Eddington 1927: Volition


Reference: Eddington’s 1927 Book

This paper presents Chapter XIV (section 7) 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.



From the philosophic point of view it is of deep interest to consider how this affects the freedom of the human mind and spirit. A complete determinism of the material universe cannot be divorced from determinism of the mind. Take, for example, the prediction of the weather this time next year. The prediction is not likely ever to become practicable, but “orthodox” physicists are not yet convinced that it is theoretically impossible; they hold that next year’s weather is already predetermined. We should require extremely detailed knowledge of present conditions, since a small local deviation can exert an ever-expanding influence. We must examine the state of the sun so as to predict the fluctuations in the heat and corpuscular radiation which it sends us. We must dive into the bowels of the earth to be forewarned of volcanic eruptions which may spread a dust screen over the atmosphere as Mt. Katmai did some years ago. But further we must penetrate into the recesses of the human mind. A coal strike, a great war, may directly change the conditions of the atmosphere; a lighted match idly thrown away may cause deforestation which will change the rainfall and climate. There can be no fully deterministic control of inorganic phenomena unless the determinism governs mind itself. Conversely if we wish to emancipate mind we must to some extent emancipate the material world also. There appears to be no longer any obstacle to this emancipation.

The thought-substance is the pattern that establishes the continuum of material and field substance. Such pattern may not be clearly perceived by the human mind because of thought-filters due to ignorance and preconceived notions.

The human mind has the ability to dissolve such thought-filters by resolving anomalies (inconsistencies, disharmonies and discontinuities). This ability of the human mind to manipulate thought-substance as above is called FREE-WILL.

Let us look more closely into the problem of how the mind gets a grip on material atoms so that movements of the body and limbs can be controlled by its volition. I think we may now feel quite satisfied that the volition is genuine. The materialist view was that the motions which appear to be caused by our volition are really reflex actions controlled by the material processes in the brain, the act of will being an inessential side phenomenon occurring simultaneously with the physical phenomena. But this assumes that the result of applying physical laws to the brain is fully determinate. It is meaningless to say that the behaviour of a conscious brain is precisely the same as that of a mechanical brain if the behaviour of a mechanical brain is left undetermined. If the laws of physics are not strictly causal the most that can be said is that the behaviour of the conscious brain is one of the possible behaviours of a mechanical brain. Precisely so; and the decision between the possible behaviours is what we call volition.

There is no need to know all the laws if the human mind can simply the anomalies as it comes across them. In this process the laws may be discovered as needed.

Perhaps you will say, When the decision of an atom is made between its possible quantum jumps, is that also “volition”? Scarcely; the analogy is altogether too remote. The position is that both for the brain and the atom there is nothing in the physical world, i.e. the world of pointer readings, to predetermine the decision; the decision is a fact of the physical world with consequences in the future but not causally connected to the past. In the case of the brain we have an insight into a mental world behind the world of pointer readings and in that world we get a new picture of the fact of decision which must be taken as revealing its real nature—if the words real nature have any meaning. For the atom we have no such insight into what is behind the pointer readings. We believe that behind all pointer readings there is a background continuous with the background of the brain; but there is no more ground for calling the background of the spontaneous behaviour of the atom “volition” than for calling the background of its causal behaviour “reason”. It should be understood that we are not attempting to reintroduce in the background the strict causality banished from the pointer readings. In the one case in which we have any insight—the background of the brain—we have no intention of giving up the freedom of the mind and will. Similarly we do not suggest that the marks of predestination of the atom, not found in the pointer readings, exist undetectable in the unknown background. To the question whether I would admit that the cause of the decision of the atom has something in common with the cause of the decision of the brain, I would simply answer that there is no cause. In the case of the brain I have a deeper insight into the decision; this insight exhibits it as volition, i.e. something outside causality.

What is outside causality is unknown. But we may gradually come to know about the unknown by resolving anomalies. Will we ever come to know the unknown fully with no more anomalies to be resolved—we don’t know.

A mental decision to turn right or turn left starts one of two alternative sets of impulses along the nerves to the feet. At some brain centre the course of behaviour of certain atoms or elements of the physical world is directly determined for them by the mental decision— or, one may say, the scientific description of that behaviour is the metrical aspect of the decision. It would be a possible though difficult hypothesis to assume that very few atoms (or possibly only one atom) have this direct contact with the conscious decision, and that these few atoms serve as a switch to deflect the material world from one course to the other. But it is physically improbable that each atom has its duty in the brain so precisely allotted that the control of its behaviour would prevail over all possible irregularities of the other atoms. If I have at all rightly understood the processes of my own mind, there is no finicking with individual atoms.

The confusion in science seems to be coming from not differentiating the thought-substance from material substance. Similar confusion we see in quantum theory from not fully differentiating field-substance from material substance.

I do not think that our decisions are precisely balanced on the conduct of certain key-atoms. Could we pick out one atom in Einstein’s brain and say that if it had made the wrong quantum jump there would have been a corresponding flaw in the theory of relativity? Having regard to the physical influences of temperature and promiscuous collision it is impossible to maintain this. It seems that we must attribute to the mind power not only to decide the behaviour of atoms individually but to affect systematically large groups— in fact to tamper with the odds on atomic behaviour. This has always been one of the most dubious points in the theory of the interaction of mind and matter.


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