Tangible Pervasiveness

Matter can indeed sprout out of nothingness, causing the universe to expand. The post Tangible Pervasiveness appeared first on ORBITER.

“Nothing” is one of those words that inspire all sorts of musings. Not, of course, in the sense used to answer questions like “What’ve you been up to?” But the nothing nothing—the void, total emptiness. Is there such a thing? Or is Nothing—let’s use a capital “N” to characterize it—just an idea, a concept we invented to help us organize the way we see the world?

In the real sense of the word, this is a metaphysical question—the branch of philosophy concerned with the first principles of things, including being, space, time, cause, etc. But then, it is also a very physical question, concerning the stuff that exists in the universe.

There is a sense where Nothing can only be conceived in a materialistic worldview: “Nothing” would mean the absence of matter, the no-stuff parts of reality. The Greeks were into it—at least the Atomists Leucippus and Democritus, and, later, Epicurus. To them, all that existed was Atoms and the Void, bits of matter moving about in perfectly empty space, i.e., Nothing. So it had to be a materialistic worldview with an added property, that matter was made of tiny bits of stuff, perfectly separated and independent from one another. There were no forces between them, they just collided and stuck to one another upon touching.

Aristotle would have none of it. He conceived reality as never having any emptiness. Space was filled up with “ether,” the fifth essence. So, Aristotle added a strange kind of matter to the mix, a matter that had different properties from the usual kinds of matter we see. This idea, with variations, would come in and out of fashion throughout the centuries, as physicists grappled with the bizarre twists reality threw at them.

Religions complicate the conversation, especially the ones that presuppose omnipresence, that the divine essence is everywhere at once. So even if matter may be discrete and there is void in between, there is no emptiness in a strict sense, as everything is pervaded by some intangible divinity. But I’ll leave this sort of intangible pervasiveness out of our conversation today. Our focus is tangible pervasiveness.

In the 17th century, Newton went back full force to the Atomistic worldview, rejecting the notion that space was filled with some kind of material. In particular, he attacked Descartes’ idea of a plenum, somewhat similar to that of Aristotle, that some material filled all of space. The key difference between Descartes and Aristotle was that for Descartes this stuff acted on normal matter, creating, for example, vortices that were responsible for the planetary orbits about the sun. Newton, using his brand new theory of gravity, showed that any kind of stuff out there capable of moving moons and planets about would cause enough friction to have them all spiral down to the center of their orbits. No game.

Newton was missing something

But Newton knew something was missing in his theory. When he proposed that any two masses attracted one another, the assumption was that they did so instantaneously. The sun tugged on the Earth (and the Earth on the sun) with a mysterious force that acted at a distance. What caused it, Newton wouldn’t try to answer: “I feign no hypotheses,” he wrote. A clever choice. Physics is about the how and not the why of things. It describes what we can see of reality and, so long as the description explains the data, we are good. Why masses attract one another the way they do is not, it was decided, a scientific question.

Light, to Newton, was made of tiny corpuscles, little atoms. Using this idea, he explained many of the properties of light. But then, there were others that he couldn’t explain, or did so convolutedly. The alternative that gained impetus during the nineteenth century was that light was a wave. Light diffracts when passing through a small aperture or across an edge, and refracts when moving from one medium (say, air) to another (water). But if light was a wave, it needed a medium to support it, just like water waves move in water and sound waves in air.

The solution was the “luminiferous ether,” an imponderable plenum whose sole purpose was to allow for light to move from point A to B. A weird medium it had to be, echoing Aristotle a bit: weightless, transparent (so we could see stars), offering no friction to matter (to avoid Descartes’ issues), and very rigid (to allow for fast wave propagation). In short, a pretty magical plenum.

The alternative, light propagating on empty space, was unthinkable, unacceptable, deeply counter-intuitive. For about fifty years, the ether ruled. But experiments searching for it came back empty-handed. Finally, in 1905, Einstein proposed his special theory of relativity where he demonstrated that the ether wasn’t needed: light, mysteriously, does travel in empty space. So, no ether.

Einstein and the vacuum

But then, Einstein himself confused the issue when he proposed, in 1917, that the whole of space is filled with something called a “cosmological constant.” This he did out of desperation, after he found out that his equations predicted an unstable universe that would collapse upon itself. This extra term is understood as an energy of the “vacuum,” of empty space itself. So, in a sense, the ether was back, in new clothes.

How can empty space have energy? Well, this goes back to Newton and his mysterious action-at-a-distance. In the nineteenth century, physicists came up with the concept of a field, the idea that the space around the source of a force—say, a mass that attracts other masses gravitationally, or an electric charge that attracts or repels other electric charges—is actually filled with a field that has energy and affects other masses and electric bodies. The field is how other masses and charges “know” there is a mass or charge somewhere out there. Within this classical view of the world, all of space has some field in it, even if the sources are very, very far away. It may be weak and negligible, but it isn’t zero.

Things get even more interesting when you add ideas from quantum physics. In this case, even if you could imagine a completely empty space, devoid of any sources of gravitational or electric force, there would still be a leftover energy, the “zero point energy,” the energy of nothingness. How come? Well, according to quantum theory, there is a fundamental uncertainty in nature, an uncertainty that affects the values of physical quantities such as distance, momentum, energy, and time. Every measurement of these quantities fluctuates about the mean, even if a system has zero energy.

Something from nothing

Now, combine these fluctuations in energy with Einstein’s idea that energy and mass are interconvertible (with some caveats we don’t need to worry about), the famous E=mc2 formula. Then, these small fluctuations of energy could produce pairs of particles that would bubble out of the vacuum, or empty space: yup, matter sprouting out of quantum nothingness. The best part is that we know this is right: empty space can actually produce attractive forces between electric plates, an effect known as the Casimir Effect.

The big question is whether something like this is responsible for the mysterious accelerated expansion of the whole universe. We know it’s happening, and we have called the culprit “dark energy.” The best candidates right now are Einstein’s cosmological constant, the energy of the vacuum somehow dialed to have just the right value to match observations, or a strange quantum field that pervades all of space, called, not surprisingly, quintessence, echoing Aristotle’s plenum.

In its turbulent existence over the past 25 centuries (or more), it seems that Nothingness is now relegated to a mere metaphysical concept, incompatible with physical reality. Space does appear to be filled with stuff, stuff that determines the fate of the universe itself.


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Mind vs. Matter

If the materialistic view alone can't explain the mind, then what?

As the title of this essay implies, mind and matter are concepts that have, at least historically and to many people, collided over the ages. The confusion remains—and I do not presume, in this essay, to provide an answer. But given the very essential nature of the topic—after all, we are made of matter and somehow have minds—how can one avoid its fascination?

Let's start with the materialist view. The starting point is very simple: everything that exists in the world and that we can see and measure with our tools—the data of our sensorial connection with reality—is made of material stuff. Period. This includes the stones we see with our eyes or pick up with our hands, the galaxies receding from one another we see with our telescopes, the elementary particles we probe with our accelerators. So far so good.

But what about feelings, subjective manifestations of our consciousness, such as love or the sensation of seeing blue? No worries there for the materialists. They don't claim to understand consciousness or how the mind works, but they do claim it's a matter of time. What else is there, anyway? Echoing the Greek Epicureans of twenty-three centuries ago, it's all atoms moving in the void (now translated into quantum fields moving in spacetime), combining into the material structures of the world, including sensations, feelings, etc. Yes, the materialists would argue, the human brain is profoundly complex in its behavior. But this complexity only temporarily precludes us from understanding it. No need to invoke anything else in an attempt to explain it. Our current blindness will dissipate in due time.

This is clearly a statement based on the justified confidence we have in the power of science to make sense of the world. We've done wonders so far, and the mind's turn will come.

But is there a problem with this materialistic view when we move from tangible stuff to the mind? A part of me, trained in the rigors of theoretical physics, fights against it. What else could there be? Isn't the brain a bunch of neurons connected by synapses bathed in flowing neurotransmitters? On the other hand, another part of me, open to the fact that we understand so little of reality and that there is (thankfully!) so much mystery surrounding us, is eager for something new. But what?

Going beyond the materialistic view presents a whole set of issues. Should one bring back Cartesian dualism, presenting some kind of soul as being as real as atoms? Sounds very difficult, especially within Descartes' view that the soul was a different kind of stuff, immaterial, not filling space as normal stuff does. A supernatural explanation to the problem of consciousness is not an explanation, at least not from a scientific perspective. We feel, given what we have been able to describe of the world, that we can do better.

Ontological descriptions of reality

Scientists base their description of reality on what philosophers call ontology—the fundamental players that, in a sense, are the basic building blocks of everything that exists. The Greek Atomists proposed atoms and the void, and now we think of interacting quantum fields as the fundamental entities of reality. Fields have physical properties, or attributes, such as their energy and momentum, their spin (a kind of implicit rotation), and their interactions with themselves and other fields. Their behavior is restricted by fundamental laws of nature, empirically discovered over hundreds of years of experimentation: energy-momentum is conserved, electric charge is conserved, spin is conserved. Particles like the electron, or the quarks that make up protons and neutrons, are excitations of their respective fields, subatomic bundles of energy that move in space and time. Zoom into the workings of the brain at the most fundamental levels, and we would only see fields interacting with one another.

To a growing number of scientists and philosophers, this just can't be the whole story. There is a current resurgence of an old idea called panpsychism, whereby mind is pervasive in the universe. A recent book by philosopher Philip Goff, from Durham University in the UK, explores this view in detail: Galileo's Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness. I'm enjoying reading it so much that I want to devote a whole essay to it. But for today, I just want to highlight Goff's central idea. (The reader may enjoy listening to Goff's conversation with physicist Sean Carroll in this podcast, where the materialistic and panpsychic views clash, collegially.)

Panpsychism's appealing beauty

In decreasing degrees, mind exists as a fundamental property of reality in humans, birds, rocks, and electrons. Panpsychism proposes a new ontology, beyond that of the strictly materialistic view, adding a new player, consciousness. So, experience is pervasive, even in things that are not “alive." Sounds crazy, of course, given that we consider experience implicitly as a property of things that are alive. But there is an appealing beauty to it, a sort of unifying principle that brings together all that exists: mind is everywhere and in everything. Now, panpsychism is not a revival of Cartesian dualism: consciousness as a fundamental entity of reality is not supernatural. It's a natural phenomenon, with its own laws. The more complex the material entity, the more complex its manifestation of consciousness.

The hard thing here is to pin down where consciousness, as a fundamental part of physical reality, resides. Or maybe this is the wrong question, predicated by our materialistic worldview. Consciousness is not matter, but it is manifested through it. Is it, perhaps, a bit like life? We can't quite pin down what life is, although we are really good at describing what it does and how it does it.

The jump from nonliving to living matter remains an open question. The expression of consciousness depends on the structure that upholds it (electron, rock, frog, person), but it is a qualitative phenomenon that can't be pinned down in a materialistic description of the world. The crux of the problem, then, seems to be whether the quantitative can express the qualitative, or whether something new is needed to expand our view of reality.

To panpsychists, there is no other way out but to embrace the latter and broaden our worldview. They may have a point.


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What Don’t We Get About Matter and Antimatter? We Shouldn’t Be Here.

Scientists work out methods for finding the difference between the magnetic moments of protons and antiprotons and see that they’re the same.


Why are we here, anyway? No, not in the what’s-the-meaning-of-it-all sense, but why haven’t matter and antimatter completely obliterated each other, the universe and us? In nature, two identical things that are 180° out of phase with each other — as matter and antimatter seem to be — cancel each other out. So, um, why are we here?

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Hey Bill Nye! Does Consciousness Transcend the Brain?

If you cloned yourself perfectly, would the clone have the same mind? At the heart of this question is an investigation into what – and where – consciousness is.

Consciousness is one of the big questions humanity longs to have answered. What makes us human? What is the experience of consciousness that we all feel exists intuitively, but that we have no evidence-based theory to explain — and also where is it? There are many schools of thought on the topic. Philosopher Alva Noë says consciousness isn’t in the brain, and that looking for it there is like "trying to find the dancing in the musculature of the dancer or trying to find the value of money in the chemical composition of the dollar bill." Then there are philosophers and neuroscientists who believe that consciousness is caused by neuronal oscillations, and that it’s contained in the brain. For some, it originates there but it could also be an emergent energy or vibration that goes beyond our bodies. There is no proof either way, and until there is, Bill Nye personally takes the molecular view. Do you agree that our physical, chemical brains are the beginning and end of consciousness?

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