Thanks! Great Impetus for My Work, & One More Question for Physics

[If you’re interest in Michael Polanyi, who was a world-class physical chemist and an Anglican philosopher of science who in about 1955 wrote Personal Knowledge, a paean of praise to the beauty and precision of science and at the same time a systematic deconstruction of old-style scientific “objectivism,” inspiring Kuhn but much better (if you ask me), go to per caritatem and check out a number of lucid Polanyi posts there — and here.]

I have a new motto for this post, from the Cartalk guys, who claimed to be (supposedly) quoting Albert Einstein! “Once you can convert all the matter in the universe into something that is nothing, the rest is easy….” The mass-energy questions asked below convert into matter-field questions, and these ain’t little questions!

This weblog and the lively conversations we’ve had here over the past few months have propelled me into some intense productivity on my own work. Thanks!

I’ve been working on several scholarly essays concerning Plato’s Ion and Aristotle’s Poetics, and once these are scheduled for publication, I’ll start resuming my posts here on Plato’s Ion. (This just gives you some more time to absorb the ideas on literary theory in the Ion posts — and in the good stuff under “Pages.” Of course I’ll welcome comments on what’s already here, in the meantime.)

Then there’s everything I’ve learned from the physicists — and from the molecular biologist! — who’ve engaged so generously with me here: on quantum mechanics (for 60 fact-packed pages!), on Plato, on the paradigm shift from Newton to Einstein, on the soul, on method in science, on “ink-and-paper vs Hamlet,” and on “gnomes with shovels“!

I’ll have a posting for you soon on the Higgs Boson, detailing what you’ve taught me and how I want to use it in a book for general readership about the science/cultural studies divide. It will also be about how we might find our way through this dreadful “social construction of reality” impasse, an impasse I believe arises strictly within the context of our own Anglo-American intellectual tradition — and because of its particular and distinctive precoccupations.

Our habitual framework of assumptions leads us into misunderstandings when we are assimilating thought that evolved on the Continent, concerning what is being claimed (our word) about “reality” and what “exists.” (The denial of “an external world” emerges during the assimilation into our context, I take it, and does not occur in the original Continental contexts, so when Sokal and Brimont attacked some prominent French thinkers, they were the wrong targets if “social constructionism” was the enemy.)

But right now, until my Higgs Boson post appears, I’d like to address another question to those in the sciences, a question which arises for me when I am contemplating the standard theory, and especially the Higgs field, and remembering what Gavin and David said about the “medium,” as it were, through which electro-magnetic and other quantum waves propagate (i.e. “the universe,” they seemed to say).

Now, it seems that finding the Higgs boson would help to clarify what “mass” is. I get that. But what in the world, then, is “energy”?

In other words, is it the case that the question of what energy “is” has been clarified already for the physics community?

Like, for instance, is it true that even where we have those “vacuums” out in “deep space,” nonetheless all of it is thought to be “filled” with the Higgs energy field? And, I gather, with all of the other quantum energy “waves,” which in a sense seem to diffuse away into infinity? (This is why wave-particle duality is observed even when the wave is split and sent over large distances before being recombined and measured, and why entanglement phenomena manifest even when the pair of particles are separated by very large distances?)

And all of this leads me to the whole question of “being without any mass,” like photons. What does “massless” mean? How can a photon be massless and yet manifest as a particle? How can a massless particle make a “ping” on a screen? (Or is that just what happens with electrons and other particles with mass?)

Energy, I’m assuming (right?), is by definition without mass, since energy converts into mass, and vice versa. E = Mc^2.

And, okay, I’m sorry, but if energy is massless and if it fills “empty” space, in what sense then are we still saying that the science of physics is an empirical science? A science that deals strictly with “physical reality”? How can energy be taken to be a physical and empirical thing, if it has no mass and takes up no space in any material sense? (At least until it is converted into a particle with mass….) Yes, I know that you have plenty of evidence that energy exists, but how is it a material thing? And if it is, then how are we defining material or physical reality these days? (Not the way it’s done on some of the science blogs….)

Okay, I’ve done some research and I see mass vs energy comes down to the difference between fermions and bosons? So deep space is filled with a boson wave field?

Thanks for any insights and any good links you can give me on this — which I realize to be the sort of question that only a humanist, most likely, would ask…. (Maybe this kind of consideration is the reason that it seems more physicists today self-identify as “Platonists” or as “positivists,” than as “realists”?) P. S. Found a fascinating piece on mass-energy equivalence in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy — see the section on Philosophical Interpretations.

And don’t suppose, my gentle readers, that I’ve forgotten about the “soul,” either, or about the issues involving theism vis-a-vis science. I’m just getting everything “set up” here, to tackle these inquiries you’ve made, with some degree of precision….

23 thoughts on “Thanks! Great Impetus for My Work, & One More Question for Physics

  1. HI

    It seems there are a lot of confusions, but I will try to address even though I am not a physicist as you know.

    E = mc^2 is not entirely correct here. The correct formula should be E^2 – (pc)^2 = (mc^2)^2, where p is the momentum. For a massless particle, m = 0, but it can still have a non-zero momentum and non-zero energy. (E = mc^2 can be understood as the equation when the object is at rest – something that never happens with a massless particle – or that m here is relativistic mass.) And being massless doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist in any material sense. We all know that light can interact with matters. That is physically observable. We experience it every time we open our eyes. The energy of photon is used to change the structure of a small molecule in our eyes, which in turn triggers a signaling cascade.

    Now, my knowledge of particle physics is very limited. But perhaps finding Higgs boson would not so much clarify what mass is, but rather it would confirm the current understanding of how things have mass (in the context of quantum field theory). Physicists have sufficient agreement on what “mass” and “energy” mean to be able to talk about them and do experiments without confusion.

    I think the problem is that when you hear something is without a mass, you imagine something hollow, something ghost like and you are not sure if something without mass can exist in material sense. Am I guessing right? But the reason that we can believe that something exists is because we can detect it somehow, because it interact with something else some how. So, we can believe in the existence of something as ghostly as neutrinos, but there is no use in believing in ether – something once firmly believed – because it is not detectable. (And what about God?!) There is no reason to exclude something massless, especially if it includes something that we can detect with our own eyes. Is seeing the light reflected by an object less real than the sensation of touching the object?

    Perhaps because I am ignorant about Saussure, I’d expect that knowing Saussure would prepare you to understand that meaning (or values) of words like “energy” and “mass” in physics could be different from the way you picture in your mind. Perhaps the opposite happens. Is that why you like to use a word like “soul” which can mean whatever you like it to mean?

  2. the poet

    Do we use the word “soul” to mean whatever we like? Aren’t we talking about the life force, the energy that animates the physical body? Isn’t it scientifically observable, at death, that such an energy leaves the body? The life force that God, in the parable, tells the rich man, “this night will be required of thee.”

    Has anyone else been seduced by Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy? Heretical, yes (actually, I’m 2/3 through and still don’t know for sure). Scientific? Well…. A great read (and all about dark matter!), yes, yes!!

    I can’t even pretend to know anything about partical physics. However, I also happen to be reading Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain and I’m finding his adolescent search for a proof of God oddly congruent with what Pullman is doing. As Janet once said to me, we don’t wake in the middle of the night and wonder about the tooth fairy, we don’t yearn for the tooth fairy, but there does seem to be a need to know God, for most people, in most times and places throughout human history.

  3. HI

    the poet wrote:
    “Aren’t we talking about the life force, the energy that animates the physical body?”

    So do you mean something like vital force as in vitalism? Probably you say no, or if not you, many people will probably disagree that’s what they mean by the word “soul.”

    Some people may say soul has something to do with mind and consciousness. Then do animals have souls? Do insects have souls? Do plants have souls? People will have different opinions.

    People who believe in afterlife, whether in the form of heaven vs. hell or reincarnation, believe in soul that can be separated from the material body. (And people who believe in reincarnation must believe that insects have souls, too.) But other people may not think that soul is separable from the body.

    So, soul can mean different things for different people, or different things even for the same person. I don’t think anything wrong if you the poet want to use the word “soul” poetically. But using it in this kind of discussion doesn’t really help, in my opinion.

  4. Hi, good to hear from you!

    You say: “Physicists have sufficient agreement on what “mass” and “energy” mean to be able to talk about them and do experiments without confusion.”

    Yes, I agree, this is exactly right, and Saussure leads in this same direction. We use carefully defined words (and symbols in formulas) to represent a state of affairs, but the work we do is heuristic, aimed at discovering more about that state of affairs……..

    Well, I had written a whole long response here and then I accidentally erased it with one wrong key stroke. Drats! I HATE this about blogging. (Or is there some command to restore deleted text, when writing in these comment spaces? Help!)

    So I’ll redraft the rest of my responses later. (Sorry!)

  5. Hi writes: “I think the problem is that when you hear something is without a mass, you imagine something hollow, something ghost like and you are not sure if something without mass can exist in material sense. Am I guessing right? But the reason that we can believe that something exists is because we can detect it somehow, because it interact with something else some how. So, we can believe in the existence of something as ghostly as neutrinos, but there is no use in believing in ether – something once firmly believed – because it is not detectable. (And what about God?!)”

    Indeed, what about God!

    This is the conundrum for me. You science folks say that energy (say light) EXISTS “because we can detect it somehow, because it interacts with something else some how.” And yes, this is the case.

    But it certainly overturns the original Newtonian idea that what exists in the natural world is “inert matter” behaving according to determinist “laws.” We need a much better description than this, for the dynamic exchanges of fields and matter on the probabilistic quantum level!

    Okay now, here’s what I really don’t understand about scientific empericism in light of all this. The physicists on this weblog have stressed the importance of the concept of “emergence” for the future of science, and you, Hi, have reinforced the idea that biological phenomena cannot be dealt with satisfactority simply by reducing them to chemistry and physics but must be deal with on their own level of organization.

    In the same way, old-style scientistic types like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett are trying to work with “mentalist” phenomena on the level of those phenomena, non-reductively (they don’t want to simply reduce the brain’s reality to its neural connections, even though that is a valid physical level of course to study, and does underlie mentality).

    So what about God? Well, I can hear y’all pointing out — those of you who are not theists, that is, because a lot of you are — that God cannot be detected as an effect of a photon on a molecule in the eye leading to a cascading chain of physical responses. But who ever claimed that God is a material entitity in the first place? Most of us do believe God is IN all of matter, in a formal, sustaining sense — that matter’s inherent self-organizing reality came from an ultimate source and one that we wish to thank and worship. But I am not claiming that God is like a ghost or something empty and hollow, simply because God is not reducible to a material entity that goes ping against a screen.

    Now I’d like to remind us, right here, of our famous “ink-and-paper versus Hamlet” debate (under Session One Part 4), when Gavin said that when a phsyicist claims that the reality of “Hamlet” is ink marks on paper, he or she means “physical reality” and does not mean to deny the reality of Shakespeare’s play and its complex associations with history and culture and literary theory and so forth.

    So what kind of reality does “Hamlet” have? Scientists might say, well, every single response we have as persons (with human and linguistically organized brains) as we read and watch and discuss and read about the play could be reduced in principle to neural patterns and even to the underlying physics, but this doesn’t “explain” the reality of “Hamlet” on its own levels of reality. And “Hamlet” is very, very REAL. But the play isn’t any more real than my experience of God, or my faith community’s collective love for God, or our practice of worship together, or the very disconcerting and humbling internal critique that I constantly receive from this beloved and overwhelmingly beautiful spiritual source of all being.

    It’s important, though, I think, that I don’t make bigger truth claims than this. I can say that I personally have come to know a little of God, and I can tell you how it happened (all the evidence) and what that means to me and what it has meant to others at other times and places, but I cannot claim to be surer than that, on any basis that is surer than that. I accept the Judeao-Christian scriptural tradition as being a result of God’s unfolding historical interactions with human beings, and as a spiritual authority in my life, but I still have to struggle to interpret it and cannot claim to be sure that my interpretation (my community’s tradition of interpretation) is fully right — in fact I am quite sure that it is not, and quite sure that God is not limited to this historical tradition, because above all else, God is Love.

    But here’s what I don’t get. Why can’t scientifically oriented people, who know full well that many, many scientists are theists, understand that for me to deny the reality of God as made known to me over the course of my life would be to commit intellectual suicide? That I could not in all honesty deny the multitude of ways in which I have “detected” God and have known God “interacting somehow.” And yet what I have come to know a little bit is not like a ghost or a force that interrupts or contradicts the dynamic natural order. Like all theists in the Hebraic or Christian traditions I understand God as IMMANENT IN all of reality, formally active on every level of reality in the ways science studies and on higher levels of mental emergence other disciplines study — and at the same time I understand that God is TRANSCENDENT, or not limited simply to the reality of the cosmos and the human world.

    The most speculative parts of my faith, about the afterlife or about miraculous interventions in the natural order, to me are very counter-intuitive. But they have always been presented as surprises, even scandals, and Christianity’s biggest scandal was that it offered the hope that bodies-and-souls would be resurrected (and not ghostly souls all by themselves, and I greatly doubt such things). Augustine said that the soul (anima) was the “life” of his body, and that God was “the life of the life of my soul.” That’s certainly a good description of how I experience God as a reality. Furthermore, that “soul” is an embodied soul, such as the poet has talked about, all that dearly loved personality and uniqueness that lives as that body’s life and disappears when the body dies. Scientists don’t need to explain that physically a resurrection is impossible. That’s exactly what it’s offered as, an impossible hope, based on the incredible vitality of that uniqueness that we love and are greived so much to part from.

    These aspects of the faith are offered as hopes. I do find, though, that for myself, the afterlife doesn’t matter very much in itself. It’s the fundamental structures of the Christian faith becoming real to me here in this life, that matters to me. For many years I felt the Incarnation of God in nature and in the plant and animal world, long before I ever believed in God or Christ. Then for many many years I understood and knew the suffering and crucifixion of that indwelling goodness and innocence, as God refused to be parted from us in our deepest human pain and despair. Only recently has the Resurrection also finally come to be real to me, here and now, as something I deeply know and experience as I live on this earth. Before that, it was only a hope I yearned for.

    So this is the basis of my faith, my own history. For me, the Christian message has been entirely fulfilled if it is just here and now in this life. I wouldn’t mind simply dying and returning to the divine source as the Old Testament taught that all the creatures into which God breathed an “anima” do.

    Because by the multitude of acts and thoughts of love and sacrifice by others and the indwelling of the divine in the world, I have experienced a liberation from an unending and intense misery into a wonderful solidity of personhood that has got to be a miracle of the highest order, and yet “caused” in and through the realities of this world. I couldn’t care less, really, if there is an afterlife, except for the sake of other sufferers, less lucky than I have been, and because I would like a way of knowing and loving the redemptive Person better and more deeply.

    It seems to me that all of our disciplined ways of knowing build a basis for us, upon which we come to be comfortable with the more speculative aspects of our disciplines. Thus, Gavin can be perfectly happy with the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum collapse, even though, frankly, it does sound lunatic in the abstract and taken all by itself — without the maths. (No wonder David protested and lamented that Gavin even mentioned it!)

    Today, many scientistis and mathematicians are self-declared “Platonists,” who have come to believe in the “necessary existence of all possible mathematical universes,” which might sound pretty New Agey if we didn’t know better…. And Richard Dawkins himself can freely admit that he “believes” in something “numinous” out there, that someday we will discover, that’s better than anything we could ever conceive of or imagine. (And that’s respectable for a self-proclaimed atheist to believe, as long as that something isn’t called “God.”)

    The wars of science and religion have arisen out of the inflated truth claims, the absolutism, that has come to characterize the extremists in both camps since the rise of science in the 17th century. It peaked toward the end of the 19th and, while each of the disciplines refuted it, it still manifested itself in the totalitarianisms and absolutist ideologies of the 20th century.

    Intellectually, we’ve moved way past this now, in all of the disciplines, and yet the trickle-down of cutting-edge thought always takes many decades. I’m concerned that we need to be teaching our young scientists and our young theists about the plurality of the ways of knowing, the dialectic between them, the limitative results of what any of them can reveal to us, and the way each looks at a part of reality, and sometimes a disputed or controversial “part” of it. We need to be affirming both the sciences and cultural studies (including religion and philosophy), and if we put scientism behind us we can teach the liberal arts now as never before!

    The new epistemic humility offers the most exciting opportunity for the next generation to engage in genuinley transformative thinking, and to direct it at our most pressing problems, and not at an abstract late-modern ideal of Knowledge and Certitude. Instead, we seem to be teaching young people easy relativism, anything goes, and the bankrupcy of hard thought. We have Fundamentalists and science bloggers who seem never to have heard of epistemic humilty and how the conversational dialectic leads to epistemic rigor and fruitfulness.

    I worry — are we so bogged down in divisive academic squabbling that we can’t see the moment in history that is ours? There’s a spell-binding vision here, made possible through the critique of scientistic modernity, and NOT leading to mere relativism, about that we can point the next generation toward. And it’s a lot like the original vision of the liberal arts that inspired Western thought as a dialectical plurality of ways of knowing for 2000 years.

  6. HI

    I have been having trouble posting my comment for the last several days. I try again, although it may be better if it doesn’t appear.

    I see a parallel between god and ether. Ether was an idea that used to be firmly believed. But the simplest idea of ether was not compatible with Michelson-Morley experiment nor Maxwell’s equations. Something had to give. A seemingly nice solution would be to tinker the concept of ether, namely by introducing Lorentz transformation. Now they had ether that was compatible with the experiment. That was until Einstein pointed out that the modified version of ether was no longer meaningful.

    So, on one hand there was the old version of ether that would have been meaningful had it been compatible with the experiments. On the other there was the new version of ether that was compatible with the experiments, but was reduced to be meaningless. It was not possible to be both compatible with the experiments and meaningful.

    In many situations, there is a trade-off. In the uncertain principle, if you want to know the precise position, you sacrifice the information about the momentum. Likewise, it seems to me, that if you make your concept of god more compatible with science, you loose the “godness” of the god, the very appeal that you want to believe in god. Gods that frequently and actively intervene with human lives, answering the prayers and causing miracles along the way, are difficult to reconcile with science. You can’t have it both ways.

    It seems to me that many scientists who are believers keep a delicate balance to make their gods as compatible with science as possible but still meaningful enough for them. For example, read what Rob Knop of Galactic Interaction blog wrote about his faith. But it is difficult keep all the attributes of god that are traditionally believed in religions this way. Einstein can be considered to be an extreme example. (Although I don’t think it appropriate to consider him among the believers any more when he himself explicitly said he was not religious.) When the concept of god is made as pure and neutral as Einstein did, I have little problem. (And I believe Dawkins said so, too.) I would have preferred if he had not use the word “god” as it is contaminated with all the other images associated with it. But Einstein made clear what his god was not. He did not believe “in a God who concerns himself with the fates and the actions of human beings.” If this is close to traditional Judeo-Christian concept of god, why was Spinoza a controversial figure? Are you willing to go this far?

    I have also encountered a graduate student in biology who was a creationist. It is strange how her biology and creationism can coexist in her head. I also met a Jewish student who had no trouble believing in the god that gives a special favor to his people. It doesn’t seem like he understood what that would mean to the Indians and the Chinese and the Japanese who worked with him. I think these are examples of compartmentalizations of thoughts. These are opposite of what I think is great about science. Newton’s breakthrough came out when he realized that the same laws can describe the motions of the stars and the motion of a falling apple. (Not to mention that the same laws apply today as well as yesterday.) Likewise, a great advance in chemistry was made when it was shown that organic substances can be synthesized without the help of any “vital force”. At the chemical level, there is no difference between the living and non-living. There is nothing that is privileged. The earth is no longer the center of the universe. It is true that we have all these different disciplines, such as physics, chemistry, biology, etc. And I said chemistry is not merely applied physics, and biology is not merely applied chemistry. (And I would add that knowledge of acoustics won’t make you a better musician.) So, there is specialization. But that doesn’t mean that these different fields are independent to each other. Chemistry certainly binds what biologically possible. However excellent baseball pitcher you are, you cannot break the laws of physics. (And who says physics is superior to baseball?)

    So, where do you fit? It seems to me that you want to have it both ways. And you seem to think you can have it both ways by defining the god as flexible as possible and making sophisticated philosophical arguments.

    Statements like “God exists.” or “God is real.” are only meaningful if we agree on what we mean by “god,” “exist” or “real.” In what sense is “Hamlet” real? In a sense that “Hamlet” the man lived the life exactly like the way depicted in the story, or in a sense that the STORY of Hamlet exists in the minds of us who read the story? Likewise, it seems to me that it is the STORY of the god that really exists and not the entity you call god. We can make god exist depending on the meaning of the word “exist,” but that may also allow existence of unicorns and dragons. And what do we mean by “god”? Are you willing to limit the god the way Einstein defined it? Why do you care to call it “god” anyway? Isn’t is because the word “god” carries with it a flavor of traditional god that you are attached to?

    (This reminds me of a character in a novel by the Japanese Christian writer Shusaku Endo. The character, a young Japanese priest suggests using the world “onion” instead of “god”. In the story, he is considered heretic. In real life, some of Endo’s harshest critics were fellow Christians. Being an atheist, of course my view is different from that of Endo. But I feel a sympathy for Endo who struggled with his faith in a country where Christians are minorities and who had to ask tough questions about his faith.)

    What about emergence? I have a mixed feeling about the word emergence. On one hand, I genuinely believe it is a useful concept and that there are phenomena that can be rightly described as emergent. (And the examples were discussed.) So, I’m in no way going to join the people who want to purge the word. (See the link below.) But on the other hand, it is true that emergence is often used to conveniently categorize anything mystical and magical and not well-understood. And I suspect that’s the way you are using the word emergent. But I really don’t understand your use of the word emergent, except to think that it is different from the way I use it.

    But let me try to make some connection. Here is a quote form the following discussion about emergence.
    h ttp://

    “Supposedly, in the early nineties when the Russians were trying to transition to a capitalist economy, a delegation from the economic ministry went to visit England, to see how a properly market-based economy would work. The British took them on a tour, among other things, of an open-air fresh foods market. The Russians were shown around the market, and were appropriately impressed. Afterwards, one of the senior delegation members approached one of his escorts: “So, who sets the price for rice in this market?“ The escort was puzzled a bit, and responded, “No one sets the price. It’s set on the market.“ And the Russian responded, “Yes, yes, I know, of course that’s the official line. But who really sets the price of rice?“”

    Perhaps you could call the “invisible hand” that makes the market function as the “god” of the market. But what would you achieve by doing so? Would you achieve any deeper understanding of how the market works? Would you worship the god of the market? In fact it would be quite misleading to anthropomorphize the system that functions without a single central player giving the orders.

    I don’t question that you are genuinely fascinated by science. But it seems to me that you are often cherry-picking the science and the scientists that conform to your world view and in some cases interpreting the science in such a way to conform to your world view. (Weren’t some of the earliest posts by David and Gavin objections to your interpretation of relativity?) I think that if there is something we can learn from the history of science, it is that the nature doesn’t care what human being thinks. Quantum mechanics and relativity are certainly examples. When the physicists found the their old world view was wrong, they didn’t commit intellectual suicides. They embraced the new reality and that made the science richer. I find it liberating that the nature doesn’t care what human thinks, because it means that the nature doesn’t favor anyone. This is the reason that I don’t feel disadvantaged to do science as a non-Westerner, even though the modern science originated in the West. (There was a time when Japanese scientists were considered to lack originality and all they could do is to imitate. And lack of philosophy was attributed to it. But I think it was mostly proven wrong, I’m happy to say.) We can all appreciate the beauty of nature. But why do I have to give the credit to the god, and Christian god in particular?

  7. Hi, this is such a wonderful post. I am so sorry it didn’t come through weeks ago, when he first wrote it. On the other hand, I have been dealing with a death in the family and wouldn’t have been able to comment at that time.

    All the issues you so very perceptively and thoughtfully bring up are the very ones I’ve struggled and struggled with myself. I love the book by Endo you mention: called Silence. Everyone should read it.

    I am still not up to full strength, but I want to respond to all of your points as I am able, in the days to come. It is hard to express myself, because I am trying to think through to a new and different synthesis or relationship between science and religion. And I keep trying because I am unwilling to be unfaithful to the beauty and rigor of science or the beauty and rigor of the “good” that is sometimes called God. To do either would be intellectually dishonest for me.

    Also, I go back to a time in the West when science and religion were connected in something of the way you point to in Einstein and Spinoza, and yet because different contrasts were in place, the effect was quite different from this neutral mystery that Einstein (and yes, Dawkins too) are in awe of. Why does Dawkins say that the “something” that is out there is something “better than anything we can imagine”? Why does he use a qualitative term like “better” that is related to “good,” based on his acquaintance with the scientifically known universe. How is awe and beauty and precision in nautre related to the Good? But we all have such deep intuitions about this. I think the main thing that has changed today to my deep regret is that Christianity (or Judaism or Islam) has ceased to be an attempt to know and learn about all of this, and has become instead a matter of making claims about “what is.” This is why it is so important to me to specify what is involved in coming to know in the various arts and sciences by seeing them as heuristic, as they were for Plato and Aristotle, and not dogmatic. Well, thank you again and I will write much more later.

  8. the poet

    The part of this discussion that has really fascinated me is the debate over whether the soul exists or not. On the other hand, I have to admit I feel unequal to any scientific proof of faith. I’m a professing Christian, but as I often say, I’m not sure I’m a very good Christian. Is the soul simply consciousness, mind? (In that case, what is it that John Bayles responds to when his wife Iris Murdoch is no longer “herself” but an Alzheimer patient?) I don’t think, however, that this is a question to be relegated to the poets. We should all be caught up by wonder, at the natural world as much as about the “invisible” world, whether that is of consciousness or beauty or imagination or neutrinos. Here’s a poem by Mary Oliver that I think expresses at least a facet of my anti-dogmatic view:

    Some Questions You Might Ask

    Is the soul solid, like iron?
    Or is it tender and breakable, like
    the wings of a moth in the beak of the owl?
    Who has it, and who doesn’t?
    I keep looking around me.
    The face of the moose is as sad
    as the face of Jesus.
    The swan opens her white wings slowly.
    In the fall, the black bear carries leaves into the darkness.
    One question leads to another.
    Does it have a shape? Like an iceberg?
    Like the eye of a hummingbird?
    Does it have one lung, like the snake and scallop?
    Why should I have it, and not the camel?
    Come to think of it, what about the maple trees?
    What about the blue iris?
    What about all the little stones, sitting alone in the midnight?
    What about roses, and lemons, and their shining leaves?
    What about the grass?

    Mary Oliver

  9. John

    This reference provides a unique understanding of the baneful limits of the world dominant ideology of scientism in which we are ALL trapped—Webers deadly iron cage.


    Plus on the origins & consequences of the scientism versus exoteric religiosity culture wars.


    And on the mommy-daddy “creator” god of exoteric religion—the Parental Deity. Most atheists (quite rightly) dont believe in the Parental Deity.


  10. Gavin

    E=mc^2 only applies to an object at rest. Particles have energy, momentum and mass. They are related by

    E^2 = m^2*c^4 + p^2*c^2

    where E^2 means “E squared,” E is energy, p is momentum, and m is mass. The mass of various particles is fixed, independent of their momentum and energy. For an object that is not moving (no momentum) the relation above gives

    E^2 = m^2*C^4 + 0
    E = m*c^2

    So this famous equation relates the mass of a particle to the energy it has when it is not moving. (Some people talk about rest mass and say that the mass increase as the particle speeds up. This is garbage. They are actually talking about energy. It is a misconception about relativity from the early days that we never quite eliminated.)

    The velocity of an object is given by

    v = p*c^2 / E

    If the momentum is small, then E is close to m*c^2, so the velocity is

    v = p*c^2 / m*c^2

    solving for p gives the usual momentum formula for slow moving objects

    p = m*v

    This formula is only correct for slow moving objects.

    For objects that have velocities much smaller than the speed of light, you can also show

    E = mc^2 + (1/2)mv^2

    where (1/2)mv^2 is the usual formula for kinetic energy. Again, this is only good for objects moving much more slowly than the speed of light.

    Now let’s look at an object with no mass. The first formula becomes

    E^2 = 0 + p^2*c^2
    E = p*c

    So the objects has energy and momentum, but no mass. Cool! Let’s check the velocity in this case.

    v = p*c^2 / E
    v = p*c^2 / p*c
    v = c

    So any object with no mass must always travel at the speed of light. Its energy comes from its momentum, not from its mass.

    Objects with momentum much greater than m*c also travel very close to the speed of light. This is what particle accelerators do. The take a particle with a small m and push and push, increasing p and E. E and p can be increased without limit, but the particle will never go faster than the speed of light.

    The gravitational field actually connects to energy and momentum, not to mass. So photons have gravitational fields even though they are massless.

    Waves have some very similar looking equations, which I won’t repeat, relating the frequency, the wavelength and a restoring force for the wave. Quantum mechanics takes advantage of this similarity by equating energy with frequency, momentum with one over the wavelength, and mass with the restoring force. If you talk about what is going on using energy, momentum and mass, it sounds like particles, if you talk about it using frequency wavelength and restoring force it sounds like waves. That is wave particle duality.

  11. Gavin

    First, I caught one typo in my equations. Every c should be a lower-case c. The capital C is a mistake.

    Second, I began going through your specific questions to see if I could come up with a program for answering them all, but I could not. This is very complicated stuff that you are getting into, so I don’t intend any insult when I say that you are pretty confused. You are going to have to purge a lot of what you are thinking in this department to get back to something that has a connection to physics. Reading the article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that you cited gives me some idea why. You’ve been reading things that philosophers write about physics, haven’t you. That is a bad habit. You can see why by looking at the citations to that article. All of the scientists quoted where writing in the 60s or much earlier. Everyone after that is philosophers working off of those outdated physics ideas. For example, that article has the nonsense about rest mass versus relativistic mass. No body does that any more. Mass is mass, and is related to energy and momentum in the way I described. That article is guaranteed to create a lot more confusion that understanding. It is fine to read what philosophers say about physics, but you can’t learn physics that way. You have to understand the physics first, then you can read the philosophers observation (at which point you will realize that many of the philosophers have not followed this advice and are talking nonsense.)

    You say that finding the Higgs boson would help clarify what mass is. Actually, it wouldn’t. Mass is a property that things have. We don’t need to know what it is; it is mass. What we might like to know is why it isn’t zero for most particles. (It turns out that this has almost nothing to do with fermions and bosons, by the way. There are certainly massive bosons, and the lightest fermion may be massless.) The Higgs field would explain why so many particles have a mass that is not zero. This is different from describing what mass “is.”

    Likewise, there is no need to determine what energy is. Some things have this property we call energy. They also have a property called momentum, and they are all related in the manner I explained in my previous post.

    You then say that you expect that energy has no mass by definition. Since mass and energy are properties of other things, this makes no sense. Things have mass (sometimes zero) and energy (and momentum, charge, lepton number, etc.) These properties can’t have the other properties.

    Moving on, space is filled with all of the fields, including the Higgs field. The value of these fields can be zero or not. It appears that the Higgs field does not have zero value even in a vacuum. It is not, however, the “Higgs energy field.” It is the Higgs field, and it may have energy. In fact, it appears that the field has no energy, even though the field is not zero. The field seems to be weird in that it actually would have energy if the value of the field were zero. So the state of zero energy is not the state of zero field, nor the other way around.

    I can’t make heads or tails of the rest. I don’t mean that to be dismissive, but this is so far from our actual understanding of the world that I can’t move forward. This is tricky stuff. It is going to need to be taken in much smaller doses if you want to get there. Leaping off to wave particle duality and whether energy is a material thing when you are still not comfortable with special relativity is a recipe for chaos.

  12. Gavin, You’re back! Don’t cringe, but I have really wanted to ask you some questions. Specifically physics questions!

    But your comments take me aback. They are very helpful, don’t get me wrong. But they mystify me afresh.

    Look, if scientists and humanists are going to talk to each other, it can’t depend on me learning to think all the way like a physicist thinks, by basically becoming a physicist, or you learning to think like a semiotician, because we don’t have long enough lives. We’re going to have to be able to meet each other part way and not be afraid to make fools of ourselves, as I have done by foolishly asking about energy and mass. What I am really thinking of is how your current theories would compare to the 17th century’s assumptions about “matter” as a solid physical substance extended in fixed dimensions of space and time….

    But I can get at my questions now in a new way, by going through your comments and asking more questions. Thanks!

  13. Gavin


    It is true that you can’t learn all of physics but you have to figure out how you are going to deal with that. You can’t start a comparison of a 17th century ship to a nuclear submarine by calling up the company that makes the sub and asking them to explain how it works. You are going to need to really focus in on what you want to know. Maybe the Higgs field is it, or maybe energy or mass or wave function collapse. You can’t do it all, but you aren’t going to get anywhere if you jump all over the place. What are you trying to do?

    If you can decide what you want to learn, then you can actually learn it so when I come back in a few months I’m not tearing my hair out again. I know its hard because I want to learn it all too, but I try to pick something and stick with it until I’ve made real progress.

    Also, you are going to have to do the math, at least some of it. You cannot understand physics without math any more than you can understand music without sound. That is going to limit what you can do, but there’s nothing I can do to fix that. Can you translate semeotic theory into equations so I can understand it? We are only going to get tastes of each others’ fields, so we need to decide exactly what we are after.

    To answer one question, yes I really cannot tell you if energy is a physical thing. If you define a physical thing as “a solid material object in the seventeenth century manner.” then about all I can say is that in the seventeenth century we had no idea what was going on. Energy isn’t solid though, I’m willing to say that much. You can’t set your coffee on it, usually. By that definition water isn’t a physical thing either.

  14. I’m sorry, Gavin. I shouldn’t have deleted my rash comment after I had had time to read you carefully but I thought I would retract it before anyone saw it. Never again! But I don’t think you give me enough credit for studying the math. I do study it and then I want to set it in relationship to earlier conceptualizations of the natural world….

    It’s something of a truism that physicists think in terms of mathematics. Your first comment above demonstrates that! (And humanists think in verbal conceptualizations.) So can we translate for each other at all?

    You do not “need to know” what mass “is” or what energy “is,” because they are well-defined variables in formulas that have been experimentally tested and refined over several hundred years. Now, I remember that for Galileo, Descartes, Leibnitz, and Newton — since I’m a 17th-century scholar basically — mass was at first conceptually associated with what we call “weight” and was based on volume and on density of matter, because “objects” were thought of as varying quantities of “solid matter” extended in time and space, and time and space were thought of as fixed (non convertible) dimensions that could be quantitatively measured.

    So, Gavin begins: “E=mc^2 only applies to an object at rest. Particles have energy, momentum and mass.”

    And so on, throughout the comment, Gavin uses the term “object.” Particles are referred to as objects, and Gavin says that there are particles with mass and particles without mass.

    Now I can read the relationships expressed in the formulas and they make sense, even though I haven’t seen in detail how those formulas were established, and so I don’t “know” them like Gavin does.

    But, for admittedly philosophical purposes, and admittedly thinking as a humanist, I still have to ask Gavin, “what is an object”? How would you describe it, when you are using the term repeatedly in the course of your comment? Because it certainly is not the solid physical object, made of inert matter, that the 17th-century “natural philosophers” were thinking of. For them, of course, all objects had mass. And objectivity was characterized by thinking the way that natural philosophers thought when they formulated the strictly deterministic laws that governed how emperical “objects” universally behaved.

    When Galileo rolled his balls down inclined planes and counted off the time and marked the distances, he came up with a ratio, regardless of the size and weight of the balls or the steepness of the incline. The balls always rolled four times as far in twice the time, and nine times as far in three times the time. He theorized that a force (gravity) was causing this acceleration, and he hypothesized from this evidence to an ideal law for the rate of acceleration of any object in a “free fall” in a vacuum. For Galileo and Newton it seemed the natural world consisted of a plurality of physical objects (i.e. things made out of inert matter) that obeyed the law of inertia and somehow exerted reciprocal attractive forces upon one another, though Newton was very unhappy with the idea of action at a distance.

    In the world of Newtonian mechanics it isn’t hard to define what an object is. But isn’t this early sort of matter versus “immaterial” dichotomy far too crude to correlate with the constitution of the natural world today? (We need a fresh new interdisciplinary vocabulary — my old theme again.)

    Anyway, what’s an object, Gavin? What’s this “thing” that can have “properties” like energy and mass and momentum? (Is a field a thing?)

    Please don’t think I’m twitting you. I’m very serious about this question, which may help to explain the communication gap between the disciplines. (In semiotics, we too have gone toward a purely formal description of the state of affairs we deal with. And it turns out that for us, sign-things “are” the places in the total formal system where the constitutive formal relationships can be viewed or registered as if they were substantive identities.)

  15. Gavin

    I will try to define what an object is in special relativity, but that definition is not going to work when we try to go to another level, like quantum field theory, for example.

    Here are some examples of objects: the Earth, a coffee mug, a chicken, a water molecule, a proton and a photon. Here are some things that are not objects: energy, the electromagnetic field, water waves, and Hamlet.

    Objects have a fairly specific location in space (coffee mug is ok, fog and waves are not) and can bounce off of or impact other objects (excluding Hamlet).

    Special relativity can also accommodate fields which allow waves, but they are not objects. Waves also have energy and momentum, and they can bounce off of or impact other waves and objects, but they are not the same.

    Now you can already see that I am not counting waves as objects but I am counting particles. This is odd because I believe particles are waves. But I only believe that in quantum field theory. Special relativity is not totally right, and one of the reasons is that it makes a false (but often useful) distinction between particles and waves.

    Once I understand how to treat both particles and waves waves, I notice parallels. Quantum field theory allows me to make the particles out of waves, so there isn’t a distinction any more, and defining an object becomes much more difficult.

    In special relativity objects are one of the basic ingredients, in QFT they are made of something else.

  16. Wow, you are articulate, Gavin. This is really helpful to me.

    Both you and Hi have asked me, “Where are you trying to go with this?” Hi asked in relation to my excitement about the concept of emergence, which I take to mean that science is accepting the idea that out of physics, chemistry, and biology, there “emerge” even higher levels of organization and processes on those levels that need to be studied and described on their own level of emergence, rather than being “reduced” to the underlying levels, even though this reduction is true — ie mental processes no doubt depend entirely on the biochemistry of neural connections, but reducing them to neural connections isn’t capable of telling us what we would like to know about mental functions. (When I say “higher” levels, I simply mean descriptively or structurally higher, in that they arise out of more fundamental underlying levels of structures and processes.)

    Okay, to be 100% honest with you and Hi, I suppose “where I am trying to go with this” is that I am looking for a knock-down argument to stop the kids on some of these science blogs from repeating these outdated shibboleths about how science deals with real physical objects in the empiricial world and everything else humans care about are merely subjective things or entirely fictitious “things” that do not “exist,” because they are not “material objects” or empirically verifiable entities of the sort science treats.

    The language they are using is so reductive and so bigotedly closed-minded and so badly in need of reform and updating to fit the current phase of our understanding about the subject-matters of each of our disciplines and the ways in which we come to know these subject-matters — that it drives me crazy. I also see the deep polarizations within the liberal arts and I wonder how kids can go to universities and come away with these “Newtonian-era” stereotypes about the differences between the hard sciences and the other disciplines — and these demeaning attitudes toward other activities of human inquiry such as music, art, parenting, baseball, or the practice of religious worship. (THey are all epistemes or ikes!)

    If we in our universities are to be able to refute social constructivism and assert the credibility of science, without in the process making second-class citizens of the other ways of knowing, then we must find a better vocabulary for explaining to students why the plurality of disciplines is fundamental to their education and why they cannot be “righteous” by closing down their minds to one monolithic and authoritative way of knowing, whether it is blind scientism or blind biblical literalism.

    I think by and large we need a fresh vision of what genuine learning is like in any field, or we may as well forget the general education component of a university education and forget the “liberation” of the intellect that Aristotle and Plato founded 2400 years ago on the idea that many ways of knowing make a responsible and thoughtful citizen capable of solving problems and carrying about justice rather than self-gratification and so forth.

    Remember that I’ve spent my life exploring the ontology, the special mode of existence, of literary “objects” such as “Hamlet,” and this is a dense and intricate and fascinating field. And so it appalls me when I here these scientists on the science blogs confidently proclaiming their gold standard of what exists when it doesn’t even fit their own disciplines anymore.

    And as cultural theorists such as Terry Eagleton have pointed out in response to Dawkins and Dennett’s attacks on belief in “God” and the practice of religious worshp as being entirely stupid and destructive human tendencies, the philosophy and theology of the religious traditions have been profound and important areas of rich and rigorous human thought. And the emotional and intellectual and cultural aspects of religious practice are also worthy of respectful attention.

    As I’ve said over and over again, if we are going to hold the atrocities committed in the name of institutions and disciplinary outlooks against those disciplines, then we are going to throw out science along with religion and government and everything else human beings have engaged in for essentially good reason such as the humble desire to know about various kinds of things….

    Hi, this is why I stick with the specificity of Christian religion in spite of the bad things attributable to it — and the “hard edge” it has often acquired — because I find it profound and worthwhile and capable of carrying me toward an unknown but distinctive kind of truth, but only if we are sufficiently humble as Christians about what it is we know. Jesus revealed something and opened possibilities for knowing and experiencing something that is divinely high and good, but we betray it all the time, and most of all when we forget how partial and limited our knowledge of this must be.

    Part of the Judeao-Christian scriptural tradition is that, over and over again, the “establishment” is almost always wrong! We constantly have to experience an inward spiritual revolution, and that often upsets the powers that be within the institution of the church — which is why Endo was so controversial. Yet, as in science, we can’t have our way of knowing without ending up with an institution and with all its institutional stogginess and injustice, as well as having to deal with our private personal distortions of what we love by our personal ambitions and pride and so on. At least in Christianity, our duty to struggle against our own distortions and falsehoods and self-justifying rationalizations is at the heart of our faith, and our indemic failures are acknowledged without letting us off the hook of trying not to simply give way to them entirely.

    I wish I didn’t have to work so much on my off-line projects and could spend more time here, but I will post my Higgs Boson meditation and see what you think.

  17. Gavin


    You are correct. I have not given you enough credit for studying the math. You show a remarkable determination to work through things even when the math becomes tricky. However, to understand the things you are asking about would take 15 years of full time study. So I think it is quite reasonable for me to be both impressed with what you’ve done while still being somewhat blunt about what it represents in comparison to the big picture.

    Thanks for explaining what you are trying to do. Now, do you have a strategy? What do you want to learn about science that will help you achieve your goal? So far it seems your goal is to be able to one day say, “Look, scientists, if only you understood your own field you would see that….” Unfortunately, this is not likely to happen. We understand our own field very well, and we are rather tired of people coming in confidently believing that if only scientists would do science right they would learn that the creationists / new-agers / homeopaths / UFOlogists / etc. were right all along. I hope that you have another plan.

  18. Gavin,
    I don’t mind at all when you are blunt about the big picture.
    But I am disappointed at how you summarize my goals. I thought you knew me better than this. I am not in any way suggesting scientists don’t know how to do science. As you know, I’m very impressed by how you and David and Paul and the rest of you do science and how aware you are of its goals and limitations and the importance of other kinds of study. That has been a great encouragement to me. And the same has been true of the physicists I know on my own campus and in my parish. I’m not in any way suggesting that “if you understood your own field you would see that….” I am not telling you how to do your field. I am listening to how you do do your field and hearing great things, and wondering why some kids are coming out of university thinking they are doing something else.
    As far as that goes, I think YOUdo “see it” — “it” being both the credibility and precision of your own field and the importance of other fields of study. But those voices on some of the science blogs are different, and scary. They think “science” (in a very different sense) is all there is and they want to “stamp the rest of us out of existence,” to borrow a phrase from science writer Jennifer Ouelette.
    They are scary just like social constructionists are scary and biblical literalists are scary — because they all lack a framework or vision for valuing various kinds of study; they seem to think there is one kind of reality, one kind of knowledge and one monolithic authority, and we don’t need to respect other disciplines and work to acheive our own thoughtful personal syntheses — the goal of a liberal arts education.
    I was trying to see if there’s a way to explain what all of us are doing in all of our various disciplines that will help our students come out of university with an understanding — not of science, but of science as a liberal art, so to speak — more like what you have expressed (respect for literature and other kinds of real phenomena) and less like what some of these militant voices on the some of the science blogs have been saying. But I’ve explained this over and over again. I seem to be entirely failing to communicate and to make myself understood. And I’m also sorry that I seem to have inadvertently offended you.
    I have been working along the lines of concluding that all the disciplines today are heuristic, open-ended, evolving, based on a history of valid earlier theoretical work and yet advanced on occasion by paradigm change (there is shakeup, reformulation when any paradigm shift occurs and at the same time significant continuity), and that when such a context has been acheived we have confidence in where our discipline is going and that we are in genuine contact with the reality of what we are studying, even while at the same time we are aware that our understanding will continue to evolve. These characteristics seem perhaps to be common to all the liberal arts these days. (As you know, we used to think that science was unique among the disciplines because it was absolutely certain, marched steadily step by step, and would soon have reached a complete description of everything. That’s how some of these militant science bloggers still sound.)
    Anyway, thanks for being frank with me and giving me the benefit of your responses.

  19. Gavin


    I may not have been quite clear. I think your goals are great, I’m trying to understand the strategy and I want you to understand how the strategy is going to look to scientists who are fending off well coordinated and well funded attacks on their credibility. When you make a comment like:

    “And, okay, I’m sorry, but if energy is massless and if it fills “empty” space, in what sense then are we still saying that the science of physics is an empirical science?”

    We are going to flip out. I don’t think this is what you intend, but I’m saying that you start sounding a lot like a global warming denier or an advocate of intelligent design when you question the foundations of our field based on . . . I don’t even know what it is based on because I have no idea what that sentence is talking about!

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