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The Myth of Matter, p. 9

Matter as Metaphor

We begin this section where we ended the last one. Quoting Prof. Max Jammer–

Since the end of the nineteenth century physicists and philosophers have been cherishing the hope that all of the problems related to mass could be resolved if a theory could be constructed that reveals what they called “the nature of mass,” that is, a theory that explains the origin, existence and phenomenological properties of mass. Of course … any talk about “the nature of mass” would be scientifically meaningless or metaphysical rigmarole. [Yet] the quest for a theory of the nature of mass arises from a profound epistemological motivation. It is no exaggeration to say that all experiments and certainly all measurements in physics are in the last analysis … ultimately based on observations of the position of a particle or of a pointer on a scale as a function of time. … Hence, the term ‘mass’, thus defined, has no absolute meaning since it always implies a relation to an object chosen to serve as the unit of mass.[1]

Unless I am mistaken, Prof. Jammer is saying that the whole of physics is one great circular argument, and that the idea of “the nature of matter”, simply and not self-referentially defined, is mythical. Since “all measurements” are based on matter, and since matter itself is only defined in an axiomatic sense, one might see physics as a belief system, albeit a very powerful and constructive one.

[1] Concepts of Mass in Contemporary Physics and Philosophy, pages 139–140

The Myth of Matter, p. 3

Hylomorphism [1]

William of Ockham, from stained glass window a...

Atoms violated "Occam's Razor." (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The winners of the argument thought matter was continuously variable. They argued convincingly that pure matter came in simple shapes, such as lines, planes, circles, spheres, pyramids and so on, and that matter became objects in a way similar to how we use primitive shapes to create a computer drawing. Let’s call them ‘morphists’ for short.

Morphists had iron-clad mathematical reasons to support their point of view. The reasoning went like something like this:

  1. Let us pick two numbers, say 1 and 11/3.
  2. Isn’t it true that there is number between those two numbers, like 11/6?
  3. Isn’t it true that there is a number between 11/6 and 11/3?
  4. Can’t we go on finding in-between numbers forever? (And isn’t it also true that they don’t have to be made with fractions?)
  5. Then why shouldn’t we consider the rest of reality to operate the same way?
Table I: Fourteenth Century Atomists and their Critics[2]



Henry of Harclay William of Alnwick
Walter Chatton Adam Wodeham
William Crathorn Thomas Bradwardine
John Wycliffe William of Ockham
Gerard of Odo Roger Rosetus
Nicholas Bonetus Walter Burley
John Gedo John the Canon
Marcus Trevisano
Nicholas Autrecourt

The Middle Ages’ strongest mathematical reasoning was augmented with really powerful theological ideas that everyone –even the atomists– believed by faith. The combination of (inadequate) mathematical reasoning and (inflexible) religious orthodoxy is illustrated in the story of John Wycliffe.

[1] ‘Hylo’: matter, ‘morph’: form; Greek

[2] Christophe Grellard and Aurélien Robert, eds., Atomism in Late Medieval Philosophy and Theology, Brill,Leiden, 2009.

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