What Eddington Did Not Say

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  • What Eddington Did Not SayAuthor(s): AlanH.BattenSource: Isis, Vol. 94, No. 4 (December 2003), pp. 656-659Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of The History of Science SocietyStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/386386 .Accessed: 19/05/2013 08:19

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  • Isis, 2003, 94:656659 2003 by The History of Science Society. All rights reserved.0021-1753/03/9401-0004$10.00

    656

    CRITIQUES AND CONTENTIONS

    What Eddington Did Not Say

    By Alan H. Batten*

    ABSTRACT

    Several recently published books quote the British astronomer Arthur Stanley Eddingtonas having said that religion first became possible for a reasonable scientific man aboutthe year 1927. In this essay it is shown that these words have been taken out of contextand are not representative of Eddingtons views on the relation between science and reli-gion.

    I N RECENT YEARS SEVERAL BOOKS, both popular and scholarly, have containedreferences to a presumed remark by Arthur Stanley Eddington to the effect that religionfirst became possible for a reasonable scientific man about the year 1927. Discussionswith some of the well-known scholars in the field of the history of relations between scienceand religion have also left me with the impression that this statement is now accepted asEddingtons own point of view. Eddington (18821944), however, was one of the twen-tieth centurys most important astronomers and a profound and sensitive writer on therelation between science and religion; the reported statement is so contrary to the spirit ofhis writing on that topic and, indeed, to his lifelong commitment to Quakerism that weshould examine carefully whether he actually made it and, if so, what he meant by it.Although the versions of the statement given by the various writers differ in some details,they all agree in essentials. I first encountered this quotation in Fred Heerens Show MeGod, which was obviously not designed primarily for scholarly readers and is avowedlyapologetic in intent. It is only fair to note that, as a result of my unfavorable review of thefirst edition of his book, Heeren considerably modified his reference to Eddington in a

    * National Research Council, Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, 5071West Saanich Road, Victoria, British Columbia V9E 2E7, Canada; alan.batten@nrc.gc.ca.

    I am grateful to John Hedley Brooke for drawing my attention to the article by E. N. Hiebert and to ananonymous referee for helpful comments.

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  • ALAN H. BATTEN 657

    second.1 The other books cited, however, are on a very different academic level and arelikely to convey to many scholars the impression that Eddington did indeed sayandmeansomething like the phrase I have quoted. In fact, as I shall show, although Ed-dington did write the words ascribed to him, the phrase has been taken so out of contextas to give an entirely false impression of his meaning. It seems unlikely that three scholarswould independently take the same quotation out of context; they presumably all drewfrom a common source. The most probable candidate is an article by Erwin N. Hiebert onthe relation between modern physics and Christianity. In this article we find the followingsentences: Eddington, a Quaker, stated the case more dramatically. He felt that the con-clusion to be drawn from examining the developments of modern science was that religionfirst became possible for a reasonable scientific man about the year 1927, the year of thefinal overthrow of [the yoke of] strict causality by Heisenberg, Bohr, Born and others(16). The reference is to page 350 of Eddingtons The Nature of the Physical World. Itis perhaps instructive to quote the entire paragraph on this page, to which Hiebert isobviously referring. Eddington wrote:

    It will perhaps be said that the conclusion to be drawn from these arguments from modernscience, is that religion first became possible for a reasonable scientific man about the year1927. If we must consider that tiresome person, the consistently reasonable man, we may pointout that not merely religion but most of the ordinary aspects of life first became possible forhim in that year. Certain common activities (e.g. falling in love) are, I fancy, still forbiddenhim. If our expectation has proved well-founded that 1927 has seen the overthrow of strictcausality by Heisenberg, Bohr, Born and others, the year will certainly rank as one of the greatestepochs in the development of scientific philosophy. But seeing that before this enlightened eramen managed to persuade themselves that they had to mould their own material future not-withstanding the yoke of strict causality, they might well use the same modus vivendi in reli-gion.2

    I believe that the juxtaposition of these two quotations is sufficient to make my point:Eddington was not saying that religion first became possible for a reasonable scientificman about the year 1927; he was anticipating this as a possible objection to his argumentan objection that, in the rest of the paragraph, he attempted to refute. It may be helpful,however, to present still more of the context of Eddingtons remarks and to examineHieberts use of them. In particular, we may ask: Why did Hiebert omit the all-importantopening clause of Eddingtons first sentence, and why did Eddington single out the year1927 as so important?

    To the first question, I can supply no fully satisfactory answer. Of course, Hiebert himselfmight have derived what I believe may be justly called the misquotation from some otherauthor quoting Eddington. Hieberts obvious familiarity with the whole paragraph sug-gests, however, that he was quoting directly, and it thus becomes something of a puzzle

    1 For texts that refer to Eddingtons statement see Peter J. Bowler, Reconciling Science and Religion: TheDebate in Early Twentieth-Century Britain (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 2001), pp. 36, 108; John HedleyBrooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991), p. 327;Fred Heeren, Show Me God (Wheeling, Ill.: Searchlight, 1995), p. xviii; and Max Jammer, Einstein and Religion(Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1999), pp. 230231. My review of Heerens book appeared in Mercury,1997, 26(1):3234; for his revision see Show Me God, rev. ed. (Wheeling, Ill.: Day Star, 1997), p. xvi.

    2 Erwin N. Hiebert, Modern Physics and Christian Faith, in God and Nature: Historical Essays on theEncounter between Christianity and Science, ed. David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers (Berkeley: Univ.California Press, 1986), pp. 424447, on p. 432; and Arthur S. Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World(Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1928), p. 350.

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  • 658 WHAT EDDINGTON DID NOT SAY

    that he should have left off those eighteen important introductory words from the sentencethat he quoted. Perhaps the focus of Hieberts attention was directed in such a way as tomake the opening phrase seem not very important. For whatever reason, Hiebert unfor-tunately overlooked the possibility that his own readers might be misled into thinking thatan opinion that Eddington in fact wished to refute was Eddingtons own. Judging by theresults, this is exactly what has happened: John Hedley Brooke refers to Eddingtonsextraordinary remark (as, on the face of it in Hieberts version, it is), while Peter Bowlerhas Eddington proclaiming that religion first became possible for a reasonable scientificman in 1927.

    As Bowler has stressed, Eddington eschewed natural theology and relied on mysticalexperience as evidence for the validity of a religious outlook. There is little or no referenceto design arguments and natural theology in Eddingtons discussions of religion, and hestrongly emphasizes the importance of mystical experience. I have myself argued thatEddingtons own mystical experiences convinced him that there was more to reality thanthe physical world and that these experiences were the root of both his attitude to religiousquestions and his increasing preoccupation toward the end of his life with his fundamentaltheory, by which he hoped to deduce the essential characteristics of the physical worldfrom pure reasoning. The wider context of the paragraph I have quoted from The Natureof the Physical World was Eddingtons belief that quantum uncertainty might provide away of reconciling human free will with physics. That belief was, of course, controversialin his time and is considered wrong by many, if not most, of todays theoretical physicists.The issue here, however, is not whether Eddington was right or wrong but what he actuallysaid and believed when he wrote The Nature of the Physical World. As Hiebert points out,Eddington himself later modified his viewalthough not, I believe, as radically as Hiebertsuggests. In New Pathways in Science, published in 1935, for example, Eddington wrote:Although the door of human freedom is opened, it is not flung wide open; only a chinkof daylight appears.3 In 1927 he was more optimistic.

    The significance of 1927 is, of course, that it was the year in which Werner Heisenbergpublished the principle that is variously known in English as the uncertainty or inde-terminacy principle (Heisenbergs original German word was ungenauigkeit). Edding-ton had given the Gifford Lectures, on which The Nature of the Physical World was based,in JanuaryMarch 1927, shortly before Heisenbergs paper appeared. He tells us in thePreface, written in 1928, that he used the intervening year to work on the text to makesomething with which I might feel better content.4 We can safely assume that the variousreferences to Heisenbergs principle (of which the paragraph quoted is one) were amonghis revisions. We have in the Conclusion of the book, from which the paragraph inquestion is taken, Eddingtons first reflections on the possible philosophical implicationsof Heisenbergs principle. It is these reflections that he sees as open to the riposte thatreligion first became possible for a reasonable scientific man about the year 1927.

    As I have already noted, Eddington was a sensitive writer on the subject of science andreligion, and he was addressing that topic (including discussions of free will) before Hei-senberg published his principle. All writers on Eddington have recognized that his com-

    3 Bowler, Reconciling Science and Religion (cit. n. 1), p. 108; Alan H. Batten, A Most Rare Vision: Ed-dingtons Thinking on the Relation between Science and Religion, Quarterly Journal of the Royal AstronomicalSociety, 1994, 35:249270; and Arthur S. Eddington, New Pathways in Science (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ.Press, 1935), p. 87.

    4 Werner C. Heisenberg, Ueber den anschaulichen Inhalt der quantentheoretischen Kinematik und Mechanik,Zeitschrift fur Physik, 1927, 43:172198; and Eddington, Nature of the Physical World (cit. n. 2), p. ix.

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  • ALAN H. BATTEN 659

    mitment to Quakerism was lifelong. In a way, it was even more: both of his parents camefrom Quaker families, and among his ancestors were people who had worked closely withGeorge Fox himself. In 1927 Eddington was in his middle forties and had been a rea-sonable scientific man for at least a couple of decades. It is inconceivable that he shouldhave wanted to dismiss his religious practice during those decades as irrational and evenless likely that he would cast aspersions on his family tradition. In the penultimate chapterof New Pathways in Science Eddington showed himself able to engage in spirited contro-versy as he answered critics of his earlier books, especially The Nature of the PhysicalWorld.5 Had the misquotation discussed here gained currency during his lifetime, I haveno doubt that he would have addressed that cogently too. I have taken it upon myself torespond for him not to point an accusing finger at scholars from whose books I havelearned much but in the hope of setting the record straight.

    5 Arthur S. Eddington, The Domain of Physical Science, in Science, Religion, and Reality, ed. JosephNeedham (London: Sheldon, 1926), pp. 187218 (on science and religion); A. Vibert Douglas, Arthur StanleyEddington (Edinburgh: Nelson, 1956), p. 1 (on the connection to Fox); and Eddington, New Pathways in Science(cit. n. 3), Ch. 13.

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