Eddington 1927: Defence of Mysticism


Reference: Eddington’s 1927 Book

This paper presents Chapter XV (section 3) 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.


Defence of Mysticism

A defence of the mystic might run something like this. We have acknowledged that the entities of physics can from their very nature form only a partial aspect of the reality. How are we to deal with the other part? It cannot be said that that other part concerns us less than the physical entities. Feelings, purpose, values, make up our consciousness as much as sense-impressions. We follow up the sense-impressions and find that they lead into an external world discussed by science; we follow up the other elements of our being and find that they lead—not into a world of space and time, but surely somewhere. If you take the view that the whole of consciousness is reflected in the dance of electrons in the brain, so that each emotion is a separate figure of the dance, then all features of consciousness alike lead into the external world of physics. But I assume that you have followed me in rejecting this view, and that you agree that consciousness as a whole is greater than those quasi-metrical aspects of it which are abstracted to compose the physical brain. We have then to deal with those parts of our being unamenable to metrical specification, that do not make contact—jut out, as it were—into space and time. By dealing with them I do not mean make scientific inquiry into them. The first step is to give acknowledged status to the crude conceptions in which the mind invests them, similar to the status of those crude conceptions which constitute the familiar material world.

Physics started with investigating the material-substance. With quantum theory it is investigating the field-substance as a continuum of material-substance. Soon it may investigate thought-substance as a continuum of both material and field substance.

Our conception of the familiar table was an illusion.  But if some prophetic voice had warned us that it was an illusion and therefore we had not troubled to investigate further we should never have found the scientific table. To reach the reality of the table we need to be endowed with sense-organs to weave images and illusions about it. And so it seems to me that the first step in a broader revelation to man must be the awakening of image-building in connection with the higher faculties of his nature, so that these are no longer blind alleys but open out into a spiritual world—a world partly of illusion, no doubt, but in which he lives no less than in the world, also of illusion, revealed by the senses.

Mind is investigating through visualization of consistency, harmony and continuity, and sorting out of anomalies.

The mystic, if haled before a tribunal of scientists, might perhaps end his defence on this note. He would say, The familiar material world of everyday conception, though lacking somewhat in scientific truth, is good enough to live in; in fact the scientific world of pointer readings would be an impossible sort of place to inhabit. It is a symbolic world and the only thing that could live comfortably in it would be a symbol. But I am not a symbol; I am compounded of that mental activity which is from your point of view a nest of illusion, so that to accord with my own nature I have to transform even the world explored by my senses. But I am not merely made up of senses; the rest of my nature has to live and grow. I have to render account of that environment into which it has its outlet. My conception of my spiritual environment is not to be compared with your scientific world of pointer readings; it is an everyday world to be compared with the material world of familiar experience. I claim it as no more real and no less real than that. Primarily it is not a world to be analysed, but a world to be lived in.”

Both the scientist and the mystic are using thought-substance for the defence of their viewpoints. They both have anomalies to sort out to get the complete picture.

Granted that this takes us outside the sphere of exact knowledge, and that it is difficult to imagine that anything corresponding to exact science will ever be applicable to this part of our environment, the mystic is unrepentant. Because we are unable to render exact account of our environment it does not follow that it would be better to pretend that we live in a vacuum.

Exact knowledge must be accompanied by basic logic and resolution of anomalies.

If the defence may be considered to have held good against the first onslaught, perhaps the next stage of the attack will be an easy tolerance. “Very well. Have it your own way. It is a harmless sort of belief—not like a more dogmatic theology. You want a sort of spiritual playground for those queer tendencies in man’s nature, which sometimes take possession of him. Run away and play then; but do not bother the serious people who are making the world go round.” The challenge now comes not from the scientific materialism which professes to seek a natural explanation of spiritual power, but from the deadlier moral materialism which despises it. Few deliberately hold the philosophy that the forces of progress are related only to the material side of our environment, but few can claim that they are not more or less under its sway. We must not interrupt the “practical men”, these busy moulders of history carrying us at ever-increasing pace towards our destiny as an ant-heap of humanity infesting the earth. But is it true in history that material forces have been the most potent factors? Call it of God, of the Devil, fanaticism, unreason; but do not underrate the power of the mystic. Mysticism may be fought as error or believed as inspired, but it is no matter for easy tolerance—

We are the music-makers

And we are the dreamers of dreams

Wandering by lone sea-breakers

And sitting by desolate streams ;

World-losers and world-forsakers,

On whom the pale moon gleams:

Yet we are the movers and shakers

Of the world for ever, it seems.


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