If our particles have no identity, how can we?


(Jimmy Sellers) #1

Here is an interesting article for the quantum physicist’s in the forum. I am not one but the title sucked me in and now I don’t feel confident that I am really me.
The article opens with the story of Martin Guerre (I had not heard of this story) but it is a famous story of a 16th century peasant who left his home and family under the cloud of being a thief. He returns sometime later and reunites with wife and they have more children. Eight years later a man shows up in the village claiming to be Martin and accuses the other Martin of identity theft. Needless to say this sets up quite a dilemma for the local folks but easy enough to settle or is it?

The early vitalist philosophers had a ready answer: Each of us is distinguished by a divine soul, our physical bodies mere puppets animated by our invisible selves. But science has eroded this answer, and sought identity in the physical body itself: At a microscopic level, promises the reductionist dream, there must be something to distinguish each one of us from another. A hard-nosed foundation for our identity, one made of molecules and atoms.

Here are few excepts from the article that I thought would stimulate some thought:

The identicalness of electrons—of all particles—not only cripples the concept of a thing, but also the concept of space, revealing them to be opposite sides of the same feeble coin. It is a clue that there is something wrong with the way that we cut the world into parts. A clue to a kind of holism, an underlying oneness.

“That’s a weird and beautiful idea,” Pesic continues. “Not one of our components—no electron, no proton—has any kind of stamp on it. But together they exist in a state that becomes sufficiently complex that it can then be distinguished from the state of every other person who’s composed of the same indistinguishable electrons and protons.”

Is there an apologetic here or an atheistic polemic? I generally stop thinking about who we are at the DNA level but if the building blocks that makes up my DNA is indiscernible from my neighbors and the only thing that identifies who we are is a complex state is something that I have to noodle on. So, the real question is what makes all the electrons be me?


(SeanO) #2

@Jimmy_Sellers That is a very intriguing thought - putting an electron on trial.

For me, the question of where our sense of self - our consciousness - comes from is very key to this debate. If consciousness is entirely material and the consequence of some type of quantum states that is very different than if consciousness is the result that we do in fact have an immaterial soul / spirit.

I am not very confident this question of consciousness will be answered in the near future.

But I have seen Christian philosophers who are not bothered by the idea that even our sense of self is the result of physical processes and that in the new creation God will recreate our ‘self’ by similar means.

Personally I think there is an immaterial spirit / soul at the helm and that while the fusion of spirit / body is key to our experience of the world, that our spirit is, at the very least, capable of ‘returning to our bodies’ or existing with Christ until the time of the resurrection.


(Carson Weitnauer) #3

Hi Jimmy,

If physics is the only lens we have for what is real, there are many problems:

  1. Distinguish between persons
  2. Distinguish between persons and other arrangements of matter
  3. Continuity of self over time
  4. The is-ought problem. How do we get “do not murder” if everything is just quarks?
  5. The loss of free will. Randomness at best.

And on it goes. I wonder if you paired this with Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality if that would open up more conversations both here in Connect as well as with friends.


(Helen Tan) #4

Hi @Jimmy_Sellers, I may be going off on a tangent a little here but I read these articles which talk about what the human body is made of. I have not verified the validity of all that’s said but what intrigued me were the following statements in the second article (the first says essentially the same thing):



Some days, you might feel like a pretty substantial person. Maybe you have a lot of friends, or an important job, or a really big car.
But it might humble you to know that all of those things – your friends, your office, your really big car, you yourself, and even everything in this incredible, vast Universe – are almost entirely, 99.9999999 percent empty space.
Here’s the deal. As I previously wrote in a story for the particle physics publication Symmetry, the size of an atom is governed by the average location of its electrons: how much space there is between the nucleus and the atom’s amorphous outer shell.
Nuclei are around 100,000 times smaller than the atoms they’re housed in.
If the nucleus were the size of a peanut, the atom would be about the size of a baseball stadium. If we lost all the dead space inside our atoms, we would each be able to fit into a particle of dust, and the entire human species would fit into the volume of a sugar cube.
…It’s time to reexamine what we mean by empty space. Because as it turns out, space is never truly empty. It’s actually full of a whole fistful of good stuff, including wave functions and invisible quantum fields
.”

That reminds me of Genesis 2:7: Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

We are particles of dust with God’s breath in us, giving us life.

Psalm 8:4: What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?

How can a speck of dust comprehend God fully and how great a love it is that God loves this speck of dust?


(Jimmy Sellers) #5

@Helen_Tan:
I don’t think you are off topic at all. I (like many on this forum) have more than once wondered about the world and what it is made of at the very base level. Before I read this article I would have confidently said that each of us was a unique creation all the way down to the most elementary building blocks of life, according to the author that would be electrons. If that is true you would naturally assume that you have Helen electrons and I have Jimmy electrons and that science would be able to sort them out but that is not the case electrons are not unique (they don’t have serial numbers) they are all electrons not Helen electrons or Jimmy electrons but electrons, only unique because they are not unique.
To be clear I do believe that we are unique and as you said God breathed beings but if all we had was physics you could not prove that we were unique, So, there must be another explanation as to what makes me “Jimmy electrons” and you “Helen electrons”.
I think @CarsonWeitnauer brought up some very good reasons why physics alone cannot prove what is real. There must be something else and the article eludes to it but not from a Christian world view. The author states:

A clue to a kind of holism, an underlying oneness.


(Helen Tan) #6

Hi @Jimmy_Sellers,

I think that Amanda Gefter does concede that there is something called ‘identity’ in the second half of the article (if I’ve understood it correctly). Having talked about the indistinguishable ‘identicalness’ of all electrons, Gefter makes some concession to what she sees as ‘patterns’:

She quotes P. Pesic: “When you have more and more electrons, the state that they together form starts to be more and more capable of being distinct. So the reason that you and I have some kind of identity is that we’re composed of so enormously many of these indistinguishable components. It’s our state that’s distinguishable, not our materiality…That’s a weird and beautiful idea. Not one of our components—no electron, no proton—has any kind of stamp on it. But together they exist in a state that becomes sufficiently complex that it can then be distinguished from the state of every other person who’s composed of the same indistinguishable electrons and protons.

She also quotes J. Ladyman: “My thingness is in how I’m organized, not what I’m made of.”

And her conclusion is telling: “Even so, we can point to patterns, and assign names. The more complex the pattern, the more we have to potentially gain by compressing its microscopic description, and the greater the case for identity. Consider a brain—with as many neurons as stars in the galaxy linked together through trillions of connections it’s the most complex object in the known universe. Try to compress it. Call it by just two words. Call it Martin Guerre. Push further. A single word, a single letter. Call it “I.””

I’m sensing that she agrees that we may not have distinct Jimmy and Helen electrons but these electrons form distinct Jimmy and Helen patterns :)) She just stopped short of asking the question of how or rather Who has organized these identical electrons into amazing patterns which form “I”.