Jittery “Spirit” Fields

As he approaches the end of his remarkable life, physicist-novelist Alan Lightman is engaged in the time-honored tradition of making sense of it all. He attempts to do so, at least in part, in this essay on “nothingness.” While there is nothing novel about his exploration of the issue, or the personal conclusions he has reached, this early part of the essay is worth further consideration:

My first experience with Nothingness in the material world of science occurred when I was a graduate student in theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology. In my second year, I took a formidable course with the title of Quantum Field Theory, which explained how all of space is filled up with “energy fields,” usually called just “fields” by physicists. There is a field for gravity and a field for electricity and magnetism, and so on.

What we regard as physical “matter” is the excitation of the underlying fields. A key point is that according to the laws of quantum physics, all of these fields are constantly jittering a bit—it is an impossibility for a field to be completely dormant—and the jittering causes subatomic particles like electrons and their antiparticles, called positrons, to appear for a brief moment and then disappear again, even when there is no persistent matter.

Physicists call a region of space with the lowest possible amount of energy in it the “vacuum.” But the vacuum cannot be free of fields. The fields necessarily permeate all space. And because they are constantly jittering, they are constantly producing matter and energy, at least for brief periods of time. Thus the “vacuum” in modern physics is not the void of the ancient Greeks. The void does not exist.

Every cubic centimeter of space in the universe, no matter how empty it seems, is actually a chaotic circus of fluctuating fields and particles flickering in and out of existence on the subatomic scale. Thus, at the material level, there is no such thing as Nothingness.

Let’s recapitulate the key points: All space is filled with energy fields. Matter is dependent on the excitation of the fields. Fields constantly produce matter and energy. There is no void but instead constant activity. Fluctuating fields cause particles to flicker in and out of existence.

These are the facts of physics, not matters of speculative philosophy. Here is another fact: we have no idea how all this activity affects humans or how much of it humans can sense. It is also a fact that humans are embodied in space; we are thus subject to fields. I have long suspected that much of what is culturally constructed as “supernatural” or “spiritual” or “religious” is a product of these fields, which humans perceive only partially and imperfectly. I also suspect that a few or several hundred years from now, people will look back at our time and judge us as being more or less ignorant. Using a centuries long measuring stick, today’s knowledge makes us tomorrow’s primitives.

Postscript — As some readers may have noticed, I’ve not been posting with my usual regularity over the past few weeks. This is because during my happy camping sojourns over the summer, I’ve contracted West Nile virus, about which we know very little and for which there is no treatment. Science is indeed in its infancy. Once time has worked its wonderful magic, I will resume a more regular posting schedule.


Vacuum Gluon Field of Quantum Chromodynamics (Derek B. Leinwber, Physics Dept, Adelaide University)

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17 thoughts on “Jittery “Spirit” Fields

  1. Onoosh

    1. On your essay, and “nothingness:” well, THERE goes (on a quantum level, anyway) the “unmoved mover.”

    2. On your illness: best wishes (and some “energy,” if not exactly “matter”) for your speedy recovery! I had noticed your absence, but figured you were either involved in the new academic year, or out having fun. Wrong on both, unless you have a VERY strange sense of “fun.”

    (Question: Can you at least drink? If so, think “Bushmills.”)

  2. Cris Post author

    Thanks Onoosh. If there is a virtue to this illness, it has served as a powerful evolutionary reminder that the most “primitive” or “simple” viruses and mosquitoes have the power to lay even the most “advanced” and “complex” organisms quite low. So low, in fact, that I have temporarily lost my usually healthy desire for strong drink.

  3. Onoosh

    Now, that last worries me greatly! Think of the Bushmills as medicine, and force yourself to “ta’e a wee drap” for your health. As a person with a chronic illness and two bionic parts myself, I can give you a testimonial to the palliative effects of the waters of life, taken in judicious doses. (“I am not a medical professional…check with your doctor…etc., etc. and boring etc.”)

    And don’t brood too much on the adaptive nature of viruses and the frailty of us “advanced” creatures. If you do, it means the dose of Bushmills should be increased.

    This is all, of course, self-interested: I miss your blog pieces. So get well, d—-t! (Can I use that word here?) 😉

  4. Larry Stout

    I’m skeptical about human sensing of subatomic flickerings in and out, but I’m hopeful and optimisitic about your recovery, Cris. Focus on rest, drinking lots of fluids, and “positive energy”! Keep us posted.

  5. Cris Post author

    Whether we sense them or not, we are enveloped in fields where this flickering constantly occurs; indeed, those particles move through us, perhaps even appearing and then disappearing while caught, temporarily, within our corporeal folds. How this affects us, sensed or not, no one can say.

    But having said this, our ignorance of these fields or matters is not a warrant for mysticism or supernaturalism. It just means we are ignorant, but at least we know we are ignorant, so we have that going for us.

    Thanks for the well wishes!

  6. Chris Kavanagh

    Seconding all the well wishes!

    And also seconding Larry Stout’s skepticism concerning whether spiritual intuitions on the ‘human scale’ are particularly relevant to findings about the subatomic structure of the universe. We might know that the atoms that make up a table fundamentally consist mostly of empty space, but that doesn’t make us any more capable of pushing through said table. Quantum reality certainly shares our universe but not our scale.

    That said, I agree that future humans will look back at our current state of knowledge and shake their heads, I just doubt it will be because we failed to recognise that our spiritual intuitions were really accurate knowledge about the fundamental structure of the universe.

    For instance, although many Buddhist traditions discussed nothingness and the emptiness of skandha, etc. it’s only by very liberal translations and dismissals of context that we can connect such insights to the findings of modern physics i.e. the Tao of Physics.

  7. Cris Post author

    I certainly don’t think that supernatural/spiritualist intuitions (critically assuming they are real and not just matters of interior psychology) about any such things constitute “accurate knowledge” regarding the fundamental structure of the universe. I do think it possible that any such intuitions are caused by quantum fields and/or interactions that we don’t understand and certainly can’t measure.

    In centuries hence, they will laugh at our inability to understand these issues, and things, experiences, and/or events currently constructed as “supernatural/spiritual” by religionists and mysticists will be understood in the same way that we “moderns” understand things such as medicine and weather which used to be characterized as caused by supernatural or spiritual forces.

  8. pain0strumpet

    Cris ~

    I hope you feel better. On the off chance that my fields can in any way affect the fields that combine to afflict you, I hereby command that virus to leave you alone at once. (Whether it works or not, there’s no charge for my virus-compelling services.)

    – emc

  9. Chris Kavanagh

    “In centuries hence, they will laugh at our inability to understand these issues, and things, experiences, and/or events currently constructed as “supernatural/spiritual” by religionists and mysticists will be understood in the same way that we “moderns” understand things such as medicine and weather which used to be characterized as caused by supernatural or spiritual forces.”

    – Maybe but I’d be surprised if our ‘interior psychology’, as you mention, wasn’t the explanation for a large chunk of that. Hopefully we’ll live long enough to find out!

    BTW, having visited Bushmill’s distillery on several occasions I also recommend the restorative effects of all liquid bearing the brand. The West Nile Virus I suspect has not the evolutionary countermeasures to survive that onslaught ;).

  10. Cris Post author

    Thanks Chris and Eric! I have little or no doubt, as Chris mentioned, that our interior psychology — coupled with the power of cultural patterning (as anthropologists like to say) or social construction (as sociologists like to say) — can account for, or explain, most or all of it. As things currently stand, and despite our ignorance, I’m inclined toward the all of it.

  11. Onoosh

    “Waters of life” against all other matter, however evolved! And perhaps against all energy (however “jittery” the field may be) too! A bit of the grain seems to resolve both into metaphor anyway. To all our healths…but especially to Cris’, who challenges our ideas, keeps us from too-fuzzy thinking, and tries to guide the raving mystics among us to more solid ground…if there IS any. :-)

  12. Larry Stout

    Human powers of discernment and understanding are limited, and the limits bound scientific inquiry no less than they bound sheer unfettered conjecture. Furthermore, we humans have occupied a mere flicker of geological and evolutionary time — enough time, however, to be already a threat to our own extinction in several ways. Not to mention very real prospects of extinction by non-induced natural catastrophes of various kinds. All species eventually go extinct. Mankind will not migrate to and colonize other planets. And, despite our best efforts and hopes, we will never come close to “knowing everything” before we too become just another part of the fossil record. That notwithstanding, I am fortunate in being able to enjoy life for the nonce. Most people of the world have a much, much harsher and briefer existence than mine.

  13. jmkdesigns

    “A key point is that according to the laws of quantum physics … appear for a brief moment and then disappear again, even when there is no persistent matter.”

    I an not going to argue with the “laws” of quantum physics, which I understand is successful in it’s predictions to an amazing degree. However, all quantum physics is is a set of equations which at present seem to fit into what we can gather of reality. There is no guarantee that these equations give any real picture (if there can be such a thing as a “real” picture) of what is happening at sub-atomic levels, or that, in fact, particles do flicker in and out of existence. No one has “seen” or will ever be able to “see” this phenomenon. Accepting QP is just another matter of “faith”, and one which may be supplanted sooner or later by a different understanding of reality. Therefore, I would hesitate to put too much weight on it, (apart from in merely instrumental or technical matters), or call it a “fact” of physic”.

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