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Properties at the fundamental scales

  1. Feb 2, 2004 #1
    Here's one....

    A book has a mass of say 0.2 kg, it's red, and burns at a certain temperature. Its properties can be explained by its constituent molucular make-up.

    Water molecules have a pH of 7. Its enthalpy of fusion is 6 kJ/mole, etc, etc. These properties can be explained by its two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.

    An atom of gold is has such and such properties because it has 79 electrons in 6 orbitals around its nucleus.

    ...and the nucleus is made of protons and neutrons (up and down quarks) and, hence, have the properties they have.

    so on and so on.

    My question is this: how does one explain properties at the fundamental level?

    Fundamental particles and energy must have properties, attributes that determine how they interact. If they didn't, nothing in the universe would change. So, properties could be seen as an animating "force". How can physics ever explain this animating force without employing the "God" argument?
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 3, 2004 #2


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    What God argument?

    Fundamental properties are one thing, but the conscious, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient God is something else altogether.
  4. Feb 3, 2004 #3
    I suppose I should select my words more carefully. Let's forget about God for the moment. Whatever form the "theory of everything" might end up taking (strings, quantum loops -whatever) and supposing we're clever enough to find it, is it even possible that it could explain how fundamental particles or structures get their properties? My assertion is no -- the theory would only be able to explain how everything else (i.e. particles larger than fundamental), but it wouldn't be able to say what makes fundamental particles act the way they do.

    "God" is the explanation philosophers might use. And, this alone might be the best rationale for him/her/it.
  5. Feb 4, 2004 #4

    Good question. In case you don't already know it is related to the 'problem of attributes' in Western philosophy. (If you take away the attributes of an object what is left?). It's the sort of question science shunts off into metaphysics, as if it didn't need answering.

    The answer in some philosophies is that all attributes are relative, i.e. have only a dependent existence, and that at heart things are empty of substance. Spinoza went for this I think, and non-dual philosophers assert it.

    As far as I can work out there can be no answer to it from a materialist perspective.

    I can't see how God would solve the problem either. Science and religion are very similar ways of looking at the world in many ways. Neither has a sound metaphysical basis, so problems like this one arise.

    In effect you're asking what is substance, and nobody knows. When you look closely it doesn't seem to be there at all.
  6. Feb 4, 2004 #5
    "Flavors" "colors" are the words used to describe fundamental properties, but they are sorta masks for things like electromagnetic, and electric, or any one of the currently posited "Four fundamental forces of nature"...other wise what proerties are you specifically asking about as there is some credibility to the idea that spatial arrangement lends properties to atoms...
  7. Feb 5, 2004 #6
    Thanks for the reference, Canute. I'll look into it. As you could probably tell, I'm not a philospher by training -- just have an inquisitive mind...:smile:
  8. Feb 5, 2004 #7


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    No much different. For the sake of discussion, let's assume the universe is made of strings or loops. Taking a fundemental string, what properties do we ascribe to it? Length, geometry, tension, and then the relational properties.

    Not too difficult.
    Last edited: Feb 5, 2004
  9. Feb 6, 2004 #8
    Re: Re: Properties at the fundamental scales

    I think what dune was getting at is that if, at a fundamental level (where these issues become less avoidable), an entity has properties, then what is it that 'has' these properties, what is the essence that 'owns' or underlies these properties (or appearances).

    This has always been a difficult issue. Kant said that we can never know the 'noumenal'. Buddhism says that all things are 'empty'. Western philophophy has no answer. It's a very deep question, perhaps even be the deepest one could ask.

    Dune - you might like to do a search on 'The Jewel Net of Indra'. Colin McGinn also discusses this problem in his very good autobiography, which includes a short and clear expositions of some of the major philosphical questions, including this one. (He recounts trying to pin down the essence of a post box, the old fashioned Brit red kind, aged 17. He couldn't figure it then, and still can't).
  10. Feb 6, 2004 #9
    Then the very first one MUST be some form of 'tangibility' otherwise, we simply cannot know it is there! (For tangibility we can substitute "detectablity"....cause otherwise it is "empty space"...whatever that might, or might NOT, be...)
  11. Feb 6, 2004 #10


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    I don't know what you're talking about. A thing is a collection of properties, not an object that has properties. Take away the properties, and you have lost the thing.
    Last edited: Feb 6, 2004
  12. Feb 6, 2004 #11
    These last two posts sum up the problem very well. Western scientific philosophy cannot accept that substance has no substance, but neither can it explain how properties (appearances) arise, or figure out the 'essence' of substance.

    Some agree with Kant, who says that we'll never know, some with Spinoza, who says substance is God (who is insubstantial), some with the Buddha, who suggested it is emptiness, and some with scientists, who tend to suggest that it is nothingness, a void. Take your pick.
    Last edited: Feb 6, 2004
  13. Feb 6, 2004 #12


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    It may be of help to conceptualize the issue at hand in terms of intrinsic and extrinsic properties. An extrinsic property is a property defined solely in terms of functional relations, i.e. it is a property that is described with respect to something external to it. An intrinsic property is not defined in terms of relationships to other things, but instead is fully defined with respect to itself.

    Two observations immediately spring to our attention. The first is that what we have been calling 'substance' or 'essence' in this thread is what would amount to be an intrinsic property or properties. The second is that our modern physical understanding of the world speaks only of extrinsic properties and says nothing of intrinsic properties. For instance, mass is defined purely in functional or relational terms as an object's inertial resistence to an applied force, and so it qualifies as an extrinsic property. Similarly, geometrical shape is defined in terms of how the parts of an object are located with respect to eachother, and so this too is an extrinsic property. Size, too, is defined in terms of a ratio of one object's physical dimensions to another, and so size is also a relational or extrinsic property.

    If we accept the above, it may begin to sound like the notion of an intrinsic property actually turns out to be nonsensical or even inconceivable. But examples of intrinsic properties in fact abound in at least in our subjective, conscious experiences. For instance, think of the color red. That thing that we call red is defined by its experiential property of redness. The property of redness is not defined with respect to external things, but seems to be its own self-contained and self-sufficient definition. It is a nontrivial fact that redness is just the property of appearing as this color, and nothing besides this color needs to be invoked to fully capture the essence of what we mean by experiential redness.

    So it is an open question as to what, if any, intrinsic properties characterize reality on the most fundamental level. Whatever they might be, it is unclear how we would come about knowing them. As Canute says, it may be impossible for us to know even in principle. But even if they do exist and it is somehow possible to know them, it seems apparent that the conventional scientific method will do us no good in discovering them.
    Last edited: Feb 6, 2004
  14. Feb 6, 2004 #13
    Just curious This colour of red or this one?

    (Are they different, on your computer...?)

    P.S. intrisic and extrinsic simply divides it into 'inside' and 'outside' properties, hence it is a 'substantial' thing....it has an inside, and an outside, the only one that is difficult (hence all the rest follows it) is in defining just what "energy" is, as it is "energy" that comprises all things, yet "energy" itself is Not really a 'thing', an activity, yup, a result, yup, but not really a thing(y)...
  15. Feb 6, 2004 #14


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    They're the same.

    One can think of it as inside/outside, but the point is that the 'outside' component is entirely abstract in that it is relational. Saying a property is extrinsic isn't saying that a 'substantial' component belonging to a thing exists outside the thing, it is saying that the property is abstract (substanceless) insofar as it is just a relation to something else. That is, it doesn't really exist in the absence of the things with respect to which it is defined.

    So the picture that physics paints for us is a whole stew of abstract relational properties relating to eachother in various ways, leaving it entirely unclear just what is being related. There seems to be no ground for all this relation to exist upon, or as Canute says, there seems to be emptiness at rock bottom, and abstract relations somehow relating to eachother in an existence that is inherently nothing at all.

    This is mind-bending, of course, and it may just be the result of some hard-wired, inescapable cognitive functions of ours that guide us around the world well enough but don't correspond to the world as it really is at the most fundamental level. However, the status of subjective experience as possessing intrinsic properties seems to indicate that all is not just emptiness at rock bottom, since we know that at least some intrinsic properties exist. (This has led some to speculate that consciousness, or some more fundamental intrinsic property related to it, is precisely the intrinsic property of reality that is ommitted by physics. This is just speculation, of course, but it seems attractive insofar as it solves the 'intrinsic emptiness' problem and explains why physics can't explain consciousness in one fell swoop.)
  16. Feb 6, 2004 #15
    One is color=red the other is color=#FF0000 they are different!

    I really like the way in which you state it is all "Nothing" then that it must come from some "Hard wiring" 'thing'...followed by...
    Kinda 'funny' after I had just said...
    which is 'about' the same thing.....in less words...but it is there, and measurable as we may not be able to prove it's substance, but we can clearly prove it is there....if 'it' (substantiability) isn't there, well you are measuring nothing...silly ( ?) you?
  17. Feb 6, 2004 #16
    intrinsic, extrinsic, both or neither?

    Properties at the fundamental level must then be atleast extrinsic and maybe also intrinsic. One can only study the behavior of something in relation to another thing. Whether this behavior is the result of an intrinsic property of the thing or whether the behavior is "endowed" upon the thing (nothing?) from outside (nowhere?), it seems that we will never know.
  18. Feb 7, 2004 #17
    Re: intrinsic, extrinsic, both or neither?

    Why should we never know? If what Hypnogogue posted above about consciousness is true then we are very well placed to know.
  19. Feb 7, 2004 #18
    Re: Re: intrinsic, extrinsic, both or neither?

    Isn't it true that a thing's properties can only observed in relation to other things? Therefore, both intrinsic and extrinsic properties would appear the same to us -- ie they both manifest themselves in behavior towards other things. And since all of our means of perception are relational, we would never be able to tell if the thing "owned" the property.

    Maybe I'm missing something.[?]
  20. Feb 7, 2004 #19
    Usually the "subjective experiance" thing, is gotten around by concensused opinion(s), otherwise no one can, or will, ever, be able to prove anything....soooo...
  21. Feb 8, 2004 #20
    Re: Re: Re: intrinsic, extrinsic, both or neither?

    But we can observe with certainty what is intrinsic to ourselves. What I was suggesting was that if, as Hypnogogue suggested, consciousness is is fundamental, then we can directly observe the intrinsic properties of the fundamental substance.

    Robin P - When it comes to reality itself it doesn't matter what we can and cannot prove. What matters is what we can and cannot know.
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