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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 extremely stable reacting with very few other chemicals. 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 only be understood by using quantum mechanics. That theory never describes the actual location of the electrons. It speaks only about the probability of observing the electrons at a given location.

Contemporary science derives the fundamental properties of physical objects from complex mathematical models that say nothing about essence. Essence exists in conscious experience and not in abstract mathematics.

It may seem that we are using essence in two different senses. Surely steel has essential properties that we can exploit to build a safe bridge. Our experience of the bridge is something quite different with its own essential nature. 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 physicsts 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 anomaly 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 billard 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 even remotely like effects at the quantum level.

Contemporary science has robbed physical objects of an essential nature. They have properties but ultimately these are defined as abstract mathematical relationships with no essential nature. Experimental technique links this mathematics to physical objects often in indirect and convoluted ways.

There is nothing that one would call essential nature in the mathematics of quantum mechanics. Ultimately all physical objects are described with quantum mechanics. Some day a new theory may take over, but there is nothing in scientific thinking or approach that would lead to a theory that restores essential nature to physical objects.


Completed second draft of this book

PDF version of this book
next up previous contents
Next: Essence as a Platonic Up: Structure and essence Previous: Structure and essence   Contents


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