The Other I

November 5, 2010

What do you mean, “or not to be”?

Filed under: Intriguing Science — theotheri @ 5:09 pm

For the last couple of months I have been trying to find out what scientists mean when they say particles go in and out of existence.  I had been under the impression that this was related to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, but as I’ve been studying it again, I can’t see how.  Heisenberg says that both the speed and position of a particle cannot be measured with any precision at the same time.  I understand this and I think I understand why.

But particles moving in and out of existence might be a different matter.  So might the fact that particles seem to be able to effect the movement of its partner even when they are separated by huge spaces.  Scientists studying quantum mechanics say it happens but as far as I can tell, nobody has offered any explanation whatsoever for how it happens.

I struggle with questions like these and take them seriously.

But on some level, I look bonkers even to myself.  In my seemingly more rational moments, even to take seriously the assumptions on which questions like this depend sounds absurd .

And yet I do.

I suppose it sounds as crazy to some people as the belief that the world is only four thousand years old and that the entire universe came into existence in less than a week sounds to me.

This is not to say I think there is nothing to choose between these two radically different world views.  I think there is a lot more evidence to support the assumptions of quantum mechanics.  And I also think it is reasonable, even for those who believe that the Bible reflects the inspired word of God, to view it as a metaphor leading to a higher truth rather than as literal truth representing a divine history lesson.

But I still don’t understand what physicists mean when they say particles go in and out of existence.  What do you mean, to exist and not to exist and then to exist again?  Is this a mathematical description of what they observe?  Or is it meant to describe what actually happens?

If the latter, we really do live in a world of mystery, don’t we?

Or perhaps there are physicists who really aren’t baffled by this.



  1. “For evidently you have long been aware of what you mean when you use the expression “being.” We, however, who used to think we understood it, have now become perplexed.” Sophist, Plato.

    I wonder, too, what is meant with the statement that particles go in and out of existence. I am sure the ontological import of the word ‘existence’ is a concept that is presupposed rather than explicated and developed. In the meantime, I’m sure there’s a sense and context in which the statement is understood. If I’m allowed to speculate on this, because that’s all I can do for now — I postulate that “going in and out of existence” means more like “coming into manifestation and going out of manifestation.” I believe this is where scientists often get in trouble. They make use of categories which are not amenable to their methods. I think a statement like “particles go in and out of existence” can cause a great deal of confusion. This of course doesn’t seem to matter too much because the realm in question is intrinsically paradoxical and our common sense and “logic” (particularly the principle of non-contradiction) break down. To be quite honest with you, I don’t think scientists and physicists are in a position to define, let alone explain, existence without breaking away from the field in question.


    Comment by demian217 — November 5, 2010 @ 10:45 pm | Reply

    • Thank you hugely, Roberto, for this comment. It helps both confirm and clarify my own thoughts. I too have refined my question to whether what scientists mean by “going in and of existence” really only means “going in and out of manifestation.”

      Actually, in some cases, science does clarify which of these two possibilities they mean. In the case of color, for instance, science says that color is not an intrinsic characteristic of an object. The intrinsic characteristic is the light waves an object emits, and what creates the experience of red is the result in our consciousness when those light waves are seen by the human eye. So what we mean by “red” requires both the light wave and the eye perceiving it.

      But size is not exactly the same. Size resides in the object. The eye may perceive it as small or large or not perceive it at all, but size exists independently of its being perceived. So what I’m wondering is whether quantum mechanics theorists are saying that existence as it resides in the particle changes or that we simply have no theoretical or experiential reason to conclude that its existence continues uninterrupted

      We agree that the whole question of existence is ultimately a philosophical question. But once we decide to accept the *assumption* that the objective world exists independently of our perception of it, science is still left with the challenge of trying to distinguish between that which exists objectively and that which we are only imagining (in dreams, for instance, or hallucinations). There are all the obvious safeguards of replication etc., but that does not completely eliminate the problem, since what we experience is always an interpretation, and those interpretations can change fundamentally with changes in theories.

      What I’d be interested to know but haven’t yet been able to find out from a knowledgeable source is whether current theories of quantum mechanics would say that the existence of a particle is more like the color red (in which case its only the manifestation that changes) or more like size (in which case they have reason to believe it is intrinsic to the nature of particles.)

      If the latter, I’d been willing to work pretty hard to understand why they think it is in the nature of the object. And if they have any ideas at all about why and how this on-again, off-again existence operates.

      Do you know a very patient nuclear physicist?

      I know we will never find the whole answer to these kind of questions. But it is exciting to think about, isn’t it? And I do believe that we inch our way down the road, even if it is infinitely long.

      Thank you again. It’s a delight to share ideas with you.


      Comment by theotheri — November 6, 2010 @ 4:52 pm | Reply

  2. This is an exploratory discussion I had with a friend a while back. There’s a lot of terminologies and excerpts, but it touches on topics that you may find of interest. This friend also studies psychology, but has a great interest in quantum physics. Here’ the discussion:


    Comment by demian217 — November 6, 2010 @ 9:09 pm | Reply

    • Thank you, R. I will check it out tomorrow: I fear my brain will be too weary to grapple with much more than simple declarative sentences until I get some sleep.


      Comment by theotheri — November 6, 2010 @ 9:16 pm | Reply

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