Idealism - Idealism in The Philosophy of Science

Idealism in The Philosophy of Science

Nicolas Malebranche, though a student of Cartesian rationalism, disagreed that the existence of the external world is dubious and known only indirectly and declared instead that the real external world is actually God. For Malebranche we directly know internally the ideas in our mind. Externally, we directly know God's operations. This kind of idealism led to the pantheism of Spinoza.

Idealist notions took a strong hold among physicists of the early 20th century confronted with the paradoxes of quantum physics and the theory of relativity. In The Grammar of Science, Preface to the 2nd Edition, 1900, Karl Pearson wrote, "There are many signs that a sound idealism is surely replacing, as a basis for natural philosophy, the crude materialism of the older physicists." This book influenced Einstein's regard for the importance of the observer in scientific measurements. In § 5 of that book, Pearson asserted that " is in reality a classification and analysis of the contents of the mind...." Also, "...the field of science is much more consciousness than an external world."

Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, a British astrophysicist of the early 20th century, wrote in his book The Nature of the Physical World; "The stuff of the world is mind-stuff";

"The mind-stuff of the world is, of course, something more general than our individual conscious minds…. The mind-stuff is not spread in space and time; these are part of the cyclic scheme ultimately derived out of it…. It is necessary to keep reminding ourselves that all knowledge of our environment from which the world of physics is constructed, has entered in the form of messages transmitted along the nerves to the seat of consciousness…. Consciousness is not sharply defined, but fades into subconsciousness; and beyond that we must postulate something indefinite but yet continuous with our mental nature…. It is difficult for the matter-of-fact physicist to accept the view that the substratum of everything is of mental character. But no one can deny that mind is the first and most direct thing in our experience, and all else is remote inference."

Ian Barbour in his book Issues in Science and Religion (1966), p. 133, cites Arthur Eddington's The Nature of the Physical World (1928) for a text that argues The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principles provides a scientific basis for "the defense of the idea of human freedom" and his Science and the Unseen World (1929) for support of philosophical idealism "the thesis that reality is basically mental".

Sir James Jeans wrote; "The stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality; the Universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter... we ought rather hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter."

Jeans, in an interview published in The Observer (London), when asked the question:

Do you believe that life on this planet is the result of some sort of accident, or do you believe that it is a part of some great scheme?


I incline to the idealistic theory that consciousness is fundamental, and that the material universe is derivative from consciousness, not consciousness from the material universe... In general the universe seems to me to be nearer to a great thought than to a great machine. It may well be, it seems to me, that each individual consciousness ought to be compared to a brain-cell in a universal mind.

What remains is in any case very different from the full-blooded matter and the forbidding materialism of the Victorian scientist. His objective and material universe is proved to consist of little more than constructs of our own minds. To this extent, then, modern physics has moved in the direction of philosophic idealism. Mind and matter, if not proved to be of similar nature, are at least found to be ingredients of one single system. There is no longer room for the kind of dualism which has haunted philosophy since the days of Descartes. Sir James Jeans addressing the British Association in 1934.

Finite picture whose dimensions are a certain amount of space and a certain amount of time; the protons and electrons are the streaks of paint which define the picture against its space-time background. Traveling as far back in time as we can, brings us not to the creation of the picture, but to its edge; the creation of the picture lies as much outside the picture as the artist is outside his canvas. On this view, discussing the creation of the universe in terms of time and space is like trying to discover the artist and the action of painting, by going to the edge of the canvas. This brings us very near to those philosophical systems which regard the universe as a thought in the mind of its Creator, thereby reducing all discussion of material creation to futility. Sir James Jeans The Universe Around Us page 317.

The chemist Ernest Lester Smith wrote a book Intelligence Came First (1975) in which he claimed that consciousness is a fact of nature and that the cosmos is grounded in and pervaded by mind and intelligence.

Bernard d'Espagnat a French theoretical physicist best known for his work on the nature of reality wrote a paper titled The Quantum Theory and Reality according to the paper: "The doctrine that the world is made up of objects whose existence is independent of human consciousness turns out to be in conflict with quantum mechanics and with facts established by experiment." In an article in the Guardian titled Quantum weirdness: What we call 'reality' is just a state of mind d'Espagnat wrote that:

"What quantum mechanics tells us, I believe, is surprising to say the least. It tells us that the basic components of objects – the particles, electrons, quarks etc. – cannot be thought of as "self-existent". He further writes that his research in quantum physics has led him to conclude that an "ultimate reality" exists, which is not embedded in space or time.

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