The Electric Field is Real: Freeman Dyson


The neuroself framework is an attempt at a “bottom up” model of how the material world creates human subjectivity. The ongoing “top down” reverse-engineering effort in modern neuroscience, in which we take folk psychology as a given and work backwards to figure out how the brain makes it, is prone to errors. The most serious of these is that it is unlikely that words which evolved to managed social relationships between featherless bipeds will intrinsically describe the functioning of neurons, which have a far wider distribution. This would be like having the language you use to describe the image on your computer’s screen right now also describe the functioning of its motherboard. It is more likely that we need a translation key; that key is not currently offered in mainstream neuroscience.

This critique explains why sticking a brain in a scanner, telling it “feel sad”, and then seeing what part of it lights up is, as a technique, vulnerable to the question “what if sadness doesn’t exist at the neuronal level?”  By insisting on using the language of emotion, we have painted ourselves into a corner by treating sadness as a psychological primitive when it isn’t one. The circumstantial proof of this is that in a universe we assume is unified, this approach runs into an  explanatory gap when it is found that the language of sadness doesn’tdescribe the brain.  Even for those unbothered by this problem, and aspiring only to solve the easy problem, few folk psychology words seem like good candidates to be primitives. Thought, feeling, sensation, action, belief and so forth are unlikely to prove useful in describing the physical brain; there are too many to all be true primitives, they are too vague, they only make sense in complex organisms and could not have arisen through gradual random evolution.

A non-reverse engineering approach, or a  forward engineering approach, defined as “the traditional process of moving from high-level abstractions and logical, implementation-independent designs to the physical implementation of a system” may be a solution.  Though initially ridiculous to some (“what does the electromagnetic field have to do with psychology?”) forward engineering is guaranteed to avoid running into the Explanatory Gap and has the potential to build a model of the neuroself that explains medication and therapy, mind and brain, in a single framework.

In this approach, as when building anything from scratch, one starts with a small number of primitives, which have the potential to produce emergent (far from equilibrium). The electromagnetic field (EMF) is a good candidate for a primitive. Given that the force that almost exclusively governs the structure of electrons orbiting nuclei (the other two govern the nucleus itself) is electromagnetism; given that electrons are key to all chemical bonding and thus the physical structure of the body; given that the EMF stores energy and communicates that energy to matter through charge; given that contouring of the EMF determines the movement of matter, but is caused by charge and called voltage, and finally given that the human brain clearly evolved to manipulate voltage in the service of perception and movement, we need to understand what, exactly, the EMF is and whether it is “real” rather than a mere bookkeeping convenience.

This in mind, I just found a  brief and highly readable essay essay by Freeman Dyson called  Why is Maxwell’s Theory so Hard to Understand?.pdf (link here), but thought I’d summarize its gist:

He begins with an interesting historical note, which is that Maxwell, through an excess of modesty (or something…) seemed to do all he could to avoid announcing his equations in a way that the wider scientific community could grasp, leading to a long unnecessary twenty-year delay in their dissemination. Dyson shows Maxwell burying his lead, literally, in a 1865 speech about someone else before – his audience likely somewhat sleepy – he announced that “another theory of electricity which I prefer denies action at a distance and attributed electric action to tensions and pressures in an all-pervading medium, these stresses being the same in kind with those familiar to engineers, and the medium being identical with that in which light is supposed to be propagated.” The point here: Maxwell himself thought the EMF was real and, in support of the charge of modesty, Maxwell didn’t even name himself as the discoverer of his own equations!

History done, Dyson gets into his main metaphysical point (though I don’t think he ever uses this word and does not seem particularly interested in philosophy in the essay). This is to emphasize that most working physicists believe that fields are real and, indeed, more “fundamental” and basic than particles, and the classical world that particles make. Several philosophers of science have lately taken to proving this more rigorously, but Dyson’s disinterest in philosophy per se gives us a glimpse into the beliefs of mainstream physicists. As a review of many physics texts will show, as a practical matter physicists today generally have abandoned Feynman’s nihilism about knowing what is real, and assume that fields are real. Dyson clearly regards them as more real than the world we call the world, as he sees them as the ground in which classical physics plays out.

Readers who do not realize that fields solve the problem of action-at-a-distance, and that action-at-a-distance was one of the major bugaboos of physics prior to the modern era (and is what made Einstein’s theory of gravitation such a profound refutation of the implications of Newton – though Newton himself did not believe his equations had ontological standing), may not appreciate his next point. But if you look at Coulomb’s law you will see it presents no variable that explains how the two charges “know” of one another’s existence. The equation does not posit a mechanism by which the news of one particle is sent to the other.

He glancingly discusses something that the philosopher Marc Lange has written more or less a whole book on. This is that fields – particularly the electromagnetic field – solve the problem of action-at-a-distance by showing that the information about one particle travels through the field (at the speed of light, as light) and thus is locally causal.

Finally, he again gets into what in philosophical hands would be a goldmine of a concept, but merely treats it common sensically (and just as well, perhaps). He argues that there is an intrinsic craziness to applying the language of classical physics – which is what human language evolved to describe – to the electromagnetic field. He has a lovely anecdote to show this, in which he shows that the unit in which the electric field is measured – the square root of the joule (per cubic meter) –  is in principle beyond linguistic description. He points out that no one will ever, ever, ever see the square root of a joule.  Therefore, he says, applying a language tailor-made for our reality to a more fundamental (ultimate?) reality seems foolhardy. If the “material” world is in a sense the square of a more fundamental underlying reality, then we are locked out of visualizing ultimate reality.

He never mentions mysticism – or even speculative philosophy – but one can feel a concern with the Nature of the Real lapping at the edges of his essay.

The applet for visualizing the EMF on which I made the image for this post is here.

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About Peter Freed, M.D.

I am a psychiatrist (psychopharmacology and psychotherapy) specializing in the so-called "personality disorders," particularly narcissistic and borderline personality disorders. I was a Fellow and then an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia from 2004- 2011. I am currently in private practice in NYC.