Are “Things” “Real”?

The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus famously said, you can’t step into the same river twice. The banks may be the same. The rocks on the bottom may be the same. But the water rushing past you is different. So it is with everything, Heraclitus said. Nothing is fixed. All is flux.

The atomic view of matter certainly challenges our view of fixed things. Not only is the computer I’m writing on mostly empty space (the nuclei of the atoms that compose it being mere specks compared to the capacious orbitals of the electrons around them), the whole thing is a dance. Those electrons are moving at insane speeds—flux indeed!

Einstein’s theory of relativity also makes us question “thingness.” If matter and energy are forms of one another, then the very stuff of existence is just as much process (energy) as solidity.

Quantum physics posits that sub-atomic particles can pop in and out of existence, in an altogether whimsical manner. And string theory claims that the smallest units of stuff are essentially vibration—flux again

So we may well wonder whether all nouns may not be verbs in disguise. Are all “things” really processes, movements, dynamics? Are “things” just frozen motion? If so, we might note that even glaciers flow.

Here are some other “things” to ponder:

Things in Space: If there are things, they must have boundaries. If they don’t stop somewhere, they can’t be distinct from other things. But think about gravity. Every massive body distorts the fabric of space-time. Even our bodies must do so in an infinitesimally small way. But where does gravity’s influence stop? Certainly it becomes negligible at a distance, in accordance with Newton’s inverse square law. But, like Zeno’s paradox, is it always approaching zero but never getting there? If so, it never ends. So can any body be said to be gravitationally distinct from all others? Thingness may be a practical reality, but is it real?

Things in Time: The river we step into is a snapshot of a flowing river. And that flow takes place in time. Complex systems are like that. They exist by being eaters of energy. Our whole planetary ecosystem is almost exclusively dependent on solar radiation as the basis of the food chain. Without photosynthesizers continually “fixing” sunlight (but is it ever really fixed?), life would diminish to a trickle. The rest of us are parasites on plants and cyanobacteria.

All complex systems defy entropy by eating energy. Entropy is the thermodynamic tendency to disorder. But complex systems create order, in a universe that should be running down. As it may well be doing, but complex systems create islands of order in a sea of disorder—so long as the energy keeps coming. So all complex systems are also creatures of time.

Things within Things within Things. . . . Holons are systemic levels. Wholes have holons within them and holons beyond them. For example, holons within you are your bodily systems (digestive, cardiovascular, respiratory, etc.). Each of those contains organs as holons; those organs contain organelles, which contain tissues, which contain cells. . . . And you are a holon contained within a family, within a community, within a culture, within global society. . . .

But are there clear-cut boundaries between these holons, or do they bleed together? Now, it may seem obvious that there’s a place where you end and thus a clear distinction between you and any other family member. So you don’t bleed into your family and they don’t bleed into you.

Oh, really? Isn’t that exactly what you do all the time? Don’t the moods of others change, if you’re sad or angry. Don’t your musical tastes change, if a sibling introduces you to something cool?

Self as Nexus: It may be helpful to think of yourself as a nexus—an intersection of influences that also has its own identity (though your identity shifts over time, like Heraclitus’s river). Certainly you don’t look the same as you did ten years ago, or even ten days ago, if you want to get picky. And, as you experience and learn more things, you change psychologically as well.

Are You Real? Heraclitus’s river may change from moment to moment, but it will still cool you off if you go for a swim. Seems real enough. On the other hand, maybe it should have as many names as there are moments that it flows through. We call it the same thing, when it’s really not.

Or is It? This is the question of atma or adatma. In the Hindu view (and the views of many other traditions), your soul (atma) is an immortal drop of the divine. Change belong to this world, of space and time. But this world is also maya, or illusion. Your soul is made of eternal stuff—it’s really real.

In the Buddhist view, it’s a mistake to think of yourself as the same person, from day to day as much as from incarnation to incarnation. Buddhists believe in reincarnation, but of a soul that’s always in flux. This is adatma—non-soul.

This is an interesting “thing” to ponder. But, either way, we will do well to recognize that “things” are not always what we think they are. Our ideas about them may be snapshots frozen in time, when they have in fact moved on. And complex systems (which include pretty much everything of importance in our lives) are only alive so long as they are in flux, busily using energy to create order.

Of course, atma is defined as eternal, and so beyond the confines of time, while complex systems are creatures of time. So perhaps there are two levels of self—self unfolding within time (what Aristotle called Becoming) and self transcending time (what Aristotle called Being)—and the two are complementary rather than mutually exclusive. David Bohm’s implicate order also provides a framework for such a possibility.

In any case, science seems to have caught up with Heraclitus. Upon closer inspection, our world of space-time appears to be more process than thing, more verb than noun. Of course, in later life Heraclitus may have changed his mind. . . .

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Chance in a Lawful World?

Causality, Determinism, Reductionism, and Scientific Materialism

The basis for a scientific worldview is that things happen for reasons—they are caused. But can chance be reconciled with such a scheme?

Our western scientific worldview arose within the context of western philosophy going back to the ancient Greeks, so this is where I start this inquiry. Greek philosophers recognized that chance and lawfulness seem to conflict. This issue was also bound up with the ideas of an intelligent, eternal Creator and the immortality of the human soul.

The Epicureans took the pragmatic (and materialistic) view that neither a Creator nor an immortal human soul exists. Their explanation of how the world arose is remarkably Darwinian. It also includes the evolution of human culture. As to the human soul, Epicureans maintained that it is made up of soul atoms—far more rarified than the more massive atoms that make up our bodies. And, just as our bodies disperse into their elemental parts upon death, they said, so do our souls. Stoics and Platonists (and perhaps Aristotelians) disagreed.

In late Roman times, Boethius had little sympathy with Epicureanism. He tried to synthesize the ideas of the giants of Greek philosophy—Plato and Aristotle—in support of a Christian worldview. He took aim at the old, pagan idea of the goddess Fortuna (who just did things, with no rhyme nor reason). No such power could exist, he said, in a world created by an omniscient, omnipotent God. Thus he saved causality—that things happen for reasons.

But Boethius stopped short of determinism—that God makes you do whatever you do. Clearly, he said, God knows all, so he knows the future, including everything that you will ever do. And, being omnipotent, God could make you do what he wanted—if He so chose. Instead, he chooses to give humans free will, so they can make their own choices. His seeing your future no more determines your choices than (to use a modern analogy) you watching a football game on TV makes the players score a touchdown. True, you can’t watch a future football game, but that’s beside the point. God’s knowing is neither causal nor deterministic in terms of our actions.

Thomas Aquinas, a medieval Christian Aristotelian, got more specific. God made two categories of things, he said: those that must happen just as he chooses and those that he allows to happen in various ways (though still subject to His general laws). For example, God lays down the laws of physics that give rise to weather and storms as well as the laws of biology that grow a forest, but He doesn’t choose which trees in the forest will fall in a given storm. (So don’t blame God if a tree falls on your house. It did so following natural laws, not because He wanted to punish you.)

But, with the protestant Reformation, determinism made a comeback (and free will fell by the way). Our choices are determined, said Martin Luther, by either Satan or God—and God chooses which souls will belong to whom. This doctrine is a form of religious determinism.

It fell to the Enlightenment thinkers Descartes, Newton, and Locke (and later Kant and Laplace) to grapple with causality and determinism in the newly emerging context of modern science. Descartes laid the groundwork by separating spirit and matter. A devout Catholic, he believed in God, but his god was the maker of a clockwork Universe. God made the clock, wound it up, and let it keep ticking on its own. So all natural phenomena are explicable by natural causes.

But Descartes was no materialist. He believed in a human soul, with God-given intelligence. In fact this was his starting place for our ability to know. Descartes famously said, Cogito ergo sum—I think, therefore I am. But the mental or spiritual had precious little overlap with the physical. Thus, Descartes’ philosophy is know as Cartesian dualism.

Newton (a deeply religious protestant) expanded and provided proof for the Cartesian framework. Newton’s universal laws were indisputable and invariable. The angle of incidence will always equal the angle of reflection. For every action, there will always be an equal and opposite reaction. The gravitational pull between two massive bodies will always be inversely related to the square of the distance between them, in relation to their masses.

So causality was a pillar of Enlightenment science. By the time of Laplace (in the Industrial Era), so was determinism. Laplace said that—if one were given the details of all the matter and forces at the beginning of the universe (what we now call the Big Bang)—one could, in principle, calculate everything that happened up to the present, and so on into the future.

In this assertion, the assumption of reductionism is also implicit. Things that happen on a large scale are the sum of many more things happening on smaller scales. Therefore all occurrences in the unfolding universe are ultimately reducible to the motions of bodies relative to one another (all following the laws of Newtonian physics).

But scientific determinism hit a significant blip in 1900. French mathematician Henri Poincaré won a competition to solve the “3-body problem”—but he didn’t solve it. The 3-body problem was physicists’ inability to expand Newton’s gravitational equations from accurately describing the gravitational attraction between two bodies to doing the same for more than two bodies (three being the simplest such case). Poincaré demonstrated that the problem was, in fact, mathematically insoluble. The best one could do was to make approximations. Moreover, it was possible that, very occasionally, something wildly unexpected might transpire.

In retrospect, Poincaré was laying the groundwork for complexity theory, which describes highly interrelated systems whose behavior is causal but not deterministic. Newton’s mechanics work splendidly for mechanical systems—but not for complex ones.

1900 was also when Max Planck proposed quantum theory. And, five years later, Albert Einstein described special relativity. Later he introduced general relativity, which improved upon Newton’s laws of gravity. Newton had never been able to explain how gravity’s “action at a distance” worked. Einstein posited that very massive bodies actually warp the fabric of space-time, causing nearby bodies to begin spiraling towards them.

As transformational as Einstein’s findings were, quantum mechanics (as developed by Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and others), posed the greater challenge to determinism—and even to causality. The quantum world seemed to be acausal. Sub-atomic particles could pop into and out of existence (coming from and disappearing back into the background quantum field), for no particular reason whatsoever.

Moreover, the boundary between observer and observed became fuzzy. Observers of light could detect it as particles (photons) or waves, depending on the measurement apparatus they employed. Before observation, light was potentially both wave and particle, but only after observation did it manifest as one or the other. This brought into question the ultimate nature of reality—was it “out there” or “in our heads”(or some combination of the two)?

The influence of observer on observed was one of Heisenberg’s explanations for his Uncertainty Principle. If, for example, one wished to very accurately measure the position of a quantum particle, one’s ability to accurately measure its momentum diminished—and vice versa. This was a theoretical limitation; it could not be overcome by devising better measurement devices. With Newton’s calculus, both the position and momentum of a cannonball, anywhere along its trajectory, could be precisely calculated. Not so a quantum particle. There would always be a degree of uncertainty about the totality of its behavior.

Einstein objected strenuously to Bohr and Heisenberg’s interpretation of quantum theory—most particularly to its acausal nature. The purpose of science, he said, is to figure out which causes lead to what effects. If effects simply happen for no reason, that’s no longer science. Einstein famously said to Bohr, “God does not play dice.” To Einstein, a random universe was not an intelligent universe, and Einstein believed deeply in a lawful universe, imbued with an intelligence far greater than that possessed by humans. Einstein proposed a series of experiments that he thought would prove Bohr wrong. As each was conducted, it seemed instead to vindicate Bohr’s interpretation. Science had indeed entered an age of uncertainty.

But, even as physics was becoming less deterministic, biological and social sciences were becoming more so. On the one hand, genetic determinism posited that genes are ultimately responsible for behaviors of both organisms and species. This is a highly reductionistic stance (small-scale dynamics dictating large-scale phenomena). At the same time, behaviorism—famously citing studies of rats, trained in various manners—maintained that environmental conditioning was the ultimate determinant of behavior.

This “Nature vs. Nurture” debate was ultimately resolved (in part thanks to twin studies conducted at the University of Minnesota) with a more or less 50/50 split. Nature (genetics) and nurture (environmental influences) were said to combine about equally to determine behavior. But behavior was still determined.

Reductionistic thinking also flourished. Mental phenomena, for example, were said to be completely reducible to brain chemistry and physical exchanges (electrical and chemical) amongst neurons. In fact, many scientists questioned the very existence of “mind,” since all mental phenomena were explicable in terms of the activities of the physical brain.

This view is also an example of the ascendancy of scientific materialism. For the ancient Greeks, as well as the medieval philosophers, mind or spirit was more primary than physical nature. Even the founders of modern western science (such as Descartes and Newton) upheld the primacy of spirit, though they saw the spiritual as separate from the physical. But, especially in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, the physical world came to be regarded as the only world.

However, in the last fifty years or so, the pendulum has begun to swing back a little. The new field of epigenetics has emerged as a sort of middle ground between genes and environmental factors. While environmental stressors don’t directly change the genes themselves, they can cause genes to be “switched on or off.” Moreover, the “settings” of these “switches” can even be passed on, from one generation to the next (as famously demonstrated by a study conducted on Holocaust survivors and their children).

There are two ways to interpret epigenetic findings. One would be to say that behaviors are still determined, but now in a 3-way split amongst genes, the environment, and epigenetic factors. Another way would be to observe that not all the children of Holocaust survivors have the same “switch settings” as their parents. So determination is too strong a word (though causality would still apply).

Complexity theory, however, may represent the strongest challenge to determinism. The dynamics of complex systems do behave causally. Certain inputs tend to produce particular outputs. However, complex behaviors are inherently unpredictable—though they can be probabilistically forecast with accurate models, as in weather forecasts. Note that quantum behaviors can also be probabilistically predicted. The difference is that quantum laws only apply to extremely small phenomena (such as photons/light and electrons/electricity), while complex systems exist at all scales.

Complexity certainly challenges reductionism. The essence of complexity is that, the properties of the whole are more than the sum of the properties of the members. Therefore the dynamics of the whole cannot be reduced to the dynamics of the parts.

The characteristic of emergence in complex systems may also challenge scientific materialism. What emerges in the whole is qualitatively different than what exists in the parts. In applying this view to the mind-brain controversy, one might assert that mind is an emergent property that is based upon brain but is qualitatively different. Simply put, the mental is not reducible to the physical but it exists nonetheless. However, integration is also key to complexity, so a complex view of mental and physical cannot hold them apart, as Cartesian dualism did.

Under any interpretation, complexity is a watershed science. Most of the systems that influence our lives (including all biological systems and all human social systems) are, by definition, complex. So the fact that the dynamics of these systems are casual but non-deterministic is highly pertinent. However, most people are still steeped in a linear, Newtonian view of the world—one that is highly deterministic. The “modern scientific” worldview we tend to see the world through is more than a century out of date. The study of complex systems allows us to develop a new way of thinking—one that is integrated rather than reductionistic—that can better inform our view of and interactions with the world.

If you enjoyed reading this, you might enjoy working with me on personal or organizational development. Explore this website to find further information on my approaches. To SCHEDULE A FREE CONSULTATION, at which we will discuss how I might best serve your needs, go to Contact and call and/or email.