The nature of space and matter
In the modern era this question, “What is everything made of?” Has been given a single, widely accepted answer. We now believe that the world is made of an extended material which we call the matter-space continuum. In the present view it is generally accepted that this matter-space is extended and approximately continuous. The particles we know as quarks and electrons, the atoms, molecules, crystals, and organisms, all appear as whirlpools or ripples or disturbances in the matter-space continuum. Everything we currently know about the universe can be represented as some (geometric, algebraic, dynamic) consequence of the properties of this matter-space.
Curious classification of consequences into geometric, algebraic, and dynamic. Wonder how algebraic fits in there…
The detailed structure of the matter-space is under daily investigation, and is not certainly of completely known. Some physicists use models in which this stuff is mathematically continuous; others use models in which it is discrete — hence string-like or granular — at a very tiny level of scale (10^-33 cm). Even the dimensionality and topology of the matter-space are under constant debate. However, one thing is quite clearly agreed upon: the basic material that everything in the world is made of is the matter-space. The nature of the world arises from the detailed properties of matter-space.
I sometimes find it useful to call it the matter-space stuff. The word stuff, not often used this way in modern English, but coming from the German Stoff meaning cloth or material, is useful. Saying that the universe is given its ultimate character by the stuff that it is made of is, then, like saying that it is given its character by the cloth from which it is cut.
I hadn’t made that connection to the German word “Stuff”, and now I agree, that is an interesting and useful way to express this notion.
The fact that space-matter has been considered as inert, does not mean that it is uninteresting. It is very interesting indeed, with fascinating properties and fascinating results. Maxwell’s equations, the electromagnetic theory of light, Einstein’s relativity theory, quantum theory, most recently the non-local connections predicted by Bell’s theorem, have all made it clear that its behavior is not only very interesting, but very fascinating indeed. Nevertheless, regardless how fascinating it is, the matter-space is always considered to be inert. It is above all dead.
Even the matter-space of quantum mechanics — which assumes that most events are influenced by the whole, perhaps even by the act of observation, and where events can interact without strictly Newtonian causal interactions — even this quantum matter-space is still conceived as mechanical in character. By this I mean simply that once again it is a lifeless, mathematical structure without spirit — and that any life which appears in it is held to be created only by assemblages and configurations of the inert material. Scientifically speaking, the inertness of the matter-space is the most essential part of its nature, and of its definition in the current physical scheme. Being inert is an essential feature of the Cartesian and mechanistic picture, and it must be inert — because the basic idea of our Cartesian model of science is that you pretend that it is inert in order to understand how it works. It is in this sense that, no matter how complex, the matter-space picture of late 20th-century physics was always still a picture of mechanism.
What shines through here is that Alexander still acknowledges Descartes’ contribution to science as fundamentally useful. It is not that we’re in this mess today because Descartes came up with this model. It is because we misinterpreted his idea and turned it from being a useful model — which it was supposed to be — into a picture of the world that we now can hardly step away from or even just look beyond.
I wonder how physicists respond to Alexander’s explanation? I suspect that there are few physicists who have actually read all of _The Nature of Order_ and entertained the idea that Alexander might be onto something. I suspect most of them quickly gave up on trying to understand him when his criticism of the mechanistic world view got too harsh, or, of course, when he introduces spirituality and religion. My suspicions might be wrong though. I would like to hear or read actual scientific criticism from physicists that have considered Alexander’s perspective as a valid attempt to explain the universe.
Might we be able to create some less mechanical, more comprehensive, picture which provides a substrate for the facts of physics as we know them together with the more difficult facts about life in architecture and art that have been held to lie necessarily outside physics? Can we create a picture of matter which will one day become adequate to give us a world not only profound in its mechanical successes, but which also explains our nature, our agony, our relationship to matter, and the existence of the soul?
Before I draw together the strands of Book 4, to explain such a proposal, I summarize two contemporary lines of thought (consistent with the ideas expressed in these four books), which have begun, tentatively, to appear in the physics of the last decades. One of these two lines of thought has to do with wholeness as a structure. The other has to do with mind.
One last attempt for Alexander to “win me over”… looking forward to what’s coming.