Tag Archives: atoms

Ideas aren’t real: A classroom discussion


The paint doesn't know why it's peeling, nor does it seem to care.

The paint doesn’t know why it’s peeling, nor does it seem to care.

My students are trying to figure out what’s real.

I challenged my class of high school writers, as part of our study of argument, to define the word “real.” After a couple days of discussion, we came up with a tentative definition: something is real if it can be seen or touched or proved to be present.

So, physical material is real. If it’s something I wouldn’t want to hit against my head, it’s real. But ideas, which can’t been seen, are not real.

Someone said that the desk she was sitting at seemed real. I said, the materials are real, but the idea of that object being a “desk” is just an idea. My dog, which can’t understand language as we do, still goes around objects rather than through them, but he doesn’t know what an object is named or how it can be used.

One student asked, if I have an idea to make a desk, and then I make a desk, how did that thought become real? Two things, I said: 1. How ideas in the mind cross over to the body, nobody can yet explain, but 2., what she built was still not a “desk” — it’s a new arrangement of physical things.

Another student asked whether atoms were real. We defined atoms as particles that make up all objects. They are composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons. We discussed the parts of this definition, including that the size of an atom is to an orange as an orange is to planet Earth. (An idea contained in this video. See also this post.) But such an explanation requires us to use our imaginations, which is a turn away from the physical world itself. We also discussed what a proton is, and how it’s got “positive charge,” and how this charge is a “fundamental property,” which is another way of saying, scientists can’t yet explain how or where this charge arises. 

And so, atoms are not real things that can be seen or touched. Atoms, rather, are explanatory ideas, and ideas are not real. Atoms are part of a scientific story, an interpretation, of how the world works. Physical matter itself doesn’t need to understand itself. Things don’t think. Only people think, and what we think are ideas, and ideas are not physical things.

Now, it can be useful to have science ideas about the world. If we want to alter the physical world — say, to build a house from wood or undergo surgery to fix a disease — it’d be nice to have the most useful ideas possible about how the house-building or body-repairing should go. Where early doctors would prescribe bloodletting to cure a variety of illnesses, modern doctors don’t. We like modern medicine because its ideas seem more successful at getting cures.

But, of course, modern medicine isn’t perfect. Much remains to be explained, to be mentally modeled. I suggested that there could be fictional ideas (which we don’t care if they are realistic), like how Greek mythology says Zeus turned into a bull, and nonfictional ideas (which we’d like to be as realistic as possible), like scientific interpretations, that atoms have parts called protons, electrons, and neutrons. And the nonfiction ideas are never perfect, are never worthy of being called “The Truth,” because they must remain open to revision, as new ideas are learned. The story of science remains imperfect.


So, why do we care about science? Our ancestors got by without it. The fact that we’re here means our ancestors knew enough to survive in the world (get food, form shelter, make babies, raise ‘em). However, science ideas are now taught in school because it’s important for citizens now to know these so as to be able to “join society,” as one student said. And we’d like the people we trust to do physical things — like engineers and doctors — to agree amongst themselves as to the best ideas for doing things. I don’t want the person designing the bridges I drive on to choose a different idea for gravity than what’s commonly accepted (unless his ideas are shows, through argument and evidence, to be better, the way science is supposed to proceed). 

So even though what schools teach are just imperfect stories, mere ideas, and not reality itself [ I wonder what a school that didn’t teach ideas would look like], these imperfect ideas are what we have to tie each other together into a society. If each individual had his/her own ideas about what’s real, that might be chaotic, a student said.

So we take part in civil, communal society by sharing some ideas about the best ways to think about physical reality.  And yet, of course, we shouldn’t take these ideas too seriously. I think it’s useful to form an idea about ideas. I told students that the reason we’re talking about ideas and reality is that it can be useful for them to have a theory of knowledge, and to question how it is that ideas are accepted or revised. When one student said he’d question his other teachers about how things are known in those classes, I said he could, but to remember that when Socrates asked too many questions, he got killed. Sometimes, people who like to believe that their ideas are real don’t like to have their ideas questioned.

Some students said it got them upset to think about these things, to ask these questions, to think of reality this way. I said I wasn’t trying to upset them, but that I like to think that ideas aren’t real because then it lets me think of new ideas. I also said, maybe it’s helpful to think that ideas aren’t real — real physical things themselves don’t give us ideas for how to change the things. Only ideas can direct us to change the physical things — change comes from the unreal.

A student asked if students’ grades merely tell how well they learn the unreal stories.  Yeah, I said. And I said that that’s why I like having discussions, so I can provoke students to ask these questions. Another student asked at the end of class yesterday: so schools brainwash us? And I said, well, kinda, but I’m having this discussion to help you unbrainwash yourself — unless that’s just a different kind of brainwash!


Math isn’t real, but neither are ‘atoms’

This short video is a little manic, but generally does a nice job of summarizing the philosophical (specifically, metaphysical and epistemological) discussion as to whether math exists somewhere in the universe (though it can’t be, you know, physically detected) or whether math is just a human construct, a set of ideas, or as the video describes it, a “fiction.”

The video’s narrator describes the “math realist” position as believing that math is discovered, like new species are discovered, “out there” in the world. However, since math’s ideas are not physical and thus can never be directly observed by our senses, then believing in “objective” existence of math ideas requires, well, faith.

The video contrasts math to physics and other sciences, which take as their objects of study things that happen or exist in nature. I’d point out, however, that while we can sense things, like a round-shaped, sticky, sweet-smelling pastry we label “pie,” we cannot sense the measurements of the circumference and diameter of said pie placed in a ratio we call “pi”  (also, it’s hard to see how any of the terms just used — circumference, diameter, measurements, ratio, pi, and for that matter, pie — exist except as concepts.

I sometimes tell my students that one way of defining real is by determining whether one would mind being struck by that thing. I don’t want to get hit by a pie, but I don’t see how throwing pi at me could ever hurt.

And so, of course, while physics, chemistry, and biology deal with sensible things, as “ologies,” they are sets of ideas, and so these science concepts, models, theories, and laws may not exist physically any more than math ideas do.

In “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” Robert Pirsig describes science theories as our contemporary technological culture’s equivalent of earlier cultures’ ghosts — things we think are real but, of course, can’t be seen, etc.

And, of course, none of our words are real, either — depending on how you define ‘real’! If real describes things available to our senses, then words are only interpretations of sounds heard or shapes seen.

So it can get complicated to figure out what’s real when one sees something like IBM’s movie of atoms:

The words “These are atoms. Magnified over 100 million times.” are needed to explain what we are seeing in the video, because what I seem to be seeing is something that looks like little metallic spheres — ball bearings, perhaps. I see ball bearings on a gray background that seems to have shading variations in a gray background.

But we are informed that these are atoms — defined in the press release as “one of the tiniest elements in the universe” — but then, these are not quite atoms. They are “molecules” of carbon monoxide, one atom of carbon and one of oxygen — but this molecule doesn’t look in the movie to have two components.

But “look” and “see” also become problem terms here. The images in the movie aren’t a result of light directly striking a light-sensor (as in a digital camera or in our eyes), but are more like graphs made by information received by the probe in the scanning tunneling microscope. According to the Wikipedia page:

The STM is based on the concept of quantum tunneling. When a conducting tip is brought very near to the surface to be examined, a bias (voltage difference) applied between the two can allow electrons to tunnel through the vacuum between them. The resulting tunneling current is a function of tip position, applied voltage, and the local density of states (LDOS) of the sample.[4] Information is acquired by monitoring the current as the tip’s position scans across the surface, and is usually displayed in image form.

So we’re not seeing atoms. In all likelihood, we can never see atoms. But, OK, let’s call what is detected by the scanning tunneling microscope an atom. But an atom, as we’ve all learned, has constituent parts, which are vastly smaller: protons, neutrons, and electrons. So “atom” just means an organizational level, like, say, a “class” is a bunch of students who gather at the same time in the same room, but there’s no class as a particular physical entity — just particular students.

However, the picture gets more complex, as protons and neutrons are comprised of smaller-yet pieces called “quarks,” and these quarks and other fundamental particles may be made of smaller items yet.

Of course, these definitions are part of an elaborate, technical model of the most basic components and interactions of physical reality, which itself is not seen as a complete model.

But of course, any explanations for things we see in the physical world is going to be an idea, an interpretation, which means it’s not the same as the physical world itself. Even these ideas I’m using now are merely ideas, by which I mean they are arbitrary, subject to replacement or revision as we see fit.

In talking about the arbitrariness of ideas with my high school students, some asked why schools teach “fake ideas,” to which I responded, “It’s better to learn fake things than nothing at all.” I’m not sure I would stand by that position all the time, but it’s worth considering from a philosophical and educational perspective.