How are we so sure matter exists? Because we see and touch it all around us? Because it’s detectable and studiable by science and scientific instruments?
Neither of these is a convincing reason.
We see and touch it all around us
We exist, and we have sensations; we know that. Knowing what these sensations represent is a different matter.
First, as Descartes argued re cogito, ergo sum, we can’t know for sure anything other than the fact that we exist, which we knows because we think (or, I’d say, because we experience). Anything else could conceivably be a deception, either intentionally or unintentionally. This may not be convincing, though: just because things could be a deception doesn’t mean they likely are.
However, even if we concede that there is (likely) a world around us that our experiences represent, Plato has a powerful argument in his cave allegory that the way we think of and model the things we experience may not be the way they really are.
Admittedly, this may not point to the notion that matter doesn’t exist as much as to the notion that, whatever it is, it’s not necessarily what we think. Whether the strong possibility of us being wrong about the nature of what we perceive implies the strong possibility that matter doesn’t exist probably depends on how specifically one define “matter.”
As for knowing the true nature of matter, one might argue that we can infer how it really is—or come close to doing so—via scientific investigation. However, I will argue that this has only led us down an empty rabbit hole.
For one, we know scientifically that the ways by which we perceive reality are highly or entirely contingent on our biological makeup. Arguably, this is likely true to an even deeper degree than we’re aware of, and it may inscribe even the way we perceive or infer things scientifically. (See also https://myriachromat.wordpress.com/2022/01/23/kants-phenomena-and-noumena/ and https://myriachromat.wordpress.com/2020/06/18/meandering-notes-on-reality/.)
But this isn’t even the good part yet.
It’s detectable by scientific instruments
Scientific instruments are made out of matter, so we’re merely detecting matter with matter. Therefore, this is a subset of noting how matter interacts with matter, which is something we knew happens way before we had scientific instruments. Of course, we know more specifically how matter interacts with matter on account of scientific instruments, but can that really tell us anything fundamental about what matter is, any more than psychosociology can tell us what people really are?
Maybe, you might argue, by leading to physical models that may peer into metaphysical truth. But I’ll argue here that the physical model leads down an empty rabbit hole, which is the insight that led to my writing this essay.
It’s studiable by science
From wave-particle duality to superposition to entanglement and non-locality to the delayed-choice quantum eraser experiment, quantum physics paints a picture of matter that’s so bizarre that it completely defies any intuitive grasp of reality. We may as well conclude that matter isn’t really matter. You could argue that matter is still matter, it’s just not how we like to think it is, but come on! It’s not even solid, nor does it accord to any theory based on local variables.
This still isn’t the key insight I wanted to convey with this essay, though. It’s as follows.
Down the rabbit hole
We now know that matter holds no ultimate solidity, but rather, on the lowest level, its borders are fuzzy. Indeed, science holds that matter is made entirely of fields. Quantum field theory, the most complete and current theory of matter, holds that all particles are merely local excitations in universal fields.
But what is a field? We tend to think of fields as some sort of invisible substance that permeates space, but, mathematically, a field represents nothing other than the tendency of a particle to be moved in a particular direction vis a vis its position in space. So thinking of fields as having any kind of substance, existing as things-in-themselves, is just human folly. It’s gratuitous at best and logically inconsistent at worst.
So, if matter is made up of nothing but fields, and a field is defined by the tendency of matter to be moved in a particular direction according to where it is in space, then matter is understood scientifically as its ability to move matter, or fields are defined scientifically as their ability to affect other fields. It’s circular. It leads to an infinite regress. Where is the substance? Why does any of this pure math lead to sense perception? What is ultimately being quantified by the numbers involved?
So matter remains, fundamentally—even in scientific discourse—defined by what we sense with our qualia, mainly with our ocular and tactile senses, secondarily with our audial sense, and tertiarily with our olfactory and gustatory senses. A purely scientific or objective understanding of what matter really is remains elusive.
Also, not to mention that our scientific understanding of matter doesn’t “go all the way down” for another reason: while we have the standard model of particle physics, we don’t know why reality subscribes to that model with those parameters as opposed to some other model and/or parameters. See also https://myriachromat.wordpress.com/2018/04/13/notes-on-science-scientism-mysticism-religion-logic-physicalism-skepticism-etc/#Reductionism.
Matter as everything
One issue related to the idea that we fundamentally understand matter is the idea that matter, or rather physical phenomena and principles, are all that exist. To some degree these two things go hand in hand, so I might as well bring it up here.
I see it as a problem that many people believe all that exists is the physical, especially while believing that matter and energy are essentially non-living. The belief is scientistic; it’s borne of closed-mindedness; it causes people to dismiss a wide variety of mysterious, fascinating phenomena and experiences and to deride or look down on believers in them; it causes one—and society at large—to set out to quash all magic and the essence of life; it causes one to interpret normal life experiences, art, etc. in an extremely narrow, deadening way that denies them metaphysical richness; it causes one to deny, suppress and neglect one’s own senses and abilities as far as they appear to defy the laws of physics/the assumptions of materialism; it unnecessarily leads to the terrifying and sad conclusion that death can only be the cessation of one’s existence; and, if taken to its rational end, it leads to nihilism, which is a deeply negative worldview.
For arguments against physicalism, see https://myriachromat.wordpress.com/2022/01/23/psychism/, https://myriachromat.wordpress.com/2018/04/13/notes-on-science-scientism-mysticism-religion-logic-physicalism-skepticism-etc/#Naturalism and The Physicalist Worldview as Neurotic Ego-Defense Mechanism. A number of other sections of the “notes on..” essay are relevant too, such as ‘Rationalism,’ ‘Skepticism,’ ‘Confirmation bias,’ ‘Anecdotal evidence’, ‘Burden of proof,’ ‘Occam’s razor,’ ‘Scientism,’ and ‘Mysticism.
The ‘Psychism’ essay (1) explains why the known laws of physics don’t preclude the validity of the paranormal/parapsychological and the mystical/spiritual, (2) points to some sources of evidence for the paranormal/parapsychological, (3) explains why we shouldn’t easily dismiss anecdotal evidence, and (4), most importantly, it points out some insightful reasons why people tend to fall into physicalism. I think it also (5) talks about the extreme bias and prejudice that exists in the scientific community, as a reason why we shouldn’t take the supposed lack of scientific evidence for the paranormal/parapsychological as a reason not to believe in anything but the physical.
This essay probably sucks
On second thought, this essay probably sucks (the parts about cogito ergo sum and Plato’s cave allegory could apply to anything, and just because something could be illusory doesn’t mean it is; and the scientific observation is probably uninformed since I’m not a scientist, and the failure of a scientific model to have an adequate foundation wouldn’t necessarily mean its subject doesn’t exist anyway), but I’m not deleting it because it has some important parts.