Monday, 1 May 2017

The Law of the Conservation of Being (2017)

From The Philosopher, Volume CV, Spring 2017

In this medieval woodcut, the human need for order is challenged by these witches and devils dancing in a circle

By Sayed Abolfazl Arjmand

Things change their forms. When we talk of new things we are really only talking about new forms of old things. It is an ontological mistake, a mistake about conceptual categories, to say that new things have come into existence, because previously they already existed in their old forms. The creation of new things did not start with their new forms any more than we should say that the old things have gone out of existence, because they continue to exist, although they may now look different from how they used to in the past. 

In changing their forms, things may appear or disappear. They appear if we can sense them and they disappear when we cannot sense them anymore. For example, if we put a glass of water in a room, the water will disappear in a few days. Shapeshifting creatures like werewolves and vampires will know that the water has not gone out of existence, but has only changed its form: in this case from a visible liquid to an invisible gas. The being or existence of water continues - it is conserved in another form, although we cannot observe it anymore. Again, in reverse order, the invisible water vapour suspended in the air may take on visible form as water droplets on a cold surface.

In everyday language, we define lifetime as the period of time that something exists, but a more precise definition is the period of time that something has a particular form or state. The lifetime of the Earth is estimated to be about five billion years, but this period refers to the planet in its present spherical shape. Before this period the Earth existed in a shapeless gas state. After solidification, our planet has continued to undergo minor changes up to now, and these changes will continue forever. At each moment a new form is born, but we neglect these changes as trivial and only consider as the Earth’s birth time the transformation from gaseous state into a solid sphere those five billion years ago.

Because things change continuously, we can say that they are created and destroyed at every moment. Each death is followed by a birth and each birth is followed by a death. After something dies, it loses its previous form and takes on a new form. Seen from this perspective, death is not the end of existence, but only the end of a particular form of existence. Similarly, birth is not the beginning of existence, but only the beginning of a new form.

Different things are different forms of the same thing. For example, sodium, chlorine, and salt are different forms of something that we call matter. Despite their different forms, these substances are essentially the same and they can transform into each other. Sodium is a silvery metal and chlorine is a yellowish-green gas - both of them are poisonous to humans. Yet, when they combine, table salt is produced. In reverse order, by decomposing the salt, we can obtain sodium and chlorine again.

We give different names to different forms of the same thing. In other words, all different forms with different names can be categorised under a single name. Sodium, chlorine, and salt can be categorised under the single name chemicals or indeed as matter. This brings me to another important category in science - which is energy. Light and heat are forms of energy and they can transform into each other. Light from the Sun, when absorbed by objects on the Earth, is transformed into heat. Mutatis mutandis, (taken in the sense of ‘the same thing the other way around’) a hot object loses energy by radiation; that is, its thermal energy is transformed into light or electromagnetic energy.

During the 18th century, Antoine Lavoisier proposed a law for the conservation of matter. According to this, in a chemical reaction, the total amount of consumed materials is equal to the total amount of the products. Famously, the law implies that matter can neither be created nor destroyed, but only change form. This principle was later proved to be approximate, not exact because of the conversion of tiny amounts of matter into energy. The typical values for matter converted to energy in a chemical experiment are so tiny that it is only very recently that it has become possible to detect and measure them.

It is important to restate that we cannot eliminate all experimental imprecisions.Given that  it is only very recently that we can measure the tiny amount of matter converted into energy, it is probable that an even tinier amount of matter converts into something other than energy and we are not able to detect or measure it now. In future we may discover this unknown thing and take it into account. If there was something that we neglected in the past, there still may be something that we neglect now.

As an example to explain the law, consider again the case of water. Water is a compound of hydrogen and oxygen. When hydrogen burns, it combines with oxygen, and water is produced. The law of the conservation of matter claims that the total amount of the consumed gasses is equal to the total amount of the produced water. This can nowadays be shown experimentally, using precision devices to weigh the starting components and the final compound.

However, in burning hydrogen, some heat is also produced in addition to water. If the total amount of water produced were really exactly equal to the total amount of the consumed gasses; that is, if no matter is lost, from what source then is the heat produced? Did the heat come out of nothing?

Scientists explain that an infinitesimal amount of matter disappears in burning hydrogen and transforms into heat, albeit the amount is so small that it cannot be easily detected or measured. If, for example, we produce three million kilograms of water through the chemical reaction of burning hydrogen, only one gram of matter transforms into energy; that is, one part in three billion parts. It is extremely difficult to notice this extremely small loss of matter.

Early scientists were not aware of transformation of tiny amounts of matter into energy during chemical reactions, and the law of the conservation of matter that they deduced was based on a small error. Even eliminating this error does not guarantee that the law will be exact, because it is possible that another tiny amount of matter transforms into something other than energy; something unknown to us at the present time. we can not prove that the only things existing in the universe are matter and energy. Other forms of existence and other types of transformations can occur, and as a result, scientific conservation laws can be violated.

Many scientific laws are only approximately correct and while they are useful in daily life, they cannot describe the universe exactly. In fact, the equals sign (=) in formulas describing physical transformations and chemical reactions might be changed to ‘approximately equal’. Yes, we describe the universe by the scientific laws we ‘discover’, but on the scale beyond the scope of human abilities and imaginations, these laws fail to be correct and exact.

Consider the case of the previously unanticipated ‘Dark Matter’ and ‘Dark Energy’, that cosmologists now routinely use to make sense of the universe. Astronomical observations have led scientists to the idea that the visible matter in universe is much less than the invisible matter.

For example, our solar system has most of its mass concentrated in the Sun. Within such an orbital system with most of the mass at the center, the orbital speed of the planets decline with distance from the center. For example, the Earth rotates around the Sun each year, while Neptune rotation takes 165 years! This is not the case observed in galaxies, where the rotational speed of visible stars is the same from center towards the edge. If the whole galaxy rotates with the same velocity, its mass is not concentrated at the center, contrary to what we observe from visible stars which are concentrated at the center of the galaxy. So there must be invisible matter in the dark space between visible stars. This unknown theoretical substance is called dark matter.

Nowadays, dark matter is hypothesised to permeate all of the universe, but its density is extremely low. Imagine a spherical volume as big as the Earth. The quantity of dark matter distributed uniformly in such a big volume is less than one gram! Such a thin substance is extremely difficult to be detected or measured. Now suppose that in a physical change or chemical reaction, some dark matter or other unknown substance is lost or produced. It is practically impossible to detect its existence or measure its amount. Things that we can detect or measure are not the only things that exist.

Many scientists also believe in the existence of an unknown form of energy which they call dark energy. Again, they hypothesise it because with ordinary matter and energy they cannot explain some astronomical observations. Ordinary matter and ordinary energy are two forms of being. Dark matter and dark energy are two other forms which do seem to exist. There may be still other forms of existence, completely unknown to us. All these forms can transform into each other. So it is possible that some amount of a known thing completely disappears and transforms into some other unknown and undetectable thing.

To conclude, then. In modern science, a series of conservation laws has been proposed by scientists and these laws are claimed by them to govern physical quantities such as matter, energy, electrical charge, and so on. The first law was Lavoisier’s idea of conservation of matter. Although this approximate law has proved invaluable in our daily life, it was later discovered that matter can transform into energy and that, therefore, the total amount of matter in the universe is not conserved.

Trying to formulate a more accurate law, scientists used the fact that matter and energy are of the same essence and asserted the law of conservation of the two quantities under a single name mass. According to this law, if a certain amount of matter is lost, an equivalent amount of energy is gained, and vice versa, so that the total amount of mass in the universe is constant. But we can argue that this law is still erroneous, because we cannot prove that the only existing things in the universe are matter and energy. There may be other unknown forms of being that matter and energy can be transformed into.

If all things were made, for example, of matter, then in changing from one state to another, we could claim that the total amount of matter would conserve. But given that there is something other than matter; for example, energy, then matter can transform into energy, and conservation of matter will be violated. Even if we combine matter and energy into a single concept as mass, the conservation of mass can be violated for the same reason.

Scientific conservation laws are philosophically problematic, because each of these laws apply to a certain form of being like matter, energy, mass, and so on, which can be transformed to other known or unknown forms. True conservation can only be applied to being itself. By being, I mean the common essence of all things that does not change in transformations. Being cannot be created or destroyed, but it can appear in different forms. It can disappear, but even in its hidden form, it has always been and will always be.

The cycle of existence means that new things existed previously in old forms. Old forms disappear and new forms appear, but their existence or being never starts or ends. Being cannot change into something other than being, because there is nothing other than being. Although being cannot be clearly defined, we can say that everything is a presentation or sign of being. Being is present wherever there is something.

Let us return to where we started. From a viewpoint of conservation of being, we can have a better imagination of the birth of the universe. While being has no beginning or end, the universe as a form of being can have a beginning or end. The universe came into view from a hidden state. Before the Creation or the Big Bang, we can imagine that there was no matter and no energy at all, but that being was there - in a hidden form.

Such ideas can also be applied to states of human being. If we exist now, then we have always existed and will always exist, although in different forms or states. When we are asleep, we exist, even if we are usually unaware of our existence. Similarly, a newborn child exists, even if at first it is not aware of its existence. During our life we experience many periods of time during which we continue to exist but are not consciously aware of it. We may be in the same state before our birth and after our death.

The law of the conservation of being can build bridges between science, philosophy, and religion. It rationalizes believing in an eternal thing that all different forms come out of it and return back to it. This eternal thing can be neither matter nor energy which are derivable and transformable quantities. Scientific laws of conservation of such quantities as matter and energy are approximations of the philosophical law of the conservation of being.

The law can be viewed as a modern restatement of the ancient philosophical thesis nihil fit ex nihilo. That is: nothing comes from nothing. It implies that if there is something now, it has always been and will always be, although in different forms.

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Sayed Abolfazl Arjmand is an Iranian electrical engineer whose scientific interests extend through philosophy and theology. Email: