Lightwaves – Gig Harbor, Washington, Taken by Barry Cosme, Copyright (c) 2009, All Rights Reserved
Classical scientists (and probably many others) typically accept as axiomatic that all physical effects are completely explained, and completely defined, by physical causes. As an example of cause and effect, when a pool stick strikes a que ball, the motion of the first (cause) brings about the motion of the second (effect). Those who accept this axiom completely also believe, whether they have thought it through completely or not, that nothing non-physical exists. Otherwise, if something non-physical actually existed, it could potentially create a physical effect and this is contrary to the axiom above. Such beliefs also propose that there can be no God, as the terms is generally understood, since a Creator that existed prior to the physical universe would, by definition have to be something other than physical and therefore would, of necessity, be “non-physical”.
One of the roles of philosophy is to think through the implications of our assumptions to help make more enlightened decisions regarding these. This is my purpose here as well, done in hopes that the reader will find this useful. Since science has been very successful at understanding many of the aspects of the physical world, these classical ideas have become well accepted. Indeed, these have almost become the unquestioned dogma of science and modern “rational” thought. Thus, for many reasons, they are ripe for reconsideration.
For clarity here, let’s make sure we are talking about the same thing when we refer to the word “physical”. Dictionary.com defines physical as, “of or relating to that which is material” and defines material as, “formed or consisting of matter; physical; corporeal.” As science understands it, the physical universe essentially consists of four components, matter, energy, space and time. If such is not your interest, please hang in here with me for a few minutes as we touch lightly upon a bit of physics; it’s only a few paragraphs.
As part of his special theory of relativity Albert Einstein proposed in 1905 that the mass and energy of a physical thing, or system of things, are equivalent and the relationship between the two is quantified by his famous equation, E = mc2. To translate this equation into English, the amount of energy (E) of a thing equals the mass (m) of the thing times the speed of light (c) squared (2), which is to say the speed of light times the speed of light. Thus, since mass and energy are two equivalent ways to measure the amount of matter, I will use the term “matter-energy” to acknowledge this equivalence. Interestingly, the whole extended spectrum of light is essentially pure energy, having been wholly converted to energy and having no associated mass.
Now let’s talk about the other two components of the physical universe I mentioned before, space and time. Again, Einstein’s role is key to a scientific understanding of these. His relativity theories are over 100 years old, and have been repeatedly upheld in countless experimental results, yet they are probably not conceptually understood by most of the general population. The speed of light in a vacuum appears to be constant in all circumstances, regardless of one’s speed, one’s acceleration, or proximity to a body of matter. While this may not sound particularly enlightening, imagine that you are moving at the speed of light and you use a device to emit a pulse of light in the same direction as your line of travel. Since you are already traveling at the speed of light, would the pulse remain frozen relative to you since light obviously can’t go any faster than the speed of light? In fact, this is not what happens, instead, from your hypothetical view as described, experimental evidence shows that the pulse of light would travel away from you at its universally constant speed. This is very odd but also interesting…
These and other paradoxes lead Einstein to reconsider our previous concept that all actions take place within a fixed background of space and time. He proposed instead that all motion is relative to other motion and that there is no fixed background. Regardless of circumstances (speed, location, acceleration, etc.) he theorized that the behavior of light will seem the same to the local observer. However, for a second observer examining the first, where the relative velocity (speed and/or direction) of the second is different than that of the original, his theory predicts that time slows and length contracts. These effects are difficult to measure at typical velocities but have been countlessly confirmed where the relative speeds significantly approach that of light. Given the degree to which experiments validate these strange predictions, space and time are clearly not independent of each other, but rather are relative and related to each other. As a result they are now often referred to with a single word, “spacetime”.
In 1915 Einstein broadened his prior work to propose that gravity was not actually a force as such but was instead a curvature of space and time in the vicinity of mass/matter. The curvature causes the appearance of gravitational attraction. This idea has also been repeatedly confirmed to be as predicted. So to recap, mass and energy are essentially the same thing viewed in different ways. Space and time are interconnected (spacetime) and the final link, bringing together all of the components of the physical universe, is that matter-energy and spacetime are also connected to each other in that the curvature of spacetime at a location is related to the amount of matter there. Why is this important? The relationships between these components show that, despite their seeming separateness, they are actually all aspects of one related whole. We might say that for every observer, the speed of light defines the relationship between matter, energy, space and time. More on this in a subsequent post.
Now, having outlined what is meant by the term physical in a useful way, let’s return to the original point. To repeat myself, classical thinking tends to view the physical universe as all that exists. This theory proposes that all that exists in the universe is completely understood by understanding the particles, sub-particles, collections of particles and waves shaping spacetime and interacting within it. However, this classical scientific understanding of the universe completely neglects a vital aspect; it fails to explain what understanding itself is.
The idea of “understanding” is normally recognized as a non-physical conception, like love, intelligence, purpose, meaning, etc. There is probably good reason why no one has isolated the particles and/or waves that constitute understanding. Certainly particles and waves can be used as symbols to represent and therefore communicate concepts, but these physical symbols are not the same as the meaning they represent, just like the letters of these words (symbols) are not the same as the ideas we are discussing. In the subjects of these various non-physical concepts mentioned above, the results of science have so far been far less impressive than those in the physical subjects. Maybe this false axiom is the key to the lack of such progress in the non-physical subjects.
Starting with the axiomatic premise above that all of existence is physical, then meaning cannot exist, for meaning is not a physical entity, but a non-physical (conceptual) one. Looking at this from another angle, if the physical is all that exists, then the physical can only define itself in physical terms. However, such a circular definition is itself as meaningless here as it is in all circumstances. For meaning to exists, there must be something non-physical, something that transcends the physical, something conceptual that has a reality to which the physical can be related. Otherwise, the letters on this page/screen symbolize nothing conceptual, nothing meaningful. Indeed, mere circular definitions of physical particles, waves, etc. defining each other is inherently meaningless.
Undoubtedly, someone who believes that the physical world is the totality of existence would view the individual as no more than the physical/biological body, merely a collection of particles and waves. They would probably ascribe understanding to some special function of the brain. Yet, there are significant problems with this view. If the individual is no more or less than a physical object, using the axiom and theorem from above, then the totality of the current state of that object is completely the effect of the physical causes that have acted upon it in the past. In such case, the object would be completely programmed; there would be no cognition, no choice, no free will, no real understanding or intelligence; just a physical thing with the illusion of aliveness. If the reader finds this sensible, then there is no point to reading this, nor any point to my writing it (at least from their viewpoint). Indeed if this were true, there would be no point or purpose to any activity, since the individual as a thing would solely be effect of the programming it received from all prior causes.
So we are left with the recognition that if reality is entirely physical then there is no real meaning or point to science, or to life itself for that matter. Fortunately, this is not true; it is only a cruel illusion based upon a false premise. The individual is not merely a physical thing. Science and other endeavors to discover and understand truth have in fact greatly improved the conditions of life for many. Despite some false dogma, science and technology have still been able to utilize understanding to make meaningful changes to much of the face of the world. Ironically, the very success of science invalidates the classical axiom discussed herein. The non-physical cause (understanding gained through the scientific pursuit of truth) has in fact had impressive results in creating physical effects thus proving that physical effects can be brought about by non-physical causes and indeed that non-physical causes exist.
While few would argue that there is no such things as “understanding” or “meaning”, how do we see these? Where are the located? … I think that it is safe to say that no one has ever directly seen the wind. We only infer its existence based upon the effects it creates. We see it in the motion of branches, the movement of smoke or feel it in the temperature change due to evaporation on our skin. Like the wind, the non-physical is difficult for us to observe directly; it is only easily seen through the effects it creates in the physical world. Using such inference it is fairly easy to identify many non-physical causes. Indeed this is exactly how the theories of science and other wisdom have advanced, inferring the previously unseen from the seen.