Philosophy and the Physicists


L. Susan Stebbing


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 The rapidity of development in physics—which makes a theory out of date almost as soon as it is published—no doubt makes it difficult, and in many cases impossible, to give to works on physical science that completeness and beauty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 great books. He has, I think, preeminently 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 modem 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 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 φυσιχός, 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.

[1] Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, p. 310. The idealists of whom Lenin was primarily thinking were the disciples of Mach, whom he calls ‘Machians’. I am inclined to think that he hardly understood Mach’s own view. An interesting article bearing on this topic, entitled ‘The Mechanical versus the Mathematical Conception of Nature’, has recently been published by Prof. P. Frank in Philosophy of Science, January, 1937.

[ix-xiii. Note: the balance of the preface consists of acknowledgments.]


CHAP.                                                PAGE

[PREFACE ix-xiv]

Part I

I  The Common Reader and the Popularizing Scientist 3
II  The Escape of Sir James Jeans 19

Part II

III  ‘Furniture of the Earth’ 45
IV  ‘The Symbolic World of Physics’ 65
V  The Descent to the Inscrutable 98
VI  Consequences of Scrutinizing the Inscrutable 119

Part III

VII  The Nineteenth-Century Nightmare 141
VIII  The Rejection of Physical Determinism 156
IX  Reactions and Consequences 185
X  Human Freedom and Responsibility 222

Part IV

XI  Entropy and Becoming 253
XII  Interpretations  265



Chapter XII

[. . . .]

It is odd to find that the view that ‘all is mysterious’ is to be regarded as a sign of hope. The rejection of the ‘billiard-ball view’ of matter does not warrant the leap to any form of Idealism. Surely a view that finds a place for Mind in the universe only after the principle of uncertainty has been discovered or after abstruse physical speculations have made of physics a science not ‘understanded of the people’ is not a view that should commend itself to the earnest seeker after God, especially if that seeker be a Christian. At least, I should have thought not, were it not that Christian apologists have been so eager to wait upon the pronouncements of the physicists, so thankful to be assured that we put into Nature the laws we profess to discover and, finally, that the chairs we sit on are not solid.

The common reader may well pause to ask why there is such anxiety to ‘put Mind into Nature’ and to regard chairs as ‘abstractions’. The world is what it is. Whether God or the physicists made it, or whether the language of ‘making’ is wholly inappropriate, does not affect the fact that men are capable of making a hell upon earth even though they can envisage something better. No doubt it is our realization of the gap between our ideals and our performance that makes us desire the assurance that ‘at the heart of reality there is Spirit’. But the desire is irrational.

‘ Ah Love ! could you and I with Him conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
    Would we not shatter it to bits—and then
Remould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire ! ’

How does it help us to be told that ‘the Scheme of Things’ is created by God or imposed by Mind, if we find it to be ‘sorry’? Is it not odd that men should have come to this pass—that they look for hope in physics and welcome, as some do, any indication of unreason in the world? Perhaps it seems less odd when we reflect upon the history of mankind, the hopeless mess that we have made of human lives. Our greed, our stupidity and lack of imagination, our apathy, these are the factors upon which the present sorry state of the world is largely consequent. It is enough to fill us with despair. Yet, despair need not be the last word. It lies within our power, if we so desire, to make the familiar world we inhabit more worthy of habitation by beings who aspire to be rational and are capable of love. Our limitation is due not to ignorance, not to the ‘blind forces of Nature’, not to the astronomical insignificance of our planet, but to the feebleness of our desires for good. This limitation is not to be removed by the advance of physical knowledge. nor should our hopes be placed in the researches of the physicist.


SOURCE: Stebbing, L. Susan. Philosophy and the Physicists. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1958. Reprint of original 1937 edition. This page includes Preface (partial), pp. ix-xiii; Contents, p. xv; Chapter XII: Interpretations (concluding paragraphs), pp. 285-286. 

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