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There are many New Age websites claiming Everything is energy. Does this even make sense in philosophy of physics and metaphysics?

How can something be "made out of energy"? As far as I understood it energy is not a substance.

At the same time this Substance Monism idea in which everything is "Energy" is very appealing to me so I wonder if there some grain of truth in it.

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  • 1
    In fact physics indicates that matter either is energy or can be converted to/from energy, nuclear reactions being one example. However, what that means in most real-world situations isn’t easy to understand and might be enthusiastically embraced by New Age websites (I confess that I haven’t studies these and don’t intend to). As sand1 has pointed out though, nobody really has much grasp of what energy is.
    – Frog
    Sep 11 at 20:51
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    You should not take mottos for literal expression of a philosophy. "Everything is X" only means that X is central to one's metaphysics, it need not mean that it is a substance (non substance based metaphysics is popular these days) or that "everything" is literally X. Pythagoreans had "everything is number", there are information and process philosophies that can be similarly sloganed. Energeticism that took energy as the basis was popular in 19th century, see also Scherr et al.
    – Conifold
    Sep 12 at 4:55
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    Well, the first question would be: what do they mean by "energy"? What a physicist means by "energy" and what a New Age practitioner means by "energy" are very likely different. I don't know much about the latter, but I expect that's more in the supernatural realm, which, by definition, is something physics can say little to nothing about. A physics claim that "everything is energy" might refer to something like the idea of being able to turn matter into heat or that you can convert one form of matter to another, under the right circumstances.
    – NotThatGuy
    Sep 12 at 5:10
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    Crankery and scams are appealing to the ignorant, because if they weren't then they would quickly disappear. Check out choprawoo maker.
    – user21820
    Sep 12 at 14:41
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    Doesn't e=mc^2 imply that anything that is not currently energy (and therefore is mass) could be converted to energy under the right conditions? So the idea might be coherent, in the same way that "time is money" is coherent; not that they are the same thing, but that each is readily convertible to the other. Sep 12 at 20:06
20

Memorably, Feynman in his Lectures on Physics states:

It is important to realize that in physics today, we have no knowledge of what energy is.

Energy, the Subtle Concept. The discovery of Feynman’s blocks, from Leibniz to Einstein by Jennifer Coopersmith (Oxford UP, 2010) is a book that substantiates Feynman's claim. It begins by recalling the context, how speaking of simple blocks can be illuminating and ends by ruminating:

The concept of energy is here to stay. It is not sufficient for a concept just to be mathematically defined, measurable,and leading to consistent results—it must also get used. There is no doubt that ‘energy’ meets these requirements. We have shown that the physics and the mathematics move forward together, but it is impossible to tell where the mathematics ends and the physics begins, and vice versa. This is the real message of Feynman’s allegory and the reason why energy is such a slippery concept: the ‘blocks’ are the real thing, energy, and can be measured (in Joules); and they are also nothing more than the mathematical formulae ½ mv 2 , ∫ F . d r , mgh , ½ kT , ½ CV 2 , qV, mc 2 , and so on.

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    I think as is often the case, Feynman is glossing over the details to make drama for a popular audience. Surely the principle of least action gives substance to the meaning of energy, & a unified framework to the specific instances of those equations in the book you mention. I feel what you present is just obfuscation
    – CriglCragl
    Sep 13 at 15:14
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    What is meant by "simple blocks" here?
    – smcs
    Sep 14 at 7:53
  • @CraiglCraigl "Dark energy" about which we hear so much is a nice example of obfuscation, at least etymologically as obfuscāre (“to darken”= ob + fuscāre (“to make dark”), from fuscus (“dark”).
    – sand1
    Sep 14 at 18:20
  • @smcs read the lecture linked to in the first sentence.
    – Dave
    Sep 22 at 19:52
18

There are a number of quantities that physics has found to be conserved.

"Conserved" means that if you take a situation, and you measure what is in it, then something happens in it (where you measure all inputs and outputs), the measure of those quantities doesn't change.

These include:

  • Mass-Energy
  • Linear Momentum
  • Angular Momentum
  • Center of Momentum Velocity
  • Electric Charge
  • Color Charge
  • Weak Isospin
  • Probability

No experiment has proven that any one of the above is not conserved in any examined situation.

Under Noether's Theorem (proven by Emmy Noether, one of the most important mathematicians in history in my opinion), each of these conservation laws lines up with a symmetry in the mathematics of physics. Mass-Energy conservation, for example, can be shown to be mathematically equivalent to suitably constructed laws of physics not caring what time it is when it makes predictions.

The kind of "symmetry" Noether is talking about is a generalization of the symmetry you are used to. Some of the symmetries are exotic compared to what you might be used to.

The thing about Mass-Energy conservation is it means that it sort of implies that the two (mass and energy) are somehow the same thing. You can convert one to the other (with effort) and back again.

If you actually start looking really deeply into "solid matter", it ain't very solid. Much of what you consider "solid" is due to Pauli exclusion principle and the lowest energy states for Fermions crowding alternatives out, and increasingly high amounts of pressure being required to shove more Fermions into the matter.

Going deeper, electrons don't have much mass-energy; most of the mass-energy of "solid" matter comes from Neutrons and Protons. They, in turn, are made out of Quarks; most of their mass-energy isn't from the Quarks they are made out of, but rather the potential energy in the binding of the Quarks to each other. (There remains a very small "rest" mass that isn't produced by such binding)

It turns out that if you make a perfectly insulated box, and you heat it up, the box gets heavier. If you build a really powerful spring inside of it and you squeeze it shut, the box gets heavier. The degree that this adds weight and mass is tiny in most practical situations.

Atomic nuclei are basically tiny nearly weightless stuff that has a ridiculously powerful spring tightly coiled in it, and almost all of the mass of "stuff" comes from the tension on the spring, not the things that the springs are attached to.

And this doesn't mean that the things the spring is attached to -- the quarks -- are somehow not also energy. If you take a bunch of quarks and slam them into each other really really hard, you get a LOT more quarks appearing. They spew off in every direction.

The conservation laws above all hold in this collision, but we don't conserve "number of quarks". We conserve difference of quarks and antiquarks, we conserve color numbers, we conserve mass-energy, etc.

In that way, everything is energy. Also, in a similar way, everything is angular momentum. But the second statement is sort of less believable than the first.

Now, most conserved things are signed values or vectors. Mass-energy tends to be denoted as a positive value (but see stuff like the Casmir effect; the zero point of mass-energy is nearly arbitrary). Conservation laws care about the change in Energy in the system, not the total.

Strange things are predicted to occur at the limits of this. If you take a complete vacuum, you'll see one thing. If you start accelerating fast enough in that vacuum, the math predicts that you'll experience a "heat bath" of energy being emitted from the vacuum. Such a "heat bath" includes particles that you won't experience if you where not accelerating.

So, it is plausible that "everything is energy" doesn't go far enough.

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  • You don't touch on the Higgs mechanism. And, what about the Unruh effect?
    – CriglCragl
    Sep 13 at 23:34
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New Age websites are allowed to make the claim that anything is anything else. This makes no sense in the world of physics, so you will not see such claims made on physics websites.

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  • Everything is energy in modern physics too, not so?
    – user4894
    Sep 11 at 21:48
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    @user4894 In physics, no object is energy. Things have energy, just like they have other numerical quantities.
    – Sandejo
    Sep 12 at 2:34
  • @Sandejo Good point, thanks.
    – user4894
    Sep 12 at 5:25
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    When looking at things through a reductive lens, modern physics can, in theory, decompose its predictions of reality down to the evolution of field equations (barring some as-yet unresolved technical issues involving gravity.) In the fully reductive view, physics doesn't need to include 'objects' in the conceptual sense at all and one could argue that its core ontology is actually "everything is math". Which is to say that it asserts a predictable universe behaving according to a set of equations from which all the higher level conceptual 'things' emerge.
    – Dan Bryant
    Sep 12 at 15:06
  • @DanBryant interestingly, I'd say the way physics research works is congruent with the "everything is math[s]" claim, but I think that if you polled physicists most would say that the maths is just a convenient description of the underlying reality (or maybe this is my experimentalist bias)
    – llama
    Sep 14 at 18:37
4

In a nuclear explosion, we might say, "matter is converted into energy." But you can't exactly see energy or hold a piece of energy in your hand. It's not "glowy stuff" (as often depicted in fiction and new-age media), and it's not the same as photons. Rather than a "thing," it's better to think of energy as an attribute that things - or arrangements of things - can have, which is conserved among interactions between things.

More specifically, in a nuclear explosion, mass energy is converted into a variety of other forms, including:

  • the rapid motion of neutrons and other massive particles, so they have high kinetic energy
  • high-frequency photons (the higher the frequency, the more energy in the photon)
  • the random, rapid jiggling of molecules (heat energy)
  • a concussive air blast

The energy that was in the mass is now energy in other forms.

Note that momentum is another quantity that is conserved among interactions between things. If you hit a billiard ball with another billiard ball, momentum has been transferred from one ball to the other. Do we say that billiard balls are therefore made out of momentum, or that momentum is a "thing" separate from the billiard balls? See conservation laws.

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The statement is made in the context of the belief that one can effect change or exert control over things that are otherwise out of one's control (like The Secret and its ilk). Energy is thought to be able to be controlled or manipulated in a way that matter is not. Because everything is either matter or energy, and energy and matter are the same, hence everything is energy and everything is potentially subject to control or manipulation.

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Energy is not a "thing" per se, but rather "the capacity to cause change". So from that perspective the right way to think about the New Age message is less that it's trying to make some sort of scientific claim, but rather a sort of inspirational message that anything or anyone is capable of change. Something meant to reassure, when someone is hurting, or fearing being stuck.

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  • According to who, is it that definition? Please ground your points with references, or clarify by what or who's framework.
    – CriglCragl
    Sep 14 at 23:32
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    – Community Bot
    Sep 14 at 23:32
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Energy as a concept, is the result of the journey of unification that the subject of physics has been on. Before Newton 'the heavens' were simply a separate domain with different rules. Physics was full of many such partitions, like the idea temperature was a special substance (choleric, a legacy of the theory of four elements) which got unified with macroscopic kinematics through Boltzman's thermodynamics. Magnetic & electric phenomena were similarly partitioned, then unified into a picture with energy, and fields.

Mass was historically used as synonym for substance. It was viewed as constituting the things that had energy, with fields transmitting changes. Relativity brought a further unification, revealing that mass can be created by energy. Cosmic rays illustrate why we say energy - wherever the kinetic energy of a cosmic ray, whether a photon or electron or helium nucleus or something more exotic, if the kinetic energy is over a threshold a collusion can create an electron-positron pair.

Saying 'energy' is a way of saying this, that there is a language which we can use to talk about all these situations, kinetics, thermodynamics, fields, and particle creation and decay. I'd say it's more accurate to call energy a unifying language, than a substance. Very general ideas like the principle of least action and stable and unstable stationary energy levels allow prediction of very diverse terms.

So, the question that should be asked is, can the language of energy discuss all phenomena? And the answer, is no. We need another language, that of information theory. Entropy is in that language, and was recognised early on in thermodynamics to be as important as energy. Entropy came to be regarded as a secondary property of the fundamental substance, mass, like energy. But unlike mass, it cannot be absorbed into the energy picture.

The historic perspective of science has been of substance monism, in the sense that every 'thing' can in principle be converted into every other thing (within constraints like conservation laws). The journey of unification has been to the current situation of four fundamental fields, with local quantum-number properties associated with particles within them - the 'substances' that have properties, are quantifiable in those four fields; with the expectation of a future unification of those fields, at least in the very early universe.

And information, as a secondary property of those. But information is proving to be a crucial bridging concept between relativity & QM, both being fundamentally about constraints on information flow. There is even Verlinde's theory that gravity is caused by information. Loop Quantum Gravity aims to find gravity, time & space from a more fundamental 'spin network'. And there is an increasing focus on information-as-fundamental approaches, like Wheeler's 'It From Bit' doctrine, also called the Participatory Anthropic Principle. As I say, I think the proper way to regard this is not as a universal substance, but a universal language. Currently though science relies in a property dualism of energy & information, with the unproven assumption of substance monism.

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Sometimes the apparently metaphysical claims of contemplative and New Age people need to be interpreted differently from how we would normally interpret those types of claim.

For example, it is a common contemplative claim that "there is no such thing as the self". As a straightforward truth claim, this is clearly (or at least, most likely) false. What they usually mean - but often fail to say - is to add a prefix: "From the subjective point of view, there is no such thing as the self". That is still open to debate of course, but has a greater possibility of being true.

I suspect that the claims about everything being energy are similar: "From the subjective point of view, everything appears as a pattern of energy."

To be honest, even here the word energy should really be in scare-quotes, as it does not mean what physicists would mean by the word.

Unfortunately, I think that although many New Age people base their beliefs on this sort of introspective / subjective perspective, they do then make genuine metaphysical assertions based on them. ie, they would really claim that everything is energy (regardless of the subjective caveat / prefix). If this is what they are claiming, then they are likely wrong - or if correct, only by accident - and have no real basis for the claim.

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  • I don't think you have meaningfully addressed the question. What do you interpret energy as being? Why do people have the idea everything is energy, & is it just newagers? Surely it is exactly in physics, our best attempt to be objective, that the self disappears, into chemistry &c. Whereas subjectively our identity & that of others is obvious - because that's what our neocortex evolved to do? (Dunbar Number, mirror neurons)
    – CriglCragl
    Sep 15 at 14:42
  • Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Sep 22 at 9:21

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