The Great Red Spot (or, When Can a Thing be Said to Exist?)

Consider the Great Red Spot of Jupiter. It is a storm that has been around for two centuries. It’s a vortex big enough to contain two or three planets the size of the Earth. But is it a thing?

What does it mean to say that a thing exists? In what sense are plastic cups or rocks things? And are living things also ‘things’ in the same sense? To work towards a better understanding of ‘existence’, let us examine our intuition about the properties of things. A thing has a location in space and time, and a boundary that separates it from all that it is not. A thing can move around and morph its shape and size, but it retains some degree of integrity, so that as it undergoes transformations, it can still be recognized as the same thing. An apple remains the same apple as it decays, changes shape, and rolls around, until it crumbles and decays.  These changes can be quite dramatic. When a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, we say that it has changed, and not that some new flappy thing mysteriously replaced the creepy-crawly that was there a few days before.

Another property of a thing that we might propose is that it is always composed of the same stuff. The atoms and molecules in a rock do not change much. You could make a little etching on the rock, and then find it later on, confident that you had found the same thing.

But I think this kind of material consistency is the exception rather than the rule for many of the things we are interested in. Let’s go back to the Great Red Spot. Surely it is a thing? It has been around since long before you or I were born. Astronomers are readily able to identify it and talk about its shape and location. But a storm like the Great Red Spot does not generally retain all the material contained in it. Stuff comes in, stuff goes out. Back on Earth, we know that a storm can pick up gas molecules, water, houses, people and cows, and dump them elsewhere. Perhaps some molecules stick around with it for the duration of its destructive dance, but plenty of others just hitch a ride for a little while.

A storm is a process. And it is also a thing. It has position, velocity, shape and size, but it does not have a constant configuration of atoms and molecules. In this it is like a wave. There’s a lot you can learn about wave motion from a rope or a string. If you tie one end of a rope to a stationary object, you can send a wave along it by making the right sort of up-and-down shake on the other end.

I recommend playing around with this handy web applet that let’s you send waves along a virtual rope. And here’s a picture of some scientists doing the real thing in a classroom:

What I’d like to draw your attention to is the fact that when a wave moves horizontally along a rope, the particles in the rope do not move horizontally. If they did move horizontally, the rope would eventually break! In fact, they move up and down. What moves along the horizontal direction is the movement itself. If we want to consider the wave a thing, we have to concede that it is not made up of a specific set of particles. It is a process, and the particles are just the medium by which the process flows.

What applies to waves also applies to human beings. The oldest particles in your body have been with you for perhaps seven years. The body is not a constant set of particles, it is a wave, a travelling pattern, a Great Spot whirling around the surface of the Earth. And in a sense, you already knew this. You take in food, air and water every day, and yet you maintain the same weight. (Well, more or less the same weight.) Cells die and are replaced by new ones that are made up of the matter you ingest. You are what you eat.

I like the way Richard Feynman gets this point across. “So what is this mind of ours: what are these atoms with consciousness? Last week’s potatoes! They now can remember what was going on in my mind a year ago—a mind which has long ago been replaced. To note that the thing I call my individuality is only a pattern or dance, that is what it means when one discovers how long it takes for the atoms of the brain to be replaced by other atoms. The atoms come into my brain, dance a dance, and then go out—there are always new atoms, but always doing the same dance, remembering what the dance was yesterday.”

So we are not what we are made of. We are what we do.

When we realize that all things are also processes, the concept of existence can take on a new meaning. Perhaps we should shift our focus from the idea that existence is about things. What exists is what is happening. No process goes on forever, and thus we can’t really speak of the things that exist for all time and in all places. Things, people, societies, ideas… these are all dancing patterns, and when the dancing stops, only stillness remains.


  • I began thinking about the ‘wave’ nature of human beings when I read an article from the Edge Foundation by Tor Nørretranders.  “I have changed my mind about my body. I used to think of it as a kind of hardware on which my mental and behavioral software was running. Now, I primarily think of my body as software. […] 98 percent of the atoms in the body are replaced every year. 98 percent! Water molecules stays in your body for two weeks (and for an even shorter time in a hot climate), the atoms in your bones stays there for a few months. Some atoms stay for years. But almost not one single atom stay with you in your body from cradle to grave.”
  • All the matter in us and around us was produced inside the furnaces of stars. If you believe in modern science, the phrase “we are stardust” is not a metaphor! But of course, we are more that just stardust. We are waves that use stardust as a medium for propagation.
  • If you use a spring instead of a rope, you can see two types of wave motion: transverse and longitudinal. Transverse waves are like the ones on a rope, with the particles moving in a up-and-down direction. In longitudinal waves, the particles do move back-and-forth in the horizontal direction, but still do not travel with the wave.
  • Wave-particle duality suggests that at a very fundamental level, the distinction between particle and wave can be blurry. Also, condensed matter physicists often find it useful to characterize the systems they study in terms of “quasiparticles“. You could go as far as saying that the a particle can be redefined as a type of phenomenon or interaction, rather than a thing. From here we can question the meaning of the word “fundamental”, perhaps be opposing it with the word “useful”. More on this later.

About Yohan

I'm a neuroscientist at the Neural Systems Laboratory in Boston University. My PhD was in Cognitive and Neural Systems, and my work involves computational neural network modeling, mostly of cognitive-emotional interaction and psychiatric disorders. Apart from neuroscience, I spend a lot of time engaging with music, history, politics, philosophy, and religion.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to The Great Red Spot (or, When Can a Thing be Said to Exist?)

  1. Tanmay says:

    Nice post Yohan. Do you know of the Sorites paradox?

  2. Han says:

    But of course! Can’t mention all the connections here. Was going for simplicity. I have a habit of incorporating too many ideas in parentheses, which I am trying to break. :D

  3. croc says:

    heres a thought … things are defined by their “boundaries”. The acknowledgement of a thing is the acknowledgement of a boundary. As long as boundaries exist, the “thing” and “not the thing” exist. To understand something we attempt to understand its boundaries. An understanding of its boundaries yields the understanding of the thing inside it. (Yes, this is Skinnerism at its boundest).

    When a caterpillar morphes to a buttefly, we recognize it as the same thing because we recognize the morphing of the boundaries.
    A ball is still a ball if it is not quite spherical … but a ball with a hole in it is a ring .. .catch my drift?
    In the study of topology.. a ball is a ball however deformed it is as long as it doesn’t have a hole in it. This is Poincare’s conjecture (though not a conjecture anymore). Poincare’s conjecture is the acknowledgement of the notion that as long as the “boundary configuration” remains, so does the object’s identity. This is the what most of the study of algebraic topology deals with. The classification of objects based on their boundary conditions… their euler numbers .. etc. A “compact” object with no hole is a ball, with one hole is a torus, with 2 hole ….. so on so forth.

    This is where math can be insightful about human thought. For we construct math from human thought….
    sets, structures, waves, boundaries, stable attractors, … all are glimpses and gross approximations of the human thought of recognition of “things”.

  4. Han says:

    Croc bhai! Welcome!

    You raise a crucial point which I ignored for brevity’s sake. Even if we stop talking about things in terms of their composition, we have to delineate the process or phenomenon, and so we can’t escape edges/contrasts/boundaries.

    Something tells me that the way we decide on the sameness of a boundary is a bit different from mathematics. Most humans don’t intuitively “get” the idea that a donut and a coffee mug can be considered the same in some space.

    My intuition is that some kind of temporal continuity has something to do with identifying a boundary as the “same” yet changing, but I can’t quite put my finger on it yet.

  5. croc says:

    Perhaps a term that might help is “continuous deformation”… however I still contend that (barring some extreme examples) .. math is still an attempt to logically validate general intuition and in some cases arrive at ridiculous paradoxes while attempting to invalidate general intuition.

    And ofcourse, a coffee mug is not like a donut… on the other hand .. the ear of a coffee mug.

  6. Han says:

    Yeah you’re right about that. Right now what we’re trying to do neurally speaking is find mechanisms that mimic our high-level intuition. So even when the math makes sense, it’s hard to find structures/processes in the brain that do something equivalent. But maybe we just haven’t had the right approach.

  7. JohnO says:

    This is a very good introduction. But I think we have to tackle speculation when we talk about existence. The highest example, being and non-being have their ground in Being as such. Being as such exists in order than phenomena have either being or non-being. (Very stuck on the platonist theologians)

  8. Han says:

    Ah, platonism. I only find myself there when I contemplate pure mathematics. :)

    At the risk of bandying about “-isms”, I am growing suspicious of foundationalism and essentialism, and I’m partial to coherentism.

    As far as Being is concerned, I associate it with what Hindus call Brahman — pure consciousness. But at the same time, I can’t help but think that “The Tao that can be expressed is not the Tao that is.” So being and nob-being give rise to each other, without necessitating a higher being. Or, like the Taoists, the most humble thing we can say is that the origin of these two is Mystery.

    The Rig Veda says this very beatifully:

    “Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born and whence comes this creation?
    The Gods are later than this world’s production. Who knows then whence it first came into being?
    He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it,
    Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps he knows not.”

    (Also: I’ve written about the Taoist take in more detail on an older blog: )

  9. JohnO says:

    This sentiment:
    “The Tao that can be expressed is not the Tao that is.”
    Is exactly the ‘via negativa’ theology that actually undergirds most speculation.

    And as for science – it is founded on mathematics. It cannot function without mathematics. Yet mathematics is a purely speculative matter. Many have talked and wondered about this relationship. I find it funny that most people (not yourself) cannot bear when speculation is anterior to discursive reason, even those math and science is obviously a beneficial relationship.

    I think essentialism is interesting (obviously if the ends are categorizing, we’re doing something wrong). It offers us the ability to further understand when we find the essentials we’ve made are wrong. I guess I mean to say that when we are wrong about essentials, we learn. When we are correct, we’ve done nothing. I would oppose coherentism because, to me, we are obviously paradoxical beings. I find that to be the most basic, common, interesting, and, at times, beautiful thing, we are. As for foundationalism I cannot understand anyone who would argue against rooting knowledge in our experience.

  10. Han says:

    The interesting debate in science is whether there is such a thing as an essential property or aspect of a thing or process. The thinking in noreductionist circles is that processes are more important than properties. Process renders some things as seemingly essential, but the focus must be on the relational nature of what we call essences.

    When I say foundationalism I mean the idea that there are basic beliefs, and that all subsequent beliefs derive from them. In my personal experience this is simply not true. I don’t even think we fully understand what beliefs are. (Even if experience is what roots our knowledge, we get into the cog-sci/neurosci problem of characterizing experience in such a way that hallucinations and dreams are not on the same footing as objective/intersubjective experience.)

    In emergent science we say that many phenomena do not and cannot derive from lower, simpler scales, in which case the “fundamental” laws of physics are irrelevant to microbiology, and aspects of microbiology are irrelevant to, say, politics. Coherentism suggests that the best we can hope for is that the particular frame of view we take renders the things being viewed coherent with respect to each other.

    I’m partial to Heiddeger-ish existentialism as a replacement for the idea that beliefs always guide our behavior. Hubert Dreyfuss explains this really well.

  11. Tessa Yuditha says:

    it’s a nice blog and it’s aligned to my insterest as well. Can I post your selected articles to my cognitive linguistics page on facebook?
    I can’t wait to read more updates coming from your blog!

  12. Pingback: Why some neuroscientists call consciousness "the c-word" ⋆ Epeak . Independent news and blogs

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s