Eddington 1927: Conviction


Reference: Eddington’s 1927 Book

This paper presents Chapter XV (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.



Through fourteen chapters you have followed with me the scientific approach to knowledge. I have given the philosophical reflections as they have naturally arisen from the current scientific conclusions, I hope without distorting them for theological ends. In the present chapter the standpoint has no longer been predominantly scientific; I started from that part of our experience which is not within the scope of a scientific survey, or at least is such that the methods of physical science would miss the significance that we consider it essential to attribute to it. The starting-point of belief in mystical religion is a conviction of significance or, as I have called it earlier, the sanction of a striving in the consciousness. This must be emphasised because appeal to intuitive conviction of this kind has been the foundation of religion through all ages and I do not wish to give the impression that we have now found something new and more scientific to substitute. I repudiate the idea of proving the distinctive beliefs of religion either from the data of physical science or by the methods of physical science. Presupposing a mystical religion based not on science but (rightly or wrongly) on a self-known experience accepted as fundamental, we can proceed to discuss the various criticisms which science might bring against it or the possible conflict with scientific views of the nature of experience equally originating from self-known data.

Religion and science are inconsistent in that religious conviction goes beyond reasoning.

It is necessary to examine further the nature of the conviction from which religion arises; otherwise we may seem to be countenancing a blind rejection of reason as a guide to truth. There is a hiatus in reasoning, we must admit; but it is scarcely to be described as a rejection of reasoning. There is just the same hiatus in reasoning about the physical world if we go back far enough. We can only reason from data and the ultimate data must be given to us by a non-reasoning process—a self-knowledge of that which is in our consciousness. To make a start we must be aware of something. But that is not sufficient; we must be convinced of the significance of that awareness. We are bound to claim for human nature that, either of itself or as inspired by a power beyond, it is capable of making legitimate judgments of significance. Otherwise we cannot even reach a physical world.*

* We can of course solve the problem arising from certain data without being convinced of the significance of the data—the “official” scientific attitude as I have previously called it. But a physical world which has only the status of the solution of a problem, arbitrarily chosen to pass an idle hour, is not what is intended here.

Conviction seems to come from absence of anomalies among physical and mental senses.

Accordingly the conviction which we postulate is that certain states of awareness in consciousness have at least equal significance with those which are called sensations. It is perhaps not irrelevant to note that time by its dual entry into our minds (p. 51) to some extent bridges the gap between sense-impressions and these other states of awareness. Amid the latter must be found the basis of experience from which a spiritual religion arises. The conviction is scarcely a matter to be argued about, it is dependent on the forcefulness of the feeling of awareness.

A fundamental postulate, such as, “emptiness” is derived from absence of anomalies with what follows.

But, it may be said, although we may have such a department of consciousness, may we not have misunderstood altogether the nature of that which we believe we are experiencing? That seems to me to be rather beside the point. In regard to our experience of the physical world we have very much misunderstood the meaning of our sensations. It has been the task of science to discover that things are very different from what they seem. But we do not pluck out our eyes because they persist in deluding us with fanciful colourings instead of giving us the plain truth about wave-length. It is in the midst of such misrepresentations of environment (if you must call them so) that we have to live. It is, however, a very one-sided view of truth which can find in the glorious colouring of our surroundings nothing but misrepresentation—which takes the environment to be all important and the conscious spirit to be inessential. In our scientific chapters we have seen how the mind must be regarded as dictating the course of world-building; without it there is but formless chaos. It is the aim of physical science, so far as its scope extends, to lay bare the fundamental structure underlying the world; but science has also to explain if it can, or else humbly to accept, the fact that from this world have arisen minds capable of transmuting the bare structure into the richness of our experience. It is not misrepresentation but rather achievement—the result perhaps of long ages of biological evolution—that we should have fashioned a familiar world out of the crude basis. It is a fulfilment of the purpose of man’s nature. If likewise the spiritual world has been transmuted by a religious colour beyond anything implied in its bare external qualities, it may be allowable to assert with equal conviction that this is not misrepresentation but the achievement of a divine element in man’s nature.

The starting point must be free of anomalies. If anomalies are discovered later then they must be resolved by even re-examining the starting point as necessary. Sensations being different from reasoning (color versus wavelength of light) may indicate that we need to better understand the nature of physical and mental perceptions.

May I revert again to the analogy of theology with the supposed science of humour which (after consultation with a classical authority) I venture to christen “geloeology”. Analogy is not convincing argument, but it must serve here. Consider the proverbial Scotchman with strong leanings towards philosophy and incapable of seeing a joke. There is no reason why he should not take high honours in geloeology, and for example write an acute analysis of the differences between British and American humour. His comparison of our respective jokes would be particularly unbiased and judicial, seeing that he is quite incapable of seeing the point of either. But it would be useless to consider his views as to which was following the right development; for that he would need a sympathetic understanding—he would (in the phrase appropriate to the other side of my analogy) need to be converted. The kind of help and criticism given by the geloeologist and the philosophical theologian is to secure that there is method in our madness. The former may show that our hilarious reception of a speech is the result of a satisfactory dinner and a good cigar rather than a subtle perception of wit; the latter may show that the ecstatic mysticism of the anchorite is the vagary of a fevered body and not a transcendent revelation. But I do not think we should appeal to either of them to discuss the reality of the sense with which we claim to be endowed, nor the direction of its right development. That is a matter for our inner sense of values which we all believe in to some extent, though it may be a matter of dispute just how far it goes. If we have no such sense then it would seem that not only religion, but the physical world and all faith in reasoning totter in insecurity.

There must be a sense of inner logic to be able to recognize anomalies.

I have sometimes been asked whether science cannot now furnish an argument which ought to convince any reasonable atheist. I could no more ram religious conviction into an atheist than I could ram a joke into the Scotchman. The only hope of “converting” the latter is that through contact with merry-minded companions he may begin to realise that he is missing something in life which is worth attaining. Probably in the recesses of his solemn mind there exists inhibited the seed of humour, awaiting an awakening by such an impulse. The same advice would seem to apply to the propagation of religion; it has, I believe, the merit of being entirely orthodox advice.

An absence of inner logic shall pose a problem related to the mind. That will require a better understanding of mind and the subject of logic.

We cannot pretend to offer proofs. Proof is an idol before whom the pure mathematician tortures himself. In physics we are generally content to sacrifice before the lesser shrine of Plausibility. And even the pure mathematician—that stern logician—reluctantly allows himself some prejudgments; he is never quite convinced that the scheme of mathematics is flawless, and mathematical logic has undergone revolutions as profound as the revolutions of physical theory. We are all alike stumblingly pursuing an ideal beyond our reach. In science we sometimes have convictions as to the right solution of a problem which we cherish but cannot justify; we are influenced by some innate sense of the fitness of things. So too there may come to us convictions in the spiritual sphere which our nature bids us hold to. I have given an example of one such conviction which is rarely if ever disputed—that surrender to the mystic influence of a scene of natural beauty is right and proper for a human spirit, although it would have been deemed an unpardonable eccentricity in the “observer” contemplated in earlier chapters. Religious conviction is often described in somewhat analogous terms as a surrender; it is not to be enforced by argument on those who do not feel its claim in their own nature.

If a sense of logic is missing from the mind, no amount of proof about the state of reality can fix it.

I think it is inevitable that these convictions should emphasise a personal aspect of what we are trying to grasp. We have to build the spiritual world out of symbols taken from our own personality, as we build the scientific world out of the metrical symbols of the mathematician. If not, it can only be left ungraspable— an environment dimly felt in moments of exaltation but lost to us in the sordid routine of life. To turn it into more continuous channels we must be able to approach the World-Spirit in the midst of our cares and duties in that simpler relation of spirit to spirit in which all true religion finds expression.

Whether a conviction is right or wrong can only be determined by the absence or presence of anomalies.


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