Somewhere in my past—I’m not sure when or where, maybe it was in a shared room or dorm somewhere—I remember lifting my bedspread to see dust bunnies collected under my bed. Whoever was in the room with me used the expression, “Well, it looks like someone is coming or going down there.”
When I asked what that meant, I was told it came from an old Latin expression used on Ash Wednesday when the priest put a dab of ashes on the foreheads of Catholics saying, “Remember man that you are dust, and into dust you shall return.” Thus, the dust bunnies under my bed were thought to be a person either coming into existence or going out of it. Well, that incident and expression stuck with me.
It seemed appropriate because the dust coming and going reminded me very much of the whole idea of anything coming and going, such as being or substance, or atoms and nuclear particles. In early Greek times, Aristotle believed in 1) being-in-act, 2) being-in-potency, and 3) non-being. The latter of these three terms is easy to deal with because, poof, it’s not there and we need not be concerned about it.
Simply put, Aristotle thought that being-in-potency is that which a thing can be while being-in-act is that which a thing already is. A tiny tomato seed-in-act, is a grown tomato plant-in-potency with juicy ripe, ready to pick tomatoes. A huge block of marble-in-act, is the Pieta, or statue of David-in-potency.
Later, during medieval times and particularly with the advent of Thomas Aquinas, the idea of a certain dynamism or movement arose among Scholastic thinkers who no longer saw being-in-potentia and being-in-actu always as two distinct, static states. Using the example of the marble above, while the marble is being sculpted from a solid block, it is easy to imagine it moving inexorably from being in potentia to being in actu.
Originally, David was nothing but marble in potentia; yet he had an aptitude to change, a chance to be worked into something new. As a completed work of art in actu, David had been actualized, made whole, perfected. The marble’s capacity to be fulfilled was determined.
Although this seems like doubletalk, Scholastics would argue that although potentiality and actuality are mutually exclusive logically, still, they can be thought of as existing in combination within the same object. Even the completed statue of David in actu still has the power in potentia to be chisled down into a smaller statue. The fact of the matter is this: as far as I’m concerned, depending on how you look at any existing thing, you can view it as in potentia or in actu simply because change is always possible.
Thus, in my last article discussing prime matter and substantial form, prime matter (material, not spiritual matter) would be considered pure potency until it is given a substantial form as matter in actu: a cat, a tree, a man, air, etc. To the philosopher/theologians of medieval times, God had no matter or form. He existed only as being-in-actu.
So what does this have to do with our current theory of the “stuff” reality is composed of? To begin with, Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937) had performed experiments which led him to theorize that matter is, indeed, made up of atoms but they were not solid at all. They had internal parts: some kind of a dense nucleus around which traveled electrons at fantastically high speeds.
If an atom were as large as a golf ball sitting in the palm of your hand, it would not only appear solid, it would also feel solid, because the speed of the electrons traveling around the nucleus is so rapid that the electrons seem to be everywhere at once, giving the atom the appearance and feeling of having an outer solid shell.
Niels Bohr (1885-1962) added to this theory explaining that the electrons spinning around the nucleus are in different orbits. They stay in orbit because the nucleus has a positive charge while the electrons are negative. The speed of the electrons in their orbits is so great that it overcomes the electrical attraction that tries to suck them down into the nucleus. This is much like the centrifugal speed of the Earth overcoming the urge of the sun’s gravity to yank it inward to annihilation.
If you twirl a bucket of water at the end of a rope in a circular fashion so that its orbit is perpendicular to the Earth, as long as you spin it fast enough, neither the water nor the bucket will crash downward onto your head.
Max Plank discovered that an electron has a fixed quanta (amount) of energy which keeps it spinning in the same orbit, but it can jump from a lower orbit to a higher one if it absorbs energy. Interestingly enough and contrary to common sense, the electron does not slide slowly from one orbit to another as it absorbs more and more energy. Rather, it waits until it gains just enough energy, then—pow—up it goes into to the next orbit.
This can be imagined by comparing it to your car’s automatic transmission. It starts out in low gear. As you accelerate and your engine gains speed, the transmission suddenly shifts to second gear. You can feel it—you can sense the engine change speed each time the car shifts into a higher gear. By the time you reach a desired speed, the car is gliding along smoothly. Internally, however, the engine and transmission have gone through several quantum leaps of energy. If you drive a stick shift, these quantum changes are unmistakable.
Although experiments proved the electron was present, nuclear physicists soon discovered that it was virtually impossible to find it. Any attempt to locate its whereabouts within the atom met with uncertainty. It seemed impossible to nail down the precise mass, the actual position, or the real velocity of an electron at any given moment in time.
When attempts were made to measure its mass, physicists were frustrated because its position could not be located due it its incredible velocity. What they could do was bombard its alleged pathway with another particle until that particle collided with the elusive electron.
But the collision yielded unsatisfactory results because now, both the electron and the colliding particle were altered. This vicious circle became known as The Uncertainty Principle after physicist, Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976).
Heisenberg’s ideas led to a rather startling view of nuclear physics: some facts can only be assumed—they may never become absolute truths but only probable truths. Thus, if the building blocks of the universe—the atomic particles that make up matter—can never be adequately found or described, what does this say about our view of reality?
In a way, there is a correlation between today’s nuclear physics and the ideas of ancient and medieval philosophers who sought the principles which underlie their conception of the universe. The uncertainty of nuclear structure can easily be compared with being-in-actu. At the level of solids, liquids, and gases, chemists deal daily with various types of substances. Like the rest of us, they assume that the nuclear particles which make up their chemical and molecular equations have a definite reality. They believe they are real.
But at the miniscule nuclear level where particles appear “fuzzy” because of the uncertainty of their presence in any given place, the propositions of Aristotle and the medieval philosophers take on an even more elemental meaning. When elements undergo a chemical change or even a physical change, these substances pass from being-in-potentia to being-in-actu.
In a way, nuclear physics seems to have arrived at a quandary: can it discover what the ultimate stuff of the universe is? Must it eventually make an imaginative metaphysical leap to accepting reality as composed of prime matter and substantial form held in existence by being-in-potentia and being-in-actu?