What is Matter?
In order to approach the first question, what is matter, we can refer to the very basic article of the same title written by Edward Schrödinger in 1952, as published in Scientific American. This particular article makes it quite clear that our conception of matter as being essentially one of particles which interact is incorrect. All of the “particles” — which do inherently seem to exist when viewed from macroscopic levels, that is, from the level of molecular interactive structures — are actually all just fields of energy.
Schrodinger points out to us, “The wave phenomenon forms the “body” proper of the atom. It takes the place of the individual point like electrons which… are supposed to swarm around the nucleus. Such point like single particles are completely out of the question within the atom, and if one still thinks of the nucleus itself in this way one does so quite consciously for reasons of expediency.” ( Scientific American, Nobel Prize-Winning Authors, Volume 2.) he goes on to say, “…we can no longer consider the individual particle as a well – defined permanent entity… We cannot be sure that the same particle could ever be observed twice… the individual particle is not a well – defined permanent entity of detectable identity or sameness.”
In summary, identity as we understand it does not exist in the form of particles. He goes on to explain that this particular concept, that of identifiable particles, is expedient and useful in understanding some aspects of the material world (matter) but that understanding the world from the point of view of interactive quanta, or energy packets, which act together in waves, is a more accurate form of understanding material reality as we encounter it.
I might mention here that attempting to understand this question is something of a family tradition, because my grandfather Arthur E. Ruark was one of the founding fathers of quantum theory, having co – authored the standard textbook Atoms, Molecules and Quanta with his lab partner, Nobel Prize winner Harold Urey. So I come by my fascination with this question honestly.
The quantum physicists encountered this question and have been baffled by it ever since, since there is no clear and concrete resolution of the conflict between the particle and wave models in standard physics. As Schrödinger pointed out in his article, and as is still the case, there is no clear way of resolving the question. Yet for those of us interested in metaphysical humanism, it is not the question of individuality in the sense of a particle, but the sense of identity in the sense of a wave, that fascinates us. And we can see, paradoxically perhaps, because the two do not seem to be directly related at first, that exactly the same question plagues our understanding of existence and identity at the level of human beings. On the one hand, we are “particles” — that is, we appear to be individuals with unique and specific identity. Yet, as Gurdjieff pointed out in his doctrine of multiple “I’s”, this is not the case, and from a practical as well as quantum point of view, when we deal from an individual from moment to moment, it is never exactly the same individual we dealt with the moment before. That is to say, in the same sense that all of the quanta in the material expression of the body are rearranging themselves from instant to instant in wavelike forms, the entire organism formed by that action is also changing. So our concept of unique and individual identity, something that has an individual nature that lasts, is already faulty in some fundamental way that we conveniently overlook as we manifest within our being. The wave model of identity and Being is more accurate.
In approaching this question, we can begin to see that the wave/particle dilemma which confronts us on the quantum level is reflected quite accurately in the nature of both our own inward being and that of our interaction with others. Any sophisticated level of thinking about it will reveal so many analogies as to practically beggar the imagination; yet I won’t sit down and try to iterate all of them here. Let us simply remind ourselves that within ourselves, there are “waves” of associated thoughts, feelings, and physical states that group themselves together in aggregates that express themselves through what we call and personality, and those same expressions form their own groups of “waves” that pass through individual relationships, families, societies, and, ultimately, all of humanity. In this sense the energetic expression that rules the quantum level of matter expresses itself on macroscopic levels as well, through an agency we refer to as consciousness.
We inhabit, in other words, what I would call an inherent wave of being — the matter we believe we are made of, and its manifestation throughout the entire universe, consists of a massive and incomprehensibly complex wave of energetic interactions. Seen from the quantum level, it is a soup of energy with wavelike patterns moving through it in innumerable directions. The interactions between those patterns, where they meet, produces what we call matter. And it is only when we move “upwards” in scale from the quanta into the molecular formations that result (atoms themselves failing to express what we call individuality, as Schrodinger so eloquently points out) that we discover what we call agency and what we call Being at a level that can have what appears to be a more concrete level of expression, where a baseball — for example — remains a baseball for quite some time, if not forever.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.