SIR ARTHUR EDDINGTON’S VIEW ON THE WORLD OF SCIENCE

Sir Arthur Eddington’s view that the table at which the scientists of today are working is, in fact, a set of two different tables, is illuminating.

I have drawn up my chairs to my two tables. Two tables! Yes; there are duplicates of every object—one of these tables has been familiar to me from my earliest years. It is a commonplace object of that environment which I call the world. How shall I describe it?

It has extension; it is comparatively permanent; it is coloured; above all it is substantial, it does not collapse when I lean upon it; it is a thing.

Table No.2 is my scientific table. My scientific table is mostly emptiness. Sparsely scattered in that emptiness are numerous electric charges rushing about with great speed, but their combined bulk amounts to less than a billionth of the bulk of the table itself.

Similarly, everything has an invisible aspect, which cannot be observed even through a microscope or a telescope. It becomes comprehensible only in terms coined by physicists to fit their own particular theories. Science does, of course, by means of advanced technology, observe the outward form of things in far greater detail than the naked eye is capable of, but it can never claim to be able to observe the inner form of things. Science observes external manifestations, and accordingly forms an opinion about them. So far as discovering the ultimate reality is concerned, science can only learn about unknown facts through facts which are already known.

When a scientist attempts to correlate observed facts in the process of producing a working hypothesis, he resorts primarily to instinctive, belief-like concepts in order to explain, organise and relate his findings. If the hypothesis, which emerges from this stringing together of observed facts offers a reasonably satisfactory explanation for all of them, it is regarded as being ‘scientific’ and, therefore, as credible as an observed fact. It must also be borne in mind that an invisible reality is often regarded as a fact, simply for lack of other hypothesis, which will offer a cogent explanation for it. When a scientist says electricity is a flow of electrons, he does not mean that he has seen electrons flowing through an electric wire by means of a microscope. He merely explains an observed event in terms of the movement of the switch that makes the bulb light, the fans move and the factories run. What has come within our experience is simply an external phenomenon and not, by any means, the event that is being inferred. A scientist, in short, believes in the existence of an invisible fact, after having noted itsinstrumentality; or impact upon observable phenomena. But we should never forget that every fact that we believe in is always, in the beginning, a simple assumption. It is our making of an inference, which connects the switch and the bulb with one another. Therefore, even after admitting this observed relationship between the switch and the bulb, the fact of whether or not the scientific hypothesis regarding this connection is real or unreal, will still remain in doubt.

It is only later, as further information emerges to support this assumption, that its truth becomes more and more evident, until we feel that our belief has finally been confirmed. If the facts discovered do not support the original hypothesis, we feel justified in discarding it.

An atom provides an irrefutable example of scientists’ faith in the unseen. An atom has never physically been observed. Yet it is the greatest established truth accepted by modern science.

Why can’t we have a similar approach to God and religion?

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