The Metaphysics of Polarity
by Dee Wilson
The dictionary definition of metaphysics is “the branch of philosophy that deals with first principles and seeks to explain the nature of being
or reality (ontology) and of the origin and structure of the universe.” Metaphysics has a bad reputation among many scientists and philosophers who associate the term with speculation regarding nebulous concepts such as “Being,” “Reality,” “Nothingness” that have no concrete meaning and do not figure in scientific theories. However, there is nothing nebulous about polarity, variations of which are present in the Big Bang, the creation of matter, star formation and in the maintenance and death of stars, the biological evolution of mind from single celled bacteria to human consciousness, social evolution, and the bipolar features of culture and human psychology.
This article argues that polarity is the organizing cosmic principle from Big Bang to human psychology and much that is in between; and that this principle is neither hidden or abstract; quite the opposite. My view is that the cosmos declared its organizing principle in its first instant, i.e., one billionth of a second, and has continued to explore this theme throughout its history, including the creation of life. This exploration may be viewed as an experiment, an adventure, or an entertainment for the Creator(s); or all of the above and more. The cosmos is like a symphony that announces itself in its first notes, and then pursues these themes in a dazzling array of ways for its own mysterious ends.
The Big Bang and its aftermath
In 2021, I disseminated a lengthy article, “Four Patterns in Cosmic Creation,” which identified the following patterns revealed in the first instant, i.e., one billionth of a second of the Big Bang:
The indissoluble union of creation and destruction
the opposition of polarized forces
broken symmetries that make creation possible
phase transitions, i.e., dramatic changes in the characteristics of the early universe resulting from changes in temperature.
Another way of stating the same theme is that Polarity, the organizing principle of cosmic creation has several dimensions: a) creation/ destruction of matter at every instant b) the opposition of fundamental forces, e.g., gravity/the electroweak force c) broken symmetries that led to the four fundamental forces and account for the vast preponderance of matter vs. anti-matter and d) phase transitions that apply an either/or pattern to changes in the early universe. According to Guido Tonelli’s account in The Story of How Everything Began (2019) these patterns were already present at 10-32 after the Big Bang.
Tonelli offers an unconventional account of the Big Bang:
“If the universe is born from a point into which a tremendous amount of energy and mass are concentrated, producing an extremely dense and hot system that expands at a furious rate, what physical phenomena had managed to concentrate everything to such an exceptional condition in the first place? … to a dimensionless point with infinite density and curvature – what physicists call a singularity?” (pp. 30-31)
Tonelli asserts that the void from which the universe was created “is not a philosophical system, it is a particular material system, one in which matter and energy are null.” And “the uncertainty principle allows for the temporary formation in the vacuum of microscopic bubbles of energy which then quickly disappear. … The quantum vacuum fluctuations can take the form of spontaneous generation of particle- anti-particle pairs. The void … may be seen as an inexhaustible deposit of matter and anti-matter. (pp. 39-40). Tonelli maintains that the physics from which the early universe was created is “a material process verified daily in particle accelerators …” revealing that “the void is a living thing … full of potential, pregnant with (particle/antiparticle) opposites. It is not nothingness – it is a system overflowing with unlimited quantities of matter and antimatter.” (pp. 41-42) Tonelli acknowledges that the void described by quantum mechanics is not the singularity of a dimensionless point of infinite density, the physics of which is unknown. Rather, “The universe with zero total energy constitutes an important alternative to the traditional theory of the Big Bang …” (p. 42) He endorses a compromise between the Big Bang as usually described, i.e., the instant of cosmic creation, and creation through a quantum fluctuation. He writes:
“There is no more strictly ordered, regulated and symmetrical system than the void … every particle goes hand in hand with its corresponding antiparticle … But somehow this perfect mechanism is interrupted, something suddenly breaks in and takes over the scene, then initiates abruptly the process that will produce an expanding space-time and the mass and energy which bend it. The extreme order that governs everything shatters in a fraction of a second, and the tiny quantum fluctuation inflates disproportionately, pushed by the process we call cosmic inflation.” (p.43)
In Tonelli’s account of creation, cosmic inflation is the Big Bang:
“ … the infinitesimal object … begins to inflate uncontrollably in paroxysm … a universe has come into being that has everything it will need to evolve during the next 13.8 billion years. Yet only 10-32 have passed.” (pp. 45-46)
In the initial tiny split second, the cosmos reveals its major themes: union of creation/destruction, broken symmetries, opposed forces and phase transitions at the tipping point.
Paull Davies asserts that the theory of cosmic inflation is the “party line” among cosmologists. Tonelli’s account is as follows:
“That miniscule object, billions of times smaller than a proton, undergoes an exponential growth … After emerging from this violent phase, it is roughly the size of a football and already contains all the matter and energy it will need to evolve over the course of billions of years to come. “
I challenge anyone to find a more fantastic creation story in myth than the idea that at 10-32 seconds following the Big Bang, all the energy needed to create 200 billion galaxies and trillions of stars was contained in an entity the size of a football! Important differences remain among cosmologists regarding the cause of inflation. Tonelli speculates at length regarding “a scalar field” that emerges from the void and the “inflaton,” the particle associated with this field. However, he acknowledges that the “inflaton” has not been discovered, which does not stop him from imagining how “The stealthy awakening which blocks the field of the false void for a fraction of a second produces a repulsive force … It assumes an immense scale in the period during which the field is blocked .” ( p. 51)
However, in Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality (2021), Frank Wilczek, a Nobel prize winning physicists comments:
“Inflation is not a consequence of the fundamental laws we know today. It requires something more – additional forces and fields, presumably … but there is no independent evidence for them.” ( p. 157) Paul Davies maintains that no one knows what an “inflation” field is -- “it’s just a made-up answer beyond the reach of known physics.” Regarding cosmic inflation Davies states: “A burst of anti-gravity propelled expansion in the first split second … “ (p. 87) In both Tonelli’s and Davies accounts of the Big Bang, gravity and anti-gravity are opposed forces in cosmic creation, i.e., the Big Bang itself is an expression of polarity which creates other polarities characteristic of the early universe. The deep structure of the cosmos is not hidden, rather it is revealed in its first instant and in subsequent phases of the early universe.
Types of polarity in the early universe
The theme of polarity in the early universe has several variations:
An extreme state created by one of the fundamental forces gives rise to its opposite, whose power matches the extreme state from which it was created, e.g., an instant of cosmic inflation, the physics of which are not understood, somehow gained power from the extremely dense singularity or state from which it developed. Paul Davies asserts: “A burst of anti-gravity propelled expansion in the first split second … “ (p. 87) Polarities are a source of power in cosmic creation. Tonelli describes the process in which stars are born from vast concentrations of gas, “spherical bodies of truly enormous mass, at least a hundred times heavier than the sun. The force of gravity that develops from them is immensely strong, it compresses the gas, pushing it violently toward the center of the system which gets hotter and ionizes the hydrogen … The relentless grip of the force of gravity pushes the temperature of the material to tens of millions of degrees, triggering nuclear fusion. … The reaction produces a titanic outpouring of heat …a blinding flash of visible light flares up in the deepest darkness.” ( p.135)
Opposed forces maintain “a precarious equilibrium.” Tonelli describes how nuclear fusion in the interior of stars occurs when extreme temperatures resulting from gravity overcome “the repulsive force of electromagnetism … hydrogen nuclei and their isotopes, deuterium and tritium, fuse together to form helium nuclei. The energy liberated by the reaction appears in the form of high energy neutrinos and photons. “ (p.138) Stars sustain nuclear reactions, sometimes for billions of years, until the balance of forces can no longer be sustained.
Then, one fundamental force overwhelms another, as when “A terrible pressure crushes matter and seeks to shatter it into elementary components.” (p. 139) When the hydrogen in stars is exhausted there will be “a struggle to the death between gravity and the strong nuclear force” leading to gravitational collapse and a supernova in massive stars.
In heavy stars with a mass of ten times greater than the sun, “Beneath the unrelenting pressure of gravity, the central nucleus suddenly contracts to become hundreds of times smaller – and the star explodes.” The star’s explosion “scatters all of the material outwards in every direction … The clouds of gas, rich in heavy elements and chemically diverse, will cover vast distances and supply the foundational material for new aggregations.” ( p. 146)
Regarding the death of stars, Tonelli has recourse to mythological metaphors:
“Just as the power of Zeus flings the Titans into the abyss, so the force of gravity … takes its revenge and celebrates its victory with a horrifying silent scream that tears the star to pieces …” ( p. 146) Cosmic creation and the life and death of stars is not for the faint hearted; they have inspired myths of the dismemberment of a god of creation, or titanic struggles to the death between gods.
There is another kind of either/or polarity exemplified by broken symmetries. Tonelli theorizes that in the Plank era, (10-43 seconds after the Big Bang) “Fundamental forces were dominant in that interval of time … Fundamental forces are unified in a single field; a unique primeval super-force governs the insignificant foam that will become our universe.”
As the temperature cools, the super-force separates into the four fundamental forces: the strong force “that holds quarks together to form protons and neutrons and assembles them into the nuclei of various elements,” the weak force from which “comes the energy that is released by nuclear weapons, and which keeps stars sparkling, the electromagnetic force (which) keeps atoms and molecules together and which regulates ...the propagation of light, and gravity, by far the weakest force but which pervades the entire cosmos …” (p. 63)
Tonelli believes that there is something antithetical about symmetry and creation:
“ One hundredth of billionth of a second after the Big Bang,” the universe was homogenous and isotropic, “ the same at every point and from every angle … governed by symmetry and characterized by a combination of simplicity and elegance … Nothing could have been born from this perfect object.” (pp. 66-67) The electro-weak force itself contains a striking polarity. Tonelli states: “The electroweak force that is responsible for radiation is transmitted by three particles, photons which have no mass and can therefore travel across the universe, and by the massive W and Z bosons” that limit the power of the weak force to “infinitesimal subnuclear distances.” (p. 73)
How could this occur in the first split second of creation?
“If the equations of the two interactions are the same, the symmetry can only be broken by the same medium in which it was propagated. That is, the void … it is the void that is responsible for ‘breaking the symmetry’ because the void is not … void. It contains the Higgs field, i.e., “the greater its interaction with the field, the larger the mass of the particle.” (p. 79)
The idea that symmetry is antithetical to creation sounds more like a metaphysical principle than a physical law, yet it has one concrete application on which the existence of our universe depends: the asymmetry between matter and anti- matter. Tonelli comments: “The idea that the elementary components of an anti-world actually existed was so bizarre that, from the outset no one took it seriously.” This changed with the discovery of positrons, particles with the same mass as electrons nut with a positive charge. He asserts:
“Anti-matter has now become quite common, it is produced
to use, or … to study its properties in many particle accelerators, but it is also used in routine clinical procedures in many hospitals.” Charged particles and anti-particles that come into contact generate enormous energy through ”the
process of annihilation.” (pp. 85-86)
“if the equations are symmetrical and describe the behavior of matter and antimatter in equivalent way, why is our world so dominated by matter? He adds: “Thousands of scientists are busy looking for an answer right now.” (p. 86)
One line of inquiry “conjectures that everything may be due to a subtle difference in behavior between matter and antimatter, a small anomaly which breaks the original symmetry, and is the key to everything.” (p.87) Tonelli states that studies have found “a very slight prevalence for matter in the processes of the decay of particles and antiparticles, but the preference (for matter) turns out to be too small to explain the excess we see all around us.” Tonelli acknowledges that “We are completely in the dark as to the mechanisms that led to the disappearance of antimatter ...”
Nevertheless, the creation of matter/antimatter during inflation suggests how polarities in the early universe generate tremendous power through mutual annihilation.
Phase transitions in the early universe
Different “epochs” of the early universe have vastly different creative potential. According to Tonelli, epochs are a function of temperature as the universe cools down from trillions of degrees during the Big Bang to billions of degrees:
(a) Plank era - the unification of fundamental forces
(b) Inflation – rapid expansion, creation of energy and matter
(c) Post-inflation expansion, creation of various particles.
“Protons and neutrons form continuously, together with related antiparticles. When the two opposites meet, they
immediately annihilate each other to produce photons, but the environment is so hot, that it continues to extract from the void particle-antiparticle pairs to replace those that have just disappeared… In this fleeting cycle of rapid birth and death, the small initial asymmetry between matter and antimatter is amplified slowly, but inexorably, that infinitesimal difference in population results in all the antiprotons and all the anti-neutrinos disappearing …” (p. 107)
The preceding paragraph describes various types of polarity in the creation of matter: the union of creation/ destruction, annihilation of particles with opposite charges, broken symmetry in the amount of matter/antimatter and phase transitions resulting from changes in temperature of the early universe. At one second after the Big Bang, “the universe fills with the lightest of charged particles (i.e., electrons). Now it contains all of the essential ingredients that allow it to form stable matter.” (pp. 107-108)
At one minute after cosmic creation, Tonelli states: “the density of energy has lowered to the point at which they (protons and neutrons) can aggregate among themselves and form the nuclei of the lighter elements. And “there will only be three minutes for the formation of all the nuclei in the universe,” because “ At the end of three minutes the temperature and density will no longer be high enough to sustain nuclear reactions.” He comments: “The abundance of helium in the universe is further confirmation of the Big Bang theory … Not even with all the stars… burning hydrogen for 14 billion years would it be possible to produce the abundance of helium that has been measured.” (p. 112)
And then there was light
Tonelli states: “After the formation of the nuclei of the lighter elements nothing major will happen for hundreds of thousands of years. Except everything continues to be subject to expansion and cooling. … This is an opaque world… Not a single ray of light manages to penetrate this dark and disturbing plasma.” (pp. 114-5)
As the temperature of the universe approaches 3000 degrees, “everything changes … the kinetic energy of electrons diminishes, and they can no longer break the electromagnetic attraction that binds them to protons. … They (electrons) will orbit in a stable fashion around a charged nucleus. The first atoms are formed, above all those made of hydrogen and helium.” (pp.115-6)
As electrons become trapped in atomic orbits photons “can now run free … At a stroke the universe becomes glaringly lit and transparent. From now onwards, photons will shoot everywhere, bouncing off everything.” (p. 116). The universe becomes transparent 380,000 years after the Big Bang.
Dramatic change at the tipping point created by a steady reduction in cosmic temperature was an Either/Or polarity of the early universe. Boundary conditions that change at varying speeds, sometimes slowly, create the illusion of stability until a tipping point is reached, at which time everything changes rapidly until a new equilibrium develops. Temperature will continue to be an important boundary condition in the evolution of life and in early social development, and it may well determine the future of human civilization.
Polarity in the evolution of mind
This section is a discussion of three books: The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling and the Making of Cultures (2018) by Antonio Damasio; Metazoa: Animal Life and the Birth of the Mind (2020) by Peter Godfrey-Smith, and Spark: The Life of Electricity and the Electricity of Life (2021) by Timothy Jorgensen.
Several of the mental capacities of animals with central nervous systems described by Damasio and Godfrey-Smith, e.g., sensitivity to the environment, purposeful activity, response to threat, food seeking, cooperation with other organisms of the same type or different species (both individuals and large groups) and learning from experience appeared in one celled organisms billions of years before nervous systems, brains and sensory modalities utilized by plants and animals. According to Damasio, “Social governance has humble beginnings, and neither the minds of Homo Sapiens nor of other mammalian species were present at its natural birth. Very simple unicellular organisms relied on chemical molecules to sense and respond … to detect certain conditions in their environments … and guide the actions that were needed to organize and maintain their lives in a social environment. … Bacteria can sense the numbers in the groups they form, and in an unthinking way assess group strength, and they can … engage in battle for the defense of their territory.” … Furthermore, “quorum sensing” is the process that assists bacteria in these adventures. The achievement is so spectacular that it makes one think of capabilities such as feeling, consciousness and reasoned deliberation, except that bacteria do not have any such capabilities; they have the powerful antecedents to those capabilities. (p. 19)
Damasio refers to single celled bacteria which have the capacity for learning, adaptation, social cooperation, and agency as “un-minded,” though a more accurate description is that they have the precursors of mind. Damasio asserts that “simple bacteria have governed their lives for billions of years according to an automatic schema that foreshadows several behaviors and ideas that humans have used in the construction of cultures.” (p. 21)
One surprising way in which single celled organisms resemble animals with central nervous systems is that they utilize electric charge, i.e., attraction and repulsion, to regulate interactions with their immediate environment and achieve homeostasis. Godfrey-Smith asserts that “Charge was tamed billions of years before (technology developed in the 19th century) during early stages of life’s evolution; in cells and organisms, electricity is the means by which much of what happens gets done.” (p. 28)
One of the main functions of electric charge in a cell, Godrey-Smith explains, is to regulate movement of materials across the cell’s boundary, a key homeostatic function. He writes: “Cells are bounded, with an inside and an outside. The border is a membrane; it partially seals the cell but has channels and ports embedded in it … inside is a frenzy of activity.” (p. 26) And “The problem cells have to deal with … is not getting things to happen, but creating order, instituting some rhyme and reason in the spontaneous flow of events.” (p.27) In homeostasis, arguably the most important polarity is ‘In or Out’, i.e., entry to the cell of particles in the immediate environment is allowed or blocked by the cell membrane. This function utilizes electric charge – itself a polarity – for this purpose.
Homeostatic processes in single cells utilize electricity to regulate their boundary, while central nervous systems in animals are constituted by electrical forces which regulate the transmission of signals within and between neurons. (Jorgensen, Chapter 10-11, 205-244) Jorgenson comments: “… Hodgkin and Huxley were able to show that when an action potential passes, the axon’s membrane switches electrical polarity, going from negative inside (relative to outside) to positive. And they were able to mathematically model the time course of the action potential by envisioning the axon’s membrane as a simple electrical circuit where current can flow by one of two separate routes, each with its own resistance and switch.” (p.235) And: “… the interpretation is not complicated. In essence, voltage gated ion channels are simply pores in a neuron’s axonal membrane that open and close in response to a flip in charge polarization caused by an approaching action potential.” (p. 239) Furthermore, “these ion channels are selective in that they restrict which types of ions can through the membrane – a sodium gate will not admit potassium and a potassium gate will not admit sodium.” (p. 240) In other words, central nervous systems utilize multiple polarities, including reversals in charge polarity and Either/Or switches than admit either potassium or sodium ions, but not both. In addition, neurons have a digital feature, i.e., they either “fire” or they don’t.
“Electric charge is a basic feature of matter. Charge can be positive or negative. Objects with the same charge repel … and those with unlike charges (positive and negative) attract.” (p. 29)
And “Charge is not life-like or mental in itself … but living activity runs on charge especially by corralling, pumping, herding, and unleashing of ions… a cell’s membrane keeps many things either inside or outside, but it contains channels that selectively let some material pass through. … Whenever there is traffic across a living system’s boundaries … it tends to take on further roles. A flow of ions can function as a minimal from of sensing.” ( p.30)
It appears that electrical charge crucial to homeostasis in single cell bacteria is another precursor to the evolution of animal minds.
“Voltage-gated ion channels … open as a response to electrical events that they, the channels, are exposed to. This makes possible a chain reaction; a flow of current creates a greater flow of current, one that spreads over the cell’s membrane. … voltage-gated ion channels are the basis for another innovation, the action potential. This is a moving chain reaction of changes to the membrane of a cell, especially in our brain … A wave of electrical disruption travels along the membrane like a pulse.” (p. 32) And “In a voltage- gated ion channel … the flow of current is electrically controlled. This is the principle of a transistor (p. 32) which was invented by humans in the twentieth century.
“The same devise was invented billions of years ago in the evolution of bacteria.” ( p. 32)
Godfrey-Smith asks the question:
“If bacteria invented transistors what were they doing with them?”
He states, “As far as I can tell, no answer to this question is widely agreed on.” (p. 32) He continues: “Several billion years ago, nature invented the fundamental hardware device in computer technology – a complicated and costly device too – and did so in bacteria, but bacteria do not seem to have been doing much with it,” (p. 33) a contention which is not plausible. Bacteria were doing something important with a biological mechanism that functions like a transistor, i.e., off/ on, but what?
Godfrey-Smith comments that voltage-gated ion channels “do not have a single obvious use … In a sense, neither does a transistor … A transistor is a general means for control, a devise for making events here affect events there is a reliable, rapid way … voltage- gated ion channels make it possible for a cell’s activity to have a “digital” quality, a neuron either fires or not, yes or no.” (p.33) One plausible hypothesis is that the digital capacity of cells created by electricity functions to create positive/negative valence in cell life, and in so doing, is a precursor to the development of feeling in central nervous systems.
The importance of electricity in homeostasis and in central nervous systems suggests that it is electrical forces that are the bridge between non-living energy and living things. If electricity is ultimately responsible for the origins of metabolism in single cells and creates the potential for positive/ negative valence, i.e., some states in cell life are preferred to others, then it is electromagnetism that carries the potential for life and for mind and its precursors in single cell bacteria. In The Genesis Quest (2020), a book about the scientific search for the origins of life, Michael Marshall discusses Peter Mitchell’s “obsession” with adenosine triphosphate (ATP), “the molecule all cells use to store energy. … The question was, how did the cells make the ATP? … Part of the answer was clear. The metabolic cycles released electrons, and these travelled down a series of protons embedded in membrane in cell. As each electron moved from one protein to the next, it released some energy and tis was used to make ATP. … Astrobiologist, Charles Cockell has argued that this process of pass-the-electron is fundamental to life, because electrons are the most accessible bits of atoms, as they’re on the outside.” (209-10) Electricity is essential to the storage of energy in ATP and its release. Mitchell hypothesized that electrons caused a protein to pump a portion across the cell membrane resulting in an accumulation of protons that
“would not be able to pass back through the membrane itself, but they could travel through the ATP-making enzyme – giving it the necessary energy to make ATP.” (p. 210)
In The Strange Order of Things, Antonio Damasio begins his discussion of homeostasis with the following:
“Homeostasis refers to the fundamental set of operations at the core of life from … its beginning in early biochemistry to the present. Homeostasis is the powerful, unthought, unspoken imperative whose discharge implies, for every living organism, small or large, nothing less than enduring and prevailing.”(p. 25). According to Damasio, homeostasis is more than regulating internal chemistry to ensure survival. Rather, “it ensures that life is regulated within a range that is not just compatible with survival, but also conducive to flourishing.” Homeostasis precedes the creation of genes. He maintains that “Homeostasis has been the basis for the value behind natural selection, which in turn favors the genes … The development of the genetic apparatus … is not conceivable without homeostasis.” ( p. 26)
Damasio’s argument that early life was created by metabolism, not by genetic material, (which is too complex to have assembled itself spontaneously) is provocative but not radical. This view “has been persuasively argued by Freemon Dyson and is favored by a number of chemists, physicists, and biologists, among them J.S. Haldane, Stuart Kauffman, Keith Baverstock, Christian de Duve and P.L. Luisi.” (p. 39) However, Marshall asserts in The Genesis Quest that the best recent thinking regarding the origins of life has moved past this “either metabolism or genes” debate to include both contained in vesicles on land with wet dry/ cycles.
What is radical is Damasio’s view that homeostasis used genes in its “endeavor toward optimization of life,” i.e., “Genetic material would have assisted the homeostatic imperative (toward “flourishing”) by being responsible for the generation of progeny.” Homeostasis embodies “the biological value on the basis of which natural selection operates. ( p.43)
Concretely, Damasio maintains that metabolism led to early life forms that achieved optimal states, i.e., “flourishing”, which these life forms, including single cells, sought to sustain by somehow creating genes which would ensue progeny. He states: “ … it is as if single cells and multi-cellular organisms were striving for a particular class of steady state conducive to flourishing.” (p. 45) “Flourishing” sounds much like a condition of well-being.
In Damasio’s view, life embodied the homeostatic imperative from its creation, while in animals and humans he asserts, feelings are “the deputies of homeostasis.” (p. 26) And “In standard circumstances, feelings tell the mind, without any word being spoken of the good or bad direction of the life process.”
According to Damasio, feelings that always have a positive or negative valence (sometimes described as pain or pleasure or through other oppositions such as well-being or discomfort) is the most important polarity of early central nervous systems, which have their origin in homeostatic processes in single cells and multicellular organisms. He asserts that bacteria have “intelligence without a brain or mind” which relies on chemical processes and electrical networks “of the sort nervous systems eventually came to possess, advance and explore in later evolution.” (p. 54)