Earlier, I discussed my fascination about the concept of empty space that separates matter. I suggested a way to think of the initial moment of the creation of the universe as introducing the concept of empty space to a previously 0 dimensional dot. Instead of a “let there be light” kind of moment, it was more of a “let there be empty space” moment.
Empty space is significant. The universe is almost entirely empty. Even hard matter such as the material on earth is mostly empty space separating molecules arranged in solids are bouncing against each other in fluids. Molecules themselves are mostly empty space between the participating atoms that in turn are mostly empty space between participating particles. Within each level of detail, the empty space is significant. Except for mass, the properties and behaviors of each would be not be possible without the empty space.
Scientifically, we mostly take empty space for granted. Our studies are on the material substance that moves through empty space or has a certain fixed relationship with other material. We learned how to manipulate these substances. We move them around in space. We rearrange them in terms of the spacial relationships. We can cause them to change from one form to another at various levels of material, molecules, or atoms.
The opportunities of study and exploitation of materials is endless and we have a lot to show from these efforts.
Meanwhile empty space offers nothing to study. It just is what is required to separate matter. I realize there is some study in empty space, but what I hear about is attempts to materialize it to suggest that empty space is some kind of energy or material that we are unable to experience. Some have proposed that empty space is the result of some cancellation of different substances are energy so that the empty space is an illusion of that cancellation.
I’m going to assume empty space is truly empty. There is nothing in empty space. It is an accident of geometry where distance separates the material of the universe.
I wonder whether it is possible to study nothing. I have nothing to do so I might as well contemplate nothing. I am curious about the necessity of the existence of nothing.
There are forces at work that keep matter separated by distances. We have very workable theories about these forces and their associated energies and particles. These forces often have the property of acting over a distance of empty space. It is just a definition of how the forces work.
What if we could make a physics based on the empty space, of the nothing. The particles and substances are the exceptions that interrupt the continuum of nothingness. The nothingness may have some property to corral the material stuff into tight arrangements either as particles, atoms, molecules, materials, planets, starts, galaxies, etc.
Our sciences started with our experience on earth involving hard stuff, liquid stuff, and air stuff (perhaps even fire stuff). We built our science based on materials and eventually needed the idea of empty space to account for how gases work, how fluids work, how various arrangements of same material can have different densities, etc. We needed a concept to separate earth from the other planets and the sun.
I wonder about the unimaginable start of studying nothing so that it will eventually account for materials.
The physics of materials is very deterministic. At one time we thought it possible to predict all of future if only we knew the exact location and momentum of every particle of the universe. Quantum theory disproved that possibility but only slightly.
We are pretty good at predicting macro events. We launched a vehicle that flew a ballistic path from a launch pad on Earth to successful hit a specific small area on Mars. We landed a probe on one of the moons of Saturn. We are on our way to intercepting a dwarf planet that requires high power telescopes to even find wandering at the far edge of the solar system.
Even at the quantum level, we are pretty good at predicting things. Quantum theory introduces uncertainty but in a very well understood way. While many of the theories surprised us, once understood the subjects of the theories never surprise us.
Meanwhile despite this wealth of knowledge that allows us to predict so much, nature surprises us. In particular, life, the living beings of biology, continues to surprise us in ways that defy deterministic or random chance explanations. Life astonishes us.
This astonishment is not unique to life, but it suits my purpose to focus on life. We understand a lot about the mechanics of living processes and biochemistry. But there is so much we don’t understand. The development of an organism from a single cell to a complex adult animal is astonishing. Yes, we can identify certain genes that if present or absent will impact the development. Yes, we can identify nutrients and antagonistic chemicals can influence the development. But even with these, there is often an astonishing effort of the developing organism to compensate and approximate its original plan or even just give it up when it still had the opportunity to go a little further.
A materialistic scientific approach may eventually explain everything as deterministic with helpful jiggering of randomness. There is good reason to be patient.
But until there is an explanation there is room to wonder about non-materialistic explanations that introduce a fundamental property of nature that is capable of astonishment. It is not material so it is not in any matter or its derivative forces or energies. It is in the part of the universe that lacks matter. It is in empty space.
I wonder about the highly vaunted capability of the human brain and wonder where does intelligence reside. I’m directed to the neuron. The neuron is a cell that happens to be specialized for being long and thin. It has behaviors that many other cells have including the capabilities of moving charged ions, releasing messenger chemicals and responding to received chemicals. Single cell organisms have been doing similar feats for billions of years. The magic of the neurons is in the synapses, that space that separates them. Again, single cell organisms also readily communicate chemically with each other especially when in close proximity. The specialization of the neuron is its ability to be close to such a huge number of neighbors.
At one end of the synapse something causes a neurotransmitter to be released. A ion pulse reaches many synapses but only certain ones will release the chemical. The ion pulse is not terribly informative. It is like a battle field commander shouting “go” to his positioned troops. Some of the troops do things while others know to keep their places. Once released the neurotransmitter propagates purely by non-biological diffusion and eventually some of it aggregates at the other end. That aggregation may or may not trigger a response by that other end, like someone deciding to answer or to ignore a ringing telephone.
Something very interesting is going on in that synapse. It is not biological because it is between the cells. It is not unique to neurons but neurons are special in how many neighbors they can have. The entire synaptic chain of events appears to be at the mercy of randomness, the shaking open of the pour to release the chemical, the brownian motion that drives the diffusion, the shaking open of the receptor for the newly arrived chemical. But it is not random and this non-randomness is occurring outside of the cell, at the very least at the outside surface boundary of the cell.
My own opinion of the human brain is that its not unique in its intellectual capabilities. Intelligence abounds all over the biological world. The specialization of the brain is its ability to process intelligence especially quickly. Quick enough to work out complex strategies in short time frames. The dense network of synapses speeds up what would take much longer with less density. The size of the brain is for different tasks.
Intelligence is a that property of nature that makes life possible. In general we are incapable of recognizing non-human intelligence because it works out its solutions very slowly compared to our experience. Everywhere life working out its next show of astonishment without making interesting conversation partners for humans.
Earlier science had considered the possibility of life (or at least human life that I don’t think is all that special) consists of a material body and a non-material soul. I’m not sure we have completely rejected the idea of the non-material but certainly we focus on the material. There is good reason for this. Materials are easy to study. Materials are deterministic or at least any randomness has deterministic parameters. Despite all of the progress in study of the material world, we recognize there is plenty more to study. Also, the more we learn about the material determinism the more we can explain what was previously considered the realm of the immaterial soul.
All that said, we have have a long way to go to explain life’s ability to astonish us. We continue to focus on the material sciences in part because we have no clue how to study the immaterial. We don’t know what to think about when we think about nothing.