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Energy's Absurdity

  1. Oct 5, 2004 #1

    Les Sleeth

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    In another thread when this Stephen Hawking quote was cited, “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe," it reminded me of a question that has been on my mind a lot lately. It seems to highlight the apparent absurdity of representing matter as energy, but then in a different context describing energy as a mere abstraction which has no reality beyond how it helps explain the behavior of matter. As science writer Paul Davies explained, “Energy is . . . an imaginary, abstract concept which nevertheless has become so much a part of our everyday vocabulary that we imbue it with concrete existence.”

    Energy, whatever it is, moves things, heats things, gets work done . . . So how can what is capable of all that, and which is absolutely essential to matter, be only a concept? After all, the formula isn’t C=mc^2 (C standing for concept). Is there really nothing actual to what supposedly constitutes matter other than it’s just an explanatory convenience? Should one deduce that since we are only able describe how things happen, but don’t know what it is that is driving it or what the physical is made up of, that the physical behaves but there's nothing substantial comprising it?

    My question is, are we missing something essential in our accounts of the physical universe? Is there something most basic which energy is (or is a manifestation of) which is so fine/unstructured/subtle we can’t observe it directly and so must content ourselves with describing what it does? Or if you reject that, can you resolve what appears to be the contradiction in representing energy as only a concept, yet simultaneously having it be the most essential (or only) ingredient of matter?
     
    Last edited: Oct 5, 2004
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 5, 2004 #2
    Personally, I see nothing absurd at all about describing matter in terms of energy, even given that energy is an extremely abstract concept. In our studies of the world, it has turned out that matter is an exceedingly abstract concept. I see no reason to believe that any concept we use to describe reality is a real, true depiction of reality in a pure sense; only that they all are good enough depictions to be useful.

    Almost certainly. However, I'd like to wager a guess that when it is discovered, you'll find it to be an even more abstract and less "concrete" idea than whatever one(s) it replaces.

    This is just my personal take on this issue.
     
  4. Oct 5, 2004 #3

    Les Sleeth

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    I thank you for it. :smile:


    I am afraid I don't get your point about matter being abtract, maybe you could explain. Regarding energy, if we were only going to discuss what is "useful," then I suppose one can ignore the paradox presented by the fact that work is being done by a concept! :tongue2: But my realist streak can't get past the fact that we have attributed virtually all of existence to the presence of energy, yet we are not allowed to assign it any existential qualities.

    Analogously, water is essential to the existence of life, 75% so, and because we can see it, touch it, taste it, etc. we are able to say it is wet, a fluid, and so on. However, if we couldn't detect it, yet we knew "something" was doing all the things water does, would we say water is just a concept? Similarly, is energy "something" or is it really nothing? And if it is something, then what is it "like" as an extant substance or property.


    See, the problem isn't that energy is abstract, if by abstract you mean so general/simple in form that it can become/interact with everything. But our very substantial physical universe being composed of something that is merely an idea makes no sense. Ideas are the phantasms of the mind, hopefully meant (in the correspondence theory of truth anyway) to represent how reality actually is. To me, reality, and ideas about reality, are two different things. So is energy is real, or it is a merely an idea without a corresponding counterpart in reality?
     
    Last edited: Oct 5, 2004
  5. Oct 5, 2004 #4
    Hah! Well put. I'm afraid the work done by ideas is a philosophical place I shall not dare to go :biggrin:

    Well, I would say energy is merely an idea with a corresponding concept in reality. However I would also say that we can never completely know the corresponding concept; we can merely come infinitely close.

    We experience water all the time, and therefore the concept understandably seems very real. However, maybe try this experiment sometime. Put on a thin glove and then put your hand in water. If you are like me (which may not be the case!) after putting water on the glove, your hand honestly feels wet. However, removing it from the glove shows it to be dry. So when we say we "feel" water, are we really feeling it, or are we feeling the change in temperature on our skin? How can we say we know water is real because we feel it when our senses are so easily fooled?

    Many things seem that way to me; perfectly natural until examined very closely.

    If I were going to link the idea of energy to a concept in reality it would be this: that things can change, and that they do. This seems to me to describe everything that the concept of energy does. It quantitates the fact that things can happen around us, and then, when studied and placed in context of a system, allows us to predict things.

    I had better stop before I expose myself as the pseudo-philosopher I am. If I've made any logical errors, I hope someone will step in and correct me.
     
  6. Oct 6, 2004 #5

    Tom Mattson

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    These are 2 different questions, with 2 different answers.

    The answer to the first question is:

    No, energy does not have any existential qualities.

    Energy doesn't feel like anything, doesn't taste like anything, doesn't look like anything, doesn't sound like anything, and doesn't smell like anything. It is a mathematical abstraction that has no concrete existence of its own.

    But that doesn't mean that the answer to the second question is also "No." In fact, it is:

    Yes, there is a corresponding counterpart in reality. Energy is calculated from state variables that can be directly observed. Kinetic energy is calculated from the mass of a moving body and it's speed. Gravitational potential energy is calculated from the position of an object relative to a given mass distribution. The thermal energy of an object is calculated from its temperature, which is in turn related to particle motion, and so on.

    So in short, while the existential question is answered negatively, the correspondence question question is answered affirmatively because there is a one-to-one mapping of energy forms into (observable) state variables. Since there is such a mapping, energy forms are often interchanged synonomously with their state variable counterparts for the sake of convenience.

    "Look, that rocket ship has a lot of kinetic energy," might be said instead of, "Look, that massive body is moving fast."

    "Close the door, you're wasting energy," might be said instead of, "Close the door, you're wasting the natural gas used to heat the apartment."

    Get my drift?
     
  7. Oct 6, 2004 #6

    Les Sleeth

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    I posted this apparent contradiction here because I didn't want to get kicked out of any physics area for being too speculative. But I will now admit that my interest is mostly practical, and not philosophical.


    Isn't energy a total blank (i.e., and not something we are “infinitely close” to understanding)? I'd love to hear someone knowledgeable think this out for me because I am hung up on it. I cannot see how anything can do things, but have no inherent characteristics/traits/nature which we can point to which accounts for how it does them.


    True, but proof isn’t on the same level as theory. Why is there no mainstream theory about what energy is (i.e., as opposed to merely what it does)? Seems very strange to me, although I admit I am someone more interested in “isness” than “doesness.”


    Yes! But you’ve confirmed what I am saying is missing. What we now do is observe change, but resist talking about the nature of what is driving the change. I understand how useful it is to be able to characterize how things will/can change, but I don’t understand where our curiosity went about what energy is “like.”
     
  8. Oct 6, 2004 #7

    Les Sleeth

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    Thanks Tom for responding.

    You’ve confirmed my assumptions, but not resolved the contradiction I’ve posited. If energy “doesn't feel like anything, doesn't taste like anything, doesn't look like anything, doesn't sound like anything, and doesn't smell like anything,” that does not necessarily mean energy “does not have any existential qualities.” That conclusion assumes only sense experience establishes existence, sort of like the question: if a tree falls in the woods, but nobody hears it . . . Isn’t it true that the most you can say is that we cannot not experience energy with our senses and so cannot empirically confirm whether or not energy has existential qualities?

    Yes, you are right to say there is a corresponding counterpart in reality, but (and here is where I think I am on target) . . . the reality counterpart is only effects! Are you willing to assert that something non-existent is having an effect? Is causing? If so, it seems to me that is against everything physics stands for. Correct me if I am wrong but isn’t every effect believed to have a cause? And isn’t every cause (in physics) believed to be something real?


    I do get your drift, but maybe I have missed your meaning. What I hear you saying is what I am saying: we can see what energy does, but we neither can see what energy IS nor are we willing to theorize about it.

    Also, I am bothered that the answer to the existential question is “negative.” How is that acceptable? If I suggest God is driving the universe, wouldn’t the intelligent person want to know what it was in the nature of God that causes/allows that? Why the suspension of logic here? That's the drift I don’t get.
     
    Last edited: Oct 7, 2004
  9. Oct 7, 2004 #8
    Just a thought, but maybe the reason you find no satisfaction in the description, definition etc of energy is that it describes something exceedingly fundamental to our universe.

    For a system to have energy, it must have properties. Mass, electric charge, etc. The energy of the system is derived from these properties; it suggests that, given those properties, things will change in certain ways. You could try to suggest a "force" is responsible, but I find that an unsatisfactory answer (and I think you would to) because a force is just a property based on the properties of the system, same as energy.

    If the concept of energy is based on a truly fundamental part of our universe - that things change based on their properties - then science may have no further description of what it is. You are looking for a reason they change, but I'm not certain such a thing exists.
     
  10. Oct 7, 2004 #9

    Tom Mattson

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    I didn't think that was the contradiction you posited. I thought the contradiction was that energy, which is purely abstract, is said to have causal efficacy in the real world, as though it were concrete. Now that contradiction I did resolve by pointing out that "energy" is often swapped with observable state variables in conversation, because of the 1-to-1 correspondence.

    I was reasoning the other way:

    Since energy has no existential qualities, it follows that you can't see, hear, smell, touch, or taste it.

    Right, but so? All I was trying to do there is clearly differentiate between the abstract and the concrete. I wasn't even attempting to identify the cause of those effects.

    No, I haven't said anything like that. Energy is simply a numerical label that we attach to the physical state of a system. It's just like attaching this thing called "age" to one's chronological state. Confusing energy for the physical state is like confusing a man's age for his state of physical and mental maturity.

    Yes, every effect has a cause by definition, and those causes must be real. When two like charges are brought together, we can observe them to repel each other. Why? From a calculational point of view, we might say that they repel because the system is tending to its lowest available energy state. But that's not really an explanation, that's a reduction under which we can bring all known physical phenomena. A better explanation would be that the charges are sources of a field, and that these charges push on each other via those fields, and at the quantum level, this force can be understood in terms of particle exchanges. We only say that it can be explained by energy exchanges because of that 1-to-1 correspondence: Each exchanged particle has precisely 1 energy.

    We are not saying the same thing at all. Energy simply does not "do" anything! It is a mathematical object that is used in a powerful calculational formalism.

    Why would one theorize about a defined quantity?

    In any case, the whole subject of thermodynamics is a theory of energy. So are Lagrangian and Hamiltonian dynamics, and QM. But all of those theories simply make use of the concept of energy to derive predictions, so I gather that they are not what you are looking for.

    It's acceptable for the same reason that saying "geometric figures have no existential qualities" is acceptable.

    Energy is a mathematical, abstract object that was invented by human scientists. This is an historical fact. Prior to that first physicists conception of the idea of energy as it is used in physics, it simply did not exist.

    I'd think the intelligent person would write that off as flim-flam unless there were some way to observe this "God". We simply cannot go around searching for existential qualities for each and every mathematical concept that people come up with. If you define a function of velocity to be K=(1/2)mv2 and call it "kinetic energy", would you really feel compelled to scour the universe looking for it with full knowledge that it was invented by you to suit your needs?

    I think you don't get it because you seem to be adopting a strong stance of scientific realism that is just not called for. It is simply not the case that each and every abstract mathematical object used in physics is to be found in the concrete universe.
     
    Last edited: Oct 7, 2004
  11. Oct 7, 2004 #10

    Les Sleeth

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    I think Tom summed up well the view and attitude from the physics side; there is no point in questioning the proprietary energy concept so successfully used in actual, physical calculation and research. Of course, I wasn't questioning that anyway.

    Possibly it wasn't the best idea to characterize what I see as an absurdity, yet I do think something fundamental, and unrecognized, is moving things which many science thinkers seem content with using only as a mathematical concept. I simply wonder what the underlying aspect of reality is like which allows the energy concept to work, and why there is what I perceive as resistance in some science thinkers to reflect on it. If it is too fundamental for science to consider, as you suggest, then obviously it won't be part of any scientific theory. But philosophically it could be meaningful.
     
    Last edited: Oct 7, 2004
  12. Oct 7, 2004 #11

    Tom Mattson

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    There is an underlying reason for the law of conservation of energy, and you might find it a bit more tangible than the concept of energy itself. Conservation of energy is a direct logical consequence of the invariance of physical laws with respect to time. In fact, every symmetry in physics necessarily implies a conservation law.

    So, while we can not say that energy has any existential qualities, we can say why it is conserved. We just can't say why the laws of physics are invariant with respect to time. But the immutability of the laws of physics is among the most basic assumptions of science, and the fact that we can reduce energy conservation to that assumption is, IMO, quite profound.

    The resistance you are perceiving from me is a result of my unwillingness to identify a mathematical function with anything concrete. This was the heart of all my disagreements with Alexander, if you recall. My position is that math simply does not make things happen in the real world. Wouldn't you agree?

    If so, then my final response to your remark above is this:

    When you ask me to reflect on what it is that drives the universe, you are not asking me to reflect on energy. You are asking me to reflect on something else.
     
  13. Oct 7, 2004 #12

    Les Sleeth

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    You might be surprised to know I wasn’t referring to you with my remark, but rather I was just talking about my (often frustrating) experience with science thinkers in general. I assumed your response to me was you doing your job here at PF keeping things properly termed, defined, and on course. I assumed also you were letting me know this wasn’t a way you wanted energy discussed.

    I didn’t address you directly because I felt you were going to maintain that stance, and it wasn’t what I wanted to discuss. If the conversation has to be as you reframed it, I’m afraid have nothing very interesting to say to people who know a lot more about how energy functions in physics than I do.


    Completely.


    Okay, but there’s only so many terms to go around. Right now, in modern cultures where science has been studied in schools and there is respect and interest in it, energy is how people think of the “mover” in general. Do you remember that thread I did over a year ago entitiled “Whose Energy is it?”?

    There I pointed out that “The word energy is derived from the Greek energeia . . . The term energy was not applied as a measure of the ability to do work until rather late in the development of the science of mechanics. Before anybody else, Aristotle used the term energeia to mean the operation or activity of anything as it changed (in contrast with its potentiality or capacity to change). . . . An actuality (energeia) is just the realization of one of these potentialities, which is most significant when it includes not merely the movement but also its purpose. Becoming, then, is the process in which the potentiality present in one individual substance is actualized through the agency of something else which is already actual. (Metaphysics IX) Thus, for Aristotle, change of any kind requires the actual existence of something which causes the change.”

    In the past I have bowed to its formal use in physics, but this last posting in the philosophy area I was trying to point to what I see as an irony. That irony (I believe) is found the general view of energy as the foundation of all matter contrasted with the formal view for physics that energy is just a mathematical function. To someone like me, it seems strange that a person would only be interested in seeing the “mover” as a calculating tool. I myself am passionately interested in understanding what aspect(s) of reality is/are causing the change, particularly the organizating quality of change that brought about life and consciousness.
     
    Last edited: Oct 7, 2004
  14. Oct 7, 2004 #13

    Tom Mattson

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    No, I had no intention of moderating this thread. I'm here as a member.

    No, the conversation about energy doesn't have to use the definition I use. But it is confusing when you refer to quotes from Hawking and Davies, and then talk about "energy". It would lead one to think that you are simply mixing up two different concepts, and that the resolution of the problem is straightforward.

    I do remember it, and I remember responding to it. The main point to be taken away from my remarks in both threads is that if one is using a definition of the word "energy" that differs from the way physicists use it, then one must be very clear about it. If you are theorizing about "energy" as an animating influence, then it would be an equivocation to use statements from physical theories in that theory of energy.

    The example I gave in your earlier thread was someone I know who said she believes in an afterlife, because of physics. Because, you see, a living person has life energy, and according to physics, energy can not be created or destroyed. Therefore, that is proof that we live after the body dies.

    See the problem?

    Click here for the original version. I was your first respondent.

    If that's what you want to discuss, then I'll take a back seat and read along with interest, probably drinking Harp.

    A-ha! Progress!

    What you previously referred to as a contradiction, you now refer to as an irony. That's good! My main point is that there is only a contradiction if you hold the two views of energy side by side, believing that the word "energy" is supposed to mean the same thing in both of them.
     
    Last edited: Oct 7, 2004
  15. Oct 7, 2004 #14

    Les Sleeth

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    Ambiguous use of terms acknowledged. And if you (or Nereid) are ever out West, let me know, I'd enjoy a one on one exchange over beers (or wine). In writing I can't seem to cover all the avenues that might prevent a discussion from heading in directions I don't intend them to go.
     
  16. Oct 7, 2004 #15
    Supposing you had a life form called a 'HUMOID', completely visually disconnected from the external world from the very moment that it was created by whatever means. No eyes, no nose, no ears, no taste buds, nor any other internal and external corporeal senses that are usually attributed to, or associated with, the human perception of the external world (I don't know about science, but note that philosophy takes the perception of the external world to include sensing internal states of the body such as feeling pain, sensing the positions of our limbs, etc). Under this very circumstance, could a Humoid perceive concepts, let alone extrapolate from them? Equivalently, is it possible to form and extrapolate from concepts, let alone deduce objective facts from them, without any sensual contacts with the external world? Must that first but critical contact, or familiarisation, with the external world always be made before the formation of concepts in the perceiver?
     
    Last edited: Oct 7, 2004
  17. Oct 8, 2004 #16
    1) First reply to thread

    At the center of any elementary particle, there can be no physical laws. How can any particle remain the same and know it ? how can any particle possibly exist ? This concludes that at their core, elementary particles have NO LOGIC, NO MATH, NO PHYSICAL LAWS.


    2) Modified barains, modified neural circuits, minds connected to virtual reality chips, modified emotional circuits there is no end to how much a mind can be modified. Just changing how memory works and is organized you change every concept; changing emotional circuits there is no end. What would this mind be ? It would be a "SOLID STATE CIVILIZATION". After which nothing is knowable because it is too far from what we know.


    3) Beware SETI (Search for extraterrestrial intelligence) researchers. Advanced civilizations may be undetectable.

    Such a civilization would learn how to modify their neural circuits, therefore changing all their mind structures. How information is organized, processed
    etc may be changed arbitrarily. This may create artificial emotions, sentiments mind states, superconsciousness etc.
    This internal universe may end up being mind boggling complex and interesting. The combinations are huge, each neuron may be a particle accelerator, chip, virtualreality etc.

    They would no longer communicate with the outside universe because they could be too busy exploring their internal "SOLID STATE CIVILIZATION".


    TOBOR AN APE
     
    Last edited: Oct 8, 2004
  18. Oct 8, 2004 #17

    Les Sleeth

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    I'm not sure what any of this has to do with the nature of the universe's "mover" but I'll give it a shot anyway.

    As I've mentioned more than a few times, I actually do practice withdrawing from my senses to experience something purely subjective inside me, something one must achieve a still mind to experience (i.e., no thought). I don't know if I am as separated from sense experience as your example, but at times the withdrawal is quite complete. When this unified experience occurs ("unified" in the sense that my consciousness is whole), obviously I cannot think and have that unity at the same time. But I am perfectly capable of initiating thought processes if I choose.

    So to answer your question, if a person were never exposed to the external world via the senses, I'd say he just wouldn't be able to think anything that correctly corresponds to external reality. But since he is still capable of being conscious of himself, I don't believe it would prevent him from formulating concepts derived from that experience.
     
    Last edited: Oct 8, 2004
  19. Oct 8, 2004 #18

    Nereid

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    I know this is the philosophy section, but it is that which has to do with science, so maybe my reaction to your post isn't too inappropriate ...

    Surely no such Humoid could ever come into existence (except as the creation of a mad scientist)! And if it did, it would be quickly eaten by multitudes of living things that would perceive it as 'food'. And even if it didn't get eaten, it would starve, die of thirst, have a heart attack, suffocate, ... Before someone replies 'but just suppose ...', these are not trivial matters; for example, without some means of communicating with the external world, we could never know what Humoid was able to conceive, so would have no way to test any hypotheses on the topic. Further, trying to create a 'paper Humoid' is surely doomed to failure too ... we have no way of deciding which creative speculation about Humoid's thoughts are on the right track.
     
  20. Oct 8, 2004 #19

    Nereid

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    Er, with respect, this is nonsense. First, what we call an 'elementary particle' is a theoretical construct, and the ones you read about in physics papers (for example) are just the ones we think today are elementary ... who's to say that in 20,000 years future scientists won't shake their heads at how we in the early 21st century could be so off-track? Second, well, I don't have time now :cry:
    You posted something similar elsewhere, and I replied that you really need to clarify your proposal ... however modified, brains would still be working with sensory inputs, and math is math is math, no matter what sort of brain thinks about it.
    So? I could speculate that the universe is just a small bug in a 1234987934856-dimensional game, created by 987234985723984729834598263459872635-dimensional beings to keep their pets happy while they go hunt for snarks with their vorpal blades. In what way then could Les, Philocrat, Tom, or anyone else say which speculation is more realistic?
    and along came Daughter of the KT asteroid (or Mt St Helens, or an especially fierce geomagnetic storm, or Eta Car goes supernova, or ...) bye bye "SOLID STATE CIVILIZATION"
     
  21. Oct 8, 2004 #20
    Science and Physcis is completely correct in that they have always analyzed everything keeping the mind "FIXED", that is not askng (or not too often) "is what I see real", is "what I think" really coherent; it is very practical in the end, just shut up and calcualte and they are 100% right because it works!

    What I am thinking is what happens if mind is no longer a fixed entity ? A modified mind could develop a new and completely coherent set of rules; think if memory is no longer so linear but a mind with various fast forwards and backwards so time would no longer be linear....

    AN 8 MAN
     
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