Before the results [from the British expedition in 1919 that confirmed Einsten’s general theory of relativity], a student had asked him what he would feel if the English failed to confirm the deflection of light. Einstein’s faith was unshakable. If the eclipse proved the theory wrong, “then I would feel sorry for the dear Lord. The theory is correct.” He was neither bragging nor blasphemous. He had hinted at what he meant, or rather he hoped, in a speech given in 1918 to honour Max Planck on his birthday. “The longing to behold.... pre-existing harmony,” he said, drove both Planck and (by implication) himself. Glimpsing such beauty, Einstein said, turns on a peculiar form of devotion: “The state of mind which enables a man to do work of this kind is akin to that of the religious worshipper or the lover; the daily effort does not originate from a deliberate intention or program, but straight from the heart.” A year later, Eddington [who was part of the British expedition] could tell Einstein that his beloved returned his passion.
Thomas Levenson (from Einstein in Berlin, 2003)
Let us for the moment cease to ask what right we have to believe in the Uniformity of Nature and ask why in fact men do believe in it. I think the belief has three causes, two of which are irrational. In the first place we are creatures of habit. We expect new situations to resemble old ones. It is a tendency which we share with animals; one can see it working, often to very comic results, in our dogs and cats. In the second place, when we plan our actions, we have to leave out of account the theoretical possibility that Nature might not behave as usual tomorrow, because we can do nothing about it. It is not worth bothering about because no action can be taken to meet it. And what we habitually put out of our minds we soon forget. The picture of uniformity thus comes to dominate our minds without rival and we believe it. Both these causes are irrational and would be just as effective in building up a false belief as in building up a true one.
But I am convinced that there is a third cause. ‘In science,’ said the late Sir Arthur Eddington, ‘we sometimes have convictions which we cherish but cannot justify; we are influenced by some innate sense of the fitness of things’. This may sound a perilously subjective and aesthetic criterion; but can one doubt that it is a principal source of our belief in Uniformity? A universe in which unprecedented and unpredictable events were at every moment flung into Nature would not merely be inconvenient to us: it would be profoundly repugnant.
We will not accept such a universe on any terms whatever. It is utterly detestable to us. It shocks our ‘sense of the fitness of things’. In advance of experience, in the teeth of many experiences, we are already enlisted on the side of uniformity. For of course science actually proceeds by concentrating not on the regularities of Nature but on her apparent irregularities. It is the apparent irregularity that prompts each new hypothesis. It does so because we refuse to acquiesce in irregularities: we never rest till we have formed and verified a hypothesis which enables us to say that they were not really irregularities at all. Nature as it comes to us looks at first like a mass of irregularities. The stove which lit all right yesterday won’t light today; the water which was wholesome last year is poisonous this year. The whole mass of seemingly irregular experience could never have been turned into scientific knowledge at all unless from the very start we had brought to it a faith in uniformity which almost no number of disappointments can shake.
This faith—the preference—is it a thing we can trust? Or is it only the way our minds happen to work? It is useless to say that it has hitherto always been confirmed by the event. That is no good unless you (at least silently) add, ‘And therefore always will be’: and you cannot add that unless you know already that our faith in uniformity is well grounded. And that is just what we are now asking. Does this sense of fitness of ours correspond to anything in external reality?
C. S. Lewis (from Miracles, 1947)
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