The Physical Aspect
Notes and thoughts on the physical aspect.
We experience the physical aspect intuitively and most directly as forces, energy and matter, whether at the microscopic, human-level or macroscopic sizes. Concepts that are meaningful in the physical aspect include: material (solid, liquid, gas), electricity, friction, pressure, heat, current, power, vibration, dissolving, diffusion, chemical activity, and so on. Disciplines centred on the physical aspect include not only the various branches of physics but also chemistry, materials science and fluid mechanics. Physical theory recognises four main forces, gravity, electromagnetic, weak nuclear and strong nuclear, with the latter three, and possibly gravity too, unified into one. It sees matter as energy. Dooyeweerd's discussion of the physical aspect, in [1955,II, 95,99,100,101], is brief, mainly within his discussion of the kinematic to differentiate them, though it crops up occasionally elsewhere.
The good possibility that the physical aspect introduces to temporal reality is irreversibility, persistence and causality. In responding to laws of the physical aspect, temporal reality is transformed continuously from one state into the next in a way that persists and cannot (usually) be undone or reversed as is possible under the kinematic aspect. Because of these, it is with the physical aspect that we first experience time as past-present-future. At the human and macroscopic spans, physical causality is deterministic (and hence predictable from initial conditions), though at the microscopic span of quantum physics it might not be.
- "Energy" (Dooyeweerd's rendering)
- "Forces, energy and matter. Introduces Irreversible persistence and causality" (Basden's intuitive rendering)
- Field interactions
- Also material and mass, but see
- Forces (the four basic forces, and everything that derives from them)
- Everything that derives from the above.
To Dooyeweerd the physical aspect covers many 'levels' from micro to macro, including:
Scientific areas of knowledge within the physical aspect
Issues dealt with
Some theories or paradigms |
(Most to be supplied)
non-locality and non-determinism
Schrödinger's Wave Equation and its various interpretations
structure of atoms, radioactive decay, elements
Bonds and substances
Crystalline structures, amorphous structures
Pressures and temperatures, entropy
Corrosion, stresses, cracking, etc.
Formation and erosion of land mass
Behaviour of planets, stars, galaxies, black holes, inter-stellar space
- Field Interactions. Some say 'interaction' is the kernel of the physical aspect, but this could be mistaken for relatiohal interaction, which is part of the social aspect. Instead, all the interactions found in physics are field interactions, i.e. interactions in and because of some field. Gravitational, electro-magnetic, strong and weak nuclear fields (whether treated separately or unified).
- Grand Unified Theory (GUT) and 'Theory of Everything' (TOE).
We often talk of physical 'things'. But it seems to me that there are no 'things', no 'entities', when we view reality from the physical aspect without other aspects. All the laws of physics operate throughout space, even if their effect might fall off rapidly in an (mathematically) inverse-power way. What we see as, and call, 'physical things' is actually continuous with the whole physical cosmos. There are no distinct boundaries in physics. For example:
- At the quantum level, this is obvious: the Wave Equation extends to infinity.
- Recent particle physics stresses that there are no particles as such but that each one is a pertubation of the Quantum Field.
- String theory: no points, only strings (0D, 1D). Continued in 2D as membranes, and then higher dimensions too, now collectively thought of as Branes. With these, we can even describe whole black holes.
But also at the macro level we find lack of true physical boundaries ...
- A mountain? But where does that mountain stop and the next begins, or the plain begins? Physical laws can give us no way of telling. Our delineation of a mountain is due to our analytic or possibly sensitive activity. The mountain is part of the entire rocky terrain and substructure and not a separate thing, and the forces it exerts on the substructure are continuous.
- A river or lake? Surely we can tell physically where the edge of this is? Wet means river, dry means non-river. But can we? Look more closely: the rocks at the edge give no clear boundary. And even rocks are often semi-permeable and absorb the wet. Even at the macro wet-dry boundary, this changes as ripples and waves play on the solid.
- A cloud? Again look closely at the indistinct boundary. A cloud is merely air in a particular state of precipitation of water vapour.
- A fire? Surely the flames are distinct? But if we look with infra-red eyes we will see the edge of the flames in a different place. Flames, like clouds, are merely air and gases in a particular physical state, seen by us as distinct.
- A shadow? This has a sharp edge, does it not? First, at the micro-level, its boundary is not sharp because of the non-zero diameter of the light source. Second, what is the 'existence' of the shadow? It is merely a lack of light in contrast with some light - both of which occur by the field of light. (Note: 'in contrast with' is a sensitive and analytical notion.)
In most of these examples the supposed 'things' are distinct only when we experience them via our sensitive and/or analytical functioning. From the physical aspect we cannot speak fundamentally of 'things'; we can only speak of 'stuff'. To get real 'things' we must go to the biotic notion of organism.
But most of these examples are medium-sized. What about electrons, atoms, molecules, etc. and planets, galaxies, etc.? Are not these 'things'?
- An electron? Surely this is a physical 'thing' if anything is? But does not modern physics say it is wave, whose position cannot be strictly delineated?
- However, Dooyeweerd discussed how the atom is a 'whole', and thus it might be thought to be a 'thing'. The atom is 'distinct' in some ways, but it is not fulfilled in its physical meaning by remaining alone. Atoms only gain their full physical meaning when bound with others in molecules and crystals. In a crystal, there is again no distinctness, except at its broken edge.
- The molecule is, perhaps, a physical 'thing'. But not in the same way as a cell is a biotic 'thing'. The molecule is only a more-or-less temporary arrangement of atoms; for example acid an chalk molecules become other molecules. Whereas, for its meaningful temporal 'existence' a cell never becomes something else.
- Planet? Galaxy? Again, these seem to be things because of the boundary between them and vacuum, but they are not physically distinct from the rest of the cosmos, and are subject to pervasive physical laws. So planets especially keep on gaining and losing material.
However molecules and planets do have some temporary thingness, which anticipates biotic thingness.
It was easy to (mis)assume that physical laws were absolute when we knew only Newtonian and Maxwellian laws. But both Eistein's relativity and Quantum Theory undermined this, and confirm Dooyeweerd's contention that, like all other aspectual functioning, physical functioning is non-absolute. Briefly:
- The Special Theory of Relativity showed that physical space and time are not an absolute framework against which all can be measured, but are relative. Then the General Theory of Relativity deepened this considerably.
- Quantum Theory showed that physical causality, on which we had thought to rely, is not predictable at the microscopic scale.
In this way, physical functioning proclaims its own non-absoluteness.
- Chemistry; see below
- Materials science
- Causality. Stafleu points out that
the causal relation (on the law side of the physical aspect) simply states
that nothing happens without a cause - but what the effect of a specific cause may be need not be fixed in advance.
This formulation avoids the
one-sidedness of both determinism and indeterminism: it grants determinism
that the concept of a cause is meaningful and should not be discarded, as
claimed by indeterminism; and it grants indeterminism that the effect need
not be fixed in advance (just think of the half-value of radio-active
elements), thus highlighting the untenability of determinism in this regard. [Contributed by Danie Strauss 2015, used with thanks.]
- Irreversibility. In earlier aspects, things may be reversed, but from this aspect onwards, they cannot be.
- Persistence. For example, if you leave a physical something in a particular state, it will stay like that until acted upon. This is the basis for memory.
- Reliable functioning. Because this aspect is determinative (at least at macro level) things that are subject only in the physical aspect will function in a way that may be relied upon. This is why computers are reliable in their basic operation.
- Functioning within its immediate environment; impacting on stuff around.
- The physical aspect applies across all biotic entities, so it offers something common to all. This is why clock time, for example, is common to all, all humans, all planets, all atoms and sub-atomic particles, etc. and therefore offers a basis for common measurement.
Gerardus 't Hooft
For centuries, physical scientists asked "What are things made of?" and produced answers such as that atoms are nuclei with electrons whizzing around them. But these answers led to what was known as the Infinity Puzzle: many numbers come out as infinite. Gerardus 't Hooft asked a different question, "What forces hold things together?" or "Where did things come from?", and this resolved that puzzle. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1999.
The latter is more commensurate with Dooyeweerd's ideas. These new questions shifted the focus from things to laws, and to what is more meaningful in the physical aspect: forces, fields, etc. One might even say that the laws of the physical aspect does not know of 'things' like electrons, but rather about forces and laws that pertain across all physical space. Is it significant that both Dooyeweerd and 't Hooft came from the Netherlands?
The current attempt among physicists to reach a Grand Universal Theory (GUT) in which the four basic kinds of force are unified into one type, and Quantum and Relativity Theories are united, is relevant here. If they are successful then they will have found a way of unifying all the kernel themes of the aspect and ensuring its strong coherence as an aspect. If they do not then it means that the aspect has within it several distinct sub-kernels. It will be interesting to see if they do because it is an open question whether aspectuality involves everything in that aspect being linked together into some GUT of that aspect.
In any case, the GUT (Grand Universal Theory) is not strictly a TOE (Theory of Everything, as it has sometimes been dubbed), because 'everything' must include all the other aspects. Since they are, fundamentally, irreducible to the physical aspect, the GUT that physicists are perhaps nearing cannot be for everything, but only for the physical aspect. So, when TOE is mentioned, the prefix "physical" must always be understood to be added to it. Each of the other aspects might have their own GUTs, which will be different in style and nature and will never be reducible to the physical GUT. (For some aspects the science is so young that no serious glimpse of a GUT has even appeared.)
One approach to obtaining a GUT is String Theory. Another, just emerged, is Horava's reinterpretation of space and time.
Apace-time and Horava's Reinterpretation
After Einstein published his Special Relativity at the start of the 20th century, Minowski argued for a union of space and time: 'space-time' - which idea has prevailed ever since in physics, with time being treated as a dimension like space. Problems have emerged in trying to integrate General Relativity with Quantum Theory (to yield a GUT). In 2009 Petr Horava suggested splitting space from time, and his suggestion seems to solve some of these problems - including dark matter and dark energy and the direction of time. One of the benefits of Horava's suggestion, compared with other attempts at GUT such as string theory, is that it is much easier to grasp and much more in line with our experience.
Treating time as a dimension like space was always problematic for Dooyeweerdian philosophy, which sees time, even physical time, as of a completely different nature from space. Moreover, in General Relativity, time could go backwards as well as forwards, which goes against both empirical experience and Dooyeweerd's philosophy. But under Horava's reinterpretation time is again treated differently, and has had its directionality restored (can only go forward). If Horava is proven to be valid and acceptable, then this discomfort for Dooyeweerdian philosophy is removed.
- As the 20th century has shown, physics is heavily dependent on mathematics. Whilst it is normal to think that physics can be reduced to mathematics, Dooyeweerdian approaches would suggest strongly that it cannot be reduced, even though there are strong links.
- In the anticipatory direction, we can see many physical things that anticipate life, such as the sodium pump in cell membranes, and even organic chemicals which, without knowledge of life, would be mere speculative curiosities.
In cross breeding, we are using biotic laws and manipulations to influence a biological process. In genetic modification, we are attempting to use physical laws and manipulations to bring about a biological change. To say that genetic modification is just the same as cross breeding is reducing biotic laws to physical.
- The physical aspect is retrocipated into the kinematic aspect. In particular, the kind of movement we find in fluids could not emerge within the kinematic aspect itself; it needs its application in the physical aspect to open it up.
The Observer Effect in some Quantum Theory
Some Quantum theory tries to explain some physical happenings, such as the famous double-slit experiment, by the observer effect. It is held that the observer changes what happens. Now, at the macro level, there is indeed an observer effect, noted by Heisenberg: e.g. light shone on something in order to see it slightly changes the thing physically; that is now what we are concerned with here. But at the micro level of quantum mechanics, it is held by some that the actual physical outcome is determined by observer even when there is no physical interaction (e.g. by using equipment that rules out all but one possibility). This interpretation of physical rules is still contested (see Wikipedia Observer Effect (Physics)).
Is the problem with it that it tries to reduce the analytical aspect, which is key in the act of observing, to the physical? Because of this, most quantum theorists do not take account of the complexities of observation.
Some say that the 'observer' does not need to be human (analytical subject) but a machine designed or programmed to detect photons - but from a Dooyeweerdian perspective, that machine is an analytical proxy-subject [Breems 2017], i.e. the analytical functioning is built-into it by the human designer. With these notions of reductions, subjectproxy-subject, Dooyeweerd might help quantum theorists think more clearly about this area.
In everyday experience, physical causality means determinism, a machine-like functioning in which when X happens, Y is bound to happen, inescapably. For example hit a pebble and it will move. Such causality governs the physical aspect of all things, from electric current flowing in conductors in our computers or mobile phones, through the chemistry of plants and animal bodies, to the path a satellite takes through the solar system or the behaviour of whole galaxies.
It is this deterministic character of our physical functioning that provides the reliability of our predictions, and ensures that all these things occur reliably. Physical determinative causality is a blessing which we take for granted.
But through the lens of quantum theory physicists believe that at very tiny distances, physical functioning is not so determinative. There is indeterminacy, because even particle have wavelike properties, and one cannot tell precisely 'where' a wave 'is' nor the spatial extent of its influence. This has been used by some to try to escape the materialistic implications of physical determinism; see the notes on freewill and choice. We have a different way of 'escaping' determinism.
To see the physical aspect as centering on material and mass is useful for
everyday living, but Dooyeweerd always preferred centering on energy. Why?
We can see why when we remember two fundamental findings of twentieth century physics. First, energy and mass are equivalent, under Einstein's famous theories, so that only one is strictly necesssary. Second, when we go down to the tiny 'particles' like the electron, the uncertainty principle states that their position is not determined - because they behave more waves (energy) than like particles of matter. Hence energy is considered the proper kernel of the physical aspect.
Physics and chemistry are traditionally seen as two separate sciences, a third being biology. While biology is linked to the separate biotic
aspect, why are physics and chemistry linked to the same aspect?
The answer is that the laws of chemistry are wholly derivable (in principle) from those of physics, while the laws of biology are not. That is, we can derive laws of chemistry merely by lots of calculations using the laws about energy levels, masses, momenta, etc. of all the atoms and molecules involved. But we cannot, claims Dooyeweerd, reduce the laws of the life sciences to physics/chemistry in this way. Life processes are governed by laws over and above those that govern chemical processes.
(Of course, many today who were brought up on the assumption that life processes are merely chemical happenings will be upset by such a claim. But the fact that it has been (much) harder to bridge the gap between life functions and chemical processes than between chemical and physical processes is evidence that perhaps the claim may be correct.)
Breems N. 2017. Subject-by-proxy: A tool for reasoning about programmer responsibility in artificial agents. Ethicomp, 5-8 June 2017, De Montfort University, U.K.
This is part of The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Questions or comments would be welcome.
Copyright (c) 2004 Andrew Basden. But you may use this material subject to conditions.
Written on the Amiga with Protext.
Created: by 16 March 1997.
Last modified: 3 July 1998 Reorganised the page and added reduction inherent in genetic modification. 30 August 1998 rearranged and tidied. 19 April 1999 added the themes of Field Interaction and fluid dynamics, and analogy to kinematics. 13 January 2001 Section on GUT. 7 February 2001 copyright, email. 3 October 2003 .nav, and some shalom items. 30 December 2004 antic. 24 August 2005 no 'things'. 21 July 2008 causality label inserted, with text, and link to freewill. 17 February 2009 mechanism. 14 March 2009 table of areas, and a few other mods. 22 September 2010 Dooyeweerd's and Basden's kernel; corrected link. 12 October 2010 Horava, rewrote GUT; more sciences. 27 October 2011 'tHooft. 6 November 2015 causality. 21 September 2016 briefly. 29 September 2020 Reduction: quantum observer; ref to Breems proxy-subject; added a few theories to table. 24 November 2021 clock time common to all. 29 September 2022 electron a pertubation; some rw. 31 January 2023 string theory and Branes, intro "notes".