Eddington 1927: Interference with Statistical Laws


Reference: Eddington’s 1927 Book

This paper presents Chapter XIV (section 8) 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.


Interference with Statistical Laws

Has the mind power to set aside statistical laws which hold in in organic matter? Unless this is granted its opportunity of interference seems to be too circumscribed to bring about the results which are observed to follow from mental decisions. But the admission involves a genuine physical difference between inorganic and organic (or, at any rate, conscious) matter. I would prefer to avoid this hypothesis, but it is necessary to face the issue squarely. The indeterminacy recognised in modern quantum theory is only a partial step towards freeing our actions from deterministic control. To use an analogy—we have admitted an uncertainty which may take or spare human lives; but we have yet to find an uncertainty which may upset the expectations of a life- insurance company. Theoretically the one uncertainty might lead to the other, as when the fate of millions turned on the murders at Sarajevo. But the hypothesis that the mind operates through two or three key-atoms in the brain is too desperate a way of escape for us, and I reject it for the reasons already stated.

The material, field, and thought substances work in conjunction with each other to maintain the continuum. This is the overall boundary condition. The rest comes out of that.

It is one thing to allow the mind to direct an atom between two courses neither of which would be improbable for an inorganic atom; it is another thing to allow it to direct a crowd of atoms into a configuration which the secondary laws of physics would set aside as “too improbable”. Here the improbability is that a large number of entities each acting independently should conspire to produce the result; it is like the improbability of the atoms finding themselves by chance all in one half of a vessel. We must suppose that in the physical part of the brain immediately affected by a mental decision there is some kind of interdependence of behaviour of the atoms which is not present in inorganic matter.

Interdependence of atoms comes from the boundary condition stated above. There are no totally independent (arbitrary) decisions.  Laws function as they are supposed to function.

I do not wish to minimise the seriousness of admitting this difference between living and dead matter. But I think that the difficulty has been eased a little, if it has not been removed. To leave the atom constituted as it was but to interfere with the probability of its undetermined behaviour, does not seem quite so drastic an interference with natural law as other modes of mental interference that have been suggested. (Perhaps that is only because we do not understand enough about these probabilities to realise the heinousness of our suggestion.) Unless it belies its name, probability can be modified in ways which ordinary physical entities would not admit of. There can be no unique probability attached to any event or behaviour; we can only speak of “probability in the light of certain given information”, and the probability alters according to the extent of the information. It is, I think, one of the most unsatisfactory features of the new quantum theory in its present stage that it scarcely seems to recognise this fact, and leaves us to guess at the basis of information to which its probability theorems are supposed to refer.

In dead matter the free-will (the ability of the mind to manipulate thought-substance) is missing.

Looking at it from another aspect—if the unity of a man’s consciousness is not an illusion, there must be some corresponding unity in the relations of the mind-stuff which is behind the pointer readings. Applying our measures of relation structure, as in chapter XI, we shall build matter and fields of force obeying identically the principal field-laws; the atoms will individually be in no way different from those which are without this unity in the background. But it seems plausible that when we consider their collective behaviour we shall have to take account of the broader unifying trends in the mind-stuff, and not expect the statistical results to agree with those appropriate to structures of haphazard origin.

I think that even a materialist must reach a conclusion not unlike ours if he fairly faces the problem. He will need in the physical world something to stand for a symbolic unity of the atoms associated with an individual consciousness, which does not exist for atoms not so associated—a unity which naturally upsets physical predictions abased on the hypothesis of random disconnection. For he has not only to translate into material configurations the multifarious thoughts and images of the mind, but must surely not neglect to find some kind of physical substitute for the Ego.

Neither material nor thought substance calls the shots. The conditions are determined by the drive to achieve an overall equilibrium.


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