Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington: Scientific Genius, Philosopher, and Quaker Mystic

By Donald Vessey. Pendle Hill Pamphlets (number 467), 2021. 30 pages. $7.50/pamphlet or eBook.

This pamphlet is a tribute to someone Donald Vessey believes is largely unknown in the United States. Even in England—his own country—Eddington is unfamiliar to many as a Quaker and is not often read by Friends. On the first page, I was startled to read that “He was arguably the most influential Quaker since George Fox.” I suspect this refers mainly to his influence among the scientific community for his brilliant work in physics, astrophysics, astronomy, and mathematics. On the other hand, in over 40 years as a Friend, I have rarely heard him mentioned in Quaker discussion groups, in spite of his pioneering reflections on the relationship between science and spirituality. As many people today are seeking to explore beyond the stale materialism of reductive scientism and the dogmatic assertions of much that passes for religion, Vessey is right to offer us his reflections on the life and thoughts of someone who was no doubt one of the geniuses of the twentieth century.

For Vessey, there was a personal reason for his writing this work: “It has been helpful to me to find support for the reality of the spiritual dimension and the value of spiritual worship in the words of a scientist as eminent as Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington.” In the first half of the twentieth century, when to some academics the scientific method was seen as incompatible with that of religious conviction, here was a brilliant scientist willing to go against the prevailing ethos and risk the suspicions of his colleagues for whom a materialist philosophy was the only basis for the pursuit of truth.

Vessey points out that for Eddington, both the scientific method and meeting for worship are ways in which truth could be explored. They lead us to understand the world and teach us how to live within it. Truth is existential, not just a series of propositions or unchanging conclusions; through both we grow into truth. I would love somewhere to read a discussion on what we mean by the word “truth” in these instances. My own experience would lead me to define the word as an apprehension of the rightness of things, a rough definition which would embrace the sciences, spirituality, and the arts. Indeed the opening quotation in the pamphlet Science and the Unseen World (the Swarthmore Lecture of 1929) is “Who does not prize these moments that reveal to us the poetry of existence?” Many scientists, like many poets, have appreciated the intuitive and the non-rational as springboards for discovery.

It is not just Eddington the scientist and philosopher who is presented here. It is the man who worked for peace and who brought the thought of Albert Einstein to Britain after the First World War, a time when “German science” was a no-go area for British scientists. His attempt to find a theory of everything failed as it has for many others, but it would be right to call him a universal spirit. I am grateful to Donald Vessey for reclaiming him for us.

Harvey Gillman is a member of Rye Meeting, Sussex East Area Meeting, UK. For 18 years, he was outreach secretary of Britain Yearly Meeting. He has written and spoken extensively on the Quaker path, language, and spirituality. His most recent publication was Epiphanies: Poems of Liberation, Exile and Confinement.

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