Holistic vs Redutionist Ideas in Physics

©Fernando Caracena 2013

"What I am proposing here is that man's general way of thinking of the totality, i. e. his general world view , is crucial for overall order of the human mind itself. If he thinks of totality as constituted of independent fragments, then that is how his mind will tend to operate, but he can include everything coherently and harmoniously in an overall whole that is undivided, unbroken, and without border (for every border is a division or break) then his mind will tend to move in a similar way, and from this will flow an orderly action within the whole." --David Bohm from "Wholeness and the Implicate Order""

The Mechanical duck of Jacques de Vaucanson (1709–1782), which mechanically mimicked the functions of a living duck. From Wikicommons, public domain. An example of reductionism artistically rendered.               




An example of a holisitc system: The planet Earth as seen from Apollo 17, taken by either Harrison Schmitt or Ron Evans. From Wikicommons, public domain.

Reductionist philosophy has had some success in physics, but it is based on a false premise of  ancient Greek philosophy of the atomists, which is the idea that individual objects can exist on their own without a physical context that serves as a background. The original Greek idea was that there existed individual bits of reality, which could not be altered in any way [the atoms], which flitted around in absolute nothingness [the void]. In  modern physics, space, which has the appearance of a void is actually something: a plenum of virtual processes that have a real effect and enter into the properties of physical particles. The physical electron consists of an electronic center, surrounded by a cloud of virtual processes. At first it appeared that reductionism was correct: that reality could be broken down into components that themselves were real and served as a basis for all reality. In reductionist philosophy our most cherished human values were turned into epiphenomena--"noting buts", which gave rise to our reality through their collective behavior. Some of the modern physicists, chiefly David Bohm, have rebelled against reductionism in favor of Holism: the philosophy that nothing stands alone but depends for its existence on the whole of reality.

Ancient Greek philosophy

Paramenides issued a philosophical challenge in the following form, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy :

"Parmenides had argued that it is impossible for there to be change without something coming from nothing. Since the idea that something could come from nothing was generally agreed to be impossible, Parmenides argued that change is merely illusory. In response, Leucippus and Democritus, along with other Presocratic pluralists such as Empedocles and Anaxagoras, developed systems that made change possible by showing that it does not require that something should come to be from nothing. These responses to Parmenides suppose that there are multiple unchanging material principles, which persist and merely rearrange themselves to form the changing world of appearances. In the atomist version, these unchanging material principles are indivisible particles, the atoms: the atomists are said to have taken the idea that there is a lower limit to divisibility to answer Zeno's paradoxes about the impossibility of traversing infinitely divisible magnitudes."

The atomic philosophy was later presented by Lucretius as a poem entitled, "De Rerum Natura."

Unfortunately for the Greek philosophers, atomism contained a logical contradiction, the existence of a void, which amounts to a statement that nonexistence exists, or in Boolean terms 0 = 1, which according to standard mathematical logic reduces the proposition to an absurdity. Nevertheless, atomism was taken as a valid theory, especially at the turn of the 19th to 20th Centuries when evidence for fundamental building blocks of matter were discovered. They were called atoms. Further research, however, revealed that contrary to the immutability of hypothesized ones, physical atoms are mutable and can be subdivided.  They are composite structures. Physicists also found that a true void did not exist according to quantum theory; rather, space was more of a plenum of activity rather than a void.

Space is not nothing, it is a manifestation of energy density.

What we are dealing with here is a type of appearance that has a real pattern, but is an appearance, which if taken as absolutely true, is a false. Space has the appearance of being nothing, but actually it is something unlike anything else that we experience.

This plenum was first imagined as a subtle material medium (the luminiferous ether), but this idea was discarded as a result of the Michaelson Morley experiment that showed that the speed of light is the same in all directions relative to the Earth's surface, independent of the complex of motions that our planet makes in its journey through space. This medium was hypothesized as the medium that conducts light, in analogy with air's being the medium that conducts sound. They had expected to be able to detect and measure our drift through this light bearing medium, but found none.

Although Einstein destroyed the idea of the ether with his theory of Special Relativity, he reinforced the idea that space is not nothing through his theory of General Relativity, in which the whole structure of space and time could be warped and stretched. How can a bunch of nothing be warped and stretched? Obviously that interstitial thing that we call space cannot be nothing. This idea of space being something was reinforced in cosmology by the idea of the inflation of the universe [Wikipedia] just after the Big Bang, which was proposed in 1980 by Alan Guth and also, Katsuhiko Sato in 1981. According to the Wikipedia article cited above [inflation of the universe], "During inflation, space expanded by a factor of at least 1078 in volume sometime between 10−33 and 10−32 seconds" after the moment of creation--much faster than the speed of light. It was "driven by a negative-pressure vacuum energy density." Nothing cannot be driven and respond to something. From nothing, nothing comes.

So space is a manifestation of vacuum energy density: what we call the zero point fluctuations of the various quantum fields. It is something with unique properties.

The question is, "How can something move faster than the speed of light?" The answer is that the energy density of space invested in the zero point oscillations is not altered by relative motion, which means that it is not limited by the speed of light. But what limited the speed of the initial expansion of the universe no matter how big it was? And why is light limited to a constant relative speed?

Materialistic reductionism was given a boost by the discovery of atoms, which created "nothing-but" explanations for everything. The mind is nothing but the totality of firing of neurons, or states of the brain. Neurons are nothing but molecules, which consist of nothing but atoms, etc. Human realities became epiphenomena: nothing but states of atoms. Unfortunately this kind of thinking established a materialistic philosophy, first in physics, and finally throughout the sciences. In biology, this philosophy has rebounded as Darwinian evolution, as a philosophy that is regularly evoked to bridge logical gaps in materialistic reductionism, which use chance as a device to bridge to the impossible. But is chemistry just physics, and biology just chemistry and physics?

Note that here I am not Disputing Darwin's theory of the mutability of biological organisms, nor the molecular basis of the mechanism of their adaptation to the environment. What I am disputing is the extrapolation of this theory into a philosophy that institutes blind chance as the cause of all adaptive structures, under which category some people include emergent properties in physics. 

The Billiard-Ball type Universe of Democritus is replaced by that of Organisms

Modern physics disproves the version of atomism proposed by Democritus. Permanence, in ancient Greek philosophy was introduced by the hardness and indivisibility of atoms separated by nothingness. Change was allowed by the void that did not interfere with the motion of atoms, which rebounded elastically from each other, sometimes combining and sometimes separating. This billiard-ball type of universe is a very limited model of what happens in the physical world. Quantum mechanics actually pictures the physical world as more like organism than mechanism: not like watches but like biological cells.

Instead of hardness and indivisibility, quantum mechanics calls for the existence of quantum states of motion for the constituents of the universe that are conditioned by the matter matrix, but cannot be created nor destroyed. This is known as the conservation of information, which played a prominent role in a public dispute between premier physicists, Stephan Hawking and Leonard Susskind, which is described in a book ,"The Black Hole War", written by Susskind.

According to an article written by Mae Wan Ho "The Organic Revolution In Science,"

"In the aftermath of quantum theory, English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead declared that physics has to be entirely rewritten in terms of a general theory of the organism. On account of quantum superposition, non-local entanglement, and the mutual entanglement of the observer and observed, Newtonian mechanics is indeed merely a flat projection of organic reality. Inert objects with simple, definite locations in space and time do not exist. Instead, all nature is alive with process and happenings. The totality of all that happens is a pattern of flows and influences, now diverging from one locus, now converging towards another in such a way that "each volume of space, or each lapse of time includes in its essence aspects of all volumes of space, or of all lapses of time."

Maya-The unfolding of Implicate into Explicate Order

According to Indian Philosophy everything is MAYA [illusion], nothing is what it seems to be. Ultimate reality is clothed in veils of appearances. But these appearances have real structure, such as in rainbows that are not really there, but produce real images in the eye. Maya is behind the world of change.

The late David Bohm a physicist and protege of Einstein's had novel ideas far ahead of his times, the validity of which he had trouble in convincing his colleagues. Bohm developed a model of reality that existed as two orders: Implicate Order and Explicate Order.  Others, such as Henri Bergson and William Yeats in the early 1900's, had constructed similar models involving two orders. Even before others mentioned above, Emmanuel Swedenborg [Wikipedia] (1688 – 1772) gave us a picture of reality consisting of an internal world of causes and an external world of effects. The spiritual world is the origin of human consciousness, which affects us only subconsciously while while we are in the natural world; and the natural world, is the world of nature that we perceive consciously with our senses. According to Swedenborg, we are basically spirits who have been tricked into looking at reality through our physical senses. This philosophy is consistent with the MAYA theme. Perhaps the reason we have not heard very much about Swedenborg's ideas despite his extensive scientific and philosophical writing, and bring considered a universal genius, is that he also wrote extensively about religion, as did Isaac Newton; but unlike Newton, his theological works spawned a new branch of Christianity. Ever since the trial of Galileo, science has steered clear of all religious implication, perhaps initially for fear of the Inquisition, but now that continues, perhaps because the two camps are competitors for the human spirit. Had Newton's religious writings taken root and spawned a church, we may not have had an industrial revolution.

No thing is and island

Paul Dirac successfully constructed a theory of the spinning, charged electron that satisfied Special Relativity and conserved particle states. It is contained in a beautiful equation, called the Dirac Equation. He thought that it was a theory of a single particle. It turned out that it had to be patched up logically, in what amounted eventually to a many particle theory of the physical vacuum, which is now called the Dirac sea. Single particles do not exist in the universe because the intense effects of the fields  over their small volume generate hosts of virtual particles that surround them. A single particle becomes a center of activity in space through a cloud of vacuum fluctuations. It quickly becomes a group of and indefinite number of virtual particles and processes. In our universe, everything exists in the context of everything else. No person or thing is an island that stands alone and has self existence.



This entry was posted in History, Op Ed, philosophy, relativity. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *