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Opis ebooka Philosophy and the Physicists - L. Susan Stebbing

In 1937 Susan Stebbing published Philosophy and the Physicists, an in-depth analysis of the works written for the general public by two physicists then at the center of attention in England and the world, James Jeans (1877-1946) and Arthur Eddington (1882-1944). The latter, as is known, in 1919 had announced to the Royal Society the astronomical observations that were then considered experimental confirmations of the general relativity of Einstein, and who by that episode had managed to trigger the transformation of general relativity into a component of the mass and non-mass imaginary of the twentieth century. In this essay, what is at stake is the verification of the general philosophical conclusions, that Jeans and Eddington drew from the new quantum physics, and especially from Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. The essay has not the intention to judge the scientific work of Eddington and Jeans—from the beginning the author declares incompetent for this (although this precaution is not always respected)—but it is written to recall without clemency the two scientists to the responsibility for what they write when they leave the specialists’ field. Then Stebbing’s judgment becomes implacable. Already in the first chapter we read that “... both these writers approach their task through an emotional fog; they present their views with an amount of personification and metaphor that reduces them to the level of revivalist preachers.” And from here on, after this unflattering comparison with the “revivalist preachers”, the analysis always leads to openly polemical conclusions and judgments without any diplomatic mediation. Philosophy and the Physicists has a unique merit that makes it fundamental as a contribution to cultural studies: it is written with a rare and considerable level of scientific competence, by an author who has mastery of classical physics and who understood exactly the scope of quantum experiments on the hydrogen atom of the early 1920s, enough to give the reader a much more satisfactory account than what we receive from Eddington or other popular literature. In general, the contamination of scientific literature with the expressive modes of twentieth-century mass culture is a phenomenon that is not analyzed and has received very little attention, despite the great evidence of its traces: the popular junk that has been proposed to us by the media for decades is always a conspicuous plebeian contamination of the baroque wonder made mechanically in great series, and the attentive observer easily realizes that the enormous offer of stupefying pre-packaged results is accompanied with very little scruple for the clarification of the processes that allow us to know those results. And indeed, today the ambition to know fully and understand the logical and physical principles is being reduced to nothing, while the consumption of the astonishing results has become ordinary. However, the critical study of the phenomena of mass culture has always kept the products of scientific divulgation at a distance, and the reason is obvious: scientific competence is rare and scarce, and is mostly not owned by those who would have the means to talk about the style and expression of specialist and popular scientific literature with respect to the overall cultural context of our present. Overall, therefore, Philosophy and the Physicists is a collection of epistemological essays treated monographically, but as a whole it composes a unitary cultural study about the position of natural science in the context of the twentieth century. Through ill-thought philosophical conclusions, science enters an area of indistinction with respect to the world of the metaphors we build to make our existence justified. But for Stebbing this must be reacted. Therefore the background to the whole analysis is the assertion of the moral value of clear and unambiguous logical distinctions.

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L. Susan Stebbing

Philosophy and the Physicists

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ISBN: 9788897527466

First Edition: December 2018 (A)

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Contents

Foreword from the Editor

Note to the 2018 electronic edition

Philosophy and the Physicists

Original Title Page

PREFACE

Note

PART I - THE ALARMING ASTRONOMERS

Chapter I - The Common Reader and the Popularizing Scientist

Chapter II - The Escape of Sir James Jeans

PART II - THE PHYSICIST AND THE WORLD

Chapter III - ‘Furniture of the Earth’

Chapter IV - ‘The Symbolic World of Physics’

Chapter V - The Descent to the Inscrutable

Chapter VI - Consequences of Scrutinizing the Inscrutable

PART III - CAUSALITY AND HUMAN FREEDOM

Chapter VII - The Nineteenth-Century Nightmare

Chapter VIII - The Rejection of Physical Determinism

Chapter IX - Reactions and Consequences

Chapter X - Human Freedom and Responsibility

PART IV - THE CHANGED OUTLOOK

Chapter XI - Entropy and Becoming

Chapter XII - Interpretations

BIBLIOGRAPHY

INDEX

Back Cover

Susan Stebbing

Foreword from the Editor

In 1937 Susan Stebbing published Philosophy and the Physicists, an intense and difficult essay, in reaction to reading the works written for the general public by two physicists then at the center of attention in England and the world, James Jeans (1877-1946) and Arthur Eddington (1882-1944). The latter, as is known, in 1919 had announced to the Royal Society the astronomical observations that were then considered experimental confirmations of the general relativity of Einstein, and who by that episode had managed to trigger the transformation of general relativity into a component of the mass and non-mass imaginary of the twentieth century.

In this essay, however, Stebbing does not deal with Einstein’s relativity: what is at stake is the verification of the general philosophical conclusions, that Jeans and Eddington drew from the new quantum physics, and especially from Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. This principle is familiar to us today also with the name of principle of indeterminacy: but reading Philosophy and the Physicists we learn that it was Eddington who changed the name of Heisenberg’s original assumption, changing its meaning, and attributing to it values well beyond its specific field of application, becoming guilty, according to Stebbing, of very important arbitrary choices and inconsistencies, which we will discover by reading the book.

The essay has not the intention to judge the scientific work of Eddington and Jeans—from the beginning the author declares incompetent for this (although this precaution is not always respected)—but it is written to recall without clemency the two scientists to the responsibility for what they write when they leave the specialists’ field. Then Stebbing’s judgment becomes implacable. Already in the first chapter we read that “... both these writers approach their task through an emotional fog; they present their views with an amount of personification and metaphor that reduces them to the level of revivalist preachers.” And from here on, after this unflattering comparison with the “revivalist preachers”, the analysis always leads to openly polemical conclusions and judgments without any diplomatic mediation. Still in the introductory pages of the first chapter we read:

Yet we common readers surely have a right to expect that a scientist setting out to discuss for our benefit philosophical problems arising from his special studies will do so in a scientific spirit. He would seem to be under a special obligation to avoid cheap emotionalism and specious appeals, and to write as clearly as the difficult nature of the subject-matter permits. Of this obligation Sir James Jeans seems to be totally unaware, whilst Sir Arthur Eddington, in his desire to be entertaining, befools the reader into a state of serious mental confusion.

We must keep in mind, reading this book, that writing in the ‘30s, Stebbing seems to be still in a state of innocence with respect to the character of mass culture, and unaware of all the reflection on mass culture that was then being elaborated. Stebbing perceives that the writing of the two scientists is popular literature, and knows that as such it is a vehicle of falsehood and ideology according to specific rhetorical modalities of the mass culture of her and our present, but she studies the phenomenon according to the categories of her logical and analytical philosophical education, without knowing that if she had wished she could find some companions in philosophical traditions far from her own: Adorno or Benjamin do not exist in the world of Stebbing. She feels that mass culture of the present represents a radical break with the past, of which it borrows expressive modes that have by now become irremediably inadequate, but she is not able to face the phenomenon if not naively. Here is how she deals with the kitsch transfiguration of metaphors traditionally conveyed by the image of the greatness of the sky that she recognizes in the prose of her authors:

The value which Jeans so evidently attaches to greatness in size is used both to reduce the reader to a humble frame of mind and to terrify him. In my opinion such a sense of values is perverted. The awe which Kant felt when he contemplated ‘the starry heavens above’ is strikingly different. Such awe is due to an immediate awareness of the beauty of the night and is wholly independent of any knowledge of stellar magnitudes. Such awe may well have been felt by the Babylonian shepherds of old; it may be felt by an ignorant shepherd to-day. To be capable of such admiring contemplation; to be moved by pity and love; to have knowledge of the constitution of the stars might well seem more valuable than to be very big. Evidently Jeans thinks otherwise. He is content to deduce the insignificance of human beings from the smallness of the earth in comparison with the stars.

An ancient metaphor, that of the vastness of the starry sky, has a completely changed sense, perverted, in the context of our present. Everyone should know that the use of it is no longer permitted, and what the two physicists make of it is “falsely emotional”, just as their indulgence towards recurring anthropomorphisms is illicit, and they use it to give themselves “the air of explaining the inexplicable”, to the point of falling into the sickening bad taste, as in the exemplary case of this personification by Eddington: ‘Heisenberg now makes it appear as Nature abhors accuracy and precision above all things.’ But the word that comes to mind by itself to qualify this kind of illicit borrowing from tradition, kitsch, is absent from the lexicon as the conceptual repertoire of Stebbing: and this fact on the one hand puts the book at the margin of critical literature on mass culture. However, Philosophy and the Physicists has a unique merit that makes it fundamental as a contribution to cultural studies: it is written with a rare and considerable level of scientific competence, by an author who has mastery of classical physics and who understood exactly the scope of quantum experiments on the hydrogen atom of the early 1920s, enough to give the reader a much more satisfactory account than what we receive from Eddington or other popular literature. This is why Stebbing’s essay deserves to be read and weighted page by page even by today’s readers. In general, the contamination of scientific literature with the expressive modes of twentieth-century mass culture is a phenomenon that is not analyzed and has received very little attention, despite the great evidence of its traces: the popular junk that has been proposed to us by the media for decades is always a conspicuous plebeian contamination of the baroque wonder made mechanically in great series, and the attentive observer easily realizes that the enormous offer of stupefying pre-packaged results is accompanied with very little scruple for the clarification of the processes that allow us to know those results. And indeed, today the ambition to know fully and understand the logical and physical principles is being reduced to nothing, while the consumption of the astonishing results has become ordinary. However, the critical study of the phenomena of mass culture has always kept the products of scientific divulgation at a distance, and the reason is obvious: scientific competence is rare and scarce, and is mostly not owned by those who would have the means to talk about the style and expression of specialist and popular scientific literature with respect to the overall cultural context of our present. In a 1991 article (“Literary Theory and Intellectual Kitsch”) Denis Dutton acutely described the process for which superficially assimilated anti-classical scientific notions became privileged metaphors for post-structuralist culture, and how there is a “kitsch borrowing chain” that goes from science to the living room of the obtuse bourgeois, passing through the hands of the postmodern philosophers and the artistic pedantry of the imitations of the avant-gardes that are produced today with so much soporific monotony. But Dutton said that “at the top of the chain are physicist,innocently going about their work in subatomic physics and making incidental statements about the limits of what can be known aboutelementary particles”. Instead, had he read Stebbing’s book, Dutton would not be so sure of the innocence of physicists in general, and he would certainly doubt the innocence of the two scientists whose work is discussed in Philosophy and the Physicists.

This attention to the metaphorical implications of scientific prose, having more or less popular intention, by Jeans and Eddington is underlying the whole book: on this basis Stebbing builds chapter by chapter a collection of analytical essays very rich in content, each of which could be expanded in a volume to itself, which capture the heart of the philosophical and cultural implications of the new physics of the twentieth century: not in the sense of physics being a world of independent and absolute certainties from which originate spurious metaphorical implications concerning the other spheres of human existence, but in the opposite sense, that science participates in the life of its time, and shares errors and illusions with it. So are reviewed the ideas of the two physicists about the machine-picture of the Universe and about the role of mathematics in the construction of empirical science, a problem concerning which both show quite contradictory and indeterminate ideas, about the concept of reality, about the status of abstract constructions of science, to arrive in the eighth chapter to the analysis of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle (also said indetermination principle according to Eddington, as we have seen). The development is very clear: the problem is explained in its exact scientific terms, and the methodological problem is consequently set out with corresponding precision. Here in addition Stebbing gives us a very important contribution in methodological analysis, on which we should still reflect, even more so as to date there are no satisfactory theories of probability and of the trivial problem for which in a large number of throws of a penny, heads and tails tend to turn up equally probably. Stebbing prepares the ground through the consideration that it makes no sense to attribute to physical reality in itself the character of being primarily determined or primarily statistical: we reach the knowledge to which we manage to arrive, in the elaboration of the data of experience, applying rigidly deterministic or statistical schemes implying the notion of chance and hazard, adapting to the conditions that experience puts us, and without it ever makes sense to believe that we have arrived to absolute terms. But after having led us to a more relativistic methodological attitude than what was of Eddington and which is current today, for which the character of being essentially and primarily undetermined is attributed to the subatomic phenomena, Stebbing amazes us with a step backwards, an opening to the priority of the deterministic scheme, because she asks us: how can we define a primitive “casualness” of things, without reference to a distribution that follows a precise function? “It is not easy to see what could be meant by a ‘random’ distribution in a lawless world.” To assert that a given distribution is statistical, we need to know what would be the ideal distribution, calculated according to a function, and with respect to which the empirical data show a more or less relevant approximation. But without the ideal reference distribution, what can “casualness” ever be? It is impossible to define it, because having removed the ideal function under whose point of view we consider it, the manifold of experience will leave us nothing but a shapeless aggregate of perceptual data. And so, after giving us a lesson in agnosticism and having suggested that perhaps it is impossible to decide absolutely between determinism and indeterminism, Stebbing opens up the possibility of finding a stringent logical need to assert the primary character of determinism.

Overall, therefore, Philosophy and the Physicists is a collection of epistemological essays treated monographically, but as a whole it composes a unitary cultural study about the position of natural science in the context of the twentieth century. The main issue of determinism is discussed from an epistemological point of view, but the arrival point is the search for an answer to the question: why do either determinism or the rejection of determinism interest us and involve us emotionally? The two themes cannot be separated, so the problem in chapter IX is formulated in this way:

(1) Is there any sense in which it is true to say that science has been based upon determinism?; (2) what is the connexion between determinism, prediction, and rationality?; (3) why should there be so much glee or so much gloom at the rejection of determinism? Perhaps it does not seem obvious that these questions are closely connected, but I think it will be found by no means easy to disentangle them in the discussions of the scientists with whom we are mainly concerned.

When the book arrives to the discussion of the third of these questions, that of ‘glee or gloom’, the extrascientific character of the problem appears to us in full evidence. It is a matter of taste, it is the history of the formation of our personalities, which leads us to prefer one or the other of the possible choices concerning determinism.

From the nineteenth century onwards, science presents us the double spectacle of the materialism of biologists and of the idealism of physicists, which are both philosophical extrascientific attitudes, yet understandable: biologists start from idealized notions (life, spirit) and gradually discover their natural and chemical substratum, which gives rise to their inclination for philosophical materialism, while physicists start from notions believed natural and simple (mass, movement) and gradually learn how much of structural, abstract, conventional and complex is therein. Hence comes idealism, the prevalence of structure and form, in the mentality of physicists. But in both cases, that of biologists and that of physicists, the philosophical conclusion has no logical necessity: science thus flows into the realm of what we believe to make existence bearable. Thus science enters an area of indistinction with respect to the world of the metaphors to which we adhere without criticism of their non-objective character. But for Stebbing this must be reacted. Therefore the conclusion of the book makes explicit the central theme that has been the background to the whole analysis: the moral value of clear and unambiguous logical distinctions.

Alberto Palazzi, 2018

Note to the 2018 electronic edition

This e-book has been composed on the basis of the 1944 printed editions in the Pelican Books series (Penguin Books). The scanned text was carefully controlled, in order to make available to the public a good quality electronic version of Stebbing’s work. The page numbers of the 1944 edition have been preserved in [square brackets].

To facilitate the reading of this electronic edition, the footnotes containing remarks that add contents to the main discourse have been marked with an asterisk ‘*’. Therefore the remaining notes should be consulted only by those who have an interest in identifying the author’s sources.

Philosophy and the Physicists

Original Title Page

PHILOSOPHY AND THE PHYSICIST PUBLISHED

by L. Susan Stebbing

PENGUIN BOOKS

HARMONDSWORTH MIDDLESEX ENGLAND

245 FIFTH AVENUE NEW YORK U.S.A.

MADE AND PRINTED IN GREAT BRITAIN FOR PENGUIN BOOKS LTD. BY HAZELL, WATSON AND VINEY, LTD., LONDON AND AYLESBURY.

First published in 1937

Published in the Pelican series 1944

TO MARGARET WILLIS

PREFACE

[5] This book is written by a philosopher for other philosophers and for that section of the reading public who buy in large quantities and, no doubt, devour with great earnestness the popular books written by scientists for their enlightenment. We common readers, to adapt a phrase from Samuel Johnson, are fitted neither to criticize physical theories nor to decide what precisely are their philosophical implications. We are dependent upon the scientists for an exposition of those developments which—so we find them proclaiming—have important and far-reaching consequences for philosophy. Unfortunately, however, our popular expositors do not always serve us very well. The two who are most widely read in this country are Sir Arthur Eddington and Sir James Jeans. They are not always reliable guides. Their influence has been considerable upon the reading public, upon theologians, and upon preachers; they have even misled philosophers who should have known better. Accordingly, it has seemed to me to be worth while to examine in some detail the philosophical views that they have put forth and to criticize the grounds upon which these views are based.

Sir Arthur Eddington stands in no need of commendation by me. Indeed, for me to praise him is almost an impertinence. But so much in this book is adversely critical of his philosophical views that I wish to record how great is my admiration for his scientific work. Although my understanding of his Mathematical Theory of Relativity and his Relativity Theory of Protons and Electrons is very defective, I have derived from studying them a profound delight. They seem to me to have a form and completeness which is, perhaps unavoidably, absent from most first-rate contributions to physical science published to-day. The rapidity of development in physics—which makes a theory out of date almost as soon as it is published—no doubt makes it difficult, and in many cases impossible, to give to works on physical science that completeness and beauty of form which is found in such great works as Galileo’s Dialogues concerning the Two Great Systems of the World and Newton’s Principia. But this beauty of form I, at least, find in Eddington’s two [6] great books. He has, I think, pre-eminently what has been called ‘the synoptic mind’. Accordingly, his writings are naturally attractive to a philosopher of my generation.

The difficulty presented to the common reader by Sir Arthur Eddington’s philosophical writings is due to the fact that he is not only a great scientist but has also wide and deep interests beyond the bounds of science, whilst his strong philosophical bent makes him anxious to connect his philosophy of science with his philosophy of life at all costs. The cost is greater than he seems to have realized. He is so great a scientist that it may seem a mere absurdity for a rather incompetent philosopher to criticize him. But his greatness as a scientist is to be judged not by the books I have discussed but by his strictly scientific works that stand in as much need of being interpreted for the benefit of the common reader as do the works of any other scientist. In the books with which I have mainly been concerned, Eddington has set forth for the benefit of the common reader an interpretation of recent developments in physics, including his own contributions in this domain. His interpretation, however, suffers from very serious omissions and from an altogether misleading emphasis. One of the most striking omissions is his failure to give the common reader any indication as to the way in which physical measurements are in fact obtained. This omission enables him to produce the paradox that physics is solely concerned with pointer-readings. His very skilful, and frequently amusing, mode of presentation has enabled him to throw the emphasis upon just those elements which are most essential for the development of his metaphysical views. His lack of philosophical training (which I deduce from his writings, not from any private information as to his reading list) has made it possible for him to slip into pitfalls that he might otherwise have learnt to avoid.

The belief that the ‘new physics’ is favourable to some form of philosophical idealism has caused much alarm to Lenin and other leaders of Russian Communism. As long ago as 1908, Lenin wrote: ‘On the side of materialism there is the large majority of scientists in general, as well as in that special field, namely, of physics. The minority of modern physicists, however, under the influence of the crisis in the old theories (due to the great discoveries of recent years), and under the influence of the crisis in the new physics (which clearly revealed the relativity of our knowledge), because of their ignorance of dialectics fell [7] from relativism into idealism. Idealistic physics, which is in vogue just now, is just as reactionary and transitory as the fashionable idealistic physiology of the recent past.’[1]* But it is not by knowledge of ‘dialectics’ that we shall be saved from idealism, whether ‘reactionary’ or not. Lenin and other dialectical materialists have as much an axe to grind as any Gifford Lecturer. The ‘materialists’—to give them the name which they so ardently admire—seek at all costs to establish some form of metaphysical materialism. Scientific results must somehow or other be forced into an interpretation which will yield the special philosophical views upon which their political philosophy is professedly based. There is as much bad metaphysics and immature philosophizing among the upholders of dialectical materialism (so far as my acquaintance with their writings goes) as among those who support the philosophical idealism of the pulpits. It has not, however, lain within the scope of this book to discuss these ardent philosophers. I would merely guard against a possible misunderstanding. If I have succeeded in showing that the present state of physical theories does not warrant any form of idealism, it must not thereby be concluded that I suppose it to warrant any form of materialism.

I have in this book used the term ‘physicist’ something too loosely. I might defend myself by appealing to the meaning given by Aristotle to φυσικός, but it may suffice to point out that I use ‘physicist’ to designate any scientist who is concerned in promoting the development of the physical sciences. I make no doubt that Eddington’s mathematical colleagues regard him as a physicist whilst the experimental physicists may be inclined to relegate him to the company of mathematicians. No sharp line can be drawn—in which fact the instructed reader may possibly find a clue to the understanding of some recent theories of Nature.

My obligations are many but, for the most part, so indeterminate that I can hardly place them on record. I have been helped considerably, both by way of instruction and provocation, by many of the books I have read and have mentioned in the [8] bibliography. Foremost I would place Professor E. A. Burtt’s The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science, which I read with great profit some years ago and to which I am more indebted than my scanty reference in the text would suggest. I have been privileged to read in typescript the first draft of Professor Herbert Dingle’s forthcoming Lowell Lectures, and have further benefited by some discussions with him. My deepest obligation is to my colleague at Bedford College, Professor William Wilson, F.R.S. He read Chapters VIII and IX in manuscript and made many helpful criticisms. He is not, of course, responsible for the errors that remain. Further, he allowed me to read his paper on ‘The Nature of Wave-Mechanics’, which is to be published in Science Progress in October of this year. The common reader would be well-advised to study it. I am indebted to Professor M. Evelyn Clarke for reading the proofs and for making some valuable criticisms. All these I wish to thank, and others also, too numerous to be named, who have taught me much in conversation, especially my friend Miss Margaret Willis, who asked me difficult questions, some of which I have tried to answer in this book in a manner worthy of her honesty of mind.

LONDON, July 30, 1937

Note

For personal reasons I was prevented from attending at once to the revision of the page proofs and from compiling the index. I am greatly indebted to Dr. Joan W. Reeves who kindly undertook this task in the first place. In the final revision of the proofs I have been much helped by my friend Miss V. S. Shepherd, and in the final compilation of the index by Miss Lilian Chasanovitch. Without the help of these three friends the delay in publication would have been greater. I desire to express to them my grateful thanks.

L. S. S.

September 28, 1937

ABBREVIATIONS

N.Ph.W. The Nature of the Physical World

N.P.Sc. New Pathways in Science

S.U.W. Science and the Unseen World

M.U. The Mysterious Universe

PART I - THE ALARMING ASTRONOMERS

‘I, a stranger and afraid

In a world I never made.’

A. E. HOUSMAN

Chapter I - The Common Reader and the Popularizing Scientist

Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage that the universe has over him; of this the universe knows nothing.

PASCAL.

[11] The age in which we are living is pre-eminently an age of scientific discovery. The advance of the sciences is not only rapid but also spectacular. A ‘new discovery’ in this, that, or the other, branch of science is not only ‘News’, it is even ‘Headline News’. The physical sciences, scarcely more than three centuries old, have in the last half-century so rapidly developed that the researches of the physicist and the chemist have profoundly altered for good or for ill the life of nearly every human being. Knowledge gives power; knowledge of natural occurrences has already given, increasing knowledge will continue to give, men power to alter and to control their environment in ways which, but a short time ago, would have seemed godlike or devilish. The boundaries between the natural sciences have to some extent broken down. The crystallographer, the biochemist, the physiologist, may pool their knowledge to give men health or to devise means of exterminating each other in a new and deadly warfare. There is no need to expatiate upon the changes brought into our lives by machines; these are sufficiently well known and inescapable. Nor is it necessary to emphasize ‘the shrinkage of the world’ due to more rapid means of communication by air travel and by wireless. Napoleon Bonaparte would no doubt be less bewildered fighting in the [12] company of Edward I than as a general in the Italian Army to-day. That scientists can confer such power wins for them, intelligibly enough, great respect. At a time when the editors of daily newspapers invite film stars, financiers, popular novelists, and explorers to express their views on ‘the ultimate questions of life,’ it is not surprising that eminent scientists should be urged to explain ‘the philosophic attitude to which their work has brought them’—to use the label attached to a series of ‘Interviews’ with scientists reported in the Observer some six years ago. Nor is it surprising that even the idle diversions of men of proved scientific attainments should carry weight with the common reader.

In these days of popular expositions, both written and broadcast, of Outlines, and of mammoth Guides to the Intelligent Man—guides through science, guides through economics, guides through philosophy, guides through chaos—the common reader cannot be unaware that the sciences in general and the physical sciences in particular have been developing rapidly and that in the course of this development certain changes, describable as ‘revolutionary’, have occurred. These developments in science have a twofold interest. First, their results have given us information, often surprising, about the world we live in. Secondly, the following out of scientific method is in itself exciting, affording us the purest of all satisfactions—intellectual satisfaction. There is among common readers a genuine interest in scientific research, a desire to follow as far as a layman can what is being found and to understand the implications of these findings. Some of us are prepared to attempt to make the considerable intellectual effort required in order to understand even a non-technical exposition of recent developments in physics. The writing of such an exposition is undoubtedly difficult. It requires not only great powers of exposition but also an apprehension of the sort of difficulties the layman is likely to find and the skill to surmount them. We can hardly complain if these matters are not made entirely clear to us. Nevertheless, there are not a few scientists who have written books that to some extent satisfy our needs.[2] Unfortunately, however, there are other famous scientists who do not seem to realize that their subject has an intrinsic interest for the common reader, and accordingly they seek to arouse his emotions, thereby inducing a frame of mind inimical to [13] intellectual discernment. Popularizations of such a kind constitute a grave danger to thinking clearly. Possibly the authors themselves are at times wrought up to a pitch of emotional excitement, unduly impressed by the strangeness of their discoveries. I say ‘unduly impressed’ because, however strange may be the accounts of recent physical speculations, these physical speculations are themselves the development of the normal procedure of scientific method. The invention of new and more delicate scientific instruments has extended the physicist’s range of experience; fresh mathematical techniques have had to be devised to deal with the discoveries thus made. It must not, however, be too hastily assumed that these new instruments and these new mathematical devices constitute in themselves a radical transformation of the nature of our knowledge. Some of our scientific guides, writing in moments of emotional exaltation, have found it easier to mystify the common reader than to enlighten him.

Reflections such as these may well occur to anyone who meditates upon the popularity of the non-technical writings of Sir Arthur Eddington and Sir James Jeans. Both are eminent in their own branch of science. Both are adepts at picturesque exposition. Sir Arthur Eddington is an original thinker of the first rank. Sir James Jeans has shown himself capable of writing lucid and straightforward accounts of our present astronomical knowledge. His books, The New Background of Science, The Stars in their Courses, and Through Space and Time, deserve to be ranked with Sir William Bragg’s well-known popular expositions—Concerning the Nature of Things and The Universe of Light—as admirably designed to inform the common reader. But neither Sir Arthur Eddington nor Sir James Jeans seems to care very much whether his method of presenting his views concerning the philosophical significance of physical theories may not make it more difficult, or even impossible, for the common reader to understand what exactly it is that has been said. Both these writers approach their task through an emotional fog; they present their views with an amount of personification and metaphor that reduces them to the level of revivalist preachers. Yet we common readers surely have a right to expect that a scientist setting out to discuss for our benefit philosophical problems arising from his special studies will do so in a scientific spirit. He would seem to be under a special obligation to avoid cheap emotionalism and specious [14] appeals, and to write as clearly as the difficult nature of the subject-matter permits. Of this obligation Sir James Jeans seems to be totally unaware, whilst Sir Arthur Eddington, in his desire to be entertaining, befools the reader into a state of serious mental confusion. These are grave charges to make. It is the purpose of this chapter to attempt to substantiate them.

Both Eddington and Jeans[3]* may seem to have forestalled such criticism. Replying to a critic, Eddington says, ‘Non-technical books are very often a target for criticism simply because they are non-technical.’ He adds, ‘I take it that the aim of such books must be to convey exact thought in inexact language. The author has abjured the technical terms and mathematical symbols which are the recognized means securing exact expression, and he is thrown back on more indirect methods of awakening in the mind of the reader the thought which he wishes to convey. He will not always succeed. He can never succeed without the co-operation of the reader’ (N.P.Sc. 279). There is much truth in this statement, although Eddington does not show himself to be aware that exact thought cannot be conveyed in inexact language; at best it can be but partially conveyed, at worst the illusion will be created that it has been conveyed. Eddington seldom aids the reader in co-operating in determining how inexactly the thought has been conveyed. He contents himself with remarking that he must not be taken always to mean just what he says. The difficulties thus created for the reader will need to be discussed in detail in later chapters. Jeans does not seem ever to have noticed that his language is inexact, he appears to wish to defend himself from the charge of being a philosopher, thereby perhaps exempting himself from the duty of thinking rigorously. In his book, The Mysterious Universe, he sought to ‘provide useful material for the discussion of the ultimate philosophical problem’. In the last chapter of the book he presents his own conclusions. With regard to his fitness to discuss these problems he makes a point of saying: ‘I can claim no special qualifications beyond the proverbially advantageous position of the mere onlooker, I am not a philosopher either by training or by inclination.’ It may be true that the onlooker sees the [15] best of the game, although he can hardly do so unless he knows the rules observed by the players. However that may be, it is absurd to assume, on the basis of this unsound analogy, that one who is not a philosopher either by training or by inclination is in a privileged position in the discussion of philosophical problems. Jeans would resent, and rightly resent, the claim of a philosopher who had no technical knowledge of astronomy to put forward discredited astronomical theories as if they were the outcome of the latest developments of the science. It is odd indeed that he does not seem to see that ‘a stranger in the realms of philosophy’ may make a fool of himself, if, having neither training nor inclination, he should try to enter therein. That a similar invasion of science on the part of a mere philosopher would be unwarranted he clearly recognizes. Having laid stress upon ‘the widespread conviction that the new teachings of astronomy and physical science are destined to produce an immense change on our outlook on the universe as a whole, and on our views as to the significance of human life,’ Jeans continues: ‘The question at issue is ultimately one for philosophic discussion, but before the philosophers have a right to speak, science ought first to be asked to tell all she can as to ascertained facts and provisional hypotheses. Then, and only then, may discussion legitimately pass into the realms of philosophy.’ This estimate of the relative positions of the scientist and the philosopher appears to be eminently just. Certainly there are philosophers who need to be reminded of it. There is, however, a certain obscurity—perhaps a certain disingenuousness—in the remark ‘science ought first to be asked to tell all she can’. It suggests a final and higher court of appeal. This suggestion is misleading. Science is not a goddess or a woman. We cannot ask science, but only scientists. Moreover, we must ask our questions of the scientist at a moment when he is in a scientific temper, capable of giving us the ascertained facts and provisional hypotheses without any admixture of the emotional significance which he reads into these facts in his least scientific moods. The first chapter of The Mysterious Universe suggests that Jeans is not the guide of whom we are in need. This point must be stressed if we are to estimate correctly the philosophical value of his conclusions. Some typical passages should make this point clear.

Standing on our microscopic fragment of a grain of sand [i.e. the earth], we [i.e. human beings] attempt to discover the nature and [16] purpose of the universe which surrounds our home in space and time. Our first impression is something akin to terror. We find the universe terrifying because of its vast meaningless distances, terrifying because of its inconceivably long vistas of time which dwarf human history to the twinkling of an eye, terrifying because of our extreme loneliness, and because of the material insignificance of our home in space—a millionth part of a grain of sand out of all the sea-sand in the world. But above all else, we find the universe terrifying because it appears to be indifferent to life like our own; emotion, ambition and achievement, art and religion all seem equally foreign to its plan. Perhaps we ought to say it appears to be actively hostile to life like our own (P. 3).

The next paragraph continues:

Into such a universe we have stumbled, if not exactly by mistake, at least as the result of what may properly be described as an accident. The use of such a word need not imply any surprise that our earth exists, for accidents will happen, and if the universe goes on for long enough, every conceivable accident is likely to happen in time (p. 4).

A little further on, having suggested that ‘life may be merely an accidental consequence of the special set of laws by which the present universe is governed’, Jeans continues:

Again the word “accidental” may be challenged. For what if the creator of the universe selected one special set of laws just because they led to the appearance of life? What if this were his way of creating life? So long as we think of the creator as a magnified man-like being, activated by feelings and interests like our own, the challenge cannot be met, except perhaps by the remark that, when such a creator has once been postulated, no argument can add much to what has already been assumed. If, however, we dismiss every trace of anthropomorphism from our minds, there remains no reason for supposing that the present laws were specially selected in order to produce life. They are just as likely, for instance, to have been selected in order to produce magnetism or radio-activity—indeed more likely, since to all appearances physics plays an incomparably greater part in the universe than biology. Viewed from a strictly material stand-point, the utter insignificance of life would seem to go far towards dispelling any idea that it forms a special interest of the Great Architect of the Universe (p. 10. Italics mine).

A study of these passages (and of others like them which abound in his writings) is enlightening both with regard to Jeans’s method of presenting his views and with regard to the reasons that have led him to adopt his philosophical conclusions. The reader can hardly fail to notice the emotional tone of the language used by Jeans, his sense of values, which is surely strangely perverted, and his confused, contradictory reasoning. Many devices are used apparently for no other purpose than to reduce the reader to a state of abject terror. In accordance [17] with the temper of an age in which men admire size and material power, Jeans insists upon the magnitude of astronomical distances, upon the smallness of the earth, and upon the shortness of the span of human history. In his purely expository writings Jeans has made brilliant use of comparative estimates of size and of distance in order to elucidate astronomical facts. Now, however, the comparison is dwelt upon simply in order to make the reader feel his own feebleness and insignificance in the material universe. It is no doubt for the sake of intensifying this feeling that the vast distances with which the astronomer deals are said to be ‘meaningless’. Few readers are likely to pause to ask themselves whether a small distance would be meaningful. It is impossible to tell what answer Jeans, would give, were he to be asked this question. Nowhere has he suggested a criterion for determining ‘meaning’ in relation to distances. Is it not absurd to suppose that a distance could be ‘meaningless’ or ‘meaningful’? Certainly it would be interesting to learn how Jeans has discovered that stellar distances are meaningless ‘and that stars are lonely’. There is an extraordinary, but by no means uncommon, confusion in the picture of human beings standing on a microscopic fragment of sand whilst they attempt to discover the nature of the universe. There is an incongruity here, for we do not dissociate the human thinker from the normal size of man, i.e. the size stated in terms of measures and measuring rods invented and used by men. Nor does Jeans intend us to forget these measures. On the contrary, the pathos of the picture depends upon there being vaguely present to the reader’s mind the notion of a man clinging to too small a spar in a pathless ocean. If the earth is to be compared in size to a grain of sand, the human being must be correspondingly reduced in size.[4]* Such a picture, drawn to scale, would not, however, suit the purpose of the passage. The value which Jeans so evidently attaches to greatness in size is used both to reduce the reader to a humble frame of mind and to terrify him. In my opinion such a sense of values is perverted.[5]* The awe which Kant felt when he contemplated [18] ‘the starry heavens above’ is strikingly different. Such awe is due to an immediate awareness of the beauty of the night and is wholly independent of any knowledge of stellar magnitudes. Such awe may well have been felt by the Babylonian shepherds of old; it may be felt by an ignorant shepherd to-day. To be capable of such admiring contemplation; to be moved by pity and love; to have knowledge of the constitution of the stars might well seem more valuable than to be very big. Evidently Jeans thinks otherwise. He is content to deduce the insignificance of human beings from the smallness of the earth in comparison with the stars.

Jeans uses another means of terrifying the reader. This is the suggestion contained in the falsely emotional phrase ‘into such a universe we have stumbled’. The notion inevitably suggested by this language is of fully developed human beings coming unawares into a world that is alien to the environment from which they have sprung. But Jeans knows quite well that the suggestion is absurd. Its purpose is to create in his readers’ minds the picture of a universe either indifferent to them or actively hostile. Between these alternatives Jeans wavers; either affords scope for his curiously emotional appeal to the interest of the common reader. Yet the success of this appeal depends upon an almost incredible degree of confusion. In the first passage quoted on page 16, Jeans speaks of ‘the universe’ as being ‘indifferent’ or ‘actively hostile to life like our own’. But indifference or hostility can be significantly predicated only of living beings. In the last, of the three passages quoted (page 16), Jeans seems to be recognizing the danger of thinking of the creator ‘as a magnified manlike being, activated by feelings and interests like our own’. It is, however, important to notice the context in which this statement occurs. Jeans is considering a possible objection to the suggestion that the [19] appearance of life in the universe may be ‘accidental’, the objection being that the creator may have selected just those laws that lead to life. He replies that, were the creator a magnified human being, then it would be reasonable to suppose that he would design to bring about the appearance of human beings. He rightly insists that such a postulate would have little worth. At this point he advises us to ‘dismiss every trace of anthropomorphism from our minds’, and argues that it is more likely that the present laws of the universe ‘have been selected’ in order to produce magnetism rather than in order to produce life. He can then state his main conclusion, namely, that from the material standpoint there is no reason for supposing that the great Architect of the Universe has any special interest in life.

To regard the laws of the universe as having been specially selected, to speak of laws as producing this, that, or the other is, then, not considered by Jeans to be inconsistent with dismissing ‘every trace of anthropomorphism from our minds’. Indeed, the Great Architect of the Universe turns up in the last line of the paragraph that contains this exhortation. Yet, surely, the selecting of one among possible alternatives is a specifically human activity? The whole of Jeans’s discussion is permeated by the notion of a Power which selects and rejects, plans and designs, seeks and achieves, thinks as human beings think although much more effectively and on a grander scale. The point of the pretended dismissal of anthropomorphism is to be found in the sentence I have italicized in the last passage quoted on page 16. Our attention is being called to what will happen to our aspirations if we insist upon regarding the universe from a strictly material standpoint. As we shall see in the next chapter, the outcome of Jeans’s meditations is a belief that the Great Architect is a pure Mathematician, and that the universe is his thoughts. Hence, there is no matter to be afraid of, and no meaningless distances to appal us. This last statement may strike the reader of this book as intended for a joke on my part. On the contrary, it is a summary statement of Jeans’s own conclusion. The quotation of one passage must suffice:

‘It is probably unnecessary to add that, on this view of things, the apparent vastness and emptiness of the universe, and our own insignificant size therein, need cause us neither bewilderment nor concern. We are not terrified by the size of the structures which our own thoughts create, nor by those which others imagine and describe to us.... The immensity of the Universe becomes a matter of satisfaction rather than awe; we are citizens of no mean city.’ (p. 143)

[20] Thus Jeans concludes that ‘the vastness and emptiness of the universe’ is only apparent; yet ‘the immensity of the Universe’ is a source of satisfaction to its citizens... Perhaps Jeans is thinking of the pride of citizens of an Empire upon which the sun never sets, who murmur

‘Wider still and wider, shall thy bounds be set,

God who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet’.

Possibly the obvious contradiction in the above statements is to be avoided by the change from a small to a capital U. However that may be, the anthropomorphic fallacy is very obvious in the conclusion that the Great Architect is a super-mathematician, in short, a Being well fitted to become President of the Royal Society—a colleague of Jeans himself. Yet there are times when Jeans seems to be seriously aware of the dangers of anthropomorphic theories. In The New Background of Science he pointed out the mistakes of the ancient Greeks in attributing natural occurrences to the agency of gods, and he wisely added, ‘Such views of nature were unreflective and almost instinctive, arising in part from man’s projecting his own personality on to nature, with a resultant confusion between man and nature, and in part from a mere fixation of infantile ideas’ (p. 34). Can Jeans suppose that such projection of his own personality is scientifically permissible so long as it is reflective and based upon elaborate arguments? With the worth of these arguments we shall be concerned in the next chapter. Here it is important to stress how fundamental to Jeans’s arguments the anthropomorphic fallacy is.

Unfortunately, Eddington is not entirely free from this vice. He indulges in a specious personification of Nature, ascribing to ‘her’ emotions, designs, frustrations, and successes. In Science and the Unseen World he says:

‘Looking back over the geological record it would seem that Nature made nearly every possible mistake before she reached her greatest achievement, Man—or perhaps some would say her worst mistake of all. At one time she put her trust in armaments and gigantic size. Frozen in the rock is the evidence of her failures to provide a form fitted to endure and dominate—failures which we are only too ready to imitate. At last she tried a being of no great size, almost defenceless, defective in at least one of the most important sense-organs, one gift she bestowed to save him from threatened extinction—a certain stirring, a restlessness, in the organ called the brain.

And so we come to Man’ (page 15).

[21] This is not meant to be merely picturesque, for Eddington at once continues, ‘It is with some such thoughts as these of the relation of Man to the visible universe that the scientifically minded[6] among us approach the problem of his relation to the Unseen World.’ It is to be hoped that Eddington is mistaken concerning the thoughts of at least many of ‘the scientifically minded’, but there can be no doubt that he is accurately stating his own attitude. He does seem to believe in a strange anthropomorphic female, Nature, whose relation to God, or to the Universal Mind, he never seems squarely to face. His mode of approach, born of emotion finding its outlet in vague metaphorical expressions, is surely not characteristic of the scientifically minded. As we shall see later,[7] it obscures his discussion of ‘Indeterminacy and the Quantum Theory’, as the following quotation may suggest: ‘The future is not predetermined, and Nature has no need to protect herself from giving away plans which she has not yet made’ (N.P.Sc. 102). His habit of personifying does not stop with Nature. In an attempt to show that the directed radius is constant, there occurs this remarkable passage:

‘The long and the short of it is that when the standard metre takes up a new position or direction it measures itself against the directed radius of the world in that region and direction, and takes up an extension which is a definite fraction of the directed radius. I do not see what else it could do. We picture the rod a little bewildered in its new surroundings, wondering how large it ought to be—how much of the unfamiliar territory its boundaries ought to take in. It wants to do just what it did before. Recollections of the chunk of space it formerly filled do not help, because there is nothing of the nature of a landmark. The one thing it can recognize is a directed length belonging to the region where it finds itself; so it makes itself the same fraction of this directed length as it did before’ (N.Ph.W. 143).

It is difficult to know whether Eddington is merely intending to entertain the reader by a little playful talk, or whether he has deluded himself into supposing that this sort of talk will enable the layman to understand what is meant by saying that ‘the length of a specified material structure bears a constant ratio to the radius of curvature of the world at the place and in the direction in which it lies’—as he puts it in the Mathematical Theory of Relativity.[8] It is probably not possible to explain the point clearly to the non-scientific reader. Eddington can hardly be blamed for our deficiencies. But we might have [22] expected that he would, at this point, have made some attempt to discuss the theory of measurement, and would have spared us the foolish picture of the ‘bewildered little rod’ which ‘wonders how large it ought to be’ and ‘wants to do just what it did before’. At this stage of his discussion it was extremely important that Eddington should have striven to say as clearly as possible exactly what he meant, for from the above statement he derives the conclusion: ‘The whole thing is a vicious circle. The law of gravitation is—a put-up job.’[9] This conclusion plays a considerable part in Eddington’s final philosophical construction.

It may be thought that I am treading too heavily and showing myself insensitive to Eddington’s joke. Some people may feel that there is no harm in this mode of writing, and that it is merely a picturesque way of enlivening lectures addressed to a mainly non-scientific group of people. It does not seem to me that this defence can be substantiated. The fundamental objection to the modes of expression so dear to both Eddington and Jeans is not merely that they are unilluminating; it is that such writing obfuscates the common reader whilst pretending to enlighten him. These writers encourage the reader to believe that he has understood a theory when he has only been entertained by an irrelevant illustration. They persuade him to accept the philosophical theory that is put forward because it has been preceded by a good deal of difficult and abstruse physics which the reader is prepared to accept as correct since it has been presented by a competent scientist who has, moreover, the air of explaining the inexplicable. It seems almost as though Jeans was projecting into Nature the characteristics of his own and Eddington’s popular writings when he said ‘Heisenberg now makes it appear that Nature abhors accuracy and precision above all things.’

Chapter II - The Escape of Sir James Jeans

‘Everyone is as God made him, and very often worse.’

CERVANTES

By means of the unsatisfactory devices discussed in the preceding chapter the mind of the common reader is prepared to accept certain pleasant conclusions. He is to be persuaded that there [23] is a God who has created the world, who has designed man as the crown of this creation, and who will thus not leave him uncomforted; that Reality is spiritual finally, that human beings can determine their own destiny.