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Where's the "Stuff"?

Where's the "Stuff"?

by Carlin Felt




The pre-Socratics sought the fundamental components of the universe, trying to determine what all things are made of. Contemporary particle physicists also search for the most basic components of the universe, breaking down matter to find the smallest particles. This suggests that people operating within the Western scientific paradigm exhibit a tendency to try and understand things by pulling them apart, reducing them to what we consider their basic components. Such a tendency to seek knowledge by examining the smallest possible parts of things may bias our scientific inquiry, influencing the questions we ask, how we interpret data, and ultimately how we end up thinking about and describing the universe. At the same time, although we like to think of modern science as more progressive than science in any other time period, the pre-Socratics revolutionized natural science by searching for explanations of nature outside the realm of gods. They pioneered a "paradigm shift" from understanding the universe in terms of mythological explanations to examining phenomena more systematically with an emphasis on reason. Instead of accepting the idea that an angry or capricious god causes a natural disaster, they turned to explaining the universe based on what they considered its basic components. Dissecting matter to understand it became the new paradigm and current scientists remain safely within this tradition that the pre-Socratics pioneered, pulling matter apart to try and find the fundamental units underlying everything. This suggests that even as we think we are poised on the edge of a new breakthrough in our scientific description of the universe, we are merely holding onto a powerful reductionist paradigm that has never shifted.

Humans have probably always lived with the notion that they can break matter down into smaller bits. In order to have weapons for protection and food, people would have to pull branches from trees to use as staffs, spears, bows, and such. Also, because we have relatively small mouths and swallowing capacity, humans constantly have to rip apart food items so that they will fit down the gullet. This very minimal process of survival indicates that humans have always separated larger pieces of matter into smaller pieces. While humans also combine smaller pieces of matter into larger pieces, this process may have not become as compelling once we began looking for the constituent parts of the things around us. After building a shelter, you most likely won't tear it apart again in order to look at its parts, because you already know what the component parts are. Though humans learn some things only by synthesis, such as making bronze from combining copper and tin, we also learn some things only by analysis, such as smelting raw ore to get the copper and tin. Thus, it would make sense for humans to focus on reducing matter as one important way to learn valuable things about the properties of the surrounding world.

Even though humans often break things down into smaller pieces, the idea of finding order in this division stems from the idea of numbers. Just because people pull things apart, it doesn't mean they have to do it in an orderly fashion. Anyone could rip apart a plant and not find any sense or meaning in the randomly shredded bits. However, when someone divides a plant in half, and then splits those halves into more halves, one begins to undertake a process in which order and sequence is found in breaking matter down into smaller parts. Yet, without some way to represent these divisions, one could soon be lost in the sheer plethora of smaller and smaller pieces, and no sense of arrangement or sequence would appear. We need some way to keep track of constituent parts if we don't want them to overwhelm us. Thus it would make sense for humans to develop representations for one unit and multiple units of particular substances, or in other words, numbers.

Thus, as ancient peoples developed a model of numerical divisibility that would produce mathematical and logical order, they also began to rely on it as a way to make sense of the universe. While mathematics may only be a wonderfully coherent paradigm, it gives the impression that division reveals order and makes it possible to describe things through logos that previously evoked mythos explanations. As mythos explanations fell out of favor and attributing everything to the gods became passé, humans had to latch onto some other approach to understanding the universe that seemed similarly comprehensive. We have held on to the paradigm of numerical divisibility for thousands of years because it's just too compelling to let go of the promise that we can understand anything in the universe if we just break it down into simple enough terms.

Anaximander tried to simplify the universe by proposing that everything is made of apeiron, "the Boundless" or "the Unlimited." However, this leaves most people (including his fellow ancient philosophers) puzzled, suggesting that Anaximander may not have refined his idea to the point of explanation (Couprie, 2001). Because we live confined within boundaries of sensory experience, it's hard to conceive the Boundless in its ambiguous form. For example, when in a building, our sight is constantly confined by the walls and ceilings around us. We cannot see what is going on upstairs or in the next room without moving ourselves there. Even in a wide-open space with no vertical structures to impede the reach of vision, our sight is still limited by a horizon line. We can never see, smell, touch or otherwise experience everything at the same time because we run into physical obstacles such as walls, time constraints, and the built in limitations of our senses. We can cognitively accept the idea of "stuff" without limit, but horizon lines, time, and space constantly confine us, creating the feeling that everything has a limit. Thus, we have a difficult time imagining something that makes up matter and yet is not confined to any set of physical properties.

Other pre-Socratics like Thales, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, Empedocles, and even Democritus and Leucippus provide more conceptual gratification with their descriptions of the fundamental makeup of matter, because they appeal to our empirical experience of various elements. Thales announces that everything is essentially made of water, and that it constitutes all the things we see in the world around us (O'Grady, 2004). Anaximenes indicates that air is the most basic component of all matter and it turns into fire, wind, clouds, water, earth, or stones depending on its level of density (Graham, 2002). Heraclitus points to fire as not a literal representation of what everything is made of, but rather a symbol for the constant change and flux of different elements (Graham, 2002). Empedocles finds water, air, fire, and earth to be the four basic elements that combine in different mixtures and make up the various forms of matter (Campbell, 2004). Finally, Democritus and Leucippus suggest that everything consists of atoms (IEP, 2001). While we do not directly experience atoms as we do the other elements, we do experience little particles that seem indivisible, such as grains of sand.

Though we like to think that modern science has progressed far beyond the time of the pre-Socratics, current scientists such as Briane Greene are working to develop a theory that the universe consists of "strings". Instead of incorporating elements found in nature like water or fire, Greene proposes that you can reduce everything to tiny vibrating "strings". While we recognize that the world isn't made of literal cotton or polyester strings, one may also argue that the pre-Socratics use their elements as metaphors to help describe something otherwise beyond the realm of portrayal. Just as we seem to intuitively recognize that Greene isn't talking about literal cotton string, we may similarly understand that Thales doesn't necessarily mean that we are water in the way that a lake or river is water. If water, air, fire, atoms and strings are merely metaphors for something that surpasses explanation otherwise, then Anaximander may be the most honest by saying that everything comes from apeiron, or "stuff." Even though metaphors can be useful instruments for communicating difficult concepts in simple terms, this reductionist paradigm may not be the most successful model at providing greater understanding of the universe when metaphors become necessary to it.

In some ways it makes sense to try to reduce matter to its smallest parts, because we observe how matter that seems to consist of totally different "stuff" can end up disintegrating into the same material. For example, when a human dies, we generally place them in a wood coffin and bury them within the earth. By merely observing a human and a piece of wood, one would conclude there are many differences between the two. Humans have soft flesh, whereas wood is hard. Humans usually respond to other humans by conversing, and wood usually remains silent. However, if we took our dead person and buried them in a wood box, after a number of years we would find that most of that person and most of the wood has disintegrated into the same sort of stuff and become dust. Thus, one natural reaction to this sort of observation may be curiosity as to why the body, coffin, and earth all seem to break down to the same stuff. This could easily prompt human curiosity into trying to discover what sort of stuff must be at the root of everything.

However, if you placed the coffin in a metal vault, you would probably discover that the vault wouldn't deteriorate like the body and the wood. Similarly, you may find bones still lying around in the vault. This would suggest to you that some objects aren't made of the same material because they don't ever seem to disintegrate into the same material. You could burn the bones into ash and find that they seem to turn into earth like the rest of the body did. Yet, though the metal may melt, it would soon resume its previous visible properties of hardness and shininess. Even though this would seem to discourage one from trying to find a fundamental property in common with all materials, it also may spur one on to think there must be a basic form of matter beyond what we can see.

Yet, while we may have an interest in wanting to get to the smallest piece of matter, one may still question why this counts as obtaining greater understanding of the thing. Lucretius writes:

...rip a thing up--the finer its parts

The sooner you will see its color doused

Little by little, and slowly fade away,

Like eastern purple shredded into bits.

Tyrian scarlet of surpassing splendor,

Torn apart thread by thread, will squander it all...

(On the Nature of Things, lines 2.826-830)

He suggests that tearing apart the beautiful and rare crimson material dyed by the gastropod mollusks of the ancient city doesn't help us see where the color comes from. We could argue that a person may find out more about some properties of the material, such as its strength and flexibility, by dividing it into smaller pieces. Yet, the color is an integral part of the fabric, and the very act of trying to dissect it actually ends up destroying it because it loses its vibrancy. Thus, though we may try to simplify things by dividing them, we don't always understand them better afterwards.

When we look for a fundamental unit of the universe, it doesn't necessarily follow that we have to be looking for the smallest particle. For example, the most basic piece of information may not be simply the most microscopic. We may consider words the most fundamental unit of a book, because even though we can divide words into letters, we don't read books letter-by-letter and space-by-space. Instead, we have a more "Gestalt" method of understanding, finding patterns and configurations of things that wouldn't be decipherable as independent smaller parts. Thus, the most comprehensible form of information may not be simply the smallest. Even though one could argue that dissecting information is entirely unrelated to dissecting physical matter because our brains process linguistic information and physical matter in different ways, the main difference here revolves around the point that information is intangible and cognitive while matter is empirical and graspable. Yet, when we reach the miniscule point at which we can no longer empirically verify the components of physical matter that we are studying, it makes no more sense to maintain this distinction between physical and conceptual dissection, because physical dissection has become purely conceptual. The study of physical matter becomes a mental exercise of imaginatively visualizing information, thus ceasing to make sense as a fruitful way to study physical properties.

Even as scientists fascinate themselves by dividing objects into smaller and smaller units, some also study the universe on a very large scale. Recently astronomers mapped the microwave emissions of the universe from approximately 380,000 years after the "big bang", creating beautiful computerized renderings of these light and temperature patterns (Goddard Space Flight Center, 2003). Thus, though humans search for the smallest constituents of matter that make up the universe, we also study patterns of phenomena on a gigantic scale.

Reducing the objects around us to fundamental particles, or enlarging our scope by zooming out to a cosmic level may reflect our need to see things with a different perspective. We like to break away from our everyday "reality" and remind ourselves that there is more than one way seeing the surrounding world. This enlarged viewpoint reenergizes us by providing a new way to understand the necessary daily activities we come back to. In the winter we think of people getting "cabin fever" because they feel stuck in their houses or offices, doing the same things day after day without any relief from the monotony of seeing the same surroundings all the time. Just as vacationing to a different part of the globe helps one step back from one's life and return home with a new perspective, scientists may find the same kind of relief in examining things on a very large and very small scale that we don't naturally experience every day.

Searching for a new way to look at things may reflect our desire to progress past appearance and into the realm of what things are "really" like. We reduce things to smaller parts or enlarge them to look at a bigger picture, hoping to grasp some deeper sense of the object by progressing past superficial appearance. Just as many people hide some aspects of themselves in public situations, we look for that same sort of discrepancy between appearance and actuality in nature. For example, a person may be quite talkative and boisterous when surrounded by a few family members or close friends, but in a group of people he or she becomes quiet and hides many thoughts. With only one glance at the person, a stranger may assume that he or she is always shy or quiet, when in reality that person acts much differently in other circumstances. Similarly, when we examine clover blossoms in the context of a larger ecosystem, we understand that they function in harmony with many other species and do more than merely look "nice". Bees suck nectar out of them and make honey for the hive, many animals eat them to provide energy, and eventually they decompose and enrich the soil. Also, by dissecting flowers, we understand that they have many small parts that contribute to their survival and ability to thrive. Thus, looking on a smaller and larger scale can help us see more than we would with a superficial glance.

However, when scientists continue reducing matter until they reach a point far past what most people can empirically verify, we may wonder why we still believe them. Flowers are no longer merely divided into cells, but then into atoms, quarks, and finally strings. Science in this sense appears to progress to the realm of speculation enhanced by imagination instead of the empirical verification we value so highly. Instead of believing in tree nymphs or fairies at work, we think it's more plausible to explain the nature of flowers as a particular kind of vibrating string.

Breaking everything down into strings or elements like water, fire, earth, air or apeiron may help us describe the things around us. Descriptions generally entail relating something you have seen so that another person can understand what you are talking about. If strings, water, fire, earth, and air are only metaphors for substance beyond our experience, they may do a decent job of allowing us to glimpse a concept of very small things that would be otherwise indescribable.

However, just because you can describe something doesn't mean that you can explain it. Even though modern science doesn't propose to answer all the "why's", it doesn't make sense that people are interested enough to delve into such extreme methods of reductionism merely for description's sake. We innately feel somehow that better answering the "how's" will lead us to better understand the "why's" that we are curious about. One of the first questions small children ask is "Why?" reflecting the natural inquisitiveness into the nature of things that we all experience. Only as children get older and learn that most people don't know why things are the way they are do they accept changing their questions into the acceptable "How?" format. Thus, even though current science doesn't overtly propose to reveal the great "Why's" of the universe, we still look to it hoping that somehow the descriptions of how things supposedly work will lead us to a greater understanding of why they work that way.

Because current science cannot explain things with the same decisiveness that stories can, it's doubtful that scientists will ever be able to defend why they think a very small particle is truly "The Smallest Particle." We used to think that atoms were the smallest and most fundamental particle, later detecting smaller particles such as quarks and muons. Why should we be content to consider "strings" the most fundamental particle when we are operating under a paradigm that allows us to push the limits of science, accepting particles that we can't currently verify with empirical measures? Without a firm explanation to convince themselves and others why strings should be the smallest unit of the universe, it's likely scientists will continue changing this description, finding ever smaller and more theoretical particles.

The idea that everything consists of one type of fundamental stuff like strings or aperion may appeal to an innate human desire to perceive order and control in our lives by feeling like the universe is comprehensible. Researchers in psychology indicate that the key difference between excitement and anxiety or depression is how much control one feels one has. We get excited when we know that we can control the outcome of a situation well, anxious when we feel like we don't have much control, and depressed when we've stopped even trying because we think we have no control (Barlow & Durand 308). Since people find this feeling of control so important, it makes sense that we look for order in the world. If we found no pattern or consistent arrangement of phenomena in the universe, we would never know what to expect and it would thus feel completely out of our control. Instead, we look at the stars and see arrangement instead of chaos. Because of this order, we get the feeling that the "secrets" of the universe must be intelligible once we can figure out the most basic pattern of matter. It's like learning the underlying rules in a game of chess so you can more successfully play the game. Knowing the rules, the fundamental stuff of the game, enables you to explore the subtleties, variations, and challenges by playing increasingly complex chess games.

Because of the desire for comprehensibility and control, humans may also gravitate toward streamlined descriptions of the universe. Occam's Razor says we shouldn't needlessly multiply causes, and Greene indicates that scientists are bothered by the seemingly arbitrary number of particles and forces that we currently see as fundamental constituents of the universe (8, 12). Both of these reflect human desire to have the most simple and yet comprehensive explanation of phenomena. Thus, instead of remaining satisfied with the appearance of things as incompatibly different from each other and randomly existing, we seek to find commonality that simplifies instead of complicates our perception of the world.

Inherent in the idea of physical reductionism is the idea that one can divide matter, and as we continue reducing matter into smaller and smaller increments, we may wonder if we will ever reach a point at which we can't divide anymore. Theoretically, we could divide matter infinitely because there's always something left from the last division to keep dividing. Yet, in the practical world, it seems possible that as we keep dividing matter, eventually the pieces will get so small that they cease to contribute to greater understanding of the object from which we derive them. Because of this, reductionism will likely continue in the domain of thought experiments rather than empirical evidence. Even if we develop increasingly fine-tuned measuring devices that supposedly reflect empirical data, we will have to question the results because we create tools to measure what we expect to find. We may find what we want to whether or not it really exists as we think it does.

While the pre-Socratics revolutionized current thinking as they moved away from the idea of the gods causing everything (O'Grady, 2004), modern scientists may be using a concoction of scientific thought experiments to resolve the crisis of the incompatibility of General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics through string theory. One could argue that the pre-Socratics studied the fundamental matter of the universe for the sake of knowledge itself, while scientists today develop string theory in order to delay a major paradigm change. Even though the pre-Socratics' ideas of the specific elements that make up the fundamental nature of the universe were eventually dismissed, their way of approaching a greater understanding of the world through physical reductionism has certainly continued. Thus, as the pre-Socratics revolutionized their world by opening new frontiers of thought and discovery, current scientists may merely be protecting the accepted reductionist model.

Yet, just because the pre-Socratic philosophies predate current scientific efforts, it doesn't mean that the philosophers were necessarily more astute at developing a paradigm than modern scientists. The focus at both time periods reflects a bias to try to make the universe a comprehensible place by simplifying all matter to one basic substance. Greene indicates that even though he hopes string theory will be the long awaited Theory of Everything never to be discarded, he realizes that science keeps changing and even if string theory sticks, it may be radically different in the future (373). Similarly, the pre-Socratics most likely understood that questions involving the ultimate nature of things would continue throughout time.

Thus, even while we appear to be on the brink of a great new "discovery" of the basic nature of the universe, we may only be repeating a time tested pattern of trying to reduce matter one more step. While scientists hope that string theory will be the key to opening up the universe to further probing, it's doubtful that this will turn out to be the invincible theory of the future we all seem to be searching for. As long as we continue to unquestioningly accept the model that divisibility reveals order, science may well remain stuck cycling through the same old ideas, ever searching for the smallest particle of the universe. Even though this model may well be the longest accepted scientific paradigm, perhaps the extensive use of metaphors should clue us in that it is time for another revolution that will lead us in a new direction before we pursue pieces of things so small that they cease making sense even through metaphorical language.








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Campbell, G. (2004). "Empedocles (of Acragas)." Retrieved 10 Nov. 2004 from The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://www.iep.utm.edu/e/empedocl.htm

Couprie, D. L. (2001). "Anaximander (c. 610-546 BCE)." Retrieved 1 Nov. 2004 from The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://www.iep.utm.edu/a/anaximan.htm

Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA (2003). "New Image of Infant Universe Reveals Era of First Stars, Age of Cosmos, and More." Retrieved 12 Nov. 2004 from http://www.gsfc.nasa.gov/topstory/2003/0206mapresults.html

Graham, D. W. (2002). "Anaximenes (d. 528 BCE)." Retrieved 5 Nov. 2004 from The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://www.iep.utm.edu/a/anaximen.htm

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Greene, Brian (1999). The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory. Vintage Books: New York.

Lucretius. On the Nature of Things. Ed. & Trans. A. M. Esolen. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press Ltd., London, 1995. 80.

O'Grady, P. (2004). "Thales of Miletus (62?-546)." Retrieved 5 Nov. 2004 from The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://www.iep.utm.edu/t/thales.htm

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2001). "Democritus (460-370 BCE)." Retrieved 10 Nov. 2004 from http://www.iep.utm.edu/d/democrit.htm

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2001). "Leucippus (fifth century BCE)." Retrieved 10 Nov. 2004 from http://www.iep.utm.edu/l/leucippu.htm