Saturday, March 13, 2021

MO-6. Three ontologies: Particles, forms, oscillations

For three decades I've juggled three ontologies, or views of reality. 

1. One that is obviously limited or downright wrong: the static, atomistic-materialistic one that holds particles and objects to be the core of reality.

2. A dynamic ontology, like that of Heraclitus, Bergson and Whitehead. It sees reality as a river with stable eddies and whirlpools that channel the flow and make it appear as stable, localized entities (this was the topic of my first book, "Flux"). These appearances of stability I called forms and argued that the forms of the social world (values, norms, roles, institutions) suited humans best when they were stable and flexible at the same time, or flexstable.

3. A more scientifically realistic ontology that starts from string theory and quantum field theory. This view sees physical reality in terms of oscillators that vibrate spontaneously, like strings, in the quantum vacuum, taking the shape of electromagnetic, gravitational and other kinds of field, force and radiation. This frequency or wave description has been part and parcel of quantum mechanics since its inception, but Niels Bohr and the Copenhagen School accorded it only status as "complementary" with the particle view (to which it is clearly superior). Seeing atoms, molecules, cells, organisms, perception, memory, disease and many other complex phenomena in terms of oscillations or waves interacting in standing interference patterns is a view that is breaking through scientifically these current decades, ever so slowly. (I wrote a short, popular account: kronik i Politiken).

Now, how to reconcile these three ontologies? Well, the first on, particulate materialism, may be bracketed as Greek philosophers' and western scientists' first attempt to pin down an everchanging reality. Let's call it okay for a first shot, adequate for the 19th century, but an update is long overdue. 

But what is seriously the relationship between the forms channeling the flux of physical, biological and human reality and oscillators? A wedding, a law, etiquette, habits of thought and political ideologies may all be seen as forms that guide human behavior in more or less rigid or chaotic ways. But how does this relate to the oscillations and interference patterns of the fields that organized biological, cognitive and possibly social action?   

What occurred to me today, during my afternoon constitutional, was that forms may be a convenient way to reify or merely conceptualize frequency and vibration - in such a way that we can actually imagine and think about and act on these oscillators and vibrations in everyday life. 

The other conceptualization of reality's dynamism - static materialism - only worked in the short run, as an aid to early science in making distinct and interaction entities out of reality's maelmstrom, like atoms constituting molecules, the key-and-lock image of molecular binding, the notion of strings of genes determining the bit-by-bit structure of proteins, etc.  

Long-term, this materialism proved to be a mixed blessing and, overall, probably ended up doing a fair amount of damage to the planet (climate destruction through greedy consumer culture powered by advances in science and technology). So, given that it is hard to make mental images of a huge interference pattern of oscillators, we may use the metaphor of "forms channeling the flux" to keep the conversation going.

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