What It IsBy Bobby Neal Winters
We use science to study nature because we want to be able to predict; we want to be able to control. We try to translate the language of nature to the language of man so that we can name the creatures of nature and thereby control them.
This, I am told, comes from an ancient tradition that we can see examples of in the Bible. When Jacob wrestles with the unnamed entity in the night he asks the entity’s name and the entity is cagey about it.
When Moses is talking to God in the burning bush, he asks God for his name. One would be reckless to try to even number the pages of commentary on the answer God gives. In the Ancient tradition, it is left four consonants and is only pronounced once a year and only in the Holy of Holies. Others have been bolder to translate it as “I am that I am” or “I am He who is.” Still others have said “I am all that is and was and will be.” Perhaps one could even be so rash as to say “Being Itself.”
I leave it to you to ponder in your time alone when you are in the right mood how one might control Being Itself.
As we study nature and translate it into our own language, we create models. The Ancients in studying health talked about the humors. I don’t mean to make fun of them. When you look at a human, we are largely liquid. They chose to classify that liquid as black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. They used this language in order to make predictions and to attempt to exert some sort of control.
As I said, I don’t mean to make fun of this model. Indeed, I think that, from a certain point of view, we still use this model. Our body has various substances--chemicals--within it that can get out of balance. Blood is still there and having the correct amount of it is still an issue, but the model has become more refined. The blood has other substances within it that can become out of balance: hormones, sugar, salt, etc. There is a huge industry devoted to trying to keep these modern humors in order. This is useful. It does allow us to make predictions and to exercise a certain amount of control.
The danger we danger we face is in confusing the model--our name for the thing--with the thing itself. I am thinking specifically here of the photon, the fundamental particle of light. Indeed, thinking of the photon was the impetus of this essay.
The question goes back again to the ancients, way before Isaac Newton, but I will mention Newton because he did a lot of research on light. He thought that light was made of corpuscles, often imagined as little billiard balls, and he used his ideas and mathematics to make accurate predictions and to exert control. He invented the reflector telescope.
There were contemporaries of Newton, Robert Hooke and Christian Huygens, who proposed a wave theory of light and imagined light a wave in the ether, whatever ether might be. The wave theory didn’t gain wide acceptance until the 1800s when other scientists were able to make accurate mathematical predictions themselves.
Students in introductory science classes might rightly be confused because so much of the time the teacher doesn’t bring it to closure. So is the photon a little billiard or a wave in the ether. Inquiring minds want to know.
Here’s the answer: A photon is a photon.
It has some properties that can be modeled by thinking of it as a tiny, little, teeninsy billiard ball and others that can be modeled by thinking of it as a wave in the non-existent luminiferous ether. It is what it is.
These models, these “names” we give the thing in our own language enable us to devise mathematical gadgets that we can manipulate to make predictions and exert control. These are useful, sometimes shockingly so.
But we ought not confuse them with the thing itself which might very well be unknown and unknowable; uncontrolled and uncontrollable.