Eddington 1927: The New Epistemological Outlook



Reference: Eddington’s 1927 Book

This paper presents Chapter XIV (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.


The New Epistemological Outlook

Scientific investigation does not lead to knowledge of the intrinsic nature of things. “Whenever we state the properties of a body in terms of physical quantities we are imparting knowledge of the response of various metrical indicators to its presence and nothing more” (p. 257). But if a body is not acting according to strict causality, if there is an element of uncertainty as to the response of the indicators, we seem to have cut away the ground for this kind of knowledge. It is not predetermined what will be the reading of the weighing-machine if the body is placed on it, therefore the body has no definite mass; nor where it will be found an instant hence, therefore it has no definite velocity; nor where the rays now being reflected from it will converge in the microscope, therefore it has no definite position; and so on. It is no use answering that the body really has a definite mass, velocity, position, etc., which we are unaware of; that statement, if it means anything, refers to an intrinsic nature of things outside the scope of scientific knowledge. We cannot infer these properties with precision from anything that we can be aware of, because the breach of causality has broken the chain of inference. Thus our knowledge of the response of indicators to the presence of the body is non-existent; therefore we cannot assert knowledge of it at all. So what is the use of talking about it? The body which was to be the abstraction of all these (as yet unsettled) pointer readings has become superfluous in the physical world. That is the dilemma into which the old epistemology leads us as soon as we begin to doubt strict causality.

Substance is what we become aware of underlying all the properties. The substance is intuitively grasped by its substantialness, which is governed by the law of quantization. This law of quantization is yet to be determined by science. There is no reason why this law cannot be determined with certainty.

In phenomena on a gross scale this difficulty can be got round. A body may have no definite position but yet have within close limits an extremely probable position. When the probabilities are large the substitution of probability for certainty makes little difference; it adds only a negligible haziness to the world. But though the practical change is unimportant there are fundamental theoretical consequences. All probabilities rest on a basis of a priori probability, and we cannot say whether probabilities are large or small without having assumed such a basis. In agreeing to accept those of our calculated probabilities which are very high as virtually equivalent to certainties on the old scheme, we are as it were making our adopted basis of a priori probability a constituent of the world-structure—adding to the world a kind of symbolic texture that cannot be expressed on the old scheme.

Classical physics has no concept of field-substance or quantization. Quantum physics uses probability to account for the effects of quantization.

On the atomic scale of phenomena the probabilities are in general well-balanced, and there are no “naps” for the scientific punter to put his shirt on. If a body is still defined as a bundle of pointer readings (or highly probable pointer readings) there are no “bodies” on the atomic scale. All that we can extract is a bundle of probabilities. That is in fact just how Schrodinger tries to picture the atom—as a wave centre of his probability entity ψ.

The atom is made of layers of quantization of field-substance.

We commonly have had to deal with probabilities which arise through ignorance. With fuller knowledge we should sweep away the references to probability and substitute the exact facts. But it appears to be a fundamental point in Schrodinger’s theory that his probabilities are not to be replaced in that way. When his ψ is sufficiently concentrated it indicates the point where the electron is; when it is diffused it gives only a vague indication of the position. But this vague indication is not something which ideally ought to be replaced by exact knowledge; it is ψ itself which acts as the source of the light emitted from the atom, the period of the light being that of the beats of ψ. I think this means that the spread of ψ is not a symbol for uncertainty arising through lack of information; it is a symbol for causal failure—an indeterminacy of behaviour which is part of the character of the atom.

Schrodinger’s wave-function ψ may indicate the degree of quantization.

We have two chief ways of learning about the interior of the atom. We can observe electrons entering or leaving, and we can observe light entering or leaving. Bohr has assumed a structure connected by strictly causal law with the first phenomenon, Heisenberg and his followers with the second. If the two structures were identifiable then the atom would involve a complete causal connection of the two types of phenomena. But apparently no such causal linkage exists. Therefore we have to be content with a correlation in which the entities of the one model represent probabilities in the second model. There are perhaps details in the two theories which do not quite square with this; but it seems to express the ideal to be aimed at in describing the laws of an incompletely causal world, viz. that the causal source of one phenomenon shall represent the probability of causal source of another phenomenon. Schrodinger’s theory has given at least a strong hint that the actual world is controlled on this plan.

The electron and light may get transformed into quantized field-substance after entering the atom. Bohr’s atom maintains the electron inside the atom, which is very unlikely. How the light quanta configures itself inside the atom is not quite known.


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