Although we cannot know for sure because his works have been lost, it seems that Democritus, the founder of atomic theory, believed that atoms, the ultimate constituents of the universe, were eternal. Newton certainly believed this was the case. But few classical scientists were prepared to envisage the universe as a plurality, a mosaic rather than a witewashed wall : notions of ‘matter’ and ‘continuity’ held sway even during the nineteenth-century when the molecular theory eventually emerged. Today, of course, matter has all but disintegrated into ghostly entities such as quarks.
Yet the notion of, if not matter, at least unchanging ‘material elements’ clings on and we are told that the atoms in our bodies were forged in exploding stars millions of years ago and will most likely carry on practically unchanged for millions of years yet. It is ‘continuity’ which has kept ‘matter’ (just about) alive and the idea of continuity, though clearly it has a strong psychological hold on the Western mind, is essentially nothing but a mathematical asssumption required by the Calculus. Incredibly, people are prepared to ‘believe’ in infinite universes and in quantum entanglement whereby cats (or humans) can be simultaneously alive and dead, or both or neither, but dismiss the idea of radical discontinuity without even giving it serious consideration.
From the standpoint which I am attempting to develop in these articles, matter is an illusion though a persuasive and convenient one : not only are there no rocks or stones but even electrons and protons and so forth are no more (but no less) than strongly persistent identically repeating event-clusters. It is not that I cannot bring myself to believe that the atoms of carbon in my body have been in existence for thousands of years : for me, they have not even existed continuously for a single second. Heraclitus wrote that “No man steps into the same river twice” which indeed he does not. A follower of his went further and said that this was wrong because a man “did not even step into the same river once” : a statement that few historians make much sense of. I assume what the follower meant was that the ‘man’ who steps into the river was not the ‘same man’ as the (pseudo) person who approached the riverbank or who would subsequently dry himself on the side — certainly, this would be the  Buddhist interpretation.
Even when thinkers stress the insubstantiality of matter, they baulk at discontinuity. Lee Smolin writes, “The illusion that the world consists of objects is behind many of the constructs of classical science” (“Three Roads to Quantum Gravity”, p. 52). My eyes lit up when I read this, likewise, a little further on, “From this new point of view [that brought about by quantum theory and relativity], the universe consists of a large number of events“. However, on a closer look, Lee Smolin is at the opposite end of the philosophic spectrum to myself : he believes that the ‘world’ consists of ‘processes’, that everything is always evolving. “Motion and change are primary. Nothing ‘is’ except in a very approximate and temporary sense” (p. 53). I find Lee Smolin’s ‘relational universe’ both unappealing and scarcely intelligible : on the contrary, in my universe ‘everything is’ but only for the space of a chronon, then it is gone. There are relations between event-clusters, but these relations are not themselves as fundamental as the events themselves and these ultimate events are ‘static’ — they may be replaced by similar or other events but in no way continuously evolve into them.
Smolin also rejects completely the idea of there being any gaps whatsoever in his ‘world processes’ and uses the (to me) entirely unconvincing analogy of beads on a chain or molecules of water touching each other without a void between them. My world is not only ‘not continuous’ but is ‘gapped’ : I believe we have a faint percpetion of these minute intervals.
All this is, perhaps, partly a matter of temperament. But it is certainly not the case that all people in all eras have believed that life and ‘matter’ and everything we see around us is continuous : the main evidence to the contrary is the success of Buddhism, the religion that tells us that everything is ephemeral. It is not quite clear whether Heraclitus held to the ‘process’ view or the ‘spasmodic’ view : Newton himself, a devotee of continuity, seems to have got the kernel of his theory of fluxions from Heraclitus. Plato, though he is best known for his theory of eternal Forms, has a curious passage quoted by Stcherbatsky :
“This suddenly is a halt, or break, in the flow of time, an extra-temporal condition, in which the subject has no existence, no attributes, though it revives again forthwith clothed in its new attri butes : a point of total negation or annihilation, during which the subject with all its attributes disappears.”
Whether because of the crushing weight of Newton’s genius, or for other reasons such as the Christian influence, not a single Western  scientific thinker has, to my knowledge, ever advanced a theory of radical physical discontinuity. Maybe the reason is that any such theory is ridiculous, untenable? Maybe. But to date, observation and experiment do not clinch the matter one way or the other and, certainly, in the last hundred years, discontinuity has had by far the better of it. Although Planck himself was initially frightened by his own discovery, it is now known for a fact that no energy transfer is ‘continuous’ — even physicists had previously modelled heat and light and magnetism and gravity as ‘continuous’. The ‘quantum’ is here to stay, like it or not. Even atoms have broken up into discrete elementary particles, themselves decomposed into quarks;  a few people are even suggesting that Space-Time itself is ‘grainy’. .
Would there be any differences between a physical theory positing radical discontinuity and what we have at the moment? Certainly, there are grave conceptual differences which would lead to very different interpretations of phenomena and, better still, to new experiments that would confirm predictions made from a discontinuous perspective. Let us start right at the beginning. As far as I can make out, present day orthodoxy assumes that, barring rather rare events such as neutrons decaying into protons and so forth, elementary particles stay the same for very long periods of time; also, the total amount of energy in the universe is held to be constant (1st Law of Thermo-dynamics). Now, from the standpoint of Ultimate Event Theory, the ‘natural’, the expected, ‘thing’ is for an ultimate event to appear and then disappear for ever. The apparently stable elements that make up conventional matter are event clusters that have acquired persistence via what I call ‘self-dominance’. My assumptions thus do not make me surprised when I read that all sorts of previously unknown ‘elementary particles’ are cropping up all the time and vanish within fractions of a second : this is precisely what I would expect. The difficulty for my theory is to explain why anything persists at all — though clearly some ‘things’ do.
The notion that ‘material objects’ (in which category I include molecules and elementary particles) keep on occurring simply because of a property I call ‘persistence’ suggests at once that if one wanted to get rid of an object, all one would need to do would be to remove this property. What would happen? In current physics, any disappearance ‘here’ is followed by reappearance elsewhere (perhaps in another form) but this is not a necessary assumption in Ultimate Event Theory. It is, in principle, possible for a repeating event-cluster (an object) to disappear completely without leaving any sort of trace at all : in my conception ultimate events are in the last resort only disturbances of an invisible and intangible eternal ‘something’ and even long-lasting ‘stable’ disturbances can, in special circumstances, simply evaporate. This is rank heresy since it is a denial of the Principle of Energy on which Thermo-dynamics is based. However, sweeping principles such as the Conservation of Energy cannot ever be proved in all possible cases, and indeed one or two daring people such as Prigogine and Wolfram have actually cast some doubt on the universality of the principle already. Clearly, energy conservation is widespread and basic, but it need not be fundamental and strictly universal; if it is violated occasionally, I would not be unduly bothered. Exactly what sort of procedures would have to be gone through to prevent a dense event-cluster from repeating, I cannot at this moment say, but if there is anything in this theory, someone will one day perform such an experiment successfully just as all sorts of other supposedly ‘impossible’ experiments have been accomplished successfully.
What other conclusions follow from my assumptions ? Since everything that exists is, according to me, perpetually appearing and disappearing presumably in a rhythmic manner, it should be possible to detect this permanent oscillation : most likely it has been detected already but has been given another explanation. As to how my assumptions fit, or rather do not fit, with other concepts and principles of contemporary physics, I am currently pondering : in a large number of cases because we are dealing with such a fine scale there would be little difference. But, from my point of view, the long-standing wave/particle controversy has a different sense : everything is, in the last resort, discontinuous so, if it is useful to speak of waves (which it is), we should not regard these waves as strictly continuous, ‘all of a piece’ — as many physicists do seem to view them even today. I cannot claim to resolve the double slit experiment and other conundrums but, if other people one day take up these ideas, it is not impossible that some of these paradoxes will be dealt with without involving us in infinite dimensions and all the extravagant paraphernalia of contemporary advanced physics. Even, I would guess that the actual dimensions of an ultimate event will be determined during the next two centuries : we have determined the values of physical objects that most people in the past thought would remain forever unknown so why not this?     S.H.      

 

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