Eddington and Religion: Eye of the Soul

Eddington and Religion: Eye of the Soul

On May the 29th 1919 groups of locals gathered on the island of Principe in the Bight of Benin off the West African coast glancing towards the darkening sky, as two English scientists huddled over plates and lenses, about to record an event that would irrevocably change Western science and shake the relationship between science and religion in a manner from which it is still reeling. Arthur Eddington was about to gather the data from the 1919 eclipse which proved Einstein’s theory of relativity. The same theory would be pivotal in shaping Eddington’s personal religious philosophy, and in liberating religious experience from the attacks of scientific materialism. For the internationally famous astronomer, the new physics which had begun with relativity was to take a still more profound turn in 1927 when Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle brought justification, Eddington felt, for the mystical religion to which he belonged. For Quakers, what he called the “eye of the soul,” a state of awareness encountered from time to time in the silence of the meeting house and other moments of deep prayer, was as valid and reliable a guide to life as the ordinary eyes which looked out upon the dials and gauges of scientific investigation. “The mystic recognises another faculty of consciousness and accepts as significant the vista of a world outside space and time that reveals it,” was the way Eddington stated it in Science and the Unseen World.

Although Newton himself saw no conflict between science and religion, and viewed his own scientific work as a religious quest to unearth the hidden workings of God’s creation, Newton’s work had also given atheism a new confidence. But following the Principe data atheism was forced to return to its ancient Greek roots in the philosophy of Scepticism, and suffice itself with attempting to throw doubt on the convictions of believers, without being able to offer any alternative worldview at all, or even a philosophical founding for what one might be. Atheism was back to what it had been at the time of the ancient Greeks: a mere attempt to throw doubt on knowledge. This was the opinion of Arthur Eddington, the Cumbrian born professor of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, and the opinion he put across to the public in a series of popular science books and articles which sold like wild fire across the 1920s and 1930s.

Above: Throughout the 1930s popular discourse on religion was dominated by Arthur Eddington. Whether loved by his avid readers or hated by materialists who went to elaborate lengths in attempts to destroy his reputation, everyone at the time was talking about the Plumian Professor of Astronomy from the University of Cambridge, who had proven the theory of relativity a decade earlier and who now publicly proclaimed a synthesis of mystical pantheism and the personal God of Christianity.

Even the purely scientific aspect of the Principe expedition had been a religious quest. For Eddington, like many whom I have covered in this series, science and religion were driven by the same impetus to seek knowledge. Quakerism had sprung from the life of an idiosyncratic iconoclast named George Fox who wandered Northern England in the fifteenth century, preaching the rejection of church structures and hierarchy, and instead teaching that God could be known directly, in an experience he called the “Inner Light”. Quakerism initially flourished and then withdrew into something of a closed society following the persecution that was somewhat inevitable given its rejection of established authority before undergoing something of a renaissance in the late 19th century. The values of Quakerism including a flexible attitude towards scriptural literalism, a rejection of fixed creeds, an emphasis on philanthropy driven by business success, and an embrace of open-minded investigation of all things from the mystical to the scientific suddenly placed Quakerism in good stead. This renaissance environment was highly influential on the young Eddington, and perhaps no prominent Quaker was more influential on him than the physicist Silvanus P. Thompson, who taught that science and religion were complimentary aspects of the human search for knowledge, and that Quakerism had a “sacred duty” to explore new avenues in both.

It was on Principe that all of these things came together for Eddington. Not only was he playing a key role in bringing about a new era in science, he knew that the consequences of Einstein’s theory would shatter determinism and materialism, by showing the understanding of causation on which they relied did not really exist. Moreover, the intellectual partnership formed between an Englishman and a German in the middle of the first world war was spiritually significant for him, and represented a human unity that transcended partisanship.

Eddington was born in the Cumbrian town of Kendal but lived most of his early life in Weston-Super-Mare. His interest in numbers was evident from childhood when he made attempts to count the stars and he mastered multiplication tables before he could read. Hailing from a rather poor family he funded his own education from school-age by winning scholarships and academic competitions, attending Owen’s College in Manchester from the age of 16, and then the University of Cambridge where he took his final exams after only two years and graduated with the highest mark – the first time in the history of the university that this had happened. Following this Eddington was employed at the Royal Greenwich Observatory, and then returned to Cambridge and was promoted to Plumian Professor of Astronomy, replacing Charles Darwin’s son George in 1913 and taking on directorship of the Cambridge Observatory in the same year.

His most enduring work in physics was the contribution to understanding of the structure of stars. This work began in 1916 and by 1920 had provided the equations which predicted the relationship between energy transfer from the fusion of hydrogen into helium and stellar luminosity. The Internal Constitution of Stars was published in 1926 which summarised his research into the nucleosynthesis of stellar structures. The book, which is still in print today and still used as a core university text, elevated astronomy to parity with other natural sciences. If stellar structure was to be Eddington’s most voluminous and original contribution to the history of science it was his association with Einstein and subsequent eclipse expedition which made him an international icon in the eyes of the public.

Above: The 1919 eclipse – the moment general relativity was verified. Eddington placed little importance on scientific evidence as proof of the existence of God. He in fact believed that thermodynamics and the evolution of life implied a creator, but this was not to be taken as certain, as scientific knowledge was always subject to change. Consciousness was much better evidence as conscious experience of God was beyond the scope of anything science could comment on.

Eddington first came across Einstein’s work at least a year earlier, but it was when reading a pair of papers by Willem de Sitter in the Royal Astronomical Society’s monthly publication in 1916 that he became captivated by the theory and became a defender of its value and potential. He began to urge the Society of its importance and of the need to test it. From elsewhere in the British scientific community the theory faced a lukewarm reception, partly as it was heavy on complex mathematics and difficult to understand, and also because of the swathe of anti-German feeling in Britain in the midst of the First World War. Eddington’s main collaborator in drumming up support was Frank Dyson, the Astronomer Royal from the Greenwich Observatory.

Eddington first began to drum up support for investigation in 1916 and by 1917 preparations were begun in earnest. Einstein’s theory predicted that a light ray would undergo a small but measurable deflection in trajectory when passing close to a large object such as the sun. The aim of the eclipse expedition was to test for this effect. If found then two of the three predictions that relativity made would have been observed. The first was the position of the perihelion of Mercury which had already been noted prior to the theory itself. The third, the measurement of the red shift of the solar spectrum, was a challenge that was currently beyond experimental capabilities and unlikely to be resolved any time soon. So there was some urgency over measuring the curvature of light during the eclipse as favourable conditions would not reoccur for many years. To maximise the chances of success three expeditions were to set out: to Sobral in Brazil, to Principe off the coast of Equatorial Guinea, and to the shores of Lake Tanganyika in central Africa.

Other attempts had been made to find support from Einstein’s theory through studying eclipse data but they had been plagued by bad luck. An Argentine team in Brazil in 1912 planned to collect data that would have been relevant but their expedition was ruined by Brazilian rainstorms. In 1914 a German team entered Crimea to take recordings but were detained by Russian soldiers – Russia having entered the war during their journey. Teams from the United States and Argentina headed for the same location were thwarted by bad weather. The United States team’s equipment ended up stranded in Russia due to war time logistics which meant it was not available to use for another suitable eclipse observable from American soil three years later. A further American attempt in 1918 was also undone by bad weather.

Above: The windswept shores of Principe where, after an uncertain journey and a short “hermitage” on the island waiting for the eclipse, relativity was proven and three hundred years of scientific assumptions undone.

Eddington set sale in March and arrived at Principe in the Gulf of Guinea in May. The expedition shares a similar place with the Voyage of the Beagle in scientific folk-law. Arrival had been far from certain as there was no information available before hand on how they would travel the 4500 miles from the Portuguese island of Madeira to Principe and the approach was to simply set off and hope for the best. The journey worked out, and on arrival the team were then forced to become hermits for several weeks, shielded from all news including the progression of the World War One post-armistice process. The seeker who equated science and mysticism but embraced the active spiritual life had now become a forced hermit for science rather than religion. Most of the wait was spent under heavy rain with the mission’s goal a grave doubt. Preparatory work was carried out under mosquito nets with monkeys from time to time interfering with equipment.

The team headed for Tanganyika did not complete their journey. The Sobral team had by far the easiest time, enjoying great weather and plenty of news coverage, and quickly became local celebrities. Tickets were sold to look through the telescope in the days building up to the eclipse. But the Sobral result was ruined due to errors in lens focus attributed to the heat of the sun on the lens in the hours leading up to the experiment. Unbeknown to Eddington’s team, Principe was the only chance.

The morning of the eclipse saw a tremendous downpour two hours before the start time. But as luck, or providence, would have it the cloudy skies of the equatorial Pacific cleared just enough and just in time for the result to be completed in challenging though ultimately satisfactory conditions. Eddington described it:

“About 1.30 when the partial phase was well advanced we began to get glimpses of the sun, at 1.55 we could see the crescent through cloud almost continuously , and there were large patches of clear sky appearing. We had to carry out our programme of photographs in faith. I did not see the eclipse, being too busy changing plates, except for one glance to make sure it had begun, and another half-way through to see how much cloud was there… I have not been able to make any preliminary announcement of the result. But the one good plate that I measured gave me a result agreeing with Einstein and I think I have got a little confirmation from a second plate.”

Perhaps then with something of a sense of destiny fulfilled, the man who as a young boy had written essays on scientific expeditions in school, and who had grown into the youth inspired by Quakerism’s symbiotic vision of science and religion, now began the long voyage home with the evidence that he knew would not only change science but which he could also use to challenge the nation’s views on religion.

Above: A commemorative 2011 postage stamp from the Republic of Guinea.

Let’s turn to the details of the religious philosophy that Eddington set out in the late 1920s and 1930s. Eddington’s best known works which dealt with spirituality were The Nature of the Physical World (created from his 1927 Gifford Lectures), Science and the Unseen World (a thin volume which was the text of the 1929 Swarthmore Lecture), and New Pathways in Science (derived from the 1934 Messenger Lectures.) They all dealt with similar themes regarding spirituality and don’t evidence any real evolution in his religious thinking – it seems Eddington’s religious ideas were complete before the series began. The Nature of the Physical World is probably the best known and is something of a blueprint for every popular science book that has followed: many science best sellers over the last thirty years are rehashes of Eddington’s descriptions and metaphors – with the religious content removed. Let’s go over some of the main religious ideas expressed in these books.

The fundamentals of Quaker spirituality were cultivating inner quiet and the opportunity for communication with God. This might come as a thought, feeling, or some more powerful mystical experience. Eddington appears to have been adept at this and made it a central focus of his spiritual writing. The most powerful of these mystical experiences was the “Inner Light”, to use Fox’s term. Vocal prayer was de-emphasised and instead Quaker prayer consisted of inner meditative silence in which the person waited for some form of communication from God – a realisation about our lives, a decision being made, or a deeper non-ordinary experience. Such experiences were special in some sense – sufficiently so to convince the individual that they had found a source of answers of a different order entirely to the world of logical thought and reasoning – that they had found something more valuable. “In such experiences”, Eddington wrote in 1929, the “eye of the soul opens in an apprehension of the unseen world.” He believed this knowledge to be just as valid as the knowledge gained through the ordinary eyes which took readings from the instruments of scientific investigation.

Science and the Unseen World began with a Christian themed history of the universe, which paraphrased lines from Genesis 1, and described the formation of stars and galaxies from the modern perspective of the accretion of subatomic particles into clouds of gas and eventually galaxies over a timeframe of a billion years. Yet Eddington soon made it clear that it is a mistake to look for evidence of God in nature, and quoted a passage from Elijah in which God was not found in various natural phenomena, but in the “still small voice” which followed. The implication, which Eddington appears to have wanted to stress, is that God is something to be found internally as an experience and not something that we might find evidence for in the natural physical world. Any evidence that we find for God in the natural world is of secondary importance to our inner experience, not least because the evidence investigation of the natural world provides is likely to change as our understanding of that world changes. But inner experience has been constant throughout history.

Science eventually arrives at a barrier beyond which it cannot pass. It runs directly into the symbols it has been using to derive knowledge of the world and realises that after a point these symbols are as far as it can get. Hence science gradually becomes more abstract across history. The things it investigates and proclaims become less physical. As we drill down into nature we eventually come to subatomic “particles” which are really purely mathematical entities because mathematics is the only way we can describe them at all. So we end up merely at symbols and never find any concrete reality. Eddington believed that what lay beyond the symbols was consciousness. Science became more abstract as it progressed before collapsing into mathematics, the most abstract subject of all, but mathematics existed wholly in the mind and so mathematics was the final frontier before reasoning eventually gave way to conscious experience itself.

To get further than the symbols we should look to ourselves and our first person experience. This was the message that the mystics of all ages had always proclaimed. Real insight was not an idea, but an experience. Introspection could provide an intuitive feeling for what lay beyond the symbols of science. The absolute knowledge and certainty that the scientist seeks could not be supplied by science because of the gap which symbols always create between knower and known. At some point the quest for knowledge flips, and focusses on what can only be known intuitively – our conscious first person experience. This alone can take us beyond the boundary of symbols. As Eddington put it in The Nature of the Physical World:

“Penetrating as deeply as we can by the methods of physical investigation into the nature of a human being we reach only symbolic description. Far from attempting to dogmatise as to the nature of the reality thus symbolised, physics most strongly insists that its methods do not penetrate behind the symbolism. Surely then that mental and spiritual nature of ourselves, known in our minds by an intimate contact transcending the methods of physics, supplies just that interpretation of the symbols which science is admittedly unable to give. It is just because we have a real and not merely a symbolic knowledge of our own nature that our nature seems so mysterious; we reject as inadequate that merely symbolic description which is good enough for dealing with chairs and tables and physical agencies that affect us only by remote communication.” (Science and the Unseen World)

Beyond the symbols of science lies something that those symbols can never adequately describe, which we are connected to, and which is the source identity of personality and consciousness:

“That environment of space and time and matter, of light and colour and concrete things, which seems so vividly real to us is probed deeply by every device of physical science and at the bottom we reach symbols. Its substance has melted into shadow. None the less it remains a real world if there is a background to the symbols—an unknown quantity which the mathematical symbol x stands for. We think we are not wholly cut off from this background. It is to this background that our own personality and consciousness belong, and those spiritual aspects of our nature not to be described by any symbolism or at least not by symbolism of the numerical kind to which mathematical physics has hitherto restricted itself.” (Science and the Unseen World)

Eddington is now at the same place that Schrodinger arrived: that great background consciousness explored most extensively in Vedanta philosophy. But what for Schrodinger was to be an endpoint, was for Eddington just the beginning – a starting point from which the seeds of religious experience could grow. For Schrodinger, as for the Vedantins, the discovery of the universe as a singular consciousness was the final truth. For Eddington this consciousness was merely what enabled deeper communication with God – a base level of identity from which more complex spiritual revelations could follow. In Vedanta God is merely immanent. In Christianity God is immanent AND transcendent. The fact that consciousness was embedded in the nature of the created reality ensured that conscious communication was possible with the transcendent Creator. In Eddington’s Quaker tradition the aim was not merely to realise the existence of this basic awareness, but to follow the pathway of communication with the Creator to higher realities than the current created universe. Although everything ultimately was consciousness there were still pathways of more and less spiritual experiences that could be followed. The way Eddington expressed this in New Pathways in Science was that the spiritual background was not equally weighted throughout time and space:

“Whilst, therefore, I contemplate a spiritual domain underlying the physical world as a whole, I do not think of it as distributed so that to each element of time and space there is a corresponding portion of the spiritual background. My conclusion is that, although for the most part our inquiry into the problem of experience ends in a veil of symbols, there is an immediate knowledge in the minds of conscious beings which lifts the veil in places; what we discern through these openings is of mental and spiritual nature. Elsewhere we see no more than the veil.” (New Pathways in Science)

Eddington wove together the basic backdrop of consciousness recognised in the Vedanta and reworked it into a more nuanced scheme which allowed for the journey of personal communication of the soul with God as recognised in the Quakerism with which he was familiar. Philosophically this was a form of idealism, rather than materialism, or even non-dualism of mind and matter:

“I assert that the nature of all reality is spiritual, not material, nor a dualism of matter and spirit. The hypothesis that its nature can be, to any degree, material does not enter into my reckoning, because as we now understand matter, the putting together of the adjective ‘material’ and the noun ‘nature’ does not make sense.” (New Pathways in Science)

Above: The Jesus Lane Friends Meeting House in the Twenty First century. This is the meeting house Eddington attended, and we can assume a probable location for some of his insights, which can be summarised as a synthesis of Christianity and Vedanta. In Vedanta the nature of the physical world was revealed as mind (but impersonal mind): the personal relationship with God kindled in Christianity was a higher stage.

Idealism was related back to the notion of the Logos, which originated with the Greeks and appeared in Christianity at the beginning of the Gospel of John, “The idea of a universal Mind or Logos would be, I think, a fairly plausible inference from the present state of scientific theory” (Science and the Unseen World). Neuroscience is dismissed as belonging to an age where scientists believed that progress existed in making models of the world, a worldview which had been overturned. This might explain the continued failure of neuroscience to say anything meaningful about consciousness itself, qualia, of other forms of first personal experience and the philosophical problems they pose.

As spirituality was a direct first-person experience, it would be natural that the symbols of the personality would play a strong role in mediating it, as personhood and personality are a large part of conscious experience. It followed that our journey of knowledge into consciousness would have a personal flavour, and religion centre on a personal relationship:

“We have to build the spiritual world out of symbols taken from our own personality, as we build the scientific world out of the symbols of the mathematician. I think therefore we are not wrong in embodying the significance of the spiritual world to ourselves in the feeling of a personal relationship, for our whole approach to it is bound up with those aspects of consciousness in which personality is centred.” (Science and the Unseen World)

Eddington’s philosophy maintained a place for the personal God of Judaism and Christianity. In common with almost all theologians he did not take the image of God as a man sitting on a cloud seriously but instead found value in the symbol as a raft which connected the individual with the consciousness of the unseen world. God is not a person, but can communicate with us personally. Something is implanted in the soul which causes it to seek God. God is experienced as the Inner Light:

“We all know that there are regions of the human spirit untrammelled by the world of physics. 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 fulfilment of something implanted in its nature. The sanction for this development within us, a striving born with our consciousness or an Inner Light proceeding from a greater power than ours.” (Nature of Physical World)

This quest can only be fulfilled through consciousness, not through science. Not only do science and mathematics fail to penetrate beyond symbols, but we can never be sure of the truth that they offer in their own domains, as science constantly supersedes itself. Even mathematics has undergone revolutions comparable to those in science. So religion should, and could, never be proven through science. The science of a particular age might provide suggestive evidence of religion, but the evidence can never be more than suggestive. Eddington’s colleague James Jeans was writing books around the same time in which arguments were put forward that appeared to show the footprints of God in the universe. For Eddington such arguments, though interesting, were always open to change when the science that underlay them changed, and so could not be guaranteed any permanent value. Eddington agreed that science and particularly thermodynamics did point to a creator but was reticent to get too excited about this. Not only did it rely on evidence that was open to change, he thought that the Creator it implied was the impersonal Creator of deism, an unsophisticated idea in comparison to the personal God of Christianity:

“It (thermodynamics) has been quoted as scientific proof of the intervention of the Creator at a time not infinitely remote from today. But I am not advocating that we draw any hasty conclusions form it. Scientists and theologians alike must regard as somewhat crude the naïve theological doctrine which (suitably disguised) is at present to be found in every textbook of thermodynamics, namely that some billions of years ago God wound up the material universe and has left it to chance ever since.” (Nature of the Physical World)

On the other hand materialists tended to argue that science disproved or strongly challenged religious claims. For Eddington these arguments were not relevant for numerous reasons. Firstly they were based on current science, and so open to refutation by future science, and so could not claim permanency. Nonetheless such arguments had gained considerable sway. In particular the determinism which stemmed from Newton’s work appeared to prevent free will and was arguably incompatible with Judaeo-Christian theology which emphasised the choice the individual made in turning to God. Hence Eddington was delighted with the results of Principe which showed that Newtonian mechanics was, frankly, wrong and always had been. In 1927 Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle completed the basis for the new world. Not only did Newtonian determinism not describe the behaviour of objects accurately, but those objects no longer had precise pairs of characteristics such as position and momentum. For reasons such as these Eddington famously reflected that it “will perhaps be said that the conclusion to be drawn from these arguments from modern science, is that religion first became possible for a reasonable scientific man about 1927.”

What he meant was not that physics conclusively proved the existence of God, but that for the first time in five hundred years, atheism could no longer call on science as a part of its attack. Quantum phenomena challenged deterministic causation in other ways as well. Quantum phenomena introduced true randomness into science.  The succession in which different quantum states succeed each other could not be predicted from the inputs. This made possible genuine randomness for the first time, allowing for the eventual creation of real random numbers on quantum computers. Predictable causality was no longer a feature of the natural world, which now began to sound more like the supernatural world: “Insofar as supernaturalism is associated with the denial of strict causality, I can only answer that that is what the modern scientific development of the quantum theory brings us to.” (Nature of the Physical World)

Of course, like all of science, this science was subject to change. But the fact that our current best understanding of science no longer conflicted it with religion was of huge significance. When mysticism and consciousness were properly understood in relation to science there was no conflict anyway as they did not interact. But in the eyes of sections of the public there certainly had been a contradiction, and that contradiction was now removed. Eddington commented: “What is more important, you will see how easily the two aspects of experience now dovetail together, not contesting each other’s place. It is almost as though the modern conception of the physical world had deliberately left room for the reality of spirit and consciousness.” (New Pathways in Science)

I personally think of Eddington as having reached the pinnacle, philosophically, of the scientists I have covered who attempt philosphico-mystical expositions. His treatment of philosophy itself was not as sophisticated as Heisenberg or Schrodinger but he achieved a solider and more explicit framework for his own religious viewpoint.

Above: An old cover of The Nature of the Physical World, probably Eddington’s best known integration of scientific and religious ideas.

By most accounts Eddington was a  rather shy man most of the time, who would struggle with small talk, but who came alive on stage when speaking about something he was passionate about and was transformed into a great public entertainer. He had a large influence on public opinion in regard to religion and science at the time.

His writings were met with a great outpouring of frustration and anger by materialists, who were already exasperated at the number of scientists who were not only celebrating that science was less important than it used to be but were publicly embracing religion. Science could no longer be used to invalidate people’s personal religious experiences. Russell’s meltdown after Eddington’s Gifford lectures is notable. Russell completely changed his attitude towards Eddington as a thinker and as a person when learning of his spiritual views, and he was only one of many to do so. There was also huge concern from the British communist factions, who were strongly represented in some British universities, who saw the spread of atheism among the population as essential to their aims of bringing about a communist revolution on British shores. The growing trend of prominent scientists publicly expounding their religious ideas was derailing their plans. There was even a deliberate and ultimately unsuccessful smear campaign intended to discredit Eddington, motivated in part by his willingness to work with Germans, as well as his religious opinions. This went so far as to present the eclipse expedition as a hoax, an idea which survived in certain materialist circles for years.

This brings us to an important point. A common assumption is that religious scientists were not genuine about their religious beliefs and publicly professed to belief that they did not have because they thought some harm would come to them if they did not do so. It only takes a little research into the scientists which have been covered to see that this is not the case. They spoke and wrote in great detail about religion and placed it at or close to the centre of their lives. As Eddington’s case shows there may actually have been more danger in professing to religious belief than in not doing so. In fact the notion that religion was necessary to be taken seriously as a scientist could not be further from the truth: the British conscription scheme, reflecting the values of society and government, did not allow a person to be classed as both a scientist and as religious, for they were held to be incompatible!

The core of Eddington’s message was really quite simple. Our personal religious experiences in meditation and prayer cannot be taken away or reduced by science. This was not a philosophical stance, it was a scientific one: science itself had demonstrated its own limits, which resulted in spiritual doors becoming intellectually permissible once again. Not only that, but the conclusions science now reached before coming upon these limits were the opposite to the ones that atheism had got used to using as a weapon to attack religion with. The argument for religion, or at least mystical religion, remains a personal one, as it always was. Society is divided between those who have achieved convincing conscious touches from God in prayer, meditation, contemplation, or in some other way, and those who have not. Those who have experienced this are convinced believers, and those who have not are usually atheists, denying that there is any evidence for God – because for them, of course, there is not. This fundamental difference between those for whom the “eye of the soul” is open and those for whom it is closed continues to explain the on-going disagreement on religion among the public and among academics one hundred years later.