Heavy meanings

In the centuries following Descartes’ division of mind and matter, the physical sciences have led to such staggering successes that an image of the world as solely made of matter became very compelling. However, physics has also been producing data that demand a view of reality in which mind does play a role. Einstein’s concept of relativity for instance, argues that basic physical phenomena such as time and space are not absolute. Instead, characteristics of the observer - such as her relative speed - determine the outcome of measurements of the two. Quantum physics goes several steps further by showing how non physical characteristics of the observer - such as the values that give rise to her choice of observation - influence not only the measurements of some part of reality, but the very characteristics of reality itself. Mind is something we cannot rule out and is intricately connected with physical phenomena. In fact, one could say mind is a physical phenomenon itself.

So what ‘is’ reality made of then, if it is not made of matter? Early quantum physicists such as Heisenberg and Pauli discussed the basic underlying essence of reality, which they called energy:

The elementary particles in modern physics carry a mass in the same limited sense in which they have other properties. Since mass and energy are, according to the theory of relativity, essentially the same concepts, we may say that all elementary particles consist of energy. This could be interpreted as defining energy as the primary substance of the world. {…} Energy is in fact that which moves; it may be called the primary cause of all change, and energy can be transformed into matter or heat or light.’ (Heisenberg, 1958, p.67).

If we interpret Heisenberg’s quote within the framework of a physical (Cartesian) reality, it is still rather mainstream. It is about phase transitions from fluid to gas and solid to fluid. It is about everyday examples such as the warmth of sunlight or how objects start glowing as they heat up. About how electricity from solar panels can be converted into the movement of a vehicle. It is when we include the non-physical ‘mind’ domain that Heisenberg’s quote becomes exotic. A picture arises of a ‘fluid’ reality consisting of possibilities (energy) that can actualize into anything, material and immaterial.

Let me explain. Consider the part of the Heisenberg quote where he posits that everything is basically made of energy (the 'primary substance'). Combine this with the expanded ‘post-Cartesian’ notion that includes mind as a legitimate part of reality. From this would follow the conclusion that the primary substance of mind is energy as well and that mind could carry a mass just as matter does. This in turn leads to the question of whether mind-aspects such as emotions, thoughts and meaning could have a mass that could theoretically be measured. In other words: does an emotion have a weight, does meaning have a mass that could be measured? And: do relative changes of meaning within a person and between persons translate to differences in mass that could be measured?

Too far out? Quantum babble? One would certainly think so. Which is always a good reason for a pause and a look around for some orientation or corroboration even. At least one scientific theory seems to encourage this line of reasoning, or at least it does not seem to immediately discourage it.

Recently theoretical physicist Verlinde posited that gravity is a force that emerges from entropy - a force in which entropy manifests itself - when two bodies of matter shift relative to each other. Two words from this proposition beg for a closer look: entropy and matter:

  • Entropy is a measure of the number of possible arrangements of a specific system. The more a substance is in a state of entropy, the greater the number of positions its particles can assume and the less it holds its original form and composition.
  • Verlinde prefers using the concept of ‘information’ instead of matter. Although there are many different definitions of the word information, what seems to be the common denominator is that information is what distinguishes one thing from another. That is what happens when among all the possibilities that exist in a state of entropy, a specific sequence (such as matter) stands out and remains for a certain amount of time.

A distinctive body of matter can be expressed in terms of information, merely because it is distinctive from everything else. Relative displacement of two bodies of matter leads to changes in the information by which each body, through their mutual relationship, is distinguished, and therefore to a relative entropic force:

We identified a cause, a mechanism, for gravity. It is driven by differences in entropy, in whatever way defined, and a consequence of the statistical averaged random dynamics at the microscopic level. The reason why gravity has to keep track of energies as well as entropy differences, is now clear. It has to, because this is what causes motion!’ (Verlinde, 2010, p. 22).

Verlinde’s state of the art theory (or rather hypothesis) seems to acknowledge a view of reality that is not a priori material. The concept of information which Verlinde prefers, leaves room for other physical phenomena to exert gravitational force. Adding to that Verlinde explicitly adds ‘in whatever way defined’ to broaden our definition of entropy. This could include differences in mind-phenomena such emotions, thoughts, meanings.

Surely, Verlinde’s theory concerns energies on galactic scales compared to which the mass of a human being is less than trivial. On the other hand, to my knowledge physics has not looked at this issue yet and there is no measure for the amount of meaning or entropy of (human) mind-aspects on either of these scales. Verlinde does include entangled states of matter into his equations (Verlinde, 2016), which seems like a step closer to measuring meaning. For instance, meaning and entanglement seem to share the quality of being fields of possibilities. Still, to suppose a connection between entanglement, meaning and gravity is speculative. Verlinde’s theory applies to cosmic structures that not even remotely include the realm of daily human life. The question itself however, is intriguing and in no way trivial given the reinstatement by quantum physics of mind as a genuine aspect of reality. If somehow an estimate for the ‘amount of meaning’ within a broader mind/matter system could be developed as well as a way of measuring it, that could certainly have an impact on (social) science.

TB January 29 2022

Heisenberg, W.(1958): Physics and Philosophy. London: Ruskin House.
Verlinde, E. (2010): On the Origin of Gravity and the Laws of Newton. arXiv: 1001.0785v1[hep-th] 6 jan 2010.
Verlinde, E. (2016): Emergent gravity and the dark universe. arXiv:1611.02269v1 [hep-th] 7 nov 2016.