Is reality only real?


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.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Martial Artist says

    Dean Knisely,
    I have an issue pertaining to a particular statement in a section of the referenced article by Kaufman. He writes, using the example of billiard balls on a table: “Given the initial positions and momenta of the balls, and the boundary conditions, we integrate Newton’s three laws of motion, … to derive from the initial Actual positions and momenta of the balls,the Actual positions and momenta of all the balls and any future or past moment of time.” Now, I presume his “and any” in that last sentence should read “at any.” It also seems to me that, at the time at which we are to determine the initial conditions, the balls could be moving or they could be stationary (in reference to the table).
    Having some reasonable amount of practical experience with billiards, and being somewhat familiar with (Newtonian) physics and the calculus, my issue is as follows: specifically how are we to determine the position and momenta of the balls at any time in the past?
    If the balls are moving at the time of the specified initial conditions, and we can specify the frictional losses, we can certainly calculate their positions back to the point at which they were last set in motion. However, it completely escapes me by what method we might be able to ascertain their positions and momenta prior to their coming to rest at that last “shot,” let alone before the constituent atoms/quanta of energy were gathered into one place such that a billiard ball was actually present. Is there something I am missing here, or has he failed to adequately define the problem?
    Keith Töpfer

  2. Martial Artist says

    Some rather peculiar behavior: (1) I pressed the “Preview” button, not the “Post” button, and (2) it seems to have some difficulty rendering the simple HTML that I used (both the tags specified below the commbox and the use of a standard HTML Entity Name for an umlauted, lower case letter o. I will have to remember to use the Anglicized spelling. Probably appropriate for a comment on an Anglican’s blog, I suppose.
    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Toepfer

  3. Keith – I think you’re right to pick at that particular nit. The problem is that if we do a realistic model that includes non-linear effects like friction then we can’t predict with absolute certainty the full past or future of the balls on the table.
    But if we rule out friction, and simply deal with an idealized case, and preclude any notion of a quantized energy (which is the case for a Newtonian view) than what Kaufman says is correct – given a sophisticated calculator, the deterministic Newtonian model would allow us to determine the full motion at all times of the balls on the table. (The balls would not stop moving – since there would be no friction.)

  4. Martial Artist says

    Dean Knisely,
    In which case, there would also be no entropy. Not to mention that, absent friction, after essaying a few shots with the cue stick, I am going to be caroming off of my own personal boundary conditions, id est, the walls.
    That doesn’t seem to be a particularly satisfactory model of “the real world,” if you will pardon my saying so.
    Keith Toepfer

  5. Martial Artist says

    Perhaps it is simply the case that, given our finite human intellect, we simply aren’t capable of ever predicting anything with absolute certainty. Which doesn’t necessarily imply that we should give up the attempt, but rather that we should be prepared to recognize that there are some things which we will not know until we are actually participating in the life of the Trinity post-resurrection.
    Keith Toepfer

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