No Emptiness, Stillness, or Eternity: Questioning Physical Concepts in Light of Typical Human Thinking Mistakes


Sorry readers that I misuse this blog for a post which is not directly happiness related. Actually I should say “sorry reader” (singular) because Feedburner tells me I have one subscriber, who – being an optimist – I just assume to be a devoted reader too. So thank you for your interest first of all, and secondly sorry again for posting an article slightly off topic, I will be back with happiness related topics in the next post.

Pre-note II: As this article deals with the subject of physics, I would like to state beforehand that I am not a physicist, in the sense that I have studied it in detail or owning an academic degree. Therefore, everything said in this article should be regarded with a critical mindset (as all theories should for that matter). The intention of this post is merely to add to the debate, and inspire “real” physicists. According to my experience even wacky and incorrect amateur thoughts are sometimes capable of doing that.

Why are humans such a successful species on this planet? I believe the reason is our unmatched ability to model the world in our brains, reflecting “reality” very precisely which enables us to make well-founded decisions and develop tools to find our way around.

This modelling may take various shapes and forms, but the “core” model we use to picture the world is basically composed of the following elements:

  1. There are certain “objects” (or “matter”/”atoms”/”something”),
  2. … which reside in an “absolute”, continuous space
  3. moving from one position to another

Developments in quantum physics and relativity theory showed this model has weaknesses, and is not suitable to describe reality in areas we don’t naturally interact with, especially in areas of the very small or the very large.

This post argues that we don’t need quantum physics or relativity theory in order to question this basic model. We can conclude by other means that it has flaws, and draw new conclusions from that.

Hypothesis: Reality cannot be split up

A common and successful way of analysing problems is splitting them up into separate parts and analyse those parts independently. For example, when splitting reality into the dimensions objects, space and movement, we do this: “space” is something logically different from “objects”, and we can picture the former without the latter (i.e. empty space).

The hypothesis put forward in this post is that breaking down reality into separate parts is – strictly speaking – not correct, because by doing so we don’t look at the “real” thing anymore, only its (assumed) components.

If we follow this thought for a minute it would imply that no dimension can be without the other. Applied to our core model with the dimensions objects, space and movement, we get the following conclusions:


 (I’ve put “objects” in quotation marks because it may be more precise to say “something” as it is not limited to tangible matter)

The surprising conclusions No.2 and No.5 are not new to physics: quantum theory both states that there cannot be “stillness” (there is always some “quantum noise”) and also no complete emptiness or vacuum.

However, it makes sense to explore other explanations because “stillness” and “emptiness” still seem to play a role in some areas of physics (e.g. “rest mass” of an atom). Also, different angles to explain a phenomenon may prove useful.

More support for the idea that reality cannot be split up

The statement that reality cannot be split up into separate dimensions (whereby some of them could exist in their own right) basically means “all is one”. This is not a new view: the well-accepted statement “everything in the universe is energy” goes very much into that direction, including Einstein’s proof that also matter is just a form of energy (E=mc2).

Another indicator is the trend towards “unification”, i.e. explaining different phenomena by one and the same underlying theory. It is not clear yet whether a single “theory of everything” exists, but a lot of factors point to that it does, among them the observation that beauty (simplification) plays an important role in physics (watch Gell-Mann’s TED presentation on beauty in physics). What would be more beautiful than “all is one”?1

In the same line of thinking, using dualisms to describe nature somehow does not feel right, and they appear to be only temporary “necessities” until we really understand what it is. For example, the photon’s (or any other particle’s) characteristic of behaving both like a wave (when expanding, “unobserved”) and like a particle (when “measured”) does not mean that it is both, but rather that it is neither a particle nor a wave, we only need to use both pictures to make sense of it today.2

Resolving the most basic dualism, 1 or 0, to be or not to be, is nothing we can really understand today, but that does not mean it is impossible. In fact, quantum physics already comes very close to this with its “superpositions” – the cat is both dead and alive.

Further support for questioning “emptiness” and “stillness”

Another way of questioning something is to understand what made us believe it exists in the first place. Why do we believe that “empty space” exists?

This view seems to have its origin in our observation that objects can be moved seamlessly through air, which we therefore assumed to be empty (both originally assumed by “humanity” as well as by every individual when taking first steps to understand the world). This view changed when scientists discovered that air is not empty at all, but filled with billions of atoms in very small spaces of air. However, the concept of “emptiness” did not get questioned fundamentally, only pushed “further below”.

The concept of “stillness” may have similar roots: we did not question it fundamentally when we discovered that the reflection of light is required in order to observe something, which implies movement (both for the light as well as the object which reflects the light).

Questioning “eternity”

Another concept which still seems to have a place in today’s world of physics is “eternity” (i.e. extrapolation of a phenomenon into “never stop”). This is surprising, because we have never observed or proved it in practice. And how could a possible proof look like? Whatever approach we took to prove it, we would not be able to “hang onto it long enough”.

For example, lets say you have a circle in front of you. How long is the way you can go on the edge of the circle? In theory it is endless, but that does not make it practice or “reality”. In order to prove it, you would actually have to go the way endlessly, which of course is not possible.

The only area where we absolutely seem to need the concept of eternity is the size of the universe, because we cannot picture something else. However, we don’t know much about the universe, and this as a last defender of eternity looks rather weak. Like in quantum physics, which includes the core thought that “if there is no possible experiment which proves it exists, why still assume it is reality?” the proposal here is the same: we will never be able to prove eternity, so we may question the concept as a whole.

Accepting the non-existence of eternity may lead to interesting conclusions. For example, our “core model” assumes space to be continuous. However, this would mean that an atom, when moving from one place to another, passes an unlimited number of positions. As this cannot be possible (assuming endlessness does not exist) the conclusion is that we (if we still stick to our atom-model) should observe “jumping” atoms, making space non-continuous and discrete.3

I don’t know the recent developments in physics, but I would not be surprised if new theories would not leave any room for emptiness, stillness, or eternity, either questioning those as a consequence, or building on their non-existence as basic axioms.

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1) In other words, instead of unifying bits and pieces one by one (thereby coming closer to the unification of everything) the proposal put forward in this article is to take for granted that “everything is one” and think what we could conclude from it, i.e. going the other way.

2) If we had to choose whether it is “more” a wave or a particle I’d go for the former, because the particle’s characteristics only emerge if we intervene and measure it, or, in other words, question it with our existing mindset. We should not be surprised to get a particle “back as an answer” if we question it with our particle-mindset in the first place.

3) Another thought which seems to rely on the extrapolation of a phenomenon into eternity (although in the opposite direction than the endlessness of the universe) is the big bang, i.e. the idea that the expanding universe must have started with “a dot” of unlimited density.

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