Materialism: There’s Nothing Solid About It!

[I]n truth there are only atoms and the void.” – Democritus

In the ancient Greek transition from mythos to logos, stories about the world and human lives being shaped by gods and goddesses gradually came to be replaced by new explanations from philosophers. Among these philosophers were the “atomists,” including Leucippus and Democritus. Later, the Roman philosopher and poet Lucretius expounded an atomist view of the universe. The atomists were regarded as being among the first atheists and the first materialists — if they did acknowledge the existence of the gods (probably due to public pressures), they argued that the gods had no active influence on the world. Although the atomists’ understanding of the atom was primitive and far from our modern scientific understanding — they did not possess particle accelerators, after all — they were remarkably farsighted about the actual workings of nature. To this day, the symbol of the American Atheists is a depiction of the atom:

However, the ancient atomists’ conception of how the universe is constructed, with solid particles of matter combining to make complex organizational structures, has become problematic given the findings of atomic physics in the past hundred years. Increasingly, scientists have found that reality consists not of solid matter, but of organizational principles and qualities that give us the impression of solidity. And while this new view does not restore the Greek gods to prominence, it does raise questions about how we ought to understand and interpret reality.

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Leucippus and Democritus lived in the fifth century BC. While it is difficult to disentangle their views because of gaps in the historical record, both philosophers argued that all existence was ultimately based on tiny, indestructible particles (“atoms”) and empty space. While not explicitly denying the existence of the gods, the philosophy of Leucippus and Democritus made it clear that the gods had no significant role in the creation or maintenance of the universe. Rather, atoms existed eternally and moved randomly in empty space, until they collided and began to form larger units, leading to the growth of stars and planets and various life forms. The differences between types of matter, such as iron, water, and air were due to differences in the atoms that composed this matter. Atoms could join with each other because of a variety of hooks or sockets in the atoms that allowed for attachments.

Hundreds of years later, the Roman philosopher Lucretius expanded upon atomist theory in his poem De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things). Lucretius explained that the universe consisted of an infinite number of atoms moving and combining under the influence of laws and random chance, not the decisions of gods. Lucretius also denied the existence of an afterlife, and argued that human beings should not fear death. Although Lucretius was not explicitly atheistic, his work was perceived by Christians in the Middle Ages as being essentially atheistic in outlook and was denounced for that reason.

Not all of the ancient philosophers, even those most committed to reason, accepted the atomist view of existence. It is reported that Plato hated Democritus and wished that his books be burned. Plato did accept that there were different types of matter composing the world, but posited that the particles were perfect triangles, brought together in various combinations. In addition, these triangles were guided by a cosmic intelligence, and were not colliding randomly without purpose. For Plato, the ultimate reality was the Good, and the things we saw all around us were shadows of perfect, ideal forms that were the blueprint for the less-perfect existing things.

For two thousand years after Democritus, atomism as a worldview remained a minority viewpoint — after all, religion was still an important institution in societies, and no one had yet seen or confirmed the existence of atoms. But by the nineteenth century, advances in science had accumulated to the point at which atomism became increasingly popular as a view of reality. No longer was there a need for God or gods to explain nature and existence; atoms and laws were all that were needed. The philosophy of materialism — the view that matter is the fundamental substance in nature and that all things, including mental aspects and consciousness, are results of material interactions — became increasingly prevalent. The political-economic ideology of communism, which at one time ruled one-third of the world’s population, was rooted in materialism. In fact, Karl Marx wrote his doctoral dissertation on Democritus’ philosophy of nature, and Vladimir Lenin authored a philosophical book on materialism, including chapters on physics, that was mandatory reading in the higher education system of the Soviet Union.

As physicists conducted increasingly sophisticated experiments on the smallest parts of nature, however, certain results began to challenge the view that atoms were solid particles of matter. For one thing, it was found that atoms themselves were not solid throughout but consisted of electrons orbiting around an extremely small nucleus of protons and neutrons. The nucleus of an atom is actually 100,000 times smaller than the entire atom, even though the nucleus contains almost the entire mass of the atom. As one article has put it, “if the nucleus were the size of a peanut, the atom would be about the size of a baseball stadium.” For that reason, some have concluded that all “solid” objects in the universe, including human beings, are actually about 99.9999999 percent empty space, because of the empty space in the atoms! Others respond that in fact it is not “empty space” in the atom, but rather a “field” or “wave function” — and here it gets confusing.

In fact, subatomic particles do not have a precise location in space; they behave like a fuzzy wave until they interact with an observerand then the wave “collapses” into a particle. The bizarreness of this activity confounded the brightest scientists in the world, and to this day, there are arguments among scientists about what is “really” going on at the subatomic level.

The currently dominant interpretation of subatomic physics, known as the “Copenhagen interpretation,” was developed by the physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr in the 1920s. Heisenberg subsequently wrote a book, Physics and Philosophy to explain how atomic physics changed our interpretation of reality. According to Heisenberg, the traditional scientific view of material objects and particles existing objectively, whether we observe them or not, could no longer be upheld. Rather than existing as solid objects, subatomic particles existed as “probability waves” — in Heisenberg’s words, “something standing in the middle between the idea of an event and the actual event, a strange kind of physical reality just in the middle between possibility and reality.” (Physics and Philosophy, p. 41 — page numbers are taken from the 1999 edition published by Prometheus books). According to Heisenberg:

The probability function does . . . not describe a certain event but, at least during the process of observation, a whole ensemble of possible events. The observation itself changes the probability function discontinuously; it selects of all possible events the actual one that has taken place. . . Therefore, the transition from the ‘possible’ to the ‘actual’ takes place during the act of observation. If we want to describe what happens in an atomic event, we have to realize that the word ‘happens’ can apply only to the observation, not to the state of affairs between two observations. It applies to the physical, not the psychical act of observation, and we may say that the transition from the ‘possible’ to the ‘actual’ takes place as soon as the interaction of the object with the measuring device, and thereby with the rest of the world, has come into play. (pp. 54-55)

Later in his book, Heisenberg writes: “If one wants to give an accurate description of the elementary particle — and here the emphasis is on the word ‘accurate’ — the only thing that can be written down as a description is a probability function.” (p. 70) Moreover,

In the experiments about atomic events we have to do with things and facts, with phenomena that are just as real as any phenomena in daily life. But the atoms or the elementary particles themselves are not as real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts. (p. 186)

This sounds downright crazy to most people. The idea that the solid objects of our everyday experience are made up not of smaller solid parts but of probabilities and potentialities seems bizarre. However, Heisenberg noted that observed events at the subatomic level did seem to fit the interpretation of reality given by the Greek philosopher Aristotle over 2000 years ago. According to Aristotle, reality was a combination of matter and form, but matter was not a set of solid particles by rather potential, an indefinite possibility or power that became real only when it was combined with form to make actual existing things. (pp. 147-49) To provide some rough analogies: a supply of wood can potentially be a table or a chair or a house — but it must be combined with the right form to become actually a table or a chair or a house. Likewise, a block of marble is potentially a statue of a man or a woman or an animal, but only when a sculptor shapes the marble into that particular form does the statue become actual. In other words, actuality (reality) equals potential plus form.

According to Heisenberg, Aristotle’s concept of potential was roughly equivalent to the concept of “energy” in modern physics, and “matter” was energy combined with form.

All the elementary particles are made of the same substance, which we may call energy or universal matter; they are just different forms in which the matter can appear.

If we compare this situation with the Aristotelian concepts of matter and form, we can say that the matter of Aristotle, which is mere ‘potential,’ should be compared to our concept of energy, which gets into ‘actuality’ by means of the form, when the elementary particle is created. (p. 160)

In fact, all modern physicists agree that matter is simply a form of energy (and vice versa). In the earliest stages of the universe, matter emerged out of energy, and that is how we got atoms in the first place. There is nothing inherently “solid” about energy, but energy can be transformed into particles, and particles can be transformed back into energy. According to Heisenberg, “Energy is in fact the substance from which all elementary particles, all atoms and therefore all things are made. . . .” (p. 63)

So what exactly is energy? Oddly enough, physicists have a hard time stating exactly what energy is. Energy is usually defined as the “capacity to do work” or the “capacity to cause movement,” but these definitions remain somewhat vague, and there is no specific mechanism or form that physicists can point to in order to describe energy. Gottfried Leibniz, who developed the first formula for measuring energy, referred to energy as vis viva or “living force,” a concept which is anthropomorphic and nearly theological.  In fact, there are so many different types of energy and so many different ways to measure these types of energy that many physicists are inclined to the view that energy is not a substance but just a mathematical abstraction. According to the great American physicist Richard Feynman, “It is important to realize that in physics today, we have no knowledge of what energy ‘is.’ We do not have a picture that energy comes in little blobs of a definite amount. It is not that way. It is an abstract thing in that it does not tell us the mechanism or the reason for the various formulas.” The only reason physicists know that energy exists is that they have performed numerous experiments over the years and have found that however energy is measured, the amount of energy in an isolated system always remains the same — energy can only be transformed, it can neither be created nor destroyed. Energy in itself has no form, and there is no such thing as “pure energy.” Oh, and energy is relative too — you have to specify the frame of reference when measuring energy, because the position and movement of the observer matters. For example, if you move toward a photon, its energy in that frame of reference will be greater; if you move away from a photon, its energy will be less.

In fact, the melding of relativity theory with quantum physics has further undermined materialism and our common sense notions of what it is to be “real.”  A 2013 article in Scientific American by Dr. Meinard Kuhlmann of Bielefeld University in Germany, “What is Real,” lays out some of these paradoxes of existence at the subatomic level. For example, scientists can create a vacuum in the laboratory, but when a Geiger counter is connected to the vacuum container, it will detect matter. In addition, a vacuum will contain no particles according to an observer at rest, but will contain many particles from the perspective of an accelerating observer! Kuhlmann concludes: “If the number of particles is observer-dependent, then it seems incoherent to assume that particles are basic. We can accept many features to be observer-dependent but not the fact of how many basic building blocks there are.”

So, if the smallest parts of reality are not tiny material objects, but potentialities and probabilities, which vary according to the observer, then how do we get what appears to be solid material objects, from rocks to mountains to trees to houses and cars? According to Kuhlmann, some philosophers and scientists say that we need to think about reality as consisting entirely of relations. In this view, subatomic particles have no definite position in space until they are observed because determining position in space requires a relation between an observer and observed. Position is mere potential until there is a relation. You may have heard of the old puzzle, “If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” The answer usually given is that sound requires a perceiver who can hear, and it makes no sense to talk about “sound” without an observer with functional ears. In the past, scientists believed that if objects were broken down into their smallest parts, we would discover the foundation of reality; but in the new view, when you break down larger objects into their smallest parts, you are gradually taking apart the relations that compose the object, until what you have left is potential. It is the relations between subatomic particles and observers that give us solidity.

Another interpretation Kuhlmann discusses is that the fundamental basis of reality is bundles of properties. In this view, reality consists not of objects or things, but of properties such as shape, mass, color, position, velocity, spin, etc. We think of things as being fundamentally real and properties as being attributes of things. But in this new view, properties are fundamentally real and “things” are what we get when properties are bundled together in certain ways. For example, we recognize a red rubber ball as being a red rubber ball because our years of experience and learning in our culture have given us the conceptual category of “red rubber ball.” An infant does not have this conceptual category, but merely sees the properties: the roundness of the shape, the color red, the elasticity of the rubber. As the infant grows up, he or she learns that this bundle of properties constitutes the “thing” known as a red rubber ball; but it is the properties that are fundamental, not the thing. So when scientists break down objects into smaller and smaller pieces in their particle accelerators, they are gradually taking apart the bundles of properties until the particles no longer even have a definite position in space!

So whether we thing of reality as consisting of relations or bundles of properties, there is nothing “solid” underlying everything.  Reality consists of properties or qualities that emerge out of potential, and then bundle together in certain ways. Over time, some bundles or relations come apart, and new bundles or relations emerge. Finally, in the evolution of life, there is an explosion of new bundles of properties, with some bundles containing a staggering degree of organizational complexity, built incrementally over millions of years. The proper interpretation of this organizational complexity will be discussed in a subsequent post.

 

A Defense of the Ancient Greek Pagan Religion

In a previous post on the topic of mythos and logos, I discussed the evolution of ancient Greek thought from its origins in imaginative legends about gods to the development of reason, philosophy, and logic. Today, every educated human being knows about the contributions of Socrates, Plato, Euclid, and Pythagoras. But the ancient Greek religion appears to us as an embarrassment, something to be passed over in silence or laughed at. Indeed, it is difficult to read about the enormous plethora of Greek gods and goddesses and the ludicrous stories about their various activities without wondering how Greek civilization ever managed to accomplish the great things it accomplished while it was so mired in superstition.

I am not going to defend ancient Greek superstition. But I will say this: Greek religion was much more than mere superstition — it was about devotion to a greater good. According to the German scholar Werner Jaeger,”Areté was the central ideal of all Greek culture.” (Paideia: The Ideal of Greek Culture, Vol. I, p. 15). The word areté means “excellence,” and although in early Greek history it referred primarily to the virtues of the warrior-hero, by the time of Homer areté referred more broadly to all types of excellence. Areté was rooted in the mythos of ancient Greece, in the epic poetry of Hesiod and Homer, with the more philosophical logos emerging later.

This devotion of the Greeks to a greater good was powerful, even fanatical. Religion was so absolutely central to Greek life, that this ancient pre-industrial civilization spent enormous sums of money on temples, statues, and religious festivals, at a time when long hours of hard physical labor were necessary simply to keep from starving. However, at the same time, Greek religion was remarkably loose and liberal in it’s set of beliefs — there was not a single accepted doctrine, a written set of rules, or even a single sacred text, similar to the Torah, Bible, or Quran. The Greeks freely created a plethora of gods and stories about the gods and revised the stories as they wished. But the Greeks did insist upon the fundamental reality of a greater good and complete devotion to it. I will argue that this devotion was responsible for the enormous contributions of ancient Greece, and that a completely secular, rational Greece would not have accomplished nearly as much.

In order to understand my defense of ancient Greek religion, I think it is important to recognize that there are different types of knowledge. There is knowledge of natural causation and knowledge of history; but there is also esthetic knowledge (knowledge of the beautiful); moral knowledge; and knowledge of the proper goals and ends of human life. Greek religion failed in understanding natural causation and history, but often succeeded in these latter forms of knowledge. Greek religion was never merely a set of statements about the origins and history of the universe and the operations of nature. Rather, Greek religion was characterized by a number of other qualities. Greek religion was experiential, symbolic, celebratory, practical, and teleological. Let’s look at each of these features more closely.

Experiential. In order to understand Greek religion — or any religion, actually — one has to do more than simply absorb a set of statements of belief. One has to experience the presence of a greater good.

athena_parthenon

statue-of-zeus-olympia

The first picture above is of a 40-feet tall statue of the Greek goddess Athena in a life-size recreation of the ancient Greek Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee. The second picture is a depiction of the probable appearance of the statue of Zeus at the Temple of Zeus in the sanctuary of Olympia, Greece, the site of the Olympic games.

Contrary to popular belief, Greek statues were not all white, but often painted in vivid colors, and sometimes adorned with gold, ivory, and precious stones. The size and beauty of the temple statues was meant to convey grandeur, and that is precisely the effect that they had. The statue of Zeus at Olympia has been listed among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. A Roman general who once saw the statue of Zeus declared that he “was moved to his soul, as if he had seen the god in person.” The Greek orator and philosopher Dio Chrysostom declared that a single glimpse of the statue of Zeus would make a man forget all his earthly troubles.

Symbolic. When the Greeks created sculptures of their gods, they were not really aiming for an accurate depiction of what their gods “really” looked like. The gods were spirits or powers; the gods were responsible for creating forms, and could appear in any form they wished, but in themselves gods had no human form. Indeed, in one myth, Zeus was asked by a mortal to reveal his true form; but Zeus’s true form was a thunderbolt, so when Zeus appeared as a thunderbolt, he incinerated the unfortunate person. Rather than depict the gods “realistically,” Greek sculptors sought to depict the gods symbolically, as the most beautiful human forms imaginable, male or female. These are metaphorical or analogical depictions, using personification to represent the gods.

I am not going to argue that all Greek religion was metaphorical — clearly, most Greeks believed in the gods as real, actual personalities. But there was a strong metaphorical aspect to Greek religious thought, and it is often difficult even for scholars to tell what parts of Greek religion were metaphorical and what parts were literal. For example, we know that the Greeks actually worshiped certain virtues and desired goods, such as “Peace,” “Victory,” “Love,” “Democracy,” “Health,” “Order,” and “Wealth.” The Greeks used personal forms to represent these virtues, and created statues, temples, and alters dedicated to them, but they did not see the virtues as literal personalities. Some of this symbolic representation of virtues survives to this day: the blindfolded Lady Justice, the statue of Freedom on the top of the U.S. Capitol building, and the Statue of Liberty are several personifications widely recognized in modern America. Some scholars have suggested that the main Greek gods began as personifications (i.e., “Zeus” was the personification of the sky) but that over time the gods came to be seen as full-fledged personalities. However, the lack of written records from the early periods in Greek history make it impossible to confirm or refute this claim.

Celebratory. Religion is often seen as a strict and solemn affair, and although Greek religion had some of these aspects, there was a strong celebratory aspect to Greek religion. The Greeks not only wanted to thank the gods for life and food and drink and love, they wanted to demonstrate their thanks and celebrate through feasts, festivals, and holidays. Indeed, it is probably the case that the only time most Greeks ate meat was after a ritual sacrifice of cattle or other livestock at the altar of a god. (Greek Religion, ed. Daniel Ogden, p. 402) In ancient Athens, about half of the days in the calendar were devoted to religious festivals and each god or goddess often had more than one festival.  The most famous religious festival was the festival devoted to Zeus, held every four years at the sanctuary of Olympia. The Greeks visited the temple of Zeus and prayed to their god — but also held games, celebrated the victors, and enjoyed feasts. The Greeks also held festivals devoted to the god Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy. Drink, music, theater, and dancing played a central role in Dionysian festivals.

Practical. When I was doing research on Greek religion, I came across a fascinating discussion on how the Greeks performed animal sacrifice. Allegedly, when the animals were slaughtered, the Greeks were obligated to share a portion of the animal with the gods by burning it on the altar. However, when the Greeks butchered the animal, they reserved all the meat for themselves and sacrificed only the bones, covered with a deceptive layer of fat, for the gods. It’s hard not to be somewhat amused by this. Why would the powerful, all-knowing gods be satisfied with the useless, inedible portions of an animal, while the Greeks kept the best parts for themselves? The Greeks even had a myth to justify this practice: allegedly Prometheus fooled Zeus into accepting the bones and fat, and from that original act, all future sacrifices were similarly justified. As devoted to the gods as the Greeks were, they were also practical; in a primitive society, meat was a rare and expensive commodity for most. Sacrifice was a symbolic act of devotion to the gods, but the Greeks were not prepared to go hungry by sacrificing half of their precious meat.

And what of prayer to the gods? Clearly, the Greeks prayed to the gods and asked favors of them. But prayer never stopped or even slowed Greek achievements in art, architecture, athletics, philosophy, and mathematics. No Greek ever entered the Olympic games fat and out-of-shape, hoping that copious prayers and sacrifices to Zeus would help him win the games. No Greek ever believed that one did not have to train hard for war, that prayers to their deity would suffice to save their city from destruction at the hands of an enemy. Nor did the Greeks expect incompetent agriculture or engineering would be saved by prayer. The Greeks sought inspiration, strength, and assistance from the gods, but they did not believe that prayer would substitute for their personal shortcomings and neglect.

Teleological (goal-oriented). In a previous essay, I discussed the role of teleology — explanation in terms of goals or purpose — in accounting for causation. Although modern science has largely dismissed teleological causation in favor of efficient causation, I argued that teleological, or goal-oriented, causation could have a significant role in understanding (1) the long-term development of the universe and (2) the behavior of life forms. In a teleological perspective, human beings are not merely the end result of chemical or atomic mechanisms — humans are able to partially transcend the parts they are made of and work toward certain goals or ends that they choose.

We misunderstand Greek religion when we think of it as being merely a collection of primitive beliefs about natural causation that has been superseded by science. The gods were not merely causal agents of thunderstorms, earthquakes, and plagues. They were representations of areté , idealized forms of human perfection that inspired and guided the Greeks. In the pantheon of major Greek gods, only one (Poseidon) is associated solely with natural causation, being responsible for the seas and for earthquakes. Eight of the gods were associated primarily with human qualities, activities, and institutions — love, beauty, music, healing, music, war, hunting, wisdom, marriage, childbirth, travel, language, and the home. Three gods were associated with both natural causation and human qualities, Zeus being responsible for thunder and lightning, as well as law and justice. The Greeks also honored and worshiped mortal heroes, extraordinary persons who founded a city, overthrew a tyrant, or won a war. Inventors, poets, and athletes were worshiped as well, not because they had the powers of the gods, but because they were worthy of emulation and were sources of inspiration. (“Heroes and Hero Cults,” Greek Religion, ed. Daniel Ogden, pp. 100-14)

At this point, you may well ask, can’t we devote ourselves to the goal of excellence by using reason? There is no need to read about myths and appeal to invisible superbeings that do not exist in order to pursue excellence. This argument is partly true, but it must be pointed out that reason in itself is an insufficient guide to what goods we should be devoted to. Esthetics, imagination, and faith provide us with goals that reason by itself can’t provide. Reason is a superb tool for thinking, but it is not an all-purpose tool.

You can see the limitations of pure reason in modern, secular societies. People don’t really spend much time thinking about the greater goods they should pursue, so they fall into the trap of materialism. Religion is considered a private affair, so it is not taught in public schools, and philosophy is considered a waste of time. So people tend to borrow their life goals from their surrounding culture and peer groups; from advertisers on television and the Internet; and from movie stars and famous musicians. People end up worshiping money, technology, and celebrities; they know those things are “real” because they are material, tangible, and because their culture tells them these things are important. But this worship without religion is only a different form of irrationality and superstition. As “real” as material goods are, they only provide temporary satisfaction, and there is never an amount of money or a house big enough or a car fancy enough or a celebrity admirable enough to bring us lasting happiness.

What the early Greeks understood is that reason in itself is a weak tool for directing the passions — only passions, rightly-ordered, can rule other passions. The Greeks also knew that excellence and beauty were real, even if the symbolic forms used to represent these realities were imprecise and imperfect. Finally, the Greeks understood that faith had causal potency — not in the sense that prayers could prevent an earthquake or a plague, but in the sense that attaining the heights of human achievement was possible only by total and unwavering commitment to a greater good, reinforced by ritual and habit. For the Greeks, reality was a work-in-progress: it didn’t consist merely of static “things” but of human possibilities and potential, the ability to be more than ourselves, to be greater than ourselves. However we want to symbolize it, devotion to a greater good is the first step to realizing that good. When we skip the first step, devotion, we shouldn’t be surprised when we fail to attain it.