Eddington 1927: The Real and the Concrete

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Reference: Eddington’s 1927 Book

This paper presents Chapter XIII (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.

The heading below links to the original materials.

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The Real and the Concrete

One of our ancestors, taking arboreal exercise in the forest, failed to reach the bough intended and his hand closed on nothingness. The accident might well occasion philosophical reflections on the distinctions of substance and void—to say nothing of the phenomenon of gravity. However that may be, his descendants down to this day have come to be endowed with an immense respect for substance arising we know not how or why. So far as familiar experience is concerned, substance occupies the centre of the stage, rigged out with the attributes of form, colour, hardness, etc., which appeal to our several senses. Behind it is a subordinate background of space and time permeated by forces and unconcrete agencies to minister to the star performer.

Nothingness would also mean “no space”. Space is a characteristic of substance. There cannot be space without substance.  Void consisting of space implies no material-substance, but it does not necessarily mean ‘no substance’.

Our conception of substance is only vivid so long as we do not face it. It begins to fade when we analyse it. We may dismiss many of its supposed attributes which are evidently projections of our sense-impressions outwards into the external world. Thus the colour which is so vivid to us is in our minds and cannot be embodied in a legitimate conception of the substantial object itself. But in any case colour is no part of the essential nature of substance. Its supposed nature is that which we try to call to mind by the word “concrete”, which is perhaps an outward projection of our sense of touch. When I try to abstract from the bough everything but its substance or concreteness and concentrate on an effort to apprehend this, all ideas elude me; but the effort brings with it an instinctive tightening of the fingers—from which perhaps I might infer that my conception of substance is not very different from my arboreal ancestor’s.

A substance is that we can become aware of through our senses. The senses are not just physical but mental also. Therefore, from matter to thought, and everything in between, may be identified as substance.

So strongly has substance held the place of leading actor on the stage of experience that in common usage concrete and real are almost synonymous. Ask any man who is not a philosopher or a mystic to name something typically real; he is almost sure to choose a concrete thing. Put the question to him whether Time is real; he will probably decide with some hesitation that it must be classed as real, but he has an inner feeling that the question is in some way inappropriate and that he is being cross-examined unfairly.

Time is the perception of sequence. It is abstract and not concrete, but it is no less real. It is thought substance.

In the scientific world the conception of substance is wholly lacking, and that which most nearly replaces it, viz. electric charge, is not exalted as star-performer above the other entities of physics. For this reason the scientific world often shocks us by its appearance of unreality. It offers nothing to satisfy our demand for the concrete. How should it, when we cannot formulate that demand? I tried to formulate it; but nothing resulted save a tightening of the fingers. Science does not overlook the provision for tactual and muscular sensation. In leading us away from the concrete, science is reminding us that our contact with the real is more varied than was apparent to the ape-mind, to whom the bough which supported him typified the beginning and end of reality.

Substance is not just limited to simply tactual or even physical perception. It extends to mental perception as well.

It is not solely the scientific world that will now occupy our attention. In accordance with the last chapter we are taking a larger view in which the cyclical schemes of physics are embraced with much besides. But before venturing on this more risky ground I have to emphasise one conclusion which is definitely scientific. The modern scientific theories have broken away from the common standpoint which identifies the real with the concrete. I think we might go so far as to say that time is more typical of physical reality than matter, because it is freer from those metaphysical associations which physics disallows. It would not be fair, being given an inch, to take an ell, and say that having gone so far physics may as well admit at once that reality is spiritual. We must go more warily. But in approaching such questions we are no longer tempted to take up the attitude that everything which lacks concreteness is thereby self-condemned.

Spiritual substance is made up of conclusions derived from physical and mental perceptions. Like any other hypothesis it needs to be tested with the logical criteria of consistency, harmony and continuity before being confirmed.

The cleavage between the scientific and the extra-scientific domain of experience is, I believe, not a cleavage between the concrete and the transcendental but between the metrical and the non-metrical. I am at one with the materialist in feeling a repugnance towards any kind of pseudo-science of the extra-scientific territory. Science is not to be condemned as narrow because it refuses to deal with elements of experience which are unadapted to its own highly organised method ; nor can it be blamed for looking superciliously on the comparative disorganisation of our knowledge and methods of reasoning about the non-metrical part of experience. But I think we have not been guilty of pseudo-science in our attempt to show in the last two chapters how it comes about that within the whole domain of experience a selected portion is capable of that exact metrical representation which is requisite for development by the scientific method.

Non-scientific may be defined as the inconsistency, disharmony and discontinuity, which has been accepted without proper resolution.

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