The question of the fundamental nature of reality is tackled today on the NPR Cosmos and Culture blog. A very long time ago Democritus suggested that reality is fundamentally made up of indivisible identical chunks which he called “atoms” (for un-cuttable). The atomic world view was a minority position in greek philosophy and relegated to a backwater in enlightment science for quite some time. It was only in the 18th and 19th century, as people began to recognize the scientific roots of alchemy, that atomism began to be studied seriously.
When I was a child, atomism had ceased to be about the elements and instead was taught to us in a philosophical sense in the statement that all matter was made up of protons, neutrons and electrons. That’s not exactly true, and our teachers probably sort of knew that, but the idea that there was a relatively small number of fundamental entities in the Universe was commonly held. I suppose it’s an echo of the physics idea that we should ultimately be able to reduce all of motion, etc. to a simple unified theory.
But these days, both of these ideas, that there’s a small set of indivisible chunks of reality, and that we can reduce reality to a “simple” systematic mathematical model is looking less and less likely. Elementary particles are now thought to live in a spectrum of energy families (like the up and down quark, the electron and the electron neutrino or the charm and strange quarks, the muon and muon neutrino…). Physicists are starting to talk more and more about complexity theory and less about unified theories.
But there’s still a philosophical question that needs to be answered. Is it even proper to talk about the experience of reality in terms of what is “real” or do we need to extend our search to include things like “potential” (or even “order/information”)?
Stuart Kaufmann writes, in part:
“Monism is the view, shared by virtually all scientists, that the world is made of one kind of ‘stuff,’ the Actual world of matter and energy and with some question marks, space and time and information.
There are very good grounds to accept monism. And it has an ancient history. No less an ancient philosopher, Empedocles said, ‘What is real in the universe is what is actual.’
Aristotle was less sure, he toyed with the idea that both the Actual and the Possible were ‘Real.’ He called the Possible ‘potentia’ and meant a variety of things by Potentia. And no less a mathematician and philosopher than Alfred North Whitehead, he of Principia Mathematica in the early 20th Century, written with Bertrand Russell, moved on to think of both Actuals and Possibles as ‘real,’ or ‘ontologically real,’ meaning two kinds of ‘stuff’, Actuals and Possibles in the universe.
I’m beginning, to my surprise to think Aristotle and Whitehead may have been right. If so, the implications seem pretty radical. I’m beginning to think of a dualism, Res Extensa and Res Potentia. It cannot kill us to think about it, and it may be important.”
Full article here.
Kaufmann goes on to trace the development of classical physics and the triumph of Newtonian reductionism as a paradigm as the underlying driver of the widespread adoption of the monistic worldview. But he points out that even early on, Newton was not without his challengers. Descartes, and to some extent the French physics school typified by LaGrange, talked about an alternative view based in part on potentiality, which we today think of as an energy treatment. It’s that potentiality view that underlays the Schroedinger equation, the Heisenberg model and large chunks of quantum reality.
He writes on toward the end of his musings:
On this new dualism, Res Extensa and Res Potentia, what is then waving in the mathematical formalism of Quantum Mechanics is exactly what physicists say, but don’t mean, the waves are waves of “possibilities” (wink wink), and when you square the amplitudes of the waves you get probabilities, Born’s rule, and thank goodness Probabilities obey the law of the excluded middle. We are back on safe turf.
Maybe, just maybe, we have an ontological dualism. We have Res Extensa, the Actual. And we have Res Potentia, the Possible. Both are real as Aristotle hinted and Whitehead insisted.
If you think about it, our entire awake lives are guided by the Possibles we live with and act to create. (See my blogs: Toward a Responsible Free Will, and The Hard Problem Consciousness.) I begin to suspect that what I call the “Adjacent Possible” that grows forever out of the nexus of what is Actual, as in technological evolution, cultural evolution and history, is an ontologically real Possible.
Do read the whole thing. It’s quite an interesting way of explaining the dilemma and it’s easily accessible to the lay reader.