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.

 

Review of “Modern Physics and Ancient Faith,” by Stephen Barr

I recently came across the book Modern Physics and Ancient Faith by Stephen Barr, a professor of physics at the University of Delaware. First published in 2003, the book was reprinted in 2013 by the University of Notre Dame press. I was initially skeptical of this book because reviews and praise for the book seemed to be limited mostly to religious and conservative publications. But after reading it, I have to say that the science in the book is solid, the author is reasonably open-minded, and the paucity of reviews of this book in scientific publications more likely reflects an unthinking prejudice rather than an informed judgment by scientists.

Modern Physics and Ancient Faith is not one of those books that attempts to prove the existence of God scientifically, an impossible task in any event. The book does show that belief in God is reasonable, that faith is not wholly irrational. But the main theme of the book is a critique of “scientific materialism,” a philosophy that emerged out of the scientific findings of the nineteenth century. What is “scientific materialism”? Barr summarizes the viewpoint as follows:

‘The universe more and more appears to be a vast, cold, blind, and pur­poseless machine. For a while it appeared that some things might escape the iron grip of science and its laws —perhaps Life or Mind. But the processes of life are now known to be just chemical reactions, involving the same ele­ments and the same basic physical laws that govern the behavior of all matter. The mind itself is, according to the overwhelming consensus of cognitive scientists, completely explicable as the performance of the biochemical computer called the brain. There is nothing in principle that a mind does which an artificial machine could not do just as well or even better. . . .

‘There is no evidence of a spiritual realm, or that God or souls are real. In fact, even if there did exist anything of a spiritual nature, it could have no influence on the visible world, because the material world is a closed sys­tem of physical cause and effect. Nothing external to it could affect its opera­tions without violating the precise mathematical relationships imposed by the laws of physics. . . .

‘All, therefore, is matter: atoms in ceaseless, aimless motion. In the words of Democritus, everything consists of’atoms and the void.’ Because the ulti­mate reality is matter, there cannot be any cosmic purpose or meaning, for atoms have no purposes or goals. . . .

‘Science has dethroned man. Far from being the center of things, he is now seen to be a very peripheral figure indeed. . . .  The human species is just one branch on an ancient evolutionary tree, and not so very different from some of the other branches—genetically we overlap more than 98 percent with chimpanzees. We are the product not of purpose, but of chance mutations. Bertrand Russell perfectly summed up man’s place in the cosmos when he called him ‘a curious accident in a backwater.” (pp. 19-20)

A great many educated people subscribe to many or most of these principles of scientific materialism. However, as Barr notes, these principles are based largely on scientific findings from the nineteenth century, and there have been a number of major advances in knowledge since then that have cast doubt on the principles of materialism. Barr refers to these newer findings as “plot twists.”

The first plot twist Barr notes is the “Big Bang” theory of the origins of the universe, first proposed in 1927 by Georges Lemaître, a Catholic priest and astronomer. Although taken for granted today, Lemaître’s idea of a universe emerging from a single, tiny point of concentrated energy was initially shocking and disturbing to many scientists. The predominant view of scientists for a number of centuries was that the universe existed eternally, with no beginning and no end. Even Einstein was disturbed by the Big Bang theory and thought it “abominable”; it took many years for him to accept it. I initially was skeptical of Barr’s claim that atheists and materialists were particularly disturbed by and opposed to the Big Bang, but a recent book on theories of the universe’s origins supports Barr’s claim (pp. 25-27).

Now it’s true that the Big Bang in itself doesn’t prove the existence of a creator. And there are many features of the universe which seem to argue against the idea of an omniscient and omnipotent creator, most prominently, the very gradual process of evolution, with its randomness and mass extinctions. Also, Georges Lemaître himself cautioned against any attempts to draw theological conclusions from his scientific work, and argued against the mixing of science and religion. Nevertheless, I don’t think it can be denied that the Big Bang is more compatible with the idea of a creator than the previously dominant theory of the eternal universe.

The second plot twist, according to Barr, is the gradual discovery of a deeper underlying harmony and beauty in the laws of physics, which suggest not blind and impersonal forces but a cosmic designer. Any one particular phenomenon can be explained by an impersonal law or mechanism, notes Barr; but when one looks at the structure of the universe as a whole, the question of a designer is “inescapable.” (Barr, p. 24) In addition, the story of the universe is not one of order emerging out of disorder or chaos, but rather order emerging out of a deeper order, rooted in mathematical structures and physical laws. Barr discusses a number of examples of this harmony and beauty, including symmetrical structures in nature, the growth of crystals, orbital ellipses, and particular mathematical equations that are simple yet also capable of resulting in highly complex orders.

I found this part of Barr’s book to be the least convincing. Symmetry in itself does not strike me as being particularly beautiful, though beautiful things may have symmetry as one of their properties. Furthermore, there are aspects of the universe that are definitely not beautiful, harmonious, or elegant, but rather messy, complicated, and wasteful. Elegance is something rightly valued by scientists, but there is no reason to believe that the underlying structure of nature is always fundamentally elegant, and scientists have sometimes been misguided into coming up with elegant solutions for phenomena that later turned out to be far messier and more complicated in reality. 

The third “plot twist” Barr discusses is, in my view, far more interesting and convincing: the discovery of “anthropic coincidences,” that is, features of the universe that suggest that the emergence of life, including intelligent life, is not an accident but is actually a predictable feature of the universe, built right into the structure. Barr accepts the theory of evolution and acknowledges that random mutations play a large role in the evolution of life (though he is skeptical that natural selection provides a complete explanation for the evolution of life). But Barr also argues that evolution proceeds from the foundation of a cosmic order which seems to be custom-made for the emergence of life. A good number of physical properties of the universe — the strong nuclear force, the creation of new elements through nuclear fusion, the stability of the proton, the strength of the electro-magnetic force, and other properties and processes — seem to be finely tuned to within a very narrow range of precision. Action outside the these strict boundaries of behavior set by the physical laws and constants of the universe would eliminate the possibility of life anywhere in the universe or even cause the universe to self-destruct. Again, these “anthropic coincidences” do not prove the existence of God, but they do seem to indicate that life is not just an accident of the universe, but an outcome built into the universe from the very beginning.

Barr acknowledges the argument of some physicists that the universe could well have different domains with different physical laws, or there could even be a large (or infinite) number of universes (the “multiverse”), each with a slightly different set of laws and constants. In this view, life only seems inevitable because we just happen to exist in a universe that has the right balance of laws and constants, and if the universe did not have this balance, no one would be there to observe that fact! But Barr is rightly skeptical of this argument, noting that it relies merely upon speculation, with no actual empirical evidence of other universes. If belief in God is unscientific because God is unobservable, then belief in an unobservable multiverse is also unscientific.

Barr devotes most of the remaining chapters of his book to refuting the scientific materialist view of humanity. In the materialist view, human beings are nothing more than biological mechanisms, made up of the same atoms that make up the rest of the universe, and therefore as determined and predictable as any other object in the universe. Humans have no soul apart from the body, no mind apart from the brain, and no real free will. Therefore, there is no reason to expect that artificial intelligence in advanced computers will be any different from human minds, aside from being superior. Barr rightly criticizes this view as the fallacy of reductionism, the notion that everything can be explained by reference to the parts that compose it. The problem with this view, as I have pointed out elsewhere, is that when parts join together, the resulting whole may be an entirely new phenomenon, with radically different properties from the parts.

Barr argues that although human beings may be made of materials, humans beings also have a spiritual side, defined as the possession of two crucial attributes: (1) an intellect capable of understanding; and (2) free will. As such, human beings are capable of transcending themselves, that is, go beyond their immediate desires and appetites, “perceive what is objectively true and beautiful,” (p. 168) and to freely choose good or evil.

It is precisely this quality of human beings that makes humans different from material objects, including computers. Barr points out that a computer can manipulate numbers and symbols, and do so much more quickly and efficiently than humans. But, he asks, in what way does a computer actually understand what it is doing? When you use a computer to calculate the sum of all annual profits for Corporation X, does the computer have any idea of what it is really doing? No — it is manipulating numbers and symbols, for the benefit of human beings who actually do have understanding. Likewise, the very notion of moral judgment and blame makes no sense when applied to a computer, because in practice we know that a computer does not have real understanding. In Barr’s words:

We do not really ‘blame’ a computer program for what it does; if anything, we blame its human programmers. We do not condemn a man-eating tiger, in the moral sense, or grow indignant at the typhoid bacillus. And yet we do feel that human beings can ‘deserve’ and that their behavior can be morally judged. We believe this precisely because we believe that human beings can make free choices. (p. 186)

More importantly, as Barr notes, the scientific materialist view of human beings as nothing more than machines is derived from scientific findings in earlier centuries, when scientists became increasingly capable of predicting the motions and actions of objects, large and small. Since human beings were nothing more than collections of material objects known as atoms, it stood to reason that human beings were also nothing more than predictable and determined in their actions. But early twentieth century research into the behavior of subatomic particles, known as “quantum physics,” overturned the view that the behavior of all objects could be predicted on the basis of predetermined laws of behavior. Rather, at the subatomic level, the behavior of objects were probabilistic, not determined; furthermore, the behavior of the particles could not be known until they interacted with an observer!

Today, it is widely acknowledged among scientists that the nineteenth century dream of a completely determined and predictable universe is an illusion, that the behavior of large solar, planetary, and sub-planetary bodies can be predicted to a large extent, but that other phenomenon remain less amenable to such study. Yet the materialist view of human beings as completely determined remains popular among many, including scientists who should know better. Barr rightly criticizes this view, noting that while quantum physics doesn’t prove that humans have free will, it does demolish the notion of complete determinism, and at the very least, creates space for free will.

However, while Barr effectively demolishes the scientific materialist view of human nature, I don’t think he demonstrates that the traditional Judeo-Christian view is entirely correct either. In this view, human beings have a soul that exists, or can exist, separately from the body, and this soul is imparted to human beings by God in a special act of creation. (p. 225) But rather than surmise that there is a separate spirit that possesses the material body and gives it life and understanding and free will, I think it makes more sense to adopt the outlook of theorists of emergence, that the correct combination and organization of parts can lead to the emergence of a whole organism that possesses life and understanding and free will, even if the parts themselves do not possess these qualities.

Another way to look at this issue is to carefully reexamine the whole notion of what “matter” is. Materialists conceive of humans as beings composed of collections of objects called atoms and can’t conceive how this collection of objects can possibly have understanding and free will. But human beings are not just made up of objects — we are beings of matter and energy. Physicists have defined “energy” as the capacity to do work, and if you think of human beings as collections of matter and energy, the attributes of life and understanding and free will no longer seem so mysterious: these attributes are synergistic expressions of a highly complex matter/energy combination.

One could go even further. Physicists have long noted that matter and energy are interchangeable, that matter can be transformed into energy and energy can be transformed into matter. According to the great physicist Werner Heisenberg, “[E]xperiments have shown the complete mutability of matter. All the elementary particles can, at sufficiently high energies, be transmuted into other particles, or they can simply be created from kinetic energy and can be annihilated into energy, for instance into radiation.” (Physics and Philosophy, p. 139.) In fact, the universe in its earliest stages began simply as energy and only gradually transformed some of that energy into matter, so even matter itself can be considered a form of condensed energy rather than a separate and unique entity. So you could think of humans as beings of energy, not just collections of objects — in which case consciousness and free will no longer seem so strange.

Overall, I think Barr’s book is largely convincing in his critique of scientific materialism. He does not provide scientific evidence for the existence of God, but he does make belief in God reasonable, as long as it is not a fundamentalist God. Indeed, any respectable book on science and religion is going to have to reject the notion that the Bible is literally true in all aspects if it is going to be properly scientific. I think Barr does occasionally engage in cherry-picking of evidence from religious thinkers and traditions that make it look as if early Jewish and Christian thinkers were more farsighted in their understanding of the universe than they actually were. But ultimately, judging a religion by its understanding of natural causation is a risky task; when new discoveries are made that overturn the old claims, what does one do? It would be absurd to deny the new discoveries in order to save the religion.

Religious knowledge should be considered primarily a form of transcendent knowledge about the Good, not empirical knowledge about what and how the world is. The Catholic priest-astronomer Georges Lemaître was correct in rejecting attempts by others to use his Big Bang theory as evidence for the merits of Christianity. The best test of a religion is not whether it explains nature, but whether it actually makes human beings and human civilization better.