Physics and Philosophy. By Sir James Jeans. The Macmillan Company, $2.75.
Toward the end of this book Sir James poses the summary problem of physical knowledge by sup. posing a peasant in central Europe with a radio set from which he gets daily reports of the ships plying the seven seas. The peasant has never seen the ocean and doesn’t know what a ship looks like. The position of each ship is reported in two numbers each day. Without any further knowledge of fact, the radio fan begins plotting these numbers on graph paper, notices sequences in the numbers, and begins to note the intervals between them. To make a long story short, the clever peasant decides that these are reports of things moving, first on a flat surface, then on the surface of a cylinder, and finally on the surface of a sphere. His mind moves through a series of hypotheses and anomalies in the data that go with them, and his discoveries and interpretations are typical of the discoveries and mind of the modern physicist.
Now this is a good analogy and would have helped the reader a great deal if it had been made the central theme of the whole book. It was Nicolas of Oresme in the fifteenth century who discovered that all properties or forms of things, both quantitative and qualitative, could be described and pictured in two-dimensional schemes. Kant said it could be done with schemes of space and time, and Einstein has made us see these schemes or pictures in frames of reference. Recently we, peasants of the modern nationalistic world, have been instructed by Life’s and Fortune’s course in map projections. We know that mathematicians could do all of them with numbers and algebraic symbols, and that they and the physicists have become very ingenious in inventing new dimensions and models for keeping their discoveries in mind. Many books have been written by first-rate mathematicians and physicists to report all this to the common man. They have been good reporting and good reading.
All of this is clear enough and successful enough to justify the risks of misunderstanding that it entails. An imaginative and critical mind will be excited and illuminated by it. It need not produce any worse effects than the dreams we have at night or the gossip we hear by day.
Apparently Sir James has not been satisfied with the results of his own and his colleagues’ efforts in our behalf. He wants us to get “philosophical” about it all. So he has been reading up in philosophy—not very successfully. He thinks philosophy is about mind and matter and he has paid attention only to passages that square with his own problems in epistemology and applied science. The result is that he has given us one hundred pages of the worst philosophical confusion that has been written in the last thirty bad years of philosophy. He has then displayed the physical maps and asked us to plot our positions philosophically on them. He thinks that one map is mind; for instance, wave theory is all mind-made; another map may be matter, electrons, photons, particles. Any map must be mind or matter. It may even be true that Longitude is Mind and Latitude is Matter.
Why does he want to know our positions? Because he wants us to know whether cause, determinism, and free-will depend on these things, these maps. Perhaps we ought not to be hard on him. Philosophers and common men these days are no better educated than he is, and we have read a lot of bad journalistic accounts of his maps. Perhaps we have misled him, and his and our failure to come to terms and talk sense reflect a real world that has gone to pieces and us with it. If so, we should restate Eddington’s now famous apothegm as a prayer: When science progresses farther, may we regain from nature what we have put into it. Meanwhile when we find a strange footprint on the shores of the unknown and devise theories to account for its origin, may we succeed in recognizing thy handiwork, 0 Narcissus!