Are “Things” “Real”?

The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus famously said, you can’t step into the same river twice. The banks may be the same. The rocks on the bottom may be the same. But the water rushing past you is different. So it is with everything, Heraclitus said. Nothing is fixed. All is flux.

The atomic view of matter certainly challenges our view of fixed things. Not only is the computer I’m writing on mostly empty space (the nuclei of the atoms that compose it being mere specks compared to the capacious orbitals of the electrons around them), the whole thing is a dance. Those electrons are moving at insane speeds—flux indeed!

Einstein’s theory of relativity also makes us question “thingness.” If matter and energy are forms of one another, then the very stuff of existence is just as much process (energy) as solidity.

Quantum physics posits that sub-atomic particles can pop in and out of existence, in an altogether whimsical manner. And string theory claims that the smallest units of stuff are essentially vibration—flux again

So we may well wonder whether all nouns may not be verbs in disguise. Are all “things” really processes, movements, dynamics? Are “things” just frozen motion? If so, we might note that even glaciers flow.

Here are some other “things” to ponder:

Things in Space: If there are things, they must have boundaries. If they don’t stop somewhere, they can’t be distinct from other things. But think about gravity. Every massive body distorts the fabric of space-time. Even our bodies must do so in an infinitesimally small way. But where does gravity’s influence stop? Certainly it becomes negligible at a distance, in accordance with Newton’s inverse square law. But, like Zeno’s paradox, is it always approaching zero but never getting there? If so, it never ends. So can any body be said to be gravitationally distinct from all others? Thingness may be a practical reality, but is it real?

Things in Time: The river we step into is a snapshot of a flowing river. And that flow takes place in time. Complex systems are like that. They exist by being eaters of energy. Our whole planetary ecosystem is almost exclusively dependent on solar radiation as the basis of the food chain. Without photosynthesizers continually “fixing” sunlight (but is it ever really fixed?), life would diminish to a trickle. The rest of us are parasites on plants and cyanobacteria.

All complex systems defy entropy by eating energy. Entropy is the thermodynamic tendency to disorder. But complex systems create order, in a universe that should be running down. As it may well be doing, but complex systems create islands of order in a sea of disorder—so long as the energy keeps coming. So all complex systems are also creatures of time.

Things within Things within Things. . . . Holons are systemic levels. Wholes have holons within them and holons beyond them. For example, holons within you are your bodily systems (digestive, cardiovascular, respiratory, etc.). Each of those contains organs as holons; those organs contain organelles, which contain tissues, which contain cells. . . . And you are a holon contained within a family, within a community, within a culture, within global society. . . .

But are there clear-cut boundaries between these holons, or do they bleed together? Now, it may seem obvious that there’s a place where you end and thus a clear distinction between you and any other family member. So you don’t bleed into your family and they don’t bleed into you.

Oh, really? Isn’t that exactly what you do all the time? Don’t the moods of others change, if you’re sad or angry. Don’t your musical tastes change, if a sibling introduces you to something cool?

Self as Nexus: It may be helpful to think of yourself as a nexus—an intersection of influences that also has its own identity (though your identity shifts over time, like Heraclitus’s river). Certainly you don’t look the same as you did ten years ago, or even ten days ago, if you want to get picky. And, as you experience and learn more things, you change psychologically as well.

Are You Real? Heraclitus’s river may change from moment to moment, but it will still cool you off if you go for a swim. Seems real enough. On the other hand, maybe it should have as many names as there are moments that it flows through. We call it the same thing, when it’s really not.

Or is It? This is the question of atma or adatma. In the Hindu view (and the views of many other traditions), your soul (atma) is an immortal drop of the divine. Change belong to this world, of space and time. But this world is also maya, or illusion. Your soul is made of eternal stuff—it’s really real.

In the Buddhist view, it’s a mistake to think of yourself as the same person, from day to day as much as from incarnation to incarnation. Buddhists believe in reincarnation, but of a soul that’s always in flux. This is adatma—non-soul.

This is an interesting “thing” to ponder. But, either way, we will do well to recognize that “things” are not always what we think they are. Our ideas about them may be snapshots frozen in time, when they have in fact moved on. And complex systems (which include pretty much everything of importance in our lives) are only alive so long as they are in flux, busily using energy to create order.

Of course, atma is defined as eternal, and so beyond the confines of time, while complex systems are creatures of time. So perhaps there are two levels of self—self unfolding within time (what Aristotle called Becoming) and self transcending time (what Aristotle called Being)—and the two are complementary rather than mutually exclusive. David Bohm’s implicate order also provides a framework for such a possibility.

In any case, science seems to have caught up with Heraclitus. Upon closer inspection, our world of space-time appears to be more process than thing, more verb than noun. Of course, in later life Heraclitus may have changed his mind. . . .

If you enjoyed reading this, you might enjoy working with me on personal or organizational development. Explore this website to find further information on my approaches. To SCHEDULE A FREE CONSULTATION, at which we will discuss how I might best serve your needs, go to Contact and call and/or email.

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