The First Error Continued: An Example and a Challenge

From the Bring Back Reason series.

The mystery of the mouse

Perhaps an example can be helpful. Consider a humble field mouse. The mouse’s matter can be considered from both the perspective of the empirical scientist and the realist. For the empirical scientist the mouse’s matter is basically atoms arranged in complex ways. The mouse is mostly carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. These component atoms are arranged into complex organic molecules and these molecules fit together to eventually form the mouse. For the realist the mouse’s matter is the principle of the mouse that is open to receiving a new form, to changing. The matter answers the question how it is possible for the mouse to die, to cease to have within itself an intrinsic principle of self-perfective motion, and to then begin to decay or be subsumed into another animal higher up on the food chain, essentially ceasing to be a mouse at all.

It is not uncommon today to be surprised at the question that the realist is asking. We are so used to considering the component parts of a thing that we have fallen out of the habit of asking the broader and more fundamental questions about what a thing actually is. A child looks at a thing with an attitude of wonder, surprised at it being what it is. Very young children often ask to hear the same story again and again. As G.K. Chesterton notes, they are surprised at seeing the same thing happen again and again. We need to recover childlike surprise at realizing how amazing it is that a thing is what it is and that it can change into something else. Such musings about the nature of things are worthwhile, precisely because they seek explanations that do not explain mystery away. The wonder and mystery of nature are respected as givens to the realist; to someone who only approaches reality with a reductive outlook, “mystery” is merely an unknown that will cease to be mysterious once it is broken down enough. The questions that the realist asks are much more in line with the wonder evoked by a clear night sky.

From what has been said so far one could legitimately conclude that an empirical scientist simply needs to broaden his perspective a bit, develop a more complete human outlook to avoid being a narrow and boring person. As an empirical scientist he will necessarily continue to look at matter as composed of atoms, subatomic particles, or, if we want to get more sophisticated, some type of modular construction units that have dual energy and particulate aspects. But there are other questions worth asking as a human being, questions from our classical past, and it would be a shame to be too narrow and uncultured, being “lost” in an underground laboratory looking at microscopes and models to the exclusion of seeing what is there more broadly.

Bad science: is matter actually particulate?

But there is more that should be said here. Is it really even legitimate for someone to look at nature as if it is composed of particles or other modular construction units arranged for particular mechanical functions? It is undoubtedly a powerful model whose simplicity has led to great technological advances. The instincts of Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes to set aside formal and final causality to look at the mechanics with an eye to applying knowledge to solve problems has certainly yielded much in the way of technology, of empowering human control over nature, or perhaps more precisely, as C.S. Lewis notes in his essay The Abolition of Man, the power of some humans to control others through the use of nature. But just because a model in its simplicity can yield results does not mean that the model is anything more than a model. When faced with the fact that students learn better in the morning if they eat a nourishing breakfast, we do not assume that eating food is the same thing as consuming knowledge.

So the question must be asked: is it true that nature is fundamentally mechanical in the way that those who think in terms of a particulate view of matter assume? The full answer to this question must consider many aspects of being, of reality, of what exists, and not material causality alone. But even from the perspective of material causality and, even more narrowly, from the perspective of matter as known by empirical science, there are good reasons to question the arguably dominant view in science education that matter is particulate, that “everything is composed of small particles.”

Ironically, this view that is so easy to pick up in one’s science classes is not actually supported by cutting edge science. To put it simply, Dalton’s atomic theory is a gross oversimplification that is known today to be only partly true. Atoms are not the small, massy, passive, and impenetrable particles that Dalton postulated. Atoms are composed of smaller entities: protons, neutrons, electrons, quarks, bosons, and many more. And these sub-atomic entities are best described not as particles but as curious, often fleeting, hybrids of particles, waves, and energy – entities that are strongly directed toward certain ends. They are certainly not passive. We know about many of them from collisions that take place in particle accelerators. They are often difficult to isolate and are unstable, containing a natural drive toward combining with other entities to form more stable products. Werner Heisenberg, a key figure in the development of the field of quantum mechanics, when considering aspects of this subatomic world, famously asserted that on the subatomic level the “matter” that we observe is closer to Aristotle’s concept of matter as potency than to Democritus’ belief in small particles. Heisenberg was noting that on the simple level of looking at the “stuff” out of which things are made a particulate model makes less sense than a formless substratum that resists any physical image.

Heisenberg’s observation is important, but should not be taken too far. As already noted, Aristotle and modern empirical scientists are mostly, but not entirely, asking different questions. We should not be too quick to equate the way each uses the word matter as if one is right and one wrong. And it is true that there is a relative amount of stability on the atomic level. Subatomic entities seem to be strongly directed toward the atomic level, toward being informed with the higher degree of stability that atoms represent. Granted, atoms are not adequately described as fundamental building blocks. Atoms are oriented toward higher levels of order, although for the most part not as strongly as subatomic particles are oriented toward atomic stability. Some atoms, like noble gasses, are mostly non-reactive, tending to continue to exist in atomic form. Most atoms, however, far from being mere passive particles that account for the nature of things because of how they are configured are strongly directed toward forming higher levels of organization. For example, water, whose chemical formula is H2O, is not really an amalgamation of hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen and oxygen are ordered toward combining to form water, a tendency that is interesting to both empirical scientists and realists. An empirical scientist may study the thermodynamics of the reaction and note that it is overall spontaneous, meaning “favored,” given that its highly exothermic character overpowers its unfavorable loss of entropy. The realist will note that hydrogen and oxygen are not substantially present in the new substance of water, only virtually. So strictly speaking it is incorrect to claim that water is H20, since the unity that is water is more than merely the “sum” of the components of hydrogen and oxygen.

So it is fair to agree with Dalton as far as saying that what we model as atoms represents a relative level of stability and order in nature. And as far as atomic theory goes, it answers some limited questions about the world around us. It should not be considered the primary way we understand nature but it is useful as far as it goes. There is much more to the world around us than just combinations of little particles. A truly scientific approach to reality, an approach that is open to the fullness of being that integral human reason yearns to know, should be given primacy of place in education. And this is the case not only because the stuff that things are made out of on a microscopic level is not really mere small particles, but most important because there is so much more to the being of a thing than its component parts, however they are considered.

Michael Moynihan

About the author:

Michael Moynihan


A native of Rochester, NY, Michael Moynihan earned B.A. degrees in history and science pre-professional studies with a concentration in the Honors Program from the University of Notre Dame. He graduated Summa Cum Laude and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. After teaching for one year and earning a master’s degree in theology from The Catholic University of America, he joined the faculty of The Heights School in 1995. He has taught chemistry, Advanced Placement chemistry, eighth grade science, ethics, math and religion, has coached The Heights’ cross-country team and founded The Heights Mountaineers program. Michael was named Head of the Upper School in 2002. He and his wife, Angela, have eleven children, with four sons here at the School.

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