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The Enigma Of The Universe : Confusion in Eddington’s View

Published: 29.11.2014
Updated: 02.07.2015

Selective subjectivism, according to Eddington, is quite different from Berkelian subjectivism. Also, Eddington has clearly distinguished his philosophy from Solipsism, in which "the self" is considered to be the only reality. He writes: "Our direct awareness of certain aural and visual sensations (words heard and read) is postulated to be an indirect knowledge of quite different sensation (described by the words heard and read) occurring elsewhere than in our own consciousness. Solipsism would deny this: and it is by accepting this postulate that physics declares itself anti-solipsistic."[1] Thus, Eddington's Selective Subjectivism is anti-solipsistic. Again Eddington is out and out opponent of realism, as he expresses: "Why realism should be resurrected to serve as a basis of twentieth-century philosophy passes my comprehension."[2] Thus, Eddington's philosophy is identical neither to Berkelian Subjectivism nor to solipsism nor to realism; all the same Eddington has not succeeded in making clear what exactly Selective Subjectivism propounds.

Though Eddington considers mind or consciousness to be the objective reality and the physical world to be subjective reality, he has not made clear the metaphysical nature of the physical world or matter. Also, he has not succeeded in explaining clearly how matter depends upon consciousness for its existence. Actually, it seems that Eddington's thinking is lacking in clarity. We come across a number of such instances in his works where it is difficult to comprehend what exactly, he wants to say.

Prof. (Mrs.) L. Susan Stebbing has severely criticized Eddington and Jeans, especially for their confused thinking. Prof. Stebbing writes: "But neither Sir Arthur Eddington nor Sir James Jeans to care very much his method of presenting his views concerning the philosophical significance of physical theories may not make it more difficult, or even impossible, for the common reader to understand what exactly it is that has been said. Both these writers approach their task through an emotional fog; they present their views with an amount of personification and metaphor that reduces them to the level of revivalist preachers."[3] Further accusing Eddington of mixing everyday language with technical one, Prof. Stebbing remarks: "Nothing but confusion can result if, in one and the same sentence, we mix up language used appropriately for the furniture of earth and our daily dealings with it with language used for the purpose of philosophical and scientific discussion.

"A peculiarly gross example of such a linguistic mixture is provided by one of Eddington's most picturesque passages.[4] We must regard his usage of language in this statement as grossly misleading to the common reader-I cannot doubt that it reveals serious confusion in Eddington's own thinking about the nature of the physical world."[5] At one place, making clear the object of her criticism, Prof. Stebbing writes: "I wish to emphasize that I am not indulging in an idle and profitless criticism of a careless usage of language. My criticism of Eddington is that he is confused in his thinking and that in consequence of this confusion he uses many different expressions without himself knowing how far, if at all, they are used as synonym.[6] It is true that in his earlier works Eddington has used the terms such as "physical world", "external world", etc. without making it clear how far they are synonymous. Prof. Stebbing has quoted a number of passages from Eddington's works, in which these are used confusingly.[7]

Concluding her criticism on the confused expressions, Prof. Stebbing rightly remarks: ÒI do not think Eddington's plea that he must use inexact language would be relevant at this point. The resources of English and his knowledge of its correct usages are surely sufficient to enable him to make clear how exactly he intends to use the expressions "Physical World", "World of Physics", "External World", "Physical Reality", and "Nature" and to explain whether any two or more of these expressions are synonymous. I believe, in fact, that he is fundamentally confused and that his metaphysical views are the outcome of these confusions."[8]

In Eddington's latest work,[9] which has been written by him after the criticisms made by Prof. Stebbing, he has tried to explain the different synonymous terms and also tried to give answers to Stebbing criticisms; all the same he has failed to obliterate all the ambiguity. For example, the argument which Eddington has put forward against realism is quite obscure. At one place in his new work, he has quoted[10] a statement of C. E. M. Joad[11] as a representative of realist school, and then he has tried to refute it. In Joad's statement it has been recognised that if perceiving is purely a relation between the mind and an external object, the object is not modified by our perceiving of it. Now, confuting this view, Eddington writes: "It is not clear whether it is also recognised that the mind is not modified. If the mind is modified by the act of perceiving, it is incorrect to describe perceiving as a "relation" and the argument based on the existence of more than one kind of relation falls to the ground. On the other hand, if neither the mind nor the sensum is modified by the act of perceiving, how is it that it is not until after the perception that a new kind of relation of the mind to the sensum becomes possible, namely remembering or imagining?"[12]

In the above confutation, Eddington has neither made it clear that even if it is recognised that the mind is modified by the act of perceiving, why is it incorrect to describe perceiving as a "relation", nor has he given reasons for his doubt against the possibility of a new kind of relation (viz. remembering or imagining) in the case of believing that neither the mind nor the sensum is modified by the act of perceiving.

At another place, we find Eddington surprisingly expressing his ignorance about the meaning of the term "existence" and accusing philosophers of using half-finished sentences. He writes: "I find a difficulty in understanding books on philosophy because they talk a great deal about "existence", and I do not know what they mean. Existence seems to be a rather important property, because I gather that one of the main sources of division between different schools of philosophy is the question whether certain things exist or not. But I cannot even begin to understand these issues, because I can find no explanation of the term 'Exist'[13].... It is not every sentence containing the verb "to exist" that troubles me. The term is often used in an intelligible way. For me (and, it appears also for my dictionary) "Exists is a rather emphatic form of "is". "A thought exists in somebody's mind", i.e. a thought is in somebody's mind-I can understand that. "A state of war exists in Puritania, i.e. a state of war is in Puritania-not very good English, but intelligible. But when a philosopher says "Familiar chairs and tables i.e., familiar chairs and tables are exists"....... I wait for him to conclude. Yes? What were you going to say they are? But he never finishes the sentence. Philosophy seems to me full of half-finished sentences, and I do not know what to make of it."[14]

The above quotation makes it clear that Eddington has unnecessarily created complications regarding the concept of "Existence". Even a man in the street can explain the term "exist". When we say chairs and tables exist, we unambiguously mean that chairs and tables have actual being or are real things. When we say that flowers in the sky do not exist or horns on a rabbit do not exist, we clearly mean that flowers in the sky and horns on a rabbit do not have actual being or are unreal things.

Even Eddington has not refrained from using the term "exists" when he says that consciousness or mind exists. What meaning does he attach to this statement, if he does not understand the meaning of "exist"? But it is clear that he means that consciousness or mind has actual being or is a real thing. It seems that it is due to his deep rooted idealistic tendency that he wants to confuse the term "exists" itself, and thus deny reality to the physical world.


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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. Consciousness
  2. Eddington
  3. Science
  4. Sir James Jeans
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