Eddington 1927: Significance and Values



Reference: Eddington’s 1927 Book

This paper presents Chapter XV (section 5) 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.


Significance and Values

When we think of the sparkling waves as moved with laughter we are evidently attributing a significance to the scene which was not there. The physical elements of the water—the scurrying electric charges—were guiltless of any intention to convey the impression that they were happy. But so also were they guiltless of any intention to convey the impression of substance, of colour, or of geometrical form of the waves. If they can be held to have had any intention at all it was to satisfy certain differential equations—and that was because they are the creatures of the mathematician who has a partiality for differential equations. The physical no less than the mystical significance of the scene is not there; it is here—in the mind.

The physical attributes are much more set compared to the poetical or mystical attributes.

What we make of the world must be largely dependent on the sense-organs that we happen to possess. How the world must have changed since man came to rely on his eyes rather than his nose ! You are alone on the mountains wrapt in a great silence ; but equip yourself with an extra artificial sense-organ and, lo! the aether is hideous with the blare of the Savoy bands. Or—

The isle is full of noises,

Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about mine ears ; and sometimes voices.

So far as broader characteristics are concerned we see in Nature what we look for or are equipped to look for. Of course, I do not mean that we can arrange the details of the scene; but by the light and shade of our values we can bring out things that shall have the broad characteristics we esteem. In this sense the value placed on permanence creates the world of apparent substance; in this sense, perhaps, the God within creates the God in Nature. But no complete view can be obtained so long as we separate our consciousness from the world of which it is a part. We can only speak speculatively of that which I have called the “background of the pointer readings”; but it would at least seem plausible that if the values which give the light and shade of the world are absolute they must belong to the background, unrecognised in physics because they are not in the pointer readings but recognised by consciousness which has its roots in the background. I have no wish to put that forward as a theory; it is only to emphasise that, limited as we are to a knowledge of the physical world and its points of contact with the background in isolated consciousness, we do not quite attain that thought of the unity of the whole which is essential to a complete theory. Presumably human nature has been specialised to a considerable extent by the operation of natural selection; and it might well be debated whether its valuation of permanence and other traits now apparently fundamental are essential properties of consciousness or have been evolved through interplay with the external world. In that case the values given by mind to the external world have originally come to it from the external world-stuff. Such a tossing to and fro of values is, I think, not foreign to our view that the world-stuff behind the pointer readings is of nature continuous with the mind.

The mind does not generate entirely what is out there, but it may modify their view through filters. The mind generates filters also from what is out there.

In viewing the world in a practical way values for normal human consciousness may be taken as standard. But the evident possibility of arbitrariness in this valuation sets us hankering after a standard that could be considered final and absolute. We have two alternatives. Either there are no absolute values, so that the sanctions of the inward monitor in our consciousness are the final court of appeal beyond which it is idle to inquire. Or there are absolute values; then we can only trust optimistically that our values are some pale reflection of those of the Absolute Valuer, or that we have insight into the mind of the Absolute from whence come those strivings and sanctions whose authority we usually forbear to question.

“No absolute values” is the standard of “absolute emptiness”.

I have naturally tried to make the outlook reached in these lectures as coherent as possible, but I should not be greatly concerned if under the shafts of criticism it becomes very ragged. Coherency goes with finality; and the anxious question is whether our arguments have begun right rather than whether they have had the good fortune to end right. The leading points which have seemed to me to deserve philosophic consideration may be summarised as follows:

(1) The symbolic nature of the entities of physics is generally recognised; and the scheme of physics is now formulated in such a way as to make it almost self-evident that it is a partial aspect of something wider.

(2) Strict causality is abandoned in the material world. Our ideas of the controlling laws are in process of reconstruction and it is not possible to predict what kind of form they will ultimately take; but all the indications are that strict causality has dropped out permanently. This relieves the former necessity of supposing that mind is subject to deterministic law or alternatively that it can suspend deterministic law in the material world.

Strict causality applies only to the special case of material-substance. Additional consideration of quantization is needed to apply causality to field-substance. Boundary conditions of “continuum” apply to thought-substance, which provides form to material and field substance.

 (3) Recognising that the physical world is entirely abstract and without “actuality” apart from its linkage to consciousness, we restore consciousness to the fundamental position instead of representing it as an inessential complication occasionally found in the midst of inorganic nature at a late stage of evolutionary history.

The material and field substance are concrete form of thought-substance. The thought-substance goes from concrete to abstract.

 (4) The sanction for correlating a “real” physical world to certain feelings of which we are conscious does not seem to differ in any essential respect from the sanction for correlating a spiritual domain to another side of our personality.

The abstract to concrete forms of thought-substance should all be consistent. In other words, the feelings should be consistent with the situation which evokes them.

It is not suggested that there is anything new in this philosophy. In particular the essence of the first point has been urged by many writers, and has no doubt won individual assent from many scientists before the recent revolutions of physical theory. But it places a somewhat different complexion on the matter when this is not merely a philosophic doctrine to which intellectual assent might be given, but has become part of the scientific attitude of the day, illustrated in detail in the current scheme of physics.


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