Reality has no ultimate building blocks

By | April 28, 2023

Tuomas Tahko writes:

Philosophers and scientists alike often talk about “fundamentality” or the “fundamental level”. We might say that, fundamentally, everything is made of waves or that quantum field theory is as close to a fundamental theory as we currently have. More colloquially, we might say that ultimately everything is made of the fundamental “building blocks” of reality, whatever they may be – fields, particles, or something else. The thought is that these building blocks compose everything else, and so everything else depends on them, while these building blocks themselves do not depend on anything else because they are simple or have no further parts. The supposed fundamentality of a particle such as an electron is different from the supposed fundamentality of a theory such as quantum field theory. A fundamental theory may describe the “fundamentalia” – the fundamental entities – but as a representational device, the theory itself is not part of reality in the same way as the entities that it describes.

The “building blocks” approach to the question of what reality is fundamentally like is common, but not the only approach. Philosophers have also speculated about turning the order of priority on its head and conceiving the universe as a whole as the only fundamental thing, where everything else depends on it. In this type of picture, the fundamental level, far from being simple, is maximally complex and has everything else depends on the whole. Interestingly, one motivation for the view comes from quantum theory, where entangled systems consisting of spatiotemporally separated entities could be seen as having features that can only be ascribed to the whole, not the individual parts. Accordingly, the entangled whole seems be more fundamental than its parts.

While it may come naturally to us to think that there must be something fundamental, whether at the “bottom” or “top” level of reality, knockdown arguments to this effect are notoriously difficult to come by. There is almost a poetic aspect to some of them: in the absence of something fundamental “Being would be infinitely deferred, never achieved”, as Jonathan Schaffer puts it. The underlying thought is that chains of dependence cannot be infinite, since something needs to explain the existence of dependent entities, and that explanatory base could only consist of independent entities. A child may wish to keep asking “why” forever, but at some point, we must reach the bedrock; there are no further answers. It is difficult to shake this basic reaction, but the lack of conclusive arguments or evidence in favour of a fundamental level should encourage us to explore what alternatives there might be. [Continue reading…]