Sunday, 29 December 2013

'The first and most direct thing in our experience'

'Something unknown is doing we don't know what.'
That succinct expression of how little we know was yesterday's epigraph on Frank Wilson's invaluable Books Inq. blog. It's a quotation from the eminent scientist and populariser of science Sir Arthur Eddington, born on yesterday's date in 1882. What's immediately striking about it - and about much else that Eddington said and wrote - is how unrecognisably different it sounds from anything that today's popularisers of science would utter.
 Eddington became convinced - for reasons derived entirely from science - that 'the stuff of the world is mind-stuff'. What he called mind-stuff  'is not spread in space and time; these are part of the cyclic scheme ultimately derived out of it.... It is necessary to keep reminding ourselves that all knowledge of our environment from which the world of physics is constructed, has entered in the form of messages transmitted along the nerves to the seat of consciousness.... Consciousness is not sharply defined, but fades into subconsciousness; and beyond that we must postulate something indefinite but yet continuous with our mental nature.... It is difficult for the matter-of-fact physicist to accept the view that the substratum of everything is of mental character. But no one can deny that mind is the first and most direct thing in our experience, and all else is remote inference.'
This is in The Nature of the Physical World, published in 1928. Eddington was writing in the light of the shattering implications of quantum mechanics, which, it seemed to him, had not only made a nonsense of the materialist metaphysic that underlies science, but also of the dualistic distinction between a materialist and an idealist account of what reality is. He went further, arguing that whatever we observe must ultimately be the content of our own consciousness, therefore by definition non-material. He didn't go so far as to deny the objective reality of anything beyond our minds, but argued that the same 'stuff' is in our minds and the physical world and is what makes the connection of the two possible.
As I said, that's not the kind of talk you hear from the likes of Prof Brian Cox. But in his day Eddington was by no means alone among scientists in thinking in this sort of way. Another, equally famous scientist and populariser, Sir James Jeans - of whom I've written elsewhere - saw the universe (in the light of the findings of quantum mechanics) as coming to seem more like 'a great thought' than a great machine. Could it be that scientists of Eddington's and Jeans' generation, in whose time the new science of quantum physics burst forth, realised its implications more sharply and fully than those who came after, and internalised it in a way that seems somehow to have been lost since? Certainly the popular science of today seems to regard 'mind' as no more than a product of brain activity (the subject of that current popularisers' favourite, neuroscience) - rather than, as Jeans suggested it might be, 'the creator and governor of the realm of matter'. This seems a shame, but what do I know? (See answer above.)


  1. Hallelujah! My argument is with Pinker, Dennet and the neuroscientists. See posts on my blog

    1) Dangerous nasty scientism
    2) Brian Cox ha ha ha

    I have attempted to give these essays literary merit

  2. "Something unknown is doing we don't know what." Exactly!

    You rightly assail materialists for their impoverished understanding of what is. But don't the followers of theistic religions proclaim an equally reductionist view of 'God', attributing to him(!) human emotions like anger, righteousness and love? Isn't this a form of false idolatry, transferring our own qualities to a deity and then worshipping a reflection of ourselves? The danger of using words like 'mind' and 'consciousness' to refer to the great mystery of being is that it leads to this kind of anthropomorphic reductionism.

  3. Waldonymous, we are human so our poetry is human even when we speak of the divine. It doesn't mean we believe it says all there is to say but what else do we have?

  4. There's a strain in protestant thinking that asserts there is nothing humanly knowable about God and it is presumptuous to assume anything at all about His nature, methods and motives - 'Something unknown is doing we don't know what' indeed. It is a hard doctrine though -
    'For Mercy has a human heart,
    Pity a human face,
    And Love, the human form divine,
    And Peace, the human dress...'

  5. Yes the christian agenda, thus gives humans a special status and our doings a special significance and dignity. The personal has value. This, of course, runs counter to the totalitarian scientism that prevails more and more, which seeks to bring us down to the level of lab rats and creatures that can be 'explained' in solely scientific terms.

  6. 'A hard doctrine.' is one way of looking at it. In another way the reductionist view of life has always felt immeasurably bleak to me, and I am comforted, and always have been, by the sense of not knowing - indeed of it being impossible to know. We are left with the human body in all its intricacy, and with the earth - and love.
    It is good to read your post, Nige, and the comments you received.