Gradual Redefining of Matter and Reality: From Mechanics to Quantum

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science

By Steven Gimbel, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

A look inside the gradual development and redefining of physics and reality owing to the new discoveries led by old influences: from Descartes and mechanics to Einstein and quantum mechanics.

Newton's cradle concept, with metal balls hanging on the strings.
Classical mechanics, as per Newtonian physics, and used by Newton and his contemporaries. (Image: Vybi/Shutterstock)

The Redefining of Science and Reality

In the history of science, we began by defining reality in terms of objects, things, and entities. We learned about these things by looking closely at them, figuring out how they worked, what they were made of, and how they changed.

We then complicated matters by putting these objects together and examining their relationships. We had to enrich our picture of reality, our metaphysics, by including aspects of reality that couldn’t be found by examining the objects individually, no matter how close.

Consider the notion of force, for example. If you have one object, you can determine that it has mass, but you won’t see the existence of a gravitational force deriving from that mass, unless you have a second object for it to act upon. Once we have multiple objects placed into physical relationships, new aspects of reality emerge.

The third step, however, is to move to a holistic account wherein the objects and their relationships are replaced by a larger vision of reality. In this larger version of reality, there is a single whole in which the objects and relationships are embedded. It’s this entirety which is seen to be the ultimate state of reality.

This is a transcript from the video series Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

We saw this movement in the transition from Descartes, who began with physical masses that behaved in certain ways. They behaved according to certain mechanical rules, such as all motion requires physical contact: pushes, pulls, and twists were the only ways one could get something to move.

We then saw in Newton’s theory of universal gravitation, the emergence of a force that carries action at a distance. Objects have a gravitational pull on each other based on a relationship between them, and that relationship––gravitational attraction––becomes something real, independent of either object.

Learn more about defining reality.

Einstein’s New Gravitational Theory and Spinoza

Soon Einstein came along and not only gave us new mechanical laws to replace those of Newton, but a whole new gravitational theory. His theory replaced Newton’s idea of space as fixed, unchanging, and never interacting with the objects in it. Einstein brought us to a new view of space: a dynamic, flexible thing that was always warping with the distribution of mass and energy, and changing the way light and matter move in it.

Illustration of Einstein's theory of relativity, which presented gravity as the curvature of space-time.
Einstein’s theory of relativity improved upon Newton’s vision of gravity and reality. (Image: Designua/Shutterstock)

This undulating substratum is what physicists call a field. This concept of the field soon occupied the central place in the general theory of relativity. The picture of the universe changed into one in which we ceased to have individual objects related to each other gravitationally, giving us instead a single holistic picture. A universe in which everything is always interconnected. In this view, the whole universe needs to be understood as a coherent single entity.

Einstein adored the writings of the 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza was a pantheist––he believed that all that existed was a single substance. God was not an entity distinct from the world. God was the world. Everything we think of as individual things are not really discrete objects, but just modes of the whole aspects of God.

Spinoza’s God does not sit outside of the world, acting upon it. Rather, since God is the world, all changes must come from within it, but these changes occur according to fixed laws––the absolute laws of logic. God has no free will. God cannot choose what to do. God is the slave of logic.

Both Jewish and Christian clergy found that bit troubling and the view ended up making Spinoza’s life difficult. But Einstein, when asked by a rabbi if he believed in God, responded that he believes in the God of Spinoza. By which Einstein meant that he thought the universe was a coherent whole: all that exists is the field, a single unified entity that behaves in a completely deterministic way according to rational rules the human mind can discover.

Learn more about metaphysics and the nature of science.

Quantum Field Theory and Eastern Thought

Einstein shared Spinoza’s adherence to determinism, and this is why he objected to quantum mechanics. However, the development of quantum mechanics proceeded along a similar path with respect to a holistic approach to the universe.

It soon evolved from deterministic to a probabilistic viewpoint, as we found that the matter was both a wave and a particle. All of the elements in the quantum field theory are excited states of the requisite fields, which can overlap and exchange energy. Change is the result of fluctuations in the field.

Graphic representation of wave-particle duality.
Wave-particle duality helped us form a new vision of matter and reality. (Image: Plotplot/Shutterstock)

Quantum field theory does away with what we usually think of as the most basic aspect of metaphysics: substance. ‘Thingness’ is no longer fundamental in quantum field theory, but subsumed under a more basic underlying entity, the field. The field is what’s real, and all we think to be individual things are just transitive aspects of this dynamic field.

And the inspiration for this, much like Einstein and Espinoza, came from philosophy, particularly, what is found in the Hindu Upanishads. Since the founding figures of quantum mechanics––Heisenberg, Bohr, and Schrödinger––were all studying these works during the years when they were also engaged in their most important quantum discoveries.

The world of things, of plurality, in this view, is illusory. Brahman, the underlying and unchanging reality that sits underneath and through the entire universe, it’s all that there is.

Common Questions About Gradual Redefining of Matter and Reality

Q: What is the quantum model of reality?

A quantum experiment performed in space acknowledged that reality is what one makes it. As matter and wave both seem to be interchangeable according to quantum theory.

Q: Does observation create reality?

Yes, according to one of the strange premises of quantum theory, the observation or the very act of watching can affect reality. It’s generally predicated upon the observer effect of quantum entanglement.

Q: What’s the difference between quantum mechanics and quantum physics?

No, in today’s world, there is no difference between quantum mechanics and quantum physics. They both represent the same fundamental theory that describes the properties of nature at the atomic scale and thus redefines reality.

Q: What are the four quantum mechanics?

The four main phenomena of quantum physics are quantization of certain physical properties, quantum entanglement, principle of uncertainty, and wave-particle duality. These four phenomena help us redefine matter and reality.

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