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The Physical Aspect

Notes and thoughts on the physical aspect.

Briefly ...

We experience the physical aspect intuitively and most directly as forces, energy and matter, whether at the microscopic, human-level or macroscopic sizes. Concepts that are meaningful in the physical aspect include: material (solid, liquid, gas), electricity, friction, pressure, heat, current, power, vibration, dissolving, diffusion, chemical activity, and so on. Disciplines centred on the physical aspect include not only the various branches of physics but also chemistry, materials science and fluid mechanics. Physical theory recognises four main forces, gravity, electromagnetic, weak nuclear and strong nuclear, with the latter three, and possibly gravity too, unified into one. It sees matter as energy. Dooyeweerd's discussion of the physical aspect, in [1955,II, 95,99,100,101], is brief, mainly within his discussion of the kinematic to differentiate them, though it crops up occasionally elsewhere.

The good possibility that the physical aspect introduces to temporal reality is irreversibility, persistence and causality. In responding to laws of the physical aspect, temporal reality is transformed continuously from one state into the next in a way that persists and cannot (usually) be undone or reversed as is possible under the kinematic aspect. Because of these, it is with the physical aspect that we first experience time as past-present-future. At the human and macroscopic spans, physical causality is deterministic (and hence predictable from initial conditions), though at the microscopic span of quantum physics it might not be.

Defining the Aspect x

Kernel: x

rather than:

Some central themes x

To Dooyeweerd the physical aspect covers many 'levels' from micro to macro, including:

Scientific areas of knowledge within the physical aspect
Area Issues dealt with Some theories or paradigms
(Most to be supplied)
Quantum physics non-locality and non-determinism Schrödinger's Wave Equation and its various interpretations
Atomic physics structure of atoms, radioactive decay, elements
Molecular physics Bonds and substances
Solids Crystalline structures, amorphous structures Pauling's Rules
Liquids Fluid dynamics Navier-Stokes equations
Gases Pressures and temperatures, entropy
Chemistry Chemical reactions
Materials science Corrosion, stresses, cracking, etc.
Geology Formation and erosion of land mass Plate tectonics
Astronomy Behaviour of planets, stars, galaxies, black holes, inter-stellar space Hawking Radiation

Common Misconceptions x

We often talk of physical 'things'. But it seems to me that there are no 'things', no 'entities', when we view reality purely from the physical aspect without other aspects. To our best understanding at this time, all the fundamental laws of physics operate throughout space, even if their effect might fall off rapidly in an (mathematically) inverse-power way. What we see as, and call, 'physical things' such as molecules, atoms or sub-atomic particles is actually continuous with the whole physical cosmos. There seem to be no distinct boundaries in physics as such. For example:

But also at the macro level we find lack of true physical boundaries ...

Superconductivity seems also to not a discrete 'thing'.

In most of these examples the supposed 'things' are distinct only when we experience them via our sensitive and/or analytical functioning. From the physical aspect we cannot speak fundamentally of 'things'; we can only speak of 'stuff'. To get real 'things' we must go to the biotic notion of organism.

But most of these examples are medium-sized. What about electrons, atoms, molecules, etc. and planets, galaxies, etc.? Are not these 'things'?

However molecules and planets do have some temporary thingness, which anticipates biotic thingness.

The Aspect Itself

Non-Absoluteness x

It was easy to (mis)assume that physical laws were absolute when we knew only Newtonian and Maxwellian laws. But both Eistein's relativity and Quantum Theory undermined this, and confirm Dooyeweerd's contention that, like all other aspectual functioning, physical functioning is non-absolute. Briefly:

In this way, physical functioning proclaims its own non-absoluteness.

Special Science x

Institutions x

Shalom x

Harm x

Contributions from the Field x

Gerardus 't Hooft

For centuries, physical scientists asked "What are things made of?" and produced answers such as that atoms are nuclei with electrons whizzing around them. But these answers led to what was known as the Infinity Puzzle: many numbers come out as infinite. Gerardus 't Hooft asked a different question, "What forces hold things together?" or "Where did things come from?", and this resolved that puzzle. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1999.

The latter is more commensurate with Dooyeweerd's ideas. These new questions shifted the focus from things to laws, and to what is more meaningful in the physical aspect: forces, fields, etc. One might even say that the laws of the physical aspect does not know of 'things' like electrons, but rather about forces and laws that pertain across all physical space. Is it significant that both Dooyeweerd and 't Hooft came from the Netherlands?

Grand Universal Theory

The current attempt among physicists to reach a Grand Universal Theory (GUT) in which the four basic kinds of force are unified into one type, and Quantum and Relativity Theories are united, is relevant here. If they are successful then they will have found a way of unifying all the kernel themes of the aspect and ensuring its strong coherence as an aspect. If they do not then it means that the aspect has within it several distinct sub-kernels. It will be interesting to see if they do because it is an open question whether aspectuality involves everything in that aspect being linked together into some GUT of that aspect.

In any case, the GUT (Grand Universal Theory) is not strictly a TOE (Theory of Everything, as it has sometimes been dubbed), because 'everything' must include all the other aspects. Since they are, fundamentally, irreducible to the physical aspect, the GUT that physicists are perhaps nearing cannot be for everything, but only for the physical aspect. So, when TOE is mentioned, the prefix "physical" must always be understood to be added to it. Each of the other aspects might have their own GUTs, which will be different in style and nature and will never be reducible to the physical GUT. (For some aspects the science is so young that no serious glimpse of a GUT has even appeared.)

One approach to obtaining a GUT is String Theory. Another, just emerged, is Horava's reinterpretation of space and time.

Apace-time and Horava's Reinterpretation

After Einstein published his Special Relativity at the start of the 20th century, Minowski argued for a union of space and time: 'space-time' - which idea has prevailed ever since in physics, with time being treated as a dimension like space. Problems have emerged in trying to integrate General Relativity with Quantum Theory (to yield a GUT). In 2009 Petr Horava suggested splitting space from time, and his suggestion seems to solve some of these problems - including dark matter and dark energy and the direction of time. One of the benefits of Horava's suggestion, compared with other attempts at GUT such as string theory, is that it is much easier to grasp and much more in line with our experience.

Treating time as a dimension like space was always problematic for Dooyeweerdian philosophy, which sees time, even physical time, as of a completely different nature from space. Moreover, in General Relativity, time could go backwards as well as forwards, which goes against both empirical experience and Dooyeweerd's philosophy. But under Horava's reinterpretation time is again treated differently, and has had its directionality restored (can only go forward). If Horava is proven to be valid and acceptable, then this discomfort for Dooyeweerdian philosophy is removed.

The Aspect Among Others

Law-dependencies x

Analogies x

Antinomies x

Common Reductions x

Genetically Modified Foods

In cross breeding, we are using biotic laws and manipulations to influence a biological process. In genetic modification, we are attempting to use physical laws and manipulations to bring about a biological change. To say that genetic modification is just the same as cross breeding is reducing biotic laws to physical.

The Observer Effect in some Quantum Theory

Some Quantum theory tries to explain some physical happenings, such as the famous double-slit experiment, by the observer effect. It is held that the observer changes what happens. Now, at the macro level, there is indeed an observer effect, noted by Heisenberg: e.g. light shone on something in order to see it slightly changes the thing physically; that is now what we are concerned with here. But at the micro level of quantum mechanics, it is held by some that the actual physical outcome is determined by observer even when there is no physical interaction (e.g. by using equipment that rules out all but one possibility). This interpretation of physical rules is still contested (see Wikipedia Observer Effect (Physics)).

Is the problem with it that it tries to reduce the analytical aspect, which is key in the act of observing, to the physical? Because of this, most quantum theorists do not take account of the complexities of observation.

Some say that the 'observer' does not need to be human (analytical subject) but a machine designed or programmed to detect photons - but from a Dooyeweerdian perspective, that machine is an analytical proxy-subject [Breems 2017], i.e. the analytical functioning is built-into it by the human designer. With these notions of reductions, subjectproxy-subject, Dooyeweerd might help quantum theorists think more clearly about this area.

Notes x

On Causality

In everyday experience, physical causality means determinism, a machine-like functioning in which when X happens, Y is bound to happen, inescapably. For example hit a pebble and it will move. Such causality governs the physical aspect of all things, from electric current flowing in conductors in our computers or mobile phones, through the chemistry of plants and animal bodies, to the path a satellite takes through the solar system or the behaviour of whole galaxies.

It is this deterministic character of our physical functioning that provides the reliability of our predictions, and ensures that all these things occur reliably. Physical determinative causality is a blessing which we take for granted.

But through the lens of quantum theory physicists believe that at very tiny distances, physical functioning is not so determinative. There is indeterminacy, because even particle have wavelike properties, and one cannot tell precisely 'where' a wave 'is' nor the spatial extent of its influence. This has been used by some to try to escape the materialistic implications of physical determinism; see the notes on freewill and choice. We have a different way of 'escaping' determinism.

On Material and Mass

To see the physical aspect as centering on material and mass is useful for everyday living, but Dooyeweerd always preferred centering on energy. Why?

We can see why when we remember two fundamental findings of twentieth century physics. First, energy and mass are equivalent, under Einstein's famous theories, so that only one is strictly necesssary. Second, when we go down to the tiny 'particles' like the electron, the uncertainty principle states that their position is not determined - because they behave more waves (energy) than like particles of matter. Hence energy is considered the proper kernel of the physical aspect.


Physics and chemistry are traditionally seen as two separate sciences, a third being biology. While biology is linked to the separate biotic aspect, why are physics and chemistry linked to the same aspect?

The answer is that the laws of chemistry are wholly derivable (in principle) from those of physics, while the laws of biology are not. That is, we can derive laws of chemistry merely by lots of calculations using the laws about energy levels, masses, momenta, etc. of all the atoms and molecules involved. But we cannot, claims Dooyeweerd, reduce the laws of the life sciences to physics/chemistry in this way. Life processes are governed by laws over and above those that govern chemical processes.

(Of course, many today who were brought up on the assumption that life processes are merely chemical happenings will be upset by such a claim. But the fact that it has been (much) harder to bridge the gap between life functions and chemical processes than between chemical and physical processes is evidence that perhaps the claim may be correct.)


Breems N. 2017. Subject-by-proxy: A tool for reasoning about programmer responsibility in artificial agents. Ethicomp, 5-8 June 2017, De Montfort University, U.K.

This is part of The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Questions or comments would be welcome.

Copyright (c) 2004 Andrew Basden. But you may use this material subject to conditions.

Written on the Amiga with Protext.

Created: by 16 March 1997. Last modified: 3 July 1998 Reorganised the page and added reduction inherent in genetic modification. 30 August 1998 rearranged and tidied. 19 April 1999 added the themes of Field Interaction and fluid dynamics, and analogy to kinematics. 13 January 2001 Section on GUT. 7 February 2001 copyright, email. 3 October 2003 .nav, and some shalom items. 30 December 2004 antic. 24 August 2005 no 'things'. 21 July 2008 causality label inserted, with text, and link to freewill. 17 February 2009 mechanism. 14 March 2009 table of areas, and a few other mods. 22 September 2010 Dooyeweerd's and Basden's kernel; corrected link. 12 October 2010 Horava, rewrote GUT; more sciences. 27 October 2011 'tHooft. 6 November 2015 causality. 21 September 2016 briefly. 29 September 2020 Reduction: quantum observer; ref to Breems proxy-subject; added a few theories to table. 24 November 2021 clock time common to all. 29 September 2022 electron a pertubation; some rw. 31 January 2023 string theory and Branes, intro "notes". 26 October 2023 superconductivity.