What Isn't Made of Opposites?
Thank you to everyone who has written in response
to my challenge. Here are some of the
things (IN CAPS) that people have suggested are not made of opposites,
along with my response. This essay is broken into four parts:
Time, Space, Spacetime
Objects - Dialectics (and the
second law of thermodynamics) argue that all objects have to be held together
by opposing forces or they will no longer exist--their elements will simply fly apart.
THE SUN -- was brought together and is held together by gravity which counteracts
the nuclear reaction pressing outward from its core.
THE EARTH -- was also brought together and holds together by gravity. Certainly the
atmosphere would fly away without gravity to hold it in--leaving nothing but bare rock
like the moon. Even then, volcanoes would continually spew matter into space if it weren’t
for gravity. The entire planet is a balance of gravity on the one hand and the
electromagnetic repulsion of atoms in the core of the planet (the same repulsion
we feel when we run into any solid object).
LIGAMENTS/TENDONS - these were cited as an example of what holds bones to bones
and muscles to bones. The ligaments or tendons themselves are made of billions
of cells forming a strong and
elastic structure. The cells have to interlock so they don’t pull apart.
BONE - like ligaments, bones are part of what holds our body together. And like ligaments, bones themselves are made of billions of interlocking cells.
BILLIARD BALL - Assuming the billiard ball is made of a hard ceramic (correct me if I’m wrong),
the structure of the clay holds the molecules together in a symmetric bond, again
counteracting the natural tendency of molecules to fly apart.
POOL CUE - The wooden part of the cue must be attached to the tip by glue or
some method, otherwise they wouldn’t hold together. The wood in the cue is an
organic molecular structure designed to hold a tree together, similar to bones
and ligaments in holding animals together.
MICROSOFT--(PURE EVIL? : )! Very cute--I do have some thoughts on this--Actually
the word "monopoly" implies that there is no opposing pole. Most economists
recognize that this is an unstable, unhealthy state that should be modified. I
think that when a real monopoly exists (there is some debate in regard to
Microsoft), the opposing force to the monopoly is simply the society itself.
Either the monopoly is able to gouge whatever it wants from the society, or
society has to step in to regulate the monster.
NEUTRON STAR - My understanding is that a neutron star is solid neutrons,
formed when gravity crushes the electromagnetic force in the center of a
star that has exhausted its nuclear fusion. But what keeps the neutron star
from collapsing more? The neutrons themselves have to exert a force
stronger than gravity, otherwise they would be crushed back to their
I think that a neutron star could be compared to any uniform mass of a
single element or object--say an ocean of pure water molecules. Of course
we know that water is made of hydrogen and oxygen linked in a molecular
bond. Likewise neutrons are made of quarks bound together. As long as that
bond is stronger than any opposing force, the neutron will stay intact.
PHOTONS/ELECTRONS/QUARKS - I lump these together since it is true that we don’t know how
they hold themselves together, or even what they are made of. They do have opposites,
such as positrons, or anti-quarks. They also have dual natures since they behave as
both particles and waves, which is itself a unity of opposites.
My understanding is that these "fundamental particles" are probably the
manifestation of strings vibrating in 10 or 11 dimensions with six dimensions
being curled up in a way that is too small to detect, but that is still theoretical.
The book The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene provides an excellent
discussion of string theory.
I think we will always reach a point where science cannot explain exactly
what the smallest particle is--for example, even if a photon is a note
played by vibrating strings, what are the strings?. This doesn't mean that
dialectics is wrong, just that there are limits to science at any point.
What if we were trillion of times smaller than a photon. It might look like
our universe from that perspective. Who knows?
While we can’t prove that these particles are made of opposites,
there is nothing to prove that they are not. To me, if all of the universe from
the electron to superclusters of galaxies are made of opposites, then the concept
of dialectics is clearly powerful and useful, even if it can't go beyond the
current limits of scientific knowledge.
Concepts - In the “Dialectics for Kids”
website I argued that every thing is made of opposites. By thing, I mean an object
or a process, i.e. matter in motion. The items in this section are not
actually “things”, but are concepts.
Dialectics is still useful to understand concepts, however, because any abstract
concept needs its opposite to be understood. E.g. happy needs sad, fast needs slow,
big needs small. Also, to the extent that a concept is part of a thought process,
then it proceeds by overcoming opposing thoughts. E.g. what is beauty?--by whose
standards? compared to which other objects or physical features?
A POINT - The concept of a point must be contrasted to a line, or a plane, or a 3
dimensional object, or a 4+ dimensional concept, or to nothing at all to be understood.
A SINGULARITY - This is the condition where all the universe merges into a
single point. The "standard model" of the big bang posits the existence of
such a condition, but is not able to explain how it came to be or how it
acts--i.e. the laws of physics break down at that point. I'm listing singularity
as a concept since it is a hypothetical condition and we don't really know what
a singularity is or whether it ever existed. I'm thinking that as a concept its opposite is
any condition where the laws of physics do apply. The latest thing I
have read is Brian Greene's book, The Fabric of the Cosmos (also cited
below in discussing Spacetime). From Greene's Book it sounds as though string theory can
avoid singularities altogether, but there is far from a consensus on that.
Fun to think about though.
UNITY - As a concept, unity can only be understood in contrast to its
opposite - conflict.
THE ONE - This concept goes back to the ancient Greek idea of Parmenides that all
the universe is
one, and that differences are an illusion. In fact, taken as a whole, the
universe is one, but it is also broken into billions of galaxies, stars,
planets, people, web sites, etc. On the other end of the size spectrum Hegel
felt that “the One” was like an atom, the fundamental building block of matter.
But, as discussed above, there is no evidence that there is a final
fundamental particle--we keep finding structures at deeper and deeper levels.
DIALECTICS - Dialectics as a thought process embodies many categories of opposities such as
theory/practice, form/content, infinite/finite, actual/possible, universal/particular,
necessity/chance, relative/absolute, and abstract/concrete. In this web site, I
have tried to take an abstract concept--dialectics--and make it as concrete as
possible. In fact all knowledge proceeds from an abstract notion, to more
concrete information, to a deeper, more accurate abstraction--constant negation of
see Spirals A - Z). Too many people feel that dialectics is simply an
abstraction; the many examples I raise in the web site are an attempt to make
the concept more concrete.
NOTHINGNESS--Nothing is by definition, not a thing. "Nothing" only has meaning
when compared to its opposite--in this case "something", or "being". If by
"nothing" you mean a
perfect vaccuum, then quantum mechanics proves that a vacuum is composed of a
seething frenzy of virtual particles and anti-particles being born and
annihilating almost instantly--almost an infinity of opposites. See the discussion
below of spacetime for more about this.
Spirit -- First, perhaps spirit could be taken to
mean Everything. This is like
the god of Spinoza or Einstein, where the universe as a whole is god. But in
that case, the universe embodies all the opposites of every atom, every solar
system, every motion, so the number of opposites are too numerous to count.
Second, consider the concept of spirit--e.g. spirit of adventure, team
spirit, “that’s the spirit!” As I’ve argued with other concepts--e.g. joy,
beauty, love--a concept is not a thing--i.e. not an object or a process. It
does relate to dialectics in that a concept only has meaning when compared to
its opposite. In this case spirit contrasts with ‘spiritless,’ ‘dispirited,’
‘uninspired,’ or perhaps, ‘lethargic.’
Third, and this to me is the interesting part, I think of spirit as being the
force of life that drives us to survive, persevere. This spirit is inherent in
living creatures--a blade of grass, a frog, a human being. Spirit is lacking
in inanimate objects--compare a corpse to a living
person. In this sense I think that spirit is an instinctive motivating force--i.e.
a real thing. When people are depressed, that spirit becomes weaker.
Sometimes it is so weak that people become suicidal, but thankfully, that is rare.
How does such a force fit into a dialectical scientific view of the world?
There are four fundamental forces in the universe--gravity, electro-magnetism,
the weak nuclear force, and the strong nuclear force. I don’t think spirit as
a life force is in addition to these. It is strictly a creation of the nervous
system--i.e. an electromagnetic phenomenon. I don’t pretend to understand
exactly how that works, but the fact that it stops when life stops shows that
it is part of our metabolism, not apart from it.
On the one hand I welcome the scientific advances that will undoubtedly give
us a better understanding of all this, but I also feel uncomfortable with the
idea that my brain waves will someday be readable by any nosy person (or
repressive police apparatus) with the right electronic receiver. Sometimes
science can be a bummer.
Another way to think of spirit, along the same lines as the force of life,
is to think of it as life energy--the energy that allows us to move, think,
survive. As I recall from high school physics, energy is the ability to do
work, and work is equal to force times distance. So whether you think of
spirit as a force or as energy, the two are interconnected.
Next you could ask what a force is, and is it made of opposites? My
understanding is that each of the fundamental forces has an accompanying
particle. The particle for the electromagnetic force is the photon. If
photons are released, a force is present. The main source of photons for
earth is the sun. The photons are created by the sun’s fusion reaction. This
energy is released when the pressure in the center of the sun due to gravity
becomes so great that it overcomes the electromagnetic resistance of protons
to fuse. Fortunately for us the planet earth is too small for gravity to
overcome this electromagnetic resistance so the earth doesn’t turn into a star.
Photons from the sun power all life forces on earth. Our animal spirit is
based on burning fuel that came from the sun’s photons.
Let’s consider how this works in practice. Say you have a creative, joyful
human spirit, and you decide to go jogging as an expression of that, and also
from a desire to maintain a healthy body. There are all sorts of contradictions
you must overcome to do so--finding time, finding a place, storing energy to
make the effort, dressing comfortably, and, significantly, putting one foot in
front of the other to keep jogging. To do all of this, your cardiovascular,
muscular, and nervous systems must have heat energy fueled by burning sugar,
the final product of our digestive system.
The sugar chemical reaction is: C6H1206 (sugar) +
602 (oxygen)---> 6 C02 (carbon dioxide) + 6H20
(water) + calories. Both the sugar and the
oxygen in this reaction come from photosynthesis--where the sun’s photons
drive the formation of carbohydrates and the release of oxygen into the
atmosphere. The earth had no atmospheric oxygen until plants put it there
over billions of years. The process of burning the sugar releases the
calories which make it possible to keep jogging - expressing our exuberant
Fourth, of course I am aware that many people believe that there is a
supernatural soul/spirit that dwells in human beings, and that this spirit goes
on beyond our time on earth. This is, in fact, the first definition in the
dictionary. Now I certainly agree that memories of people who are deceased
do live on in our minds. And in that way the human spirit is a product of a
long chain of common spirits going back thousands of years.
Regarding an immortal soul that goes to heaven, I cannot disprove the existence
of such a spirit. However, I can point out that even this theological spirit
has a dialectical character. In Christianity the constant struggle between
God and the devil is waged in the realm of the spirit.
Similarly, Hegel contrasted spirit to matter, and drew all his dialectical
thinking from analyzing that spirit. He saw opposites such as being/nothing,
the one/the many, identity/difference, the universal/the particular, and
many others as part of the Idea. To Hegel, Spirit was the synthesis of
the logical Idea and the Idea outside itself--nature. I don’t pretend to
understand Hegel, and I don’t buy his idealism (i.e. belief that ideas are
primary/exist independently in relation to matter), but he would certainly
argue that spirit is made of an infinity of opposites.
Personally, I don’t think that invoking the supernatural helps us understand
the universe, our place in it, and how to change it. Neither does it make
the universe any more marvelous. Knowing that a rainbow is refracted sunlight
doesn’t detract from its beauty. When we gaze in awe at a starry night, and
feel the spiritual high of being part of this fantastic universe, it doesn’t
matter that we know that the stars are twinkling hydrogen bombs many light
years away. To me knowing the truth only adds to my enjoyment of nature.
The more we learn about the cosmos the more wonderful it becomes. And even
the Bible says, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”
Knowing that my joyful silliness when I sing, dance, or play is based on
sugar oxidation doesn’t make it less fun. On the other hand, if believing
in a supernatural power gives you comfort, I have no reason to object. Even
I will grant that, occasionally, in desperation, I have turned to my higher
power in search of a parking space; and sometimes it works!
Time, Space, Spacetime -- This is the toughest challenge
for me so far.
The question is
whether these are "things" or not. First, starting with time,
let's assume they are simply concepts. Since time and space make up the four
dimensions this is the more intuitive, "common sense" approach. Then we'll
explore the idea that space and time are "things" in a discussion of spacetime.
Time--Time does have the unusual characteristic that it has a directional
arrow, but that doesn't make it a thing. [As an aside, time's arrow is caused by
the fact that all processes of change result in
an increase in entropy--broken eggs don't re-construct themselves, ice cubes don't
spontaneously form in a glass at room temperature, your room doesn't automatically
clean itself up, etc.]
Elapsed time is a measure of change. Thus,
as a concept, if we can imagine a situation where there is no change, it seems
plausible to think that time would
cease to exist. Of course, this is impossible on our rapidly rotating planet
and galaxy and with atomic particles furiously spinning about. Perhaps when
all matter has burnt itself out and all black holes have leaked their energy
into space, there will be truly no trace of our universe remaining (see the
book, The Five Ages of the Universe, by Fred Adams and Greg Laughlin for more
about this ultimate scenario). Maybe then, time will cease, at least until
another strange quantum fluctuation or whatever it was that caused our universe
to unfurl comes along.
While time as a measure of change is not a "thing," it does
become an important part of things when we connect it to a process--i.e. the
time it takes for something to happen. For example we can speak of a year, the
time for the earth to revolve one time around the sun. Once we connect time to
a process, then the opposing forces of that process--e.g. velocity of the earth
vs. gravitational attraction of the sun come into play.
Space--If you think of space as the distances between stars or galaxies,
then it is a
concept like a dimension--length or volume--and is not a thing--i.e. an object
or a process. As a concept it is useful only when counterposed to
opposing concepts--e.g. we contrast "outer space" with being here on earth or
inside a star. We can contrast distances such as millions of light years vs.
only a few light years.
If you think of space as a vaccuum, then, as noted above in response to the idea
that "Nothing" is not made of opposites, it is in fact
a seething foam of quantum particles and anti-particles. In this sense space
is definitely composed of opposites.
If you think of space as the context in which the fundamental forces--
gravity, strong & weak nuclear, and electromagnetic--exert themselves, as such
it is not strictly a thing, but in this sense it does seem to be more than a
concept. We also know that space curves, moreso when it is near massive
objects vs. less curvature farther from such objects. Since space is capable
of being curved, it does seem a bit like a "thing".
Similarly time warps in the presence of a gravitational field, so it also seems
a bit like a thing. That brings us to spacetime.
Spacetime is Einstein's description of 4 dimensional reality.
His general relativity calculates the warping of both space and time in the presence
of gravitational fields. It has many experimental verifications such as
accurately calculating the
bending of light as it passes around stars, galaxies, and other gravitational
fields. But general relativity has never been reconciled with quantum theory,
so neither is a complete description of space and time. At present string
theory is the best candidate to bring about this reconciliation.
In his 2004 book, The Fabric of
the Cosmos, Brian Greene suggests that the "properties of space and time may
emerge from the collective behavior of some other more fundamental constituents."
Greene argues that the Planck size--(10-33 cm)2 =
10-66square centimeters--is the "minimum spacial entity", which
implies that space is a type of fabric that we are all embedded in, and is not
simply an infinitely divisible context. "The calculations show that surfaces
can have areas that are one square
Planck-length, or two square Planck-lengths, or 202 square Planck-lengths, but
no fractions are possible. Once again, this is a strong theoretical clue that
space, like electrons, comes in discrete, indivisible chunks." He admits
that we don't know what makes
this fabric--he suggests that it could be vibrating strings, a two-dimensional
"branes" (the image of a sheet flapping in the wind comes to my mind), "loops",
or "something else discovered in the course of future research."
Given the developments in string theory, it seems quite possible
that spacetime will emerge as a "tangible entity" from "appropriate aggregates of
more basic ingredients in a theory that's fundamentally relational, spaceless,
and timeless." (all quotes from page 491) This is a mindboggling thought, so I
will simply leave it here for us all to wonder about. I'll happily admit that I
need to learn more about this to understand it.
I thank all readers again for their challenges and I look forward to more
exchanges and opportunities to grapple with these issues.
--Jack Lucero Fleck
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