Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Whose Energy is it?

  1. Jun 23, 2003 #1

    Les Sleeth

    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    The theme of this thread is: what variety of thinking can legitimately employ the term “energy” to its models and philosophical arguments? I've quoted a few sources, which I will highlight in this color to make it easier to recognize.

    The word “energy” is used by people in several ways. In science it obviously has a very specific meaning, which is the capacity to do work. It is an abstraction that’s considered more of a mathematical or measuring tool than anything actual. Science writer Paul Davies writing in his book Superforce says, "When an abstract concept becomes so successful that it permeates through to the general public, the distinction between real and imaginary becomes blurred. . . . This is what happened in the case of energy. . . . 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 is one of the physicist’s more enduring abstract concepts."

    As Davies reveals, science-types like to claim first rights to the word energy. Much to the chagrin of some, people who are spiritually inclined use the word freely as well to refer to properties of consciousness, life, God, and supposed ethereal peculiarities. Davies suggests a reason for this, "What made it appealing was that energy is always conserved, never created or destroyed.” I think he is partially correct, but that there are a couple of other reasons too.

    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). Quoting from the Philosophy Pages: (http://www.philosophypages.com/hy/2p.htm):

    ". . . Aristotle also offered a detailed account of the dynamic process of change. A potentiality (dynamis) is either the passive capacity of a substance to be changed or (in the case of animate beings) its active capacity to produce change in other substances in determinate ways. 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.

    So in terms of its inception, energy (as energeia) has referred to movement and power. It is easy to see how in the early days of science, thinkers latched onto energy to describe relationships between power and movement. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, in an article on the history of the energy concept:

    "The word itself 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. Indeed, the development of classical mechanics may be carried out without recourse to the concept of energy. The idea of energy, however, goes back at least to Galileo in the 17th century. He recognized that, when a weight is lifted with a pulley system, the force applied multiplied by the distance through which that force must be applied (a product called, by definition, the work) remains constant even though either factor may vary. The concept of vis viva, or living force, a quantity directly proportional to the product of the mass and the square of the velocity, was introduced in the 17th century. In the 19th century the term energy was applied to the concept of the vis viva.

    Vis viva is an interesting concept because living force is exactly what some spiritually-oriented thinkers consider both the soul and God. In fact, Aristotle also had similar notions. Quoting again from the Philosophy Pages:

    "The higher truths of what Aristotle called ‘theology’ arise from an application of these notions to the more speculative study of being qua being. Since every being is a composite whose form and matter have been brought together by some cause, and since there cannot be infinitely many such causes, he concluded that everything that happens is ultimately attributable to a single universal cause, itself eternal and immutable. (Metaphysics XII 6). This self-caused ‘first mover,’ from which all else derives, must be regarded as a mind, whose actual thinking is its whole nature. . . . According to Aristotle, every animate being is a living thing which can move itself only because it has a soul.

    Since Aristotle the question of what ultimately powers movement/change has been unresolved. Though some science thinkers demand possession of the term energy, metaphysicists appear to have laid claim to it long before them in one form or another. And there is some correspondence between the two conceptions. Even leaving God out of it, the force of life can be seen as driving evolution (which is movement), and in consciousness, will power can be seen as causing the body to move.

    Also, while energy might be merely an abstraction to science thinkers, it has been an important subject of contemplation in metaphysics as to what is the mover’s actual nature or essence. This question can be derived from a type of monism which postulates all that exists including force, movement, consciousness, physical form, soul – everything -- is a form of some original uncreated and indestructible essence. An informed monist can make a pretty good case for the origin of energy; every bit as good as the “quantum fluctuation plus zero point energy” hypothesis, in my humble opinion.

    So, since no one knows the source of creation, and there are competing theories, it seems to me that it is a bit premature for any discipline to unilaterally decide for everyone the meaning of creation’s most essential (or mysterious) components.

    What do you think?
    Last edited: Jun 23, 2003
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 23, 2003 #2

    Tom Mattson

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    The difference between the scientific usage of "energy" and the metaphysical/mystical uses of it is that it is only the latter that thinks of it as "the source of creation". In science, energy is a descriptive bookeeping tool, and no causative power is ascribed to it. The notion of "vis viva" is long defunct in science (indeed, this post of yours is the first I have ever heard of it).

    Rather than fuss over whose definition is the best, in discussions I would stress that we simply strive to make it clear just whose definition we are using.

    Consider the following (true!) personal anecdote of mine.

    I was at my favorite watering hole one day talking to the other regulars (*hic*). These people are particularly mystically inclined, and they just loved to hear me go on and on about modern physics, which I was happy to do (they bought me more than a few beers as I did it). One day, the subject of conversation turned to life after death. Naturally, I do not hold a position on it one way or the other. A woman in the group found that surprising, and thought for sure that I would believe in it, because I know physics and logic. This really puzzled me, so I asked her to elaborate.

    She said, "Life is energy, and energy cannot be created or destroyed. Therefore, life is eternal."

    I tried to explain to her the fallacy of equivocating the two uses of the word "energy" above, but she wasn't having it. The conclusion was too dear to her, so after a while I just let her keep it. But, it does illustrate the importance of sorting these things out.
  4. Jun 23, 2003 #3
    That brings an interesting point to mind: Existence after death. Now before everyone is up in arms about psuedo-mysticism and supernatural phenomenon, Let's for a second discard those "after death" experiences. I know this will be difficult to write without sounding like so many crackpots. But from a purely scientific perspective, let's look at it. I'll first assume that most logically minded people from a scientific perspective will forgo the religiious side of things and concede that physical death equals final death. However I would note some borderline cases where brain activity was detected even after the heart had ceased to function, and most, if not all of the internal organs had failed. I'm fully willing to conced that "afterdeath experiences" such as white light, dead relatives, and other similar things are nothing more than a subconcious impulse of the brain as a defensive reflex to compensate for death, or extreme trauma. But what if the composition of ourselves on some subatomic level reforms into a different form of "engery" in the scientific definition? I feel that there is little enough known about the heuristics of this topic, and of the universe around us, that we can't necessarily discount certain "theories" alltogether.

    So I'm wondering if there ever has been experiments ala "flatliners" attempted, to see how far the envelop could be pushed? Maybe its my subconcious will here just looking for a way to delay or escape the finality of death, but has no research ever been done in this area?

    I'm totallly serious about this

    *waves his magic stone while uttering druid-like incantations*
  5. Jun 23, 2003 #4

    on the subatomic level our carbon atoms (or what have you) are indestiguishable from the atoms of an inanimate thing. there is no special energy bound up in living creatures.

    when we die, we will no longer exist as we know it. yes, the energy that makes up our atoms and matter will still exist, but there will be no chemical/electrical reactions in our body so we will die.
  6. Jun 23, 2003 #5
    Ok as I can think of no theory that would not sound wildly "out there" I'll leave it at that. And man, I gotta watch the typos:wink:
  7. Jun 23, 2003 #6

    Les Sleeth

    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Re: Re: Whose Energy is it?

    Regarding the differences between the two concepts, agreed. Talking about "vis viva" was simply to show the history of the development of the energy concept, and how it led to science adopting the term.

    I wasn't trying to suggest one definition is best, but rather I wanted to show that no discipline/philosophy has more "right" to use the term energy than another.

    Stop! As someone living in the land of microbreweries, first things first. What's your sipping preference?

    I agree with your take on it. Segregate, distinquish, clarify the catagories.

    To make a point within the theme of this thread, if I were talking to her (not that she would listen either), I might tell her that the word energy is used in more than one way. It has a very specific meaning in physics that so far seems incompatible with inferring with certainty anything metaphysical from it.
    Last edited: Jun 23, 2003
  8. Jun 23, 2003 #7

    Tom Mattson

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Re: Re: Re: Whose Energy is it?

    Like I said, to me it doesn't matter as it is clear what definition of the term is being used in a discussion.

    Harp lager
  9. Jun 23, 2003 #8

    Les Sleeth

    User Avatar
    Gold Member


    ? How do you know that? If you will allow the theme of this thread to stand, and so tolerate that there might be more than one kind of force/power around, then there is a reason to be open to the possibility that some sort of different power is involved in life. Why? Because, take a vat of chemicals, take a hunk of matter, neither of which has ever been alive, and get them to live and evolve. If you can't do it, then you cannot state that in life there is no "special energy bound up in living creatures."

    Well, all that is pretty obvious isn't it? Of course we won't exist as we know it, but will we nonetheless exist somehow? Yeah, we die and so we are dead, but that only tells us we have lost our body. It tells us nothing about whether consciousness can survive death.

    You speak like you are certain what happens after death. Do you know? Have you died?
    Last edited: Jun 23, 2003
  10. Jun 23, 2003 #9

    Les Sleeth

    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Whose Energy is it?

  11. Jun 23, 2003 #10

    no, i can state that. becuase there is no real difference between the vat and the person. we are the same chemicals and molecules. the only difference is that our molecules have fallen together in a very complex arrangement. we call this arrangment life. it is not special. the fact that it evolves is due to physical mutations.

    conciousness is physical. it resides in the brain and when the brain is no longer functioning, the concious no longer functioning. it dies.
  12. Jun 23, 2003 #11

    Les Sleeth

    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    I think your attitude is pretty objective. It doesn't matter if your science is perfect; it might be that you sense something is missing from a purely mechanistic model of life/existence and/or supernatural models.

    That happens, where a person can feel something doesn't add up, but they aren't sufficiently up on details to defend themselves against the person who already thinks they know the answer, and who has collected every detail which supports their position. Since you can't properly evaluate the relevancy of their arguments, you might think you've been made a fool of when really you have just been taken advantage of by someone who wants to win the debate.

    I my opinion, there is no substitute for sincerity and the desire to know the truth no matter which of one's golden conceptual calfs it smashes to bits.
  13. Jun 23, 2003 #12
    this is true if happiness is your goal. but if it is truely truth that you search for, you won't mind you ideas being trounced upon, because we are not always right in our ponderings, and sometimes it helps to be steered in the right direction.
  14. Jun 23, 2003 #13

    Les Sleeth

    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Nonsense. Mutation is what leads to change, not what drives evolution. We are NOT the same as that vat in one respect. The crap in that vat just sits there, while we evolve. Tell me, what is missing from that vat, which contains all the ingredients of a living thing, but rather than come alive and evolve does nothing but sit there (and to give you the advantage, let's just use the ingredients of a simple single cell organism)?

    This is no different than the guy who says, "when we die we go to heaven (or hell in my case)." Anybody can state absolutes without evidence . . . make your case with evidence.
  15. Jun 23, 2003 #14
    without mutations there would be no evolution.

    there is nothing missing! the only difference is that a long time ago contents similar to that in the vat fell together (completly randomly!) and produced life. the evolution that changed that first life into us was an innevitable process.

    there is evidence to convince my claim. when one has conscious experiences, we observe electrical activity in the brain. when they "die" we do not percieve either conscious activity (i.e., speaking) or elecrical activity in the brain. therefore we can safely atribute consciousness to activity in the brain. further proof would be that we have never observed a person making a conscious decision without activity in the brain, or vica-verca.
  16. Jun 23, 2003 #15
    Maximus, you state things as if you know that they are true and fact.
    How do you know? I ask you Les's question. Have you died?
    You are stating a position or opinion that gives nothing to the subject of this thread.
    Surely there is some intrinsic difference between avat of chemicals and living matter even it is a vat of bacteria. Life violates the 2nd(?) law of thermodynamics. A vat of chemicals will just lay there forever doing nothing no matter how much more chemicals you might add. A vat of bacteria will grow and reproduce and maybe even make beer or insulin or what ever. (Are/is yeast a form of bacteria?)
    I can not believe that anyone can deny that life has some form of energy of force or whatever that nonlife does not have and can never have.
    Those of you familiar with my beliefs know already what I think so I'm not going to bore you by restating them now. What is the difference between life and nonlife if not energy of some form.
  17. Jun 23, 2003 #16
    and what are you doing, if not the same thing? its only that my ideas don't agree with yours. and your question is flawed. we can understand things without directly experiencing them. no one has been in a black hole, but we think we have a pretty good idea of what it would be like. no one has seen what happened in the first few seconds of the big bang, but we think we know.

    no it does not. check your sources.


    there is no difference. it's only that life forms are much more complicated than nonlife. we obey the same laws of physics. our difference is a joke. the fact that we are organized this way instead of that is a matter of chance (our luck, i suppose).
  18. Jun 23, 2003 #17
    Lice leave a body when it dies also. Does that mean that lice are essential for health and life as some of the tribal africans believed?

    A brain show electochemical activity even in an unconscious person also. That is an observation and assumption that electrochemical activity is related to and some how linked with thinking but not proven. Again you state specutation as if proven fact.
  19. Jun 23, 2003 #18
    i don't understand the analogy.

    not a completly unconcious person. a person in a subconcoius state, yes. but never has a dead person been shown to have brain activity other than temporary nerve activity brought on by damage. (twiching and such, you know)
  20. Jun 23, 2003 #19

    Les Sleeth

    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Agreed, but that doesn't mean evolution is mutation. What if I say the secret of baseball is hitting the ball? The ball must be hit, right? Can it be disputed that a ball must be hit?

    You don't KNOW that. You are taking a huge inferential leap from limited facts and claiming it is the "truth." It might be true, it might not, but in any case there isn't enough evidence to prove it one way or the other.

    To prove it, you have to put those chemicals in a vat, leave them there, and have life spontaneously begin. You cannot say after no life forms that you are justified in asserting "life can begin in a vat of chemicals" because there hasn't been enought time. A theist might say, "God just wasn't interested in that experiment," and claim to know the truth that way. You assert a vat of chemicals can produce life spontaneously, and so the weight is on your shoulder s to prove it. No little whiny excuses allowed!

    Again, bad logic. When I drive my car, its gauges register my usage. When I leave the car and turn it off, no gauges register. Can I safely attribute the driving of the car to its gauges working? Is further proof a car is driven by its gauges by the fact that we never observe a car working without its gauges registering (this would be a perfectly maintained car)?
  21. Jun 23, 2003 #20
    You believe in luck but not life energy?
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Have something to add?

Similar Discussions: Whose Energy is it?
  1. Whose Mind? (Replies: 60)

  2. Whose Ethics? (Replies: 84)

  3. Whose hue? (Replies: 20)