A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Friday, February 18, 2011

Aether Or

There is an adage which, so far as I know, I made up: There is no job so simple as the other guy's job.  I noted this years ago when in the glass plant a production supervisor told me that statistical methods "might work in aluminum can production, but blowing glass bottles is different.  It's a black art."  What made it amusing is that shortly before I had been told by a can line supervisor that statistical methods might work in the bottle plant, which was very simple, but drawing and ironing aluminum coil into cans was high precision science.  What either claim had to do with the applicability of statistical methods, I don't know.  By me, 1 bottle plus 1 bottle seemed a lot like 1 can plus 1 can; and I supposed this would be true of averages and standard deviations as well, but what do I know?

In any case, the adage that what other people do is much simpler than what "I" do can be found in all walks of life.  The reason, of course, is that "I" know all the details and complications of "my" work while I know little or nothing of the work of "that other guy."

Edward Feser, Philosopher
blog photo
It's not always true, but it's true often enough; though much more often I think among journeymen than among masters.  A master weaver is likely to acknowledge that a master brewer has a job every bit as nuanced as his own; but apprentices and journeymen are likely to hype the difficulties and nuances of weaving and dismiss those of brewing.  ("The bacteria does all the work, y'know.")

Ethan Siegel, non-philosopher
blog photo.  No fooling.
And so it is no surprise that Ed Feser has found yet another physicist who thinks, because he is trained in the metric properties of material bodies, he is therefore expert in all things philosophical.  More to the point, he seems not to imagine that there is anything beyond physics at all, and reads other fields through the filter of the physics.  Why are (some) physicists so bad at philosophy?

The physicist is Ethan Siegel, but he makes the same error as Stephen Hawking did earlier.  In Can You Get Something For Nothing? the estimable Dr. Siegel addresses the adage "You can't get something from nothing," adding that he hears this "most often when people bring this up to me, it's in an attempt to prove the existence of God -- and the insufficiency of the Big Bang -- by pointing to the Universe."  He proves how foolish this is by reprinting a cartoon:

(Image credit: chaospet.)
That'll show them.  One wonders why, if the argument is so laughably inadequate, he needs to misrepresent it.  If philosophy is so easy, why do physicists always seem to muck it up?  (Don't worry.  Philosophers can muck up physics, too.  But at least they are aware that there is something in physics that must be understood before mucking it up.)

(I might mention that most of the cries I hear about Big Bang inadequacies come from folks with a decidedly different agenda than what he supposes.)

Basically, Siegel's argument is:
Arguments for God as cause of the universe rest on the assumption that something can’t come from nothing.  But given the laws of physics, it turns out that something can come from nothing.
This flunks Logic 101.  Read that again: "Given the laws of physics, something can come from nothing."  Given the laws of physics, which means you have to start with something, namely the laws of physics.    

He goes on to say:
[I]n many ways, getting something when you have nothing is unavoidable! ...  For example, take a box and empty it, so that all you've got is some totally empty space, like [a picture of a black square] above. An ideal, perfect, empty vacuum. Now, what's in that box?
It would seem simple to point out that you don't have nothing; you have an empty box.  A black square (which he uses for illustration) is not nothing; it is a black square.  And even the vacuum that he imagines left in the box is not nothing; it is a vacuum.

Conclusion: Dr. Siegel doesn't know nothing.

And if his objection were to be: "That's not what I mean by nothing," the response is: "Then you are not rebutting the argument that from nothing comes nothing."  Besides, definitions ought not be notional like that. 

It was not always thus.  Poincare, Heisenberg, Einstein, Mach, and the rest knew philosophy.  They were perhaps of the last generation to know it.  They didn't always do it well; but they always did well enough to be worth taking seriously. 
"The younger generation of physicists, the Feynmans, the Schwingers, etc., may be very bright; they may be more intelligent than their predecessors, than Bohr, Einstein, Schrödinger, Boltzmann, Mach, and so on.  But they are uncivilized savages, they lack in philosophical depth…"
-- Paul Feyerabend to Wallace Matson 
(Quoted in For and Against Method, by Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend)  
Feser writes:
And things are even worse now.  Feynman was notoriously hostile to philosophy, but when his work on quantum mechanics brought him up against its inherent philosophical difficulties, he at least had the humility not to claim he knew how to resolve them.  Hawking and Vedral, by contrast, confidently peddle as “science” the kind of schlock you’d expect to find in the New Age section at Borders.  
I'm not sure it is meaningless to note that it was the generation of Bohr, Einstein, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, etc. that made the great conceptual breakthroughs in physics -- general relativity and quantum mechanics -- and that recent generations that have dotted their i's and crossed their t's.  Well, those ideas were stuffed full of implications, and maybe it takes a couple of generations to unpack them.  Still, glosses on Einstein and Heisenberg, however brilliant and original, are still glosses.

Sometimes, unwittingly, they are glosses on Aristotle.

The Aether, the Vacuum, and the Cosmological Constant.  

Siegel unwittingly undermines his contention that something can come from nothing by going on to say: "it turns out that empty space isn't so empty."  What part of "nothing" does he fail to understand?
The Old Stagerite
He does not run a blog
My own background was in mathematics, and I understand the value of the Zero in the development of math.  But I also understand the difference between zero and nothing.  It is analogous to the difference between a bank account with zero balance and not having a bank account at all.  (But even if I don't have a bank account there is still the presumption of a banking system and a set of laws by which an account might be opened.  So the analogy is imperfect.)

Ex nihilo, nihil fit.  For something to become red it must first be not-red.  (Otherwise, it is already red.  Duh?)  But from not-red does not come red.  Something else must move the body from not-red to red; and that something must be actually red, either formally (red paint) or eminently (the energy of sunlight that ripens the apple).  Now, with the form of redness, we move from not-red to red by an intension of form.  There is a "beginning to be" red, although there is no first moment at which it begins to be.  The apple can be a little bit red.  Then a little bit more.

But there is no continuum from non-existence to existence.  Being simply is or is-not.  Dare we say that to Aristotle and his epigones, existence is a quantum leap from a state k=0 to k=1.  Now it should be obvious that non-existence cannot give existence to anything, let alone to itself.  Something that does not exist has no power to do what in philosophy is known technically as diddly squat.  And indeed, the virtual particle pairs do not come from nothing: they come from fluctuations in the ground state or zero-point energy, consequent to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.

Everything Siegel says about virtual particle pairs that wink into (and out of) existence seems to be good physics, at least under the Copenhagen metaphysic.)  But he has not described something from nothing.  He has described something from a vacuum stuffed with ZP energy in motion.  A quantum state is not nothing; it is a quantum state. 

What they are is the Aristotelian aether. 

But wait!  Did not Michelson and Morely disprove the existence of the aether?  Yes and no.  Yes, they disproved Lorenz's luminiferous aether.  But the luminiferous aether was an invention of the mechanical age and had certain properties that made it detectable in theory.  These were not detected, and so Lorenz' aether was disproved.

Aristotle's aether was much more aetherial.

If you live in a place that allows this, go out tonight and gaze at the sky above.  You will see a myriad of pinpoint lights.  But what is all that black stuff around the lights?  Look at it through Aristotle's eyes: it is a material sphere of some sort within which the stars are embedded, and it turns slowly on itself day in and day out.  In all the extensive and precise Babylonian, Persian, and Greek records of the positions and risings of the various constellations, no star has been observed to deviate from its ordinary motion, to slow down or speed up, much less simply to go out or come into existence. (De caelo, 270b5-26)  This is remarkably different from terrestrial matter.

Now he turned out to be wrong about the vast sphere rotating around us; but that was not what drew his attention.  It was all that black stuff between the stars.  Since there could not be a true vacuum, it must be filled with something.  Aristotle infers certain properties of the aether that emphasize how different it is from ordinary matter. It is:
  • simple (not a compound of elements) effected by only one internal principle or cause
  • ungenerable and incorruptible, incapable of growth or alteration.
  • although subject to change in place, not subject to changes in substance, quantity, or quality.
  • inalterable.
If aether is incorruptible, its prime matter and substantial form must be so perfectly united that the latter must actualize and thereby exhaust the potency of the former.  That is, aether's prime matter is inseparable from its form, and in this sense is not really distinct from it.

If aether cannot be destroyed (or even altered qualitatively), it must somehow be intangible. It is not susceptible to the action of the tangible qualities of temperature and pressure.

If aether cannot be pressed upon by ordinary matter, then if some body were to try to press upon it, that body would cut right through the aether unhindered (which is why Michelson-Morely did not lay a glove on the Aristotelian aether.)  That is, aether can "push" on ordinary matter without being "pushed back."

"While usually the thing touching is touched by what it touches--for nearly all the things we come upon move while also being moved -- still it also occurs (as we sometimes say) that only the mover may touch the moved, while the thing touched does not touch the one touching it. But because things of the same kind are moved [in return] when they move others, it seems to be necessary that [movers] be touched by what they touch. Whence if something unmoved moves another, although it will touch the thing moved, nothing [will touch] it." 
De Gen. et Cor., 1.6.323a26-32
Tommy Aquinas
also not a blogger
"for nearly all the things we come upon move while also being moved"  Sound familiar, Newton? 

St. Thomas also notes this exception of aether from Newton's third law:
"Bodies act upon each other by touching, whence it follows that they are simultaneously acted upon [in return], since what touches is acted upon. But this should be understood [only] when there is mutual contact [mutuus tactus], as happens in those things that share in a common matter, each of which is being acted upon by the other while they are touching each other. The heavenly bodies, however, because they do not share a common matter with inferior [i.e., sublunary] bodies, act upon them such that they are not acted upon by them [in return]; they touch and are not touched.
III Phys., lect. 4, n. 5

Furthermore, the aether is supremely transparent.  It cannot be seen or detected, although it can be inferred by its effect on ordinary matter. 
  • The aether is rotating in place; i.e., not moving as such.  
  • Aether does not have a location and is only analogously in place.
  • It is not in time; more properly speaking it transcends time, or is atemporal.
For further details, see the first section of Decaen's Aristotle's Aether and Contemporary Science, which discusses the Stagerite's reasoning. 

Einstein and Heisenberg Meet the Aether

Albert Einstein, real physicist
and sometime philosopher
Following Michelson-Morely, Einstein dismissed the aether.  However, it was the luminiferous aether of Lorenz and the moderns that had been falsified.  He did not lay a glove on Aristotle and St. Thomas.  However, the loss of the aether proved problematical at a fundamental level, and in 1920, he brought it back -- as the relativistic aether, which he defined as the field of Ricci tensors, "a quasi-geometric structure filling space that affects the gravitational motions of bodies in it."

Werner Heisenberg, real physicist
and sometime philosopher
Shortly after, Heisenberg argued that the uncertainty principle entails vacuum fluctuations, and therefore some kind of "vacuum energy."

Decaen examines the similarities between the aethers of Aristotle, Einstein, and Heisenberg.  "Each posits an ubiquitous, space-filling, utterly insensible medium whose existence we cannot directly measure or detect but which can be inferred from things we can measure and detect."
1A. Aristotle's aether has no place, no motion or rest, and does not exist in time, without some kind of loosening of the meanings of those words.

1B. Einstein's curved space-time has no determinate velocity, location, or history; spatio-temporal predicates can be applied to it only analogically, not univocally.

2A. Aristotle's aether is the ultimate principle in virtue of which all other bodies have place and are measured by a common time, and it is the first physical agent cause of natural motions.

2B. Einstein's aethereal space-time is a principle and cause of the local and temporal properties of ordinary matter and in some way determines the nature of their motions.

3A. Aristotle and St. Thomas insist that aether can be named "matter" and "substance" only equivocally, even occasionally arguing that it partakes of "immateriality."

3B. In both relativity and quantum electrodynamics, one finds an ambivalence among the physicists about calling their respective aethers "material" or "immaterial"

4A. Aristotle and St. Thomas argue that aether seems to be immutable and impassive to ordinary matter, that is, it cannot be touched or pushed.

4B. Relativity and quantum electrodynamics, while admitting that ordinary matter somehow causes curvature of space-time, and that the relative location of conducting plates can indirectly effect a net attracting force in the ambient quantum vacuum, require that aether not be a ponderable or inertial sort of matter--the quasi-agency of ordinary matter on it is not intelligible as common efficient causality, which involves an equal and opposite reaction.

5A/B. Einstein, Heisenberg, Dirac, on the one hand, and Aristotle and St. Thomas, on the other, all insist that light and light-related phenomena have this medium as their proper subject.
These parallels seem too specific for mere coincidence.  OTOH, Aristotle did not channel Einstein and Heisenberg.  There are significant differences, as you would expect after some 2300 years.  Aristotle thought the aether to exist only in the heavens and to form a shell rotating on itself around the earth.  But then in places he seemed to consider the possibility that the aether (or some kind of "participation in the nature of aether") could exist in the sublunary regions.  This would correspond to Einstein's case that ordinary matter is a certain state of the Ricci tensors.

And Aristotle himself wrote that his account of the aether was plausible only given the information he had at present.  Given what we know today, he would have modified some features -- he was an empiricist, after all -- but a remarkable amount would remain valid.

Decaen closes his article saying:

"Nature loves to hide," Heraclitus said, and the evidence for aether is a case in point. Its existence is by no means self-evident, and is only detected by inference--sometimes lengthy and complicated inference, punctuated by many premises that are merely tentative. While the argument for aether was first made by Aristotle, and many of the fundamental insights contained in this argument are still valid, the cause of aether has now been taken up by the most empirically successful theories of contemporary science. As one physicist puts it, with relativity, quantum theory, and astrophysics, "we are going full cycle, back to the aether and quintessence of Aristotle. . . . [This is] a true 'quintessence,' in the spirit of Aristotle." (Lawrence Krauss, Quintessence: The Mystery of Missing Mass in the Universe (New York: Basic Books, 2000)

The Aether and Prime Matter

Such considerations led hylemorphist to consider the similarity between Aristotelian prime matter and the ZP energy in Zero-point energy/ground/vacuum state vs Real Being vs Logical Being vs Nothing

Aristotelian prime matter:
  1. Prime matter is pure potentiality.
  2. Prime matter is that which underlies substantial change
  3. Prime matter itself does not undergo change
  4. Prime matter has no form
  5. It is the closest there is to nothingness without being nothingness
  6. Prime matter or pure potentiality is a state of being without form, and since science deals with substances and all substances have a substantial form, this state is impossible to achieve experimentally.
  7. Prime matter cannot actualize itself since it has no actuality, it is only actualized by something actual.
Quantum vacuum (a.k.a. zero-point energy, ground state)
  1. A quantum vacuum is a state with the lowest possible energy and NO particles.
  2. Such a state is of course impossible to achieve experimentally.
  3. Zero-point energy is the lowest possible energy that a quantum mechanical physical system may have.
  4. ALL physical systems have a zero-point energy that is greater than nothing.
  5. Zero-point energy states may differ relatively, and is defined only in relation to some given actual state.
  6. Virtual particles are substances since they are a composite of actuality and potentiality with a substantial form.
  7. A virtual particle is generated by a disturbance to the zero-point energy state.
So there can be a strong argument towards the notion that the contemporary understanding of a zero-point energy state in physics is analogous to the classical understanding of prime matter or pure potentiality.
  1. zero-point energy (ZPE) state just is prime matter or pure potentiality.
  2. ZPE is that which underlies substantial change e.g. virtual particles are substances that undergo substantial change and they do have an effect on the substantial change of other substances.
  3. ZPE, though relative to a particular actual syste, itself does not undergo change
  4. ZPE has no form, it is impossible to experimentally determine the form.
  5. ZPE is the closest there is to nothingness without being nothingness
  6. ZPE is a state of being without form, and since science deals with substances and all substances have a substantial form, this state is impossible to achieve experimentally.
  7. ZPE cannot actualize itself since it has no actuality (it is pure potentiality), it is only actualized by something actual. E.g. disturbances imagined to be due to bodies that interact with the virtual particle field.  
This is a remarkable similarity, and merits closer scrutiny.  Given that the aether is such that its prime matter is so closely bound with its form as to be inseparable from it, it may be that the aether can be considered almost as if it were prime matter.  Or perhaps as the coat of actual paint slapped across the seething chaotic substrate of pure potentiality represented by prime matter.


  1. Have you read Oderberg's "Real Essentialism"? I recall some conversation about Oderberg suggesting "mass-energy" may be identical with prime matter, which may well touch on this.

    Also, I wanted to thank you for interesting comments you've been giving over at Feser's journal. I've been keeping myself out of it largely to not distract from the posts of yourself and other's, who've been doing a good job of pointing out the flaws in the "something from nothing" / "God not necessary, physics shows it!" schtick.

  2. Actually, Heisenberg equated mass-energy with prime matter - tentatively, of course. He wasn't quite there because mass-energy still has form and prime matter is formless; but it shows he was among the last physicists to be aware of philosophical issues.

  3. A few months ago, I found that a JavaScript program I had been working on had a bug in it: Some of the variables had not been initialized and, instead of being empty strings, printed out "undefined" when I tried displaying them. I then realized I had made the same mistake these physicists had made.

    According to their theories, the universe as we know it can develop from the cosmological equivalent of an empty string. (Actually, I'm not so sure about that. The theories might involve the universe developing from zero, which requires even more to be defined.) Zero is not the same as undefined. If a physicist says he has evidence the universe started from zero, the question of how the zero was created is not meaningless.

  4. ST I, Q46, Art.1 Reply to Objection 4. The notion of a vacuum is not only "in which is nothing," but also implies a space capable of holding a body and in which there is not a body, as appears from Aristotle (Phys. iv, text 60). Whereas we hold that there was no place or space before the world was.

  5. This was a great post.

    "But wait! Did not Michelson and Morely disprove the existence of the aether? Yes and no. Yes, they disproved Lorenz's luminiferous aether."

    >> This is not what the experimental apparatus reported. A definite non-zero result was obtained. It was interpreted as a null result in order to allow for Relativity's claim that the aether did not exist, but that is not what the experiment showed.

    "Now he turned out to be wrong about the vast sphere rotating around us.."

    >> This has never been scientifically demonstrated in any way at all. Id Relativity is true, it never can be. So how exactly do you arrive at this conclusion?


Whoa, What's This?

adam amateur theology Aquinas argument from motion Aristotelianism art atheism autumn of the modern ages books brains breaking news captive dreams cartoon charts chieftain clannafhloinn comix commentary counterattack crusades culcha dogheads easton stuff economics eifelheim evolution factoids on parade fake news fallen angels Feeders fir trees in lungs firestar flicks floods flynncestry flynnstuff forecasts forest of time fun facts gandersauce gimlet eye global warming glvwg headlines henchmen high frontier history home front how to lie with statistics humor hush-hush hypatia in the house of submission irish Iron Shirts irrationalism january dancer jihad journeyman kabuki kool letter lion's mouth lunacon maps mayerling medieval metrology miscellany modern mythology moose zombies music new years nexus odds odds and ends paleofuture passing of the modern age philosophy philosophy math poetry politics psyched out! public service quality quiet sun quote of the day razor's edge redefinition of marriage religio reviews river of stars scandal science science marches on scientism scrivening shipwrecks of time shroud skiffy skiffy in the news skools slipping masks some people will believe anything stats stories stranger things the auld curmudgeon the madness continues the new fascism the spiral arm the writing life thomism thread o' years tofspot topology untergang des abendlandes untergang des morgenlandes up jim river video clips vignettes war on science we get letters we're all gonna die whimsy words at play xmas you can't make this stuff up