Eddington 1927: Causation



Reference: Eddington’s 1927 Book

This paper presents Chapter XIV (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.



In the old conflict between freewill and predestination it has seemed hitherto that physics comes down heavily on the side of predestination. Without making extravagant claims for the scope of natural law, its moral sympathy has been with the view that whatever the future may bring forth is already foretold in the configurations of the past—

Yea, the first Morning of Creation wrote

What the Last Dawn of Reckoning shall read.

Free will exists in formulating the postulates at the beginning of a theory, but as the theory develops, the free will is constrained by the logic of consistency, harmony and continuity.

I am not so rash as to invade Scotland with a solution of a problem which has rent her from the synod to the cottage. Like most other people, I suppose, I think it incredible that the wider scheme of Nature which includes life and consciousness can be completely predetermined; yet I have not been able to form a satisfactory conception of any kind of law or causal sequence which shall be other than deterministic. It seems contrary to our feeling of the dignity of the mind to suppose that it merely registers a dictated sequence of thoughts and emotions; but it seems equally contrary to its dignity to put it at the mercy of impulses with no causal antecedents. I shall not deal with this dilemma. Here I have to set forth the position of physical science on this matter so far as it comes into her territory. It does come into her territory, because that which we call human will cannot be entirely dissociated from the consequent motions of the muscles and disturbance of the material world. On the scientific side a new situation has arisen. It is a consequence of the advent of the quantum theory that physics is no longer pledged to a scheme of deterministic law. Determinism has dropped out altogether in the latest formulations of theoretical physics and it is at least open to doubt whether it will ever be brought back.

Free will is constrained by the laws it creates to bring order. The first such law is the LAW OF CONTINUUM, which demands consistency, harmony and continuity of all reality. We have yet to determine the laws for the new quantum theory.

The foregoing paragraph is from the manuscript of the original lecture delivered in Edinburgh. The attitude of physics at that time was one of indifference to determinism. If there existed a scheme of strictly causal law at the base of phenomena the search for it was not at present practical politics, and meanwhile another ideal was being pursued. The fact that a causal basis had been lost sight of in the new theories was fairly well known; many regretted it, and held that its restoration was imperative.*

* A few days after the course of lectures was completed, Einstein wrote in his message on the Newton Centenary, “It is only in the quantum theory that Newton’s differential method becomes inadequate, and indeed strict causality fails us. But the last word has not yet been said. May the spirit of Newton’s method give us the power to restore unison between physical reality and the profoundest characteristic of Newton’s teaching—strict causality.” (Nature, 1927, March 26, p. 467.)

We have yet to determine proper laws of quantization for the new quantum theory.

In rewriting this chapter a year later I have had to mingle with this attitude of indifference an attitude more definitely hostile to determinism which has arisen from the acceptance of the Principle of Indeterminacy (p. 220). There has been no time for more than a hurried examination of the far-reaching consequences of this principle; and I should have been reluctant to include “stop-press” ideas were it not that they appear to clinch the conception towards which the earlier developments were leading. The future is a combination of the causal influences of the past together with unpredictable elements

—unpredictable not merely because it is impracticable to obtain the data of prediction, but because no data connected causally with our experience exist. It will be necessary to defend so remarkable a change of opinion at some length. Meanwhile we may note that science thereby withdraws its moral opposition to freewill. Those who maintain a deterministic theory of mental activity must do so as the outcome of their study of the mind itself and not with the idea that they are thereby making it more conformable with our experimental knowledge of the laws of inorganic nature.

Science by its very nature is deterministic. The principle of Indeterminacy exists because we lack the law of quantization.


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