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What on Earth is This Stuff?

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I’ve always found it interesting to revisit some of the theories of the ancients and compare them to our modern scientific concepts regarding matter. From earliest times, philosophers in particular have stated their a priori opinions about the composition of the “stuff” that gives reality to our everyday world.

Yet, the basic conception of atomic particle physics dates back to 500 B.C. when the Greek philosopher Leucippus and his pupil Democritus suggested that matter consists of small, indivisible particles they called atoms. For more than 2000 years after this, the notion of atoms lay in obscurity. For many centuries, people believed that all matter consisted of four elements: Earth, Fire, Air, and Water. These elements existed in an Aether or as we might call it space.

Aristotle, believed in these elements but he was deeply interested in how they come together to make up the outside world of reality. With little equipment of any kind, Aristotle examined nature as best he could by sheer contemplation. With his mind he examined various kinds of things—chairs, cats, women, water, the earth itself. He decided that there were critical attributes common to all these items. He categorized these attributes—substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, time, position, state, action, affection. [Aristotle Physics (Oxford Classics)]

However, he noticed that the category of substance was by far the most critical. Unless matter had substance, none of the other attributes could exist. Substance was somehow different from the rest. Quantity depended on substance for existence. One could not hold an apple, or several apples for that matter, unless the apples first had substance.

Quality depended on substance. Apples could not be tasty or rotten, red or green unless they first had substance. These accidentals like tastiness and color and size could not exist by themselves. Greenness could not be held in hand. It first had to exist in a thing. Likewise, relation, place, and the other five categories were meaningless unless they first existed in some substance.

But then Aristotle reasoned that a cat had substance, but a cat was surely different from a person; a rock had substance but rocks were totally different from plants; and although it couldn’t be seen, air had substance but was vastly different from water. He searched his mind for the essential factor that made one substance differ from another.

“Ah-hah!” his answer—form. Although all things must have substance, the critical attribute that makes one differ from another is its substantial form. It was the form of a chair that made it differ from a table or a tree; the substantial form of a cat set it apart from dog form. In earlier times before Aristotle, thinkers had established that all matter was Earth, Water, Air, Fire and the Aether; or it was made of some combination of those five basics.

Based on this a priori assumption Aristotle made another mental leap. All substance, which undergirds our universe and the matter within it, must be made from the same exact things—a specific combination of Earth-Water-Air-Fire-Aether—and he called this consistency prime matter. In a nutshell, Aristotle had decided the make-up of all reality: It consisted of prime matter and substantial form. And so, all an alchemist needed to do to attain riches and fame was to find a way to take some base substance, a rock or plant for example, change its form; ta-dah, gold would result.

It is an interesting aside that although Aristotle’s philosophy had a deep influence on the thinkers of his own time, it may have had an even more comforting influence on theologians, particularly those of medieval times. Aristotle’s philosophy gave a logical answer to the puzzling question of the Scholastics and Thomas Aquinas: “What is God?” Aristotle allows that God is matter without a form.

What fascinates me about Aristotle’s thought system and other early thinkers is that they were driven in their own limited ways to search for truth. Their search was spawned by the same intellectual curiosity that goaded today’s scientists to build the enormous CERN collider, hoping it will help them uncover how the tiniest particles/wave/strings cause our world of reality.

Aristotle arrived at his ideas simply by observation and contemplation. His idea that every existing thing is composed of prime matter is similar to today’s belief that matter is made up of combinations of molecules. In reality, we observe these molecules as consisting of the elemental atoms found in the periodic table. We see them either in themselves as pure oxygen, or nitrogen, but more likely, we observe combinations of atoms intricately joined together to form a myriad of isotopes and compounds.

Reminiscent of the prime matter Aristotle dreamed up, at an extremely basic scientific level, today, all atoms are thought to be composed of the same nuclear particles: electrons, protons, and neutrons. The number of protons in an atom’s nucleus is what determines one element to be different from all other elements. (Atoms & Molecules: Building Blocks of the Universe by Darlene R. Stille)

It is amazing how each of these tiny particles in turn have been broken down into yet smaller subatomic parts called hadrons (baryons and mesons) which are the result of combinations of six different types of quarks with odd names: Up, Down, Strange; Charm, Top, Bottom. On March 17 of this year (2009), Fermilab announced that its atom smasher produced the latest particle which is simply named Y(4140). Scientists are not certain of its composition “because it appears to break all known rules for creating matter.” Some scientists have guessed it may be the union of a charm quark and charm antiquark.

In a way, I wonder if this division, subdivision, sub-subdivision of matter can become an infinite regression. My reasoning wants to tell me, “No!” but my imagination just won’t buy it. Why? I can imagine our entire universe as nothing more than an atom, or a conglomeration of atoms inside a molecule of some unfathomably large solid, liquid, or gas viewed by a super-galactic giant power or being—we may be nothing more than a miniscule part of its coffee table!

Just kidding, of course, but it is a humbling thought. So is there such thing as substance. Certainly not like the prime matter and substantial form that Aristotle envisioned. But is his theory so far fetched? If all matter is composed of varying arrangements of subatomic particles, the what-ness of reality can easily be likened to prime matter. If it is only the arrangement of these particles that makes one element different from another in the periodic table, this array compares nicely with Aristotle’s substantial form.

Recently, I read The Undiscovered Universe by Terrence Witt. I decided not to write a review of this problematic book. Witt seemed to be describing what exists as NOTHINGness with a form …?

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About Regis Schilken

  • Ken Skiba

    Wow, you encouraged me to read more from a historical standpoint. This was educational. Awesome information..

  • Rege Schilken

    Ken, I’ve got another article almost ready to go which relates the medieval scholastic idea of being-in-potentia and being-in-actu with today’s nuclear physics of the Uncertainty Principle and in a way, Quantum Mechanics. I’d be interested in your ideas about these comparisons.