'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.)