The Problem of Particles

Until recently I believed the conventional wisdom of modern physics that particles and waves both exist even though we know something like a light wave sometimes isn’t exactly one or the other. If a light wave hits a detector it acts like a particle. If it hits a bunch of slits, it acts like a wave. Yes, the wave particle duality is seemingly understood and I’ve read about it since I first began reading about physics. The question is do we really need both particles and waves to model reality? Do particles actually exist in any form remotely resembling our conceptions of them? For that matter, do we need waves or could we explain everything perfectly well with particles?

In the course of discussing whether proton and neutrons actually touch in the nucleus with a fellow blogger, I found myself moving to the position that maybe the notion of particles really wasn’t useful.

First of all, let me state that I don’t believe any of the mental models we make for reality actually map one for one, one hundred percent, to reality. In that sense, I don’t think either waves or particles actually exist exactly like our mental constructions of them. Both waves and particles are simplifications of something that does exist. So I don’t think it is all in our consciousness (a more nuanced discussion of this later). The pragmatic question (I am a pragmatist) is whether the concepts of both particles and waves are useful. Or, can we just dispense with one of them – either particles or waves?

Charles Sebens in an Aeon article What’s everything made of? addresses the question with a slant not unlike my own. Surprisingly to me, the idea that reality might just be waves originated in a modern form with Michael Faraday:

In 1844, Michael Faraday explored this option in an unpublished manuscript and a short published ‘speculation’. One could imagine describing the physics of hard, solid bodies of various shapes and sizes colliding and bouncing off one another. However, when two charged particles (such as electrons) interact by electric attraction or repulsion, they do not actually touch one another. Each just reacts to the other’s electromagnetic field. The sizes and shapes of the particles are thus irrelevant to the interaction, except in so much as they change the fields surrounding the particles. So, Faraday asked: ‘What real reason, then, is there for supposing that there is any such nucleus in a particle of matter?’ That is, why should we think that there is a hard core at the centre of a particle’s electromagnetic field? In modern terms, Faraday has been interpreted as proposing that we eliminate the particles and keep only the electromagnetic fields.

The idea of particles goes back in some form at least to the ancient Greeks. Plato had a theory that everything was made from four elements in various combinations. Democritus developed the concept of the atom. Modern physics broke down the atom into particles and then the particles into more particles. Possibly the crowning achievement of 20th century physics is the Standard Model with its myriad of particles with names like quarks, charm, up, down, and strange.

Sebens doesn’t see the Standard Model going away even if we eventually remove particles from an improved model:

Physicists have developed an improvement on the periodic table called ‘the standard model’. The standard model is missing something very important (gravity) and it might turn out that the pieces it describes are made of yet more fundamental things (such as vibrating strings). That being said, the standard model is not going anywhere. Like Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity or James Clerk Maxwell’s theory of electrodynamics, we expect that the standard model will remain an important part of physics no matter what happens next.

What we are describing as “particle” is actually just a bunch of measurements like mass and spin. The measurements don’t go away even if the concept of particle is dropped. But both mass and spin complicate the concept of particle. Mass becomes problematic with the photon, for example, since it is a massless particle.

The second consideration that led me to an all-fields picture was the realisation that we don’t have a way of treating the photon as a particle in quantum electrodynamics. Dirac invented an equation that describes the quantum behaviour of a single electron. But we have no similar equation for the photon.

If you think of electrons as particles, you’ll have to think of photons differently – either eliminating them (Lazarovici’s story) or treating them as a field (Hubert’s story). On the other hand, if you think of electrons as a field, then you can think of photons the same way. I see this consistency as a virtue of the all-fields picture.

Spin is yet another problematic attribute. In fact, almost always when spin is brought up in particle discussions, there is always some disclaimer about we can’t really think about particles spinning. Actually the notion of particles spinning can’t be explained.

The standard lore in quantum physics is that the electron behaves in many ways like a spinning body but is not really spinning. It has spin but does not spin.

If the electron is point-size, of course it does not make sense to think of it as actually spinning. If the electron is instead thought of as a very small ball, there are concerns that it would have to rotate faster than the speed of light to account for the features that led us to use the word ‘spin’. This worry about faster-than-light rotation made the physicists who discovered spin in the 1920s uncomfortable about publishing their results.

If the electron is a sufficiently widely spread-out lump of energy and charge in the Dirac field, there is no need for faster-than-light motion. We can study the way that the energy and charge move to see if they flow in a circular way about some central axis – to see if the electron spins. It does.

To me, the picture of a particle in a wave-only view would be a toroidal or spherical band of bound energy that diffuses over distance. It is not so much a tiny billiard ball but a fuzzy vibrating thing that reacts to other particles/waves. I might speculate that even concepts like mass could be explained as another wave attribute that varies over some exceedingly small period of time. What we measure when we measure mass might be something like an average.

Perhaps something like the Energy Wave Theory is on the right track.

Energy Wave Theory (EWT) is a mathematical model with logical explanations for the smallest components of the universe that:

  • Simplifies all known particles to be based on one fundamental particle – the neutrino
  • Simplifies the cause of motion and forces to be based on one fundamental rule – to minimize wave amplitude
  • Explains the creation of particles, atoms and molecules using descriptions that can be modeled with one set of classical laws

The unification of two separate branches of mechanics is based on the conservation of energy and classical laws used for the behavior of waves, such as sound waves. Therefore, it is titled Energy Wave Theory and the first two pages are dedicated to the descriptions of energy and waves.

Everything that we see is based on the motion of space, traveling in the form of waves. It was in the 1600s that Robert Hooke, Christiaan Huygens and other physicists recognized that light traveled through space as waves with varying wavelengths. But there’s much more to this energy that we don’t physically see with our eyes. The motion of space is energy and there are multiple types and forms of waves, which we perceive to be different things:

  • Particles are standing, longitudinal waves.
  • Photons are traveling, transverse waves.
  • Forces are different wave types causing the motion of particles to minimize wave amplitude.
  • Atoms are formed by electrons and protons that have both attractive and repelling forces, causing the electron’s orbital.

So far, I don’t think the EWT theory is getting much traction. It may be wrong in enough ways that people find the concept discredited. However, the resolution of the main question may still lie in the future.

Sebens writes:

It is not yet clear what classical and quantum electrodynamics are telling us about reality. Is everything made of particles, fields or both?

This question is not front and centre in contemporary physics research. Theoretical physicists generally think that we have a good-enough understanding of quantum electrodynamics to be getting on with, and now we need to work on developing new theories and finding ways to test them through experiments and observations.

That might be the path forward. However, sometimes progress in physics requires first backing up to reexamine, reinterpret and revise the theories that we already have. To do this kind of research, we need scholars who blend the roles of physicist and philosopher, as was done thousands of years ago in Ancient Greece.

Perhaps I’m biased towards the all wave/all field approach to physics because I have argued for the electromagnetic field to play a role in consciousness. Well, yes, perhaps I’m guilty and somewhat predisposed to a wave-only approach. In the wave-particle discussion, however, the electromagnetic field itself does have its own weirdness. The exchange particle for electromagnetic interaction is a photon, not just an ordinary photon, but a virtual photon. Not only does the EM field’s particle lack mass, it also is not exactly a real particle. In fact, it is more like a wiggle in the EM field.

Particles? They’re just pinched-off bits of that field. Or, more accurately, they’re excitations (like, wiggles) of the field that can travel freely.

The fields wiggle to and fro (and sometimes fro and to). If the wiggles persist and travel, we call them “particles.” If they die off quickly, we call them “virtual particles.” But fundamentally, they’re both wiggles of fields.

If both physical particles and consciousness are mediated by the EM field, then consciousness would not consist of a “substance” different from what mediates the physical reality of particles, atoms, molecules, and our physical world. Consciousness isn’t required to manifest external reality as some QM interpretations argue, but instead consciousness manifests itself in fundamentally the same manner as external reality manifests itself. It is all wiggles in the EM field. 🙂

This entry was posted in Consciousness, Electromagnetism, Philosophy, Time. Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to The Problem of Particles

  1. As a wave realist, I’m onboard with field excitations as a description. That said, pragmatically it remains hard to dismiss the particle story completely since a lot of measurements, like the dot we get on the back screen of the double slit experiment, seem manifestly particle-like. Although I do like the phrase “pinched off bits”. I’ve used “fragment” or something along those lines before.

    Of course, the question then is: fields of what?

    Liked by 2 people

    • James Cross says:

      EM fields. Of course, we could ask what are they. Virtual photons according to physics, which is close to saying massless bundles of energy with distinctive forms.

      I might be more of a wave surrealist than a realist. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. First Cause says:

    It might be more useful to describe a physical reality as having an intrinsic property consisting of form or structure. In essence, what we have is a reality of motion which results in form. Of course, we are now left to ponder what is responsible for motion, motion itself being first cause…..

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This post seems very much in the theme of Occam’s razor. If particles are ultimately explained in terms of waves then this idea might be adding complexity without reason. William of Occam is known for supporting nominalism as well however. This is to say that our terms don’t reflect reality itself, but rather provide potentially helpful ways of considering reality. While a platonist will say that there needs to be an ultimate truth to “chairs” or “fathers” or “particles” for them to exist as such (chairness, fatherness, particleness, and so on), a nominalist lets them go as potentially useful terms that needn’t be foundational. It is here that I think the concept of particulate reality can be useful even if wave dynamics do regulate such function in the end where they never touch. I like to think of water in terms of particles even if water disturbances can be described in terms of waves. And indeed, if the lesson of quantum mechanics is that reality is not made up of either particles or waves but rather some sort of hybrid between them, then let’s not destabilize that. Of course I might not be getting the theme of this post right. But surely McFadden is happy to assess the brain as particle based mass which can create an electromagnetic field of consciousness.

    Liked by 2 people

    • James Cross says:

      McFadden has written a book on Occam’s Razor. if McFadden is right about cemi then the particles of consciousness are those weird massless virtual photons. Whether we need particles of the brain to explain them, I’m not sure. These virtual particles seem to exist primarily to answer the question of how particles interact without touching but that question goes away if particles don’t really exist.

      But, yes, a world with just fields would be more simple than a world with particles and fields and other strange stuff like particle-wave duality.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I’m not uncertain about whether or not particles or waves exist. Beyond the terms themselves I believe that neither exist. But if I exist and they do not exist, then what might I exist as? Am I an idealist? Hell no! The best I’ve come up with so far on what exists is “causality”. Of course that’s merely a term as well, though I consider the idea which the term represents to be far more fundamental than specifics like “particles” or “waves”.

        My thought on causality is that an input situation (or “cause”) results in exactly one output (or “effect”) that’s fully based upon the former situation. That’s where my metaphysical speculation both begins and ends. Thus here particles and waves should merely be considered rough heuristics from which to potentially help causality be grasped. After my metaphysics I consider all other issues to epistemological.

        I love McFadden’s “Life is Simple” book on Occam and the history of science. The Audible version often puts me to sleep at night with earphones. I’d like to do the same with Hossenfelder’s Existential Physics, though instead of a deadpan German voice like hers they used a snarky American woman. So even though I do agree with the positions presented, I don’t find it nearly as soothing.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Steve Ruis says:

    So riddle me this . . . if all particles are waves, then waves in what? If you say there is no medium for the waves, then what the heck is a field?

    Liked by 2 people

    • James Cross says:

      There is a medium. Spacetime is the medium. I misspoke (or miswrote) if I said otherwise.

      The link between general relativity and electromagnetism becomes clear by assuming that the so-called four-potential of electromagnetism directly determines the metrical properties of the spacetime. In particular, our research shows how electromagnetism is an inherent property of spacetime itself. In a way, spacetime itself is therefore the aether. Electric and magnetic fields represent certain local tensions or twists in the spacetime fabric.

      It means that the material world always corresponds to some geometric structures of spacetime. Tensions in spacetime manifest themselves as electric and magnetic fields. Moreover, electric charge relates to some compressibility properties of spacetime. Electric current seems to be a re-balancing object, which transports charge in order to keep the spacetime manifold Ricci-flat.

      This is much like EWT.

      I posted something on this a while back.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Steve Ruis says:

        Okay, if this is true, then why are photons traveling vast distances in space not be affected by this “medium.” All of the expanding universe logic seems to be based upon the Doppler Effect, but that argument is supported by the supposition that light would not be affected in any other way traversing those intergalactic or inter stellar distances.

        Liked by 1 person

        • James Cross says:

          I don’t see there is anything to explain.

          If electromagnetism is an inherent property of spacetime, then movement of massless light in it would be relatively frictionless.

          BTW, some of the doubters of the Big Bang actually argue that the red shift can be explained by the distance the light travels.


    • On Steve’s riddle, yes I’d agree that spacetime must be a medium through which particle/wave causality can occur. That can be said for everything that exists however. Without spacetime there shouldn’t be any causality, which is to say any existence. (Actually I can at least imagine space without time, not that I suspect it’s possible for space to exist without a temporal component. But I can’t even imagine time without space. What would age?)

      That said, I’m not quite as happy saying that spacetime might exist as an aether for radiation based wave dynamics. I can see how one might argue this given that radiation clearly does occur in vacuum space, though there may be a better way to think about this than to label spacetime as its aether.

      We know that disturbances in matter tend to propagate by means of wave function, whether the disturbances happen in air, water, earth, metal, or whatever. Here we essentially have particles effectively transferring their kinetic energy to those around them essentially as billiard balls do (and even if atomic forces are always responsible for any such “collisions”).

      Regarding the propagation of radiation however, this model is clearly incorrect given that it can occur in a perfect vacuum. Thus the explanation that spacetime must be what gets disturbed here. But wait a minute, a baseball for example can travel through a perfect vacuum because it moves in itself rather than depends upon the disturbance of surrounding molecules for a domino effect energy transfer. In fact other molecules will tend to impede a baseball. It’s the same for radiation I think. Here massless photons (or whatever) effectively travel through space with tremendous speed, and again, vacuum conditions even foster less impedance.

      The point to understand here I think is that radiation functions as waves in itself given the lack of mass — wave particle duality thus becomes highly apparent given associated frequency and amplitude function. Note that a baseball theoretically functions as both particle and wave as well.

      In any case, like a baseball I don’t think such waves need an aether from which to propagate, and even if they do depend upon the existence of spacetime as all else does. Thus to get specific, yes all particles function like waves, whether in the form of baseballs or photons. Waves of what? Waves of themselves. What the heck is a field? Here it’s causal energy in the form of radiation that exists as such in itself — no aether, just propagated radiation.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. jjhiii24 says:


    I very much enjoyed reading through this courageously lengthy treatment on the subject at hand, and it sent me digging through the archives in my home office to locate an essay I saved from Scientific American written by Erwin Schrödinger entitled, “What is Matter.” In it he writes:

    “…Everything–anything at all–is simultaneously particle and wave field…Both the particle picture and the wave picture have truth value, and we cannot give up either one or the other. But we do not know how to combine them…That the two pictures are connected is known in full generality with great precision and down to amazing details. But concerning the unification to a single, concrete, palpable picture, opinions are so strongly divided that a great many deem it altogether impossible…At the most, it may be permissible to say that one can think of particles as more or less temporary entities within the wave field whose form and general behavior are nevertheless so clearly and sharply determined by the laws of waves that many processes take place AS IF these temporary entities were substantial permanent beings. The mass and the charge of particles, defined with such precision, must then be counted among the structural elements determined by the wave laws.”

    I’m not a physicist, but it seems that quantum mechanics has a number of fairly solidly established and reasonable principles, which create a degree of uncertainty that makes our understanding of what they predict sometimes seem paradoxical.

    It has been said that a paradox is the difference between what appears to be the case and what we believe SHOULD be the case. The subject of consciousness is like that too, but wouldn’t it be grand if advances in quantum theory gave us a window into the nature and mystery surrounding consciousness?

    Liked by 2 people

    • James Cross says:

      Of course, I’m not a physicist either. The “AS IF” in the quote followed by the phrase “temporary entities” almost suggests that Schrödinger himself thought that particles might be a little less real than waves even if he thought both concepts had some “truth value”.


    • First Cause says:

      “…wouldn’t it be grand if advances in quantum theory gave us a window into the nature and mystery surrounding consciousness?”

      This is where not being a physicist actually gives the ordinary smucks like ourselves the advantage, this is because a physicist is already predisposed to confirmation bias. Current advancements in quantum theory are hamstrung by the measurement problem. But from my own perspective, if mind is indeed a quantum system, then the mind should be able to bridge the gap between the empirical evidence of science and the speculative power of the mind utilizing the tool of synthetic a priori judgements.

      As an artifact of our own culture, we’ve all been brainwashed to believe that science has the final say, and that empirical evidence unlocks the door to reality. Wherein fact, just the opposite is true. The empirical evidence of science is not a proof of anything, it’s only an indicator that we use to navigate our environment.

      And lest we forget: animals are scientist too. Because for them to survive in the their hostile environment they have to rely upon the empirical evidence of the scientific method. I doubt that many animals spend much time contemplating their own existence and philosophizing about it.

      Liked by 2 people

      • James Cross says:

        The unification of physical and mental reality as space + EM waves would bring coherence to materialism. At the same time, it would effectively unify it with idealism. Kastrup himself describes consciousness itself as vibrating excitations; hence, hardly any difference between it this wave-only view. Of course, it must be some other sort of wave or have unique properties that differ from the ones currently known. I would suggest it is a wave system encapsulating information about reality outside of the system itself – a sort of mirror or model – that arises perhaps at some critical mass of wave interactions.


        • First Cause says:

          “I would suggest it is a wave system encapsulating information about reality outside of the system itself – a sort of mirror or model – that arises perhaps at some critical mass of wave interactions.”

          This particular rendition would certainly fit with our own experience of consciousness. Essentially, what you are describing would be quantum…

          Liked by 1 person

        • James Cross says:

          At some level, it has to be quantum because everything is. At some point, the wavefunction may be accepted as physically real, not a mathematical only construct. Perhaps a wave system encapsulating information about reality outside of the system will become the observer, resolving the consciousness question in QM.


  6. First Cause says:

    Just an FYI Jim……… I’ve been censored by Michael Smith over at SelfAwarePatterns; so you won’t be seeing anymore of my comments over there.

    He considers my last couple of posts a “personal attack” on Riccardo Manzotti. You gotta love it.


    • James Cross says:

      The comments just seemed like you being you but maybe a little less was needed with a guest who really didn’t need to spend time with us responding to comments and questions.

      Anyway, always welcome here.


    • Definitely you being you Lee. I suspect it will blow over and Mike will let you back. This might be a case of Manzotti flexing some of his academic muscle over there given negativity beyond yourself. I think all parties should acknowledge that their style of rhetoric remains far inferior to that of Mahatma Gandhi. I know that I try and fail his standard more than I like.

      If he’s still responding over there, should I get in to see if Manzottti and I can have effective discussions? Not sure. I think I’d do much better than you did Lee, but I also think that our good friend would worry. (And yes Mike, I do realize that you’re here too!)

      Liked by 2 people

  7. First Cause says:

    I’ve been doing some research on Manzotti as well as his ideology, and from what I’ve garnered so far is that he fashions himself as the physicalist’s antithesis to Deepak Chopra. He sees himself as a kind of physicalist guru with statements like: “I am not immortal, I am eternal”.

    He’s got a blog plus there are plenty of reviews of his book: “The Spread Mind: Why Consciousness and the World are One”. He’s not a scientist or even a credible philosopher for that matter who has an axe to grind because everybody is too ignorant to grasp the vision of his new religion. At least Deepak has something to sell that resonates with idealist community.

    Liked by 2 people

    • James Cross says:

      Honestly I sort of like Manzotti’s view. I don’t know about the “eternal” stuff or the alternative to Deepak Chopra except that I think we really need an alternative to the New Age nonsense, a New Age philosophy that is compatible with science.


      • First Cause says:

        Certainly, it’s a pragmatic approach and pragmatic physicalism is something I can agree with. Additionally, the point you brought up about objects outside our bodies are actually literally being reconstructed within the physical confines of our brains by the mind. So clearly, the mind would have to be a separate, autonomous system that uses the substrate of the classical brain to build these physical models. That “condition on a possibility” makes a sound predicate concept because it universal, and that’s what we are looking for is predicated concepts that apply universally and do not contain contradictions, exceptions or paradoxes.

        What I don’t like, and I think this is where much of Riccardo’s angst and combative nature comes from is his attempt to become some type of new age rock star that spins the existing New Age nonsense into a different context with the same touchy, feely result. Chopra, Spira, Kastrup and the other clowns have a very lucrative $$$ following and Manzotti is trying to capitalize on that new age marketplace using the same business model but with a materialistic spin. Maybe in the long run he will garner a large, lucrative following……. maybe not.

        Liked by 2 people

        • James Cross says:

          It’s interesting that I have thought about the modern “consciousness business” which not only includes the New Age writers but the neuroscientists and physicists who also feel compelled to write books and do videos on the topic. There should be room for some sort of middle ground that can accept the mind comes from the body and brain but also is more than a little bit special. Unfortunately, we usually find people falling into either consciousness is everything or it’s an epiphenomena.

          Liked by 1 person

        • First Cause says:

          Changing the subject a little: Penrose is on board with the idea that mind has to be quantum but the roadblock for both him and Hameroff is trying to shoehorn that architecture into wave function theory with its so-called collapse. Now having said that; Penrose willingly admits that his schema may not be correct and he does not necessarily agree with Hameroff’s own opinions either.

          RQM offers a better explanation of the quantum realm because Rovelli flat out rejects the notion of the wave function. His vision of the quantum realm is that it is just like the classical world only too small to observe or detect with classical instruments.

          With Rovelli’s “predicate concept” we now have a model that applies universally across the spectrum of both worlds. So in theory, the dynamics responsible for motion resulting in form in the classical world would be exactly the same in the quantum realm, only too small to observe. Hence, it is not a stretch or whacky to posit that the physical world outside our brain is literally reconstructed by the mind within the confines of that organ.

          Collaboration Jim, that’s what these blogs should be about. I respect your insights………

          Liked by 1 person

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