Eddington 1927: Actuality


This paper presents Chapter XII (section 5) 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.



“Knowableness to mind” is moreover a property which differentiates the actual world of our experience from imaginary worlds in which the same general laws of Nature are supposed to hold true. Consider a world—Utopia, let us say—governed by all the laws of Nature known and unknown which govern our own world, but containing better stars, planets, cities, animals, etc.—a world which might exist, but it just happens that it doesn’t. How can the physicist test that Utopia is not the actual world? We refer to a piece of matter in it; it is not real matter but it attracts any other piece of (unreal) matter in Utopia according to the law of gravitation. Scales and clocks constructed of this unreal matter will measure wrong intervals, but the physicist cannot detect that they are wrong unless he has first shown the unreality of the matter. As soon as any element in it has been shown to be unreal Utopia collapses; but so long as we keep to the cycles of physics we can never find the vulnerable point, for each element is correctly linked to the rest of the cycle, all our laws of Nature expressed by the cycle being obeyed in Utopia by hypothesis. The unreal stars emit unreal light which falls on unreal retinas and ultimately reaches unreal brains. The next step takes it outside the cycle and gives the opportunity of exposing the whole deception. Is the brain disturbance translated into consciousness? That will test whether the brain is real or unreal. There is no question about consciousness being real or not; consciousness is self-knowing and the epithet real adds nothing to that. Of the infinite number of worlds which are examples of what might be possible under the laws of Nature, there is one which does something more than fulfil those laws of Nature. This property, which is evidently not definable with respect to any of the laws of Nature, we describe as “actuality”—generally using the word as a kind of halo of indefinite import. We have seen that the trend of modern physics is to reject these indefinite attributions and to define its terms according to the way in which we recognise the properties when confronted by them. We recognise the actuality of a particular world because it is that world alone with which consciousness interacts. However much the theoretical physicist may dislike a reference to consciousness, the experimental physicist uses freely this touchstone of actuality. He would perhaps prefer to believe that his instruments and observations are certified as actual by his material sense organs; but the final guarantor is the mind that comes to know the indications of the material organs. Each of us is armed with this touchstone of actuality; by applying it we decide that this sorry world of ours is actual and Utopia is a dream. As our individual consciousnesses are different, so our touchstones are different; but fortunately they all agree in their indication of actuality—or at any rate those which agree are in sufficient majority to shut the others up in lunatic asylums.

Experimental physicist is more in touch with actuality than the theoretical physicist. That was the case with Faraday who talked about lines of force and conservation of force.

 Actuality depends on objectivity of viewpoint. The objective viewpoint ensures consistency, harmony and continuity among all observations. It is aware of inconsistencies, disharmonies and discontinuities that are present and need to be resolved. It does not rest until they are resolved.

It is natural that theoretical physics in its formulation of a general scheme of law should leave out of account actuality and the guarantor of actuality. For it is just this omission which makes the difference between a law of Nature and a particular sequence of events. That which is possible (or not “too improbable”) is the domain of natural science; that which is actual is the domain of natural history. We need scarcely add that the contemplation in natural science of a wider domain than the actual leads to a far better understanding of the actual.

Natural science is a simplification of the actual which emphasizes certain laws. This leads to a better understanding of the actual.

From a broader point of view than that of elaborating the physical scheme of law we cannot treat the connection with mind as merely an incident in a self-existent inorganic world. In saying that the differentiation of the actual from the non-actual is only expressible by reference to mind I do not mean to imply that a universe without conscious mind would have no more status than Utopia. But its property of actuality would be indefinable since the one approach to a definition is cut off. The actuality of Nature is like the beauty of Nature. We can scarcely describe the beauty of a landscape as non-existent when there is no conscious being to witness it; but it is through consciousness that we can attribute a meaning to it. And so it is with the actuality of the world. If actuality means “known to mind” then it is a purely subjective character of the world; to make it objective we must substitute “knowable to mind”. The less stress we lay on the accident of parts of the world being known at the present era to particular minds, the more stress we must lay on the potentiality of being known to mind as a fundamental objective property of matter, giving it the status of actuality whether individual consciousness is taking note of it or not.

There is always more to know. The mind is capable of seeing inconsistencies, disharmonies and discontinuities. It knows that the resolution of these anomalies will lead to a more onjective understanding of the actual

In the diagram Mr. X has been linked to the cycle at a particular point in deference to his supposed claim that he knows matter; but a little reflection will show that the point of contact of mind with the physical universe is not very definite. Mr. X knows a table; but the point of contact with his mind is not in the material of the table. Light waves are propagated from the table to the eye; chemical changes occur in the retina; propagation of some kind occurs in the optic nerves; atomic changes follow in the brain. Just where the final leap into consciousness occurs is not clear. We do not know the last stage of the message in the physical world before it became a sensation in consciousness. This makes no difference. The physical entities have a cyclic connection, and whatever intrinsic nature we attribute to one of them runs as a background through the whole cycle. It is not a question whether matter or electricity or potential is the direct stimulus to the mind; in their physical aspects these are equally represented as pointer readings or schedules of pointer readings. According to our discussion of world building they are the measures of structure arising from the comparability of certain aspects of the basal relations—measures which by no means exhaust the significance of those relations. I do not believe that the activity of matter at a certain point of the brain stimulates an activity of mind; my view is that in the activity of matter there is a metrical description of certain aspects of the activity of mind. The activity of the matter is our way of recognising a combination of the measures of structure; the activity of the mind is our insight into the complex of relations whose comparability gives the foundation of those measures.

The physical entities have a cyclic connection. The cyclic method of physics never goes away. It simply expands with greater consciousness.


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