Formal Aspiration, Revisited

wordcount: 5,958

August 2020

When I first wrote about this subject (in about 1982 I think), I purposely didn’t read around the subject, for fear of contaminating a rather fragile insight; I needed to try and work it out for  myself. In observing a fire trying to establish itself in a broken old stove, and a green hawthorn log apparently trying to resist, I came up eventually with what I took to calling ‘formal  aspiration’. For it to mean anything, it would have to apply to everything. And I mean everything, all the possible things you can name, and even their qualifications.

Since then, I’ve gradually gathered whatever I can glean, from the telly, books, internet, conversation or wherever … not methodically, as I might if I was doing a course, on either physics  or philosophy. … partly from laziness, and partly from the fear of being too thick to understand the subject. I realise I’m a bit slow, and certainly not getting any faster, but this very slowness breeds a certain persistence … witness returning to this old subject!

So how does the idea bear up? I want to first look at this, and then whether the idea, if it has merit at all, might throw any light on the subjects in hand. Once again, I apologise for not using equations in this essay … numerically challenged! .But perhaps the apologies are not quite so abject as before, partly because I’m older and give less of a damn, but also because there’s quite a school of thought among physicists now that is more philosophical than thirty years ago. Lee Smolin suggests a variable universe, and looks to see if natural selection  might apply to our universe. Leonard Susskin wonders whether we might all be contained within a black hole. Philosophers such as David Chalmers stray onto the physician’s territory to suggest a search for consciousness in matter. The multiverse, once the province of the crackpot  is now more or less accepted by the scientific establishment. Do pictures of the Cosmic Background Radiation show evidence of bruising, as we collide with other universes?

But by and large physicists still use the language of maths to do their business. So we can start by inspecting the language of maths itself. The equals sign, so essential to mathematics, suggests a causality, one that I’m a bit wary of.  Mathematicians tend towards an almost mystical belief in the power of numbers. Using these symbols all the time, and the discipline bearing such fruit when confirmed by experiment, they soon forget that numbers are themselves ideas, representing reality. As I’ve said before, ‘two’ of anything is a mere fiction. If I see two swans, it is not the same bird twice, but two similar animals. When I write the symbol ‘1’, I might recreate a similar symbol, and add them together to make ‘2’, it is the sum of two similar, but never identical ‘1’s. Philosophers have remarked on this over the centuries, such as David Hume’s observation about the bounced ball returning to the hand being a statement of mere probability. The fact that it has done it a thousand times, and born the same result makes it no more than likely to do it the 1,00lst time.

When researchers at CERN accelerate electrons and other subatomic particles to ultra high speeds, without massive computer power to sift through the billions of resulting collisions the exercise would be pointless. .. literally, all those dots! A quantum mechanical equation by Heisenberg might describe the dual nature of a particle, but the vast wave of these particles are forgotten in the starkness of that equation. The periodic table itself, once so lauded as an ultimate description of how every atom must arrange itself, is now viewed as no more than an approximation. There are no ‘laws’ in nature. Bertrand Russell and  A.N. Whitehead  compiled  their massive ouevre Principia Mathematica; impressive, but now apparently obsolete.

In hopping around youtube it’s remarkable how often Einstein is quoted or referred to. We have to start somewhere. Or else it’s back to Plato. Nothing wrong with that mind … was it Whitehead or
Popper who said all philosophy since then has been foot notes to the fellow? The great philosophers are generally easily read; it’s only the second string that complicate things. As with anything, it’s too easy to nit pick. I remember reading art history at Newcastle… a lovely old library, sunlight shafting through the mullioned windows. I had to find out something about Michelangelo, and there above me was the renowned expert, Charles de Tolnay, all his leather clad volumes … and that was just one historian. I remember thinking it must have been less work to paint the Sistine Chapel. So what do we admit and what not? How much comment, and thereby income can one person generate?

Shoulders of giants indeed; we all benefit from insights of great thinkers. We must differentiate though between merely expressing opinions, and using those insights to increase our own understanding of how the world works.

Conspiracy theorists tend to be persuasive, but all share the same conviction that a cabal of Illuminati, usually rich and exclusive, control us all through the careful dissemination of knowledge, usually purposively flawed … i.e we are all controlled by some superior intelligence. In my experience the world and even its immediate future is too chaotic to be controlled by anyone, however intelligent … witness various governments’ attempts to find political solutions.  If there are any out there bright enough to do so, I’d say good luck to them … doubtful to say the least

 But if we refer to science at all it would need to be Aristotle, since he got the ball rolling. Evidence is all around how we’ve moved on since then. So we’ll accept Newton and his classical mechanics, for most situations, and then e=mc2, from Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, and his description of gravity ten years later. In brief, the Special Theory equates energy with mass and the speed of light. It was his insight that light ‘moves’  at a constant speed, of about 300,000 kms per second. … and it continues to be tested and proved right. Likewise with gravity, as in the paper of 1916. Describing gravity as distorting space has again proved correct, at least on the big scale. Shortly afterwards, Niels Bohr and others agreed a compromise in the Copenhagen agreement, and the rather clumsy but effective quantum mechanics to describes action at the sub-atomic level…. not as elegant as Einstein’s equations, but seem to work.

Various attempts to combine Einstein’s cosmic equations with Bohr (and other’s) quantum mechanics are still being made. New particles, like the Higg’s bosun, and ideas, such as string, quantum loop gravity and ‘other worlds’  theories continue to abound. Can any of these confer substantiation  to FA? Might one of the four basic forces, for example, be a vehicle for Aspiration?

They each of them appear as strong contenders:

  1. The strong nuclear force … recognised as being the powerful force, that binds the quarks of a nucleus together; that is, baryonic matter, responsible for most of the ‘weight’ of matter, and thus clearly entrenched in time as well … as any ingredient of FA must be!. If FA is to have any persuasion, it must partake of time itself. How else might it aspire? As powerful as this force is, it operates at a very short distance, i.e. hardly more than the size of the nucleus itself; since FA must work whatever the size, it cannot be what we’re looking for.
  • The weak nuclear force. Again, too local in its influence. From the little I can understand without the math, this force is responsible for the decay of particles, but is always expressed by radiation (usually gamma rays, but that just means light at very short wavelengths) …. especially relevant in supernovas or atom bombs! … when they say weak, at about 1/7th of the strong force, it’s still considerably more than ..
  • Electro-magnetism (about one millionth the strength of the strong force). This describes most of the reactions we are familiar with, as the electron wizzes round the nucleus (sort of). This breeds chemistry, and eventually us. We’re getting warmer. But this force is still only a potential. The collision of two particles might move one to another orbit, or dislodge it completely from the atom, but will also will create radiation, or light … which then can be thought of as supplying the medium of action. Although an electron might behave like a photon, both being described by the equations of quantum mechanics, they are very different, in that an electron has mass and momentum, whereas a photon is free of these constraints. But because EM is a potential rather than an action itself, it can’t supply all that FA needs
  • Gravity … a weak force at the very small, but is the only one of the four ‘forces’ that is not cancelled out, with positive and negative charge for example, so increases with size, until at the cosmic scale it becomes the most powerful of all. But that would mean as a thing increases in size or weight, so does its aspiration … ok, within the world we inhabit. But that would also mean that its aspiration is tied to its size. What happens at or beyond the event horizon of a black hole? At the other end, at the tiniest level, gravity is negligible … immeasurably small, whereas the FA of an atom should be enough to aid its definition

How do these various forces propagate, or express themselves? Why, by radiation! Apart from gravity, this is by ‘electro-magnetic’ radiation. This  is Einstein’s C … that is, light. … there was dispute as to whether this was a thing, i.e. a particle, or a wave. Quantum mechanics solves the dichotomy by saying that it is both, and how we observe it determines its form. We might say, more simply, that it is a wave, or a fluctuating field, and only when interrupted takes on the form of a particle. But according to Einstein, this wave has no gravity, and neither does it experience time. We observe it from its propagation to its point of arrival, as travelling at a fixed speed. That is, energy in this condition always, and instantly  travels at about 300,000 kms per second. Anything can and does, become radiation … indeed, it is the only thing that anything can become, the only thing that can occur in the indivisible moment of the present. There is no other transition possible. The number of different particles proliferates with conjecture. Let’s look at how one of these was conjectured, and finally observed:

the Higgs field was proposed, by Professor Peter Higgs and colleagues to complete the equation of the standard model of the Universe that quantum mechanics demanded. Experiments were set up at the Large Hadron Collider at Cern,, whereby particles were accelerated to very high  speeds. In a resultant collision, the bosun was eventually, briefly but conclusively observed. It confirmed the Standard Model equation, which had suggested it. So the Higgs ‘field’ is that which gives mass to everything else. In doing so, it thereby confers gravity to even the tiniest and most fleeting of particles. Peter Higgs shared the doubts of his colleagues of the popular monicker, the ‘God particle’ … it smacked too much of mysticism. Sorry Prof … but it’s understandable!

So could the Higg’s field, and the resulting bosun which confirmed it, be that which FA requires? It would seem that ‘reality’ needs gravity … except for energy in that timeless condition of radiation, either electro-magnetic or gravitic.  I see that the four basic forces are now referred to as interactions; that unless disturbed, the various particles are held as ‘potentials’ … the proton and neutron of a nucleus, for instance bound  together in a frightful grimace that we call the strong force; the electron skipping gaily around them, in a much weaker electro-magnetic field. This electron is liable to be affected, for example by another one, thus giving rise to molecules and the sort of chemistry with which we are more familiar. Each time this happens, a photon is emitted, and the dance of life begins. I will refer to this change as ‘happening’ … the only thing that ever can, the exchange between mass and radiation.

What might happen to an atom, if left to its own devices? … something that we can only guess at of course, since there’s an awful lot of them, dancing about and intereacting like crazy. But it would seem that even the strong force that binds the various quarks of the nucleus together will eventually give out, and the ‘weak force’ comes into its own. As they gradually decay into other particles, they give out radiation as they do. Some atoms are less stable than others, and fortunately for atomic scientists, stuff like uranium (generally, the bigger and more complex the atom, the more prone they  are to decay) break down almost spontaneously. Great for fission! The point being here that as they do, only the change into radiation can occur.

I await to stand corrected on all of this by particle physicists, but so far the only reaction is “I suppose you could say that”, as they wonder what all that’s about, and get back to their equations, to deal with the stuff that really counts. But it seems to hold up: that all that exists does experience gravity, and the only change possible, including the observation, is the immediate change of mass to energy … or matter to radiation. This is partly to do with the nature of the present, which by definition must be of zero duration. When I first sussed this out it was a real ‘eureka’ moment for me; I can still remember it occurrigf to me as I drove down the A77, in the old Lada with the sunroof open, and shouting “wahey” to the surrounding countryside.

Our experience of the present is slightly different; as the future seems to slide gradually into the past. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the actual present, the one we inhabit and experience has to be illusional, that the absolute present, of zero duration, is the only thing that can really exist. And where is that absolute moment? In the transition between mass and energy, which then must be all that can ever happen. Please someone, prove me wrong! Everything I come across in particle physics tells me this is so. That this aspect of energy still eludes me, when in its timeless condition of light, where is it? Unobservable, apparently travelling so fast but unknown.

And at the large scale, even cosmic? Black holes and event horizons are at least as strange as the very small. Dark matter and energy? … there by inference of the models we have. Cross reference of the Big Bang, and cosmic observations of the accelerating expansion of the universe, would seem to demand it. To believe in something we cannot see is only a small problem for a scientist, however improbable it sounds.

In a universe that favours ‘things’, whether at the tiny scale or the enormous, there is always going to be evidence of FA . Finding a mechanism is not so easy. A brief survey of physics would not seem to reveal anywhere that FA might reside … not among  the four so-called forces, though they could all be contenders. Or their agents, the fields of potential in which they rest … not even the Higgs field. So I’d like to inspect knowledge itself, how we know what we do. Perhaps we don’t even need to search for a cause … certainly in an acausal universe.


There is this great divide at the moment, between science and the arts. This is understandable. A discipline that prides itself on objectivity cannot afford to admit casual opinion. I remember watching recently a public conversation between Brian Greene and Richard Dawkins, both great popularizers of science. And Brian Greene musing that it would be great to find a magic particle that gave meaning to everything. (then they carried on). But I keep coming across this. Lee Smolin, another researcher into particle physics, says something similar, that time itself might not be regular … not in an Einstein or Lorentz kind of way, but itself; that the rules of physics themselves might change. Wow. Not everyone agrees, like his pal Carlo Rovelli. Both have helped develop string theory into  quantum loop gravity, which itself is a contender to unify gravity and the quantum world. So they know their stuff, equations and all. But they speak like philosophers, full of doubt.  

Ok, knowledge: I was once being taught how to read technical drawings, and the tutor pointed out to us that there’s no perfect way to draw anything; if the drawings can’t be read at the end of the day, they’re useless! I’d already spent time at Art College, so this was something I should have known. Perhaps it was being too close to the coalface to appreciate this obvious fact: that there is no perfect way to represent reality. Even equations! Richard Feynman developed his own shorthand ‘diagrams’ to describe sub-atomic activity; his diagrams have now become standard, and everyone uses them. But we forget all they describe is the likelihood of behaviour. The more numerous the objects, the more we can generalise, so it doesn’t take long for a particle physicist, who is dealing with countless zillions of objects to slip into certainty. David Hume might have warned of such presumption in the 18th century. The whole edifice of science is built on an enormous ‘WHAT IF??’ … it’s just an approximation chaps, the sort of thing a playwright or story teller might get up to. Verified by experiment? … ok, for all intents and purposes. But however many times that experiment is repeated, it’s never quite the same twice. We shake the frame into some semblance of clarity, but it can always be improved. … and Smolin says it might only suit for now! And I know from my own experience how easy it is to slip into trying to paint what you see: verisimilitude itself can be a trap for the unwary painter (and the more skill or time he has invested in it, the more tempting the trap).

Most scientists won’t even see this as a problem … that the language you choose might affect the outcome. This is a subject that the artist can really help illuminate, because he is trying to alter the language all the time: with every stroke of the brush he is trying for originality. And meaning! … that illusive object that Brian Greene dismissed so casually in his conversation with Dawkins, as though it was not even worth pursuing within science. I can quite understand why one should be wary of ‘meaning’ … before you know it, rubbish like mysticism is given credence. But let’s get beyond that.

So let’s look again at that most basic presumption of science, causality:

How do we know? Galileo had the bright idea of actually testing some of the things that had been accepted since the days of Aristotle; he measured falling objects from the Tower of Pisa, and found that gravity seemed to be regular. A century later, Newton’s insight that two bodies attract each other allowed him to quantify gravity, and thereby the movements of even the planets. These leap forwards were accompanied by industry and what was actually possible, from Galileo’s telescope to the industrial revolution. I have remarked before on the apparent coincidence, of conjecture and the means to actually see or test it. Could there be a link between the two? Could what we know be linked in some way to how we know?

We must remember in all of this that we have established that all we can be sure of happens NOW, in the present. So without presuming a causal link, we might at least remark on the coincidence … that the moons of Jupiter sprang in to view as Galileo trained his telescope in that direction … that Einstein’s insights occurred as they became observable. That Higgs’ discovery of his bosun occurred as our Standard model required.  I make no causal connection between the events, for now at any rate. Without the LHC at Cern, and the ability to accelerate particles to the high speed required, or Edwin Hubble’s discovery of Andromeda as a separate galaxy with the telescope to see it, would these things have happened? We can be pretty sure these events happened at about the same time, but we supply the causality. Is it an assumption we should make?

Plato describes the moment of understanding something as akin to recognition … we knew it all along! (without a theory of the unconscious he supposed reincarnation to explain it … perhaps a bridge too far for us!). That moment of potting a pool ball, or knowing when a paint stroke will be ‘right’ … is this similar? I can apply FA to explain this: that the event is formed by its completion from the future. We experience this effect from the future as ‘allegiance’ … or of knowing that pool ball will go down the pocket. For our desire to do so is contained within the memory of the future.

Let’s use another example, one I’ve used before: … a conversation; two strangers bump into one another while on holiday. To avoid awkward silences they strike up a conversation. Let us describe this as a new ‘form’, with its own persuasion. For its own survival it will have a cohering effect on whatever the men are discussing. We might describe this as coming from the immediate future; because it is not yet complete; they will experience a slight allegiance, to maintain the conversation, until at some point other considerations over ride it … say one of the chaps remembers an appointment, so bids farewell to his new aquaintance and is off. We might also say that while the discussion lasts, the men are contained within the future form of the conversation as ‘memory’.

… fugitive perhaps, but FA must apply to anything we can put a name to, from a sub-atomic particle to an animal,, from a planet to a political movement,  or even as temporary an object as a conversation. I’m looking for another connection between events, such as the discovery of penicillin, or the Higgs bosun, than straightforward causation. So FA supplies another field of persuasive coherence, whereby the discovery itself becomes a factor, whether experienced as the ‘thrill of the chase’, or a vague allegiance to ‘science’.

I can’t find anything within science to account for FA, so not much illumination there. Is there anything within science that might befit from FA? Let’s look at time again:

The only thing that marks out the difference between past and future in physics is ‘entropy’, of the movement of order to chaos. Neither quantum mechanics or Relativity offer any other differentiation. But even these (order and chaos) are subjective, according to Carlo Rovelli. Who, after all is to say an upset cart of apples is more chaotic than a nicely boxed arrangement in the greengrocers? But what then accounts for ‘us’, or any difference between the Big Bang and universal heat death?. 

… not sure about the quantum level.  There is a possibility that at the smallest level time might actually be granular, that is, composed of many tiny movements, at the Planck length. This is 1.6 x 10 to the minus 33 of a metre …. tiny indeed, many times more so than the diameter of an atomic nucleus. Though possibly useful for theories allying qm with gravity, I suspect these are issues of measurement. We’re back otherwise to the difficulty of the smallest ‘thing’, whether a photon or of mass, is either a wave or a particle … impossible to say, since the process of definition must affect the ‘particle’s’ behaviour.

FA suggests a hierarchy of ‘things’, whereby time and causality occur. Previously I used the image of an elephant getting up as an example, whereby the future form is an idea formed in the elephant’s mind, which is then transmitted backwards through her muscles, cells, molecules and eventually electrons, to effect the action. We are contained, as is the whole universe, within a sort of heirarchy of formal aspiration. This reading can be independent of any relativistic effect of time …

Wouldn’t it be marvellous to one day actually see an atom? … of how small the nucleus really is, and whether an electron is a tiny thing wizzing around it, far far away, like Niels Bohr envisaged, or a cloud-like shell at a set distance? Must this be forever conjecture?  Since I don’t have the maths to understand this by formula the only thing I can rely on is visualisation, or at least metaphor. A blind man in the world of the sighted though has the advantage of a good sense of smell. The sniff of a good idea in this strange land is oddness … if something smells wrong, it just might be right. Another physical dimension for example, might be revolving a cube on a plane, like a plane might on a line in our 3d world. Or time might not be regular. Even the Lorentz contraction of time was measurable; Einstein dissolved universal time, but in a measurable way. E after all = mc2. What we should really say is energy tends to be the same as the mass of a thing multiplied by the apparent speed of light in a vacuum twice. Despite the fact that there’s no such thing as a pure vacuum.. As in a world of stuff there can be no ‘infinity’.

In the real world we can see that everything is approximate, that one and one for the sake of argument = two. So why are we so sure in either the microscopic or the cosmic? Every hydrogen atom is unique, however similar they may seem en masse. This might be why light, in its regularity should be seen as a condition rather than a speed. So it is against the everyday that formal aspiration should be measured, rather than against the approximations of science.