CHAPTER 2: What Is Nature?


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interactions with nature…in well-defined artificial situations.

Whereas Aristotle had warned against such artificial meddling as a recipe for creating “monsters of nature”, Francis Bacon promoted experiment as the deliberate extraction of natural secrets. Either way, the scientific version of cognition reflects the active role of the investigator as much as the reality investigated.


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While referring initially…it has come to mean the whole of physical reality.

Some meanings that ‘nature’ has had: 1) A given single underlying substance, such as water or earth (Thales), or an undifferentiated universal substance (Anaximander). 2) (An) organism, or all living things collectively. 3) The wild as opposed to civilization. 4) A specific quality or essence, or essence or form at large (Aristotle). 5) Thought (Berkeley), or mathematical ideality (Pythagoras, Galileo). 6) Self-existing and self-moving, as opposed to artificial. 7) Divine creation. 8) Reality, independent of mind. 9) A projection of mind (Kant). 10) Self-organizing process (Whitehead).


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…it can only provisionally and partially be contained within scientific models.

Cf. Bill McKibben: “We are used to the idea that something larger than we are and not of our own making surrounds us, that there is a world of man and a world of nature.” [McKibben The End of Nature Random House NY 1989 p85] This idea is the very basis of the concept of ‘reality’—independent of mind and its extension, technology.


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Aristotle distinguished natural things from artifacts.

He also distinguished between ‘maker’s art’ and ‘user’s art’—giving the example of the helmsman, who knows how to use the helm, whereas the manufacturer knows the properties of the materials of which it is made. This differs from our modern concept of design, which incorporates both. Moreover, Aristotle’s concept of form includes what we would today call function. He assumed a teleological view of both artifice and nature. [See: Joachim Schummer “Aristotle on Technology and Nature” Philosophia Naturalis 38 (2001) pp105-120]

Cf. also Ivor Leclerc “Some Main Philosophical Issues in Contemporary Scientific Thought” in Mind in Nature: the Interface of Science and Philosophy by John B. and David R. Griffin Cobb, Jr. (eds). Aristotelian conceptions dominated the medieval and early modern periods. ‘Matter’ was considered passive while agency was required to impose ‘form’. In the seventeenth century, this was interpreted to mean that matter was the physical existent, while form indicated the action of mind—whether divine or human—imposed form upon matter.


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Nature was not our true home, which is otherworldly.

In some non-Indo-European cultures, in contrast, the natural world is conceived as a seamless whole, in which people are an integral part. See Leslie Dewart The Foundations of Belief Herder & Herder, NY, 1969, and Evolution and Consciousness: The Role of Speech in the Origin and Development of Human Nature, University of Toronto Press, 1989. According to Dewart, this belief is reflected in the absence within such cultures of a program for deliverance from mortality or a goal of ascent to a higher reality. Their religions are not preoccupied with a concept of salvation or another world where their real destiny unfolds. However, if this world is not our true home, then the significance of what we do here lies elsewhere; what happens to the planet or to our physical bodies and those of others is ultimately unimportant.


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The perception of wilderness as a dangerous no-man’s-land…

The destructive power of nature may even serve as a weapon of war—for, example, through control of weather, earthquakes, and ionospheric phenomena. Cf. Claudia von Werlhof “Call for a Planetary Movement for Mother Earth”, International Goddess Conference: Politics and Spirituality, May 2010: “Planet Earth has thus been retooled to become a weapon of mass destruction, the very same ‘bad’ nature that it had supposedly always been. This new type of destruction now occurs through seemingly natural catastrophes.”


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in which God is a projection of the masculine psyche.

What characterized the “old alchemy” of the so-called Goddess religions was respect for the immanent reality of the found world. What characterized the patriarchal “new alchemy” of science, in contrast, was the belief that the order of nature was not immanent but imposed from without. See Claudia von Werlhof op cit (previous note).

Pagan cultures considered the cosmos as a whole to possess something analogous to what, in philosophy of mind, is called original intentionality—vitality and even a mind of its own. The Church put an end to that heresy, and eventually “vitalism” became a heresy within science; during the heyday of mechanism, it was as much an embarrassment to biologists as “consciousness” has been to psychologists. Scientific practice banished them both by insisting on third-person description and a strict adherence to the mechanist philosophy. This was understandable for a maturing science struggling to distance itself from religious origins and metaphysical overtones. Yet, as late as the third quarter of the twentieth century, there were many times more listings of published research papers under the heading of ‘rats’ than under the heading ‘consciousness.’ Behaviorism, with its focus on animal experiments, was in part an avoidance of the problems posed by consciousness.


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The Christian reading of Aristotle had transferred all teleology…

Cf. Gary B. Deason “Reformation Theology and the Mechanistic Conception of Nature” David C. Lindberg & Ronald L. Numbers God and Nature: historical essays on the encounter between Christianity and science U. of California Press, 1986, p177: “As a result of their belief in the radical sovereignty of God, the Reformers rejected Aristotle’s view of nature as having intrinsic powers. In place of the Aristotelian definition of nature as ‘the principle of motion and change’, the Reformers conceived of nature as entirely passive. For them the Word or command of God is the only active principle in the world.” Cf. also p184-8: “Bifurcating the world into its passive and active principles, Newton (even more than his medieval predecessors) came to see nature per se as a lifeless world, but permeated by the life of God… Although he never found an explanation of gravity that satisfied him, Newton vehemently rejected the possibility that matter possessed inherent powers such as attraction.”


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It was also a theological choice aimed to preserve divine potency against pagan ideas.

Cf. Gary B. Deason op cit, p176: “As instruments of God’s work, natural things do not have an inherent activity or end. Although they may have received a certain nature or property at creation, this constitutes only a ‘tendency’ that is ineffective apart from the Word of God. For Calvin, as for Luther, the behavior of a thing depends entirely on God.” (So too in Islamic thought.) The dependency of atoms on divine will was first effected by having their motions imparted by God at creation. The scientific version is that the behavior of a thing depends entirely on governing laws.


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…nature is now commonly understood in terms of computation.

See: Jeremy Rifkin The Biotech Century Tarcher/Putnam 1999 p212: “It is also not hard to understand why the first generation raised in a fully computerized society might come to accept so readily the new concept of nature that is emerging. They are growing up using the computer to organize their entire environment. Is it any wonder, then, that they will come to believe that nature itself is organized by the same set of assumptions and procedures they themselves are using when they manipulate it?”


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…Galileo, who proclaimed the “book of nature” to be written in the language of mathematics.

Galileo held that the size, shape, and motion of objects were “primary” or real, whereas taste, sound, odor, etc, were “secondary”: sensations produced by the organism in response to stimulation by the object’s primary qualities. This amounts to a prejudice in favor of the visual sense; more importantly, the primary qualities can be quantified and mathematically described. Newton, Maxwell, and many other creators of modern science understandably gave priority to a mathematically effective description. [Margaret Morrison Unifying Scientific Theories: physical concepts and mathematical structures Cambridge UP 2000, p63-66]


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However, it is not nature that resembles a machine, but a cartoonish vision of nature.

Ironically, modern creationists indulge a parallel circularity, since the touted marks or signs of design implicitly refer to an engineered system. Both the mechanist philosophy and the Intelligent Design movement reflect an image of nature already presumed artificial.


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We do the generalizing, the deducing, and the explaining.

Cf. Steven Weinberg Dreams of a Final Theory (Pantheon, New York, 1992), p107: “This is a tricky point in part because it is awkward to talk about one fact explaining another without real people actually doing the deductions. But I think we have to talk this way because this is what our science is about: the discovery of explanations built into the logical structure of nature.” However, only deductive systems can have explanations or deductions “built into” their logical structure. Moreover, only first-order science requires this approach, which physicists have built into physics.


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In scientific cognition the relation of model to world cannot be presumed as it is in ordinary experience.

A chemical formula designates a certain substance, for example, but has little to do with what sensory experience directly reveals about it; rather, it represents a complex set of relations, such as possible chemical reactions and causal effects under prescribed circumstances. [Ernst Cassirer The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms Vol 1: Language Yale UP 1955/1980, p109]


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…yet questioning the current interpretation of observations is a valid alternative.

An unseen planet was once sought to explain the changing perihelion of Mercury, just as Neptune was proposed to account for the anomalies of Uranus’ orbit. Cf. Unzicker & Jones, op cit, p94: “Today, we have to question more than ever whether the law of gravitation is valid outside the solar system. It is naïve to make that extrapolation, the observations have been full of contradictions, and the numerous obscure assumptions indicate a crisis.” See also p231: “Theorists make arbitrary physical assumptions, and then rack their brains how to link fantasy A to B… Instead, it would be more interesting to deal with unexplained observations that challenge the accepted theories. Many scientists simply do not feel the desire to bother with this kind of craftsmanship.”


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…the more consequential the event, the more one seeks to read into it a coherent meaning.

Modern psychological experiments indicate that an induced experience of powerlessness influences subjects to see patterns, causes, and intentions underlying random events. See, for example: Scott Atran & Joseph Henrich “The Evolution of Religion: How Cognitive By-Products, Adaptive Learning Heuristics, Ritual Displays, and Group Competition Generate Deep Commitments to Prosocial Religions” Biological Theory 5(1) 2010, p19. The authors add that “Such findings help explain [why] a country’s religiosity (devotion to a world religion) is positively related to its degree of existential insecurity… and why certain kinds of religions enjoy revivals in challenging times.”


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any measurement of a “quantity of matter” involves an exchange of “energy”…

Cf. also Werner Heisenberg, in Castellani, Interpreting Bodies, p219: “What does a proton consist of? But… the phrase ‘consist of’ has a tolerably clear meaning only if the particle can be divided into pieces with a small amount of energy, much smaller than the rest mass of the particle itself.” In other words, the very constitution of ‘particles’ is affected by the process of breaking them apart.


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When we think of the equivalence of mass and energy we are disposed to think of one substance transformed into another.

“At the most fundamental level [Einstein’s formula] implies that energy is mass, and vice versa. From that perspective, the square of the velocity of light is a mere conversion factor for changing joules to kilograms… Since inertia seems to be the very opposite of energy… their equivalence—like that of ice and water—is all the more profound for its paradoxical quality.” [Hans Christian von Baeyer Warmth Disperses and Time Passes: the history of heat Random House Modern Library 1998, p126-7]


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Thus, both mass and energy… yet defined through operations that are relational.

Mass is defined in terms of its effect on other matter, potential energy in relation to a field, and kinetic energy in relation to a spatial frame of reference. Classical properties such as temperature refer implicitly to the ambient environment for an observer rather than to details of the world observed. Temperature refers indirectly to the average speed of molecules, but this idea departs from its commonsense meaning on the human scale, as becomes evident in the case of very dilute gases in intergalactic space. What is the temperature of one molecule?


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One might wonder whether a society uninterested in motors could have conceived…

Thermodynamics arose as the study of the useful extraction of work from hot fluids. Heat energy in solids is “locked up” in the vibration of atoms in a crystal lattice. Yet, there is potential for “work” locked up at even deeper levels—in chemical bonds, in the nucleus of atoms, and even deeper in the forces that hold protons together. The concept of energy evolved along with the different processes and technologies for its useful extraction at different scales.

Thermodynamically, order (or its inverse, entropy) pertains to a temperature differential within a system, which is lost as the system becomes more disordered. To that degree, it is an artifact of how the system is defined and partitioned. The flux of entropy (as though it were a flowing substance) refers properly to instrumental readings made in the particular situation. The fact that entropy can be defined in terms of measurable parameters (such as temperature, volume, and pressure) does not logically confer palpable physical reality on it. Its role might be better compared to that of action in mechanics—a theoretically useful concept that is not usually considered a substance.


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…must account for the minimal mass of the quark itself and the electron differently.

Electrons and quarks are presently both thought to be “fundamental”—that is without constituent parts, so their mass cannot be understood just in terms of internal energy associated with component parts. The current idea is that (inertial) mass arises through interaction with the Higgs field. See also: “The mass of ordinary matter is overwhelmingly due to the protons and neutrons in the nuclei of atoms. Protons and neutrons are comprised of the two lightest quarks: the up and down quarks. The rest masses of their constituent quarks… which could be attributed to the Higgs field comprise only about one percent of the masses of the protons and neutrons …The remainder of the proton and neutron masses would have to be attributed to contributions from the gluon field strong interaction energies plus smaller electromagnetic and weak fields contributions which would not be affected by a Higgs field. The origin of inertial mass of ordinary matter is thus a wide open question.”


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…furnishes an expanding paradigm for the very notion of “object.”

While ontology considers what exists, it should differentiate distinct kinds of existence—in particular, the difference between things found and made. The integrity of perceived objects is reinforced by the integrity of words, and may fail to make that distinction. Thus the term body—as used by Newton, for example—could mean either a physical object or an abstraction. The latter may be entirely a fiction as far as its relation to ordinary perception is concerned, given that the mass of such a body is concentrated in a dimensionless point! Newton’s laws serve above all to define such fictional objects, whatever their usefulness to describe real ones.


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…the old problem of the discrete and the continuous.

See, for example, Bridgman, The Nature of Thermodynamics, p220: “When we try even to describe a single concrete event by continuous functions, as in a development of Fourier’s series, we are forced to admit a fringe rippling through infinite space, or quivering premonitions or remembrances stirring through all past and future time.”


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Modern concepts such as entanglement and non-locality point to an essential wholeness even in the nonliving world.

John Bell devised a thought experiment to decide between the debates of Einstein and Bohr concerning the meaning of realism in the quantum realm. At issue was the question of entanglement, whether correlations can exist between events that seem to have no causal connection, at least in the view of classical physics. This was later implemented in actual experiments, which favored the arguments of Bohr and seemed to confirm the validity of quantum physics.


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How well can variables of interest be distinguished from “noise”—that is, from information that is already presumed irrelevant?

Ave Mets makes the point that, by mathematising the treatment of what is called noise and uncertainties, ever fuzzier matter is brought under mathematical treatment on theoretical and practical levels.” [Ave Mets “Measurement theory, nomological machine and measurement uncertainties (in classical physics)” Studia Philosophica Estonia (2012) 5.2, p183]


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…Einstein finds…chaos as the natural state of things.

In a letter written in later life to a friend, he explains: “You find it remarkable that the comprehensibility of the world… seems to me a wonder or eternal secret. Now, a priori, one should, after all, expect a chaotic world that is in no way graspable through thinking… Even if the axioms of the theory are put forward by human agents, the success of such an enterprise [as Newton’s theory] does suppose a high degree of order in the objective world, which one had no justification whatever to expect…” [quoted in Holton Einstein, History, and Other Passions Harvard UP, 2000, p206]


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…which result in methodological difficulties like “renormalization.

An electron may be treated as a dimensionless point in space, representing a unit electric charge. This fails, however, to account for its mass or its properties as an “object.” On the other hand, if it is accorded a size—as a sphere of charge, for example—then the repelling effect of the charge “substance” upon itself must be taken into account, leaving no explanation of how the electron coheres as an entity. Hence, the origin of the “renormalization” problem, which stems from a basic inconsistency in how the electron is conceptualized. Similar problems arise for gravitation: whether the field should be regarded merely as locations in space, in which “matter” is a particular configuration; or whether the field emanates from matter, which determines the configuration of space—or, somehow, both.

The dilemma was broached by Zeno long before modern physics: “Zeno’s paradox of extension presents the following dilemma… if large things are composed of small ones, and infinite divisibility is allowed, then a finitely extended object is supposed to be an (infinite) sum of more basic parts… If these parts are unextended, then they have no magnitude, but then their (infinite) sum is also unextended. If these basic parts are extended, then their (infinite) sum is infinite… The issue at stake is, thus, the convergence (or lack thereof) of an infinite series.” [Amit Hagar Length Matters: the history of the philosophy of the notion of fundamental length in modern physics 2012, p8]


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…we still do not know whether… there is a “bottom” to the complexity of matter.

One scientist has commented that an infinity of elementary particles would mean anarchy for science. [John D. Barrow Theories of Everything: the quest for ultimate explanation Fawcett/Balantine 1991, p103] While that would be inconvenient, it could nevertheless be so—we simply don’t know. In the current view of physics, the universe is built up from twelve fundamental particles, mediating four fundamental forces. From these ingredients are generated a couple of hundred less basic particles. Yet it remains unclear exactly what the basic ontology of physics is: particle, field, or what?


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Both continuity and discreteness are intuitive notions that reflect common experience.

Is the world a continuum, with superposed wavelike influence from one location to another? Or does it consist of tiny impenetrable things that exert forces across empty distances? Or both, or something else entirely? Whereas “solid” particles cannot occupy the same space at the same time, waves can. “Mass” is impenetrable (up to limits) whereas “energy” follows the principle of superposition (waves can combine to add or subtract in their effect). Mass can have ongoing individual identity whereas energy does not; energy can be quantified but not individuated.


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…one is at liberty to further question both the indivisibility of particles and the composition of the space between them and within them…

The world seems always changing, yet within it there appear to be relatively stable objects, moving in space. This suggested to the atomists that qualitative changes occurring within such objects could be accounted for in terms of yet smaller stable objects. The idea was to reduce qualitative change to a rearrangement of indivisible parts. The same idea was approached through reasoning about divisibility per se. For, solid material objects were not indestructible; they could be broken into fragments, if not functional parts. And the fragments could be broken, seemingly ad infinitum. Yet, both trains of thought begged an end to the process of division: an ultimate indivisible unit. For, if matter could be indefinitely divided, how could individual objects be distinguished from the continuum of space itself? The vision of atoms separated by space would dissolve into a plenum or a void, depending on how you looked at it. Either way, the notion of object would be meaningless, to be replaced perhaps by the mathematical point or the continuous field—paths actually taken by physicists.


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We see and reason as we do…simply because doing so has favored our survival thus far, with or without logical consistency.

Are there truly indivisible wholes, a real bottom level to nature? If so, can we understand why this is so in physical terms, rather than simply positing it for the sake of logical consistency? In other words, can we distinguish irreducible natural integrity from the defined integrity of conceptual constructs? If there is no bottom level to physical reality (or for that matter no top level), and no absolute integrity, then physical reality inherently resembles the continuum of the real numbers, or perhaps a fractal infinity. The question, of whether nature corresponds to the mathematical continuum or is fundamentally discrete, must be considered in the context of real limits of energy, which restrict how deeply physical reality can be probed, and real observational limits restricting the extent of the visible universe.


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How can elasticity itself be understood, except in terms of smaller parts… which simply regresses the problem?

Any mechanical explanation of elasticity seems to involve a paradoxical interaction of parts. Reductionism hopes to explain the qualities and behavior of a system in such terms. But the parts must either be explained in terms of further parts or else be defined to be fundamental. The buck has to stop somewhere. Separated in space, such particles either influence each other through contact or across the distance between them. Contact must be irreducibly elastic or else inelastic, either of which regresses the problem. Either action at a distance provides no explanation for the transmission of the influence, which must simply be posited, or else a mechanical explanation must be sought that involves a regressive interaction of parts.


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…Or, perhaps an antiparticle, since it is the opposite of impenetrable?

A black hole appears to be a simple object in the way that an elementary particle is, characterized mathematically only by mass, electric charge, and angular momentum. Should we even think of a black hole as a macroscopic entity, if its only detectable influence is gravitational? One could say that a black hole is the opposite of impenetrable, since nothing can separate from it. We cannot measure its other macroscopic properties, such as temperature, or determine whether it really does emit Hawking radiation. [Jim Baggott Farewell to Reality: how modern physics has betrayed the search for scientific truth Pegasus, 2013, p257] The singularity of a black hole represents the termination of a process of increasing entropy, while the singularity of the Big Bang represents the beginning. But are they otherwise different entropically, and what is the significance of the difference?

Such unanswered questions hardly prevent technology from exploiting the properties of the micro realm. Whether or not integrity is intrinsic to that scale does not prevent it from being utilized in quantum computers and nanotechnology. On the one hand, it seems that nature could not even hang together on the macroscopic scale without a discrete structure on the microscopic scale. It was this problem that gave rise to the quantum theory in the first place. In the classical (Rutherford) model of the atom, electrons could continuously radiate away all their orbital energy, so that no “ledges” of stability existed.

On the other hand, quantum mechanics employs a mathematically continuous wave description (the Schrödinger wave function). The wave-particle duality appears to reflect the old problem of the continuous and the discrete. In that regard, one may wonder why Planck’s constant, h, represents an irreducible smallest size possible in nature? What kind of explanation is called for? One resolution is to simply ban the continuum, as “digital physics” does, and as early recognized by Einstein: “If the molecular view of matter is the correct (appropriate) one; i.e., if a part of the universe is to be represented by a finite number of moving points, then the continuum of the present theory contains too great a manifold of possibilities. I also believe that this… is responsible for the fact that our present means of description miscarry with the quantum theory. The problem seems to me [to be] how one can formulate statements about the discontinuum without calling upon a continuum (space–time) as an aid; the latter should be banned from the theory as a supplementary construction not justified by the essence of the problem…” [Einstein, quoted in J. Stachel. “The other Einstein: Einstein contra field theory”. Science in Context, 6(1):275–290, 1993, p280.]


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Gravitation and magnetism had early suggested occult forces acting mysteriously and instantaneously across distances.

Early mechanical explanations of gravity and electromagnetism relied on models that provided for local action but risked embroilment in logical regression. A hypothetical electric fluid, for example, composed of small charged particles, would simply raise the question of “spooky” action-at-a-distance on smaller scales. Maxwell understood this dilemma. Action-at-a-distance had energy reside in electrical bodies, with a force in a straight line between them, as in the case of gravity. But as early as 1820, Oersted had observed that the interaction between electric currents and magnetized bodies develops in space along curves rather than the straight lines required by action-at-a-distance. Following Faraday, Maxwell proposed that it resides instead in the space between bodies—that is, in the field. [Margaret Morrison Unifying Scientific Theories: physical concepts and mathematical structures Cambridge UP 2000, p83] Like Newton, Maxwell proposed a mathematical treatment that did not pretend to “explain” anything. (And, like Newton with gravitation, he had his pet ideas on the subject.) For Maxwell, the field was a cipher for a physical explanation that might eventually emerge. Instead, it became incorporated as a basic physical entity. What a field “really” is remains a mystery, or a metaphysical question of little concern to scientists who require no explanation beyond the mathematics.


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The problem of a medium of transmission was swept under the rug.

In regard to the aether problems, Einstein himself says: “Our only way out seems to be to take for granted the fact space has the physical property of transmitting electromagnetic waves, and not to bother too much about the meaning of this statement.” [Einstein and Infeld The Evolution of Physics Simon and Schuster 1938, p159]