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Alan Bradnam

The Ultimate Nature of Matter

Modern physics has discovered more and more about the structure of the atom, but is the physicist any closer to explaining what the ultimate nature of matter is?

The theory of quantum mechanics has divided the atom into a number of fundamental sub-atomic particles. Although the physicist has shown that the atom is not a solid indivisible object, he has not been able to find a particle which does possess those qualities. Talk of particles, though, is misleading because the word suggests a material object. This is not the intention for the use of the word in quantum physics. Quantum particles are, instead, representations of the actions and reactions of forces at the sub-atomic level. In fact, physicists are less concerned with the search for a material particle underlying all physical objects and more interested in explaining how nature works. Quantum theory is the means that enables the physicist to express those explanations in a scientific way.

Modern science is based on material, experimental evidence, but if matter is non-material as the physicist's fundamental forces suggest, then it will not be able to explain what matter is. It can only explain how nature works by observing the effects on material objects. In his book In Search of Schrödinger's Cat ch. 8, Gribbin suggests the possibility that no particle is real until it is observed. The act of observation collapses the wave function so that one of a number of ghost particles becomes a real particle. This idea has similarities with idealism and its appearance and reality arguments. Gribbin does not take the argument forward so let us consider the philosophical arguments instead of the physics.

Materialists claim that everything is either a physical thing or an aspect of a physical thing, and no physical thing is dependent on the mind. A physical thing is not necessarily a solid object, but something which fills out a three-dimensional space. A body of water or a cloud of gas is just as much a physical thing as a solid brick. Criticism of the materialist theory centres around the argument that our knowledge of the world is only as perceptions in the mind. The world is, therefore, dependent on the mind because that is the only way we can perceive anything.

The materialist's answer to that criticism is that if we perceive something in the mind, there must be something out there to be perceived. Russell argues this point in The Problems of Philosophy ch. 2-3. Suppose four card players are seated around a table. The first cards dealt to the players face up are an ace, king, queen and jack. One player sees the ace in front of the queen, with the king to the left and the jack to the right. The player on his left sees the king in front of the jack, with the queen to the left and the ace to the right. The other two players also have different views of the cards lying on the table. It seems reasonable to assume that there cannot be four different tables and sets of cards in their midst. There must be one table and one set of cards which each player perceives differently. Each player's perception is his own private sense-data. The objects themselves are public neutral objects which are available to each person's perception. Because everyone views the objects from a different point, each will have a different perception of the objects, thus forming his own private sense-data. However, although everyones private sense-data is different, there are similarities. Those similarities are due to the existence of public neutral objects. For the card players, the public neutral objects are the table and the four cards. Assuming that nothing is hidden from view, all players must perceive all five public neutral objects. It is not reasonable for one player to perceive only two cards when the others perceive four cards. The materialist would then conclude that public neutral objects exist independently of the mind and only private sense-data are dependent on the mind.

This argument seems even more persuasive when considered against objects which pass from one generation to another. When I look at Pissaro's painting Dulwich College 1871, I am perceiving the same object which Pissaro painted and perceived. I could also visit Dulwich College and perceive the building itself. By comparing my view with Pissaro's painting I can see enough similarities to assume that we perceived the same public neutral object. Consequently, these objects must exist independently of the minds that perceive them.

From the physicist's viewpoint, matter is whatever exists from a neutral objective standpoint, and is independent of any conscious subject. In materialist terms matter would be a public neutral object. However, it is arguable whether the different forms of objects we perceive can be simply termed as different forms of matter. It is possible that matter may be an ultimate public neutral object which underlies the public neutral objects which we perceive as things in the world. Materialism allows matter its independence of the mind, but it is still no closer to explaining what matter is. Before we move on to other metaphysical theories, let us first consider an attack on the idea of matter to see if things become any clearer.

Klempner puts forward such an attack in Metaphysics unit 11. Our experience of the world is only as perceptions in the mind. We cannot experience anything directly, therefore, we cannot experience the ultimate reality directly, but only as perceptions in the mind. A consequence of this belief is that my experiences of other people are also only as perceptions in my mind. To avoid falling into a solipsist belief, I can recognise that others have their own perceptions of the world just as I have mine. We each have our own interpretation of the same ultimate reality. However, because we can never know the ultimate reality directly, we can never know whether our interpretations are true or not. All we can do, through judgment of each others views, is agree on our perceptions of the objective world. That does not mean that the physical things in that objective world have any reality in themselves. The ultimate reality merely allows us to construct a theory for a world of physical objects. Matter, then, is no more than the constructs for that theory. It follows then that our minds are responsible for the construction of the physical world. If that is true, the physicist may ask what accounts for the apparent independence of objects in the physical world. To answer that question we will turn to the immaterialists, of whom Berkeley presents a classic idealist theory in Principles of Human Understanding.

Berkeley's theory is based on the idea that everything we know about the world is known only as perceptions in the mind. Consequently, everything exists only as an idea in the mind and there is no material substance outside the mind. He distinguishes between ideas of imagination which, being products of our own will, are transitory and inconsistent, and ideas of sense which are not subject to our will and are lasting and consistent. Ideas of sense are what are normally called objects or real things which we perceive in the objective world. Berkeley argues that because ideas of sense are not subject to our will, they must be subject to some other will, which must be God. Ultimately, all that exists are, ourselves as spirit, ideas and God.

The physicist may accept that matter is not a physical substance but still insist that it is something independent of the mind. Berkeley argues against a mind-independent world (part 1, sect. 19-20) with essentially three strands to his argument. Firstly, if there were bodies independent of the mind we could never know them because we can only know our own perceptions. It would also mean that God has created beings which are lifeless and serve no useful purpose. Lastly, he argues that a bodiless intelligence could experience, without the assistance of external bodies, the same ideas and sensations as we do now.

Berkeley's argument seems to rely heavily on God giving the ideas of sense directly. It could be argued that God is used as a reason for anything which Berkeley cannot explain. However, if God exists then He could provide objects whose purpose is for us to perceive them indirectly as ideas of sense. The idea of a bodiless intelligence experiencing the same sensations as us may be true. However, any ideas a bodiless intelligence experiences must be only ideas of imagination and cannot possess the lasting and consistent qualities as our ideas of sense. Berkeley argues that we can know God exists (part 1, sect. 146-150) because the works of Nature are not produced by man, therefore, they must be produced by God.

There are two main concepts in Berkeley's idealism that the physicist would find difficulty in accepting. The first is that although nature may not be created by man, it does not follow that it must have been created by God, or that God exists. The second is that if God can be independent of the mind, then it is also possible for some other thing to be independent of the mind. Although the materialist and idealist can both give valid arguments for their beliefs, let us consider another form of idealism which may allow the physicist to retain his belief in matter.

The only thing we know that exists with any certainty is our own consciousness. I will then make the premise that the only thing that ultimately exists is pure consciousness which we can call the Absolute. It follows then that the Absolute is the only thing that exists, and as consciousness is not a material substance there can be no material substance in existence. The problem then is to explain how we can exist as individuals with independent minds and material bodies. If the Absolute is the only thing that exists then our minds as consciousness must be the same as the Absolute consciousness, and it remains to explain why we perceive ourselves as limited independent minds. The material bodies we perceive must then be merely an appearance in consciousness.

If the Absolute is consciousness then it should be able to create ideas within that consciousness. Those ideas may include concepts of limitation, such as size, shape, distance and so on. Such concepts allow the Absolute to form divisions within its consciousness. The parts created by those divisions are our own individual consciousness. thus, each person's consciousness is a part of the Absolute consciousness. As individuals we each form our own ideas of consciousness. Those ideas are unique to the parts of the Absolute because of the concepts of limitation formed by the Absolute.

The Absolute also forms ideas of consciousness which are not subject to the limitations of the parts. Those ideas are perceived by the individual as ideas of sense which give the appearance of a material world. To the Absolute as a whole, the objective world has no reality and is no more than an idea of consciousness. To the Absolute as parts, the objective world appears real because of the concepts of limitation, matter and so on. As individuals, we perceive an objective world because we believe that we are part of the material world. The concepts of limitation and the ideas of sense reinforce that belief. However, if we could truly realise our being as the Absolute then the objective world would cease to appear real.

What does this hypothesis mean for the physicist's idea of matter? If the physicist limits his idea of matter to the laws of physics then there is no problem as they all exist in the material world. Matter can then be seen as independent of individual minds. However, the independence of minds is just as much an appearance as material objects are. All of this exists as ideas of consciousness in the Absolute. Ultimately, matter can only be the Absolute in which nothing is independent of it.

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J. Gribbin In Search of Schrödinger's Cat (Corgi, 1984)

G. Berkeley Principles of Human Knowledge

G. Klempner The Ultimate Nature of Things units11 & 12

B. Russell The Problems of Philosophy