The illusory nature of identity and state

Consider a rock sitting somewhere on a beach. Where does the rock end and the air and sand around it begin? Really think about it. While in every day language we can say that the rock ends where the material of the rock ends in physical space, this line of reasoning has a lot of issues. If you look closely, this statement begs the question “but where does the material end?”, which can be answered with “where the molecules making up the material end”, which raises another question and so on. Molecules don’t have well defined boundaries because they have electron clouds on the outside which are inherently fuzzy. As we go deeper, we find that the boundaries between things become fuzzier and fuzzier until we reach a level where we realise that both the rock and the air around it are made of the same set of substrates (see QFT), but in different macro configurations. The probabilistic nature of reality at the tiniest scales further adds to the fuzziness. Thus, we would be committing a gross violation of logic if we said that sharp boundaries of any kind truly exist in nature. At best we can say there are regions in spacetime where the rate of change of physical configuration as we move in any direction is high. Sharp boundaries are merely conveniences that are defined arbitrarily by us in order to make our job of understanding and categorising the world around us easier.

This issue of defining boundaries now leads us to a bigger problem. There can be no objects without boundaries! The world can only be divided into an object and its surroundings by the introduction of a boundary, which is a totally arbitrary choice made by us based on convenience. Without the ability to define objects, we cannot assign an identity to anything. The certainty with which you can label (i.e. assign an identity to) something is directly dependent upon the certainty with which the boundary is known or defined. Without a boundary there is no in vs out; no this vs that. In fact we can think of the labelling problem as a problem of assigning natural numbers to regions of space that we call “objects”. The first object can be called 1, the second object can be called 2 and so on until we label all the objects. Objects, by definition, are discrete, and hence must be countable. Countability appears to be inherently linked to the presence of strong boundaries. Therefore, even if there are infinite number of objects, there must be a countably infinite number of them (see Types of Infinities).

So far, one key element has been completely ignored: Time. It has been assumed that we have taken a hypothetical snapshot of the Universe as it was at a particular point in time, and then discussed the existence of boundaries within that snapshot. But in the real world, nothing is ever static. Change is the only constant. Even if we figured out a way to draw a perfect boundary for an object at one instant in time, that boundary changes with time because matter and energy constantly flow in and out of regions of space. For example, the rock stays at a certain temperature because its molecules are vibrating a certain amount, and they have reached this state of dynamic equilibrium by constantly exchanging energy with the surroundings. Also, due to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, we can never know the state of the universe exactly at any point in time, so this makes things even fuzzier once again. Therefore, we must come to the conclusion that state is also an illusion; everything is a process.

Interestingly enough, the only two things that we need in order to specify what an “object” is, are its identity (determined by its boundary) and its state. However as shown above, both are ill defined! Now we can start examining the wider implications of these conclusions. Consider the human body. It is made of the same matter that the rest of the universe is made of. It is also in a constant state of flux with the surroundings. In everyday language, we talk as if the human body is an object with well defined identity and state. However, the human body is no exception to the issues we faced above. Thus, we must agree that our definition for the boundary of a human body (which is typically considered to be somewhere near the outer regions of the skin) is completely arbitrary. We must also accept that there is nothing physically in the human body that remains the same; atoms flow in and out all the time and in a decade, our bodies will probably be made up of an entirely new set of atoms (see Ship of Theseus). The conclusion we must come to is this: ‘You’ and ‘I’ are ill defined. They are merely conveniences that we define. In reality, we are all just part of one big entity we call the Universe, that is constantly in flux, interacting with itself in a myriad of ways. In the deepest sense, it is impossible to show a clear distinction to be made between You and I, living and non living, here and there, self and other. Any distinctions we make are bound to have an inherent fuzziness that cannot be avoided. If that does not blow your mind, think about it again until it does.

To be continued…