The Fall of Materialism – Something from Nothing? – The Dematerialisation of Matter
Materialism: The world view that physical matter is the only reality or that matter is the fundamental substance in Nature, and that all phenomena – including thoughts, feelings, emotions, consciousness and intent, can be explained in terms of material interactions.
Today philosophical physicalism, the view that all that exists in reality is ultimately physical, has replaced materialism as the leading philosophical world view held within mainstream Western science. So I will cover physicalism in detail in the next video.
So what is matter? Well, it turns out that three key developments during the 20th century transformed matter into one of the most elusive concepts ever. The classical idea of particles of matter, possessing properties such as extension, shape, density, location, momentum or impenetrability… started to dissolve.
The first blow came from the theories of special and general relativity. Matter and energy were suddenly brought into a kind of equivalence, famously described by Einstein’s equation E=mc2, which described the fact that rest mass could be converted into massless radiation and vice versa. Physicists began to understand that there was no fundamental ontological division between matter and energy. In addition, mass was no longer the only measure of gravitational agency… now a photon, for instance, despite having zero rest mass, could exert a gravitational force thanks to its kinetic energy. Turned out that both mass and energy could affect space and time, they could cause the local ‘warping’ of a space-time which was no longer Euclidean. Einstein’s equation forced us to redefine the concept of matter. Matter, somehow, had begun to ‘dematerialise’.
The second blow to classical materialism was brought by quantum physics. The discovery that light could behave both as a wave and as a particle was soon followed by the discovery that particles of matter could also behave as a wave. Astonishingly, a particle would not behave as a particle unless a measurement was made. Unobserved properties of particles were described by probability waves which seemed to describe a world of “potentiality”, whereas observing the properties of particles seemed to be the process which was bringing this potentiality into actuality. As Werner Heisenberg put it:
The probability wave […] was a quantitative version of the old concept of “potentia” in Aristotelian philosophy. It introduced 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. Werner Heisenberg
Here’s another quote from him that I quite like:
“The ontology of materialism rested upon the illusion that the kind of existence, the direct 'actuality' of the world around us, can be extrapolated into the atomic range. This extrapolation, however, is impossible… atoms are not things.” Werner Heisenberg
The uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics forbids particles of matter from possessing definite positions and momenta at the same time. The same uncertainty principle also applies to the pair energy-time, for instance, which allows the energy of the vacuum to fluctuate in such a way that unobservable ‘virtual’ particles can pop in an out of existence all the time. What we call “empty space”, as Lawrence Krauss puts it, is a actually a “boiling, bubbling brew of virtual particles that pop in and out of existence in a time scale so short that we can't even measure them.”
So, we see that the concept of matter not only started to ‘dematerialise’ due to the energy-mass equivalence, but now it seemed to vanish altogether due to the wave-like properties of particles, the intrinsic indeterminacy in nature, and the fact that particles did not seem to act like material particles at all unless their properties were brought into actuality by the act of measurement. Not to mention the fact that we also discovered that atoms, really, are not much else than empty space. A hydrogen atom for instance is about 99.9999999999996% empty space. If a hydrogen atom was the size of the Earth, the proton at its centre would only be about 200 metres across! Not what can be called a very substantial object, by any stretch of the imagination!
The third blow to the concept of matter came from quantum field theory. In this model, material particles can only be understood as the properties of an underlying field, a field which manifests differently at different points in space-time. In Sean Carroll’s words:
“Quantum field theory […] is a very simple idea. Everything is fields. There is no such thing as particles. Particles […] are what you see when you look at fields very very closely.” Sean Carroll
I like how physicist Bernard d’Espagnat elegantly and artfully explains the ideas behind quantum field theory. He writes:
“Let us begin by observing that the notion of creation is not a scientific one: we do not know how to capture it, and even less quantify it. It is therefore appropriate to reduce it to something we can master. Now we do master the notion of a system state and changes thereof. […]
The breakthrough just came from this. It consisted in considering that the existence of a particle is a state of a certain ‘Something’, that the existence of two particles is another state of this same ‘Something’, and so on. Of course, the absence of a particle is also a state of this ‘Something’. Then, the creation of a particle is nothing else than a transition from one state of this ‘Something’ to another [state of this ‘Something] […] True, the problem of the ‘real nature’ of the ‘Something’ […] is an inordinately delicate one. […]
Classical science […] favoured a conception of Nature in which basic Reality – matter, as it was called – was constituted of a myriad of simple elements – essentially localised atoms or particles – embedded in fields, and hence interacting by means of forces decreasing when distance increased. […]
On the other hand, quantum field theory is radically at variance with it. Not only is it true that, in it, the particles no longer play the role of the constitutive material of the Universe. What is more, the only ‘entity’ that, in it, might conceivably be thought to constitute basic Reality is the ‘Something’, of which we saw that it is fundamentally the only one of its species.” Bernard d’Espagnat, On Physics and Philosophy
I find it fascinating that quantum field theory is based on the idea that reality, at its core, is ultimately just this one thing. That matter emerges from “something” that we can’t even begin to comprehend, even less describe. That this something, by its nature is, in fact, indescribable.
Some scientists, like Lawrence Krauss for instance, like to call it “nothing”, in what looks like a somewhat childish attempt to establish a clear difference between the irrational idea of a god or creator, and the of course perfectly reasonable idea of a Natural process whereby things simply pop out of utter nothingness. Turns out that, upon close examination, it is quite clear that Laurence Krauss’s use of the word “nothing” is rather ambiguous, that in no way this “nothingness” denotes the absence of anything, nor it describes a state of utter non-existence.
It is actually very interesting to see the parallels between the way current science is trying to describe this nothingness, attempting to explain the creation of something from nothing, and the way humanity has tried to explain these same concepts in Eastern philosophical traditions such as Buddhism, Taoism or Hinduism. The concept of Nothingness in Buddhism for instance is usually translated as Emptiness, but this emptiness is not emptiness in the negative sense of the word. It is positive emptiness: it means no-thing-ness and it signifies the ultimate reality, not in the sense of a being a separate reality but in the sense of being the ultimate truth about our existence; the state of emptiness has no names, no attributes, no qualities, no differentiation. It is ineffable, formless, meaning it cannot be described in any terms at all, it cannot be conceptualised, it cannot be objectified. It precedes differentiation, it precedes form.
So modern physics tells us that from this “undifferentiated something”, from this “no thing” we can’t even name, everything else arises. That this “undifferentiated something”, this “no-thing”, not only precedes but also gives rise to matter and everything else…. The idea that matter is the ultimate reality has been completely crushed by modern physics models.
There are innumerable experiments which further confirm this de-materialisation of what we used to think as matter. Think of the phenomenon of quantum tunnelling for instance. What we like to call a material particle and tend to think of it as going through a classically impenetrable wall… Nothing like that in fact. The fascinating thing is that neither the supposed material particle can be said to follow a defined trajectory nor can it be said to travel through the wall. No, it turns out that the so-called material particle simply disappears from one side of the wall and then magically reappears on the other side, without having to physically cross the barrier!
And then of course came the ideas of dark matter and dark energy, not to mention the ideas behind string theory, which describe matter as nothing but the vibration of invisible, unmeasurable strings. It seems to me that this process of de-materialisation of matter is exposing not much else than an empty reality behind it all (empty in the positive sense of course!), it is showing that the only things we have left to cling onto in modern science are nothing but our own conceptual, abstract ideas which, for better or worse, are the only tools we have left when it comes to describing the immateriality of that which we cannot directly measure, the immateriality of that which seems to appear out of nowhere.
It is unquestionable that, over the past century or so, the concept of matter has morphed into something that cannot be said to have the properties of matter at all, by any stretch of the imagination. The irony of it all is that our everyday experience of solidity, extension, or locality fools us into assuming that matter is in fact the ultimate reality.
“Matter is not made of matter.” Hans-Peter Dürr, Physicist
Undoubtedly, many cultural, philosophical, religious, technological, economical and social events have influenced Western society to continue clinging onto the ideology of materialism for such long time, despite the advances of modern physics. Perhaps it is time to start letting go once and for all… Time for the West to start looking at reality through a different, more mature lens.
I will leave you with these thoughts… If when we look for matter we end up finding nothing but emptiness, could it be that matter is nothing more than our own subjective experience of solidity, extension and locality? What if matter is just a conceptual construction derived from a familiar experience within consciousness? Perhaps the ultimate reality is indeed just this indescribable, undifferentiated Something-ness, or shall we say this No-thing-ness, this Void, this Emptiness, this realm of formless, unbounded potentiality, a realm from which all experiences and forms ultimately arise – including our own conscious experience, including our own conceptualisation of this immaterial thing we love to call matter.
“As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such.” Max Planck, Das Wesen der Materie
“Materialism is the philosophy of the subject who forgets to take account of himself" Arthur Schopenhauer