The Enigma Of The Universe : Stebbing’s Criticisms

Published: 20.12.2014
Updated: 13.01.2015

Renowned critic Prof. Stebbing has severely criticized Jeans like Eddington. Accusing Jeans of using unintelligible terminology, Prof. Stebbing writes. "It is not easy to determine whether Jeans regards the statement that the universe has been designed by a pure mathematician to be equivalent to the statement that it consists of the thoughts of a pure mathematician. These two statements are certainly very different but Jeans does not seem to be aware of the difference. Whether he does distinguish between them or not is, however, a question of little importance compared with the problem of determining what possible meaning can be attached to either statement. It is not 'the want of a better word' than 'mathematical' or 'the want of a wider word' than "a mathematical thinker" that renders these sentences hopelessly obscure and probably nonsensical. What is lacking is any clear indication of what Jeans understands by "thought" and by "thinking". Yet it is upon the concept of thought that the whole of his metaphysics depends...."[1] Further criticizing Jeans's concept of the universe as a creation of the Great Mathematician, Mrs. Stebbing observes: "Jeans makes no effort to explain how it is that the Great Mathematician should have turned aside from his mathematical activities and condescended to create the world. Perhaps he has been unable to see the importance of this question because he has confused thinking with thoughts. Thus speaking of the 'terrestrial pure mathematician' Jeans says that he 'does not concern himself with material substance, but with pure thought. His creations are not only created by thought but consist of thought, just as the creations of the engineers consist of engines'. This is an extraordinarily muddled statement. The engineer may be said to create engines; he does not create engineers, nor the thinking of engineers. Granted that the engineer is thinking creatively when he is designing an engine, the engine that is made is not itself the thinking of the engineer, nor a thought in his mind, it is impossible to attach any meaning to Jeans's use of the words "just as" in the statement quoted above. It reveals, however, Jeans's failure to distinguish between saying that the universe is created by God's thinking and saying that it is God's thought."[2]

Again, at another place, drawing our attention to obscurity in Jeans's view, Mrs. Stebbing writes: "It seems, then, that objective and subjective both fall within 'that which is inside our minds'. That this interpretation is correct is supported by the fact that Jeans maintains that the general thesis of the new physics is 'that the Nature we study does not consist so much of something we perceive as of our perceptions; it is not the object of the subject-object relation but the relation itself. There is, in fact, no clear-cut division between the subject and object; they form an indivisible whole which now becomes Nature. Thus Nature, it seems, consists of our perceiving's and of that which we perceive, indissolubly bound together. What, then, do we perceive? The answer given to this question is extraordinarily obscure."[3]

Concluding her critical chapter on The Escape of Sir James Jeans, the learned critic states: "He is in too great a hurry to pass to the conclusion that the new physics has 'proved' that the 'objective and material universe' of the nineteenth-century scientist consists of 'little more than constructs of our own minds.' To this extent,' he urges, 'modern physics has moved in the direction of philosophic idealism'.

"I am not here concerned to deny 'philosophic idealism', still less to disagree with Jeans's statement that 'both materialism and matter need to be redefined in the light of our new knowledge'. On the contrary, I should wish to urge that both idealism and materialism, as understood by Jeans are out of date. The point of the forgoing criticisms is that these cloudy speculations[4] of Sir James Jeans cannot properly be regarded as affording the common reader any clear information as to the 'philosophical implications' of the new physics."[5]


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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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  1. Eddington
  2. Sir James Jeans
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