The Nature of the Physical World

One of the great mysteries of modern life is why materialism as a philosophy refuses to lie down and die. Ted Davis on BioLogos pointed out recently that the modernist Samuel Schmucker believed in 1920 that Victorian science had discredited materialism. I’ve just completed a series of reviews in which mathematician and philosopher William Dembski argues that present knowledge of the nature of information has done the same. Today I want to address the book by astronomer Arthur Stanley Eddington, the British “father” and expositor of both relativity and quantum theory, from the 1927 Gifford lectures.

ase_einsteinLinks first: The Nature of the Physical World  is, happily, also available as a free pdf download here. Eddington was both an accomplished scientist and an excellent (and humorous) writer. As a pacifist, mathematician and linguist, he was instrumental in getting the work of the German Einstein accepted in wartime Britain, and one of the few to comprehend its implications immediately, and to confirm it experimentally.

He was equally up to speed on quantum theory, corresponding with all the great names. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle was actually published, and included, between the giving of the lectures and the book’s publication a year later. Also, fortunately for us as readers, as the excellent blogger The O’Floinn wrote recently, he was part of that last generation of physicists to be at home in philosophy (and, perhaps not coincidentally, to have made dramatic advances in physics).

As I was reading I noted down “quotable” passages, but alas there are so many (tending to a couple of paragraphs each) that it would fill many columns to give even a proportion here. So I’ll mainly try and whet your appetite with a brief, and inadequate, summary of the book, whose overall position is surprisingly convergent with Dembski’s recent book – that is to demonstrate the total inadequacy of a metaphysics of materialism and advocate one of mind (which in many ways corresponds to Dembski’s intelligence/information, taking into account the lack of either information technology or information theory at that time). Perhaps the main difference is that he argues from the deep nature of science to mystical religion, rather than Dembski’s progress from information and probability to a metaphysics of relationship.

The first part of the book is a masterful exposition of the nature, and implications, of relativity and quantum theory in relation to classical science and everyday experience. He targets a lay audience – which doesn’t make some of the core concepts any easier to grasp. But it appears to be as relevant and true in today’s climate as anything I’ve ever read before, and a lot clearer, despite the inevitable datedness of some of the empirical science on planetary conditions, the distance of galaxies etc.

What he establishes beyond reasonable doubt is fatal to materialism, and I’ll try and mention a few strands. Perhaps the broadest conclusion is that not only is determinism in science now defunct, but the very connection of relativistic and quantum findings to comprehensible models (such as the wave- and particle-models of classical physics) is actually a disconnect, making the achievement of the deeper reality beyond our mental reach. That, he says, even applies to our mathematical reach – maths being, after all, only a more sophisticated modelling language.

One example of this would be the Uncertainty Principle itself – it’s not, in his view, that reality becomes paradoxical or uncertain on the small scale, but that the concepts we necessarily use in measurement, like length, frequency etc have no real correspondence to anything in the quantum world. We are trying to determine what is materially indeterminate:

The cast-iron determinism of primary law is, I think, still widely accepted but no longer unquestioningly. It now seems clear that we have not yet got hold of any primary law – that all those laws at one time supposed to be primary laws are in reality statistical… I think it might be said that Nature has been caught using rather unfair dodges to prevent our discovering primary law – that kind of artfulness which frustrated our efforts to discover velocity through the aether. I believe that Nature is honest at heart, and that she only resorts to these apparent shifts of concealment when we are looking for something which is not there.

Amongst those “indeterminate” things are the very foundations on which materialism depends – matter, and energy. One of Eddington’s big themes is that ultimately we know nothing whatsoever about these, or rather that the methods of physics reduce them to mere equations just as certainly as the same methods cast doubt on the reality of mind, ethics, aesthetics and spirituality. It’s not, then, that the materialist scientific approach suggests that all we hold most dear in normal life is illusory or epiphenomenal – in addition, it renders the very core of materialism – matter – illusory and epiphenomenal too. And the scientific method has no way of comprehending the fundamental reality behind the illusion.

It’s not that quantum events actually are indeterminate – Eddington foreshadows Dembski by using their statistical nature as evidence of a causal structure. But how could they have a material cause when matter, or our perception of it, which is actually symbolic, is a mere epiphenomenon of quantum events?

Eddington argues that this tendency of science to empty experienced reality and replace it with equations is intrinsic to the very nature of the enterprise – another foreshadowing of the idea that science is inherently theory-laden. He concludes about physical law:

The points which I stress are:

Firstly, a strictly quantitative science can arise from a basis which is purely qualitative. The comparability that has to be assumed axiomatically is a merely qualitative discrimination of likeness and unlikeness.
Secondly, the laws which we have hitherto regarded as the most typical natural laws are of the nature of truisms, and the ultimate controlling laws of the basal structure (if there are any) are likely to be of a different type from any yet conceived.
Thirdly, the mind has by its selective power fitted the processes of Nature into a frame of law of a pattern largely of its own choosing; and in the discovery of this system of law the mind may be regarded as regaining from Nature that which the mind has put into Nature.

By way of illustration, he uses a physics examination question about an elephant of mass M sliding down a grassy slope of s degrees… and so on. The problem is solved by replacing any link to reality with symbols:

And so we have our schedule of pointer readings ready to make the descent. And if you still think that this substitution has taken away all reality from the problem, I am not sorry that you should have a foretaste of the difficulty in store for those who hold that exact science is all-sufficient for the description of the universe and that there is nothing in our experience which cannot be brought within its scope.

Elsewhere he adds:

It is a natural suggestion that the greater difficulty in elucidating the transcendental laws is due to the fact that we are no longer engaged in recovering from Nature what we have ourselves put into Nature, but are at last confronted with its own intrinsic system of government.

He gives other examples of how the very foundations of physics depend on the minds that physics treats as an illusion. One is the very concept of reality: an imaginary world operating on our physics could not be distinguished from the real world by the equations of science:

It would not be a bad reminder of the essential unknownness of the fundamental entities of physics to translate it into ‘Jabberwocky’; provided all numbers – all metrical attributes – are unchanged, it does not suffer in the least. Out of the numbers proceeds that harmony of natural law which it is the aim of science to disclose. We can grasp the tune but not the player.

Another example is causality. He reminds us how the equations of physics give no directionality to the “arrow of time”. That depends on “that incongruous mixture of theology and statistics known as the second law of thermodynamics” – incongruous because, as he discusses, it depends on a teleological mental assessment of which states are more or less ordered or disordered. Yet equally subjective in the question of time’s direction is the mental notion of cause and effect: although physics is mathematically reversible, we refuse to believe that the movement of leaves causes the wind or that the bullet’s flight causes the gunshot as an act of pure intuition:

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.

And hence:

It is because the mind, the weaver of illusion, is also the only guarantor of reality that reality is always to be sought at the base of illusion.

The mention of the “spiritual world” leads on to the next theme: that we have no less, and indeed considerably more, warrant to consider mind as fundamental to reality rather than matter:

But now we realize that science has nothing to say as to the intrinsic nature of the atom. The physical atom is, like everything else in physics, a schedule of pointer readings. The schedule is, we agree, attached to some unknown background. Why not then attach it to something of spiritual nature of which a prominent characteristic is thought? It seems rather silly to prefer to attach it to something of a so-called ‘concrete’ nature inconsistent with thought, and then to wonder where the thought comes from. We have dismissed all preconception as to the background of our pointer readings, and for the most part we can discover nothing as to its nature. But in one case – namely, for the pointer readings of my own brain – I have an insight which is not limited to the evidence of the pointer readings. That insight shows that they are attached to a background of consciousness.

The mind is not the mystery, he says – we know that by self-knowledge. It’s our bodies that are mysterious – unless we set the mystery aside by “the device of the cyclic scheme of physics, which enables us to study their phenomenal behaviour without ever coming to grips with the underlying mystery.”

“Mind” is, however, also closely related to spirit:

A rather serious consequence of dropping causality in the external world is that it leaves us with no clear distinction between the Natural and the Supernatural. In an earlier chapter I compared the invisible agent invented to account for the tug of gravitation to a ‘demon’… The Newtonian physicist had a valid defence. He could point out that his demon Gravitation was supposed to act according to fixed causal laws and was therefore not to be compared with the irresponsible demons of the savage. Once a deviation from strict causality is admitted the distinction melts away…

That is largely why there has been so much bother about ‘me’; because I have, or am persuaded that I have, ‘a will of my own.’ Either the physicist must leave his causal scheme at the mercy of supernatural interference from me, or he must explain away my supernatural qualities. In self-defence the materialist favored the latter course; he decided that I was not supernatural – only complicated. We on the other hand have concluded that there is no strict causal behavior anywhere. We can scarcely deny the charge that in abolishing the criterion of causality we are opening the door to the savage’s demons.

It’s a short step from there to the discussion of mystical religion, as being no less objectively founded than science. As a Quaker, I’ve no doubt Eddington had a predilection for mysticism, but he consciously presents it as only the most immediate conclusion of his style of argument. Like modern ID, a scientific approach might lead to some conception of the divine, but more is needed in practice – and a metaphysics of mind is no less able to rehabilitate the investigation of revealed religion than it is able to account for mind itself:

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 the Devil.

The last thing I take from Eddington is the way his thought turns the process of reductive science on its head. Some of what I’ve quoted above makes it look as though he is dissolving science by an unknowable reality, just as materialist science has tended to dissolve perceived reality into particles and waves. But in fact, if the fundamental reality has to do with mind, the opposite is the case: the human perceptions of macro-reality, whether in science, religion, or simply living day by day are the principal reality intended for us. If you like, rather than the deep truths beyond science being the reality that makes our world illusory, they are the intelligent brush strokes that build up truth. The last word to Eddington:

The mystic, if hauled 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.

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.’

Eddington's eclipse experiment

Eddington’s eclipse experiment

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to The Nature of the Physical World

  1. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    Thanks for this, Jon. My reading list is now increased by one …. but on that note, your link to the free pdf appears to be broken, at least on my present browser here.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Try it now, Merv – the direct link worked in the editor but not online, so I’ve done the long link from Google. But I think you’ll like it.

      I’ve just bought a hard copy second hand for reference (and a few missing diagrams). It’s a cheap “Everyman” edition that came out just a few years after the original and cost just a few shillings in old money (less than a dollar, I guess). It’s a sign of changed times that a publisher then knew ordinary folks would buy a book about relativity, quantum science and metaphysics – not a celebrity or a fancy graphic in sight!

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