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Does matter exist?

  1. Apr 23, 2007 #1
    I'm pretty much physics illiterate so please bear with my simplistic metaphors and characterisations of physics principles in this question.

    It is said that there are two states, matter and energy. Well, my question is this. Does matter actualy exist?
    Surounding every atom is an electro magnetic field which its self is energy and not matter. Even surrounding electrons and nuclei is a field and even the particles that make up the electron which revolve around the atom is probably another electromagnetic field and whatever makes up those particles is probably surrounded by an electromagnetic field and so on.
    Atoms never actually touch one another. Their electro magnetic force fields pull a star treck and repulse each other so in reality all that actually comes into contact is the fields of individual parts be they electrons or sub atomic particles. Of course, depending on their charge, they sometimes attract also, otherwise we would not have the chemical bonding that brings about molecules. I don't quite know how they manage to attract and repulse at the same time and remain independant of each other yet stuck to each other but that's another topic.

    So, if all matter is basically made up of electro magnetic force fields then you could say that matter as we imagine it does not exist and that what we see as molecules (the basic building blocks of all matter) is just a matter of the different ways in which these electro magnetic fiels (atoms) are configured.
    We tend to imagine matter as a 'solid' thing and energy as some etherial, radio wave like un-solid thing. Would it be fair then to say that in fact matter does not exist and only exists in the same way that a picutre exists due to the configuration of the ink on the page. That the ink and the paper is all that 'actually' exists and the picture is just the way the ink is placed in relation to other spots of ink until it forms a picture. The paper exists as a solid thing and the ink exists as a solid thing but the picture is just 'implied' so in the stictist sense could be said to not exist.

    When you look deeper into an atom you see a nucleus at the center and one or more electrons (or positrons) orbiting it. But when you look in those nuclei and electrons you see particls that make them up and if it were possible to look into those constituent particles you probably would see more constituent parts and they are all just basically fromed by the relationship/configuration of electro magnetic fields which, again, is just 'energy'. So is it right that only energy exists and that matter does not 'exist' in the way we usually think of something existing and that it is just the result of the varying 'configuration' of the energy fields?
    By 'varying configuration of energy fields' i dont actually mean energy transmuting into a new state called matter. I mean patterns. I guess i'm asking if matter is nothing more than a pattern.
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 23, 2007 #2
    This is a loaded question. I'm going to answer this without really answering. lol The definition of matter is a highly debatable topic. Ultimately, we don't know if quarks, gague bosons, and lepton are truely elementary particals, though there isn't any evidence to prove more basic particals yet. And there isn't really a good definition of energy either. Energy is work. So all I can say is that your question really pushes the boundaries of science and reaches into the philosophical realm easily. Your comparison of a photograph to whatever real object you have taken a picture is exactly the same. Neither thing you experience is the "real" item. They are both just an interpretation of what is really there by your brain. So in short, I'm sorry, but I don't know. :) Lets just continue to explore and just maybe we'll find out.
  4. Apr 23, 2007 #3


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    Having said we only come in contact (or that atoms only come in contact) has nothing to do with whether matter exists.
    That's the way you tend to think about it. Not every one does. Believe me, when I am with my girl friend, it really doesn't matter to me whether it is our magnetic fields that are making contact! It feels good and she really exists!
  5. Apr 23, 2007 #4
    I do realise that my question was metaphysical or philosophical or whatever you want to term it.
    I also realise that with some illusions it doesnt really matter whether it's an illusian or not and just the end effect is all that is really important.
    I was just trying to get at the laymans concept of what matter or 'solid' is.
    I suspect that matter, as the layman thinks of it, does not exist. At best its the inertial impact of energy in motion that gives the impression of solidity.
    Even if my brain interprets a picture and all that i'm realy seeing is an image in my head of that picture the materials that make up the physical picture still exist. the ink and the paper exist. The picture however relies on the exact juxtapositon of the various spots of ink to make it what it is which means that the picture is nothing more real than a pattern. Change the ink around and another picture comes into existence, change it again and chaos, no picture at all.
    I'm getting the feeling that matter is just a pattern and not a thing in and of its self. Maybe there is only energy, whatever that is.
  6. Apr 23, 2007 #5
    Surely energy is joules, work is joules/second?
  7. Apr 23, 2007 #6


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    Joules per second is Power not work.

    Work is energy transfer, thats the way I like to describe it, therefore it has the same units as energy.
  8. Apr 23, 2007 #7
    Does matter exist? In our reality, yes, it does. However, is reality real?

    The way I tend to think of the world is as a giant simulation. We are not "real" to the world that may simulate us, however, to ourselves, we are. Matter is simply a measurement, as is energy, within a giant program. Our consciousness is our capability of computing & processing these measurements around us. Light, sound, and the electromagnetic force that is detected by touch.

    Now, as for whether or not we really ARE simulated is not something I will bank on. However, that's the analogy I use when I try to comprehend what matter "is".
    Last edited: Apr 23, 2007
  9. Apr 23, 2007 #8

    Claude Bile

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    Poita, in order to answer your own question, you need to define matter and define what it means for something to exist. Without doing this, your question is not even philosophical, it's meaningless.

    What is matter?
    What does it mean for something to "exist"?

    Answer these questions, and you will gain better insight and understanding from this discussion.

    Last edited: Apr 23, 2007
  10. Apr 23, 2007 #9


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    To the OP: what you are talking about (whether a certain concept, useful in a certain physical theory, "really exists") is what philosophers call the ontological question. Now, it might sound strange to you, and probably to many, but science is not involved with finding out "what really exists" - although it is often presented that way. Science is about the modelisation of observations. Now, the models that one builds (formal theories) often go with a (more or less natural) interpretation of the formal elements as "ontological hypotheses", but in fact, as long as the whole picture is consistent, it doesn't matter what are the exact ontological hypotheses one makes.

    For instance, in Newtonian mechanics, there are "matter points" and there is space and time. You can take these concepts as "really existing" and that gives you a quite good picture of what's going on when you are doing Newtonian mechanics. It is much more helpful, when doing Newtonian mechanics, to think of matter points as "really existing" ; and moreover, it does correspond to what we already intuitively took as "really existing" (before we ever opened a physics book).
    However, the formal elements of modern physics are harder to interpret, and in as much as we give them "ontological existence", they are more remote from our intuition. We don't know if these ontological hypotheses correspond to "the real world", but it can be helpful for our imagination, when we work with modern physics theories, to pretend so. It helps us get a feel for the modern theories of physics we have today. But, be warned, it is very weird.

    Now, we would probably be very naive in thinking that we have the ultimate theories of nature in our hands, and even then, there are various different formulations of them possible, with different (wildly different!) "ontological views". The scientific method will not be able to distinguish between different views which make the same observational predictions.

    So, to conclude: scientific/physical theories can suggest "ontological pictures", and personally, I find this very helpful to help you devellop some intuition for these theories. But take it with a grain of salt, because, in the end, nobody knows what is "really real", and what "only appears very consistently to be real", and science cannot discriminate between them.
  11. May 2, 2007 #10
    Thank's Vanesch, your answer helps me conceptualise more.

    Well Claude, sometimes I think existential meandering for its own sake is a waste of time. My question is some what existential but in a naturaly curious way and for a reason. I think that being existential for its own sake and even in order to frustrate definition of anything as an end rather than an answer is a black hole of nonsensical egotism.
    Sometimes its better to drop the science and go with common sene intuition. Let's take it a given that the none scientific definition of what it means to exist is my standard. My computer exists, now. I use it every day. My BMW does not exist, i can't aford one. want one and maybe plan to some day have one so in many ways it does exist, in the future it already exists for example but common sense tells us that my BMW in fact does not exist and that my computer does.
    My definition of what it means to exist was implied in my original post. My possible re defining of that was my question. Which was, is what common sense tells us matter is, nothing more than just a pattern?
    Vanesch's answer helped. It was more scientifically based than metaphysical or existential or philosophical. I think scientists sometimes mis represent the depth of their understanding to the common people. Maybe thats the way the people want it. It's possible to manipulate and take advantage of the laws of physics to achieve an end without ever having any real understanding of the properties of something. And that's good enough for most people I guess.
  12. May 2, 2007 #11
    This is a philosophical question, I recommend that it be moved to the proper subforum. The high quality of our physics discussions is matched (in magnitude) only by the depths of darkness into which our philosophical discussions tend.

    We experience qualities that we attribute to matter, viz. solidity, extension, figure, motion, quantity; but we do not ever experience "matter".

    In light of this we should forgive those who would say "we do not directly experience matter, and so it does not exist". There is another way ---

    Certain experiences we have are necessarily classified as experiences of matter. Matter is a category in the human mind, and experiences which belong to this category are casually thought of as "experiences of matter".

    The danger is to think of "a category in the mind" as something optional, or an unreal "figment of the imagination". We must, after all, be content with the human experience of the universe, and matter is a necessary part of this experience.
  13. May 2, 2007 #12
    I think you are reasoning matter doesn't exist by a composition fallacy. Who is to say matter can't be a certain compositions of "energy"?

    What you are doing is like asking if "clothes" exist since all they are is arrangements of threads.
  14. May 3, 2007 #13
    Matter definately exists. But do supernatural things exist or even have a place in the physical world?
  15. Sep 10, 2008 #14
    Science dictionaries offer multiple entries as to how "matter" can be defined. Ultimately, they all end with a phrase something like this...."....the issue of matter remains a theoretical construct." In other words, no one can go out and get a 'box of matter'. If 'matter' remains a theoretical construct (of the mind) (ditto, for dark matter) then 'matter' is still a philosophical issue. Philosophies and Religions have long ago considered (and some have addressed) the issue of First Causal Agency. Science veers from this issue by placing more intermediaries between "us and an FCA." In so far as 'matter' is theoretical it remains as much a philosophical question as it does a 'scientific' issue.
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