In theory, we speak of a particle as having properties.

In reality, the measurement of any property is just an interaction between the target to be measured, and the measuring apparatus, where the measurement affects both the target and the apparatus.

So any property we can measure about a particle, is described in terms of all other particles and their properties. (It's all rather circular.)

In effect, we have a way of describing a universe of n particles, with n-1 particles. Since it was only through changes in the n-1 particles that we determined we had an nth.

Continue this 'rewriting' and inductively you will end with 1 'particle' with several properties that are functions of themselves.

So can we say the universe is just 1 thing, and we have artificially subdivided it for a more convenient representation? If this is an explored idea, where can I learn more?

(originally asked/closed here: https://physics.stackexchange.com/questions/50062/is-the-idea-of-dividing-the-universe-into-particles-anything-more-than-an-untrue)


Quantum Field Theory suggests there are no particles, but instead variations/ripples in a field. "Everything is fields". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_field_theory


Perhaps there is only geometry: https://www.simonsfoundation.org/quanta/20130917-a-jewel-at-the-heart-of-quantum-physics/

  • 2
    > we have artificially subdivided it for a more convenient > representation Yes. One view of science is that it's about building explanations (and testing and refining and rejecting them). So using particles to explain observations today may be useful (just as using earth, water, air and fire was in the past) but in the future it may be less so.
    – obelia
    Jan 13, 2013 at 18:56
  • You may be interested in Peter van Inwagen's "Material Beings" where he argues that that artifacts and other things "don't exist", save for living things. Of course, others such as Spinoza have argued that there is only one substance, which you also find of interest.
    – danielm
    Jan 14, 2013 at 10:12
  • Yes. By definition, the universe is one thing. Jan 15, 2013 at 23:31
  • I think the common view is that the universe is one thing composed of many things. I'm asking if the universe is one thing composed of one thing.
    – z5h
    Jan 18, 2013 at 21:42
  • ...we divide the humanity into persons instead of viewing it as a bulk of biomass, just for convenience too...
    – SF.
    Jan 18, 2013 at 21:50

6 Answers 6


Parmenides said that all was one. Thales said that one was water, perhaps meaning a single physical substance that all draw their being from. Nagarjuna says that one is essenceless. Brahman identifies that one with self, with will. And Al-Hallaj said the One was truth, was himself.

Physical science is working its way to saying that all is one - and that it can be described. Though their current manifesto is to tie all the known forces into a unity, and although they've dissolved the boundary between energy and matter, there remains a tripartite distinction between energy, force & spacetime. But given time, will & sufficient imagination they may yet pull off a unification of these three empirical domains.

But Descarte pointed out, and no doubtless others well before him, that the mental world and the physical world itself remains a boundary that seems unbreachable. The qualia of our impressions and our consciousness is real. No modern science has dared to suggest or imagine how the two can be reconciled. Philosophy has struggled with the issue for millenia.

That the one can be divided is a fiction. But it's a useful fiction so long as one bears in mind that it remains a fiction, and that the empirical domain is by no means the whole of what is real. That physical monism is not metaphysical monism and that it has ramifications beyond that of its intended domain.

  • "No modern science has dared to suggest or imagine how the two can be reconciled." I disagree. In fact, when asked, most neuroscientists would probably answer that they themselves aren't dualists (I rely on my reading, Neuroscience and Philosophy. Also, philosophy might have struggled, but still there have been attempts to overcome dualism, which, itself, seemed to be a problem to most. See more here: plato.stanford.edu/entries/dualism
    – iphigenie
    Jan 19, 2013 at 10:58
  • Also, you're claiming the existence of qualia, without any arguments or sources to support that claim. The discussion about qualia is nowhere near finished, while your question suggests that it is, namely in favour of qualia. Neither do I see how the "existence" of qualia is an argument in favour of dualism. I'd probably say the contrary is the case, at least when you discuss qualia the way neuroscience does.
    – iphigenie
    Jan 19, 2013 at 11:01
  • @iphigenie:Yes, you're probably right; I got a little carried away with my rhetoric - physicalism is a going concern - even if I disagree with it. Jan 19, 2013 at 11:41
  • @iphegenie:How does neuroscience explain qualia in a way that is non-dual? The reviewer of the book you mentioned wasn't convinced by the arguments made in the book. He, himself felt that consciousness is not just seated in the brain. Jan 19, 2013 at 11:49
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    @Pe: By the empirical domain, I mean all that we can quantitively measure. By physical monism, the scientific project to unify the empirical domain into a unified description. I agree that they don't have independent existence, and that the empirical domain is a subset of the phenomenal realm. Jan 19, 2013 at 21:12

All knowledge is subdivisions for a more convenient representation. I am not sure what you mean by artificial. That you are a person, and distinct from the air in the room you inhabit, is in some sense artificial, but it would be ludicrously inconvenient to not make that distinction.

Likewise with particles.

Of course you can play all sorts of other games ("I think I will use the name "George" for your left half plus the right half of the Great Pyramid of Giza plus all the photons 20 light years away that are coming from the Andromeda galaxy and will pass within 2 astronomical units of the earth"), but this isn't particularly interesting unless the result has some useful properties.


So can we say the universe is just 1 thing, and we have artificially subdivided it for a more convenient representation?

Only after it was chosen the best answer I could understand the question, I think :)

The author want defend the idea of monism within metaphysics which argues that the variety of existing things in the universe are reducible to one substance or reality and therefore that the fundamental character of the universe is unity.

A consequence of this view is that everyday objects such as tables, chairs, cars, buildings, and clouds do not exist. While there seem to be such things, this is only because there are elementary particles arranged in specific ways. For example, where it seems that there is a chair, there are only elementary particles arranged chairwise, like a chair. The particles we call a chair maintain a more or less stable arrangement for a while, which gives the impression of a single object. Unlike the pluralist point of view that there is many subatomic particles, the monist point the view is that there is just one type of substance, or a plank size fundamental substance/particle for example. A way to allow for the heterogeneity we see in the world without contradiction is to regionalize instantiation properties, for instance, the same particle show red here and green there, and to has distributional properties. Or create the "everything theory" of fundamental physics, to tie all the known forces into a unity.

But suppose the monist world that create the universe for for us. If the monist makes her universe the object of scientific study, it will find that it behaves with the same complexity as the universe described by a pluralist. Thus what pluralist calls "different things", the monist calls "the same things." Understood this way, the distinction between monist and pluralist collapses and amounts to different ways of describing the same thing: a massively complex process that causes all the same monist's and pluralist's experiences. Presumably having made the case that the monist scientist is actually a pluralist scientist, the monist applies Occam's Razor, and suggests to the monist scientist to prefer the pluralist's standard external “reality” over something like a monist's "reality". This is because the standard pluralist "reality" fits all the data available to the scientist, and on the monist's hypothesis is impossible to find differences, rendering superfluous the more complicated wording to account for all forms of heterogeneity we see in the world. The "everything theory" of fundamental physics, to tie all the known forces into a unity does not yet exist. Monism is a hope.

  • My reasoning is not a composition fallacy because it makes no such claims. I claim in 'theory' there are arbitrary properties. I don't care what they are. Nor do I ever claim any 2 things have similar properties. The universe is just one thing. Period. (that is inconvenient/awkward for physics).
    – z5h
    Jan 14, 2013 at 4:34
  • I changed the answer. Jan 22, 2013 at 10:56

I'm surprised no one has provided this link 1, to a theory called "One Electron Universe." I've read that it has been debunked, but still, you asked if this was an "explored idea," and the "One Electron Universe" shows that it is. Here's hoping it will help you think about the question further, and maybe lead you to some additional helpful references.

1 [One Electron Universe]1


You are right. There is a part of universe which cannot be measured. The impossibility to measure this "last particle's" properties is known as subjuctive (de)coherence.

In simple words, the observer can measure everything except himself. In each system that includes the observer there are states which the observer cannot distinguish however means he employs. You can see it as if the states were functions of themselves. This fact holds for any physical theory, but in quantum theory it is stronger than in classical.

For more detailed information, refer to this paper: https://homepages.fhv.at/tb/cms/?download=tbDISS.pdf


I agree with Rex Kerr, but will add that its not particularly useful or interesting just to notice that the universe has been conceptually portioned in the way it has. What is interesting is the way it has been divided has extremely useful consequences such as that our expectations of the behaviour of these chunks corresponds very closely to the behaviour we experience or measure.

Using the concept of or the word 'electron' or the symbol e- is handy in the extreme. If you've discovered a set of properties that you notice tends to repeat or instantiate itself consistently you might as well conceptually package it up and give it a name. Absolutely convenient.

Another way to look at it is as a way to compress information. Noticing that there are many repeating units in the universe each having exactly the same set of properties but differeing in their values vastly reduces the overhead required to gain knowledge of the universe. What would be the alternative? Simulating the entire universe. Say you are cooking and need a colander to drain some peas. It would be extremely inconveinent to have to concstruct and produce a colander in order to explain to your spouse that you needed one.

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