Thursday, February 28, 2013

Matter and its Discontents

The pre-Socratic philosophers of Greece had an extended dialogue about the fundamental nature of matter.  What remains of this dialogue is highly fragmentary but worth perusing as a meditation on 'what is this stuff?' - that we and the universe are made of.  The conception of matter in the mind of a physicist these days is very different from the idea of matter that a typical high-school education produces.  Materialism is a huge spectrum of thought and one that is often clouded by ignorance and unchallenged by education.  Your typical low-brow materialist thinks that we are made of some kind of lego bricks (the ball and stick world of the high school chemist), and your typical vitriolic anti-materialist position stems from not wanting to be reduced to lego. 

Thales thought that the nature of matter was 'water' or fluidic, Anaximenes air or gaseous and Heraclitus that it was fiery or plasmic - Empedocles collected these ideas together with the notion of earth or solids and we garnered this idea of the four states of matter.  Empedocles also added that there were two forces constantly pulling the elements together and pushing them apart, love and strife - gravity and repulsion - love forming a well mixed sphere of the elements comingled, and strife separating them ultimately out from each other.  Anaxagoras added another notion that all elements and the forces were directed by nous or thought.

Pythagoras' reduction was to the unit, he thought that the universe was made of units and was defeated by the diagonal of the one unit square (i.e. root 2, an irrational number that seems to express that we can't express the universe as 'unit' although we can express as 'number').  Parmenides exchanged that unit for unity and thence denied such phenomena as quality, quantity, movement, etc.  Anaximander, to contrast, thought that all duality in nature stemmed from infinity.

The Atomists, Leucippus and Democritus seemed to collate a lot of these ideas in their atomic theories.  They posited an infinite number of infinitessimal particles of various 'shapes' whirling in an infinite void and through their collation and dissociation, the manifestion of the physical universe. 

When we talk about what we are made of though, it becomes a more complicated problem.  First of all what are we talking about when we talk about us?  Are we material constructs, Golems with life accidentally breathed into us by an essentially inanimate cosmos, or is this 'material' life an automatic development in the cosmos, easy to produce and fairly common?  Does our consciousness, our sense of self, derive from the 'matter' which makes it up?

The notion that the universe is made of marbles is high-school.  The modern notion of matter includes its complex relationship with energy and force so that we have 'one thing' which is essentially conserved.  From QED, we have the vacuum spontaneously splitting and recombining into something and anti-something borrowing energy from the future and displacing it into the past in order to make this somehow not paradoxical.  We have this problem with the observer collapsing the wave-function, that the scientist affects the experiment by 'looking' at it - we know that our consciousness is tied up with the matter and there is no such thing as a closed system - esse est percipi.  We definitely have a Yetziratic 5-dimensional hypercontinuum of space, time and consciousness to play with and this does not feel to me like the 'material' that anti-materialists have the problem with. I am happy with being 'made' of this, but there are deeper understandings.

I am also happy with the notion that I am an information-wave pattern.  The information in my body is constantly replicating itself and timetravelling, the actual material constituents for this are constantly cycled throughout my body and back out into the universe.  That information is also changing as I get older following its own plan of operation but also open to change from external sources - at what point am I anything solid or fixed? - 'you cannot step into the same river twice, for it is not the same river and you are not the same man.'  Information is a cold word as well, is knowledge too loaded?  I am knowledge, I am 'the knowing'. 

When I think about these ideas of matter, and how it relates to the nature of myself - I don't have such a problem with it.  I do have a problem with high-school 'matter', I have a problem with the ball and stick approach to biology. I have a problem with the word - matter and materialist - as it seems to be used to essentially *deny* the magical nature of the universe by those who actually are still at a very limited understanding of what it ('matter') is.  A philosophy of 'there is no magic this is 'just matter'' seems to be a result of indoctrination and fear and only seems to help the people who want you to see yourself as 'just matter' - it is disempowering on a massive scale.

There is a decree of necessity, ratified long ago by gods, eternal and sealed by broad oaths, that whenever one in error, from fear, defiles his own limbs, having by his error made false the oath he swore – daimôns to whom life long-lasting is apportioned – he wanders from the blessed ones for three-times countless years, being born throughout the time as all kinds of mortal forms, exchanging one hard way of life for another. For the force of air pursues him into the sea, and sea spits him out onto earth’s surface, earth casts him in the rays of blazing sun, and sun into the eddies of air; one takes him from another, and all abhor him. I too am now one of these, an exile from the gods and a wanderer, having put my trust in raving Strife.


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