The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Saturday, March 26, 2016
Philosophy ... Science ...

In my recent blog essay on “Meaning and the Universe“, I concluded that the ultimate meaning of the Universe and the ultimate reason why it exists is “relationship”. I didn’t elaborate on precisely what I meant by “relationship”, or why I thought that it might be the ultimate and most fundamental character of the Universe. My friend Mary wrote a response asking that I elaborate on this. She said that she generally favors the idea and noted that most scientists don’t seem particularly interested in pondering the nature of relationship within the workings of the physical world. Mary noted perhaps one exception, the 20th Century Jesuit biologist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Bottom line, Mary asked for “further elaboration of [my] tho’t on this topic”.

OK, Mary, thanks for asking!! I can’t say that I’ve fully thought this out and that I am ready to write and defend a thesis on it. But your question did inspire me to do some more work on what has basically been just a rough, intuitive notion rattling around in the back of my head, something that seems to have developed over time from the various readings and study efforts that I have invested into scientific and philosophic topics. Footnote, I’m going to try to discuss “relationship” without mentioning the word “love”, even though there is a strong and obvious link between the two. Many people equate love and relationship, and “love makes the world go round”, so doesn’t that prove it? Well, maybe it does in one sense, but I’d like to take a more generalized, abstracted and careful look at the notion of relationship and how it relates to “being, in general”. But by the same token, I don’t want to get bogged down in the swamp of relational ontology and Martin Heidegger’s turgid discussions of “being” and “dasein”.

Actually, I can’t pin the “relationship notion” on any one topic or any particular set of facts or ideas from science. Roughly speaking, it seems to be the one thing that survives after applying the acid wash of critical philosophical reasoning and empirical scientific study to the “longings within” that we conscious creatures often have, longings for meaning and purpose in an existential sense. I.e., it seems to me to be the one thing that survives after you apply the standard atheist/positivist toolkit to debunk religious miracles, historical myths regarding ancient transcendent revelations, near-death experiences, other “wondrous visions” (ah yes, Saint Teresa and her like), and even the somewhat more sophisticated attempts to justify traditional religious faith using philosophic methods (e.g., Aquinan theology with its necessary superior being), or through quasi-scientific reasoning (e.g. “creationist” attempts to verify Biblical stories regarding the origins of the earth and human life using alleged scientific facts).

I will start here by saying that when I say “relationship”, I mean the CONCEPT of relationship, encompassing every possible physical / scientific relationship in the history of the Universe. My concept is abstract but fairly broad, and thus also includes the higher level relationships that seem to “emerge” from the increasingly complex states that the basic physical laws and relationships enable — e.g., relationships and interactions between stars in a galaxy, between planets and stars in a solar system, between the elements of any given planet, between water, air and ground within a complex bio-system, and ultimately encompassing the massive complexity of human relationships. My relationship concept thus goes way beyond how the word might be used on a Hallmark card, and even by a clinical psychologist. But it ultimately has room to include those things too. It’s just that it tries to see how things like human love might fit into a bigger picture of how the universe fundamentally works.

There’s something of a fish-not-knowing-what-water-is situation here — science is so much about relationship that it doesn’t even stop to think about it. “Relationship” doesn’t need to be thought about by science, it’s an automatic and unspoken presumption. That is more the job of philosophy. The physical laws that empirical scientific study reveal, and the abstract laws that mathematics deal with, and everything in between, are ultimately matters of relationship!

But still . . . isn’t relationship just an interesting side-effect of what goes on “in the real world”, in the realm of hard things and the energy and forces that move or change those hard things? Under classic Newtonian physics of the 18th Century, and even going way back to the days of Aristotle and the ancient Greeks, it seemed as though the physical world was based on hard, real stuff, along with real forces (driven by energy) that could push that real stuff around or change it. In the 20th Century, though, both quantum physics and relativity showed that “real stuff” wasn’t so real and so hard after all. Quantum mechanics break particles and energy interactions down into to a “quanta”, something with a standard, unchangeable size or force (however small). But is that quanta real? Ultimately, it turned out that those tiny quanta that make up all matter and forces are fuzzy probabilistic interactions with no necessary claim to permanence.

Relativity tells us that the distinction between hard things and the space between them is not real either. Back in the old days, empty space was just that; it separated one “thing” from another. But after Einstein, space is just another “thing”, with inherent energy and other interactional characteristics. As such, seemingly-empty space may be the most significant force in determining the long-term future of the universe, i.e. dark energy. Dark energy is probably not like most other energies, but more like gravity, in that it is just an energy characteristic of empty space!

Both quantum physics and relativity tell us that it is the specific circumstances of interaction between fields and forces that determine “what is”. If field B interacts with field A and causes a ripple that creates an interaction involving a quark or an electron or a photon, it will not be the same for every possible “observer” who interacts with that quark or electron or photon, thanks to relativity. And thanks to basic quantum indeterminacy, if the exact same interaction between field B and field A takes place a second time, the result will probably not be exactly the same. The resulting particle may be more or less energetic, it may be observed in a different place, or there may be other differing particle characteristics such as different direction of “spin” and polarity. This sure doesn’t seem like a hard, pebble-like particle as the ancient Greeks and Newton had assumed the world was made of.

So what has this to do with relationship? Nothing and everything. In digging even more deeply so as to reconcile the various contradictions between quantum mechanics and gravity-driven relativity, with various complex master-formulations of reality being proposed such as superstring theory and loop quantum gravity, many physicists have said that ultimately, the most fundamental and least changing thing in the universe is information. Mass, energy, space, even time, all are subject to fundamental changes based on the overall set of circumstances and the particular interactions taking place. At bottom, though, it is at least imaginable that some constant set of information drives whatever happens and however it is manifested and perceived.

And what is that information about? In a world defined by on-going dynamic interactions, information is ultimately about what is moving relative to what, about what is changing relative to what, what has this much or that much of a particular quantity (e.g., spin, rest-mass, velocity, direction, etc.) relative to something else. In other words, information is describing a vast myriad of RELATIONSHIPS. Without some dualism, i.e. without a distinction between two entries and some relationship describing the interaction between them, the universe is dead. It just isn’t, actually. Without relationship, there isn’t. Isn’t what? Isn’t anything. No existence whatsoever.

So, relationship, at the deepest physical levels, is fundamental to existence. And I believe that it is so fundamental that it has a “fractal” quality to it; i.e., it is fundamental at any and all levels of complexity and organization. Including the complicated levels of human beings and their many levels of interaction; e.g., stranger to stranger, friend to friend, family to family, person to group, group to group, small group to bigger group, on and on. Humans are inherently social creatures; they evolved to be such. They are also pretty intelligent. It wouldn’t surprise me that this intelligence allowed the earliest humans to sub-consciously realize that relationship is really important, and helped to drive their evolution into a very highly social species.

It’s just too bad that many, perhaps most people don’t stop to think about how important relationship is, on all levels of their life and being. The politics of the current Presidential selection process going on here in the USA seems to be making an artform of disregarding the need to foster and maintain wide-spread relationship in order to sustain the nation. The Republicans think that they are right and the Democrats are terribly wrong, and the only way to resolve that disagreement is to beat the Democrats and then not need to deal with their “wrongness”. The Democrats of today are doing roughly the same thing regarding the Republicans (perhaps in different ways, but with the same underlying premise). Politics today seems to limit relationship. Political leaders seem blind to the fact that without as much relationship as possible, the nation will weaken, and everyone will be worse off.

So, Mary, I hope that this helps, and I look forward to your own thoughts about this, along with anyone else who might like to chip in their own thoughts. I will certainly try to “relate” to them!

PS, I did a little bit of Googling about relationship as a concept. But there ain’t all that much. There is plenty about relationships, but not much about what the nature of relationship is, either from the viewpoint of science or philosophy. About all that you can find without extensive digging is a dictionary definition, e.g. “the way in which things are ​connected or ​work together“, or “the way in which two or more people or things are connected with or involve each other“, or “the state of being related or interrelated“. As though there were actually a state of existence that is NOT related or interrelated!!! The Hindu mystic Krishnamurti said it all when he said “Is not all existence a question of relationship? To be is to be related.”

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:47 pm      

  1. Jim, Thanks for the explanation of how you see the use of the word “relationship” when it comes to “Meaning and the Universe”. You have a very clear and well-thought-out explanation (and idea) of the concept of relationship as it applies to the Universe. Your example of the “relation” between the stars in a galaxy, planets and stars in a solar system is a very good one. Can’t say I have any real disagreement with you-­but . . . of course, there’s always the “but”.

    And you yourself hit on the “but” I was thinking about at the end of your post: Seems to me that a different word would be clearer, express the idea more fully; so I too went looking for another word that might be applied in a case where one is not thinking in terms of connections between humans.

    BTW, (to interrupt myself here) it occurs to me that there are other types of “relationships” when it comes to people. There can be negative relationships. For instance, dislike of another is a relationship; hate is an even more intense idea of “dislike”; one can simply ignore another, a type of relationship. Then there can be co-mingled types of relationships, such as those that combine “love” and “hate”.

    (And here it seems to me that this current generation, thinking in terms of your own example of politics today, seems to be more focused on these negative types of relationship with all the “mean tweets”, urging fighting among those who disagree on topics, and various other types of negative connections between/among people.)

    And that last sentence brought up the word that initially came to my mind when I tho’t to find another word that meant “relationship”. Could one use the word “connection” between stars and planets? Gravity as a “connection” between/among things in the Universe? Perhaps, but I’m willing to concede that the word “connection” is not as clear or specific as “relationship”.

    I definitely DO like your concept of how “relationship” in the Universe has evolved from say gravity as a “relationship” among things in the Universe to connections between/among people. De Chardin would be proud, I think, of your idea.

    While I would surely like to find another word that would more specifically refer to the connection among things in the Universe, who am I to dispute Krishnamurti?

    Then another “but”: I find myself asking some other questions besides the finding of another word to express the idea of Universe “relationship”.

    Yet, even while I think of another question, I (sort of) answer my own question(s) but I’ll still ask my question(s). While this discussion is limited to “this” reality, I find myself wondering how other realities might fit into this discussion­­ and who is to say that these other realities are not part of “this” reality? For instance: It seems to me that each person has his/her own reality (no two realities are the same for/among individuals-­at least as I see it). Thus, I wonder how other realities might fit in when it comes to the relationships among the things in the Universe.

    Perhaps “relationship” can only be applied to THIS reality. But what about those who live in THIS reality yet who experience their own, different, reality? (And here again, it seems to me that each person lives in/has his/her own reality. Different people’s realities may overlap, but at some point they do not; what about the point where they do not overlap? Do the same laws apply to people who might be “labeled” (I hate that word, but it’s another one that’s difficult to substitute) one or more of the various kinds of psychotic. What about people who are NOT psychotic but who through medications, drugs, illness, even sleep, etc., experience other forms of reality? Are these people part of THIS reality? Or how do they fit into the reality of which you speak in this post? What about the reality of very intelligent animals, even plants? (Recently, I’ve been reading about the “connections” among trees.)

    Simply dismissing these phenomena as “nutty” (one might say), is not a sufficient or appropriate answer, as I see it.

    Maybe these are not appropriate questions FOR THIS DISCUSSION. However, I find myself wondering about them in this discussion. Are these various “levels” or “kinds” of evolution and thus fit nicely into this reality? Or are they of a different kind entirely?

    I’m willing to admit that my questions may not “fit” in this discussion-­and as I said, I do not wish to argue with Krishnamurti. But as appropriately, fully, and completely your explanation of relationship and Universe is; oddly enough, it seems to bring up in me several questions that do not seem to have an answer. Perhaps I’m wondering if I just don’t see the answer that should be obvious to me. But then, again, I wonder. . . MCS

    [QUICK COMMENT — Mary, the physical universe has all sorts of relationships; some of which appear to build up complexity and organization, some of which appear to tear it down. As such, it’s little wonder to me that higher-level relationships such as human social interactions are both constructive and destructive, within their individual contexts. There are also meta-cycles to relationship systems on all levels; times of prevalent construction and times of prevalent destruction. On the cosmic, universal level, the universe seemed headed to an ultimate lifeless destruction, i.e. the anticipated “heat death” of an ever-expanding universe. But even then, quantum uncertainty may eventually — over countless billions of billions of years — generate a renewal, a new “Big Bang”, a new opportunity for construction and growth. Pessimism or optimism, take your pick. Jim G]

    Comment by Mary S. — March 27, 2016 @ 2:02 pm

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