Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Eddington's Priority

I have posted below, Arthur Stanley Eddington’s 1929 lecture Science and the Unseen World, typos and all. I’m solely responsible for any of those. I would welcome notice of any errata which you might want to point out on the comment thread below. I’d never read Eddington on any subject before someone pointed out to me that he had said a lot of the things I do about the limits of science and religion eighty years before. The experience of reading the essay last week was eery, sometimes wording and illustrations he used was very close to what I’ve said on blogs, only he said it much more elegantly and with fuller justification. In light of his priority, I feel honor bound to post his essay.

I’m sure that new atheists and others won’t be impressed with Eddington’s impeccable credentials as a great scientist and clear thinker. I’m sure that even pointing out that Einstein said that his early exposition of relativity was the best in any language would not be enough for them to find fault with much of what he says about science, never mind religion. They will carp at his superannuated and, perhaps, overly popularized coverage of science in this essay. There is no one who can satisfy a determined intention of applying a standard to their ideological opponents, disqualifying their credibility for practices which they have no problem with in those who agree with them. Being foresighted and a deep thinker experienced with nay-sayers Eddington might have anticipated that with this passage from section XI:

The finding of one generation will not serve for the next. It tarnishes rapidly except it be preserved with an ever-renewed spirit of seeking. It is the same too in science. How easy in a popular lecture to tell of the findings, the new discoveries which will be amended, contradicted, superseded in the next fifty years !

His foresight might have extended to this condensation of an imagined newspaper readers conflict between advocates of various zealots of both “science” and “experience”. It’s a good parody of some blog threads, minus the profane invective.

Would it be altogether unfair to imagine something liked eh following series of letters in our correspondence columns? It arises, let us say, from a passage in an obituary notice which mentions that the deceased had loved to watch the sunsets from his peaceful country home. A.
writes deploring that in this progressive age few of the younger generation ever notice a sunset; perhaps this is due to the pernicious influence of the teaching of Copernicus who maintains that the sun is really stationary. This rouses B. to reply that nowadays every reasonable person accepts Copernicus's doctrine. C. is positive that he has many times seen the sun set, and Copernicus must be wrong. D. calls for a restatement of belief, so that we may know just how much modern science has left of the sunset, and appreciated the remnant without disloyalty to truth. E. (perhaps significantly my own initial) in a misguided effort for peace points out that on the most modern scientific theory there is no absolute distinction between the heavens revolving around the earth and the earth revolving under the heavens; both parties are (relatively) right. F. regards this as a most dangerous sophistry, which insinuates that there is no essential difference between truth and untruth. G. thinks that we ought now to admit frankly that the revolution of the heavens is a myth; nevertheless such myths have still a practical teaching for us in the present day. H. produces an obscure passage in the Almagest, which he interprets as showing that the philosophy of the ancients was not really opposed to the Copernican view. And so it goes on. And the simple reader feels himself in an age of disquiet, insecurity and dissension, all because it is forgotten that what the deceased man looked out for each evening was an experience and not a creed.


  1. Others are noticing:

  2. Recommended reading:

  3. What's lost on you is this idea that people and their ideas can be mutually exclusive. A thinking person can agree with what Collins has to say about Cystic Fibrosis and disagree with what Collins has to say humans ceasing to evolve. Or what Dennett says about " belief in belief" and what Dennett gets wrong about conflating evolution with natural selection. What's to stop an atheist from criticizing Hitchens' foreign policy and applauding his eulogy of Falwell?

    Gunter Grass was a Nazi sympathizer; is that a reason to think "The Tin Drum" vile?