Eddington 1927: Natural and Supernatural

Reference: Eddington’s 1927 Book

This paper presents Chapter XIV (section 6) 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.


Natural and Supernatural

A rather serious consequence of dropping causality in the external world is that it leaves us with no clear distinction between the Natural and the Supernatural. In an earlier chapter I compared the invisible agent invented to account for the tug of gravitation to a “demon”. Is a view of the world which admits such an agent any more scientific than that of a savage who attributes all that he finds mysterious in Nature to the work of invisible demons? The Newtonian physicist had a valid defence. He could point out that his demon Gravitation was supposed to act according to fixed causal laws and was therefore not to be compared with the irresponsible demons of the savage. Once a deviation from strict causality is admitted the distinction melts away. I suppose that the savage would admit that his demon was to some extent a creature of habit and that it would be possible to make a fair guess as to what he would do in the future; but that sometimes he would show a will of his own. It is that imperfect consistency which formerly disqualified him from admission as an entity of physics along with his brother Gravitation.

Any inconsistency means that some truth is missing. Discovery of that truth requires resolution of that inconsistency.

That is largely why there has been so much bother about “me”; because I have, or am persuaded that I have, “a will of my own”. Either the physicist must leave his causal scheme at the mercy of supernatural interference from me, or he must explain away my supernatural qualities. In self-defence the materialist favoured the latter course; he decided that I was not supernatural—only complicated. We on the other hand have concluded that there is no strict causal behaviour anywhere. We can scarcely deny the charge that in abolishing the criterion of causality we are opening the door to the savage’s demons. It is a serious step, but I do not think it means the end of all true science. After all if they try to enter we can pitch them out again, as Einstein pitched out the respectable causal demon who called himself Gravitation. It is a privation to be no longer able to stigmatise certain views as unscientific superstition; but we are still allowed, if the circumstances justify it, to reject them as bad science.

Bad science results from accepting inconsistencies, disharmonies and discontinuities.


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