Philosophy and Physics

©Fernando Caracena 2014


Physics, which emerged from philosophy as natural philosophy, now in modern physics, have some important ideas to contribute to its parent's thinking. The main issue to be discussed here is the old issue of substance and form, which goes back  to Socrates and Plato and does not seem to me to be resolved within philosophy. Although, the issue created many interesting, philosophical discussions. I remember my wise old philosophy teacher quoting a humorous definition of philosophy as "the midnight search in a dark basement for a black cat that does not exist." Perhaps physics can shed some light on the subject.

Some questions in philosophy have been repeatedly discussed, to the point that professional philosophers, of which I am not one, have invented rules about how to discuss these questions. Here, I am not following such rules. I am just saying, and leave it to the interested readers to delve into whatever details are interesting, and to draw their own conclusions.

What the Ancient Greek Philosophers had to say

Plato saw our world as a collection of objects created by the reception of ideal forms [Forms] onto a passive substance [materia]. Forms that existed in an ideal world were the cause of objects.

“ He supposed that the object was essentially or "really" the Form and that the representative phenomena were mere shadows mimicking the Form; that is, momentary portrayals of the Form under different circumstances.”

--Wikipedia article on Forms

Another way of saying this is that objects are the creation of forms that exist at some higher level of reality, which have been pressed onto a passive media, which is ordinary matter. This picture clashes with modern physics concepts about the nature of matter.

According to Aristotle, the first philosophers, such as Thales.were trying to define the substance(s) of which all material objects are composed.

"Thales' most famous philosophical position was his cosmological thesis, which comes down to us through a passage from Aristotle's Metaphysics."

---Wikipedia article on Thales

Thales proposed that water is the single, original substance, out of which everything else was made. Aristotle states it in his  Metaphysics 983 b6 8-11, 17-21:

"That from which is everything that exists and from which it first becomes and into which it is rendered at last, its substance remaining under it, but transforming in qualities, that they say is the element and principle of things that are. …For it is necessary that there be some nature (φύσις), either one or more than one, from which become the other things of the object being saved... Thales the founder of this type of philosophy says that it is water."

Ancient though ascribed to God the mind that reshaped water into the various matters that constitute nature:

"Thales", says Cicero,[23] "assures that water is the principle of all things; and that God is that Mind which shaped and created all things from water."

Bertrand Russell stated, what many modern philosophers agree with that Thales' stamp on thought is the unity of substance:

"The view that all matter is one is quite a reputable scientific hypothesis."

"...But it is still a handsome feat to have discovered that a substance remains the same in different states of aggregation."


Nietzsche laments that

"Greek philosophy seems to begin with an absurd notion...that water is the primal origin and the womb of all things."

He asks if the idea should be taken seriously, and he replies "yes" for three reasons: because (1) it is a theory of the common root origin of all things; (2) doing so without resorting to an image of fable; and (3) because it contains within itself the seed of the idea that all things are one.

My own thoughts on the subject is that the ancients did not have the technical language to flesh out their ideas of primordial creation. An example is the Book of Genesis of the Bible, in which truth is presented in allegory:

And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.

And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.

Clearly, the ancients were presenting abstract ideas about first created substance and its role in the origin of all things. Thales is hailed by some philosophers as someone who marked the transition from allegorical thinking to one of a more scientific basis; but today, we recognize that water is not a primary substance. It is a composite substance consisting of molecular combinations of hydrogen and oxygen. They in tern, although called atoms, are further composites of still more elementary particles. And these in tern form from a complexity of interactions among quantum excitations in a primordial media that is almost devoid of substantial properties.



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