Quote: Eddington’s two tables

Arthur Stanley Eddington was an Englishman, a physicist, a pacifist and a clever writer:

I have settled down to the task of writing these lectures and have drawn up my chairs to my two tables. Two tables! Yes; there are duplicates of every object about me — two tables, two chairs, two pens.

This is not a very profound beginning to a course which ought to reach transcendent levels of scientific philosophy. But we cannot touch bedrock immediately; we must scratch a bit at the surface of things first. And whenever I begin to scratch the first thing I strike is — my two tables.

One of them has been familiar to me from 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. By substantial I do not merely mean that it does not collapse when I lean upon it; I mean that it is constituted of “substance” and by that word I am trying to convey to you some conception of its intrinsic nature. It is a thing; not like space, which is a mere negation; nor like time, which is — Heaven knows what! But that will not help you to my meaning because it is the distinctive characteristic of a “thing” to have this substantiality, and I do not think substantiality can be described better than by saying that it is the kind of nature exemplified by an ordinary table. And so we go round in circles. After all if you are a plain commonsense man, not too much worried with scientific scruples, you will be confident that you understand the nature of an ordinary table. I have even heard of plain men who had the idea that they could better understand the mystery of their own nature if scientists would discover a way of explaining it in terms of the easily comprehensible nature of a table.

Table No. 2 is my scientific table. It is a more recent acquaintance and I do not feel so familiar with it. It does not belong to the world previously mentioned — that world which spontaneously appears around me when I open my eyes, though how much of it is objective and how much subjective I do not here consider. It is part of a world which in more devious ways has forced itself on my attention. 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. Notwithstanding its strange construction it turns out to be an entirely efficient table. It supports my writing paper as satisfactorily as table No. 1; for when I lay the paper on it the little electric particles with their headlong speed keep on hitting the underside, so that the paper is maintained in shuttlecock fashion at a nearly steady level. If I lean upon this table I shall not go through; or, to be strictly accurate, the chance of my scientific elbow going through my scientific table is so excessively small that it can be neglected in practical life. Reviewing their properties one by one, there seems to be nothing to choose between the two tables for ordinary purposes; but when abnormal circumstances befall, then my scientific table shows to advantage. If the house catches fire my scientific table will dissolve quite naturally into scientific smoke, whereas my familiar table undergoes a metamorphosis of its substantial nature which I can only regard as miraculous.

There is nothing substantial about my second table. It is nearly all empty space…

[The nature of the physical world (1929): New York, The Macmillan Company; Cambridge, Eng., The University Press, pages ix–x]

7 thoughts on “Quote: Eddington’s two tables

  1. Cutting the concept of a table down to its bare essentials, is that what you would call a tabular razor?

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  2. So, Eddington was a sort of Aristotelian, though he certainly didn’t realize this. As a proper counterbalance, one must also peruse L S Stebbing’s demolition of the two tables.

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      1. Well, he certainly does go on about “substance” — “… it is the distinctive characteristic of a “thing” to have this substantiality.” That’s not obviously an atomistic view, but it’s certainly something that Aristotle would agree with. Apart from that, what Eddington has to say about substance is quite confused, as explained by Stebbing.

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        1. Eddington’s “common sense” table has substance. His point is that it doesn’t really have it, because it is really the table of atomic physics. I haven’t read Stebbing’s rejoinder (I ordered a copy) but if her point is that substance doesn’t imply what Eddington says, then she is wrong – substance was redefined in the 19thC to be consistent with atomic theory several times (including by Russell), but Eddington has the historical right of it, and also the folk ontology. What post-Daltonian philosophers call “substance” is a fiction/revision that undercuts the whole point of substance theory. At best you can assign what David Lewis called “gunk”, but I never saw the point.

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