The Enigma Of The Universe : Laws of Physics

Published: 04.12.2014
Updated: 02.07.2015

Now, only a small portion of our physical knowledge, which is termed as the "fundamental laws and constants of physics," is considered as "wholly subjective" by Eddington. He has mainly given two reasons for this belief:

  1. All the fundamental laws and constants of physics can be deduced by a priori (epistemological) considerations
  2. Pure subjectivity arises from the selective effect of the sensory and intellectual equipment.

Eddington contends that in the epistemological treatment, we start from knowledge, so that the order, viz., objective event→perception→physical knowledge, is reversed, and it is the intellectual sifting that first comes under consideration[1] and because the intellectual sifting is solely an activity of consciousness, independent of the external world, the laws of physics become wholly subjective. But from where the "knowledge" from which we start arises? Of course, it must have been acquired only though the usual sequence: objective event→perception→physical knowledge. It, therefore, cannot be wholly free from the objective element. (Eddington himself has accepted partial objectivity of the physical knowledge). So, in the epistemological (a priori) consideration, even if we start from knowledge, we cannot neglect the objective element contained in it, and hence, cannot consider the laws formulated by epistemological consideration as "wholly subjective".

Prof. Stebbing has rightly remarked: "But I am forced to ask whether, granting that such a deduction from 'epistemological considerations' be possible, there is any reason to believe that mind is the stuff of the universe. The answer, I think, is that there is not. We are once again confronted with "Eddington's failure to recognise the importance of the distinction between the deductive physics and the experimental basis without which such deduction cannot even begin."[2]

Actually, Eddington himself has accepted antecedence of observational experience in any kind of epistemological consideration. He states: "We must grant then that the deduction of a law of nature from epistemological considerations implies antecedent observational experience."[3] If so, how the laws of nature become "wholly subjective"? To this Eddington answers: "But it must be emphasised that the relation of the law of nature to the observations which form this antecedent experience is altogether different from its relation to the observations which it governs."[4] Even if we grant a difference in the relations of the law with antecedent observation and the one which it governs, it does not mean that the objective element is altogether eliminated. The objective element which is crept in our knowledge by the antecedent observation affects the formulation of any law in the same way as our intellectual equipment would affect it. A law (or regularity) is not only the mark of the observer's intellectual equipment; it also carries the stamp of objectivity crept in through the antecedent observation.

Eddington believes that the sensations or sensory impressions act as the raw material for the physical science. He writes: "At this meeting point of all branches of knowledge, we have to distinguish the branch which leads to knowledge of the physical universe. The raw material for this knowledge is contained in the parts of consciousness called sensations or sensory impressions."[5] Thus if the sensations (which are accepted by Eddington to possess "objective element") are the raw materials of physical science, the product, i.e., the laws of physics cannot be wholly free from the objective element, and hence, cannot be considered "wholly subjective."

 In analysing the intellectual activity, Eddington makes use of the phrase "form of thought" or "frame of thought". Defining this, he states: "This may be regarded as a predetermined form or frame into which the knowledge we acquire observationally is filled.[6]

"The epistemological method of investigation", he maintains, "leads us to study the nature of the frame of thought, and so be forewarned of its impress on the knowledge that will be forced into it. We may foresee a priori certain characteristics which any knowledge contained in the frame will have, simply because it is contained in the frame. These characteristics will be discovered a posteriori by physicists who employ that frame of thought, when they come to examine the knowledge they have forced into it...........

"These foreseeable characteristics are not by any means trivial; they are laws of numerical constant which physicists have been at great pains to determine by observation and experiment."[7] Thus, he maintains that the fundamental laws and constants of physics are introduced by adapting the knowledge to a form of thought less remote from our familiar outlook;[8] and he concludes that the laws of physics are a property of the frame of thought in which we represent our knowledge of the objective content.[9]

Here Eddington neglects the fact that the "frame" or "form of thought" which he calls as "predetermined" must have been formed only as a result of the perception of the external world. The "frame of thought" howsoever predetermined or deep rooted it may be, must necessarily be preceded by the sequence→object→perception→knowledge. It, therefore, cannot be free from the objective element and consequently the laws of physics, which are property of the frame of thought, also cannot be "wholly subjective".

If we consider Eddington's view in light of terminology, we find that the "frame of thought" is comparable to the concept of dhāraṇā (retention), and the "laws of physics" should be classified under śruta-jñāna (verbal comprehension). As we have seen, mati-jñāna (non-verbal comprehension) starts with avagraha  and ends in dhāraṇā and śruta-jñāna is always preceded by mati-jñāna. Thus, if the laws of physics (śrutajāna) are formulated according to some forms of thought (dhāraṇā) they must carry the mark of avagraha (sensation or subject-object relation) and cannot be regarded as "wholly subjective"

At another place he puts his argument thus: "We regard the mind as demanding by its "necessities of thought" certain qualities in the parts which make up the physical universe. The mind imposes its demands by refusing to admit any system of analysis into parts which does not yield parts with the required qualities. The fundamental laws are simply a mathematical formulation of the qualities of parts into which our  analysis has divided the universe; and it has been our contention that they are all imposed by the human mind in this way and are therefore wholly subjective."[10] Here, again, Eddington forgets the fact that the "necessities of thought" are not something spontaneous; they must have been related to the past experience or knowledge gained through the perception of the external world, and as such must be governed (at least partially) by the objective element.

Eddington however seems to be aware of the role played by the objective element. But he, probably, due to his idealistic trend, may be erroneously, gives prominence to mental set-up. He observes: "To inquire how the harmony (between thought and sensation) has come about-whether our sensory experience puts it into our heads to think as we do, or whether the evolution of man's senses has been guided by natural selection in such a way as not to conflict too grossly with the necessities of thought may be like inquiring whether the hen comes first or the egg; and it is perhaps not very important to decide. We might well leave open the question whether the forms of thought which dominate our outlook are acquired or innate. But I am inclined to believe that the ultimate root is definitely mental-a predisposition inseparable from consciousness."[11]

It follows from this quotation that Eddington has abruptly considered the ultimate root as mental. But it is obvious that any form of thought must have its root in the acquired knowledge and cannot be regarded as absolutely innate.

Actually it seems that the usage of the term "laws of physics" is misguiding. We should distinguish 'the formulation or derivation of a law' from 'the fact described by a law'.

We agree that formulation of a law is a mental process carried on with the help of pre-determined forms of thought, mathematical operations, etc.. We may consider this process of formulation of laws as a wholly subjective process, if we disregard the role of the past observations. But if we mean by the "laws" the facts described by them, we cannot call them wholly subjective. In a priori considerations we only derive or formulate laws subjectively, but not the facts described by them. The facts described by laws must have objective element, for the facts described by "laws of physics" constitute actually the "physical universe" which, according to Eddington himself, is not wholly subjective. In his own words, we find: "I have often found an impression that to explain away the laws of nature as wholly subjective is the same thing as to explain away the physical universe as wholly subjective. Such a view is altogether unfounded."[12] Thus, we have to interpret the term "wholly subjective" only in a very limited sense.


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Title: The Enigma Of The Universe

Publisher: JVB University Ladnun

English Edition: 2010

HN4U Online Edition: 2014

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Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Avagraha
  2. Consciousness
  3. Dhāraṇā
  4. Eddington
  5. Objectivity
  6. Science
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