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Essence and chemistry

Chemistry defies this sort of analysis. Salt is made out of sodium, a highly reactive metal, and chlorine, a highly reactive gas. Yet salt has none of the properties of sodium or chlorine. It is not a metal nor a gas and it is relatively stable. The analysis that yields these properties says nothing about the fundamental nature of the elements, sodium and chlorine, that combine to form a molecule of salt. Instead it describes complex mathematical structures which model the way the electrons in the molecule are distributed in physical space. Even this description is a simplification. The chemical properties of elements can be understood most accurately by using quantum mechanics. That theory never describes the actual location of the electrons. It speaks only about the probability of observing electrons at a given location.

This may be true of salt, but one may protest that steel has essential properties that we can exploit to build a safe bridge. Craftsmen use intuitive understanding of the essential nature of materials. Enormous cathedrals have been constructed in this way.

But this approach is very limited compared to contemporary scientific understanding and engineering practice. Material properties directly connected to immediate experience provide far less knowledge than the abstractions of chemistry and physics. These abstractions have a basis in experience, but often in a very indirect and convoluted way. Scientists have succeeded in understanding the material world by completely replacing intuitive understanding from immediate experience with mathematical abstractions.

They did so only when they had no alternative. At the beginning of the 20th century many physicists thought they had a nearly complete understanding of the physical world. There was one small anomaly. A heated object emitted radiation in a way that could not be explained by Newtonian physics. This seemed an obscure problem, but its resolution led to quantum mechanics and a view of the world fundamentally and radically at odds with all previous physics.

Newtonian physics retained a direct connection with immediate experience. It was a physics of tiny billiard balls bouncing off each other. Quantum mechanics is a mathematical abstraction unlike anything we experience. The world of that experience is called macroscopic. It is at time and distance scales that are enormous compared to the scale of fundamental quantum effects such as the the creation or destruction of a particle. There is nothing in human experience remotely like effects at the quantum level.

Contemporary science has robbed physical objects of an essential nature. They only have properties defined by abstract mathematical relationships. There is no ``essential nature'' in this mathematics.


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