Substance and matter

©Fernando Caracena 2017

The Ephemeral Nature of Matter

Some people trust only what they can touch and see. They want their whole concept of reality to be grounded on the familiar and the tangible. They imagine that such a picture of reality is solidly grounded; but, physics itself destroys such notions.

Physics began with what people saw around them, which is everything material that is contained in space and lasts long enough to be observed and measured. And yet, there is constant change. Physical reality is like a river. Hereclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher said " You could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you." Amid that change, what is permanent and what is unchanging? Many philosophers did not like the answer that some philosophers gave, "God is the unmoved mover of everything."

Unfortunately, the idea of God transcends all natural forms and cannot by His very nature be defined. A definition by its very nature distinguishes something from its surroundings. In a sense, a definition makes the concept of something finite by reducing it to a subset of something else. But what if you try to define the concept of God, who is infinite? Because the concept of God is so recondite, some philosophers preferred to find causes for everything to be within nature, which they could discover and study in terms of nature itself. The problem here is that nature is an emergent phenomenon and not an ultimate reality. It had had a beginning in an event that is called "The Big Bang". In the early moment of that creative event, nothing familiar existed. From that highly energetic event, "fundamental particles" of physics emerged. As these particles cooled they conglomerated into various structures, from which more familiar forms of matter emerged; and from these forms of matter, emerged the visible universe.

Time as an Emergent Property

The early state of the universe and the emergence of mass, space, time and the four fundamental forces can be approached by considering the various states of matter. Changes that mark the passage of time are transitions that happen among all available states according to the equations of motion. Although the universe had its inception 13.8 billion years ago in our reckoning of its passage, time as it appears in the fundamental equations of motion, has no preferred direction. The equations of motion in physics are invariant under time-reversal (when -t replaces t); however, from thermodynamics, which concerns the behavior of microscopic constituents in the large aggregates that characterize matter on the large scale, emerge the concepts of thermally driven information flow and entropy, from which emerges the arrow of time of our experience. Time, as we feel it, cannot therefore be a fundamental property of physics, but rather, is an emergent property, which is produced by thermodynamics.

Not only is our perceived time an emergent property, but Big Bang Theory presents matter itself as an emergent property.

Matter and its Phases

Einstein's famous equation, E = m c2, expresses the idea that mass is a form of energy that in fact, mass and energy are equivalent. Originally, everything that we see around us emerged from much more primitive states of energy in the Big Bang through a complex of physical reactions.

Consider the three common phases of ordinary matter: gas, liquid and solid. These three phases relate to the states of substances in response to changes in pressure, volume and temperature in ordinary Earth environments. Density and volume are closely related, and one can just as easily specify the states of matter in terms of pressure, density and temperature. Through a specific range of temperatures, densities and pressures many substances are gases, our own atmosphere for example is a gas at ordinary temperatures. At certain threshold temperatures, densities and pressures, gases condense into liquids; and beyond those, into solids. Generally, liquids are denser than gases, and solids, denser than liquids. Water is an important exception, note that ice floats on water.

The success of explaining the properties of substances in terms of atoms and molecules in motion ( kinetic theory ) was in being able to explain the phases of matter in terms of particles moving around in otherwise empty space. The properties of a gas, which exerts a pressure and can expand to occupy the volume equal to that of its container, are explained in terms of molecules of a gas bouncing elastically off each other and off the walls of a container. Likewise, the properties of a liquid, which occupies a fixed volume but assumes the shape of he containing vessel, are explained in terms of molecules that have been slowed down enough (cooled) and brought together close enough to stick under weak forces between them, so that they still tumble over each other, but do not separate. Further cooling allows molecules to freeze in place into some regular geometric pattern, or crystal, clusters which constitute a solid.

In kinetic theory, the temperature of a gas is a measure of the average kinetic energy of a molecule, which in a gas, moves freely until it collides with, either other molecules, or the walls of the container. Something similar happens in a liquid, but in a more restricted way. Molecules move around each other while still being held in close proximity. In a solid, the molecules vibrate in place about their average position.   Kinetic theory works for gases as long as the approximation of particles moving in a void works. In reality, there is no true void. Space is a subtle medium that is full of zero-point energy, which manifests as a plethora of fluctuations including electromagnetic ones. Although space is not nothing, it is not ordinary substance that occupies space; there is no "there" there.

A gas breaks down at some temperature when the average energy of each molecule becomes greater than or equal to its  binding energy. Beyond this threshold, the thermal pounding of molecules against each other is strong enough to break the bond between the component atoms, in which case molecules are replaced by their more fundamental constituents, which are atoms that contain an excess or deficit of electrons. The gas then becomes a mass of charged energetic particles that form what is known as a plasma.

The particles of physics are not bits of matter at all. Instead, we think of them more as processes, such as whirl winds or clouds. The reality of molecules emerges from their states of motion, which are defined over a restricted energy range only. Within that range, the particles behave like things that have an integrity, but beyond that range the particles resolve into their constituents, which may also behave like particles.

At a high enough temperature the molecules of a gas break down into a gas consisting of charged bits of the constituent atoms, which occasionally recombine into molecules. Individual molecules have a lifetime that is limited by the energy of random collisions of other components of the gas. Increasing the temperature even further, so that the average kinetic energy of the gas components passes the binding energy of the orbital electrons of the atoms of the gas, begins to compromise the integrity of the atoms themselves. The result of this extreme condition, is that now charged, subatomic particles appear among the gas constituents, now forming a plasma. Further increases in temperature result in atomic nuclei's further disintegration into protons and neutrons. The series continues, as temperature and pressure are increased, at some point causing electrons to recombine with protons to form neutrons, which is observed to have happened in a neutron star. The eventual result of this process is the compression of matter into quark gluon plasma, which are the components of a heavy particle of the atomic nucleus, or hadron. Ultimately the collapse, results in a black hole. In the end, gravity wins over all, remaining behind, like the Cheshire Cat's smile, when everything else (except information) has been sucked in and disappeared behind the black hole event horizon.

A More Solidly Grounded Model of Reality

Although we cannot draw up a definition of Divine operations in nature and therefore we are unable to incorporate Divine operations into the laws of physics, it is possible to philosophically discuss the connection of an Infinite Creator with the product of that creation in nature. Some of this discussion was taken up in a previous post, Substance and Form–Philosophy and Physics, in which some of the historical philosophical material on the subject was reviewed.

File:Platon Cave Sanraedam 1604.jpg

Plato's Allegory of the Cave by Jan Saenredam, according to Cornelis van Haarlem, 1604, Albertina, Vienna. Public Domain from Wikimedia.

In his book, The Republic, Plato himself recognized that the world of our senses is a kind of deceptive world that shadows a deeper reality. He expressed this relationship through the allegory of the cave, in which people say reality in terms of its shadows cast on a wall of a cave. But what is that reality? In the Judeo-Christian tradition, that reality is the Infinite God Himself, who is the Creator.


Indeed, there is some esoteric Jewish philosophy, the Kabbalah that attempts  establish some connection between the Infinite, unknowable God with his knowable creation.

That idea is further elaborated by Emmanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish philosopher, scientist and mystic, who stated that all of creation is built up of several discrete levels, the articulation of which rhyme by  a precess he calls correspondence. The law of Correspondences is a key concept of Swedenborg's theology and philosophy that links the whole of creation to the infinite, eternal God, who is ultimate reality and the final cause of creation. The concept of correspondence is a powerful, philosophical tool which has a broad base in natural science, where there is a lot of self-similarity and fractal structure that repeats on many scales.

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