The world appears to be full of material things — gizmos and gadgets, plants and animals, stars and planets, and all the rest. But what is a star or anything else, really?
Of course, you can say it’s a star. But that doesn’t really tell me anything. ‘Star’ is just a sound we make.
You can try to describe a star. You might say, for example, that it’s a giant luminous ball of gas in space that emits energy. But then you’re right back to square one: your description of star is composed of more words, each of which must be described with, yet again, more words. And so you’re stuck in a loop.
Much of Western philosophy has been blind to the empty nature of concepts since Aristotle, who believed you could acquire the true definition of a thing through induction — or repeated observations; repetition.
But, as with all knowledge, concepts are created. Just check the dictionaries — we add more concepts to them every year.
And what’s more, none of these concepts, none of these definitions, have remained constant. They evolve through the same process that all knowledge evolves — through the humble method of trial and the elimination of error.
As we navigate the world, as we navigate our social and physical worlds, we get feedback — the world tells us to adjust our concepts when we run into something that upsets the assumptions we’ve created about what a particular thing is.
If you’ve raised children, you’ve probably witnessed your child struggle with a concept — the concept of death or time, say — for many years before they finally start to gain an understanding of it through the trials and errors of their experience.
Another example to consider is the concept ‘self.’ You weren’t, I think you’ll agree, born with an understanding of ‘self.’ It took you years of experience to test, correct, and adjust how you view or relate to or define your ‘self.’ And even after decades, I bet you’re still not quite sure what the ‘self’ is.
Though the East has long recognized the empty nature of concepts, in the West it wasn’t really until the nineteenth century, when Maxwell introduced the electromagnetic field, that a few people started to abandon Aristotle’s essentialist approach to knowledge.
Many to this day, however, remain tranced by the illusion of words and concepts. Like Aristotle, they think that beliefs, scriptures, or scientific theories, all of which are built of concepts, can be verified as positively true.
But concepts arise, become known, and pass away only in the space of awareness; in consciousness. How, then, can things that arises and pass away be what those things are?
They can’t. You weren’t born with innate and infallible notions of your concepts. You didn’t receive them by edict or divine revelation. And you didn’t just find them lying around somewhere.
All words, all concepts, all things are created, change, and eventually fade. Not even something as seemingly fixed as matter is exempt.
Matter was invented and has continued to evolve through the generations. It’s been over four hundred years now of intense scientific inquiry, and we still don’t know what the hell it is.
The Materialist Research Program
Most of the Presocratics believed the world is composed of one or another element — earth, water, wind, or fire. They didn’t, however, try to explain what the elements actually are. They didn’t ask ‘What is water?’ or ‘What is fire?’ The elements, they believed, weren’t capable of further explanation. They were simply the starting point from which everything else had to be explained.
During the scientific revolution, though, largely under the spell of Aristotle’s essentialist approach to knowledge, several thinkers set out on a search for the true essence of matter.
Among the first was Descartes, who claimed that matter’s true essence is geometrical extension. Matter, to Descartes, then, is essentially synonymous with space — not an empty Newtonian space but a kind of Parmenidean space. Unlike Parmenides, though, who denied the existence of change since change requires the non-existent, Descartes believed that change was still possible — he thought matter can move through the plenum like a fish swims through the sea (an idea he got from Plato).
The great polymath and co-inventor of calculus Leibniz liked Descartes’ idea that the essence of matter is extension. But he still wondered how matter — an extended body — could push another body along if there is no space for bodies to move. Matter, he thought, then, must consist of something other than, or perhaps even prior to, extension.
He therefore introduced the idea of a repulsive force. Not only would this explain movement. But it would also explain how matter keeps its extension. Dope idea, for sure.
But the open question still remained: How can this force fill space? In other words, he still needed to explain where this force comes from. It must, Leibniz concluded, emanate from unextended points called monads.
Matter, as Leibniz imagined it, then, became something quite different than Descartes’s matter. It’s no longer pure extension but, rather, extension plus a repulsive force that emanates from many unextended points.
Note that Leibniz didn’t have some magic goggles, which allowed him to see matter’s true essence better than Descartes. No, there was an explanatory gap — the mechanism of push — that needed to be resolved. So, in the same fashion as the Ionian philosophers, Leibniz put forward a bold explanatory solution.
The story, of course, doesn’t end here.
Though Leibniz helped to explain the problem of extension and movement, he failed to solve another problem — the problem of acceleration, which the physicist Roger Boscovich (and Immanuel Kant) recognized in the eighteenth century.
Boscovich imagined moving two inelastic and impenetrable balls in the same direction — with the front ball moving six mph and the one behind moving twelve mph. Now, if you assume that the total energy is conserved, both balls should move nine mph after they collide.
The question Boscovich was interested in is whether the change in velocity happens in stages or all at once. Because, if the balls are indeed inelastic and impenetrable, Boscovich realized that it’s impossible for the change to happen in stages. If, for example, a moment after contact, the rear ball is moving eleven mph and the front ball is moving seven mph, then the rear ball will have passed the boundary of the first.
If, on the other hand, the acceleration happens all at once, Boscovich realized that we’re still shit-out-of-luck, since it’d take an infinitely large force to accelerate the front ball from a constant of six mph to nine mph, which is obviously impossible.
Boscovich concluded, then, that the change in velocities must happen in continuous stages. But in order to avoid the rear ball passing the front, he argued that we have to abandon the notion of action by inelastic contact and instead replace it with an elastic one — that is, one where the repulsive forces move toward infinity as the distance between the two monads approaches zero.
Boscovich therefore replaced Leibniz’s inelastic force fields with elastic ones.
Finally, with the advent of general relativity and quantum mechanics, our traditional concept of matter broke down entirely. Einstein’s world of general relativity, as you probably know, turned existence into a Parmenidean world — a single block universe called space-time. Couple this with our increasing understanding of quantum mechanics, and all traditional notions of matter go out the window.
We are simply left with Existence. But, again, this too is just another word.