating the transcendental laws is due to the fact that we are no longer engaged in recovering from Nature what we have ourselves put into Nature, but are at last confronted with its own intrinsic system of government. But I scarcely know what to think. We must not assume that the possible developments of the new attitude towards natural law have been exhausted in a few short years. It may be that the laws of atomicity, like the laws of conservation, arise only in the presentation of the world to us and can be recognised as identities by some extension of the argument we have followed. But it is perhaps as likely that after we have cleared away all the superadded laws which arise solely in our mode of apprehension of the world about us, there will be left an external world developing under genuine laws of control.

I believe that all scientific laws that are determined and stated in an objective manner are a discovery of Nature’s own intrinsic system of government.

At present we can notice the contrast that the laws which we now recognise as man-made are characterised by continuity, whereas the laws to which the mind as yet lays no claim are characterised by atomicity. The quantum theory with its avoidance of fractions and insistence on integral units seems foreign to any scheme which we should be likely subconsciously to have imposed as a frame for natural phenomena. Perhaps our final conclusion as to the world of physics will resemble Kronecker’s view of pure mathematics.

“God made the integers, all else is the work of man.”*

* Die ganzen Zahlen hat Gott gemacht; alles anderes ist Menschenwerk.
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