Pseudoscientists and Eastern mystagogues have been propagating the myth that only objects that have mass are material. Their efforts have been so successful that even some physicists adhere to that myth. Here is an astrophysicist describing the myth to a gleeful Dalai Lama: “You can see [energy transforming into mass] happening in elementary particle processes. A photon is transformed into two material particles: an electron and an antielectron. Material is produced from pure energy, from a photon” (Zajonc 2004, 205). The statement is actually wrong in more than one way (Hassani 2016, 46).
Using four different approaches, this commentary shows that the myth of nonmateriality of massless particles is just that—a myth.
Let’s start with what is not material. Everyone, including the most opportunistically dishonest pseudoscientist, agrees that spirit, soul, God, universal consciousness, as well as “energy,” “field,” and “energy field” transmitted via the practice of qi, reiki, touch therapy, prayer, and other alternative medical protocols are nonmaterial. What is common among them is that they cannot be seen, heard, touched, or subjected to any quantifiable measurement. Let’s summarize this by saying that nonmaterial objects are not detectable. The undetectability of nonmaterial entities suggests that detectability determines the materiality of an object. Depending on the physical properties of the material objects, we can identify at least three kinds of detectors: sensuous, interactive, and microscopic.
Sensuous: Whatever affects our senses is material. A wooden table is material because we can feel its existence by touching it. The sound of a symphony orchestra is material because it is transmitted to our ears through the material air. We smell a rose because the material fragrance emitted by the flower affects our nose. The sensation of bitterness or sweetness can be accomplished only by a material object put in our mouth. That our senses are detectors was Epicurus’s remarkable contribution to the Greek atomic theory.
To amplify the notion of materiality, it is instructive to consider the extreme cases of sensation. As we catch a ball, it pushes on the palm and fingers of our hand, causing the sensation of touch and perhaps a little pain. As the velocity of the ball increases, so does the pain. In the most extreme case, we may get a rupture in our hand—or lose a finger or two. The pleasant warmth felt on our hands held at a safe distance above a flame can burn our hands if we bring them close enough to the flame. A sound of sufficiently high volume can cause deafness.
Interactive: Another way of identifying material objects is via the effect they have on—i.e., how they interact with and change the state of—other material objects. Interactivity is at the heart of the detection by senses. Epicurus was the first to think of sensation as the interaction between the atoms and our senses. In fact, interactivity is the primary characteristic of all material objects. A moving tennis ball is material because it changes direction when it interacts with the racket. A car is material because it changes direction when it hits another car. Water is material because it displaces material objects in its path when it is massive enough and moves sufficiently fast. Air is material because it can uproot trees and buildings when it is in the form of a hurricane.
Microscopic: All material objects are made of atoms, which must themselves be material. The test of their materiality is again their interactivity. Two hydrogen atoms interact with one oxygen atom to form a water molecule, a countless number of which combine to form oceans, seas, rivers, and clouds. Electrons and nuclei are material because they interact via electrical forces to form atoms. Protons and neutrons are material because they interact via strong nuclear forces to form nuclei.
As you have perhaps noted, I have left out the most important of all senses—sight—and what it detects: light. This was on purpose! Light consists of photons, which are massless particles. And the matter-antimatter annihilation (or the decay of certain elementary particles) into photons, falsely identified as “pure energy,” gives mystics and pseudoscientists of all denominations the opportunity to exploit and claim that modern physics “proves” the unity of soul (nonmaterial, thus massless) and body (with mass, therefore material).
How can we prove pseudoscientists wrong? How can we show that photons are different from soul and spirit? How do photons fit in the three descriptions of materiality discussed above?
Sensuous: Our most accurate sense organ is our eye. A healthy eye can detect a single photon. The view of a source of light such as the moon and stars has a pleasing effect on our sense of sight. But, as in other senses, the extreme could be damaging. Direct exposure to the sun, or an intense laser beam, can blind us.
Interactive: Light is an electromagnetic wave. “Light” of low enough frequency can interact with a material antenna connected to a radio, television, or smartphone and produce material electrical currents that operate the device. Laser light can dissect tissues in laser surgery; if it is intense enough, it can cut through metals. Sunlight can be pleasantly warm to our skin. But extended exposure to the sun disrupts the normal functioning of skin cells and may result in carcinoma. The most extreme interaction of photons, which can bring about instant death, is caused by gamma rays—photons of extremely high energies—produced in nuclear explosions.
Microscopic: Photons are the most prominent interactors in the microworld. In almost all nuclear processes photons are produced. When an electron and a proton interact, they produce not only a hydrogen atom but also a photon. One of the most useful methods of studying atoms is X-ray spectroscopy in which photons (X-rays) interact with atoms to reveal the structure and properties of elements. Light amplification, for which the first two letters in the acronym LASER stand, is done by the interaction of photons with certain “lasing” atoms.
Mathematical: There is yet another indication, no weaker than a mathematical proof, that photons are material. In 1939, Eugene Wigner, a Hungarian-American physicist, applied the abstract mathematics of Lie groups to special relativity and quantum mechanics to prove that a physical particle can be labeled by at least two numbers, one representing the particle’s mass and the other a property called spin (whose understanding is not crucial at this point), either of which could be zero. Electron, proton, and neutron are examples of particles that have both mass and spin. The famous Higgs boson is a particle that has mass but no spin. A photon is a particle with spin but no mass. And if a Nobel Prize adds any credence to Wigner’s work, his proof won him the prize in 1963.
In conclusion, a photon passes all tests of materiality. The soul, universal consciousness, qi energy, etc., fail them; they are simply figments of the imagination of generations of mystics and theologues. No commonality exists between massless objects and mystical concepts.
- Hassani, S. 2016. Does E=mc2 imply mysticism? Skeptical Inquirer 40(4): 46–49.
- Zajonc, A. 2004. The New Physics and Cosmology: Dialogues with the Dalai Lama. Oxford: Oxford University Press.