Science in Christian Perspective



Eddington, Mystic Seeker
Raymond J. Seeger
NSF (Retired)
4507 Wetherill Road
Bethesda, Maryland 20816

From: JASA 36 (March 1984): 36

    Science is by no means independent of biography, not quite impersonal and certainly not inhuman.

At 47, Arthur Stanley Eddington (1882-1944) confessed in his Swarthmore Lecture at the Friends Yearly Meeting (London 1929) to "the wonder and humility we feel in the contemplation of the stars"; "the majesty of the infinitely great, the marvel of the infinitely small ... .. Mind," he insisted, "is the first and most direct thing in our experience."

The idea of a universal Mind, or Logos, would be, I think, a fairly plausible inference from the present state of theory.

Mind, however, perceives two realms, the physical and the spiritual.

On the one hand, sensations lead to the idea that "concepts of science are symbols which indicate a reality behind them." On the other hand, "the starting point of a belief in mystical religion is a conviction of significance"-a conscious awareness.

In the mystic sense of the creation around us, in the expression of art, in a yearning towards God, the soul grows upward and finds the fulfillment of something planted in its nature.

The desire for truth so prominent in the quest of science, a reaching out of the spirit from its isolation to something beyond, a response to beauty in nature and art, an Inner Light of conviction and guidance!

The human spirit belongs to the unseen world.

The soul is reaching out to the unseen world.

He cautioned that "religion or contact with spiritual power must be a commonplace of ordinary life."

Primarily it is not a world to be analyzed, but a world to be lived in.

Mathematician and philosopher, scientist and mystic, Sir Arthur combined intellect and intuition. At 20 he entered Trinity College, Cambridge. From 24-31 he learned practical astronomy at the Royal Greenwich Observatory. He then returned to Cambridge, where he spent the rest of his life and became Trinity Fellow, Plumian Professor of Astronomy, and Director of the University Observatory, during a revolutionary period of physics. He sought early to understand the gravitational aspects of Einstein's general relativity and later explored its potential relation to quantum mechanics. His major scientific contribution, however, was about the internal structure of stars (e.g., the mass-luminosity law). He was unduly attracted by apparent mathematical relations inherent in natural phenomena, and was particularly intrigued by universal constants (e.g., the fine-structure constant (137)). He was bothered by the mass asymmetry of the proton and electron despite their numerically equivalent electric charges. Hence he sought to formulate a "fundamental theory" in terms of the observational methods employed and the algebraic structure involved. (Unfortunately, Eddington restricted natural science to metrical observations, thus not allowing qualitative investigations--or unknown factors.)

Eddington believed that experience and thought are inseparable in understanding natural phenomena. A favorite illustration was the dependence of fish sizes on the net used to catch them. Similarly, scientific discoveries depend on the experimental methods employed. Experience is bipolar, both subjective and objective; any attempt to separate these merely reproduces them, as when a magnet is divided. Eddington's philosophical outlook tended to be neo-Kantian (Immanuel Kant himself was nurtured in Germanic pietism, which is similar to Quakerism). Scientific theory for him was a work of art requiring contemplation for the understanding of phenomena.

In his Gifford Lectures (1927) on "The Nature of the Physical World" (1929) Eddington excited the interest of clergy throughout the world, who craved a solution to the perennial problem of the incompatibility of new science and old religion-an intellectual gap. The final four chapters are concerned with what he called the relations of recent physical discoveries "to the wider aspects and interests of our human nature." The last chapter dealt specifically with "Science as Mysticism." He noted that any attempt to hold science and religion mutually exclusive can not be achieved in view of their overlapping and changing frontiers.

Being a member of the Society of Friends, he believed that the spiritual realm is dominated by the conception of personality. "The hand that made us is Divine." As theoretical physicists do not have to subscribe to a creed based upon Newton's dynamics and Maxwell's electrodynamics, so, too, as a Quaker, he believed that a religious creed would be a restraining goal. Each person should be free to seek the truth-a moral responsibility of a rational man-motivated by the living belief of an imaginative thinker. "We need not turn away from the measure of light that comes into our experience showing us a Way through the unseen world."

Eddington was not too impressed with the theological dictum that "the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth His handiwork." He preferred to listen to the "still, small voice," which later asked, "What doest thou here, Elijah?" He regarded the tantalizing concern for a proof for the existence of God as of minor importance in comparison with "conviction of the revelation of a supreme God." For "consciousness alone determines the validity of a conviction."

There shines no light, save its own light to show itself unto itself.

To interpret man's religion to man's science in not only mutually intelligible, but mutually interdependent terms, remains, as I believe, the great task of our time if we are to see any stable order in events, or make any consistent sense of experience.