Eddington 1927: Mystical Religion


Reference: Eddington’s 1927 Book

This paper presents Chapter XV (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.


Mystical Religion

We have seen that the cyclic scheme of physics presupposes a background outside the scope of its investigations. In this background we must find, first, our own personality, and then perhaps a greater personality. The idea of a universal Mind or Logos would be, I think, a fairly plausible inference from the present state of scientific theory; at least it is in harmony with it. But if so, all that our inquiry justifies us in asserting is a purely colourless pantheism. Science cannot tell whether the world-spirit is good or evil, and its halting argument for the existence of a God might equally well be turned into an argument for the existence of a Devil.

The idea of a universal mind in the form of a universal thought-matrix is quite plausible.

I think that that is an example of the limitation of physical schemes that has troubled us before—namely, that in all such schemes opposites are represented by + and —. Past and future, cause and effect, are represented in this inadequate way. One of the greatest puzzles of science is to discover why protons and electrons are not simply the opposites of one another, although our whole conception of electric charge requires that positive and negative electricity should be related like + and —. The direction of time’s arrow could only be determined by that incongruous mixture of theology and statistics known as the second law of thermodynamics; or, to be more explicit, the direction of the arrow could be determined by statistical rules, but its significance as a governing fact “making sense of the world” could only be deduced on teleological assumptions. If physics cannot determine which way up its own world ought to be regarded, there is not much hope of guidance from it as to ethical orientation. We trust to some inward sense of fitness when we orient the physical world with the future on top, and likewise we must trust to some inner monitor when we orient the spiritual world with the good on top.

The inconsistency that protons and electrons are not simply the opposites of one another, tells us that things missing from our knowledge. Neither proton nor electron is a single particle. The proton represents many quantization levels closer to the center of the atom. Similarly, electron represents many quantization levels farther away from the center. These levels of proton and electron provide nuclear and atomic spectra respectively. Positive and negative charges within the atom must have a different explanation than what is currently available.

The universal mind is neither good nor bad, it processes data through the matrix in a neutral manner. When the matrix is corrupted in some way, the outcome may appear as bad or unethical. The inward sense of fitness comes from the ideal, non-corrupted matrix.

Granted that physical science has limited its scope so as to leave a background which we are at liberty to, or even invited to, fill with a reality of spiritual import, we have yet to face the most difficult criticism from science. “Here”, says science, “I have left a domain in which I shall not interfere. I grant that you have some kind of avenue to it through the self-knowledge of consciousness, so that it is not necessarily a domain of pure agnosticism. But how are you going to deal with this domain? Have you any system of inference from mystic experience comparable to the system by which science develops a knowledge of the outside world? I do not insist on your employing my method, which I acknowledge is inapplicable; but you ought to have some defensible method. The alleged b4sis of experience may possibly be valid; but have I any reason to regard the religious interpretation currently given to it as anything more than muddle-headed romancing?”

The religious domain is not as well-organized as the scientific domain.

The question is almost beyond my scope. I can only acknowledge its pertinency. Although I have chosen the lightest task by considering only mystical religion— and I have no impulse to defend any other—I am not competent to give an answer which shall be anything like complete. It is obvious that the insight of consciousness, although the only avenue to what I have called intimate knowledge of the reality behind the symbols of science, is not to be trusted implicitly without control. In history religious mysticism has often been associated with extravagances that cannot be approved. I suppose too that over-sensitiveness to aesthetic influences may be a sign of a neurotic temperament unhealthy to the individual. We must allow something for the pathological condition of the brain in what appear to be moments of exalted insight. One begins to fear that after all our faults have been detected and removed there will not be any “us” left. But in the study of the physical world we have ultimately to rely on our sense-organs, although they are capable of betraying us by gross illusions; similarly the avenue of consciousness into the spiritual world may be beset with pitfalls, but that does not necessarily imply that no advance is possible.

The laws of thought-substance are closely connected to the functioning of the human mind, where the problem becomes very intimate and solutions become very biased.

A point that must be insisted on is that religion or contact with spiritual power if it has any general importance at all must be a commonplace matter of ordinary life, and it should be treated as such in any discussion. I hope that you have not interpreted my references to mysticism as referring to abnormal experiences and revelations. I am not qualified to discuss what evidential value (if any) may be attached to the stranger forms of experience and insight. But in any case to suppose that mystical religion is mainly concerned with these is like supposing that Einstein’s theory is mainly concerned with the perihelion of Mercury and a few other exceptional observations. For a matter belonging to daily affairs the tone of current discussions often seems quite inappropriately pedantic.

But the consideration of thought-substance is very common place.

As scientists we realise that colour is merely a question of the wave-lengths of aethereal vibrations; but that does not seem to have dispelled the feeling that eyes which reflect light near wave-length 4800 are a subject for rhapsody whilst those which reflect wave-length 5300 are left unsung. We have not yet reached the practice of the Laputans, who, “if they would, for example, praise the beauty of a woman, or any other animal, they describe it by rhombs, circles, parallelograms, ellipses, and other geometrical terms”. The materialist who is convinced that all phenomena arise from electrons and quanta and the like controlled by mathematical formulae, must presumably hold the belief that his wife is a rather elaborate differential equation; but he is probably tactful enough not to obtrude this opinion in domestic life. If this kind of scientific dissection is felt to be inadequate and irrelevant in ordinary personal relationships, it is surely out of place in the most personal relationship of all—that of the human soul to a divine spirit.

The scientific method has not been applied to the study of thought-substance.

We are anxious for perfect truth, but it is hard to say in what form perfect truth is to be found. I cannot quite believe that it has the form typified by an inventory. Somehow as part of its perfection there should be incorporated in it that which we esteem as a “sense of proportion”. The physicist is not conscious of any disloyalty to truth on occasions when his sense of proportion tells him to regard a plank as continuous material, well knowing that it is “really” empty space containing sparsely scattered electric charges. And the deepest philosophical researches as to the nature of the Deity may give a conception equally out of proportion for daily life; so that we should rather employ a conception that was unfolded nearly two thousand years ago.

The perfect truth may start from the perspective of “continuum of substance”. This makes material, field and thought substance consistent, harmonious and continuous with each other. This boundary condition must then be met in the determination of truth. When the anomalies among all knowledge, experiences and realities are resolved then we can say that we are approaching the perfect truth.

I am standing on the threshold about to enter a room. It is a complicated business. In the first place I must shove against an atmosphere pressing with a force of fourteen pounds on every square inch of my body. I must make sure of landing on a plank travelling at twenty miles a second round the sun—a fraction of a second too early or too late, the plank would be miles away. I must do this whilst hanging from a round planet head outward into space, and with a wind of aether blowing at no one knows how many miles a second through every interstice of my body. The plank has no solidity of substance. To step on it is like stepping on a swarm of flies. Shall I not slip through? No, if I make the venture one of the flies hits me and gives a boost up again; I fall again and am knocked upwards by another fly; and so on. I may hope that the net result will be that I remain about steady; but if unfortunately I should slip through the floor or be boosted too violently up to the ceiling, the occurrence would be, not a violation of the laws of Nature, but a rare coincidence. These are some of the minor difficulties. I ought really to look at the problem four-dimensionally as concerning the intersection of my world-line with that of the plank. Then again it is necessary to determine in which direction the entropy of the world is increasing in order to make sure that my passage over the threshold is an entrance, not an exit.

Verily, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a scientific man to pass through a door. And whether the door be barn door or church door it might be wiser that he should consent to be an ordinary man and walk in rather than wait till all the difficulties involved in a really scientific ingress are resolved.


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