Eddington 1927: Reality and Mysticism



Reference: Eddington’s 1927 Book

This paper presents Chapter XV (section 4) 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.


Reality and Mysticism

But a defence before the scientists may not be a defence to our own self-questionings. We are haunted by the word reality. I have already tried to deal with the questions which arise as to the meaning of reality; but it presses on us so persistently that, at the risk of repetition, I must consider it once more from the standpoint of religion. A compromise of illusion and reality may be all very well in our attitude towards physical surroundings; but to admit such a compromise into religion would seem to be a trifling with sacred things. Reality seems to concern religious beliefs much more than any others. No one bothers as to whether there is a reality behind humour. The artist who tries to bring out the soul in his picture does not really care whether and in what sense the soul can be said to exist. Even the physicist is unconcerned as to whether atoms or electrons really exist; he usually asserts that they do, but, as we have seen, existence is there used in a domestic sense and no inquiry is made as to whether it is more than a conventional term. In most subjects (perhaps not excluding philosophy) it seems sufficient to agree on the things that we shall call real, and afterwards try to discover what we mean by the word. And so it comes about that religion seems to be the one field of inquiry in which the question of reality and existence is treated as of serious and vital importance.

We generate models to assert the consistency, harmony and continuity that we observe. Such models become our reality. We modify these models as more observations are made. We do this by resolving anomalies. A religion is also a model, but of deeper significances. To modify a religious model is a bit difficult as it requires deeper understanding.

But it is difficult to see how such an inquiry can be profitable. When Dr. Johnson felt himself getting tied up in argument over “Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that everything in the universe is merely ideal”, he answered, “striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it,—’I refute it thus* “. Just what that action assured him of is not very obvious; but apparently he found it comforting. And to-day the matter-of-fact scientist feels the same impulse to recoil from these flights of thought back to something kickable, although he ought to be aware by this time that what Rutherford has left us of the large stone is scarcely worth kicking.

We must seek consistency etc., between thought and matter. It is there to be found.

There is still the tendency to use “reality” as a word of magic comfort like the blessed word “Mesopotamia”. If I were to assert the reality of the soul or of God, I should certainly not intend a comparison with Johnson’s large stone—a patent illusion—or even with the p’s and q’s of the quantum theory—an abstract symbolism. Therefore I have no right to use the word in religion for the purpose of borrowing on its behalf that comfortable feeling which (probably wrongly) has become associated with stones and quantum co-ordinates.

Soul, God, etc., are abstract thought realities and not material realities. But there is some sort of continuity there to be realized. Same goes for quantum realities.

Scientific instincts warn me that any attempt to answer the question “What is real?” in a broader sense than that adopted for domestic purposes in science, is likely to lead to a floundering among vain words and high-sounding epithets. We all know that there are regions of the human spirit untrammelled by the world of physics. In the mystic sense of the creation around us, in the expression of art, in a yearning towards God, the soul grows upward and finds the fulfilment of something implanted in its nature. The sanction for this development is within us, a striving born with our consciousness or an Inner Light proceeding from a greater power than ours. Science can scarcely question this sanction, for the pursuit of science springs from a striving which the mind is impelled to follow, a questioning that will not be suppressed. Whether in the intellectual pursuits of science or in the mystical pursuits of the spirit, the light beckons ahead and the purpose surging in our nature responds. Can we not leave it at that? Is it really necessary to drag in the comfortable word “reality” to be administered like a pat on the back?

Reality consists of material, field and thought substance, which are consistent, harmonious and continuous. This consistency, harmony and continuity need to be understood.

The problem of the scientific world is part of a broader problem—the problem of all experience. Experience may be regarded as a combination of self and environment, it being part of the problem to  disentangle these two interacting components. Life, religion, knowledge, truth are all involved in this problem, some relating to the finding of ourselves, some to the finding of our environment from the experience confronting us. All of us in our lives have to make something of this problem; and it is an important condition that we who have to solve the problem are ourselves part of the problem. Looking at the very beginning, the initial fact is the feeling of purpose in ourselves which urges us to embark on the problem. We are meant to fulfil something by our lives. There are faculties with which we are endowed, or which we ought to attain, which must find a status and an outlet in the solution. It may seem arrogant that we should in this way insist on moulding truth to our own nature; but it is rather that the problem of truth can only spring from a desire for truth which is in our nature.

Science deals with experience of the physical environment. Religion deals with the experience of ‘self’ and how ‘self’ interacts with the environment. Truth is seeing things for what they are.

A rainbow described in the symbolism of physics is a band of aethereal vibrations arranged in systematic order of wave-length from about .000040 cm. to .000072 cm. From one point of view we are paltering with the truth whenever we admire the gorgeous bow of colour, and should strive to reduce our minds to such a state that we receive the same impression from the rainbow as from a table of wave-lengths. But although that is how the rainbow impresses itself on an impersonal spectroscope, we are not giving the whole truth and significance of experience—the starting-point of the problem—if we suppress the factors wherein we ourselves differ from a spectroscope. We cannot say that the rainbow, as part of the world, was meant to convey the vivid effects of colour; but we can perhaps say that the human mind as part of the world was meant to perceive it that way.

The perception of rainbow through spectroscope, and through aesthetic senses, is simply different aspects of what is there.


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