I am not looking to stir up anything, but is an electron an essential object?

To answer this question, it may first be beneficial to ask "Is a brick an essential object?"

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    Could you share some context? Why do you ask this? Are you using a definition of "Essential Object" or did you read the term somewhere (where?)? – user2953 May 31 '13 at 8:51
  • I read the term in Alfred North Whitehead's "Process and Reality" – Joey Morehouse May 31 '13 at 8:59
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    Electrons and bricks: philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/6112/3164 – user3164 May 31 '13 at 9:37

Inspired to post my answer after I read Moziburs:

If whatever is essential is also necessary: No, electrons dont exist necessarily. There is a possible world consisting only of gunk, no electron is member of the world (see Ted Sider: Van Inwagen and the Possibility of Gunk). For more gunk, see SEP on Monism.

Reading essential as fundamental, according to some: Yes, the electron has no proper parts and therefore is essential. (It might still be possible in the future to divide it into some other stuff, which makes that stuff fundamental)

According to some others (e.g. Schaffer): No, the only fundamental thing is the world.

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  • Wikipedia, amongst others, seems to disagree with "the electron has parts". "An electron has no known components or substructure. It is generally thought to be an elementary particle." – user3164 May 31 '13 at 14:27
  • I thought they yet could break it, I'll edit my answer :) – Lukas May 31 '13 at 14:35
  • @Lukas: I don't think you should - you offered a speculation - which is fine. After all in string theory what exactly is an electron? I have some vague memory that it is the end of a string that carries charge. Interesting use of fundamental by Shaffer - he's obviously working in a naturalistic framework. In a theological one - say Spinoza - it is God that is fundamental or neccessary being and the he is immanent in Nature. I'm not sure that this fully describes what essence is about though. For example suppose there is a clone of myself. I'd claim my essence is missing. – Mozibur Ullah May 31 '13 at 15:17
  • If someone made a brick that looks like a brick and is as large as a sky-scraper I'd claim the essence of a brick is missing. That is it can't be used to build something. But these are fairly trivial observations. – Mozibur Ullah May 31 '13 at 15:18
  • Now, as I would do too, you use essential as a subset of properties. I have a couple of properties. Some of them are essential. But OP asked if bricks or electrons themself are essential. And we still don't know what OP actually means by essential :P – Lukas May 31 '13 at 15:59

This looks suspiciously like something from an anecdote of Feynman from one of his popular collection of raconteuring tales to be told round a barbeque with a crowd of admiring physicists-in-waiting.

Now, an electron is an essential object in modern physics; but no physicist will refer to it in that way - the usual terminology is a fundamental particle. It looks similar, but it isn't - as both these terms fundamental AND particle have certain meanings within the discipline of physics that one imbibes as one studies the subject.

Essence is something that was begun to be discussed in antiquity - it has a long history that I'm not acquainted with. I imagine it is this tradition that feeds into Whiteheads book. To understand why he is interested in this - one should look at the tradition so that the term has some meaning.


According to Aristotle, essence is what defines a something as opposed to merely talking about its existence. Horses have essences and so do bricks & electrons, but these only secondarily. It is substances that have essences primarily. This is the proper sense of essence. So the question should be refined - do electrons & bricks have essences primarily? The answer is, they do if they are substances.

Now, a substance is neccesarily self-subsistent.

Hence a brick is obviously not a substance.

But is an electron? If we consider it to be fundamental as in QFT, that is atomic then it appears possibly yes. But this actually cannot be correct for do we not require spacetime for it to be in? So, no; it is not a substance.

But suppose QFT is only an approximation to String Theory. Then strings are fundamental and electrons are not - they are vibrations of strings. Strings are not atomic since a string can always be split given enough energy - that is it is infinitely divisible. But they are neccessary to build matter. But are they self-subsistent? No, they are not. For they also require space-time. So, even in this theory they are not substances.

Now suppose there was a hypothetical theory in which spacetime & electrons were vibrations of let us suppose of strings. Then are they substances? I think this time yes. For I can always imagine fewer strings, or just a string by itself. So, here strings are substances and are primarily essential. But, still an electron being a vibration of a string is not primarily essential.

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I believe "substance" and "essence" in the sense of the old philosophers and "existence" in the sense of modern physics are concepts from different worlds of thought, which are not compatible.

When particle physicists say that a certain particle "exists", they mean: we can prove statistically that there is (with a certainty of 99.x%), this and that relationship between the following measurements. In our framework for explaining the world (the standard model), we express this as a particle with the properties X, Y and Z.

There is no reference to substance or essence in these statements. Substance and essence are metaphysical properties, which are in a different category from physical observations. In the early 20th century, with the advent of relativity theory and quantum theory, physicists experienced the shock that basically everything which they had assumed to be fundamental laws of nature needed to be revised and changed, because it proved insufficient to explain what they saw from the world.

Of course, still today physicists like to believe in their models as "true", i.e. describing a fundamental, objective reality of nature. But in fact they are merely "useful", i.e. they allow to predict results of actions and create a certain pleasing way to sort and categorize what we observe. But, if physicist were confronted with a new and radically different model, which explained things which were so far unexplained, or which would arrive at the same predictions with significantly less effort, they'd be bound by scientific ethics to abandon their old model and adopt the new, as they did e.g. with the attempts to describe atoms within classical physics.

In the light of this, and expecting that science doesn't stop to progress, it would be, in my opinion, premature and careless to attribute "substance" or "essence" to any "physical" object. It might always turn out to be an artifact of the physical model, like e.g. "ether", the hypothetical medium of electromagnetic waves which was abolished by relativity theory.

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  • I don't think at all that physicists like to believe that their (currently established) models are true. In a sense they know those (or at least some of them) are false. I believe that physicists think of their theories as effective theories. (Note the "explicitly without the claim"-part in the Wikipedia entry.) Those theories do put some constraints on future theories and I am not so sure about the possibility of "radical" different models, unless you count, e.g., CAs as "radical". – user3164 Jun 1 '13 at 19:06
  • The example of phonons in WikiPedia is different from electrons: when physicists teach about phonons, they explicitly say that this is just a transfer of the particle formalism into a system where those particles actually can't be identified. When they talk about electrons, they really believe that they exist. They might admit that it could be otherwise in a discussion like this, but in normal life, while conducting experiments, or for a non-scientific audience they would normally not feel any doubts. This is what I meant with "they like to believe". – hbarck Jun 2 '13 at 8:24
  • I'm not sure whether I understand you correctly. I don't see how the electron could in the future be thought of as "not-existing". It will, IMO, always be useful in certain domains, as opposed to some "pre-scientific" theories which were wrong in all domains. Note that atoms still exist, even when they are not thought of as fundamental anymore. However, whatever they are is still largely constrained by the effective theory of chemistry. (I'm sort of guessing my way through here. I hope it makes sense.) – user3164 Jun 2 '13 at 8:59
  • Actually, I think we should continue this conversation in chat, but I'm still looking for a way to invite you... Does "ether" say anything to you? As I wrote, it was generally believed to be the medium in which light waves moved, like water is the medium for sea waves. While it explains a lot about how light behaves, the concept was completely dropped after 1900, when the Michelson experiment failed to measure the speed of the Earth relative to the ether, and Einstein formulated the relativity theory as a result. This could happen again, to any existing model... – hbarck Jun 2 '13 at 9:25

In particle physics, an elementary particle or fundamental particle is a particle not known to have any substructure, thus it is not known to be made up of smaller particles. If an elementary particle truly has no substructure, then it is one of the basic building blocks of the universe from which all other particles are made. In the Standard Model of particle physics, the elementary particles include the fundamental fermions (including quarks, leptons, and their antiparticles), and the fundamental bosons (including gauge bosons and the Higgs boson). Although elementary particles are not made up of smaller particles, some of them may change to lighter particles (according to specific rules).


Behold, in the left-bottom corner, in the green trousers, the electron:

enter image description here

I'll skip over the fact that one can see an electron as an excitation of an electron field (which, I believe, is what the Standard Model technically does).

However, the Standard Model may/might/should/can/will/is/whatever not be the end-point. That's why there is a Wikipedia entry for Physics beyond the Standard Model. For example, "[i]n string theory, the different types of observed elementary particles arise from the different quantum states of these strings." That may suggest that the string may be the "essential object" (whatever that might mean), and not specific states of it. On the other hand, if an electron is a string and if a string is an "essential object", then so is an electron (but one of many).

In string theory an electron is still an electron, but it is described by the equations for a vibrating, interacting string rather than by the equations for a point.

Gordon Kane, Supersymmetry and Beyond, p. 122

Any object made of other objects is composite, as are atoms, nuclei, and protons. If quarks and leptons [e.g., the electron] had followed the historical trend that each level of matter turned out to be composites made of smaller constituents, experiments [presumably after the Feynman brick episode] should already have shown evidence of their compositeness. That, combined with theoretical arguments, strongly suggest quarks and leptons may be the ultimate constituents of matter, the indivisible "atoms" of the Greeks.

Gordon Kane, Supersymmetry and Beyond, p. 158

Anyway, beyond the Standard Model is work in progress.

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